Duofest Interview: Gross Butler

By: Alison Zeidman

To teenage girls, they're The Beatles. To Hasidic Jews, they're lobsters wrapped in bacon burning  Israeli flags and eating cheeseburgers. To us, they're Gross Butler. They're not trying to offend you; they're just gonna fuck with you a little bit. And in the end, they really just want to rock your face and steal your heart.

Alison Zeidman: How did you guys meet, and then how did you decide to form your duo?

Alex Gross: Like a year ago Greg [Maughan] would just ask me to ask improvisers to do a show that was supposed to never be seen again, just on Sundays if he needed a group to perform. And so the one day he asked me on Sunday, and I texted about fifteen people, and they all told me maybe, except for Mike; he was like, "YES I'll do it!"

Mike Butler: I think it was the Saturday before, he asked me. And I don't know how long before that Greg told you to put together a group. I just assumed that he told you earlier in the week and you just decided on Saturday to start putting it together.

AG: No it was definitely that Saturday, that day.

MB: So Alex said do you want to be in a group, and I said fine, because I knew Alex from Incubator. And he had seen my [PHIT] 101 show earlier in that year as well.

AZ: So you guys did that show together, and just decided to keep going?

AG: Yeah, it was actually a really really good show because uh...yeah, I was just really surprised and Greg was surprised, and we had this sixteen-year-old girl in the audience who was just non-stop laughing. And I was just like, OK, that's our basic dmeographic.

AZ: Is that semi-serious? Do you guys cater to maybe...a less mature audience?

[both laugh]

MB: Oh no, actually our stuff really is mature, a lot of people enjoy it, but on some level I guess sixteen year-olds do really like it. Though Greg told us that at our first performance, there were four Hasidic Jews who had come to the Shubin to see the show, and then walked out in the middle of our performance.

AG: Like the second scene in!

AZ: Can you think of what you might have said or done that would have made them leave?

AG: We were going very religion-heavy at some point.

MB: I thought it was the scene where we were in prison and you peed on me.

AG: That might actually have been it.

MB: And they just kind of walked out, and they didn't take their money back either. So we have that distinction: Our first performance ever, four Hasidic Jews walked out.

AZ: Is that typical for you guys, to have scenes that are more controversial, or maybe even vulgar at times?

AG: I think it's a lot about how the audience is responding. Because we're definitely very much reliant on the audience.

MB: Overall, it's not like we go out and say, "hey, we're gonna have the dirtiest show ever." It's just our personalities, and we just go wherever it takes us.

AG: Yeah, I don't think we try to be dirty. I think our show is just dirty because we're dirty people.

MB: And if you try to be dirty you're going to fail at it; it's going to seem forced. But if you're just naturally...

AG: Fucked up.

MB: I wouldn't say dirty or fucked up. I like to say aggressive.

AZ: Can you explain what you mean by that?

MB: Usually you see an improv show and if stuff starts to get dirty or raunchy, that wipe comes through, and with us we take the scene for another two or three minutes.

AG: Yeah we're very patient. The majority of our shows are all five- to six-minute scenes.

MB: We're lucky if we get to go back to our earlier scenes.

AZ: Do you guys follow a specific format?

MB: We don't necesarrily have a format. We just start doing scenes and then if we feel like it we go back to an earlier scene.

AG: I feel like the one thing I want from this group is--Philadelphia is very fast. A majority, like my team Hey Rube, we play patient in the beginning but it's still not long enough. I like to do slow improv, so the one thing I wanted from Mike and I was just to do like five- to six-minute scenes. So that's our format; we just want to do long scenes. And that's the only thing that I can say our format is, just being patient.

MB: Yeah, we're very patient. We just take scenes and go right up to their logical end, even if there's something dirty in a scene, it isn't over. It's like no, we're going to explore that some more.

AZ: And can you talk about your Krav Maga-inspired inspired opening?

AG: One night I was at home and I was reading an interview with The Vines, and when they were a shitty band and they were just starting out, most of their shows would end with all the bandmates just getting in fistfights, and the audience loved it. And I was like man, I want to get in a fistfight! And so I just was like oh, I'll do that with Mike, forgetting that he's trained in MMA.

