By BEN CARTWRIGHT
Christopher Hoyle seems measured and in control on stage – yet he can be remarkably impulsive. Like the time he got six people to jump off a metaphorical cliff with him. It was 1985 and the New York Improv Squad had just lost its performing gig. Standing on the street after hearing the news, Hoyle, a founding member of the troupe, said, “Why don’t we just perform right here?”
The rest of the group scoffed at the idea – it was dark, it was cold, it was dangerous – but Hoyle began anyway. Strumming on his guitar, he began taking suggestions from passersby. “We should back him up,” said Tom Soter, another squad member. They did – and to everyone’s great amazement, except, perhaps, Hoyle’s – a small crowd had formed. By evening’s end, the group had collected over $100 in contributions from passersby. “That’s what I love about improvisation,” says Hoyle, a regular performer at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam at 236 West 78th Street. “You can do anything if you try.”
Hoyle, who was born in Detroit and moved to New Jersey when he was 15, studied acting in school but soon found himself drawn to improvisation and comedy. As a teenager, he visited a class taught by the late George Todisco, founder of Chicago City Limits, and never forgot the thrill he got from performing off-the-cuff. When he graduated, he moved to New York and began studying with CCL’s Carol Schindler and David Regal.
It was at those classes that he met future members of the Improv Squad. Initially formed as an after-class workout, the group began performing at Ye Olde Tripple Inn on West 54th Street at Hoyle’s instigation. The troupe became a staple at the club for the next year, while also appearing at Folk City, The Improvisation, Jason’s, The Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers, and The Duplex.
Hoyle, a singer/songwriter, was also the musical accompanist for the group, primarily on the guitar. (An improvised form he crafted for the troupe, a flamenco parody, has been widely imitated.)
“Street performing felt very spontaneous, and it felt very New Yorkish,” he says, “especially the night we had people hanging from streetlights to see us.”
After the Improv Squad disbanded, Hoyle directed an improv company called Presents of Mind, and then began a long association with the Falling Rock Zone. He is currently part of a two-person improv group, Commedia D’ell Jersey, and an all-musical improv troupe called Wow!!!
Hoyle also teaches. “I try to show my students that they should say yes in whatever they do. Often that means suspending judgment. That’s a hard habit to break, but you should also go with your first thought. Improvisation is good because it helps us in not judging.” He rarely finds improv frightening, but does admit some audiences are more challenging than others. “I did a gig once where the audience was made up of seniors who were expecting Yiddish comedians; we followed a Klesmer band. But no one in our group was Jewish or even knew what they wanted. After a few minutes, one elderly woman started yelling at us, ‘You call this funny? I’m going to vomit.’ Improv helps you to not judge that person too harshly for being a jerk.”