Relatively speaking, the Egyptian population is known for its humor – managing to turn even the most dire of circumstances into something we can all laugh about. True to this lightness in spirit, Irtigalia – a new improv group led by actor Ramsi Lehner – marries Egyptian humor with improvisational theatre in a way that manages to deliver audiences a refreshing take on comedic live performance.
A personal project of Ramsi Lehner’s, the group of 13 has been rigorously training in improvisational theatre since October 2018 – although Lehner had originally initiated the project in 2014.
Being an actor himself, Lehner was first introduced to improv during his university years around 2000 or 2001 when he first saw a group of senior theater students (The Fresh Socks) put on an improv show at the Howard theater at AUC – and since then he was hooked. As years went by Lehner went on to star on stage and screen, as well as give acting-related workshops at Luke Lehner Studios (founded by his brother and fellow acting coach), meanwhile waiting for the right time to bring his passion project to life.
“I noticed the field was missing improv groups on a more commercial and widespread level,” says Lehner on the Egyptian improv scene, “I think my passion for improv coupled with Egyptians having a great sense of humor and seeking out what is funny were also elements to getting this started.”
For over a year, Lehner and his group of 13 performers – 12 actors and a musician – (Ahmed Achrafi, Ahmed Radwan, Ahmed Galal, Ahmed Hesham, Andrew Emad, Hussein Hegab, Menna El Touny, Menna Rshwan, Haitham Farouq, Shahd Omar, Ahmed Samy, Ehab Mounir, Summer El Abbasey) would meet on a weekly basis (twice a week or more) in order to rehearse and train in the art of ‘improv’.
Improvisational theatre is a form of theatre that relies on giving performances that are unplanned and unscripted, being spontaneously delivered based on the actors’ instincts. Improv has always been used as a technique in acting in order to release inhibitions and to work with your natural instincts as a human being. Throughout the years, improv has evolved into being a form of theatre of its own – one that comes with its own set of rules and structure.
“What I enjoy most about improv is that I feel like I’m playing, and I feel free,” says Irtigalia member Ahmed Achrafi, “even though it’s within the framework of the scene, I still feel a freedom that I don’t usually feel otherwise.”
In order to deliver a truly strong improvised performance, practitioners had come to realize that the whole set-up needs a certain structure to it. This is why for example, improv comes with a certain set of rules such as: the ‘yes, and’ rule which simply means that performers must not negate each other and must ‘mentally’ say yes to whatever their fellow performer offers them and add to it, rather than reject their offer and come up with something different.
This also ties into the rule of ‘gift giving’ in improv, actors give each other ‘gifts’ to work with, whether that be in the form of dialogue or physical movement. It is also important to know how to pick up a scene that seems to be dying down, to be able to work fast, and to be able to know when a scene ends – it’s actually a lot more layered and difficult to deliver good improv than it may seem.
What is also particularly enjoyable about improv is the audience participation. By having audience give their input in terms of where the scene is located and who the characters are in relation to each other, for example, they then feel as if they are in control and it is truly jaw-dropping to witness how the actors translate your input and how the scene evolves. Even Lehner highlights this important aspect saying, “I think what audiences particularly enjoy, is their involvement in the show and their role in creating inputs and defining what the spine of the scene will be.”
Irtigalia started giving live performances to a small selected audience since February 2019, but have been slowly but surely opening their doors to a wider audience.
Over a brief time span, the group has gained popularity and they even have regulars at their shows. For most of Irtigalia’s group members, many of whom are actors themselves, the experience of being part of an improv group has been vastly rewarding.
“It was a challenge for me and I proved to myself that there is nothing you can’t do,” says Irtigalia member Menna El Touny, “It taught me to be trusting, confident, playful and to let go – whatever happens is for fun and exploring.”
An element that truly stands out when it comes to Irtigalia’s performances is the group’s chemistry. “Improv is about healthy communication and listening, not to respond, but to pro-actively build,” says Lehner, and that truly shines through with this group of talents.
“The amazing thing about this group is that we all have come to a point where we understand each other,” says Irtigalia member Andrew Emad, “We have respect for each other and we all have the same goal, and this leads to us being able to build on things together.” The very essence of this group lies in their strength in communication and their resulting energy truly reflects on audience members who watch as well.
“What I enjoy the most about attending these shows is that I as an audience member have a role as well,” says audience member Nouran Waly who has attended a number of Irtigalia shows, “this makes you more present with what’s happening and it makes you feel like you’re a part of everything.” The way in which the group energy transfers to the audience ends up forming a unique atmosphere of unity that is rare to come across in other forms of theatre.
When it comes to what the future has in store for Irtigalia, for now it’s safe to say that it looks bright. In a world where we are bombarded by grim news on a daily basis, some much needed light and humor is necessary every now and then.
According to Lehner, nothing is set in stone yet when it comes to the group’s future plans. “We have plans, but we also enjoy being flexible and improvising towards our goals,” he says, “Right now we’re just excited to release our material on YouTube and see what sort of reactions we get.”
*Featured Image by Kholoud M Khalifa, courtesy of Irtigalia’s Facebook page