Acting on Impulse

Twenty years ago, the improvisation and sketch community in NYC was a small core of groups performing in clubs. Today, the number and diversity of companies have grown, and tonight you could see shows offering variations on long- or short-form improv, a mix of sketch and improv, or an evening of fully scripted sketch. Some groups have even acquired their own theatre spaces. For a closer look at this highly accessible and diverse community, Back Stage contacted long-running companies, club bookers, and the performers they recommended. We also heard about groups through our "Laughing Matters" column. Their observations offer an insider's look at where performers "jam" and how they get cast. We'll also have a contact section—so whether actor or future audience member, you, too, can start getting involved.

Cooking Up the Perfect Jam

Improv definitions can be as diverse as improv groups. Tom Soter, 20-year improv veteran, director, teacher, and current producer of "Sunday Night Improv" at The HomeGrown Theater, defines it as "comedy of the moment. A comedic form developed by Viola Spolin in the 1940s and perfected by Chicago's Second City troupe in the 1950s, using audience suggestions as a basis of scenes, songs, and group games. It has also been a technique for writers and corporate executives to encourage their own spontaneous impulses and imagination." He explains, "Improv has its basis in the commedia dell'arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theatre in which a traveling comedy troupe would perform farces without a script. Though the basic scenarios were agreed upon, the pacing of the story often depended on audience reactions."

Soter remembers that, 20 years ago, he was "blown away" by Chicago City Limits and decided to take classes there. These offered what readers should still have today: "a supportive environment; finding the good in a scene and giving constructive criticism." Since Soter is also a writer, he adds, "Improv helps develop writing skills, reporting, listening, observing." In 1992, he began running and hosting the "Improv Jam," which became "Sunday Night Improv."

The "Improv Jam" began 18 years ago, Soter tells us, when Jane Brucker splintered off from The First Amendment improvisational troupe to launch a show that would bring together improvisers from groups who rarely got to collaborate. Soter explains, "It's the only place you can work with—and audiences can see—performers from different improv shows, as well as performers from defunct groups." The improvisers have varied styles and never rehearse together. Soter holds auditions in the fall, and notes the "shortage of good improv women." He also scouts at other's shows, and finds performers while teaching. In 1993, Soter, along with John Webber, began a workshop that became a group called Wingnuts, whose creation allowed his students to perform regularly as well as study. Wingnuts has since branched out to perform its own narrative-based comedy at clubs like Rose's Turn.

Back Stage found the groups with whom we spoke didn't use the possibility of casting as just an empty promise to fill classes. Our performer interviews, and a look at show bios, provided strong evidence that these groups do cast from classes. A student who's on the same page developmentally—and may have worked with show members who are also teachers and directors—is going to be easier to cast into a company with an already developed work vocabulary. You'll find some groups offer pay-as-you-go, drop-in classes, while other groups offer multi-level programs of study. (Many acting schools also offer improv.) More advanced class levels will often involve performance and opportunities for students to jam regularly; by graduation, some classes develop into their own companies.

Making Your Own Luck

Another company with performers featured in both Wingnuts and the "Sunday Night Improv" is KLAATU, whose home is The Producer's Club. KLAATU Artistic Director, teacher, and performer Greg Sullivan found himself "hooked" after studying improv with Ginny Borton, and she recommended him to HB Studios. After studying with Rasa Allan Kazlas and John Monteith, he found improv allowed him to "work as a teammate with other people, listening to what they're establishing and working off of it, rather than playing to my own agenda." He began teaching in 1997. When his HB teacher needed an occasional sub, Sullivan became a substitute at HB. He found that "the influence of HB was tremendous—its philosophy that 'the teachers efforts are a gift to the students' was confirmed by my experience there." He feels any class should "give feedback suggestions rather than 'I-would-have-done-this' dogma, and foster a positive, safe environment."

