Improv Is Alchemy and Secret Sauce.
Thrice, this happened. A friend invited me to a party and there was something about nearly everyone present. It wasn’t a bad thing, just perplexing; like a flavor in food you can’t identify, but it’s all up in your mouth and, therefore, impossible to ignore.
That thing was improv. It turns out most of the people were members or acolytes of Alchemy Comedy Theater, a local improv comedy troupe. There were nearly 100 of them. They create funny scenes from thin air, apparently. They seem unable or willing to turn off the performance wherever three or more are gathered in the name of a good time. Pre-pandemic, I’m pretty sure Alchemy had the most Eventbright listings of any organization in our city.
In January, Alrinthea Carter, Alchemy’s executive producer, announced a $5 all-female (like Alrinthea and me), all black (like Alrinthea and me), improv 101 workshop. I signed up immediately. I wanted to know how they do… that thing.
I met up with Alrinthea a few months later at a cozy, noisy tea shop to talk about our workshop experience, and her process as a grown woman trying to do this comedy thing for real. Here’s some of what was said between bites. That’s what all the mm-hmm-ing is about.
Jennifer: The improv community is a tight group. Is it because of the nature of the work? Or is it something that comes from the work?
Alrinthea: I think it's both. The basic principle of improv everyone learns from day one is “yes, and...” "Yes, and..." is basically entering into an agreement to collaborate, to support each other, to add on what someone else has brought, to build a building together, instead of bringing in a pile of bricks and dropping them at someone's feet.
You perform sometimes weekly or monthly with six to 12 people and become close because part of this "yes, and..." is allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to trust somebody. You could take a relative stranger and say, “Okay, well, I trust you. Let's get on stage and let's do this.”
What's unique about our community is that all of us also work during the day. You'll see other communities where they're not working any harder, but improv is their job. They come to Greenville and they're surprised like, "Oh, you work as an engineer during the day? And then, you're onstage and pretending to be a donkey in love.”
Jennifer: Could we support full-time improv here?
Alrinthea: I've traveled to different improv scenes, and I've seen people who are able to teach improv as their full time, and that's great. I don't know that we have enough demand to require churning out classes all the time. I'm the main teacher for our improv 101 class.
Jennifer: And you continue to study as well.
Alrinthea: Improv is very academic. Improv people are always taking classes in some way, shape or form. It could be a workshop on just characters or a certain form of improv. I did a two-week improv intensive in Los Angeles this summer, and took five classes in 14 days.
Jennifer: That is intense. Where do you feel like you are in your career?
Alrinthea: I’ve been doing this for six years. I don't know if it goes into the typical, novice, apprentice, expert, master spectrum, but I would say I'm more in the middle. I'm learning how to be a better teacher, which is the path that I want to pursue. I wouldn't call myself a master teacher yet, but I know that I have a specific skill for people who are new to improv and that is teaching improv 101.
Jennifer: What do new people need that you bring?
Alrinthea: Well, they need someone who is very supportive and very excited about the class. I've been told I have a camp counselor energy when I teach.
Alrinthea: But you are taking 16 strangers and convincing them that adults can be silly. You need to be very intuitive to people's emotions and moods. How can you approach student A versus student B?
The biggest hurdle is convincing people they can do improv, that improv is literally for everyone. We're not allowed to be playful as adults, and improv teaches you to be able to do that again.
You can be silly and just totally have fun and no one's gonna look down on you. And the secret, the surprise vegetable in the sauce, is that you can use all the things that you're learning in your work life.
Jennifer: I was surprised at the underlying principles were so much about release. You kept bringing up how applicable it was to other situations in your life.
Alrinthea: Everyone kind of realizes that for themselves. I send students home with the challenge to see what happens when they just say yes to opportunities and collaboration at work or at home. You're not going to be playing pretend at work, but you take that feeling of building that really great scene together into the boardroom more often.
Jennifer: So, you kind of get an endorphin rush from doing things with people, and then you end up looking for more opportunities off the stage.
Alrinthea: Mm-hmm. We have fortune 500 companies reaching out to improv theaters across the country for workshops on what we do every week. We did a patient interviewing workshop for the students at a medical school using improv games, and they took home lessons like, "Oh, what if I worked with my patients and not talk to them?”
Jennifer: What motivated you to do our Black Lady Improv workshop?
Alrinthea: Improv is for everybody, but there is a paywall. If you care about any kind of diversity in improv, that's like kind of the biggest obstacle to figure out.
In Greenville, you take classes for a year before you are able to join the company for about $100 a pop. That’s, really, really inexpensive compared to taking a class in Los Angeles, where they're $400, but it's all relative to what people can afford.
