Well-traveled: N.C.'s Dirty South combine Chicago and New York improv styles
Sat. Jan 21, 7 p.m.
Charleston Ballet Theatre
477 King St.
Although the men and women of Dirty South Improv Comedy Theater (formally known as DSI Comedy Theater) wear their origins on the chests of their (hypothetical) name-emblazoned T-shirts, the uniqueness of their productions lies in the educations, both formal and informal, of their founders.
Founder and executive director Zach Ward grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. and later spent time performing with ImprovOlympic in Chicago and spreading his improv love across the country before moving back home to start up DSI in Chapel Hill's neighboring town of Carrboro.
Fellow DSIer Scott Jennings, who will appear at the Charleston Comedy Festival along with Ward, Kate Melillo, and Katy Jack, is also a homegrown Southerner (by way of Florida) who spent years performing with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City before heading back below the Mason-Dixon line to shack up with DSI.
"You see a lot of people come back from Chicago or California that have studied at all these major improv theatres, and now, instead of being focused on fame and celebrity and ... like, 'oh, I wanna do VH1's Best Week Ever or SNL,' people have come to N.C. because we're doing the same work in improvisation, but that's our focus," Ward says. "In North Carolina, you're not going to get a movie deal by someone coming to see you Friday night at the show."
These Dirty Southerners are not just onstage hams; they operate a facility that's open six days a week, perform seven shows per week (three on Friday, three on Saturday, and one on Sunday), and teach various levels of classes to both beginners and longtime improvisers. The diversity of the performers' backgrounds helps keep things fresh for the troupe.
"The show we're bringing [to the Comedy Festival] mixes what I personally took out of Chicago improv and what Scott has taken out of New York City improv," Ward says. "Chicago is known for being inherently grounded in relationship-based work, and it's more theatrical. New York is very fast-paced."
CCF audiences have this cross-country mash-up of improvisation styles to look forward to at DSI's show this week, as the two couples (Jack and Jennings are dating, and Ward and Melillo are engaged) perform an improv show in two sets featuring a parade of local celebrities.
The professionals in DSI will invite a local celebrity out on stage at the beginning of the show, get a suggestion from the audience, ask the famous face to tell a two-minute long, real-life story related to the audience suggestion, then improvise based on the celeb's story.
"The cool thing is, the celebrity who comes in doesn't have to be funny at all," Ward says, "they just have to tell this story. And that's really engaging for the audience, and we make everything they say brilliant — we improvise based off details, relationships, funny little quirks in their story, and sort of blow it up in an exaggerated way."
The troupe performs in two acts, so they'll do a 30-minute set, regroup with the monologist during a two-or-three minute intermission, then come back and do a more fast-paced second set.
So what they're saying is that you can laugh at local celebrities — and they'll thank you for it! Take advantage of this opportunity while it's hot.