A doctor, a florist, and an insurance agent walk into a bar . . . Wait, hang on, let’s go back to early spring, a Friday night. Downtown’s hopping.
A floor-and-a-half below the streets, a karaoke version of “Louie, Louie” blasts over the PA system in an intimate theater. The place is nearly full. Everyone’s just here for laughs.
An attractive couple, Brian Schoch and Mary Nabors, drove all the way from Greenwood tonight. On their first date, they sort of wandered into Coffee Underground’s mini-auditorium. Now they’re juggling adult beverages and dessert and sitting among three dozen others in the 68-capacity venue for Alchemy Comedy Theater’s 7:30 show, its first of two tonight. “We just saw the sign out on the street and thought it looked cool,” says Nabors, who works with Schoch at his State Farm Insurance Agency, an hour’s drive from the corner of Main and Coffee streets. “We’re out to have a good time, and we like to laugh. We have cake and coffee and wine, and we’re drinking beer, and we’re not sure what’s happening.”
For the most part, nobody does, not the crowd, not the performers. That’s the entire point of improv. Three nights a week, some 30 Alchemy cast members pour their hearts out in what’s arguably one of the most difficult forms of live entertainment: spontaneous funny. They’re unpaid, these jokesters, playing for fun in what’s billed as the Upstate’s largest and longest-running improv comedy group; Alchemy has kept the gags coming since 2011. The crowds have kept coming, too.
“I have humor in my day job. Here, you come and create something out of nothing.” –Andrea Christopher Reeps
Among them, sitting just outside the little theater, Andrea Christopher Reeps and her husband, Steven, sip craft beers before heading into the show. Reeps manages a flower shop, where she regularly deals with such laugh-riot customers as brides and their mothers. “I have humor in my day job. Here, you come and create something out of nothing.” She smiles a sly, dry-humor, wink-wink: That’s why the theater’s called Alchemy.” She plans to audition for an Alchemy show, to join the cast as a “staff member,” as they’re called. “Funny?” she says. “I don’t mean to be, but I am.” Reeps takes Alchemy’s classes. In addition to their eight shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the company offers a slate of courses, each numbered like those of a university: Improv 101 to Improv 501. An average of 10 students pays $175 per six-week course, where one or two instructors teach two-and-a-half-hour sessions.
It was at one of those classes that Alrinthea Carter, affectionately known as Al, fell in love with improv comedy. Three years ago, the Charleston native happened to win an enrollment in Improv 101 at a fundraising auction. Today, she’s Alchemy’s executive producer; she keeps her day job as an academic advisor at Clemson University.
Comedy Central // Alrinthea Carter won a spot in Alchemy Comedy Theater’s Improv 101 class three years ago. She is now the executive producer, performing regularly among the club’s 80 members.
Like so many of Alchemy’s 80 players, Carter sees improv as an escape from stress, as well as a creative outlet. “I’m also a photographer,” she says, “so, for me, I need to be creating something a lot. Comedy is something I found that lets you be who you are. You’re being a character, but all the characters and scenes you do onstage are grounded in real life. We don’t get up there to purposely be funny. Our job is to get up there and show you snippets of real life and how ridiculous real life can be.”
Stephen Colbert says the same thing. The South Carolina native and now-superstar funnyman told graduates at a Knox College commencement address in 2006: “Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say, ‘Yes.’ And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say ‘yes’ back.”
Alchemy Comedy has found 16,000-odd people each year who say yes to $5, $8, and $10 tickets per show, which feature as many as nine performers through nearly an hour and a half of you-never-know-what. “We put in the 1 percent weird,” Carter says. “Our scenes are 99 percent real and 1 percent weird. You may have a scene with a couple having a fight over replacing the toilet paper roll, but that couple is a pair of cats.”
The material largely comes from the crowd, whose participation is key to Alchemy’s alchemy. At Friday’s show, audience members toss out prompts. One shouts, “Bee!”, and in a Dual Duel, a duo plays for the sweet spot. Next, two teams of four face off in Beastie Rap, improv hip-hop, also using crowd call-outs.
“Our scenes are 99 percent real and 1 percent weird. You may have a scene with a couple having a fight over replacing the toilet paper roll, but that couple is a pair of cats.”–Alrinthea Carter
Alchemy’s other programs feature “Local Legends,” well-known round-towners who tell their stories. The company also plays host to two annual festivals, though its bread-and-butter comes from the shows’ variety of short- and long-form styles, from simple “scene-making” to Improv 501-level methods, with such names as Harold, Tag Run, The Movie, and The Deconstruction.
