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On a Wednesday night in a church basement, nine members of the improv comedy troupe Laff Staff danced in a circle as they practiced a parody-song to the tune of “Good Morning Baltimore” from the hit musical “Hairspray.”
”Oh-oh-oh, you hear my pun, who has more fun than me today,” they sang.
For the members of the comedy group in Jackson, improv is more than just something to do after work. It’s a family – and together, they’re getting ready for their 15th anniversary show on Feb. 16 at the Center for the Arts in Jackson.
Brian Lenz, who’s been with Laff Staff since the beginning, said their past shows have been on smaller stages, like the Black Box Theater.
“We’re excited to be on the main stage,” he said. “We haven’t done a big mainstage show, ever.”
Over the years, the group has built a consistent following – more often than not, their shows sell out. Lenz said they’ve watched their audience grow up throughout the years too.
“I remember one show, we gave autographs to a couple kids and signed their ball caps. And now they’re out of college,” he said.
The group formed out of an improv class and has been joking together ever since. Another founding member, Nick Staron, remembered the moment it clicked.
“All of us looked around and we’re like, we’re pretty good. We should start performing,” he said.
“So very humble,” added Lenz.
“We’re very handsome and humble,” laughed Staron. “And we did, we started that winter.”
The majority of the troupe’s current members joined early on – and have stuck with it throughout the years. Nick’s twin brother, Chris Staron, said the crew has been through a lot together.
“There can be days when you’re embarrassed about something that happened at work or some tragedy that happens. And you can come together and you can throw it out there and we can have fun with it,” he said.
Improv comedy is all about making it up on the fly. Chris said that kind of approach is healing.
“Being an adult can be kind of lonely, so this is a great way to be silly,” he said. “It’s rare as an adult to be silly, and it’s so good for the soul.”
Take, for example, the rhyming game, “Do-Ron-Ron,” which the group ran through during their practice.
Everyone has to come up with a new rhyme in turn, all while singing and staying on beat. And if you repeat a rhyme, you’re out.
It’s clear the troupe has improv-ed together for years – they make fun of each other like siblings throughout rehearsal. But for two members, Laff Staff has literally become their family.
“I got involved with the Laff Staff by selling beer and volunteering, so they called me the beer wench,” said Kjera Strom-Griffith.
Eventually, the troupe started inviting Strom-Griffith up on stage to jump into scenes. Before long, she was a full-fledged member. At practice, she met a guy named Josh.
“I’m kind of an awkward guy,” said Josh Griffith. “I don’t know, you just need to have a good sense of humor to hang out with me, I guess. Kjera does have a good sense of humor and she’s just a very genuine laugh-er.”
The two started clicking, both on and off-stage. Now, they’re married and have two kids. For Josh, performing with Kjera is one big metaphor for partnership.
“We get to have these big ups and downs together on stage and then talk about them afterward. And like sharing each other’s joys and sharing each other’s kind of failures,” he said.
Kjera said that kind of connection and community is true of the whole Laff Staff family.
“One of the last things we all say to each other, right before we step on stage is ‘I’ve got your back’ and we all tap each other’s backs,” she said.
One of the people they tap on the back is Roan Eastman. Eastman is the troupe’s newest member and is a teacher at the local high school. He joined right before the pandemic to push himself out of his comfort zone.
“My wife, who knows me well enough to know how to manipulate me, said ‘I bet you won’t do it,’” he said. “And so here we are.”
Eastman has a big bushy beard and looks like he’d be right at home on a motorcycle. He’d never done improv before joining and immediately fell in love with it. For him, it’s a type of meditation.
“I’m someone who spends a fair amount of time in my own head. And you can’t think doing improv, if you think it ends up being dumb, so it’s just reacting,” he said.
Eastman loved being in theater and musicals as a kid, but anxiety around remembering his lines made him stop. Thanks to the un-scripted-ness of improv, he’s now able to get back in touch with that part of himself.
“The biggest surprise was that people aren’t as scary as we make them out to be,” he said. “Improv definitely makes you comfortable with failing.”
As the troupe runs through songs and skits throughout practice, people do “fail” – but both their stumbles and their moments of comedic genius are met with hearty cheers and encouragement.
And ultimately, that’s all that the members of Laff Staff hope for at their 15th anniversary show – that people come and laugh.