Improv Marathon 

A fistful of acts meld into one hell of a time

The Improv Marathon is a series of shows (four in total) featuring three different acts performing one after the other (that's 12 different amalgamations). Each show is different from the others and each group has its own skills and strengths. All performances are held in the intimate Stars space upstairs at the American Theater.

Danny Canoe

click to enlarge Danny Canoe
  • Danny Canoe

Dan Sipp has been letting the good times roll on the improv stage for more than two decades. "Even after all that time, I still keep making new discoveries," says the Chapel Hill native. "There's always something new you can do with this."

Case in point: Danny Canoe, a shiny new craft in which Sipp and fellow frolickers Anoushka Broad and Annie Zipper have been navigating some wily comedy rapids. They're celebrating eight months as a group, according to Sipp, sufficient time to smooth out their style.

"We focus on developing strong characters and then we switch off with those characters during the show," says Sipp. "It gives the show an interesting twist."

For all three of the players in the group, it's all about having fun, according to Sipp. The secret to their success thus far has been in loving every minute of what they do in rehearsal and bringing that same passion straight back to the stage once the audience shows up.

In addition to the passion, obviously, they have all proven their ability to ride out the craziest waters with panache. Second City, iO, Annoyance Theater ... it's all there in the bios: so forget about it and enjoy the ride.

"Whatever you look for improv to do for you, it really can do that for you."

Fri. Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Stars at The American Theater

Sid Viscous!

click to enlarge Sidviscous
  • Sidviscous

Last year, SidViscous! drove 13 hours straight to reach the Charleston Comedy Festival on time. Exhausted from the trip, they took the stage, fell into their character roles and...

"We had an extra warm welcome from some middle-aged drunks who kept responding out loud to characters in the show," recalls Kevin Gottlieb. "We happily incorporated their material and everyone had a good time."

That's the beauty of the medium, according to Gottlieb. "Because it's such an immediate theater experience, improv creates a special relationship between the performers and the audience."

Even so, the cast of SV! have made a collective mental note to travel on a Thursday this year.

"So we should be well rested for our first set," he adds with a laugh.

The best preparation for SV! is to expect the unexpected. The NY-based long-form troupe is renowned for its hyperkinetic fever dreams, Halloween sets in full costume, and experimental "on ICE!" (well, actually, roller skates on stage) performances.

"It's based on a continuous, stream-of-consciousness style that can feel pretty surreal at times — but it allows us to create really unique scenes that you've definitely never seen before."

The group is made up of Peoples Improv Theater (The PIT) house team members with long, storied histories of working with one another in various comedy groups (by the way, one SV! Team member, Mandy Schmieder, is a College of Charleston alumnus with a significant number of local stage performances in her rucksack). This explains their infamous "group mind" onstage.

"We know each other's tendencies and sense of humor, so we're constantly cracking each other up and trying to make our scene partner look like a genius."

Fri. Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. & Sat. Jan. 23, 9 p.m.
Stars at the American Theater

Einstein meets Elvis

click to enlarge Coldtowne Tourco
  • Coldtowne Tourco

What is improv? Is it just a lot of funny business up on the stage, some free-wheeling fun with the wittier wits, all based on audience suggestions and a bit of "yes, and" to keep it chugging forward, or is it something more?

For Jen Caldwell of Atlanta-based JaCKPie touring team Einstein meets Elvis, improv is all of the above. As the name of the group suggests, their comedy style is equal parts cingulate gyrus and gyrating pelvis.

"But it's a fun thing," she says. "That's what keeps people coming back."

Together with Chris Nik, Damian Dunn, and Mike Brune, Caldwell delivers a burlesque repartee that'll keep you laughing long after the end of the show.

Because, hey, absurdity is all around us, all the time. Holding the mirror up to that at just the right angle is what comedy is all about. And EmE knows how to tilt a mirror, bubba.

"It's a way to process the world. If the audience gets 45 minutes of fun out of it, we've done our job. If we can make them question a few things along the way, even better."

Fri. Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. & Sat. Jan. 23, 9 p.m.
Stars at The American Theater

Best Friends

click to enlarge Best Friends
  • Best Friends

Jason Saenz and friends — Best Friends, actually — want a glimpse of the people who helped shape your life. That's the suggestion they'll ask for from the audience before beginning. They want the real stuff: the childhood pals, the guys and gals who stood beside you at your wedding, the dude with whom you did most of your college drinking.

That's when the real character work will begin.

"The emphasis is on telling a story," says Saenz. "We will take a moment from real life, put characters in it, and go from there."

That's what Saenz, a lifelong performer, loves best about it. "Improv is a way to leave all the baggage behind, get lost on stage, and laugh all at the same time."

Expect to see a little bit about the good stuff that makes you want to hang out with your pals in the first place as well as a little bit about the stuff that makes you want to throttle them. Hey, it's all part of friendship.

