On the last Friday of every month, ComedySportz is bringing in original outside acts to perform ahead of their 10pm adults-only Blue Show. This month, ComedySportz Presents features Adrift, a nationally-touring show created by Philadelphia Improv Festival producer Matt Nelson. Matt performs with a rotating cast, improvising scenes that take place over several days of being stranded together on a life raft. In this edition, Adrift will be kept afloat by Eoin O’ Shea, Todd Rodenhiser, Sue Taney, Daryll Charles, Danna Young and Mary Carpenter of ComedySportz.
Adrift at at NCCAF. Photo by Kevin Thom.
WitOut: Can you give a brief overview of the origins of Adrift?
Matt Nelson: Adrift was created four years ago for the Philadelphia Improv Festival. I’d just ended several-year runs with a couple groups, and wanted to still do a longform set in my own festival. I figured I’d rope in a bunch of amazing people that my co-producers couldn’t possibly say no to. I made a short list, and that first show included locals Kristen Schier and Kelly Vrooman, as well as Brian O’Connell from iO West and Steve Kleinedler (at that time, still a Bostonian). I looked at the list and thought to myself, “Hey these people would be amazing to be shipwrecked with.” And that’s when the show concept was born. It was so much fun that I decided to keep at it. It became my own personal all-star show, giving me a chance to work with incredibly talented people I might otherwise never get to play with. Joe Bill, Jeff Griggs, Jill Bernard, Dave Sawyer, Topher Bellavia, Tara DeFrancisco, Rachel Klein—people who make your comedy heart swoon. After I locked down Emo Philips for my NCCAF show two years ago, I became pretty fearless about asking anyone whose work I really admire.
WO: What brought Adrift to ComedySportz?
MN: ComedySportz actually approached me to do the show. Adrift is a show that doesn’t play all the time, and with my format their cast can get really involved. Between the two, I think it’s a nice fit for their Final Fridays format, and I suppose they must have thought the same. I’ve had quite a few of their cast members in various rafts, and they’ve always been a blast to play with… so it was pretty much a “yes” from the word go. Then I was told I could pick from anyone in the cast, and it was like being a kid in a candy store. I decided to opt for mostly new players—because aside from doing a few local gigs and festivals, Adrift is a road show, and I only bring 1-2 Philly improvisers with me to those.
WO: You have some really amazing ComedySportz players in the cast for this show. What are some skills they bring, either as individuals or a group, that you’re looking forward to having for this performance?
MN: I’m so excited about this cast. Overall, ComedySportz players bring a style of play that comes only from a strong connection built over time doing weekly shows. It’s a family—a very generous, playful family with tons of heart. Let me see if I can highlight a few things though…
Eoin O’shea: Eoin approaches things with a sort of tempered chaos, bubbling just under the surface. No matter how methodical a scene is, there’s always something dangerous and exciting potentially lurking around the next corner.
Todd Rodenhiser: Todd is a menagerie of big, bold, beautiful characters. They’re born from a whole other plane of existence, and it’s always thrilling when they come out to play.
Danna Young: Danna is a quirky, vibrant player than can play the duality of what you think is a light character, only to surprise you with strong choices and emotional reactions that can turn on a dime.
Darryl Charles: Darryl understands comedy like few others I know. The way he processes every little gift, it’s like he took an evolutionary step somewhere— always working out the best possible arcs for relationships, but always in the flash of a moment.
Sue Taney: Sue is a powerhouse player who just exhales hilarity. She’s like one of those storage saver bags where they shrink down all the fluffy stuff —she could take three minutes of silence and not have a moment of dead air.
Mary Carpenter: Mary is the crown jewel of Philly comedy, and I wish more comedians saw her more often. I don’t think I could run out of things to say. I have never, and I genuinely mean never, seen anyone on stage as generous as her. She can communicate so effectively with her face alone, it’s scary. If a show were a knife fight, you’d never have to check your six, because Mary’s got your back without fail.
