Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Philly Improv Theater
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, FringeArts Marketing Manager Raina Searles and Artistic Producer Zach Blackwood chat with Greg Maughan, founder and Executive Director of Philly Improv Theater. Hear about how PHIT made the switch to a weekly roster of Zoom comedy shows, adjusting to a virtual comedy festival, and using the shift to digital to allow for creativity in show design. Learn more at https://phillyimprovtheater.com/.
Photo: Two Bedroom, One Bath from the 2019 Fringe Festival
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Zach: And welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe, this is Zach Blackwood, an Artistic Producer at FringeArts. Today we are talking to Greg from Philly Improv Theatre, better known as PHIT here, a local comedy venue in Philadelphia that was founded 15 years ago. PHIT produces over 1,000 performances annually which range from fully improvised comedies to original sketch shows and more. They have been live streaming performances during quarantine and we’re here to talk a little more about PHIT and how they’re fairing. First of all, Welcome Greg!
Raina: Welcome Greg!
Greg: Thank you so much for having me, It’s a pleasure to be talking to another human being(laughs), I don’t do much of that anymore.
Zach: Well, thanks. It’s nice to have you here too! It’s nice to just, you know, hear other people other than just like the sound of my dog breathing, and like my neighbors talking too loud in their backyard.
Raina: My upstairs neighbor is definitely exercising a decent amount these days. I hear a lot of jumping.
Zach: Oh, I’m so sorry. Well as it is Happy Hour on the Fringe we are going to start the way we always start: Greg what are you drinking?
Greg: Drinkin’ hot chocolate Zach!
Zach: Oh wow!
Greg: Yeah, I know, not even cold out, but I feel like this is comfort food for me and I needed a lot of comforting in the last two months.
Zach: Do you have like marshmallows going on? Is it like fully loaded?
Greg: Only way to do it is with marshmallows, Yeah.
Zach: Oh, good. Good, good, good.
Raina: that’s so interesting because I’ve also been buying marshmallows recently. I’ve had hot chocolate before, but something about this quarantine was like this hot chocolate is nothing without marshmallows. I’ve been just buying the mini ones, and I just recently bought the giant ones, so we are going to see how that goes in my next cup. But right now, I am having iced tea.
Zach: Very nice, very nice. And I myself am having an oat milk latte. I iced an oat milk latte here in my house, I did not know how to do that at the beginning of quarantine at all, but yeah you know necessity and all that.
Raina: So Greg, We’ve had the chance to see some of what PHIT is doing and have really enjoyed being able to watch people do improv from their homes and using different camera setups and still kind of creating art during this time. So just to kind of give everyone an overview, can you tell us about what PHIT has been up to since quarantine started?
Greg: I mean we are kind of in an interesting position because our model is producing year-round, sometimes 20 performances in a week on a variety of things, working almost on the community theatre model where primarily people who are preforming are eligible to a share of the ticket sales if the crowd is large, you know they are doing it for the love of preforming and they are not really doing it primarily for income. So, we had this difficult situation of lots and lots and lots of things that we are always preparing, were not just doing three shows a year or four shows a season, and then having a bunch of people who weren’t necessarily going to get anything from doing the show, being asked to reimagine the thing they do. And so I think we did a pretty good job of getting online pretty quickly, I think we were dark for one full week, and then the following week we had performances again, and just a limited set and the schedule that we are doing now is significantly less than what we would normally do, we’re sort of, trying to have one show a night Wednesday through Saturday and adding in some Sundays, and then we are doing things that are just community events, you know, for our performers and our students in our training center and the people in the orbit of the theatre, you know like coffee in the morning on zoom or meditation on a Monday night with us, just to try and keep people connected because for me, I’ve always tried to put theatre first and foremost as a hub for the comedy community in the city and kind of a place to come and connect with folks who are like minded and then go out and discover projects they want to work on together or things they want to create in small groups that they can bring back and put up on our stages. So one of the big challenges that I think we have had is: how do you maintain a community which has been so much about being in person and face to face and you know, actual interaction- how do you try to translate that to and online world? And I’m definitely not coming to you claiming that I’ve figured it out, but we’re improvisors and so the one benefit that we have is we’re very good at trying a lot of things and seeing what works and doing it pretty quickly, because that’s our art form.
