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After a dozen years lighting up students' faces around the country, Mission IMPROVable has become the first ever non-solo act to win the coveted Entertainer of The Year category in Campus Activities Magazine's Reader's Choice Awards, and only the first ever act in the genre of comedy to win it!
It was a hard fought battle, with front runners Michael Kent and Daniel Martin making it a close race up to the finish. However the determination, quality and sheer amount of MI's campus shows won the day.
Aaron Krebs is a founder of the Mission IMPROVable National Touring Company Ensemble, and sits down for an interview with CAM to tell us a little bit about the formation of the company, and what makes it not only the number one improv show in the campus market but also the Entertainer of the Year.
"Mission IMPROVable has been touring in the campus market since 2000," Aaron says. "We started out of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996. That is where the group formed, but then we moved things to Chicago, the true Mecca of improv."
The group would soon cement itself not only as a presence in the campus market, but among the big league improv companies in the Windy City as well. MI would later divide, with part of the group moving west to open a theater in Santa Monica, but with the touring troupe based in the Midwest. "The theater in Santa Monica has shows 7 days a week, over 100 shows a month. We also still perform in the Chicago area from time to time. The guys are performing in the Chicago Improv Festival in early April, but other than that mostly what happens out of the Midwest comes from the touring company, who perform about 140 shows a year in the campus market."
The group has been with Bass/Schuler Entertainment since they entered the market, and about the time BSE was starting up themselves. The two have grown together, into one of the most prominent agencies in the market and now the top act in the market respectively, according to our readers. "The original six of us left school and moved to Chicago and studied for a while to earn our chops. We started putting together this show and got teamed up early on with Bass/Schuler. After a few years of brutal touring, the original members were looking to move west and rather than close up shop in Chicago and kill the touring troupe, we decided we could create an opportunity for other young folks coming out of college to learn comedy and get paid for it. We continued to facilitate the touring arm and it has been a great boon for the entire company, giving the founding members a way to expand the brand."
Clearly MI is a great place to work. We'll hear a bit from the players themselves soon, but even before you hear for yourself how much they love their jobs, one has to appreciate how well they are taken care of by their bosses from the original six. "We provide a full health plan, a daily stipend and a great paycheck as well. Idealistically for us, it was something that we had the opportunity to provide and something we wanted to provide for that community."
For the performers part, you'd think you were talking to a group of guys who just hit the Powerball. Perhaps road weary at times yes, but ecstatic they get paid to essentially be the class clowns at over 100 schools a year. Byron Kennerly aka Agent Battlestar, David Sill aka Agent Raptor, Matt Garard aka Agent Sugarbear, and Sherman Edwards aka Agent Pepperjack make up the troupe. Surprisingly, the "agents" monikers are not forced on them by their bosses as a means of hazing. "Actually, we choose them ourselves..." Sherman says. Dave adds "Once you get cast, you choose your official agent name, and each one has some kind of special meaning to us, whether it is the story of how we got it or something fun that represents a part of us."
Life on the road is all these guys know. "We usually perform between 15 and 18 dates a month during the school year," Byron says. "It averages to probably 60 to 70 shows per semester."
While there are a ton of improv troupes out there, not many of them have really focused on the campus market, or figured out exactly how to approach it. It is reasonable to assume that most students have never seen a live improv show. MI has not only made the campus market the center of their focus, but they have mastered the art of capturing student interest and making themselves a hit on campus. "The nature of our show is so interactive that we win over the students pretty quickly," Matt says. "It is all based on audience suggestion and the format of the show is cool because we can base it on any crowd. It's not hard to win them over because the show is really about them."
Obviously with a show taking so much from the audience, things can take unexpected turns quickly, exactly why the crowd control abilities of such seasoned performers are such a key aspect to making MI shows a success time after time. "Basically half of the show is called 'fronting' which are not improv games, but times where we are actually in the crowd talking to the students. In a situation like that you never know what you will get and we have definitely heard them shout anything and everything," David says. "It becomes a bit of a learned skill to take what they give us and either use it, or if we are on a more conservative campus, turn it into something more palatable for everyone in the room."
So much of the success of a show, and the desirability of bringing it back to campus again, has to do not with what happens on stage during the show, but what happens off it before and after. "That makes a huge difference," says Byron. "One of the things we do pre show is come on campus and walk around and hand out stickers, pass out high fives, knock on dorm room doors and let the students know we are doing a comedy show that night. It is really a fun way to connect with the students and also help the activities board get a better turnout. It lets us get a bit of a feel for the student population too, giving us a chance to recon for the show."
And the service doesn't stop at the curtain call. "After the show we hang around," David says, "We hang out, take pictures, high five and hang out with everyone after the show. We are huge on free high fives if you couldn't tell."
At the end of the day, it's a wonder this act hasn't won this award sooner; the whole formula just adds up to a great fit for college market, as Aaron tells us. "I think what makes our show different from others is that we are so focused on our ensemble and who we are as a family unit and what MI means. To us, that is going on stage with 4 guys in the cast all just cutting up and having fun. It reminds you of a group of your older brother's friends or something, who just goof with each other all the time. We just take the audience along with us. There are hundreds of improv groups out there, but I think what sets us apart and allows us to do it well is the camaraderie and the kind of energy that exists between our tour members."
Aaron tells us this is no accident, there isn't just some element of dumb luck that puts these guys in a troupe together. And, it's not necessarily a matter of them contracting in the "big guns" in comedy either. "When we are casting we really look for people that fit our particular kind of energy. We are not necessarily looking for the funniest or most seasoned performers; we are looking for the guy who fits the comedy philosophy of Mission IMPROVable. He can dish out a joke, he can take a joke. I think that is a huge part of our ethic as a company top to bottom. It goes back to us being pranksters and joking with each other on the regular back at U Mass."
This is a big win for MI, and to celebrate they hope to perform at your campus and prove that they are not just a great improv show, not just a great campus act, but THE act to book and see for 2013.
For more information contact Bass/Schuler Entertainment at (773) 481-2600 or firstname.lastname@example.org