Turns out many of these techniques have evolved over decades—improv’s history isn’t all that improvisational.
Those zany sixteenth-century Italian purveyors of commedia dell’arte ultimately inspired vaudeville, which tickled American audiences around the turn of the twentieth century. Next came what you might call standardized improv, beginning in the 1950s and blossoming at Chicago’s venerable Second City. Home of the late John Belushi, for one, Second City supplied cast members for Saturday Night Live and Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, which ran on ABC for nearly 10 years.
Harrison Brookie, Alchemy’s owner and education director, cites the latter as an inspiration for founding Alchemy and Company, LLC. He graduated from Clemson in 2007, the same year Whose Line, hosted by Drew Carey, went off the air. While at Clemson, Brookie, who had always been in a comedic ensemble—“I grew up with six siblings”— auditioned for the school’s improv outfit, Mock Turtle Soup.
Group Show // (Clockwise top left) Harrison Brookie, Jason Underwood, and Ben Burris are three of Alchemy Comedy Club’s founding members.
Seeing a need for improv downtown, as well as the ideal performance space in owner Dana Lowie’s Coffee Underground, he launched the company with Mock Turtle Soup alum Ben Burris, who’s now Alchemy’s artistic director; Jason Underwood, who’s pictured among 52 performers on Alchemy’s website; and Meg Pierson, who’s since, Brookie says, moved to New York.
“There’s an inherent joy to doing it,” says Brookie, who leverages his long-honed skills at Greenville’s innovative NEXT High School, where he teaches history and public speaking. “It’s the only hobby I know of where it’s fun to be bad at it,” he adds. “When you’re learning it, it’s actually still fun—where, like bowling, it sucks if you’re not good at it. Like music. But improv, because there’s a collaborative fail, in the fail you can find the comedy.”
You hear that a lot. Alchemy Comedy offers each performer a real-time experiment in public vulnerability. At the same time, though, improv’s primary premise is all about nonjudgmental interaction between the player and the audience. Like what happened near the beginning of the Friday show: Someone in the crowd blasted a blow-your-head-off sneeze. “That’s nasty,” a player chuckles. “But this is a safe zone for you guys.”
Alchemy has grown into what has become a tight-knit family, built on comic dysfunction, a disproportionately large “family that’s very close,” Carter says. “The essence of improv is to support each other, and that adds to our offstage life, as well.” That’s no laughing matter. Like Carter and Brookie, Alchemy’s jokesters, some of whom perform as many as six hours a week, use their experience to navigate tough situations at work, such as high-anxiety brides and moms or families with dying children.
“So much of being a doctor is communication and not being selfish in the direction things go,” says Brooke Johnston, associate medical director at Hands of Hope, an Upstate pediatric hospice and palliative medicine center.
“We learn so much in our training to be super-efficient and super-direct and just gather the information, in answer to our questions and not much else. But that doesn’t really lead to good relationships or really effective medicine. A lot of what I’ve learned in improv is contrary to that training. You don’t control the conversation, you wait to see what happens, trust things, give it a little more time,” she says.
Kicks and Giggles // The group has shows each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Coffee Underground.
Sick kids and their parents may not be too tickled about a funny-bones physician “because your air of competency is so important and, understandably, because people don’t want to trust you with really important things if you’re acting goofy.” Johnston echoes the others: Improv’s foundation is honesty.
When she faces parents hesitant to tell their terminally ill child the truth, she says her improv training helps, not because she’s anxious to lighten the situation, but because “if you don’t tell your child they’re sick, we’re not going anywhere.” She seems to speak for all those players who work pretty hard at this stuff, onstage or practicing or attending classes—sharing the notion that laughter really is the best medicine.
“We’re all just saying, ‘I’m going to do this thing I’ve never done before. I may look like an idiot, but I’m not going to let that be important, and I’m not gonna refuse to trust you people or put up a façade or be anything different than I feel like I am. I’m just going to be who I am—lighthearted, but in a challenging way,” Johnston says.
Brookie agrees. “More than anything else, with improv, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’re just going to discover it together.”
For more on Alchemy, check out alchemycomedy.com.