News Column

Improv explosion [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

August 22, 2013


When Abby Fudor, Tim Ryder, Kasey Daley or Randy Kirk step on stage, they have almost no idea what they're going to say or do or even who their character is or what the production is about.

Neither does the audience.

That's the lure of improv, Fudor says.

"The big allure of watching improv is watching people make it up on the spot," says Fudor, an improv performer who also is the founding creative director of Arcade Comedy Theater, Downtown. "You will see something that has never been seen before."

Improv is shorthand for improvisational theater, a form of live theater in which actors perform by relying on their creative talents, listening skills and quick wits rather than scripts, rehearsals and lavish scenery, props or costumes.

Armed only with a word or two or a topic suggested by audience members, two or more performers create a scene that can last just a few minutes -- or extend to something approaching a full play with characters, dialogue, action and dramatic arcs.

"It's the spontaneity of it. You never know what's going to happen next. They think so quickly on stage and you never know what you're going to hear next," says Lou Castelli, the director of external affairs at Pittsburgh Public Theater, which has been hosting performances by the Chicago-based improvisational company The Second City, for a decade.

Improv is far from new. Since the silent-film era of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, actors have used improvisational techniques to build and refine their characters and story lines.

More recently, comedian Larry David has employed it in creating his HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and performers such as Tina Fey, Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert employ skills they learned at The Second City to perfect their comedic performance and timing skills.

But not all performances are comedies.

Directors such as international directors Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook have incorporated improv techniques into their avant- garde, politically oriented theater pieces.

Others, such as Pittsburgh-based The LuPones, improvise full- scale musicals.

Performers say interest in and audiences for live improv have been growing both nationally and locally.

"It's becoming more widely known," says Tim Ryder, an actor and improviser with The Second City who has appeared here several times in performances for Pittsburgh Public Theatre. "It helps that so many people in Hollywood, movies and television have come up through (improv). ... Just having it available and being able to look up improv (performances) on the Internet has certainly helped us."

Many local fans cite Friday Night Improvs at the University of Pittsburgh for giving them their start -- either as observers or participants or both.

That's where audience member Laura Pollaren of Lawrenceville got her first taste of improv. "I love it. It's different every time," she says.

Now out of college and about to be married, Pollaren included an evening at the Late Night Improv Jams at the Cabaret at Theater Square to top off her pre-wedding bachelorette party. "It was good for everybody to come here and have a good time," she says. "There's no karaoke, no bands and it seemed like a good Downtown destination."

Bloomfield resident Roxanne Cain also got hooked on improv, first as an audience member and then as a performer at Friday Night Improvs.

"It changed my identity," she says, admitting she was very shy until she dared herself to get up on stage. Instead of embarrassing herself, she was a success with the audience. Now, she alternates between watching and performing with equal relish.

"As a performer, you would think that would be more exciting. But sometimes you feel bad about a scene," Cain says. "It's so much more fun to watch because improvers have so much angst."

Many improv shows attract a younger audience. That's not just because so many of them begin at 10 p.m. or later, when the 40-plus crowd is heading home.

With a few exceptions, such as The Second City performances at Pittsburgh Public Theater, most improv ticket prices are single digit, and some, like Monday nights at Steel City Improv in Shadyside, are free.

That's because producing improv is low-cost, explains Randy Kirk, the cabaret manager at the Cabaret at Theater Square as well as creative and operations manager for Arcade Comedy Theater.

"Improv is economical. There are no rehearsals. There are no technicians. There are no copyright issues," he says.

While groups that operate in East End neighborhoods near universities may attract lots of college students, those Downtown tend to draw audiences that are young professionals.

"Our audience (at Arcade Comedy Theater) is a younger, smarter audience, looking for something different from (traditional theater). We are seeing a lot more of them than other improv groups," Fudor says. "It's our location Downtown where thousands of them pass our door on their way to get a mocha."

Kasey Daley, Steel City Improv Theater's artistic director, says her theater attracts people between ages 25 and 40, but 80 percent are on the younger end.

A lot of those attending shows or taking improv classes have recently moved to Pittsburgh and are looking to meet people.

"You take an improv class, and you have 15 new friends," Daley says. "It's remarkable when you find people with interests like you."

"People are looking for stuff to do and not just watch," says Liz Labacz, showcase host and producer of Friday Nite Improvs. It's not unusual for people to form lifelong friendships with people they have met or performed with at the show.

Improv performers and fans also tend to be smart and verbal, she believes.

"We tend to attract a nerdier crowd," she says.

Ryder, who has performed with The Second City all over the country, makes a similar observation: "Pittsburgh has been a pretty savvy audience with giving suggestions and hopping on board with whatever we try," Ryder says. "They are appreciative of the product."

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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