Shooting From the Hip 

Nashville troupes discover the legacy and lure of improv comedy

Nashville troupes discover the legacy and lure of improv comedy

Carl Sandburg’s Chicago has changed a lot since the great American poet characterized the town as “Hog Butcher for the World.” They don’t do much butchering there anymore—unless it’s the Cubs trying to turn a double play or the Bears trying to score in the red zone. No, it’s a fully cosmopolitan city, replete with diverse, five-star restaurants, monied inner-city gentrification, and a thriving, high-tech business culture.

Chicago also has an interesting artistic life, as you might expect from a metropolitan area of 7 million people. And when it comes to live comedy, though New York and L.A. can claim to be the hotbeds of stand-up, it is Chicago where improv is, and has long been, king. These roots are deep, best evidenced by The Second City and its ongoing legacy; the comedy collective, which started humbly enough 42 years ago as an outgrowth of performance ideas put forth by some bright young students at the University of Chicago, has birthed such major talents as John Belushi, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and Chris Farley, to name but a few. Over time, The Second City’s impact—like its alumni—has spread beyond Chicago, thanks to a national touring company; outpost theaters in Detroit, Toronto, and Las Vegas; and a teaching program that holds a virtual monopoly on improv education.

Clearly, The Second City is huge. But they’re not the only game in town anymore. Currently, there are no less than 24 improv-based productions going on in Chicago, proof that the city has become a magnet for people who want to be funny—and maybe even make a living doing it—and proof that improv comedy is as popular as ever. Further evidence is the weeklong Chicago Improv Festival (CIF), now in its fourth year, which concluded on May 6 in the Windy City. At this year’s festival, five different venues hosted dozens of improv events, including seminars with execs and directors, master classes with veteran teachers, performances from nationally known comic troupes (e.g., Upright Citizens Brigade), and the infamous “Improv ’til Dawn,” which, for a mere $5, affords the viewer a glimpse of the performing styles of about 30 groups from all over the nation.

Indeed, the art of improvisational comedy has gained nationwide interest—witness the success of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a primetime television program dedicated to improv and featuring former Second City players Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie—and Nashville is no exception. One Hand Clapping, a group that would have to be considered this city’s most recognizable improv force, made a brief appearance at the 2000 CIF; they’re among three Nashville companies that have legitimate aspirations in the comedy arena, and for whom improvisation is the key element.

Originally founded as a series of workshops in 1995 by Sheryl Berdux Bryant, One Hand Clapping (OHC) performed for the better part of last year at Abstract Cafe, and now has an ongoing Friday night gig at Bongo After Hours Theatre. Winner of the Nashville Scene Best of Nashville 2001 Reader’s Poll for Best Performing Arts Group, OHC is gathering a devoted following, as evidenced by a recent packed—and undeniably enthusiastic—house at Bongo.

“Obviously, we’re filling some need that Nashvillians are recognizing,” says Marshall Stern, a performer with OHC since 1997 and the group’s artistic director. “I believe it is due to the democratic nature of our art form. We are a reflection of our audiences. Every show is a cooperative effort between the actors and the audience. I see people leaving our shows with huge smiles and laughter and a sense that they, too, could do what we do. I think we are like a humor virus. People leave our shows wanting to be funny and make others laugh. What more important need could there be to fulfill than to spread laughter?”

With the assistance of a locally generated Ruth Sweet Scholarship grant, Stern completed training last year at the Players Workshop of Second City. A solid actor as well—having recently gained favorable notice in ACT I’s production of Biloxi Blues—Stern conducts improv classes at Nashville State Tech. Through this program, he has been able to enlist six students into the regular OHC cast of 11, including company managing director Robert Saunders, who will also use a Ruth Sweet Scholarship this summer to learn more about his craft in Chicago.

“Four years ago I had a dream which led me to join OHC,” Stern says. “At that time it was not a very consistent troupe, and it has taken some fighting, teaching, and luck to help turn it into the beautiful thing that it is. For me, good improv is as close as art gets to the divine. It requires courage and a complete faith in something higher, as well as trust of your fellow actors. OHC is filled with very courageous and dedicated people.”

The regular cast—besides Stern and Saunders—includes Ann Collett, Jessica Dauphin, Joann Dunkle, Stevo Garges, Collier Goodlett, Lori Leigh, Justin McDonald, Elysha Nichols, and Jesse Robinson. They are an eclectic mix of ages and backgrounds. The troupe also has six “featured players” who come and go, including local actress Carla Coble and well-known songwriter Jim Photoglo. OHC’s musical director is Chris Dauphin—Jessica’s better half—who possesses excellent keyboard skills and a growing awareness of the important role music plays in supporting and enhancing the comedy.

Stern expects OHC to continue to build upon its recent success. “We are currently working on a cable-access TV show that will see us doing more improv-based sketch writing. We will also expand into producing other improv-based shows such as MUSICAL! The Musical, a 90-minute improvised Broadway-style musical. And Chaffin’s Barn has expressed interest in having its own improv troupe that could heavily feature OHC.”

