When he’s not logging hours as Philly Improv Theater‘s Education Director or piddlin’ away time on conversations with comedy unknowns like Rich Talarico (improviser and writer who’s worked on a bunch of stuff no one’s ever heard of like Saturday Night Live) and Greg Proops (from another show no one’s ever heard of, Whose Line is it Anyway?) for his Gettin Close with Mike Marbach podcast, Mike Marbach‘s other regular gig is producing The Sideshow at The Arts Parlor. We sat down before Mike had to coach a practice for PHIT house team Asteroid (yep, he does that, too) to talk about what goes into producing a successful comedy showcase, and what’s next for Sideshow this season.
Alison Zeidman: How did Sideshow start? Give me the origin story.
Mike Marbach: I [originally] wanted to do it in Chicago. In Chicago I was part of a group called Club Group Team, and we did a form that was very organic, very much like ZaoGao does now, a form called Punchline. And then there was also this form that somebody would do called Kumate, which was an improvised martial arts thing, and then what I wanted to do was have a revolving third spot, which would be something else that was completely different. It wasn’t picked up. So, when I moved to Philly, I still had the idea in mind and because PHIT only has The Shubin two weeks out of every month, and I wanted something to fill that space, because I teach a lot, and I had a lot of students in classes that weren’t seeing shows. There would be some weeks where there were zero improv shows to see, and I hated that. So that’s one of the main reasons I started Sideshow, just to fill the in the gaps between PHIT weeks, so there would be at least one improv show to see each week.
AZ: But the idea is that it’s its own entitity, too, right? It’s not just something to do because you can’t go to PHIT?
MM: Right. It’s not an extension of PHIT. Your [free student] pass is no good at Sideshow. Because one of the other reasons I started it is that I wanted to have a low-cost place that allowed me to just give the money back. I don’t make anything from doing Sideshow. The Arts Parlor costs very little to rent, and then any money above that goes right back to the performers, so it’s pretty much whoever they can get to come out, because I don’t do much in the way of advertising. Actually I didn’t used to, now I’m starting to do a little bit more, becuase of course the more people that come to the show, the more money the performers make.
AZ: So are those the primary goals? More opportunities to be able to see comedy and see improv, and also more opportunities for performers to make a profit?
MM: Yeah, and there’s a few other things to it too. There were groups that were popping up and premiering their act at places like CAGEMATCH or a festival, like the Philly Improv Festival or F Harold Festival or Duofest, and that’s cool and all, but if I was improvising in those gorups I would definitely not want my first show to be in a high-pressure environment such as a festival. I’d much rather do it in a more controlled, fun, supportive environment—not to say that those aren’t, but I mean, you can pack this place with as many people as you want, with your friends, with your family, and you have a lot less control like that at other shows.
AZ: So people can use it as a testing ground.
MM: Yeah. And that was one of the main ideas especially at the start, definitely more experimental. I really envisioned it just being more of a show for performers, rather than a show for anybody else. I didn’t think it would grow the improv scene by any means, I just wanted a place where people could cut loose and do something that was different. Then that started growing pretty fast.
AZ: Have you ever had to turn someone down, if they pitched an act and it was just too weird?
MM: No, nobody’s ever been turned down. People have been postponed, because [it’s become very popular], but I’ve never turned anybody down for it.
AZ: Since it’s an extension of the improv scene and a place to see more performances but also a place for people to workshop things, who would you say is the primary audience? Is it more insular, or open to the general public?
MM: At first the main idea was that it would definitely be an insular show for performers, but even after the first show I quickly learned that that wasn’t really the case. Maybe because of the fact that it all comes down to the money of things, that people know that the more people they bring to the show the more money they walk away with. But we definitely do get a lot of performers too, because as friends of each other we love seeing people step out of their comfort zones and do things that they don’t normally do, or be in a space that they’re not normally in.
AZ: Yeah it’s interesting, whenever I’ve come to a Sideshow it’s always been really packed, even though you’re saying historically you haven’t done too much marketing for it. But you said you’re starting to try to do some more of your own promoting, instead of just leaving it to the performers?
