On the last Friday of every month, ComedySportz
is bringing in original outside acts for their 8PM time slot, ahead of their 10PM adults-only The Blue Show
. This month, ComedySportz Presents
runs on two bonus days—Wednesday and Thursday—and features Friends of Alcatraz, an improvised puppet show. Here are cast members Joe Sabatino and Kelly Vrooman with details on the history of the group, the format of their show, and what it’s like to play with puppets:
WitOut: Can you give a brief history of Friends of Alcatraz? What sparked your interest in combining improv and puppetry?
Joe Sabatino: I’ve been making puppets since I was a kid, and I was always too nervous to actually put them on display or admit to anyone that I like puppets. But when Kelly and I started dating…
Kelly Vrooman: By the way, we’re dating.
JS: When we first started, I knew we shared a common interest in puppets. So, I decided to do the creepiest thing for someone you’ve only been dating for a month and I built a puppet of Kelly’s cat Alcatraz. With it came the idea to do an improvised puppet show called Friends of Alcatraz.
KV: It was a weird yet endearing gesture…but mostly weird. He put the puppet in my arms and said, “I was thinking, um, maybe… you would want to create an improv puppet show with me?” I reluctantly said yes.
JS: We gathered a group of our funniest friends, that happen to also be some of the best puppeteers in the city: Dave Jadico, Jason Stockdale and Rob Cutler. It was a fascinating group of inventive people that know how to make a puppet come alive. Thus, FoA was born.
KV: I work with puppets on TV, so I knew I wanted to have monitors for the puppeteers, which led us to want a screen the audience could watch. Once the “impropputeers” (a mind-blowingly awesome name I made up) got used to working with the monitors, the show took off. We took it to the next level by adding an a capella opening number and musical edits (Music by Liz Filios, Lyrics by Kelly and Joe). Oh, and Joe designed and made a ton of incredible puppets for us to use. That should probably be mentioned.
WO: What would you say are some of the key differences/challenges between regular improvising and improvising with a puppet?
JS: I think the world is even more infinite than human improv. The things puppets can do is borderline scary in terms of bringing imagination to life. Especially the way we present our show. The puppets can literally do anything we want them to do: fly, twist into a pretzel, enter the scene from the side of another puppet’s head, eat another puppet whole, be as big as a building… The possibilities are endless and with a camera it makes the execution of these things more real. Because of all of these different elements to play with our minds need to be a clean slate away from reality, almost. We still play grounded scenes but our “If this, then what” mentality is stretched. One or two people have questioned this project in terms of legit scene work because we never interact or make eye contact with our scene partners. When in reality it’s the exact opposite. We are in tune with one another, watching every single nuance of the puppets and reading the body language of our human scene partners. It’s also easier because we, the puppeteers, have monitors we are watching which is the same image as the projection the audience is watching. This makes it MUCH easier to really know what is going on all around the puppets, and helps us create a scene that not only makes sense, but also looks good in terms of staging, spacing and scene action. Plus… your arm gets tired.
KV: Well put Joe! In addition, improvising with puppets is one thing, improvising with puppets for the camera is another thing. And doing it well, is yet another thing! It’s kind of like singing and dancing while acting and juggling. A bunch of skills have to come together for it to be good. Sometimes a great improviser can put on a puppet and feel restricted. Sometimes, an inexperienced improviser can put on a puppet and become great.
WO: What’s the origin story of Alcatraz the Cat, the star of the show?
JS: Kelly knows how the cat got his name and what not, but I’ve always felt like Alcatraz the real cat is a little bit of a dick. I’ve NEVER been a cat guy. In fact I’m comfortable to say that before I started hanging around Kelly’s cat I hated cats. But Alcatraz always fascinated me. The defining moment for me was when I made a delicious dinner, one night. I dressed the plate nicely, set the mood and it smelled wonderful. I locked eyes with Alcatraz and he walked over to where I was sitting and eating, which was all the way on the other side of the room. He slowly walked over, climbed into my lap and put his asshole right into my food. He got up and walked away. He made a statement. So, I made a puppet of him.
