Manic laughter reverberates off the walls. Performers wearing pink leotards fight each other to the death while balancing on unicycles. The roar of laughter drowns out the cries of the vanquished. It's time for the 2014 Charleston Comedy Festival.
OK, maybe it won't be a giant gladiator bloodbath, and maybe Charleston's comedians are a bit too cerebral for stooping to leotards and unicycles, but the laughs will be cheap — in a good way. The first four shows of the festival, beginning with Laugh for a Lincoln on Wednesday, will be merely five bucks. Less than a pint of craft beer down at the trendy new beer garden down the street. Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares of Theatre 99, who co-produce CCF with Charleston City Paper, are all about keeping the festival affordable so there's no excuse to miss the fun.
Wednesday and Thursday night is packed with the best local acts including Full Love Throttle, Human Fireworks, Little Miss Codependent, Moral Fixation, Neckprov, and Organized Chaos. The groups range from long-format Harold improvisers to game-playing improv teams. Brandy and Greg, who perform in several of the groups which are all part of the Theatre 99 family, urge you to see as many shows as you can because everyone could use a good laugh, right?
Human Fireworks is all about Harold. And by that we mean, the six-person troupe performs long-form improv that follows a set structure, opening with the full ensemble playing with an audience suggestion, flowing into smaller scenes, segueing into a group game, followed by more scenes, more games, and a final roundup with plenty of refinements and callbacks. By the end, the completely improvised show should feel like it had a point. And, of course, it should be funny.
"It's not a strict Harold," says Greg Tavares, "and you probably don't even know what a Harold is unless you're an improv nerd like me."
In addition to Tavares, the players in Human Fireworks are Brian DeCosta, Betsy Harper, Tommy Hutchins, and Andy Livengood.
The tempo is a big part of the show, according to Livengood. "Things start out kind of slow and they build into craziness, in a good way," he says.
Plus, the form is fun to play with, says Tavares. "In Charleston we typically do our own thing, and this was an opportunity to use someone else's tradition."
That tradition is a signature of Chicago's improv theatres, developed by the legendary Del Close, the guy who taught comedy to everyone from John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
The key to a successful Harold, as with most improv, is an ensemble that enjoys playing together and trusts each other, no matter how far out they dare go. Close himself described it as a complex game that relies on the group brain to take over.
"I learned how to trust the people I'm performing with from this show," says Livengood. "More than any other act I perform in, this one is unpredictable and crazy. The show helped me learn how to relax. It's wild and crazy, but we're all going to get there together."
And you can trust they'll take the audience there with them.
Human Fireworks performs on the Laugh for a Lincoln double bill with Little Miss Codependent on Wed. Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. Theatre 99. $5
Full Love Throttle
Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares are the fount from which the Charleston improv world flows. The two have been performing together since 1991. They started Charleston's most famous group, The Have Nots!, and established Theatre 99, Charleston's only professional comedy venue, which they have grown into a veritable improv player factory, where they teach classes, host the annual comedy festival, produce a weekly slate of shows, and constantly perform.
Full Love Throttle is their two-person act, which they reestablished nearly seven years ago. "It's hard to distinguish [the origin]," says Tavares, "since we've been working on and off together for 23 years and we just kind of fell back into it."
The set starts off with an interview of an audience member. Sullivan, who some call the Michael Jordan of Charleston's comedy scene, is in her element with this one. She can zero in on a person and pull out a nugget of truth that will just slay the audience.
Tavares says they take their time with the interviewing process, and it goes deeper than you'd think, which might be where Tavares is most in his element, pushing into authentic human territory away from surface silliness. He's not one to go for the easy laugh.
After pulling anecdotes out of their volunteers, Tavares and Sullivan build characters and scenes around the information, which can range from common experiences to something deeply personal.
"We're never personifying audience members," says Tavares, "but we're using their experiences to springboard off into parallel worlds."
The show is a symbol of the duo's trust and respect for each other, and both care deeply about the act. "If it was my last night performing and I had one last show I could do," says Tavares, "it would be Full Love Throttle."
Full Love Throttle takes the stage on Wed. Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. as part of a double bill with Organized Chaos. Theatre 99. $5
Good improv is literally organized chaos. Ideas are tossed about, characters are born, and shit happens.
Needless to say, Organized Chaos is a great name for an improv troupe, particularly one that relies on strong character development to drive the action.
"We start with a montage of characters that lead to a whirlwind of storylines and experiences," says performer Stacy Lathem. "Not to mention, we have a Brit."
