Chicago improv group to perform virtually for WSU

Teresa Anderson

Winona State University is hosting a Hollywood Murder Mystery Zoom event Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m.
Mission Improbable, an improv comedy group out of Chicago, will virtually perform a comedic murder mystery. Students are encouraged to dress up in 70s attire and dive into the 1977 cut-throat art scene for a full experience.
James Heaney, an actor, improv comedian and video game Youtube personality on the channel Game Front, performs as a Mission Improbable inspector alongside Kimberly Florian. Aaron Fitzpatrick, technical producer, plays as Heaney’s and Florian’s intern in the show.
Fitzpatrick runs the Google Docs and PowerPoint, along with monitoring the Zoom chat. This role blends tech with the dramatic performance.
With COVID-19, pulling off a highly interactive improv show is nearly impossible to execute on Zoom. To keep up audience participation, the actors dramatize the written plot and lead mini-games for the audience to help forward the narrative. Depending on how the audience reacts, actors will curate the story to the energy of the audience.
“It can be difficult to have this interaction and be spontaneous on an irregular stage, so we’ve changed how the show works to direct the focus onto us,” Heaney said. “We test the waters with the audience to see how much they will interact and depending on how they do the first game, we might ramp it up in the second game.”
Moving back and forth from focusing on performing to audience participation enables as much improv as possible over Zoom since it requires reading how people react to mini-games and clues about the murder. The actors know who the murderer, suspects and clues that link them all together are, but performing it on different audiences changes it each time.
“You never know who you’re going to play with. It might be that there’s two cops playing dumb. It might be the one cop plays dumb, one cop plays smart or good cop, bad cop. Those are the things that we improvise in the moment,” Heaney said. “It’s very funny. It’s not a very serious murder mystery story.”
Trent Dernbach, a student success and career advisor, helps coordinate student life and activities for the Rochester campus. Dernbach said it will be a fun event and more interactive than simply a comedian or hypnotist.
“We’re going to have some WSU bookstore gift cards, some for $20 and some for $10,” Derbach said. “Students can win the prizes during the mini contests within the game and then also win if they are the best dressed overall.”
Students from both the Winona and Rochester campuses are invited to join. The Zoom link can be found on the Winona State website’s events calendar.
Mattie Slavin, a first-year in Communications, said she had not heard much about the event or seen advertisement for it on campus, but the concept of it did seem interesting to her.
“I find murder mysteries really interesting and it would be really cool to be in that time period,” Slavin said. “Zoom events are hard though because the collaboration and interactiveness is kind of lost, especially when it feels like I’m in class.”
Zoom event attendance has been hit or miss, depending on the success of advertisements and the type of event.
“There aren’t many advertisements about them [Zoom events] and if there is, I don’t notice them often,” Slavin said. “I usually forget about Zoom events. I get caught up with school, then I go work out, hang out with friends and it just slips my mind.”
For performers like Heaney, it’s hard to know how many people will show up, especially on Zoom,
“When I go to a school live, I’ll be like ‘Okay, well, there’s a picture of me. There’s a picture of our show on the marquee, there’s going to be a big attendance tonight,’” Heaney said. “If you go to a school to see nothing, well, then you don’t really know if it’ll be a lot or little in the audience.”
Dernbach also helps run the Campus Activity Board in Rochester, which is their campus equivalent to Winona’s Warrior Entertainment Network. Most of the students at Rochester commute and tend to be older, nontraditional students, usually working on Zoom most of the day. It’s more difficult to persuade them to join an event virtually, he said.
Dernbach reaches out through word of mouth the most, along with having events shared through Facebook, Twitter and email.
“I share events with faculty and staff that I know are really connected to their students,” Dernbach said.
The Mission Improbable Tour Company, who perform the improv shows, have done a great job going virtual. Heaney credits the transition from in-person to online having been easier because of the “nerdy” backgrounds of the group’s people, he said.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I’ve been doing live streams for a decade, so i was able to help with the idea of getting Zoom set up,” Heaney said.