The joke began simple enough: "One hundred eighty-five gorillas walk into a bar. The bartender says, 'Sorry, we don't serve your kind here.'"
Members of the Severna Park High School Improv Team stood beneath bright lights, and one by one each stepped forward and offered the best think-fast punch line.
"Awww, we heard the Monkees were playing."
"What? But you served Darwin."
"But all we want is a little vine."
The exercise capped a two-hour practice of wisecracks and wit, puns and ploys designed to fine-tune the budding comedy skills of a group that regularly stages on-campus shows, often requesting material from their audiences. For many, the school club is a form of expression that encourages creativity and storytelling, offering a break from traditional high school drama.
"In every clique there's a clown, and that clown is drawn to improv," said senior Drew Beardmore. "We're a collection of clowns."
The 30-member club, which is divided into junior varsity and varsity divisions, practices for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday. Last year, they performed several shows and at other school events.
The group is mentored by Severna Park graduate Charlie Henry, who is on the school's staff while he attends Anne Arundel Community College, where he co-runs the improv team.
"We're like 'High School Musical' without the PG rating," Henry said.
Years ago, the club paled in popularity to other troupes in Severna Park's popular drama department, he said, but its popularity has grown in recent years, drawing those who often focus solely on organized sports.
"The improv kids are innovative, creative and have a sense of humor, and I feel that these are life skills that will help them cope with life and its never-ending challenges," said Angela Germanos, Severna Park's drama director. "When I have a difficult day of teaching and I hear the improv kids playing their games, it makes me laugh and helps me to remember not to take life so seriously."
The group's practices involve exercises, or games, that they say have been improv staples for years. They include a game called "Press Conference": One student is designated to be the representative of a fictional character who has committed a crime and must serve a punishment. But the representative must guess who the character is and what he or she has done.
The game begins with the representative leaving the room while other members of the troupe conjure up the client, the crime and the penance. The character's representative returns to the room and fields questions from students acting as the press corps. From their questions, he or she must reply with statements that guess what his or her client has done wrong and what the punishment is. The game ends when the character is identified.
"Press Conference is a game that works on hinting and guessing," said Henry. "You're trying to hint at something without actually saying it; you're using tools like puns or association. It's a game where listening is very important."
Nate Hutchings, the club's president, said that for performances, he'll compile a list of games. Students sign up for them, and the troupe does a quick practice before going onstage for a performance that lasts an hour to 90 minutes.
"We do basically what we do in practice. We perform games, but with more of a performance air to it," he said. "Where in practice we're trying to improve, in performances we're trying to please the audience."
Often the group says that members engage in improv even when not on stage or at practice.
"Making people think you're crazy temporarily is so funny," Hutchings said.
He said that recently while visiting a friend in North Carolina who is also involved in improv they went to a local mall and "for the rest of the day, we decided that we were going to be British. We were going to do our best British accents and make people think we were here from England."
He said his efforts were good enough to persuade a vendor at a pretzel shop that he was serving someone from Britain.
Members say they hope the club continues to grow in popularity.
"We're trying to have more shows," Beardmore said. "But it's sort of improvised, really."