Rare Bird Show
written by Tabitha Vidaurri
Improv is weird. It's an art form that epitomizes the phrase "you had to be there." The only thing to compare it to is going to a concert, rocking out to the band, getting their songs stuck in your head, and not being able to get the album; because it doesn't exist, because they just made it up on the spot. Sound magical? It kind of is, which is probably why people devote their lives to it.
Alexis Simpson, Nathan Edmondson, and Matt Holmes are improv ambassadors (from left to right in photo above). As teachers and members of the three-person troupe Rare Bird Show, they've brought the strange and beautiful world of long-form improvisation to Philadelphia.
Just to give you a quick primer, there are two main types of improv - short and long. Short-form is timed, game-oriented, and most widely known from Whose Line is it Anyway?, while long-form improv was pioneered by Del Close, and involves a series of scenes and call-backs. One of the most common formats of long-form improv is Close's creation, the "Harold" which is made up of three sets of two-person scenes and two sets of group scenes.
Traditionally, improv has been institutionalized in places like Chicago's Second City and New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, but for years no such organization existed within Philadelphia. As a result, the members of Rare Bird Show looked elsewhere for improv education. Through traveling to various workshops and studying with a variety of teachers they were able to become a self-taught troupe.
Rare Bird Show formed in 2003, and took their name from a Jeremy Piven gag in the film, PCU. Since then, they've become the premier improv act in town while managing several individual projects as well. Simpson is the Artistic Director of the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) and also has an all-female improvisational clowning troupe that goes by the name of Pony Coat. Edmondson serves as the Theatrical Director for the famous haunted house "Terror Behind the Walls" at the Eastern State Penitentiary prison museum. Holmes has his own one-man show, m@& (pronounced "Matt and") where he takes a volunteer out of the audience, brings them on stage, and does a completely improvised show. All three members of the troupe teach at PHIT on a regular basis.
Rare Bird Show is certainly one of the most prolific troupes in Philadelphia, and what's even more impressive is their group resumé. They've headlined at festivals all over the country, including the Toronto International Improv Festival, and an annual trek to the Del Close Marathon in New York.
Mark Sutton, member of the improv group Bassprov and faculty member of Chicago's Second City and Annoyance theaters has taught the members of Rare Bird Show at various workshops. "First of all, I love Rare Bird Show," says Sutton. "I've seen them at many festivals and they have a great knack for tuning into the vibe of the audience. From the audience perspective they are very likable and their chemistry is obvious. I love the way they take chances and aren't afraid to go to unsavory places with their improv. Moves like that reflect the total trust they have in each other and that only enhances their sense of play."
I caught up with Simpson, Holmes and Edmondson at the Race Street Café. Over french fries they gave me the lowdown on how they got into the art of making things look much easier than they actually are, and what the improv scene in Philly consisted of not so long ago.
"When we came into town," recalls Alexis Simpson, "there was only Comedy Sportz ["Two teams battle for laughs and points as they make up scenes, games and songs on the spot." see ComedySportz.com] and their classes. There weren't any long-form classes, but there was obviously a desire for some. There's no reason why people can't just teach a class. Once you're in a place like New York, its easier just to go to a successful institution to try and go up. But it's such a hierarchy that you have to take all of their classes and wait for them to like you enough to put on a team."
"The bottom line is," says Matt Holmes, "there were a whole lot of people who wanted to have some sort of improv thing happening, because there's not, when you compare it to New York or Chicago. So we all just built it together. I think it's great that we have our own sort of institution that isn't institutionalized."
The group began performing at colleges and putting together workshops there. The experience gave them the confidence in their ability to teach, so it was just a matter of time that getting theatre space for regular classes came about. As the improv scene grew, they also took a lead with the first Philadelphia Improv Festival.
"That," says Nathan Edmonson, "was born out of a desire to bring in talent from outside so we could see what was out there and Philly could see groups that had been around for a while and had formal training."
As members of the submission committee, they were responsible for reviewing submitted videos, but not necessarily from the opening credits to the end. "Within the first few minutes," says Edmonson, "you know."
"Every improviser has their defaults that are their comfort zones and things they're good at," says Simpson. "I feel like the process of becoming a masterful improviser is expanding your tool kit so you're comfortable with other things. I was always teased for playing old women, pirates and hunchbacks. My default is that I play freaks."