As his students needed to be challenged by regular performance, they became the ever-evolving troupe KLAATU. Sullivan observes candidly, "I wanted to do short-form improv with a certain polish to it. I also needed a venue to perform and, as I'd heard the writers of the book 'How to Be A Working Actor' suggest during a seminar, I created my own work." This is another reason why improv and sketch are so popular as a way for performers and writers to showcase. Especially now, with the popularity of Drew Carey's "Whose Line Is It?" on ABC and the original English version rerunning on Comedy Central, agents, casting directors, and TV executives will scout live shows. Film and commercial directors increasingly look for actors to improvise, so interest in training is growing, too.

You're Not Getting Older, You're Getting Better

Having been recently feted by the 2001 Toyota Comedy Festival for over two decades of performances, Chicago City Limits can also boast New York's longest-running comedy revue. For over 23 years, audiences have enjoyed CCL's improvisational comedy. CCL was founded in Chicago in 1977 by George Todisco and actors in the workshop program at The Second City. In 1979, CCL relocated to New York, performing at Catch a Rising Star, the Duplex, and other clubs. It established its own theatre in 1980 and began a continuous run of over 7,500 performances. They have both a New York Mainstage show and a National Touring Company. As with many of the groups we interviewed, they do corporate workshops, events, and have a theatre training program now in its 18th season.

When Back Stage asked CCL Artistic Director Paul Zuckerman what the secret is to this company's longevity, he offered, "There's a strong core of quality training and performance here that not only attracts talent, but then keeps it here. It's that and persistence." When asked to define what they do, Zuckerman opted to avoid the limitations of definitions. He observed, "If we do a 25-minute musical, is that short form? The show's line-up is a mix of spot improv scenes, sketch, song parodies, and improv games. While the goal of the shows is comedy, we focus on being a smarter offering as well." Skilled students first join the touring company and then matriculate into the Mainstage company. Zuckerman also introduced Back Stage to a few CCL members who, coincidentally, were performing with other groups we'd planned to mention. As you'll see throughout this article, many groups' members work with and create a number of different groups to explore diverse styles and grow.

Touring company member Meg Sweeney Lawless also teaches at CCL and has performed with "Sunday Night Improv." Though she started doing sketch 20 years ago, she only discovered improv training two years ago, but was soon called upon to perform and teach. Improv has been especially important for this actress because, after being diagnosed with cancer, she found her treatments "blew out my short term memory and affected memorizing lines. Improv was a way to still continuously perform." Unlike her Sunday show experiences, the CCL touring company involves rehearsing every week and then traveling to perform. As a Level One teacher at CCL, she has seen improv be "a fantastic tool. Once you learn to trust that by using one word you can create, never again will you be intimidated by people." The most important thing she wants readers to know about trust is, "You don't make people earn that—you give it. Develop generosity."

When Stephen Barrett isn't performing and writing in the CCL Mainstage company, he's masterminding "Ka-Baam!," a show he conceived and directs. (Its next Friday run starts at the Metropolitan Playhouse July 6.) Here, actors create super heroes, heroines, and villains based on audience suggestions written out before the show and chosen by the host. It features a number of CCL improvisers joining forces creatively with guest comic book writers, artists, and editors. Barrett is new to the Mainstage, having just started this spring, and enjoys the "wider appeal" of a CCL show. Doing Mainstage versus touring means he's now performing six shows a week along with his fulltime job. He feels actors who do other projects still want to improvise "for the energy it brings to a show, and so you're not always relying on the written word."

CCL Mainstage performer, writer, teacher, and touring company director Victor Varnado is a stand-up comic and film actor. He's also completed work on "Hacks," a film where the scenes were entirely improvised. We caught up with Varnado before he left to shoot "The World Improv Championship." He is one of the four-member American team. Varnado first discovered improv with "ComedySportz"™ in Minneapolis while attending college, and worked there for eight years. Varnado and Colton Dunn have also created the multi-media video sketch and live improv duo, Charlie SlideTackle. Varnado observes, "When you're performing six nights a week doing Mainstage, you become more polished because of the stage time. Touring, you don't do as many shows, and audience expectations are different. People paying $40 in Indianapolis think of you as stars; New York audiences are not so easily swayed."

