July 20, 2016

Spacetime Riffs Improv Troupe Achieves Success Through Failure

Oscar October (his stage name) introduced Spacetime Riffs, a local improvisational theater group of about ten performers, to the assembled audience at a recent performance.

“It’s not stand-up comedy,” he said. “It’s not set piece comedy. It’s unique. It’s improv.” And just to make sure the spectators were fully prepared, “I’m pretty sure we’ll offend everybody before the evening is over.”

As he recruited volunteers from the crowd and emphasized the importance of audience participation in the proceedings, he added, “If it sucks, it’s your fault. You guys play a critical role here.”

Mr. October, a 47-year-old marketing/PR consultant in financial services, co-founded Spacetime Riffs in April 2013, with the name emerging “as a nod to the large number of astrophysicists who have been part of the group.”

The composition of the group, ranging in age from 18 to the 60s, has changed over the past three years, but about ten people show up to rehearse each Monday night at a variety of different spaces on the Princeton University campus and around town, wherever they are able to find rehearsal space.

“The thing I enjoy the most about improv comedy,” Mr. October said, “is being entertained by funny, witty people. I also really enjoy the team aspect. It’s a great feeling when you co-create a scene out of nothing — just a bare stage, somebody’s suggestions and your own imagination. And you get an audience to buy into it, to care about the characters you have created, and to laugh out loud at whatever silliness comes off the top of your head.”

He went on to describe the rewards in long-term work with an improv group. “When you work together as a group for a while, you start to develop not only chemistry, but a little bit of ESP. Improv comedy is at its best when you can set up another cast member for a joke, knowing what kind of choice they will make, even though none of it is prearranged, which leaves the audience not only laughing, but wondering how we pulled it off.”

Soon after he graduated from college, Mr. October attended improvisational comedy classes (“‘You can take classes in this?’ I excitedly asked.”) at Chicago City Limits in New York City. He eventually became part of an improv comedy troupe that performed at charity events, corporate dinners, bar mitzvahs — “whatever they would pay us for. It was never my primary line of work, but I enjoyed it immensely.”

After he and his wife moved to the Princeton area, work and family obligations interrupted his improv career for a while, but soon he started teaching improvisational comedy at the Princeton Adult School.


More than just a theatrical technique, the ability to improvise is certainly also a life skill, according to Mr. October. “While I was never exactly shy to start with,” he said,” it has definitely enhanced my public speaking and presentation skills. I’m pretty relaxed when speaking to a group, even when things don’t go as planned.”

Michele Russo, president and CEO of Young Audiences of New Jersey, said she joined Spacetime Riffs just a few months ago because of her position. “I wanted to get better at speaking on my feet, dealing with pressure. I’ve never been afraid of speaking with people when I’m well prepared, and I usually prepare a lot. But I knew that I would have a lot more pressure situations, so I wanted to be comfortable with that.”

She described the challenges of doing improv, of “being in the moment,” “going with the flow,” “taking it one step further,” and dealing with failure and “the inner critic.”

“Goofball Surprises”

Pointing out how supportive and uncritical the group is, Ms. Russo noted that laughter is an important part of the experience. “So we come together and do improv, and we laugh a lot,” she said. “That’s the great part of it, how much we laugh. There’s always a couple of things we do that are pretty hilarious, and people surprise me all the time. That’s the thing I enjoy most. There’s going to be some goofball surprises and some out-of-the-box thinking.”

Dona Hargett, who runs the Mann Einstein Players, a new theater company based at Tigerlabs on Nassau Street, has been in Spacetime Riffs for about a year and a half. Working with the group has made her a better actor and “personally, it is a great community and the people I perform with have become some of my closest friends.”

She mentioned how “as an actress it is a fun way of getting to develop new characters and work on emotional responses on the fly. It is an important reminder of what to focus on as an actor. It keeps what I do on stage fresh even when it has been rehearsed a lot.”

Ms. Hargett described an exciting moment from a recent Spacetime performance when she was playing a morning talk show host interviewing two authors of a new book. “We had the crowd in stitches. I was setting up the other actors by asking leading questions and they were coming up with punchline after punchline in response. It was thrilling to be that in sync with my fellow performers.”

Spontaneity and Failure

Others in the group echo Ms. Hargett’s sentiments about the personal and theatrical benefits of working with Spacetime Riffs. Karin Jervert, a poet who had not acted before but has been in the group now for a year and a half, stated, “It’s been such a wonderful experience. I am so glad I gave it a shot! There’s something about humiliating yourself — in a funny way — in front of the same group every week. You really learn a lot about each other and want to help each other grow and gain more confidence and skill.”

Mr. October added his final pitch for the values and pleasures of improv comedy, “It teaches you to trust yourself, to have faith in your ability to express something, even if you start talking before you know exactly what it is you’re about to say. Improv comedy is all about spontaneity. Spacetime Riffs is a very supportive group. Our motto is, ‘We suck and we love to fail.’ Spontaneity means you’re going to fail at times, sometimes quite badly, right there on stage, where everyone can see. But if you accept that failure will happen and isn’t the end of the world, you’ll enjoy your successes in improv comedy immensely.”