Spotlight Interview: Matt Walker
Matt Walker is an improviser who performs with The Bitter And, The Third Thought, and The Magnificent 7. Based out of St. Petersburg, Fla., Walker will be performing on all three nights of this year’s festival. In this spotlight interview, he discusses his work with several prominent Tampa Bay improv troupes, his advice for aspiring improv producers, and which city would win if Tampa and St. Petersburg were to get in a fight.
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We’re so happy to have you back this year, Matt! You’re performing three times at the festival, with three different groups. Tell us a bit about each, and about what makes each one special.
The Bitter And is a loose format that we hone in on with our guest for the evening. It all begins with a weird way to die, and we roll from there. It is sometimes a narrative, sometimes a montage, other times we don’t know what it is. Always fun though! We are performing with Hawk & Wayne on August 23rd at Studio@620 for our last ever A Murder of Shows, so come check it out!
The Third Thought is currently based in Johnstone philosophy, but we perform basically a Narrative that sometimes edges on a Slacker format. We have been playing together in its current format for about 5 years and still going strong. We perform First Fridays at The Black Crow Coffee Old Northeast.
The Magnificent 7 is a 7-person monoscene group, where every monoscene has no more AND no less than 7 characters involved. We have had a ton of practices and they are going GREAT, but for some reason every performance we can only seem to get a few folks out. Though our practices have also gotten light recently… but we adhere to the format, because that’s what we practice.
The Bitter And, your duo with Scott Shoaf, is back for a second consecutive year. You guys bring a guest performer on stage for every show, and it’s basically always someone different each time, right? What does this rotating third member add to the show, and how do your guests affect the dynamic between you and Scott? Any particularly memorable guest experiences you can remember?
Scott and I set out to be a duo, understanding it took a lot less effort to practice, schedule shows, etc. I had always dreamed of just performing with guest improvisers, so we sort of fell into the format. It keeps us engaged as we always insist the guest get to sort of “shape” the format we use that evening. So far we have had roughly 20-25 guests, and they’ve all brought some great stuff to the table. Some have been more whimsical, others more character-oriented narratives, fast games, slow monoscenes- it’s really fun to be surprised but it! Our last show we performed with Will Luera from FST and Big Bang which was a real treat for us. Personally though, it was super awesome playing with my first improv/acting teacher, Gavin Hawk of Hawk & Wayne, after all these years.
The Third Thought is new to the festival this year, but not new to Tampa: the team is perhaps Tampa Bay’s longest-standing long-form improv ensemble. How do the three of you keep things fresh after all this time? What do you do to ensure that you’re not just resting on your laurels?
So I started out with them fully-committed in 2013. But they had been around since 2011, I believe, and I actually got to see their first-ever show at Eckerd College! They did an Armando about “Banana Hammocks.” Cut to now, I think we have kept the freshness by always being able to change lanes. We don’t really change our course, but we make adjustments and challenge ourselves at every turn.
You teach improv, too, along with producing independent shows and facilitating a weekly improv meetup in St. Pete. What are some interesting things you’ve learned —- about improv, about the community, about yourself, whatever -— from doing all this stuff? Any tips for aspiring improv hustlers out there?
The community always wants one thing: more good shows. Not just more shows, but more good shows. A good show to me is made up of three factors: quality improv, low cost, and good venue. Always keep these things in mind when you create a show. Everything else is just cherries on top. The only real reason I host all these things is because I, myself, would like to see more good shows — it’s also nice knowing I’m not the only one.
Tampa vs. St. Petersburg: Which city wins in a fight, and why?
St. Petersburg; but only because Tampa would get disqualified for below-the-belt punches.
Finally, rumor has it that John Lasavath may have murdered the other members of The Magnificent 7 in order to assure himself more stage time. Do you find these rumors credible, and, if so, how much do you fear for your life this weekend?
I’ve heard these rumors, so I confronted John. John’s lawyer assured me that all my fears and rumors are all circumstantial and wouldn’t hold up in a court of law; he proceeded to cite some cases including the Manson Murders. So no, I’m not worried. Why would a guilty man have such a judicious lawyer proclaiming his innocence on his behalf?
Spotlight Interview: CatBird
CatBird is an improv duo featuring Robin Thompson and Catherine Windecker. Based out of Delray Beach, Fla., CatBird will perform on Saturday night on the L.E. Zarling Stage at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Thompson and Windecker discuss what they love about duo improv, the notion of doing the most with the least, and whether they’re cat people or bird people.
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We’re so excited to have you two back with us this year! Tell us about how the two of you met and decided to start performing as a duo, and what you love about working together.
Robin Thompson: We met over 3 ½ years ago when we were taking drop in classes at Improv U. We were in the first advanced longform class taught by Anthony Francis at Improv U and that class turned into an ensemble longform improv troupe, Jest Promoted, which we were in together for about 2 years. After our team dissolved, I approached Catherine about doing a duo improv team together following Justin and Kelly’s form, The Walter. love working with Catherine because she has such a quirky and brilliant mind. Her thought process always delights me and keeps me on my toes.
Catherine Windecker: I love working with Robin because she invites trust. She has a gentle approach that allows me to follow her blindly. I can groove with her vibe if I just let go.
We’re incredibly honored that CatBird has adopted our own signature format, the Walter, a minimalistic monoscene that emphasizes silence, physicality, and eye contact. What drew you to it, and what have you found fun about working within it?
RT: When I was a fresh three-month-old baby improvisor, Anthony Francis brought you two down to Delray Beach to teach a workshop and perform a show later that evening. I found your form so fascinating since, especially as a new improvisor, I was always trying to get words out to explain what I was doing/feeling/thinking. By taking your workshop I learned that we can do as much, if not more, by slowing down and using fewer words and really focusing on the emotion of the scene, connecting to our scene partner in a deeper and more meaningful way. It was refreshing to stop focusing on what I was going to say or do next, but instead focusing on what I was feeling and heightening that feeling until I could get to a point to sum up the feeling and situation in one simple statement. I have found it so fun to do so “little” but then get a huge payoff when something funny happens and the crowd laughs and gets into it.
CW: What drew me to this form was Justin and Kelly themselves. Because they have such an incredible connection and display that with such rare kinetic energy. They are mesmerizing to watch. It’s really fun when Robin and I heighten our emotion to the utmost until we cannot heighten anymore and then come down off of that and eventually heighten again. That pattern is incredibly fun.
CatBird will be performing on the inaugural L.E. Zarling Stage at this year’s festival, which was conceived to showcase kinetic, experimental, and boundary-pushing improv. What’s a favorite memory of yours of a show that you’ve done or seen that fits that description?
RT: One of my favorite scenes with Catherine was at a recent show at Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep Theatre in West Palm Beach. In that set, our suggestion was “nail salon”. It became apparent that we were upset because our favorite nail color had been discontinued. We heightened our emotion to the point that we were weeping and wailing on the ground screaming “Volcano red is gone!” The more we exaggerated that emotion of loss and despair, the more hysterical it became. I loved that we didn’t hold anything back and fully committed to our raw despair.
CW: I also loved our “Blockbuster” scene a couple of months ago where we casually drifted from song to song that reminded us of certain movies, and then broke that pattern when the store management would let us know that the store was closing. Our commitment to each other’s cause to find the best movie and take our time doing it felt beautiful.
You’ve both been mainstays at Improv U in Delray Beach, which we happen to think is one of the best improv communities in the entire country. What do you think makes Improv U so special?
RT: Wow! That’s amazing! Thank you for that recognition! I think what makes it so special are the people. Anthony Francis has created a community of improvisors who lead with their hearts and care for each other deeply. We’re there to entertain, but also have fun. We train regularly and put in the work, but if it isn’t fun then what is it all for? Anthony even has a tattoo that reads “Lead with Love” which is a reminder that we have to look out for each other and look at our intentions when it comes to how we perform and support each other on and off the stage.
CW: Definitely the individuals themselves that make up Improv U. Everyone there just agrees that we support each other no matter what. It is a very positive environment that Anthony encourages. It feels like a totally safe space where we can express our emotions.
What do you love about small group improv? What, in your experience, makes it different from performing with larger groups?
RT: In small group improv you can really dive deep into your characters and scenes because there are fewer (if any) edits. It has also taught me to fully trust my scene partner because it’s just us. We can’t depend on someone else to sweep the scene and “save us.” This has also taught me to trust myself more and my instincts. It has taught me to be at peace with this moment we have created and trust that “this is enough.” It’s also easier to get together to practice with only 1 or 2 people, versus 5 – 9 people!
CW: As Robin said, “this is enough” becomes my inner mantra. I love it because we only have each other to play off of so it narrows my focus to just one person. Therefore, the trust has to be deeper because only that one person has your back.
And, finally: are you cat people or bird people? (Or both!)
RT: I’m definitely more of a bird person, lol! But not a caged bird type – the free kind!
CW: Well, as we found out last night, the new trend is birds. We found this out in the Dollar Store (there were no cat items at the Dollar Store, only birds. One day you’re in. The next day you’re out.) I actually love both, but I’m more of a cat person. After all, my name is Catherine and I have two cats.
Spotlight Interview: Get Out of My Head!
Get Out of My Head! is an improv duo featuring Lauren Morris and Alex Streu. Based out of AdLib Theatre in Winter Park, Fla., Get Out of My Head! will perform on Friday night of this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Morris and Streu discuss the genesis of their on-stage chemistry, the workshop they’ll be teaching at the festival, and Mickey Mouse’s alleged gambling problem.
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We are excited to have both of you at the festival this year! Tell us about your format. What can audiences expect to see this year?
Lauren Morris: We keep it simple in terms of the format. We get a word and just go into a monoscene. As for what audiences can expect, well typically we explore more absurd and darker topics that impact the human condition and our characters in the moment.