MM: I could, but I kind of like leaving it to the people. I mean I produce the show, and I book the acts with the help of the guys from Beirdo, but it started off mostly just people that were in the shows doing the publicizing, and it kind of remains that way. I like the producing of it, the booking, but beyond that I don’t really want to have that much to do with it. I don’t know, it’s done well so far without me pushing anything: We’ve gotten the attention of different papers, different online blogs and things like that, and we’ve been able to do partnerships with Troika that have been really successful…plus, there’s only so many chairs.
AZ: Can you talk a little more about what really goes into putting on your own show? What you’ve learned, or maybe what advice you might give to somebody who wanted to start their own thing?
MM: Find a place that’s cheap enough, because there may be nights when you’re not going to make the rent. Don’t pick a place where you’re going to consistently lose money—and that’s where the Parlor’s been fantastic.
AZ: How did you find this place?
MM: Asteroid has practiced here weekly for about two years, and there was a group I used to coach called Leo Callahan who used to do shows here about once a month before they split, so I just kind of picked it up after they were done. Um…what else…ask admission. Ask people to pay for your shows. Free shows are cool, but I really feel that what we do has value, and maybe I’m only putting the value of $5 on it, but that’s also because I want it to be super accessible. Plus it fits the space. This isn’t a theater; this is a converted, sweaty dance studio. And really think about what kind of show you ‘re trying to put on. Think about if you want to do a variety show, or if you really just want to do an improv show. And vary up the acts within that as well. On Sideshow I’m not going to book three duos in a row, not just because duos can bring in less people—that’s one of the reasons, sure—but also because I wouldn’t want to sit and watch three duos in a row. And just make sure it’s a good show, make sure it looks good. People that know me know that I’m very big on dress code. I’m not asking people to wear suits and ties when they come to a Sideshow show, but I want them to step up, I guess. Make it a production, just raise the production value. I have to do whatever I can do because of the fact that this is a sweaty dance studio, so I want to make sure that that atmosphere of a show overtakes the crappiness of the space.
AZ: Do you have any tips for somebody else who might be dealing with a crappy space? Does that come in with lighting, or hosting, or…?
MM: Yeah, hosting is huge. Make sure people can host. I’m not a good host, which is part of the reason why I don’t want to be up there. And look at what you can do with the space. If you can clean it up, clean it up. If you can flip some things around and make it so you can control the lights, do that. When they were doing shows in here before, there were no blackouts, everybody ended their own shows. I’m very big on light pulls, when I’m doing a show, [because] my sense of timing in a show is not good, and I don’t want to have that worry. So do what you can do with the space that way, as well.
AZ: What do you mean? Did you guys get the circuits moved or something?
MM: [Laughs] No, we just moved the space. Like when you look into the room, where the curtains are [on the side], that’s anticipated as the stage. And they have like six lighting switches on the far back wall [on the same side as the curtains], so we changed it so that when you walk in, all the chairs are facing the front [and then we have access to the light switches]. And I block the windows during the summer so that the sun doesn’t come in, and I have just the front two lights on. It’s a very cheap way to go about doing it, but when you walk in you wouldn’t really know that it’s a cheap way to go about doing it, you’re not thinking about it, it just looks better than it really is.
AZ: So you said you’re trying to be hands-off with marketing and not really trying to make the show appeal to outside audiences, but it does seem like there’s a lot of thought and professionalism being put into this. Is that just because this is the way you want your show and these are your personal standards, or do you feel at any level that you have to compete with what else is out there?
MM: No, I’m not really trying to compete at all. It’s just something that kind of now has…it’s just kind of associated with me, so I just want it to be as good as it can be. When I say I’m hands-off for the most part, that’s the night of. But leading up to that I do everything I can to make sure the show is going to be good. And even though I say I don’t really do any marketing stuff I do make all the Facebook pages, and I contact different news people out there from time to time to try and get some things, but beyond that, not too much more.
