Comedy troupe stays grounded, gets laughs at first show of semester

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • February 5, 2015

A persnickety lesbian couple and their ruined wedding. A deaf dancing duo healed by love. A pair of disgruntled railroad workers with an affinity for speaking in unison. These were only some of the characters created on Jan. 31 for Noah Fence, the latest performance by the seven members of comedy troupe Swolen Monkey Showcase, or, Swomo.

Yes, they know that “swollen” is spelled incorrectly; no, they don’t care.

Swomo performs three or four improv shows every semester. Attended by around 40 in the Piano Row Multipurpose Room, Noah Fence—a pun on “no offense”—was Swomo’s first improv performance of 2015.

The troupe focuses on what’s known as long-form improv, which has longer, character-driven scenes. Short-form improv, on the other hand, is more game-driven, as seen in Whose Line is it Anyway? Along with improv, Swomo also performs scripted comedy.

Senior Talia Heller, the head of the group, said that she has performed with Swomo since her first semester at Emerson. She said that members try to steer away from absurdity.

“We try so hard to keep things based in reality,” said Heller, a performing arts major. “Sometimes it gets a little wacky, but usually we try to ground [the scenes] in some kind of actual human problem. Sure, sometimes, someone will become a mouse and run across the stage. Sometimes they’re aliens from a different planet. It happens.”

Last week’s show included anti-gardening riots, a woman who lives off of bottled oxygen in a Lorax-like world, and a serial assassin that specializes in chopping off fingers.

In improvisational theater, all scenes and characters are made up on the spot. There’s no director or script—the only guide is a single word suggested by an audience member to inspire the ensemble. Last week, the offered word, “baby,” brought the audience to a Babies “R” Us that featured a neurotic salesperson, a confused customer, and a curiously infantile co-worker.

Junior Olivia Harvey, a Swomo member, said the group avoided profanity for an additional challenge.

“We’re on the mild side,” said Harvey, a visual and media arts major.

While Swomo doesn’t have an explicit rule to avoid swearing and sexual innuendo, Harvey said it’s not encouraged.

“My opinion is, when you add a lot of swearing into a scene, it’s like taking an easy way out,” said Harvey.

Swomo was originally founded as a sketch group in 1985. According to Heller, there may be a reunion show later this year to celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary. One alumnus is Anthony Atamanuik, who graduated in 1997 and is now a performer for the Upright Citizens Brigade, one of the nation’s premier improv collectives. Daniel Scheinert, a 2009 graduate and  half of the directing duo Daniels, also performed with Swomo. 

Daniels—consisting of Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who graduated from Emerson in 2010—is perhaps best known for producing the viral music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” They have also directed music videos for Passion Pit, The Shins, Foster the People, and Tenacious D. 

In the last year, Swomo has also performed at Boston Comedy Arts Festival, The Del Close Marathon in New York City, and Running on Empty, a 24-hour improv marathon hosted at Boston University in support of the Greater Boston Food Bank. The group is recognized by, and can receive funds from, the Student Government Association.

Dallis Seeker, the only freshman in Swomo this year, said the troupe’s style has been a challenge and good learning experience.

“From an acting perspective… you learn to live in the reality of a scene, you have no idea what you’re getting into,” said Seeker, an acting major. “Once you’re in there, it’s like, ‘Okay, this is my world,’ and then you have to roll with it.… We’re figuring it out as we go along, and once we establish it, we can make jokes and relationships in [that] world.”

For Swomo member Hilton Dresden, a junior writing, literature and publishing major, the challenges that improv provides never hinders his passion. 

“You’re just up there making stuff up and playing, having fun with your friends,” said Dresden. “That’s all it is. Just having fun.”