To a clueless onlooker, it might look like the members of Elf Magic are engaged in live-action, spontaneous beat poetry.
“I’m a Cup O’ Noodles!” “I’m a fork!” “I’m a spoon!” “I’m a knife!” “Knife stays.”
“I’m a knife!” “I’m O.J. Simpson!” “I’m a glove!” “Glove stays.”
The warm-up, called “I’m a Tree,” which began the exercise, was one of several the improv comedy troupe performed to practice improvisational theater and loosen up for rehearsal.
“It’s more about getting the verbal diarrhea,” said Elf Magic member Keith Becraft.
What followed was a puppet la ronde, with one group member speaking through a puppet and another having a conversation with that puppet. Puppet characters included a drug-peddling snowman, a jilted lover reminiscing about reenacting scenes from Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie and a troupe member, Jen Ginsberg, playing a Jewish grandmother proud that Ginsberg is finally going to be in the Baltimore Jewish Times, although not in the engagements section.
This was all in preparation for the night’s Harold, a long-form improvisation with three recurring unrelated scenes, each scene repeating three times. The Harold is Elf Magic’s specialty.
“It’s a way to have some sort of consistency when everything is made up on the spot,” said Becraft.
Elf Magic performs at 11 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, at the inaugural Charm City Comedy Festival, which was co-founded by Elf Magic coach and creator Megan Wills and Becraft.
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The troupe, which has been together for about a year, is Wills’ “dream team” of improvisational performers, most of whom were handpicked from the classes she teaches at Baltimore Improv Group.
“They are really all bluntly honest people and performers,” said Wills, who coaches through her own company, Improvocateur Coaching. “And that’s what makes them funny.”
For half of the members, that brutal honesty comes with what Wills called “the unique point-of-view of the Jewish culture.”
Elf Magic member Jason Steinberg, who grew up in Pikesville, said his upbringing has informed his comedic career from Jewish humor to the different people he met growing up.
“My sense of humor was pretty much born by my dad and grandfather, members of the tribe they be,” said Steinberg. “It’s real people who are coming through when we get Jew-y.”
For Alison Schlenger, improv classes were a way of loosening up.
“I think I realized I was taking myself way too seriously,” she said. It seems to have worked, as Schlenger spent the rehearsal doing yoga poses, cracking jokes between scenes and fit perfectly into the role of a male truck driver. On the Jewish aspect, Schlenger said “it’s what you know” in her best Jewish grandfather voice.
“I think there was something magical that happened at our first show,” she said.
While most of the group members are fairly new to improv, Wills picked them because of the natural talent she sensed.
The troupe’s newest member, Addie Maxwell, who has been with Elf Magic for one month and started improv classes in the fall, still doesn’t quite understand why Wills likes her so much.
“I’m really happy she thinks I’m great,” Maxwell quipped.
The talent Wills sought translated into a vibrant group in which members naturally play off each other.
“We’re all very comfortable with each other and can play different characters,” said Ginsberg, who got into improv to get over her stage fright.
Elf Magic will perform alongside improv and standup comedy acts from Washington, Philadelphia and Boston, with headliners The Amie and Kristen Show and ShawnMikael(s).
“They are dynamic duos,” said Wills.
The festival also features sketch comedy and improv workshops, and Schlenger will be leading yoga sessions before workshops.
The festival is being run through the Charm City Comedy Project, for which Wills is the marketing and festival director and Becraft is the executive director. It’s being held at Zissimo’s in Hampden as well as the 2640 Space in Charles Village from May 8 to May 11.
Part of the idea for the festival came from Becraft, who noticed that it’s hard for independent comedy acts to get booked in other cities.
“Nobody was really bringing in troupes from out of town,” he said. “The impression I get is we give a warm room.” He noted that Washington troupes face a lot of competition and more critical audiences.
For Wills, it’s all about the 73 acts the festival will feature.
“We started this festival with the aim of continuing our mission to promote visibility and accessibility to improv in Baltimore,” she said.