Zach: That’s amazing. Do you guys have any great learnings that have already emerged for you? I mean what you were saying about that interactivity, about the flatness of like a digital environment and the way that that changes the exchange between audience and artist is something I think everybody is grappling with in the field as we try and kind of make this—It feels like trying to turn a cruise ship around you know, and think about, in a new way, what it means to experience a performance. Like are there any things that you guys have tried already that feel like they differently orient that relationship?
Greg: Well, I don’t know. I mean I think we really are– it feels very early still, although I think that, you know, we’ve learned a lot and in the next few months we’re going to learn a lot more, and very realistically like I think we are going to be doing this for quite some time and even after we go back to whatever the new normal is or further down the road, when we return to a version of the old normal, I sort of anticipate that we are going to continue to do things online because I think there are going to be some interesting things that come out of this time that we decide we like an that people are going to want to keep doing. The big differences that I have noticed, the number one thing obviously for comedy is, you know it’s a–improv and stand up which we do a bit of and sketch—they’re very interactive with the audience, not just in terms of getting suggestions, you know the way that people know on whose line is this any way you get a lot of suggestions, but they’re very audience interactive because the comedians are often following the cues that they see from the audience, the feedback of the laughter, to decide which direction to go with a scene, and that is completely taken away. So, one of the challenges for us is trying to figure out how to have a level of interaction with the audience and be able to pick up on it. You know it’s a much different thing to be doing a scene live on stage in a room full of 100 people where you just hear the waves of laughter and know that something has hit. Now our performers are on zoom, they are trying to keep one corner of their eye on a chat window to see if people who are watching are responding to things they are doing in the chat, and we have been trying to encourage and train our audience in the chat—you know without being objectional kind of trolls you know—to respond to the things that they find funny, to type that they are laughing or to type that they are clapping or to repeat a line that they think is funny that they might whisper to a person next to them if they were in an audience, and that’s just a very strange experience. I think we have also you know discovered that we’re trying to be more interactive with the audience in a lot of ways, like trying to go to the chat to pull information from the audience and incorporate it into the show as we are going along just based on what happening there conversationally, and so that’s something that we have definitely been trying to figure out is just how do you get feedback when you are improvising in a forum where you don necessarily get feedback that you are used to. And I think the other thing that has been interesting to me has been trying to figure out stage and zoom and trying to figure out what works, and I keep stressing to our performers and when I have conversations with people thinking about ideas—because we have had a lot of conversations in the last eight weeks and tried a lot of things that we’ve never ended up then putting in front of a live audience, because they just didn’t work or people weren’t quite sure how they were going to go– but I think figuring out that it’s a different medium, it’s a more filmic, or like television type medium you know, you’re like on camera, (10:42) and so seeing people just play with ways to do things like camera placement or fast motion in and out of frame, which you can’t necessarily do on stage but you can do here. SO some of the most interesting stuff that I’ve seen us do has more of the quality of film than it does the quality of stage in terms of the way the actors are presenting it.
Raina: Well I’m curious—you mentioned that– and I am curious if any of those ideas that you mentioned before were—before it had to be the case—Like it was like “oh it would be cool if we could do this but we can’t” or “oh it would be cool if we could create this effect on stage but we don’t know how.” So, this has kind of like allowed you to do those ideas you had before or have you been creating on the fly, coming up with things as you go?
