It’s a Wednesday night, something after 9 p.m., and the Lab Rats have reported for practice in Mississippi State’s Allen Hall. It’s a twice-weekly appointment they keep, one that hones their improv comedy chops for the monthly shows they put on for the public. Making an audience laugh isn’t a matter of luck or chance — it takes some skills.
Practice starts with a few warm-ups, a series of improv games or exercises to jump-start the session. Sometimes it’s Zip, Zap, Zop. That’s all about focus and energy as the improvisers, or actors, form a circle and “pass” the energy from person to person in the form of a zip, a zap or a zop — making eye contact, keeping the rhythm going, exploring pace and sequence.
“Or we might do a word association game — say a word and the next person has to say an associated word, and we’re doing it to a snapping beat. It’s just a little thing to get everybody on edge and ready,” said MSU senior Brock St. Clair, Lab Rats’ head director this year.
That edge, that quickness of mind, is key to improvisation, a form of live theater in which the plot, characters and dialogues of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment. There are no prepared scripts. Actors will often take suggestions from the audience. No two performances are ever exactly the same.
When St. Clair says improv changed his life, he’s not kidding.
“I was a computer science major my first three semesters,” said the student from Germantown, Tennessee. But after signing on as a DJ at MSU’s WMSV radio station, “I discovered that I really love performing and writing jokes. Prior to that, I’d lived a very structured lifestyle.”
Prodded by a friend, St. Clair auditioned for Lab Rats on a whim.
“It was way out of my comfort zone, but everything was very monotonous in my life at that point and I thought, what the heck.” His experience since inspired him to change his major to communication and broadcasting. He even found himself acting in a Theatre MSU production, and he doesn’t rule out aiming for goals like “Saturday Night Live” in future.
“It’s funny how improv, for me, has not only changed what I think I want to do with my life, but also the way I interact with other people.”
Improv training, he added, has made him more willing to fail, more comfortable in his own skin, more confident.
“It’s humbling, in that you’re going to make a fool of yourself, but it’s also freeing — there are ‘rules,’ but really there are no rules, and I think that’s freeing.”
Ashlynn Lutz of Columbus remembers the first Lab Rats show she performed in. The 20-year-old followed her older brother, Luke, into the troupe after graduating from Columbus High School. Like all newbies, she spent her initial months as a Rat in improv training.
“We call them ‘new hats’ — as opposed to the old hats,” explained St. Clair. “When you get in the troupe you spend your first semester in our workshop phase before ever being in one of the monthly shows.” Five of the group’s 19 current members are “new hats.”
Lutz recalled, “In my first show, my scene partner and I left the room while (the others) wrote down activity (suggestions) from the crowd on a piece of paper. When we came back, we had to look at the paper and immediately react to what’s written on it.”
Yes, it’s a little unnerving, to put yourself out there in front of a live audience, with nothing prepared, no lines memorized.
St. Clair said, “It seems scary to go on stage and perform, not knowing what you’re going to say, but you can look at that from the flip side — you can’t say anything that’s ‘wrong.’ If you’re in a play, you can screw up your lines, but with improv, anything you say goes. It’s super cool.”
Starkville native Jordan Prather, 21, grew up watching the improv comedy TV show “Whose Line Is it Anyway?” He joined Lab Rats last spring and is no longer a “new hat.” He’s performing this semester in shows on campus that can draw audiences of 100 people or more each month.
“Improv is not as unpredictable as people think it is,” the computer engineering major said. “We know what games we’re going to play; we know the format of what’s going to happen — but we don’t know what the audience is going to give us to work with.”
Some games call for a location. The audience may call out “hospital,” “McDonald’s” or “a graveyard,” Prather said. Other scenes may ask for a topic to start with, or just a single word.
“I think you start to realize there are no dumb ideas. You work with anything that’s thrown at you.”
Improv has made Noah Hunt more willing to challenge himself.
“I think it helps me a lot outside of improv, to be more willing or more accepting, to just kind of take risks,” said the 19-year-old from Tupelo who graduated from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus. On stage, he explained, he has to take jumps that might not work. “And if they don’t work, you just have to move along.”
Lab Rats attracts MSU students from all backgrounds and experience. Auditions are held at the beginning of each semester — no particular personality type required.
“I do know that being an improv actor doesn’t (necessarily) mean that you’re outgoing,” Prather remarked. “You can be a reserved person, but still have a persona on stage and take on all these characters.”
Like her fellow troupe members, Lutz has found improv ups her overall comfort level when dealing with others.
“You’re constantly performing on stage in front of people you don’t know, so I have no problem talking to people or even cutting up with strangers now,” said the nutrition major, adding that Lab Rats is a “break from everything that stresses you.”
When it comes down to it, St. Clair concluded, “It’s so cool to be a part of something where you’re just surrounded by people who are super passionate about the same thing you are.”
Lab Rats Comedy shows, open to the public, are presented monthly in either Moseley Hall or McComas Hall on campus. Admission is $5. Remaining shows this semester are Oct. 19 and Nov. 9 in Moseley (fourth floor), at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. A Dec. 5 show on the McComas Main Stage is 7 p.m.
For more about Lab Rats, visit labratscomedy.com, or follow them on social media.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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