Toast is far from burnt out – Massachusetts Daily Collegian

I'm sitting in a nondescript classroom in Herter Hall at the University of Massachusetts, surrounded by a desolate fortress of concrete walls. In front of me sit three metal chairs, lined up at the back of the stage. On a bright blue board that matches the room's stadium seating, a series of doodles depict the ten members of the elongated improvisation troupe Toast, next to a bubble lettering that reads “TOAST IS EVIL.” In what feels like an instant, the room fills with people as 90s alternative music echoes off the reverberating walls. There is a palpable excitement in the air.

The clock strikes 8 p.m. The crowd looks around frantically and expectantly. They start singing: “Toast! Toast! Toast!” I can't wait to start the show. They continue to scream until suddenly the members of the troupe run across the room's larger side paths to the stage, high-fiving the audience as they go. The room erupts in cheers . At this moment, they're no longer just student comedians – they're rock stars.

Nadine Chidester, a natural resources conservation student by day and toast director by night, stands triumphantly on stage with a broad grin. They look out at the crowd, their brunette curls bouncing as they shout, “I need a building with lots of rooms… Go!” They jump off the stage and listen intently to every suggestion in the stands. Finally, Chidester rejoins his fellow actors, now slightly out of breath. “We're going with… a castle!” they say affirmatively.

This particular performance follows the “Sawyer” form, a type of improvisational “genre” in which all performers begin the show with their backs to the audience. One by one they introduce themselves in character and maintain that personality until the end of the night. Entire storylines and character arcs are created live on stage without any scripts.

On a pleasantly warm Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Chidester in front of the UMass student union. “In the case of a Sawyer, we get the proposal and then we line up,” they said with a smile, wearing a summery white dress with red flowers. “Sometimes a suggestion really inspires me. I think, ‘I know exactly who I want to be.’ Sometimes I get inspired by real people I know.”

“On the Castle show, I didn’t know what character I wanted to be,” Chidester continued. “I'm standing at the end of the line, figuring out what relationships I can think of with these other characters that have already been created… Where do I fit into this puzzle?”

Being funny is no easy task, but Toast has improvisation down to a science. Each group rehearsal is based on a “fundamental reality,” which Chidester describes as “who we are and what we do.” Then, when something surprising happens, such as an actor revealing a strange character trait, the group addresses the oddity. It’s the classic “yes and…” mentality. “Basically we're saying if this unusual thing is true, then we have to justify the strange decisions we're making,” Chidester said.

In many ways, the existence of toast is completely miraculous. No one seems to know the exact date the troupe was founded, but Chidester jokes that it was “around the end of the 20th century.” Nevertheless, Toast continues to provide an outlet for the creative and funny.

“It's like pretending, but for adults, and I love that,” Chidester said. “When I was younger I didn't really have any gadgets, so I spent a lot of time role-playing with my brothers. It’s very cool to create a world with your friends that you can immerse yourself in.”

As Toast's director, Chidester is responsible for directing rehearsals, but all members work as a team to hone their comedic skills.

“We choose the form as a group by choosing a couple we want to try out that week, and then all the members who will be performing in that show get to vote,” said Sunny Nordberg, a junior double majoring in theater and English and a member of Toast since fall 2022. “The concept of the director is really only used in shows to introduce toast and get a suggestion, but beyond that everyone contributes to the actual content of the show itself.”

Teamwork and collaboration go far beyond just rehearsals. The group is part of the larger UMass Comedy League, a registered student organization that also includes Toast's sister troupes Mission Improvable and Sketch-22. While each ensemble puts on their own performances, they are all a happy family and often attend each other's shows while offering support and laughter from the stands.

“Most of Toast is very nerdy,” Chidester explains, laughing between words. “We like D&D, we have a lot of personality and we are all very strong characters. We’re all friends.”

From an audience member's perspective, one might think that the troupe's quick-thinking skills make every performance equally successful, but sometimes it proves difficult to make the audience laugh.

“We had shows where not many people could perform,” Chidester said. “We'll have about three people performing and then the audience is also small so there's no energy to exploit. One time we had a show where people walked out. It was truly soul destroying.”

“But,” they continued, “we support each other.” They will support me and I will support them. We'll get through it together and have a good time. I just remember being on stage with my friends and the only approval I care about is making them laugh.”

Toast performs weekly on the UMass campus. As Chidester and the many talented members of the ensemble have proven, Toast is far from burned out.

Nathan Legare can be reached at [email protected].

Anna Harden

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