Kenny Martin/Daily Journal
Brian Ogata, Barbara Anderson, Marc Samuels and Eric Fronberg rehearse before their live Blue Blanket Improv show at Odd Fellows Hall in Half Moon Bay.
If you make your way to Odd Fellows Hall, located on Half Moon Bay’s Main Street, on the second Saturday of the month, you’ll be treated to a night of silly antics and humorous scenarios.
For the cozy, intimate second story of Odd Fellows Hall is where Blue Blanket Improv calls home.
Marc Samuels, 46, founded Blue Blanket Improv in 2001 to create a challenge for himself, and others, and to force himself to keep his wit and mindset sharp. Samuels’ passion for improv started in Southern California, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he was a part of the JFK High School drama program.
“Improv interested me because I liked to mess with people,” Samuels said. “Even in regular shows, I might change a line to see how the other people would react.”
Samuels eventually moved to San Francisco in 2000, and later to Half Moon Bay in 2001, and he started teaching improv classes and workshops at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was going good for a while. Samuels was staying sharp and people were getting good at improv, but then people would leave for other improv clubs and Samuels wasn’t feeling the challenge gained by performing in front of a live audience.
So, Samuels decided to create his own group, and the first auditions were scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001. Due to the events of that morning, however, a second audition date was created. Some people did actually show up to the auditions on Sept. 11, and it seemed to help take people’s minds off the tragedy of the day, but the majority of people came for the postponed tryouts. Originally, Samuels pictured the troupe performing at parks, and he bought blue blankets (for no particular reason) to be the sign to let people know where to go for their entertainment. Thus, the name of the improv troupe was born.
Samuels and the rest of Blue Blanket Improv felt getting paid for performances would complicate things and strain the relationship, so they registered as a non-profit group. For their shows, the group asks for a $10 entrance fee, and all the money they collect goes to various charities such as Best Buddies, a group for those with physical disabilities, or a performing arts scholarship.
Samuels and the rest of the performers are a part of Blue Blanket for the joy they find in it, but it’s not a way for them to make a living. Samuels, by day, works at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, where he has to help heal traumatized Iraqi and Afghani war veterans.
“It’s very disturbing and requires a lot of focused, serious energy,” Samuels said. “I find it very helpful to be in a creative environment where I can do anything silly and it’s OK. We all need therapy, and this is my therapy.”
Brian Ogata, another member of the troupe who teaches public speaking and debate classes at a high school, is enthralled with the feeling of creating a flowing narrative on the fly.
“When you get into a scene that just flows and everything just seems to work out it’s the most amazing experience you could ever have as an improv performer,” Ogata said. “It feels so good that’s the experience you keep coming back for.”
At the shows, all of the scene themes are generated by the audience. No matter the improv game, audiences never fail to come up with humorous situations, such as a father killing his son trying to shoot a grape off his head, getting led to hell by the devil, and then being reunited and bound to his son for the rest of eternity, with the entire scene playing out in movie-musical style.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen in any given scene on any given night — which I enjoy,” Samuels said. “A scene is about developing an interesting story — a beginning, a middle and an end. The hardest part for me is not to gag — saying something funny to get a laugh instead of progressing a story. I want the audience to laugh at the situation, not the dirty word.”
The current members of Blue Blanket Improv are Samuels, Ogata, Steve Ketchpel, Barbara Anderson, Eric Fronberg, Kevin Nova, Todd Sedano, Jen Mazzon and Jasmine Gunkel. To prepare for their live shows, these performers meet every Monday evening in Samuel’s garage for a couple of hours and practice the variety of games in their repertoire.
These performers described the incredible chemistry and trust they have built with each other, through rehearsals and live performances.
“It’s a little bit like jazz,” Anderson said. “Everything’s going to be spontaneous, but it’s also true the more you rehearse and work with the same group of people, the more you know what tune you can play and how they’ll harmonize with it. It seems to me it’s the closest thing to being able to play jazz.”
For more information go to www.blueblanketimprov.com.