Improv in the city

Oct 14, 2015 at 4:07 pm
Damaged Goods
Damaged Goods Photo by Nik Vechery

In Memory of Ryan Kemp Oct. 22, 1984 – Oct. 9, 2015

During the course of writing this article, Louisville’s improv scene lost a dear family member. Ryan Kemp, who was interviewed for this article, was a dedicated member of Project Improv and Improv Anonymous. He was also widely known as one of the Louisville Ghostbusters. His loss will be deeply felt in the theater community and beyond.

Improvisational theater as we know it today was invented by David Shepard and Paul Sills at The Compass Theater in St. Louis, Missouri. In the Italian tradition of improvised political satire Commedia dell’arte from the 16th century and the writings of Viola Spolin, Shepard and Sills hatched the idea of creating a theater experience that exists in the moment, with no script and no pre-determined characters — a show that will only exist for a night and is completely dependent on the suggestions that the performers receive from the audience. The Compass was flush with an ensemble cast of actors who would go on to become theatrical aristocracy. It included names like Alan Alda, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Mike Nichols and Jerry Stiller. The improvised shows were a hit and The Compass Players soon moved to Chicago and eventually changed their name to Second City, which to this day is one of the most well-respected theater troupes in the world and has spawned more of your favorite actors and comedians than the top 10 troupes combined.

This new unscripted format angered purists. For people who were used to seeing classic, time-tested plays or modern masterworks painstakingly written by guys like Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett, this new make-it-up-as-you-go concept was never going to be considered a legitimate form of theater.

Improv troupes around the country will tell you that they’re always fighting a stigma, always losing ground in a meaningless war against an artistic counterpoint simply because they don’t have a script. “There was a lady who worked at [a local paper] who said, ‘Improv is not theater.’ And I’ll tell you, I have a problem with that,” Chris Anger, founder of The Louisville Improvisors tells LEO. “It’s an ignorant statement.”

“I’m not an idiot,” he continues. “There is a lot of really bad improv out there. But you know what? There’s a lot of really horrible fuckin’ folk music out there, too. Are you going to diminish a whole art form because some people aren’t as good as they want to be? If you randomly went to a bad play one night, would you write off Shakespeare? Of course not!”

And, for stand-up comedians, improv is too collaborative and doesn’t generally carry the gravitas of social commentary. “I started doing stand-up,” Jenni Cochran of Project Improv says. “Stand-up to me is terrifying; improv is exciting to me. It too is terrifying, but you have the support of the people on stage so that if you’re drowning, they’ll pull you up. Stand-up is brutal. In a way, I have so much respect for those guys because you are alone.”

Eric Hahn, alumni of The Part Time Theater Company, explains, “I think the roles of stand-up and improv are completely different. A stand-up’s job is to convert an audience to his way of thinking. Where an improv troupe’s job is to adapt themselves to what the audience is thinking.”

It’s an ironic argument considering that — as far as Louisville goes — the improv scene and the stand-up scene came to fruition simultaneously and in the same building. Locally, the first spark of improvisational theater goes back to when Comedy Caravan — the legendary comedy club at Mid-City Mall — opened its doors in 1987. For a short time in the early days, The Caravan housed a resident improv troupe called Bad Actors Club. “They were like dick joke theater,” Bret Sohl, Comedy Caravan stage manager from 1989-2004, recalls of the short-lived group. “They would make the quickest joke about their dicks and then they’d just yell at each other. They didn’t last long.”

Regardless of how amateurish Bad Actors Club was, Sohl felt their absence left a hole in the club. Intrigued with improv troupes since he was a child watching Second City perform on “The Tonight Show,” Sohl decided he was going to form his own troupe, and do improv right — a decision that sent him on a 15-year journey down the rabbit hole.

The first short lived troupe Sohl started was Reactors, which offered Sohl a foundation in improvisational theater. He began to further study the art with Compass Theater alumnus and founder of Second City, Paul Sills, an experience that was intense but made Sohl a strong performer and leader for his troupe. “[Sills] was not the kind of teacher to tell you where to go,” Sohl says. “But when you found what he was looking for in your performance, you knew you found it.”

