Woodford trio performs at NYC improv festival
Being invited to participate in the Del Close Marathon – dubbed the world’s largest improvisational comedy festival – was a fun experience for three actors from Woodford County.
Paul Hartsell, Karen Marsee and Jeff Sherr don’t earn their livings onstage, but traveling to New York City for the three-day festival (June 29 to July 1) gave them a chance to see and “play” with actors from across the country recently.
The trio’s improv troupe regularly performs onstage at Stage Right Acting – a black box performance space in Lexington. In New York City, they performed in a 110-seat East Village theatre for “a small audience on Sunday morning at 9 a.m.,” says Hartsell, laughing.
“I got to check off my bucket list that I’d performed onstage in New York City,” says Marsee.
“The mash-up show that I did was on 42nd Street … That’s cool,” adds Sherr.
He and Marsee, who have been doing improv at Stage Right since their troupe “Rhonda” was formed two years ago, did mash-up shows with actors from other troupes for audiences, which always play an important role in improvisational comedy.
“They tell you where the funny is,” explains Sherr, 51, “so when some line comes out of your mouth and they like it – that means we need to call that back later.”
As training director for Kentucky’s public defender system, Sherr uses his improvisational talents to teach other lawyers storytelling and performance skills for the courtroom.
“When I’m doing improv, I’m a better human being,” says Sherr, married with two children, “because it teaches you … You’re reinforcing the things in your brain that make you a good human being. You’re listening to other people. You’re accepting what they’re saying and building on what they’re saying…”
Hartsell, who graduated from Woodford County High School in 2002, started doing improv at Stage Right Acting last year. His first experiences with improvisational comedy came with Iron Man Repertory at Mississippi State University, where he earned a degree in industrial technology.
Hartsell had watched their shows regularly, but said “no” when asked to audition because doing unscripted theatre seemed scary – maybe “impossible,” he says.
“Eventually,” Hartsell, now 34, says, “too many of my friends were in it for me to ignore it any more.”
Hartsell says he moved to Atlanta so he could continue training in improvisational comedy. It was out of his life after he took a job in Denver. It was back when he came home.
Improvisational comedy has been a part of Sherr’s life since high school in Lawrence, Kansas, where he started his own troupe in the 1980s after seeing a touring company from Second City.
Sherr, who started acting when he was 5 years old, says he continued doing improvisational and sketch comedy at Kansas University.
“I enjoy both,” he says of scripted and unscripted shows. “There’s something about improv. It makes you focus. It makes you even more alive onstage …”
Marsee says she went to an audition for an improvisational comedy show being produced by the Woodford County Theatrical Arts Association in 2001 – not knowing what she was getting into. She thought “Improv at the Abbey” was the name of a scripted show.
“There’s no better way to come prepared for an improv audition than not knowing you’re auditioning for improv,” says Marsee. “So I got cast, and that’s how Jeff and I first met.”
Very much like Hartsell’s wife, Whitni, Marsee says her husband, Greg, an orchestra teacher for Woodford County Public Schools, urged her to get back into improvisational comedy.
One of the biggest challenges for Marsee and Sherr at the Del Close Marathon in New York City was performing in mash-up shows with strangers from other parts of the country. “That was scary,” says Sherr.
“With our team I was excited. That was going to be fun. But doing (improvisational comedy) with people who you don’t know” – was unnerving because they’d never met or rehearsed.
Marsee likens a rehearsal for improv to a sport’s team getting ready for a game. “You kind of know where you want to start and where you want to end, but everything in the middle you fill in as you go based on the suggestions an audience gives you,” she says.
There are general rules to improvisational comedy, but Sherr says there are different schools of improv that structure how a performer responds.
“What most people think of when they’re thinking of improv – they’re thinking of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” says Hartsell, “which is what we call short-form improvisation or… I just describe it as gimmick-based.”
The rules of the games on “Who’s Line” make everything that happens funny “because there’s a silliness to it that’s present automatically …,” adds Hartsell, a mechanical/design engineer with two children.
Long-form improvisational comedy – what the Lexington-based troupe mostly does – typically comes from a one-word suggestion and lasts 20 or 30 minutes. “The audience is just sitting there being entertained, but we’re listening for ideas that we can bring out later and develop into scenes,” explains Marsee.
“Yeah, it’s good if it’s funny, but it doesn’t have to be … It’s mostly just connecting with other people on the stage,” and inevitably, continues Hartsell, “it’s going to be silly, and when the next person grabs (the scene) and tries to build on it, it’s going to be silly ... too.”
“It’s whimsical and fun,” he adds. “You’re playing. You’re playing games when you’re up there. Games without real rules…”
With fulltime jobs and families, spending six to eight weeks rehearsing for a scripted show would usually be impractical for Hartsell, Marsee and Sherr. Weekly two- or three-hour rehearsals are not.
“So you don’t have to put in as much time,” said Marsee, a mother of two and an account manager for a local insurance agency. “But what
I get out of it (compared to a scripted show), it’s so much more for me because I’m a character actor. I’m not a leading lady.
“So if I’m in a play – I’m lucky to have a few lines. But in improv, the character actor is the star usually,” she adds, laughing.
“Rhonda” has a show coming up at The Kentucky Castle Wednesday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m. Visit thekentuckycastle.com to purchase tickets ($25) for “Improv at The Kentucky Castle” online.