Meanwhile, a promising new development on the Nashville improv scene has been the emergence of The Skeleton Crew, which recently took up residence Tuesday nights at Zanies Comedy Showplace on Eighth Avenue South. The brainchild of comedienne Dawna Kinne—a former New York City stand-up herself with national exposure—The Skeleton Crew is still learning, but it has a core group of performers who definitely have what it takes to do improv right.

“The Skeleton Crew is amazing,” says Kinne. “We’ve only been together a short time, but we’re doing so well already. I see really great things for this troupe. I am already envisioning touring and doing workshops in the major markets. We would like to incorporate sketch comedy into what we are doing as well.”

With Kinne serving as a kind of moderator of the proceedings, the troupe offers about 10 different scenes based on classic improv ideas. They execute the standard curriculum well enough—with variations on “games” like “Switch,” “Machine,” “Party Quirks,” and musical improv that are designed to spur impromptu actions from the performers.

“I think improv comedy is the thinking man’s comedy,” says Kinne. “It’s high-energy fun, and it’s interactive. Nashville audiences seem to love to heckle, and improv comedy encourages you to shout your ideas out. We invite you to speak up. Actually, we demand it. We do a laughs-per-minute, edgier version of improv more appropriate to the comedy-club customer. I think Nashvillians are ready for improv because they are ready to experiment with what else is out there. Nashville is becoming more eclectic in its entertainment taste.”

Including alternates, The Skeleton Crew counts 11 total performers, with four in particular—Patrick Kramer, Jesse Perry, Jayne Salters, and OHC’s Stern (who moonlights)—presently combining the more obvious and necessary personality, wit, and performing skills to launch and sustain a comic scene.

As a nod in the direction of Zanies’ stand-up mission, Kinne opens the improv set with a solo routine, which is smart and funny. “I have found improv to be a great tool to enhance my performances,” she says. “It frees up my thinking for writing my material and helps me to be faster on my feet.”

It’s no accident that Kinne has situated her company at Zanies, a “chain” comedy club. “I thought Zanies really needed an improv night,” she says, “because it would give audiences a variety of humor to choose from, but also because of [Zanies’] reputation for quality comedy. Owner Brian Dorfman and I discussed it a few times and he finally said, ‘OK, let’s do it—you direct and produce and you can use Zanies.’ Now, when the players grasp a concept, it is really rewarding. It’s the mom in me. I love to nurture things along and see them grow.”

Adds Kinne with a smile, “I refuse, however, to breast-feed the troupe.” Then deadpan: “Some of them have asked....”

Not to be outdone in this burgeoning Nashville comedy scene is Tri-Color Shag. Since 1999, this stalwart company of four has been doing a unique blend of improv and sketch comedy, usually at The Sutler, but more recently in a new home on Eighth Avenue South called The Basement.

The new venue has the feel of a charming old Merseyside cavern. There, Michael Campbell, Jackie Chancey, Dana Fischer, and Gary Kraen elicit unabashed laughter with their rare blend of scripted and improvised humor, all of which has the feel of British music-hall comedy, but is also dotted with some multimedia performance via prerecorded videotape.

The troupe offers more than a dozen humorous scenes, ranging from delightful “pimps” of the Queen Mother to satirical takes on VH1’s Behind the Music series. They also skewer the American social scene, country music, and ESPN’s cheerleading competition broadcasts, among other targets. There is little that is beyond the scope of Tri-Color Shag’s humor, and the character work of Campbell and Fischer in particular is noteworthy, not only because it is so over-the-top but because it’s so darn funny.

Improv comedy is reliant on audience suggestions to maintain spontaneity and surprise. Inevitably, Nashville audiences are like audiences everywhere: Their suggestions are commonly relegated to bodily functions, sex, body parts, and more sex. This isn’t a surprise. Indeed, even at Second City on a Saturday night, typical audience suggestions can tend toward the blue. Moving beyond the quick laugh, however, and toward humor that is more stimulating—for performers and ultimately the audience—is a goal of maturing improvisers. This city’s developing talents are no exception, as they push themselves to be better practitioners of their art.

“We struggle with the stereotypes of improvisation in various ways,” OHC’s Saunders says. “As a performer, it’s easy to give the audience what they expect. It’s easy to give them a stereotype, like disgruntled postal worker or frat boy. It’s harder to give people what they don’t expect, what they couldn’t have imagined happening before they heard the suggestion. What makes it a challenge is that people usually will laugh even at the most blatantly stereotypical characters. We work very diligently to condition ourselves to dig a little deeper. We may not always get there, but we are getting there.”

So, the next time you’re watching The Skeleton Crew, One Hand Clapping, or Tri-Color Shag and they ask for a suggestion about a character’s occupation, say anything but “proctologist.” The results will be funnier and headier than you think.

For additional information, visit One Hand Clapping’s Web site at www.onehandclapping.net; visit The Skeleton Crew’s Web site at http://members.home.com/chadmriden/skeletoncrew; or contact Tri-Color Shag at 254-1604.

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