Sometimes Betsy Harper sounds absolutely absurd. Lucky for her, when it comes to improv comedy, absurdity makes absolute sense.
“That’s the whole point of improv: It’s completely absurd,” explains the assistant director of New Student Programs, who joined the Theatre 99 improv ensemble in 2008 and has been a regular stage presence ever since. “Your whole life you’re trained to think first before you say something – but here, you have to forget all that and reverse it: You have to unlearn that and just say something. Don’t think, just say something. Because it doesn’t matter what you say – the funny will come. Funny things always happen when they’re unexpected.”
Speaking of unexpected funny things: When Harper took her first improv class at Theatre 99 10 years ago, she would have never guessed she’d actually have a knack for it. She was doing it to meet people, to push herself – not to become a comedian. In fact, she didn’t think of herself as a particularly funny person at all. Quirky, yes. Goofy, sure. But funny?
“It turns out, my quirks come off well on stage,” she shrugs, adding that – despite her initial fears – she was surprised to feel so at ease on the improv stage. “You learn to welcome the discomfort of being on the spot. I mean, it’s not like you have to put any thought into it.”
That’s because the quick, chaotic bounce of improv doesn’t leave any room for thought. Deliberation and planning just get in the way.
“You can’t dwell on anything. You want it to happen organically, anyway. That’s the beauty of the improv format: No matter what you say, someone will pick it up and run with it,” says Harper, who performs every week in shows like Human Fireworks, Tone Locos and Three Men and a Little Lady. “Once you say something, it becomes true in that scene – it doesn’t matter how absurd it is. It doesn’t need an explanation. You’re exploring a world that’s so absurd, there is no explanation.”
The absurdity is even more pronounced when you step off the stage and get a little meta about the whole thing.
And who doesn’t like fun?
“People come to the theater to have fun,” says Harper. “People aren’t there to see some highbrow piece of theater. They’re not there to see drama or a thriller or a horror. They’re there for a cheap, easy laugh. They want to have fun, to be part of something silly. I think that’s why people keep coming back – it’s a familiar kind of fun.”
Of course, it’s improv, so familiarity comes with a twist.
“The whole thing about improv is to shake things up – you’re always trying new things,” says Harper, who tried her hand at puppetry for the first time in Theatre 99’s long-form three-on-three tournament in April 2016 and has incorporated puppets into her acts ever since. “The thing about improv is that it rewards you for being silly, and it doesn’t get any more silly than an adult sitting in front of other adults while talking to a puppet and pretending like it’s talking back.”
All silliness aside, however, improv has given Harper something pretty valuable.
“It’s a place I can go and be completely unprofessional. I can just go play,” she says. “It’s an escape from the rules and responsibilities of my real life. That’s been a nice release for me.”
And when you put it that way, that kind of absurdity makes a whole lot of sense.