Justin Howard (right corner), owner of Black Box Improv Theater, performs a skit with the cast during a recent show.
Photo: Photo by Tommy Johnson
Photo: Photo by Tommy Johnson

A night behind the scenes at Black Box Improv Theater

It’s Friday night at the Black Box Improv Theater on East Third Street in downtown Dayton. The first of two performances are about to begin within 20 minutes when I walk into the green room with Justin Howard, the theater’s owner.

As we stroll in, the group of performers for this evening’s shows is gathered in somewhat of a circle.  The vibe inside the small quarters is loose; some of the individuals are laughing and swapping stories to one another. Others begin doing a few stretches and some are having a beer to relax.  For some reason, I begin to feel butterflies in my stomach. Some nerves begin to creep up on me.  I’m only a spectator this evening, but it feels like I should be prepping to be a performer also.

Howard offers some well wishes for everyone to have a great show and two of the actors hit the stage to warm up the crowd with a monologue.  The rest of us stay inside the room and wait for the cue to take the stage. Minutes into the opening, we hear the audience’s laughter muffled through the walls. The cast and I try to stay somewhat silent. The cue to hit the stage seems like forever to me, even though it’s only been 10 or 15 minutes. As the monologue comes to a close, the two members come backstage while Howard and the others head out for their turn.

This Friday’s opening act features Howard interviewing a random audience member. The willing participant happens to be a local career center teacher. As Howard conducts the Q&A, the actors listen attentively while standing along the black wall. Some of the actors have their heads down. Others have their eyes locked on the subject.

Chock-full of warmth and compassion, the teacher’s stories are raw material for the actors’ memorable skits. We learn about the teacher’s dedication to provide his students with opportunities that go beyond the classroom. We hear about his children being mystified of a time before cell phones. This translates into improv gold: the actors play out a sketch of a father struggling to receive medical attention, while his children are incapable of operating a landline phone. 

After the first set is over, the actors head backstage to the green room for a breather. The cast starts dissecting how things went on stage. They bounce off one another, sharing thoughts they had when they were acting out the sketch. Some of the dialogue fell off at times, some actors noted. Overall, everyone felt that the first half was a success.

In a daring attempt to drum up inspiration for the second act, Howard has randomly picked another audience member to contribute. This time, the cast will go through the selected person’s social media account in front of everyone. Howard selects a female in the crowd and sits down with her. He explains what will happening during the set, and says he simply needs her to accept his friend request on Facebook. After the interaction, Howard returns backstage. He scrolls through her profile while everyone is engrossed with other conversations. He mentions out loud that he thinks they have some good stuff to go with on this next set.

Howard and company return to their audience and explain what will be happen in the next act. A large projection screen hovers on the wall, displaying the audience member’s Facebook page. The photo albums have interesting titles and the photos linked to them, sparking interest from the actors. We hear from the audience member that while joining a sorority, the pairing of her and her “big” (big sister) wasn’t exactly the best match. In addition to this discovery, the skit included a disgusted sorority sister with no interest in her big and vice versa. Meanwhile, two frat brothers continue to pass the sisters, loving that they were paired together.

On this Friday night, laughter from the crowd throughout the evening caused the foundation to tremble slightly. Another round of spectators will leave satisfied in part because of the work put in by the actors. Each person needs to work together in a seamless flow in order for the scene to work. That means the improviser has to define some element of the reality of the scene. Giving another character’s name or identifying a relationship or location is just some of what’s needed to make a sketch perfect. The night’s performances showcased how magical the craft can truly be. It’s something that Howard has been working towards for most of his life.

Graduating from Tippecanoe High School in Tipp City, he was attending Wittenburg University when improv called. With the intention of building a nice career as a salesman, he decided to take an improv class as an elective – and fell in love. He loved it so much in fact that he moved to Chicago after college to further his studies in improv. The Windy City also provided him with opportunities to do some teaching. But even though the big city treated him well, his ultimate goal was to open an improv theater in Dayton. He saw how significant the arts are here and wanted to add more excitement to the area. After moving back to town, he opened The Black Box Improv Theater in July 2012. 

The theater has grown in a very short time. Since opening, Howard said that it has gone from being “just parents” in the audience to roughly 40 to 100 people a night. Each show, onlookers gather to see Howard and the actors perform on stage with excitement and joy.

And I want to be one of those performers.

I have signed up to begin improv classes at The Black Box Improv Theater in hopes of becoming a regular performer on the weekend shows.  By going through six weeks of lessons for three hours a week, I’ll learn the basics of improv.  I’ll learn how to work with others on stage in improvised scenes, making sure that I’m allowing the others to perform at their highest potential. I’ll learn how to tell a great story. With each conclusion of the three levels, we will perform a show in front of an actual audience. My first show will take place on April 25.  

But after watching the Friday night show, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me. It’s been a while since I last took the stage – high school, to be exact. The world of improv is vastly different from normal theater. I won’t be given any scripted lines to remember. I’m nervous, but also excited. I’ll be taking the stage with no net. For many, that’s a crippling thought. But I am up for the challenge and ready to boldly step into the world of improv.

It’s time to take my place on stage. Let’s hope this doesn’t go too bad.

Want to go?
Improv Sketch Shows
WHERE: Black Box Improv Theater, 518 E. Third St., Dayton
WHEN:  7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
COST:  $5/Thursday, $12/Friday, $15/Saturday
INFO:  http://www.daytonblackbox.com/