Just Another Day in the Matrix for Junior Varsity

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Thursday Nights at the Magnet Theater (254 West 29th St @8th Av New York City, NY 10001) offers shows from 7p.m.-11p.m.

It began with a spoon and ended in the Matrix—just another Thursday night for Junior Varsity, one of the Magnet Theater’s most successful improv teams.

Thursday’s show began with the usual question: “Can we get a suggestion from the audience?”

“Spoons!” shouted an anonymous audience member, triggering a series of scenes that might have begun and ended with spoons, but included much more.

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A simple spoon is the only suggestion Junior Varsity needed to create an entire improv show Thursday night.

Two friends searched for spoons in Bed Bath & Beyond. One of them wanted to reinvent his life. “Like a Phoenix?” the other asked. No, more like a forward-moving penguin. Penguins rising from the ashes were later enacted, documentary-style, in between scenes from a poster shop, and the making of Scarface 2.

Then things got really interesting. No spoons in Bed Bath & Beyond? No problem—a worker from the actual “Beyond” found them. “Looks like you left the entrance open to the Beyond, and we don’t much like that here,” chided one coworker to another, informing him that they actually work in the Matrix.

This may seem unusual, but for Junior Varsity, this effortless creativity is just what they do, exhibiting a longevity rare for the average improv team. “Being together six years is pretty unusual,” team member Jamie Rivera shared after the show, reflecting on what makes the difference between teams that last and teams that don’t. Teammate Megan Gray added, “there’s very much a science of making a team … there’s a real chemistry with putting a team together.” And yet, still sometimes teams don’t last.

So what sets Junior Varsity apart? Both actors, with the rest of their team, displayed razor-sharp timing and inventiveness onstage. Offstage, they exuded craftsman-like awareness of what it takes to succeed in improv.

With audible laughter from behind the stage doors, amid the chatter and laughter at the lobby bar, Gray elaborated: “I think it comes down to how well you’re listening—that’s the biggest skill in improv.” Rivera agreed and added: “I think we do try to bring the craft of acting, to integrate that into what we’re dong on stage. … I think the best improv is something that draws from truth. Even when we are being very silly we’re applying a layer of truth.”

“Go home,” said one character to another during Thursday’s show. “The Matrix will be here on Monday.” It was just another extraordinary day at the office. They could just as easily have been referring to themselves—just another regular day creating the exceptional.

Junior Varsity performs at the Magnet Theater every Thursday night at 8 p.m.

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The Magnet Theater offers “Thursday Nights Out,” which is $7 for the whole night.

Click here to hear Jamie and Megan discuss the role of gender and women in comedy.

Practice Makes Perfect for 10,000 Hours of Improv

New York City Improv team Milhaus hangs out outside the People’s Improv Theater, March 24, 2013

New York City Improv team Milhaus hangs out outside the People’s Improv Theater, March 24, 2013

The Beatles. Bobby Fischer. Bill Gates. Milhaus. Three of these are known experts in their field, and the fourth is right behind them. Being the best takes time; takes practice; takes opportunity.

“How much time are you putting in?” asks 10,000 Hours. Founded just over a year ago by New York actor, improviser, and teacher, Julia Morales, 10,000 Hours is a program designed to give improv students a chance to practice their craft within a supportive community.

10,000 Hours takes its name from the theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. The idea is that 10,000 hours is what it takes to become an expert. If Morales gets her way, the improv and comedy world should get ready for its next big stars.

I spoke with Morales March 23, at a 10,000 Hours mixer—a casual meet and greet over cocktails and baked goods, hosted by Manhattan’s Comedy Bar. Over a tray of blondies with Cadbury eggs baked in, Morales described her program as a way to “pay it forward” to the artistic community. Improv, by the very nature of its form, is supportive and team-oriented. But in a city where classes can cost hundreds of dollars and competition to get on performing house teams can be fierce, the chance to practice regularly and affordably is invaluable.

Open to all artists, 10,000 Hours’s coaches donate their time and only charge participants five to eight dollars—and sometimes even this fee is waved if students just can’t pay. Nobody is turned away. The goal is to “get in as much practice without breaking the bank,” says Morales happily.

And Morales should be happy because her program works. I spent the following  evening with improv team Milhaus as they moved from a jam (a session where performers and audience members can get on stage together) to their regular 6 p.m. Sunday performance at the People’s Improv Theater to a third venue at the Triple Crown Ale House. The group’s nine actors moved seamlessly from one event to the next.

Clearly friends on stage and off, they exuded the confidence and camaraderie that comes from performers comfortable in their own skin. With no formal director on site, the team quickly assembled outside the doors of the PIT to break down their performance. They discussed what worked, what they liked, and what to keep in mind for their next show—only 40 minutes from away.

No arguments, no egos, no fuss, they picked up their backpacks and were on their way down 24th street, heading west through Madison Square Park, towards 7th Avenue. Passing around a bag of peanut M&M’s, they shared their thoughts on the 10,000 Hours program with me. All spoke highly of its contribution to making them better improvisers, better artists. “I’ve learned to make big choices.” said Jamie Aderski, both as an improv actor and theater actor. Cayla Merrill, petite and bubbly—was quick to agree with the benefits of the program. “I’ve learned to trust myself.” Merrill said, referring to the confidence consistent practice offers.

