Detroit improv scene: ‘Incubator for tomorrow’s stars’
Since Second City left Detroit, Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre and Ferndale’s Go Comedy! have become the go-to stages for laughs
Beads of sweat dripping down his face, Shane crouched in a running stance. Waiting for the starter gun, he was ready. That is, until Amanda stepped to the starting line.
The cocky competitor offered Shane snacks, tissues to wipe his sweat and a flask of booze. (He refused.) She then whipped out a few bucks.
“Amanda gets hungry,” she boasted. “You never know when you’ll run into a hotdog stand out there.”
Annoyed and distracted, Shane pled for the race to start.
“You smell that?” Amanda says, sniffing the air.
“What?” Shane shouted.
“That’s the smell of Amanda winning.”
And the lights went out.
The “runners” weren’t really at a starting line, but inside the hot 60-seat Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck. Jaclynn Cherry and Mike Smith in real life, the duo are part of the Natural Born Killaz improv troupe that won the Planet Ant Colony Fest in July.
Cherry, 28, an accountant from Madison Heights, says that was her favorite scene that night.
“It was so unlike me as an individual — at least I hope — and to just really go there with the character and not play the most likeable person was so fun,” she says.
The two are among the hundreds of improvisers who perform at theaters around southeast Michigan. Since Second City left Detroit in 2004 and closed its Novi location in 2009, Planet Ant, Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale and the Pointless Brewery & Theatre that opened in January in Ann Arbor have become the main hubs for Metro Detroiters who want to perform or watch improv. Over the last few years, the theaters have seen a resurgence in interest — with Planet Ant selling out its $5 Monday night shows and Go Comedy! enrolling about 160 improv students a semester.
But the interest and growing number of improvisors has come as a pleasant surprise for the close-knit improv community in Detroit.
“There was a huge exodus when Second City finally closed in Detroit,” says Mike McGettigan, a Planet Ant improv instructor. “A lot of friends of mine left to Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. There was so many going away parties, it was just ridiculous and sad.”
Manager Michael Hovitch and Board Member Mike McGettigan talk about the Planet Ant Theater in Hamtramck, while the troupe "The Home Team" performs a skit. Stephanie Steinberg, The Detroit News
The Golden Age of Detroit improv
The mid-’90s was the Golden Age of improv in Detroit. Second City ran out of what’s now the City Theatre in Hockeytown Cafe and attracted world-class directors and writers from Toronto, Chicago and New York, who trained the Detroit performers.
“They raised the bar on performance quality and the level of comedy that was being produced in Detroit,” says McGettigan, who frequented the Second City stage from 2005-2009.
Many Second City Detroit performers took their skills to Chicago and Los Angeles, including Larry Joe Campbell (“According to Jim”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele”) and Maribeth Monroe (“Workaholics”), who inspired local improvisors to follow in their footsteps.
But then Second City Detroit dropped its last curtain in 2009, forcing many to seek stages elsewhere.
“We all sort of wondered, what’s the future of the community?” says Margaret Edwartowski, a Second City alum from 1996-1999, who co-founded Planet Ant’s improv show in 2000. (Originally a coffeehouse in 1993, Key turned Planet Ant into a theater in 1996.)
Sitting in the dark theater, Planet Ant managing director Michael Hovitch calls the few years after Second City closed an “improv draught.”
“There was a time on Mondays when there were more performers than audience,” he says.
But in November 2008, former Second City Detroit instructor Pj Jacokes opened the 100-seat Go Comedy!
Detroit native Jaime Moyer, a Second City alum who’s appeared on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and Disney’s “KC Undercover,” was part of Go’s first cast.
“Go Comedy! was like a beacon of joy for all of us who wanted to be involved in improv on a regular basis because they had shows almost every night,” Moyer says in an interview from Los Angeles.
Attendance started picking up at Go, which spilled over to Planet Ant.
Hovitch, a Go Resident Company member, says he and improviser Jamen Spitzer saw “potential” at the Ant, so they pitched in to invigorate its social media outreach. Five years later, the purple theater on Caniff Street has a line out the door on Mondays when the Home Team performs. It’s also holding the Planet Ant Hall Fundraiser online to open an additional theater space called Ant Hall across the street.
Hovitch surmises the economy played a leading role in improv’s growth locally and nationally.
“Through all the (difficult) times years ago, people still needed a laugh, and fortunately improv shows are pretty cheap,” he says. “Now, people have more money, so they’re able to invest in the classes.”
