How one community of improv players elevated goofy skits to high art and inspired thousands of New Yorkers to climb, and fall, on stage with them.
The lights are still on and the Magnet Theater is getting full. The crowd mingles, cheap beers in hand, awaiting performances by teams with quirky names like Flower Girl and Dr. Champagne. The people gathered here have taken classes together, or have had the same teacher, but for a different course; they’ve been on a team with a new acquaintance’s ex-roommate, or have been coached by a friend’s classmate’s team member they once met at a mixer. More connections are made, prompting iPhoned friend requests and hangouts at Mustang Sally’s after the show.
A few blocks east, just off Park Avenue, the night starts off with drinks in the chic lobby bar at The People’s Improv Theater, better known as The PIT. Shortly afterward, the basement stage is graced by the comedy troupes Nat’l Weather Service, 1-800-London, Dr. Doctor, and Matador. Shenanigans ensue. A lanky strawberry blonde dude is approached by a desperate girl, huffing and puffing. He adopts an obnoxious, but hilarious, ghetto accent and implores her to take a seat inside Chontelle’s Girl’s Bathroom of Advice (he’s a girl too, it turns out). Chontelle has helped many students over the years at the high school, we learn, and she is willing to counsel Jane on her boy trouble, all while Chontelle cuts gym. How does she get away with this? By also advising the custodian and the teachers, even the principal. Audience members knock shoulders while bursting into laughter.
These kinds of nights have become commonplace within New York City’s growing improvisational comedy scene, which is large enough to support not just the iconic Upright Citizens Brigade, but now The PIT and The Magnet as well, creating an improv triangle in and around the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. About 6,500 people a year take classes in the three major locations combined. Each school boasts its own corps of supporters. Each has a unique culture and brand of teaching techniques. However, they all share a direct lineage and appreciation of principles founded decades ago, which not only helped cultivate improv’s appeal, but also defined the performance art and made it accessible to just about anyone with an urge to get on stage.
* * *
The genesis of NYC’s improv scene came in 1996 when The Upright Citizens Brigade migrated from Chicago to Manhattan, and Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Amy Poehler (now referred to as the UCB four) began performing and teaching an improv structure known as “The Harold” in basement spaces across the city. In 1999, they opened a theater on the grounds of a failed strip club in Chelsea. The comedians’ popular sketch show on Comedy Central, also titled the Upright Citizens Brigade, had begun airing the year before and played a role in drawing in students. But improv as a whole was blossoming in Manhattan for other, more organic, reasons.
“The perception that people have of improv is that it’s just everybody in matching t-shirts on stage doing their college comedy troupe thing,” says Armando Diaz, co-founder of The Magnet. “But it’s much more than that.”
In the 1960’s, Del Close, who is widely regarded as the father of contemporary improv, developed “The Harold” while working in San Francisco. A “long-form” style of improv, the Harold took the simple nature of short skits, often referred to as “games,” and replaced them with something more akin to a three-act screenplay. The Harold calls for the players to devise small scenes or “beats,” labeled A1, B1, and C1, of just a few minutes each. In between beats, the actors can engage in tangent-inducing games that might inspire each of the scenes to be further developed or “heightened” upon their return–in A2, B2 and C2. “Moves” made by players in an effort to weave all of the stories together highlight the show, bringing it to an impressive climax in A3, B3 and C3 when the actors show off their ability to comically connect the dots on the spot.
In his introduction to Truth in Comedy: A Manual of Improvisation, a book co-written with Charna Halpern, Kim “Howard” Johnson explains that “Close created the most sophisticated, exciting, and rewarding structure improv has ever known,” gaining notoriety once he moved to Chicago to teach at Second City and later Improv Olympic. Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, and Andy Richter were a few of his accomplished students, paving the way for The Upright Citizens Brigade.
Diaz, at the time in his twenties, was a student in Close’s advanced classes. “You had to be smart to be in his improv class,” he said. “If you referenced something out of history and got the facts wrong, he’d call you out on it.” Affecting a grizzly baritone, Diaz imitated Close: “Well this didn’t happen in that century!”
Years later, when Diaz became part of The UCB team, the emphasis on intelligence was as strong as ever. As the community began to expand in the late 1990s, Manhattan improv teachers, Diaz says, “really began to push for smarter work from the players,” with a focus on long-form, especially The Harold. The new emphasis on structure challenged the troupes to not only be funny, but collectively contrive a show with multiple storylines and characters that intersect over the course of a performance that can run up to forty-five minutes or longer.