After a couple of years, Sohl dismantled Reactors and formed another troupe from the bottom up, this time called The Part Time Theater Company. It was around this time he met Eric Hahn, a mechanical engineering major turned English major from Rice University. Hahn moved from Houston, where he had been a member of Comedy Sports, one of the most successful improv franchises in the country, and still looking to perform in his new city, he found Sohl. “Bret’s always been a hub,” Hahn says about the troupe’s founder and de facto leader. “People gravitate to, and cling to and orbit him. And on stage it was the same, he was kind of a binder, a glue.” The two men would be the heart of The Part Time Theater Company for the next decade or so, as a line of other performers cycled in and out of the group over the years.

The next decade would take The Part Time Theater Company into some weird places besides standing engagements at Comedy Caravan and Club Atlas. They performed in churches, bars, the beer tent at the Kentucky State Fair, Thunder Over Louisville, in high schools, on the local news and a few road gigs (including an Infection Control Symposium in Lexington hosted by Hahn’s mother). They were even invited to the Panoply Arts Festival in Alabama, one of only two improv troupes invited to perform at the festival; the only other troupe was, of course, Second City.

“I think if we’d had a little more organization,” Hahn recalls, “a little more advertising budget and a little more support from the club — we really could’ve turned into something. But in the end, we all grew up and started to drift apart. I don’t mean to sound like a movie of the week but…”

“Life happened,” Sohl picks up where Hahn trails off, finishing his friend’s thought the way only an old improv partner can manage.

In 2004, as Sohl was leaving his long held position at Comedy Caravan, the members of The Part Time Theater Company amicably decided to go their separate ways. They remain close. Regularly in communication with one another over a decade later, they were in each other’s weddings, and on occasion still manage to get together for a poker night.

“One of the things I miss the most is having that special connection with someone,” Hahn says of those days. “When you’re with a group of people and you play the same wonderful, magical games every day you begin to think like them and they think like you. I really appreciate how fortunate I was to be a part of something that beautiful. We were never famous, but to have a connection with not one, but seven human beings like that. I didn’t realize how much that has changed my life and made me a better person.”

The Louisville Improvisors

As The Part Time Theater Company hit their stride in the late ’90s, The Louisville Improvisors were only in their infancy. Chris Anger, one of the co-founding members of Louisville Improvisors, traces his roots in the Louisville improv scene back to a casual group of people who got together every week to do improv games as a sort of hobby. They were hardly a troupe. Initially, they didn’t perform out at all; they simply gathered in a basement once a week just to see what would happen.

Anger moved to Louisville in the late ’90s from the San Francisco area, where he was raised. He started young in theater and performing stand-up comedy but soon found his true passion in the late ’70s doing improvisational theater in Bay Area coffee houses. In the late ’90s Anger and his wife relocated to Louisville to be near his ailing mother-in-law, and he was soon introduced to the strange group of basement improvisors.

Anger might have been the real catalyst or perhaps the agitator, but it wasn’t long after he joined that the group decided they wanted to perform around town under the name Full-Frontal Comedy. “I went into Twice Told Coffee and asked Rick Tolls, who owned it at the time, ‘When can I put on an improv show?’” Anger recalls. “He said, ‘You can have Tuesdays.’ I thought, ‘Shit, I only wanted to put on one.’”

It was a slow start for the group as they began to play around town. The first time they were mentioned in the newspaper the group was listed as “Full-Frontal Lobotomy.” Anger recalls, “I didn’t know if it was a mistake or a review.”

During the shows at Twice Told, Anger was introduced to another actor and improviser named Alec Vols. The two men clicked instantly and a creative partnership that has lasted nearly two decades was born. Vols briefly joined Full-Frontal Comedy before it fell apart, but from the ashes, Anger and Vols formed Louisville Improvisors in 1999 and have been working and performing consistently since.

