The Creeping Laughter

By: Roy Janik

The rehearsal process leading up to the opening of the Black Vault has been an interesting one.

The Black Vault tells improvised dramatic horror stories in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. Since 90% of all improv is deliberately comedic in nature, that’s kind of an intimidating prospect.

Will the audience get it? Will they like it?

But last week’s debut cemented and proved something that we experienced with shows like The Violet Underbelly, Austin Secrets, and Charles Dickens Unleashed. The audience will find the show hilarious, even if you’re not (especially if you’re not?) trying to be funny. And not in a making fun of your bad acting kind of way. They’ll find reasons to laugh. This happens for several reasons.

Dramatic Tension

When you really commit to a serious scene, you build tension in the audience. Everyone gets quiet. The further you go towards the uncomfortableness or danger, the more tension you create. The audience is still, on the edge of their seat, waiting to see what happens next.

This is scary, because it’s hard to tell if they’re bored or interested. When you’re on the stage you can’t really see the audience at all, so you only have audio cues to go off of. I daydream about sensors being installed in all the seats that measure the amount each audience member is leaning forward in interest. Maybe if we made everyone sit on Wii Fits and… anyway, it’s not practical.

But the thing is, the more that tension builds, the more the audience craves release. That’s where the payoff comes.

The very first thing that happens that is the slightest bit funny will get a HUGE laugh. It’ll burst forward in an explosive wave.

It actually can be a little disconcerting in the moment. You’re up there doing a creepy story of death and horrible mind-destroying forces, and the audience is laughing!


And that’s another big part of the equation. There’s an expectation at an improv show that it’s okay to react and laugh. I love that. I love that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to stifle their responses. They’ve come to have a good time, and they’re loose enough to laugh when they feel the urge.

Winning by Not Trying

Something we teach from the very beginning of level one is that you should never try to be funny. There are some super clever, quick-witted people out there, but I am not one of them. But by reacting realistically, being obvious, listening, and committing to my character and the presented situation, I can still make an audience laugh. The comedy will come out of the situation, out of the truth of the interactions, out of the unintentional mistakes that become gifts, out of the absurdity of existence. The fastest way to kill the comedy is to try to be funny. If you sell out the reality of the scene for a laugh, the scene is over. You’ve broken the universe, and destroyed the trust of the audience.

I guess all of this is to say that while The Black Vault is a non-winking study in improvised horror, it is also hilarious. And that’s awesome.

The Black Vault runs on Saturdays at 8pm in September and October. Tickets are available online.

1 Comment

  1. Great mini-essay! Saw TBV for the first time tonight and was impressed with so much, including the great job the cast did of not letting incongruous laughter throw them off. Fantastic show! I’ll be there every Saturday as long as I’m in town.

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