Black Box Theatre’s lineup rotates for all audiences

Jon Sauline and Sarah Ammar, photo: Emmalee Daniels

By Don Hurst

As alibis go, it wasn’t the worst I ever heard, but it stretched the limits of credibility. According to the defense attorney, the accused could not have committed the burglary because he was at the casino…playing poker…with his bulldogs. Maybe if the dogs were Border Collies I’d buy it, but bulldogs? No, everyone knows their game is blackjack.

No matter how strange they appear, the crimes are real, but the testimony isn’t at The Black Box Improv Theatre’s new show, Dayton Legal. Jon the Judge finds court cases from outside Montgomery County (to protect any potential local audience members) and tries them with improvisers serving as the witnesses and attorneys. Even though the statements are made up on the spot, they tend to be more coherent than the true proceedings due to the absence of meth.

The show departs from The Black Box’s standard format, which is similar to the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Asssscat, where a performer tells a story based on a one-word suggestion from the audience, which inspires other improvisers to create scenes. Unlike that format, Dayton Legal is an original creation built by Justin Howard, Jon the Judge, Sarah Ammar, and Kevin Turner.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Jon says. “We get into some weird cases with bizarre fact patterns. We do stay away from murder, though. It’s hard to make murder funny.”

You will see spontaneous craziness on The Black Box stage, but you’ll also find something that is lacking in society. Trump voters and Hillary supporters, gender fluid and adamantly cis, gun nuts and yoga instructors, millennials and 40-year-old conservatives all sharing the stage without the need for tear gas and riot shields. People who by all accounts should be screaming at each other cooperate to create comedy out of nothing.

“No one can do it alone,” Howard, owner of The Black Box says. “Comedy needs all different types, you need different perspectives. Improv is a team effort where we build on each other’s ideas. Everyone is in it together and they have nothing to rely on out there but each other.”

Howard believes the community of performers is the theatre’s greatest asset. The art form demands a high level of listening to other people. Performers have to look beyond the surface differences of their teammates and really pay attention to their ideas and thoughts.

“If you’re selfish or not listening, it breaks down the entire process,” Howard says. “You have to actually care more about the other person for this to work.”

The tightknit community of improvisers has kept the theatre running for five years as of July 2017. Last year, Howard joked he wasn’t sure if improv would still be around in Dayton by the next summer. Instead of shutting its doors, however, The Black Box has opened a brand new 1,200-square-foot training facility and expanded its show offerings.

“I had to add shows,” Howard says. “We have more talent than we had room for. We needed to find a way to showcase all these great performers.”

The new lineup has generated a tremendous amount of audience excitement. Dayton Legal and the Improvised Musical consistently sell out. During the Improvised Musical, the cast takes a one-word suggestion from the audience and creates an hour-long musical, on the spot. Trey Stone, the former musical director of Second City Chicago, accompanies the cast on piano.

Artificial Intelligence and Local News are other popular formats. In AI, an actor with a script shares the stage with one or two improvisers. The actor cannot deviate from the supplied lines while the improvisers have to figure out a way to justify what’s happening on stage. It’s entertaining to watch the tap dancing and the mental agility it takes to deal with an actor who consistently says exactly what they shouldn’t be saying. Local News is an improvised take on the current events that make Dayton an interesting place to live.

If all that sounds too modern for you, then there is Will.i.was, the improvised Shakespeare show. Definitely funnier than Hamlet. Shorter too, which doesn’t hurt at all.

While working on the new lineup three teams from The Black Box also prepare for the Del Close Marathon in New York City. The Upright Citizens’ Brigade sponsors the three-day festival that brings improv comedy groups from all over the world to perform on 10 stages around Manhattan.

“It’s fantastic to see how we stack up to other theatres,” Howard says. “It’s easy to get complacent because we’re the only improv theatre in town, but at Del Close we share the stage with people from Saturday Night Live. The festival keeps pushing us to be better and better so we can hold our own with groups from Chicago and New York.”

From Dayton to New York, The Black Box shows what’s possible when people listen, trust, and cooperate to create something. It’s beautiful to see happen. If you’re not into that harmony sort of thing and just want to laugh, well that works too.

The Black Box Improv Theatre is located at 518 East Third Street in downtown Dayton. The schedule of shows rotates and the hours change seasonally. For tickets or more information, please call 937.369.0747 or visit DaytonBlackBox.com.

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Don Hurst
Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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