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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: January 13, 2016

Two improv comedy groups perform ‘Mixed Nuts’ at Mayo Street Arts in Portland Friday

Written by: Ray Routhier
Mayo Street Arts

The Improvised Puppet Project. Courtesy photo

Take three people armed with puppets and mix them with some teachers who moonlight as improv artists and what do you get?

It’s anybody’s guess.

The only thing for certain is the name of the show, “Mixed Nuts: An Improvised Night of Midwinter Mayhem,” scheduled for Friday night at Mayo Street Arts. The five-member Teachers Lounge Mafia, including teachers from western Maine, will perform for about a half hour. The three-member Improvised Puppet Project, featuring a skunk with a Brooklyn accent, will perform its own set. Then the two groups will perform together, making up scenes as they go, based on audience suggestions.

“It’s a true test of abilities, to be able work with people you don’t normally work with,” said Dan Ryder, an English teacher at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington and a member of Teachers Lounge Mafia. “You have to accept, communicate and trust and understand that 90 percent of communicating is listening.”

A major appeal of improv, for all the hard work it requires, is that it appears to the audience that the performers are playing, just goofing around. So even though the performers practice and have methods to their madness, they are unscripted and spontaneous.

The Improvised Puppet Project likely will do a medical scene of some sort, said member Tara McDonough, because “everyone’s always sick in January.” The members will ask the audience to make suggestions, maybe types of sicknesses or a location, then run with those.

Teachers Lounge Mafia

Teachers Lounge Mafia. Photo by Joni James

The group has about 20 hand-and-rod puppets for just such scenes, and many have developed their own characters (voiced by the members) over the years. There’s a beaver who acts like a “sporty bro guy,” a skunk with a Brooklyn accent and attitude and “a vaguely dragony” creature.

Though they use puppets, the Improvised Puppet Project doesn’t design their shows and material for kids. If there are kids in the audience, they’ll try to “keep it a little more sane, keep it clean,” said McDonough.

McDonough, who works as a grant writer for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, got into improv comedy first and puppets later. Improv has become a popular form, with the popularity of TV shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and McDonough and her colleagues were looking for a way to stand out.

Plus, she likes that the puppets develop their own characters and become like character actors in a play.

“I can play any kind of character, a lamp, a dog, a Russian grandmother,” said McDonough. “But the puppet always looks the way it looks, so it develops its own character. It’s a character short-cut for us.”

Ryder said his love of improv starts with the fact that he likes to make people laugh. But as an English teacher with a passion for creativity, he also loves that improv “allows your head to go wherever it wants, within constraints.”

As for why his group includes several teachers, Ryder thinks the skills that make a good improv performer also help make a good teacher.

“Whatever the kids might be saying might not be what you want them to say; at the same time you don’t want to just negate it, you want to figure out why they said it, is there truth in it?” said Ryder. “In improv, you can’t negate what someone else says because you’d have to start over. You have to find some way to work with it.”

And to get a laugh.


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