A Comedic Community in Bethlehem: Steelstacks’ House Team Improv Show

While Frank Banko Theater is primarily known for providing exceptional contemporary and classic screenings of film, the theater also offers live shows organized by the House Improv team. Throughout the year, Improv comedy shows are offered regularly and feature the comedic talents of Lehigh Valley locals who are both quick thinkers and engaging actors. On Thursday May 30th, the House Team Improv Show included two improv troupes, Hot Gym and Thor’s Mom. These troupes consist of Lehigh Valley locals who have graduated from the improv courses offered at the Banana Factory. In lieu of a graduation ceremony, the improv actors perform a graduation show, and are then eligible to audition for the house improv troupes at the theater. In addition to the House Team Improv Shows, these members are also able to participate in the theater’s Thunderdome and JAM-BER-EE improv shows.

Their recent show began with the two hosts, Cindy Marsh and Danielle Tampier, running onstage with an excited, vibrant energy. The pair welcomed the crowd, and asked if there was anyone in attendance who had never been to an improv show before. A few hands tentatively rose up, prompting Marsh to provide a reassuring and welcoming explanation of what they could expect from the show. Importantly, Marsh emphasized that improv comedy is difficult to summarize accurately because of the nature of its spontaneity. Marsh also briefly explained that improv is a form of comedic acting without a script or plan for the performance, forcing the actors to think quickly to create entertaining scenarios on the spot. This unique quality of improv helps to create a community in which performers and the audience develop a trusting relationship, as the audience trusts the actors to entertain and the actors trust the audience to keep an open mind. Marsh and Tampier also explained that the House Team Improv Show was organized with the purpose of showcasing individual performances by local troupes. Rather than having the two troupes compete, like they would in the Thunderdome Improv Show, they both are given the space to perform without the pressure of winning or losing.

Pictured: Improv troupe Hot Gym on stage acting out a scene.

The troupe Hot Gym, a quintet, took the stage first. The group did not introduce themselves individually, choosing instead to run on stage and strike various gym poses and flex their muscles, instantly sparking laughter from the audience. As is common during an improv show, the troupe asked the crowd for a location to set their scene. “Disney World!” a member of the audience shouted quickly, and the actors immediately got to work, describing a fountain, a man dressed as Darth Vader who had dropped his expensive ice cream, and a bored balloon vendor. Their thinking was quick and instantly hilarious for the crowd as they scrambled to get into character. The actors worked together to craft a story on the spot, and as the time passed they changed their scene whenever one of the members had a new idea, requiring everyone in the theatre to pay close attention. Hot Gym portrayed moments at Disney World, depicting interactions between the various Disney actors at the parks, portraying the families that visit, and even exploring alternate futures for the Disney character, Goofy. In each scene the troupe practiced physical comedy and used their bodies to simulate costumes and props that they did not have at their disposal in order to create an immersive experience. Channeling an excitement for this upcoming summer, Hot Gym’s scene choices exemplified that vacations are often memorable for all of the things that can go wrong. In one scene the group portrays a family attempting to change a flat tire while on their way to Disney World, and in another they address the difficulty of dealing with a child’s tantrums while around others. These scenes are frustrating at the moment, but later become the elements of lifelong family memories. After about 30 minutes, the lights dimmed in the theater, and Hot Gym took their exit off stage in order to make room for the next troupe, Thor’s Mom.

Pictured: Improv troupe Thor’s Mom on stage acting out a scene.

Thor’s Mom, a quartet of actors, jumped on stage thrumming with energy. Similarly to Hot Gym, the group began their performance by asking for a suggestion from the crowd, but instead of asking for a location, they asked for a “type of relationship you might see at an ice cream shop,” to which one audience member responded, “Lovers!” The troupe quickly set the scene, with two of the four members pulling chairs close together and sharing ice cream as lovers might do, which soon escalated with the two planning their lives together. Thor’s Mom specialized in speedy scene changes, and did so when any of the members clapped twice. Working together, the group would freeze and then jump into action. Throughout their time on stage, they explored various new scenes with different characters, and brought these scenes to life with timely physical comedy that aimed to prioritize dynamic relationships. They crafted scenes that focused on romantic relationships, mother-daughter tensions, and workplace etiquette, establishing several separate storylines in the process. Noticeably, the troupe prioritized revisiting their previous scenes, employing more physical comedy each time. In the first scene, they showcased the two lovers tamely sharing an ice cream, but by the fourth visit to that scene the lovers were so physical with one another that they were kicked out of the shop. In another setting, Thor’s Mom pretended to skydive from a hot air balloon, beginning with a simple jump, and ending with the actors running off the stage itself. 

By the end of the night the community feeling in the theater was palpable. Both of the troupes referenced the Bethlehem area numerous times, including popular locations, such as SteelStacks, Lehigh University, and Bethlehem Steel. These jokes and references were always met with cheers. Local Improv comedy shows, such as House Team Improv, allow for the community to enjoy shows that reference specific aspects of our region. Improv shows also encourage the actors to be unabashedly silly and practice physical comedy in a space without judgment. The audience left the theater feeling like a part of a special, genuine community that prioritizes creativity and individuality.

The House Team Improv Show is a recurring event at Frank Banko. The theater additionally hosts other improv shows, including the Thunderdome where two improv teams compete against each other. In addition to housing already established improv troupes, SteelStacks also offers three levels of improv courses for new and experienced improv actors. For more information about Frank Banko theater and the various opportunities to watch or participate in improv acting head to Comedy — SteelStacks.

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