MB: Yeah, he messaged me at work one day and says "Hey Mike, do you own boxing gloves?" And I said "why yes I do, why?" "I wanna do something where we start off the show boxing each other. " And I'm like, "OK, that's fine," and we worked out how it would work, where we do the clover leaf while we're punching each other, and I'm like, "OK great, which show do you want to do this on, Tuesday night? Usually I can't do Tuesday night because I have Israeli Krav Maga class, but that's fine." And then he Wikipediaed it really quickly and said "oh my god, you're a killing machine!"

AG: It's awful, I hate it. There's nothing like getting to your first scene and you're already out of breath and your face hurts.

AZ: So you guys are really boxing each other?

AG: Oh he hits me pretty fucking hard.

MB: I hit him hard enough. I don't want him to be knocked out and then I have to do the rest of the show alone. But we're not tapping each other. I'm looking to put a little mustard on each punch and let him feel it, and the crowd gets into it because apparently everybody loves watching Alex get punched.

AG: The first part of the clover leaf is just like warming up, the second one's really
vicious, and then the third one I'm losing my breath, my face hurts, and most of the time
by the third one my helmet's ripped off.

MB: Yes, I provide him with a helmet, because I'm used to getting punched in the face and he's not. So by that third one he's forgetting the words and I have to remind him which word we're on.

AZ: So it sounds like even during that you're still very supportive of each other: You're helping him remember words, you're offering him a helmet. What other things, once you get into the meat of your show with scenes, do you think make you guys a good pair?

AG: I like to throw like curve balls--and just for the record we do shows way better when we're not fighting each other at the beginning, because I sort of...nothing's like doing an improv scene where your whole left side hurts, and you're just sort of like fuck you, Mike. I don't want to be onstage with you anymore, I fucking do not feel like doing this anymore.

MB: But yeah, he likes throwing me curve balls. At our last Grape Room show we were doing a father son bonding scene and he's like, "yeah, now give me fifty pushups!" and I proceeded to do fifty push-ups onstage, with everybody counting.

AG: And me shooting my hunting rifle in the air. A funny thing about that, it shows you that in improv it's not all about comedy, it's just doing the task at hand. You "yes, and"-ed my fifty push-ups, and it ended with the whole crowd fucking applauding the shit out of you for like thirty seconds. They fucking loved the shit out of you after that.

AZ: Is that a recurring thing for you guys, to set your partner up in a scene for something that's going to be challenging, and maybe even impossible? Is that a conscious game, or does that just happen?

AG: It just happens.

MB: Yeah I don't think we try, it's just the way we were trained. I took [PHIT] 201 with Mike Marbach and the main thing I took out of that class was, as Mike would say, "go out on stage and fuck with people." And that just means go out and have fun with your partner, have fun with your team.

AG: I also know that Mike isn't going to bail on an idea. If I tell him to be King Tut, he's gonna be the best King Tut that he can be, and that's really good. It shows....definitely shows a certain kind of maturity. A lot of [beginner] improv students, you'll tell them to do something, and they're so self-conscious, that they'll either be a really shitty King Tut or they'll just be like, "I'm not King Tut, I'm an astronaut!" [It's like saying] fuck you man, I hate your decision. And Mike always accepts it, no matter what.

AZ: Are there any challenges that you feel in performing, either just by the very nature of being in a duo, or for your duo specifically?

MB: The challenging thing about being in a duo is you're in every scene; you're always working. I think being in a group, if you're on the side you can pick up patterns or little extra things more easily, but then when you're in a duo you're doing everything at once. But that's what makes being in a duo fun. And I guess that's why we have Duofest.

AZ: What are you guys looking forward to about this upcoming duofest?

AG: Free shit. T-shirts. Drink tickets at the bar.

MB: I wanna rock peoples' faces. I want people coming out of our show going "yeah, fuck yeah, I like these guys."

AG: Yeah, it's nice [to be a part of it]. I tried to get into the first Duofest and I didn't get in, and it's nice getting into this one, and I appreciate all of the producers for picking us. But it's just another show. It's not like I'm more nervous to do this show than any other. Just time to play.