And as for the support and community 10,000 Hours offers, all stressed the impact it has for performers.  “I think it validates it. If you’re doing it, you know how much work it takes.” said Greg Boz. In a city known for theater and theater schools, improv isn’t immediately seen as an equal craft. What is something they’d want people to know about improv? “It’s an industry … this is something bigger.” Said Boz.

Milhaus performed its second show of the night, the second of three teams, and concluded with a jam.

Further proof that 10,000 Hours works to foster the improv community? When it was all over they asked me why I didn’t join them on stage for the jam. One thing is sure… they definitely made it look tempting.

One of the three major improv theaters in New York City, The People’s Improv Theater also helps support the 10,000 Hours program to train and nurture emerging improv artists.

One of the three major improv theaters in New York City, The People’s Improv Theater also helps support the 10,000 Hours program to train and nurture emerging improv artists.

Milhaus is about to take the stage for their regular Sunday show. With no props, no sets, and no costumes, well-trained improvisers know how to create a story together.

Milhaus is about to take the stage for their regular Sunday show. With no props, no sets, and no costumes, well-trained improvisers know how to create a story together.

It takes 10,000 of practice to create an expert. Improv team Milhaus concludes a Sunday night show and is one hour closer!

It takes 10,000 of practice to create an expert. Improv team Milhaus concludes a Sunday night show and is one hour closer!

Following the Fear and the Art of Improv

ImageImprov is a serious craft that requires performers to act truthfully in the moment, while living out spontaneous and occasionally absurd circumstances. Collaboration and trust is crucial for improvisers who work to create a supportive community in which to practice and hone their craft. I spoke with New York City actress and improviser, Jamie Aderski to explore what the study and performance of improv is like.

A Little Bit Theater, A Little Bit Improv, Hook and Eye is One of a Kind

Thirty-plus participants sit in a circle as the lights dimmed. Six actors enter from either side of the room. They carry candles and softly sing a Polish lullaby about lighting a spark, telling a story. They gather in the center of the circle, the song ends, the candles blown out. There is a brief total darkness and then a warm welcome to the group.

Thus began Hook & Eye’s second of three “Instant Play Labs”—a unique combination of solemn and quirky that set the tone for the evening and for the group. Monday marks the halfway point to the creation of an original full-length play born of traditional playwriting and improvisation.

“We’re just playing,” prompted core company member, Chad Lindsey, to the small groups tasked to read, rehearse, and perform six short plays, encouraging them to be free and take risks. Though this wasn’t new direction for the groups. Most of them were repeat participants from the first lab. They listened carefully, but knew what they were there to do and were eager to get to it.

Lindsey, 37, has a deceptively boyish and effervescent demeanor that belies the seriousness with which he approaches his work. Hook & Eye’s goals are nothing if not serious. Ultimately, they will shape and solidify material generated in their three labs into a full-length scripted production. Challenging the traditional idea of a solitary playwright working alone, Hook & Eye focuses on the process of collaboration. They are there to create.

Their mission statement, “Our task is original work, Our Process is consistently redefined, It’s go time” was on full display Monday night as the group workshopped six short plays, adding, changing, and improvising along the way.

Monday’s lab was comprised of core company members with record attendance of close to 40 additional participants. There were actors, musicians (with instruments ready to go), and directors. They ranged in age from twenties to eighties. All were asked to adopt a variety of roles and perform or direct as needed throughout the night.

Inspired by the “&” of their logo, writers wrote 5-minute plays on the theme of “and” and submitted them in advance of Monday’s lab. After a brief physical warm up, several improv games inspired by the night’s theme, and a follow-up discussion of the night’s theme and goals, six short plays were chosen and cast on the spot. Groups had an hour to rehearse. With no time to waste, they were up on their feet working quickly. Promptly after an hour, final work was presented, followed by a closing group discussion.

Monday’s lab operated under the expectation of the unexpected, for while focused on short- and long-term goals, improvisation is the heart of Hook & Eye’s work. Though participants had scripts to work with and a director to shape each piece, all were encouraged to make changes, add lines, or reinterpret or reassign  stage directions, in order to generate and create new ideas.

Chosen playwrights knew in advance to Monday’s lab that their scripts could possibly be altered in any number of ways and gamely handed their work over to be changed, adlibbed or scored by musicians who improvised musical scores on the spot for each piece.

Hook & Eye achieves this rare kind of creative fluidity because their participants are “multidisciplinary,” asserts core member Emily Kunkel, herself a classically trained actor, equally comfortable with Shakespeare or sketch comedy. Actors are also writers, writers are also directors, and directors might be asked to be in a piece—even the company photographer put down his camera and joined in the opening improv warm-up.

Kristen Duffy, a second-time participant, acted in the first lab, but supervised the food and wine station this time around. “I guess I am an actor/production assistant,” says Duffy while slicing homemade bread. “I help with whatever needs to be done for their events. I knew there would be a free-spirited vibe to the evening, that I might need to help out in ways I hadn’t anticipated.”

Hook & Eye has weekly company meetings and plans to have their third Instant Lab installment in the coming months, planning for their summer retreat to put it all together in a long-form, scripted, performance piece. They don’t know exactly what their end result will be, but sometimes the important thing is not where you end up, but how you get there.