At the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood, the improv group Improvisos Peligrosos is performing a "Harold."
"If you’ve never seen a Harold before, it’s just a type of long-form improvisation that we teach here at UCB. It’s pretty hard to do even in English — and we’re going to do it in Spanish," said the group's co-founder, Brandon Gardner.
Improvisos Peligrosos is a rarity in the improv scene in that it performs in Spanish.
The troupe formed at UCB in New York in 2009, but has since relocated to Los Angeles, a city where around 40 percent of the population speaks Spanish. Now Improvisos founders Veronica Osorio and Gardner are hoping to bring more Spanish-speaking Latinos into the improv world.
"I found out that Brandon speaks Spanish, so we were talking about ideas of how to do it, because there weren’t that many native speakers at the time who were doing improv," said Osorio.
"I could think of more improvisors who took Spanish in high school than I could think of that were fluent. We're like, the gringos," said Gardner.
The solution? A mix of Spanish-fluent improvisors and people who took some Spanish in high school. Gardner is part of the latter group.
"Even right now, I would not consider myself fluent. It’s just at the level that I can participate in the show in a way that’s functional," said Gardner.
The performers all have varying levels of Spanish proficiency, so most of the show is actually in Spanglish. Also, each performance begins with an English-language portion, so the “no hablo español” crowd can follow along.
"It’s half native Spanish-speakers and half gringos who speak Spanish, and that’s basically so that English-speakers can identify," said Osorio. "With your basic high school Spanish, you're probably going to get a lot out of it. I also think the people who are second language — the improvisors — do create a bridge for the people who are in the audience and don’t speak Spanish, because they see them, like… struggle."
Improv is all about quick thinking and reacting, but the gringos on the team find themselves second-guessing their instincts in Spanish in a way they might not in English. It’s a great lesson in how performers with limited English might be intimidated to try improv, and why Improvisos may inspire them to try their hand at it.
Tony Rodriguez is a Cuban-American actor who joined Improvisos in New York, but who now lives and performs with them here in Los Angeles.
"I have found it liberating to sort of bust out in Spanish," said Rodriguez. "When you do comedy, sometimes you pull from family, from relatives, from friends that you know. It's liberating to just be able to bust out and be—"
"Your grandma?" said Osorio.
"Yeah, I do that a lot. I'm usually my grandmother in shows," said Rodriguez.
Just like a New Zealander, a Briton, a Texan and a New Yorker may all speak English differently, the Improvisos performers all speak different forms of Spanish — and at different speeds.
"I do speak fast. It's an opportunity to go into Cubanisms and be obnoxious, but sometimes there will be pockets of laughter, and it's like, ‘All right, Puerto Ricans are in the house because they just got that slang reference.' I don't know what they're saying." said Rodriguez.
"Yeah, same. I know when there are Venezuelans in the audience. I just know. Because I'm saying things the way I say it, and there's, like, a three-person laugh. And I'm like, 'Oh yeah—there they are,’" said Osorio.
But it’s not only about giving the talent new outlets onstage. To Osorio—who first learned improv back in Venezuela from the Argentinean comic Domingo Mondongo—it’s also about showing people who didn’t grow up speaking English that improv is an art form that could be for them.
"For the longest time, I never saw students who were like me—maybe someone who didn't grow up in the country and is a woman pursuing comedy," said Osorio. "I feel like it's maybe some cultures don't think of this as a career and it's never been in their countries and they maybe don't think it could maybe be for me. If they don't see other people like me doing it. I feel like there's little amount of people like me coming to this place."
"Yeah, UCB is more and more a mainstream thing, but improv comedy in general has always been alternative comedy, and it's a smaller thing...now it's getting more diverse in every kind of way, but slowly, in steps," said Gardner.
At one recent show, Carlitos Ruiz was in the audience. He’s a member of another Spanish-language improv troupe. He came to the show to see how Improvisos makes it work.
"We’re finding our voice doing it. These guys did it first and there’s always the pressure to see that there’s things happening at the same time," said Ruiz. "I think there is a demand, but the clientele doesn’t know it yet. As soon as they start having the experience they’re gonna want more, because per capita, there’s a lot of Latinos. There’s going to be a demand very soon."