Alex Streu: Our goal is to always find the funny in ridiculousness through the steps of authentic characters and choices. So we can truly find vulnerable moments and concepts while also playing with the limitless capability of improv.
Your show is marvelously efficient. You find the funny quickly, develop stakes and characters concurrently, and keep heightening from there, with no wasted movement or energy. Is this a goal of yours — to trim the fat and get to the point quickly? Or is that just a byproduct of something else that you’re striving for?
LM: My improv is all about the relationship between characters and the result is typically a lot less wasted energy. I want the audience to be hooked and engaged from the get-go.
I like to know the point of view up top and then just discover, discover, discover. From our words, character quirks, and environment. Everything has a purpose, intention, and a reason. We are always striving to stay connected and I think that goal also helps what you just described!
AS: Yes, absolutely it is a goal of ours! Personally, I find that while great improv can show in many forms, I believe we have the opportunity to show a moment that matters to these characters. We can’t see the true nature of people and characters until we see the stakes that force to them reveal themselves. So the quicker we get there the more time we have to play and discover.
You two have great chemistry. How has that developed since you started improvising together? What are some ways you’ve found to build trust and a rapport as a duo?
LM: It started with the simple fact that we both want to be the best versions of ourselves and show audiences how improv can change your life in the best way. That simple philosophy means we can trust each other in so many different ways and trust is paramount to what we do.
Early on we found out how similar our styles and aesthetics are on and off stage and that helped propel us forward. Then we made real efforts to strengthen our relationship off stage. Ridiculously long talks about improv (we both take a long way round when we talk shop!), hanging out doing non-improv stuff and supporting one another in other aspects of our personal lives.
Also, knowing that we are both dedicated to the journey and this team, it means we can be completely honest and open with each other about everything and that is the biggest way to have trust. It’s learning how one another communicates in real life and honoring that so you can have the deep and meaningful conversations which lead to those funny and amazing moments on stage!
AS: Yeah, our first show was absolute shit! That being said we found something that was unique, at least for me. Not a lot of people want to get weird because they feel it is forced or it’s for attention. But here I could feel there was someone else who was weird because their brain was weird. Like Lauren said, once we discovered that fact it became both manual and at times effortless efforts of strengthening the relationship off and on stage. As she said, that means having the hard conversation that you don’t want to have because that is what allows us to remain open and honest on the stage so we can share what we do to the best of our abilities [with our audiences].
Your workshop title is also a mathematical equation, which is sort of amazing. Tell us why you believe that authenticity + vulnerability = funny. Why is this equation so important for performers to internalize?
LM: For one each piece is something we both strive for every time we are on stage. The ability to be vulnerable means the performer is willing to let the moment, their partner and the words really have meaning for them. To truly listen and stay open and ready to change. It takes risk and courage and that is very improv.
Authenticity is the honest way you bring your characters to life. Many times people “act” in a way they think the character has to act. The truth is every person has their own lens on the world, their own energy, their own style and that is what they need to bring to their characters and if they are doing that then the character they are playing will react truthfully and not how the improviser thinks a character should respond.
You can be vulnerable and not authentic and vice versa. Typically when that happens you are left with scenes that become very dramatic (when that’s not the goal), or leave the audience feeling as if they just experienced something forced and it definitely isn’t everyone having fun.
If you are striving for funny you can do it in a way that feels forced or you can do it in a way that is natural and also leaves everyone feeling they had an experience not just watched an improv show. I don’t know, I think there is something amazing in that hence why I think all performers should internalize their V and A!
AS: What she said! Also, I believe that comedy itself comes from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. Whether it’s a high comedy like Talladega Nights or a stand-up comic’s tight five. There have been so many learning moments for myself where I found my funny line was never funny and my honest reaction had a roar of laughter. I think that is all you need to prove that being genuine in moments, especially in a format like ours, is where the source of comedy, at least our comedy, comes from. When you can you understand it in as simple a format as A+V=F, that’s done to represent how simple this improv really is and now it’s all about making that choice.
Alex, you recently came on board as associate director of AdLib Theatre, the improv theater in Winter Park that Lauren founded and continues to run. Can you both talk about what this new development means to you personally and professionally — and what it will mean for AdLib going forward?
LM: I’m still trying to find the right words to what this all means. Personally, I am so lucky. I get to work with someone on a day to day basis who loves improv and wants to elevate and ensure the future of improv. A person who sees that improv is bigger than just himself and cares about his community. Seriously? This is the person I get to work with? How cool is that?
Professionally it’s a ginormous leap for AdLib. It’s a signal that we have grown and it’s time to expand the circle of influence and push our community to the next level. Creating AdLib has been one of the hardest and most rewarding endeavors I’ve done. It’s humbling and an honor to serve so many people.
Going forward it means AdLib can offer more programming, more artistic opportunities for performers, and raise the quality of our training program. It really is an exciting time in the theater’s history.
AS: You know, when I was offered this position and told its duties my first thought was, “Don’t I already do this?” Ha Ha Ha. That’s because my first and foremost goal, which I even told Lauren when I accepted, is to help the theater grow. I hit a point in my improv journey where I reached a ceiling and craved growth but had nowhere to do so. That’s when I found this space that Lauren created which immediately gave me more opportunities than I expected and after watching my first show there, I immediately thought what can I do to help. Personally, this means I get to work with a bunch of people who have these shared goals and get the inside experience of someone who wanted the same thing as me but took the bigger risk to build it and do the groundwork and I get to just be some extra jet fuel, which is so fulfilling.
Professionally, I hope it does all the things that Lauren mentioned, and that is certainly something we both aim to strive for.
Finally, we’ll ask you the same thing we’ve asked some other groups: Why the hell are Disney World tickets so damn expensive? Any viable theories?
LM: Rumor has it that Mickey and his friends have some seriously big gambling debts!
AS: Have you seen their drink prices? They have to pay for them somehow!
Spotlight Interview: As Yet Unnamed
As Yet Unnamed is an improv trio featuring David H. Hepburn, Daryl Patrice, and Stephanie Rae. Based out of Miami, Fla., As Yet Unnamed will be performing on Friday night of this year’s festival. In this spotlight interview, the group members discuss how they met and started performing together, their work with the Black Improv Alliance, and their top tourism tips for a first-time visitor to Miami.
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We’re so excited that As Yet Unnamed is making their Countdown debut this year! We absolutely love your format, which you describe as an exciting musical Harold. How did you come up with it, and what do you love about performing it?
We love putting our own spin onto classic improv forms, and we are all big musical theatre nerds, so when we started playing around with the Harold, adding music came very naturally.
One of our favorite things about this form is seeing how the songs we’ve created lead us into richer scenes and characters. Musical improv gives you very little time to think, so sometimes we’ll blurt out a line like ‘I’m so excited to go swimmin’ and I’m gonna eat a lemon’ and think ‘Oh Lord, now I have to justify this thing that makes no sense.’ But then, through scenework, we discover that our character really does love lemons, and this is an important part of the story, and it actually makes *perfect* sense! And that moment is always hugely satisfying.
How do the three of you prepare for a show? Are there different modes of preparation for the improv portion and the musical portion?
We like to warm ourselves up with a game or two: Justify, Three Sentence Scenes, and Four Corners are a few of our faves. Then we just like to run the Madrigal one good time, and hope for the best!
How did the three of you meet and start performing together? What do you love most about performing with one another?
We actually met each other randomly at an improv show that Stephanie was performing in. Daryl was sitting in the audience next to David (we were the only black people there so naturally we gravitated to one another). After the show we approached Stephanie and drowned her with compliments and the idea was thrown around about an all-black improv team, and here we are! We love performing together because we each have something different to bring to the table, so we all shine and help each other shine. We’re fully open to bringing each other our weirdest, most vulnerable, and authentic selves. There’s a lot of trust between us.
You’re from Miami, where you’re members of the Black Improv Alliance, established earlier this year. Could you tell us and our readers a bit about BIA’s mission, and what you have in store for South Florida audiences?
Our mission is to bring black folx together in a space where they can feel free to be their own kind of funny. Many of us have experienced racial insensitivity in one form or another within the improv circuit. In the BIA we seek to create a safe space where there are no “tokens,” we’re not the butts of jokes, tropes, or stereotypes. We’re just us, freely and unapologetically.
Right now we’re still playing around the greater South Florida tri-county area (Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties), but two of us, David and Stephanie, just played our first out-of-state festival, the Baltimore Improv Fest! On Monday, September 9, we’re playing Indie Night with our friends at Improv U in Delray Beach! Check us out at 9:15pm!
Running this festival each year, we’re consistently amazed and impressed by the sheer volume (and high quality!) of improv coming out of Florida, especially South Florida. What do you think makes the state/region such fertile ground for improv in particular?
Part of it is definitely the diversity that is in Florida, especially South Florida. So many different stories, so many different kinds of funny! There’s a little something for everyone, and we’re excited to add our own flavor to the community!
And, finally: one of us has never been to Miami! What’s the first stop you’d recommend someone make on their first visit? (It can be food-related, but it can also be someplace totally random!)
Well, besides the beach, a very popular part of Miami is the Wynwood Art district. There are great places to eat (like Kush Gastropub) drink and dance (like Wood Tavern, Brick, and Gramps, which also has a dope drag show called Double Stubble every Thursday night) and just walk around and enjoy art (Wynwood Walls is great for that). But also, our friends at Speakeasy Theatre have scripted and improv shows every Saturday night, and classes every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon!!
Spotlight Interview: Lamp Money
Lamp Money is an improv duo featuring Laura Gregor and Michael Thomas. Based out of Madison, Wis., Lamp Money will be performing on Saturday night at this year’s festival. In this spotlight interview, Gregor and Thomas talk about their format, their home city, and the relative merits of Essen Haus.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS FOR SATURDAY NIGHT.***
We’re so glad you’re both coming to the festival this year! The Detours format is so much fun, and it is so rarely performed. Tell us about Detours and what you both like about performing it.
