by Kristen Schier
Here is why I love you, Improv 101 Student: You are embarking on a huge adventure even if you aren’t aware of it yet. Your willingness to discover and to try something new is courageous and inspiring. I wait with anticipation to see how you will change the face of the scene in Philly as you become more involved–and you will become more involved, because improv is a sort of cult. Ok, improv is definitely a cult—but don’t be scared, because it’s a benign cult. But definitely a cult. (One more time: “cult.”)Some level one students sign up without any idea of what they are getting into. Some are returning to improvisation/acting or a creative endeavor for the first time in a long time. Some of you have loved improv for years, but this is your first time giving it a shot in a brand new city. No matter what, you’re on an adventure, and you’re making new discoveries, and for that I admire you. At the risk of sounding cheesy, a sense of discovery is what it’s all about, isn’t it? I love watching people discover/rediscover how much fun it is to play. I mean, it’s darn-right inspiring.
Also, the willingness of the new improv student to jump into the unknown and be game for anything is a great reminder for more experienced improvisers of how they’re supposed to play. I suppose someone could make the claim that this doesn’t apply to all level one students, and that my portrait of the level one student is somewhat idealized. And to them I say, “Yup, you’re probably right. But some of them do exist, and those are the ones I care about.” I think that a beginning student’s sense of adventure is a model for those who have been improvising a while longer, and consequently have a bit of a stick up their bum about it. Improvisers who have been working for a long time develop a somewhat understandable sophomoric skepticism about the work. They start to close themselves off from possibilities. Not everyone—just some people. And these are the exact people who need to watch a level one class, and see that the students in there are trying things that are brand new, and playing in a wonderful, earnest way.
As an experienced improviser, I’ve learned from my level one students to always try new things—which is a great way to prevent myself from developing a myopic view of the world. Being around level one students is one of the reasons I recently forced myself to sign up for a dodgeball group, even though I pretty much suck at dodgeball. Level one students, by their example, continuously encourage me to venture outside my comfort zone. Of course life is and should be about more than just improv—but I guess it’s strange that a group of people signing up for an improv class reminds me of that, and reminds me that I should always be looking to try something else – something new, different and definitely uncomfortable. I can’t wait to see what I sign up for next. (I’m thinking some sort of martial art. Yeah, that ought to do it. So, thanks for that, too, level one-ers.)
And here comes the creepy cult-like part: I remember when I first started hanging around improv shows and falling in love with improv, and how the people I met became my really good friends—and I like that I see that happening with you students who are just beginning now. I hate to think that any of you will stay shy and/or intimidated in such an open and accepting culture. We can appear to be a closed group at times, but none of us are perfect, and I can assure you that at one point in time all of us were “new.” But it did not take long for this community to absorb us. So—see you around!
Kristen Schier is one half of the Philadelphia-based improv duo The Amie & Kristen Show/The Kristen & Amie Show, as well as a Philly Improv Theater instructor; improv instructor at University of the Arts; director for PHIT House Team ZaoGao; and Artistic Director for the short-form Philadelphia improv group The N Crowd.
Want to write a Comedy Love Letter to your favorite comedian, theater, improv team or sketch group? Email firstname.lastname@example.org!
In another special episode of The Witout Podcast, Mike Marbach debuts his new interview show where he sits down with Kristen Schier for an in-depth conversation about improv in Philadelphia. Listen below and and subscribe on iTunes.
Luke Field in Adrift.
During the Philadelphia Improv Festival this year, Adrift was featured. It was pretty star studded and I remember sitting there thinking what an amazing cast I was seeing. Tara DeFrancisco, Jill Bernard, Brian McConnell, plus some of Philly’s most experienced improvisers. Then there was Luke Field. I had only seen Luke perform once before and I knew he was good, but in a boat that full of talent I was afraid he might not be up to the challenge. And for a long time, it looked like it might turn out that way. Luke sat perfectly quiet for the whole first “day” of the show, not saying a thing. The second “day” started and things were moving along at a gentle pace, when the conversation in the boat quieted and reached a natural lull. Then Luke softly spoke up with an amazing offer, “I’d just like to reiterate my offer to hear anyone’s confession if they would like to.” It made the show for me. It was just a great, simple, strong move. Good job Luke.
Kristin Finger’s in The Real Housewives of Philadelphia.
The Real Housewives also performed during PHIF. It was a great show with many awesome moments, but one stood out to me above the rest as just a fantastic moment where a performer understands the audience completely. Throughout the show, various characters would step forward and do “confessional” scenes to the audience. Kristin’s character was very masculine. I’m not sure if she was a man, used to be a man, wanted to be a man or what, but it was pretty fantastic to just get to watch her duding it around stage. At one point, she stepped forward into the confessional, sat down uncertainly on the very edge of the chair and just tucked her chin back and said, “Uh…” in the character’s deep voice. The audience immediately exploded into a roar of laughter. But that isn’t what impressed me about that moment. What impressed me was what she did next. She read the audience perfectly and simply shrugged and walked offstage, which elicited yet another roar of laughter. Perfect timing, perfect offer, perfect delivery. Great stuff.
Billy Thompson’s cartwheel.
ZaoGao plays with a lot of intensity and I’m always impressed with the effortlessness of their constant support for one another. This was never more apparent than in a show during their Fringe run. Billy Thompson had established the character of an impertinent and lazy king who had other people do things for him. As the show progressed, two other characters challenged one another to a cartwheel race. No sooner had they finished their race than Billy ran forward and commanded his minions, “I want to be in the cartwheel race!” The whole team then proceeded to cartwheel him across the stage and it was wonderful. Great job ZaoGao, great job Billy.
