Improv comedy has numerous aspects to it, but the common thread is the honesty and interactiveness. It’s a creative outlet where people can show their sense of humor and when everything is …
Improv comedy has numerous aspects to it, but the common thread is the honesty and interactiveness. It’s a creative outlet where people can show their sense of humor and when everything is going right, it can be hilariously fun for everyone involved. Local improv group Bring Your Own Improv has abided by this vision in a very inclusive way with their shows often having people from the audience join them on stage. It’s what happens on a weekly basis every Friday night at the Warwick Center for the Arts on 3259 Post Road. Each edition has two parts, with a family friendly show happening at 8pm with the “Caffeinated Insomniacs Show” following that up at 10pm.
I recently had a talk with Artistic Director Daniel Lee White about the improv group’s mission, how the whole thing got started, his experience with improv and what people can expect to check out on Friday nights.
Rob Duguay: How did Bring Your Own Improv get started? Who had the idea for it and what's the origin story behind the organization?
Daniel Lee White: I’m the one who started it back in 2008. I really enjoyed improv and theater for a good part of my life and I had just come from Pittsburgh where they had a show called “Friday Night Improv”. They let audience members come up and play as part of the show, which I thought was really cool because of how it took the ego out of the whole thing. When I came to Rhode Island, I saw that there were a number of improv teams, but it was kind of exclusive to get in. I really wanted to create that sense of where you didn’t have to deal with so much pressure, you could just come and play without having to take a bunch of classes and stuff.
When I started this, I wanted to have some set performers but also have it be a thing where people could just volunteer and be part of the fun without us being like “We’re the only ones who can be funny”, so that’s where the idea started. We first performed at The Spot on Thayer Street in Providence in 2008, we were there for a couple years before they went out of business. Then we were kind of floating around, Improv Jones gave us a home at their place, which was called the Perishable Theater and now it’s part of AS220 in Providence. We were there for a year and then a space opened up where we currently are at the Warwick Center for the Arts, which was originally known as the Warwick Museum of Art. In 2011, we started doing shows there and as we looked around, we realized that there’s not a lot of family-friendly entertainment so we started going into that area.
For me, doing humor with crass language is a little easy because you can say certain things to make people laugh. When you really start trying to keep it clean, you feel better about your work because the laughs you get feel honest and earned. Then it really finally settled into the mission around 2013, we had everything locked in where it really became a thing of us providing a space where people could come and play with the whole mission being to have that space to be welcoming and to give everyone a chance. I put together a team that’s really good at dropping our egos and trying to make the audience have fun. Your friends, your family or your kids can get up there, they’re getting laughs, everybody is having a good time and that’s really the main focus.
We’ve kind of been building on that since then and during the pandemic, we spent two years online and we jumped into it within the first two weeks. We all needed something to do, so we worked together on it and got it up online. When we came back, we switched our times to eight and 10pm, with the latter show being geared more towards something to do on a Friday night that doesn’t involve drinking. There’s a lot of things to do, but a lot of them are at bars so we decided to replace that for those people who are looking for something different. Whether it’s adults who are looking to stay away from that environment or theater nerds, as we call ourselves at times, pretty much anyone who is looking for a fun and safe place to play.
RD: Very cool, that all sounds awesome. Along with being the founder, you’re also the Artistic Director, so what are some of your roles outside of performing? Do you have any input on stage set up, workshops and stuff like that?
DLW: Part of it is making sure that we’re staying on mission. As years go on, I’ve always been at the helm and everybody who comes in has new ideas and a lot of them can be really great, but the key is having that one person maintaining the artistic vision. It could be a cool idea that works with our mission or it’s something that works better somewhere else. Some of them are a great fit for us, but I also encourage team members to start their own thing if they really want to go with a different idea that's outside of our mission. That's what I did and nobody was doing what I wanted to do, so I started my own thing.
Making sure these ideas stay within our mission while allowing people to come, play and have fun is a big part of it. Also, there’s keeping the teaching together, which we started in 2014. We started offering these youth workshops and we did them all the way up until the pandemic. There were a number of groups that we had going on constantly and some of the members eventually became old enough to join the cast, I think we’ve had four members that ended up becoming cast members at one point or another with most of them going on to college. We’re so proud of them and I kind of keep focused on that while looking at big picture stuff.
