by Anne Walsh
Point of No Return Improv, a Cuyahoga Falls-based improv troupe, celebrated its 18th anniversary in February.
“The point of no return is the point in a river at which you cannot turn back,” says Ruben Ryan, co-artistic director and longtime member, “and getting on stage and doing improv is kind of like that…That moment before you step on stage, you haven’t done anything yet, but the second you step on stage, well, there is no turning back now; you’re involved in something.”
Ruben joined the group 18 years ago after helping run the box office for one of its shows. Ruben says, “I saw the show, and I just thought it was hilarious, and it looked like so much fun. I felt like I had to get involved, and I did.”
Co-artistic director Tracy Cubbal joined Point of No Return around 10 years ago, after one of her friends got involved.
“Improvisation builds a lot of skills that are actually really useful to have in life,” says Tracy. Some of those skills are dealing with the unexpected, cooperating with other people, listening, offering ideas while also being open to other’s ideas.
Point of No Return typically has shows every first and third Saturday of the month at the Quirk Cultural Center, which is operated by the City of Cuyahoga Falls. With tickets being only $5 at the door, “it’s the cheapest night of entertainment that I know about,” says Tracy. “Bring your kids.”
Tracy says the troupe considers itself family-based entertainment and rates their shows PG-13.
PNR also participates in improv conferences and has been invited to local comedy shows and festivals. “We will do private bookings as well, if there’s parties or events that people would like to bring us to,” Ruben says.
Tracy says the troupe holds auditions roughly every two years because “usually by a year or two, people have dropped out, gone inactive, taken a break, or we just kind of want to bring in new blood to the troupe.” There are usually around 12 to 14 members in the troupe. As co-artistic directors, Tracy explains that “[Tracy and Ruben] are in charge of planning the shows and training and developing of all of the talent.”
According to Tracy, auditions have two main parts. The first part is getting all the auditionees together to explain the troupe and their philosophy. They also do warm up exercises to get comfortable and see “how people are at throwing themselves into playing, cooperating, being a team with others.” The second part of the audition involves talking to auditionees one at a time for brief interviews and individual exercises “that are usually character-based things just to see how they handle what we throw at them.”
PNR typically takes on around five new members from those auditions. As many as two dozen and as few as six people have tried out at once.
Improv is an interactive experience. Tracy says the audience is as involved as they want to be. “We just say, ‘somebody yell out what’s something in the trunk of your car right now.’ Then we like to do a couple of structures that involve actually bringing audience members on stage and participating.”
There is no need to fear being brought on stage. “Our job is to make them look good,” Tracy says. “We are not trying to make fun of anybody or make anyone uncomfortable. That’s the philosophy of improv: you make the other person look good.”
Ruben believes improv is “valuable from an entertainment perspective and even a therapeutic perspective.” The audience needs “to abandon expectations and accept things as they are presented to them.”
One of Tracy’s favorite moments with Point of No Return was when she and a friend were playing ants. “On the other side of the stage there were two kids with magnifying glasses that were trying to burn us, so it was like a split screen. That was just super fun. It’s one of those things you can do in improv that it takes the audience a minute to go ‘Wait, what are they doing?’, but then they go, ‘Oh! That’s kinda cool’—to be able to see both at the same time.”
Tracy also shares a moment during a game called “Party Quirks” where there is a “party host” and a bunch of interesting “guests.” The host must guess the guests’ identities. “My quirk was that I was Jesus. We get from the audience what kind of a party it is, and they happen to call it, ‘It’s a coming out party!’ So the party host comes in, and I knock on the door, and he opens it, and I said ‘don’t be so surprised to see me! I’m totally fine with it.’ And I got a huge laugh from the audience. We try to stay away from political stuff, but I couldn’t resist.”
Ruben’s most memorable improv moment was the first time he ever really broke character on stage. “One of our members, Richard—who is still with the group—had to come out and do a character based on Hunter S. Thompson, but he had no idea who Hunter S. Thompson was, so people off stage just quickly told him a handful of things about Hunter S. Thompson. And then even though he really had no preconceived notion and just based it off, like, three small things that people said to him off stage, he came on stage and just he just killed it in the absurdity of what he was doing. Both me and the other actor I was on stage with—we could not keep it together; we could not keep a straight face.”
Improv, Ruben says, can be a “profoundly positive influence,” and it has helped him become a better person. And maybe, he thinks, improv can help you, too: It “can help you work out some of those kinks that you have when it comes to interacting with other human beings.”
To learn more about Point of No Return and their upcoming shows, visit www.pnrimprov.org or follow them on Facebook.
Anne Walsh is a senior at Kent State University, where she studies English.
Photo used with permission from Tracy Cubbal.