This past January, UNT's improv group, Roll Out the Barrel, nabbed first place at the College Improv Tournament (CIT) Southwest Regional. This marks the second consecutive Southwest Regional win for UNT, with last year's group, Cell Block Tango, taking home the prize in 2014.
Roll Out the Barrel members Cotton Hensley, Seth Jones, Jason Pollard, and Jose Rodriguez (all UNT students) will head to Chicago March 14 to compete for the national prize. But first, they're throwing a big, free comedy bash, the UPC Spring Comedy Festival, in Denton Friday.
The comedy circuit in Denton is slowly taking hold, and UNT's improv club has grown considerably since its inception about seven years ago. (The exact date is unknown. "It's a mysterious tapestry of history I might never see," Pollard says.) In the beginning, it was just a group of friends meeting in Wooten Hall to practice, with no ties to the university. "They were very underground," Pollard says. "They just looked for an empty room and hung out in there. But they still hosted shows, just without getting permission, basically. A very, like, punk rock start." But thanks in large part to the efforts of former UNT Improv member Daniel Matthews, who now performs and teaches improv at the Dallas Comedy House, UNT Improv became an official club in 2013.
Now, every Monday night inside UNT's Wooten Hall, the club holds a workshop and a jam (where everyone can go up and play), which is open to both students and non-students. Twenty-five to 30 people show up each week to create characters, build scenes and, essentially, play make-believe. Then each Wednesday, Roll Out the Barrel and UNT Improv student troupe, Panda Expressions, put on a show in Wooten Hall.
Performing improv comedy is a bit of an obsession for the guys, and is something all of them discovered early on.
Jason Pollard, club president, and Seth Jones, club vice president, were first introduced to improv their sophomore year in high school through none other than Daniel Matthews, who went to high school with Pollard and Jones. Matthews was captain of the school's short-form improv troupe, Wisecracks, and eventually recruited Pollard and Jones into the group.
Jose Rodriguez also discovered improv during his sophomore year in high school. Through his school's theatre class, he immediately fell in love with the art form. He went to his first UNT Improv meeting two years ago and has gone ever since. "I thoroughly enjoy it and the members involved," he says. "The group has helped and allowed me to continuously grow in improv."
After performing stand up around Denton for a year, Cotton Hensley, club treasurer, searched UNT's organization database and stumbled upon UNT Improv. "I was expecting it to be a stand up club, but it was so much better," he says. "After going to the first meeting I got addicted and came back every week to learn more improv. ... I performed more with Jason Pollard and developed a good chemistry with him. I worked closely with him within our organization, and that is where I was introduced to Seth Jones and Jose Rodriguez. We began practicing together as Roll Out the Barrel, and started building chemistry with each other. It's been an awesome experience."
"[Improv] has made me more accepting, I think," Pollard says. "With people and with situations in general, I'm a lot more likely to try something I've never tried before, because that's the kind of mindset --"
"Every time you do improv, you're about to do something you've never done before," Jones says.
"So it kind of helps with confidence and accepting what comes at you, which is good for life, I'd say, "Pollard says.
"It's definitely made me more confident, "Jones says. "I've become a lot more social and just kinda comfortable ... it made me not afraid to look dumb sometimes."
"Improv to me means entertaining people," Rodriguez says. "I love to make an audience feel like they are having a fun time watching me. Also, the overwhelming support from fellow improvisers makes the dedication that the team and I have for improv even more rewarding."
"I'd have to say it's therapy," Hensley says. "I internalize my emotions, which gives me a stoic look. I don't think people think of me as a 'funny' guy when they see me at first. Improv makes it where I can release those emotions, while showing people I'm not just a wooden persona. Not to mention, it introduced me to the most important people in my life. It's just awesome."
The UPC Spring Comedy Festival will be 8-10 p.m. Friday, March 5 in the UNT Auditorium building and will feature improv and stand up.
Ron Lechler will MC, and acts include: Roll Out the Barrel, Martin Urbano, David and Terry, Josh Johnson, Photobomb and Paul Varghese.
Entry is free to all.