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THEATRE ‌ Serious Comedy

Theatre 99's growing company of writers and improvisers has become a crucible for original new work

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As titles go, Men Are from Goose Creek, Women Are from Savannah would seem a mouthful. (Shrek it ain't.) A Complete History of Charleston for Morons, another 12-syllable gum-buster, also doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But as extensions of the scripted comedic plays they identify, they're just about perfect, capturing both the slyly intelligent silliness and the pop culture-skewering sensibilities that have lifted their namesake acts at Theatre 99 to the top ranks of that comedy locus' most popular programming. They're also perfect examples of the increasingly original path that programming at the theatre has taken as the 11-year-old comedy collective — founded by local improv stalwarts Greg Tavares, Brandy Sullivan, and Timmy Finch as The Have Nots! in May 1995 — moves from adolescence into a bona fide artistic maturity.

What began as a trio of improvisers performing short-form games (a la Whose Line Is It, Anyway?) anywhere they could land a gig or borrow a space — the old Acme bar, the Circular Congregational Church's Lance Hall — has evolved into a company of full-time and semi-pro artists 30 strong. A litany of original new shows make up a monthly schedule that brings audiences and performers into the 137-seat Theatre 99 on Meeting Street three nights a week. Many of the shows are scripted plays, others are a rotating smorgasbord of improv's most creative formats. What all of them have in common is an approach to the craft that takes comedy damned seriously.

"Most of the stuff that's doing well is stuff that's deviating from the kind of short-form improv the company's been doing for 10 years," observes Caleb Usry, a veteran member of the Theatre 99 company who keeps busy with roles in both Men Are from Goose Creek and History for Morons (both of which he cowrote), as well as two "named" improv acts, Moral Fixation and The Sofa Kings, and regular weekly appearances with The Have Nots! on Saturday nights. The Sofa Kings specialize in "deconstruction" and The Harold, an elaborately concieved style of long-form that some of the top improv acts in the nation use as flashy showpieces. Moral Fixation, on the other hand, has Usry and company members Tavares and Lee Lewis taking an audience suggestion — a single word, in this case — and building a 45-minute improvised play around it.

The theatre's monthly programming schedule has also recently included pieces like Hobo: The Musical, an hour-long scripted sendup of rock musicals created by company members Henry Riggs and John Brennan, and the all-female team known as Mary Kay Has a Posse, a talk-show-style improv format inspired by The View that was one of Theatre 99's very first named show spinoffs.

"After more than a decade of this, we're just starting to see the deeper payoff," says Tavares. From the get-go, he says, the company's vision has been twofold: creating original named shows and presenting top-notch ensemble improv. "We want to empower each individual member of the company to create work that's their idea. And then also to create a company that can put world-class work on the stage as improvisers.

"It's a balance between those two ongoing efforts," Tavares says. "The named shows are an expression of an individual's idea of comedy, like Hobo or Men Are from Goose Creek. But the other part is creating a company that has a common aesthetic and methodology about improv comedy, and making those shows the best improv in the Southeast."

Tavares notes that while other theatre ensembles in town and elsewhere exist primarily to fulfill the artistic vision of a single artistic director, "We don't work that way. Our ensemble creates a great deal of the material we present. At any time, an active member of the company can create and pitch an idea to us."

All the members of Theatre 99's company either have improv and acting experience from another company or they've gone through an improv training program the company offers year-round, a series of three intensive classes that are open to anyone. Active members also must participate in rehearsal at the theatre at least once a month and meet mandatory performance requirements.

"Membership has both privileges and responsibilities," Tavares says.

With at least three days a week at the threatre devoted to live performance, there's plenty of opportunity to explore both.

Mondays and Tuesdays at the theatre see rehearsals and classes, respectively. Wednesday shows are dedicated to newer material and named groups, often from shows that are still being workshopped, refining their format and material. Fridays bring two acts of short- and long-form improv from the entire company. The original trio of The Have Nots! hold down the stage for two acts on Saturday nights, often with guests from the full company.

"One of the things we're committed to is developing emerging improv artists," says Tavares, pointing to new groups like his own 4 Play, the Jean Jacket Appreciation Society, and Affirmative Action Jackson.

"The hope is for those pieces and those people to go on to become successful not just here, but elsewhere in the country — at the Chicago Improv Festival, for example, or at the New York Fringe Festival.

"Our goal," he adds, "is to be the kind of company that gets mentioned in the same breath as Upright Citizens Brigade, ImprovOlympic, Second City, Dad's Garage, those sorts of places."

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