Guest Contributor: Brian OConnell on Bar Managing at iOWest

08/10/2010

You know BRIAN O’CONNELL from his work with groups like BillyHawk, BillyMiles, EXTRA-STRENGTH and Dr. God, but as the bar manager for iOWest, the folks there also know him as the man who keeps the love going long after the stages of Hollywood Blvd have gone dark…

In this exclusive feature for PhillyImprov, Brian shares with us his insight into life managing a bar occupied by your comedy family.

Bar Managing a Comedy Club
by Brian O’Connell

The absolute best part about bar managing an improv theater is the people. It can sometimes also be the most difficult.

Unlike any other bar I’ve managed (and I’ve been working in bars since before I could legally drink. What? I’m Irish. This is surprising?), the clientele at iOWest is 85% “regulars”. Most of our patrons are fellow performers, students, alumni, improv junkies or some combination thereof. The crowd is our best asset; our best form of advertising.

No other bar has the advantage I have in that the overwhelming majority of patrons are the funniest, nicest people you have ever met; who have literally been trained to take care of the person talking directly across from them. Our people have been trained to listen, actively be interested in what you are saying and then furthering the conversation down a path that is not only revealing but also rewarding to the person who brought up the subject in the first place.

No other bar has the advantage that I have in that the “regulars” have a vested interest in the bar doing well. Firstly, they need the place to do well. They want you to come back because they have shows they want you to see because they are proud of those shows and have put a lot of effort into them. Our crowd wants the new visitor to tell their friends what a great time they had and suggest they do the same. Secondly, our crowd wants the new visitor to become
a repeat visitor simply because our crowd is part of a great community and we want to share.

Have you ever read a great book or seen a terrific film and gush about it to someone who hasn’t seen it yet? Our crowd treats this bar like a clubhouse; a playground where everyone can get together and actually enjoy each other’s company. We KNOW how awesome the place is and want to share that with someone who is new to the scene.

No other bar has the advantage that I have in that the bar patrons consider themselves a community; a “family” complete with crazy uncles, a doting mother and a kooky patriarch who we all miss and reminisce about fondly (even those of us who never met him). The vibe in the room is very palatable.

Our crowd is very protective of the “clubhouse” and wants to keep the good times rollin’. New visitors may not pick up on it initially but I can usually tell as I overhear them exit the doors for the night: They are amazed at how nice everyone was to them. How they didn’t see one fight break out. How no one tried to steal their purse or their coat.

It makes my job enormously easier if the entire crowd has my back. Anytime I’ve had to ask anyone to leave, it’s been relatively smooth because I physically have 30 people standing behind me giving the offender the same look. There really isn’t any room for douchebags or assholes at an improv bar because disagreement makes for bad comedy bits and “this ain’t that kind of scene, dude.”

I’m reminded of this frequently when I travel to other bars in town. I see various acts of rudeness going unchecked. I see rampant egos ruining other people’s evenings simply to serve their own selfish needs for what they consider “partying”. I see people over-served and wandering aimlessly because their “friends” abandoned them. I see guys fly off the handle in situations where a simple “excuse me” would have sufficed. It always makes me think, “That would never happen at iO. Someone would take care of that person. Cooler heads would have prevailed.” It helps that we all speak the same language, though.

QUICK ASIDE: Kim Mulligan asked me the other night whether or not I was able to “turn it off” when I’m at other bars. Honestly, I can’t. I’ve been doing this way too long. I can walk into any bar, anywhere, and within five minutes tell you who has been over-served, who is underage and HOW they got in, whether or not the bouncer is on the take, which bartender is drunk, if the owner’s are on drugs (and yeah, I can tell who the owners are usually), and so on and so forth. I can see a fight 10 minutes before it happens. Studying improv and learning how to read people’s body language has only heightened that skill. It used to drive me crazy but now I just remind myself that I don’t work there and Charna signs my checks, not these people. I usually just turn to my buddy and tell him to stand with me in a different part of the room. When they ask why, I tell them, “Because that guy who hasn’t touched the drink in his hand since we got here can’t take his eyes off of that girl. And the guy twice his size standing to her immediate left has….noticed. This isn’t going to be a very safe place to be in about, oh say, 3 minutes.” But I digress.

And about that shared language I mentioned earlier. Improvisers speak in a different rhythm. There is a give and take there and any new person picks up on it. The bits fly back and forth; the shared jokes told in quick character voices. Any conversation a lay person has with an improviser is inevitably politely interrupted by another improviser who wants to say hello and then is immediately followed by an introduction and greeting with the new person. That sort of warmth is extremely inviting to a new visitor. They want to be in on the joke. They want every person in the bar to be happy to see them just like it seems to be for the improviser they are talking with at that moment. It just LOOKS fun. And it is.