The talent is also spurring a new Golden Age.
“We’re starting to be this incubator for tomorrow’s TV stars,” Edwartowski says.
The 313 in the 323
After 10 years of improv in Detroit, Moyer was “creatively fulfilled,” but she wanted to try her luck at movies and TV. So in 2009, she joined the Detroit contingent in Los Angeles.
“Some of my students get off a bus, train or plane, and they don’t even know one person,” says Moyer, who teaches at Second City Hollywood. “It’s so crazy to me because when I arrived, I had like 20 people.”
Moyer joined the LA-based improv troupe, The 313, founded in 2005 by six former Detroit improvisors. The group now has 11 Detroiters, including Campbell, Key and “Veep” star Sam Richardson, who’s starring in the forthcoming Comedy Central show, “Detroiters.”
This week, 313 members Moyer, Monroe, Nancy Hayden Edwards (“Detroiters”), Marc Evan Jackson (“22 Jump Street”), among others, will return to Michigan for the Detroit Improv Festival Wednesday-Sunday. On Wednesday, some will take the Boll Family YMCA stage with students from The Detroit Creativity Project, a nonprofit Jackson co-founded.
In a call from Los Angeles, Jackson says that in 2011, he and his wife hosted dinners for Detroit improvisers, actors and musicians who wanted to be part of “Detroit’s renaissance” from afar. “We wanted to give back to the city that gave us all our starts professionally,” he says.
Out of those talks came the DCP — an effort to teach improv in Detroit Public Schools. Jackson points out it’s a “low overhead art form ... You can push back the desks and do it in any room. You don’t need props or costumes.”
He partnered with Edwartowski, a Second City friend and the executive director of Y-Arts Detroit. They began with 100 kids in 2012. The program has since trained over 1,600 students to improvise.
The DCP’s Improv Project builds critical thinking skills and confidence among “at risk” youth, Jackson says. “It teaches you to keep going when things aren’t going so easy. It teaches you that failure is a gift — that when mistakes happen on stage, run with them.”
Taharka Iyi, 19, joined the Improv Project at Henry Ford Academy, where he learned improv after school from Plantet Ant improvisor Dave Davies. Now applying to be a Detroit Police officer, Iyi still plays improv games during Planet Ant’s Monday Ant Jam.
“(Improv) taught me a lot of things, like being able to think on my feet, just really open up and have fun,” he says. “You don’t really think about it. You just basically be yourself.”
The ‘yes, and’ philosophy
On a recent Sunday, five improv students spent three hours honing their techniques, as Go U! director Gary Lehman doled out roles.
The troupe, HugSquared, is more advanced. But for first-timers, Lehman says the biggest challenge is “untraining” them.
“(They think) adults aren’t supposed to play or be silly, especially around other adults,” he says. “It really is getting them to remember what it was like being a kid and just playing, not thinking.”
Lehman, also an improv instructor at Pointess, adds that more people fear public speaking than dying. “The biggest step for some people is not signing up for class,” he says. “It’s showing up for the first one.”
Many in the community say they hope “Don’t Think Twice,” a new film about improv starring Key, will shed light on an often misunderstood art form.
As Moyer puts it: “You walk up to someone on the street and go, ‘Do you know what improv is?’ And nine times out of 10 they’re going to think it’s stand up.”
Unlike stand up, improv is improvised in the moment. The crux is following the “yes, and” rule, Lehman says. “Yes, I accept everything they do or say, and add your own part to it.”
“When it’s really firing on all cylinders, there’s some kind of magic,” says Edwartowski, a Planet Ant Home Team member. “It’s like if the play you love the most was unfolding live before you, rather than being written and rehearsed.”
However, she warns improv can become addictive.
“Especially now that there’s so many opportunities to perform in so many places (locally), you could end up playing four or five shows a week,” she says. “You’re not going to make much more than beer money off of it, but enjoyment is the real reward.”
Smith, of Natural Born Killaz, tried improv to better think under pressure as a lawyer.
“A jury or a judge isn’t that intimidating when you have an audience of 80,” he joked. But now, he does it for the “creative release.”
“The feeling you get walking off stage after a good set, I don’t have anything else to compare that to,” Smith says.
His recommendation? “Just try it out, even just one class,” he says. “You might catch the bug and get hooked.”
Detroit Improv Festival
Where: Boll Family YMCA, Go Comedy! Improv Theater, Ringwald Theater, Magic Bag Theater
Planet Ant Hall Fundraiser
Raised: Over $7,800