Expanding Improv

The Cabaret at Theater Square’s improv lineup adds to the city’s comedy scene, putting Pittsburgh on the map.

On a crowded stage in the middle of the Cultural District, two men find a message in a bottle. Then a woman interrupts, perturbed; her boyfriend is a pirate, and thus, they’re stealing her mail. Before things get sorted out, a handwriting analyst and a mouthy parrot get involved.

This scene, one of dozens that night, is part of the weekly Pittsburgh Improv Jam at The Cabaret at Theater Square. Oh, and the idea for that scene came from rifling through an audience member’s wallet.

This venue is best known for light, long-running musicals provided by the folks at the Pittsburgh CLO, but Randy Kirk, Cabaret manager, is in charge of filling the rest of the calendar, including a variety of late-night entertainment attractions.

“It was kind of a see-a-need, fill-a-need thing,” Kirk says. He’s been with the Cabaret Theater since its inception six years ago. At first, the CLO booked late-night and extra entertainment itself, but it abandoned the concept after a few years. “We started booking, and now Saturday late-night shows are up to about 100 people,” Kirk says. “On Fridays, we have salsa night, and that’s going great.”

Entertainment at the Cabaret at Theater Square includes jazz performers up front in the Backstage Bar, the aforementioned salsa nights, the occasional solo music show—even wine and beer lectures. But in this room, Kirk also saw a unique opportunity to expand the world of Pittsburgh nightlife. “There are music clubs, there are rock clubs, there are stand-up clubs, but there was no real room for theater and comedy.”

Improv comedy is probably the main focus of the variety schedule; amid murder mysteries, live talk shows hosted by John McIntire, one-person musicals and more, improv shows are scheduled regularly. The Jam session is held every Thursday night, and a monthly Pittsburgh Improv All-Stars show, held the last Saturday of the month, brings together the area’s most polished performers. As such, the Cabaret Theater has become something of a hub for a once-disjointed improv scene.

“There were a lot of independent groups doing shows that had their own audiences,” says Improv Jam host David Fedor. “The jam is trying to bring those groups together.” Fedor is a member of Hustlebot, Pittsburgh’s longest-tenured, long-form improv group that formed in 2006.

The Jam serves as something of an open-mic night for improv performers of all levels. In addition to novices and those still learning, the lineup frequently features members of Hustlebot, Irony City Improv, Steel City Improv, The Cellar Dwellers and representatives from the University of Pittsburgh’s Friday Nite Improvs.

Improv in Pittsburgh is still a relatively young art form, and the trailblazers have met challenges in competing for attention and understanding. “Some people still don’t know what it is,” says Kasey Daley, a co-founder of Steel City Improv. “You tell a lot of people that you’re doing an improv show, and they say, ‘Oh, like “Who’s Line Is It Anyway.”’ And it’s nothing like that.”

Many of the aforementioned groups—and the Pittsburgh Improv Jam itself—eschew the game-playing, short-form improvisations of shows like “Who’s Line” for the more complex, theatrically based medium of long-form improv. Such successful big-name improv groups as Chicago’s Second City and New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade follow this style, which takes inspiration from an audience suggestion or idea and turns it into a series of improvised scenes, more akin to short plays than theater games.

It’s hard to describe. You kind of just have to see it. Fortunately, there are more chances than ever to get the idea. “A lot of it is audience education,” Fedor says. “Now that more shows—and more long-form shows—are happening, the audience will catch up with what’s going on.”

In addition to the shows at the Cabaret, Steel City Improv opened a full-time improv performance space on the North Side in January and is registering for classes. Irony City has been holding open workshops for more than a year. And Friday Nite Improvs, an entirely audience-participation-based event, is in its 21st year.

With the Cabaret at Theater Square as a hub, though, the opportunity for expansion and interaction is greater than ever. “A lot of the people that Hustlebot has met doing [these] shows have gone on to help us make short films or work on sketch comedy shows,” says Hustlebot member Joe Wichryk II.

In Kirk, an eagerness to provide a home for improv is understandable. He’s not only an advocate and a promoter, he’s also an active improv performer himself. During a Thursday-night Jam in December, he spent much of the night filling a recurring role as a talking, prophetic mirror giving advice to several generations of janitors; he’s an enthusiastic natural, and his passion for these shows is evident.

“Improv is a lot like the jazz community,” Kirk says. “You can be part of a band that’s semi-regular, but you always love jamming with other people. You’ll do it wherever you get the chance.”

Pittsburgh Improv Jams are held Thursdays at 10 p.m.; Pittsburgh Improv All-Stars Jams held last Saturday of the month at 10:30 p.m. Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., downtown. $3, Thursdays; $5, Saturdays. Guests must be 21. Info: 412/325-6769, pgharts.org.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Things To Do