Improv on the Rise: Charleston comedy audience is eager for more than the usual fare

The Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Co. of New York will perform at the Charleston Music Hall this weekend.

Local improv performers will get a chance to rub elbows with members of the acclaimed Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Co. of New York at its first performance at the Charleston Music Hall this weekend.

The company, a long-running improv/sketch company with theaters based in New York and Los Angeles, has been coming to Charleston for years as part of the Charleston Comedy Festival and Piccolo Fringe, usually at Theatre 99.

Playing a larger venue such as the Charleston Music Hall is likely a significant sign of positive things to come, as far as improv comedy goes, according to venue director Charles Carmody.

Carmody is perhaps best known in town for booking, promoting and producing a variety of musical, artistic, and comedic events at the Charleston Music Hall, Redux Contemporary Art Center, and other local spots.

He recently collaborated with local performers Henry Riggs and Maari Suorsa, both of the Charleston-based improv/sketch act Nameless Numberhead, to present “Rip City,” a monthly sketch and improv comedy series at Redux. The local troupe is performing the opening act for the Upright Citizens Brigade show.

Between the recent success of “Rip City” and the ongoing interest in improv comedy at Theatre 99, Carmody feels that a show like UCB at a venue like the Charleston Music Hall is bound to work well.

“Charleston has a wonderful comedy scene, and I think it’s very special that we can pair seven local improv comedians in Nameless Numberhead with UCB. I’m excited to see how improv feels in the room, and I hope to continue to develop the local, regional, and national comedy scene in Charleston.”

Founded by now-famous comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh in 1990, the Upright Citizens Brigade started small in Chicago, landed big in New York and expanded out West.

Over the past 20 years, UCB’s theaters in New York and Los Angeles have cultivated and nurtured improv comedians and regularly introduced them to new audiences through live performances and screen projects.

Comprised of Keaton Patti, Morgan Miller, Yoni Lotan, and Caitlin Puckett, the troupe performing at the Charleston Music Hall on Saturday is one of several Tour Co. teams that travel around the United States.

“We do long-form improv, which is somewhat similar to creating a sketch show on our feet,” says Patti, one of the New York City-based performers. “Instead of short-form improv, such as ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ we take one suggestion or source of information at the beginning and then use it to create an entire show, featuring multiple scenes and characters and patterns that are revisited throughout.”

Part of the UCB’s house team in New York, Patti initially became interested in improv in 2010 while living in Pittsburgh. He started studying improv and sketch comedy at the UCB theater after relocating to New York City in 2011. In 2013, he landed an official role on one of UCB’s numerous improv teams and started hitting the road with the touring company in 2014.

Like many of his colleagues in improv, he also collaborates in various sketch comedy projects and writes columns and comedic bits.

“Improv experience helps immensely in all forms of comedy,” Patti says. “It’s definitely helped me develop characters, ideas for sketches or written pieces, and to just roll with the punches of any comedy show.

“We, as a group, have been together for a little under two years and have gotten very close in that time thanks to traveling and doing shows,” he adds. “Outside of shows, we have a lot of fun together, and on stage, keep that playful energy and bring it into our scenes.”

Since it was established about 15 years ago by Greg Tavares, Brandy Sullivan and Timmy Finch, Theatre 99 has served as a lively hub and headquarters for all styles of home-grown improvisational funny stuff.

The trio are all longtime members of the influential local improv trio The Have Nots!

A talented roster of local performers regularly handle short-form and long-form improv, as well as stand-up, musical and sketch comedy at the second-floor venue above the Bicycle Shoppe on Meeting Street.

As an improv and sketch performer and class instructor, Andy Livengood is one of the busiest company members at the Theatre 99.

Livengood first took notice of the improv comedy form as a college student. While he initially aimed for a career in film and writing, he found himself lured into improv and stage work instead.

“I remember stumbling into Theatre 99 about 10 years ago, checking out some shows, and totally getting hooked,” Livengood says. “I immediately signed up for improv classes.”

Over the years, he’s honed his craft as part of several recurring shows at Theatre 99. His own one-man show “The Christmas Will Be Televised” drew praise from local audiences and critics.

Livengood soon went from learning improv in classes from Tavares and Sullivan to actually becoming a teacher of improv himself.

Tavares, who helps run Theatre 99, says many other performers are drawn to the local improv scene for fun, which is different than in larger cities where the Upright Citizens Brigade hails from.

“First, we only have one improv theatre in town. In bigger cities, they have three or four big theaters and there is a lot of competition. Little cults form around a specific teacher or philosophy,” he says. “Also, people in big cities are trying to ‘make it’ and can be a little intense. Here ... everyone is on the same team.”

Even so, improv performers in Charleston find value in the art because it’s a skill of thinking on your feet within a team setting.

“I learned that when you’re doing a scene with other people, you’re dealing with trust and confidence,” Livengood says. “You have to trust what people do and where they turn. It’s more difficult to do this when someone’s not as confident, open and trusting as they could be.”

In 2013, Greg Tavares published a detailed and personalized book about theatrical improv titled “Improv for Everyone.” The book offers tips, exercises and theories to the already-initiated improv performer.

Tavares expresses his ideas and suggestions from his experiences as an actor, improviser and educator. It detailed exercises and technical methods, offered broad personal philosophies and amusing stories. As a comprehensive study for both beginners and intermediate performers, the heart of “Improv for Everyone” examines the science and art of character development, interaction, and scene work.

“I think the writing process with this book started when I started teaching classes at Theatre 99,” Tavares says. “I had to put into concrete terms what it was that I was doing when I was improvising. And once you start doing that — self analysis — it is hard to stop.”

Tavares adds. “One of my big pet peeves with how people view improv is that it is silly. I want people to know that you can approach improv the same way you do acting. I do. I am just acting up there.”

“Improv for Everyone” also reflects Theatre 99’s ongoing support for improv and training programs that Tavares, Sullivan and their team have offered over the years.

For Livengood and others at Theatre 99, Tavares’ treatise is a solid foundation from which to expand and work, both as performers and teachers.

“I tell my students all the time that the best scenes to be in are often the ones where you cross the line into just outside your confident zone,” Livengood says. “It’s good to lean into that discomfort and see where it goes.”

Over the last three years, the Charleston Improvables troupe has explored short-form improv along with bits of stand-up comedy at various clubs and halls.

Additionally, open-mic events for experimental stand-ups and performers have taken place downtown at Joe Pasta on King Street, Cutty’s on St. Philips Street, O’Hare & Flynn on Meeting Street, Palmetto Brewing Co. on Huger Street, and other hotspots.

Elsewhere in the Charleston area, comedy nights and open mic series have popped up at the Black Sheep and My Father’s Mustache in Mount Pleasant, Loggerheads on Folly Beach, the Sparrow, the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, and Frothy Beard Brewing Co. in North Charleston.

Comedians and performers are busy in Summerville, too.

The Interabang Comedy Troupe has hosted several installments of “The Black Hat Trilogy,” a collaborative effort by local writers, comedians and improvisers presented by the Flowertown Underground.

Unusual venues, including Black Bear Studios in West Ashley, have recently hosted the variety comedy series “Comedy! Live!” run by comedian Lain Healy and others.

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