MB: Yeah. Just go out and have fun, just go out and play. That's what Kristin Schier taught me in [PHIT] 101. So go out and play....go out and fuck with people...and now in the 301 class [with Greg Maughan], don't throw chairs.

AG: Yeah, Greg Maughan's a wet blanket.

AZ: Is it OK if I print that?

AG: Add that I love him, too.


Duofest Interview: Michael Loves Greg

By: Alison Zeidman

Full disclosure: The members of this duo were interviewed separately because Greg Maughan was busy prepping for Duofest and running our dearly beloved Philly Improv Theater, and Michael McFarland was busy with moving, starting a new job, getting married in the near future, and other grown-up things. I've Frankensteined their answers together here, and you can just use your mind thoughts to picture the two of 'em sittin' 'round a table, gabbin' 'bout 'prov and maybe sharin' some snacks.

Alison Zeidman: How did you two meet?

Greg Maughan: Mike and I met for the first time in a workshop taught by Matt Holmes in 2005, and afterwards we sat down to talk about an improv group Mike was trying to start. Flash forward a few months and things came together to form a group called Industrial.

AZ: And then how did you decide to form your duo?

Michael McFarland: I moved to New York from Philadelphia about six or seven years ago, and then Jonathan Pitss and I, who runs the Chicago Improv Festival, stayed at Greg's house during some improv festival in Philadelphia. I think it was during Duofest. And I was like screaming at Greg and drunkenly demanding that he get me food, and Jonathan was like "hey, you guys should do a duo," and about six months later we decided to do it.

AZ: How long have you been performing as your duo?

GM: Just over a year, although we have performed together for just about 7 years at this point in various groups.

AZ: Where did the name "Michael Loves Greg" come from?

MM: I guess I always threaten to have sex with Greg, and I don't want it to be...I want him to think it came from a place of love and not just lust. And we also thought on another side of it, after that, that it's fun to explore the concept of love. Like the name's open for interpretation: Does Greg love me back? Or am I just obsessed with him? What kind of love do I have for him? Is it as a brother, is it as a friend, is it as a lover? Am I deranged and think I love him but I really just want to get with him? It could be a lot of different things. It's just a fun concept, and we like to explore the word "love" through our shows.

AZ: Do you perform a specific format?

GM: Not really. We tend to ask the audience for something they love, then maybe interview the person we get the suggestion from a little bit... and then promptly forget everything and just launch into a show. If there's any underlying format it's probably that Mike pushes to places he knows I'll be uncomfortable with and then I get to deal with them.

AZ: Greg, what do you think are Mike's greatest strengths as a performer?

GM: Mike is just naturally funny--he's the type of guy you can point at and say "be funny!" and he'll actually say something funny. He's also really relentless, he just keeps coming at you in a scene and building the stakes or increasing the tension. It's really easy to play with him onstage, because if I'm not having a great scene he can always turn it around.

AZ: And Mike, what do you like about Greg as an improviser?

MM: Greg is constantly aware of what my state is and what I'm doing, and if I'm not doing it he'll do it. If there's something that needs to be done in the scene and I'm not doing it for some reason or not feeling up to it, he does it. And if I'm exra energetic he'll lay back and let that extra energy come out of me and then respond to it, and justify it.

AZ: What do you think makes you two work well as a duo?

GM: Honestly, I think it's just a lot of shared history and trust between us. You have to trust that your scene partner is going to make you look good, and then you have to know your partner so you can tee things up for them. We can do both those things. We're also very different players. I'm more of a slow burn, and less obvious. Mike likes to put it all out there. It's a nice ying and yang.

MM: I think it's a very honest show. I think that we both try and really be as honest as we can in our improv. I use a lot of personal life experiences to guide what my characters do, and I think that Greg does that as well. I also think Greg's [personality is] a little bit more reserved, just in general, and a little bit more clean-cut and kind of wholesome, and I'm very gregarious; I like to talk about everything, and be very even like, shocking on purpose. So I think onstage it's really fun to see the contrast of those two personalities, where we'll always find a common bond for our characters. It's fun to see two different perspectives be in the same situation onstage.

