, Salem, MA

January 3, 2013

The art of improv

Local group featuring Erik Rodenhiser performs at Marblehead Little Theatre

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — MARBLEHEAD — Accidentally on Purpose, the improv group based at Marblehead Little Theatre, was originally designed to fill the theater when it “goes dark” between shows.

“When it’s dark, it’s a great time to do comedy or music,” said Bruce Whear, president of the theater and producer of Accidentally.

But the group, which was formed last year and is appearing again this Saturday night, has found enough success to make it a mainstay production.

“Now it’s really our base performance, every other month,” said Whear, who is also a member of the company. “We’ve been growing the audience, and we’ve had multiple sellouts.”

The group has typically done two performances each night, at 7 and 9, but the nature of those shows has changed over time.

“Originally, there was a family show at 7 and an adult show at 9,” Whear said. “But my troupe found it a little difficult not to do adult material.”

Whear doesn’t try to make his actors do strictly wholesome routines, but he has committed them to two shows that will benefit the community.

“We’ve got a fundraiser for Lifebridge and for the Boys & Girls Club of Salem in the first quarter of 2013,” he said.

One thing that hasn’t changed over time is the lineup of Accidentally on Purpose, which features seven male and two female performers.

It takes rehearsal to make improvisation work, just as much as scripted performances, and the troupe’s continuity has given them good chemistry.

“It’s like any other team,” Whear said. “You learn about other people, see the strengths of other comedians. Some guys and gals have strengths for storytelling, and the director puts them in games that complement their skill sets.”

The members come from all walks of life — there’s a pediatrician, a writer and a dental hygienist among them — and different degrees of dramatic experience. Whear, for instance, who works as an electrical contractor, has been acting since he attended Marblehead High School and has appeared with Marblehead Little Theatre since 1972.

Another member, Erik Rodenhiser, is owner and operator of The Griffen Theatre in Salem and makes his living as an actor on the stage, in commercials, and in “corporate gigs and holiday parties.”

Other members are relative newcomers to the stage, but they all share a sense of daring that is indispensable in doing improvisation.

“For most actors, it’s the scariest of all performing,” Whear said. “It’s extremely unique, and not all actors can do it.”

Rodenhiser said he likes to takes risks onstage, which can include physical comedy, but also sometimes adopting an accent or a persona.

“I try to do different characters, which sometimes an improv troupe frowns upon,” he said. “They want you to be you in different situations.”

Rodenhiser compared improvisation to baseball, in which rehearsal serves the same purpose as practice drills.

“You have to practice in order to do it right, to know how to throw, who’s good at this, who’s good at that,” he said.

Where some performers are cerebral and can be counted on to add witty observations, others are oafish and use physical humor.

“If you have three or four different characters, you pull that out, even though you have no idea where the scene is going to go,” he said.

The scenes develop as games in which the actors all understand the premise, but only some know all the particulars of a scene, which are contributed by the audience.

In “pawn shop,” for instance, one of three actors must leave the room, then return carrying an item to be pawned.

He doesn’t know what he’s pawning, while the two actors who remained onstage and were told by the audience what the man is bringing in must inform him through their reactions.

“I have to go through a series of interactions to figure it out,” he said. “When I get it right, the audience applauds.”

IF YOU GO What: Accidentally on Purpose improvisation group When: Saturday, Jan. 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Where: Marblehead Little Theatre's Firehouse, 12 School St., Marblehead Tickets: $15, available online or at The Spirit of '76 Bookstore, 107 Pleasant St., Marblehead More information: