Improv with Indian flavor

Comedy group comes to Mountain View

Naatak, the Indian-American theater company that got its start when a group local tech employees decided to get together for a creative outlet, is bringing its improvisational comedy program called "Improv Masala," to the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts on May 19, 2018. Photo by Shweta Prakash.

The word "naatak," translated from Hindi into English means, "the drama."

Naatak, the aptly named local theater company, is coming to the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, May 19, to perform something less traditionally dramatic and more upbeat: an improvisational comedy program called "Improv Masala" (masala meaning a spicy mix).

The 90-minute comedy show is performed in "Hinglish," a hybrid of Hindi and English, and allows the audience to steer the direction of the show with several fast-paced games.

Naatak began in 1995 as a collective of local tech-industry employees seeking a creative outlet outside of work. Today, it bills itself as the largest Indian-American theater company in the United States, with more than 1,000 performing members over the past two decades and 10,000 loyal email list subscribers. In 2017, "Improv Masala" became the organization's first improv-only production.

The improv team is led by cast members Neha Goyal and Abhay Paranjape.

Goyal was introduced to improvisational comedy while studying to obtain her master's degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. As a theater artist since her childhood years, she said, she was itching to find a break from her graduate studies in engineering.

Today, Goyal and her castmates use their improv rehearsals as a way to decompress and let go of daily stressors. A "techie" to the core, she described giving the program a formal name and cast as her proudest moment, comparing it to a business getting an IPO (initial public offering or stock market launch.)

"Now it's come to a point where when we start rehearsal, for the first 30 minutes everybody is just catching up," Goyal said. "The chemistry over time has grown a lot. We've become friends, not just co-improvisers. It reminds me of my undergrad days ... this is a good break because we all have hectic lives. We all go to work. All of us in the group are 'techies.' We all have our 9-to-5 and our own jobs, so this is like a stress buster for us. We meet, we rehearse and we all go back home happy."

Paranjape, who has been described by his peers as having a knack for comedic one-liners, came to the Bay Area from India to utilize his master's degree in robotics.

"I was in a theater back home in India doing my undergrad, so when I moved to the Bay Area to start my new job, I came to know about Naatak," he said. "I was a big fan of (television show) 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' back in my school days. I always wanted to be that guy who could come onto stage and make everyone laugh. This was my opportunity."

He explained that each member of "Improv Masala" brings a different strength to the show, so each of the short-form games are designed to showcase an individual's unique talent. He described his co-captain Goyal as "the handyman," for her ability to step in and fix a scene.

"It's pretty similar to 'Whose Line'" Paranjape said. "We have 10 games where participants will step forward and perform those games. What we're doing different with these shows right now is we are adding an element of stand-up, so each person on the team will be doing a five-minute stand-up piece, and they'll be saying whatever is on their mind. So this is something new; a new flavor we are adding to the improv show. One thing we are trying out is scripted sketches, like something you would see on 'Saturday Night Live' ... on current or recent political topics."

As a member of Naatak for 22 years, Rajiv Nema manages marketing for the organization in addition to acting. Through his connections in the Silicon Valley tech industry, he has helped broaden the comedy team's exposure.

"We are all techies," Nema explained. "I work for SAP Palo Alto, Neha works for Intel and Abhay works for Solarius. A large number of our audience is techies ... so when the improv team performed last year, part of our theater presentation was a festival of short plays. People who represent a large number of tech companies saw it. We present in 20 percent English, 80 percent Hindi. We got inquiries from Google and Facebook ... that happened for the first time in our 22-year career. Now we have started going to Bay Area tech companies and we perform there."

Nema has used one of the improv team's basic games in his daily life, outside of performing. For Nema, "Yes, and," or the practice of snowballing an idea and incorporating everyone's additions, is not only a concept of improvisational comedy but a way to lean into his discussions and relationships with others.

"What I learned was, it's not just used for comedy, but you can use it at work as well as with your family, when you are discussing any ideas for collaboration. So since I was introduced to it, I use it all the time. There is such a beautiful and positive vibe in the room. It has been a night and day difference."

Goyal, Nema and Paranjape said that they are looking forward to their upcoming performance at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, and not just because they enjoy Castro Street's diverse food scene. It's the audience reactions, they said, that keep their organization thriving.

"The primary goal is for the audience to laugh and forget about everything for one and a half hours, and enjoy the show." Paranjape said.

"When we do the show, I want the audience to like us ... because that'll help us in keeping this going," Goyal said. "So for me, that's my focus. I want the audience to come and say, 'It was the best (time), and I've never laughed so hard.'"

Freelance writer Chrissi Angeles can be emailed at chrissiangeles@gmail.com.

What: "Improv Masala"

When: Saturday, May 19, at 6 p.m.

Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, Second Stage, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

Cost: $12.

Info: Go to mvcpa.com.


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