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Improv: Comic quartet creatively wing it in monthly series in Altamont


Taking improv comedy for a wild monthly ride is Reasonably Priced Babies: (L-R) Tom Chalmers, Mondy Carter, Josh Batenhorst and Karen Stobbe. Photo by Chris Cassels.

The troupe celebrated its five-year anniversary and current residency at Altamont with a show this past Friday, serving plenty of chuckles then cake afterward.

Reasonably Priced Babies (RPB) is the troupe that married couple Mondy Carter and Karen Stobbe started, and Tom Chalmers and Josh Batenhorst also star in. They told The Tribune about the art of improv, after their show Friday before an oft-laughing, near-capacity crowd of about 75 people.

Chalmers, the host, teaches adults in two levels of classes in his The Asheville School of Improv. It is in Asheville Community Theatre’s 35below, starting in the first week of April. Its open house is Tuesday, March 21. He said some of his former students went on to write for or perform on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL).

In each monthly RPB show, Aaron Price plays lounge music to back the witty, fast-paced improv skits. He stepped out of his “comfort zone,” enjoying a rare challenge Friday. He was in a segment. He filled in for Stobbe, who was ill and missed the entire show.

The full ensemble of four was needed for a game. In it, one comic at a time joins the improv action then leaves it. Price came in last. Sushi was his starting theme. He unleashed a spiffy French accent as a chef. He moved on stage seamlessly through what one might call an explosive “mime field.”

To do improv, Batenhorst reasons, one must shed much cultural “filter” and “suppression of impulse.” Instead, he urges, “acknowledge those impulses” and act out spontaneous feelings and thoughts. This enables one to jump into a scene without hesitation, though not reckless overly-tasteless abandon.

Scenes flowed well, with amusing exaggerations that had sensible-enough foundations. Ultimately “he brain makes sense of the absurd” in the quick exchanges, Carter said.

Focus is the glue to the potpourri of ideas that mix into a skit. “You have to put stakes into it, with grounding” to keep on track, the energetic and oft-daffy Carter said. “It’s like a base line, to play the melody off of.” He said it takes careful observation of what colleagues say and do, to play off cues or redirect with “re-conceptualizing” themes. As when dreaming Carter quotes Albert Einstein that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Chalmer says in comedy, “anything’s possible.” When studying improv at Columbia U. in NYC in 1988, Chalmers once had to personify Yankee Stadium. He did so via a peanut vendor yelling “peanuts” and spreading out his arms to “grow out” like a tree from the vendor into the immense, iconic stadium.

The fast pace is crucial to a skit’s creative spark and hilarity. “Jump on it quickly. Make a strong choice,” and play it through including through any snags, Chalmers urges. “Don’t quit.”

The more confident and relaxed the improv performer is, the more cues are realized and a skit sizzles. These are among his improv tips to students. He even suggest bailing out a struggling colleague, by taking his/her place even before an idea fully emerges. “Get them out of the panic mode. They need you. Jump in, and the idea should come to you.” If not, others can rescue you.

Tom Chalmers trained at famed Second City in Chicago. He does rehearsed standup comedy, storytelling one-man shows, and was Crumpet the elf for years, in David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries at ACT. Western Massachusetts native Chalmers, a Warren Wilson College adjunct professor, teaches acting and improvisation. Gentle-voiced Chalmers, 50, with a nerdy look likes to play meeker people, even women as a frolic.

Texan Josh Batenhorst is COO of Bright Star Touring Theatre. He has a business degree. He has taught acting in the ArtSpace charter school. He jumped into improv with RPB. He played guitar and sang in two skits Friday, such as “Please Sing It.” He is younger than his cohorts. With his beard, he can act edgier and intense or look stern and authoritative such as a doctor.

The tallest Baby is six-foot Francis Montgomery “Mondy” Carter. He is often the most physical in comedy. With longer hair, he has a Bohemian air. He is from Alexandria, Va. He studied theatre at Marquette.

