Duck! Behind the Scenes of HMC’s Improv Club

When someone says, “Duck!” the first thought that come to mind is to lower one’s head and body quickly to avoid a blow. Or one might think this exclamation refers to a water bird with short legs and a broad, blunt bill. But in Claremont, students might mention Duck! as the creative, quick-witted improvisational comedy group based at Harvey Mudd College.

Duck! held their third annual opening performance at HMC’s Galileo Hall on Oct. 6 at 8 p.m., featuring the talents of Elly Schofield HM ’13, Kevin Varela-O’Hara HM ‘13, Max Zhvanetsky HM ‘13, Michael Baeder HM ‘15 and Ari Hausman-Cohen HM ’15. 

Perhaps the most impressive and entertaining quality of their improv comedy show is that even though scenes are purely unscripted and not premeditated, performers can still produce clever, witty humor. TSL’s Warren Lee PO ’15 caught up with the captains to talk about their insights on their performance and on improvisation comedy in general.

TSL: What were you guys thinking while you were on stage?

Elly Schofield: Most of my mental energy is on paying attention to what other people are doing. All the time, other actors are making “offers,” or suggestions of what’s going on in the scene, through what they say or do. The key is to pay attention to those as much as possible to keep the scenes exciting and consistent.

TSL: How could you tell when a scene has run out of steam?

Ari Hausman-Cohen: A scene is kept moving by what improvisers call “offers,” subtle suggestions and additions in our lines, actions and reactions that give the other actors in the scene something to build off of. When these start coming more slowly, we know a scene is beginning to falter. Of course, with that in mind, we often focus practices on a concept called “yes, and…,” the idea of constantly building new ideas into the scene. When a good scene gets going, we’re not looking for it to run out of steam, as that could take hours, but just for a good place to stop it.

ES: When a scene has completely run out of steam, you can tell—the actors start struggling to find new interesting things to talk about or do, and it feels like everyone is either starting to make a new scene or just playing out the “aftermath” of the previous one. The real trick is to figure out how to stop a few moments before the scene will lose that motivation: right as the resolution of a conflict appears, or right as things reach a breaking point, rather than a “comfortable” wrap-up like you’d see at the end of a feel-good movie.

TSL: Why is improv so appealing to you?

Michael Baeder: The satisfaction of creating something out of nothing is incredibly rewarding. If you are performing in a play, you have the experience of creating a character in a physical, social and emotional environment prescribed (to some extent) by the playwright and the directors. In improv, you and your scene partners create an entire world for the audience to explore and (hopefully!) enjoy, filled with interesting people and often with a lot of relevance to real-world ideas, experiences and relationships.

Kevin Varela-O’Hara: Big question … I like that I get to be other people then myself, because it’s so wonderful to see a new perspective.

Max Zhvanetsky: I’ve been doing improv for over seven years at this point and it’s been a huge part of my life. It’s always something I gravitate back towards. I like how it takes many aspects of theater and mixes them with comedy. I also really like the fact that nothing is repeated from day to day, and every scene has something to offer. I think improv is a butterfly or snowflake that never looks the same.

TSL: What about the spirit of Duck! made you choose this group over other comedy groups?

AHC: What attracted me to Duck! is the atmosphere. In Duck!, our focus as captains is spreading our love of and experience in improv to anyone and everyone. Our practices are open to newcomers, and happen right in the middle of the quad at Mudd. We are always encouraging more people to join. It’s really a choose-your-own commitment group. For those who just want a fun way to relax once a week for two hours, great. For those of us who are more serious and want to perform, we simply organize an extra practice or so before the show, but the weekly meeting is where we really build up our skills.

KVO: One of the reasons I think that Duck! is particularly awesome is that as great and talented as some of the other comedy groups on the 5Cs are, you will almost always see the same folks at every show. Duck! has a huge group, so almost every show we have someone on stage for whom this is their first show.

TSL: When are your next performances?

MZ: We are working on putting on shows more often (every 1-2 weeks), and they tend to be Friday or Saturday early evenings. 

KVO: We are also very spur of the moment.

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