Greg: I think its mostly been coming up with things on the go and on the fly, but there has been a few times in the past where, again we are an improv theatre and there’s not a lot of lead time to put an idea up and not a huge financial investment, we’ve done a couple things where we have played with video: we’ve done stage shows where we have had projections that the actors are interacting with obviously, we’ve done a show where a bunch of people put go pros on and—so you’re watching them do the show but you can also watch the screen to see the view of all the people to see what they are looking at and seeing, so that was kind of fun. We’ve done one or two shows where we have had casts that are very popular and had long running recurring performances over many years but maybe got scattered to the winds and have wanted to do reunion shows, and we have done a reunion show last year where ab out half the cast of the show were just all on Facebook live kind of popping up on a screen interacting with live actors on a stage, and you know that was a bit of a mess but it was fun and it was kinda a thing we did late at night and it was like “that was a fun thing that we went and tried” with no inkling of course that that was going to be primarily what we were going to be doing this year. So, one of the nice benefits is that you know we have been able to have a lot of people who have. Oved to new York or Chicago or Los Angeles, or—a really beloved performer form the theatre who went on to become the co-artistic director for another improv theatre in Portland, Oregon, was able to come back and do shows—so you know, those things have been really nice: the ability to like very easily drop someone we know and really love and appreciate who lives somewhere else into a show or to approach people who are a little more notable to have them just kind of show up, because they are also locked up inside with this no clear opportunities for theatrical work and that’s something, in talking with other owners and manager of theatres like mine across the country, that a lot of other folks are doing as well. So from that point of view it’s made it easier to collaborate across distance although the nature of the collaboration looks very different, you know.
Zach: And how have those kinds of collaborations born out audience-wise? Like are you seeing a different or more expanded audience, in terms of distance, than you might have previously?
Greg: So, yeah, because again we’ve never really streamed things before. We used to film performances and put those kind of archival recordings up on YouTube if people had a family member they wanted to share it with, or if students at our training center were taking a class and you know they wanted to share it with their grandparents or something who lived in Florida or California or wherever. One of the things we did very quickly, and think this is the best example of how this has been beneficial is: we had a national improv festival that was scheduled to take place the first through the fourth of April, and so with about ten days’ notice we completely turned that on its head and moved it online and we ran this festival which we have done off and on since 2010, so this was kind of a tenth anniversary were very excited but it’s called Duofest, all two person improv comedy acts, and there were some people who had to be able to commit to coming, and suddenly we were able to have them preform because they were just preforming from home, there were some people who used to preform together and now were split between space, but they were able to perform, And it was a way for us to just very quickly put up a show which featured people from all over the country, and of all the weeks of programming we have done since the pandemic began, those performances which were national and acts which were more exciting (things you couldn’t normally see in Philadelphia) those performances sold extremely well, they were the best week of programming that we did. It also didn’t hurt that it was very quickly afterwards, before—because now there is, frankly, more competition, I mean people are figuring this thing out and more people are online and doing things, so the audience is being spread out a bit more. But I saw some really interesting thing, like there was a fantastic duo called the Wadsworth Constant, which do improvised absurdist plays. And it’s Nick Gillette who was part of Almanac Dance Circus for years and years and has done stuff with the band, and Kristen Schier who was a former booker and producer at our theatre who lived in Portland Oregon. They did a show where they played around with camera angle a bunch, and they did a show just two of them on the zoom screen where Kristen Schier set a camera on the floor and kind of kept covering the camera and uncovering it with a piece of paper and has this view looking down at it, and Nick had set himself up in like an emptied out walk in closet or something where he must have taped his camera up in the ceiling, and they did a whole show where all you can see was Kristen Schier’s character was carrying Nick Gillette’s character around in a box and just kept opening the box to look into it and talking to him, and he kept jumping up to try and get out of the box, it was obviously very small, and you know that’s something we never could have done on stage. So it was a really fascinating fun show that just took the restrictions of the medium and did something with them to kind of get around them and make them more interesting. And there have been other performances like that but that has been the one that kind of comes to mind first for me because that was the first thing I saw and went “Yes! Somebody is trying to do something with this other than: let’s just do what we always do, just now we have to have a camera pointed at it.” And that’s one of the big challenges: is getting people over the hump of just wanting to do what they know and feel comfortable with but maybe wont translate as well—you know I keep saying zoom, but let’s be honest, any kind of video conference—isn’t going to translate as a stage really, although we are playing with things like virtual backgrounds and extra layers of production now to try and figure out what we can do to make things a little more polished. And part of this is that it is kind of rough.
