Sometimes things are funnier in twos

09/10/2010

Some improv groups are born out of classes or pieced together through auditions. Others are spin-offs from existing groups. Even still, some are quickly cobbled together in the spirit of experimentation. Rarely, however, is there an established group whose cast is not known at curtain time.

MATT HOLMES (of Rare Bird Show fame) is half of the improvised duo m@&. The other half of the ensemble is still somewhat of a mystery. M@& (pronounced Matt, and…) features Holmes and a random audience member attending that particular performance. At the top of the show, he asks the audience if there’s anyone who’s never seen improv before. Someone pipes up or raises a hand and just like that, they’ve found themselves the unwitting star of the show.

Here and there he may encounter a small audience that’s entirely improvisers, and even in those few cases, he’s managed to find someone who might have taken a class, but has yet to take to the stage in a show. “There’s at least a few people who’ve been brought by a friend or family member” says Holmes, “and they don’t quite know what’s happening.” Many would agree with him, that this comedy amongst strangers makes things little more dangerous and exciting.

The name came about before the concept, as Holmes was looking to work with improvisers he’d met both here in Philadelphia and along his travels. Then, as it sometimes happens prior to creating new and interesting works for the stage, somewhere in the back of his head, he got the idea for an experiment.

While attending Cabrini College, Matt spent the earlier days of his comedy career running and performing with On the Spot, a weekly short-form show. He’d always loved the interaction with audience members that short-form thrives on. So when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped in head-first.

“Matt is the only person I know with the balls and ability to do it alone.” Michael Harris is the Artistic Director of Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) and producer of the Baltimore Improv Festival, which recently featured m@&. “For Matt to be the lone improviser and balance the dual responsibilities of carrying the show and supporting a novice takes a skill and generosity that precious few improvisers possess.”

"Matt is the only person I know with the balls and ability to do it alone"

It would seem that festival producers are apt to agree with Harris. M@& has been featured at festivals and comedy shows in places like Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis and State College, to name a few. And he doesn’t show any signs of slowing. After his current run of six shows in the Philly Fringe Festival, he’ll be featured here in his home city at both Duofest next month and the Philadelphia Improv Festival in November. Kristen Schier, a producer for Duofest, thinks it’s pretty easy for folks to enjoy the show. “M@& is effortless joy. Holmes’ simple approach is they key to his brilliance.”

Indeed, simplicity would seem to be a driving force behind the whole project for Holmes. “I have this big, open loose thing where I can do whatever I want on stage.” He adds, “and what I want to do is have fun, make it easy for me and for my partner, and have it be funny for everyone watching. If my m.o. were more complicated, I couldn’t do this show.”

With never knowing who he might pull up, each night is gamble… where the only thing that’s certain is that the volunteer will be as much a part of the show as he is. “We’re a team up there. I’m not trying to make fun of them of just use them. We’re playing together.” Even with the more reluctant audience members, Holmes makes an effort to keep them in the show. During one performance, he had a girl who wasn’t quite playing along and was unsure of what to do. He could tell she wanted to leave the stage, and then she finally did. “(So) I do a scene where she’s back in her seat in the audience, but I’m serenading her.” It’s these different sort of moments that create fun challenges and take shows into interesting places. “I want the audience volunteer to think it was something fun that they liked doing.”

Sometimes the volunteer finds huge success on stage in the process. In Minneapolis at Brave New Workshop, the man pulled up had never seen an improv show before. In a scene where Holmes was a gunfighter, he’d accused the man of using his mother as a human shield. The man came back with a line about how he really didn’t technically kill her. Suddenly they found themselves in a chain reaction where the volunteer was indirectly responsible for all these deaths. “He found this really funny game for us to play… that was all him.”

