In our ongoing feature revisiting the archives of PhillyImprov.com, we take a look back at the stories that make up our past here in Philadelphia’s improv scene. It’s great to see how some things can change so much, and others seemingly never do.
Spotlight on: Rare Bird Show
Contributed by: Matt Nelson
Originally published: January, 2006
One of Philadelphia’s premiere longform groups chats with PhillyImprov:
The Rare Bird Show is quickly becoming one of Philadelphia ‘s most reliable and highly demanded improv groups. The group combines clever and innovative ideas with a raw, natural talent for comedic timing. The format and competence in which they present their improv makes their shows incredibly versatile, and they are counted amongst the community as one of the more consistent groups in the area.
In addition to their combined skills, each member is individually passionate about sharing their art:
– Matt Holmes is a staff instructor for the Philadelphia Improv Theater (PHIT) and regularly conducts workshops and classes, sharing his experience and skills with people of all ages and backgrounds. He is also one half of the longform duo, Holmes & Maughan. [Ed Note: Matt’s information remains the same]
– Alexis Simpson is heavily involved in many non-profit projects which promote not only improvisational comedy, but varying arts programs. She is a board member and organizer of the Philadelphia Improv Festival (PHIF). She is an instructor for PHIT, a member of ComedySportz and Hypnotoad and also coaches other improv groups. [Ed Note: Alexis continues ComedySportz, and is now the Education Director for PHIT and is a member of Illegal Refill. Although not officially disbanded, Hypnotoad has not performed in over a year.]
– Nathan Edmondson is also a board member and organizer for PHIF and a member of Hypnotoad. In addition to coaching for PHIT, he has also been tapped as coach for Philadelphia ‘s first longform tragedy group, HellBaby. [Ed Note: HellBaby disbanded in early 2007]
All three are actively involved in the promotion of improv groups across the region, and creating collaborative projects that merge improvisers, comedy and community awareness.
PI: How do you feel about the progress that Philadelphia has made in making a name for itself in the improv world?
NE: I feel great about the progress that Philly has made in the last year or two in making Philly Improv known to outsiders. F. Harold was a great way to bring attention to the local improv scene to Philadelphians and the Philly Improv Festival was a tremendous success bringing in groups from New York , Chicago , North Carolina and some other places that I forget. The real success of the festival was the feedback we received from other improvisers. They were impressed at how smoothly and efficiently our festival ran considering that it was our first festival. They also were witness to the talent that exists here, as well as the enthusiasm that Philadelphian performers maintain for Improv.
MH: Three years ago, when I graduated from college and was looking for improv, I found only a few groups and none of them really fit me. You have to pay homage to those groups that were doing improv for years; ComedySportz, Lunchlady Doris, Polywumpus, etc. Now there are several groups, a lot of communication and collaboration among the groups, and a growing community doing a lot of interesting things. I think someone looking now is much better off than I was. There are a lot of different kinds of improv for different audiences and a lot of new people getting involved.
AS: It’s pretty fucking sweet.
PI: What could the local scene do to increase its audience base?
NE: I don’t think there are any quick fixes… Advertising and promoting shows is important. Offering interesting events instead of just “improv show”… Play with themes for shows or nights, mix it up… See Mike McFarland … happy hour improv is a good idea, so is dressing your group up like inmates in orange jumpsuits.
AS: Be brave and awesome!
MH: All Philly needs to do is keep putting on the best possible improv shows and never stop trying to perfect their craft. If people see a really good show, they’ll want to see more and bring their friends. A dedicated improv theater would be good, too.
PI: How does Rare Bird Show fit here? Is there something unique the group brings to the table?
NE: I think every group brings something unique to their shows that differentiates them from other groups out there. All three of us have strong performing backgrounds that are pretty different from one another; and as a result, we approach improv in different ways which benefits the group as a whole. I think we all hold a high standard for our work so we’re always pushing to improve… We see how we compare to the greats out there, would like to get there; but we also see where we stand compared to our first day and appreciate our development thus far. I don’t necessarily think that any of that is unique to the Rare Bird Show, but I think it helps us stay humble enough to know we still have a lot of work to do and that we might not always know what the solutions are. Man, once you think you know something, that’s when you spend several rehearsals and a show making stupid, remedial fuck ups.
AS: If your intention is to create the best work, it is a bad idea to stay in your own small world and be satisfied… To risk failure is to know brilliance.
MH: I think that we try not to restrict ourselves.
NE: How do we fit here? Pretty easily, three people don’t take up much space.
PI: At one of your recent shows, I witnessed a wonderful moment of agreement when a game of tug over a chair turned into a giant Ouija board. It was a beautiful example of organic discovery of a physical environment.
AS: That was my favorite part of the show.
PI: Do you think this kind of discovery lends itself more to establishing a stronger foundation for scene work?
AS: YES… organic shit is awesome and a fundamental part of scene work!
NE: The lesson… was trusting that the answer will arrive…trusting your scene partners… committing to whatever the fuck is happening on stage. Man-handling the work can often keep the genius moments from happening that come out of nowhere and are little, surprise gifts. I remember thinking…”shit, we’re just fighting over a chair …who’s gonna get it?” But I knew that was a very simple way of looking at what was happening. No one said anything for a second and a more interesting thought occurred to Alexis I think….”S” From there, we all just agreed and once we had a few letters, we had a word. From there, it was just important to react honestly to how you felt about that happening as your character of course, Stalin’s name being written on a Giant Ouija Board.
MH: We go wherever the scene takes us.
PI: Can you think of some other “untypical” ways you like to explore characters and environments?
MH: When Ryan Locante, from Dirty South Improv, asked us to describe our personal improv styles in one word, and Alexis blurted out Robot, Pirate, Ninja. I was surprised at how astute that observation was. It was so true that we included it in our Fringe Festival show description. I’m the robot; very methodical, almost like I’m trying to find a code for funny. Alexis is the pirate; she attacks the scene and smuggles the funny out. Nathan is the ninja; he’ll stealthily go in and surprise you with something amazing. I think one of the great things about Rare Bird Show is the combination of three different kinds of energies.
PI: Can you each give me one word that best describes a great improviser?