By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
One look at Ryan Usher — blond hair, blue eyes, 6-foot-5 — and the assumption is that he plays a sport.
“God wasted this height on me,” Usher says. “I have no athletic ability.”
Perhaps not in a conventional sense. But when it comes to mental gymnastics, it’s a different story for Usher and the other members of Grand Canyon University’s student improvisational comedy troupe, the CantaLopes. The team of 14, in its second year, will present its fall show, “Improv Your Life,” at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, Oct. 24, and 9:30 p.m. next Friday in Thunderground on campus. Admission is free, although a donation is requested, and the show is sponsored by GCU Today.
This fall has been hectic for Usher, a sophomore who has had prominent roles in the first two productions of the Ethington Theatre Series, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” He jokes that most students in GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production are forced to choose two of these three: theatre, schoolwork and sleep.
He isn’t complaining. He’s as agreeable as they come, and just about the only thing that sets him off is when someone discovers he’s a comedian and demands that he tell a joke.
“Would you go up to a writer and say, ‘Hey, give me a sentence’?” he says, shaking his head.
Besides, his style of humor is much more subtle, he says. He admires wittier comics such as Bo Burnham and Steve Martin, saying their jokes come from above the neck rather than below the belt. “Going blue,” as funny people refer to the use of off-color humor, doesn’t hold much appeal for him.
“My wit came from being a good kid,” says Usher, a product of Scottsdale’s Horizon High School, where he studied under GCU alumna Joanie Colson. “I was never loud and crazy. I always had the one-liners my friends wouldn’t get. I wanted to stay out of trouble, so I had to know how to be funny in a different way.”
He is plenty serious about improv, hoping to make a career of it. Over the summer, Usher and GCU classmates Josh Vanderpoel and William Wyss attended improv workshops over several weekends at Second City Hollywood in Los Angeles, where they worked with some of the best in the business.
“I love how dynamic (improv) is,” says Usher, who also rehearses with National Comedy Theatre, a professional improv troupe in Mesa. “It’s different every time, and that adds a level of challenge. When everything’s going right onstage, there’s no better feeling in the world.
“The big thing is listening to what the others say and building off of that. That’s a group effort…. If you keep a cool head, you can have crazy moments and still be in control.”
Vanderpoel, the captain of the CantaLopes, can’t imagine the team without him. They’re two of nine returnees from last year.
“Ryan came in and brought talent and leadership immediately,” Vanderpoel says. “He had a great foundation (in high school). It’s nice having someone who shares your energy and passion (for improv).”
This year’s second edition of “Improv Your Life” will bring back crowd-favorite bits such as Beastie Rap, Chain Murder and Half Life — trust us, they’re terrific — and also introduce some new games. Usher says the troupe’s experience will be evident in the way the members work as a unit.
“We’ve had a good amount of training outside GCU,” he says. “We’re trying to build this on trust, respect, and loving and honoring one another. No one’s afraid of failing. It’s on us to read the audience and get in sync with them, try to connect with them.”
Expect Usher to provide plenty of laughs. And you won’t have to ask him for a joke.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.