Spring 2008: Campus Beat
Off the Cuff
Emory’s comedy-improv troupe Rathskellar helps students learn to think on their feet
By Patrick Adams 08MPH
The “Fairy tale Newscast” featured a live report from the haunted forest. It was day seventeen of a missing-child crisis. Hansel and Gretel had disappeared from a local woodcutter’s lodge, and field reporter “Sweet Sassy Molassy,” a.k.a. Kate Southern 08C, was on the scene interviewing eyewitnesses: a guilt-stricken chipmunk, a gingerbread man, and of course the evil witch who had eaten them.
Of the various student organizations across campus, only one revels in ridiculousness and the liberating release of comedy as a matter of course. Southern, a theater major from Raleigh, is a member of Rathskellar, Emory’s student-run improvisational comedy troupe.
The ’Skellars aim for laughs, and there is little they will not do to get them. They will act out the world’s worst bank robbery or the exploration, on bounding foot, of Mars. They will confess that they wet their pants in church, and they will depict the epic struggle between cat and mouse as it might occur in an all-night diner. They will buzz, blinker, and bawl. They will jump and roll and run in place. They are bound by neither stage nor script, and the result can be as absurd as it is hilarious, at once improbable and impressive.
Still, Southern says, rehearsal isn’t all play. “It’s a lot of work too. We’re honing our skills as improvisers.” With her theater experience—she’s appeared in several school productions, including, last fall, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, a version of Sophocles’ Electra—Southern had never had a problem performing. “But improv was harder,” she says. “Sometimes my mind would just draw a blank.”
Over time, Southern says, she grew more comfortable with those pauses. Instead of panicking, she made them part of her style, letting them shape the scene, give it depth and texture. “At first I thought that every time I spoke, it needed to be funny,” she says. “But that’s not true. It’s possible for someone to be good at improv as a sort of ‘straight man’ character. And that’s me; I’ve never been the person at the party telling jokes.”
If improv can be enhanced—or at least aided—by acting, the reverse is true as well.
“Improv performances can be very freeing,” says Tim McDonough, associate professor of theater studies and artistic director of Theater Emory. “They can equip an actor with the spontaneity needed for freshness in every performance.”
Of course, he adds, spontaneity isn’t all that acting is. “That would make the performance of Hamlet a chancy business at best.”
McDonough has had numerous Rathskellar performers in his classes and productions over the years. Balancing those energies—the Dionysian of improv with the more Apollonian of acting—has always been, he says, “a rewarding challenge.”
“For me, my favorite thing is that we have this ability, as a group, to create something out of absolutely nothing,” says Mollie Taxe 08C, a psychology major and an actress as well. “Improv is one of my passions. I really believe it’s an art form. And a lot of it is about not being scared, about trusting yourself, about knowing that anything you say will be okay. The best improv artists out there are fearless.”
Taxe herself learned that early on. Her first performance at Emory was a collaborative show between Rathskellar and Dad’s Garage, Atlanta’s best-known professional improv group, in front of a large audience near the business school.
“It was just as classes were starting, and we hadn’t even rehearsed yet,” she recalls.
Taxe was beyond nervous. To close the show, Dad’s Garage wanted to play a game called “Gibberish” with one of the Rathskellar members. “Two people are having a conversation about something and then someone offstage yells ‘Gibberish!,’ ” she explains. “And then for the rest of the scene the two of them have to speak in complete gibberish.”
Taxe volunteered. She jumped in, nailed the scene, and the crowd loved it. Fearless.
Reputed to be the oldest student improv group in the country, Rathskellar is an Emory institution. Its name, which in German means, literally, “the cellar of a town hall,” hints at its underground origins.
“They used to perform in the basement of Winship Hall, a dorm that was demolished in the 1980s,” recalls Ginger Cain 77C, Emory University archivist, director of Library Public Programs, and Rathskellar fan. “It was dark and smoky, and it looked a lot like a pub. I think they probably wanted a funky, out-of-the-way place where they could, you know, do their thing.”
These days, the ’Skellars are thoroughly visible, even mainstream. They have a website (although it hasn’t been updated for a couple of years) and a profile on Facebook (“I Heart Rathskellar”), and where they perform it is neither dark nor smoky nor remotely pub-like. Times, to be sure, have changed.
What hasn’t changed, at least not in its essence, is the group itself. Rathskellar is still presided over by an “Emperor” in charge of scheduling shows and determining content as well as a “High Priest” who is more or less the treasurer. There are still highly competitive auditions for a spot among the twelve-member group. And many of the games, including “Fairy Tale Newscast,” have been performed for decades.
“It’s like when I was a kid and used to play pretend with my friends in the backyard,” says Southern, who plans to become a set designer after graduating. “I love being in Rathskellar. It’s two hours twice a week where I can just let loose.”