Kristin Schier’s clowning at Sideshow.
At Sideshow this year, we all we treated with Kristin Schier’s clowning act. I loved it. I had never seen a clown before then. Not at the circus. Not at children’s party. Not at a party for clowns where you just invite clowns because that’s going to automatically be a pretty great party. So I didn’t know what to expect. Clowns have a reputation for being either terrible or terrifying. Kristin was neither. Her clown was this wonderful child-like creature who interacted so openly with the audience it was intoxicating. Everyone in the room was on the edge of their seats the entire time. She went through a wide range of emotions during her set, but one moment in particular stood out to me. Along one side of the stage the wall was covered in mirrors with a curtain obscuring them. Kristin’s clown, exploring the space, peeked behind them and discovered that there were mirrors there and gradually pulled back the curtains with growing delight. When the curtains were finally drawn, she caught sight of herself and reacted with surprise and confusion, turning to the audience as if to say, “Is that really me?” She then turned back to the mirror and simply looked at herself, becoming sadder and sadder…as the audience came on that emotional trip with her. Just amazing patience and control and willingness to go where that moment took her. Awesome job Kristin.
If you watch commercials you’ve probably seen Tom Fowler. He’s pretty great. If you’ve come to Comedysportz you may have seen Mary Carpenter. She’s pretty terrific too. Together they performed this year as Dangerous Fools. I caught their show this year when they performed at the Shubin and it was basically a seminar on patient scene work. One moment which really stood out to me was a scene where they were playing a husband and wife, trapped in a crazy female neighbor’s bathroom after their attempt to invite her into their newly open marriage had gone wrong. She had turned out to be way too into it and things had gotten intense and surprisingly racist. They had tried the open marriage because Mary’s character couldn’t bear the thought of touching him. So while they’re trapped in the bathroom, furiously arguing with each other in frantic whispers, Tom points out that it was all her idea to begin with, to which she respond, “I don’t want to touch you, but I can’t bear the thought of anyone else touching you either!” After that offer, Tom simply looked while Mary clapped a hand to her mouth. Then they stayed like that for about FORTY FIVE SECONDS. It was amazing. It was just insane to watch two performers have the balls to just stay there, silent, and allow their characters to react emotionally to an offer. So great. Then, after the tension had built to an unbearable limit, Tom simply said, “That is the sweetest thing you have said in a long time.” Great stuff Mary and Tom!
How and why did you get into comedy?
I got into comedy cause it was always a good feeling when I made people laugh as a kid. I was a bit shy and weird so it was a quick way to be accepted. I certainly did not get into for the money. There is no money in comedy, folks. Anybody got a dolla?
How would you describe your style as a comedian? What influences and factors do you think contribute to that?
I am brash. I like to play old ladies, and funny guys. I am physical. My training has caused me to slow down a bit and not worry so much about getting a laugh. I mostly just try to have a blast on stage and play with the people I work with, and make them laugh.
Do you have a favorite show or venue you like to perform at? What about it makes it fun or special for you?
I love playing in an intimate house where people are close. I love also going out into the crowd if the tenor of the show calls for it, so its always exciting when that is a possibility. Some place like the Shubin is great when it is packed with folks, it feels so cozy and allows for shared experience. Don’t get me wrong, I have played on bigger stages and enjoy it too, but that feedback from the audience is so important, as a comedian, and I just get a better sense of it in a smaller theater.
Do you have a single favorite moment in Philly comedy or one that stands out?
Hmm … I remember a scene that Adsit and Gausas did where they playing characters on a date. They were warming up to an awkward kiss, and as they got closer and closer, they kept speaking to each other and they gradually were touching lips and talking at the same time. It was very funny. I would like to see more of that kind of risk taking form Philly teams. I loved it.
Do you have any sort of creative process that you use with your writing or your performance?
Or a sort of method that you use to develop comedic material? I do not write, but I do direct some. I think it is important to be very aware of the source. I like starting with the performer, and going from there. A line coming from one stand-up or actor / improviser will go over much differently that from another. I think it is important to know how you are seen as a comedian in just about any genre of comedy.
What is it about improv that draws you to it?
The collaborative spirit and the instant gratification is what draws me to improv. The empty space to create that it provides is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I love the freedom involved in non-scripted work and as the challenges it poses to me as a director, a writer, and actor, choreographer, lyricists, and composer of my own work.
Do you have any favorite performers in the Philly scene? Why are they your favorites?
I like to watch Marc Reber, Jess Ross, Matt Holmes, AJ Horan, Ralph Andraccio, Nathan Edmondson, Amie Roe, Emily Davis, Brandon Libby and pretty much anyone who gets up there to have fun.
Do you have any bad experiences doing comedy that you can share? A particularly bad bombing or even an entire show gone haywire?
Ugh, yes. Plenty of bad shows. An improv troupe I was part of did an improv show at the Happy Rooster once. No one wanted to see us. They wanted to have dinner. We were being rude. Ugh. Terrible.
What do you think the Philly comedy scene needs to continue to grow?
The comedy scene needs to continue to invest in its own development by seeing the shows that are doing it right, be there in other cities or our own. Also a permanent home for comedy would be a great help to developing and audience for the scene, which in turn, will develop the scene.
Do you have any personal goals for the future as you continue to perform comedy?
My goal is to take bigger chances as an artist, to be more comfortable with not knowing what comes next. Any who knows me also knows I want to push for performers to get paid more for what they do. I eventually want to make a living at this stuff.