Shenandoah University is home to the nation’s top college comedy improv team. Shenandoah’s improv group, The Loaf, beat out 127 other teams to win the College Improv Tournament on Saturday, April 6, at the CSz Theater Chicago in Chicago.
The Loaf includes acting majors Marissa Chaffee ’19, Meredith McClure ’20, Emma Norville ’19, Stanley Payne ’19 and Patrick Prunty ’21, and musical theatre majors Brandon Cameron ’22, Josh Cody ’20, Brenna Conroy ’20, Erik Daughterman ’22, Dorian Davis ’20, Reilly Lincavicks ’20, Kyle Mangold ’19 and Sami Weathersby ’20.
The Right Mix
“We’re a family, and we love and support each other,” said Norville, the troupe’s president. “When we’re improvising, we’re all on the same page in a sort of hive-mind style. We have a wide variety of talents and energies that work together to benefit the group. Each person has their own unique style and ability to add into the mix. We have so much fun together, and I think that when we have fun, the audience has fun too. We’re also an entirely self-taught team. We didn’t realize how unique that was until we got to the finals and heard the other teams talk about how they have coaches and practice eight hours a week. Our busy conservatory schedules won’t allow us to practice that much, but we’re driven by our passion and desire to be better improvisers, and we put in the work when we’re together.”
The team’s victory at a regional competition in Baltimore led to its appearance at the national tournament, which Norville and other team members said felt less like a competition and more like a celebration of improv.
“We had a solid set for our final match, and we all left the stage feeling proud of what we did,” Norville said. “We opened our set with an improvised song and then had the verses of the song inform our scenes. Throughout the scenes, we sprinkled in two more songs with guitar and piano accompaniment. We ended our set by tying all our scenes together with a final reprise of our opening song. The set was tight and cohesive and the songs were catchy and fun. When we heard our name announced as the first-place champions, we were absolutely elated and proud of what we accomplished.”
“I think I’m still in shock,” Payne said of his reaction to the victory.
“I think I pulled a muscle,” Mangold added.
“It was incredible,” Payne said.
And they did spend about an hour walking around Chicago afterward, saying to themselves, “We are the number-one college improv team in America,” Payne said.
A Recipe for Growth
The musical improv form used at the competition is one that The Loaf started doing about two years ago, and soon realized it had a knack for it, she said. “So when we competed this year, we made sure to play to our strengths and show off what we can do.”
While the troupe is all about presenting comedy, it’s about far more than performance for its members. Norville said that when she was in high school, she loved improv, but was too scared to perform. Instead, she managed the improv team. She decided to audition for The Loaf after a troupe member said to her at a party, “‘Hey, you’re funny. You should audition.’”
Group member Payne added that when he arrived at Shenandoah, he was a scared, timid artist. But, being part of The Loaf gave him the confidence he needed to throw himself into his art. Payne said improv has improved his ability to listen, both on stage and in his off-stage life. Such a development can be seen as a logical outgrowth of the improv process, since, as Mangold said, improv asks participants to pay attention to and react to their scene partner while having fun.
Payne, who did some improv in high school and took an improv class in his first semester at Shenandoah, first encountered The Loaf in high school when it performed during a festival he attended at Shenandoah. “It just looked like they were having so much fun,” he said.
He, like several other members of The Loaf, were fans of the improv comedy television show, “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” growing up. That includes Cody, who saw The Loaf rehearsing and doing a “weird dance” outside during his freshman year. He said he remembers thinking, “This looks like ‘Whose Line.’” Once the troupe let him hop into the practice, he thought, “I really like this.”
Troupe members were attracted by the fun of the form, which persisted throughout their tenure. The group is a close one that shows support for its members. Sometimes, they laugh so much that they cry, Mangold said. And, Payne said whenever he’s had a terrible day, he knows he’ll smile when he goes to rehearsal.
“It’s created a lot of good memories with good friends,” Cody said.
The Future Starter
It has also honed skills that members will carry with them into their post-graduation careers. Norville plans to move to Chicago to pursue comedy writing and performance. Mangold is moving to New York City and hopes to take classes with the famed improv group, Upright Citizens Brigade. Payne, who plays guitar as part of The Loaf’s musical improv, is moving to Nashville after graduation to pursue songwriting and acting.
In all, The Loaf has four members graduating this year who will need to be replaced this fall with new faces. The group usually includes 10 to 13 members, and when it’s at 13, the group forms a baker’s dozen.
Norville said she expects the future Loaf to “keep on learning and growing together as improvisers and continue to be solid competitors in future competitions. Outside of the competition, we put on shows about once a month, hold open rehearsals for anyone who’s interested to come play with us, and we’ve started hosting stand-up nights to provide a safe/supportive space to allow people to try out that medium of comedy. The open rehearsals and stand-up nights are things that I implemented during my presidency as part of my own personal goal to do more comedy outreach. I think that there aren’t a ton of opportunities to try out comedy at Shenandoah, and I wanted to make sure people outside of the Loaf could get the chance to learn and grow as comedians as well. It is my hope that The Loaf will continue to be the facilitators of these comedy opportunities for the Shenandoah community.”