Kalamazoo-based improv troupe ‘comes out’ with a divine comedy

By |2018-01-16T02:06:45-05:00April 13th, 2006|Entertainment|

KALAMAZOO – It seems only natural that an improv comedy team on the road to its first-ever international improv festival might want to bring a video camera along to record its journey. That’s just what members of the Kalamazoo-based Crawlspace Eviction did last year – but with a twist.
“Initially, the plan was to bring along Dan Jones, who’s shot a lot of our shows to have like a documentary,” James Sanford, an original member of the improv group, told Between The Lines last week. “And then the idea came up about what if we made it more of a ‘mockumentary’ – where we’re playing a fictional troupe that’s going to Toronto.”
And thus was born “Comic Evangelists,” an improvisational movie that has its world premiere April 14 and 15 at the Little Theater on the campus of Western Michigan University.
Like their real-life counterparts, the Comic Evangelists are on their way to the 2005 Toronto International Improv Festival. But that’s where the similarities end, as the Evangelists are a small-town, church-based troupe that’s eager to spread their evangelical brand of Christianity to a much larger audience. It’s a journey they, and the actors portraying them, won’t soon forget.
“We never had a script, per se,” Sanford said, explaining that the actors knew only how their characters related to one another and little more. “There was never any real structure about it. It was all very much off-the-cuff.”
While such an improvisational approach to filmmaking can be fun, it can also be problematic, as co-directors Jones and Dann Sytsma discovered after plowing through eight hours of footage. “Because we didn’t have a script, [Dan Jones] was really stuck trying to shape something out of it. So we had to shoot a lot of ‘book-ending’ material after we came back, and a lot of interview inserts that bridged gaps. And in some cases, we had to shoot some wrap-ups,” Sanford said.
Stress – and real life – also played an important role in shaping the film, Sanford noted. “As a group, we all spend a lot of time together, but it’s a different experience when you’re with people pretty much twenty-four hours a day for four or five days. It certainly made for an interesting twist in the film.”
Another was the development of a plotline that eventually became the film’s focus. “We didn’t really know where we were going [with the story] until we got there,” recalled actor Adam Carter, who plays Nigel, a troupe member who comes out to the others after arriving in Toronto. As you might expect, the news is not particularly well received. “In my past, I was in a youth group and kind of had a similar experience – coming out in a Christian environment. So that was something I could easily pull from, so we decided that’s where we were going with it.”
Every good story needs conflict, of course, and this plot development was just what the movie needed. “I think we were all relieved that we had something we could focus on,” Carter said.
The comedy isn’t meant to slam Christianity, Carter noted, but to satirize certain over-the-top Christians. “About half of us, I’d say, were raised in very religious homes, so we’re kind of paralleling the lives we led when we were younger. We actually know how people react and respond to these things.”
Although plans call for submitting “Comic Evangelists” to film festivals around the country, Sanford has other dreams. “I’d like the movie to come out and be the surprise blockbuster of the summer and out-gross ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ as the most successful independent comedy of all time. I’m not staking my future on that, however, but anything can happen.”

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