UCB: Improv To The Core

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Natasha Vaynblat paced around the green room, fidgeting with the snacks she had laid out on the table while glancing anxiously at the door.

The Upright Citizens Brigade was due to arrive backstage at any moment.

A burgeoning comedic actor herself, the University of Virginia junior had watched the traveling improv troupe perform the year before during the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. It was the best show she had ever seen. And, now, she had somehow wrangled them into performing at her school.

When they walked through the door, Ms. Vaynblat was starstruck.

Five years later, she is now one of them.

“Oh, it’s absolutely lived up to my expectations. Above and beyond,” she said last week during a telephone interview from her home in Manhattan. “I have seen so many of these shows. You think, ‘It has to be written,’ but I know it’s not because, now, I do it. It’s so impressive, the way it can be so magical sometimes.”

Every aspect of the show is improvised and off-the-cuff—from the material, which is primarily inspired by the audience, to the cast itself. For each performance, a handful of actors are plucked from approximately two dozen members of the Tour Company, abbreviated to “Tour Co.” by its players, often resulting in a different incarnation every stop they make—whether it’s in Boca Raton, Florida, where UCB actor Frank Garcia Hejl was headed when reached by telephone last week, or to Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, where he’ll perform on Saturday, November 30, with a completely different group of equally talented UCB comics, he said.

The change in locale and stage partners takes a bit of getting used to, even though he’s been at it for two years, Mr. Hejl said as he boarded the plane to his layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s mostly because everyone is a different type of funny. And, at times, it is impossible not to laugh.

“Oh yeah, I’m probably the worst at that. I lose it,” he said. “You end up enjoying yourself. Early on, improvisers are very worried about other stuff: Am I doing this thing right? After a while, you start to trust that you’re good and you can actually trust the people you’re out there with. And I’ll get caught up in how much fun it is.”

The troupe starts its 90-minute production by feeling out the audience—getting a sense for what’s going on in town, including any big, newsworthy issues or pop culture happenings. Next, they’ll select a volunteer and conduct a 10-minute interview, asking questions that oftentimes tease out embarrassing details about their family or friends watching from their seats.

“We find the entire audience gets on board with that,” Mr. Hejl chuckled.

Then, the actors begin. They call it a “montage,” Ms. Vaynblat explained, which is the loosest format of their famed long-form improvisation, or an entire show consisting of interconnected scenes, characters and ideas made up on the spot with no pre-planning or pre-writing.

Pioneered by director and luminary Del Close at the Improv Olympics in Chicago, long-form was brought to Manhattan by original cast members Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh in 1996. When they noticed an absence of the Chicago-style comedy in the city, they launched a training program, which quickly became the place to be for cutting-edge comedy and attracted the likes of Ed Helms, Aubrey Plaza, Horatio Sanz, Ellie Kemper and Ms. Vaynblat, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, after moving from Russia at age 8.

She relocated to Manhattan in 2010 just for UCB, she said.

“When I left college, this was what you go do,” she said. “That was clearly the best improv that’s happening.”

For three years, Ms. Vaynblat taught high school during the day and found herself on stage or at improv class nearly every night—a routine that led to physical burnout.

“Last year was just insane,” she said. “When you’re doing the thing you really want to do at night, you sacrifice sleep, you know? I realized, physically, I had to do something different.”

This past summer, the actor quit her teaching job, turned 26, got married two days later and joined Tour Co. She’ll never forget her first UCB show outside of Manhattan.

It was August at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The school year was just getting under way and excitement was in the air—especially for the young student who greeted them.

“The girl who met us was, basically, the ‘me’ of that college,” Ms. Vaynblat said. “And it just felt so surreal, to have our little fruit salad in a red bowl waiting for us. It was the first moment I was, like, ‘I’m finally doing the thing that I had moved to New York to do.’ It was so cool to be on the other side of it.”

The Upright Citizens Brigade Tour Company will stage a 90-minute improv show on Saturday, November 30, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre. Tickets are $25, or $35 the day of the performance. For more information, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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