Off the Cuff


In our October issue, we wrote a totally fake, “Mad Libs” style article about the Baltimore Improv Group. [Read it here!] Following is the actual interview with conducted with executive/artistic director Michael Harris—before his co-performers added their two cents (and then some).

So what’s new with BIG, Michael?
After ten years, we’re getting rid of our gypsy shoes and finally can commit to providing entertainment every Friday and Saturday in one venue—the Mercury Theater, formerly known as The Strand.

What are your numbers like now—how many performers and shows each year?
We have about 50 company members and do at least 90 shows.

Who are your performers? Give me a range of their day jobs.
We’ve got teachers, accountants, lawyers, people who actually act for a living, waiters, students, web designers…

Waiters just means actors who need jobs, right?
In our case, waiter means standup.

And accountants are funny, huh?
Some are. They’re hiding it all behind their numbers. They just need a chance to bust out.

Who knew? In addition to the big move, anything else exciting happening this fall?
We are going to do four shows at the Theater Project on September 5, 6, 12 and 13. We will be doing one of BOPA’s “Free Fall” shows—partnering with a dance company called The Collective for a show called “The Movement” on October 10 at the BMA.

So will you guys be making up dance numbers on the spot? I’m laughing already!
For part of it, yes. It’s basically scripted choreography, but there are also parts that are completely improvised with us dancing—and real dancers reacting to what the audience suggests. The dancers actually become the set.

For anyone who hasn’t gone to an improv show, this is probably a good time for me to explain that you guys ask the audience for thematic suggestions during your shows—then act them out on stage.

Are the audience ideas ever really bad? Like, “Oh my God, did that dude just suggest rock collecting?”
My gut instinct is to say it’s less about what the audience suggests and more about what you do with it. Some of the best themes come from very simple suggestions.

Still, there must have been a few duds or crazy ones.
Probably the worst I’ve ever seen—and I don’t know if this is printable—but once we had bachelorette party in the audience—and, as you can imagine, they were in full bachelorette party mode.

I’m picturing alcohol and penis straws for some reason.
Essentially, yes. They kept giving us [dirty] suggestions, regardless of what we were asking for. So we’d be like, “OK, we need an office setting, a location lots of people will go to.”
And they would just yell the word “SODOMY!” every time. Thank you, that’s awesome, ladies.

I love it.
Also, I once saw a musical troupe in Los Angeles try to elicit suggestion’s from the most boring woman on earth. They tried to get anything out of her. Asked her all sorts of questions about her day—and all she could come up with was like, “I get up. I feed my kids eggs.”

But they ended up doing an entire musical about making eggs for her kids and cleaning the house—and it was brilliant. So just you just never know.

What is going through your mind when you’re up there? Are you ever like, “Holy sh*t, I can’t think of anything to say?”
The more experienced you get, the more comfortable you become—both with yourself and with the other performers. The goal is to be totally present and in the moment, to the extent where you will say things that surprise you. If you’re hyper-aware of the audience or if you catch yourself planning, you’re in a bad spot.

What’s the biggest trick to playing so quickly off of your co-performers?
It’s really about three words, LISTEN, AGREE and ADD. Different improv companies have different vocabulary, but it’s all the same idea.

Agreeing seems really important.
Absolutely. No matter what the other person says, agreement means I’m going to treat that information as truth. That’s part of the scene.

So if I say you’ve been impregnated by aliens…
… and I have! Yes, perfect example.  You’d walk in and say, “How’s that alien baby doing, Mike?” And I immediately pick up and say, “Ugh, I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of breastfeeding this kid.”

When Jimmy Fallon was on Saturday Night Live, I was of the camp where my favorite moments were when he started cracking up middle of the scene. But I have friends who are like, “Oh, hell no! That’s inappropriate, he should keep it together.” Where do you fall in that regard? Do you guys ever just bust out laughing on stage?
Yes, of course, everybody does. And sometimes it’s okay when it’s genuine. I think Fallon and Horacio Sanz made that a go-to in sketches sometimes if they weren’t going that well. But there are also famous scenes where actors will change a line to mess with the other one—like John Cleese and Michael Palin doing the parrot sketch for “Monty Python”—and you can say, “Oh look, he got him!” It can be very funny.

Why do you guys do improv?
Desperate need for attention that was not adequately satisfied in childhood.

Joking aside, I think that’s why most performers do what they do. But why else? Because it’s fun. Because we love it. A big part of improv is being in front of an audience and making them laugh. It’s very relational.

Who are your biggest fans?
Hmmm, rough demographics, it’s folks in their 20s to 50s who tend to be engaged in the arts in Baltimore and attend lots of cultural events—festivals, concerts, art shows, theater. The majority of them are single.

I can’t decide if that means I should come there to try and meet men—or if it’s a sad or creepy state of affairs.
[Laughs] I think it has less to do with people’s relationship status and more that they don’t have toddlers running around at home.

Tell me some dirt about the company members who will be “filling in the blanks” for this article to make you look silly.
Sure, OK. Well, Heather Moyer. She’s a lot of people’s improv crush.

I can totally see that!
Bridget Haveola. She’s our education director—and she does improv because she’s completely incapable of memorization.

I would be in the same boat.
She’s also very funny, but by her own admission, should not be doing other types of theater.

Never happening. Got it.
As for Katie Long, despite what many people think…not a Latina.

Really? I’m shocked too, I have to say.
Yes, this is a common misconception. People are always saying things to her like, “Girl, you need to come on over to this Latin church or that Latin festival.” She actually speaks a little Spanish—and she’ll use it to make people laugh.

So basically you cheated when I asked for a diverse range of people for this photo shoot?
I did, yes. I’m so sorry!

And what about Rasheed Green? I loved when he kept asking me if he was “smizing” [smiling with his eyes] like Tyra Banks.
Rasheed is a self-proclaimed diva, as he told you. He likes to put that out there and proclaim he’s a diva, even though he’s really not. He’s actually a sweetheart of a guy.

I have a feeling my next big “BIG” laugh will come from him. Can’t wait for the new season!
Us, too. Thanks so much.

>>Read the “Mad Libs” mash-up here: SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

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