It’s Friday night, and as dusk settles on downtown Little Rock, the quiet street outside The Public Theater at 616 Center doesn’t hint at the scene that’s assembling inside: easily over 100 teenagers, crowding the risers while awaiting the appearance of what might be Central Arkansas’s least-known local celebrities, the teenage improv comedy troupe, Armadillo Rodeo.
Formed in 2007, Armadillo Rodeo is made up of kids age 13 to 18, with members graduating from the troupe when they leave high school. Currently, there are 10 members. Though they practice for up to three hours every Saturday, honing their comedy and ability to think on their feet as a unit, everything they do onstage is thought up on the spot.
For the audience, not knowing what will happen next is all the fun. The room is hot, buzzing with anticipation. They’ve brought in extra chairs, filled them, and soon kids are sitting on the floor. If there’s a foot-square space to stand, someone is standing on it. A Friday night can seem awfully dark to a parent watching their teenager head out the door into the big city. But here, on a weekend night, it’s a well-lit corner of Little Rock packed with smiling, texting, chattering teenagers, and the only law breaking going on might be a violation of the occupancy ordinance.
Promptly at 7, the lights dim. When the members of Armadillo Rodeo bound onto the stage, the crowd – most of them teenage regulars from local high schools and middle schools, all of whom paid $8 for a seat – bursts into an approving roar that’s flat out amazing to an audience newbie, especially given that many of the folks onstage aren’t yet old enough to drive. The troupe splits into senior and junior members, and for the next hour and 15 minutes, Armadillo Rodeo has us eating out of their hands with guessing games, improvised skits and impressions of the famous and infamous, all based on audience suggestions. If you’ve got even a hint of stage fright or acting ambition, it’s both a glorious and terrifying thing to watch. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.
At 18, Noah Whitney is one of the oldest members of Armadillo Rodeo. He’s graduating from high school and the troupe this year – heading off to Illinois, where he’ll attend the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. A performer who plays his facial expressions with the skill of a concert pianist, often building his comedy around doofus responses that remind one of Steve Carell, Noah said working without a net was terrifying at first, but he’s since grown into it.
“Your first show, you’re just a deer in headlights,” he said. “You’re up there, and you’re making something in front of people. There’s no lines, there’s no rehearsal, there’s just raw comedy, right there. That’s what makes it fun, but that’s what makes it scary.”
Brook Scalzo is Armadillo Rodeo’s adult mentor. A member of both Improv Little Rock and a new troupe called The Joint Venture – which performs every Wednesday night at The Joint in Argenta – Scalzo took over as the Rodeo’s volunteer mentor last May, after the original founders, Josh Rice and Katie Campbell, moved out of state to pursue their careers. Scalzo said the packed house for Armadillo Rodeo is not uncommon, with the theater so full some nights they have to turn people away.
“If we could do a show every week, I’m convinced they would sell out,” she said. “It’s nuts, the response they get. There’s not a lot for teenagers to do in this town, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. Where most places are asking teenagers to leave, we’re asking them to come and have fun.”
Scalzo said that every dime the troupe makes goes to theater rental and paying for the group’s yearly trip to the Chicago Teen Comedy Fest, which the members of Armadillo Rodeo attend every May. While in Chicago, Scalzo said, the members take part in a workshop at the legendary improv theater and school, The Second City, which counts a who’s who of comedy greats among its alumni.
Open auditions for next season’s Armadillo Rodeo cast were held at the end of April, with the troupe looking to replace several seniors who are graduating from high school. The members of Armadillo Rodeo make all their own decisions on who gets in, Scalzo said. Even though a lot of shaping and honing of junior members takes place during their weekly rehearsals, she said they look for a certain skill set in that first audition.
“We look for creativity, we look for bravery,” Scalzo said, “but mostly we look for people we’d want to play with, and who want to play with us. These kids are friends, and we’re kind of a little family.”
Sixteen-year-old Raven Duda has been part of the Armadillo Rodeo family since 2011. Having acted in productions at the Arkansas Arts Center since she was in elementary school, Raven said the key to improv is to avoid “trying to be funny.” Instead, like a lot of members of the Rodeo, she just tries to have fun onstage, knowing that if she has fun, the audience probably will too. The format of improv makes that easy.
“In a way, I think it’s more fun than normal acting,” she said. “With normal acting, you go onstage and you rehearse your lines, so it’s just the same thing over and over again. With improv, it’s new, it’s fun, and it’s completely spontaneous. Sometimes, you might say something, and you’ll think in your head: ‘Did I really just say that?’”
At 14, Aaron Eley is the youngest-ever member of the troupe, having won his spot last year at only 13. An eighth-grader at Bryant Middle School, he’s clearly becoming a crowd favorite. Though he’s only in his first year, he hung easily with the more seasoned cast members during the performance we attended, doing a knockout impression of Elvis at one point that had the audience rolling with laughter. Like a lot of members of the troupe, Eley heard about the Rodeo while attending the Summer Theater Academy at the Arkansas Arts Center. His instructor asked him to audition.
“At first, I thought, ‘Improv? I’m not really sure about this,’” he said. “But after the audition, I’d gotten a little taste of improv, and I really wanted to be in the troupe.” Being in Armadillo Rodeo has helped him both on and off stage, Aaron said.
“It’s really helped me to think on the spot and come up with things faster,” Aaron said. “It’s made me a lot happier. I know that sounds kind of cliché, but it’s doing something that I like… It’s great to know that there’s a way I can start as a performer.”
Standing on the sidewalk outside the Public Theater, waiting for Aaron to make his way through the throngs of fans so they could head back to their much-less-glamorous life in Saline County, Aaron’s dad Chris Eley echoed his son’s enthusiasm about Armadillo Rodeo. Aaron wants to be a stand-up comedian someday, Chris said, and there’s just not a lot of opportunity to get onstage experience when a performer is so young.
“The Rodeo has been a huge blessing for him,” Chris said. “Every time he finishes a show, on the ride home, he’s just beaming.”