Improv comedy is as unpredictable as a gunning stock-car engine. Full of verbal danger, it’s performance for those who like an edgy race to the finish line and the risk of a crash. And if improv is the NASCAR of stage performance, then local troupe SponComshort for Spontaneous Combustionoffers one of the best mind races in town.
When SponCom members Carolyn German, Matt Carlton, Brian Mathis, and Ray Thornton get onstage, their performances become experiments in risk-taking. And in the voyeuristic, thrill-seeking entertainment world of Hard Copy and ESPN2, the opportunity to witness potential disaster is a ticket buyer’s right.
“I think the audience is refreshed to see something live [and] fresh happening,” German says.
“Dangerous,” Carlton adds.
“It’s like NASCAR or tightrope walking...it’s that little bit of pressure,” Mathis says.
“An air show,” Carlton adds.
“ ‘Ohit’s gonna happen now,’ that kind of thing,” Thornton says. Then he stops the serious train of thought before it goes too far. “Because any moment, Matt’s pants might fall off. That’s what we deal with a lot.”
Conducting a conversation with SponCom is like standing in the middle of a wreck in progress. Ideas, gags, bits, whole sketches smash and screech and entangle in the space of one uncontrollable moment. Emerging from the bent and twisted wordplay is a dada poem waiting to be interpreted. But rather than analysis, the members of SponCom prefer to indulge their dadaist tendencies with talk about kielbasa, Jim Nabors’ macadamia nuts, and a plot to Save Jack by converting it into a combination Walgreen/apartment complex, run by a pharmacist super. No tangent is wasted, especially when it can be turned into a Borscht Belt routine.
“Words with a ‘K’that’s funny. ‘Kaaaa.’ ”
“ ‘Kaaaa’ is not funnyI’ve told you for the 11th time. Eleven is funny.”
“Chicken-chicken is funny.”
“Hen is not.”
“Kielbasa is very funny.”
“It’s a ‘K’ and a sausage!”
“Sausage is always funny.”
But the members of SponCom are fully aware that audiences aren’t drawn to improv simply because of its anything-goes, unhinged spirit. People want to see crashes, explosions. “Why does NASCAR work?” Mathis asks. “Because they want to be there.”
It can make for a tough crowd at times. As German points out, a few of the people who come to their shows are “the same people who come to NASCAR really just to see the car crashthe people who sit in the back of the house and throw out...things that aren’t just odd”
“Wesson oil container,” Thornton suggests.
“Molotov cocktail,” Mathis adds.
“They’re trying to snag you up,” German continues. “[But] we don’t get snagged, because that’s the nature of what we do: take anything and run with it. But it’s almost like they keep the rest of the audience out.”
“I think it’s the tone of how you do it,” Carlton offers generously.
“Try this!” German says in a vicious Bette Davis voice.
“ ‘Yeah!’ ” Carlton bellows, in the role of heckler as Shakespearean fool. “ ‘[Do] a one-armed Lutheran...alchemist who could only see out of his ear!’ ”
A SponCom performance is shot through with an intense inventiveness applied to the most mundane objects and situations. To see their extemporaneous musical “Blue Skies and Chickens,” or to hear their lounge hit “Wanda Wears a Toupee,” is to understand what egoless give-and-take can create. Their shows are all different, subject to the feel of the night, the audience’s mood, and whatever washes through the SponCom stream of consciousness.
But the outward mayhem of improv belies a structure of sorts. And structure makes peopleperformers and audience alikebreathe a little easier. It’s easier to face an oncoming crash when you know who’s driving.
“The key to making crashes fun is that we can get out with a laugh too...and that way it’s less scary for us,” German says.
“It’s a way of letting the audience know that we know we’re crashing,” Thornton agrees. “It’s scary for the audience if they think, ‘They don’t know they’re dying!’... They want you to do well.”
“Knowing the genre...makes the audience feel safe,” German adds. “It’s a very loose world we live in.”
SponCom’s collective experience and confidence have much to do with the audience’s willingness to go alongand with the group’s success at winging it. All have done the requisite acting training/residency in New York, and Carlton, German, and Thornton each have nearly 20 years’ experience in music, stage, film, and television. Mathis originally came to Nashville to act in a show at Opryland and at one point formed a country band.
SponCom was born when German asked her three colleagues to help with segues for an Art Extravaganza theater performance she was directing. They had never acted as a group, and their rehearsal consisted of a short consultation before curtain. Their idea: have the audience fill a portable toilet with the worst play titles in the world. Drawing from this toilet, SponCom would perform an extemporaneous musical.
“The first one we did was...horrid,” Thornton remembers. “Then as the night went on..., whoever was the first to the [title] would decide the act. What we found was that we must be the first one to grab” All four burst out laughing at the memory of scrambling over each other onstage to reach the portable toilet.
Their energy together made an impression. Realizing what could happen with some rehearsal and prepared material, SponCom went on to perform sketches, spoof commercials, and improv at Darkhorse Theater. These days, they currently perform “The Full Improv,” a 90-minute all-improv show, in venues ranging from Bluebird Cafe to Bongo After Hours Theatera testament to the growing popularity of improv comedy on the local scene.
But bigger, edgier projects are in store. SponCom recently completed an improv radio-show pilot, which they hope to syndicate; it’s an unusual idea that works because of the group’s ability to create memorable voice characterizations. They’re also considering a live show of extended sketches, half-hour improvisations based on a one-word suggestiona structure closer to improv’s roots in the brilliant anarchy of The Compass troupe and Nichols and May.
“Our plans are not just to stay in Nashville,” Carlton says. “The people who will come to see comedy improv might only come once a month. So we’re now working on expanding our market and trying to work other venues around the country.”
Listening to the SponCom members over the phone as they gather to rehearseaccompanied by a package of sandwich cookiesit’s clear that improv is an attitude. Objects and situations are plucked from the temporal and reflected back: truer, more absurd, altered forever. Ray Thornton narrates the usual chaos:
“Right now everybody’s doing Hydrox cookie impressions. Brian stuck one on his cheek and said, ‘Cindy Crawford.’ Carolyn started putting one in the middle of her forehead and said, ‘John F. Kennedy.’ Brian put one on the back of his head and said, ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ Now Matt’s got one on his trachea, and he’s saying, ‘Yul Brynner!’ ”
At least in improv, crashing can be fun.
SponCom performs the first Tuesday of each month through September at Bluebird Café.
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