The following year, Louisville Improvisors launched Louisville’s first Improv comedy festival, Improvapalooza. The idea came to fruition on the road when, somewhere between Chicago and Louisville, Anger began to wonder why there were so many improv festivals around the country and yet Louisville didn’t have one. “We’re improvisors, not business people,” Anger says. “We had to learn how to produce a festival — advertising, printing, programs, travel arrangements — there’s a lot going on. But our whole thing was not performing for our fans, but outreach to people that wouldn’t normally go to improv shows, and Improvapalooza was great for that.” The first Improvapalooza took place in 2000 in The MeX Theater at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. It was an instant success and a sell-out featuring Louisville Improvisors, The Part Time Theater Company, as well as several troupes they had befriended around the country from St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Nashville.

Project Improv

In 2003, as The Part Time Theater Group was beginning to wane and The Louisville Improvisors were on the rise, a group of likeminded performers came together to create a local tradition that has continued for the last 12 years, and calls itself Project Improv.

Project Improv is a generational team, where when one member leaves, that person is replaced by someone new. Like Second City or The Groundlings, no original members remain, the torch is constantly being passed to the next generation of members who are willing to carry the Project Improv banner. The current class of Project Improv performers is made up of six talented and personable individuals named Ryan Kemp (who also performs with Improv Anonymous), Matt Schaaf, Joey Eberling, Jenni Cochran, Charity Murphy and Jeff Koleba. Schaaf explains what he likes about their rotating line-up, “What’s nice about having a generational team more than anything is that we get a chance to not only learn from people more experienced than us, but as we grow we get to teach a new generation as they come in.” The current ensemble has been performing together for approximately five years now. They are a group of actors that wants to exceed your expectations and broaden your perception of what improvisational theater can be. Take the group’s annual Improv Sutra show that usually happens in February: Project Improv, along with Kentucky Burlesque Society, creates a one-of-a-kind hybrid that blends the two drastically different art forms into a single show.

Their willingness to bend the public’s perception most likely draws from the fact that the performers followed so many different paths to the stage. Charity Murphy was working as a discontented copy writer for a local advertising agency and was starved for a creative release. She was invited by a friend to attend one of Project Improv’s rehearsals and never left. “She was a natural the first time she showed up,” Eberling recalls. And, as it turns out, improvisational theater was exactly what the doctor ordered. Murphy laughs about it now: “Improv was so good for me. I actually changed jobs to an even less creatively simulating job because I knew I had this as a release.”

Troupe member Matt Schaaf’s story is similar to Murphy’s: Also unfulfilled by work, he Googled “Louisville improv,” and Project Improv was the first name to show up. After getting in contact with someone at the group, he was invited to attend one of their rehearsals. “That was a few days before, and the rehearsal ended up getting canceled, but no one told me that. So I was just standing in front of Walden Theater forever, banging on doors for like half an hour.”

Ryan Kemp began doing improv in college, where he proceeded to perform for the next seven years. “It was the only improv team I knew for a good while,” he says. “And then I came to Louisville and found I could join other teams that weren’t in college, so I didn’t have to spend money to do improv anymore. I really did stay in college for an extra two years just to do improv.” And when he finally joined Project Improv, it became evident he was walking into an already established tradition of comedic excellence. “Although I had been doing it for seven years, the first time I saw Project Improv, I was intimidated. They were just clicking so well, I didn’t know if I could perform with these guys.”

The group travels together doing shows around the region, with their eyes set on doing the St. Louis Comedy Festival next year. Once a year, the group attends Improv Summer Camp, held on the grounds of an actual summer camp in Wisconsin. They assure me the whole thing is very “Wet, Hot, American Summer.” “Like church camp but less creepy,” Eberling describes it. Such a theatrical boot camp offers the troupe the opportunity to study with some of the best teachers and performers from all over the country.