Zach: Well it’s great to hear that you guys are thinking about this like as an opportunity to be more expansive and kind of more accessible and more relevant to other people, I think that’s what we are finding as we have these conversations with artists is that as much as this is limiting to the creative environment which we are used to working in or the creative reflexes that we might already have, it’s also deeply kind of fraying and kind of expansive to look at in what ways this new medium, or this new relationship between audience and artist creates opportunities to play with new expectations that people have including like how zoom works, and these virtual backgrounds and even just the idea of when people switch the orientation of their face horizontally, like the flipping of things, is so funny and can be really really ridiculous(laughs), How are you thinking about these improvements or– I don’t mean to say improvements like there was a deficiency—like these new fixtures on your programming model, how do those move into the future and move into some imagined post quarantine world, are you thinking about those things and what building out this new digital infostructure means for you guys as you move forward?
Greg: Yeah I mean I’m giving it some thought though I’ll also admit to being deep in the throes of a crisis so I’m kind of just looking at what’s on fire today and them you know I’m there talking all afternoon. But you know for me I think what’s actually been the most interesting and probably has the most long term impact on the theatre has been in our education, so we have for the entire time we have been open, we’re also kind of equally a performance space as a training center and so we have offered classes in stand up, improv, sketch, dramatic and comedic acting, storytelling, and other disciplines, for 15 years, and that’s a really important and significant source of our income because we try to operate on our income we try to operate without financial support, although that obviously will be a different case this year. And what we had to do very quickly when all this started was we had to figure out how to offer classes to 300 students who had signed up for classes that were supposed to start on March 15th that week– how do you teach all those people online? And also, how do you, to be quite frank and honest and transparent, how do you not give refunds to all of those people? Because if everyone requested a refund, we would’ve probably had to close our doors or at least tell them get in line and wait a while. And we are very fortunate: about half of the students wanted to continue online and the other half said that they were happy to wait until they could take a class in person and receive a credit, and that’s one of the other great things, I think people have been very understanding in the theatre community because they support theatre, they recognize its value and they want to do what they can to help. But for us figuring out how to do classes online has been a really kind of fun problem in my mind, and you know instructors were obviously nervous, I mean I went to teach a class and I was nervous and I prefaced it with y saying “I don’t know how any of this is gonna go, but we are gonna try it, and if it doesn’t work I’ll come up with something else because I’m an improvisor.” But we‘ve got, you know, a couple hundred students who continued with class and are having a really fun time and we’re figuring out that you can really have meaningful connection, you can learn the skills of improv online and so that’s been really exciting and its also brought in people who would not normally take a class with us, people all over the country who want to sign up, and so I think that’s something we are definitely going to continue even when we are allowed to go back to meeting and holding classes in person. I would expect we’ll also continue to have some number of classes, probably especially, writing classes which we offer, you know, online.
Raina: That’s awesome! You know we have talked about a number of ups and downs but are there any particular successes or any little victories that you’ve had since all of this started that you are most excited about?
