By: Alison Zeidman
Half-Life is Steve Kleinedler and Nathan Edmondson, two seasoned improvisers playing two scotch-drinking secret agents. They don’t get drunk onstage. They don’t give each other notes. They did not meet in a bathhouse. But they do have a subtitle (full name: Half-Life: Requiem for the Cold War).
Alison Zeidman: How did you guys meet?
Nathan Edmondson: It was at a bathhouse.
Steve Kleinedler: No. At the the Philly Improv Festival. That was the first time I saw you onstage.
NE: The first time we hung out though, it was after that one Troika.
SK: So we’ll back up. Besides the bathhouse. Did not happen. I saw him perform at a festival, and about a year and a half later some of my troupe in Boston came out to do a one-off Troika night. It was one Philly person and one Boston person and one out-of-town person, and I was on a team with whoever and he was on a team with one of my teammates, and that’s where we met.
AZ: And when did you decide to form Half-Life?
NE: Well Steve moved from Boston to Philadelphia 13 months ago, and Greg had him shadow my [PHIT 201] class, which was kind of funny.
SK: Yeah. I’d been teaching in Boston for seven years and I was gonna teach here. So the first class i shadowed him just because it’s a different curriculum and everything.
NE: So we did that, and about halfway through we decided to do a rehearsal and then we did a show as—what was it, Kleinedmondson?
SK: Yes. Kleinedmondson(sinjin). It’s a reference to A Fish Called Wanda. Anyhow. We did that rehearsal where we were just dicking around after class, and we did a show, and we realized that a lot of our scene work had in common this sort of Twilight Zone element..like we’re being watched, or there’s an “others” quality to it.
NE: They were really serious. And some of the shows we did there would be some of that spy element, kind of. And then we actually had an espionage scene. It just happened and then Steve called me one day and said I know what we should be doing instead of this show that isn’t really working yet.
SK: I identified—and this is what I would do with any troupe that asked me to direct them. I see what they do and then I identify their strong points and base the show around them. Obviously our strong point was this espionage style thing. So we developed this format around that.
AZ: Can you describe your format?
NE: Steve’s smart, and I’m kind of stupid, and we’re both spies, in the Cold War era. It’s pretty much a monoscene.
SK: We get from the audience an event that happened during the Cold War. It can be a real political thing, or—this hasn’t happened yet, although we allow it to be like, “oh my grandfather got married,” or anything. We take that and we put ourselves in that situation, and go from there.
NE: Another thing that’s fun about the way we’ve been doing this is we always play the same two characters, so any backstory that develops, we try to hang onto it.
AZ: How do you keep track of that?
SK: You just do.
NE: Steve remembers everything.
SK: But it’s basic stuff.
NE: But it helps us because it gives us stuff to pull form.
SK: He has a wife named Sheila who he fools around on.
NE: Yeah and I have a kid. Although we’ve never decided if that was a boy or a girl.
SK: So yeah, every show builds on the other, and they’ve been really well received.
NE: Yeah, they’ve been really fun. And we drink whiskey during it. Scotch?
NE: We drink scotch.
AZ: Can you explain that decision?
NE: Well, I think Steve had the vision of us just being onstage in a spotlight. If we were to produce it on our own it’d be like a dark stage with us in a spotlight. Not a lot of movement. So we started the show with the idea that we’re just standing there, and I think we did a rehersal where we just had drinks in our hands?
SK: I think so.
NE: But it fit. It made sense to the era.
AZ: Are you drinking enough alchohol to impede your abilities onstage?
SK: It’s real alcohol, but over the course of a show, it’s maybe a shot.
NE: Maybe two shots.
SK: At most, but over twenty-five minutes. And we start completely sober.
AZ: So drinking isn’t a pre-show ritual. Are there any others?
NE: We go to a bathhouse. Nah, we don’t really do anything. We dress up. We wear ties.
SK: We wanted to go with the black and white look. The footage we’ve shot for the web is black and white, just because it evokes that era. And a shirt and tie…
NE: We’re just like company men, from the ’50s and ’60s. But no, we don’t really have any pre-show rituals.
SK: We don’t even warm up. We just hang out and connect. When you find the right scene partner and it just kind of clicks, the warm-up comes from us knowing each other, and our weekly banter whenever we see each other.
NE: And in shows where things didn’t feel like they were going well, I’ve noticed it’s because we aren’t looking at each other or checking in. As soon as we actually look at each other, and make eye contact, it’s like oh fuck, ok, it’s easy. And the show gets better.
AZ: Do you guys have any sense of what’s behind that connection? Or specific strengths that you each have that make the two of you a good fit?
SK: I think it’s idiosyncratic. I think it’s just the personalities.
NE: Yeah, I think we complement each other well. I ‘m not a total idiot, but Steve knows so much factual information, it’s mind-blowing, and I don’t remember that kind of stuff, so he’s kind of the brain of the group, and—
SK: He’s the sex symbol.
NE: [Laughs] Yes, I’m the sex symbol. Embarrassing. But yeah, it’s a good dynamic, because I personally always love the “Joey” character from any show, the dumb guy, so this is my opportunity to play that. Although I wouldn’t say that my character’s totally dumb.
