Sometimes it’s like a modern-day game of Clue. (“Lady Gaga, In Your Creepy Neighbor’s Garage, with a Dolphin”.) Sometimes it’s like Japanese monster films with sexually awkward teenagers. It’s taught me about the history of the slinky, the diaper, and ketchup.
The Associated Mess is a roundup of the areas most clever actors and comedians that successfully perform improv comedy every week in various Valley locations. Imagine Who’s Line is it Anyway? sans Wayne Brady, instead featuring local bartenders or your kid’s substitute teacher.
(I had the opportunity recently to see the infamous Chicagoan Second City improv tour – all wonderfully talented people, though I am not exaggerating when I say on any given night, the Associated Mess is just as good.)
This weekend, The Mess is adding something new to their repitoire of shenanigans, by offering a sketch comedy show just in time for independence day: Amurica The Beautiful (to be said in full George Bush accent). This show will include modern (hilarious) interpretations of historical events and “what-if’s”.
Artistic Director Josh Neth and Managing Director Ryan Hill tell us about the tough job of being funny on cue.
What is the history of the troupe? Was it hard to get an improv troupe together when nothing else in the way of improv was happening in the Valley, or did that work in your favor?
JOSH: The Associated Mess started back around 2002 or so – I was involved with the Theatre Outlet in Allentown, which had this cool space, and I wanted to create a way to perform something that wasn’t costly to produce. It wasn’t difficult to get started at all, we’ve had good turnout whenever we hold auditions, and talented performers, too, which is probably due to the fact that there hasn’t been much else by way of improv going on here. We did private parties and shows, but I had to put the troupe on hiatus when I was offered the opportunity to act professionally in Cincinnati, and then on a national tour.
RYAN: I was actually living in Cincinnati around the same time Josh was, though I was working as a morning show producer in radio at the time. I moved to the Lehigh Valley and started working as a stand-up in addition to acting in plays, in one of which I met Josh. I was a male prostitute and Josh was the straight-but-curious guy who had just ‘bought’ me. Josh was my first guy kiss and over a year later I convinced him to start back up the Associated Mess, which is usually how an improv troupe gets started, or, in this case, resurrected. I had tried on my own before I had met Josh and failed miserably.
You are both professionals – Josh, a professional actor, and Ryan, a professional stand-up comic. Are most of the people in the Mess entertainers by profession? What sort of person can be an improv comedian?
JOSH: Most of the Mess are not actors by profession, but the majority of them do come from a performance background and have a good amount of training. The best improv actors are first and foremost uninhibited. They are typically character actors, but there’s not one specific type – we have witty, dry performers and strong physical performers.
This is great for me as a director because I get to mix and match types each time we cast a show. There’s 20 or so people in the troupe and 4 actors to a show; not only is every show different because it is so audience-driven, but it is also different because I can put together so many different lineups each time.
How do you find your actors? Do you have any specifically memorable stories you want to share about auditions? What do you look for when seeking new troupe members?
JOSH: We’ve heard things come out of people’s mouths that you would never expect from their type. That’s about all I can say on that.
RYAN: Yeah, sweet old lady my ass, that’s all I can say about that. When we’re auditioning a prospective member, we’re really just looking for them to be what Josh has already mentioned – uninhibited. We also want to see that the person is having fun as they are performing.
Improv is an obvious entertainment for the audience. What does it give to you as a performer?
JOSH: It gives us the opportunity to create characters that we can put in different situations. It’s a lot of fun to develop a character, maybe in rehearsal or even in a show, and work on the quirks of that character, and then watch as your audience begins to really respond to that ‘person’. Our troupe members have a good handful of characters that our audience recognizes now and audibly cheers when they come out.
Most of all, though, improv is a great challenge. If you don’t mind getting thrown out of your comfort zone, improv is perfect. It’s a form of theatre that really takes down the barrier between audience and performer. You’re working off of what they’re giving you, so the audience becomes an active participant in the actual creation of the work.
RYAN: Improv is something that scares the hell out of 99.9% of actors and stand-ups when they first are presented with it – both professions are used to using scripts. But it has the potential to make you exponentially better at your craft if you let it – I now feel like I can go into pretty much any room to perform stand-up and, no matter what the audience consists of, I know I can create a fun atmosphere when I perform because of my experience with improv.
In addition to the improv, you have a new show that includes sketches. What can someone expect when coming to see this show?
RYAN: You’re going to see what would have been born had Saturday Night Live circa when it was last funny screwed the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and then Whose Line Is It Anyway? drank a lot during the pregnancy. And then the doctor pulled the kid out by the ear.
JOSH: Wow. That’s not a line you plan on busting out on Saturday, is it?
RYAN: Well, now it’s not. With Amurica the Beautiful, we have created our first half-sketch, half-improv show and based it around American history. Our sketches imagine what would happen if the French demanded the Statue of Liberty back, a backstory no one knows about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and we even have a sketch on why it is ridiculous that Allentown is named after James Allen. Gotta make sure there’s the Lehigh Valley angle…
JOSH: We have quite a few talented writers in our troupe, and this is their chance to work that skill – obviously there’s not a lot of that in pure improv. We did a Valentine’s Day show earlier in the year that featured a few sketches, but it wasn’t half the show. This is going to be as close to a theatrical production as we’ve been, and it is going to be incredibly fun. The improv games will all have an American history angle to them, and we’ll cover as much as we possibly can – the Pilgrims to Obama.
Do you think the Mess will continue to explore further opportunities to offer sketches?
JOSH: Oh, of course. As the troupe grows we’ll have more opportunities.
RYAN: It is very much a grassroots effort to do this type of show, as we have troupe members writing the show, getting costumes for it, designing lights and sound, and so on. We’re really lucky to have a strong connection with Civic Theatre – I work there as does one other troupe member – for so many reasons when it comes to putting together a show like Amurica the Beautiful.
What are your plans for the future of The Mess?
RYAN: We would love to get a regular show in the Easton/Phillipsburg area. We do a lot of performing in Allentown, and we’re grateful to the Allentown Brew Works and Civic for having us, but we know there’s people in the Easton area who won’t come all the way out to Allentown unless we offer free cars. If anyone has an idea as to where we should perform in that area, we’d love to hear it.
JOSH: Yeah, we’ve been lucky to perform as much as we have already in the year since we started up again, but we’d love to cover a little more ground. We plan on entertaining the Valley for years to come.
FOLLOW THE ASSOCATED MESS ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER TO KEEP UP WITH PERFORMANCES. (They are also available for hire at private events.)
AMURICA THE BEAUTIFUL SHOW INFO:
- Saturday, July 3rd
- Civic Theatre of Allentown’s Theater 514 (across the street from the main theater)
- Show starts at 9:00pm, Doors open at 8:15pm
- Event is BYO!
- HALF OF ALL PROCEEDS go to the Audobon Society for the Gulf Oil Spill