Catch Adrift at ComedySportz (2030 Sansom Street) this Friday, January 25th at 8pm. Tickets are $12.
As the year winds down, WitOut collects lists from comedy performers and fans of their favorite moments, comedians, groups, shows, etc. from the last year in Philly comedy. Top 5 of 2012 lists will run throughout December–if you’d like to write one, pitch us your list at email@example.com!
#5 – Sue Taney in Mother Truckers at Troika
03.09.2012 | Sideshow at the Arts Parlor
The concept for this Troika trio was pretty clear: Square Meg, Sweet n’ Sassy Cassidy & Star-Spangled Sharlene were three truck-driving, sass-talking long haulers who conversed via CB radio. The characters were great, and the costumes were a sight to behold. But what really made this show something for the books was Sue’s character and her obsession with snack foods. Planting herself in the bucket seat of her trusty big rig, Sue had packed a ridiculous number of munchies into a bag, which she proceeded to chow down on, dialogue be damned. This series of side-bits heightened to the point that Sue genuinely got her hand stuck in a tube of Pringles while diving for the last chip. A good part of the show was spent with a can shaped nub, and the resounding and so-satisfying pop that came with the eventual release of her hand was then instantly topped once more by Sue licking the Pringles seasoning off her arm.
#4 – Davenger at PHIF8
11.07.2012 | Prince Music Theater
As one of the newest house teams from PHIT, at this point I’d only had occasion to see Davenger a handful of times. Having been a fan of their coach Maggy Keegan for years, I knew this team was going to have “Harold” drilled deep into them, but I was hardly prepared for what would happen on the opening night of PHIF8. Shows like this remind me why the term “beats” is so spot on. Constructing their piece, they had a rhythm, pitch and level of synchronicity that is normally reserved for groups that have been playing together for years. All of these disparate moments became anchored to and eventually informed by a fantastic group game. Every cast member was leaning so far into every moment, that it felt like they couldn’t even be bothered with gravity.
#3 – Aaron Hertzog at BCCAF
09.09.2012 | ImprovBoston Mainstage
Admittedly, this one may be a bit of a cheat, as it took place in Boston; but it featured (then-Philly resident) Aaron Hertzog, and to be honest, this moment transcended any particular place we might have been, because we were no longer in this world. The night before, Aaron had featured at The Brattle (the largest venue of BCCAF). I was in the All-Star set right after and got to take in most of his current act. It was a great set, and he lived up to the stage. But this wouldn’t be his crowning moment. The following night IB had a showcase of comics featured throughout the week. Good stuff from Mary Radzinski, Pete Kuempel and many others. And they had to earn every bit of it… this was the last show on the last night of what had been a long festival. Even the locals had mostly bailed, and we were left with a few die-hards, staff, other comedians and a few randoms. Anyone who was feeling zapped and pulled thin was about to unknowingly receive a comedy face slap courtesy of Mr. Hertzog. Aaron came out and from the top injected more energy than I’ve ever seen from a comic not fueled by coke and living in the ’70s. It’s hard to describe what I heard and saw that night, but he went totally through the roof and off the rails in all the best, most captivating ways. I’ve never before or since seen a comic jump start and hold firm dominance over a room like Aaron did that quiet little Sunday night in Cambridge.
#2 – Kristin Finger’s Ref debut at ComedySportz
10.13.2012 | Playground at the Adrienne
This entry is great example of what can happen when an improviser and an audience member create a perfect storm that you wish could be bottled (then hidden in a trunk and locked away forever). Kristin has been a ComedySportz player for years now, but made her debut as a Ref only two short months ago. The night had gone well… player challengers, ref challenges, 5-things… the teams had battled and laughs were flowing. As you might imagine, many family, friends and fans were in attendance on this particular night—but fortunately, so was a random man. A random man with a random suggestion. At one point towards the end of the show, she asks the audience for a noun, and this man shouts, “black!” Now, granted this fell more into the adjective category, but Kristin shrugged it off and took it, for a game called 185. Which she had already announced as the next game. For those unfamiliar with the game, this means nothing to you. For those that do, and most of the audience in attendance that night, what almost came to pass is quite clear. You see, the setup of 185 is a groaner-style punchline game where improvisers take a suggestion, and fit it to a pre-established formula: 185 suggestions walk into a bar. The bartender says “we don’t serve suggestions in this bar,” so the suggestions reply “pun punchline.” Now go back and fill the blanks with that man’s suggestion. The whole place lost it, especially as we saw the full scope of pending doom and shocked reaction crawl across Kristin’s face. It was a show-stopper. After about two minutes of trying to gain the composure of eye-tearing laughter from everyone in the place, Kristin decided to get a new suggestion.
