Like a veteran bartender, Ben Rameaka has a pocketful of other people's worst stories — specifically, stories about their worst roommates. His New York improv group Airwolf specializes in riffing off audience members' apartment nightmares, and he's heard some doozies.
Like the roommate who kept her placenta in the fridge to eat later. Or the roommate who had surgery to repair his urethra and wasn't allowed to get an erection for a month (his girlfriend was banned from the apartment). Or the woman who shared a one-bedroom apartment in the East Village with a roommate. "She was a professional, late 20s, and they slept in queen-sized bunk beds, like children or something," Rameaka says. "And then if one of them hooked up, she kicked the other one out to the couch in the living room or something."
Airwolf, a troupe that regularly performs at the comedy-Mecca Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, consists of Rameaka along with actors Eddie Dunn, Adam Frucci, John Frusciante (not the guy from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Molly Lloyd, Tim Martin, and Achilles Stamatelaky. When the team was looking for a unique conceit to set it apart from UCB's numerous improv shows, they struck on comedy gold with the roommate thing.
"What's something that a lot of people have in common? Everybody in New York has one roommate story or a living situation story, because it's just part of it," Rameaka says. "Everybody moves here the first year, and it's tough, and you try to adjust, and don't really know how to score an apartment or you compromise in certain ways. So it's just like a unifying thing."
Rameaka knows how to act like a New Yorker, too; he has a bit part as Broker #5 in Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street. He says he only had a one-word speaking part in the film, and it ended up on the editing-room floor. During a speech by shoe designer Steve Madden (played by Jake Hoffman), Rameaka was supposed to blurt out, "QUEER!"
"Hopefully when the director's cut comes out, you'll get to hear me scream, 'Queer,' Rameaka says.
Cats Hugging Cats
"I don't think anyone hates cats," Andy Livengood tells us at the start of the interview, which is good to know with an improv troupe named Cats Hugging Cats. "But we do love hugs," he adds. The name of the improv group came about out of desperation. "It was the very last rehearsal before our very first show, and the last scene had the world's worst circus with the main attraction being two lions hugging each other. The last line of that rehearsal was 'cats hugging cats.' We were just procrastinating to the very last minute."
And while the question of cats may strike a chord of indifference, comedy doesn't. This past year, Cats Hugging Cats — Jason Groce, R.W. Smith, Brian DeCosta, Anne Dabney, Tommy Hutchins (making a special appearance from Florence, S.C.), and Livengood — changed things up in their routine. Instead of asking the audience for a word, they ask them about something cool or out of the box they've done in the past couple of weeks. "The change was to keep it fresh, and on a whim, we said let's just try this," says Livengood. "People will say they went fishing and caught a shark, but it turns out the shark had just beached himself or a group of high school students sailing around for a project. We ask follow-up questions that inspires a bunch of scenes."
And yes, there can be boring audiences, but the pros of Cats know how to handle it. "We've had to prod a little, and then one person will be like, 'Hey I did this,' and it's actually really cool," Livengood says. "We often do get people who are clearly lying — a few minutes into it we realize they didn't do it. So we mock them mercilessly."
Cats, hugs, and mockery — what more could one want? —Melissa Tunstall
You might not have heard of it yet, but Boston's free-form improv style is starting to spread. Big Bang's Will Luera developed the approach more than a decade ago as a way to equalize all the various forms of improv.
"I was a physics major," he says. "So I have the mental training of a scientist and am always trying to find the single thing, single equation, or common denominator."
For him, the long-form Harold is not greater than short-form which is not greater than genre. Onstage, that translates to a zen approach, tapping into whatever energy presents itself and going from there.
"It could be 60 scenes in 30 minutes on one extreme," says Luera, who will be performing in Charleston with Dave Sawyer and Robert Woo. "Or it could be one long mono-scene."
The show starts with an audience suggestion and within the first two to three minutes, the performers can decide which direction they'll head based on how the first scene takes shape.
Big Bang has taken its free-form style to many comedy festivals and Luera says it's been very popular. They also teach workshops and are starting to see troupes in cities like New York and Toronto adopt it.
And who knows, you may see free-form arrive at Theatre 99 before too long. Luena will be teaching a workshop there during the festival.