“Yes And” An Improvised Interview With Station Theater

Written by: Al Bahmani

Interview by David Gavri

Among most stand up comics there is general ignorance about improv. Some like Robert Klein and Joan Rivers embrace it and incorporate it into their act. Others sneer at it and see no value in it at all. Then there are those who just don’t understand it. Like it or not, turn on a television and flip it onto any channel improv is on. Go to the movies improv is on. Way before late funny man Johnathan Winters became the voice of Papa Smurf, he was known for his comedy improvisations. Homer Simpson was a Second City player. So was Academy Award winner Mike Nichols. So were Emmy Award winners Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey. So was John Belushi, Bill Murray and most of the original cast of Saturday Night Live were too. Jon Lovitz, Elvira, Will Ferrell, Pee Wee Herman and Phil Hartman were in the Groundlings. Amy Poehler was a founding member of Upright Citizens Brigade. Former stand up comic Larry David employs improvisation into every episode ‘Curb Your Enthusiam’. Recently Station Theater has acquired a studio space. We sit down with Station Theater artistic director Lisa Friedrich and Station Theater manager Antoine Culbreath and try to bridge that gap of misunderstanding.

So you now have a performance space.

I’ve been doing improv for seven years this is the first time I’ve been with a group that’s actually gotten a space. The current space is located 1230 Houston Avenue, Houston, Tx 77007. We’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks, we will have a grand opening late April.

What is Station Theater?

Station Theater first and foremost is a conservatory. We want to teach people Long Form Improvisation Comedy. We have our in house faculty, which is myself, Amy Birkhead, Shyla Ray and Matt Graham. With the four of us you go through the five levels of improv comedy. That will give you your basis for long form improvisation comedy. We also offer sketch writing classes. We have shows that show what we can provide this city. Ultimately our main goal is education.

And to have a good time.

Other than teaching improv what else does Station Theater do?

We also book stand up comedy shows along with improv shows. I find myself booking shows and bringing in other comics. I brought in guys from from Austin, LA and Maine. They had an amazing time. Houston is a place where people are starting to come to. We have Trillfest coming up. It’s an improv sketch, stand up and performance art festival. It’s the weekend before Summerfest. We’re hoping this will catch on.

We want to start something great. Who knows?

How did you get started in improv?

I got into improvisation the same way most guys get into things. There was this girl. She convinced me to go to an audition. It was a crummy audition. But I got the part with an improv troupe. And as soon I got the part, we broke up. I continued and improv made sense to me.

Growing up I was the least funny kid you’d ever meet. I was so un-funny it was scary. For me improv is a way to escape life. It’s a way to have fun with people and do what want to do and do what you have been afraid to do. And you get to have fun with people in a controlled way. That was seven and a half years ago. Since then I haven’t stopped. I guess it means I must like it a lot.

I got started in high school, I was in an improv troupe in High school. Which means you’re just doing short form “Who’s Line Is It” style improv. It was terrible. Through that I met Amy Birkhead. We didn’t hang out much back then because she was a grade older than me. Then college happened and I did a lot of acting on stage and in films.

After college, I was back in Houston I found myself drinking wine and mostly writing horrible short stories that will never be seen. Then Amy started messaging me, “Hey, I see you’re back in Houston. You should come to this improv show.”. I’m like, “Yeah right”. So months went by of me not going to these shows. Amy messages me again, “We got classes coming up.” So I went to one show and started taking a class immediately after. I haven’t stopped since. It’s been four years.

Short form Improv? Long form Improv? I thought improv was improv, what’s the difference between the two?

Short form improv are theater ‘games’ like ‘WLIIA’. You have these games. It’s super structured rapid fire comedy. It’s line up and knock it out. Here’s the thing, here’s the joke. It’s fun. It’s way more audience engaging than any other form of comedy. You’re taking suggestions from the audience and playing it out.

The audience controls more a short form show as opposed long form which is the opposite the improviser controlling a long form show because it’s scene based. Long form is like unscripted theater. Imagine Saturday Night Live without a script. That’s long form which is what we do.

Most comics watch their sets and do a play by play, do you play back and watch your improv shows and critique them?

When you do that it turns into sketch comedy. That scene is a lot of fun let’s write it down, workshop it and turn it into a sketch.

Both of you also do stand up as well as improv. How did you make that transition?

Improv lends itself to a lot of different other art forms. If you can think on your toes and you can feel the crowd a little bit more, then you can figure out what’s funny and play to those people.

Can you bomb onstage doing improv?

All the time.

One bad scene in improv and the audience is still ready for more. I still trying to understand the psychological reasons behind it.

In improv the screw ups are funny. In stand up the screw ups are screw ups. As good as I am on stage as an improviser, in stand up all it takes is one bad joke and the crowd is like “Fuck this dude! I’m not listening to anything else.”.

I’ve been doing stand up for a while now. So it’s exactly the same feeling. I made the wrong decision there. I made the wrong choice with that one. I should have felt that out better.

If you get up and bomb through out your entire set with stand up then you are going to go home and be like Fuck Me! It’s the worst feeling. But if you bomb in improvisation, you have other people around you to depend on. Early on you’re like, “Aw Man!” yet right behind you there is this beautiful scene. You have other people up there with you. When I first went up and first did standup I looked around and like, “Oh shit, it’s just me!”. It was a weird feeling and it was really empowering as well.

And I’ve noticed that whenever I bombed doing improv that the audience is totally there for you. The audience wants you to win. The audience want you to be the best thing ever. They’re cheering you on and they always assume that you are one step ahead of them. The goal is to be one step ahead of them but usually you never know. It’s scary to rely on other people.

It’s takes a lot of letting go. A whole lot of letting go. I think that’s the major difference between improv comedy and standup comedy. In improv you have to rely other people but in stand up you don’t have anybody to rely on anybody because there is nobody else. I enjoy both too.

Every improv community there is a sense familiarity and trust. You have to trust these people. Trusting these people on stage forces you to trust these people in real life. It becomes like a cult or a family. Call it what you will. I like to say cult.

I like to say gang.

Does off stage drama find it’s way on stage?

Crazy stuff has happened. People who were in love have broken up and that night have done a scene together. It’s crazy when that happens. It’s rare.

It’s super rare. It happens. A good improviser will either put aside their feelings and do a good show. Or they will use those feelings and do a damn good show.

I use those feelings.

Use it. It paints such a full picture that the audience may not fully get. “But damn that was a good scene where that girl smacked that dude 12 times!”

That’s never happened.

If you start with that character and then you play it to the end. Like stand up improv is a form of creative therapy.

All comedy is therapy. The day my grandmother died I did an improv show. Had I not done an improv show, I would of spent my time at home crying and being sad. Instead I had fun with my friends and created these new worlds. It’s more productive if it makes me feel better.

A lot of improv is selfless. We’re all comedians because we want to be loved. Even the most proud people won’t admit that because they need love.

Anything else would you like to add?

End of the day it’s all comedy and we’re all trying to do the same thing. There have been some weird upsets lately. Some of the most seasoned comics in Houston have come by to our shows to just say hi. Ultimately we’re all trying to bring the comedy community together. Houston is such a huge growing booming city right now. If we don’t all come together people are going to start falling off. No one wants that.

I mean we have to already fight the ballet and the theater and orchestra. We might as well come together.

We have Relativity Open Mic at Mangos.

relativity copy (2)

For More information check out Del Close’s book Truth In Comedy & Improv Wins

Or you can simply visit the Station Theater.

For class and show schedules check them out online.


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