By Carmen Marti
Entire contents copyright © 2013 Carmen Marti. All rights reserved.
On a Friday afternoon in early April, the members of Louisville’s improvisational comedy ensemble Damaged Goods sat in the rooftop bar of the Lincoln Hotel, quintessential views of Chicago and Lake Michigan glistening outside the windows. They discussed details of the night before; they described dreams for the future. They had made their Chicago debut as a featured act in the 16th annual Chicago Improv Festival, and they were literally and figuratively high in the sky.
“I was high on life after the show,” said team member Stefan Gearhart. “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
“CIF gave us reassurance after the end of last night,” added teammate Rocky Williams.
“Bottom-line is, we’re at the Chicago Improv Festival – the biggest, longest-running, most prestigious comedy festival in the world,” concluded Parker Bowles, the third of the three-member team. “The sky’s the limit.”
There’s no doubt Chicago is the heart and home of improv comedy. The form took hold in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where in the 1950s the Compass Players experimented with improvisation and helped lay the foundation for sketch comedy. From there Second City was formed, and from there Saturday Night Live. On their heels, the Chicago Improv Festival was created by Pitts and co-founded with actress Frances Callier in 1998.
Gearhart knows all that. He’s studied and practiced improv for 13 years, working with teams such as Happy Gas as a student at Western Kentucky University, and founding the Nannie Tharp Experience – which became NTX Comedy – in Louisville. That’s when he met future Damaged Goods teammate Parker Bowles and encouraged him to audition for NTX. In 2009 as members of that team, they were invited to participate in the CIF Apprentice Teams program, where young teams take part in festival workshops and perform. “The apprenticeship program is why we’re on the main stage now,” Gearhart said.
NTX Comedy went on to a foray in Los Angeles before eventually disbanding, opening the door in 2010 for Gearhart and Bowles to co-found Damaged Goods with four other players. Eventually they recruited long-time friend and funny man Rocky Williams to join them. Over time, several people left the group and then there were three.
“Three is good,” Gearhart said. “We have no issues. We’ve totally taken the improv rule ‘Yes, and’ and put it in our business structure.” Though all three have other full-time jobs, they view Damaged Goods as a business and they are intent on building their brand. “Like” the Damaged Goods Facebook page to see their new logo; follow their show times at the Bards Town; and view photos and videos of their work, including the run at CIF. They founded the Dam Good Nation to establish their community and the Dam Good Network on YouTube to showcase new sketches. (Williams is a videographer and director.) They rehearse three times a week and organize workshops for themselves as part of their focus on professional development.
“We feel very proud of what we do,” Gearhart said. “It’s different from what a lot of people do. We can teach it. We can teach classes and build the Damaged Goods brand of improv.” That means high-energy, distinctive characters, quick response and a powerful telepathic connection.
“In our case,” said Bowles, “it’s the friendship that makes the improv work. We trust each other – I trust those guys 100 percent. If I screw up, they’ll make me look good. No stars. We do all we can to make each other look as good as we can be.”
They practice short form theatrical improv with a focus on full scenes and a beginning, middle and end. Short form is generally based on games, with rules the improvisers follow as they respond to suggestions from the audience. ““We don’t go for the quick hit or laugh,” said Bowles. “We build scenes from the rules of the particular game. The only thing set when we take the stage is what games we’ll play and who’s playing.
“It’s scary as crap,” he continued. “But it’s that fear that propels you to do it.”
The fear factor was strong in Chicago with the festival enjoying a record-breaking year. Audiences were huge with venue after venue sold out over the seven-day period. Damaged Goods was selected as a featured act and shared a line-up with Jon Barinholtz and Rob Belushi (yes, of the Belushi family). Other big names included 30 Rock’s John Lutz, Scott Adsit and Kay Cannon.
But Damaged Goods was ready. Hot off being voted among Louisville’s best acts in the 2011 LEO Awards, Gearhart said the team hit its stride in 2012 with a retreat in Gatlinburg, a Midwest comedy-focused road trip for Bowles and Williams, and a six-week intensive workshop Gearhart led for the group. “Stefan does all the teaching,” said Bowles. “He’s our education director. He leads our rehearsals. We used to just play the games, but Stefan said let’s do a workshop. Let’s get serious. It was tough, but it changed everything.”
According to Gearhart, “One of the reasons we did the workshop was because we really wanted to come to Chicago. We wanted to make the best [submission] tape we could.”
CIF co-founder Jonathan Pitts said the presence of teams such as Damaged Goods at the Chicago Improv Festival is fundamental to the success of the event. “If we just had Chicago teams,” he said, “the festival wouldn’t be any different than any average week in Chicago. Our weekly offerings here are somebody else’s killer festival.”
CIF has always been broader than Chicago, according to Pitts, the mastermind behind Chicago Improv Productions, which includes CIF, College Improv Tournament and Chicago Improv League. “To me the improv community is everybody who’s involved in the form,” he said. “There’s a Chicago community, but there’s also a larger community and connecting with people across the country and in other countries is being part of that larger community.”
Plus, he said, “There are really wonderful regional improv teams across the country. Ten years ago, the regional teams coming to CIF came from a hit-and-miss scene. Maybe a place would have one good team and a bunch of mediocre ones. But now as regional teams have gotten exposure through opportunities like CIF, the scene has grown really well regionally. Now it’s not that often a crapshoot in terms of how good a group will be in a smaller city, because the groups that are good in the smaller cities are really good.”
Pitts’s advice to emerging acts is, “Keep playing; play as much as you can. Find your own voice. Become who you are. Go to other festivals, see what everyone else is doing, learn from them, pick up what you can. But ultimately, don’t just be another team – find your own voice. Because that’s what separates anybody from everybody else.”
He recommends that regional teams play on their area’s unique qualities. “What’s different about living in Louisville?” Pitts asked. “How does that affect how you play? Once you find your unique regional voice, that voice has a stronger chance of resonating with the audience. If you’re generic, it’s harder to generate any enthusiasm.”
It’s not hard for Pitts to generate enthusiasm. “Tell those Louisville guys that I’m really thankful they came out here and were part of CIF16,” he said. “You are good. Keep going. You might be called Damaged Goods, but you’re not.”
The team is ready to take his advice. Williams remembers that when they were coming to Chicago, there was “all this hype,” he said. “But now I’m kind of feeling like I know I’m on the right track. CIF has been valuable. It’s told us, ‘Keep dreaming.’”
Damaged Goods presents: The Rule of Three
Brace yourselves for another epic evening of Dam Good Improv as Damaged Goods celebrates Three Years of IMPROV COMEDY!
May 25 @ 7:30 p.m.
The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Only $10 cash at the door