And as they wind down a successful run of one of their most ambitious projects yet — "Unscripted," which takes impromptu sketch comedy to another level by putting on entirely impromptu plays that can last upward of 90 minutes — BIG is showing no signs of slowing down.
"Improv is one of the best creative outlets I've ever had," says Heather Moyer, a founding member of the group and the only one who was there at the beginning and still performing. "I love hearing the audience laugh. When the audience is with you, it's fun just to have them so invested in us being onstage."
The premise of BIG's basic show sounds like simplicity itself, until you actually try to do it. Troupe members — usually three to six performers, culled from the 50-or-so comics who call BIG home — walk out onstage and ask the audience for material: a word, a phrase, an idea. The performers then riff off what they hear, the audience laughs and everyone goes home exhilarated.
"It can be anything," Moyer says. "You know, like, 'Give me a word that starts with the letter 'L.' After that, there's a wide range. You can have someone tell a story, have someone do a monologue on the topic."
The main thing, though, is that the yucksters are performing without a net, being funny without specific practice or preparation. It's tough enough being funny period, but being funny on demand?
"Different cities have their own characteristics for improv," says Prescott Gaylord, who directs the "Unscripted" shows that BIG will be performing through Feb. 15. "In Boston, I asked, 'How do you guys get your inputs?' They had no idea what I was talking about. They start with nothing. … In New York, they use a word to get started. Here in Baltimore, we generally get a lot from our audience."
The only limitation on the material is the audiences' collective imagination, as well as their vocabulary. Moyer remembers one performance, doing improv while she was living in Boston, where the first words out of an audience member's mouth was the suggestion of doing something unspeakable to your mother.
"That's the most foul thing I've ever had somebody yell at me," Moyer remembers. "There was a pause … and then we just started laughing. We used the line."
"Unscripted" adds a new, and seemingly even more perilous, wrinkle to the improv concept. Here's, it's not simply a short skit the comics are coming up with (think the TV show "Whose Line is it Anyway?"), or even one of the longer pieces, which can run up to 30 minutes or so. Here, it's a full play the performers are putting on, based on suggestions from the audience of a story, a setting and a title.
"I ask for an anecdote that matters to people," says Gaylord, who came up with the idea of "Unscripted" for BIG in 2008, "something important that happened to you in the past year. People tell me about their engagement stories, they'll tell me about a long-term relationship or someone that's broken up with them. I'll try to get emotions and the feeling of it, and then I'll start there."
The result sounds like barely controlled mayhem. As Gaylord calls out from the stage, within full view of the audience, six players act out his directions. In addition, two or three people orchestrate the sets and put together the costumes, while another two or three handle the lighting and other technical aspects.
All of this, remember, is done without any planning, strictly off the cuff. And the performers, improv masters though they may be, can't simply do what comes into their heads. They have to do what Gaylord tells them.
"I basically tell all of the improv tools they have and say, 'You know what? Don't use any of these,'" he says, smiling doubtless at the thought of the control he wields. "You're not allowed to mime anything, you're not allowed to change themes – that's all on me. You're not allowed to invent your environment."
But when it works, the effect can be as joyously thrilling as any trapeze act. And much funnier.
"It's nice to be able to stretch those types of acting muscles and improvising muscles," says Moyer, who was on the original "Unscripted" team in 2004. "I remember thinking it could be really, really hard. And that was proven to me."
If you go
"Unscripted" performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Feb. 15 at Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Tickets are $18. For more information, go to bigimprov.org.