Finest City Improv: Staging Comic Mutiny And Fearless, Unscripted Comedy
Or How To Do Improv
Friday, June 13, 2014
Aired 6/13/14 on KPBS News.
Finest City Improv promises mutiny and fearless, unscripted comedy. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando headed to North Park to find out exactly what goes into creating something new every time you step on the stage.
For most people, work’s a predictable routine. But what if each day you arrived at your job you had no idea what what would be asked of you? But you’d be expected to create something brand new that would be used only once and based on a suggestion from a total stranger. And the time you’d have to complete the project: an hour — or less.
“The stage is a blank canvas,” Lisewski said. “And what you do is you get a suggestion from the audience, say something you love, and somebody shouts out snowshoeing and what we do is we start to create scenes. So we basically write a play on the spot and we just have a ton of fun creating something spontaneous. So we start to just put things on that canvas and by the end we created this great picture and usually a lot of funniness comes out.”
Lisewski has been running Finest City Improv for two years but only found a permanent home at the back of the Lafayette Hotel last December. She started the club because she got tired of traveling to Los Angeles and spending half of her time there training and playing at the Second City and the Improv Olympic.
“So being a business person I realized that I could create what we had up in LA down here because there isn’t any thing like that, so I decided to open a dedicated long form improv theater,” Lisewski said.
Finest City Improv
4250 Louisiana St., San Diego, CA 92104
Finest City Improv is a cabaret style club with 65 seats. You enter through the lobby bar where you can enjoy a drink. It’s cabaret style so you can sit at a small table with your friends, and appreciate all the vintage Mad Magazines covering the tables. Finest City has built a team of about 30 ensemble members plus an additional five staff members and nearly a hundred students enrolled in their classes.
Kat Brown is an ensemble member and community manager. She explained that many people confuse improv with stand-up comedy.
“But it’s very different,” she said, “Stand-up is one person by themselves having a bit that they’ve practiced for five to 10 years, and improv is just that, that spark you hear — one word you hear, one suggestion and you just go with it. I feel that it is just so much more limitless.”
It’s also about creating a family, a group of people you know you can count on, and that leads to a special kind of communication.
“If someone just walks in with a limp or carrying in something,” Brown said, “you know what they are doing and there is this sort of code and communication in improv like you tag someone out and take their place. There is that kind of basic communication but really a lot of the time you are just like, 'all right, let’s go for it.'”
And that’s what Mike Schramm loves: “In real life you sort of jump to say no at the first chance you get, but in improv the rule is to say yes all the time so it’s really fun to not only say yes to everything that comes at you so that anything that shows up you appreciate and you say yes to it, but also have a bunch of people who are on stage with you who also say yes to everything that you put out there.”
Teammates who’ve got your back can ease the fear of bombing, but it can still be scary.
“My biggest fear,” Brown stated, “is having nothing to say, just not knowing what the other person is doing, not knowing how to match them or complement them or make them look best because it’s going to make us both look bad so that lag time always makes me nervous.”
“But sometimes it doesn’t click,” Schramm added, “Sometimes you do something and people don’t see it and you’re kind of like did you not notice that I was walking out as an old man? As you kind of understand how people perform and how people see the world, you can put them in cool positions. So if I know that Kat does a really great nurse, I can like cast her as a nurse.”
But it can also click and everyone on the team works in sync.
Ensemble member Dino Spezzini described the experience as, “you were thinking what I was thinking, and then you add to it. It’s one of those emotions that’s just really hard to explain. It gives you adrenaline and it makes people happy, which at the end of the day is what I want to do.”
“It’s all about communication,” Schramm said, “Communication between people onstage and then those people communicating with an audience, and when those lines of communication work it’s really cool to watch.”
And the response from the audience is immediate. Either silence — in which case you simply drop what you’re doing, tag another team member, and take the scene in a whole new direction — or the much desired laughter and applause.
“The biggest reward,” Spezzini said, “is usually after the show someone comes up and says, ‘Oh I totally understand what you guys did' or 'that was so part of my life,’ or they actually get a connection so they are able to laugh but it also makes them think about something.”
Spezzini and Lisewski also teach improv to anyone from aspiring actors to lawyers and businessman.
“We teach them to support and trust each other,” Lisewski explained, “to say yes, to make bold choices, we teach you to be a little more fearless than maybe you have been because it’s not about being witty or coming up with funny ideas, it actually teaches you to try not to funny but to be authentic and to bring your life experiences to the table and offer them and see how it feels when someone just says yes to those and see where that goes.”
“It’s the place to be bold and check your inhibitions at the door,” Brown said, “I’ve seen people from level one classes that can hardly introduce themselves, they can’t even say their own name in front of 10 people and by the end of class are wooing and running around and being monkeys and being silly and learning about each other and learning what it’s like to be a human. I know that sounds super silly, but when you get to play human for however long every night, you get to learn more about people and so I think that that’s really kind of an experiment of life and how you intersect with people.”
But Spezzini points out that if you were to look in the window of an improv class you might think it was some cult or something.
“Because there are a lot of games and exercises where you really have to just let yourself be vulnerable and open.”
Lisewski concluded by saying: “If you come down here you are going to find a community of people that are just going to make life a little better.”
Finest City Improv is open Thursdays through Sundays with Friday and Saturday being the main performance nights where the key house teams perform. On Friday night, Finest City features a show called "The World According to…" when they bring a community member in, interview them, find out about their life and create an improv based on it. I had the pleasure of being their guest and you can hear me talk about it on their podcast.
Saturday night the featured show is Minor Suspension, a fully improvised musical made up on the spot based off the audience’s suggestion. The rest of the week is dedicated to improv classes.