Michael Thomas: It came about in a fun way for us. We were initially inspired after seeing a performance of the play Constellations that followed two characters’ romantic path, which played with time and “alternate realities.” As is often the case, we tried to find a way to play with that in an improv format, replaying scenes and exploring new ideas. We then saw Detours played when we were in Omaha and found a way that others had played it and found it a fun way to explore characters and their relationships and actually be able to “redo” a scene if we want to try something new.
Laura Gregor: We’re so happy to be coming to Countdown this year! I particularly enjoy the repetitive element of Detours and being able to explore characters while also having the ability to change up scene length — have a mix of patient and punchy scenes — and also making quick edits if it really goes off the rails.
What’s challenging and/or exciting about doing a Detours set with only two people?
LG: For me the biggest challenge is that second scene where we’re repeating the first scene but switching up the characters. It’s a balancing act between staying present in the first scene and trying to develop a character while also listening to Michael and his character’s traits/what he’s saying so that I can do my best to replicate it. But it allows both characters to evolve in an effortless way and as that happens other options open up- that’s exciting.
MT: The nice thing about Detours in groups is you can take a break and watch or reassess what is going on, so always being in a scene requires a great deal of paying attention and keeping track of what’s been done and where we can take things. I always get excited in this format when I see Laura go somewhere in the scene that I can play with as the same character.
How do the two of you like to prepare for a show? How do you like to decompress afterwards?
MT: Atlas Improv has ingrained in us the need to warm up physically, vocally, and mentally. We almost always do exercises to get everyone in that group mindset. With just the two of us we still feel that need to do those warm-ups, but just as important is being able to talk and get on the same level mentally. As for after shows, if we feel good afterwards I think it’s good to ride that feeling with everyone together. If we feel like our shows were bad, I think it’s almost mandatory to hang out afterwards and remember that we do like each other no matter what. There’s nothing worse than stewing alone after a bad set.
LG: Yeah, right now we don’t have a pre- or post- show ritual for our two-person team, we just treat it like a regular night of shows at Atlas. Maybe that’ll change some day but for now it’s working out well for us. Another nice thing that Atlas has ingrained in us is how we handle notes, which I think is unusual and time consuming but also constructive. We sit around in a big circle, we give each other or ourselves the notes we feel need to be made. At the end of notes for each show/set we physically make a hand wipe motion and we move on. Then we go out and drink with our Atlas buds!
As you noted above, you’re from Atlas Improv Company in Madison, which just might be our very favorite place to perform. What makes Atlas and its community special?
MT: Atlas is something that took me too long to realize how unique of an opportunity we have. Being in a nice college town, we have a steady supply of people willing to come to shows twice a week. But even before that, the core company that was there when I started (and is there now) are all passionate performers that love putting on shows as much as they love teaching others. Add in the desire to experiment and branch out and I feel like I have a great resource for being able to get better as an improviser.
LG: Atlas is the only dedicated theater for improv in Madison and differs in a lot of ways from most improv scenes in that we have a tight knit company of members who play together every single weekend. We figure out our availability at the beginning of the month and if we say we’re available, we’re expected to be there. It’s a real emphasis on the collaborative aspect of improv, that it’s about the community over the individual, which I’m always very proud to be a part of. Our call time is one hour before show time, and we are the ones who clean the space and get it audience ready. It’s lovely to have a space that we all feel ownership over, plus 20 best friends that we grow to know and love.
We also happen to think Madison itself is one of the best cities in the world, period. What advice would you give someone visiting there for the first time?
LG: Madison is a fun town! I’ve lived in Madison since I moved there for college in 2009 so I have the perspective of Madison as the big college town that it is, as well as a more “mature” perspective. The downtown is on an isthmus, so it’s sandwiched between two lakes: Lake Monona — where Otis Redding tragically died — and Lake Mendota — where no one famous has died to my knowledge. For a firs-time visitor, I would definitely suggest going in the summer or fall when Madison is at its peak pleasantness. Also, if you stay in the downtown area, you’ll be within walking distance of the major attractions: both lakes; the state capitol (which has a free tour several times daily); Capitol Square, which has a bunch of nice restaurants and bars, as well as the infamous Saturday farmers market; and State Street.
MT: Whenever I travel the only thing I ever care about is food, and Madison can provide that in so many ways. I wasn’t a fan of beer until I saw the variety they had everywhere. Also, don’t be afraid to visit in the winter, the city is great at dealing with even the worst weather.
We love a good improv origin story. How did each of you first find improv? What keeps you at it now that you’re both veterans?
MT: I had been looking for a way to break into classes for a long time, and when I moved up here and realized I was so close to Chicago I wanted to take classes. The takeaway I got from my time there was that it doesn’t need to be a big name theater in order to learn, and when I found Atlas I immediately connected with their philosophy. I tried auditions a couple of times to join the main company, but more importantly I never stopped learning and watching others. If I could emphasize any part of being a “veteran” that would be my only takeaway: you have to always be ready to grow and get inspired by others.
LG: My origin story is pretty similar, although perhaps more of a winding road to get in the door and actually take a class. Performing was a big part of my childhood but for over five years of my adult life I didn’t have any sort of creative outlet. Then I started grad school and hit a breaking point where I needed to do something. So I did some research, found Atlas, signed up for a class, and by the time I did my first class show I was hooked. I auditioned, didn’t get into the audition class, and ended up getting in through a live reality show Atlas does every year called The Cut. That was about three years ago, so most days I still feel like a new improviser! I think something I’ve learned in these few years is that improv isn’t a skill that can be totally mastered, though there are many that come close. I find myself going through periods where I feel like I’ve “figured it out” and then suddenly that way doesn’t work anymore, and I need to try something else. Improv forces me to evolve and push myself out of my comfort zone, and that’s what keeps me coming back every week.
Finally, we’re hoping we can settle this once and for all: Is Essen Haus good?
LG: My feelings about Essen Haus are complicated and intense. It’s definitely not good by any traditional standard but I’m partial to a dive bar atmosphere and they definitely deliver in that respect. It is definitely not for the faint of heart, but frankly I’m not interested in spending time with people who are too good to drink in a place with several first hand mouse sightings. Atlas calls it “the place of friendship and love” and honestly I don’t care where we go as long as we’re together.
MT: My view is that Essen Haus is the ultimate example of “it doesn’t matter where you are, it is who you are with.” They have big tables and big beers, free peanuts and popcorn, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll see a tiny mouse friend to greet you as you finish your three-dollar cheeseburger.
Spotlight Interview: Ten Trick Ponies
Ten Trick Ponies is an improv duo featuring siblings Jackie and Marty Wessels. Based out of Des Moines, Iowa, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, Ten Trick Ponies will perform on Saturday night at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, the Wessels’ discuss the joys of playing big characters on stage, their sibling dynamic, and their favorite Iowa roadside attractions.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS FOR SATURDAY NIGHT.***
We’re so excited for your set! Your submission tape was one of the most purely enjoyable tapes we watched this year. Tell us about your format, and your strategies for finding and heightening the funniest moments in all of the scenes that you play.
Marty Wessels: FLATTERED! As far as the form goes it really isn’t anything flashy or complicated, we’re just doing some scenes and having a good time as pals! A major goal of ours with every set is to be patient with our words and to really fill that between space with physicality. I think our greatest strength is our timing, and patient scenes are a huge part of that.
Jackie Wessels: We’re practical people who just want to have a good time. We have a good respect and understanding for each other, our audience, and improv.
You’re both clearly very comfortable playing big, emotive characters on stage. What do you find fun about this performance style? And do you have any tips for playing big characters that also have depth?
JW: Character work is just straight-up fun. The part that really sells a big character is the small details. Everyone in the world has “isms”. Small mannerisms that are unique to the individual that they probably don’t even realize they do. Heightening these little things really drives a character home.
MW: As human beings we always remember the over the top people we encounter. We remember the insanely happy barista and can’t forget the aggressively mad old man at the bar. What we do tend to forget is the personality types that fall in the middle. We hope that when we play these larger-than-life characters that it sparks some sort of a strong memory with folks in the audience. The biggest tip I would have for anyone looking to play bigger characters is creating a backstory. The person on the top of the mountain wasn’t just put there! It is so important to pepper in how on earth the person in front of you came to be.
You said something really interesting in your submission: that your set was “an improvised show with no frills… nothing fancy or shiny… just plain old good improv.” What attracts you to this no-frills ethos? Is it liberating in a way?
JW: The Wessels weren’t raised on frills. We were brought up on vanilla ice cream and black coffee. Two seemingly simple things that are surprisingly difficult to get right. Strip it away and bring it back to basics. If you can’t make a good, quality, simple cup of coffee, what good are ya?
MW: Absolutely! We really grew up with a great sense of appreciation for simple pleasures in life and that really carries over into the way we play. In the Twin Cities narrative improv is a really big part of our community, and I love that, but I don’t always get to just play with no perimeters or goals. In this duo I am able to get back to basics and reconnect with improv at its simplest form with my OG scene partner.
The two of you are siblings! Take us back to the moment when you first decided to get on stage together and improvise as a duo. What prompted that decision, and how has your show changed since you first got started?
JW:We are! We are 18 months apart and we grew up close. We were always involved in the same activities and had similar interests, so our paths never strayed too far from each other. We both ended up at the University of Northern Iowa as members of the campus improv troupe, Some Assembly Required. This is where we really got the chance to figure each other out as improvisers and learn how to share the stage. After college, we went our separate ways. One to Minneapolis, Minnesota and the other to Des Moines, Iowa. We both continued to improvise within our communities but realized that we missed playing with each other. Our first ever show as an improvised duo was only a few months ago in Minneapolis. Actually, it was our submission video. We’ve done one show since in Des Moines, so needless to say we are excited for show number three in Tampa!
