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It's time to get your Ha-Ha’s

As a mixed-age crowd of people found their way to the tables, carrying glasses of wine or the night’s special cocktail of Southern Comfort, orange juice and soda, comedian Pam Victor teased them: “Don’t be afraid to sit up close!” she said.

In fact, in spite of a good turnout for this December show, most of the front-row tables at The Arts Block on Main Street in Greenfield were vacant, perhaps a sign of audience members’ uncertainty about being asked to participate in improvisational comedy — at least until they’d had a chance to see what it would be like.

Victor is a small woman with a big smile and a voice that carries. She and fellow troupe members Laura Patrick, Moe McElligot and Christine Stevens make up the Pioneer Valley-based comedy group The Ha-Ha Sisterhood. And “make up” is the right phrase, since The Ha-Ha’s improvisational — or “improv” — comedy scenes are never scripted.

“It’s completely different every time,” Victor said before December’s performance. “We don’t know what we’re going to say.”

The Ha-Ha’s have been performing together since 2003 and has built a local following. A show at The Pleasant Street Theater during Northampton’s First Night festivities last year was so packed, Victor said they had to turn away 300 to 400 people. The Ha-Ha’s will return to the Arts Block Saturday, Jan. 12, as part of The Happier Valley Comedy Shows series hosted there the second Saturday of every month.

Each month also brings different guest comedians. December’s guests were Will Luera, Dave Sawyer and Lauren Magnuson of Deep Dish, a revolving all-star cast drawn from the Boston improv community, and local guests stand-up comic Mosie McNally and comedian Julie Waggoner.

The Jan. 12 show will feature Katie Proulx and Mosie McNally of Louisburg Junction.

“We make the Happy Valley happier,” the comedy series’ Web site proclaims and, indeed, there was plenty of laughter that night.

The night’s first scene began in a Thai restaurant — a suggestion solicited from the audience. Luera played a waiter who kept suggesting increasingly exotic dishes to his customer, played by Sawyer, while off to the side, in the “kitchen,” Magnuson mimed the surprised and hurried motions of a frantic cook trying to keep up with the list of outlandish entrees, which culminated in a pygmy elephant, served whole.

Then, in one of the elusive changes characteristic of improv, Sawyer’s seated restaurant customer became a man waiting for a cut and a shave; Luera became a barber and members of the Deep Dish players were well on their way into another scene that may or may not have included some horse shoeing. There were definitely some imaginary hooves being hammered at some point in the evening.

Surprises

Victor said that edits, or changes of scene, are the result of changes of energy. It’s as simple as one of the players realizing it’s time for a shift. Edits can be as theatrically obvious as what she called “sweep editing,” where someone runs across the stage, or yells, “Scene.” But a player might create an edit simply by introducing a new gesture — the waiter’s hand drops from holding an imaginary tray to snipping with a pair of scissors — or by repeating a word or phrase that someone else has said, using a different intonation so that it signifies a new meaning and thus the start of a new scene.

Much of improv’s humor lies in how the actors react to these surprises and the way that themes and details from one scene circle back through others. (The whole pygmy elephant, for instance, was too good not to make at least one more appearance during the evening.) There’s an element of risk to improv that can make it both uncomfortable and extremely satisfying to watch.

“It’s incredibly fun to do,” Victor said. “And it’s spiritual, in a way, because it connects you very much to the now, to the moment.”

The true satisfaction for Victor as a performer is when she finds herself delivering lines that are, “Pure discovery — the holy grail that improvers are chasing.” Victor said when she’s asked how she thought of a particularly funny or inspired line, she realizes, “I never thought of that line. I heard myself saying it.”

Listening is her number one priority on stage, Victor said. “It’s whole body listening, with my eyes and my ears and my body and my heart. If you’re thinking of a joke, you’re not listening.”

Vulnerabilities

That night in December, not every situation elicited a laugh. Some scenes revealed vulnerabilities in characters, creating dramatic, rather than comedic, tension. One longer piece highlighted the simmering animosities that can bubble up beneath the conversations of members of a literary book club. Another touched on the awkward emotions of a Greenfield Applebee’s manager when faced with the unwanted attentions of an old girlfriend who has looked him up on Facebook.

“I wish there was some analogy I could use to illustrate it’s as if I loved you and then I didn’t,” the restaurant manager finally says, eyes averted.

While watching theatrical improv such as this, “You’re not going to laugh through the whole thing,” Victor said. “You’re going to feel. The laughter when it does come, after we’ve had that tender, vulnerable moment together, is going to be really satisfying. It’s not going to be a shallow laugh. When the laugh does come, it will be cathartic and wonderful.”

But of course, there’s nothing wrong with laughing just for the fun of it. At the Arts Block that night, The Ha-Ha’s and Deep Dish played what Victor called “short form games”: silly set-ups, many of which asked for the type of audience participation that, Victor said, “You can do from the safety of your seat.”

‘Your body is like ...’

In one, Sawyer, playing a hapless Prince Charming, asked audience members to help fill in the blanks in a romantic speech he was having difficulty delivering to a not-so-enthusiastic Snow White: “Your body is like …”

“A watermelon,” an audience member called out.

As in the grade school fill-in-the-word game of Mad-Libs, the humor here comes from incongruity — the more outrageous the non sequitur, the better.

In another game, “Pockets,” the comedians drew from their pockets pieces of paper on which audience members had written statements or questions, forcing them to incorporate, mid-scene, gems such as, “I’m on a rodent-free diet,” or, the line,“I am the Ghost of Fiances Past,” to which another player countered quickly, “I am the Ghost of Fiances Future!”

Audience members Paul Ita and Katherine Glatter had driven from Amherst to see the show. The couple had seen both troupes perform at other venues. They said they were pleased at the convenience of having a regular comedy series in the Pioneer Valley. Ita said it was a great opportunity to see local talent as well as some of Boston’s hottest comedians.

“You think of the smaller towns having to go to Boston (to see comedy),” Ita said. “But instead, they came here.”

Ita writes sketch comedy for Side of Toast, a Pioneer Valley comedy troupe. Unlike improv, sketch comedy is scripted, more like pieces that might be seen on “Saturday Night Live,” Glatter said. One of Side of Toast’s sketches, “Silent H, Deadly H,” is a comic soap opera set in Amherst. “Lust. Betrayal. Organic produce,” their website entices. “Give us three minutes and you’ll be hooked.”

Ita and Glatter said that interest in improv comedy is growing globally. “There’s a huge hunger for it,” said Glatter. “It has some structure but everything else is fresh. It makes you feel a part of the action. You’re included.”

Hiding in the back

Which brings us back to those empty tables in the front row. Should people who want to avoid being dragged up onstage try to hide in the back?

“We would never force someone to come up onstage,” Victor said. “Comedy is supposed to be fun and being pressured to do something you don’t want to do is not fun.”

She added, “I personally have a rule that if, when we ask for volunteers, someone’s pointing at someone else, I take the person who’s pointing.”

Find information on the Happier Valley shows at
www.facebook.com/
thehahas
, and also on
www.happiervalley.com. Find out more about the Ha-Ha’s at www.thehahasisterhood.com. Tickets to the PG-13-rated Happier Valley shows are $10 at the door or $7 online. Doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com

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