By Collin Green
Behind the curtain, before the show, there is only a brief break from hectic warm-ups as the members of Cumberland Striptease huddle up for their ritual pre-performance peptalk. Standing in a tight circle, the group locks hands as troupe director Daniel Hatch readies the team in what will be the only serious moment in a night full of comedy.
“Take some time to get your butterflies in formation,” Hatch says calmly, and for a moment the auditorium is silent. Then, the huddle explodes into a cacophony of shouts and laughter. It’s showtime.
This comraderie is exactly what one might expect from the rag-tag group of amateur comedians that make up Cumberland Striptease. One of the only comedy troupes on campus, Cumberland Striptease, or CumStrip, is a student group dedicated to bringing improv to UT.
“We’re just a bunch of people getting together doing silly jokes,” said veteran performer Kelli Frawley, describing her team before last Friday’s “Halloween Spooktacular” show.
There’s certainly no lack of silliness when CumStrip takes the stage. A random assortment of gags and skits, shows play out in a chummy back and forth between audience and performers with constant suggestions and jabs from the crowd.
Everything is off the cuff. There’s no planned material, no props, and no gimmicks. Characters and settings are pulled right from a crowd of familiar fans.
“We have a lot of regulars, a lot of new people. We’re starting to get more popular,” said the troupe’s director Daniel Hatch. Following in the footsteps of CumStrip founder Miles McDonough, Hatch took over as director and host soon after arriving at UT. According to Hatch, a lot has changed.
Indeed, the Friday night show marked the biggest in the group’s history. The library’s Lindsay Young Auditorium could barely contain the masses as friends and fans filled the seats from wall to wall.
“We’re a lot bigger than we used to be and it’s still like a group that I continuously want to hang out with,” said Frawley; who, in addition to CumStrip, preforms in an all female improv group called Femme-Prov. For her, the improv is both scary and cathartic. She explained it, saying “it’s terrifying and there’s huge risks, and it seems like something you wouldn’t want to do, but I really enjoy it.”
Still, not everyone in the troupe is a seasoned veteran. The Halloween show marked a first for several new CumStrip members. Among them was Keith Orlowski, an aspiring stand-up and performer.
“How can you not be animated when you’re making a fool of yourself on stage?” asked Orlowski after the show. He said that while the boost in attendance was a good sign, he’s hoping to see more people get involved with the comedy scene in Knoxville.
“It’s weird because obviously we’re no California or New York, but it’s not like we only have one shitty dive bar where you can go up once a month and do five minutes. We have an actual, real comedy scene. I like to say our talent outstretches our audience,” Orlowski added. “We’ve got better stuff than people are going out to see.”
That said, a full auditorium on a Friday night is nothing to scoff at and a crowd of dedicated fans is emblematic of the type of passion comedians like Orlowski hope to see more of in the future.
“I do think that there’s a lot of people who are really passionate about it who are coming out in Knoxville, but just not enough people going to see them,” he said in conclusion.
Even still, a bump in numbers is a good sign for any performer. However, it’s not the numbers that concern this group, but the show. For Cumberland Striptease, the most important thing is making UT laugh.
“We want to give students a break from classes, a chance to come out and watch some edgy improv,” said Daniel Hatch in closing. “Come to our shows.”