KV: I adopted him off the street and held a naming competition with my family. My sister was in the lead with “The Great Catsby” or “AlCATraz”. Then, that night, the cat escaped out my second story window and got wedged in the bars of the first story window. Therefore…Alcatraz won. I really wanted Joe to perform Alcatraz the puppet because I heard Alcatraz’s voice in my head as a deep man’s voice, but Joe insisted I was the person who should do it. I reluctantly gave in. He ended up with an ambiguous European accent that hurts my throat to perform, but it’s worth it. We started to joke around about Alcatraz being a sophisticated world traveler, incredibly popular with everyone he meets, the most desired cat in the world. And if he’s that amazing, he’d totally be able to gather a group of weirdos he’s met on his travels and convince them to perform in a show, right? We discovered that he shouldn’t even perform in the show because he’s too much of a character to be able to pretend to be anyone else in a scene. So, he introduces the show, the cast of characters and gets the suggestion.
WO: Can you give some details on the format and staging of the show?
KV: Friends of Alcatraz is a long form improvised puppet show. We don’t stick to a rigid format, but we look to play out several scenes then see how those stories intersect. And spice it up with a happy dose of randomness and frivolous puppet-y fun.
One side of the stage is the “show”—a projected image of the puppets’ world. It’s like watching a puppet TV show. The other side of the stage is the behind-the-scenes creation of that show. You can watch the finished product projected on the screen while you simultaneously watch the puppeteers create the show.
JS: Our format is very catering to the puppeteers/improvisers.
JS: It was important for me that the presence of our powerhouse improvisers didn’t get upstaged by a big screen. People love to see improvisers’ minds work and the audience rarely gets to see what it’s like beneath the camera of a puppet show. We’ve really nailed it on the head in terms of being able to allow the audience to split focus. It’s great to be able to see all the work that goes into the projected image on the screen: shuffling around getting the right puppet, making a prop for a puppet to use, someone helping one puppeteer manipulate their puppet so it can do something specific…etc. Plus we are a great group of people who are really good at making each other laugh, so the audience gets to see how much fun we are having. It was important to me to really showcase the humans. It’s an experience to see our show. It’s almost like seeing five shows at once: a puppet show, a TV show, an improv show, a blooper reel and a musical.
KV: That should be our tagline.
WO: What can audiences expect from your upcoming ComedySportz Presents run of shows?
JS: They will see a group of people stretching themselves between skill sets that are difficult, yet work harmoniously with each other. We’ve found a system that works and we will keep perfecting it.
KV: This run, we have some new improvisors (Rachel Whitworth and Caitlin Weigel) who are a GREAT addition to our cast, new AMAZING puppets, and maybe Alcatraz will dance this time.
Julia Scotti wrote this post about moments of awakening, understanding, and her evolution as a comedian and person.
The Not Just Comedy Show brings its mix of stand-up, improv, and music to The Grape Room again this Tuesday for a show featuring performances by: Mikaela Hamje, Chris Wood, Scott Speegle, Dr. Tony, Bed Savage, and musical guest Rev. TJ McGlinchey.
Metro Comedy Live comes to Helium Comedy Club this Wednesday for an evening of stand-up comedy from Nema Williams, Ed Blaze, and Vince Barnett.
This Wednesday through Saturday ComedySportz Philly Presents: Friends of Alcatraz at The Playground at The Adrienne Theater. The improvised puppet show for grown-ups returns with a cast featuring Kelly Vrooman, Dave Jadico, Joe Sabatino, Rob Cutler, Caitlin Weigel and Rachel Whitworth.
This Thursday the Lawnboys Comedy Showcase comes to Puck in Doylestown for a show featuring stand-up comedy from Aaron Hertzog, Omar Scruggs, Tim Raymus, Fady Khalil, and Matt Lips.
Figment Theater’s bimonthly Vagabond Sessions is back this Thursday; this time at The Maas Building (1325 N. Randolph St.) The show will feature improv performances by: The Chain, Half-Life, The AD Showcase with Andrew Stober and Maggy Keegan, and The Table.
Jay & Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie will play this Thursday at The Keswick Theatre. After the feature the audience can participate in a question and answer session with Jay and Silent Bob themselves, Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes.
This Friday short-form improv group The N Crowd celebrates their eight-year anniversary with a show at RUBA Hall.
The Sideshow returns to The Arts Parlor this Friday to once again team up with Figment Theater for the third and final first-round match of in the annual Troika Tournament. This week will feature improv from teams comprised of: Cait O’Driscoll, Ryan Barlow, and Shannon Devido; Karen Coleman, Mike Butler, and Quinton Alexander; and Jason Grimley, Marc Reber, and Sue Jay.
ComedySportz The Blue Show returns this Friday night for the improv group’s monthly visit to a magical land where there are no penalties for being dirty.
The Captain Action Comedy Show returns to the Conshohocken Cafe this Saturday with a show hosted by Sidney Gantt and Dave Terruso featuring stand-up from: John McKeever, Ben Fidler, and Mike Logan.
