If there is one form of therapy most of us seek out on a daily basis, it’s the opportunity to laugh. If it weren’t for the weekly sitcoms, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live (even if just for reruns of Chris Farley routines), our lives would be sorely at a loss. The often overlooked skill and entertainment of improv has paved the way for the likes of Will Ferrell, Keegan-Michael Key, and Tina Fey. And, now, thanks to our very own live improv troupe, it offers our city nights of laughter you will not want to miss.
photography by John Kazaklis
Like the rest of the world, I’ve spent a fair amount of time paying attention to comedy. Watching Saturday Night Live isn’t just a weekly tradition; it’s a way of life. Jimmy Fallon has been my biggest celebrity crush since middle school; I think Tina Fey is an unparalleled genius; and I’ve spent hours of my life listening to comedians talk in podcasts.
In my time writing for The Lakelander, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more nervous for an interview. Comedians are intelligent, quick-witted, and admittedly a little off. What do we talk about? Can I keep up? This seems especially true of improv comedy. It’s one thing to write jokes, but to make them up off the top of your head? Few people have this talent.
However, as I sit at a table on a Thursday evening with the Swan City Improv team, they are quick to dispel this myth.
“Every single person on the planet has the talent for improv. You do it every day in life. You change what’s on your calendar. You don’t plan your conversations. It’s just a different reality on stage,” Nate Fleming muses.
Fleming is one of many players who travel to Lakeland to perform on the Swan City Improv team the first Friday night of the month. He currently lives in Chicago where he trains with Second City Improv, most famously known for being the starting place of Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell, and Stephen Colbert. We’re sitting with Aaron Burns, Josh Sitta, and Meg Wittman, all Swan City Improv mainstays.
Aaron Burns and Nate Fleming met at Southeastern University and were on an improv team together there for several years. Burns joined the team because Fleming stopped by his room and told him to come with him and audition. It turned out he was a natural.
Burns is the natural teacher of the group as well, and he shares that the things that make improv work aren’t what you think they are. “Support is the foremost thing,” he says as the others nod around him in affirmation. “Don’t deny each other. You can’t come into a scene planned out. An instructor at [SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando] told me that there aren’t good and bad choices. There are better and worse choices. The point of improv is someone doing something and you responding with, ‘Yes… And…’ You add on. You don’t deny.”
The whole team agrees that improv comedy is focused on the scene. Being funny is a byproduct.
Already I’m feeling better about my choices in this interview, because according to the team, I’m participating in improv by simply being there.
IMPROVISATIONAL COMEDY AND THE BEGINNING OF SWAN CITY IMPROV
Improvisational comedy started as a theater exercise used in progressive education techniques. The first improv comedy troupes began in the late 1950s thanks to a woman named Viola Spolin who is also known for developing modern improv comedy exercises.
Now improv comedy is a widely respected and sought-out practice for people looking to do comedy as a career. There are improv comedy schools all over the world, the most notable American schools and theaters being in Los Angeles and Chicago. Locally, Orlando and Tampa both have theaters and schools. And Wayne Brady, famed from Whose Line Is It Anyway? got his start at SAK where Burns, Wittman, and several of the other Swan City Improv players have completed classes.
Fleming had the idea to start Swan City Improv. He had worked for Rochelle School of the Arts teaching improv to their middle school students. He moved away to study improv in Chicago but came back in February of 2017 to help run a fundraiser for the school. He was blown away by the way the students performed and worked with each other.
Fleming was so impressed, he called Shane Lawlor at LKLD Live and asked if the space was free and if he could do an improv show there. He also called on several of his friends from SAK and his improv team in college. The show was a success. So successful that they were invited back to LKLD Live to do it again.
Over the next few months they made several changes. Team member Sean McKenney came up with the name Swan City Improv. They added Jordan Rippy as the show host, hired a musician to play during scenes, and made the commitment to do a show every First Friday.
“Committing to every First Friday was huge. We’re focusing on lights, staging, and getting more people,” Josh Sitta says.
The First Friday shows are full of audiences that expect exactly what the team delivers — fun, refreshing, family-friendly entertainment. There are two shows that night. The first is a series of games where each Swan City member competes for the prize of “Top Swan” by winning points determined by the crowd. The second is “Swan City Cinema” where the players make up movies using ideas provided by the audience.
Wittman has a background in musical theater. She started improv on the suggestion of her agent, and her talents obviously show during Swan City Cinema. Rippy does a great job of hosting and keeping the audience engaged in the show by asking for suggestions for scenes and small details to help the team.
As the team talks to me about the shows, they tell stories of their favorite scenes, and most of them are the ones that rely heavily on audience suggestion.
“I love the games where we interact with the crowd,” Fleming says. “One night we were playing a game called Blind Line where the team leaves the room and audience members shout out slogans and famous lines. We were playing a game and Brent Adriano, another member of the team, said, “I can’t do it!” and I reached down and picked up a line, and it was ‘Just do it!’ It couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.”
“The audience is smart. Most of the time they’ve figured out a joke before you even have,” Burns adds.
As we sit and chat together, it’s clear that the members of Swan City Improv are committed to each other as a group and making sure that the team is successful. When they’re on the stage performing together you can see the way they support each other and continue to ask, “Yes… And…?” throughout scenes with their choices.
In a city that’s so artistically minded, Swan City Improv hopes to bring a different form of expression to our community. There are several comedy clubs in Tampa and Orlando, but not everyone has the opportunity to audition and perform. Several of the Swan City team have traveled to SAK in Orlando to take classes, and some people they have met at SAK are part of the team that comes to Lakeland to perform every First Friday. The team would love to perform more regularly though and recruit additional players from the Lakeland area.
Swan City is implementing its own “Yes… And…” strategy with our Lakeland Art community and hoping it will continue to answer back as positively as they have this past year. They recently held auditions and added two new players to the team.
Swan City is starting to branch out into new forms of comedy as well. Fleming will perform a stand-up special in April and is bringing comedians from Orlando and Chicago with him.
“Maybe we’ll have a Swan City Comedy Club downtown one day,” he says hopefully. And as our downtown grows and changes, I think we all hope for that, too.