It's an old and familiar story: boy meets girl. Boy and girl love being together. They make each other laugh. Then they meet another boy and form an improv group that is so awesome they open a theater and perform more than 1,000 shows together.
OK, that might not be the right story. But to the City Paper and to Charleston, it's a pretty important one, because it's the story of our city's best-known, longest-running improv group and founders of Theatre 99, The Have Nots! Known individually as Brandy Sullivan, Timmy Finch, and Greg Tavares, The Have Nots! have been together now, in some form or another, for 17 years. "You were 26," Sullivan tells Tavares during our interview. "I was 27. It was just so much fun. We were kind of still figuring out what we were doing."
Back then, the two friends were living across the country from each other, Tavares in L.A. and Sullivan in Charleston. At that time neither thought that a serious improv group, let alone a permanent theater company, was in their future. Like so many great ideas, the group that was to become The Have Nots! was born of rejection, when Tavares applied to Piccolo Spoleto with a production of Moliere's The Misanthrope that didn't make the final cut. Not to be deterred, Tavares decided he'd do a show during Piccolo anyway. "I didn't feel comfortable doing Moliere independently, but I'd been doing improv in college, and I did feel like mounting an improv show [was something] I could do. Brandy was the first person I called," he says.
The duo had a successful run at Piccolo, 16 shows in two weeks, and went their separate ways. When Tavares eventually moved back to Charleston, he teamed up with Sullivan and another local improv actor named Brian Mahanes. Those were the days of college tours, smelly vans, and dirt-cheap pay. They remember one particularly infamous run of shows in Richmond, Va., when the group made the drive from Charleston two summer weekends in a row and walked away with $37 each. "That was a very punk rock moment in our lives," Tavares says.
The Have Nots! included four members for a while, after Tavares met Finch at Vickery's and thought "he's the kind of personality where you think he can probably do [improv]" and invited him to do a show with him and the others in Greenville. But before that, Finch had to audition. Tavares and Sullivan both name that night as one of the experiences that cemented them as a group and made them feel like they were on to something. The four of them met at the house Tavares and Mahanes shared. "There was this screened-in back porch," Sullivan says, "and we did repeat action, which is one of the games we still play, and at the end Timmy left on his bicycle. We looked at each other, and we were like, all right, he's in!" Tavares adds, "As I remember it Brandy, which is even more poetic, is that Brian was there, but he had to leave, and it was just you, me, and Timmy left." The Have Nots! were officially born.
That was in 1996. Sixteen years later, Mahanes is gone (he left to pursue music full-time) and The Have Nots! is one of the few improv groups in the country to have formed its own physical theater. "That's a real badge of honor for us," says Tavares. But the best part? They still have just as much fun together as they always did. "I think the reason why we're still getting better is all kind of summed up for me by this thing that's happened hundreds of times, and will happen another hundred," says Tavares. "We'll do a show, some day soon, and in the game we play we have to write things down in a list and use that list. Well, Timmy and Brandy will work together to write my ex-girlfriends' names on it, and I'll have to use it in the next scene." Sullivan and Finch laugh at this, and Sullivan breaks out, "It's just so damn funny!" Tavares smiles and continues, "That's why it's still worth doing. Because we still care to fuck with each other on that level — that playful, childlike, just-here-to-have-a-good-time level. When they choose to not do that anymore, we should stop doing the show."
Finch echoes the sentiment, but in an altogether different way. "We couldn't have done this without loving one another. Nothing's changed there," he says. "I mean, these guys have been there for almost every animal I've killed on the road." So here's to you, Have Nots! — and here's to the next 15 years of witnessing each other's roadkills.