MW: I would say there were a few things that drove us to start this dynamite-distance-duo. 1) Some of our most cherished memories from college (and that’s saying a lot because we really did the college thing) came from doing improv together. We really wanted to find a way to get back to that. 2) We both really wanted to start traveling and performing at festivals but a lot of the projects that we work on in our respective cities are too big, too inconsistent, or too casual to take on the road. The group we played with in college traveled a lot and we both mutually missed that aspect. 3) We saw a posting for a small groups improv festival in Tampa and said, “Hey, our really good pal Jake lives in Tampa and it has been too long since we’ve seen him. We should start a duo, film a set, submit it, and then visit Jake.” So… that’s what we did! HOWEVER, it did not dawn on us until later that two fall loving Midwesterners just agreed to go to Florida in August…
How do you like to prepare for a show? Any pre-show traditions or rituals? Similarly, how do you like to debrief after a show?
JW: Not a whole lot. Just some basic warmups and a sick playlist. Debrief, easy? Beer.
MW: We are really big on playlists. They are typically made up of trap bangers and old old country. It’s a real vibe. After the show we usually do a quick pat on the back and pin a debrief until later. We have to let it simmer down a little, so we don’t end up just arguing with each other. Other than that, we love to have a couple beers and mingle with the people who were kind enough to share their time and laughter with us.
Finally, you’ve both lived all over Iowa, which is one of our favorite states in America, in part because it’s home to some truly unique roadside attractions. We’ll tell you our favorites if you tell us yours! (We love places inside of other places: Trainland USA, which is an extensive model railroad staged in some guy’s extra barn in Colfax, and the Bob Feller Museum, which is just a room inside the Van Meter Town Hall.)
MW: We love to hear that because we love our home state of Iowa! In the category of weird roadside attractions, we recommend the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City, the frying pan in Brandon, the Strawberry in Strawberry Point, the Big Bull in Ackley, and above all else the world’s largest truck stop — Walcott I-80 Truck Stop. Everyone assumes Iowa is all farms, and you’re not totally wrong, but there are some seriously cool sights and fun things to do. Here is Marty and Jackie’s ultimate Iowa Guide (abbreviated version):
• Des Moines Farmers Market (It’s really big)
• Iowa State Capitol (It’s got G-O-L-D GOLD!) (JW: He means that the exterior dome is made of gold.)
• Dive bars (JW: Cash only and you can snag a Bush latte for under $2)
• Dubuque’s Mines of Spain recreation area (America’s best view of the Mississippi)
• THE GD FIELD OF DREAMS (This is the area where we are from and I cry every time I watch it) (JW: Part of it was actually filmed in our middle school, and our dad swears that he met Kevin Costner.)
Spotlight Interview: Kiki Hohnen
Kiki Hohnen is one-half of the international improv duo Helmet Thieves. Based out of Amsterdam, Hohnen will be teaching her workshop (Mostly) Silent Scenes on Saturday afternoon and performing on Thursday and Saturday nights at this year’s festival. In this spotlight interview, Hohnen discusses the difference between American and European improv, the nexus between improv and psychology, and the music of Jacques Brel.
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We’re so excited that you’re coming to the festival this year! What’s Helmet Thieves’ origin story? How did you and Kevin first decide to start performing together?
I’m super excited too, thanks for having me! The origin story for Helmet Thieves comes from some interesting people we met in the very early stages of our relationship. We tell the story at the top of our show, so I’ll keep that a surprise :-). We realised that we have very different, but complementary, playing styles—Kevin is a plot genius, he has a knack for knowing exactly what a scene or story needs, and he’s the funniest human I know. I tend to create deep and grounded connections, discover what makes the characters tick, and give them some psychological depth. But mainly, we just thought it would be a lot of fun to be a duo together and to play at festivals, which also gives us a chance to see each other. So far, the format has taken us to Estonia, Ireland, and Alaska. We’re so lucky!
Tell us about how Helmet Thieves’ format developed. What can audiences expect to see this year?
In a nutshell, we were inspired by the fact that the nicest people often can confess to having done something terrible. We ask the audience to confide in us something they’re not proud of. This is such a fun part of the show for us! My favourite confession was a woman telling us she used black magic on guys she had a crush on to get them to fall for her. We then use that as an inspiration to tell a story that would justify why they did what they did. The audience can expect us to build a world around their confession, and hopefully help them feel better about what they did.
You live in Amsterdam and have performed and taught all around the world. Can you compare and contrast improv as it’s practiced in Europe and the United States? What are some salient differences, and what are some things you like about each?
I’m still getting the hang of performing in the States. Y’all are FAST! American improv relies heavily on quick association and wit. In Europe, I often get the note to slow down; here I’m not fast enough. I love watching American improv for that reason—I’m blown away by how clever it is. In Europe, improv tends to be more grounded and relationship-focussed. We’re not shy of going a little dramatic, either.
Your workshop, (Mostly) Silent Scenes, really speaks to the two of us, because our show relies heavily on silence! What do you find interesting about silent scenework? What can students hope to take away from your workshop this year?
To quote my partner Kevin, one hundred percent of improvisers speak too much. I talk in my sleep, and the other night, I said to Kevin: “I made you a pizza. You can have some, if you like.” Why so many words? I could have just said “I made you pizza!” Or even just “Here! Pizza!” In the fifteen years that I’ve been improvising, I’ve gotten the note of talking too much so often that I became fascinated with what happened when I challenged myself to stop relying on words. I’ve found that those deep connections I enjoy so much get a lot more interesting in silence. The workshop is a collection of ways I’ve challenged myself to shut up. I want students to discover that they can do so much more than they thought with their bodies and faces.
You have a background in psychology, and you’ve found some fascinating ways to apply your training to improv — and vice versa. Can you talk a bit about the nexus between the two fields, and what you find rewarding about using one to influence the practice of the other?
A few years ago I realised how many film and TV characters seemed to be inspired by certain personality traits. Almost all of the listed personality disorders have a corresponding Game of Thrones character! Using psychological traits as an inspiration for a character helps me keep a character grounded, and I teach workshops helping people play with this. My day job is teaching communication (specifically, to doctors), and to me, improv is just a specific kind of communication. I enjoy using the playfulness of improv to teach essential skills – if we’re going to be learning communication, why not make it fun? I used to teach children with autism communication through improv. It was sometimes very challenging for the kids to even stand in a circle together, and the fun and non-judgmental aspects of improv was a heavy factor in motivating them to come back week after week.
Finally — this is going to be obscure, sorry — is the Jacques Brel song “Amsterdam” an accurate depiction of Amsterdam? Do sailors there really eat fish heads and tails? (“I have no idea what you’re talking about” would be an appropriate answer to this question!)
I love this question, and I love this song! I’m sure that it was an accurate(ish) description at some time long ago, but in my 30 years in Amsterdam, I’ve never seen a genuine sailor there at all, nor anyone eating fish heads or tails. I think that if Jacques Brel were still with us, he might write an equally beautiful song about Amsterdam being the city in which we drink rosé by the canals while British tourists eat waffles with Nutella.
Spotlight Interview: Katie & Chris
Katie & Chris is an improv duo starring Katie Matthews and Chris Teregis. Based out of Denver, Colo., Katie & Chris will be performing on Friday night of this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Matthews and Teregis discuss the evolution of their on-stage rapport, the Denver improv scene, and the joys and horrors of Casa Bonita.
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We’re really looking forward to having you with us this year! Tell us about your show format. Why does it work for you? What can audiences expect from Katie & Chris at the festival?
We have experimented with various formats over time and have always tried to do things that we find really fun. We’ve done things from monoscenes to sets where every scene starts like the beginning of a knock-knock joke. Most regularly, we LOVE digging into character perspectives and finding little things throughout our sets to heighten and play with. This taps into Chris’s love of pattern and heightening and Katie’s love of character and organic discovery. Regardless of the exact format we take, audiences should expect to see a story about two characters that, at the end of the day, really care about each other!
You two have a great rapport on stage. When did you first decide to start performing together? How has your on-stage dynamic evolved since your duo began, if at all?
We met a couple years ago when Chris moved to Denver from LA and started advertising free improv workshops in a local library. Spoiler alert: It was a baller time. He brought out a style that wasn’t heavily seen in the Denver scene at the time and was really fun and unique. Eventually, he joined the faculty at Grafenberg Theater, where we used to teach, produce, perform, and had our first opportunity performing together on a larger ensemble the Grafenberg Players.
We soon started toying with the idea of trying a two-person set. We tried a few sets and really loved it. I (Katie) had never felt more like someone had my back on stage in the way that Chris did, and I (Chris) am addicted to how generous and mindful Katie can be, while at the same time, making definitive choices and capitalizing on opportunities. We’ve now been playing together a while and host and perform in a show called Your World Record at Voodoo Comedy, which showcases teams around the Denver improv community and gives audiences members to set brand new world records like “Fastest time to unravel a toilet paper roll while playing Happy Birthday on a kazoo” (record currently held at 3 minutes) or “Most times to put a watermelon through a wire hanger using only your feet in 2 minutes” (it’s more times than you think!).
When we first started playing together as our two-person team, we wanted to support each other so much that we would defer to each other too much and scenes would stall out a bit. Now, we really try to parallel our off-stage dynamic on-stage by putting our energy into elevating each other’s ideas and augmenting what the other person established into more of what it already is.
How do you define a good show? And is your internal definition of what constitutes a good show sometimes different from what the audience interprets as a good show?
