Independent Artist Spotlight: Crossroads Comedy Theater and Thank You, Places
Imagine a musical that does not yet exist. None of the actors know their characters. The music isn’t written. There are no lyrics, no choreography, no light cues. And it’s happening tonight.
Crossroads Comedy Theater brings improv to the world of full narrative performance, creating entire musicals, movies, and more out of a single, spontaneous audience suggestion. Founded by Mike Marbach in April 2020, Crossroads came about as a way for comedians and improvisers to return to performing, safely, in the midst of the pandemic. “The pandemic letting those skills kind of atrophy over the past year and a half was a shame,” explains Marbach. Working as the Education Director and Artistic Director at Philly Improv Theater for almost ten years, Marbach was involved with and introduced to a wide variety of improv shows, until the pandemic brought live comedy to a standstill. Through Crossroads Comedy Theater, almost by accident, Marbach created a space for performers to come back to doing what they love. “In April of this year I formed Crossroads Comedy Theater because I had Not Yet Rated With it’s own website, it’s own ticketing system, it’s own social media, Study Hall with it’s own ticketing, social media, website, I also ran a podcast network for the last ten years or so, which was Water Cooler, with it’s own events, it’s own ticketing, it’s own social media. So it just became much easier, since I was now running these things on my own, to put them all under one roof, which was Crossroads Comedy Theater,” explains Marbach, “The only thing I expected was some simplification of things behind the scenes… I guess along with giving performers something to do and make sure that they are paid for their efforts, because that’s uncommon in comedy…”.
Timing was everything in the creation of Crossroads, as what started as a system to simplify ticket sales quickly became a meeting place for performers and lovers of improv in Philadelphia. “Right now in Philly, Philly Improv Theater is still dormant, Comedy Sports is still kind of dormant, Good Good Comedy Theater- which was a great spot to go to- also either closed or dormant, I’m not sure. So we came at a time where there was nothing else really going on”. Crossroads began with online performances, podcasts, and a selection of online comedy courses, and now have been able to expand to live theater, under the advisal of Michael Yudell, public health specialist and current Vice Dean of the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. On June 13th, 2021, Crossroads held its first in-person show, which would go on to become a monthly comedy event. With safety in mind, following the advice of Yudell, Crossroads held live performances of their shows, such as Not Yet Rated: An Improvised Movie, Study Hall, and guest performances by Thank You, Places: An Improvised Musical, and now comes to the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival to bring live comedy back to Philly.
What makes Crossroads stand out from other improv theaters is their dedication to performing full-length, improvised narratives. “It’s not just made up of a couple games, like you might see on Whose Line is it Anyway?, it’s not just a montage of scenes, it is a fully improvised narrative from beginning to end”. Starting with full-length improvised horror comedy shows put on for Halloween, Marbach then went on to produce and direct shows like Not Yet Rated and Study Hall, which all mesh the full-length format with improv. Marbach explains he’s always been drawn to pushing the limits of improv, and therefore why stop at horror? “The full narrative and the combining of arts and ideas is kind of one of the whole things behind Crossroads. We’re the crossroads of arts, different mediums, different forms of comedy in general”. Preparation for this form of improv theater is especially important, as the cast works off each other to produce a 90 minute, fully improvised narrative that works. “There’s a lot of practice with story structure… if we’re practicing different movies you want to be familiar with the different tropes of those films… with a musical you wanna make sure you have a big opening number. The relationships in between. Maybe some sort of political statement, which is pretty common with Thank You, Places”. Improv prowess is showcased through the array of Crossroads productions, as actors make an entertaining, unexpected show out of a single word.
“Just the idea itself. People are gonna improvise a musical? Okay, let’s see. Let’s see how this is gonna work,” jokes Marbach about the enticement of the show. Thank You, Places, getting its start at the Philly Improv Theater as well, was added under the Crossroads label as a guest performance and exemplifies the spirit of spontaneity that improv embodies. “Every single thing is completely on the spot. The accompanists are improvising the melodies, the actors- the improvisers- are improvising the characters they create, the situations that they’re in, the overall plot of the show, the lyrics to the songs, everything”. No matter what audiences come up with the night of the show, the actors of Crossroads are prepared with a long history of improv training to bring this bold concept to life. “Any experienced improviser can go on with anything. It’s not just the word that’s shouted out. It’s also how that word is shouted out, it’s the meaning behind that one word, it’s the way that word is used in a sentence, it’s the history behind the word. So there’s a ton of things to yell out. If someone yells out something crude, there’s also, why would that person yell that out?, that you can use… So there’s always things to be pulled from a suggestion”. What makes Thank You, Places and other Crossroads shows even more remarkable is the variety of performances. While the concept remains the same for each show, every individual performance is bound to have a wildly different and exciting outcome. “It doesn’t matter what the suggestion is, you’re going to see something very very different every time you see the show. And that’s the beauty of improv in general, is that it’s different every time that you see it”.
The evolution of Crossroads Comedy Theater, and it’s unexpected rise as a community for comedy in Philadelphia post-pandemic, is a testament to the power of improv and the city’s desire to return to the excitement of live performance. “Live arts is back, especially for those- maybe only for those- that fully vaccinated. So maybe that’s an incentive for people that are interested in seeing live comedy again… This is not a situation that we like at all, but it is how it has to be right now, if we want to get back to the point where there is some sort of normal to things. And I think the Fringe Festival is the beginning of that process”. With the safety of the audience, performers, and crew in mind, Marbach is working hard to bring these hysterical and daring shows back to Philly, to push the limits of improv and have a great time doing it. “The absolute top thing I hope people leave with is that they had a good time, that they laughed. Because over the last year and a half there has been such a dearth of comedy, of laughter”. Be sure to grab tickets to one of Crossroad’s shows in the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival before they sell out, and get back to laughing again!