Improv Night at Towngate Brings Out the Belly Laughs

improv in Wheeling with the Left of Centre Players

By Laura Jackson Roberts

As a writer, I’ve had to get up in front of audiences and read my work. At some point in your life you’ll eventually find yourself in front of a crowd, and whether you’re singing, giving a reading, or ringing the wrong bell in a Christmas Eve rendition of Good King Wenceslas at church, it’s a nerve-wracking business. Sweaty palms, shaky voice, and everybody warns you not to lock your knees because you’ll faint and break your nose. And when you’re done with your moment in the spotlight, you collapse in a chair and feel like you’ve been beaten with a bag of oranges.

But there are people right here in the Ohio Valley who do not succumb to the anxiety of public performance. In fact, they actually seek it out. Moreover, they perform with neither the comfort of script nor the familiarity of rehearsal in the manner of a theater actor. Who are these strange folk that crave a spotlight with nothing but their quick wit and humor? They’re an improv group called the Left of Centre Players. Towngate Theater is their domain, and I went to see them on a Saturday night.

What is Improv?

Improvisational theater, or improv, is a form of theater where almost all of what is performed is created on the spot, in the moment when it is performed. Often, improv is used to train actors in their craft, but in the last several decades its popularity has allowed it to blossom as a craft of its own. Many people are familiar with improv from the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? that aired in the early 2000s. Often, the format is presented as a series of games that call upon the audience to offer suggestions for the performers.

In one Left of Centre game, for example, two performers stand at the front of the stage to present a slideshow of their vacation photos. Where are they from, the other players ask the audience. Someone shouts, “Westin, West Virginia!” Where were they vacationing? “Cambodia!” Thus, in an appropriate West Virginia accent, the performers must explain the photos that appear on the screen. The catch? They have no idea what photos are about to appear. We see an open field, a suspicious-looking toddler, and a pair of surly alligators.  By the end of the slideshow, the performers have created bizarre and ridiculous explanations for the photographs (lizard wrestling in a rice paddy), and the audience is in hysterics.

In a different game, two performers must carry on a conversation using only questions. The catch here is that each person’s behavior is dictated by the hat on his or her head, be it a sailor’s cap, a Goofy hat, or a fuzzy unicorn head.

improv in Wheeling with the Left of Centre Players

It’s Like Family Game Night. (Without the Kids)

Improv is relatively new to Wheeling, but according to Towngate Director Tim Thompson (who is the twelfth member of the group), “It’s something that local audiences enjoy and want. We want people to enjoy something a little different. We’ve come out and we’ve done a few shows and the word’s out. We call it “Yucks for Five Bucks.” It’s the best bargain in town. It’s very informal, almost like having a chat with the audience and bringing them into your home. It’s like family game night. Everyone’s in it together, and we’re all having fun. That’s what we want.”

Though Towngate reaches out to audiences of all ages, improv shows are geared specifically towards adults. The reason, Tim explained to me, is because of the nature of improv. It’s totally spontaneous, and you never know what you’re going to hear. “We try to have some fun. Things maybe aren’t always the most politically correct, but it’s in a very informal setting. We actually poke fun at ourselves.”

Wear Waterproof Mascara.

They played a variety of games that evening, so audience members were bound to find something that made them guffaw.

“There’s always something for everybody,” Tim told me, and I remembered the two ladies from my church who sat beside me. They told me the next morning how much they enjoyed it.

Tim also said that the youngest company member is 24 and the eldest is 63, so there are a lot of different perspectives and ages. It’s a wide range of entertainment, and after each show the group considers how the audience reacted to each game and may adjust further shows to adapt.

I brought my husband with me to the Towngate show. He’d never seen improv and had only a vague idea of what he would be experiencing. He admitted to me later that he really just went along to be nice, to get a night out, but the Left of Centre Players had him laughing within a few moments, until tears came out of his eyes. Next time, I’ll need to wear waterproof mascara for the same reason.


See Improv Oct. 14!

Improv night happens regularly at Towngate, but if you’re itching to get a taste of it now, you’re in luck. On Friday, October 14, Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center will present Art & Ale, an event that will combine the best of both worlds: a craft beer tasting and a night of hilarity with the Left of Centre Players. The art gallery will be open for viewing and fall-inspired brews will be available for purchase. Beer and laughter. How can you go wrong?

Art & Ale will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, October 14 at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center. Tickets are $35/$30 for OI members. To register or for more information visit or call 304-242-7700.