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Give my regards to Case

Improv added mirth and memories to the quest for an engineering degree

By Jack Routhier ’20

From the start of my second year at Case up until a pandemic upended campus life, I had maybe four free Saturday nights. An outsider might assume I was studying, being a biomedical engineering major. But on a Saturday night? To my parents’ chagrin, no.

Saturday nights at 9 p.m., students squeezed into the Eldred Blackbox, a tiny basement theater usually far too warm. But it was all worth it when the lights dimmed, the music sounded and a cast member burst through the back door, welcoming everybody to “IMPROVment: Case Western Reserve University’s Premiere Short Form Improv Musical Comedy Troupe!”

I was a cast member and a pianist for the troupe. We would perform about eight different improvised scenes, each based around different “game” mechanics and fueled by random suggestions from the audience. Half of the games would usually be music based, with either myself or the other pianist scoring the scene or providing something for the actors to sing over. These shows were the highlight of my week.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my major. I’m happily employed in my field, designing wheelchairs at Invacare. But college is stressful. You can start to feel helpless and alone. The troupe was a fantastic support system to counteract exactly that. Every week, when we went onstage, I knew the other members would be there to back me up no matter what I said or did.

You see, one of the things you learn quickly about improv is that you’re going to make mistakes. In so many situations, a mistake can feel horrible. But sometimes a mistake is the best thing that can happen during an improv scene. In one show, I realized the piano had been unplugged, but the actors were ready for me to start playing. I was terrified. I nervously began drumming on the piano, and the actor onstage took that as her cue and began to sing. The audience figured it was intentional. They loved it. I was just grateful my singer had stepped up to help. But it’s what we were out there to do: Support each other.

Perhaps the best example of the troupe displaying ultimate support while serving as an escape from coursework was the infamous Jalapenbros Show. It’s an idea we lifted from an improv show that some of us caught in New York City. Any time one of the cast members adopted a new character, everybody ate a jalapeno pepper. Naturally, we brought the idea back to campus.

The night of the show — September 22, 2018 — we set a table loaded with the peppers centerstage, promising our audience all would be gone by the end of the night. We thought we were prepared, with jugs of milk backstage. Mistakes were made, tears were shed, but the peppers disappeared. I ate four in three minutes while trying to play somebody a serenade. And what did we do the next year? We tried to top it with the Habanerbros Show.

That’s what improv was. A group to commit with me and to me, in big moments and stupid ones.

There’s a lot I loved about Case — being a part of an exciting research lab, playing trumpet in jazz bands. But the time spent with the troupe created my biggest laughs, proudest moments and closest friends. There’s no feeling like the pure joy of nailing a musical punchline and getting your audience to laugh. That is, until after the show, when the people you admire most say, “DUDE! That timing during internal?”

I don’t know when or if I’ll get that chance again, but I’m thankful I found the group when I did.

Jack is an associate development engineer for Invacare Corp. Give him your regards at jtr76@case.edu.

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