by Brandon Ryan
Afterward, the dispersed crowd mills about on the sidewalk in tightly held clots, their winter coats zipped against the night’s breeze, crisp & autumnal & smelling of fallen leaves, beneath a night sky so low-slung as to be steeped a sickly orange by the street lights tacking the length of Bainbridge. The women of ManiPedi are one-by-one trickling from the Philly Improv Theater onto Leithgow Street. They emerge each with props from their just finished show. The shotgun. The stroller. The Collected Works of Shakespeare. Each played a unique role in tying together the night’s performance, an affair perhaps best described as a kind of exceedingly well-written & engaging riot of wit. From the Fairy Godmother whose whimsically woven promises prove wayward at best to the Hostage Negotiator whose tactics prove tactless, the women of ManiPedi show themselves a group of writers & performers thinking far outside the Black Box.
ManiPedi, whose members include Shannon Brown, Briana Kelly, Madonna Marie, Kaitlin Thompson, & Aubrie Williams, spoke with me beneath the awning of a nearby dentist’s office, we all being allured by the presence of both a well-placed bench & the city block’s single reasonable light source, to discuss the group’s formation, their writing process & hopes, and how one year ago they never expected any of this.
Brandon Ryan: How long has ManiPedi been together?
Madonna: We’ve been together for just over a year. We started in 2011 in late August. A friend asked me about performing at Camp Tabu, a monthly comedy show they were holding at Tabu Lounge on South 12th Street. I was in the sketch group Camp Woods at the time, but Tabu was set up as an all female-comedian show. I met Shannon through one of the performers in Camp Woods, and in July had met Kate at one of Philly Improv Theater’s SketchUp! events. Briana and I met at a Sketch 101 class, and then Aubrey joined later that fall.
Brandon Ryan: These live performances seem from the audience’s vantage a kind of decidedly difficult talent to master or even get comfortable with. Do you still get nervous before performances?
Shannon: We all have backgrounds in improv, so when it comes to the sketches that we do, there’s a kind of confidence in the writing. I mean, for me, there is some level of nerves before I perform, but we also as a group try to meet twice each week to rehearse and to write, and so there’s also a kind of confidence and trust in one another from spending that time together. Plus, how we write, we wouldn’t put a sketch out there if we didn’t think it was ready.
Kaitlin: I get nervous before shows. But it’s more just that involuntary physical reaction—I feel my stomach start to knot. I still, though, know that I can be confident in the other members, just because we practice so much. I think for me it’s more the idea of being in front of people. I remember, though, that improv was a great start for me. I was never on stage before that. I was never in high school plays or anything. And the idea of improv is just to be able to let yourself look stupid in front of people. Really. You have to be willing to embarrass yourself and make mistakes. And what was so great about the improv classes I took was that there were other people there, and they were embarrassing themselves and making mistakes too. But no one was angry, you know? No one was rolling their eyes at you when you messed up. And that was where, for me, I felt the confidence and comfort begin to build. Thinking back, I used to get nervous just before class, let alone shows. Improv 101 definitely helped me to get through that.
Brandon Ryan: When you’re generating a new sketch, what is the process like? Do people come to rehearsals with completed pieces?
Aubrie: I pay attention to life. Weird stuff happens to me all the time, or at least that’s what it seems like. So I keep this list in my phone of what I see and then will later sit down and try to see if I can’t flesh things out on the page. With the writing we’ve definitely gotten to a point where, if one of us has the bones of something but just can’t seem to move it forward we can pass it on and work together to bring it along.
Shannon: For rehearsals we usually each try to come with a four-to-five page written out sketch and then we’ll read them. And then we pitch ideas and talk about jokes to add or edit.
Brandon Ryan: So in writing and generating new material, there is a collaborative sense within the group?
Aubrie: Definitely. I think one really great example is this video we made called The (Taco) Bell Jar, which is actually up on FunnyOrDie.com. I literally just had this image of Sylvia Plath going to stick her head in the oven, but then finding tacos. I brought it to the group because it just struck me as something worth chasing. Then Madonna came up with a storyboard for it and the rest of the group worked to help me finish and film it.
Briana: And then there’s also things like, you know, Kait does the art for our fliers. And she’s just incredibly talented as a performer and then as an artist. Everyone uses their talents and contributes to make this work. I think one thing we’ve learned to do well is to appreciate one another’s talents and strengths. Like tonight, for instance, there was a sketch about the Fairy Godmother and when I was writing it all I wanted out of it was to make a John Nash reference, to be perfectly frank, but then I was also thinking how much I love seeing Madonna act absolutely frivolous on stage, and I thought that the Fairy Godmother, as a character, would lend itself to that.
