Bill Binder and Merrie Greenfield perform together as the Phoenix-based duo I’m With Her. They will make their Countdown Improv Festival debut online on Wednesday, October 20 during the first night of this year’s festival. In this spotlight interview, Binder and Greenfield discuss their most memorable shows together, how an online I’m With Her show differs from an in-person one, and why festival producers are uniformly gluttons for punishment.
We’re so happy to have both of you performing with us this year! Can you say a little bit about your format? What can audiences expect to see on Wednesday night?
Bill Binder: I love our format. Before we start scenes we share directly to the audience from our character’s points of view
Merrie Greenfield: Often divergent. Like we often are offstage. We interrupt each other. Again, like offstage,
BB: sometimes in the middle of a thought. By the end, we’ve both told the story.
MG: WeirDass’ format is definitely an inspiration. It usually winds up being about discovering something about another person you know well.
BB: Or sometimes, about ourselves.
MG: Aw, that sounds so very special episode-y. I’ll add if there isn’t a fake moustache at some point, I’ve wasted everyone’s time.
Of all the shows that I’m With Her has performed, what’s been the most memorable one for you?
MG: We did a show at a church converted into a gym, then converted into a performance space for the night. There were so many weird, large signs with rules & misspelled, handwritten inspirational quotes posted, secret entrances and whatnot. We didn’t really discuss it, but we knew the space itself was so absurd, we had to use it as is. So we leaned into it. Reading the signs out loud (typos and all) and justifying them, using the back passages to come running out of the audience or a totally different location. Since we’d both come from traditional theater, an entrance through the audience wasn’t mindblowing. But a comic we know had a mini-meltdown when that happened. He hilariously said he almost walked out because of it, before his curtain call There was also a different show with a (pre-approved) stage kiss that ended with Bill crawling up a wall to avoid it. I landed nowhere near his lips, I remember that.
BB: I also loved our very first show over at ImprovMania in Chandler because it was a spontaneous replacement show and we were playing by the figurative seat of our pants, but we knew each other’s playstyle well enough to have a ball.
MG: I don’t always remember our shows afterwards, but I’ve always enjoyed them, which is fortunate.
The two of you have done enough online improv shows together at this point to have gathered some data. How does an online I’m With Her show differ from an in-person one? Are there any interesting trends that you’ve noticed?
BB: Oh, I’m LOVING some of the freedom of online shows. One thing that was great onstage (as Merrie mentioned) was really playing with the physical space, but our show is really centered on learning about each other, and giving the audience up close access to our faces when we’re affected by each other feels super-intimate with audiences.
MG: I think they’re more intimate online, but we really try to translate some of the same energy in terms of using the space. And I LOVE how easy it is to incorporate props and costumes, because I love lo-fi dumb stuff. We wound up randomly being chosen for a long Ghostfest lottery slot. And it was one of my most favorite IWH shows, maybe ever. Bill went uber-grounded, a Wendy’s employee trying to take my order, and somehow I became Wendy herself, only I was basically recruiting souls for my demonic ends. Like ya do. We were able to use the medium to our benefit, control our own lighting and costumes/camera angles. And I’ve noticed sometimes being in your own home has led to some more relaxed and creative moments, as well as removing commute issues from some of our folx. No offense to those who miss it, but I sorta love creating independent of whether or not you’re getting laughs. I’ve been grateful we’ve had an option that not only keeps everyone safe, but makes it possible for us to work with folx/watch shows from prohibitively far away places. We had an amazing student attend our classes on her lunch breaks in England. What an incredible bonus from a terrible circumstance.
Keeping on the topic of online improv a little longer: Any Zoom improv horror stories you’d like to share with us? Everybody’s got one, and some of us have many of them…
MG: I’ve been really lucky! Aside from freezing because “my internet connection is unstable” once or twice, the only snafu was a very, very sweet group of seniors who made accidental cameos in a festival performance slot. (This was with another team.) We incorporated it, but it was a repeat cameo, and trying to let them know they were in our show was a bit of a challenge, considering our scene’s location had fuckall to do with Zoom. Oh, and because I do costume changes, someone once called my character back. When I didn’t appear, they said “I have the feeling they might be doing something elaborate right now and aren’t ready to come back in yet.” I died. Because *accurate.* My fake moustache was falling off during a show and a random Twitch user who’d stumbled upon us wrote in the chat, “Bruh, lol.” He called me “bruh!” BEST REVIEW EVAR.
BB: I think most of my horror stories come behind the scenes rather than in front of the camera. We’ve been doing this for about a year and a half and we’re just beginning to scrape the surface. I know the audience has a different relationship with us watching this way. They see us onscreen and they expect a bit more of a television visual vocabulary than a stage vocabulary, so I freak out when I’m not putting the spit and polish on the shows to make them fun for the audience. But on camera, I still lose myself in the character. The Alt+Vs and Alt+As and all the other little shortcuts are starting to become second nature.
Bill, you’re teaching an online workshop for us on Saturday, October 23, called “The Math of Improv.” Can you tell us a little bit about it and where you came up with the concept? How can embracing the math of improv benefit the right-brained improviser?
BB: Oh, so much! All art is filled with beautiful patterns and symmetries that make them beautiful. The part of our brain that thinks in that way is also the super-judgy parts of our brain and it keeps us from having fun when we first dip our toes into improv. It’s a great idea for teachers to ask that part of the brain to sit down for a while so our creativity can blossom. But when we’re confident in our art, and we don’t let our analytical side come out to play, we’re only half there. I love seeing the shapes and parallels in our show from the inside. It gives us such a huge playground to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Finally, you’re both involved with the absolutely wonderful Phoenix Improv Festival. We gotta ask: Why is producing an improv festival so hard, and why do all of us keep doing it?
BB: Because improv is the most beautiful thing in the world, and most of the world doesn’t know it yet. We can do our weekly shows at our venues and we’ll build a great fun audience, but a lot of people would never think to enter our doors and see the joy. But a festival? People want to see something magic and we can share that with them, and we get to do it with people all over the world who we love being with. It wears my body to dust, but I always get to see one person see the best improv for the first time. Worth it.
MG: Glutton. For. Punishment. There is a palpable warm and fuzzy feeling during it, though. And we’re so grateful for the festivals you two put on.