UNT improv troupe heads to National College Improv Tournament after winning regional competition

UNT improv troupe heads to National College Improv Tournament after winning regional competition

UNT improv troupe heads to National College Improv Tournament after winning regional competition
February 07
11:25 2018

Imagine alternate realities where dragons, gnomes and magical books come to life. Not only do these scenes make up settings for movies and children’s books, they are also the settings where members of Sparky, a UNT improv troupe, find themselves navigating through each week.

The troupe, made up of five UNT students, usually creates imaginary worlds within seconds and improvises on the spot for its small audience in Wooten Hall every Wednesday. But on Jan. 27, Sparky went to the Southwest Regional College Improv Tournament where it captured first place over two other troupes in the final round.

Now, they will advance on to the National College Improv Tournament in Chicago to compete against the best college improv troupes from 11 different regions.

“When they called our name we were all like, ‘What?'” said 22-year-old Tierney Conley, member of Sparky and former president of the improv club. “But at the same time, we were really excited because obviously we value ourselves and do think we’re good improvisers.”

Sparky was created in fall 2016 and was originally comprised of Sean Byrne, Christian Campbell, Alex Wiggins and club founder Conley. Nate Lawrence joined later in fall 2017.

The spirit of Sparky is influenced by Daniel Matthews, a member of improv troupe Cell Block Tango. The troupe went on to the national CIT in 2014 and now regularly performs at the Dallas Comedy House.

Matthews’ saying, “Keep the whimsy,” inspired members of Sparky to maintain a free-spirited improv philosophy, reminding them to keep the spark alive during performances.

“We just decided to follow the fun because if we were having fun, that meant people were going to like the set,” said Byrne, president of the improv club and member of Sparky. “Every set we’ve ever had that was good, we’ve had fun during it.”

President of the UNT Improv Club, Sean Byrne, is a member of the improv troupe Sparky. Sparky won a spot to compete in Chicago against other improv troupes. Omar Gonzalez

The whimsical, light-hearted troupe’s philosophy has found a way to manifest on stage. Instead of focusing on the technical side of improv or pleasing the judges, Sparky’s goal is to remain focused on its foundation: having fun and playing make-believe with friends.

“We try to keep it fun, don’t take it too seriously and let weird things happen that you wouldn’t see every day,” Conley said. “People don’t want to see you make a sandwich, get in your car and drive to work, they want to see you fight a dragon.”

Though they had underdog-like success at this years’ Southwest Regional CIT in Houston, it wasn’t Sparky’s first time to compete. The group competed last year as a troupe for the first time but wasn’t able to win.

As they prepared to return this year with the addition of Lawrence, the group practiced every week from November 2017 all the way up to the weekend of the competition.

“We were just trying to ensure as much as possible that we were prepared as much as possible because it’s important to develop cohesion when you’re in a troupe like that,” Byrne said.

Nathan Lawrence performs alongside Tierney Conley during an improv set taking place on a ship. In this scene, Conley’s character finds out her mother was murdered.

Not only did they form a tighter troupe, they also refined the improv format they invented specifically for the competition.

“One thing that’s cool about UNT improv that’s different from the other teams is that we make up our own formats,” Conley said. “We always make up our own [things] or add things to give it our own twist.”

Formats, or the structure of a long-form improv set, have many basic versions that are popular and well-known. The thing that makes Sparky’s format unique is how it introduces characters through “freeze frames” — while the character being introduced is frozen, two other characters on the sides say who they are and what they do.

“There’s a bunch of different types of improv sets you can do, but we invented this one because we wanted to come to CIT with something new,” said Christian Campbell, member of Sparky and vice president of the improv club.

When Sparky performed its “freeze frames” for the first time last year, it made an impression on both the audience and other troupes. This year was no different.

It wasn’t just the long hours of practice and perfecting original formats that made a winning difference for Sparky this year. The members’ relaxed attitudes were also a big part of it.

“This year, I think we were just focused on having fun performing and having a good time being there, no matter what,” Conley said.

It was a mindset that made the competition enjoyable, not stressful. And it’s also the reason the entire troupe was shocked when it heard its name crowned as the Southwest Regional winner.

“It was a euphoric moment, and it was such a huge relief to hear we won,” Byrne said. “Being able to go to Chicago is amazing. I still can’t believe it.”

As Sparky looks ahead to the National CIT on March 3 in Chicago, members can’t wait to explore the city and enjoy the nation’s top college performances.

“We’re not really focusing on the competition as much right now — we just can’t wait to go to Chicago,” Campbell said. “I just want to see some good improv and hopefully produce some for others to see as well.”

Looking to the future of improv on campus, Sparky will continue hosting shows from 9:30-10:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in Wooten Hall, room 222 — the same location the UNT improv club has its meetings from 8-10 p.m on Monday nights.

Sparky hopes more people who are interested in improv will come to the meetings and that their advancement to nationals will encourage more local troupes to form and eventually compete.

But for now, the troupe is focused on its next adventure: nationals.

Even though the stakes are higher, Sparky is planning to go in with the same easy-going, relaxed mindset it had at regionals. And no matter what, the troupe plans to have the time of their lives playing make-believe with each other on the national stage.

“I’m going there with not even the explicit intent to win,” Byrne said. “It’d be amazing to win, but just being able to go to Chicago is amazing on its own. If we don’t win, it’s not the end of the world by any means. I just want to go there and have a blast.”

Featured Image: Sparky is a UNT improv troupe which recently won a spot to compete in Chicago, where it will compete on a national stage. The members from left to right are Christian Campbell, Nathan Lawrence, Sean Byrne, Tierney Conley and Alex Wiggins. Omar Gonzalez

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Rachel Linch

Rachel Linch

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