November 28, 2022
The sky is bursting with cotton candy clouds at the Han River, and I’m snapping pictures from the Han River Bridge. I was lucky to arrive in Yongsan-gu just in time for the sunset. We’re either on the cold side of fall or the warm side of winter, and while most everyone is gearing up in their heavier coats, one guy is running the bridge with high shorts and a t-shirt.
“Heck yeah dude, get after it.”
I was muttering this more to the runner than myself, although I could’ve used a pat on the back. I wouldn’t say I was nervous exactly, but I also didn’t know what to expect. This was my first open session with Seoul City Improv at the Funtastic Theater, which is just a short walk from Exit 3 of Samgakji Station. They just had a packed house the other night for a show featuring Byron Kennerly, and everyone was having a blast. When they announced there were regular open sessions every Sunday at 6:30 p.m., I decided I should give it a try at least once. Besides, the open sessions are free for newcomers and just 5,000 KRW each time after.
TLDR; I wish I had done this sooner.
So Check This Out
Funtastic Theater is a cozy basement venue with a good stage, and it’s located on the corner of the block directly across from a GS25 convenience store. I’m greeted by James and Kevin outside in the alley, who I recognize as performers from the previous night’s show. We get to talking about the show, and both of them start laughing as we remember highlights from their long-form routine: some kids at space camp that get to mop floors instead of playing astronauts, a family of scientists with a child named “Little Dipper,” and Ghandi redeeming a coupon for a free blizzard at Dairy Queen. We keep talking, and James floats the idea of rebranding the troupe’s logo. Kevin explains that more regulars are usually around, but the performance the other night took a toll. It turns out that getting people to a show takes a lot more work than just putting out some chairs. It was great getting to talk with real performers and hearing their thoughts on the practical side of comedy; it turns out that comedians are people too.
Alright, Circle Up!
We start with some warmups, some of which are great games and icebreakers you might already know, like “Zip, Zap, Zop!” These are also great for learning names. Kicking Kevin chops the air with his heel. Cooking Chris sends a wok full of shrimp flying into the air. J-walking Jay dodges traffic. Yelling Young screams onto the floor, joining the group. Salud Song gives a cheers for the group by bowing slightly, fists together. I skip rope and introduce myself as Jumping Jon. We take turns rotating around acting out each other’s moves and playing verbal games. Even without having made a single joke, we’re already laughing and falling over ourselves just by trying to remember who’s who.
A few more people join, and we do another warmup based on categories, where we point to someone in the circle and say a word of a category (ex. If the category is fruit, you point to someone and say a fruit). Soon, we add a second category, countries. Not long after, we add a third: hobbies. “Tomato! Canada! Blueberry! Boat-making! America! Banana! Madagascar! Painting! Banana, banana, banana!”
What seems like thinly veiled chaos is actually a very good listening-based memory game. Kevin explains that doing improv comedy is a lot about recognizing what’s coming at you, receiving it, and giving it to someone else. Everyone can have fun so long as you can keep the fun going. To sum it up, performing as a group requires a lot of cohesion and experience. Being good at improv comedy doesn’t make you a mind reader, but it can help you see the future. James explained to me earlier that any scene can go a million ways, so it’s more about just finding a thread, following it, and bringing the audience along for the ride.
Make a Line!
Some others are joining us now as we transition from warm-ups to the real deal. Thankfully, there are just 11 of us here tonight, so there’s no chance of being booed off stage. Everyone who’s here just wants to learn, have fun, or is tagging along with someone who does, so don’t worry about actually trying to “be funny.” Likewise, don’t sweat it if you’re afraid of looking silly on stage, since everyone else is in the same boat. There’s literally zero risk because everyone is here for the same reason, which is to have a good time.
From here on, we do a series of games and gags. I give a word, you say another. I mime an action, you mime another. I say bing, you say bong. Got it? The only advice worth giving here is to just go with the flow. For example, Kevin get’s us playing a game called “What are you doing?” People line up across a stage.
Someone starts by stepping to the front and miming an action, at which point the next person must ask what they’re doing. They respond by saying something other than what they’re miming – something that surprises and subverts expectation. If I act like I’m petting a dog, I say “rollerblading down a steep hill.” If I mime baking a pizza, I’m inevitably going to say, “riding a bull in a rodeo.” We cycle through everyone, miming each other’s actions one by one, until we reach the end of the chain.
We take a 5 minute break – smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Before long, Kevin has us back on stage, plowing ahead to larger and larger games. We pretend to be hitch hikers jumping in and out of a car, each one of us embodying a different emotion. We take turns giving prompts and word suggestions to get scenes started. We take turns tagging in and tagging out. Freeze! Brian shouts, “You’re in!” My mind is blank, and I have no clue what I’m going to say. Who am I, what am I doing, and where am I going? At the last moment, I remember and repeat a line my scene partner said earlier, and we make it into a running joke. We laugh and play it out for a while before changing to another group, another scene, another game; this session moves fast.
Yes, and That’s Exactly What Happened
Yes, and That’s Exactly What Happened
After each round, Kevin brings it back together by asking how we felt during the exercise and addressing our questions. I had just blanked and had a tough time spitting out a line during the last gag, so I raised my hand to say I learned that improv isn’t necessarily about finding a punch line. Kevin really took it away and explained that reacting to something in a simple and realistic way, no matter how crazy it might get, is often the simplest way to find humor during a scene. Punchlines come with a lot of pressure and expectation, and besides, does anyone really like knock-knock jokes? Getting a scene going is better than nailing a single line, and the real humor comes from adding layers as you go.
By the end of the night, I’ve met several new acquaintances, boosted my confidence, and most importantly, just laughed a lot. People begin heading their separate ways, but not before we congratulate each other on our favorite moments from the session. This is definitely a unique way to meet new people, and I would highly suggest everyone try it at least once. The games alone are great, especially if you happen to be an English Teacher in need of fun verbal activities for class. Seoul City Improv posts upcoming shows on their Instagram, but you can learn more their troupe and even their course offerings by going to their website.
Kevin is packing up now and hits the lights – he’s commuted from a city two hours south of Seoul and has a long bus ride home. Stomping slowly up the stairs and out onto the street, we all shiver a bit and say, “seeya next time” one last time. Throwing my scarf over my shoulders and heading down the alley, I notice the wind is picking up. Nearby bars and cafes ignore the cold and keep serving with open doors. Music mingles and bumps between the brick and concrete, and I just can’t stop grinning as I head for Line 4.
“Dang, I wish I had known sooner.”