Rare Bird Show has helped make their name outside of Philly through appearances at comedy festivals. "A lot of the festival auditors," says Matt Holmes, "had seen us live at other festivals. Toronto's is run by Kevin Patrick Robbins. He had seen us at Dirty South [North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival] and asked us to submit."
"Then Zach Ward who did Dirty South," says Simpson, "saw us at Del Close and told us to submit. I think that Del Close is a funny one. That's the kind of festival that just keeps getting bigger. The first year they only had it at the UCB Theater. Then the next year, instead of saying the pool of applicants was too large, they added a second stage. They want everyone to be a part of it. It's a big, three-day party. When I went there and performed in it after I had just graduated from college, it blew my mind. I had no idea there was so much improv."
The group has maintained its edge by continuing to work together; at times learning from others in the improvisational community spirit, at times picking it up on their own as they go.
"When we started," says Edmonson, "we met every week. We'd find some exercises. Whenever we'd go to festivals we'd take workshops, so we could share them and teach each other. We did that forever, and forever talked about getting a coach. The people we wanted didn't have time, and there weren't too many people we wanted to hand ourselves over to."
"We had this whole big period of teaching ourselves," says Holmes, "so we have such a solid background to go on. It was almost our Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 because none of us had ever gone through any of that."
"When discussing the rehearsal process," says Simpson, "I've always used the sports analogy that I was taught. Dickheads are always saying, 'Oh, its improv. How do you rehearse it?' Thinking of it like a sport, you don't know what's going to happen on game day. But in basketball you do lay up drills. You practice passing and different kinds of shots. You run suicides and then you scrimmage. So, we learn all those little ball-handling drills."
It was through this work on their own, much like musicians or artists left to their own devices, that they developed their own style, a plus that has helped them stand out in a crowded arena.
"We felt that without a coach," says Simpson, "or director, we lacked structure and so the Harold was a good way to have a structure and be able to compare ourselves to a standard. Once we were feeling good about that we went back to not really having a structure when we do shows."
"It's a loose structure," says Holmes, "that we created ourselves, but with a mindset - going back to things, beats, group games - the way that a Harold is set up, sort of underlying it. And every show is really different."
"I think one thing we've always been really good at," says Simpson, "is ending scenes when they're done, even if they're only two lines long. We've never been afraid to be say, 'Well this here is a strong offer. Here's something hilarious, big laugh, that's all we needed to see.' Our strength is our variety. We're capable of doing long relationship-based serious scenes and then the quick ones..."
"...blackout lines," continues Holmes, "weird shit, playing around with different formats and editing techniques. Sometimes we'll start with a really long scene. Sometime it's a bunch of short scenes."
"When a lot of groups are formed," says Edmonson, "they're told by their director or by some institution what kind of show they're going to do."
"Or, worse," Simpson continues, "they decide they're going to differentiate themselves."
"Every show," says Edmonson, "should be whatever that show is. Whatever was presented first kind of defines what happens."
"The audience's suggestion makes the show, but how we feel," says Holmes, "what's going on in the world, what the stage is like, what the audience's mood is, all of that makes the show. We can really make it different rather than being stuck to a form."
"That's a good thing to bring up, too, the stage. We're a very physical troupe," says Edmonson. "Whatever space we have, we try to explore it as much as possible and not just be talking heads or stuck in certain realities. We try and interact with the audience and add as much variety, stage-picture wise, as possible."
"We're just really, I guess... experimental.," says Holmes. "We've done some shows that are completely gross and full of curses, and we've done completely clean shows. And not always just because we were told to, sometimes just because we didn't curse that time."
What is it then, that makes Rare Bird Show so unique? Kristen Schier, friend of the group and member of the PHIT team Fletcher, sums it up the best, "They are really one of the best things going in Philly improv and have been for a long time. They create fast-paced, smart, dark comedy with characters that are extreme, strange, and vulnerable - almost raw. It's fresh, newly hatched, but not like a chickadee. It's like a baby vulture. They are hilarious and part of what makes them so is their fearless support of one another on stage and their willingness to unflinchingly explore everything that is messed up about this world."
If that doesn't make sense, I guess you had to be there. Luckily, Rare Bird Show performs all the time, so you still have a chance.