AZ: What do you like and/or dislike about performing with a duo, as opposed to a team?

GM: Well, I think it's the same answer for like and dislike: the challenge. When you've got a duo you are in every scene and you have to carry the show. It's really exciting when it's working, but it's torture when it isn't.

MM: Performing with a duo is really great because as a performer, I love stage time, and I love to be out there. And when you have six or eight people you have to share the stage with them, which is just what you do, but with two people you're in every scene. I'm a big attention whore and it's just a huge rush to be up there and have every scene involve you. It's also easier to organize with one person.

AZ: Can you tell me a favorite moment you’ve had as a duo, onstage or off?

GM: Last summer Mike and I got pretty drunk at the Baltimore Improv Festival and he started begging me to take him to a strip club--actually a whole area of strip clubs just off the inner Harbor called "The Block." He had just recently gotten engaged, and I have never set foot inside a strip club... so I didn't want to go, and kept giving him drinks at the bar we were visiting until I knew the clubs were all closed. Then we got in a cab and went down there. It was a madhouse. People were everywhere milling around in the street, and there were probably a hundred cops in the three blocks just pushing everyone towards the bus stops, parking lots, etc.

MM: I think we actually just got sandwiches and went back to our hotel room.

AZ: And to close, what are you most looking forward to and/or least looking forward to about Duofest?

GM: Well I'm most looking forward to our show, of course! I'm also looking forward to seeing a lot of friends from all over the country and having the time to hang out with them. Festivals are kind of like weekend-long parties and that is always a lot of fun. But I am certainly not looking forward to the lack of sleep... that will be rough come Monday.

MM: Duofest is great because the audiences are so enthusiastic. And it's really fun because most of the duos are very close friends, and there's a really nice bond between all of the groups in general.

See Michael Loves Greg in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Friday, June 8th at 7 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.


Duofest Interview: Half-Life

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?

SK: 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: Bathhouses.

SK: What?

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.


Duofest Interview: Matt&

By: Alison Zeidman

In the year 2007, during a great time of growth for the Philadelphia improv scene, one man set out on a mission to team up in one-off shows with as many of the city's players as possible. By 2008, subconsciously fueled by short form improv experience and a particular Andy Kaufman performance he'd obsessed over in his youth, that man decided to forge a more challenging show partnership: scenes with audience members encountering him--and improv--for the very first time. The name of that man is Matt Holmes, and the name of his "duo" is Matt&.

Alison Zeidman: For people who aren't familiar what you do, can you explain what Matt& is?

Matt Holmes: It's a show that I do with an audience member, and I try to look for somebody who is not a performer themselves. I usually ask if there is anybody there seeing improv for the very first time ever. And then I pull them up onstage.

AZ: Is it sometimes difficult to get them to go up there with you?

MH: The rest of the audience tends to overzealously cheer them on as soon as the concept is brought up, so there's only been once or twice where the person has been really like oh, no, I don't want to, or just flat out refused. Then I bring them up onstage and I tell them that the responsibility is all on me for making it all work, and they have free reign to do and say whatever they want, and to purposefully try to mess me up if they want to. Then that gives me the opportunity to show off my skills and make things that for any other improv group might be sort of a stumbling block or a challenge into something impressive.

AZ: Is there a specific format that you follow for these shows?

MH: By the very nature of how it works I sort of have to be flexible, and I kind of prefer to work that way. I've been in a bunch of different groups and projects before, and I'm always the one who wants to keep it less rigid. So with this show even if I tried to have an idea sketched out of [how I'll do scenes], it's probably not going to work out that way anyway. So sometimes it's just scene after scene with whatever pops up into my head, and sometimes it's more like a Harold where things will come back or there'll be patterns, but I really have to not be too precious about format.

AZ: When you're doing these shows, do you feel more or less in control than when you're doing a show with an actual improv group? On the one hand it's so loose and you're with this person who's never done a show before, and you can't really follow a format, but on the other hand being the only experienced performer onstage means you can drive the scenes and drive the action.