Having taught both long and short form improv, he counsels, "I think comparing long versus short is always going to be a bust. As a teacher, I see benefits to both." Varnado stresses, "I think it's the performers, not the form, that make the show. What I like about improv is that it's collaborative. The audience also can change what happens. While in stand-up, you don't rely on anyone and you have the power to be as individual as you want." One way he's trying to alter the medium is looking for ways to change the instructions audiences are given during shows. He confides, "I hate things that take the audience out of what's happening; you shouldn't have to know a show's structure to enjoy it." His work with Charlie SlideTackle is now exploring giving instructions while in character in the scenes, so the show can be seamless.

Gatorade for the Mind

Improv games also lend themselves to team competition. One highly respected group with an over 20-year track record is Freestyle Repertory Theatre and its signature show, "Theatresports"™. This is improvisational theatre presented as a competitive sport. Two teams of actors challenge each other to create scenes, songs, stories, and poems on the spot, based on suggestions from the audience. The audience votes on which team did the best scene, points are awarded by a "referee," and, at the end of the match, a winner is declared. In addition to long-form improvisation and experimental formats, they have an annual competition for the entire improvisation community (not just their members) and opportunities to "jam."

"ComedySportz"™ was started in 1984 in Milwaukee, Wisc. by Dick Chudnow, who based it on the competitive improvisational techniques of Keith Johnstone from Calgary, Alberta. The first Comedy League of America National Tournament was held in 1988, and the CLA now has grown to 25 teams. "ComedySportz"™ is competitive improvisational comedy presented in a sports format. A match features two teams, and play is overseen by a referee who keeps score, calls fouls, and keeps action moving. Audiences select scenes and act as judge. This show is committed to entertainment through the use of "funny rather than foul"; in over 22 cities, including NYC, their shows run minus content that couldn't also be seen by your mom.

The "Cage Match" began at the venerable ImprovOlympics in Chicago. Founded by Charna Halpern and the late Del Close, IO has prospered for two decades as a training ground and performance venue in Chicago, and now L.A. The "Cage Match" is the brainchild of Kevin Mullaney, now in New York working out of the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre (which also features a "Cage Match"). The challenge gauntlet is picked up by teams who register in advance and compete in a no-holds-barred improv competition. The winner, based on audience votes, then returns to defend their title against a new challenger, and the competition continues until there is only one team left standing.

They're Just Wild About Harold

The "Cage Match" is just one of many shows at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre. In 1999, continuing in the tradition of many groups, the Upright Citizens Brigade opened their own theatre, which is the Chelsea home to many improv and sketch groups, and has shows that fit even a student's limited budget seven nights a week. It's also the home of a weekly "Harold" night that has attracted folks like Mike Myers (also an alumni of the ImprovOlympic where the UCB started) to join the official UCB touring company "Respecto Montalban" on stage.

"The Harold" was originally created by Del Close and Charna Halpern and is the signature piece of the ImprovOlympic. It features improvisers taking a single suggestion and using it as a springboard to create 30-45 minutes of scenes, games, and monologues. As they perform, they discover connections, interweaving their characters and stories to create a cohesive universe. In addition to performance space, UCBT is home to "an intensive Improv Guerilla Training Center." Although their devoted following and a look at their web site might nearly convince you, the Upright Citizens Brigade is not a secret organization dedicated to the proliferation of chaos. They are not promoting chaos through covert programs or their public pranks (including their invention, during the baseball strike, of the sport "Thunderball," which actually convinced Al Roker to interview a "fan" of this sport), or by their guerilla comedy, where one or more members will often be found breaking the fourth wall as characters in the audience disrupting their own shows.