AZ: We already covered this a little bit with the mission of the show and the benefits it has for performers, but is there anything you feel sets Sideshow apart from other shows in the city, even if you’re not necessarily trying to compete with them? Something that’s just a different element that you have, from the audience’s viewpoint?
MM: It’s going to be a well-balanced show. You’re going to see at least three different acts, whether that’s a stand-up, a sketch and an improv group, or three very different improv groups, you’re going to get a good sampling of comdy that night. There’s going to be something that you like. And it’s just the atmosphere in that room, in that sweaty dance studio, when it becomes Sideshow, which is so extremely supportive of people. We’ve had different teams debut there, we’ve had teams debut new forms there, and the mood is just kind of electric.
AZ: And where did the name come from? There are a lot of things that I could guess contributed to it, but is there an official backstory?
MM: Well, the original main idea was to show acts that you weren’t really going to see anywhere else, lots of new or weird things, almost like a carnival sideshow. People doing things they wouldn’t normally do, types of improv you wouldn’t normally see. Just weird concept things that people just wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, that maybe aren’t quite right for PHIT.
AZ: Do you have an example?
MM: A lot of the Troika stuff. Troika in general—a lot of those things tend to be more concept-heavy, so that turned out to be perfect for Sideshow. So yes, it just goes back to seeing weird and different things. Which I’m still looking for. It’s not necessarily the prime directive anymore, so much as just giving people just another space to perform, and just making sure there’s a show once a week. We’ve been on a long hiatus because I also don’t want to take away from any shows that are happening. So when F Harold was going on I canceled a show, then PHIT had six weeks of shows, then we had Duofest, then more PHIT weeks, but now we’re back. And we’ve got the show this Saturday which I’m calling Short Attention Span Theater. You get up to 15 minutes to do whatever the hell you want to do. If you want to spin plates you can spin plates. If you always wanted to do a one-person improv set, or attempt stand-up, sing a song, whatever people want to do, they can do it.
AZ: What do you have scheduled as of right now?
MM: Right now it’s a little improv-heavy. I’m reaching out trying to get people to really vary up what we’re doing, to make sure we have some of that balance I was talking so much about.
AZ: From purely a producer’s standpoint, other than just scrambilng to fill in more acts right now, has there been any big challenge, or something that went wrong, that was a good learning experience? Or just a fun disaster story?
MM: Um, hm….not really. I guess I’ve been kind of lucky with things. It’s a very well-liked show, and there haven’t really been any problems.
AZ: How about any favorite moments?
MM: I’ve seen a lot of teams have their best shows here, which is awesome to be able to say.
AZ: Do you think that comes from the low-pressure environment?
MM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely one of the reasons, plus they get a crowd that’s full of people that they are bringing, so it’s all people who are there to support them. One of the days, if I remember the date exactly, it was November 18th, 2011—
Luke Field [coming in for Asteroid rehearsal]: Never forget.
MM: Yes, never forget. Iron Lung was debuting, there was the team Bed Savage having their first show, Get a Room also performed, and I think maybe Kristen [Schier] was doing some clowning. And there were about 100 or so people, and each team walked away with $85, and that was just the icing on the cake, because each team had awesome shows, in front of a fantastic crowd. So that was one of my favorite moments. Plus all of Troika, and I’m sure this Saturday and all of the rest that we’ll have will also be favorite moments.
AZ: Anything new that you’re planning for this season? It sounds like you’re really trying to push people to experiment.
MM: Yeah. We did a one-act play, Hidden in This Picture, which I directed last year, and this year I want to get some plays written by Philly people. That one was written by Aaron Sorkin, but I want to get some more original stuff so that we put on plays that were written, directed and performed by Philly comedians. So that’s one big goal this year to finally make happen, and also just to continue to put on some well-balanced shows and watch people continue to learn and grow. And to do whatever I can to keep Luke Field out of here.
LF: Did you get that on tape? He’s out to get me.
Look for updates on The Sideshow at http://www.facebook.com/#!/SideShowImprov and see the first show of the season TONIGHT (July 14th) at The Arts Parlor, 1170 South Broad Street (at Federal Street). As always, the show is just $5.