That sort of playfulness seems nearly instinctual. “Once in a while a non-performer will come up with a killer line or know just how to play along.” Holmes has had people not believe that he doesn’t plan at least some of what happens. If the audience member is good, he’s heard people murmur about whether they were a plant. He also likes to use the suggestion in a very obvious way so that the audience can see it couldn’t be planned unless he was paying someone to sit there and yell it at him. “I’ll usually try to start something at first, at least to get us going… but I’ve started scenes later on where I’m just sitting there, letting my partner push us in a direction… I’m not plucking out improv geniuses or diamonds in the rough… It’s not a conspiracy, we’re just playing pretend.”

"Probably the strongest game improviser I know"

It’s said that one of most equally frustrating and complimentary things an improviser can hear after a show is that the audience doesn’t believe it’s made up. Recounting the recent m@& show in Baltimore, Harris attributes choice and openness as factors in making it seem so effortless. “Matt’s character choices not only drew the audience in, but led his scene partner out of his shell and into active participation… it was one of the highlights of the Baltimore Improv Festival.”

Nathan Edmondson and Alexis Simpson have been improvising with Holmes for the better part of a decade in their highly acclaimed group, Rare Bird Show. They’ve witnessed firsthand how easy he makes it to work with them. “Matt has (an) insane natural talent as an improviser and is a true student of comedy,” says Edmondson. Simpson agrees, “he’s like a wind up toy… just give him a word and let him go. He is probably the strongest game improviser I know.” They both feel comfortable and confident sharing scenes with him. Edmondson adds, “when you’re on stage with him, you can rest assured that the funny will happen.”

With any luck, we can rest assured that the funny will continue to happen. Holmes sees himself continuing this for some time. “It’s nice to have something that really challenges and excites me… I haven’t had any terrible, awful, shameful shows with this project.” He’s got a run of shows coming up here in Philly, and something tells me we’re likely to see him on the road again as well. “The show is just really easy to do while I’m visiting someplace, ’cause it’s just me… the audience is already there.”

Who knows who his next scene partner might be. “If an audience member can bring their 80-year-old grandmother or their 16-year-old cousin or their blind date and maybe see them up on stage in a comedy show, I think that’s an interesting night out.”

Agreed.

Advertisements

Comedian Profile: Andy Moskowitz

08/30/2010

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?

ANDY MOSKOWITZ

Might have seen him in: Fletcher, ComedySportz, Pasiónes de Pasiónes

Hangs his hat in: Fairmount

Stomping Grounds: Ardmore, PA

Pays the Bills as: Medical Copywriter

Other Hobbies: Film and film criticism, running, card tricks

Why Improv?

When I was a kid, I hated waiting for stuff. Crowded restaurants, amusement park lines — even the mail — were all torture for my impatient 8-year-old psyche. Hannukah was especially difficult, because the best presents were reserved for the final night. I had to endure seven nights of wax lips & gelt before I got the big one. And every year, my mom would tell me I had to learn to “delay gratification.”
Twenty years later, I’m still a kid and I still hate waiting. Improv is the instant gratification artform. You’re on stage, you get an idea, you spit it out, and the rewards are instantaneous. Improv is the last night of Hannukah. Or a VIP pass to Disney Land. Or the table reserved for the mafia at Buca di Beppo, even on a busy Friday night. See where I’m going with this?

See Andy in these upcoming Fringe Festival shows

Fletcher
9/3, 9/7 & 9/15 @ 8:30PM | 9/10 @ 11:30PM | 9/12 @ 5PM

Pasiónes de Pasiónes
9/5 @ 8:30PM | 9/10 & 9/18 @ 7PM

If you know someone who you think should be profiled, we’d love to hear about them.


Comedian Profile: Kristen Schier

08/27/2010

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?

KRISTEN SCHIER


Might have seen her in: the N Crowd, Fletcher, Real Housewives of Philadelphia, Ladies & Gentlemen or the Amie and Kristen Show

Hangs her hat in: West Philly

Stomping Grounds: Lived in Chardon, OH up to 4th grade (about 9 years or so). I went to Unionville High School, however, I have lived in Philly longer that I have lived anywhere else in my life

Pays the Bills as: Teacher/Actor – Yea that’s right, I am trying to make a living at this stuff

Other Hobbies: I love to play the ukelele (though I am not very good at it yet), karaoke (which you don’t have to be good at), dancing (I am VERY good at) and clowning (weeeee). I also love to go out to eat and I love to go shopping even though I don’t have any money. I like when there are a lot of people around. I am a social creature.

