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Figuring Out Their Equation

The Manhattan Comedy Collective (MC2) adds a dash of character and writing to its improv performances and sums its ideas in sketch shows

As artistic director of the Manhattan Comedy Collective (known as MC2), Stacy Mayer -- wearing a blonde bob wig -- delivers what seem like flighty introductions to their Thursday night “Big Bang” shows that put together improv, sketch and solo performances.

But as an artistic director of the group, she has figured out a way to systematically bring out the best in the performers. To do this, Mayer set out the goals of performing improv in a fashion that is more theatrical, presenting solo character shows that have been ‘broken in’ but have not yet run extensively, and giving audiences a comedy education by presenting shows that are a succession of different comedy genres.

“It captures the chaotic nature of comedy,” says Mayer of the group’s shows at Juvie Hall in the Gene Frankel Theater in New York, which typically begin at 7 p.m. Thursdays with “Character Dog Run,” an improv show with six performers from a 40-member rotating or alternating cast performing all their improv in character and in costume. That is typically followed at 8 p.m. with a sketch performance and 9 p.m. with a solo stand-up or character oriented show, although the 8 and 9 slots sometimes are given to comedic plays or other formats rather than sketch or stand-up.

“Plenty of people stay the whole night,” adds Mayer. “If we ask them what their favorite part is, most of the time it comes down to what genre they like the most. But hopefully the standard is the same for all that the group does.”

The company members are: Dave Adams, Andrea Alton, Susan Atwood, A.B. Carney, Robert Connor (who also directs for the group and contributes carpentry skills to sets and props), Dewey Banks, Robin Gelfenbien, Amey Goerlich, Joe Guercio, Todd Isaac, Tim Kavanagh, Nicole Maffei, Mayer, Haseena Napier, Nicola Piggott, Devon Ragsdale, Chris Sullivan, Phil Wedo and Lauren Zinn. Also performing with the company and pictured above: Christina Casa, Samara Doucette, Pete Capella, Jeremiah Murphy and Alana Harrison.

Not all shows are limited exclusively to MC2 group members, but most of the time have at least some members as performers, or at least as director or writer of the performance. Character Dog Run puts a spin on its improv by giving the performers a chance to write and deliver a one-minute introduction to their character, which provides some material to begin with as they then react to each other and the suggestions solicited from the audience. Character Dog Run is also performed with sound and light technicians highlighting what the performers are doing as they go.

Mayer believes improv is an art form in and of itself, not just a means to produce sketches. However, she developed the Character Dog Run format to make it more accessible to general or theatrically oriented audiences. With a Chicago background, Mayer found that Chicago improv groups tend to focus just on entertaining and meeting that city’s rich improv comedy standard -- but by comparison, New York performances and the demands of a theatre audience require a much more commercial approach.

“When people do a montage in improv, it can be like the audience is forced to watch a class exercise,” she says. “With us, all the dialogue can be improvised, but we’re building a show. The improvisation is done with a purpose.”

MC2 began producing the “Big Bang” shows in May, and Mayer and several other company members have been part of the Saturday Night Rewritten shows also performed at Juvie Hall -- since those shows began in 2003. The Character Dog Run portions of the shows began so company members and others could have a showcase for their work to be scouted by “Mad TV,” Fox’s sketch comedy show.

“If you go into an audition with three characters and three impersonations but you’ve never workshopped them in front of an audience -- you’re going to be nervous anyway in an audition -- and this helps,” says Mayer. Since the showcase turned into MC2 and its Big Bang productions as a “happy accident,” other such “happy accidents” have come along, she adds.

“The best things come when you’re not looking for them,” says Mayer. “So much of the stuff we create happens by accident. It’s being able to capitalize on accidents or making yourself available to accidents that takes us to the next level.”

The group put some those “accidents” to good use in its sketch hour “MC2 and the Proper Tease of Love” performed during the “Big Bang” nights in September (and reviewed on Jester). Its next production of sketches to feature company members is just beginning to be written and will be staged in March.

“We didn’t know [Proper Tease of Love] would be about love,” adds Mayer. “But we noticed that was there in most of the sketches, and cut the ones that didn’t fit that.”

Playing off MC2 and “Big Bang” as themes, the company also uses an image of Einstein as part of its identity. “The science theme is helpful,” says Mayer. “We’re exploring a new world of comedy.”



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