Tuesday nights in Portsmouth this summer are all about improv comedy.
Now in its 12th season, the “Stranger Than Fiction” comedy troupe puts on shows every Tuesday night at the Players’ Ring, coming up with material on the fly based on audience participation.
Jacqueline Martell is one of the troupe’s players, and joins us to talk about how the shows work. She joined NHPR's Morning Edition.
Give me a sense of what a typical show is like. I imagine it goes pretty much anywhere the audience wants to take it.
It all depends. There are basically two formats we’ll do. We have a short-form format, which are mostly smaller games. We also have a long-form format, where we actually play a narrative out for about two hours.
Two hours? That’s an awful lot of work. How many people are on stage at any one time?
The troupe right now is about 15 people. Sometimes we’ll have players in the 8-10 range, but most of the time, we have about 12 players on stage.
At one of your recent shows, the troupe put on an entirely improvised musical.
Yes, that was last week.
How did that go?
It went exceptionally well. We hired a musician, who comes in and plays guitar and piano and we make up songs on the spot.
I’d imagine that over the course of a couple of hours, there’s some hits and misses.
I think they’re all radio hits. It’s a lot of fun though and I think the audience enjoys the ride.
So even if you have a song as you’re improvising that isn’t going the way you’d love it to go, you could actually incorporate that into the comedy itself.
It sounds like you’ve had strong turnout at your shows this summer. How much of what you do depends on how engaged the audience is on a given night?
We have audience members who’ve been coming to see us for as long as we’ve been a troupe, which is great. And they come back every week because the unique experience of improv is different every time. It’s really sort of magical. I definitely prefer as a player to have a full house because the diversity of the suggestions just increases with more people in the seats. You get some really interesting things with a larger audience.
I imagine the synergy between the audience and the players is a little more intense if you’ve got more people in there.
Absolutely. I think the energy also just really lifts up the group.
You said you have some regulars who come every week. Have you ever had regulars who ended up becoming part of the cast?
Not yet, but hopefully they will. I figure if they’re going to come and watch us, they might as well come up on stage. We have had some regulars who’ve attended some of our classes, which is really wonderful.
What do you enjoy most about improv, as opposed to something more scripted?
For me, the part that I like the most if that we’re on an equal playing field and just the sense of bonding that we have.
And I would imagine as you’re going on from week to week, that chemistry only gets better.
The main thing that’s most important and what helps us play the best with one another is when we trust each other on stage. So the longer you’ve done improv with somebody, the easier it becomes to do the format with them.
Like playing in a band, it’s all about timing.
Is there a moment from this season that sticks out as a favorite?
Last week’s musical was so much fun. We had Kevin Nealon, a Saturday Night Live alum, in the audience, which was very exciting.
There are some notable New Hampshire native comedy legends: Adam Sandler, Sarah Silverman, Seth Meyers. What’s your take on the comedy scene in the Granite State today?
I think the comedy scene is great. I’m so blessed to live in the Portsmouth area, which I think is such a cultural hotspot. And I’m so glad “Stranger Than Fiction” has been doing improv and kind of bringing that genre. There’s also great stand up, plays, and musicals in the area.
You also provide workshops and classes for aspiring comedians. What’s your advice for someone looking to break into comedy?
I think the first thing is to get out of your head. If you really, really love it, absolutely follow your heart. Try not to take anything too personally because comedy is really about failure and learning from failure.