| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    Sitting in the shadows of ASSSSCAT watching celebrated improv gurus effortlessly weave narratives of complex human relationships is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Where do these performers come from? I’m told that improv is a bug that people catch. It’s a lot like wanderlust or malaria. Once afflicted, you need generous helpings of raw talent, practice, failure and success, not to mention thousands of dollars to spend on classes and coaches—and that’s just to be at a level where you can improvise for other people. To put things in perspective, if you’re a promising indie rocker, you pray that one day your anthem gets posted to an influential blog; overnight success, yay! Within weeks, you could be crowd surfing over a sea of doting music fanatics to the doorstep of the dude who selects songs for iTunes commercials. If you’re an improviser, no prayers will deliver you quickly enough. There is no improv comedy equivalent of that scenario.

    The underbelly of the improv community is a world seething with war stories, friendship, struggles and devotion. It’s split into two major factions: house and veteran teams, which are groups that are housed and groomed by a major improv school such as The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, The PIT or Magnet, and independent teams, which are bands of improvisers roaming outside improv palace grounds. I like the term “indie improv” to describe them, but Ben Ragheb of the group Fat Penguin takes some issue with it. “‘Indie improv’ and ‘indie team’ seem to be the accepted terms,” he says. “But it’s not like the house teams have sold out to corporate sponsors.” Maybe, but can one ever really know for sure what Colgate-Palmolive has its hands in?

    An increase in the number of indie improv teams is a reaction to simple market forces including the popularity of improv classes and the terrifying scarcity of opportunities.

    Entry-level improv classes are regularly sold out, and as one moves up the levels, the wheat will quickly get separated from the non-wheaty parts. There are still, of course, bushels of grain spilling from the silo. It’s from these classes where students build their skills, catch the eye of instructors and peers and feed their filthy improv junkie habit. For many, the next step is to audition for a house team or start an indie group with like-minded individuals.

    “The independent team can go two main routes. Host your own show or bug everyone who has a show to let you do theirs,” explains Lou Fernandez, who’s been a part of the city’s indie improv world for a number of years. “You can also approach improv theaters for shows,” he suggests. “But they tend to be closed to letting outside improv teams have stage time, preferring instead to put up homegrown acts to showcase the theater’s skill at shaping good performers.”

    “The real problem is getting an audience to come to any show,” he says. “For a house team it’s not as critical to get people in. The theater is relying more on the theater’s reputation to bring in people.”

    Jason Tyne-Zimmerman, an improviser who hosts a weekly Saturday night show with his group Queen of Sharks at the Identity Lounge, says, “The shows are really about growing as a team; it’s about having fun and honing our skills in front of an audience. Since we’re a young team, we don’t have enough of a fan base to break even every week—or any week—so inviting other teams is essential.”

    He notes: “Our crowds are mostly our friends and families and the fans of the teams we invited. Hosting a weekly show really strains our fan base, even my wife doesn’t want to go to the same show every week, so mixing up the teams really keeps them interested.”

    The Stamp and Coin Club’s Adam Bozarth says his biggest challenge is finding places to perform. “House teams have a weekly show, but there are no guaranteed performances for an indie team. It’s been getting harder and harder within the past year as well. There is a huge group boom that is making stage time scarce.”

    Where is an indie group to go?

    “We appear most frequently at shows hosted at Under St. Marks,” says Bozarth. “It’s sort of become an unexpected Mecca for the indie improv scene, thanks to Rogue Elephant’s Friday shows. We’ve also done stints at The Red Room, The Parkside Lounge and Gotham City Improv. If there is a weird, awkward-shaped stage, we’ll be there.”

    One of the less obvious punitive disadvantages of being on an independent team is the cost of a coach and practice space. “Rooms range from $15 to $48 an hour,” explains Danielia Donohue. Her troupe, Chemistry Grad School, recently celebrated its one-year anniversary together, a milestone that I’m told is impressive for an indie team.

    “The reality is improv isn’t really something you can do to make money,” chimes Lou Fernandez. “The opportunities to make money at it are teaching it, doing it for corporate workshops—which is kind of like teaching it, I guess—and maybe doing it at like Disney World or something like that.”

    Though the idea of “making it” as an improviser is a bit of an abstract concept. Fat Penguin teamster Alan Starzinsky looks at the art with the pragmatism of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Improv is a muscle that must be flexed to strengthen, so that’s what we do. My only goal is to have fun, help my team have fun and have the audience have fun.”