Improv is a world in which pretty much anything goes. You can create scenes that last 20 minutes and characters that last for five years, or you can hop from one improvised situation to the next in the space of a minute. You can rifle through an audience member's purse looking for inspiration for a scene. You can become a fish, a tree, a famous person, an astronaut.
That's what makes improv — good improv — such a wildly entertaining genre. Thanks to Theatre 99, Charleston's got a whole mess of great improv troupes, and they'll be performing on triple bills throughout the whole festival. Other than giving you an awesome show and being native to the local comedy scene, these acts don't have anything in common. And that means you definitely won't get bored.
That's What She Said
"It's two buddies hanging out and just playing pretend," says John Brennan, one-half of the improv group Big Dicktionary. At each show, Brennan and his partner Timmy Finch pick a word out of — you guessed it — a big dictionary, and then start spinning jokes from it. Brennan and Finch have been performing together for 10 years using the same Merriam-Webster dictionary the whole time.
That dictionary, much like the comedy team, is broken in. Its spine may be cracked, but it's always ready to help with a joke. "We don't really practice," Brennan says. "Let's say the show is at 8 p.m. We show up at 7:30 p.m., have a beer in the green room, and then just go. Most of our interactions happen about 70 percent on stage, so we have conversations on stage."
They have hit a few snags along the way, like forgetting to bring the very thing their show revolves around. "We've had to use a Yellowpages," Brennan says. "One time when Timmy was in law school we used a law dictionary." But if anyone can turn circumstantial evidence into a joke, we're pretty sure it's Brennan and Finch.
Big Dicktionary performs on a triple bill with Bucky and the Magnet Theater Touring Company on Sat. Jan. 17 at 9:30 p.m. at PURE Theatre.
Local group Clutch specializes in the improv form The Deconstruction. Quickly, that's one long scene followed by a short scene that ties back to the long one. They, like many improv groups, take an audience prompt and build a show off it.
Group member Dan Hanf shared one audience prompt from a previous show: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." He says the subsequent skit involved "rogue cops, hereditary illiteracy, hiding in the bathroom during a bad date, an angry, impatient French waiter and his angrier, more impatient family, and more."
How a line from a sonnet turns into all of that is a bit perplexing, so Hanf points out that the suggestion is simply the inspiration for the show. "[It] may not necessarily be directly referenced. But we use that inspiration to start the show, break down the themes that come up in scenes throughout the show, and wrap it up nicely in a bow at the end."
That's where dealer's choice comes in.
Currently, Clutch consists of John Brennan, Andy Adkins, Andy Livengood, Mark Szlachetka, Ali Sylvester, Matthew Perry, Thomas Dotstry, and the aforementioned Hanf.
Clutch plays on a triple bill with Organized Chaos and Doppelganger on Wed. Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at Theatre 99.
Organized Chaos is one of the most traditional improv groups you'll see at the fest. With a current make-up of three guys and two girls, the group has fluctuated from 12 down to four and back up to five.
Stacey Lathem, David Myer, Craig Trow, Andy Adkins, and Ali Sylvester all use the organic nature of improv to put on a good show. Their act is heavy on character-driven monologues, and not so heavy on labels.
Adkins says, "The issue of gender balance has come up a lot in the improv world recently, which has historically been over-representative of white guys in their 20s and 30s. When you have an improv group that is either too female or, more commonly, too male, there ends up being a lot of gender-reversal in scenes. Guys playing girls and girls playing guys is totally OK. That's part of the beauty of the opening of an improv scene. You can be anything."
Lathem says that the group has been working together so long that practice isn't even necessary. "Most of us went through the Theatre 99 improv program together, and this show was a culmination of our final group. The trust levels are very high." So all they need is each other.
And, like all improv troupes, a little audience participation.
Organized Chaos plays on a triple bill with Doppelganger and Clutch on Wed. Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at Theatre 99.
Little Miss Codependent
Little Miss Codependent is another one of Theatre 99's longstanding improv acts. Made up of Brandy Sullivan and Jessica Mickey, this duo starts off by asking the audience a couple of questions, and takes off from there. They usually create five or so funny, ridiculous, or just flat-out crazy scenes.
The two met while in the larger group Mary Kay Has a Posse and eventually started working together on their own because every other member of Mary Kay lived out of town. "Years ago I'd never have considered doing a two-person group," Sullivan says. "But when you know someone so well and you're such great friends, you have that trust and innate fun that you don't have to manufacture." There's more pressure on each of them to be creative and funny throughout the entire show — unlike doing improv with a larger group, there are no breaks — but they've never had trouble coming up with scenes. "Instead of awkward silences, it's more like having to keep it together and not laugh," Sullivan says. Expect rednecks, talk show hostesses, and other ripe-for-riffing-on characters.
