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Laughing their way to the top: Barren Mind takes on nationals

Photo courtesy of National College Improv Tournament
Photo courtesy of National College Improv Tournament

Photo courtesy of National College Improv Tournament The members of Barren Mind from left to right: Kiley Bishop, Noah Findling, Alice Stanley, Danny Peterson, Justin Steckman, Kevin Brozek Photo courtesy of National College Improv Tournament

On March 1st, they’ll be on a stage in Chicago, competing with 11 other improv troupes at the College Improv Tournament. Whether they win or lose, Barren Mind will be able to come away from the tournament saying that they’re one of the top-12 college improv troupes in the nation.

But for now, the nine of them are sitting here with me: communication junior and director Justin Steckman, journalism senior and assistant director Noah Findling, educational studies senior Kaitlin O’Shaughnessy, art senior Kiley Bishop, art history freshman Christine Boisson, theatre senior Brian Anderson, journalism sophomore Kevin Brozek, freshman Evan Fairbanks, an undecided major, and theatre senior Danny Peterson.

In sync, they’re playing off one another’s promptings. Currently, they’re deciding how exactly to explain all that is improv into coherent words.

“Improv is like changing a baby's diaper,” Steckman says.

“Improv is more like a blender,” Fairbanks says.

“Improv is like a food processor,” O’Shaughnessy says.

“Improv is like evolution,” Findling says. “And Darwin is definitely Justin.”

“Improv is like trying to dress a monkey, but it’s a new monkey that you haven’t owned for a while so you’re not sure what kind of style it wants,” Fairbanks says.

“Improv is like doing an interview and everyone is making similes,” Brozek says.

Talking to the troupe is like being at an impromptu improv show, since improvisation has become so omnipresent in their lives.

But the silliness does eventually dissipate, if only slightly.

"With improv, every scene that you ever do is the only time that that is ever going to exist and you're living that moment at the exact same time that the audience is," Steckman says. “You're just riding on your instinct and talent to make people laugh and then when it's done it's done forever."

It’s a unique experience that is made even better by the very fact that it’s one continually shared among best friends.

Barren Mind is a community that’s built on a similar passion, which is comedy, Findling says. “And when you meet people that have a similar passion, it really creates that family-like feeling and emotion,” he adds.

This shared familial feeling is what helps the group succeed, since their number one focus is able to be on just having fun, Fairbanks says.

“There’s never any bad feelings out there,” he adds.

No one deliberately makes an enemy out of another person. No one points fingers at anyone else. It’s just about making this family’s dynamic stronger.

This approach to improv makes their connection with the audience so much more fluid. Once they can get one another to laugh, Steckman says, they’re able to transfer that to the audience.

“And it’s just the coolest thing, being able to perform in front of a whole audience,” Peterson says.

This is understandable, considering how vulnerable one has to be in order to elicit a good audience reaction when doing comedy, or any live performance.

“You have no idea what’s going to happen,” Fairbanks says.

But you’re there and when you do something that does in fact elicit the response you want, the feeling can be euphoric, he adds.

Luckily for Barren Mind, it’s easier to be vulnerable since they’re up on stage together, being one another’s support system.

Of course, doing a good job on stage doesn’t happen simply because they’re best friends. The group rehearses ever Tuesday and Sunday and then performs under the Taco Bell at the MU nearly every Thursday at noon.

Tuesdays are when the group practices short form days, Bishop says. They do a series of short games like those on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" The three hour rehearsals on Sundays are when the troupe practices their long-form.

Their hard work pays off in more ways than just audience approval.

“Because it requires more on the spot mind power than memorizing a script and performing it, I think that [improv] really helps me to grow as a person and it helps with public speaking,” Boisson says. “ And it’s fun, it’s just so much fun.”

Another payoff for the team is how it just entirely changes one’s dynamic with others.

You learn to trust people more and to grow yourself," Fairbanks says. "When I started, I always tried to control everything and do everything my way and a lot of times that ended up not working out so well.”

Improv helps professionally too, whether or not those involved want to pursue a comedy-centered career.

“[Improv] has helped me in the work place because I think a lot of the same characteristics that make a good improviser are the same to make a good professional," Findling says. “You know listening, and supporting and rolling up your sleeves and jumping into a scene even if you don’t know what it’s about.”

The group is excited to be heading to Nationals and isn’t going to let the pressure get to their heads, O’Shaughnessy says.

“We just want to have fun,” Steckman says. “If we win, we win, if we don’t, then we still got to do a show in Chicago.”

And while Nationals is fast approaching, the group is asking for students and faculty of ASU to help them go to Nationals by funding their group via Indiegogo.

“We’re broke college students like everyone else, but we have a chance to go and potentially make our dreams come true,” Findling says. “And if everyone gave a dollar, that would mean more than the world to us.”

The troupe is asking people to make a donation to their Indiegogo page.

The page closes February 28th, a day before the troupe performs in Chicago.

People would basically be paying for a family to pursue their greatest passion, Brozek says.

The members of Barren Mind found something unique through improv that not only helps make ASU smaller, but also helps make the world smaller. The world becomes a lot less daunting and a lot more livable when you find something you’re passionate about and have the means to pursue it everyday.

That’s what those watching Barren Improv’s set in Chicago will inevitably figure out, along with anyone who has seen Barren Mind perform.

Reach the writer at or on Twitter @GretchenBurnton.

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