Improv Improvement: Crawlspace Eviction uses comedy to help people be better

Dann Sytsma’s fixation with the word “crawlspace” led to the birth of an improv group that has become a fixture in Kalamazoo’s entertainment scene.

“We came up with the name Crawlspace Eviction during a drunken discussion with other members of the group on our back porch one night,” Sytsma said. “We were throwing out words and ideas that we thought were pretty funny and one of them that just stuck in my brain was the humor of a crawlspace and what’s in them.

“You put stuff in there that you never want to see again. Then I started thinking about the idea of pulling and taking things out of it. It’s the idea of exploring those places in life that don’t get explored much.”

The improv group’s five members tend to focus on topics that they’re interested in during their performances, although the audience will sometimes steer them in a new direction. Sytsma said they don’t do a lot of political improv because they’re not very adept at it.

“Our shows end up being more of an escape from the bullshit,” he said. “If we start going in those directions, it’s hard to keep the emotions in check. Instead, we make fun of animals and stars.”

No, he’s not joking. 

The group’s most recent venture involved collaborations with organizations like the Kalamazoo Air Zoo and the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society, tackling such weighty subjects as physics and astronomy.

Sytsma and his wife, Tara, the education director for Crawlspace, both graduated with degrees in the sciences. Tara received a biology degree and Dann’s background is biomedical sciences and chemistry. He put that knowledge to work at a lab in Portage where he worked as a chemist for 14 years.

“I think that’s what drew us together as people,” Sytsma said.

Now, they are putting that scientific knowledge to use in their improv shows. Sytsma said Kalamazoo is an academic town and it’s fun to appeal to that.

Crawlspace was founded in 2003 after the Sytsmas and several other actors from a production of Tony and Tina’s Wedding at the Civic Theatre decided they were having too much fun to stop. The now-defunct Whole Art Theatre in downtown Kalamazoo helped the original 10-person ensemble to develop as a team, which later separated into four teams when Crawlspace Eviction Productions formed.

When Whole Art folded, some of the teams disbanded because of the lack of performance venues. The Sytsma team was able to find space at Farmer’s Alley Theatre and now performs most of its shows at the Epic Theatre.

“We all have diverse curiosities. We’re just very curious people,” Sytsma said of the current Crawlspace ensemble. “With our public events we’re inviting people into our space and minds. It’s that collective mindset and the weirdness of our minds.”

While the group’s delivery may make people laugh, Sytsma said improv really isn’t about humor — he said it’s more about being in the moment and really listening to what someone is saying so that you can be more empathetic. Anyone who has attended an improv show knows that you really have to pay attention or you’ll miss something, because the dialogue and interaction on stage is so fast-paced and spontaneous.

“So much is being discovered along with the audience and that’s a very different art form,” Sytsma said. “We’re discovering at the same time as the audience. Watching sports is like that too — we don’t know what’s going to happen and neither do they.”

The growing popularity of improv entertainment in the community prompted the couple to begin offering four different levels of improv classes last year, which Tara manages. 

So far about 60 people have taken the classes she oversees, which are held once a week in six-week sessions at the Park Trades Centre.

“A lot of people come in thinking that they need to be really funny or to have their friends and family think that they’re funny,” Tara Sytsma said. “When they let go of that, that’s when they have a really good time. It’s not scripted. It’s breaking down the anxiety of getting in front of each other.”

A typical class begins with a fun theater exercise, which encourages participants to let go and relax. Then they move into skills they can learn through improv, while being encouraging and supportive of one another as they try out those techniques with the group.

In addition to these classes, the couple also puts on corporate training events for clients like Stryker and Newell-Rubbermaid.

“If you’re at all mindful about the way you interact with people and want to be a better friend or co-worker and you really think about how you deal with people, that’s what improv is for,” Dann Sytsma said. “Very few people don’t want to be better at one of those things.

“Improv is not about responding to what’s being said or jumping in and hijacking a conversation because you want to be the focus. It’s about actively listening.”