The Upright Citizens Brigade (Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler) formed in 1990, having met as students at Chicago's ImprovOlympics. In 1996, they brought their sketch show, "Bucket of Truth," to NYC and began performing their long form show, "A.S.S.S.S.C.A.T." They've also won the Jury Award for Best Sketch/Alternative Performance at The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, and have been featured at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. In spring 2000, they completed their third television season for Comedy Central, where their show continues to air. They've developed a style that interweaves and connects sketches, borrowing elements from the long-form "Harold." Even when the ideas are way out there, they are played with a realism that will often blur the lines between reality and theatre. They often leave audiences guessing—and they like it that way. UCB is also unique because, unlike many groups, they have often opted to pass on individual career moves in order to continue working together as an ensemble.

While many performance companies have garnered praise for shows at the UCBT, The Swarm—made up of Dave Blumenfeld, Sean Conroy (recently featured in Back Stage's 2001 comedy issue), Andrew Daly, Michael Delaney, Billy Merrit, Katie Roberts, and Andrew Secunda)—is UCBT's "longest running and most dangerous improv cadre tackling long-form improvisations." It has been together for three years and featured at the Thursday night "Harold" shows as the UCB "house team." They also have their own show, "Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain," directed by "Cage Match" creator Kevin Mullaney.

Sketch duo Slovin and Allen have performed regularly at UCBT, as have The Naked Babies (both were Back Stage picks for our 2001 comedy issue). While performing sketch for their own shows, the Babies are also part of the larger improv show, "Feature Feature," providing audiences a weekly double dose of never-before-seen movies created from audience suggestions. Del Close invented this improv form—called "The Movie"—as a way to pay tribute to the cinema. UCB's Matt Besser was a member of Close's original cast in Chicago and now continues this tradition by directing "Feature Feature." On stage, you'll see even the dazzling special effects and arty camera work that movie lovers crave. Offering bold heroes and nefarious villains, bad language, and even the occasional car chase, Scot Armstrong, John Bowie, Rob Corddry, Jamie Denbo, Brian Huskey, Dyna Moe, Seth Morris, and Andrew Secunda are the cast of this reel world from the opening titles to the final fade out.

Field Dispatches

We asked a few UCBT performers to share observations and experiences. Dyna Moe, whose one-woman-and-a-band show, "Riot Nrrd" (think punk bad ass stuck at SAT nerd camp), will be at UCBT this October, lettered in improv in her high school's improv intramural. She offers her experience as an example of how accessible the improv community can be. She started coming to UCB shows, began to introduce herself to performers, and, after participating in two workshops, found herself cast. We asked her about women being in the minority in improv and she observed, "Improv can appear very 'fratty' and, like stand-up comedy, can sometimes make women feel unwelcome, but it would be a supreme mistake to put women in shows who aren't ready, just for the sake of having more women." She especially enjoys that, in "Feature Feature," men can play women and women can play men, so women aren't limited to "playing just the bimbo parts."

Brian Huskey's background is as a musician and a performer. In comparing his improv work, as in "Feature Feature," and his sketch work, as with Naked Babies, he values how improv "keeps you on your feet with greater permission to discover," while sketch "provides the challenge of keeping fresh and finding something different each time you're doing scripted material." He's discovered that "an audience is as smart as you'll treat them" and that offering an audience acting as well as humor "will raise the bar on whatever you're doing."

Andrew Secunda, a member of The Swarm, has appeared in a number of popular shows at UCBT, including "Feature Feature," and he's part of the sketch duo The Two Andys, which has been featured at The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. He's also directed so many one-woman shows that he's created a one-man show for himself, called "Andrew Secunda's One-Woman Show," which also runs at UCBT. Back Stage asked Secunda why performers might choose to be in so many groups.

