Crawlspace Eviction now teaches how to make it up as you go

New Year's Eve is always a big night for the improv actors of Crawlspace Eviction. They typically perform to standing-room-only crowds during New Year's Fest in downtown Kalamazoo. 

After their final performance of 2015, as the old year turned over, the night was particularly sweet for the troupe as they stood in the Park Trades Center in their new classroom and occasional performance space and watched festival fireworks out the the giant windows. 

It was their first opportunity to be in the Crawlspace Theatre Training Center.

Crawlspace Eviction has been entertaining Kalamazoo since 2003, first in what was the home of Whole Art Theater, then at Farmers Alley Theatre. When Farmers Alley's success led it to expand the number of shows it offered last year there was no room on the calendar for Crawlspace's weekend shows. The actors started a search for a new place to develop their improv chops and show them off.

Despite the temporary dislocation, Executive Director of Crawlspace Theatre Productions Dann Sytsma has nothing but praise for the support Farmers Alley gave to the improv team while it performed there. 

"I can't say enough about the support we got from Farmers Alley," Sytsma says. "They gave us such a beautiful, comfortable, terrific space to perform in for years after Whole Art folded. They're doing such great work that they wanted to do more."

And the need for a new home pushed the Crawlspace team into new territory, offering an opportunity to grow. First it lined up performance space at the Epic Theatre in the Epic Center. Then the Plaza Corp, managers of Park Trades Center, made an offer to lease them a fourth-floor space that they couldn't refuse.

The move to Park Trades means not only do the improv actors now have their own space to practice, but they also can offer classes.

The first round of classes at the Training Center just finished and Sytsma says participants are saying they were hugely successful. 

Paul Laferriere, a member of the first class says it was well-planned, well-paced, and instructor Tara Sytsma was super-supportive. "There is a lot going on under the surface wackiness of improv. Overall, I couldn't be more pleased with my first experience in doing improv, and I feel grateful that Crawlspace has made this opportunity available.”

Beginning in March, the first of four levels of improv classes will be offered in the new training program. Classes for each level meet once a week for six weeks. Each week participants learn techniques used by improvisers. Each level builds on the skills learned in the previous class. No experience is necessary.

“Improv strengthens confidence, reduces the fear of failure, opens social circles, improves mental agility, and gives you a new perspective," says Tara Sytsma, who brings more than 15 years of improv, theatre, and education experience to the creation of the classes. 

What will be taught as the classes proceed?
• Level 1, Introduction to improv philosophies and techniques--teaches the basics for creating improvised theatre. 

• Level 2, Essentials for scene creation--lets students further explore scene creation. 

• Level 3, Building Improv That Lasts--focuses on investing fully in the work. 

• Level 4, Advanced Scene Work and Longform Creation--provides the tools to creating long-form improv theater. 

“I've enjoyed every class," says Beth Bradburn, a member of the inaugural Level 1 class. "The atmosphere is fun and supportive for students of all ages, even those like me with no experience in the performing arts. It always feels active, concrete, and practical. I know I'll use what I've learned here in my professional and personal life.” 

Down the road, Levels 2 through 4 will be taught by Brian Duguay, Bannon Backhus, and Dann Sytsma--all improv veterans. Dann Sytsma trained in Chicago, one of the most respected improv scenes in the country, and Duguay in theater in New York.

"There's nothing like this training program within two hours of Kalamazoo," says Sytsma. Because of that, Sytsma expects the classes to have regional appeal beyond Kalamazoo. 

"For people who want to get an introduction to improv, and get a really good improv education, it's going to be very, very solid," Sytsma says. Another advantage is class size.  "In Chicago, most of the time they cap them (improv classes) at 20. You wouldn't think that makes a big difference but in a big class, you don't get as much time actually acting as you do when the class is smaller."

Sytsma is excited about the possibilities of the training program developed and coordinated by his wife, Tara. He looks forward to the possibility of new improv teams forming as graduates of the program move forward. He also is looking for a renewed energy for live performances generated by those who have participated in classes.

The space in the Park Trades Center will not only be used for classes, but also as a performance space. It will comfortably seat about 50. That's just right for new teams who are developing a following. 

It also is the right size space for sketch reviews and experimental theater, shows that could move to the stage in the Epic Center if they prove to be successful. "It's sort of an incubator space for performers, as well," Sytsma says.

"I couldn't be more excited. It's just going to get the community bigger and get more people in the family of Crawlspace. I think it will lead to bigger audiences at shows and develop more teams as people get through the program." 

This is not the first time Crawlspace has offered classes, but Sytsma says the group is better poised to teach them than it has been in the past, and the community has changed, too.

"I don't think Kalamazoo was in the same place that it is now," Sytsma says. "There are a lot more people interested in this kind of a thing and I think the people who follow Crawlspace are more interested in getting involved. I think it's just really good timing especially with all the new residential downtown. People downtown, they love the energy of living downtown, and they love opportunities like this. I can see this being one of those great things for people who live downtown to head down to Park Trades once a week and take a class."

The classes also complement Sytsma's three-year-old business, Improv Effects, a business coaching company that teaches team building, communication and problem resolution using improv techniques taught by Sytsma and his business partner, Brian Lam. 

People who take an Improv Effects workshop in their workplace and are exposed to the art form, often want to go on to do improv with a group of people and learn more about performing, Sytsma says. Now that opportunity is available through Crawlspace classes.

It also goes the other way. "From the classes, people already have said 'this would be a great thing for my team at work,'" Sytsma says. "So they really complement each other in a lot of good ways. I think that will lead to a lot of good symbiosis between the two organizations."

It's all part of getting more people in Southwest Michigan involved in improv comedy.

“You don’t have to go to the big city to get great improv instruction," says Tara Sytsma. "We’ve got it right here in Kalamazoo. It’s a great way to invest in your happiness. However, be warned, improv can change your life.”

On stage

See Crawlspace Eviction in their next performance Feb. 27, in the Epic Theatre, 359 S. Kalamazoo when they present their one night show: Leap Grog. This show will be inspired by the quadrennial obligation to add a day to the end of February. The group will perform its unique brand of improv and sketch comedy, including an original sketch by Randy Wyatt. Showtime is 8 p.m. and with doors open at 7:30. Tickets are $10 and $7 for students. Drinks will be provided in the theater space. For tickets and information, visit here.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Second Wave Southwest Michigan. She is a freelance writer and editor.

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