The Troika Tournament comes to a conclusion this Saturday at The Sideshow when the three winners from the opening rounds battle in a head-to-head-to-head final round to determine the 2013 Troika champion.
Saturday is Jerzee’s Comedy Night at Jerzee’s Sports Bar & Pizzeria (2609 Mount Carmel Ave. Glenside, PA) with a show featuring: Pat Kelly, Dan Manhon, Darin Martinez, Lou Misiano, Bobby Lorello, Bryan Leichter, and Erik Whitcare.
The second Comedy is Liberty Weekend Show is this Saturday at Liberties Bar & Grill. This month’s show will feature comedy from Chip Chantry, Steven Bryan, and Alison Zeidman.
Gorged! returns to The Bean Cafe this Saturday night with a free stand-up show featuring: Aaron Hertzog, Jon DelCollo, Joe Bell, Nikki Black, and Rob Zawatski.
Baltimore’s Wham City Comedy Tour makes a stop in Philadelphia this Saturday at Goldilocks Gallery (723 Chestnut St., 2nd Floor). The show is described as “a two-hour cross-genre variety show, showcasing the very best from Baltimore’s award-winning artist collective and fabled party starters. Expect stand-up sets, videos, dramatic monologues, and ensemble sketches in a tightly-run, visionary performance.” Philly’s own The New Dreamz will also perform.
If you have any Philly comedy news worth mentioning – send it our way with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends of Alcatraz
This improvised puppet show made its’ run during the 2011 Philly Fringe Festival with a cast featuring Kelly Vrooman, Joe Sabatino, Jason Stockdale, Rob Cutler, and Dave Jadico. You can read reviews of the show from Philly Weekly, CityPaper, and from us here at Witout online.
The part improv/ part sketch homage to professional wrestling from the minds of Ian Vaflor and Alex Gross featured various performance from many of the best stand-ups, improvisers, and sketch comedians in Philadelphia. You can read a review from Citypaper online.
This improvised mono-scene made it’s original run during the Philly Fringe Festival and was directed by Steve Kleinedler with a cast featuring Emily Davis, Corin Wells, Becca Trabin, Mike Marbach, Marc Reber, Jessica Ross, Cait O’Driscoll and Bobbi Block. You can read a review from Witout online.
Quality Value Convenience: Meg & Rob’s Last Show
Before Meg Favreau bid adieu to Philadelphia she, along with longtime sketch partner Rob Baniewicz put together a run of shows at Philly Improv Theater featuring many of their favorite Philly comedy performers and some of their best sketches to date. We wrote about the first night of the show here.
Stage Fright: An Improvised Homage to Hitchcock
Featuring Alli Soowal, Jason Stockdale, Jessica Ross, Joe Sabatino, Kristin Finger, Mary Carpenter, Nathan Edmondson and Rob Cutler with direction and improvised score by Matt Nelson – Stage Fright is an improvised narrative in the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You can see one of the performances online.
Alcatraz is a cat with a serious attitude, and a lot of friends. These friends also have issues of their own, which all come out in the hilarious improvised puppet show Friends of Alcatraz. You read that correctly, its a puppet show.
Friends of Alcatraz begins with the titular cat (played by actor/director/designer Kelly Vrooman) explaining the format of the show. The stage for Friends of Alcatraz is set up with a camera so that the audience may watch the puppeteers on their left, or a screen showing just the puppet action to the right. The set up lets the actors play with the space and the camera to make for an extremely visually interesting show. The cast uses the depth of the stage and the different size of puppets to fill in background characters and create a complete visual world around the puppet work, and audiences can see how they do it for themselves.
The technical work is just one of the excellent aspects of this show. The cast (Vrooman, along with Joe Sabatino, Jason Stockdale, Rob Cutler, and Dave Jadico) does a great job bringing the puppets to life and giving them each a depth and soul beyond their plush exterior. The design of the puppets helps in this, each crafted with a unique look that seems to draw the characters’ voices and personas out of the actors.
An audience member’s suggestion of “a breakup” when asked for something incredible that recently happend to them initially drew ridicule from Alcatraz the cat, but lead to a show full of relationships with their ups and downs, break-ups and make-ups and big laughs throughout.
Friends of Alcatraz is an extremely unique theater experience and is thoroughly satisfying for it’s comedy, showmanship, and presentation. Here’s hoping the end of it’s Fringe Festival run is not the last we see of Alcatraz and the gang.