No matter the form they might take, a story that’s shared with an audience will have three central beats—beginning, middle and end. Now, imagine a team of storytellers who accept spontaneous one-word prompts to perform a new story’s beginning, but have no idea of where it might lead to.
With a variety of comedy clubs and event venues at its disposal, Grand Rapids is no stranger to the fascinating world of improvisational acting, or improv. Well-established organizations such as The Comedy Project and River City Improv have entertained crowds for years, and now a new group can be added to that roster: Tiny Breakfast. After putting on shows at popular spots like the DAAC, Tip Top Deluxe Bar and The Stray, Tiny Breakfast’s five-year anniversary have seemingly snuck up on them.
“You start it off as just a thought, as a hobby and something fun to do,” said Jake Mate, member of Tiny Breakfast. “You get a rehearsal in, a few rehearsals in. Then, it becomes about getting in front of people.”
Mate and fellow member, Ezra Sprik, participated in theatre together during their time studying at Hope College and were even on the same campus improv team: VanderProv.
While in school, the two developed their improvisational comedy fundamentals, from embodying a confident stage presence to handling off-the-wall audience suggestions. It soon became clear to Mate and Sprik that the unique connection between performer and audience that improv inspires is unlike anything else in theatre. Mutual friends Evan Clark, Nina Mulder and Sal Yaqo would later join the team, and the group’s immediate comedic chemistry and shared love for the craft would pave the way toward Tiny Breakfast’s future.
“You can do improv with almost anyone, but it makes it easier if you have a history with them,” Clark said. “You know them as an individual, so it’s easier to make the conversation flow.”
Inviting the audience to take part in the fun is simple when you can clearly see how much the improvisers themselves are enjoying the show, too. Tiny Breakfast’s friendly nature feels reminiscent of joking around with old friends from high school, and watching them perform is like crashing the cool kids’ party next door. That said, while the energy is certainly high at one of their shows, the performances never push the line into vulgarity. Sprik and his team take pride in catering toward all ages so that Grand Rapids comedy enthusiasts can look forward to seeing them with their kids and family members.
“After all the crap we’d been through during the pandemic, we had audience members come up to us and say, ‘Thank you, I needed a laugh.’ That’s always been our goal; to build spirits, to build community through our performances,” Sprik said. “To laugh with one another in a room where you don’t know anyone is a cathartic experience.”
Fans of popular TV shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” may recognize some of the games that Tiny Breakfast features in each of their performances, ranging from short-form scenes to long-form stories with connected characters. While many of these sorts of exercises are mainstays in any typical comedy troupe, Tiny Breakfast challenges themselves with combining multiple forms. For example, they’ve begun to include musical improv into their repertoire.
“We have someone play the keyboard since that instrument is so versatile, and then we’ll go on into a long-form improv with multiple scenes and we’ll make up songs on the spot,” Clark said.
The result is an incredibly varied series of scenes that leave the audience guessing as to what could happen next, only to be left satisfied by the long-form improv’s seemingly miraculous conclusion. The truly amazing thing about improv, however, is the fact that anyone can do this, too. Clark and Mate have both volunteered with Camp Blodgett together for nearly a decade now, and as Tiny Breakfast, the two improvisers lead summer workshops teaching young students how to create spontaneous stories and scenes through listening skills and imagination. Mulder, who teaches a classroom of young adults with various disabilities, has made it a weekly practice to incorporate improvisational activities and games into her normal curriculum to great success. All it takes is a simple adaptation to the group you’re working with, and soon it becomes clear that improv can be and should be for everyone.
“It’s not enough to just perform,” Sprik said. “Improv can be so beneficial for communication, realizing things in yourself, confidence and even just getting rid of a bad feeling. You just go do it for a bit and feel positive.”
Entering the new year, Tiny Breakfast looks forward to hopefully returning to some of their favorite venues around town for future performances, including the DAAC and recently relaunched Dog Story Theater, the latter being the home for some of Tiny Breakfast’s earliest performances.
“[Dog Story Theater] reached out to us again recently, so if we have a show there in 2024, that’d be great,” Mulder said. “It fits in our community aspect, since we want to do more local shows.”
Look out for more news from Tiny Breakfast across social media at @tinybreakfastimprov!