Why Improv?

Oohh geez, you had to ask that, didn’t you. I love to do improv because it is a big beautiful empty space to create theater and play with people. It is a place where I can take huge risks that have no real life consequences. I love improv because in ways to complicated to talk about now, I believe it makes you a better person. I love performing for people and making people laugh. I love collaborating with other people. It is probably the closest I will ever get to being a rockstar – unless I get a lot better at the uke.

See Kristen in these upcoming Fringe Festival shows

Fletcher
9/3, 9/7 & 9/15 @ 8:30PM | 9/10 @ 11:30PM | 9/12 @ 5PM

Punchline!
9/2 & 9/11 @ 8:30PM | 9/5 @ 5PM | 9/7 @ 7PM | 9/10 @ 10PM

Real Housewives of Philadelphia
9/3 & 9/16 @ 10PM | 9/6 @ 8PM

N Crowd
9/10 @ 8PM | 9/17 @ 8 & 10PM

If you know someone who you think should be profiled, we’d love to hear about them.


Improv stands tall in the Philly Fringe

07/23/2009

After years of saturating the Theatre category of the Philly Fringe Festival, it looks as though the annual fest is taking notice. LiveArts/Fringe has released their virtual guide, and it’s exciting to see an entire category dedicated to Comedy & Improv.

In addition, the PHILLY IMPROV THEATER has gone big this year, not only with their ambitious lineup of events (we’ll follow with more on this later), but even going so far as to take out the entire inside front cover of the Guide:

phitad

It’s nice to see such a strong mix of recognition and prominence at a huge mainstream event that draws international attention.


C-A-G-E-M-A-T-C-H

09/13/2007

Tonight marks the start of CAGEMATCH!

Two improv teams, one stage; two comedy sets, one winner. This is CAGEMATCH: the world’s most competitive longform improvisation tournament, visiting from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and hosted by PHIT. Philly’s best improv groups will perform 25 minutes head-to-head with the winner chosen by audience secret ballot.

Thursday, 9/13: Men About Town vs. Industrial
Friday, 9/14: BWP vs. Swapmeet
Saturday, 9/15: Traffic Jelly vs. Whipsuit

mushroom-cloud.jpg

Second Stage @ The Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street, 10pm
Tickets – $10


Philly Fringe Review – Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical

09/13/2007

Porn Classic Turned Off-Broadway Musical Tickles with Tongue-In-Cheek Raucous Comedy

Debbie Benson has a dream. As high school cheer captain, she wants nothing more than to become apart of the illustrious Dallas Cowgirls Cheerleading Team. Invited to come to Dallas, her dreams are within reach… but there’s a problem. Her parents think it a fruitless endeavor and won’t pay for the trip. And there we find Debbie; all assets and no cash. What’s a girl to do?

And so goes the plot of the ever-infamous porno, Debbie Does Dallas. And this was about all the info I had going into this show. I saw this listed quite some time ago as an upcoming Fringe show, and was intrigued. Did the writer have what it takes to merge the worlds of classic porn and musical theatre? After seeing this show last night, I can say with all confidence that Erica Schmidt and Susan L. Schwartz nailed it when they collaborated on this adaptation for the NYC Fringe Festival back in 2001. My applause go out to director Dawn Kalani Cowle, who made a smart move in bringing this show to Philly.

In what I can only hope is complete intentional irony, the delight of this year’s Philly Fringe is awkwardly nestled upstairs in Philadelphia’s only lesbian club – Sisters. Although the seating may prove difficult with sightlines, the actors make up for it with a quite literally in-your-face performance. I went with a friend and sat in the front row; which in my opinion, is the only way to see this show.

