Free Range Comedy

In Chicago in the late 1920s, Viola Spolin developed a new approach to teaching acting to young people based on the idea that they would enjoy learning the craft if it were presented as a series of games.

Thirty years later, her son, Paul Sills, built on his mother’s work as the driving force in improvisational theater at the University of Chicago. On one snowy night in December 1959, a handful of Chicago students opened the doors of their new improv comedy home, naming the group The Second City. Its earliest members included Sills, Alan Arkin, Roger Bowen, Hamilton Camp, Del Close, Melinda Dillon, Barbara Harris, Mina Kolb, Joan Rivers, Paul Sand and Avery Schreiber.

In the 1990s, while living in Chicago, I was given a press pass to attend the Chicago Improv Festival. Much to my shock, I was ushered to an opera box overlooking the stage and seated next to Kolb and Schreiber. The young performers on the bill that night included Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Seth Green. From generation to generation, improv comedy has served as a spring board to some of the biggest comedy stars the world has ever known. In time, each major American metropolis had its own improv troupe like New York City’s Chicago City Limits, San Francisco’s The Committee and Los Angeles’ The Groundlings.

This specific comedy world is a tightknit family not unlike a college fraternity. In 2002, while working for the Friars Club of California in Beverly Hills, I was asked to coordinate a Second City alumni jam. The performers who lined up to reunite included Sills, Mark Beltzman, Shelley Berman, Dan Castellaneta, Jeff Garlin, Edward Herrmann, Kolb, Edie McClurg, Rick Overton, Ryan Stiles and Sand.

In 2014, Beltzman and Mike Burton of Upright Citizens Brigade founded Maui Improv at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei, offering classes and workshops with the hope of building an island improv comedy scene. The members of Free Range Comedy took those first classes, and just two years later have developed a successful comedy troupe that performs regularly all over Maui to a supportive following.

Last week, I sat with several of their members. In asking only a few questions, an organic improvisational conversation erupted from Free Range Comedy.

“No one said we were supposed to wear the T-shirts,” said Chris Rose, observing that many of the troupe members were.

“You didn’t get the email?” asked Kristi Scott.

“No,” said Rose, “but I’m wearing my Free Range underwear.”

Victoria McGee shared that she had met Scott, Rose, Karen Stavash and Matt Brass at Betlzman’s workshop, and encouraged her husband, William Hubbard, who had previously worked with The Groundlings, to “come play.”

“We were scolded for going for the joke all the time,” said McGee. “Maui Improv is long-form improv, which builds a scene. The current group got together because we preferred short-form improv games.”

I asked where the name Free Range came from.

“It was a huge brainstorming session,” said Brass.

“At one point we considered The Road to Ha-Ha but Chris nixed that; he nixes everything,” said Hubbard.

“Unless it’s my idea,” said Rose, correcting Hubbard. “We went through about 1,000 names, so eventually it just became, ‘Pick something, damn it!’ “

“I liked Free Range because it was slightly alternative – comedy out of the cage,” said Stavash. “Everyone here is a true theater person.”

Before Maui Improv, Stavash had worked with the Comedy Hui for a year alongside Brass, while McGee, Rose, Scott and John Williams have extensive live theater backgrounds. In addition to theater and improv, Stavash is also the co-founder of Kit Kat Klub Cabaret, which she sings with regularly. Prior to the Comedy Hui, Brass had performed with the local comedy troupes Pono Players and the Inspirates. He now teaches beginning improv with Maui Improv monthly.

In 2016, Free Range’s notoriety has grown considerably. They were awarded second place by the judges of the Maui Fringe Theater Festival 2016, and mentioned from the stage by Wayne Brady at the comedian’s recent performance at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

“I’d like to do more events,” said Hubbard.

“Lahaina, maybe corporate conventions, but I’m not sure I want to make the drive,” he joked.

In a recent Free Range press release, the troupe shared that their shows were moving from 8 to 7:30 p.m., “Because we’re middle-aged and we want to get to Sansei’s before it gets too late.”

You can currently catch them at Wailuku’s Coffee Attic the first Saturday of every month, Haiku’s Temple of Peace the third Saturday of every month and at the ProArts Playhouse the last Saturday of every month.

I asked if the troupe had any favorite improvised stage moments. Scott jumped in, sharing that she and Williams played a couple in a marriage counseling scene with Hubbard.

“The audience suggestion was a yeast infection and John said, ‘Sleeping next to you is like sleeping in a sourdough factory.’ “

Hubbard shared another favorite. “The first game in every show is called new choice. One performer calls the game and chooses which choice a scene will be built out of,” he explained. “The audience put us at Victoria’s Secret, and edible underwear came up. Matt played a sales clerk and said they had a new line of local flavors. He said, ‘pineapple,’ and I called, ‘new choice.’ Then he said, ‘papaya,’ ‘new choice,’ then, ‘plate lunch.’ That’s what we went with.”

“I don’t like to go dirty, but I like taking it to the edge and then reeling it back. What is dirty really depends on the audience,” said Brass.

“We take the audience’s temperature, so to speak, depending on where we’re at. Wailuku is more family-friendly and Kihei is a more adult crowd,” said McGee.

“It’s weirder in Haiku,” added Hubbard.

“Isn’t that a T-shirt?” asked Rose.

“It should be,” replied Hubbard.

ALSO THIS WEEK

The ongoing equestrian production “Na Lio” has announced that picnic dinners will now be included with all ticket purchases.

Located high atop Lahaina in the West Maui Mountains, “Na Lio” travels back in time as Derek Nakagawa along with George Kahumoku Jr. narrate the story of the horse in Hawaii and the tale of the paniolos. The intimate and exclusive production is limited to 36 guests per night.

* Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays at the Kahalawai Farms and Stables. Tickets are $99 and are available by calling 270-2255. For more information, visit www.naliomaui.com.

OPPORTUNITIES

The Maui OnStage Youth Program will hold auditions for Disney’s “Peter Pan Jr.” This musical production is for students ages 8 to 17 who want to learn all the aspects of rehearsing and performing a musical at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.

An information session with auditions will be at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the theater. Rehearsals and workshops will be at 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and at 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Performances of “Peter Pan” will take place Oct. 22 through 30 at the Historic Iao Theater. Tuition is $195 per student. Sibling discounts and need-based scholarships are also available.

* To register for auditions, call 244-8680.

*****

The Maui Fringe Theater Festival 2017 is now accepting early-entry submissions through Monday. The seventh annual Maui Fringe Theater Festival will take place from Jan. 20 to 22 at the Historic Iao Theater.

The Maui Fringe will be partnering with the Hawaii Fringe Festival Circuit (Oahu Fringe from Jan. 12 to 15, Waimea Fringe from Jan. 26 to 29). Acceptance into any Hawaii Fringe entitles participants to an entry-fee discount.

* To be considered, email your 60-minutes-or-less, original one-act play to fringe@mauionstage.com. For complete rules, additional guidelines and an application, visit www.mauionstage.com.