Clemson’s Mock Turtle Soup is more than an improv group – it’s a family

By Amber Hradec ’22
Photography provided by Amber Hradec ’22

— Dedicated to my Turtle Family and the Art of Improv —

For weeks, I have been poring over resume examples for teacher applicants, all of which have sections for professional work experience, education credentials, and a teeny tiny spot for skills or activities. I find myself trying to fit in one very specific but important aspect of my life, my time in Clemson Improv’s Mock Turtle Soup.

Limiting Mock Turtle Soup to a small section at the very bottom of my resume seems plain wrong. Something that has completely consumed my life for over three years and has helped me become the person I am today doesn’t deserve to be an afterthought or a footnote.

Currently, my resume states: “Improv — honed skills related to collaboration, creativity, confidence-building, quick thinking and speaking in front of large audiences.” A good start. But in no way does this short sentence fully encompass Mock Turtle Soup’s immeasurable impact on me. Nevertheless, I will try to express my gratitude toward this group by doing what an English major does best — writing about it.

Because of MTS, I have been able to build a certain confidence where I accept myself and see myself as perfectly human — a human who is constantly growing, learning, falling, laughing, loving and living.

Induction

For those unfamiliar with improv, improvisational comedy is a form of theater where the entire performance is unplanned and unscripted. Actors create spontaneous scenes based on random suggestions and their own quick thinking. It’s an art that requires vulnerability and a comfort in making mistakes.

I joined Mock Turtle Soup in Fall 2018 of my freshmen year at Clemson. Mock Turtle Soup’s flyer piqued my interest and I resolved to audition, mostly because I had enjoyed theater in elementary and middle school. However, I remember putting the troupe in the back of my mind as something that was interesting, but something I could live without. Perhaps it was a way to protect myself in the likely event that I didn’t do well at auditions.

Nonetheless, day one of auditions had me hooked and day two had me desperate. I wanted to make it into the troupe more than I had even wanted to get into Clemson. Miraculously, I received a callback for day three and eventually made it into the group.

On my first day of official practice, I stood nervously next to my fellow noobs (noob – a noun or adjective describing a person inexperienced in the ways of improv, a title only lost after a full year in the troupe). I remember the members of the troupe exclaiming how much they already loved me and repeating the same phrase, “Once a turtle, always a turtle,” over and over again. These people didn’t know me at all, yet they were already welcoming me into their tight-knit family.

That day, I was inducted into a forever family filled with all sorts of crazy people who accept me unconditionally.

Sean Place, the current president of the troupe and a fellow member of my noob class, says, “Some of the best people I’ve ever met have been through this troupe, and I owe every ounce of personal success I’ve had in college to this organization.”

Mock Turtle Soup demands a huge commitment, but one happily made. With practice three times a week for two hours each, we hone our improvisational skills by reading educational materials, watching videos and practicing — not to mention that we are 100 percent self-taught. We don’t have a professional improviser coach; rather, we are taught by a student president and vice president who were taught by presidents and vice presidents before them.

In addition to practices, we perform public shows once a month for an audience of up to 150 people. Once a year, it is also tradition to visit Chicago, a huge hub for comedy improv, where we take workshops and watch professional shows.

20 Years In

The group is chock-full of traditions, most of which are secret surprises starting from a noob’s induction all the way up to their graduation. One special tradition that even audience members get to participate in is the way every scene begins. We raise our fists into the air and shout, “MOCK… TURTLE,” and on “SOUP,” we bring our fists down, and the scene begins.

These traditions are a culmination of 20 years’ worth of turtles who have all added their own personal touches to the group, traditions that will remain for generations to come.

Mock Turtle Soup was founded in 2002 by Katie Jones ’04 and Bryan Buckley ’04. Jones became the first president and Buckley the first vice president. Jones says improv has changed her significantly: “It made me a more collaborative person, a more trusting person, a more adventurous person, and has made me believe in the power of group mind and community bonding.”

Jones has taken what she started and learned with MTS and founded The Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. She remains friends with her fellow turtles to this day. Among them is Clemson graduate Harrison Brookie ’07, M ’08.

Brookie was also among the first few members of MTS, joining in 2004, and is someone who followed the pattern of many other turtles by continuing to do improv after graduation. Brookie says improv has informed his life “as a teacher, business owner and parent (got to ‘Yes, And’ those kids).”

He is currently the owner, founder and executive director of the Alchemy Comedy Theater in downtown Greenville. The theater holds weekly shows, improv classes, cage matches between improv groups, and the annual New South Comedy Festival where groups from all over come to perform, Mock Turtle Soup included.

Past troupe members of MTS have spread out all over the map to places like Boston, New York, Chicago, Richmond, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Atlanta and more. One thing remains consistent: They never lost their love of improv or for the people with whom they shared the experience. The most recent examples are Manus ’17 and Lindsay Heyman ’15 Clancy, two former members who met through the troupe, visit Clemson’s campus for MTS events and continue to perform at Alchemy together. The couple recently celebrated their wedding, of which many turtles were in attendance.

My Ode to Mock Turtle Soup

I think the biggest reason Mock Turtle Soup so easily becomes and stays a part of people’s identity is because of the trust that is built among members. An unspoken language develops as we communicate subtly with each other during scenes. That trust builds and builds with every practice, show and late-night Cook Out runs. In scenes, we learn to laugh at our mistakes and free ourselves from constraints. The bond we have created is so strong, some of us even got turtle tattoos to commemorate it.

I know that when I step out on stage in front of an audience, my troupe members will always have my back. This support is one of the foundations of Improv, this idea of “Yes, And.” We never deny the reality of a scene nor what a fellow improviser has said. If I establish in a scene that we are two aliens on a distant planet, my scene partner agrees with this (yes) and contributes their own ideas to support me (and).

This mantra has become more than just a guideline for improvisational scenes. It has made me look at life differently. I see things more positively by accepting and saying “yes” to all of the ups and downs that come my way. I also feel like I’ve developed a habit of using every experience as an opportunity to create something better by “and-ing” life’s changes.

Improv and the people of Mock Turtle Soup have given me best friends for life and a safe space to be myself. The group has challenged me to try things outside of my comfort zone — extremely out of my comfort zone, like singing in front of strangers — and has picked me up from some of my lowest points. Because of MTS, I have been able to build a certain confidence where I accept myself and see myself as perfectly human — a human who is constantly growing, learning, falling, laughing, loving and living.

How then do I sum up all that this group has meant to me in a one-line resume statement? To put it simply, I can’t. I’m not sure it can ever be truly explained unless you are in the thick of it. Now, I am in my fourth and final year in the troupe, and I can say I truly understand the phrase, “Once a turtle, always a turtle.”

Amber Hradec ’22 is an intern with Clemson World magazine.

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