Little Miss Codependent plays on a triple bill with Moral Fixation and Neckprov on Thurs. Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. at Theatre 99.
Let's Have a Hootenanny
In Neckprov, group members perform as six consistent characters: Wild Man (Greg Tavares), Dody Roberts (Brian DeCosta), Chevron McDougal (Jason Groce), Carlene Ledbetter (Brandy Sullivan), Jackson Seegers (George Younts), and Ray Ray Simmons Jr. (David Roach). And who better to give you a taste of Neckprov than one of its good ol' boy members? We talked to Ray Ray Simmons Jr. about his hopes, dreams, and fantasy dinner companions.
City Paper: So what do you do?
Ray Ray Simmons Jr.: I'm in a transitional phase right now. Lately I've been exploring found object art — I found an old washing machine down in someone's backyard somebody had just dumped there, so I turned it into a keg cooler-slash-tree stand. You know, like for those mini trees. So it's multifunctional.
CP: What else are you pursuing?
RRS: I'm also an amateur stuntman. You know the 'Hey, watch this' guy? I was the original 'Hey, watch this' guy. Somebody said 'You'd have to be crazy to jump off that water tower and I said 'Hey y'all, watch this.' Luckily there was a manure truck parked underneath so that kind of helped me with the fall.
CP: That's lucky you survived.
RRS: Yeah, it's all about preparation. Evel Knievel didn't just jump into Snake Canyon, he had to prepare. It takes science. I like science myself. I always wanted to have Stephen Hawking over to dinner and see if he'd let me drive that cool wheelchair of his. You move it with your breath, or your voice, or something. But him, I think he moves it with his mind. He's really smart.
CP: If you could have three people over for dinner, living or dead, who would they be?
RRS: Dale Earnhardt — senior, not junior. I'd go out for beers with Junior, but I'm not having him over to the house. Ronald Reagan, of course, and that guy from the Police Academy movies who makes the funny noises with his mouth.
Neckprov plays on a triple bill with Moral Fixation and Little Miss Codependent on Thurs. Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. at Theatre 99.
Keeping Their Wits About Them
Greg Tavares and Lee Lewis are the brains behind the long-form improv duo Moral Fixation — "brains" being the operative word here. A Moral Fixation show is a little meatier than your typical improv performance, with Lewis and Tavares going for characters who have some sort of investment in each other. So instead of characters like, say, a snotty waiter and an elephant, you might see a father and son or long-lost friends. "When we first started, we always wanted to play characters that were emotionally invested in one another before the scene started," Lewis says. "We now have become more comfortable with playing whatever relationship starts to develop early on in the scene, knowing that they will become emotionally invested quickly."
Both Lewis and Tavares are pros on the improv scene (Tavares is co-founder of Theatre 99 and the author of the book Improv for Everyone, while Lewis is also in the long-time musical improv duo Doppelganger) and devotees of theater in general. This means that they focus as much on the acting part of improv as on the comedy, and that makes for a pretty darn satisfying show. If you need a break from the Comedy Fest's general silliness, Moral Fixation is the show to see. And afterward, when you're ready for silliness again, check out Lewis in Doppelganger — he plays a rock star who could have come straight out of Spinal Tap — and Tavares in Neckprov, where he plays a redneck known as Wild Man.
Moral Fixation plays on a triple bill with Little Miss Codependent and Neckprov on Thurs. Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. at Theatre 99.
The Best Song About Nuns You'll Ever Hear
This two-man group sets itself apart from straight improv with a guitar. Armed with two microphones and an instrument, members Lee Lewis and Jason Cooper take audience suggestions for the themes of their on-the-spot songwriting. On stage, Lewis takes on the persona of has-been rock star Clive Neilsen, and Cooper becomes guitarist Johnny Dregg.
An example of the kind of audience-suggested songs a Doppelganger show might present is "Save the Nuns." Starting with that title, Cooper might surprise even his improv partner of eight years and strum out a reggae tune on his guitar while yelling intermittently, "Hey, mon." With that lead-in, Cooper says, Lewis "takes the direction of saving a bunch of nuns from the non-phallic life of the nunnery on a beach in the Bahamas." Maybe they made it up right there. Or maybe they wrote the song before their 1979 tour with Bob Marley and the Wailers.
"When someone asks me, I always say that Doppelganger is a cross between Wayne Brady and Spinal Tap," Lewis says. "I think that gives a good description of what we do and who we are."
Doppelganger plays on a triple bill with Organized Chaos and Clutch on Wed. Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at Theatre 99.