Meet 3 artists leaving their mark on the Tampa improv scene

Chicago, New York and Los Angeles are arguably the improv capitals of America, but don't be so quick to write Tampa off the list. In fact, the area is humming with local performers set on bringing improv to the masses.
 
The medium is unique in that it's completely unscripted. In other words, what you see on stage is totally original and born on the spot. It's also something that's picking up steam in the area.

What was once a little known, underground community has evolved into a comedy movement that's taking Tampa Bay by storm. Don't believe it? The 2014 Tampa Improv Festival drew more than 30 troupes from all over the country, including performers from the renowned Upright Citizens Brigade.

83 Degrees connected with three Tampa improvisers for a behind-the-curtain look at the area's growing improv comedy scene.

Crystal Haralambou, director of the Box Theater in Ybor City

Improv artists from the Box Theater in Tampa are preparing for an October show, after performing at the Sarasota Improv Festival in July. The theater offers classes in Ybor City and boasts two house teams that perform regularly.
 
Director Crystal Haralambou, who studied theater at USF, says it was her fear of improvising that originally drew her to the craft.

"I'd go to auditions and people would tell me to improvise, and I was sure I wasn't doing it right!" she says. "So I started to run in the face of that fear and started commuting to SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando, taking every class I could with them."

From there, Haralambou's love affair with improv began. But she soon noticed that there weren't many local spaces for improvisers to collaborate and perform together. When a colleague from Tampa Underground offered up one of its spaces in Ybor back in 2009, Haralambou jumped at the chance.

"What I hear most from artists in the community is that they just need space to do their art form," she says. "Now we have this nice little black box, and it's been the gift we needed to build those friendships and grow as artists."

Haralambou describes improv as a poor man's theater where people of all backgrounds can come together in their flip flops to create something new together.

"I think the connectivity and magic that happens is equal to the magic that happens in a scripted play, and it's happening right in front of you," she adds.

The Box Theater currently offers leveled improv classes. $175 gets participants six weeks of instruction that wraps up with an end-of-session showcase.

Patrick McInnis, improv teacher and local performer

Longtime performer Patrick McInnis is no stranger to show business. Growing up as a child actor in St. Petersburg, he found his way back to improv about five years ago.

"I was always attracted to improv and was a fan of the Upright Citizens Brigade television show back in the late 90s," he says. "That had me researching what opportunities were out there, and I came to find that there was practically no long-form improv in the Tampa Bay area."

Short-form improv resembles the fast-paced scenes you'd see on an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? Long-form, on the other hand, is more of a one-act play that's fully improvised. Itching to get involved, McInnis eventually went on to take classes before forming his own team, The Third Thought, back in 2010. They've been performing on a weekly basis for about four years.

In addition to performing, McInnis teaches improv classes at St. Pete's American Stage Theatre Company. (Prices range from $180 to $200 for an eight-week session.) For those interested in improv but not yet ready to make a commitment, McInnis also leads drop-in improv classes in Tampa for $5 a pop.

"The improv scene has really come organically out of nothing because there was almost nothing happening for long-form for such a long time, but it's definitely growing by leaps and bounds," he adds. "In the five years that I've been around, I've seen it go from a hidden underground thing to a big deal that people are really starting to take advantage of."

John Huls, improv teacher who's bringing the craft to non-actors

After spending 20 years as a middle and high school drama teacher at a private school in Tampa, John Huls now devotes himself full time to improvisation.
 
"I always taught improv and loved using it as a tool for the classroom," says Huls, who was largely influenced by Second City. "I just love the spontaneity of it."

Since venturing out on his own, Huls, graduate of the University of South Florida with a BFA in theater, has taught improv to Tampa-based actors, lawyers, ad execs, children, schoolteachers, newscasters and doctors. Regardless of who the student is, he says, the joy and aliveness that most people experience is pretty much universal.

"In an abstract form, they're making art," he says. "And because they own it, it becomes something they're much more proud of because they created it. They're essentially the playwright, the director and the actor all at once."

Unlike traditional plays or musicals, in which the actors know what's coming next, improv thrives on the unknown. Thrilling as that may be for actors, they're not the only ones who seem to benefit from the craft. Huls says improv has the power to unlock creative thinking skills, improve communication and bolster confidence. (This is probably why he's landed so many gigs in corporate settings.) 

"I think that people ultimately come to [improv] because of the allure and the mystery of it," says Huls. "I've seen it change people's lives who weren't actors."

Huls offers eight-class sessions for both adults and kids through Actout Improv in South Tampa. The average price lands at $200.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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