"You grow and change, and you want to work with different people who will help you do that." He reminds readers that groups have to deal with interpersonal as well as performance relationships, all of which can be very challenging. As a director, he invites readers doing their first improv not to concentrate on what's funny, but to "look for what the interesting 'hook' or twist in the scene will be." Secunda counsels readers not to assume a great improv will necessarily translate to a great sketch.

One way to experience many of the performers who call the UCBT home is to attend "The Third Annual Del Close Improv Marathon," featuring 108 improv acts from 10 different states. It's 52 hours of non-stop improv—and probably some spontaneous improv audience networking as well—beginning July 27 at 8 pm and continuing until July 29 at midnight.

Go East, Young Groundlings

In 1987, members of the L.A.-based comedy company, The Groundlings, traveled east to bring their brand of training and performance to NYC. The Groundlings East soon became known as Gotham City Improv. In 1999, GCI opened its own theatre, and shows developed there include "Maybe Baby It's You" and "Survivorprov." Gotham alumni include "Welcome to New York" 's Mary Birdsong, TBS' "The Man Made Movie" host Chad Taylor, and frequent commercial performer and voice of the crispy M&M, Eric Kirchberger. Back Stage spoke to Executive Director David Storck to find out more about the three GCI performing companies, and how actors are cast in their shows. He described the long- and short-form-oriented classes as "not only a training ground, but a way to find people for our ensembles." Storck's background is also as a performer (in Wingnuts and the UCB) and as a director. He encourages anyone interested in improv to try different forms and schools. "Each teacher is different; each approach will have something to offer you. You'll find most schools encourage you to work and learn with different people."

The three performing companies at GCI are The Main Company, which is sometimes improv and sometimes sketch; Gotham Beyond, who perform short- and long-form improv; and Fidget, who also go short and long. Graduates of the GCI training program perform long-form ensembles every Sunday as members of GCI House Ensembles. There is also "The Student Short Form Jam," where students can perform every Sunday. "Kamikaze" is GCI's sketch comedy development series, and students and performers can try out pieces monthly. The theatre also features guest shows as well, and, this past April, GCI featured its first "Women's Weekend," offering panels, workshops, jams, and shows. GCI's approach is to provide both long- and short-form opportunities to audiences and students.

Life Is a Cabaret

Like Gotham, other groups who now have their own theatres began performing in NYC using cabarets and clubs. These venues include Surf Reality, the Duplex, Rose's Turn, Don't Tell Mama, Gotham Comedy Club, The Comic Strip, Carolines, Cary Hoffman's Stand-Up N.Y., and the gone-but-not-forgotten The Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star. Paul Zuckerman of CCL explains, "In a club, you're always required to do your 'A' material, that's why eventually you want a home base where you can also develop."

Jeff Singer, who co-produces the critically acclaimed "Eating It" at Luna Lounge, has booked and supported a number of shows. One sketch group he especially recommended to Back Stage is Canned Family, consisting of alternative comedy scene veterans Andres Du Bouchet, Jonny Fido, Tim Ostrander, Michael Reisman, and Jen Sprague, who have been together since 1999. They avoid parody, politics, or impersonations and, instead, like to present their own alternative universe. The group's dynamic is driven by the writing of all five members, and they'll be performing in clubs throughout the summer.

Al Martin, owner and booker for the New York Comedy Club, has provided a home base for a number of improv and sketch groups. He recommended to Back Stage shows presented by Low Sodium Entertainment. While their name might not be as familiar to their new NYC audiences as it is to their faithful following in Chicago, you may recognize their sponsor, the Onion, the highly acclaimed American news source.

Imagine an interactive game show where you get to reward or punish comedians based on how funny you think they are, and you'll be watching "Improvisers Must Be Punished" (think "Whose Line" meets The Spanish Inquisition), one of the late night weekend shows offered by Low Sodium. Martin also gives a two thumbs up to his long-running Saturday early show at the New York Comedy Club, Joy Newman's "Grown-Up's Playground," which Newman (who played Cousin Ruthie in "Radio Days") founded as "a forum for actors to get together and jam." "Playground" offers original improv games and traditional classics, and is one of the few large multiracial improv companies around. Newman also adds pantomime techniques she learned from Marcel Marceau to the mix.

