STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR
The Palo Alto Teen Arts Council (TAC) last week hosted its first in-person open mic night for teens since the start of the pandemic. Fresh enthusiasm fueled the event’s welcoming environment, and while some former loyalists were elated to again attend after more than a year, many were there for the first time to experience the crowd’s artistic talent and appreciation.
The active audience frequently broke out in supportive guffaws and awed murmurs. On stage, performers rolled with all of the natural hiccups that come with the casual form, including, in one case, lyric amnesia affecting all verses but the chorus. The solo guitarist and vocalist in question proceeded with the entire song in “da-dums.” Off stage, fans cheered him on with unwavering commitment.
Palo Alto High School senior and TAC co-president Phoebe Berghout has been delivering refreshingly candid stand-up comedy since her freshman year. At the open mic, her set explored a childhood pioneer obsession and a run-in with a neon-clad pack of middle school boys while touching more subtly on themes of societal conditioning and identity.
For years following her first set about her younger brother getting a sex talk, Berghout has been refining her craft: phone call practice with friends, workshopping heaps of transitions for cohesion and developing a connection with her audience.
Berghout said she prefers doing stand-up for people she doesn’t know because of the honest reactions they give.
“It’s a lot of fun to make people laugh and know that these strangers find me funny,” she said. “It’s very validating.”
A supportive audience is essential for Berghout’s performance to “get rollin,’” establishing that comfortability makes it feel safer to explore the vulnerable topics her sets explore, she said.
“I end up making a fair amount of personal jokes and I might not necessarily [discuss] these themes with someone who I’m just randomly meeting, [yet] I’m telling a bunch of strangers,” Berghout said. “That’s definitely scary, but as soon as you get that first laugh, it is so much fun.”
A cover band, Sunbear, incited a dance party in the back of the venue, all seats abandoned. This was after a casual invitation to “get up and dance if you want” extended by Paly senior Tara He, a guitarist, keyboard player and singer for the band.
The band had previously played smaller backyard shows for friends, family and classmates. Not knowing what to expect from the open mic scene, they decided to finish their three-song set with the high-energy “Last Nite” by The Strokes in case the audience was getting bored, according to He. The band wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response to their performance.
“We invited some of our friends so we thought, ‘Maybe they’ll stand up and dance,’ but then I guess everyone [did],” He said. “I was really nervous so it was nice when everyone was participating.”
The crowd showed their appreciation for the music in their positive energy and supportive engagement, frequently calling out heartening cheers and woohoo’s.
“It’s definitely a big adrenaline rush for me, and it makes me feel like music is valued,” He said.
Palo Alto High School Improv gave their first performance of the school year at the event, playing various on-the-spot scene games like “What are you doing?” and “Four Square.” The group’s mind-reading chemistry shined through in their intuitive collective storytelling. All together, they committed to the most unexpected direction offered.
One scene invented on the open mic stage involved a teacher eating a student’s glass marbles. In another, Mary Poppins instructed a grilled cheese rookie on crafting the perfect sandwich.
“Going with the weird choice is always the better option in improv because it’s just something bizarre and it will get a bigger reaction from the audience,” Paly senior and director of ComedySportz Anneke Salvadori said.
Past Paly Improv teams have competed in ComedySportz competitions with other schools, scored by means of a referee’s “laughometer.” The open mic was the current team’s first time improvising in front of people they didn’t know.
“It’s more freeing, I guess,” said Renée Vetter, a senior in Paly Improv. “You can do crazier stuff without being self-conscious that these people are going to see you later.”
A live anonymous audience’s reaction is a message for the improviser’s improvement. Along with a license to take risks without worrying about the judgement of their family and friends, Vetter said that laughs provide feedback and encouragement for improv artists.
“[It’s] a positive environment and [we have] a lot of laughs,” loyal Sunbear fan Henry Miller said. “It’s nice to have something like that every once in a while.”
Miller was excited not only to see his friends perform, but also to experience the return of open mic night after a long time missing that community.
TAC also offers opportunities to connect and have fun through their flea markets, short film festivals, mural-painting and are looking forward to their upcoming Halloween carnival.
“Open mics are what many call our bread and butter,” TAC co-president Nila-Ann Nag said.
You can keep up with Palo Alto Teen Art Council events and news on their Instagram @pa_teenartscouncil or on their website.