Turns out, Billings is a funny town.
With two adult improv troupes, one high school troupe and a lively stand-up comedy scene, Billings is turning into a city of one-liners. And it all started with Venture Improv in 1995.
The comedy group was organized by Venture Theatre co-founder Mace Archer, and it included at least two performers who are still around – Kyle Trott and Aaron Malek.
“Mace put the original crew together and we performed at Lamplighter,” Malek said “At the time, it was about found space and bringing homegrown theater to Billings. Nobody else was doing comedy back then.”
Despite a few bumps two years back, Venture Improv is packing the house and getting ready to celebrate its 20th year in 2015 with a month of reunion shows and improv classes in March.
The current director and emcee Kevin Schweigert said the atmosphere at rehearsals is that of a safe haven where performers feel at ease to try out new material. They usually play comedy games like “Foreign Film,” where the audience picks a language and a plot and four actors turn it into a skit, two performing in a foreign language and the other two translating for them. Then there is “Actor’s Nightmare” where one actor recites lines from a play and the other actor has to justify each line without knowing the plot.
Cast member Matthew Melia said performing improv has helped him as a performer and in real life because it has taught him to trust his instincts.
“It’s freeing to go out there, get a suggestion from the audience and act on it,” Melia said.
His sister, Tiffany Melia, is also part of the group. She graduated from the high school group, Funky Bunch, into the adult group and has spent 11 years performing improv.
“We’re all friends, so there is trust between us,” Tiffany said.
A bond between the performers helps in improv because the expectation from both the audience and the comedians is that outrageous comedy will ensue and you can’t get crazy if you don’t trust fellow performers.
A few years ago, Venture Improv came close to disbanding. Catherine Langlas Bergman said sometimes they performed for audiences as small as five people. She credits Schweigert with bringing new energy into the group. Now it’s standing room only when Venture Improv performs monthly at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. Their next show is Jan. 3, starting at 8 p.m.
“All of us got on board to make it work,” Schweigert said. “We meld all these backgrounds and ideas into a group effort where everyone has input. I smooth over feathers when they get ruffled.”
Will Thomas, a local stand-up comedian, was recruited this year to become part of Venture Improv. He said the experience has helped his standup act.
“I’m no longer just standing there and telling jokes like a rigid statue,” Thomas said.
Most members of the independent adult group, Projectile Improv, which performs at the Stampede on Thursday nights, started out in Venture Improv.
Buddy McKinder, an alum of Venture Improv, said performing comedy when he was still in college helped him develop an adventurous spirit.
“It teaches you to say yes to things. You can take negative experiences and situations and change them if you say yes. That’s the root of comedy,” McKinder said.
Nick Capetanakis said when he moved to Billings from Los Angeles in the 1990s, he was surprised by the sophisticated comedy network here.
“There was comedy here like what I would see in L.A.,” said Capetanakis, who also does some standup comedy.
Another alumnus of Venture Improv, Chaslee Schweitzer, said sometimes it’s better when the skit crashes.
“They do such a variety of games that if you don’t like one, you might like the next one. They’re funnier when they fall on their face.”