Our definition of a good show is really a gut thing. If we come off stage with that warm feeling you get in your gut and we feel really connected, then it was a good show. This doesn’t necessarily always correlate with the audience’s reaction, but we really try to improvise from a place that first honors our stories and choices, rather than to first please the audience (though that’s always the end goal, too ☺︎). If we do our jobs right to listen and support each other, then we can usually get the audience on board for the journey with us.
You both teach improv, as well. How does your teaching influence your performing, and vice versa? (And it’s fine if the answer is “it doesn’t”!)
Yes! We both love teaching so much. I (Katie) love to be able to use my own experiences performing, as well as examples of others’ performances, to drive concepts in classes and rehearsals. I’ve found that being able to relate to students’ experiences on stage so directly can be really helpful, and after all, improv is about being in this together! My teaching has also definitely impacted my performing. It’s a great way to keep mindful of some of the core principles we strive to live and perform by as improvisers. I remember a time when I was feeling really in my head and like stakes were really high on my performances, and before one show, I made a conscious choice to take some of the advice I had recently given in one of my classes (that I originally heard from my own mentors and teachers) to “not try.” So instead of trying to be a “good” improviser, I went in assuming I’d come out the other side having done an “adequate” job. I had more fun and felt more in the moment in that set than I had in a while, so this is now a regular thing I tell myself before every set.
I (Chris) love teaching and I am grateful for every opportunity. It is delightful to work with the eager and talented community in Denver. There are few things on this planet that make me happier than watching the dedicated students and teams I coach get up on stage and crush (excuse my lingo dudes and dudettes – I am from California). Teaching really helps keep me sharp and focused, and I enjoy the mild pressure of having students in an audience. I enjoy feeling the need to actively demonstrate the principles, practices, and values that I teach on a regular basis. Creating safe spaces for my students has also led me to a much more mindful existence on stage and off. I’m very lucky to be able to teach in Denver.
You’re both from Denver, a beautiful city with a robust improv scene. Is there a defining “Denver style” of improv? What makes your city’s scene unique?
The thing that makes Denver really great is that there is actually a good amount of diversity in the styles of improv that you will see out of all the teams and performers. We have teams you’ll see regularly practicing fast-paced, premise-based game, others that use organic openers and edits and play more “low and slow,” voices that lean more toward the fantastical, and others who love to play super real. The three theaters – Voodoo Comedy, Bovine Metropolis, and Grafenberg – each have their own unique take on improv in their regular shows and training programs, but there is also variety at each of them. We really love Denver’s scene, because no matter who you are or what you’re into improv-wise, you can find your niche and community here and be totally supported to “do you.”
What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever performed, together or separately?
Oof, good question! It’s not terribly unusual, but prior to Grafenberg opening its own theater space, we would produce shows out of more indie spaces – one of which was a space in the back of an old bar in Denver called Comedy RoomRoom that was mostly used for stand-up shows. The stage was probably 3’ by 5’ and in a long, narrow room. At the time, we weren’t performing as Katie & Chris, but our teams often had to get creative to use the floor space around the stage or the first couple rows of the audience. It was always a super intimate show experience which resulted in some really fun sets.
Chris also once performed an improv set opening for a Juggalo-style rap group inside of a warehouse in Orange County, California. There were no laughs, just very confused Juggalos.
Finally, how many times per month do you go to Casa Bonita? (Please explain if the answer is less than five.)
This answer is going to be so disappointing… Katie has actually never been to Casa Bonita after living in Denver for over 6 years. She wants and intends to go, based on the glorious-hellscape-like descriptions she hears.
Chris has lived here about 2 years and has gone once. Casa Bonita is a wildly strange place and is definitely something everyone should experience at least once. I (Chris) may take a friend there if they visit, but that’s it. The food is overpriced and awful, and when I say awful, I mean borderline inedible, but choking it down is part of the experience. The shows are very strange. There’s a weird puppet show, an arcade that hasn’t been updated since 1998 (Cruisin’ USA 4 LYFE), a maze… I don’t know. Everything you have heard about it is probably true, if even less weird than the reality of Casa Bonita.
Spotlight Interview: ¡Punctuation.Marks!
¡Punctuation.Marks! is an improv duo featuring Alicia K. Garcia and Dash Maverick. Based out of Miami, Fla., ¡Punctuation.Marks! will be performing on Thursday night at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Garcia and Maverick talk about inventing improv formats, the South Florida improv scene, and what it’s like to have a really cool car.
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We’re super glad that the two of you are back with us this year. Tell us about ¡Punctuation.Marks!’ format. What can audiences expect?
Dash Maverick: We’ve worked out a few formats throughout our existence as a duo. The one we’re doing at Countdown is called “It’s Complicated.” Originally it was meant to be a contained improv show for a microtheater project in Miami. The show fell through due to scheduling conflicts, but we fell in love with the format. We take a suggestion by asking an audience member for their latest social media post. We are then inspired by that idea and we see a relationship between a couple, and others in their lives.
Alicia K. Garcia: I think a lot about social media and the personas we create there. Social media has become really important in so many facets of our lives; it can be personal and impersonal at the same time. We thought that paradox was really interesting. “It’s Complicated” should be entertaining and funny, but it’s okay if the audience feels other feelings, too. Relationships are as chaotic and magical and complex and funny as the people in them; it’s okay to feel the complicated feelings and to have laughter living underneath.
“It’s Complicated” is at least partially inspired by the fact that the two of you used to date. How true to life can audiences expect your show to be? Do you ever draw from scenarios that actually happened in your former relationship?
DM: There’s a lot of really grounded reality in our form. We want it to be real. We want it to be familiar. At some of our shows we’ll be doing the form and we can see couples in the crowd poking each other and saying, “That’s so you!” We love seeing that happen. We also take the reality and play just slightly left of normal. Just weird enough to be funny and interesting but also real enough that any couple in the crowd will relate.
AG: I think our relationship has allowed us to be really comfortable in and with each other’s space, and to know how the other person thinks. We know that whatever is going to happen, we’ll both be on the ride. That’s really comforting. Because of our past, I tend to draw on a memory or a feeling that the suggestion sparks. In that way, I, at least, am pulling from real life, but then turning it up a notch or making it a funnier, parallel-universe version of that. We’re not always a romantic couple—sometimes we’re best friends, or siblings. In the end, we usually end up playing two people who, in some way, love and respect each other, which is what we are outside of improv-world too.
Your shows always have a really neat hook to them. How do you go about devising your show formats? Have you ever come up with something that you thought would be great but wasn’t?
DM: We love making up formats. I like to think of myself as somewhat of an improv ingénieur. Ali helps sometimes. (AG: HA!) She’s excellent at coming up with the base idea, and I’ve found that my talent lies in finding the best way of making work in a show. To me games need to have a few characteristics. They should be funny, easy to understand and follow, interesting. They should also have a goal, a way to heighten, and a loose enough format that you don’t feel pigeonholed.
AG: We both just think about improv a lot and we like to just try new ideas to see if they work. “It’s Complicated” came out of that, as have so many other ideas. Some work and some don’t. But I like to really pay attention to the little improv moments in life, and see if they could turn into something. I’ll be eating dinner, or watching TV, or witnessing a conversation and then I get inspired for a game. We’ve had ideas that we workshopped and didn’t work—one in particular never evolved into the backline game I thought it could be, but it was a fun warm up we did so something came out of it.
You’ll also be performing on Friday night alongside Chris Miranda with your troupe The B-Team. Compare and contrast each group’s performing style.
DM: Our duo tends to be more grounded, and focuses a lot on a single relationship. The form we’re doing as B-Team with Chris is called the “Hyperlink.” That form is much less grounded, goes off on crazy tangents, and much faster paced. It’s great to be able to play both ends of the spectrum.
AG: Dash and I basically grew up in improv together—same teachers, same team, all of that. Playing with Dash is really familiar, which can be great in many ways, but we sometimes get too comfortable in scenes and don’t make the challenging choices. Chris trained differently than we did and I think it adds so much when he plays with us. He challenges me in scenes and it can get really fun and weird in the best possible way.
Both of you also perform with Society Circus Players, a larger troupe out of Miami. Is there a symbiotic relationship between all of your projects? How does your small-group work influence your work with the larger ensemble, if at all?
DM: We spend a lot of time working with the whole group. Most of our rehearsal time is spent like that. It’s nice when we get to focus on more of the one-on-one stuff. I would say it definitely helps with stronger scene work and relationship building in some of SCP’s long forms.
AG: I think any improv group as a whole grows when they really work on just creating scenes between two people. Everything else is just an extension of that. Working together on a small scale ripples out into the larger group. Also, we sometimes bring ideas to the larger group that don’t seem to be working on the smaller scale and try to workshop them into something.
How has the South Florida improv scene changed and evolved since you first started performing? What do you like about performing there?
DM: Ali and I started performing around the same time. Since then there’s a lot of new indy troupes and a few more big theater companies that have opened up. It’s definitely brought a lot more improvisors and a lot more attention to the improv scene in Miami.
AG: Two of my favorite things have really grown during my time in Miami. One is the craft beer scene and the other is the improv community. I think it’s really interesting to see the nuances of how other groups and theaters play, how they do their shows, what games and styles they prefer. Everyone has a unique flavor, which is really cool to see.
Finally, Dash, you’ve got a really cool car. This isn’t a question so much as an observation, we guess, but, still: What’s it like having such a cool car?
DM: Thanks! It’s a Dodge Charger modeled after Barricade, the police car from the Transformers movies. Every time I start considering, “maybe it’s time to lose the Decepticon look?” Someone will inevitably say, “Dude your car is awesome!” or a police officer will pull me over and tell me how cool it is, then let me off with a warning. After that, I keep them on.
