Funny Girls: The Women of 'Naked in a Fishbowl'

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We've all experienced the impromptu terror that accompanies a dropped line, a late entrance, or the actor playing Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" having a senior moment and launching into the wrong monologue.

But to say Katharine Heller, Brenna Palughi, Lynne Rosenberg and Lauren Seikaly deal with such unscripted moments well is a gross understatement. On the contrary, since 2004 the women of "Naked in a Fishbowl" have been creating entire plays out of them.

Not quite scripted play and not quite improv show, "Naked in a Fishbowl" chronicles the friendship of four New York women in hour-long improvised "episodes" each week. When the lights go up, these witty actresses—who play the same characters each time—are armed with nothing but an opening scenario and absolute trust in one another.

The formula has proven effective: The show ran for two seasons at the Kraine Theater as "What Women Talk About" before changing its name and garnering critical raves and packed houses at the 2007 New York Fringe Festival.

Its success hinges on a level of teamwork that's hard to find show business environment awash in competitive selfishness (thank you, "American Idol"). "Naked in a Fishbowl's" moments of hilarity (like Rosenberg appearing—to the surprise of both the audience and the women onstage—in a full-body, hunter-green unitard) and touching poignancy (Seikaly's character leaning on her friends as she grapples with the demands of motherhood) are truly a group effort.

Now, after a three-year hiatus, "Naked in a Fishbowl" is back at The Soho Playhouse—this time with the addition of one graduate degree (Palughi just completed an Acting MFA at Yale), two kids, and three new featured actresses.

Back Stage sat down with Heller, Palughi, Rosenberg and Seikaly for a chat about unitards, dog funerals, the perils of performing comedy while pregnant, and their return to the improvised stage.

Back Stage: Is it a challenge to keep the performances fresh after four seasons?

Lauren Seikaly: What keeps it fresh is that so much of it is based on our lives. We started the show in our early twenties. Now we're women in our late 20s, early 30s with very different things going on: children, relationships. So the early seasons were all about being young and single in New York, and the later seasons are becoming about getting older... But there's always something fresh because we're willing to bring new material from our own lives on the stage.

BS: What strengths do each of you bring to the group?

Katharine Heller: Katharine makes problems. Lauren solves them. (chuckles)

LS: Brenna brings a very unexpected energy. Lynne brings a sardonic wit—almost the audience perspective—so she can sit and comment. And the audience really relates to her because they can be like, 'Yeah that's me, that's what I want to do, is sit and comment.' But she's wittier than the audience, so....

KH: It's what they wish they thought of.

Brenna Palughi: You create a problem, to bring you through the hour, and you don't want to solve it right away. So whatever we're trying to do in that episode, you want to throw obstacles in our path. So I think Katharine throws logistical obstacles in different characters' paths. And Lauren throws in more emotional obstacles. They're just always there to screw up what you're trying to do. In a good way.

KH: Lynne's also very good at bringing surprises onstage. Like last week, with the unitard...

BS: You didn't know that was going to happen?

ALL: No!

Lynne Rosenberg: (Chuckling maniacally) That was my crowning moment. I've owned that unitard for ten years now and I'm always looking for an excuse to bring it onstage.

BS: How do you rehearse for an improvised show?

KH: Create memories and build a day in the life of the characters, so when we get up onstage we have something to reference.

LR: What I sometimes wish the audience would get to see is, [in rehearsal] we play the other characters that you never see onstage. I play Bonnie's husband.

LS: Katharine plays my four-year-old daughter.

BP: I play her one-and-a-half-year-old.

LR: Lauren plays Katharine's boss. So we've all been able to create these bizarre characters so that when we get onstage and say, 'My boss did this,' we have an image of this crazy character that was created in rehearsal.

BS: You have three new women this season. What say did you have in the casting process?

KH: All of it.

LS: We all work as a group to find women who are open and talented and funny and able to be off-the-cuff, but we also need to all really get along.

KH: It's almost like casting for a friend. Like if I had to cast for a new friend, who do I want to hang out with? Who do I want to be in rehearsal with for hours on end and not get sick of?

BS: Is it one person per new episode?

LS: One, for now. We have the four of us, and then we're doing one extra, because having seven people onstage at the same time with no lines is not a good idea.

BS: It's a funny show, but there's quite a bit of sadness as well. Do you feel pressure to get back to the lighter fare, or do you allow the sadder moments to run their course?

BP: We've found that for an hour-long show to have a series of just really funny one-liners, you lose a bit of dynamic among the characters. The audience—even though they're laughing—they're not walking away having a fulfilled theatre experience, whereas if you take the time to add truth and depth to the characters and relationships, the laughs that you get are a lot better. The payoff is a lot funnier. It's worth it for the comedy's sake to take the time to build relationships and situations that are more serious.

BS: What stumps you during a performance?

LR: One of the nice things about the show is the four of us—and now the seven of us—have so much trust and such a great rapport that you kind of don't really have to fear getting stuck. If you're stuck, someone will come out and jump in.

BP: Or you can just leave the scene!

BS: Who cracks each of you up the most while you're onstage?

KH: I think by way of saying the craziest shit, that one. (points) Brenna.

(Rosenberg laughs uncontrollably throughout the following story)

LS: There were a number of times, when I was pregnant, when I peed in my pants because of Brenna. And I remember specifically once, when we had a funeral for a dog...

KH: My dog died, in the show.

LS: And Brenna went backstage, found this urn-like looking thing. And she decided 'Oh, this will be the dog's ashes.' And she dipped her hand in, and she put the ashes on my head. I had to leave the stage, because I knew I was peeing.

LR: But the neat thing about the show is that 70% of the time it's fine if we laugh, because we're a bunch of girlfriends hanging out, and someone said something funny. A lot our reviewers have said that, too. It's like, 'they laughed at each other and it was ok!'

BS: How long would you like to keep doing the show?

BP: Forever!

KH: No matter what happens in my career, I would always love to be able to do this show.

LS: That's what we set out to do when we came up with this fourth season. We wanted to set ourselves up in a way that we could run forever, casting three new girls. I would love for it to happen but it's going to have to involve a lot more people on the production side, or we'll have some suicides.

KH: I'm glad you pluraled that.

LR: By suicides, you mean homicides.

"Naked in a Fishbowl" plays a new improvised show every Monday night at 7 p.m. through August 9, 2010 at The Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, NYC. For tickets, clips from past shows, and more information, visit