Hey, creeper, get your mind out of the gutter — this particular foursome isn't into sexual deviancy. On the contrary, the local improv comedy troupe — comprised of Tommy Hutchins, Jason Groce, David Appleton, and Betsy Harper — gets their rocks off on stage at Theatre 99.
The group, graduates of the improv training program at Theatre 99, became a named act in March 2009, and it's now the only act that does not have any of the original members of The Have Nots! on its roster. To kick off each performance, the Three Men and a Little Lady scribble down about seven subject matter suggestions from the crowd on a whiteboard. From there, everything is off the top of the head and the tip of the tongue as the offbeat group takes normal topics to wacky extremes. "We try to mix it up with generators from as far out as possible and bring them in to make sense of it," Appleton explains.
A vital element of any improv group is chemistry. For Three Men and a Little Lady, this particular component developed over time. "When you perform with the same people day in and day out, it makes it enjoyable," Appleton says. "You get to know the people and you get to know where they pull from."
Getting to know each other goes beyond business for Appleton and his cohorts, who have grown into something of a family both on and off the stage. "We know each other's quirks," Appleton adds. "We can almost anticipate what's going to happen before it does."
If you plug "Cats Hugging Cats" into a YouTube search, you may very well find yourself trapped in front of your computer for hours upon end, hypnotized by adorable furballs. However, if you throw Cats Hugging Cats on stage at Theatre 99, you're in for a gut-busting night of improv comedy.
The group of five — Greg Tavares, Jason Groce, Andy Livengood, Brian De Costa, and Anne Bowen — got their name during a last-minute practice session before their first show. The setting of their last scene was a circus, and the finale at the circus involved a shoddy lion tamer. "She had the lions do lamer and lamer tricks, and the last thing she did was to have them hug each other," explains Livengood. After the feline embrace, a spectator bellowed out, "What do you expect? The name of the show is Cats Hugging Cats." In what would be the first of many bailouts courtesy of their audience, the name stuck.
To begin each show, the group asks the crowd to yell out a proper noun. "We've learned two things from getting a proper noun," Livengood says. "One, it's easier to free associate with a proper noun, and two, there are a ton of people that don't know what a proper noun is." Basically, the ideas and concepts that spawn from a single word are taken to crazier and crazier levels, fueling the remainder of the show.
Already friends before Cats Hugging Cats came about, the group's chemistry was natural. "We have similar senses of humor and we trust each other, so I think that shows in our scenes," Livengood notes. Confident in each other's abilities, the members try to let their imaginations run wild on stage, and Livengood cites the unpredictability of their shows as one of his favorite parts of Cats Hugging Cats. "We try not to limit ourselves," he says. "Being totally committed to what we're creating is the only way to have a successful show."
But even the most experienced acts can't predict an awkward silence, making us wonder if Cats Hugging Cats had ever used a fart noise — the joke that never gets old — to bail themselves out of a quiet moment on stage. Livengood answered without missing a beat: "That's why we keep Brian De Costa in the group."