AZ: It seems like you guys have given a lot of thought to this act conceptually, visually…have you thought about doing something more with it, doing a Fringe show, or something like that?
SK: Well we’re doing Duofest, and we’ve applied to Baltimore and Detroit. We’ll apply to some other things. We’ve done some web shorts.
NE: I would like to do more of those, too. We’ll probably get two or three videos out of our first footage.
SK: I live in a loft building, so we spent a day there.
NE: We shot like twenty-five minutes of footage, and we’ve just been mining it for little thirty-second skits.
AZ: You’ve both had the experience of being on a duo and also on a team. Can you talk about things that you prefer about being in a duo, and/or things that you dont like as much about being in a duo, if there are any?
SK: It sounds silly, but honestly it’s huge: Logistically, it is so much easier to arrange stuff when you only have to deal with one other person instead or five or six other people.
NE: From rehearsals, to who’s in the next scene.
SK: I’ve been in a fair number of troupes, and I love them dearly, but when there’s a lot of people you have to take all these schedules into account. On the flip side, I know I have a very narrow range. I’m primarily a teacher and a director. One reason I like Half-Life is the character I play is about the only character I can play. That’s not exactly true, but it’s close enough.
NE: Well it’s playing to your strength. And it works really well.
SK: So in that regard, something like this suits me better than a team that is doing montages. I think what’s key for any improviser is to find a group that plays to your strengths, and the fewer the number of people in the cast, the more you have to find a structure that plays to your strengths.
NE: Yeah. And just to go back a little bit, I don’t think we responded to [your earlier question] much, we did think about what the show was going to be like. There was a lot of thought put into it over a long period of time.
SK: Our first rehearsal was last summer, and then we goofed around for a couple months before we had a show.
NE: As soon as we had a concept that fit, it made everything so easy. And I think it’s good to put that work in for groups, like, “what are we doing? what are we trying to accomplish?” It’s just easier.
AZ: How much time do you guys spend discussing things and working out details for the show?
SK: For regular shows and festivals and stuff, it’s just taking into account what space we’re in, and making tweaks, but as we’ve done it the show has been tweaked here and there, and before the first show we did a couple rehearsals where we would just run twenty minute scenes and see how it felt, and we would just try different techniques. Originally we were going to have a certain number of flashbacks done in a certain style, and it’s kind of morphed into this thing where there’s probably one flashback in a twenty-minute scene.
NE: Every show we learn, and we talk about it right afterwards.
AZ: Can that be difficult, when you’re sort of directing your own show and maybe even critiquing each other’s performance?
SK: A lot of people in the community have heard me rail against improv troupes that don’t have a director or a coach, and as a general rule I think that’s absolutely [necessary]. Improv groups need a coach. This is a little different. You have a little more leeway when it’s a two-person show I think, because when you get more than two people a tiny bit of ego gets in the way, whereas when you’re paired up with someone you work well with that’s less of an issue. And I’ve done this long enoguh that I kind of have a sense about what we’re doing. I still encourage people to have coaches, but I’m just not following my own advice. And we don’t really give each other notes. We talk about what we like and what didn’t work and we’re usually in agreement.
NE: I think also, we’re very self-critical. So we’re giving ourselves notes constantly. A lot of the note-giving is me talking about my stuff, and then him giving response, gauging whether my interpretation of what happened is right or not.
SK: And vice versa. I’ve been doing this off and on for thirty years, and after about the ten-year point, things just kind of click in a way, and then after you start directing and teaching it clicks even more, and the more you direct and the more you teach, the easier your work becomes.
NE: And also at a certain point you realize if you get your hands too much in it, you’re just gonna screw it up. You just have to let it breathe and let it happen.
SK: And that’s what I do when I direct groups too, or scripted plays. I just come up with a format and let them loose. After the first table read I get them up ontage with a script and have them move around and I write down what they do, and a lot of that works its way into my blocking. So I guess I’m giving myself—oh no, I’m not going to say that, that sounds so pretentious.
NE: Giving yourself a blowjob?
SK: No, giving myself the trust that I give other actors.
NE: Oh OK. That is pretty pretentious.
AZ: So just to wrap up, what are you guys looking forward to about Duofest?
SK: I did Duofest two years ago [when I still lived in Boston], and it’s a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of really great groups, and it’s nice to be in Philly representing Philly.
NE: I’m looking forward to being interviewed by WitOut. And I’ve missed every Duofest, because I’ve been either out of town or had other commitments, so I’m looking forward to just seeing shows, and being a part of it. And I like that it’s specific. Are there other Duofests?
SK: No. There are so many improv festivals, but this is something—every city has a festival, but this is a very specific thing unique to Philly.
NE: And duos are an important part of the improv world, so I think people that do them appreciate it. I think it becomes this thing that happens to most improvisers if they stick with it, so it’s a different kind of show than a group of even three or four. It’s a whole other entity. It’s nothing really special, but it’s something.
See Half-Life perform in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Thursday, June 7th at 10 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.