Greg: (Laughs) Well, I mean I’ll say quite honestly the first victory I think was the first night that we did a show, which was on the 27th of March, just seeing 60 people show up and purchase a ticket and then a greater number of people than that who were on the stream, lots of people watching together in groups, we put up that first show and I fully expected that no one would show up, even though I consider myself a fairly optimistic person, so you know just the fact that people have been willing to embrace this and have been willing to be supportive of local theatre, you know I’m not going to pretend that what we are doing on zoom is on par with a prestige drama that’s up on Netflix or HBO, but there are people who appreciate the spontaneity of live theatre even if they are not in the room with it, so that to me has been a huge success. The other big win for me is more a behind the scenes win, but I reached out because over the years, you know 15 years of doing this you meet and form connections with a lot of other people, and you know, the national improv community is a fairly small one, it’s probably similar to the national circus arts community or something, and I orchestrated a conference with 25 different theatre owners or directors or managers two weeks ago where we spent a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening outside of our work time, just talking as a group about the challenges facing all of us: budgets, doing classes online, performance, how to rethink our business models, and also more simple thing like: we are all fairly extroverted, so how are we dealing with being stuck inside and not seeing people and not having the energy of the back and forth with folks, or you know we are scattered all across the country, so how are people going to deal with reopening, and if there are in states that are pushing for that to happen faster and as a result their landlords have less patience or seeming flexibility because, let’s face it, rent is one of the biggest obstacles to any theatre company at the moment, you know we are anticipating that we are not going to do a live show again for quite some time and we are sitting on a beautiful space in center city that is very expensive each month, and just trying to figure out how to work with our landlord to allow us to come back and allow us to operate in a kind of reduced capacity without any need for a space but we have a lease for it, so that conference and that chance to speak with many different people I have known and worked with for years, we all appreciate each other, and kind of be together and solve those problems, although it’s not specifically artistic, I’ve been understandably distracted from the artistic aspects of the theatre in the past few weeks and getting those people together kind of helped me focus on what’s happening on our virtual stage. So that was a big win.
Raina: Awesome. And how can people help out during this time and support your business?
Greg: Yeah! Well, I mean, you know they can do what they did before, but just in a new way, so they can visit our website and look at our calendar of shows and decide to sit down and watch some zoom comedy on an evening, they can look at our offerings in terms of classes, and we should be having classes for the summer posted up on our website in the next few days so I’m not sure exactly when this will go live, but by next week we should have those up, and they can also if they want to, visit our website and buy a gift card or make a donation, we have a gift card page and a donation page that are pretty prominent at the top of our navigation bar these days. So yeah, those are all things that they can do. And I guess the last thing I would mention is you know if you have a business we are continuing to do corporate work and I think that there are far too many people at the moment who are spending all day sitting on miserable zoom call after miserable zoom call feeling like they are on camera for eight hours and its exhausting, and so we have been doing a lot of work just so that we can come in and have fun with people for an hour where they are not really worried that their boss is watching or they can’t be silly, and we have been having a lot of success with that, so if someone is in a workplace that needs a moral boost we are here for that kind of stuff too.
Raina: (Laughs) I think pretty much every workplace could use that.
Zach: Well Greg it’s been a moral boost just talking to you this afternoon, and we deeply appreciate kind of you coming here and bearing PHIT’s soul for us. I really think you guys are super well poised from the conversations that we have had with other artists and with other institutions during this time, you’re thinking about really really smart things and I’m really excited to see what you do with all the new eyeballs that are on PHIT, and congratulations you know, it sounds like you’re taking this like a duck takes to water.
Greg: Well I’m glad that I convinced you that, I’m clearly a better actor than I thought (laughs). Thank you guys for having me, I mean it’s always a pleasure to talk with everyone at fringe and Fringe is such an important part of the arts scene and community here, especially around devised work, which is sometime how we refer to ourselves, and I’m just really glad that fringe is doing as much as they are to help communicate out how different artists are feeling and reacting and trying to navigate in this world, and is also here to support the arts community and I look forward to whatever form Fringe takes this year, and how PHIT will stay involved with that, and you know I also hope that soon, but not too soon, we will all be able to get back to normal and spend time at happy hour in person.
Zach: Hey thanks, same to you.
Raina: Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, you can find FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app, to you Greg and to all of our listeners at home, stay safe, stay well and stay positive.