How Sea Tea Improv Built a Comedy Scene from Scratch

sea-teaIn 2009, seven people in Hartford, Connecticut founded a comedy troupe, Sea Tea Improv, and began holding regular shows. They started with short-form improv but over the years have added many other styles and projects. Now they hold multiple shows each month. They hold mixers for other improv groups and people interested in comedy. They’re currently running classes that range from Intro to Improv to The Scene, The Character and The Set List. They’ve dubbed old movies at theaters, have run stand up and sketch comedy shows, performed a live action improvised version of the board game “Clue” at a local museum and run corporate events.

Sea Tea Improv has been very consciously building a community and building a business in a way that serves a model for not just comedy troupes, but for many arts organizations. In May the troupe completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to build a comedy theater in downtown Hartford. Their goal was $35,000, but they ultimately raised over $60,000 and just announced that they’re signing the lease on the location. As multiple people noted, though, the hard work is just beginning — as the space is being renovated, they’re taking stock of what they own and need to purchase, and the many licenses and approvals needed to be signed off on.

I visited the troupe and sat in on a board meeting and rehearsal, talking with members before and afterwards. A few years ago, the troupe leased studio space on the 5th floor of a building on Pratt Street, a one-way street in downtown just a stone’s throw from the XL Center and the Hartford Stage Company and a block away from where their new theater will be located.

The board meeting, which consisted of six members with a seventh joining via Google Hangout, consisted of back and forths about grants, possible collaborations with other organizations, conversations to have with their architect about the theater space and related topics. After the meeting they held a rehearsal for their upcoming longform improv show. After the rehearsal, I sat down with the assembled members, who ranged from some of the founders to some of the newest members of the troupe.

Talking individually with members, I heard similar stories. Each had been involved with theater or comedy in college, whether as a drama major or a member of an improv troupe. Moving to the Hartford area after college, they attended a show by Sea Tea, took classes and eventually tried out for the troupe. Talking with them as a group, it was easy to see them as improv artists, the way they set each other up, the way one would answer a question and then turn to another to expand on something or take it in a different direction. Also the way that some of them have clearly different skill sets and approaches that compliment each other.

“I always considered Sea Tea a social enterprise,” said Greg Ludovici, one of the troupe’s founders. “That way we could focus on being sustainable. Also it’s important for Hartford that we pay taxes and pay artists. I always approached it as a business, from the beginning when we had to decide, do we want to split the pay seven ways for seven performers or eight to save some and feed it back into the business and community?”

“We were unique,” said Julia Pistell, another founder. “And we had to be from the beginning. There were groups — and good comedy groups — before us, but we made it our mission to build a community. Most people in Connecticut have never seen live improv. That means each show is an opportunity to build our skills and build an audience. We teach them what improv is and what it can be. We’re both creating and meeting demand.”

“It’s fantastic if we can be a space for people to learn and go on with their career,” said Brenna Harvey. “But we can supplement people’s lives. That’s what can do. It can be entertaining and fulfilling.”

“In Connecticut you often have to be an artist and something else,” Pistell said, “but that doesn’t devalue the art that you create.”

“No,” Harvey added, “it can enhance it.”

“We have a slight advantage over traditional comedy cities because we get a general audience or a theater audience. People aren’t choosing between improv troupes or comedy shows, they’re choosing between us and seeing a movie,” Pistell said.

“And because we’re not pricey, we get a wide audience,” Helena Morris added.

“We started with short-form and eventually added other forms,” Pistell said. “If we were in a big city, we would only do a few shows. Here we have the room to experiment and we have room to fail.”

“For example, I was interested in muting old movies and improvise new dialogue over them, but it wasn’t until Daniel joined our team that we were able to do it,” Ludovici said. “Daniel wanted to manage the show, and the troupe was finally large enough to make it work. We like to try new types of shows, and if the audience enjoys them like they did with the improvised movie dialogue, we make the show a regular event.”

“The city and the state have room for us to do a bad show,” Pistell said. “Then we have another show the next day or just a couple days later, which is great.”

“That offers a lot of freedom as an improvisor because we do it so often,” Morris said, explaining that she suffers from awkwardness and nerves so having regular shows helps her deal with that.

“We have two shows a month that are set and then we try out other ideas,” said Harvey. “Everyone gets to offer ideas and we try to extend beyond just the troupe to get other people from the community to write or perform with us.”

“We’ve always had others involved in the shows,” said Dan Russell, another founder. “We’re always trying to reach out to the community.”

“I think that’s what I miss the most,” said Vladimir Perez, “being at Hartford High or somewhere you’re introducing it to young people.” One of the co-founders of the troupe, he moved to Los Angeles a few years ago where he now hosts the Hip Hop Source Awardz at Upright Citizens Brigade LA, and performs on a sketch house team at iO West.

“I feel like if that happened to me at sixteen or eighteen — where I was just goofing around being a clown anyways — I would have felt like, wait a minute, the skills that make me horrible at everything else, can make me fit in and be good at something. That would have been huge,” Perez said. “Sea Tea did a lot of that, which nobody else did.”

As far as what the theater will offer them that they don’t have now, they all had an answer which danced around similar themes. “We’ll be a place,” Morris said. “We’ll be at Sea Tea Improv.”

“It’ll be less about individual shows,” Pistell adds.

“It will help us to expand our audience,” Harvey said. “It will provide consistency because we’re in so many places we’ll be easier to find.”

“It will be easier for people to see us and it’ll be easier for us to do more,” Russell added.

“It will be easier for the audience to find us, and it will also be easier for us because it means less work packing up, and setting up, and breaking down our gear for every single show,” Ludovici said as they joked about the bonding that comes from lugging equipment and working around shows in different theaters.

“Our first gig we made forty dollars each. That was five years ago and I felt like a millionaire,” said Pistell. “I couldn’t have imagined the studio then.”

“We started teaching one class at the studio and we run four classes,” Grambo said.

“In twenty years when I’m a tiny old man I hope I can go to the theater–” Ludovici started to say.

“Wait, in twenty years you’ll be 53.”

“How tiny will you be?”

The group continued, taking turns mocking Ludovici until the jokes exhausted themselves — after all, they take comedy seriously and aren’t about to let a prompt like that pass them by. He returned to making his point, that success will be walking into the theater without anyone knowing who he is because there will be so many people doing so many different things there. The theater is the culmination of what they’ve been working towards, but each of them made it clear that they see it as a the beginning of something else as well.

“We want you to come and see us perform, get excited and take a class and then perform,” Grambo said. “The theater is both the beginning and the end of this process.”

Photo by Nick Caito.

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