4th Annual Denver Improv for Smile Train

Last week 7 improv comedy troupes gathered for five amazing shows in support of Smile Train. We are pleased to have the event’s organizer, Heather Clisby, as our first Smile Train Guest Blogger.

Denver, CO – If you’ve ever watched TV’s ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ or had an odd cousin that talked to himself, then you’re familiar with the spontaneous insanity of comedy improv, the fine (sometimes crude) art of Make Stuff Up and Hope It’ll Be Funny. And I speak for all comedy improv performers when I say: Honest to god, we can’t help it. Why? Because it feels like flying, minus TSA and barf bags.

The Denver WigsA while back, I approached my Denver-based comedy troupe, Rodents of Unusual Size, and said simply, “Let’s do a benefit show for Smile Train. We make people laugh here in Denver. Why not make them smile in other countries?” Since the first rule of improv is to say “Yes, and…” to everything, they had no choice in the matter. And just like that, an annual tradition was born.

What began as a singular effort in 2008 has grown into 7 troupes, performing 5 shows over 4 days. My ‘comedy husband’, Steve Loukas,  and I organized 50 performers, sound/light technicians and volunteers to translate comedy hijinks into cold, hard cash for the noble Smile Train mission. All shows are held at the wonderful Avenue Theater in downtown Denver, our cozy home base.

I was born with a facial deformity (not a cleft palate, a hemangioma) and well understand the sheer cruelty and physical discomfort that such a condition can render. Lucky for me, I was born in the United States to concerned parents and knowledgeable doctors who worked hard to correct my situation. But in remote villages in a developing nation, how is a parent to know about such a surgery? Or even think about raising the necessary funds for the procedure? Not all kids are as fortunate as I was but certainly, all are deserving of a second chance.

And this is what I explain at the beginning of every show: “So many problems in the world I cannot fix – world hunger, AIDS, war veterans – most too big to get my head around. But this! This is something I can fix. This life changing surgery costs $250 – boom. Done.”

When I tell people that, I see their eyes light up. Finally, a solution that costs so little and does so much good!

We kicked off Wednesday night (August 17) featuring the Rodents of Unusual Size and Intentionally Left Blank for some family-friendly entertainment. A line of empty Mason jars lined the front edge of the stage, each with a performer’s name taped to the front – the now infamous, “Jars of Pains.” (Later in the fall, I’ll fill them with homemade apple sauce or spaghetti sauce and give one to each performer.)

Improv Comedians Putting It On the Line to Provide Cleft SurgeryThe host encouraged the audience to put money in the jar of their favorite – or least favorite – comedian. The three performers with the most money in their jar play in the dreaded game of Mousetraps where the stage is covered in mousetraps and the players are blindfolded and spun for maximum disorientation. The bold remove their shoes; the meek wear socks even on their hands. Cringe-worthy? Yes. Hilarious? Absolutely. Lots of squealing goes on, always a good sign.

Inevitably, somebody tells somebody they are on fire and “You need to stop, drop, and roll!” In improv, there are no refusals, a player must say “Yes!” to everything so down they go onto the mousetraps. Yeeeow!

These jars are big money makers for us. I saw one woman put $40 in another jar just to make sure her daughter, Sarah, didn’t have to play this game. (Alas, Sarah had to play anyway and miraculously, survived.)

Thursday’s show was also family friendly — if your family is made up entirely of super raunchy comedians. Players from several local troupes joined to form ‘Gay v. Str8’ which was exactly what it sounds like. About 20 performers – half gay, half not – competed before judges to determine who had the most comic chops.

The last half of the show was done in long-form improv, where a theme is pre-decided. Enter, “The Housewives of Colfax,” Colfax being a street famous in Denver for being well stocked with seedy, gritty characters. Performers create scenarios using these characters and rotate in and out, creating story lines and resolutions. Hard to do and even harder when you have to be funny.

A Talking Crab for Smile TrainFriday night’s show featured Monkey’s Uncle and All of the Above, which produced many a gut-busting moment. It was their decision to turn the “Jars of Pain” into the “Jars of Pleasure” – encouraging people to donate to see their favorite performer in the popular rendition of “Historic Dance-O-Rama.” It’s hard to dance as the Berlin Wall, I must say.

The first show on Saturday night featured Out of the Basement, which included some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. After this show ended, one of the performers, Mark, whom I had only met at the Thursday night show, approached me with a giant wad of cash. “Here, Heather,” he said as he pressed it into my hand, “I gathered this from my family. It’s $175.” I hugged him, thanked him and hurried backstage, to prepare for the next show.

Moments later, I was preparing for the 8 p.m. show and suddenly, the enormity of his gesture hit me hard. I burst into tears, a bizarre delayed reaction that had my headliner troupe concerned. All that running around, planning, emailing, phone calling – and his incredible generosity brought the point of it all back in resounding clarity.

The closing show, starring those high-energy nutjobs, The Denver Wigs, was a blazing success. The house was full and never quiet. The Wigs are run like a very tight ship, captained by the founder and director, Steve Loukas. Steve’s attention to detail and his leadership inspire his troupe.

Best of all? They hand out pies. Not kidding. Blueberry, apple and pecan. Nearly every audience member gets one. (Note for next year: Don’t put the pie table in front of the video screen making it look like the Smile Train kids are trying to eat the pies. D-oh!) Plus, there’s a raffle drawing. Folks win t-shirts, posters, theater tickets and gift cards. And did I mention there are pies?

We are still counting the money from the show and donations are still coming in to our Smile Train page but thus far, we’ve raked in about $2,300 and hopefully it will reach $2500.  Considering the state of the economy and that 99.9% of all comedians are poor, this is a hard-won victory for us. And for the kids. See you in 2012!

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