The History of BVU Improv


Courtesy of BVU Sawtooth FB Page

Hannah Perry, Arts & Life Editor

In 2007, Dr. Bethany Larson, Professor of Theatre, was reading an American Theatre magazine when she saw an advertisement for a new class being offered from Roosevelt University in Chicago. It was a comedy studies program in partnership with The Second City, which is considered one of the most important sources of improvisation. Upon reading the description of the class, Larson thought it sounded like a great opportunity for theatre and media studies student Phil McLean ‘08, who wanted to explore the reality being a comedian.  

“I loved improv prior to coming to BVU, but during my junior year, Dr. Larson suggested I apply for the Comedy Studies Program at The Second City,” McLean said. “I think studying at Second City impacted my final year at BVU in many ways. Improv Comedy is all about telling jokes and making people laugh, but the fundamental elements of improv teach you valuable skills which alter your behaviors in everyday life.” 

Advocating for McLean, Larson wrote a letter of recommendation while he filled out the application. He was ultimately chosen to be in first class of the comedy studies program in Chicago, which thrilled Larson and Assistant Professor of Theatre, David Walker. When McLean returned from The Second City, Larson asked him to present what he had learned to his peers. With fresh experience and the fundamentals of improvisation under his belt, he felt that he was ready to create Sawtooth, the first improv troupe at BVU.  

Sawtooth met weekly to work on their improvisational skills such as thinking fast and contributing to scenes. They learned various games and used them at events they were hired for, which included an interactive play with the Northwest Iowa Lions Club at King’s Pointe. Before arriving, Larson and the group questioned how they were going to fill the 20-minute time slot with the material they planned to present. To their surprise, the show lasted an hour and a half. 

“They were very much engaged,” Larson said. “We were making things up based on things they were participating with and it was so fun. We did that a few times.” 

As time went on, more students took part in the comedy program at The Second City. Following in the footsteps of McLean, they brought back everything they learned and applied it to Sawtooth. This was the start of the group becoming more student-driven and led to Larson stepping out of the adviser position. 

In recent years, members have had the opportunity to perform before ComedySportz, a staple event during orientation for first year students. Other than the annual entertainment, Sawtooth has steered away from community performances. Instead, Tyler Brunner ‘19, former president of the group, noted that it became more of a leisure activity. 

“I wish we did a little bit more performance-wise, but Sawtooth was really just a way to kick back and have fun after a long and stressful week,” Brunner said. “You could tell anyone who came during our practices, whether they played the games or not, had a great time.” 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions forcing all clubs to meet virtually, Sawtooth is currently at a standstill. Additionally, there are no members and leadership positions have not yet been filled.  

“The president stepped down last year and we have not been able to find a new one,” junior theatre student Sophie Hackbarth said. “There is also not much interest right now. I think the term improv scares most students away. If we were to have it, it would most likely be held over Zoom.” 

While the logistics of continuing with improv at BVU are still being worked out, McLean encourages students to persevere and make the best out of the situation.  

“Improv is all about adapting, because of this I think improv actors have a pretty distinct advantage when it comes to adjusting to COVID-19 times. Put on a Zoom show, use the time to create a revue, hone your skills over the phone. Whatever you do just remember to say yes and remember there are no mistakes,” McLean concluded.