Comedy and performance have always held important places at the College, but rarely does the face of the College’s comedy reach farther than the edges of campus. Recently, however, one of the College’s improv comedy groups, Combo Za, has started to change this trend. On Jan. 16, New York City’s Magnet Theater welcomed the Big Apple Regional Competition of the College Tournament, where Combo Za had its competitive improv debut.
The College Improv Tournament is a series of regional competitions among college and university teams in long-form improv. Long-form improvisers seek to form a coherent, humorous scene of actions based on words or phrases generated by the audience. Every aspect of the scene, from characterization to location, is done entirely on the spot. Teams are then judged based on the creativity of their scenes and their mastery of performance techniques. The winners of each regional competition, as well as a few runner-up wild cards, are eligible to advance to the National College Improv Tournament. Judges provide written critiques identifying both their strengths and possible improvements for each team.
The competitive improv scene was a refreshing change of pace for Combo Za, a group that primarily hosts shows for entertainment, not a score. And what a change of pace it was. Za was not only able to win its preliminary competition; it also successfully advanced to the final round of the tournament. “Winning our preliminary round was so awesome,” Alice Murphy ’16 said. “We were up against a few great groups early on, and winning the prelim really meant a lot to the whole group and gave us a ton of motivation for the final round.”
Competing against other groups it barely knew changed how Za thought about the way it organized and performed. “When we perform at Williams, we know the whole audience and can make asides to things we know will be funny to Williams students. But in competition with an unknown audience, that is a lot harder, so you really have to be focused and on point,” Murphy said.
The infamous “purple bubble” is nothing new to students at the College. At times, it is hard to find new experiences or fresh ideas. So for a campus group looking to expand its stylistic breadth and polish its technique, these tournaments are very important. As Murphy said, “Getting to watch and interact with other groups was so helpful, because at Williams, we just don’t have that much exposure to other ways of doing improv.”
In speaking with Combo Za, it was immediately clear that the competition had strengthened camaraderie and tightened an already strong group dynamic. Chris D’Silva ’18 jokingly noted that the closeness of the group was very evident from its performance style, which always includes a goofy backline of improvisers not currently in a scene. While some judges questioned the group’s polish, Za was able to showcase its light-hearted attitude and enjoyment of improvisation, both of which surely contributed to its success in the tournament.
Both Murphy and D’Silva believe that the insight the group gained from the judges’ critiques will enable them to build upon Combo Za’s performance regimen. The tournament gave the group a chance to experiment with new forms of organization and tricks to spice up each scene, both of which will be helpful not only in building the group’s style in on-campus performances, but also in sharpening its competitive edge at tournaments in the future.
These tournaments have a distinct networking value. As D’Silva said, “These tournaments really help expand your improv Rolodex … You get to make great connections with other teams, which helps us coordinate shows at other schools, or bring more groups to campus to perform with us.” This new network of groups will definitely improve Za’s reach for performances at other colleges.
The College’s improv scene is changing; up until last year, Combo Za was the only group on campus, and the formation of the group Treestyle as well as this new competitive side of Combo Za will definitely shake up improv at the College. For Combo Za, the future looks bright. “For Za, our focus is going to be on finding the group voice: what makes a Za show a Za show,” said D’Silva. With this renewed focus on group growth, Za’s audience, including the College’s larger community of comedians, is excited to see what Combo Za has to offer next.