L.A.'s Booming Indie Improv Scene
PHOTO BY KATE LANEMark David Christenson, left, and Ryan Hitchcock perform at the Clubhouse in improv team Street Lightning. The venue opened in January to host indie improv shows but hundreds of teams still fight for stage time.
It's a Tuesday night at the Clubhouse, a black-box theater on the second floor of a condo located down an alley from the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and El Centro Avenue. At the weekly improv show TNT, the group Call Waiting, comprised of Upright Citizens Brigade alums Mark Rennie, Ryan Rosenberg and Drew Tarver, are finally getting stage time after waiting four months, and they're starting off with the one-word audience suggestion "crown." As its name suggests, the group's angle is creating three-way phone conversations.
That Friday, not too far away, at the corner of Melrose and La Brea, an audience is packed up against the windows at the Neon Venus Art Theatre, reveling in the weekly improv show headlined by the trio Proton Pack. While Call Waiting mines laughs by spinning an absurdist scenario (a pastor receiving cookies filled with razor blades and diarrhea), Proton Pack's approach to improv is more plot-driven (the audience's suggested title for a comic book, "Titties are us," leads to a scenario about porn stars doubling as superheroes).
Even if you don't laugh, you can shrug it off, as the cost of such indie improv shows ranges from a $2 donation to a $5 ticket, and free beer or water often comes with the price of admission. Sure, the performers are glad you showed up, but they were never expecting to draw a yuppie crowd in the first place, which explains the lack of a parking valet.
These off-the-beaten path oases are free from the pressures of high-paying audiences, and are where improvisers can freely hone their craft and fall on their face if necessary.
Similar to the way in which L.A. made its mark with alternative stand-up venues in the '90s with Largo and UnCabaret, so has it given way to the current wave of alternative improv spaces. Since 2005, indie rooms have sprouted up like gyms across the city, operating outside the franchise comedy theaters — UCB, Groundlings, IO West and Second City — that dominate the craft in performance and teaching.
The explosion is largely attributed to the moment when UCB opened on Franklin Avenue. Over the last eight years, the school has amassed a number of students and alums who may not often find stage time at the venue or make it onto one of its highly competitive house teams. These aspirants band together to form their own teams, sometimes as practice groups for their classes, which fuels the demand for new places to perform.
The glut of UCB acolytes also is why the predominant style often seen in the oldest indie hangs around town, i.e. TNT, Room 101 and Crashbar, is UCB's "game" philosophy. The game is the style of long-form improv in which improvisers search for a unique element in their scene and heighten that idea to hilarious extremes.
Other laugh institutes, such as Second City, IO West and the Groundlings, have kept their flocks in-house largely due to their separate student stages and improv jams. But their adherents are creating indie rooms as well: Those booking a spot at the Sunday Bash! at the Hollywood Complex tend to be practitioners of Second City's scene-based technique, which focuses on characters' connections and relationships, while Neon Venus Art Theatre, named after owner Lissette Salazar Napoleoni's punk band out of Las Vegas, assembles house teams and welcomes outsiders from all walks of improv life but especially the students from the Groundlings, which is down the street. Despite improvisers' ardent comedy school spirit, a "members only" policy is never enforced at alt spaces.
"While many of the theaters in town have a school of thought, in most of these indie shows we're pretty nondiscriminatory," says UCB alum Harrison Brown, who runs TNT with Jonathan Smith and Jonny Svarzbein. "Our flood base tends to be from UCB, but there's no rule that says you have to perform game."
Already in their five years–plus of existence, these rooms can trace their eclectic roots like nomadic punk bands. Crashbar on Sunday nights derived its name from the 2008 accident at IO West in which a car drove through its storefront on Hollywood Boulevard. Co-founder Casey Feigh recalls how Crashbar initially was "a charity show raising money for the laid-off bar staff" and, once removed from IO, continued its life at the Trade Stage on La Brea and at spots in Silver Lake and Los Feliz. The Elephant Lab on Santa Monica Boulevard served as the first of four locations for Room 101, while TNT's first abode was on Sierra Bonita off Sunset.
"It was a hole in the wall. There were cockroaches. To get to the bathroom, you had to walk back onstage," Brown exclaims of TNT's first space at the Sierra Stage. "We were there for about two and a half years before it was condemned."
In January, the scene got a boost when wunderkind Rebecca Drysdale, a breakthrough artist at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts festival, relocated to L.A. from New York for a writing gig on Comedy Central's Key and Peele. She rebuilt what she started at her Chelsea loft during the 2007 writers strike, leasing a commercial space on El Centro, opening the Clubhouse and becoming a de facto godmother of indie improv.
"I figured I could teach improv classes here, and within a week every single major improv indie show decided to move to my theater," says Drysdale, whose space now houses Crashbar, Room 101, TNT and many others.
"There was a need for a centralized space," she adds. "I know what it's like to perform at other spaces — either the lights don't work, or the person renting the space doesn't understand what improv is." She says she didn't charge her new tenants one cent more than at their previous locations.
In addition to its upstairs stage, the Clubhouse boasts a downstairs area where performers can kibbitz between shows. An improv night there can generate from $40 to $90 in donations from both attendees and performers, which then goes toward a show's monthly rental fees. With improv programmed daily, at 13 shows a week, there's enough gross to cover the Clubhouse's overhead (the lease, janitorial services).
As the superintendent, Drysdale doesn't pull rank but actually submits her improv team, Elephants Gerald (which she performs with Suzi Barrett), to the long waiting lists of other Clubhouse shows. Crashbar, for example, has 435 teams pining for stage time in the months ahead.
The rundown of most of these improv shows is pretty standard — four to eight teams performing 15 to 18 minutes each. Variations are slight: Crashbar will feature one stand-up comedian in the middle of its improv sets. CAMP!, late Friday nights at the Clubhouse, is a smorgasbord of sketch, improv and stand-up.
"You're doing something that's a possible nightmare for the audience," says Room 101's Nick Mandernach about the risk of practicing improv. The trick to winning the crowd, no matter how ridiculous a scene may be, lies in "how comfortable and confident you are."
Even though most of the alt-improvisers have a penchant for styles they learned at the major improv think tanks, these indie rooms are vying to be fonts of experimentation. At the forefront is the Clubhouse's Shapeshift Improv on Thursday nights, which invites groups to invent new forms based on a list of predetermined absurdist names, such as the Whirligig, Dos Ojos or the Mississippi.
Mandernach also points out how improvisers are emulating styles that are uniquely inherent to L.A.'s new wave, i.e., the Convoy, a fast-paced, multiscene format born from the UCB group of that name, which aims to shoot far from its initial suggestion. There's also the Dasariski (created by IO West's trio of the same name, Robert Dassie, Rich Talarico and Craig Cackowski), a slow, long-form style that feels more like a regular theatrical play. Drysdale also teaches her own variation of improv called Fuck Me Listening, which encourages players to focus astutely on each other's words, as though they have a crush on their scene partner.
"My philosophy on improv is that it's still new and changing daily," Drysdale says. "As soon as one school of thought emerges, a backlash school of thought arises. We're still in the infancy."
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