The Sound of Music

Improvised songs and musical parody are always audience favorites, often serving as the grand finale of many shows. While most groups include music, there are two becoming known specifically for their musical chops. "The Next Big Broadway Musical," NYC's only completely improvised two-act musical comedy, is seen regularly at Don't Tell Mama and has been featured in the YesAnd New York Improv Festival. The players are Ross Aseron, Samuel D. Cohen, Adam Felber, Debora Rabbai, and Christine Turner. Multi MAC Award-winning comic Ron Poole hosts the proceedings, and Matthew Loren Cohen accompanies. The first act is a mock awards ceremony that presents nominees for best song; the audience gets to pick their favorite. Act Two is an entire musical that utilizes the winning song; setting, plot, characters, etc. are created on the spot.

Comedy Express performs at Carolines and other NYC venues and is also currently under contract at the Stamford Center for the Arts for shows during their 2001-2002 season. The five-man troupe consists of Express founding member J. Jay Boyd, Michael "Motts" Pelazza, Ed Ryan, musical director Howard Kilik, and Andrew Kennedy (also one of the stand-up picks for the Back Stage 2001 comedy issue). They are directed by Lynne Colatrella, and combine Viola Spolin-developed games along with a large amount of musical improv. We asked J. Jay Boyd how he stays sharp between shows and rehearsals: "Listening to many comics' routines and coming up with new tag or punch lines allows me to work my quickness in response to new input from an unknown and unfamiliar source," he replied.

What's in a Name?

You may have noticed some of the catchy group and show names and the interesting premises as to why some groups formed. These hooks not only help them stand out on press releases, but give audiences an early sample of their creative minds or, in some cases, madness. For example, the highly respected group Burn Manhattan continued their fascination with pyrotechnics in the premise for their recent June production, "Centralia," about the inhabitants of a town that has been on fire for the past 39 years. The Improvaholics just finished presenting their catchily titled "Laugh. Rinse. Repeat." Living Room Live, now in its third season performing both stand-up and sketch, not only advertise that they're more entertaining than what you'd find in your living room, they've even found a venue that jibes with their name. It's called The Parlour. The Ten:17 Comedy Troupe recently produced a Science Fiction Comedy Serial, providing a premise appealing to a totally different niche group as well as their usual comedy audience.

Many groups also have a common history formed in college. Schools often have highly respected improv organizations that provide training and performers, who then move to NYC together to form groups. Although young, they have worked together for years. An up-and-coming group formed at Georgetown University is Littleman, together five years, whose shows evoking the pleasures of summer (complete with free ice cream for the audience) have been featured at the UCBT.

Two graduates of Harvard's Immediate Gratification Players are Rex Graff and Justin Krebs of Improvision. They've worked together four years and their show offers audiences a tour of next season's TV hits. The only catch is that the shows haven't been written yet.

While there may be fewer women seen in improv, a number of all-women sketch groups have built a faithful following in NYC, including The Heartless Floozies, The Flying Queens (often featured at Surf Reality and chosen to perform in this year's Funny Women Fest 2001 in Chicago), and the "Hot Girl-On-Girl Comedy" of Shirley Chickenpants.

Since groups can break up or form frequently, this article is not comprehensive, but we hope it shows the diverse spectrum of what's out there, as well as covering many of the long running groups and schools. If there's a group you perform with or enjoy as an audience member that hasn't been included, you can mail or e-mail materials to Amelia David c/o "Laughing Matters" here at Back Stage. To get news about all types of groups, established and new, as well as improv-oriented festivals, visit www.yesand.com and www.improvreview.com, as well as the web sites in our contact list.