AG: I mean… 2007 Silver Saturn Ions are pretty cool too. ☺︎
Spotlight Interview: Mixed Emojis
Mixed Emojis is a duo starring Kari Ann Stamatoplos and Tony Stamatoplos. Based out of Clearwater, Fla., Mixed Emojis will be performing on Thursday night at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, the Stamatoplos’ talk about their roots in ComedySportz, their interest in applied improvisation, and their best guesses as to why Disney World tickets are so damn expensive.
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We’re so thrilled that you’ll be joining us again for a second year! Your format is loosely based on the television program Antiques Roadshow. Tell us what you like about this format. What’s challenging about it?
We’re thrilled to be back this year. In our format, we love that we can go anywhere. We’re not limited to any particular place or time. We begin with a “base” scene to ground the show, then pop out into other scenes, in which we discover new characters and explore relationships. Most of the show occurs in those other scenes, which can be about anything, though we tie them loosely to the base scene. The suggestion is referenced in some way, but it works best when it’s not strictly about the object.
One challenge is to avoid literally “following the object” we get as a suggestion, and not make it about that rather than the people and relationships surrounding it. The suggestion should just be inspiration for the first scene. This can be an issue with other formats, too. Another challenge can be in getting carried away with that base scene and other scenes situated back at “the program.” These need to be interesting to get things off the ground, but not become the focus of the show. Also, with so many different characters, it’s important to play them strong and definitively, both for the audience and for us. Otherwise, things can get confusing.
What are the benefits of structuring your show around a format that’s familiar to audience members? Is it easier to get buy-in when you’re improvising within the bounds of a structure that audience members already recognize? Do you ever get Antiques Roadshow super fans at your shows?
As far as structure is concerned, all improv occurs within some structure, and yes, we did choose one that would be accessible enough without limiting us too much. Ours also helps us keep the focus on “real” people, not that we don’t venture into some weird places and situations at times. Are there Antiques Roadshow super fans? We’re laughing, imagining what one would be like. We’d love to meet one—we think! If they’re ever at our shows, they haven’t come out as such yet. We’re not sure Antiques Roadshow is familiar to everyone, but that genre of TV show probably is, and it’s been around for a long time. On TV, it has several “scenes,” each with a guest whom a host interviews to get information. When we watch it, we always wonder about the real people, history, and stories surrounding it. The Roadshow structure is really just a catalyst for our show. We could easily structure it around Pawn Stars, Counting Cars, or anything in that genre. In fact, we discussed several of those in the beginning, and may try one in the future. We’re fascinated by formats that begin with a host interviewing a “regular” person, and where that can go. It would be fun to try this with a format based on The Tonight Show, The Late Show, or Meet the Press, with the host interviewing a non-celebrity guest. That’s a variation of our format we might try too. (And we’re working on some ideas for our next format, which we won’t mention here. Stay tuned for that.)
The two of you both performed with ComedySportz for a long time, back when you were living in Indianapolis. How does your ComedySportz experience influence the way you approach long-form?
ComedySportz taught us the basics of improv: Yes, and…, teamwork, give-and-take, facing fears, and so on. In ComedySportz we were called on to play a variety of games and scenes, with very different characters, in several relatively short scenes, all in a single show. Sometimes, we’d do two shows in the same night, as well as remote shows and buy-out shows for different groups. In ComedySportz, we were part of a large stable of players, so we were always varying who we played with, and had to learn to read and adapt to different personalities and styles of play. We also learned different ways to be sensitive to an audience, wanting them to leave feeling satisfied. This is something we definitely could feel after a show. ComedySportz also showed us the importance of having a “brand,” so audiences and potential audiences know what you’re about and what to expect. Of course, then you have to deliver that. After years with ComedySportz, we understand and appreciate the pleasure people get when they’re out having fun, which is both a responsibility and something to shoot for as performers.
Talk about the pros and cons of improvising with your spouse. What’s great about it? What’s challenging about it, if anything?
Because we’ve been in a relationship for more than 25 years, we’ve shared a lot in our lives. We have common history, shared references, and such. It can be easier for us to read one another, though we never want to fall back on inside jokes or anything like that. There’s a comfort level we don’t always have when we play with others. We know and respect our boundaries. We strive for improv that is reality-based. As with any form of theater, we want to come from a place of truth. We draw from a lot of truths we have in common, and it’s normal that those wouldn’t always be comfortable. Our style of improv will reference or touch on real circumstances, experiences, and feelings. That can be tough sometimes. As actors, we make ourselves accept and allow it. This has to do with vulnerability, with one another and with an audience.
We’ve been married for 22 years, and it’s so fun to make the time regularly to literally play together, even being like kids together. The best part is making each other laugh. We feel the audience picks up on this vibe; it adds something extra to what we’re doing, making it more natural and truthful.
A real challenge, frankly, is simply making the time to practice together at home. It’s actually easier sometimes for us to go to scheduled practices of our short-form group or other groups we perform with. There are no distractions of laundry, dishes, bills, etc. You know, life? When we do practice at home, it’s relaxing and a lot of fun, and our cat likes to get in on the act for at least one scene.
In researching this interview, we discovered that the two of you have given presentations on how to use improv as a tool for improving customer service in libraries. We find this fascinating! Can you tell us a little about this?
We’re big proponents of applied improvisation. We enjoy teaching improv principles to people who can use them in business, education, and other parts of their lives. We have not only done this for libraries, but also for the world’s largest children’s museum and a global architecture firm. We both have a lot of experience in customer service in different environments, and always look for ways to improve it. The essence of the training we’ve done, and continue to do, is being able to see one’s customers (or patrons, visitors, etc.) and their experiences from their point-of-view. Incorporating improv is a natural way to do this, and we tailor improv training to whatever group we’re working with. Tony is a career librarian and has applied improv in libraries and university classrooms, and has written and presented professionally about that. Kari Ann worked as a full-time actor/ improviser for a number of years at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Finally, we’ve gathered that the two of you are big fans of Disney World. We’ve wanted to go for awhile but we’ve found it hard to justify the costs. Any theories on why tickets are so damn expensive? And any tips on how out-of-staters can save money?
We confess! We’re Disney freaks. Admission tickets are expensive. One theory about the cost is simply that they can charge that much because enough people are willing to pay. Another theory is that they intentionally price-out people in certain income brackets, as well as try to control crowd size. If true, neither appears to be successful for Disney fans. You can find discounts and special deals, through AAA, travel agents, or you can just move to Florida (you know you want to). Now, we’re tempted to buy park tickets for you two, to see and hear your reactions and comments. And it might be worth it, just to read a Slate review of the Pirates of the Caribbean or Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Let us know—we make good tour guides!
Spotlight Interview: Bryan vs. Music
Bryan vs. Music is a solo show in which Bryan Fernando improvises scenes inspired by songs randomly played from a 1500-song Spotify playlist. Based out of Portland, Oregon, Fernando will perform on Friday night of this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Fernando talks about why he started doing solo improv, how he curates his playlists, and whether Portlandia is actually a fair representation of his home city.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS FOR FRIDAY NIGHT.***
We love your format, Bryan! Will you tell us how you came up with it, and how it has evolved since you began doing the show?
At Kickstand Comedy Space in PDX, they had a weekly music-based jam that they were accepting suggestions for. I sent them a full night’s worth of songs, and they asked me if I could do that again for two straight years. The jam has since morphed into something else, but I still had this 1000-song Spotify playlist that was just sitting around. I decided to do some shows and burn through some songs, and it started gaining popularity. It’s pretty much stayed the same since its inception, but I find that shows are getting more fast-paced. I started out using 3-5 songs per show, and I’m currently up to 10-12 songs per show. Also I’m simultaneously getting more laid back and more structured with every subsequent show, if that makes sense? Like every show gets closer to a Harold- or Deconstruction- type of structure, but the sort of stuff I’ll allow onstage is changing?
Walk us through your on-stage thought process when one song transitions to the next. What do you listen for and draw from in order to situate yourself in the next scene and a new character?
It boils down to four things: emotional content, lyrical interpretation, rhythm, or placing the song within a historical context. Every song will give us something different, not just for myself but for everyone in the audience as well. Sometimes it’s a literal part of the song that stands out and sometimes it’s just a vibe. But I’m always trying to tie new scenes to earlier scenes to establish callbacks and second beats.
Tell us about the relationship between you and your playlist. How do you put it together? What are your favorite songs on it? Are there songs that against all odds seem to come up in shows over and over again?
The playlist is specially curated by me, with additional input from friends and fans. Some of these songs I’ve listened to exactly once, added to the playlist, and then never listened to again. And any time a song shows up, I delete it. But sometimes clerical errors occur; I have somehow had “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites come up in like three different sets. My favorite songs are either the super extreme metal songs I’ve added or pieces of film scores. Either you get a very distinct emotional moment, or just all hell breaks loose.
Does music ever win in the age-old struggle between Bryan and Music? Do you ever find yourself stymied by a song? Similarly, do you have a contingency plan in case of technical disaster? What’s your escape hatch if “Music” doesn’t show up for some reason and the show becomes just “Bryan”?
My friends have said that Music won one of the first ever Bryan vs Music sets. And I did recently do a set where the audience had to sing at me. It was absolutely transcendent. A tour de force. Probably the only way I’ll ever do improv to Garth Brooks. I’m at the point in my career where I don’t necessarily get stumped onstage, but if you see me do something movement based, I’ve probably run out of good ideas.
What drew you to solo improv?
The sad answer is that all my groups fell apart at the same time, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to form a new one. But once you start, you immediately see the benefits. I can rehearse for 8 straight hours, create the exact format I want, fly across the country on a whim, I never have to start a group chat to see who can make which date. I used to do regular shows with guest performers, and audiences preferred the solo sets to the guest sets. I’ve always had the idea of expanding Bryan vs Music to a group setting, but the people have spoken. They want just one dude onstage.
If we’re not mistaken, the Countdown Improv Festival will be the farthest that you’ve ever traveled to perform your show. (We’re honored that you’re coming!) What excites you about traveling for improv?