I think historically that has affected the landscape of improv, in that, it is mostly white, mostly male. You have to have the time to take classes after work or during the hours that we teach classes. There was a woman in your cohort who works third shift, so she's not gonna be able to take a class from 6:30pm to 9:00pm.
People may also come from a lower socioeconomic status. Traditionally, ethnic minorities may not have the access to improv that everyone else does. It's kind of similar to taking music lessons or being on the club baseball team. It takes money to do that. I was very lucky in that I had the means to do that, but I had assistance. I paid on the payment plan.
Jennifer: You’ve felt like the group that had the least access is black women?
Alrinthea: I would say so. You'll find more black women, black men doing stand-up, even in Greenville, because standup is free. When you go to a Monday night open mic and work at your craft, you're not paying money to do that. It's going to reach more people.
Because improv is traditionally white and traditionally male, people may not think that it's for them. I'm really the unicorn in this city, but I'm going to Minneapolis soon to perform in the festival that's specifically run by black people. That is completely outside of my experience. I've only ever met maybe two or three black improvisers in person.
Jennifer: Even though you've traveled other places to study?
Alrinthea: Yeah. I am used to being the only person of color in the room, even in Los Angeles. Though if you go to like a bigger theater like UCB or Second City, you'll find more diversity.
Jennifer: So, our workshop was your first experience of all-black improv?
Alrinthea: Yes. I've been in this for six years. I didn't have a black improv teacher till this past summer.
Jennifer: Was anything different about our group, or did we do the same thing everybody else does?
Alrinthea: You bond really quickly while doing improv, but the extra step was we bonded as black women. We, as black women, are gonna bond with other black women in a different way than we bond with anyone else. So you add that to that collaborative spirit of improv and you create this, like, magical afternoon where everyone is in love with each other by the end of the day.
Jennifer: It was totally magical.
Alrinthea: I mean, it exceeded even my expectations. I knew it was going to be a good time, and knew I had something that I could teach people, but the emotional bond that was formed, that was crazy! In a good way.
Jennifer: Yeah. The other day I was talking to somebody about a type of public intervention idea and thought, “Oh, I know a group of strangers that would be willing to do this with me.” Now that you mention it, that's not like me at all.
Alrinthea: And they would totally do it.
Jennifer: But, the comedy pretty much looks the same?
Alrinthea: Yeah. It's just more culturally relatable to us. An improviser in Los Angeles, Laci Mosley, once discussed something she calls "the sauce factor.” She’d initiated a scene with a suggestion about sauce. Her improv partner, who I think was a white man, was thinking pizza sauce, pizzeria. She's thinking "I've got sauce.” You know, like, got sauce. It's harder for her to initiate a scene about that if that's not his experience, if he doesn't know what "sauce" is.
Jennifer: Yeah, I definitely did not think of pizza when you said that.
Alrinthea: If you are a person of color or a woman performing, you tend to adapt your comedy to fit the cultural landscape you're in. The comedy I will create in Minnesot , is going to be completely different to the comedy I do here at Alchemy. Will it be any better? It's just gonna be different.
It's almost like a form of code switching. That's probably why black people are better at doing characters, because we're used to switching all the time.
Jennifer: Do you remember what made you decide to take improv seriously?
Alrinthea: I think I knew that I was good. And I have something to offer. At that point — this is probably four years in — I was more comfortable being more myself, being more vulnerable on stage and I think that made my scenes richer and more honest. The best comedy comes from real life. So, all the things I was holding back because I wasn't willing to be vulnerable to my teammates, kind of went away.
I mean, I’m still dealing with a lot of things in therapy, like the issues I have in my normal life around letting my walls down, being vulnerable to people, and trusting that they're not going to leave me for any faults I may have. Those are all things that you have to use on improv. To trust people, you have to be open to ideas into concepts and solutions that may come up on stage, and you have to be kind of truthful in the art of it and acting it out.
Jennifer: What’s the difference between comedy from guarded Alrinthea and comedy from the more vulnerable and open Alrinthea? Is it the material?
Alrinthea: I'll say this. There's a percentage that we always throw out there: 99 percent real, 1 percent weird. So if you have a scene about cats getting a divorce, the real part of that is the divorce part, right? People can relate to a relationship in dating, or maybe their parents got divorced, maybe they got divorced. The weird part is that they're cats. But, we don't let the fact that they’re cats take over the scene. That's just cats going through the same stuff that humans go through, and so in order for them to be open to and honest to that, you have to kind of let your walls down.
One of the problems I had was I would put on characters as a costume and I would take them off when the scene's over. I wouldn't make those characters real; they wouldn't feel a real emotion. If my character was sad, I would make a sad face. But I wouldn't act like I was sad.