MH: Yeah, that's one of the many dichotomies that I think is present in my show, is...maybe more than any show I've done, it's exhilirating and a challenge and I still get nervous and find it thrilling, but at the same time I'm more relaxed when I'm actually doing it and it's working and things are just falling into place. So yeah, it's kind of yes and no, I'm both in control and allowing myself to be not in control.

AZ: Are there specific things that you like or dislike about performing with an audience member versus being in a larger improv group? You started to get into that with how you prefer the looser format, but are there any other things where having half of your group being inexperienced gives you more freedom?

MH: Yeah, I think it really falls right into place with how I like to work. I'm kind of a stage hog. I like to be out a lot when I'm in a group, and in this show I'm in every scene. And I'm not always as good at supporting other peoples' ideas and playing well with others in any other show, but in Matt& I have to. I have to take whatever this audience member brings and utilize it. And it works best that way.

AZ: Can you think of any other ways in which performing with Matt& has enhanced your improv skills in general? It sounds like it forces you to be more agreeable and be more supportive of your scene partner. Are there any other things where you've really noticed it improving your skills, and where you 've been able to bring back some of those things to your group performances?

MH: I think it's helped me be truly relaxed and flexible as a performer, and also be more confident and personable hosting and introducing a show, and talking with somebody not as a character beforehand, and then playing with them and helping them through what can be kind of an awkward situation for them.

AZ: So in general, you're more comfortable being a character in a show setting than you are being yourself?

MH: Yeah. [Laughs.] I'm not nervous at all about being in some embarrassing situation. One time I had to kind of improvise a song, one time I had to improvise a poem as a gym teacher, you know, weird, awkward, embarrrasssing things. That doesn't bother me, because it's not me. It's just some weird character, so I sort of get to lose myself and hide behind that. But hosting and talking to the crowd after and being myself, that's more of a challenge for me. And I think probably for a lot of performers, in all art forms.

AZ: Is this a little bit uncomfortable for you now, speaking about yourself and your own performance?

MH: Well no, I'm getting better at it now, from having to do it at the begining of each Matt& show. I've had some shows where the audience member kind of demands that we stop playing as a character for a bit, and get back to the one-on-one interview part as ourselves. There was one show I did when Penn State had an improv festival, and I got an audience member, and it started off like all Matt& shows start off, with "who am I?" and "who are you?" and getting to know each other, and then we got into a scene and that was over, and I wanted to get into another scene and play another character, and she wanted to get back to interviewing each other. So It sort of became that pattern of I have to be myself again, now I get to do a scene, now we have to be ourselves again, now we get to do a scene. And that became this great challenge where at the end I kind of wove those together into her playing my therapist, and working in factors of my own life, and the whole audience got on board with why that was so interesting, because everything that was in the show led up to it.

AZ: When you do the interview with the audience member, is that how you usually generate your material for the scenes to come, or do you get a suggestion from the audience once you have your partner up there with you?

MH: I'll always get a one-word sgugestion to inspire the show just because I like that aspect of improv. I like exploring the scene or disecting a word or whatever that word leads to, but sometimes elements from interviewing my partner will come back later or I'll use them. A lot of times I don't, but it's always good for a laugh and interesting to the scene when I do.

AZ: Has an audience member ever taken you by surprise with their adaptability, or have they ever just displayed some sort of surprising inherent improv skill, even if they're just getting up there for the first time?

MH: Yeah, surprise is probably a big, big part of my show. Me being surprised to have to play with somebody who's really hesitant at first, and then the surprise when they start playing along and offering things. Surprise when somebody leaves the stage and I have to figure out what that means for the story, and how to work that. That's happened a lot.

AZ: Do they come back after they leave?

MH: One time I brought them back, and one time I kind of worked it in like I was yelling up at them in the balcony of their window, kind of a Romeo and Juliet serenade thing, and then I ended the set after that scene instead of trying to convince her to come back onstage. But yeah in terms of being surprised at how good they are, that happens a lot more than you would think. I've had people have these great insights into a cultural reference that we're bringing, where they'll bring back stuff the way that a really good improviser will, or they'll make these jokes that you'd swear they had written beforehand. There are a lot of great surprises. The one that stands out because it's such a "joke," is when I was at the Del Close Marathon, my first time performing Matt& there, and the show was going really well. I was really pleased with how well it was going, and then at a certain point my audience member partner, who was not a performer and hadn't taken an improv class or anything like that, brought up the concept of if you were to rape a prostitute, would it be rape or would it be theft? And it got this huge laugh. Afterwards I went and Googled to see if that was from some movie or TV show, but I think that, you know, it somehow came up in the story, and I think she just said it off the cuff, and it was great.

