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Sea Tea Improv Troupe Finding A Niche In Hartford Clubs

By WILLIAM WEIR

April 23, 2010

On a recent Thursday at Hartford's City Steam Brewery Cafe earlier this month, members of Sea Tea Improv are rehearsing a new skit. It's about a dating game with three contestants: Foghorn Leghorn, novelist Toni Morrison and the supercontinent Pangaea.

It's the job of improv actors Greg Ludovici, Julia Pistell and Joe Leonardo to bring these characters to life, and it's troupe member Dan Russell's job to guess their identities. Yet another actor, Vladimir Perez , plays the host, while Kate Sidley sits out this time around but offers her suggestions afterward on what worked and what didn't. (A seventh member, Summar Elguindy, missed rehearsal this night.)

The group is preparing for a performance a few days away at the Hartford coffeehouse La Paloma Sabanera. For all the work that goes into rehearsal, none of it will be used in the performance at least not exactly. As an improv troupe, performers are subject to the audience's whims.

Their rehearsals (usually held at City Steam, their favorite venue for performing) are a way to hone technique and think quick on their feet. And the more they work together, the more familiar they become with each other's performing style.

"It makes you more comfortable with each other on stage," says Ludovici. "When you hang out with them, you know where they're going to go."

The group's members range in age from 23 to 30, and most live in the Hartford area. Their day jobs include telemarketer and website developer, and they met while taking improv classes at Hartford Stage.

Before joining Sea Tea, Leonardo performed stand-up comedy, which he won't be doing again any time soon. Audiences for stand-up almost want to see a performer bomb, he says, while improv audiences want everything to work. Because audience members decide which direction a skit will take, they're invested in the show's success.

Part of the fun of improv is that no one, even the performers, know which way the action will turn.

"There are no 'mistakes' in improv," Leonardo says. "We call them 'gifts.'"

The improv scene in Connecticut is starting to pick up, they say. Go to any college, and there's a good chance there will be at least one improv group on campus. Sea Tea has worked with The Purple Crayon, an improv troupe at Yale.

Chris Lash of The Purple Crayon says he had never done improv until he went to Yale four years ago. But now it's common for incoming freshman to have improv experience in high school.

"Improv is still a relatively new art," he says. "There was the first wave of college groups, 15 or 20 years ago. Now those performers are becoming teachers and becoming active in the community."

Claire Zick teaches improv classes at Playhouse on Park. When she moved to Connecticut from Seattle in 2005, the difference between the improv scenes was "night and day."

"There were a few groups who were performing periodically," she says. "I wasn't aware of any improv community, but that's starting to change. As more people do it, more shows happen, and there's more awareness of it."

Sea Tea uses Twitter and Facebook to get word out about upcoming shows (the troupe has close to 560 friends on Facebook).

"We're big into social media," says Pistell, "because we're broke."

You probably won't get rich doing improv in Connecticut, but you can get paid. Sea Tea makes a few hundred dollars for its City Steam performances, which is used for marketing the group.

The TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" has made the public more familiar with the basic premise of improv, but Booth says it also makes audiences expect a more polished version of improv the result of editing several hours of footage down to a half-hour.

On the other hand, she says, you can't be part of the act when you're watching improv on TV.

"Live, you get to put your input in and make suggestions," she says. "You shout out 'garbageman,' and, hey! They're using your idea."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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