Pamela Stoneham is sitting in a church pew and waiting for the perfect opportunity to help a couple arguing over red state/blue state politics. It’s not what it sounds like. This isn’t marriage counseling. Stoneham, a veteran improv comedian and teacher, is overseeing her weekly improv class. She is waiting for a moment.
“Move faster! Get us to the moment, then you’re done,” Stoneham says a few minutes into the exercise, using a clicker on certain ad-libbed word cues to signal the quarreling couple—played by longtime students Martha Buser and Peter Lambros—and jerk them back and forth through time. In a matter of five minutes, she will move Lambros and Buser from the night of last November’s elections to (click!) the girlfriend’s first taste of scotch in high school to (click!) the boyfriend’s Democrat-in-crisis therapy session to (click!) a Hillary Clinton presidential victory in 2008. By the end of the game the couple has spanned 30 years, whipping from quick scene to quick scene, searching for the right tension and the proper setups to make the story funny. They are all searching for a moment.
This game, called Time Jump, is just one of many that Stoneham’s weekly class employs to hone their comedic improvisation and, ultimately, prepare for performances like the group’s Out of the Loop show at the Crystal Theatre next week. When Stoneham and her students talk about performing “without a net,” about the possibilities and pitfalls of working without a script, they all touch on the importance of finding the right moment.
“It’s best when everyone just relaxes both on stage and in the audience,” says Spider McKnight, who has been taking classes with Stoneham and performing with Out of the Loop for more than a year. “It’s like that moment at a party when you all stop making small talk and start actually having fun.”
Shawn Lake has been taking classes with Stoneham for five years. She says, “Sometimes it just works great. Sometimes we’re all present and listening and reacting. We’re in the moment. It’s magic.”
Stoneham adds, “For me, I’m always looking for the moment when I surprise myself. When I find myself truly surprised, or when I surprise myself with something that works—that’s what I look for in a show.”
Laura Hibbs is a musician and the newest addition to Out of the Loop. She doesn’t physically stand on center stage with the group, but her impromptu melodies on keyboard and accordion are just as agile and vital as the one-liners coming from her peers in the limelight. Hibbs is fairly quiet among the group but speaks bluntly when everyone is talking about moments and improv. “We’re just trying to make them laugh, right?”
Stoneham has been teaching improv for 25 years. When she’s not running her weekly class in Missoula, she teaches theater and comedy at camps from Montana to California. She has worked with children and adults living with HIV/AIDS and frequently runs classes at Montana’s Camp Make-a-Dream.
“I have friends that work with music to help with the healing process, and for some people, they can’t see where humor works into healing,” Stoneham says. “It’s like they think it’s too hard. But nothing breaks down barriers better than laughing.”
When Stoneham moved to Missoula five years ago, there was no question about starting her own improv class. It started with just a few people, including Lake and Lambros, and has steadily continued over the years. As the class became more comfortable, Stoneham started to raise the stakes. She gradually graduated her students from their practice space in the Quaker Meeting Hall to small shows at local coffee shops, then to slightly bigger shows at the Roxy, and finally to events like First Night Missoula and, now, back-to-back gigs at the Crystal. The bigger crowds are creating more moments.
“I have times where I sit back and think, ‘They’re doing it,’” Stoneham says. “It’s no longer that I’m their teacher. It’s that we’re all doing improv.”
For the group, the transition wasn’t so easy. Aside from Stoneham, none of the members of Out of Loop consider themselves seasoned performers. They all have regular jobs. They all get nervous before shows. None are pursuing comedic careers.
“When we first started, something didn’t feel right,” Lambros says. “I think we felt like something wasn’t legitimate.” Lake adds, “I remember thinking, ‘They’re really coming to see us?’”
Despite the group’s reservations, the shows have been a success. Stoneham thinks the bigger venues are another part of the process for her students to become better at the art of improv. Testing the group and putting them in more challenging situations was intentional.
“The whole idea is that the more you put out there, the more you risk, the better it is,” Lambros says. “By putting us on stage it’s just another level of the risk.”
And after all, according to Stoneham, the risk is minimal.
“I always tell them if they go down in flames, enjoy it,” she says. “I mean, we just made it all up. How responsible are we? Just move on to the next moment.”
Out of the Loop performs Friday, April 1, and Saturday, April 2, at the Crystal Theatre. The show begins at 8 PM and tickets are $7.