You can’t help but hear The Line, even before you start up the stairs from Zinema or emerge from Zuccone. In the midst of late-night Manhattans at the Zeitgeist Café bar, all of a sudden there’s a clamor at the far end of the outer lobby. It’s The Line. Renegade Comedy Theater’s Improv regulars know The Line will be there every Friday and Saturday night, right at 9:45.
The Line seems like part of the show. It’s noisy, busy, cohesive, chatty, pumped-up, carefree—and overwhelmingly young. Few appear to be older than 25. Perhaps because the doors do not open until 10 p.m. and the show doesn’t start until 10:30. Or maybe because admission is only $5 and older audiences figure you get what you pay for. Or possibly because the shows carry an R-rating.
Photo by Andy Miller/Renegade Theater Company
Artistic Director Katy Helbacka cuts it up during Renegade Theater’s weekend Improv.
There’s also a strong link between the performers and the local college theater departments. Elise Benson, a musical theater major at UMD, says that’s one of the key factors in the show’s success. “It bridges the gap between the young people and local theater departments. The rapport between [Artistic Director] Katy [Helbacka] and [Technical Director] Evan [Kelly] and our faculty is very close.”
UMD theatre grads Helbacka and Kelly have occasionally taken a few cast members up to the campus for an hour-long show to “give back” to the department that spawned what is now a local entertainment institution.
Once the lights start to dim, the evening’s emcee bellows out an introduction worthy of the Xcel Energy Center, launching 90 minutes of zany, raunchy mayhem.
The Improv format is two four-game sessions, separated by a 15-minute intermission. The Red Team vies with the Blue Team for whimsical points awarded by the emcee. Contests include (but are far from limited to) “Pillars,” “Good/Bad/Worst,” “Last Man Standing,” “Next,” “Complaint Department,” “History,” “Biathlon,” “Moving Bodies,” “Day in the Life,” and “Pick-Up Lines.”
The real star of each show is the emcee—Cory Anderson, the night I attended—who runs the games, banters with the audience, and keeps the action moving.
After a rapid-fire explanation of how the show works, Anderson hops over to the Blue Team and asks them which game they want to play.
Performer Andy Bennett chooses “Chainsaw Death,” which involves ushering the performers offstage and soliciting suggestions from the audience. A location? Hawaii. A profession? Artisan Sandwich Maker. A non-weapon to be used as a weapon? Turkey baster.
The first performer returns and is given the suggestions, plus the challenge of the game: He must communicate the three suggestions to another performer within 30 seconds, speaking only in gibberish. If the first performer fails, the next one must repeat the challenge, and this continues until the three original suggestions are completely garbled.
During “A Day in the Life,” UMD student Hannah Bockbrader is chosen from the audience to recount an extraordinary day. Anderson and the audience listen, gape-mouthed, to the story of a visiting guest-lecturer in an education class who claimed to have been kidnapped by surrealist mole people. The skit that followed was nearly as bizarre as Bockbrader’s story.
Though very little is sacred in these shows, the actors are good about making hasty mid-course corrections when necessary. At a Saturday night show last month, in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Maryland police, when the audience was asked to name a city, someone yelled out, “Baltimore!” Anderson recoiled, yelling back, “I’m not touching that! Do you really want to see that show?” and immediately made a different choice.
The turnover rate is so low among the actors that it’s been nearly two years since they held auditions. Many are UMD graduates, working a variety of day jobs.
Shows often sell out, so if you’re inclined to go, don’t be late. As convivial as the kids in The Line seem to be, you can’t count on them to let you cut in.