Spotlight On: Sharon & Karen

“We love the feeling of walking off stage and knowing in our guts that everything clicked, that we gave it our all, that we listened hard and supported one another, and that we loved the hell out of each other for every single second.”

Sharon & Karen is an improv duo from Washington, D.C., featuring Stacey Axler and Heather Marie Vitale. The two will make their Countdown Improv Festival debut in the 6:35 PM show block on Sunday night of the 2020 festival. In this spotlight interview, Axler and Vitale discuss their performance style, the characters they most often play, and why D.C. is an incredible place to do improv.

We’re really excited that you’re making your festival debut this year! Can you tell our readers a bit about your show format, and what they can expect to see on Sunday night? 

Heather Marie Vitale: We are so excited to be part of this festival! Our format tends to vary by show as we will let the fun guide us, but you can always expect a Sharon & Karen show to be very silly, very honest, and I will probably get really weird.

Stacey Axler: Our format is very fluid, but I hope what they see is a show which goes in some unexpected places!

We’re fascinated by the ways in which improv duos evaluate their own shows. What, to you, constitutes a “good” Sharon & Karen show? What are you ideally looking to achieve on stage? 

HMV: We love the feeling of walking off stage and knowing in our guts that everything clicked, that we gave it our all, that we listened hard and supported one another, and that we loved the hell out of each other for every single second.

SA: I think we love our shows the most in which we feel like we really listened to and supported each other. When we let ourselves get and feel impacted by our words and actions. Nothing we say is wasted or thrown away. We achieve a realness in our dialogue and actions, no matter how wacky the topic may seem.

You’ve got great chemistry on stage. How would you say that your individual styles of play complement each other? In what ways are the two of you very different improvisers?

HMV: I think that Stacey and I get one another on and off stage; she’s my improv soulmate. We know how to balance our characters’ quirks and dynamics and really make the other person look amazing. I think that when we play on other teams, I tend to be the more grounded one and Stacey tends to have wild characters. On Sharon & Karen, I think that gets switched (at least for part of the show). I love that about us because it means that we’re constantly challenging each other to explore new characters and push our own artistic boundaries.

SA: Working with Heather Marie is such a joy.  She is very patient on stage, I think that is integral to the improv we do because we don’t rush to find the funny thing, we wait and see what happens. I feel like I tend to take us “off the rails.” Heather Marie has never, not once, said “no” to anything I have said to her onstage, even with some ideas being rather nonsensical. I feel like when I see Heather Marie making larger improv moves in Sharon and Karen, I tend to dial back and focus on her contributions to each scene. When we talk on stage in character, the root of the conversation feels a lot like we are having a conversation, just us, on a normal day. I think we both try to root our characters into some normalcy. 

You’re both great at character work. What sorts of characters do each of you often find yourselves playing, and why do you think you gravitate to those characters?

HMV: My go to characters always seem to be kids or teenagers (somehow prom is involved?), bro-y dudes, women who have been jilted, and gremlins. When I do a Sharon & Karen show, I will have at least one insane character who starts at an 8 and will have burned down the entire scene by the end of it.   

SA: I think I play a lot of characters close to myself and my own personality, but people who have a big decision to make. I feel gravitated to do that on stage because in real life I am very indecisive. It is nice to make a decision on stage.

DC is a stealthily great improv town. How would you characterize the dominant Washington, DC improv style? How has the scene there grown and changed in the time that you’ve been performing there?

HMV: DC is an incredible place to do improv because it’s all about the love of the art form and the performance. So many of us have serious day jobs, so comedy is an incredible outlet. The scene is overall really supportive and focused on being as inclusive as possible. I’ve been involved with improv in DC for about 5.5 years, and in that time it’s exploded. I don’t think DC really has a style, per se, because people come here from all around the world with their own ways of playing, but I’d say we’re generally focused on relationships and building out characters and game from there.

SA: There are a lot of different improv styles in DC. DC is a very creative place and I think the community at large is ready and willing to try new things and new formats and to experiment. The scene has grown tremendously over the years with more teams and projects being formed every day. It is a joy to see and to be a part of such a vibrant community. I learn so much from peers and teammates. 

Finally, who do you think will be inducted into the Countdown Improv Festival Hall of Fame this year?

HMV: Dr. Anthony Fauci or Henry Winkler (two personal heroes).

SA: I really don’t know, too indecisive!