By Annette Hinkle
It’s most people’s worst recurring nightmare — being forced to get up in front of a room packed with strangers without any idea of what you’re supposed to do or say.
In the waking world, it’s called improv — and believe it or not, there are those who actually thrive on the experience. With just a few details and suggestions, well trained performers launch themselves willingly into the theatrical unknown and consistently come up with something that will challenge, enlighten and, most importantly, amuse their audiences.
It ain’t easy, yet that’s exactly what members of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) do on a daily and nightly basis.
The Upright Citizens Brigade was founded in New York in 1996 by Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh when they brought a style of improv they had perfected in Chicago to the East Coast. In the years since, UCB, which has a theater on 26th Street in Chelsea and in the late ‘90s, had its own series on Comedy Central, has trained hundreds of students in improv and comedy writing. They must be doing something right. Many UCB alumni have gone on to great success and eight years ago, UCB opened a second theater and training program in Los Angeles.
This weekend UCB’s touring company comes to the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor for a 90 minute set. And unlike improv troupes like Second City whose members come equipped with basic situations or theater games to get things going once a suggestion or two has come from the audience, UCB performers enter the scene with absolutely nothing but their own creativity and well honed skill.
That notion of “performing without a net” is exactly what led Natasha Vaynblat to seek out training with UCB in New York.
Vaynblat will be part of the four or five member troupe that will perform in Sag Harbor this weekend. Vaynblat recalls that after college, she considered moving to Chicago to study at Second City or IO (the ImprovOlympic), the two big training grounds in the Windy City, but after visiting both theaters, admits she wasn’t particularly impressed with the work she saw being done there.
“Then I went to an improv fest in North Carolina and saw a UCB show and they blew me away,” she says. “I felt they were way more fearless and so crazy and smart and contained. I was just so much more surprised by what they were doing and the way they were building scenes.”
“They were faster and more aggressive,” she adds. “I knew I wanted to study where they did.”
What UCB is known for is Longform improvisation, a style pioneered by the late improv guru Del Close at IO in Chicago. Rather than consisting of a series of quick sketches, in longform an entire show is created on the spot by the performers who develop interconnected scenes, characters and ideas with virtually no pre-planning or writing.
Vaynblat explains it often begins by interviewing an audience member.
“The whole thing is made up from the top of our heads,” she says. “There are various idea generating openings in a set UCB does. One way is we’ll pick someone from the audience and interview them about an interesting moment in their lives. They give us five minutes of their lives and we pull details and build off that.”
“If the scene is going well, someone does something tangential and we’ll follow it in that direction,” she adds.
To the uninitiated, though it sounds like there’s no way this leap into the unknown could be consistently viable, Vaynblat attests to experiencing a surprising success rate.
“It doesn’t always work, but I will say this, it doesn’t fail as badly as it would have years ago,” she says. “Things might not work and we’ll notice, but they will still be interesting.”
“Commitment is so much of it. The audience feels it and is willing to go with you on the ride if you’re committed,” she adds.
While the touring company is an important part of what she does with UCB, it’s not Vaynblat’s only role there. She is also part of a multi-member sketch writing team whose mission is to develop material for a monthly show, much like writers at Saturday Night Live do on a weekly basis. She is also part of a UCB team that performs every Tuesday.
The goal is to provide UCB alum not only with the skills to hold their own on the improv stage, but with a range of comedic ability — including writing —that may one day be parlayed into the multiple aspects of working in the comedy world.
“Just working is the goal and getting paid to do the work. A lot of members move on to Saturday Night Live and the late night shows,” she says. “There’s so much more out there now, even in New York that’s changed in recent years. For a while to be on TV you had to be in L.A.”
With that in mind, not only is Vaynblat engaged in her UCB work, she is also collaborating with a friend on ideas for comedy pilots and is in the process of creating a cast of original characters for her reel in case that big audition call comes which might take her to the next level in her career.
“I always gear myself toward ugly, weird characters particularly strange unpredictable ladies,” says Vaynblat. “I have this Russian character I do based loosely on my grandmother. I’m more interested in being a woman with a strong point of view. I try to speak to that.”
Upright Citizens Brigade performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 30, 2013 at the Bay Street Theatre on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $25 in advance ($35 day of event). Call the box office at 725-9500 to reserve or buy online at www.baystreet.org.