#1 – Kait & Andrew at PHIT
12.02.2012 | Shubin Theatre
My top spot goes to a show that probably had the smallest audience of any on my list. A few short weeks ago Kait & Andrew did a 7PM show at the Shubin, sharing a bill with Matt&. Kait & Andrew had a pretty decent show, punctuated by their classic fourth wall-breaking banter that makes them so endearing and honest. It was fun, but not exceedingly stand-out—until the last scene, where everything changed. Kaitlin started the scene off by coming unglued at Andrew… startlingly so. Andrew came right back at her. The scope of the argument was that he had spent 8 years training to be a hide-and-seek champion, meanwhile she’d felt completely neglected in their relationship. In turn, he felt she wasn’t supporting his training, which he was doing for the betterment of their relationship. Over the course of the next few minutes, the two would spew accusations at one another, managing to pull out callback after callback of damn near every element of the show up until then. From fantastical gifts like Mayan Bee Fighting to seemingly insignificant expressions and sighs, everything was ammo. And during this escalating vitriol volley, neither forgot for a moment to ground everything to the characters, their shared relationship and raw emotions. It was like the first 20 minutes were merely a set up to this moment of explosion. The slow fade to black as Andrew moved to cover his dog’s eyes left me with shivering excitement and disbelief at the high-stake magic I’d just been witness to.
Matt Nelson is Executive Producer of the Philadelphia Improv Festival and Managing Director of Figment Theater. In addition to running the annual improv competition Troika, Matt can be seen performing in the touring show Adrift. You can follow him on Twitter at @ma77nelson.
by Alison Zeidman
There’s a lot to do and celebrate in November: prostate and testicular cancer awareness (Movember), men and women who are better at loving this country than you are (Veterans Day), the annual slaughtering of millions of short, ugly birds (Thanksgiving), National Start and Give up on Writing a Book Month (National Novel Writing Month), and alllllll these other things on this list here. AND, it’s also Comedy Month in Philadelphia! Hooray!
Programming for Comedy Month kicks off with the 8th Annual Philadelphia Improv Festival, which will run from November 7th-11th at the Prince Music Theater. Matt Nelson, the festival’s producer, was kind enough to meet up with me for a cup of coffee and some good ol’ fashioned conversation—which I recorded, transcribed, and will now leave for you here.
Alison Zeidman: If PHIF were a super hero, what would be its origin story? Or you can just tell me how it got started—I’m just tired of asking that question the exact same way for every interview.
Matt Nelson: I’d say that it wouldn’t be a superhero, it would be like the Justice League, or the Avengers. Because even though I’m now the sole person, as it’s turned out eight years later, it certainly didn’t start out that way. As with most things, it kind of really all started with Matt Holmes, and him being the great facilitator. He got most of us connected with our groups, and then later with one another. Mike McFarland and Jon Sales were performing with me. Nathan Edmondson and Alexis Simpson were performing with Matt, and Rick Horner was doing a couple projects, and there were a few people that were doing different shows around the city. So we were like OK, let’s go ahead and put together a showcase, just for a night. It was maybe like four groups, five groups, but we put them together and we did the show and it was well-attended, and we thought maybe there’s something to this, this sharing a bill. So we put together sort of a trial-run mini-festival in the Spring of 2005. The ads we had were like, “over TEN of the city’s improv groups!” Which meant there were like, eleven. It was two nights at the Actor’s Center, and it was basically every local group we could find. And we did the show, and it went off really well, and it really gave us the confidence to open it up [to be a full-fledged annual festival].
