Actress Suzanne Schrag celebrates ‘Two Dozen Years Of Makin’ It Up’ with local improv group Um…Gee…Um
As a member of the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit improvisational theater troupe Um…Gee…Um, local actress Suzanne Schrag can travel to the moon and back, become a member of the CIA, be crowned a princess, and still be home in time for dinner. The company, which will celebrate its 24th anniversary with a show called “Two Dozen Years of Makin’ It Up” on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Broadway Playhouse, was founded by eight students who met in Wilma Marcus Chandler’s Cabrillo College theater improvisation class in 1989, and have been performing together ever since. Their goal? To “to tickle the imagination” by taking the audience with them on their wildly comedic and farcical adventures, which can last anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour.
Schrag, a UC Santa Cruz theater major, joined Um…Gee…Um in 1994, and is the longest-standing member of the current company. Locals may recognize her from her work with other area theater companies, including Actors’ Theatre, Cabrillo Stage, Mountain Community Theater, Unicorn Theater and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. To commemorate the group’s history, Schrag and the rest of the Um…Gee…Um crew will present an evening of skits, songs and Shakespeare, all made up on the spot. In the days leading up to the show, Schrag shared some of the secrets to a successful improv performance, reflected on improv’s everyday application, and explained why improv is not as cut-and-dry as it may seem.
Good Times: How did you become involved with improvisational theater?
Suzanne Schrag: It all began when I took an improv class at Cabrillo College with Wilma Chandler, which is where Um…Gee…Um originally met. It was the first time I had studied improv as a form of theater; it was so much fun. It was like being a kid again. You announce “I’m a princess” and people don’t look at you like you’re crazy, instead, they start calling you “your highness.” I love that aspect of improv.
What are some of the more challenging aspects of improv?
Challenges are also the joys for me—saying yes to the unknown, accepting all offers, dropping fears and defenses so you can really be in the moment and respond to your scene partners, daring to be “average” (versus trying to be clever), taking the next logical step, and being bold when you haven’t the faintest idea what comes next. You realize that fear and anxiety often get in the way in everyday life. Accepting what people are offering you and just going with it is just very freeing and very healing. One of the things you really learn is that the stage is a fun and safe place. We try to create an atmosphere where there are no mistakes. That comfortability needs to be there.
How do you prepare to go onstage?
These days, we do a long, mostly silent and body-based warm-up together to help us feel grounded and connected. We start off by centering ourselves, then gradually widen that awareness to include the whole group. We often improvise a song to connect with Luke our musician. Right before we go on stage we make eye contact with everyone and might each name something we’d like to bring to the show or have others challenge us with that night.
Most people are familiar with improv because of television shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? Is that an accurate depiction of improv?
I think that was a really fun show and I think those guys are amazing. We focus less on the game aspect, our improv is more theater-based. Sometimes when a story goes wrong or goes somewhere else completely it’s the best thing. It’s hard to convince [the audience] that we didn’t have a clue what we were going to do. If you talk about mainstream improv that’s what people think of. If they want short, quick improv they will be surprised.
How is game-based improv different from story-based improv?
They can both be a lot of fun. To me, game-based scenes rely more on being clever or quick-witted. They often involve word play or hoops to jump through for the amusement of the audience. Story-based scenes depend more on connecting with each other, building the relationships and revealing the characters’ needs and desires. They’re usually quite funny too—since you’re making it up on the fly and everyone knows it—but to me, story-based improv also has more potential to find those touching or true moments that really reflect life and our shared humanity.
How does it feel to be celebrating the 24th anniversary of Um… Gee…Um?
Oh my god, it’s scary. It has been 19 years for me—it doesn’t feel like that at all. We laugh about it that we will be in our 80s and still doing this. One thing about improv is that it is always new and fresh; it doesn’t really get old. We will try to share something that has happened over the years. We won’t have any special guests, but we will probably call some audience members onstage. I’m looking forward to being in the moment.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had onstage?
There was the time John Maloney’s character was named George but he forgot and endowed Scott William’s character with being named George—actually he was knocking on the door and remembered his own name too late: “George are you there? George, open up. It’s me, um … George,” and then the whole scene became this very funny story about these two guys named George who were always in trouble because of getting mistaken for each other.
Also, the anniversary show that ended with a musical about a zoo. The final song had a chorus about keeping the animals safe that the whole audience joined in singing. After we’d cleaned up and were leaving the theater, we found a chalk mural of various animals drawn all the way down the sidewalk outside Louden Nelson (Community Center), with “Keep the Animals Safe” written in it. That was very sweet and magical.
Do you have any tips for aspiring improv actors?
I think improv is great for any actor. My biggest tip is to play and have fun … It’s also about building trust with your scene partners. I can actually remember the second time I was with Um…Gee…Um. It was magical. There was a moment where John and I looked at each other and we shifted the story at the exact same moment. It was a strange story about a guy in a pinto that had a parrot on his shoulder. First I was a man, then I was a woman … we get that a lot. John tackled me and saved me at the last moment.
Um…Gee…Um will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12/general, $10/students and seniors. For reservations, call 425-4447, or visit http://umgeeum.weebly.com/.