Jennifer: Because you didn't want to go there?
Alrinthea: I didn't want to go there. But if I tap into what it feels like to be sad, or I tap into the feeling of what it feels like to be dumped, or to have someone not love you back, you know, that ties into that theme. I think it's cool that people are afraid of that, too. But in being honest with yourself, you kind of uncover the funny things about breaking up with somebody.
One of the things could be, well, if you break up with me, who is going to remind you that the dishes are clean or dirty in the dishwasher? Who's gonna remind you about your mom's birthday? Who's going to take the change out of my pockets when they wash the jeans? Who’s gonna wash the jeans?
When I allowed myself to feel the emotions that my characters were feeling, then the comedy was elevated for me. It wasn't about doing the obvious things to get a quick clap or a cheap laugh, but rather, digging in deep and finding the real humor in real life and going from there.
Jennifer: Are you taking notes on your life or your day, or does it just bubble up when you're on the stage?
Alrinthea: Bubbles up, for sure. You become a sponge when you're an improviser. If you're on the plaza over on Main Street, and you see the guy who plays saxophone and you see girls coming out of Anthropology. You're absorbing everything they’re talking about, the ways they're saying it, their accents. Then, you're coupling that with everything that happened that day.
Jennifer: Where do you see your comedy career going?
Alrinthea: I recently figured out that I really love writing comedy, too. Not for myself but for other people. So I've been taking classes in late night comedy writing.
Alrinthea: Yeah. I've been doing that for about a year now. But it's basically breaking down the technique of writing for shows like Ellen, The Tonight Show and Conan O'Brian.
When you tune into the show, they'll do five minutes of monologue jokes; that series of 10 jokes was probably whittled down from 300 jokes that a team of 10 to 15 people are writing. So, I'm learning about that and all the little games and different types of jokes they do with their guests. Kind of like Carpool Karaoke and lip sync challenge, stuff like that. And then different sketches and stuff. So it's mostly just like the art of writing.
You’re also capturing current events.
So, I have to write three to five jokes a week in my voice, just kind of reacting to the news. One of the jokes that I wrote was about the Democratic primary debate when Elizabeth Warren gave those guys the business. So my joke was: you know, this is probably the most uncomfortable those dudes have been in front of women since they learned what periods were. So, you take like this very serious thing of like running for president and you put it against puberty. Equating that feeling of two grown, very wealthy men, being told about themselves by a woman that they were not expecting; it’s hilarity to me.
I'm hoping to apply for a few workshops. NBC has a late night writing workshop. It's a week in New York in the room with actual TV writers showing you the craft. It's very hard to get into. A thousand people a year apply for it, but they take maybe seven. But I think I'm gonna try for it, and see how it goes.
Jennifer: Of course. Why not?
Alrinthea: Yeah. It's almost like a golden age for women to be in comedy, to be behind the scenes in comedy, and to have their voices heard, especially the voice of black women. You couldn’t tell me 10 years ago that we would have two Mainstream shows featuring black talent that's not In Living Color.
Jennifer: HBO’s Black Lady Sketch Show and Netflix’s Astronomy Club.*
Alrinthea: Yeah, two different shows!
Jennifer: To discover Astronomy Club by accident was awesome. And, yes, I binged that entire season immediately.
Alrinthea: And it was just comedy that's just from our point of view. Totally from our point of view.
Jennifer: The other refreshing thing is, you get all the universal jokes too.
Alrinthea: They're so talented at that.
Jennifer: It makes me want everybody to watch Astronomy Club just to see the range of black talent and black experience. I mean, there are cultural references here and there but the majority of the jokes —
Alrinthea: —anybody can get.
Jennifer: Okay, what is the best joke you heard or made up recently?
Alrinthea: In a sketch from Black Lady Sketch Show, a secret agent named Trinity, played by Ashley Nicole Black, is just an average, plus sized black woman who's “invisible” to everybody because they don't notice her. She just walks into places, or she just takes things. So, the joke is, she's an invisible agent not because she has the power and ability; it’s because she's the black woman and people don't pay attention to the black woman. I think that’s the greatest thing!
Jennifer: That’s funny. I’ll check that out.
Thank you so much. This talk was great. I hope you enjoyed it.
Alrinthea: I hope you got something you can use.
Jennifer: Everybody says that.
Alrinthea: I think people aren't used to being able to talk about themselves. I can talk about how much I love improv all day long, but no one's asking. It's just, “Are you like Wayne Brady?” And I'm like, “No, I'm not like Wayne Brady.”
Even though Wayne Brady is seriously the love my life, and I would love to marry him. Wayne Brady, if you're listening…
*Netflix decided against a second season of Astronomy Club after this conversation. Sad face.