We also do corporate events, big parties and things like that, so I also handle the business aspect. I took the title of Artistic Director because I don’t want to juggle three different titles, I just wanted to keep it simple. Audrey Dubois, who’s been with us for a few years, has taken on more of the directing thing, which involves setting up the setlist and helping new team members learn the games or fix small issues when they happen. She’s someone who also has an understanding of the vision, so if I’m not there then she’s there so there’s always somebody who knows what’s going on.
RD: It’s smart that you simplify it all with one title rather than it being slash this and slash that. Outside of improv, you also have over 25 years of experience being part of numerous plays and films, so when it comes to those creative mediums do you have a different approach or do you consider improv and acting to kind of be one in the same?
DLW: There’s similarities and there’s differences. I’ve just spent the last three years getting my MFA in theatrical directing, which was a great way to spend the pandemic while getting a graduate degree (laughs). There’s a lot of focus on style and my major focus is on comedy and farce, so in my case, the improv falls into what we do. It carries all through my work, that sense of comedy, that sense of play, laughter and escapism. That’s kind of important to me in that sense, I want to give people a place of joy where they don’t have to think about the things that are going on, they can just laugh and have fun.
RD: That’s a great outlook to have on what you do. When it comes to your introduction to improv, what made you get into it when you were younger? Were you watching shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and they inspired you or did it come from other things?
DLW: It came from other things. I was always into theater and things of that nature, I actually just had to write a paper on this for my master’s. One of my first memories is from kindergarten, there was this dance routine where everybody had to be a bunch of pumpkins, which were grouped into two different circles. I couldn’t get into one of the circles, I had missed my cue just a bit too late, so I started bouncing & running back and forth and the audience started laughing. While some kids would have cried or broken down, something clicked in my head, so when they went in circles again I specifically didn’t go into the circles and I started doing the bouncing thing again.
I realized that I loved the feeling I got from it, making people laugh started to feel fun. My father was really into comedy, we used to see a bunch of movies, we’d talk about them on the way home and yeah, we watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. I also did some improv in college and it was dramatic improv where you work in the parameters of a scene and you have to make it happen, which is actually a real core base of improv. Del Close’s book, “Truth In Comedy”, as well as Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater”, weren’t developed out of creating comedy but how comedy comes from being honest and being truthful. There’s a bit of catharsis that comes with it, I often joke that when I’m doing improv I’m also getting my therapy in.
You allow reality to come out and that’s where you get your best humor. We find that people who come to our shows, if they try really hard to be funny they usually fail. It’s kind of painful to watch sometimes when they’re trying too hard, but if you kind of sit back, you relax and you just play, you all of a sudden know exactly what to say. Sometimes the audience members will sit there knowing what the punchline is and what we’re doing with our team is creating that environment so we’re literally handing you the punchline, as long as you’re listening and you’re in it, then you know exactly what to say. That’s that truth, that’s being honest and you don’t have to try to be funny, you try to make your scene partner funny.
You do everything you can to give them the best punchlines and if you have a good scene partner, they’re doing the same thing to you. The feeling you get between you and someone else when that happens, it can feel just as good when your scene partner says something that makes the audience laugh because you know that you made it happen together.
RD: It’s pretty much a teamwork type of thing.
DLW: This past Friday, there was a young girl who was struggling a little bit, we got to jump in and help her and all of a sudden she just clicked. She jumped right in and got it, she must have been like three or four, I’m terrible at guessing ages, but she got it. Hearing the audience get all excited because they saw her start saying “I don’t know”, then getting more used to it as she was playing and coming out of her shell a minute later was such a cool feeling. It was such a great time and I don’t know exactly what it is but it just feels good to me. I like doing projects where you just feel good and you’re glad that everyone involved had a good time too.
Not all of them are successful, sometimes they don’t work and it’s like that in improv. Not all of our games are going to be funny, sometimes we have a really bad game that doesn’t go anywhere, but the nice thing about it is that five minutes later we’re going to be doing something else.
RD: For these Friday nights at the Warwick Center for the Arts, if either someone is showing up by themselves, there’s a family coming through or it’s a group of friends who are looking to avoid the bar scene and do something different, what are the major selling points that you’d like to mention?
DLW: You have three ways you can get involved, you can either sit and watch and applaud and laugh, so if you’re somebody who just wants to chill, you can do that. If you want to throw out some cool ideas, you can give suggestions or if you want, you can come up on stage and give it a shot by throwing your hand up and getting involved. You might end up liking it and have a good time while being funny, that’s kind of what the draw is for people who just want to enjoy themselves in a safe environment. August will also mark 15 years since Bring Your Own Improv started and I can’t believe that I’ve been doing it for this long.