"Improppeteers!" - Interview with Joe Sabatino and Kelly Vrooman of Friends of Alcatraz

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.

KV: Impropputeers!

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.

Catch Friends of Alcatraz at ComedySportz (2030 Sansom Street) this Wednesday-Friday (April 24th-26th) at 8pm. Tickets are $12.

LawnBoys Comedy Presents: "The Magical Misadventures of Mike Logan"

If you are a Philadelphia comedy performer that produces a podcast, web series, sketch video, humor column, or any other online content let us know by emailing us at contact@witout.net so we can share it!


Interview with Jay West, Host/Producer of 'High Five Comedy'

WitOut: How did you get started doing comedy in Philly?

Jay West: Well I have lived in Philly my entire life, and had always wanted to try comedy, so there was always that urge in the back of my mind. Like many, I didn't start before I was 26.  Opposite of the trends, I actually was doing a podcast called Eclectic Shock BEFORE starting comedy, and I would have comedians and musicians come on.  Through this, I became friends with many local comedians like Anton Shuford, H Foley, Conrad Roth, Chris Cotton, Joe Murdock, and (the one who became a very good friend) Michael Rainey.  Eventually, Rainey and I had a podcast together and I met so many other great local comedians through him, and when I felt comfortable enough that I should give it a shot I did, on July 26th, 2011.

WO: Why did you decide to start this new show?

JW: I missed doing a monthly booked show; I haven't had one since my Comedy: Period show at the Tritone.  I had other opportunities to book rooms, but Voltage Lounge was the first place that got me excited to host a show I book again.  The name of the show is just named after one of the most positive expressions in the world, that isn't sexual in nature. Donkey Punch Variety Show would have been too much.  It's also a small play on words because there are 5 comedians performing, and I like to get high before shows...

WO: You also run an open mic on Tuesdays at Headhouse. What do you think will be some of the differences between how you host the open mic and how you'll host your showcase?

JW: Hosting an open mic is like working on an assembly line: attention to detail isn't as important as the mass production.  Get as many people on and off stage as you can.  You dont want to waste time telling material if you are hosting an open mic.  In a showcase setting, its more like I am hand blowing glass.  There is more tact to it and you are exposed (because of how few chances you have) if you dont know what you are doing.  I'll work in material and improv between acts.  Hosting for people you KNOW are going to be funny is much more intimidating than hosting for people who may have performed a handful of times.

WO: How would you describe the comedians on this show for someone who's never seen them before?  

JW: N.A. Poe:  The Godfather of comedy.  Not that he was around for a long time, but he handles all the shady business practice and racketeering.   You like fingering jokes, right?

Mikaela Hamje -  One of the many great young female comedians in Philly today.   She isnt afraid to talk about personal shit on stage and I have always respected that in stand-up.

Andre Johnson - Mr. Content.  Very funy stand-up material, but you can also see his many different characters on Youtube.  He's like Tyler Perry with self-respect.

Dan Scully - A smart funny comedian who even dumb funny people can keep up with.  The only time I've ever seen him not do great was in front of a room full of lobotomized stoners.

Aaron Hertzog - The Mayor of Friendship!  One of the nicest guys in Philly comedy.  And that's not easy because he is also one of the funniest observational comics I've seen.  Despite my exhaustive efforts, I could not find anyone to say any bad words about him.


'High Five Comedy'
is this Wednesday, April 17th at Voltage Lounge (421 N. 7th Street). Show starts at 7:30PM. Admission is $10.


Wham City Comedy Tour: Buyer's Remorse

Description:
The Wham City Comedy Tour is 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.

When Ben O'Brien and Dan Deacon organized the original Wham City Comedy Tour 3 short years ago, the group was already heralded for their music and art, but virtually unknown in comedy. Since that time, the tour has performed on stage with Chicago's Second City, shared festival bills with Donald Glover, Neil Brennan, and Henry Rollins; O'Brien has opened for Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman; and Mason Ross won Best Comedic Performance in the City Paper's Best of Baltimore issue.

