Looking for improv in Akron? Just Go With It.

by Matthew Hogan

Clever retorts, belly-laughing exchanges and ingenious characterization are just a taste of what to expect from the incredible world of improv. For those not familiar, improv is a form of live theater where the story, characters and scenes are all created and performed on the spot. Made famous by the critically acclaimed television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” improv is a remarkable form of artistic expression that relies on trust, quick-thinking and creativity. 

Founded by a talented group with varying theatrical backgrounds, Just Go With It Improv (JGWI) brings a one-of-a-kind entertainment experience to Kenmore. Bonded by a shared love of the craft, current castmates Brian Fox, Marissa Leonino Lange, Rueben Ryan, Ryan Dyke and John Zido bring a tour de force of comedy and drama to the charming Rialto Theatre stage.

JGWI was founded in 2015 by Marissa and her colleagues Matt Dolan and Dean Coutris. The current lineup, which features performers who cut their teeth in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., comes from a variety of backgrounds.

“I was originally approached by Matt and Dean, who were really interested in getting a longform improv group together,” said Marissa. “I was so excited! When I decided to move to Akron from D.C. I thought it was ‘goodbye, longform,’ but I guess not.”

Improv, like many art forms, is compiled from different disciplines, each with its own structure and purpose. JGWI specializes in and performs longform improv. “I will be literal about it: Longform improv is longer,” Reuben jokes. “In all seriousness, your typical shortform show is made up of segments. It is something you would see on ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ where you have games and short bits. Longform improv is going to run you 15-30 minutes per scene.”

“[With] longform, you can be really pure to improv. You can let the scene breathe and really connect one on one with your partner,” Brian adds.

“It requires a level of trust that you don’t get with shortform,” Ryan says.  “You go out there and it’s all out there on the table, and I think people really like to see that.”

Unlike classic theater, where actors rehearse and have a script, improv requires actors to develop a story on the spot, which takes a lot of practice. “It’s like practicing for a baseball game. You aren’t rehearsing a scene where you read line a, b, c. It’s more like practice because you need to just keep trying over and over again until it clicks,” Ryan says.

After watching the group perform at the Rialto on Feb. 20, it’s clear to see that JGWI’s hard work and dedication to the craft is vindicated.

The doors opened at 7 p.m. to allow guests to take in the atmosphere and mingle with fellow attendees and the JGWI actors. The Rialto is charming and intimate in all the right ways, featuring nearly a dozen tables and chairs, a full stage and a fully stocked bar. It was cozy and perfect for a night of comedy.

Owing to the nature of improv, each JGWI show is different. The show I attended featured a local musician, Samantha Archual, and a visiting improv troupe from Cleveland, Hopscotch Improv.

Samantha kicked off the evening by playing songs from her first EP. Upbeat melodies partnered with deep, emotional lyrics helped set the mood for what was going to be a fantastic show. Following her performance, JGWI brought audience members to the stage to participate in the cast’s improv exercises. 

Several guests joined in and began acting through some simple scenes. Plenty of laughs ensued throughout, but one particular exercise stood out: It featured two people acting out a scene while the others on stage swapped in and out at any time to add on to the story while maintaining the same pose as the previous two actors. A hysterical scenario involving a mind-controlled puppet changed in an instant to an artist painting a muse. It was impossible to hold back the roar of laughter produced by the creativity of everyone on stage.

Following the group activity, Hopscotch Improv took to the stage. Then Samantha took the stage one more time to play covers of classic songs from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. 

After she finished her set, the main event finally began. Brian, Marissa, Ryan and Rueben took to the stage and transported the audience back to a 1940s-era radio drama. Their performance featured three different storylines: a pair of fishers from Michigan who catch the final fish in Lake Michigan and realize that they’ve reached their peak, a wealthy mother and son who hilariously fail to off their annoying grandparents, and finally a young man who brings someone he says is his fiancé home to meet his parents. Each storyline featured fantastic dialogue.

The final portion of their act followed the story of two inmates that attempt to start a gang and a prison guard who had been kicked out of the British Royal Guard. The phenomenal storytelling abilities and quick-thinking wit of each cast member led to scenes that had the audience nearly laugh-crying.

Whether you’ve never seen an improv show or you’re a longtime fan, consider a visit to the Rialto for a night filled to the brim with entertainment, laughter and thrills. Newbies and veterans alike can appreciate the welcoming atmosphere and passionate acting that help us learn, together, how to just go with it.

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Matthew Hogan is a PR professional, community activist and local theatre actor.

Photo: Matthew Hogan