The stage goes dark. “Five. Four. Three. Two,” the cast shouts in unison as the lights stay low. At “one,” the spotlights are back on, and one actor breaks out from a row of eight and steps into character.
Onstage is Armadillo Rodeo, the teenage improv comedy troupe that’s been performing in central Arkansas since 2007. The troupe was started by Katie Campbell and Josh Rice, improv actors themselves as members of Improv Little Rock, to give kids ages 13 to 18 the opportunity to learn improvisational theater skills. According to Armadillo Rodeo’s current director, Brook Scalzo, Campbell and Rice discovered a need for a youth troupe while directing some of the group’s first members one summer at Arkansas Arts Center’s Summer Theatre Academy.
“After Improv Little Rock had such a good response in Little Rock, [the founders] felt that this would be the next logical step, training our youth and getting a young generation involved in the art,” Scalzo says.
George Elrod, now 19, joined Armadillo Rodeo’s first cast in 2007 when he was in the seventh grade. Summer Theatre Academy provided some additional improv classes after regular STA hours, and Elrod joined them almost accidentally.
“I was a camp member and my friend, who was also my ride home, wanted to go to the [improv classes], so we stayed,” he says. “And I’ve been doing improv ever since.”
Augusta Fitzgerald, a rising senior at Little Rock Central High School, also got hooked on improv at STA. “I think the other kids were like 13, and I was 10 and kind of terrified,” she says, “but it was addicting from the beginning.”
When Fitzgerald talks about Armadillo Rodeo, there’s a lot of dialogue about “games” rather than acts and scenes, and “playing” rather than rehearsing, so it’s not surprising that improv as a form of theater would appeal to kids. But the members of Armadillo Rodeo, while best friends, aren’t just goofing around. They’re interested in learning, training, growing personally and expanding their craft. And it shows onstage. While they’re having a blast, there’s a maturity in their interactions with the audience and the ways they carry themselves through one scene to the next. Their remarks are clever and their timing, impressive.
Fitzgerald admits improv acting doesn’t come as easy as it might look. “It’s terrifying to know these people are paying money to come see you, and it’s not like a play where it’s like, ‘Oh well, at least the writing is great.’ I could very well disappoint these people.” Now headed into her third season with the Rodeo, Fitzgerald says those pre-show jitters have faded, but she’ll get stuck in the middle of a scene, worrying about awkward pauses or how to work out the next scene. “It definitely keeps you going,” she says. “It’s more like an adrenaline thing.”
Besides, Fitzgerald says Scalzo stresses the importance of reacting naturally and honestly in improv. “That’s where the comedy comes from, is whenever the audience can watch something they relate to and maybe feel a little uncomfortable or awkward, but it’s honest, and that’s when you get the most laughs,” Fitzgerald says.
Armadillo Rodeo has done more than open central Arkansas teens’ eyes to the world of improv comedy. Fitzgerald says the experience has given her more confidence in herself. “I was extremely shy and meek going into it,” she says. “There’s no way [improvising] can’t make you feel more confident. You’re thinking on your feet in front of a hundred people, and after a while, you start to feel more capable of talking in front of a crowd.”
Elrod, now attending DePaul University, says his time in Armadillo Rodeo prepared him for the acting scene in Chicago. (In addition to joining his school’s improv team, Elrod is also currently a student in the renowned iO Theater's training program). “People in Chicago say I make ‘bold choices’ for someone my age,” Elrod says. “I don’t know what they mean half the time, but I think they mean I have strong confidence for an [19-year-old].”
The money from Armadillo Rodeo’s performances funds an annual learning trip to Chicago in June. This year the troupe saw shows by The Second City, iO Theater and The Improvised Shakespeare Co. and had two three-hour training workshops led by a member of Improvised Shakespeare. The highlight of the weekend? Getting pulled onstage to improvise with iO in front of a regular audience, Fitzgerald says.
Elrod credits those annual trips to Chicago and his years in Armadillo Rodeo with his decision to pursue improv in his adulthood. “There are dozens of improv and sketch theaters in Chicago, and the community here is supportive and competitive at the same time,” Elrod says. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Armadillo Rodeo. They started my initial interest and provided me a group of people I can count on to this day.”
Armadillo Rodeo’s final performances of the year are June 20-21 at The Public Theatre and June 26 at The Joint. Visit facebook.com/ArmadilloRodeoLR for showtimes.