Washington Improv Theater debuts at Studio and it’s don’t miss

A year-long residency promises to tempt both theater buffs and improv nuts.

Washington Improv Theater’s year-long residency at Studio Theatre — which WIT kicked off in fine form Friday night — is, in DC theater terms, a big honking deal. 

I say this not just because when CultureDC quit leasing WIT space at Source, the company was about to be homeless. I also say this not just because Studio’s welcome to WIT was both generous and savvy (Studio has fit WIT into theater spaces that otherwise would be dark this season). No, the main reason this run is majorly important is that it promises to commingle a theatergoing audience and an improv fanbase and create propitious cross-appreciation.

Matt Berman introduces Washington Improv Theater’s iMusical ensemble at Studio Theatre September 30, 2022. Back row: Mark Chalfant, Geoff Corey, Molly Graham, Ryan Campbell, Adrienne Thomas, Simone Webster, Cassie Barnum, and Elaine Colwell. On keyboard: Travis Charles Ploeger (director/accompanist). Photo by Jeff Salmore.

From a theater buff’s POV, what’s cool about WIT is that it’s truly live theater but it’s unscripted and unplotted so each artist onstage is writer, director, and actor in one. Their collective intuition is uncanny. Together, before our eyes, these antic multitaskers connect and communicate via what seems shared brain circuitry and collaborate on the fly.

Watching WIT is simply enthralling. And we the audience are part of the creative process not only because the actors relate to our laughter (and vice versa) but because one of us has volunteered a prompt upon which the improvisers make up in the moment a one-time-only tale. 

The talents in WIT are terrific at this. I’ve been digging their work for years. What they do is hard to review because it’s by nature ephemeral. But it’s never not fun, the funny keeps on coming; and in the midst of the spontaneity and hilarity, there can be fleeting flashes of insight.

Simone Webster, Molly Graham, Elaine Colwell, Geoff Corey, and Cassie Barnum in an iMusical scene at Studio Theatre September 30, 2022. Photo by Jeff Salmore.

A few things to know before you go: A typical WIT show features two or three ensembles, amusingly named teams of performers with trust and cohesion born of playacting and spontaneous scripting together.  Shows last a little over an hour. And at $15 a ticket, WIT’s one of the best entertainment deals in town.

The show playing at Studio through October 22 is called Playing It by Ear, headlined by iMusical, an ensemble that makes up minimusicals. iMusical will be paired in rotation with another group, which on opening night was an all-Black ensemble cheekily named after the quite white Lena Dunham.

Jamal Newman introduces Washington Improv Theater’s Lena Dunham ensemble at Studio Theatre September 30, 2022. Back row: Krystal Ramseur, Darnell Eaton, Nic Small, and Simone Webster. Photo by Jeff Salmore.

The Lena Dunham team bounded onstage first, and when member Jamal Newman asked the audience for “a song that makes you think of your Black friend,” there were immediate chuckles. To my surprise, my companion (and DCTA colleague) Sophia Howes shouted out “Midnight Train to Georgia.” After she was asked a few questions to amplify her prompt, the team was off and running. Among the subsequent impromptu sketches was one lifted from Sophia’s mention of her Black friend’s being ignored by a white restaurant waiter. In a hilarious sendup of that server, Eva Lewis played “white.”

Darnell Eaton, Eva Lewis, Krystal Ramseur, and Simone Webster in a Lena Dunham scene at Studio Theatre September 30, 2022. Photo by Jeff Salmore.

The iMusical team came on next and elicited an audience suggestion for “some sound you like.” The one they latched on to was the sound of a jar popping open, which inspired a loony story about an office worker, Elaine Colwell, who keeps eating pickles out of a jar and is cajoled by coworkers into doing trust exercises. Plot logic was in short supply but musical chops were not. Accompanied on keyboards by the extraordinary Travis Charles Ploeger, cast members broke into original songs on the spot.

The takeaway here is that Studio Theatre regulars now have a rewarding new reason to drop by the renovated venue, and WIT aficionados following the company down 14th Street from Source to Studio now have an impressive season of fully staged world-class plays to check out.

Give it a try. As improv performers are coached to say to themselves in response to each twist, “Yes, and…”

Running Time (varies): One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.

Playing It by Ear featuring iMusical plays through October 22, 2022, presented by Washington Improv Theater performing in the Milton Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($15 general admission, with a limited number of discount tickets available) online.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons in performance spaces. WIT encourages the use of medical-grade masks (like surgical masks). To learn more about Studio Theatre’s COVID safety policy, visit their health and safety page.

For the complete schedule of WIT’s 2022/23 season at Studio, visit witdc.org/watch/.

SEE ALSO:
Washington Improv Theater lucks into a one-year residency at Studio Theatre (news story August 24, 2022)
WIT and CulturalDC offer conflicting accounts on how WIT lost its lease at Source Theatre (reporting by Nicole Hertvik, March 18, 2022
WIT hit with lease cutoff, now seeking new home (news story, March 14, 2022)

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.

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