Weekly performance series turns everyday stories into comedy gold
JUNE 7, 2012 10:12 a.m. (6)Alchemy Improv Comedy troupe interpret it.
What Bynum saw was Ben Burris playing the part of an 18-year-old boy competing for the affections of a girl played by Harrison Brookie, against a romantic rival played by Meg Pierson. Burris’ character, incidentally, was sealed in a giant hamster ball, and Pierson’s character was a deer, who had recently charged across the stage in a “stampede of one.”
You had to be there.
And being there is the whole point of an Alchemy Improv show, said Burris. “Without heckling, the audience can directly affect the show,” he said. “In a positive way, their energy – what they laugh at, what they take a deep breath at – all of that affects our mindset while we’re doing it. The energy of the audience affects the show, which is why it works so much better live.”
“Even though we do this every week, it’s always drastically different because of the storyteller,” said troupe member Jason Underwood.
For the Local Legends shows, which happen every Friday at 9:30 at Coffee Underground, Alchemy invites a local person – such as Bynum, a speech and debate teacher at Southside High School – to come onstage and tell five stories of about two minutes each. After each story, the troupe will improvise scenes based, albeit loosely, on elements in the story.
The troupe hears the story for the first time along with the audience, said Brookie, executive producer and artistic director of Alchemy and emcee of the shows. “Every show has its own personality,” generated by that week’s guest, he said.
Most major improv theaters have their own version of the Local Legends concept, said Brookie, whose day job is teaching U.S. history at Southside. Alchemy has been staging their Local Legends shows at Coffee Underground since September 2011. Past guests have included stand-up comedians and musicians, as well as a beat poet, a dentist, a psychologist and a high school student body president.
“What makes Local Legends so unique is the diversity of the guests,” said Pierson, who by day works as the program specialist at the Upcountry History Museum. “We’ve had people from all over – some people who are really comfortable speaking in front of people, who are professional actors, and some people who just do not do that for a living, and suddenly they’re coming out of their shell.”
The key to being a successful Local Legend is the ability to tell a good story, said Underwood, an associate architect at the Fluor Corporation, who looks for “an interesting story with a lot of details, a lot of characters.”
Everybody has stories, said Pierson. “Whether you think someone is dull as a doorpost or not, something interesting has happened to them, because they are alive.”
Before the Local Legends show at 9:30 p.m., each Friday Alchemy also stages an early show at 8 p.m., featuring Alchemy members and a series of guest acts. The programs, like the performances themselves, are always different.
The troupe traces its origins back to Clemson University, where all four were at one time members of the school’s Mock Turtle Soup improv troupe. From Clemson, they all separately found their way to Greenville, where the plans to begin Alchemy were hatched.
“I had heard whispers that Harrison was going to put together an improv troupe, and really hoped that he was going to ask me,” remembered Pierson. “But my pride was such that I couldn’t just ask outright if I could be in it. So I just kept asking him about it, in the hopes that he would say, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you play with us.’ And he did, thank God.”
“I had the opposite issue,” said Burris, a recent Clemson graduate who now works as an electrical engineer at AE Solutions. “They were down for a show, and I just said, ‘I’m just going to ask, see if I can pry myself in there.’”
“I’m still not sure if I’m in the group,” joked Underwood.
The troupe’s name pays tribute to the method behind the comedic madness, explained Brookie. “The idea is that there’s a science, a method behind doing improvisation. People ask ‘How do you practice making stuff up?’ And it’s kind of like basketball – there’s a skill set, there’s a method to doing it really well.”
To teach that method, Alchemy also offers improv classes. Their students have been as young as 17 and as old as 60 – people who want to improve their public speaking, or are stand-up comedians or sketch comedy players looking to expand their skills. Some are people who see the show and say, “I can’t believe that you did that,” said Brookie, who also taught improv at the DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro, N.C. “Like it’s a magic class, and we’re teaching them magic tricks. And on some level, that’s partially true.”
In June, Alchemy’s Local Legends will include musician Alexa Woodward; Warehouse Theatre production manager and designer Shannon Robert; and Coffee Underground owner Dana Lowie.
Finding storytellers has been “a lot easier than we thought,” said Brookie. “We’re booked up until July.”
One guest proves elusive, however. “Print this in the Journal,” laughed Brookie. “Mayor Knox White is the only person who’s said ‘no’ so far.”