When I meet a lay person who is the boyfriend/girlfriend of an improviser, I inexorably make the joke, “So when are you starting classes?” You simply can’t be around improvisers talking very long without wanting to be part of the conversation.

In most bars, we just want your money. In an improv bar, we add you to the conversation. You’ll buy drinks simply because you don’t want to leave.

It’s also why everyone who works at an improv bar also performs there. I can’t imagine how a lay bartender could function at an improv bar. He wouldn’t know the language. He wouldn’t know the history. He wouldn’t understand that a Level 2 student is ordering in that old prospector voice not to be a dick but because he’s trying to be funny; to impress you. The student is trying to belong; to join the conversation. He wouldn’t know Miles Stroth or Bob Dassie from a hole in the ground and that would be a problem.

Can you imagine how difficult my job would be if I had to stop every 5 minutes and explain, “No, dude, that guy just raised his voice because he’s doing a bit. He’s not starting a fight; he’s doing his “Mr. Energy” character from The Friday 40. And by the way, please don’t make TJ Jagodowski wait 5 minutes for a beer as he is an improv legend and has probably earned a little extra prompt service for all he’s done for the art form. That’s embarrassing. What’s that you say? (Sigh.) A ‘bit’ is when….”

I shudder to think.

Which leads me to the dark side of having your crowd know each other rather than strangers at a club who may never see each other again: Things can get…..complicated.

When you have a lot of sensitive, artistic types in the same room with healthy egos whose art is so closely tied into their personality and their self-value, you need a bar manager who can be a calming influence. Yeah, we don’t have any fist fights at iO but we do have people who have long histories with each other and sometimes it’s not always the best histories.

Oh, and I hear everything. I know more than I should know and a very important part of my job is being discreet. I sometimes see people not at their very best (which happens at EVERY bar) but at an improv bar, that person is part of the family. I need to contain that situation because I don’t want them to be embarrassed. I need to let them know I don’t want to ever see that again AND I need to keep my fucking trap shut about it.

In this job, I spend a lot of time patiently listening to a particular view and attempting to be objective. I try to find mutually beneficial solutions. I try to encourage people to work with me. Hey man, I want a lot of people at your show as well. Let’s try and work out some drink specials. I spend a good part of my time reminding interns, who are our lifeblood, that although they are not getting paid, they are still getting something of value (free classes) so they should really try to treat it as, you know, a “real” job.

I also spend a lot of my time encouraging those who go that extra distance and do something because it needed to be done and not because they were asked to do it. I want those interns and staff members to know that I saw it and appreciated it. That they aren’t faceless; someone is watching and recognizes effort when it is given.

And I always wasn’t very good at it at first. I was used to regular bars where I had to exert a little more authority and use a different sort of language; “bar” rhythms and not “improv” rhythms. I was reminded by one of my servers not too long ago that one of my first requests for her to do something the way I wanted it done began with the line, “Now, I know you’re not retarded but,…”

Woof. Yeah, not good, I admit. But I was used to working with restaurant/bar “lifers”; my godmother, my Aunt Kathy, was the head server at Coletti’s in Chicago for thirty years. She would have smirked and gone right on with it. At the end of the night we would have been friends again. That’s just how the business works.

One of the main reasons I took the job at iOWest (besides the fact that I consider it my home; it’s members, my family) is because the staff was already in place. I didn’t have to clean house and through trial and error find a staff I was happy with a year later.

I have a great staff of people who work with me instead of for me. I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I earn their respect that way and they go the extra mile for me because of it. Not that I haven’t had to put the hammer down here and there but now, I’m just placing the hammer on the table. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, if they don’t do it for me, I’ll get fired and then they might have to work for a bigger asshole than me!

And honestly, no one who works here doesn’t want to work here; easily, it’s the best bar gig in town. Great friendly, funny crowd who tip well (because you’re going to see them next week) and only the occasional random jerk who thought this was the club next door and leaves 5 minutes later.

Everything about running a bar at an improv theater comes down to its people: those who populate the bar and those who run it. Unlike any other bar I’ve ever worked in, everyone has a vested interest in the place doing well. We all want this place to keep its doors open so that we can keep coming back.

Not only because there is no other place like it but because we need it.

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Comedian Profile: Kelly Jennings

06/08/2010

Editors Note: In this segment, we step away from the stage and take a look at comedians in the Philadelphia area… Learn a little more about where they come from, what they do while not performing and of course the question we all ask ourselves… Why do we do it?