See Matt& perform in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Saturday, June 9th at 9 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.


Review: The Grimacchio Variety Hour

By: Alison Zeidman

Dutiful fans of Philly's favorite pair of half-Italians prone to playful bickering and off-beat tangents braved Monday night's drizzle for the premiere of The Grimacchio Variety Hour, and the dynamic duo (Jason Grimley and Ralph Andracchio) did not disappoint.

The lovely Sue & Cait (caitblack.com) opened the show on acoustic bass and ukulele, respectively, with Sue jangling the jingle bells around her ankle in time to to the music while Cait crooned silky, smokey vocals into the old timey microphone at center stage.

After two songs, Grimacchio strolled out from behind the curtain—dressed in suits for the occasion—to applaud the two ladies, compliment Cait's gold shoes, and go off on a riff about a Buck Rogers television special which revealed the actor's staggering weight gain and declining health, forever marring their memories of their childhood hero. Then, they acknowledged the audience and welcomed us all to the show, blushing (Ralph) and sweating (Jason) with gratitude that everyone came. To warm up the crowd, they improvised some banter around current news items suggested by the audience, speculating on how Barack Obama decided to come out in favor of gay marriage ("fuck it, let's do this") and relating the Devil's Breath street drug sensation to the campy Wes Craven flick The Serpent and the Rainbow.

They cut themselves off long enough to bring storyteller Hillary Rea onstage ("you will love her, damnit!") for a brief conversation about her current projects and an adorably confusing explanation of her multiple online aliases. Rea told a fun and wonderfully detailed story about her first frenemy, a frizzy redhead with an in-home elevator who slutted it up through an Our Changing Bodies video in the sixth grade and ruined Rea's retro-themed seventh grade birthday party with a Nirvana mixtape and an illicit game of Spin the Bottle, which young Rea excused herself from by hiding in the bathroom for thirty minutes.

Rea was followed by a Grimacchio sketch interlude, featuring the fellas as hipster record store employees (complete with "douchebag hats") ignoring their customer to challenge each other with obscure music trivia. Sue & Cait followed, returning to the spotlight to literally sing the praises of Theodore Roosevelt, accompanied by a goofy framed black-and-white portrait of the President.

After a brief telling of the origin of the Grimacchio name (Jason didn't know how to pronounce "Andracchio," and Ralph didn't correct him), comedienne LaTice took the mic to talk about the lack of joy in marriage, race relations in the suburbs, reality TV, and Flo the Progressive girl's insensitivity to racial stereotypes. There were a number of slyly hilarious jokes worth quoting, but I wouldn't want to ruin the punchlines for you.

Maureen Costello and Corin Wells of Ebony and Ivory closed the show, joined by Grimacchio for an improv set inspired by an interview with an accountant sitting in the audience. Highlights included Grimley as a talking dead goldfish in Costello's cocaine-induced hallucination set in a cubicle in the '80s; Wells as a five-year-old demanding apple juice before getting to work saving the company's finances with her prodigious knowledge of QuickBooks and TurboTax; and a final scene with a Grimacchio-led game of double-speak, where Andracchio opposite hired Grimley from the accounting office, leading Grimley to threaten that he would opposite sleep soundly that night, forcing Andracchio to opposite tell security not to come upstairs and opposite let Grimley leave of his own volition.

After the blackout, Grimacchio invited all of the night's performers back onstage to receive another round of applause, Sue & Cait played one last sweet little tune, and everyone filed outside praising the evening's entertainment. For future editions of The Grimacchio Variety Hour, be sure to check the PHIT schedule and look for updates at facebook.com/Grimacchio.

Alison Zeidman lives in South Philadelphia, has a superfluous second Facebook page for work, and spends her evenings running around with the new indie improv team Malone.