“Short-form improv was viewed as a bunch of parlor tricks,” said Ali Farahnakian, co-founder of The PIT and a member of The UCB back in the Midwest. After scoring a gig writing for Saturday Night Live and moving to New York in 1999, he took to performing and teaching at The UCB’s theater-school. While many places in Manhattan were staging improv shows for years before that, Farahnakian says it was long-form that made improv inspiring to watch and inspired audience members to join in. “It’s sanctioned make-believe. People think, ‘I could try that. I could enjoy that.’”
Of course, it isn’t that easy. There are rules to improv, all stressing the importance of teamwork and making one’s partners look good, with the most vital rule being the “Yes, and…” policy. “Yes, and…” dictates that in order to keep a performance progressing, the players must agree to whatever scenario, character, conflict, decision or twist a castmate may present. Furthermore, they have to challenge themselves to provide at least a small amount of new information each time they engage themselves in the scene. “‘No’ leads nowhere in a scene,” write Johnson and Halpern in Truth in Comedy. “A player knows that anything he says on stage will be immediately accepted by his fellow player.” There is an obvious pragmatic aspect to this: It fosters performance collaboration and encourages trust. But many improvisers also consider the “Yes, and…” rule to be a kind of life doctrine.
“I liked that the philosophy behind performing improv seemed to be a good way to live your life,” says Will Hines, associate academic supervisor at the UCB theater. “Not being coy, following the fear, playing to the top of your intelligence, treating the people you’re with like they’re intelligent, ‘Yes, and-ing’ things as opposed to saying ‘No.’ It felt enlivening. You begin to hear your own everyday conversations and punish yourself for not listening better. You begin to admire other people who are good at listening.”
“I find myself saying more and more in my classes, ‘This skill will help your scene work and will help your humanity,’” says Rachel Hamilton, forty-three, an improviser and teacher with over twenty-five years of experience.
Hamilton developed her abilities at Chicago’s Second City and toured across the country in a van in the early ‘90s with Farahnakian, Poehler and Tina Fey, forming lasting bonds with the talent that would, as she put it, “someday rule the comedy world.”
These days, she takes pride in her work as a teacher, mentioning the story of a very shy student at The Magnet who recently took several steps forward in his improvisational capabilities, momentarily dropping his usual timid manner and taking charge of a scene.
“It was a thrilling moment,” says Hamilton. “I thought, ‘Oh, look at him! Look at the level of relaxation, commitment, spontaneity.’ He was becoming more open and I believed him in that scene.”
* * *
“The UCB always had an evangelical missionary part of its business model,” says Hines. “Spread the word about good improv.”
With tickets for performances staying affordable due to the generation of revenue from tuition, momentum was easily manifested. Students eager to learn from their peers would routinely attend shows, sitting next to friends of the performers who were there to offer support. Given the art form’s inherent all-inclusiveness, it was only a matter of time before those who had been casually introduced to improv began taking classes in droves, thus further ballooning ticket sales for shows.
“It’s inertia,” says Farahnakian. “Hopefully people have a home that is safe and clean, they have a job that is fulfilling, but people need that third thing–recreation–which might be most important to a person’s spirit. And in a city like New York where one might especially be looking for a sense of community, improv provides that too.”
When Farahnakian and Armando Diaz opened The PIT in 2002 on West 29th Street, they oversaw a small two-thousand-square-foot space and had a faculty of just two. Over the last decade, The PIT has relocated to East 24th Street and expanded. The new digs include a basement stage as well as a ninety-nine-seat theater upstairs, just past the tastefully decorated bar and the coffee shop. Farahnakian also opened Simple Studios, which houses offices, classrooms and rehearsal space, and hired dozens more in staff. Nowadays, at any given time, there are about one thousand students enrolled at The PIT and Farahnakian’s electric bill at the new spot is now higher than the rent was at the old PIT.
Keith Huang, artistic director at The PIT, says that their instructors emphasize student exploration and experimentation. “I think the most fun shows in improv are when the players are creating the form as they go,” he said. “It sounds odd, but the actors shouldn’t be so concerned with the audience’s reaction. That allows them to be liberal and free as performers, which will only help them get a positive response from the room.”
“When they were constructing the old theater, someone accidentally busted a big hole in a wall,” recalls Huang, bringing up an anecdote that he feels sums up The PIT’s philosophy. “Everyone was upset about it, worrying what to do with it. And Ali came up with this brilliant idea of just putting a frame around the hole and it stayed just like that when the theater opened. The hole tells people that there are no mistakes in improv.”