KELLY JENNINGS

Might have seen her in: Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical…, Comedy Sportz, The Moops (mercenary status)

Hangs her hat in: Lansdowne, PA

Stomping Grounds: Ardmore, PA

Pays the Bills as: Actor / Director / Teaching Artist

Other Hobbies: cycling, martial arts/self defense, local government/community interest groups, big sci-fi fan, documentaries of all sorts, NPR, voracious consumption of information from disparate industries (Management, self improvement, religion, general history, native cultures, warfare and military strategy, pro football et al.)

Why Improv?

(A woman 35- 40 crosses to corner of room and picks up a large wooden box – a ‘soap box’ and stands upon it.  As she speaks people gather around, some curious, others dismissive but no one seems to leave.)

Just remember, you asked.

I came to improv as an actor recently graduated from Syracuse Univ. Drama Dept, which back then was a very reputable training program. My experience of improv at the time was only as a rehearsal tool for scripted work. The improv shows I had seen were frankly boring and felt suspiciously scripted, not at all spontaneous.

I attended the general open call for Philadelphia theaters (now known as TAGP) and I was asked to audition for Comedy Sportz. I never thought I would be cast.  When I did get cast I thought it would be something I’d do for a few months then move on. 18 years later I’m still there.

As an actor I was very in my head. In some ways I’d still say that’s my bête noir. Good improv is anything but about being in your head. So for me improv forces me to be present and in the moment. I think I am more authentically myself when I am improvising than maybe at any other time.

I love the immediacy of improv, not knowing what’s going to happen next and the interdependency one has with one’s partners on stage. It is a wonderful freedom to be able to just *be* knowing that whatever you are creating has never existed before and will never exist again quite like this.

I believe with all my heart and soul that performing of any kind be that improv or scripted theater or music or dance is a sacred act. I view myself as a 21st century shaman. We live in a secular world for the most part. All of the mystery and wonder and ritual that cultures of the past had for experiencing/explaining/processing their lives and the world around them has for contemporary people been replaced with dry facts and scientific studies. And when we can’t use science to explain our ills we numb ourselves unconscious with food, alcohol, clubbing, TV, drugs. Anything to keep ourselves from experiencing emotions. We like our world neat, black and white, simple and free of complication.  The function of a performer as I see it is to create a place – both physical and emotional where it is safe for the audience to express themselves without being cynical or disconnected from themselves and each other.

As comedians, we allow audiences to view life with some sense superiority – they see us on the receiving side of life’s harshness. They either identify with the characters we play or the situation or they get to be objective and feel as though they would never be in that situation. We facilitate catharsis. Nowhere is that more palpably felt than in an improv show.

My interest over the past few years has drawn me away from strict short form /long form formats and led to a desire to incorporate all that energy and *danger*from improv into scripted work. Actors and directors speak so much of being *in the moment* on stage, of keeping a scene or a show *fresh*. That’s what improv is – fresh, in the moment life. Scripted theater has polished, professional, and succinct qualities that allow it to make poignant and relevant comments without the meandering feeling that can happen in improv. So what happens when you try and make a hybrid of the two?  That’s the exploration I’ve been on through pieces like Killer Pussy and Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical…

As a theater artist I have been highly influenced by the concepts of Peter Brook, the Dada and surrealist movements, classical theater, restoration era theater, and agit prop theater of the 50’s and 60’s. Also performance art – Laurie Anderson is a god!, Man Ray, Seurat, Chagall, Magritte, Phillip Glass, modern dance, professional sports, gothic novels, Saturday morning and weekday cartoons from bugs bunny to Hercules, the Justice League and Speed Racer. From Johnny Sokko and his Amazing Flying Robot, Ultraman, and Godzilla, Star Trek and Doctor Who, and a severe lack of mathematical and scientific skill despite a keen interest in both.

My ultimate dream is to create a piece of theater that is seamless between audience and performer. Where it is impossible to determine what is improvised and what is scripted, what part is *the show* and what part is just being present. I want an audience to leave knowing that they have experienced something unique and one of a kind. I want an audience to feel excited, alive and yes, even angry and upset. I want audiences to leave *feeling* and not just looking for a quick high five and drinks at the bar.

(The woman steps down from her soap box. She picks it up and places it back in the corner. She exits.)


