Smile Politely

A ship that doesn’t sink

1994 was a remarkable year for American culture. Friends paved the way for chatty, sit-around sitcoms, and Justin Bieber graced the world with his birth. But, more importantly, five guys named Mike Abdelsayed, Zev Steinberg, Eric Siegel, Paul Caperson, and Eric Roth established the Titanic Improv Players at Northwestern University. It wasn’t until 2008, however, that the team was established here at the U of I.

It’s possibe that many people still don’t quite know what improv comedy is or how it can be differentiated from stand up. According to Sara Costello, the group’s current president, “Improv deals with a relationship around a story,” as opposed to focusing on one particular person’s perspective. It’s definitely an art form that is conducive to storytelling and character development.

Remember the golden rule: there are no rules.

Of course, Titanic isn’t the only improv group that has found a home on the University’s vast campus. There are a handful of other groups that coexist and collaborate with one another as well. What sets Titanic apart from the pack is that they foster multiple groups simultaneously, something that is wholly unique to them. Each team begins as a core group that is given the opportunity to learn and experiment with the fundamentals of improv. Thus, instead of performing as a large conglomerate of approximately twenty people, they break up into four different, static teams that perform together all throughout college.

Although one could argue that there are benefits to allowing the teams to mix and match, a huge advantage to sticking with the same group for years is that each sub-group comes to understand each other on two levels – professionally and personally. The level of comfort that each person has with his or her teammates is undeniable, and this plays to the improvisers’ abilities to trust their fellow players. The result: a more engaging and entertaining show for the audience and performers alike.  Consequently, this helps to achieve the central goal of having a “one group mind.” The level of predictability and personal knowledge should derive from set practices as well as time set aside for team bonding.

For more information about Titanic, I spoke with Terrance Rogers, a Titanic player and a junior at U of I.


Smile Politely: What makes Titanic different from other improv groups on campus?

Terrance Rogers: One of the special things about being on a Titanic team is that you have a group of people that you grow with from the first day until you graduate. A new team is built each year, and that time matriculates together until they leave UIUC. Having a group that learns the same improv skills and techniques at the same pace as you do helps with creating a better understanding of the craft, increases what we call the “group mind”—think of it as the improvisers’ cloud—and just makes improvising much more enjoyable.

SP: How would you differentiate improv from stand up comedy? 

Rogers: The biggest difference is the team aspect. In stand up, it is usually just you and the mic. In improv, your creativity is bounced off the other players on stage with you. Another key point is that the improviser should never try to be funny. The humor and laughter that the audience experiences is usually at the expense of the very familiar relationship being portrayed on stage (i.e. the hilarity that ensues when a daughter tells her dad how uncool he is and seeing him try to get cooler through the set) versus a punchline that has been refined over time. 

SP: Do you ever collaborate with other groups or is it more of an enclosed experience?

Rogers: The one word I can use to explain UIUC Improv is incestuous. So many of the players on our Titanic teams are on other teams on campus. We have the unique ability of taking the skills we use in our other teams to influence our improv in Titanic. It is such a collaborative atmosphere; the way art should be! We oftentimes have guest practices within our Titanic world where we combine teams and have an all-out improv jam. Those are my favorite!

SP: What is it like to coach the newest Titanic team while simultaneously being a member of an older team?

Rogers: Weird! It’s super interesting to think that this time two years ago, I was learning the exact same skills I am teaching the babies. It is such a rewarding feeling to be able to articulate the madness that is going on in your brain while performing to a group of people who, for the most part, think you’re speaking a different language. Then, you see them on stage destroying it, and you look over at the other teams coaches like, “Yeah, I taught them that.” Being a coach also informs the way I play, too. It’s just great to be able to start from the basics from time to time. 

SP: What should an audience member expect when coming to watch a Titanic show? Any audience participation?

Rogers: We couldn’t do what without the audience’s participation. Titanic focuses on the art of long-form improvisation, meaning the audience should expect more a play than quick Whose Line Is It, Anyway? games. Each team takes an audience member’s one-word suggestion and creates a 30(ish)-minute piece on the spot. Be on the lookout for opportunities to be “a part of the show.” I’ve seen sets where the improvisers section the audience into parts of a school band and have them play their “instruments” to transition from scene to scene. Really, no one truly knows what to expect sometimes. Just live in the moment! 


For those who are interested in learning more about Titanic or just want to attend a show, they have an official Facebook page along with monthly performances located at the Courtyard Café in the Union. Titanic is a wonderfully inclusive group that doesn’t ask for any previous experience, “just a willingness to put yourself out there and say, ‘Yes, and!’”

Related Articles