There will be plenty of laughter peppered into the moments of recognition, those times when you're watching the show unfold on stage and you realize: oh, man, I have absolutely been in that situation. That's where the real magic happens for these three real life best friends who began working together on the Washington D.C. comedy scene.

"I was in theater before I went into improv," says Saenz. "But I've found that these are the moments where the world melts away; when it's just you and your friends and the audience, making it happen entirely in the moment."

Fri. Jan. 22, 9 p.m. & Sat. Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Stars at The American Theater

ColdTowne Tourco

click to enlarge Family Dinner
  • Family Dinner

Alternative comedy troupes are breeding like jackrabbits out in Central Texas. In fact, there's this town called Austin where improv, sketch, and stand up is so hot that they had to drop the best of it in a theater called ColdTowne just to keep it from scorching the streets.

"The five of us who are coming to Charleston for the Comedy Festival are an amalgamation of faculty and people from other troupes here in Austin," says Brent Foshee. "So it's going to be an all-new mix."

Named Best Comedy Group three years running in the Austin Chronicle, ColdTowne originally formed in New Orleans and moved to Texas post-Katrina. They have a penchant for finding the funny in life's most harrowing moments and, hey, given the national surplus of harrowing moments these days, that can be a good thing indeed.

If you expect more nuttiness than can typically be found in a Planters factory, you'll be well at home at a ColdTowne show. Expect the less literal, some cerebral silliness, and a definite passion for performance. This is a troupe with a reputation for bringing the top talent. Comedy festivals, yeah, they've done a few — as in pretty much all — of those.

"We always have a lot going, but right now, this is a big thing for us," Foshee says. "We love getting out and doing festivals."

"Charleston is one of the cities we specifically targeted. It's a great city. Who knows? Maybe we'll play Charleston and then The Have Nots! could come play Austin. Why not? There's really such an emerging community in comedy right now. We're having a great time!"

Fri. Jan. 22, 9 p.m. & Sat. Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Stars at The American Theater

Senior PGA

click to enlarge Senior PGA
  • Senior PGA

A bit northwest of here, not far from the untamed wilds of North Carolina otherwise known as Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, comic relief is spelled DSI.

As in DSI Comedy Theatre, where owner and executive producer Zach Ward helps provide the Triangle with guffaws galore. Along with pal Jeremy McDonald, with whom he has been improvising since the 1990s, Ward will be packing up his drivers, putters, and irons...

"No, no, no," Ward says with a laugh. "The name — Senior PGA — is completely random. If people show up expecting jokes about the ninth hole, they are going to be disappointed."

Actually, the name is something that the comedy duo came up with once they graduated from college improv. "We figured, hey, we were the old guys now, so the name fit. Of course, as the years go by, it's becoming more and more applicable ..."

The duo encourages the audience to pack the iPods and Zunes. Your favorite tunes are the raw material from which they will slap together an in-the-moment masterwork.

Ward promises a fast-paced show featuring lots of memorable characters, all inspired by snippets of songs.

"I love playing to audiences who are hip to what we do," he says. "That's why I love playing Charleston. Brandy and Greg [of Theatre 99] do such a great job of providing a variety of comedy all year long."

Applause is certainly appreciated, but the absolute best compliment you can give the Senior PGA duo is catching the improv bug yourself. "I love it when someone walks up to me after the show and asks how he or she can learn how to do what we do. If I can inspire just one person with each show, I've done my job."

Fri. Jan. 22, 9 p.m. & Sat. Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Stars at the American Theater

Family Dinner

click to enlarge Einstein Meets Elvis
  • Einstein Meets Elvis

Here's how it begins. The names of four family members are elicited from the audience. Each cast member slips into one of the roles, gets a word to describe the character, and then, just that quickly, the family dinner begins.

"We go wherever the story takes us," says cast member J Star. "Even if that ends up being more of a dramatic situation, the humor still arises out of the real humanness of it."

"Think of it as kind of a Southern gothic play, only using real family members from the audience. It's all about the dynamics of the family and how these people would interact at a holiday event or other kind of dinner. What we've found is that the crazier we go with it, the more people come up to us afterwards, saying, 'Oh my God, my mom is just like that' or 'You got grandma exactly right!'"

The show originally sprang into being as a good improv scenario for the holidays — that delightful time of year when family gatherings are in abundance — but it rapidly grew so popular that the holidays alone could no longer contain it.

"The dynamics of families is what it's all about. That's something people really relate to."

Expect plenty of funny as well as some serious theater work. The Family Dinner cast isn't afraid to dip into the dramatic if the situation calls for it.

"For me, improv is everything I love about acting plus some," Star says. "It's so visceral and temporal. Every time we get on stage, it is particular to that night, that cast, and that audience. Change any of those elements and it would be an entirely different show. There's a magical quality to that."

Sat. Jan. 23, 9 p.m.
Stars at The American Theater

Related Locations

2010 Charleston Comedy Festival


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