Between UCB, iO West and the NerdMelt showroom, you're not likely to hear people complain about a dearth of improv options in Hollywood. But veteran improvisor Miles Stroth still saw room for something new.
The Pack Theater has joined the ranks of Santa Monica Boulevard's theater row to offer audiences pay-what-you-can sketch and improv performances. Although Stroth studied under comedy guru Del Close, don't expect this venue to be a clone of Second City, iO or any of the other established improv institutions. The Pack prides itself on its eccentric originality.
"We admire and are inspired by the accomplishments of other theaters in L.A.," Stroth said via email. "They’re our friends and we love them, and our community is strong because the theaters complement each other. That said, if we didn’t think the Pack’s voice was unique or that we didn’t have something significant and special to offer people, we wouldn’t have opened the doors. What differentiates us is who we are; our lessons are our own and won’t be found anywhere else. There's also a palpable artistic passion among our performers, teachers and students, a hunger and intensity that I haven’t seen anywhere else in a long time."
In fact, the theater's name is a nod to the communal aspect of these collective comedy actors, as well as an allusion to the class clowns of the animal kingdom.
"It didn’t feel right having my name involved in the name of the theater," explained Stroth. "The theater was much more than just me. We had adopted a hyena as part of our logo and wanted to keep it. I thought, 'Well, Hyenas run in packs.' And the community we built around us was a family of hungry, ballsy, passionate artists."
The chutzpah of these performing artists was showcased back in July when the tiny black box theater popped its cherry with Pack Con, a seven-hour-long cavalcade of comedy featuring the talents of Adam McKay, Bob Odenkirk, Dave Holmes and Artemis Pebdani, to name a few. The festival marked the Pack's final step in evolution from an instructional acting studio into a full time professional theater.
"This started with me teaching a single workshop, the Miles Stroth Workshop," Stroth explains. "I started to bring in people to teach who I thought had unique points of view and were exceptional at expressing them. As the student body grew we recognized that they needed to be putting up shows to continue to grow. So we put up a night of shows. Then two nights, then three, then four. The community of people that were making these nights happen was inspiring. They deserved their own space. So, in the summer of 2016 we took over the lease on the theater we had been renting only for a few nights and started putting up shows seven nights a week. I believe we were already a community and a theater, but this made it official."
The Pack community revels in unique executions of comedy. Del Closed Fist Presents, a fan fave of iO West audiences that pits WWE wrestlers against improv performers, has recently relocated to this nascent theater. The Lusty Horde taps into the geek chic zeitgeist with their Dungeons and Dragons-esque sketch shows. But, the most innovative take on both the sketch and improv formats is arguably Fairy Tales Against Humanity, which premiered at the venue late last month.
"Fairy Tales Against Humanity is a hybrid of multiple established improv shortform and longform games," said FTAH creator John Paul Karliak during a post performance interview, "and even after a year of rehearsal, we're constantly experimenting with how that best works. The Pack is a great space for experimentation and trying new forms outside of the usual Harold structure. Every show I've seen there has tried something different, and I appreciate that freedom to take risks."
FTAH is a chimera of sketch, improv, and Mad Libs. At the top of the show, Karliak sits on the the apron of the proscenium stage and asks the audience for a series of suggestions: "name something strong," "a pet peeve," "an obsession," etc. Then, the show's ensemble, which feature the deft talents of Second City LA notables Amanda Tate and Jamison Scala, perform a quick, simple fairy tale, such as The Three Little Pigs. Afterward, the story is retold, substituting the aforementioned suggestions to produce an ever increasingly bizarre revisionist tale, such as The Three Little Possums who were obsessed with licking, Tindr, and hugging babies. The show originally debuted at this year's Hollywood Fringe Fest, but its origin traces back decades earlier.
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"My friend Jeni and I sat next to each other in math class and hated it," recounted Karliak. "So I would write these long fairy-tale-based mad libs, and her demented mind would fill in the fifty or so blanks. The result was disgusting, inappropriate, and really hilarious. Cut to last year when I stumbled upon my old notebook and thought it would be fun to develop the idea into a performance piece."
Karliak's experimental approach towards theater perfectly channels the fundamental principals of the Pack that differentiates itself from its comedy contemporaries.
The [Pack's] underlying philosophy is that comedy should be constantly evolving," says Stroth. "Never stop learning. Never get so comfortable with an approach that you are not open to another. Know that you are already enough. Take risks, be bold, be weird, be you and, whatever you do, don’t be boring."
The Pack may be many things, but it's rarely boring.