Thursday, 23 February 2012 17:06

River City Improv Keeps Moving

Written by  Jayson Bussa
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The shelf life for a local improv team is nine months to a year.

Apparently, River City Improv is not your average team.

Comprised completely of Calvin College alum, the Grand Rapids-based improv team has been providing side-splitting antics on stage since 1994.

"We sort of all started when we were in college," said River City Improv co-founder Rick Treur, who began the group with Jeanne Leep, who now lives out of state.

"We kind of missed it when we graduated, so we started this team up to be more community-based.

Now, I go to our shows and there will be times I don't know anyone in the audience."

For good reason, River City Improv has been closely associated with Calvin. The college provides the group with rehearsal space and a place to perform — the gorgeous confines of the Ladies Literary Club. Still, RCI is a separate entity and does not receive funding from the school.

With more than 15 years of refining its craft, River City Improv is now an institution in local comedy compared to where it came from. Treur recalled countless performances in cramped quarters like the now-closed Four Friends Coffee Shop, in the days where the team spent just as much time explaining what improv was as they did actually performing it.

"People didn't know what it was, and just trying to explain it was difficult," Treur said. "There is a much greater awareness of it now, which makes it easier to sell it. We're the longest-running team around, and lately, more teams have developed partly because of the stuff going on at Dog Story [Theater in Grand Rapids]."

Since then, River City Improv has brought its clean brand of comedy and highly interactive show on the road to such places like Iowa, Texas and Florida.

Many of the group's members have full-time jobs, which generally confines trips outside of state lines to select weekends.

But, the flexible schedule is what has kept original members like Michele Dykstra in the game for so long. Dykstra, now 41, has had three kids over the course of her career with RCI, but is still going strong with six other original members.

"I would say there are times when it gets a little hectic — usually around the holidays or right after," Dykstra said. "We do a lot of private shows, so the way the schedule works is that a lot of businesses will hire us to perform at their Christmas parties or company parties. We have been known to double book and even triple book."

To Dykstra, the longevity of River City Improv can only be summed up as a matter of the stars aligning.

"Improv teams don't usually last very long, and that makes sense because of the nature of them," she said. "It is usually college-age people getting in the business and they take the next step. This team is a very unique thing. We all have a common goal and we all like each other and live in the same area. It has really worked out."

With the many years has come time for the group to refine its show to what Treur said he considers a pretty strong product.

"I think we have pretty consistent quality with our shows and they're polished and professional," Treur said. "About five or six of us have been on the team since the beginning. We get new members and others move out. We've have several go on to [legendary Chicago improv group] Second City and The Juilliard School and just different theaters around the country."

It's also this strong bond that leads to tight live show.

"By knowing each other so well, we know that we have each other's backs when one of us is struggling," Treur said. "It also allows us to play to each other's strengths."

River City Improv offers one or two shows every month. And no matter how long it outlives the average lifespan of other improv teams, Dykstra said there is no end in sight.

Photos: Tina Derusha

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