Silverbacks Improv Theatre
● By Aimee Cormier
By Lyndsy Bradley
Like most crafts, improv is a skill acquired and improved over time. It’s learned through practice, repetition, trial, error and hard work. With a combined total of 50 years’ worth of experience, the Lafayette-based Silverbacks Improv Theatre proves the worth of this time-tested theory.
The troupe has an ongoing show at Cité Des Arts during Art Walk where it showcases a “local celebrity” who shares three true, personal stories. After each story, the actors and actresses use themes and moments to inspire a series of scenes, ranging about five to 10 minutes long per story. The format is known to the improv world as “Armando,” explains one of the three founding members, Elaine Kibodeaux.
The Silverbacks also have a monthly show at Theatre 810 where they perform “more traditional” improv known as half-and-half format: “half short form like the games they play on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ and half long form, which is a one-act improvised play,” a definition according to Kibodeaux.
“Our regular shows vary in format from month to month,” adds Rick Manuel, another founding member. “Sometimes we do something related to the month we’re in. For example, we’ve had shows for the last two Decembers based around families getting together to celebrate a holiday. Both times we’ve had the audience give us the fictitious name for the holiday, and we make up the ‘traditions’ as we go.”
The Silverbacks had what one might call “not a very glamorous beginning,” according to Steve Benelli, last of the three founding members. Benelli, a New Orleans native who became a founding member of University of Louisiana at Lafayette based improv troupe Cult of the Stage Monkey – Lafayette (COSM-Lafayette) in 1998, said the Silverbacks came to be after “loitering” outside the restaurant with two former COSM-Lafayette members, Kibodeaux and Manuel.
“Rick, Elaine and I were hanging out outside the restaurant where we just had dinner,” says Benelli. “The conversation turned to how much we missed improv since retiring from Cult of the Stage Monkey, and the idea to form a professional troupe outside of COSM-Lafayette and the University was fleshed out there in the parking lot.”
Kibodeaux, who fell into improv after a failed theatre audition during her first semester at UL in 2001, also remembers its conception well. It was Valentine’s Day when she, Benelli and Manuel discussed the idea of the Silverbacks in that mundane location. She had recently begun teaching classes at the then newly opened Theatre 810.
“Benelli, Manuel and I talked in a parking lot for an hour after a COSM-Lafayette show and decided that Theatre 810 was our chance to start our own troupe,” says Kibodeaux. “Once we had a place to perform regularly that wasn’t a bar, the whole idea of having our own troupe really clicked. It stopped being a ‘nice thought’ and we made it happen.”
Kibodeaux attributes much of the Silverbacks’ success to improv performer Sarah Mikayla Brown, who “really pushed us to look at this as a business and not just a hobby.”
Brown moved back to her hometown of Lafayette in 2012, shortly after the Silverbacks had formed, after having lived in Chicago for eight years. During her time there she had founded an avant garde performance festival, the Chicago Fringe Festival (chicagofringe.org), had worked as managing director of the wildly experimental Tantalus Theatre Group, and had been a member of the Stage Monkeys’ Chicago troupe. Like five of the six performing members of the Silverbacks troupe, Brown was a part of COSM-Lafayette.
“Most members of Silverbacks were, at one time or another, membes of Cult of the Stage Monkey, which is the UL improv troupe,” says Brown. “Now we have two successful troupes in our ‘family,’ a growth that is a lot of fun.”
The Silverbacks, still closely affiliated with COSM-Lafayette and the COSM organization as a whole, continue to provide guidance and training as well as performance and workshop opportunities to them.
Manuel, who began in the world of improv as a “techie” with the COSM-Lafayette, still works as a director to the student troupe but has moved on to a full-blown improv-er with the Silverbacks.
“The director at the time was very adamant that techies would be able to have a feel for improvising as well, so I was trained up alongside the other cast mates,” says Manuel. “I was tremendously shy at the time, but improv really opened me up. I found being onstage really clicked for me.”
The Silverbacks’ form of improv, which contributing musician Andrew Lee describes as “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?,’ except with less focus on jokes and more on scene development,” happens very organically but not without practice.
“There is definitely a lot of practice that goes into performing improv,” says Manuel. “More than just keeping your skills sharp, you really need to build those connections with your cast mates. When we’re onstage, all we have is each other; so if you haven’t been working together much, the chemistry can get strained.”
Monique Morton, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, with a Master in Fine Arts in writing for TV, film and theatre from California State University Los Angeles, joined the cast this July.
“Morton is unique for being the only one of us who wasn’t originally in Cult of the Stage Monkey,” says Kibodeaux. “She trained at The Second City in LA.”
“Coming into a tight-knit group of improvisers can be a little intimidating,” Morton says. “With each performance and rehearsal, I learn more about my cast mates and I hope they learn more about me.
“One of my teachers at The Second City Hollywood Training Center said, ‘It’s important to get to know your fellow improvisers on a personal level because when you know their interests and topics they’re familiar with, you can bring some of those topics into your scenes to make them more natural and entertaining for the audience,” recounts Morton.
In order to continue growing as a troupe, building an off-stage chemistry is just as important as honing improv skills.
Benelli says the troupe generally meets for practice twice within the two weeks leading up to a show. In those practices, they’ll discuss the format of the show, go over notes from previous shows and work on skill exercises to keep things fresh.
“If we realize we’re falling into habits, we’ll play games meant to push us out of our comfort zones and train us to move and think differently from ourselves,” adds Kibodeaux. “We practice listening, too, if that makes any sense.”
“I like performing with this gang because I believe that each of my cast mates is brilliant,” says Brown. “I have seen each and every one of them come up with something on stage that made me go, ‘Wow! How did he/she come up with that?’ Now that we have been performing together for a while, we are getting a comfortable sixth sense about each other’s sensibilities. I know that each one of them has my back.”