BIG Improv Puts the World on the Spot

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Finalists for the 2016 Janet and Walter Sondheim [...]

Baltimore Improv Group’s “Duos vs. Harolds” show, reviewed by Sage Viscovi

Improvisational theatre, or “improv” for those of us more familiar with the subject, is a performance without a script. Most or all of the actor’s actions are decided in the present moment, with little to no rehearsal prior. It’s often comedic and occasionally used in the final cut of TV episodes and films, but made to look intentional. Although improv is a common acting technique and also part of everyday actions and conversations, a tendency to view it as separate from the “performing arts” still remains.

Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) was founded in 2004 by Mike Subelsky. Through distributing flyers he was able to grow a group of four individuals into sixty performers and counting. Since 2014, BIG has had a permanent residence at the Mercury Theater in the Station North Arts District. Their mission is dedicated to advancing the art and appreciation of improv in Baltimore through a dynamic program of performance, instruction, and outreach.

mercuryThe Baltimore Improv Group stage at the Mercury Theater

This spring, BIG is celebrating its 12th season, and they currently perform over 120 times throughout each year. In addition to their main stage shows, they have also done performances for clients such as Bank of America, Johns Hopkins University, and even local bachelorette parties and bar mitzvahs. The group draws in around 5,000 audience members per year.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the house at one recent show creatively called “Duos vs. Harolds.” The evening was broken into two parts, the first one consisting of… you guessed it… duo performances.

After a brief introduction, the first act “Heather With Strangers,” starring BIG founding member and instructor Heather Moyer, took to the stage and she started off her act comically insisting I “get her good side” upon noticing my camera. Moyer has been doing improve since 2001, and began her career with Kitsch In Sync in Boston before moving to Baltimore in 2004. Her partner was a redheaded audience member and newbie to the world of improv theatre, but that certainly didn’t stop her. Punch line followed punch line, as she quickly became both a quirky bathroom attendant and clingy housewife to her onstage victim. The actor’s natural talent was able to shine in this idiosyncratic performance.


Next up were the wacky men of PUMPS, a special project created in part by Michael Hartwell and Matthew Manning. Hartwell, originally from upstate New York, is a middle school English teacher, while Manning is an essay and short-fiction writer and BIG’s social media coordinator. Both men are also involved in several other troupes within BIG. Their act consisted of a myriad of different scenes, from adult sleepovers to a therapy/cat adoption clinic. The house was howling with laughter throughout their onstage antics, and their act left me feeling a mixture of pleased and uneasy (in a good way!).

pumps1Matthew Manning (right) helps Michael Hartwell get comfortable

After that was the final act before intermission called Flannel Club, consisting of Frankie Daniels and John Windmueller. Daniels became an official member in 2014, and prior to joining BIG was a student at Stevenson University studying film, video, theater, and graphic design. Windmueller does improv between both Baltimore and Washington, DC as a member of Washington Improv Theater, where he also teaches. Their combined powers fueled a goofy performance where the general theme seemed to be wolves.

In their story, Daniels and Windmueller are undercover cops looking to find evidence for a new case, and as the scene continued Daniels lamented over his and his wife’s sex life and her wolf-like habits. Later on, Daniels finds out that Windmueller himself is also a wolf (and also apparently half sea-bear). This ludicrous scene had the crowd in stitches, and my only regret about this act is that I didn’t score one of the free donuts they had passed out before the act had begun. This just goes to show you can never know what to expect from improv, and this case the donuts were, in fact, not a trap.

Finally, after a 15-minute intermission, the second half of the night began which was dominated by BIG troupe Training For Prom. Made up of six all-star improvisers, the troupe’s acts boasted interwoven story lines throughout their longer act. It started with Kelly Lloyd, a New Jersey native and BIG member since 2012, and Tim German, a BIG newcomer, reacting after seeing a mediocre one-man show by Dave LaSalle, a middle school teacher and stage actor. From then on, hilarity ensued when Dave proposed to Kelly and then to Tim, who couldn’t seem to keep his voice from going up in octave.

tfp1Dave LaSalle (left) proposing to both Kelly Lloyd (middle) and Tim German (right)

In the next story line Phillip Stafford, also BIG member since 2012, brings in a shipment of miniature teacups. His employers Alex Braslavsky, a stand-up comedian, and Katie Long, a Baltimore-based musician (both members of BIG since 2013), become suspicious about his motives, suspecting he might be working for someone else on the side. They then begin him torture him with devices including a used pair of dentures.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 12.13.18 PMLong (left) and Lloyd (right)                                   LaSalle (left) and Stafford (right)

Through a series of absurd plot twists and recurring instances, Training For Prom managed to keep the audience in a hoot the whole set. The show overall was a huge success, and as a performing artist myself, I found it inspiring. It is thrilling that improv has become such a hot commodity here in Baltimore, and I hope it continues to reach audiences all over the region. It’s time to put the world on the spot!

tfp2Phillip Stafford (left) being tortured by Alex Braslavsky (middle) and Katie Long (right)

For more information go to the Baltimore Improv Group website.

Author Sage Viscovi is a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a student intern for BmoreArt.

Photos by Sage Viscovi

Top Image: Heather Moyer (left) and her audience participant

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