How a local indie improv scene is spreading across the city

Six months ago, it would have been nearly impossible to watch improv comedy in the city of Detroit. Now, the problem for fans of improv is choosing which shows to attend.

For the first time since the closing of Second City's downtown location, there's regular performances in Detroit being staged by improv enthusiasts, all of whom aren't affiliated with an established theater.

In case you weren't sure, improv, short for improvisation, is a form of theater where everything on stage is created spontaneously by a troupe of improvisers based on an audience suggestion. There's two regional theaters that specialize in improv: Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale and The Planet Ant Theater in Hamtramck. Indie troupes, whose members don't have highly-coveted spots on one of these theater's house teams, sometimes have trouble finding stage time, especially after Go Comedy! cancelled their weekly slot for indie troupes called "Proving Grounds."

Ironically, the loss of a theater's indie slot might be the best thing that has happened to the local indie improv scene. Since then, several regular shows that feature indie troupes have started in and around Detroit.

The first of these new improv pop-ups was Stage Time, a monthly show with rotating venues. Founded by Anne Marie Sumner and Sara Constantakis, Stage Time's first show in November 2014 was held at Ferndale's StoreFront Gallery, the second in Detroit's ponyride.

Regardless of venue, the setup and premise of Stage Time is simple: chairs, stage, troupes, and maybe a musical act that plays during intermission. Sumner yells "Scene!" to signal the end of a troupe's set, then introduces the next one.

"I didn't have a plan when I thought up this idea," says Sumner. "I only knew I wanted to create another outlet for amateur troupes to perform and for it to be fun and relaxed."

Following close on its heels were Detroit Improv Live at Traffic Jam and Snug in Detroit and Neighborhood Comedy at O'Mara's Restaurant in Berkley.

Alexander Pitts and Michael Waxer first met as coworkers at Traffic Jam over a year and a half ago where they found a mutual interest in improv. Wayne State University graduates and Detroit promoters, they saw an improv void in the city and wanted to change that.

"People talked about the Detroit improv scene, but if you stayed in the city limits, you wouldn't be able to find it," says Pitts.

"Detroit's an integral part of whole show," adds Waxer. "It permeates everything -- the promotion, the vibe, the name."

The vibe is crucial to Waxer and Pitts, and generally a major challenge for these shows, which have to recreate the atmosphere of a theater in a restaurant, bar, or art gallery. "It's really important to us that it not feel like a restaurant," says Pitts.

They set up a partitioned stage in the rear of Traffic Jam's sizable floor, and clanking silverware or glasses don't interrupt the show, even during quiet moments.

Detroit Improv Live has an ambitious and varied set list involving sketch, music, stand up, improv troupes, and an improv jam. They also previewed a show Pitts co-wrote, "Se7en: The Musical," a raunchy homage to the David Fincher film.

"We want this to be an outlet for creative people," says Waxer. "We don't tell you not to cuss or go blue -- you can do whatever you want. It's a bar-slash-restaurant in Detroit at 10 p.m. and no one cares."

Jon McCaffrey has a great reason to stage Neighborhood Comedy, a weekly show on Tuesdays, at O'Mara's: "I have a wife and kids and I'm not allowed to go to all the comedy shows I want," he says. "So I make them come to me."

This truly is neighborhood comedy. McCaffrey lives in nearby Madison Heights, grew up in Berkley, and was a busboy at O'Mara's as a youth. The show has the laid-back atmosphere of friends performing for friends -- performers typically sit with the audience in a closed-off section of the restaurant and approach the stage as McCaffrey announces their troupe.

You're unlikely to find better entertainment value for your dollar than these shows that often last two or more hours. Attending Neighborhood Comedy and Stage Time is free. Detroit Improv Live costs a whopping $3.

"I never considered charging for admission," says Sumner, who puts out a donation box to help defray venue rental fees. Any extra funds are returned to the show in the form of drinks, food, and equipment.

Staging these shows is no simple task. It takes hours to set up a venue, plus many more in preparation for booking acts and securing a venue in the case of Stage Time. McCaffrey can't really afford the time it takes to run Neighborhood Comedy. In addition to working 60 hours a week as a letter carrier, he works an additional, unpaid 15 hours per week as a steward for his local chapter of the postal worker's union. Oh, and he has a wife and three kids.

So why does he put so much time and energy into the show?

"I started Neighborhood Comedy for two reasons: so I could give performers more opportunities for stage time and so I could watch free comedy," says McCaffrey. "I didn't expect people to thank me for creating a show for selfish reasons."

The other founders echo this sentiment. "It's an excuse to watch our friends play," says Waxer.

"It's selfish because we get to see them perform," adds Pitts.

Self-deprecation aside, they put on these shows simply because they want to spread improv joy. Founding members of all three shows have individual stories that connect them to improv and encourage them to share that connection with others.

"I got into improv at a difficult time in my personal life," says Sumner. "In improv class, I could spend three hours a week having a great time and letting those things go. There's a natural desire to share -- that's a huge reason why Stage Time came together. Let's spread it around so more people can be involved in this life-altering activity."

McCaffrey's story is strikingly similar. "Before I started working at the post office, I'd been unemployed for six weeks, the longest stretch of my life," he says. "I went to Go practically every night. At that time, I needed comedy so bad. So if someone wants to be around comedy, I want to provide it."

This passion has translated into successful shows -- all three of which have been remarkably well attended. By their fourth show, Detroit Improv Live had an audience of 80. Sumner estimates that Stage Time's first show at ponyride had an audience of 100.

The founders have ambitious plans and goals to expand to bigger venues. Along with Tommy Simon of Go Comedy! who runs their pop-up at the Elizabeth Theater and Dylan Koblin of WSU's improv team, they've created the Detroit Alternative Comedy Collective (DACC) to share resources, ideas, and promote each other's efforts. Together, they're planning a show for July 11th this year -- hopefully the first of many.

"The DACC goes hand in hand with the spirit of inclusiveness and brotherly love in the improv community," says Waxer. "Everyone is so supportive -- it's inherent in way it works."

Where to see pop-up improv:
  • Detroit Improv Live -- every other Wednesday, Traffic Jam.
  • Stage Time -- once a month, different venues. Next show: 6/26 at 7:00pm at Tangent Gallery in Detroit
  • Jon McCaffrey's Neighborhood Comedy -- every Tuesday at 9:00pm, O'Mara's Restaurant in Berkley
  • The Vamp -- every Tuesday, Laff Tracks in Novi (full disclosure: Aaron Mondry is a member of the Vamp's house team)
  • Go Comedy! All Star Showdown in Detroit -- Elizabeth Theater, various dates. Next show: see schedule.
Thinking about taking the plunge into improv performance? This video by Jamen Spitzer and a crew of local improvisors shows you what to expect: a whole bunch of fart jokes.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer and improviser. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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