Thursday, April 24, 2008

INTERVIEW: Greg Maughan

When Greg Maughan moved to Philadelphia from Detroit in 2001, he figured there would an improv theater already in place. “I assumed that I was a total jerk kid that didn’t know anything and I would very shortly see great improv all over the place.” But this didn’t turn out to be case, so in 2005 he started the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) with the help of some other Philly long-form improv instructors (Bobbi Block, Alexis Simpson and Matt Holmes). Now, PHIT organizes a monthly show run by The Ninjas at Fergie’s Pub, one week of comedy shows every month at the Shubin Theatre and will present over two weeks of improv at The Adrienne main stage during the Fringe Fest this year. And most recently, the theater is holding auditions for PHIT house teams Monday April 28 at the Arden Theatre (40 N. 2nd St.) from 5-10PM (with callbacks Monday May 5th).

How many active improv groups do you think there are in the city now?

Well, if you consider side projects and people doing random collaborations, it would probably be 25-30. But the total number of performers between improv and sketch would be just a little under 100 people. So it’s not an insignificant group.

So at this point does Philly need more shows or more talent?

I think actually at this point it’s neither; we’ve got great talent and always more showing up all the time in classes so talent isn’t a problem. Shows aren’t so much a problem, I think you see less shows just scattered around, you see more people just booking in here when they get offered slots, so the big thing we need is audience. And that’s been happening over the last couple of months too. This space [the Shubin] when it’s packed accommodates 60 people and we want to be in a space that’s bigger than that, probably between 80 and 100. And if we move into a space permanently with about four times as many shows, you’re going to need a lot more audience to support that. The biggest thing we need is a growing audience.

So why are you holding auditions for house teams now?

The reason why we're doing auditions now is because we have this good talent base but actually a lot of them we are not seeing do much at the moment. There are a lot of really talented people, if I didn’t even put out an open casting call, I could probably get 8-10 great improvisers that aren’t doing anything at the moment. And really one of the big parts of the auditions is that we know we have those people, so we’ll hold auditions to see who comes out of the woodwork, to see who walks in that is amazing that we’ve never heard of. And the response for the auditions so far has been pretty good, we’ve been talking about maybe having to add a day or extending the hours of the auditions. And the auditions are just as much a tool for finding new talent as they are a tool for getting the word out.

Where will these house teams perform?

They’ll rehearse for a few months and we’ll see how the casts gel, but the plan is to have all of the groups have a premiere here at the Shubin before the end of the year and they’ll probably play the Fringe Festival. For the Fringe, the PHIT has booked out the main stage at the Adrienne which is this beautiful space. Every single show there is going to be improv for the two and a half weeks of Fringe. Then if someone wants to do a show in Northern Liberties then we can do a show there. And they’ll also tour, we’ll submit them to festivals. Miami, Charleston, Gainesville, I’m thinking of all of the sunny places because the weather is getting nice. Chicago, Toronto, obviously Del Close in New York. Anyone that wants us can have us; we want them to spread the word about the theater across the country.

You’re talking about different cities, on the PHIT website you talk about teaching a "Philly-style" of improv. What would that be?

Well that’s what we’re working on. Alexis Simpson [interim artistic director] and I talk about that a lot because there are things that are unique about the way improv is done in each city. In New York, the Upright Citizens Brigade grows out of Del Close and “The Game” of the scene which is this concept that the UCB teaches almost exclusively. “The Game” is basically that in the first interactions of the scene you can find a pattern established between the two actors that you can explore and heighten to crazy, ridiculous absurdity. Someone might trip and fall coming on stage and that can be the game of the scene because now for the rest of that scene the dynamic is that the person that didn’t fall sets the other person up so that they can fall down and do physical comedy.

So like callbacks?

Yeah, sort of like mini-callbacks that are happening constantly. If the idea is that one character is swindling the other character, you will just keep allowing yourself to be swindled and the person will just keep swindling more and more ridiculously and outlandishly. That’s “The Game”.

So what is Philly’s style like?

We’re not sure yet, it kind of just emerges. I think Philly is really obsessed with formats: the styles, the setups, the behind-the-scenes stuff, how the performance rolls out. So the classic structure for a performance is called “The Harold”. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes thing that let’s all of the improvisers know that “oh, we’re going to do ‘The Harold’,” they have a sense of what the flow of the show is going to be. They don’t know how it’s going to go, but they know how many characters are going to different scenes and when scenes will come back and will try to tie together. Philly groups are really obsessed with creating their own format and playing it here in Philly, which I find really interesting.

The format for the house team that you will be directing is “The Scramble.” Some people may not know what these formats mean, so can you explain “The Scramble”?

“The Scramble” is a form that Joe Bill, one of the best improv teachers in the world, came up with. It’s different because it’s kind of like watching a couple of shows at once. You’ll see one scene come out and start on stage and then you might see two other people come out and start a completely different scene but in the same stage space. You might have people talking over each other and you might have two actors on the sides of the stage playing different scenes and one actor in the middle of the stage who is in both scenes but is switching between the two scenes. So the thing about it that’s cool is that one of the things about improv is “don’t think” and you can’t when you do this form because often you are stepping into a scene that is already in progress but you have no idea what it is about. Similarly, for the audience they can pick and choose what they want to focus in on. And the third thing that I really like about it is that when there are all of these things happening on stage at once, you get weird callbacks that are totally subconscious from the actors. So the actors are involved in their own scenes and something they overhear peripherally comes into their scene. And the actors have no idea and the audience sees it, and that’s really cool.

Can you explain the improv-to-script production for the Fringe Fest?

Mike Connor and Brandon Libby developed these two characters called The Hopper Brothers that they decided to do a Fringe musical around. The two characters are sort of these lovable morons who are home-schooled by their grandmother and are now a folk rock duo for kids. So they came up with an outline for a show and we cast a bunch of improvisers and we went off to this huge 40-bunk cabin in the woods for a weekend. We hung out non-stop the whole time and just over and over again ran through the scenarios and improvised the characters and did all kinds of acting exercises. Basically we ran the scenario 6-7 times with everyone doing different takes on the characters each time and then Brandon and Mike picked out the best parts and transcribed it into a script. So it was literally improve into a script. It’s going to be this hour and a half show called “The Hoppers Hit The Road” that travels with The Hopper Brothers as they go from Glenside, Pennsylvania to the Ocean City Music Pier in search of love and a record contract. There’s a bunch of characters and crazy music that will hopefully be a big hit at the Fringe.

You also perform in a few groups: Industrial and Holmes/Maughan (with Matt Holmes of Rare Bird Show). Which do you like more: organizing shows or performing in them?

Well, when the shows go well you always enjoy performing in them. I will admit I’m my worst critic so that doesn’t happen very much. I think I go 7-8 months between what I would call good shows and part of that is that I’m not the funniest person I know and I’m not the best or one of the best improvisers that I know. But I’m ok and I can get away with it, but I can’t always have a good show. In the day-to-day there’s a lot of joy that comes with running a theater though. I’m able to get a group of people that had a really cool thing going but not a lot of direction towards really getting momentum behind the effort to build the scene, to have a theater, to be here [at the Shubin] one week a month has been really awesome. And it’s getting to the point where it’s getting to be too much for me to handle and a lot of people are stepping in to take it over. It’s my hope that in a couple of years the theater will be able to run without me being involved all that much. Instead of being some crazy pet project that I’m doing a million hours a week, it’ll be a real thing that stands on its own and has a community of people around it. So that part of it is really exciting.

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