Chelsea Asplund/The AS Review
For most people living in Bellingham and most certainly those attending Western, the word “parrot” means something different than what you may think.
The heart of the theater department hosts a group of 10 performers who collectively make up the Dead Parrots Society, Western’s very own improvisational comedy group. For more than 10 years the group has performed improvisational acting all over the country, most recently coming in first place at the National College Improv Tournament in Chicago on Feb. 26.
“Winning the tournament was literally the best moment of my life,” said member Allison Luhrs. “We were clutching each other, crying backstage. That entire weekend doesn’t feel real still.”
The road to that weekend was a long one, and the Parrots have been rehearsing around the clock since winning the Northwest Regional Championship in November. They were among 12 college improv teams that competed on a national level in a series of two rounds.
From previous year’s competition experiences, Luhrs said the group consulted with each other and decided to have only five members perform. She said performing can be stronger with fewer bodies on stage.
February’s national competition featured a preliminary round, followed by two separate rounds. The first format was called “Toaster Montage,” a mix of two different games. The second was known as “Coffee Date,” lending itself to the more narrative structure that the Parrots specialize in.
One sketch began with Luhrs and group member Rashawn Scott sitting in a restaurant which then, following prompts, became a 15th century scene with a hunchback and an evil knight, shifting to an ogre in a Dairy Queen and a bomb inside a cake that needed to be disarmed by an agent of the CIA: the “Cake Intelligence Agency.”
Senior Miguel Vila has been involved with the Parrots since he came to Western, and said they focus on long-form improv, creating 90-minute plays based off audience suggestions. They specialize in storytelling, something he said is one of his favorite components.
“The thing I love most when I’m improv-ing is not only getting laughs, but hearing other noises from the audience, like if they gasp. It’s engaging the audience and getting a variety of emotional reactions through the art of storytelling,” he said.
Vila, who began attending open rehearsals his freshman year, said winning nationals was a very validating experience.
“It’s the ability to reach people and to be relatable. I think humor opens that door and softens people’s barriers and inhibitions. Through that softening of people’s inhibitions, they start to get closer to your character and invested in the storyline. You can really build up to climatic moments.”
Scott, who has also been involved with the Parrots since her freshman year, said in theater actors are constantly creating a world on stage. In improv, that world has to be created is done on the spot before the audience, without actors knowing anything before it happens.
“I love the spontaneity of it all. You really have the ability to create a world on stage, a really fantastic world that only you can create,” Scott said. “It’s an odd thing, people just go along with whatever you say and hang on to your every word. If you don’t give 100 percent, then the audience doesn’t go along with you.”
Luhrs remembers being in high school and attending a theater workshop at Western hosted by the Dead Parrot’s Society.
“I knew I wanted to be part of it,” she said. “I knew that was what I wanted to do when I came to college.”
Luhrs said improv has limitless possibilities, unlike any other form of acting.
“If I’m having a calm day, I can get up there and do something normal. But what I love is that it allows you to be as zany as you want to be. If you want to do a scene in an aquarium in outer space, you can. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” she said.
She said the key to performing improv well is having trust in your teammates on stage, something not all teams have.
The group name comes from a spoof of the film “Dead Poets Society,” as well as a sketch from Monty Python. The group has two regular rehearsals per week, one on Sundays for team members, and another on Tuesdays which are open to everyone.
As a freshman, Vila attended open rehearsals until he got a phone call to join the actual team. Standing where he is now, he said he can’t believe so much has happened in the past four years.
“It’s like a validation. Before all this, it was like, ‘Oh, well we’re just this college group in the corner of the country who thinks we do pretty good stuff but who knows really?’ to ‘Yeah, we do good stuff,’” Vila said. “All that work we’ve done and put in and all that other things we’ve experienced through telling these stories and creating these pieces has really paid off and really means something. It’s really validating.”
Along with winning the national tournament, the Parrots will be representing Western on an international level as they were guaranteed a spot in the world’s largest improv competition, the Chicago Improv Festival. In April, dozens of teams from eight different countries will come together, but only one college team is invited.
Scott said she plans to move to Seattle and expand her resumé, then eventually live in Los Angeles or Chicago. In the long term, she said her dream is to own a theater company and make it a part-time comedy club and part-time theatrical space. But she has other dreams as well.
“Everybody wants to be on SNL,” she laughed. “That’s a big dream.” ■