Teen improv troupe to take the stage in Dover

First State Improv founder and instructor Melissa Brenner, left, puts members of the teen improv group Spontaneous Combustion through their paces. They are, from left, Josiah Rich, Evan Seelig, Maya Seelig, Brodie Sapp, Tierney Bowen, Rece Pope and Gabriel Fennemore. (Delaware State News/Craig Horleman)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of teenagers became pocket lint, got questioned by the police and wrapped themselves in positions that only someone so young could get into — all for a few laughs.

Well, more than a few laughs actually.

Spontaneous Combustion, a group of eight teens from throughout Kent County, are an auditioned group of actors busy perfecting the art of improv comedy, like that featured on the hit show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

An offshoot of First State Improv, Spontaneous Combustion will stage its first public performance at Dover’s Kent County Theatre Guild on Roosevelt Avenue in Dover Dec. 22 at 3 p.m.

“This will be a free opportunity to showcase the talent of the teen improv group and there will be plenty of opportunities for people to participate in some improv games as well,” said Melissa Brenner, founder of First State Improv, the only troupe of its kind in Kent County. She teaches adults and kids alike, how to be spontaneously funny.

From left, Tierney Bowen, Aurora Fennemore, Brodie Sapp and Rece Pope take part in an improv exercise at the Rockshop Performing Arts Center in Camden.

“Improv is truly an art form,” said Ms. Brenner. “And it’s starting to get more recognition as an art form and not just an exercise for actors.”

An actor in Baltimore, who joined the Screen Actors Guild and was featured in TV shows, movies and theatrical productions across the bridge, Ms. Brenner moved to Dover with her husband in 2000.

“I did a show with the Kent County Theatre Guild when we first moved here. But then I started having babies. And it’s hard to be at rehearsal with three small kids. My husband works at the hospital and it was hard to find child care. So we had an agreement that I would do one show a year,” she said.

“But then I did ‘Noises Off’ in Milford with the Second Street Players and I had the most fun and met so many great people. And I said, ‘You know what? I need to start an improv group so we can stay in contact and we can keep playing together. So it was essentially started as me getting my friends together to play.”

The improv fun started once a month with adults at the Kent County Theatre Guild in Dover and then kids started to come. Then she started some summer camps in Dover, which evolved into a series for homeschooled students called The Goof Troup and then an audition series.

Having a background in early childhood education, she started a series for very young children, called the Pee Wee Improv.

“I have one girl who is 5 and is a genius at it. They are so fun and so silly at that age,” Ms. Brenner said. “It’s nice to have them young and watch them grow.”

So what began as a fun time with friends has developed into a full-fledged business. She held three shows for adults this year at the Rockshop Performing Arts Theater in Camden.

She has even taught improv in three Milford elementary schools and will be doing more starting in January.

She did a series of monthly one-hour classes for third-graders last school year and will be adding fourth-graders to her schedule this year.

“Improv can help with test anxiety and where they can learn relaxation techniques and have a lot of fun,” she said.

“Lots of kids can benefit, including those in (English as Second Language) courses and those with behavioral problems. It was amazing. After one improv session, I won them over.”

Teachers, she said, have seen an improvement in their students as well.

“I’ll have a teacher say ‘This student never talked and then you come in and they have really opened up. It’s amazing,’” she said.

Most of the teens in Spontaneous Combustion had to audition in order to take the free classes but they say it’s been both fun and beneficial. All have acted in the past with central Delaware organizations such the Children’s Theater or Second Street Players in Milford.

“Practicing improv really improves your performances,” said Tierney Bowen, 17, of Dover.

Members of the teen improv troupe Spontaneous Combustion are, back row, from left, Evan Seelig, Tierney Bowen, Rece Pope, Gabriel Fennemore and Josiah Rich. Front row, from left, Maya Seelig. Brodie Sapp and Aurora Fennemore (Submitted photo)

“When something goes wrong or when you want to add something to your character, improv is really handy for that.”

Ms. Brenner said she has noticed the improv lessons helping.

“I can’t tell you how many Children’s Theater shows I’ve been to where they will say afterward ‘Did you see we screwed up?’ And I’ll say ‘No because you covered it beautifully.’ Improv is a great skill for that.”

Brodie Sapp of Harrington, who is a member of the cast of Second Street Players’ current production of “Elf,” along with Ms. Brenner, says improv training helps in more places than just the stage.

“If you’re in class doing a presentation and something goes wrong and you’re like ‘Oh boy.’ it helps you to make decisions on what to say,” he said.

“You have to make the audience laugh or make them feel a certain emotion. You have to go through the emotions to figure out what to say.”

He then added with tongue firmly in cheek, “I can’t tell you how many punishments I’ve gotten out of because I know how to lie now.”

The team of young actors say they push each other to be better every week.

“These people are so good at coming up with odd scenarios that are sometimes hard to come up with a line for,” said Josiah Rich, 16, of Dover.

“But in the long run, that’s good. They can come up with something like crash landing on (former NFL star) Peyton Manning’s forehead and it’s harder to think of something to say.”

A recent two-and-a-half hour session had the group shouting out words and then having the next person think of a word that starts with the previous word’s last letter.

More theatrical games had them pretending to be items in the bottom of a purse or being questioned by police for a crime that had the culprit be the only person in the room not knowing what they were in trouble for.

And if they don’t have a witty comeback to a line, Ms. Brenner said that’s OK. She calls it “failing spectacularly.”

Members of Spontaneous Combustion, a teen improv troupe consisting of youths from throughout Kent County, act out a scene from the bottom of a purse during a recent class. They are, front row, from left, Gabriel lFennemore, Rece Pope and Josiah Rich. Back row, from left, Tierney Bowen, Maya Seelig, Brodie Sapp and Evan Seelig.

“We always say ‘Don’t be afraid to say something. If you say something and we all groan, that’s OK. We don’t want you to leave here saying ‘Oh I wish I said something.’ It’s better to say something and fail spectacularly then say nothing at all,” she said.

“There are lots of games where we set them up to purposely fail. The audience loves it because they love to see failures.”

She said her improv classes, which are free, are not about hogging the spotlight.

“I’ve had adults and kids come in here and they want to do their own thing and not listen to anyone. It’s all about giving offers and then accepting one another’s offer and moving forward.

“But some just want to be standup comedians and you have to say ‘You’re very funny but this might not be the place for you.”

For others, though, like Gabriel Fennemore, improv is just a way to blow off steam.

“You get to come in here and just laugh with your friends. That’s what I like most about it,” he said.

For more information about First State Improv, call Ms. Brenner at 302-359-8088 or email Melissabrenner9@gmail.com.

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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