Having fun, and delivering laughs, with improv

by Len Lear
Posted 6/13/24

Standing on a stage in front of an audience and not knowing what will happen next might be scary for some, but for the ComedySportz troupe, no script, no problem.

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Having fun, and delivering laughs, with improv


Standing on a stage in front of an audience and not knowing what will happen next might be scary for some, but for the ComedySportz troupe, no script, no problem.

"In my mind, there's no more vibrant experience than being on stage improvising with fellow actors in front of a live audience," said Mary Carpenter, of Mt. Airy, who has been called the reigning queen of Philadelphia improv.

Carpenter is a member of ComedySportz Philadelphia, an improvisational theater company that produces comedy shows, leads improv classes for people seeking to learn the skill and also works with businesses, using improv as a way to encourage team building. 

Carpenter is one of several Northwest Philadelphia residents who are part of the improv group, which was founded more than 25 years ago, clocking in as the longest-running comedy ensemble in the Delaware Valley. 

The group does dozens of shows each year in their home venue, Adrienne Theater near Rittenhouse Square, but they also go on the road to bring their wacky brand of audience-participation comedy to businesses such as Campbell's Soup Company, Comcast and Independence Blue Cross and nonprofits such as Byers Charter School (named for the late Chestnut Hill journalist Russell Byers) St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Temple University and Project Hope.

“I've done bat and bar mitzvahs, schools, parties, and I'm also one of their Applied Improv facilitators,” said Daralyse Lyons, of Germantown, who previously lived in Mt. Airy and now serves as The Local’s new business growth officer. “With the Applied Improv program, we bring improv skills, as opposed to shows, and teach people of all ages how to use the skills we use on stage to improve their lives, personally and/or professionally.”

Carpenter, who has lived in Mt. Airy for 28 years, is a master at finding the hilarity in a scene. I can still vividly remember laughing hysterically at Carpenter and her fellow improvisational actors and actresses when we saw them several years ago in "This Is The Week That Is: More Political Humor for the Holidays!" The show that spoofed stories in the news and contemporary culture was so popular with audiences that its original closing date was extended by an additional two weeks.

Improvisational acting, which in recent years found a place in pop culture via the television show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" is something Carpenter was captivated by in college. “The improvised parts are the most fun for me,” she said. “I've been doing improv for so long that I feel more excited and energized by not knowing what will happen. It's a great way to really share the show with the audience and make it a unique experience each time.”

Germantown resident Nate Holt joined ComedySportz 19 years ago, but his day job” is serving as campaign finance director for State Rep. Chris Rabb, who represents most of Northwest Philadelphia.

“I've always loved the performing arts since childhood. Improv is a true joy, so when I moved to Philly, I knew I wanted to find a group” Holt said. “I stumbled upon an audition notice in the print edition of the Philadelphia City Paper and signed up. Little did I know at the time that it would change my life!” 

Holt went on to perform with the troupe, but in 2015, he took a seven-year hiatus to raise his family, or as he put it “have kids, who needed to learn how to use the bathroom on their own before I had the energy and wherewithal to do comedy again.”

Lyons began her improv journey by taking classes with ComedySportz. She officially joined the company in 2018,  explaining that she “fell in love with the whole model of competitive comedy. It's really fun and engaging, both for the audience and for players.

“At the time I started, I was going through a break-up and went to see a show to get out of a funk. I'd done improv in high school but had quit theater arts to pursue athletic opportunities. I was surprised by how easy it was to get back into it after well over a decade away. I've lost count of the shows in the past year. At least a few a month, but math is decidedly not my strong suit.”

ComedySportz presents shows every week at Adrienne Theater, but they also do road shows in and around Philadelphia, including the suburbs. Their audiences have ranged from a few dozen to several hundred people.

Audience members can get nervous if they feel they are about to be called on, but audience participation is always optional. “We ask for suggestions, and people are free to join in or not, but most times they love participating,” Lyons said. “It's low stakes for them, and people enjoy seeing their suggestions brought to life on stage or in whatever environment we're performing in.”

Do improv actors get paid? “We volunteer for the shows, and it's a fun recreational hobby,” Lyons said. “When we take the show on the road, we are compensated for that, but I don't think anyone does improv for the money. We get paid in laughter and compliments.”

For more information, visit comedysportzphilly.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com