Brandon Ryan: Would anyone care to contribute what for them has been their most meaningful experience with ManiPedi?
Madonna: Last weekend, actually, we were at the NYC Sketchfest at The People’s Improv Theatre. We went at 6:30 on a Sunday night—which is just not, traditionally, the most glorious time slot —but we had this fantastic crowd. Literally every single sketch hit. It was amazing. I was so proud. I would say it was our best show together.
Aubrie: I think the festivals are great. When we perform here in Philadelphia, people kind of get to know your personality, and so sometimes, you know, they laugh because “oh, that was such an Aubrie thing to do” or “that was such a Kait thing to say.” But in May, for instance, we performed at the Ladies Are Funny Festival in Austin, Texas, and afterward it was incredible to have these people who have never met you and know nothing about you come up and tell you how much they enjoyed your sketch. Which is superb to hear, obviously.
Shannon: It makes us feel incredibly proud.
Briana: Is it a cop out to sat that the experience as a whole has been great? I just—and I guess it ties in to what Aubrie said, when it comes to like, what’s gratifying as a whole—being with this group in particular —I think it’s just been rewarding just to see the group progress and grow. I mean, I never thought I, or we, as a group, would be here, last year. I mean, I didn’t have a plan. But with sketch, I appreciate everything. The bad shows, the good shows. Everything we’ve done has been a learning experience. Or, you know, in my case even if I never make it in comedy and wind up working in a soup factory for 30 years, I can say “So, I had this thing once, let me pull out my scrap book and show you some funny ladies.” So, no matter how this ends up, it’s going to be awesome. I love the sense of community and of getting out of myself and being a part of this group with these women, these very funny, talented women that I do this with. And I even love that we get to perform for the community at large.
Brandon Ryan: What’s next for ManiPedi?
Madonna: We’re working toward getting to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre.
Aubrie: It’s in New York City, and it was started by the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, which was a sketch group that came from Chicago in the 1990’s. People like Amy Poehler were in the original. And so next week we have a show at the Philly Improv Theater called No More Wire Wangers: An Ode to Mommy Dearest (in Sketch Comedy Form), and we’ll tape that and then submit it. If they like it, we’ll go to New York and perform the show there.
Shannon: It’s really well known among comedians. For us it would kind of represent like a next step for where to go as a group. But we’ve never been like, “we’re going to hit this and go straight to the top!” For me, I just love the opportunity to perform in front of new crowds. And then also, when you do these shows you get the opportunity to learn from different people and from different sketch groups you see. Ultimately, we all have the same goal, though it may take us personally to different places.
Brandon Ryan: Do you feel like the improv and sketch comedy scenes in Philadelphia are expanding? It seems like new shows are springing up constantly.
Shannon: When I started doing improv two years ago everyone was talking about how it had just exploded. There were new classes, new students forming new groups. There are a ton of independent groups in Philadelphia. Philly Improv Theatre actually just added two house teams. I think that a lot of growth you see stems from Sketch Up!
Brandon Ryan: What is SketchUp!?
Shannon: It’s a BYOB event on the first Friday of every month at Philly Improv Theater. It’s fun. It’s super-friendly. What you do is bring your sketch and sign up to perform. Let’s say you’ve written something but need actors, you can actually ask people in the audience to help you work through your piece. What’s crazy is that admission is free and you get the opportunity to see these phenomenal local writers and performers.
Madonna: SketchUp! is, if you’re looking to start a sketch group, a great place to meet people. It’s where Camp Woods found me. We as a group, we use it to try out new material. Rather than risk bringing something to a show that you’re unsure of, you can perform it at SketchUp! and as you work through the set kind of figure out what needs to be edited.
Briana: It’s like a huge party with your friends. It’s great.
Brandon Ryan: Does anyone have any closing thoughts?
Briana: I guess, you know, make no mistake, if you come to our show and you don’t laugh, it’s true that we always have this experience and as a group we will always have one another, but it just—it cuts like a knife, like a really rusty, jagged knife that you’ll never heal from. So, always laugh.
ManiPedi performs again next Thursday, November 1st and Friday, November 2nd with Reformed Whores (from NYC) at the Philly Improv Theater at the Shubin Theatre. Tickets are available online.
Brandon Ryan currently resides in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. If he is not writing, he is most certainly reading. Or attending an event he is supposed to write about.