AZ: How would you contrast the focus from the beginning with what the focus is now? What’s the mission statement, today?
MN: I would say that the mission statement is still relatively the same, which is we want to use larger groups from out of town—especially in the early days, this was the case—to draw audiences in that maybe didn’t know much about improv. And then hopefully that would carry over to the regular shows that we do all the time in the city. And we continue to want that to be the case, where we feel like the festival is a draw to introduce new people to improv for the first time, ideally become fans, and then come fill the seats [at regular shows throughout the year]. And there are also some people who will come out of the woodwork and just do workshops, and don’t end up really performing in groups in the city. But really I think where it’s changed over the years is that early on, it was such a…like OK, are we going to get enough submissions to fill slots? Like year one, we were sweating bullets.
AZ: How many groups did you have submit this year?
MN: That’s the thing. I had to reject over 70% of submissions this year. I had well over 100 submissions, for forty slots.
AZ: Can you talk a little bit about that submission process, and the criteria you’re looking for?
MN: Over the years, it’s been just the festival producers, and we’ve more or less done a rating scale. The culture of it’s changed—in the early days we had to do VHS viewing parties; now because it’s all web submissions and YouTube videos, it’s much simpler, people can look at their leisure, which is a lot better and much less judgmental for the people who submit, too, because after hour six of watching improv, you’re much less patient than you were at hour one. This year my two co-producers had to step down because [of other commitments], but I didn’t want to leave it to just me to select the line-up. So what I ended up doing was just emailing a bunch of comedians that I really respected, both locally and out of town as well, and just said, here’s kind of the vibe I’m going for this year, here’s the kind of things that I want you to look out for, can you look at these five submissions and get back to me?
AZ: In terms of that vibe—is there a theme for the festival this year?
MN: More and more we used to see stylistic improv as a crutch—not we as the festival, just “we” as improvisers in general. It was like OK, if you’re doing something heavily stylized, it’s some sort of crutch that you’re using to cover over bad performance. But I think now more and more you’re seeing groups embrace the idea of approaching style and genre from a very specific artistic viewpoint. So this year it’s more peppered [with those types of groups]. And actually you’ll see more than anything with our education this year, that’s where you see the more stylistic choices. We’ve got four workshops. We’ve got Brian O’Connell teaching the Deconstruction, which is kind of the heaviest, most intricate form that you can learn—it’s got pretty much every form in it, at some point, so once you do that pretty much anything else is just a little easier. Kristen Schier is doing a clowning workshop, and she’s hands-down just one of the most incredible and vibrant performers that we have in Philly, and she and Amie are known stylistically for that sort of organic transition [from scene to scene]. We’ve got Rachel Kline coming in from Improv Boston, and she’s going to be teaching a thematic Harold workshop, which basically is the idea of doing a Harold but really paying attention to the connectivity of it all, to the point where it really becomes more of an overall piece. And then finally we have Andy Crouch from Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, and he’s going to be doing a narrative workshop.
AZ: It’s interesting to me how you say that attitude about stylistic improv has evolved over the years. So I’m sure not only that, but other things in terms of improv, putting on the festival, performing, have all changed too. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned in these eight years of doing the festival, either as an improviser, or a producer—is there any stand-out moment, or lesson?
