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The Hamazons snuggle up with '50s holiday movies

Comedy is inherent in improv, says Cil Stengel, cofounder of The Hamazons.

“It’s inherent because audiences enjoy watching people who are out on a limb,” she says. “Tension builds when a performer is in a bit of trouble or confusion, and laughter releases that tension.”

Wit, good listening skills and teamwork are the tricks — or gems — of good improv, Stengel continues, while high expectations are risky. Performers can’t be afraid of falling on their faces because they know they will, she says.

“We can count on it,” Stengel laughs. “And whether you go out and stink up the place or things brilliantly fall into alignment, you’re out their with your teammates. If the ship is going down, you’re going down together.”

Although she can’t recall an instance of that ever happening to The Hamazons.

“At one of our shows,” says fellow Hamazon Eve Smyth, “I forgot a character’s name. Every time I had to say it, I’d would look out at the audience, and they would tell me what it was.”

The Hamazons’ annual Christmas show is a tradition in Ashland. Stengel and seven other women with ties to the local entertainment scene founded the improv troupe in 1999.

“It was during the time when ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ was a popular television show,” she says. “We produced ‘Introducing The Hamazons’ at the old town hall on Pioneer Street. We were huge from the start, and that first year took off fast.”

The lineup of improvisers has come and gone, and Eve Smyth and Kyndra Laughery came on board in 2003 and 2006, respectively.

The Hamazons, aka Warrior Princesses of Improv, will present this year’s show, “A Completely Improvised Holiday Classic (That Has Yet To Be Told),” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 14-15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16, at the Bellview Grange, 1050 Tolman Creek Road, Ashland. Advance tickets are $15 and can be purchased at hamazons.com. Tickets will cost $18 at the door.

The Hamazons’ show cuddles up next to such classic holiday films as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “A Christmas Carol” and is equally heartwarming and funny.

“We draw material from the themes and conventions of the ’50s holiday film genre,” Stengel says. “There’s lots of department stores, soda shops, the police station, or a bridge over a snowy river.

“There’s generally a character who has a loss of faith or doesn’t believe in humanity any longer,” she adds. “Then the character gets a second chance, and there’s redemption. That’s something that warms the heart because we can all relate to the need for a second chance. It’s forgiveness, and it’s beautiful how families and communities come together in these stories.”

What keeps The Hamazons’ holiday show fresh is that the performers aren’t the same people they were the year before. They have another year of experience under their belts.

“That’s a good point,” Stengel says. “We are not the people we were last year. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we bring whatever’s in our lives at the time and how we’ve grown in our craft as a group to the stage. We keep evolving.”

True comedic improv is performing something spontaneously without scripted preparation.

“One of the biggest concepts of performing improv is saying yes to a reality that another performer has offered,” Stengel says. “An offer is anything one of the performers says or does on stage. It might be pretending to rake leaves. Saying yes to that offer would be to help rake leaves, discuss the weather, or anything to encourage the reality of the image. A block to that offer might be someone saying, ‘Why are you using a fork to clean the floor?’

“In an effort to be funny and think outside the box or do something quirky, a block is hard to build on. If you say yes to an offer, you continue to define the reality of the idea, and it sets a strong foundation for a scene to continue and grow.

“If you come into a scene with an idea of where you want it to go, another player might make an offer which contradicts everything you planned. You have to let go and take what’s in front of you, hear what other players offer and don’t push any agenda.

“What we learn in improv are amazing tools that are not only fun to work with on stage but can be used in the real world,” Stengel concludes. “It’s a pretty amazing art form.”

The Hamazons perform story-based, long-form improv, in which scenes connect. Think of an unscripted, improvised play in two acts. It’s a skill The Hamazons learned at Bay Area Theatresports in San Francisco when the troupe decided to make the leap from short-form improv, or small scenes, games and songs, to long-form.

Stengel teaches improv and acting at Rogue Community College, where she directs a theater production each spring. Smyth teaches levels of improv three nights a week at various Ashland locations. She also teaches kids at Ashland Children’s Theatre and Willow Wind Community Learning Center.

“It’s so much fun,” Smyth says. “Laughter is always guaranteed, plus improv skills like being spontaneous, listening, offering, accepting, staying present, saying yes, along with narrative skills, character development and more. We’re so caught up in our heads and our various responsibilities. In the classes, students can play again. It’s the best.”

Kyndra Laughery, left, Cil Stengel and Eve Smyth are improvisational troupe The Hamazons. Photo by Robert Frost