Saturday and Sunday, Thrilling Adventure Hour, the monthly radio-meets-stage show at Largo, presents two nights of guest star-packed, more-than-an-hour performances. Yesterday, we chatted with co-creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker about the evolution of the popular show. Today, we'll hear from regular cast members Samm Levine, Marc Evan Jackson and Paul F. Tompkins.
Marc Evan Jackson
Marc Evan Jackson is one of the original members of the Thrilling Adventure Hour cast. He plays the lead role in the popular, serialized segment “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars.”
How did you get involved with the show?
I was with a company called the Second City in Detroit and then when I moved out here in 2001, I was teaching improv to new students in the space when it was next to Improv on Melrose. Ben Acker had been a student there for writing and then was a teacher of writing there. Wednesday evening, the teachers there would improvise for the students to give them a feel for it. He saw me improvising on several Wednesday nights and asked Mark Gagliarti to come talk to me and see if I would be interested in this thing. Eventually we met and chatted and he said that they were working on this project, this old time radio hour type of thing, and would I be interested in playing it. I went to the first rehearsal and new immediately that it was going to be really fun.
How has the show evolved for you?
One of the ways that I love to play it is that it doesn't really evolve. Sparks Nevada is sort of a perpetually teenage boy in this adult body. He's petulant. I lovingly refer to him as being a dumb guy with a big ego, which is a character that I very much love playing. I love people that in the face of falling off a cliff still want to fight about something that happened five minutes ago going now you know I'm right about that even though they're facing imminent doom. He's worried about the shiny objects and the petty things, the little things. He and Croach [played by Mark Gagliardi] could be arguing about something completely unrelated in the course of a gun battle.
How does your improv background affect Thrilling Adventure Hour?
It affects everything I do and it certain affects Thrilling Adventure. I can't imagine doing anything without being an improviser. I can't imagine trying to write or act or direct without what improvising offers you.
As the writers will attest, I liberally add my own writing to the project. I don't always dry run everything with them in rehearsal. Sometimes I do, some of it I save for on stage. I think it's nice when they're able to be surprised by their own writing as well.
One of the benefits to having these guys write the show and having it be on for so long, they truly are able to write in each of our voices. This always sounds awful when I say it, but it's almost as though we write it ourselves. It's so tailor-made for each one of us that we can get the script in rehearsal three nights before the show and reading it and it flies off the tongue and it's very funny, you're almost surprising yourself by how much fun and how easy it is. Acker and Blacker are remarkable writers, hilarious, prolific and truly able to write from more than one perspective.
There's a risk, I think, with doing this much material over this long of a time with this many actors, that the character would be too sort of same-y, too alike to one another and that's not the case with any of their characters.
Are there still things about your characters that surprise you?
Sparks and Croach have been in the show for nearly the whole time and it's always fresh. It's always new. It's a buddy comedy, effectively, and there is no end to the minor frustrations he can offer me and the major frustrations I can offer him.
Actor Samm Levine might be best known for playing Neil Schweiber in Freaks and Geeks and PFC Hirschberg in Inglourious Basterds. He is a longtime member of the Thrilling Adventure Hour cast.
Since 2005, what kind of roles have you played in Thrilling Adventure Hour?
We've all done every role imaginable.
Acker and Blacker, they don't ever pigeonhole any of their actors into playing a specific character. They write ridiculous, off-the-wall characters for every sketch and then they oftentimes are thinking of actors when they write the character, and sometimes it works that the actor they were thinking of winds up playing the part.
Sometimes the voice that they do is very different from what thinking of, but it always somehow works. I've played mad scientists. I've played villains. I've played giant spiders and fancy British men.
Do you have a favorite?
The agricultural mad scientist Dr. Lagado. He's kind of a mix between Sean Connery and John O'Hurley doing J. Peterman.
Some of the regulars, I've done Lagado more than once, I'd like to keep doing it. There's a character called Kevin the Spider, who is the aforementioned giant spider. Sparks Navada murdered his family all thousand of his babies and his wife… he tries to seek revenge on Sparks Nevada, but every time he gets close he winds up in some precarious situation where he needs Sparks to save him. So, he decides, I'll let you go this time because you saved me, but next time I will get my revenge. He has yet to get it.
I think Kevin the Spider was the very first character I did in a show. He's been recurring. He's come back at least a half a dozen times.
What's it like for you to be on stage, but to be doing the show in a radio style?
I don't know that any of us think about it like radio style because we're performing for the house anyway. If it were radio, we would not be dressed up, we wouldn't necessarily be using our whole bodies in the performance, we wouldn't be so concerned with our facial expressions. We're all keenly aware that even though it is in the style of radio, there is an audience and we like to give them visuals.
How long do you have to work with the script?
Sometimes we get a couple days notice, maybe a week or two. Most of the time, we get the script about three or four days before the show, we'll do a rehearsal and that's that. A couple times, I know I'm not the only one, you're out of town or you can't get to rehearsals for whatever reason, you won't get the script until the night of the show. In that case, you want to make sure you show up a little early and get some rehearsal time in before you have to do the thing live.
Paul F. Tompkins
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins originated the role of Frank Doyle in “Beyond Belief,” in which he plays opposite Paget Brewster. “Beyond Belief” is one of the longest-running segments of Thrilling Adventure Hour.
How has your approach to playing Frank in “Beyond Belief” changed over the years?
I think it's gotten a little sillier as it's gone on. I think that there's a gradual increase in the silliness, but that's about it. I definitely think that doing that role with Paget, it's like our rapport has deepened and the rapport of those characters. In my mind, it's a very specific thing, the dynamic we have as those characters where it feels like a different relationship than my relationship to Paget. It becomes it's own thing on stage, which I have not experienced with any other kind of work that I've done, people I've worked with a lot. It's unique. It's very much about Frank and Sadie.
Was the connection there from the beginning?
I think both. I think it was there from the beginning and I think it's deepened over time. I think the relationship between those characters has become, I don't know, to me they are a fully realized couple when we perform those characters. That's how it feels to me and it's weird because in my real life, I'm married to somebody else. For that time that we are doing those characters, I absolutely feel as though we are those people for as long as we are performing. It's a very weird thing.
Do you ever improvise?
A tiny, tiny, tiny bit and not all the time. Every once in a while, I will throw in something and then Paget and I will do something together.
I never know how Paget is going to pronounce certain words, so that surprises me. We fill in, we improvise physically a lot. There's stuff that we do while the audience is laughing. There are little moments that we have together, looks and touches.
Do you have a vision of when “Beyond Belief” is set?
I think it's set now and I think that Frank and Sadie are these weird individuals and nobody ever acknowledges it.
You know what it is? It's not so much that it's set in a different time, but that it's set in a different universe where all of these things come together.
It's almost like an alternate reality. It's one Earth over from the one we live on.
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