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Victoria students ham it up at improv

Vic High students make name for themselves at Berlin festival
Vic High Improv Club 1
Vic High drama teacher Alan Penty and his Improv Club students

Acting the fool usually leads to trouble, but for 12 Victoria High school students, their class clowning landed them on a plane to Germany.

Vic High’s Improv Club recently returned from the Die Gorillas festival in Berlin, a world-renowned improvisation event that attracts Europe’s best spontaneous acts.

“It was a dream come true,” said drama teacher Alan Penty, who organized the March 21 to 31 trip for the extracurricular group. “I’d heard of Die Gorillas for years, I just never assumed we’d be invited.”

Penty’s colleague, Jonathan Argue, reached out to festival organizers, who had previously never considered inviting high school students to the event. But once approved, students put in hours of fundraising efforts – from tree chipping to metal drives to countless live shows – to offset travel costs.

“We raised about $10,000 over the past year and a half,” Penty said.

Once in Berlin, the students were exposed to French, German, Russian and African improv troupes, where they quickly discovered European improv has a much greater focus on physical humour and creating deeper characters.

“With improv, we’re always doing acting without any scripts or any plan before we go onstage,” said Emily Fraser, a Grade 10 Vic High student who travelled to Berlin.

“We get suggestions from the audience or coach, and do a scene or story with that idea in mind. But European style of improv is completely different. I learned so much.”

Students received four days of workshops from Swiss and Slovenian performers before they tested their international appeal at a local theatre for a German high school class.

And while the experience was amazing for all involved, there were inevitable misfires, Penty said.

“It was like a large question mark that appeared over the audience when a line didn’t work,” he said. “We were advised to be very physical with the performance.”

While Vic High’s band travels frequently to a festival in Denmark, the improv trip hopefully marks the first of many for drama students, Penty said.

“We’ve been invited back, they loved us,” he said. “The director of the festival said he wasn’t just pleased with the students being there, but he was able to reach out to local high schools through us.”

Improv club students are now incorporating their Berlin lessons into classes at home, but everyone needs a break before fundraising plans ramp up for the next trip, Penty said.

“We learned so much about improv and the culture of Germany,” Fraser said. “It was so much fun.”