FORT SMITH — To Luke Perkinson, being funny is serious business. Nowhere is this more evident than inside the performance and dance area of Lost Beach in Fort Smith.
Perkinson works during the day as a digital solutions consultant for Preferred Office Products in Fort Smith, but he has a passion for performance. And that passion has led him to organize Naturally Improv-Able, Fort Smith’s first improv comedy troupe.
On Sunday night (Aug. 12), the group held its first workshop at Lost Beach, a popular local nightclub. As Perkinson scrounges around for items he’ll use in an exercise later, he notices the slurred rattle of drunken speech from one of about 40 in attendance.
The woman sits at the back of the room, nursing a beer and spouting her ideas of what improv is. “You know what that means?” she slurs.
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Perkinson says, determined to continue.
“Oh, it’s improv, but you’re gonna shut me down.”
“This is a speech that I’ve already prepared. I’m not interested in having you help out with it.”
With that, Perkinson jumps from his description of what it means to choose a character into the importance of finding a motivation for your character in the midst of a scene.
The woman mumbles something to one of the men at her table in a decidedly quieter tone. She hangs around for several more minutes but doesn’t dare cross Perkinson again.
He has a strong voice and an unflinching confidence of what it means to do improv. Perhaps this would be no surprise at Chicago’s Second City, where Perkinson spent some time. Nor would it be an eye-opener if you knew about his degree in communications and media studies from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. But in a town recognized for its manufacturing industry, it does awaken one’s inner skeptic.
Undeterred, Perkinson encourages the attendees to “find the game” within the scene.
“If Amy jumps in to a scene, and she decides she’s going to be an old, decrepit lady, and her motivation is to bend over and grab her pills, and I come in and decide my character is going to be the hospital administrator, and my motivation is to get all the patients back in to their rooms, I’m already starting to think about what the game is there,” Perkinson said.
“She’s going to be avoiding me, trying to get to her medication, and I’m going to be trying to get her back in that room. As soon as you get that character and motivation and that last one — find the game — you’ve got a really good scene on your hands.”
After Perkinson explained what he’s looking for from the improv hopefuls, he selects some volunteers for the first improv game of the night.
Volunteers are assigned characters, whose motivations are to shoot a getting-to-know-you video for a dating site. As the volunteers get in to their characters and the rest howl with laughter, the woman at the back sits quietly. Halfway in, she leaves, aware tonight’s one-woman show has found the wrong audience.
Perkinson doesn’t notice. He’s too busy directing and participating with his own personal Second City players on the dance floor just below the Tiki stage.
To observers, some of the attempts at humor fall flat. Others are raunchy for the sake of being raunchy, and the laughs that come are uncomfortable at best. But as the night rolls on and the players begin to find their confidence, those not laughing before begin to smile and chuckle and join in with applause.
Perkinson looks pleased at intermission, feeling he’s met his objective for the night — to educate Fort Smith on what to expect from Naturally Improv-Able.
Perkinson foresees a handful of performers handling live performances, while fostering up-and-coming talent in a development and workshop program. The interest is certainly there. Perkinson launched the group’s Facebook page and had 207 “likes” nine days later.
Naturally Improv-Able has even booked its first gig at Doe’s Eat Place in Fort Smith on Oct. 5, and it will attend Second City’s performance of Second City for President at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville on Saturday (Aug. 18). They’ll come together for their second workshop on Sunday (Aug. 19) and likely share what they liked and didn’t like about the Second City troupe while the performance is still fresh in their minds.
Perkinson also said he is working with a grant writer to help with attaining non-profit status for the group.
“There’s a lot of interest. I definitely think that, this day and time in Fort Smith, Arkansas, they’re looking for some type of performing art that is something other than live music,” he said. “People in this area want to go see something live, but they don’t necessarily want to see music six nights a week.”
He believes there are “definitely five to seven people here,” who can meet the demands of professionalism that improv requires. He points out stand-up comedian Seth Dees.
“[Seth] was in charge of The Expendables Comedy Tour, and does stand-up comedy every single week. Rham Cunningham is an ad exec at Williams-Crawford and will help us generate local interest.”
The two men are also fearless performers, ready to jump in to the middle of a scene and go with the flow.
Nathan Jones is another standout performer. He steals the show in a Razorback T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. You wouldn’t know it from his dress, but he’s a detective trying to coerce a confession from his suspect. The audience has chosen the crime: the perpetrator stole paperclips from Fuji’s Sushi Bar on 74th Street. The “perp” stands outside the room when these selections are made. It will be the perp’s job to confess to stealing the items and to name the place he stole them from, but it will be Jones’ job to pull that confession out of him without stating the words themselves.
At one point, the perp misreads Jones’ barrage of questions and confesses to taking the refrigerator magnets. Jones leaps from his chair and grabs the perp by the shirt collar.
“Okay, I tried playing good cop. Now you’re getting bad cop!”
Generally, the audience saves its applause for the end. This time, they can’t wait.