The first thing an uninitiated newcomer might notice about Nameless Numberhead, the dynamic comedic duo of Henry Riggs and Maari Suorsa, might be their penchant for exploring the silliness and absurdity of pop culture and American life. But the cheerfully spazzy and stylish Charleston-based act is both youthful and wise about their art and delivery.
Riggs and Suorsa first started performing around Charleston as Nameless Numberhead in spring 2015, and they've headlined, curated and co-organized an impressive array of quirky performances at local theaters, clubs, and art festivals along the way.
This Saturday, they're set to headline alongside a handful of local guests as part of their latest project, Nameless Numberhead & Friends, at downtown's Theatre 99.
"We basically just try to lampoon different types of people and everyday things that you might do but not realize how strange they are," Riggs says of the ever-evolving comedic project. "We almost actively try to not talk about politics — not because we don't have anything to say, but more because everyone else is so loud about it. We'd rather do silly stuff, lampoon everyone, and wonder why such weird things happen. I feel like making fun of strange people is pretty universal."
Suorsa agrees with her partner. "Over the past two years, I think Nameless Numberhead has gotten sillier," she says. "We obviously incorporate things that we find funny into our show, and often times those things are repetition, unexpected endings, and physical bits. Since we push to have brand-new material pretty frequently, sometimes a sketch doesn't fully come together until we're onstage, and that can also lead to bizarre. But we like bizarre."
Chicago to Charleston
Recently engaged, Riggs and Suorsa have been exploring life's weirdest elements together since they first met in Chicago's improv comedy scene in the late 2000s. A Lowcountry native and College of Charleston alumnus, Riggs relocated to the Windy City after studying and performing improv at Theatre 99 and developing his sketch comedy skills as a writer and performer in the local scene.
Hailing from Massachusetts, Suorsa brought a slightly different cultural point of view to Chicago. Suorsa studied theater at UMass/Amherst from 2005-2009 before moving to Chicago. Suorsa started taking classes and working at the acclaimed Annoyance Theater in 2009.
"I pretty quickly knew that I was never going to be in a department show, and I wanted to be doing comedy anyway, so I turned all of my focus on the school's improv groups," she says. "I was in the long-form and short-form groups, and we'd rent a van and drive to Chicago to see shows and take workshops every spring break."
"We both studied at different comedy theaters and performed with different groups in Chicago before we started writing together," says Riggs. "The first thing we did together was a musical at the Annoyance Theatre called 'Hideous Love Mutant,' which was kind of a sci-fi concept about people who mutate into one person when they start dating and fall in love. We didn't realize it at the time, but it was kind of an allegory for us dating early on."
Riggs and Suorsa initially performed as a sketch group called Ellston in Chicago before deciding to move to Charleston in 2014. "We rebranded as Nameless Numberhead and worked on old and new material," remembers Riggs. "We borrowed from things we liked in Chicago and certain names and influences. The new name was kind of an afterthought."
The official decision on the "Nameless Numberhead" moniker came in early 2015 when the duo was booked for one of Theatre 99's open-ended "Blast Off' shows. "We'd just signed up temporarily as 'Nameless,'" says Riggs. "My mind went to director Steven Soderbergh's weird comedy 'Schizopolis' and the character Nameless Numberhead Man. I just dropped the 'man,' and it became the name.
"Since then, we've kind of tasked ourselves with trying to figure what that name means. Our writing has been inspired by that over the last two years."
Riggs and Suorsa had already developed on-stage chemistry that was impressively flexible and fluid by the time they performed at the 2015 Piccolo Spoleto fringe events. Both performers have continued to develop, refine, and switch up the style and approach to performance as they've pushed ahead with Nameless Numberhead projects.
"Charleston has lent a hand in our development," says Riggs. "Necessity is the mother of all the things we do. We're in a town that's majority rock bands. There's not a ton of comedy here, but have the Have Nots! and Theatre 99, some stand-ups, and some sketch in the scene, but it's small. Most of our friends are playing in rock bands, and we think they're pretty cool. We go to music shows and wonder, 'How can we switch our style up to be like these bands?' We want to be able to sell merch and play at a rock club as well as a comedy club. We're always wondering how we can make our show different enough that it'll hold up in different formats."