* * *
In 2004, Armando Diaz broke away from The PIT and opened The Magnet, just an avenue away. The Office, starring improv vets Ed Helms and Steve Carrell, debuted on NBC in 2005, solidifying improv’s boot print on pop culture. On cable, The Daily Show cast improvisers galore, with one Stephen Colbert earning a thirty-minute spot after Jon Stewart. Tina Fey’s fame exploded on SNL, which, in 2006, was parlayed into her own series, 30 Rock, featuring UCB performer Jack McBrayer. And in 2009, NBC greenlit UCB-co-founder Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation. The New York scene swelled through those years, with actors looking for résumé boosters in the form of improv credits, stimulating the economies of the two established schools and helping build The Magnet, as well.
Diaz’s goal at The Magnet, however, wasn’t terribly different from that of The UCB or even The PIT; it was merely a question of approach.
“You need ‘the village,’” Diaz offers. “Natural relationships can blossom between performers, but the best improv teachers keep their egos in check, showing genuine care and respect for each individual student’s skillset and goals. This builds a comfort amongst everyone.
“All that comes from my experience in Del’s class,” Diaz goes on to say. “Because you’d be in a scene, nervous as hell, you’d say something stupid, but the vets like Chris Farley would grab your arm, look you in the eye and say ‘Yes. We’re in this scene together. And I’m going to help you along.’ Then during the breaks they’d talk to you about comedy. So they were part of the village.”
The youngest improv establishment of the major Manhattan three, The Magnet is just fine with being the smallest.
“The Magnet is lucky to be in a position where we are the school that is found by students because they love improv,” says Alex Marino, with Diaz one of the school’s co-founders.
The school’s civility revolves around the relationships that are cultivated between the students–a less ostentatious proposition given The Magnet’s size. Will Quinn, twenty-four, a player on the house team Eagle Fox, says he feels at home there. “It didn’t take long for me to feel like I knew everybody, which is important because of the support you feel right away,” he said. “It seems like the teachers really give a lot of individual attention to students.”
Sebastian Conelli, a member of troupe Flower Girl, concurs. “It’s like they took my sense of humor and molded it as opposed to just teaching me form.”
* * *
The freedom preached both at The PIT and The Magnet has helped birth some of the most intriguing and original takes on the art of improv. The PIT now has puppet improv shows. The Magnet is home to “Kiss, Punch, Poem,” in which a poem is read aloud as a prompt for the improv troupe. After the improvisers have their time, a new poem, this one written-off-the-cuff and inspired by the improv scene, is read aloud as the show’s closer.
Improv in New York has even been able to grow while keeping costs low; weekend shows are only $10. Most classes at The PIT and The Magnet cost about $375, roughly thirty percent less than an average CUNY undergraduate course. The Magnet brass reports that the theater has been relatively unaffected by the economy. They have opened an office space and a training center, occupying an entire floor of Manhattan real estate. And Ali Farahnakian recently opened “Comedy Bar,” a brand new venue just up the block from the first PIT location that will host standup comedy, storytelling, and of course, improv.
“High tide raises all boats,” says Farahnakian. “It benefits everyone to have these theaters do well.”
“If someone has an attitude and says ‘Fuck The UCB, I’m at The PIT!’ I don’t think that’s smart,” says Will Hines. “But if they say, ‘the UCB wasn’t for me, I like The PIT or The Magnet better,’ then they’re going about things the right way.”
Although, as Diaz admits, “It’s hard to have a completely open philosophy because of the economic challenges we all face.” Quickly though, The Magnet’s chief tosses aside those concerns and recalls advice given to him back in Chicago by Del Close: “Students should go with whoever most effectively makes them better or else they’re really limiting themselves.”
Perhaps most notably, the three schools have all grown by attracting both amateur hobbyists and professional actors to the same art form.
Actor Shawtane Bowen from Palo Alto, California opted for “something different” after working on an MFA at the esteemed American Repertory Theater—of which he recounted, “you just sit in a dark room for two years and do Chekov and Shakespeare.” Bowen felt infinitely more fulfilled after transitioning over to improv.
“Improv is the purest form of acting,” he says. “You don’t have to answer to a playwright or a director. It’s just you and a partner creating.”
In the end, it’s the fleeting nature of the artform that keeps people coming back. “The best improvised film is always going to be the same each time you watch it,” says Marino. “With improv, you go into the theater knowing that you are a part of an audience that will be the only ones to ever see this show.”
* * *
Michael Stahl is a Queens-based journalist and a Narratively features editor. He barely tweets anymore @MichaelRStahl.
Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009).”