Nostalgia, Sleepovers, and Al Gore: The next generation of Off-Off Campus takes the stage

We’re the first generation for whom the ‘90s are an object of nostalgia. This is significant. If you fall within the college undergraduate demographic, you’ve by now become aware that you more or less had the same (televised) childhood as your peers. This is why it’s easier for college adolescents to make conversation over Classic Nickelodeon programs than over the weather or other current affairs. This also explains why all of their reminiscences, collective or otherwise, inevitably trails back to what was most dependable and gratifying during our formative years: children’s television and all the sweet products it made us covet. So it’s really only to be expected that this generation’s comedy parody Captain Planet, a meme that’s as incomprehensible to anyone above thirty as it is foundational to anyone beneath it.

“Oh Captain, my Planet!” is the title and loose theme of the new Off-Off Campus revue. It is also the debut of the 21st Generation of this venerable institution, which has been incubating since its casting in the fall. “Every generation has its own personality,” muses Drew Dir, Off-Off alum and current production manager. “The 18th is cartoonish, the 19th is dark, and the 20th has an absurdist streak. The 21st, however, has this innocence about them. They all look like such nice kids, but they’ll break your expectations every night when they do a scene about [social sciences] class and dirty hand gestures. They’re not afraid to let their nerd hang out in performance, either, so in that way I think they’re the most ‘UofC’ generation we’ve had in a while, which is very, very exciting.” Off-Off’s training regime, originally developed by Bernie Sahlins, (brother of the anthropologist Marshall, co-founder of the Second City and Off-Off) is pure rigor—three hours a day, five days a week, for two quarters (six months), all the while building an ensemble and teaching writing and improv skills to every group member. Dir enlightens: “The idea is to form a group of eight or so people who trust each other absolutely on stage. Self-censorship is poison for improv. If you feel self-conscious around your fellow performers, you won’t take risks or maintain a state of being ‘open’ to experience. That’s not to say that generations don’t fight amongst themselves. They do. But the bonds created by training are so tight that each generation feels like a nuclear family.” Incestuous? Undoubtedly. But it sure makes for creative fertility.

The effects of this toil and bonding were in evidence last Friday as the 21st took the stage at the Blue Gargoyle, the theater inside University Church. The first sketch involved a sort of turf-war between Al Gore and Captain Planet, including a song-and-dance number and expletives. Other highlights: a brief history of racism featuring Columbus and Abe Lincoln, a wagering battle between two pipe-smoking Anglophiles, and a sleepover talk show featuring rabid middle school girls. The improv portion was superb: there were multiple moments where the group managed to pull off that spontaneous synchronicity and absurd scenario development that make improvisational comedy so compelling. Intuitions must be cultivated and group-consciousness strong in order to make it work. The improv dynamic remains unique in theatre: the audience and the actors have a cooperative relationship, since the latter depend on the crowd for the momentum to orchestrate ad-libbed inventions, which the crowd responds to and so on. “This is different from the way it works in stand-up comedy. Stand-up audiences are highly demanding, and that’s why you see a culture of heckling there that isn’t present in group improv. Stand-up audiences will get their laughs any way they can, even at the expense of the performer. Comedians know this, and that in turn breeds a certain contempt for the audience. Comedians have to ‘work’ the room or perish; but improv performers and audiences work toward a common goal.” This was the prevailing atmosphere at the Gargoyle as the new kids staked their ground. And though they have a little ways to go before attaining the stature and stage-presence of the 19th or 20th generations, their talent, comedic sensibility, and eccentricity were quite visible and will doubtless propel them upwards and onwards in the shows and quarters to come. Progress a la time.

University Church, 5655 S. University Ave. Every Friday, 9pm.