Matthew Lalanne / Mustang News


That is the name that all new members in the Cal Poly student improvisation group Smile and Nod go by.

Smile and Nod started in 1998 as a theater student’s senior project. It has since grown into a large improv group that sees 80 to 100 students audition each quarter, all competing to become part of the troupe. The noobs work hard to get a spot on the team and going through a unique audition and callback process.

New quarter, new members

The first Friday of every quarter, Smile and Nod hosts auditions for students. The auditions are usually done in short form improv, a type of improvisational theater based on short games that encourage quick thinking and following others’ leads, as opposed to long form improv, a longer scene. After the initial auditions, members deliberate and call back 10 to 12 of the potential noobs. They then practice long form improv with the current members of Smile and Nod to see how they can fit into the performances.

Mechanical engineering senior and Smile and Nod member Brianna Rodebaugh described the first part of auditions as “silly” with a lot of fun games. She said the callbacks are “more intensive, more involved and less structured.” Once the final noobs are selected, they begin rehearsing right away to prepare for the first show of the quarter the following week.

Smile and Nod rehearses twice a week and has performances every Saturday during the first few weeks of each quarter. The group also puts on workshops throughout these weeks that are open to the public. These workshops focus on learning something new and playing improv games, such as New Choice.
New Choice is a game where someone starts a scene and the referee can yell out “new choice” if they want the original performer to restart the scene with the “new choice” as the new focal point of the scene.

“The free weekly improv workshops helped get me going and gain confidence,” aerospace engineering sophomore and member of Smile and Nod Paul Levinson-Muth said. “When I first got on the team, I felt like they had made a mistake, but the workshops made me feel like I can improve to a point where I will be contributing.”

Rehearsals are more structured and exclusive to only Smile and Nod members. There is a lot of work the comedians put into preparing for shows. When you think improv, you might automatically assume that it’s done on the fly, but in reality they put in countless hours every week to hone in their skills and practice thinking on their feet.

YouTube video

Video by Amanda Fridley

Living in the on-stage moments

When asked what they think about during performances or if they can recall a favorite scene or game, Smile and Nod members had surprising answers.
“I don’t actually remember the scenes or any specific moments. I am in the moment and then it’s gone,” Levinson-Muth said.

“Yeah I just blackout,” Rodebaugh said.

Though they can’t always remember specific moments, both Levinson-Muth and Rodebaugh agreed that some of their favorite times in Smile and Nod are the noob shows. After the noobs’ first quarter in Smile and Nod, they perform a show. Alumni come to watch and it’s a big deal to debut the new members.
“Being a noob was intense, but fun,” Levinson-Muth said. “It is amazing to have the opportunity to improvise with so many talented people, but at the same time it is very intimidating,.”

The pirate show is also a big hit among the Smile and Nod members. They do one every quarter. It is exactly what it sounds like, a pirate-themed improv show. It got its start in true Smile and Nod improvisational style.

“Someone in our group created a Facebook event for one of our shows and just decided to make it pirate themed without talking to anyone. And then we did so and followed his lead and had a blast,” Rodebaugh said.

International improv

Competitions are also an aspect of the improv troupe. Smile and Nod travels to Scotland every two years to participate in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest performing arts festival in the world.

“If people in the community knew that we had a team nearby that does comedy in Scotland at an international festival, I think they would be more interested in seeing it, as opposed to just hearing it’s a college thing,” biology senior Sasha Smolgovsky, one of the managers of Smile and Nod, said. “It would make it seem like we are competitive, we take this seriously; it’s not just like a group of friends that make jokes after school.”

In competitions, a large number of groups will usually perform a 30-minute long-form set. The judges narrow down the groups to just a few that will perform in the finals. The groups then perform another set and the judges choose a winner.

These competitions judge how well improvisers connect with one another, how well they can build off each other and how well the group is able to create a scene that everyone can follow along with.

“A common misconception is that improv is judged by how funny it is,” Smolgovsky said. “In reality, the comedy and humor is only found if critical improv fundamentals are in place. Usually, if a group does well in all of those areas, they end up being one of the funniest groups around.”

Graphic by Demitria Castanon

Smile and Nod travels nationally to compete and perform as well. Last year the group was runner up at the College Improv Tournament that allowed them a spot in the San Francisco Improv Festival.

“Competitions aren’t our main focus, but the San Francisco Improv Tournament was great because we got to meet a lot of people,” Rodebaugh said.

“Competitions are fun, because they are so different from what we usually do.”

More than just an improv group

Smile and Nod does more than just comedy shows. They like to give back to the community as often as they can. They have a partnership with Safer, the sexual assault awareness group on campus.

“With Safer, we have developed a Sexual Assault Awareness Show that has been performed during WOW for the past two years,” Smolgovsky said. “We cover topics such as sexual assault, dating violence and stalking for incoming freshmen and transfer students. We also do a domestic violence show during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”

Smile and Nod wants to continue to give back as well as increase the amount of shows and competitions they are able to perform in.

“The group has grown in every possible way since its inception and we would love for that growth to continue,” Smolgovsky said.

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