MN: I’d say one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is, “let it go.” Especially when you’re putting together an event that’s just once a year, there’s this compulsion to make sure everything’s right. And much like improv, you can’t. And one of the most difficult things I do every year is the rejections—there are so many groups that I love, but I just can’t put eighty groups in my festival. And more and more as the local scene’s grown, that’s made it really difficult—before it was I just had to reject some out-of-town groups, maybe some locals, and now I have to reject…over half, nearly 2/3 of the groups that applied this year, simply because I didn’t have the space. For the most part the submissions were all just so overwhelmingly brilliant, but it’s like OK, I’ve just got to let it go. I’ve got to do what I can do and pick a rhythm to the schedule to make sure throughout the five nights we’re being taken sort of on a journey through the different styles, both with the size of the group, the tempo that they tend to play at, and also where they’re from, so that you get a great cross-section of stuff. And one of the biggest things you look at when trying to put together a festival is ensemble size, and I can honestly tell you that my festival is not any different from a lot of the festivals—if I’ve got two people that are already in other groups, it’s harder to just give them one of forty slots. And so the idea of Duofest coming along and filling that niche, and not only creating an avenue for them but celebrating them, was exciting and also a huge relief, too, in that OK, I know they’ll get taken care of.
AZ: Can you talk a little bit about PHIF’s involvement with Philly Sketchfest and City Spotlight, under the whole Comedy Month Philadelphia umbrella?
MN: We were running into venue issues—everyone wanted us to book more time, or a solo night. They didn’t want to give us a week, just in case a theater company wanted to come in and take three weeks. So we thought OK, we need to do something to make us more palatable to these venues. The Sketchfest had already existed for a couple of years, so they were a logical choice. And then we produced a third week that really represented stand-up, and it was rough, because stand-ups have mics all over to go to, so for many of them that was the third, fourth show that they were performing in that week, and there wasn’t the urgency or the impetus to get people out to see that show in particular. So the attendance wasn’t fantastic for them, it hurt us financially, and it didn’t feel like it was truly adding anything—so this year, we opened it up. We’ve reached out to comedy throughout the city to shine a spotlight on what’s already going on in the city. So like ComedySportz, the N Crowd, Comedian Deconstruction, Polygon, Laughs On Fairmount, The Big Show…
AZ: So it’s a little bit like Fringe, where you get to promote everything under the same heading, and the groups get that extra level of recognition.
MN: It is, it’s a promotional vehicle. But that’s it. Everyone maintains complete autonomous control of what they’re doing, and we don’t ask for any money, we just want to help promote them, and in turn just by helping build our size, they’re helping us promote us. So it’s a really great mutually beneficial relationship, where they don’t really have to do a whole lot, and we don’t have to change that much, and it still just makes it this big thing.
AZ: The last thing I wanted to talk about is that this year the festival proceeds are going to Career Wardrobe. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership?
MN: Yeah! Every year, since we joined forces over the last three years with the Sketchfest, we decided we were going to have an official Comedy Month charity. So typically we’ll have a raffle of prizes, and then we also donate our money to a cause. And we also try to relate it in some way back to what we do. Last year we did the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, and we selected one of the plays and did a staged reading of it to kick off Comedy Month, and it was a lot of fun. And now this year we’ve selected Career Wardrobe, which is a fantastic organization that basically supplies women and mothers with interview outfits, business attire, so that if they’re in a position where they’re unemployed, [dress] should not be the deciding factor in getting a job. And we just thought that we, with improv and sketch, whether it’s a pantomimed costume, or a visible one that you see in sketch, we are all greatly helped by being able to wear these masks, to step outside of our day for a moment to help us get to a greater place. And we felt that this was a very real-life version [of that]. It just seemed like a really different choice, but one that still tied in in a really great way.
AZ: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?
MN: Well, there are more local groups in the festival this year than any year in the past. Over the years we’ve tried to strike a balance, so roughly a third’s local, the other third is from the Mid-Atlantic area, and then the remaining third is from various places across the country.
AZ: Was it a conscious effort this year to include more Philly groups?
MN: I think it’s just that there are more fantastic Philly groups this year than ever. I didn’t set out with a particular conscious effort to do that, but just at the end of the day, looking at what was there, it was just like how do I say no to these groups that are just amazing? So I didn’t.
The 8th Annual Philadelphia Improv Festival runs November 7th-11th at the Prince Music Theater (1412 Chestnut Street). For more information and for tickets, visit http://phlcomedy.com.