Improv students talk comedy, the importance of listening, and their spirit animals
In the basement of Collins Hall lies one of the hidden gems of Fordham University… The Blackbox Theater.
Blackbox is home to FET, or the Fordham Experimental Theater, a club that totals about 50 students. Each semester, Blackbox hosts dozens of FET shows, all of which are met with laughs, cheers, and sometimes tears. There are four umbrella groups under FET: Stand-up, Sketch, Improv, and the newest addition, Spoken Word. These four groups are entirely student-run. All of FET’s shows are completely student-written or student-directed, and all of its members are Fordham University undergrads.
Two of these talented undergrads are Maddy Hoepf and Abby Gibson, sophomore roommates and improvisational geniuses.
When did you join FET?
Abby: I wasn’t a part of FET until this year, my sophomore year. Last year I knew that I really liked the group because I went to the shows and the shows were a ton of fun—you just get to sit in the Blackbox and laugh a lot.
Maddy: Last year I joined sketch first semester, and then improv second semester, so I’m doing both improv and sketch.
What’s the camaraderie like in FET? Are you all similar types of people?
Abby: People get along really well. It’s a cool group to hang out with.
Maddy: I like FET because of its collaborative nature. The two groups that I do (sketch and improv) are both very group-based and group oriented.
What’s your favorite sketch that you’ve ever written?
Maddy: My favorite one that I wrote was the nervous scarf girl.
Abby: She’s very good at the nervous character.
Maddy: I really liked a sketch last year that Johnny Kelly wrote that was about a golf bag and we did a voice-over of each of the golf clubs not wanting to golf.
How do you practice improv?
Maddy: We do a lot of group building activities, like things that would help a group learn how to work together. It’s kind of like what we do in our shows, we do things that help you learn how to create an environment on stage. We do a lot of different games that help you find what’s funny in a scene, that kind of helps you steer the scene in the direction that it should go in. Like learning about the progression of scenes.
Abby: And like learning what works and what doesn’t work and trying to channel that.
What’s the hardest part of improv?
Abby: Just shaking off the nerves and going for it, because you kind of just have to go for it, otherwise you’ll never do anything funny and it’s not really worth it.
Maddy: I’d say for me it’s like relaxing before you go on stage because if you’re not relaxed then you can’t really do anything else, like you can’t really listen to anyone else and you can’t really keep track of what’s going on and then that makes it hard not only for you but for everyone else, because if you’re not listening and you’re not there then you don’t know how to perform with other people.
Abby: Because it’s the whole idea of accepting other people’s gifts, but if you’re not listening and you’re not there then you don’t even know what they gave you and you can totally ruin something that could have been beautiful.
What’s the best part of improv?
Abby: The whole group is really cool. The whole team aspect. It’s just fun.
Maddy: Yeah I just really like it. The group, the collaboration.
Why do you prefer improv over stand-up?
Abby: I’ve never really done stand-up. I guess what really drew me to improv was the whole group aspect because as much as stand-up is like a club and they do have meetings, it’s not as much as working with other people.
Maddy: People who are gifted in stand-up have really unique ways at looking at the world and kind of interpreting things and they are very perceptive in ways that are different than ordinary people. So I really admire people who do stand-up, but it just doesn’t seem like there’s as much support. You can’t like fall back into a group if you aren’t doing very well or if you’re struggling, you’re kind of just alone up there and it’s scary.
Abby: We kind of rely on each other. Like if you’re in a scene in improv and something’s not going super well or you’re running low on ideas, somebody else can always pick it up or come in and help you out. But like Maddy said, in stand-up you’re on your own and nobody really has your back.
Maddy, since you’re in both programs, do you prefer sketch or improv?
Maddy: Yeah I don’t know, I like them both a lot for different reasons. I really like sketch because I enjoy creative writing, which is something that I had more experience with last year when I first started. Like I found out that I really enjoy it and I want to do it more. And also sometimes it feels like there’s less pressure because you just have it memorized. But it’s also really fun because you work with everyone else in the group and you can kind of create something together with everyone. But then improv is different because it’s very spontaneous and very present. It’s a unique thing to be able to do something that’s only going to happen once with people, which is pretty cool.
Are there any comedians that you look up to or study?
Abby: Tina Fey. Tina Fey is my spirit animal.
Maddy: I really like everyone on this TV show called “Strangers With Candy.” It’s really weird but it’s so good. It has Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello and Greg Hollimon.
Did you guys know you wanted to get into comedy coming into Fordham?
Abby: I never did it in high school or anything. It just sounded super fun, and I auditioned last year and the auditions were immensely fun, so I auditioned again this year and I ended up making it. It’s just super fun.
Maddy: I really wanted to do improv when I got here, but I didn’t get in first semester. And then I tried out for sketch and I made it. So first semester I did sketch and I really liked it, and then I auditioned again for improv and I made it. So yeah I’m really glad I get to do both, it’s really fun.
Why do you think not many people have heard about FET?
Maddie: I don’t know. I feel like it’s part of like an art scene at Fordham. It’s not as advertised I guess. We don’t have a huge budget, and we don’t have a huge space, we’re all in one little Blackbox.
Abby: If you want to want to find out about it, it’s an easy thing to find out about. But if you’re not into the art scene or you don’t really have any friends that do it, it might be overlooked. It’s not like it’s not there, but it’s small enough that if you’re not looking for it you probably wouldn’t see it.
Maddie: And surprisingly enough, not a lot of people know what improv is, because it’s really not that big. They all think of “Whose Line Is It Anyway” or like stand-up comedy.
Maddy also dabbles with the ukulele. Here she is promoting last year’s FET show “Take Your Base.”
This interview was edited and a few questions were rearranged