Rip City CHS
One of Riggs' and Suorsa's most successful forays into presenting comedy-based events in Charleston grew out of an ongoing series called Rip City CHS, designed as a monthly "variety show" that featured a wild mix of Charleston-based comedians, actors, improvisers, musicians and performers of "different disciplines trying out new and untested material."
Riggs and Suorsa booked and hosted several well-attended events under the "Rip City" bill at venues such as the Redux Contemporary Art Center, PULP Gallery and the Old City Jail.
"Henry and Maari have always impressed me with their consistent dedication to writing and developing — and now with these videos, displaying their work," says local sketch and improv performer Hunter Gardner, who's recently shared stages and performed in short videos with Nameless Numberhead. "What's most impressive to me as a person who also wants to make things, though, is their self-awareness. They not only put in the work, but also keep their body of work — their voice and their point of view — top of mind."
Matt Perry, a local improv comedian and filmmaker, appreciates the wide-open opportunities that the Rip City series offered to local artists. "Rip City is an actual 'safe space' for people to be as weird or edgy or disgusting as they want," Perry says. "It has a rawness to it that makes me super happy. Ninety percent of what you see there is the first time anyone has seen it. It tends to be the birthplace of larger ideas and projects for people. It's a great place to find collaborators, and I have no idea where it's going in the future. That's why it rocks."
The next Rip City CHS show is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sunday, March 26 at PURE Theatre on King Street.
In the meantime, this week's Nameless Numberhead & Friends show will feature two comedy acts — Comedy Cabal (comprised of Shawna Jarrett and Joseph Coker) and Theatre 99 company member Jessica Mickey — as well as musical guest and local writer Matt Dobie.
"It's like Rip City 2.0," Riggs says of Nameless Numberhead & Friends. "A lot of the beauty of Rip City is that it's an experimental show where people can bring anything they want, but I only ask that it's something they'd never done it before … something new, outside their comfort zone. I'd like Nameless Numberhead & Friends to feel like a little more professional of a show while not losing any of that experimental quality, Like, if someone did a good scene at Rip City, I'd like for them to try it again and polish it up for this new show. It's a little more tested."
"Maari and I will guest in and do a new set at the end with the comedians guest starring in the sketches," he adds. "I like that it's collaborative and wild."
Suorsa and Riggs inevitably make a point to get each of their guests involved at least one of their sketches at every show. "In return, we've gotten to help out in some of theirs," says Suorsa. "It's really fun. Henry and I are writing for ourselves and it works, but it's always nice to write a scene with more characters."
Looking ahead into 2017 and beyond, Riggs and Suorsa want to tour more around the country, continue tinkering with elements of the Nameless Numberhead show locally, and incorporate elements of live music, puppets, video and additional media into their work.
Most recently, they've posted hilarious short-film and music video-style clips on their website after writing collaborating with Savannah-based producer/comedian John R. Brennan and videographer/photographer Christopher "Danger" Mendrala. Their latest vid, a wacky "advertisement" titled "Buy a Car" (http://www.numberheadcomedy.com/vids/2017/2/21/buy-a-car) came together at their own Black Bear Studios.
"I think some of our short-term goals are to continue to make short videos for the web to teach ourselves the production side of things like that," Riggs says. "Super long-term goals might be to work with film and television — or at least to get a paycheck for production in some fashion. By writing, producing and editing our videos, we're learning on the fly. We're really digging into putting our content online that's in an interesting format. We'd like to release one video a month."
"We still feel super new and people still don't know who we are," he says with a laugh. "We're kind of bad with social media. There might be a buzz, but we don't know how to cultivate that buzz. I'm cool just doing what we do and what we think is good and interesting work. Hopefully, it'll connect with people."