The Happier FAMILY Comedy Show: An hour of fun on a Saturday afternoon

  • Children including Zachary Constantine, 7, of Millers Falls, second from left, join Happier Family Comedy performers Sally Ekus, left, Jim Young, Jenny Drescher and Dina Noto in an improv scene during a show at Eastworks in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Liam Henson, 9, of South Deerfield, left, works with performer Jenny Drescher on an improv scene. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The show’s producer, Sally Ekus, left, is shown with performers Jenny Davies and Dina Noto. “ We all have a really great time,” Ekus says. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Desmond Bator-Bogin, 4, of Northampton, gets into the action. Audience participation is key at a Happier Family Comedy performance. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jennifer and Jason Constantine of Millers Falls and their 7-year-old twins Nicholas and Zachary watch as Happier Family Comedy performers entertain. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Happier Family Comedy performers Sally Ekus, left, Jenny Drescher, Tom Dahl and Dina Noto do the Arm Game. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Happier Family Comedy performers Sally Ekus, left, and Jim Young entertain during an improv show at Eastworks in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • From left, Jennifer and Jason Constantine of Millers Falls and their 7-year-old twins Zachary and Nicholas watch as Happier Family Comedy performers Jim Young, Donna MacClean and Jenny Davies entertain during an improv show at Eastworks in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2017 4:15:48 PM

About a half dozen actors, wearing jeans and T-shirts, are hunched over, rearing their heads pretending to be unicorns as they gallop around the room full of spectators — most of them kids — in the Eastworks Building in Easthampton.

Pam Victor, who is directing the action, stands to one side narrating, as the group pretends to trek up a mountain.

“Wow, it’s the magical mountain, magical unicorns,” she says in a voice that projects across the room. “What is magical about these unicorns?” she asks the audience members, seated on folding chairs that fill the space. 

“They live on rainbows,” one child calls out.

The audience is here to watch an hour-long improv show called the Happier FAMILY Comedy Show which Victor’s troupe performs on the third Saturday of each month.

Geared to kids 12 and under, it is typical improv — there is no script and all the lines are made up on the spot — except there seems to be a heavy emphasis on dinosaurs and superheroes. The scenes are also short, just a few minutes each.

“At the very least, it is an opportunity to take a break from real life and laugh,” said Victor, who started the shows nine months ago as an offshoot of her adult improv performance the Happier Valley Comedy Show.

The kids’ show is built largely on word-association and guessing games and Victor asks the audience questions throughout the hour. The kids fire back answers which inspire the scenes.

Sometimes children are invited onstage.

“We try to do games and scenes that kids would be really excited about,” says Sally Ekus of Florence, the producer of the show. The intent is to be playful and imaginative to get the kids involved, she says.

The actors exaggerate their facial expressions and use pantomime to illustrate the stories, which follow no narrative arch, nor do they acknowledge the laws of science, traveling back in time to visit the dinosaurs, or visiting a place where not only do unicorns exist, they also can trot up to rainbows and speak.

“It is purely unedited, fun and silly. That’s what is so great about improv,” says Ekus, who also performs in the show.

“When we are onstage, everyone is smiling from ear to ear and that just makes me so happy. It’s awesome,” she says.

At the end of the first scene, the actors look down, wide-eyed at an imaginary treasure, all waving their arms in excitement and drawing cheers from the crowd.

A chance to get out

Laurie Johnson of Holyoke, was sitting in the front row with her 19-month-old son, Ethan, snuggled in her lap. Her 8-year-old, Jack, was seated beside them.

She’s been coming to the shows every month since Ethan was just a few months old, even attending one on his first birthday.

“It was the only thing that we got out for because he was such a hard baby,” she says. 

Jack likes to challenge the actors by throwing out Star Wars references, but during this show he is mostly quiet.

“Anything goes and that’s what I like the most about improv,” Johnson says. 

She also takes improv classes when she gets the chance and says she appreciates that the Happier FAMILY Comedy Show gives her the opportunity to enjoy her hobby with her children. After the show, they usually have dinner at the burger place, Riff’s Joint, which is just across the hall.

“There are countless laughs,” she says. “It’s so nice to be able to share this with the kids.” She’s even started playing some of the improv games at home with her older son.

Acceptance, non-judgment

Four actors who get onstage in sets of two, are the focus of another scene.

The first person stands, with hands behind the back, while a partner stands behind, passing his or her arms under the front person’s armpits. 

The hands gesture as if they are splashing water and imaginary droplets hit the front person’s face, prompting facial expressions that elicit giggles from the audience.

The scene is a give and take between the voices and hands, which is known in improv as the Arm Game.

“People are surprised to know that it is all made up,” says Victor. “We know the games we are going to play, but we don’t know anything else about what is going to happen and we are looking to the kids to help direct us.”

The principles of acceptance and non-judgment form the foundation of the shows, she says.

“We are modeling positivity and how to play well together with our friends. And hopefully the kids will take some of that home with them.”

Cast members are always receptive to their co-stars’ ideas and suggestions from the kids are always incorporated into the act, says Victor.

“I also want every kid to feel part of the show,” she says.

When Victor asks for a few volunteers from the audience, a sea of hands shoots up. A girl wearing black cowboy boots and a pink sweat suit takes the stage.

Most of the actors kneel behind her as she extends her arms in the air as if she has just won a marathon. Everybody freezes in place.

This game, Victor tells the audience, is called “Pop-Up Story Book.”

For a few minutes, the girl from the audience is the star of the show.

Improv’s power

Getting the children onstage helps build confidence, says Ekus.

“Improv helps life be better. It helps work life. It helps personal life. It has profoundly impacted every sector of my life,” she says.

A childhood leukemia survivor, Ekus, 32, discovered improv about three years ago through the non-profit Cancer Connection in Northampton, which provides free support to people who have been touched by the disease. The organization holds improv classes at Greenfield Savings Bank in Northampton on Thursday nights. 

Improv helped boost her confidence, she says, and helped her move past her fears of cancer. It is one of her favorite ways to de-stress when she isn’t working as a literary agent at her mom’s business, The Lisa Ekus Group, in Hatfield.

It’s a way for her to be purely in the moment, Ekus says, while connecting to other actors onstage — people with whom she feels a kinship.

“It’s kind of like I found my people,” she says. “Improv people are really accepting and fun and fearless.”

Not long after her first class, Ekus discovered Victor’s Happier Valley Comedy and began taking classes Victor offered. 

When Victor launched the Happier FAMILY Comedy Show Ekus knew she wanted to get involved. 

“We all have a really great time,” she says.

Give and take

Every few months, the Happier FAMILY Comedy Show donates all the proceeds from a performance to a charity determined by its audiences. Money from the April show went to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“I can’t think of a better way to give back than by joining kids and families in spreading laughter for a great cause,” Ekus says.  

Parents also say the show is a place where they can meet other families and make new friends.

“Everyone is just really nice,” says Johnson. “It is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”

The Happier FAMILY Comedy Show is at the Eastworks Building at 116 Pleasant St., Easthampton from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Community Room (first floor, suite 160). The cost is $5 for children (free for those under 5) and $10 for adults. In August, the show will be moving to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst. 

For more information or to buy tickets online, visit happiervalley.com. 

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.




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