“Every year I come back from it so jazzed and energized,” Jenni Cochran says. And then she fundamentally digs at the core of improvisational theater and perhaps life as a whole, when she says, “I feel like I should just say yes to everything in my life. Things are always best when they’re unexpected and you just go with it and agree.  It’s learning to accept everyone and be in the moment.”

Damaged Goods

Also, in this moment, one of the tightest, most cutting edge troupes in town is Damaged Goods, who practice short form improvisation, unlike Louisville Improvisors and Project Improv, both of which are known for their long form style. (Short form is more in the vein of “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” while long form takes the shape of a whole story or play improvised on the spot.) Damaged Goods is a high energy troupe made up of Stefan Gearhart, Parker Bowles and Rocky Williams. They are a power trio of high octane improvisational theater.

It began when Gearhart moved back to Louisville after graduating from Western Kentucky University, where he was a member of the Happy Gas improv troupe. Still eager to flex his theatrical muscle, he began working with Specific Gravity Ensemble. Bowles auditioned for a play Gearhart wrote, and immediately the seed of collaboration was planted.

The two friends moved to Los Angeles to continue growing as performers, but quickly realized that the West Coast was not for them, and upon returning in 2010, Gearhart and Bowles formed Damaged Goods. The group decided to focus on short form improv, which in some improv circles is considered juvenile compared to long form, but Damaged Goods soldiered forward and proved everyone wrong. “The thing with all art is that it’s not about learning the rules,” Gearhart says. “It’s about learning how to break them…that’s when you’re doing great.”

After sitting in the audience for several shows, Bowles’ childhood friend Rocky Williams approached him about working with Damaged Goods. After an audition and lots of rehearsal, the three-man formula they rely on today was set in stone. “Jazz is very much like improv,” Williams says of what he has learned from performing with Damaged Goods. “They learn to play the instruments; but then they go in there with the knowledge of how to use the full spectrum of any given instrument, and they just play.”

Damaged Goods quickly became one of the most respected improv troupes in the city and has built a reputation around the country as one of the better groups on the scene. “When we started traveling just because we were the guys from Kentucky, we were getting branded as ‘Southern Comedy,’” Williams remembers. “Like we were some sort of Hee-Haw brand of show.” In the five years since their inception, Damaged Goods has performed at The San Francisco Improv Festival, Chicago Improv Festival, Detroit Improv Festival and the St. Louis Compass Improv Festival, where they have headlined twice; they are also headed to Toronto this month for the Big City Improv Festival.

It really is an unconscionable level of  success for a group that’s been together for such a short period of time. It’s hard not to wonder if the success stems from the group’s simple philosophy, a mantra that Bowles repeats to Gearhart and Williams before every show: “Let’s make them laugh. Let’s make each other laugh.”

In the fall of 2012, as Gearhart, Williams and Bowles performed around town, they kept meeting other improvisers they really liked and were interested in working with. However, they had no interest in throwing off the chemistry and delicate balance that the three of them maintained in Damaged Goods, so they decided to form an off-shoot troupe that would allow them to work with other performers while maintaining their core trio. And thus, Improv Anonymous was born.

“This way we could keep what the three of us had going but still share our style and teach it to others and get more improv into the community,” Gearhart says of forming Improv Anonymous.  “We call it the Dam Good Family. They practice a similar style to ours, and I taught the troupe for the first two years until handing it over to Ben Hagan.”

The unprecedented success of both troupes has sent them each in their own respective directions. While Damaged Goods is defiantly short form, Improv Anonymous is more conventionally long form, and has its own brand of humor that manages to fall in line with the edgy sensibility of The Dam Good Family. Improv Anonymous runs itself, performs its own shows, as well as handling its own auditions and castings.