I’m honored that you would have me! The thing I love most about traveling for improv is that I’m still at the stage in life where new improv excites me. I have very little experience with Floridian improv, so I’m curious to see what the Dirty South has to offer! Plus this is a new festival for me, and I think the only people I’ve met before are Kevin Miller and Will Luera, so that’s dozens of new friendships waiting to happen. Plus jam opportunities! Networking!
Finally, we have our own theories about this, but as a Portland resident: how accurate is Portlandia?
If by “Portland” you mean SE Hawthorne between the waterfront and 82nd, then 110% accurate.
Spotlight Interview: Playtime with Patrick and Preston
Playtime with Patrick and Preston is an improv duo comprised of Patrick Newson and Preston O’ffill. Based out of Chicago, Illinois, Patrick and Preston will be performing on Friday night of this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Newson talks about the Chicago style of improv, the differences between urban and suburban improv audiences, and why The Fugitive is the best movie ever set in Chicago.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS FOR FRIDAY NIGHT.***
We’re so happy to have Playtime with Patrick and Preston at this year’s festival! Your format is so patient and confident. Tell us about it, and how it has developed over the time that the two of you have been performing together.
We think it’s important to ease into whatever world we are creating. We like to follow the most interesting person in the scene. So it’s super important we choose the right person. Taking our time ensures that we’ll be able to tell the best story possible.
When we were watching your tape, we turned to each other early on and said something like “This is some classic Chicago improv right here.” Which is a good thing! What defines the Chicago style of improv to you? And how does your show fit within that tradition?
We are one of many Chicago improv duos/ groups. So it’s important that we stand out. In Chicago respect for the technique is what sets you apart from the rest of the teams out there. Chicago improv really hit its stride in the 90’s. So Chicago is lucky to still have the pioneers hanging around teaching, and directing. They appreciate when you pay respect to the roots, while being innovative.
We love a good duo origin story: How did the two of you meet and start performing together?
Preston and I met while working on a sketch show called Monday Night Live. Michael McCarthy is a former SNL writer, creator of the writing program at Second City and IO Chicago. He’s created a program that when you complete the program your material gets put on stage. We have three days to put on a sketch show. In recent years Preston and I have gone from acting, to directing, to current producers. We wouldn’t be anywhere without Michael’s guidance.
What’s a favorite memory from a duo show — either one you’ve seen or one you’ve done together (or both)?
Preston and I played a 800-seat old theater in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was for a film fundraiser in April. We were expecting a large crowd until it decided to snow almost a foot… in April. So we played a gigantic theater for 40 people and had possibly one of the best shows we ever had.
Both of you come from theater backgrounds. How have those backgrounds informed your experience with improv, and vice versa?
Preston is a gifted musical-theater actor, I am a walking encyclopedia of theater and film. I think between the two of us we’re able to take those genres and arch types to make a real world with real experiences bigger and more ridiculous.
The two of you perform all over Chicago, but you also do shows at venues in the suburbs. How are those show experiences and audiences different? What’s unique and fun about each?
The suburban audience has a potential for all types of people. In the city you’ll find many liberal artistic individuals. In the suburbs you have zero clue what you are going to get. You can make a Trump joke. Just be ready for it to go sideways.
And finally, what’s the best movie that’s ever been set in Chicago, and why is it The Fugitive?
The Fugitive showcases Chicago for what it is. The best possible place to evade the police if your wife has been killed by a one-armed man, and nobody believes you. I mean Ferris Bueller showed us how to have a day off. But if you’re in real trouble you aren’t going to a museum.
Spotlight Interview: Before Ghosts
Before Ghosts is an improv trio comprised of Kyle Brandon, Melanie Leon, and Daniel Pacchioni. Based out of Orlando, Florida, Before Ghosts will be performing on the L.E. Zarling Stage on Saturday night of this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, the trio talks about the Orlando improv community, their favorite pop-culture ghosts, and their theory on why tickets to Walt Disney World are so damn expensive.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE ZARLING STAGE TICKETS.***
We’re so excited Before Ghosts is joining us for this year’s festival! Tell us a bit about how the three of you started working together.
We know each other from the Orlando Improv Community. We became friends before we started performing and we just clicked right away. We genuinely have fun spending time with each other and it really shows on stage.
What can audiences expect from your show? What, in your opinion, makes a Before Ghosts show special?
We try to focus on authentic relationships. We enjoy experimentation and connecting with the audience. Audiences can expect a high-energy, physical, story-based improv show. 🤘
Audiences can catch you performing on Saturday night on the Zarling Stage at this year’s festival — an intimate, curated, immersive second-stage experience tailor made for boundary-pushing, kinetic improv. Do you have a favorite memory of a particularly creative or inventive improv set that you’ve either done or seen?
We’ve done a show where we had to end every sentence with “F*ck Yeah”… just because it was funny to us as an extra challenge…does that count? Didn’t push any boundaries so probably not.
Favorite ghosts in popular culture – go!
Grumpy Cat (too soon?).
You’re from Orlando – what do you love about the improv scene there?
Everyone knows each other and we love to riff all night in weird locations like parking lots and dark alleys. There’s nothing funnier than riffing with other comedian friends all night.
And, speaking of Orlando, last but not least: current theories on why the hell Disney World is so damn expensive?
Mickey Mouse likes expensive cheese.
Spotlight Interview: Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller is an improviser and instructor based out of Austin, Texas, where he has been a positive force in the local improv community for almost two decades. Miller and Kiki Hohnen will be performing as the duo Helmet Thieves on Thursday and Saturday nights at this year’s festival; Miller will also be teaching his workshop Max Q: Finding the Next Beat on Saturday afternoon. In this spotlight interview, Miller talks about the squishy middles of improv scenes, salmon ice cream, and his favorite “ugly Texases.”
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We’re so glad that you’re performing and teaching at this year’s festival! We’ll get to the workshop in a sec, but first, tell us a little bit about Helmet Thieves, your duo with Kiki Hohnen; how that came to be; and what audiences can expect from your performances at the festival.
I’ve been in a long, long-distance relationship with Kiki for over a year now, and we’ve ventured all over the world. One of our adventures took us to the beaches of Normandy, where we met the original Helmet Thieves. The story is so good and crazy that we tell it at the beginning of every show, so that’s a teaser! Kiki and I have a yin-yang style of improv; I’m figuring out the plot while she’s finding the emotional heart of the story.
You’re based out of Austin, which just so happens to be one of our own very favorite tour stops. What’s unique and special about the improv scene there?
I love Austin too, and I got so lucky to discover improv in this community. Austin has a wide variety of theaters and troupes that perform improv as well as anywhere in the world (especially my personal favorite style, narrative long-form). But it lacks a lot of the rivalry and territorial attitude that sometimes occurs in bigger cities. Plus we have barbecue. Y’all come visit.
You also travel all over the world teaching and performing. We’ve talked a lot about improv so far, so instead, tell us about the weirdest/coolest thing you’ve seen and/or eaten in your improv travels!
At the Alaska State Improv Festival in Juneau, I saw a humpback whale jump out of the water 100 yards from our boat. Later that same day, I tried salmon ice cream. (It was surprisingly decent.) So that was coolest views and weirdest eats all in one day.
You’ll be teaching a workshop at the festival called “Max Q”, a diagnostics workshop geared towards showing improvisers how to bring the choices and discoveries they’ve made within a scene to a satisfying conclusion. Tell us a bit about what students can expect from the workshop.
We spend so much time trying to perfect our scene openings, and just as much time trying to create great endings. My workshop focuses on the in-between, the squishy middle of the scene, where we all occasionally find ourselves stuck, wondering “Okay… now what?” I’ve got a five-point plan to help you escape the quicksand and get your scenes back on track.
What do you love most about teaching improv?
I’ve often compared improv to the blooper reel in a movie — despite elaborate preparation and millions of dollars spent, the funniest bits are the screwups. The same is true in a show, and a classroom. I’m Powerball-lucky to be able to experience improv with so many talented people, and our greatest moments together are our failures (including mine as a teacher). To quote the great Heather Urquhart: “We’re laughing cause we’re fucking up, and that’s the whole of improv!”
Finally, you run one of our favorite Instagram accounts, @uglytexases. There seems to be no end to terrible hand-drawn renderings of that particular state. What have been some of your favorites?
Thanks for the plug! There are so many people who love to draw Texas, and so few who can do it well. My “favorite” ugly Texases are when someone puts a TON of effort into creating the thing — a Texas-shaped wall mural, a swimming pool, even a tattoo — and NO effort into getting the shape right. And no, I can’t draw a good Texas to save my life; but I am able to TRACE it, like a SANE ADULT.
Spotlight Interview: Storytime with Grandpa
Storytime with Grandpa is a solo show starring Joe Llorens. Based out of the Orlando area, Llorens will be performing at the HCC Studio Theatre on Thursday night at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Llorens discusses the merits of audience interactivity, the joys of producing as well as performing, and why Grandpa Simpson is his favorite fictional grandfather.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE FESTIVAL TICKETS FOR THURSDAY NIGHT.***
Tell us about the genesis of “Storytime with Grandpa.” What first made you want to start performing solo improv, and how did you figure out that this was the show you wanted to do?
I took a really great workshop at Coal Space last year that involved choosing a character and staying in it for the duration of the time there. For whatever reason, I chose to live inside an 85-year-old widower. My background is in theatre, so this kind of exercise wasn’t foreign to me. But it’s rare to have the opportunity to spend so much time existing in such a different character in an improvised setting. I felt pretty comfortable in his skin, possibly due in large part to my own lifelong affinity for soup. Months later I found out a then-defunct duo I was a part of was accepted into the Palm Beach Improv Festival. Instead of declining the invite, I thought of ways I could do a solo set. Solo improv was still something that mystified me. But I felt as though the universe was offering me an opportunity to dive headfirst at something that scared me.