They’ve taken out the sex scenes and replaced them with ridiculously catchy, simple and always campy musical numbers. Still ringing in my head are “I Wanna Do Debbie” and “Dallas… I’m Coming”. Truth be told, I’ve already ordered the soundtrack this morning.

Senich takes on the title role and is instantly adorable. She hits just the right mix of naiveté and nudge-nudge playfulness that makes you root for her from start to, ahem, finish. Senich gives the strongest vocal performance of the ensemble, bubbling out playfully fun and ludicrous lyrics. There was a great moment when in realizing she can name the cost for sexual indiscretions, the audience cheered her on to raise her prices.

Cowle did a wonderful job with casting this production, particularly with the women. Although the men (Rory X. Donovan, John Greenbaum & Matthew Mastronardi) had a heavy hand in playing multiple roles – complete with Keanu Reeves inspired dialogue and Steven Tyler-esque musical numbers, it was the ladies that stole this show. Debbie’s cast of cheer co-conspirators was rounded out with the clichéd characteristics of stupid, nerdy, trampy and gay.

Taking up their friend’s cause, the girls are able to raise money by offering “Teen Services” to their respective employers. Each of the women really took their characters to heart. Lisa is played to a despicably slutty T by Mara Jill Herman. While not a particularly strong vocal performance, Herman is easily forgivable with the delivery of her saucy lyrics and Samuel Reyes graphically bold choreography. Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly puts forth what is easily the most honest and engaging performance of the night as Tammy, the closeted lesbian of the squad, who splits her time avoiding the “duties” her friends have taken on, pining after her friend Donna during stretching sessions and climbing her way into a position in the US Senate. Alex Keiper gives a delightful turn as the dizzyingly ditzy Donna. Utterly clueless to Tammy’s unrequited lust, Keiper is a complete joy to watch; giving the audience not only a seemingly endless parade of vapid expressions, but a cut-up musical number advocating the “educational implementation” of the common banana. Finally we come to Roberta, the geek whose libido climbs to insatiable heights once she finally gets a taste of flesh during the first of two locker room orgies. Kathryn M. Lyles owns Roberta in a strangely compelling way. While many actors can make themselves disappear into character, with the absurd and over-the-top energy on display here, it’s even more impressive and difficult to see where Lyles ends and Roberta begins.

I spent the evening covering my mouth and wiping away tears of laughter. Although the actual sex and nudity have been removed, this production leaves little to the imagination and is, as you might suppose, not for the prudish among you. But if you delight in the stripping down of societal taboos and love to laugh… this show is a hell of a way to spend an evening. And at $20 a ticket, it’s worth every bra-stuffed penny.

debbie1.jpg

PS – If you take me up on my suggestion for the front row, just beware of squirt guns and flying dildos.

Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical
Sisters Nightclub | 1320 Chancellor Street
Remaining Showtimes: 9/13, 14 & 15 @ 7:30pm
Runtime: 90 minutes | Tickets: $20


Interdisciplinary Shows at the Fringe Festival

08/30/2007

Alright… we know what’s going on with improv. We’re up to date on sketch. So what about those things that don’t fit neatly into a category?? Well, here we go…

The Cardboard Box Collective: Speed the Muse

Five playwrights have agreed to put their muses under pressure and in one day, using only the resources that are given to them, emerge triumphant with a finalized work ready for performance the following evening. Can they best the clock and speed their muse? Only time, or the lack thereof, will tell.

Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street | $15
9/9 @ 9:30pm

___________________________________________ 

Creative Mindworks: Religion is Retarded

Comedy with a point! Join Jesus and other socially relevant characters for a unique blend of multimedia, improvisation, short films, and characterbased comedy. Just back from sold-out shows at festivals in Dublin and Montreal, this show is fast, funny, and NOT for the easily offended.

Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Avenue | $15
9/4 & 9/7 @ 5:30pm, 9/5 & 9/9 @ 8:00pm, 9/6 & 9/7 @ 5:00pm