City Council Bill 100267 and what it means for comedy

05/20/2010

Since it was introduced to City Council on April 22nd, Bill 100267 has created quite a stir in many entertainment circles. Introduced by Councilmen Bill Greenlee and Darrell Clarke, the bill calls for promoters of special events to apply for a free permit from the Philadelphia Police Department 30 days prior to each event.

According to Greenlee, it’s an attempt to curb event-driven distruptions throughout the city. While the bill hits promoters and is clearly targeted at nightclub events and similar social gatherings, the language of the bill could cause repercussions within performing arts communities.

Reviewing the bill, we see that permits will be needed by the entities promoting and producing events, and those that look to profit from them. It exempts paid media outlets, ticket sellers (off premises), performers (paid strictly to perform), agents, politicians, political committees, non-profits and of course the City of Philadelphia itself. It also allows PDD to deny a permit up to 10 days prior to the event, and without cause.

The area that we as comedians need to look most carefully at is how the bill classifies an “event.” It’s simply described as “any activity requiring a special assembly occupancy license.” The COP website states that a license is required for restaurants, bars, catering halls, night clubs and other gathering places with dancing and a lawful occupancy of over 50 people. The site also notes that they exclude theaters with fixed seating. So while we may not feel that we fit within the definition of a dancing establishment, the presence of an exclusion for fixed-seat theaters means the city thinks otherwise.

It’s also important to note that although they do not make the distinction, lawful occupancy is different from seating… so while your venue may not seat 50 people, it could potentially be occupied by that many. Public entertainment venues that are up to code should have some sort of official signage that notifies you as to the legal maximum occupancy.

As comedians commonly producing our own events, we are constantly striving to simply fill our houses; barely able to imagine our audiences overflowing to the point of causing civil unrest. Even though the thought of breaking down our folding chairs and busting out an unauthorized dance party a la Footloose is unlikely if not hoped for (I’m looking at you Kristen), Greenlee and the bill sponsors appear to be sticking to their guns. Which means that without defeat of the bill, as soon as June standard venues like the Shubin, Ric Rac and the Playground may need to make some adjustments in their operations or face extreme bureaucratic red tape (e.g. ComedySportz filing for over 100 permits a year) – all while under risk of being shut down anyway.

Who is in the clear?

  • Theaters with fixed seating
  • Non-profits producing & promoting their own events
  • Venues with a legal occupancy under 50

Who is potentially at risk?

  • Larger venues that utilize folding chairs for patron seating
  • For-profit producers & promoters
  • Regular entertainment venues unlicensed or not compliant with city code
  • Comedians who perform under at-risk producers and promoters
  • Venues that financially depend on revenue from independently-produced events

How can I be heard?

Reach out to the sponsors of the bill, as well as the Council President, and let them know your thoughts on this matter. If we can’t stamp it out all together, demand the language be amended to exclude seated performances, raise the lawful occupancy maximum or otherwise adjust the bill to no longer include low-risk events of a theatrical nature. Emails can be directed to:

You can also sign the petition at PetitionSpot.

What can I do if the bill is enacted and I’m at risk?

  • If you rent or sublet, ensure the venue meets the exclusionary standards
  • If you’re bordering on occupancy limits, renegotiate your lease to exclude non-essential areas
  • If you’re venue doesn’t work, find one that does
  • If you produce regular shows, consider a non-profit tax status
  • Discuss creating a non-profit production/promotion entity with other groups
  • Consult legal council specializing in entertainment… I’m no expert
  • Stop doing comedy… You’re clearly too dangerous

Steal This Show: Philly is Phunny Again – by John Steele

11/25/2008

Originally published on NBC10.com’s About Town section

Time was, our sports teams never won, cultural references were nowhere to be found and parts of the city looked like rotting corpses.

Philadelphia has long been the butt of a joke that everyone was laughing at but us. But with a revitalized film industry, a new mayor, an emboldened youth population and the World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphians are ready for some laughs of our own.

And finding one has never been easier. FX’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a national sensation. And with clubs like Helium and the Laff House drawing national acts and comedy troupes eschewing the normal career path of New York/L.A. wannabes for hometown hero status, Philly is phunny. And its comedians are ready to prove it.

No one knows the dues-paying, pavement-pounding struggle of hustling yuks to a city that often has a tough time laughing at itself better than Corey Cohen. As a member of The Sixth Borough, he and his mates explored Philly’s identity crisis, provincial nature and tough edge with raucous sketches and performances on stages across the city. Now Cohen is back, contributing the newest addition to the burgeoning Philly alt-comedy scene, Steal This Show.

Cohen’s bi-monthly comedy revue contains appearances by stand-up comedians, sketch comedians, musicians, and even a quiz show. And all for just $5. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach should suit potential attendees just fine, as they are likely to get more bang for their buck.