That Brit is Craig Trow, who moved to Charleston in 2010 and found a home within the Theatre 99 family, which is how this group coalesced. They all went through improv courses together, building a solid rapport along the way. What started out as a 10-person group is down to a core four: Lathem, Trow, David Myer, and Andy Adkins.
"The four of us are opposite corners of a box," says Lathem. "You have the intellectual teacher (Myer), the Ultimate frisbee girl (Lathem), the British classically trained actor (Trow), and the rock guitarist (Myer). We all contribute a wide variety of perspectives that we use to create characters and fun scene work."
An original member of the group Sarah Porter, is coming in from Chicago for the festival. "We're excited that Sarah will be joining us," Lathem says. "It will be a bit of a reunion show for us."
Organized Chaos performs on the bill with Full Love Throttle on Wed. Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. Theatre 99. $5
Little Miss Codependent
Ask any improviser in town and they will tell you that Brandy Sullivan is their favorite to play on stage with. OK, we might have just made that up. But she's definitely one of our favorites to watch. And so is Jessica Mickey. The two are part of the Mary Kay Has a Posse ensemble, an all-female troupe that performs only a few times a year, when the out-of-town members make it back for a reunion.
"At one point everyone [in the act] lived all over the country," says Sullivan, "and Jessica moved back in town, and I was like, 'Hey, let's put on a show together."
Mickey and Sullivan are both formidable character actors. They can effortlessly conjure up a new personality with a simple look or flip of the hair. And Little Miss Codependent plays to those strengths.
The show begins with each woman posing a question to the audience. Once they have their answers, Sullivan and Mickey retreat to the back of the stage and then take turns in the spotlight, creating characters and performing improvised monologues. Sullivan says this is the "solo chaser."
After the monologues, they segue into creating scenes together.
"The lights fade, and we start doing scenes based off the [audience] suggestions," says Sullivan. "The characters in those might be the ones we made earlier, they might not."
No matter who shows up in the scenes, when Sullivan and Mickey are playing off each other, you won't be able to keep your eyes off the magic.
Little Miss Codependent takes the stage on Wed. Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. on a double bill with Human Fireworks. Theatre 99. $5
Moral Fixation goes deep. Real deep. But don't let that scare you away from this satisfying bit of improv theater.
Lee Lewis and Greg Tavares eagerly plumb the depths of the human condition in a format that invites laughter, tears, anger, whatever the scenes might elicit from the audience.
"Moral Fixation is different because the goal of the show isn't necessarily to make people laugh," says Lewis, who is, fittingly, a psychiatrist by day. "Coming from an acting background rather than a comedy background, our goal in a show is to create full characters and situations that the audience can connect to. Whether the audience laughs, cries, gets angry ... all of those are a success in our show."
Of course, there's comedy in there too. "Our tagline is, 'for those who like their improv a little on the 'meaty side,'" points out Lewis.
The two performers are close friends. "We've been doing the show for almost 10 years now," says Lewis. "Since we've been doing the show for so long it actually feels kind of like a scripted show. We try to make it as much like a one-act play as possible."
The piece starts off with a suggestion from the audience, and they build a scene around that.
"We find that describing and building a unique scene will help the audience visualize it and connect to it almost immediately," says Lewis.
From there, it's more like a standard long-form improv routine, leaving audiences with a satisfying moral nugget at the end that they can chew on for a while. It's the moments of truth that make it linger.
Moral Fixation is on a double bill with Neckprov on Thurs. Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.
Before there was Duck Dynasty and its gaggle of homophobic, flag-waving, god-fearing, duck-hunting redneck icons, there was Neckprov, a group of stupid hicks hankering for your laughter. And you will laugh, because what's funnier than a dumb hillbilly. (Are we right? Of course we are. We're from South Carolina!)
Brandy Sullivan, Greg Tavares, Brian DeCosta, Jason Groce, David Roach, and George Younts play recurring characters with names like Skeeter and Chevron, Wild Man and Ray Ray.
"We stay in character the entire show," says Sullivan. "It's irreverent, it's fun, it's funny."
The popular show has been a mainstay of Theatre 99's lineup for eight years. The shows subject matter can range from rednecks impersonating animals to a mind-blowing discussion of superdelegates.
But, be sure, it's all redneck, all the time.
Neckprov performs on a bill with Moral Fixation on Thurs. Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. Theatre 99. $5