I knew I wanted to tell stories and I knew I wanted there to be an emotionally grounded component to the show. That’s always been something I’ve felt very comfortable doing. Then I remembered that old man character I took on in that workshop and, honestly, things just rolled downhill from there. The concept flowed easily from those elements.
Has the way you approach the Grandpa character changed at all over the time you’ve been performing the show? How does the Grandpa we’ll see in August differ from the Grandpa you started out with, if at all?
Externally, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference. I settled into the Grandpa physicality quickly and, out of a desire to keep him different from whatever other characters I play during any given set, it’s stayed pretty consistent. But with each story Grandpa tells about his earlier years I gain a deeper understanding of who he is as a person. So information that is revealed in one show might change the way he reacts to something in a later show. I also try to quickly figure out when in his life this particular story I’m about to tell takes place. It doesn’t always work out that I’m right, it’s not much more than a guess when the story begins.
Audience participation is a huge part of your show. What do you like about involving the audience so much? Are there particularly memorable audience interactions you’ve had that stick out in your mind?
Oh hell yes it is, haha. When I was first conceptualizing the show I knew I wanted to involve the audience throughout it. With it just being me up there, I wanted to work in a way to be able to bounce things off someone if I needed to. The way the concept developed also made it incredibly easy and logical. Grandpa’s talking to his family. Of course he’s going to interact with them. Having them be the ones to offer story and character elements was a no-brainer.
Improv, in general, is inherently interactive to varying degrees. What I looked for was a way to weave the audience, and their involvement, into the overall story concept. I’m not an improviser performing for an audience, I’m a grandfather talking to his family. Within that simple structure can exist all different kinds of interactions. Grandpa can play favorites. He can sass family members who get out of line. He can play to whatever the vibe is in the room because he’s known these people their entire lives. He’s helped change the diaper of every single other person in the room. It allows me to exist in the moment, in character, and leaves room for any type of interaction to fit perfectly fine within the overarching concept of “We’re all here listening to Grandpa tell us a story.”
I think my favorite bit of audience interaction happened the first time I performed the show. I have a tendency to get a li’l sweaty on stage and so Grandpa commented on how hot it was in the room (it wasn’t). This nice woman handed me her handkerchief, at which point Grandpa showed her he also carried one. He also quickly pocketed hers. Later on, during a certain triumphant point in the story, this same woman let out a “Yes!” which really took me by surprise. So Grandpa handed her handkerchief back to her in solidarity. It was silly and sweet.
Tell us about “Let’s Get Real,” the “comedy commune” you founded last year. What inspired you to launch it? What do you like about being a producer as well as a performer?
Let’s Get Real is an idea borne similarly to how Storytime came to be. I thought about what I wanted to do as an improviser. Of the great many number of types of improv that I love, which ones are the ones that speak to me most. And I kept landing on emotionally grounded, truthful scenes. Narrative. Comedic, yes, but unafraid to go in a dramatic direction if that’s what was called for (I call it Dramedic Improv). So I searched for ways to make it happen. Music in improv is something I hold in the highest regard. I’m a firm believer that unaccompanied improv has a hard ceiling. As great as a scene is, having music playing under it automatically makes it better. I asked Ryan Goodwin to be my music director and he agreed, which has been invaluable to the quality of the work. He’s both a great musician and a great improv accompanist and, yes, they’re two different skills. We found a home in Theater West End in Sanford, an absolutely gorgeous space, and got right to work.
For the first six months, it was just Ryan and myself, but I’ve recently expanded the LGR family and have created our first ensemble cast. While there are a few members of the Orlando improv community in the cast, the majority come primarily from theatre/film acting backgrounds. This keeps in line with one of the aspects I wanted LGR to focus on from the beginning, which was to try to incorporate performers from the area who definitely could improvise but didn’t really get many opportunities to. It also fills the cast with performers who come into it more adept at playing emotionally truthful moments on stage. The reason I’m calling it a “comedy commune” is because we’re going to begin adding written sketches, filmed content, short films into the repertoire. There are really big plans cooking for LGR!
Being a producer is exhilarating and exhausting. But I feel as though I entered into this phase of my career with a good mindset; I knew it would be difficult, I knew there were going to be fires I’d have to put out that I couldn’t even possibly anticipate, and I knew that the sooner I accepted that this was simply a reality the sooner I’d become better equipped to handle them. And it worked. I feel as though I’ve been able to face the quiet hiccups without treating them like loud burps.
But it also allows me to do anything I want, format-wise. LGR has a base format: three open slots for teams to perform, then a final long-form narrative scene, with normally a special guest who is able to step into any scene to provide support. But I can, and have, plugged in different show ideas. In May I debuted KaraJokeY; a karaoke/improv hybrid competition show. July and August’s shows are what I’m calling our Team Swap shows; we’ve invited troupes from around the state to come perform in those shows and then myself and members of the ensemble will travel to their venues and perform there. It’s a way to try and expand the community feel here in Florida. There’s a lot of improv happening in the Orlando area, but sometimes it can feel a bit insulated. There’s a bunch of great stuff really close by. Being the creator and producer is giving me free rein to try any crazy idea I feel could make for a fun show, and that’s something I’ll happily work harder to be able to do.
Do you have any pre-show rituals? How do you like to get ready for a show?
I love to spend time in the space, preferably by myself, and just sit for a while. Close my eyes, do some focused breathing, visualization, check-in with my body and mindset. I suffer from anxiety and I have a small panic attack every day between 4-4:30pm if I have a show that night. I’m not joking. It’s like clockwork. So the quiet, reflective time is very useful for me. Other than that, if I’m performing with others, I go along with whatever warmup they choose. The only thing I do that’s mine right before a show is I give everyone a small fist bump. I don’t know why. I’ve been doing it for years. It just became the thing I needed to do to have that one last quick connection with each person before we go out on stage. I do it for improv, scripted theatre, film, etc.
During the day, if I’m able to, I prefer to have some kind of physical activity even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood. And I try to eat cleanly that day also. If I’m feeling good physically that day it’s one less thing I have on my mind come showtime.
Finally: Who’s your favorite fictional grandfather, and why?
Wow, this is a tough one. I thought long and hard, but no matter what I always kept coming back to Grandpa Abe Simpson. He’s just a great, great, funny character and has also had his share of truly heartwarming stories told on the show. “Death haunts me at every turn.”
Spotlight Interview: JewMama
JewMama is an improv duo comprised of Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer and Michelle Lesifko-Bremer. Based in Gainesvile, Florida, JewMama will be performing at the HCC Studio Theatre on Saturday night at this year’s Countdown Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, the Lesifko-Bremers discuss the genesis of their format, the pros and cons of improvising with your spouse, and where to get good vegan Polish food in Pittsburgh.
***CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE FESTIVAL TICKETS FOR SATURDAY NIGHT.***
Your format is so fun and kinetic! Can you describe your performance style for those who haven’t yet seen it, and tell us about the genesis of that format and how it has developed?
Starting with a suggestion of a location, we build a world made up of three scenes. Each scene is populated by different characters, and our goal is for each set of characters to have a different, dramatic relationship. By the end of our set, we hope to “collide” the three scenes into a satisfying climax. The inspiration for this format came from our first duo coach, who challenged us to do a two-person Harold (for civilians, that’s an improv form that looks like an improvised play). We had so much fun doing it that we decided to adapt that form for our show. We’ve both acted and directed plays before, so we really like thinking about interesting stage pictures. That’s where the idea of using three different parts of the stage and physicalities to differentiate the scenes came from. Unexpected benefit: this form gives us plenty of opportunities to get physical and mess with each other, which are two of our favorite things to do.
We love a good duo origin story. How did the two of you first start performing together as JewMama?
We’d been taking classes together and performing on another team (shout out to our brothers and sisters in The Deep End!) and were asked to perform as a duo for a Valentines-themed show called CoupleProv at our old home theater, Steel City Improv Theater. We’d always joked that we’d call our duo JewMama, so we called our own bluff and JewMama was born.
You’re married to each other! What are some pros and cons of having your duo partner also be your life partner?
Pros: We know each other’s brains really well, so we have a kind of shorthand that makes it easier to predict where we’ll go once we start improvising. Also, since we promised to stick together til death do us part and all, it’s pretty easy to trust each other on stage. Finally, it’s funny to get super physical with each other and scandalize our audience, especially if we forget to tell them that we’re married. Cons: We know each other’s brains really well, which makes it really easy to mess with each other. Also, we’ve been known to yell at each other in the green room when one of us (ahem…Michelle…) isn’t happy with a choice the other made (…cough cough…Jeremy…).
How do you both like to get ready for a show? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
We have a power mantra that we yell at each other in the green room, which is a ritual that was gifted to us by one of our coaches. We can’t share the mantra, as that would sap its power, but it’s based on our mutual love for the TV show The West Wing. We also do some word association and energy building exercises. We like to get pumped.
What makes small-group improv rewarding to you?
You’re on stage the whole time, so you have to be super present and purposeful. Also, Michelle is bad at remembering stuff, so that adds an extra layer of drama. Sappy alert: We really love doing improv with our best friend.
Finally, the two of you recently relocated to Gainesville from Pittsburgh. It’s our opinion that Pittsburgh is one of the best cities in the country for unique regional cuisine. What are your favorite Pittsburgh foodstuffs, and why are they great?
Believe it or not, there’s a vegan Polish restaurant in Lawrenceville, our old neighborhood, called Apteka that is off. the. chain. Best pierogis in town are made with shredded mushrooms, not cheese or beef. Also: church lady fish fry game is on point. And we’ve been known to eat a pepperoni roll in our car while Christmas shopping. Don’t judge.