Currently Out of Order

While The Dam Good Family finds a balance between two local troupes, so does Rachel Dobring, who maintains a dual role in Louisville’s improv scene. She is a member of the improv duo Rachel and Justin and also heads up the troupe Currently Out of Order, a group of students from St. Francis High School who are fascinated by the art of improv. Dobring’s roots are planted in more traditional theater, graduating from Western Kentucky University with a B.S.A. in Theater. During her time in Bowling Green, Dobring  joined the Happy Gas improv troupe, where she met Damaged Goods co-founder Stefan Gearhart, as well as her future husband, Justin Dobring.

“I love improv because of the sheer nature of improv,” Dobring says. “It’s never the same thing twice because you just never know what’s going to come out of your partner’s mouth. The spontaneity of it is the biggest draw. It is by far my favorite form of live theater.”

Dobring moved to Chicago, worked with the Second City conservatory and earned a master’s in education. In 2007 she returned to Louisville to take a teaching gig at St. Francis High School, where she is the theater director. “The students were fascinated by my past in improv,”  Dobring remembers when asked how Currently Out of Order came to be. “I agreed to teach them some things if they were interested, and now they’re about to go into their fourth season.”

Dobring doesn’t perform with the students, saying “It’s a student-centered team, and I don’t want to take any sort of ownership over that.” She simply helps guide them through rehearsals, teaches them new games to play and helps instruct how to make each student’s personal performance stronger. Dobring has even taken the troupe to Chicago for the Team Comedy Festival the last two years in a row. While there, they would work all day, and then have a performance in the evening. The students also got the opportunity to see a Second City show downtown and then visit the legendary troupe’s training center.

“There are some kids who weren’t very outspoken and had never done anything like this before,” Dobring tells LEO of the effect the troupe has had on her students. “But they’ve really latched onto it and had a lot of growth from doing improv. So I think it’s a pretty great thing for the kids, and I love teaching improv, but I really love to perform it, as well.”

Since Dobring chooses not to perform with Currently Out of Order, she formed an improv duo with her husband Justin, simply called Rachel and Justin, which performs monthly at The Bard’s Town. When it comes to the differences between a life partner and comedy partner, Dobring simply laughs, “This is how we’ve known each other since the beginning. It’s been a huge part of our lives. It just feels very natural.”

The duo spends nights rehearsing improv games, in an attempt to keep their skills on point for each show. Practicing in their living room with their children (ages 5 and 9) as an audience, offering up suggestions for them to go on.

The Bard’s Town

With all of the different philosophies and styles of improv that these local troupes approach the stage with, there’s one thing on which they all agree. And that’s The Bard’s Town. It’s the beehive. It’s the silent member that belongs to every troupe in Louisville because, quite literally, every single troupe in the city performs on one of their stages regularly. The Bard’s Town is unequivocally the most supportive venue in the city of improvisational theater and it is by and large the epicenter of the community.

“The Bard’s Town has been an incredible force in helping to get people on-stage,” Joey Eberling of Project Improv says. “When you have the opportunity to see it performed so much, people are more likely to try it themselves.”

Louisville Improvisors’ Chris Anger whole heartedly agrees: “The Bard’s Town has been great in general for performing arts, but it’s especially great for improv. [Owners] Scott and Doug are tremendous and maybe for the improv community more than anyone else. I think it’s great that people can know they go in there and it’s a good chance you’re going to see some improv.”

“Venues were our weak link,” Eric Hahn of The Part Time Theater Company explains. “We were a little early on the scene and there was no place really to house us. There weren’t any places that were a natural fit for improv. I’m delighted that there is a renaissance going on at The Bard’s Town.”

But a renaissance can’t happen without support, and improv is truly one of the few art forms that absolutely can’t happen without an audience. “If we can tell Louisville anything it’s to support local improv,” Stefan Gearhart of Damaged Goods says. “It doesn’t have to be us. It can be Project Improv or Louisville Improvisors, but go see it.”

“Sometimes you do feel like Sisyphus pushing that improv rock up the hill,” Anger says with a laugh, because the challenge for any artist is to find their audience. “But it’s not like we’re going to stop now. I couldn’t if I wanted to, and I don’t want to.” •