Philadelphia's own New Dreamz (Rose Luardo and Andrew Jeffrey Wright) will perform as well.

Style: Variety

Date: April 27

Time: 8:30-10:30 p.m.

Admission: $10

Location: Goldilocks Gallery, 723 Chestnut Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106

Contact: Website - Facebook


Polygon Comedy at The Raven Lounge

Description: Join Polygon Comedy as independent comedy rains down like quarter-sized hail at our newly launched second stage venue, The Raven Lounge!  Featuring stand-up Andrew Thomas, improv duo Rosen & Milkshake and house team, Snapshot Improv.

Style: Stand-up, Improv

Date: Saturday, April 20th

Time: Doors open 7pm, show promptly at 7:30pm

Admission: $5

Location: The Raven Lounge, 1718 Sansom Street, Philly

Contact: Facebook


"That Time"

Description: A collaboration between Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theater and RealLivePeople(in)Motion dance company.  We ask the audience "If you could go back in time to any moment in your own life's story, where would you go and why?"  The responses inspire a collage of improvised theater, dance and music.

Style: Improvised theater, dance and music, both hilarious and moving.

Date: April 20, 5pm & 8pm;  April 21, 3pm & 7pm

Time: see above -- show runs 75 minutes

Admission:  $10

Location: Innovation Studio at The Kimmel Center, Broad & Spruce Streets

Contact: Website


Interview with Sylis P. of 'McGilliCOMEDY'

A new comedy show is coming to the Philly 'burbs this weekend: It's McGilliCOMEDY at J.P. McGillicuddy's in Manayunk, hosted by Sylis P.  Here's Sylis to talk about how he got started doing stand-up, why he's interested in taking comedy outside the city limits, and what you can expect on his show:

WitOut: For people who might not be familiar with you, can you give a brief history of your comedy background? 

Sylis P.: Like most comics, I started doing stand-up out of jealousy and contempt for the comics I'd watch. I'm still a newbie since I've only been doing this for a year, but my soul has been dead for most of my life, so I think that's an applied credit towards my resume. If you're a recluse like me, you can find me on Twitter @SylisP and facebook.com/SylisP.

WO: Is this the first time you've hosted your own show?

SP:  It is. I'm still expecting a call from McGillicuddy's when they realize what they've done by giving me a show. Not that I'd disagree with them.

WO: What do you think makes a good host, and/or just a good show in general?

SP: I think having myself, Keane Cobb, Dan Scully and Sidney Gantt on your show is crucial. Luckily I have exactly that!

WO: This show is in Manayunk—there are a few other shows out in the Philly burbs as well, but we don't often hear a ton about them.  What do you think are some advantages of doing comedy showcases outside the city proper?

SP: I live in Manayunk and I think it's a prime area for comedy for that very reason: There are so few shows here. There are a ton of young professionals (and unprofessionals) looking for something to do and a reason to get out of the house. Conshohocken, where Sidney does his show, is very similar. The proximity to Main Street is also a strong draw.

WO: Describe the styles of the other three comedians on the show (Sidney Gantt, SP: Dan Scully and Keane Cobb), in three words each.

SP:
Sidney: Hair. Sweaters. Dangerous.
Dan: Ticking. Time. Bomb.
Keane: Hates. Stains. Glasses.

The first 'McGilliCOMEDY' is this Saturday, April 13th at JD McGillicuddy's (111 Cotton Street, Manayunk). Show starts at 8PM. Admission is $10.


Chip Chantry Just Added to 'Always Remember with Alex and Corey' Line-up

Sad news: Dave Hill is stuck in L.A. and won't be able to headline tonight's Always Remember with Alex and Corey, hosted by Alex Pearlman and Corey Cohen. BUT, at the last minute, Philly favorite Chip Chantry has agreed to step in! The day is saved!

chip

The show starts at 8PM at L'etage and will also feature T.j. Hurley, Ryan Shaner and The Necrosexual.  Admission was originally $10, but it's just been slashed IN HALF to $5.  You can find full deets on the 'book: https://www.facebook.com/events/118455065007118/