Carter started improv in 1990 in Milwaukee. He formed Dead Alewives. The uncensored troupe was named after fish that washed up onto Lake Michigan’s shores in summers. Its Dungeons and Dragons sketch was often requested on Dr. Demento’s syndicated off-beat radio show. Carter’s local acting includes co-starring with Chalmers in the multi-role classic Greater Tuna. George Clooney is what Stobbe in some skits refers to her husband. He looks a bit like the actor and has that crisp low voice.

Stobbe like the other two have a more generic, mainstream image at first glance. She started improv in Kansas City. Her job entails using theatrical improv to counsel caregivers on how to better relate to patients with dementia.

The troupe’s name formed during a game of developing a mini-drama, and linking concepts. Adoption of a child led to searching in a catalogue, triggering Stobbe’s quip those babies are “reasonably priced.”

The audience contributes improv conceptual ideas, even to guide host Chalmers (the troupe’s “historian and hysterical”) in a recap of the troupe’s five years. In the first segment Friday, he urged the crowd to come up with the next one-word idea (one was Batman). This propelled the skit — perhaps in a new direction, but often kept on track by resourceful associations.

In the “Freeze” finale, the Babies depicted action hero Wolverine restraining his claws as a beau, and later a supposed traditional ritual of checking out the new pope’s jewels to ensure he is indeed a male as required.

Three comics took turns spur-of-the-moment playing various roles, in two focused skits. One was the “Serious Scene.” It quickly evolved into a doctor breaking news to a patient about a fatal illness. One take on the doctor was his rushing to do surgery and being vague about the ailment. Batenhorst as the patient rebelled against that, angrily demanding to be told what organ is killing him.

The biggest laugh came from Carter stretching his arms wide apart. He did so as the doc, assuring he will carefully follow precise steps rather than doing surgery “wide open.”

The other well-developed segment with actors revolving into finite roles was entitled Two for the Road. The premise hinged on audience suggestions of murder as major mayhem, and minor speeding ticket which set up a traffic stop.

Emerging characters were the speeding car’s driver, a drunken and cranky back-seat passenger and counterparts of the arresting officer and meddlesome drunken veteran officer. Two acted a time in this, with a trio rotating in all roles. Carter once did three characters in a row, hopping all about. There are no rehearsals for such skits, Chalmers assured, to keep interaction “fresh” and vibrant.

Morphing into a backseat passenger meant circling back from the driver’s spot and pretending to enter the back seat in the imaginary car. Such stage movement is among ways improv actors enhance the scene, and make it more realistic. Miming antics are pivotal, along with dialogue which can include an indirect explanation termed a “justification” of a situation. They seek to reflect the who, what, when, where and why of a story.

For instance, as the drunken passenger and actor crouched instead of futilely trying extreme-crouched sitting on air. Mocking that predicament, he blurted it is good the driver took out the passenger seat “so I can be here in a standing crouch.”

In a later skit, Carter stood while motioning with his hands. Batenhorst interpreted that action as milking a cow. Carter obliged, doing milking action. As he notes, improv actors follow cues to amplify each other’s notions. He said the motto is “Yes, and more!”

Carter clued how he might be milking a cow, while still standing. He quipped he had the “world’s tallest cow.” By then, Batenhorst was momentarily replaced by Chalmers and missed his gripping retort. It instead was the “world’s tallest steer.”

In the four-person skit, Batenhorst’s assigned situation was having a clock that did not work. He had it be a timer. He fiddled with it, trying to time Chalmers and Carter for how long they can hold their breath. Thus those two coughed and rolled onto the floor, in anguish.

As always, RBP improvised satirical dialogue over a film shown with its sound off. Full features are edited. This time a seven-minute instructional short from the Fifties was fully shown. It hinged on a teen good girl lecturing peers about punctuality and other good norms. The comics portrayed a teen boy as moronically slow, a mother figure with a coarse low male voice, and the good girl as apt to smack a friend senseless with her wand. The crowd howled.

Chalmers reprised a polite blind man in Freeze, as a character “callback” for clever closure.

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