Leprechauns, rainbowland, jungle-gym rugby, toaster salesmen temptation, cheese shortages and Jon Bon Jovi are each unlikely options that collided on stage in the Crystal Cove Auditorium last Wednesday, April 23, in a special performance by the Asian American improvisational comedy group, Room to Improv.
The troupe normally practices and performs in Studio City, Los Angeles, but made a special trip to UC Irvine at the request of the Asian Pacific Student Association, which is celebrating Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in April. Room to Improv capped off a month of events celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander culture, including a film screening of “Pilgrimage” with director Tad Nakamura and a performance by the band Seriously.
Though advertised for 7:30 p.m, members of the comedy troupe joked and chatted with members of APSA until quarter to eight, setting the laid-back and involved tone of the event. The set lasted a little over an hour and consisted of several improv games, such as “RTI Debate,” where two Improv members held a mock political debate while substituting key words with suggestions from audience members (What kind of shortage? A cheese shortage) and “Five Things,” in which an Improv member tried to guess what the other members were doing, but with twist changes suggested previously from the audience (surfing on a pineapple in Hawaii with Bon Jovi was one of the tamer suggestions). As evidenced, Room to Improv made the effort to involve the audience, whether to take suggestions for ridiculous situations or pulling an audience member on stage to make sound effects for characters. Describing the events does not do Room for Improv justice, as each show has different members performing different games to different audiences: the only rule is spontaneity.
Wednesday featured six of the 15 active members of Room to Improv: over one fourth of its members are UCI alumni, along with one active student, Wes Gabrillo, a fourth-year drama and social science double-major. Most members of the troupe have experience in theater productions in addition to improv comedy, and the experience is evident: Room to Improv is quick on its feet and musical to boot, featuring games not only of quick-thinking in scenes but also making up rhyming lyrics on the fly.
Room to Improv began in 2002, when California State University, Northridge alumnus Elvin Lubrin started an improvisational comedy troop consisting solely of Asian Americans. Room to Improv performs at the Two Roads Theatre in Studio City, hosting shows on the first Friday of every month, but its shows are not limited to the Los Angeles area,
“We do shows all up and down the coast, pretty much,” said Earl Baylon, a UCI alumnus with a degree in biological sciences. “We’ve done shows in Texas, Atlanta, Michigan, San Francisco, San Diego [and other places].” Room to Improv has performed at several universities across the nation, including the University of Southern California, Michigan State University and Texas A&M.
“We want to be looked at as Asian- Americans doing improv, not Asian-Americans doing Asian -American improv,” said Anthony Foronda, a member of the troop since its inception. ”
Of course, it comes out in our improv, but it’s not our focus,” Baylon finished. Regardless, Room to Improv is one of the only troops of Asian-American comedy groups in the area, if not the nation. Being Asian-American is important to the identity of the troupe, said Baylon. The troupe takes a lighthearted tone expressing this identity, featuring it occasionally in games such as “Cultural Night Moment,” where members proceed with a scene until randomly prompted to turn the mundane moment into a meaningful, intimate confession and connect it with his or her Asian American cultural heritage. “It’s not just about knives. … It’s about community.” exclaimed Baylon during one such moment.
The APSA is dedicated to serving the Asian-American community on campus, community outreach and preserving its political representation. Earlier in the year, APSA hosted a screening of “Finishing the Game,” a mockumentary about filming a lost Bruce Lee epic and featured the cast of the movie.
“We’re politically and culturally focused,” said APSA Advocacy Chair Jesse Cheng. “We try to raise the general political atmosphere for Asian-Americans.” APSA held a large campaign earlier this year entitled “Count Me In,” which successfully dis-aggregated the UCI admissions forms. This will allow more specificity in identifying ethnicity, which will create more representation for Asian Americans hailing from diverse countries such as Laos and Cambodia, which were previously lumped in under general categories.