And what better place to poke fun at Philly’s gruff, housecoat-wearing homers than Connie’s Ric Rac, the first art house to hit the Italian Market. As everyone knows, the Italian Market is where Philly stereotypes reside; a neighborhood full of pride, soul and unintended irony. In short, the place is rife for parody.

Started as an electronics store and later used as a storage space, Connie’s Ric Rac has since become the doing of Connie’s son. More an artistic collective than a performance space, the Ric Rac hosts seminars for would-be comedians, musicians and artists. With Steal This Show, the Ric Rac brings nightlife to a neighborhood decidedly low on performance-based entertainment. And with a $5 price tag, BYOB rules and a shared refrigerator in place of a liquor license, it does so in true South Philly style.

If you are happy being the butt of the joke from Staten Island to San Francisco, then by all means, forget we had this talk. But if you are ready to see Philly draw some laughs of our very own, come out to the Ric Rac this Friday, Nov. 28. Help put Philly on the comedy map once more.


i forget things . . .

07/02/2007

i forget thingsi lose my keys, i lose my wallet, i lose my mind.

a few days ago i lost my script. i left it on that glorious regional rail, you know the one, the R5 to Paoli/Thorndale (people gotz to go to Thorndale, right). this was bad cause i was supposed to be off-book for the next rehearsal. if you are not familiar with the term “off-book” is defined as a painful process through which the actor gets weened from the script, and can no longer hide in its protective pages.

well, when i lost my script i honestly got to thinking how much i love improv. it is perfect for the absent minded, aka genius, (remember a pant-less albert einstein) performers like myself. all you need to do is show up!

i ain’t sayin improv is easy – i am saying it’s essential. it may require a lot of you – your brain, your fearless abandon, your charisma – but it is only you, and occasionally a pair of funny glasses, if you can remember them.

btw, come and see this play i’m gonna be in. it’s called The Game of Love and Chance in Love Park on July 18! It’s free so you don’t need to worry if you forget your wallet.


Can We Start A New Trend?

06/28/2007

Years ago, before I moved to Philly, I performed out west in Colorado and Arizona. Maybe this is a regional thing, but all the shows there had names. So each one kind of had this feeling of an event. So and so presents… “Clever Show Name” and it seemed to work.

Out here, you don’t really see that much. Now I don’t want to encourage a sudden deluge of bad show names, but the folks at SZWD and PonyCoat came up with an excellent name for tonight’s show:

SPANDEX BALLET or: How I Learned To Stop Deconstructing Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Love Clowns

Just reading that is worth the price of admission. So you should probably go the the Playground tonight and pay what you own them.

You know this guy’s excited.

(Source: IRC)


Industrial On The Outs & In Good Form

06/22/2007

Venue lockout drives improv to the streets and players step it up in return.

Last Friday marked the first annual Delaware Improv Mini-Fest in Dover, DE. It was hosted by Delaware Comedy Theatre of Rehoboth Beach and boasted groups from across Delaware as well as guests from Philadelphia and Boston. Among the groups to perform were Rare Bird Show, MakeOut Clinic, The Late Night Players, Tongue & Groove, U of DE Rubber Chickens, Pickle Splash and Industrial Improv.

The night experienced a few delays at the outset due to theatre management holding the door; as a result the roster of groups was put behind schedule. Later, another issue with delays during intermission set things back another half hour.

As the evening wound down to the last few groups, it became apparent that time was already a big issue. The theatre management was adamant about closing the theatre at 11:15pm, and while accounting for delays, the final group, Industrial Improv, was set to go on at 11:10pm.

In true “the show must go on” bravado, the players donned their trademark red jumpsuits and hit the stage. The got a quick suggestion from the audience and hopped into the aisles… encouraging the audience out into the streets to watch their show. Rarely do you see an entire audience clamoring after performers to make sure they don’t miss a word. This strange and interesting gamble paid off; Industrial had the audience’s strict attention. Under the lights of the marquee, they went into their monologue symphony and had a ridiculously high energy set. At one point, they even incorporated a passing vehicle into their show; surrounding it at a stoplight and dancing around it while the driver chortled with confused delight.

Although by all accounts a success, David Warick, the festival’s producer, plans to make sure his festival doesn’t have the same hiccups twice. “Overall, a fun night; love the space… [but] the management… [we] won’t do stuff there again.” So what, you may ask, are the plans for next year? Says Warick, “we do so much better locally at the beach; and it’s more fun [with] sand and sun”