Fake It Til We Make It: An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv Pt. 1 (Extended Edition)

An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv

Part One (extended edition)

By Briana Haynie

They met in improv class, each joining for a different reason. A few were new to town and wanted to meet people, some had read about their favorite comedians, and others had an itch to perform. Either way, seven unlikely individuals discovered a friendship and a passion for improv while taking classes at Hartford Stage under the tutelage of Matt Neufeld. They were hooked and when the classes ended they didn’t want to stop; so they kept going on their own. Since their formation on April 1st, 2009, Sea Tea Improv has grown into a company of 21 improvisers and boasts a monthly short form show at Hartford’s own City Steam Brewery, a monthly long form show at The Studio at Billings Forge, and countless corporate and private gigs to their schedule. They have helped cultivate a thriving improv community in a city that only five years ago barely knew what improv was. In these next few issues of The Annual, Sea Tea will tell you, in their own words, their story. Starting with the founders: Julia Pistell, Greg Ludovici, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Dan Russell, Summar Elguindy and Vladimir John Perez.

 From Left to right: Matt Neufeld, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Julia Pistell, Summar Elguindy, Vladimir John Perez, Greg Ludovici, Dan Russel. Photo credit: Laura Dee Photography
From Left to right: Matt Neufeld, Joe Leonardo, Kate Sidley, Julia Pistell, Summar Elguindy, Vladimir John Perez, Greg Ludovici, Dan Russel.
Photo credit: Laura Dee Photography

GREG LUDOVICI: Julia and I met way back in 2001; I was directing an AIDS benefit musical theatre organization. Julia auditioned and so we’ve been performing together for years.

JULIA PISTELL: We were dating and we were running this little tiny benefit theatre organization together which is still going strong.

DAN RUSSELL: [Vlad and I] met taking an improv class at Play On Acting Studio and that class was taught by Matt Neufeld who ended up being our teacher when we all got together at Hartford Stage. I wanted to perform in some way. I wanted to do comedy in some way; I thought I wanted to do Stand-Up but it felt like it wasn’t for me, and this seemed like a thing to try.

VLADIMIR JOHN PEREZ: I just knew I had to get into acting of some kind— every person’s IMDB that I was always stalking kept saying “Improv this and that” and it was like, I guess I’ve got to do this.

JULIA: Summar and Kate were apprentices at Hartford Stage, both in the education department, and they got to take free classes.

KATE SIDLEY: I grew up around comedy because my dad was a stand-up comic, so I felt like I had a pre-disposition to be interested in comedy, but I didn’t know how I would ever apply it. I never had any interest in doing stand-up, so I thought, if that’s not what I want to do I guess I won’t do comedy.  I sort of saw– oh, maybe there are ways I can do comedy and this seems to be one of those ways.

SUMMAR ELGUINDY: I didn’t really get into improv for improv’s sake until I took the classes at the Hartford Stage. I guess what drew me to it was how it was an outlet and it was an opportunity to work that muscle in your brain that doesn’t get to be worked often.

GREG: The day Julia moved in was the first day of Flying Blind II and I had to convince her to come with me to try this out.

JULIA: I was like, well I’ve got nothing to do so I guess okay…

JUILA: Joe came in later.

VLAD: Joe was specifically there because he was doing Stand-Up and not really into it and someone said “hey, why don’t you try improv?”

JOE LEONARDO: I went to one of their class share shows. To me, it was a show; this is professional, the audience is engaged, they’re laughing, they wanted to be there as opposed to a lot of the open mics where you’re talking and the audience is like, “oh, there’s a show happening.” So it was a completely different experience in that respect.

GREG: We all came to these classes looking for something different to get out of it, but through that we ended up making these great friends. I remember having this conversation sitting at City Steam, it’s like; you guys are friends that I probably would have never had in life if we weren’t doing this together.

KATE: I think that we were all searching for something. I was from another state and also the job in Hartford was the first job I had after coming back from the Peace Corps so I hadn’t even been in the U.S for over two years so, I was looking for new people.

SUMMAR: Kate and I were taking a lot of these classes because we didn’t know anybody in Hartford. It was kind of our opportunity to meet other people like Dan and Vlad and Greg and eventually Julia and Joe that we didn’t know existed before this improv class. And then we enjoyed it and kept going and it was therapeutic in a way because even if we had a really stressful day we knew Sunday night we had Improv.

JULIA: We were all very motivated. It wasn’t like any of us were looking to do something quick and leave. Half of us were lonely and half of us were really ambitious. We were all very equally aggressively committed together, even before Sea Tea as a company existed.

KATE: I guess the first person I met and became friends with was obviously Summar and then Greg. Dan and Vlad, I thought were really funny but they kind of already knew each other so I felt like they were the cool guys that I liked but they were already the comedy friends, so I was a little intimidated by that.

JULIA: Summar and Kate told me way later that Greg was the only nice potentially single guy and when he mentioned that he had a girlfriend they were mad. They weren’t like, specifically we have a crush on this guy, they were just like, oh come on.

JULIA: It is also very notable that Joe had a ridiculous goatee at this time.

DAN: He was Evil Joe.

JULIA: He looked totally different. It was a really serious, thin, little goatee and he looked 10 years older than he does now because of this goatee.

KATE: I did tell Joe this: he joined us after we started to really gel as a group so I was very protective and nervous of a new person being introduced and I knew he was a Stand-Up and I had a preconceived notion of what a Stand-Up was like. The first time I ever met him he had this ratty flannel button down and he had a goatee going and I was just like, “who is this guy? Some dirty Stand-Up comic, going to try to get involved with our group and be funny. We have something good going here.” So yeah, I told Joe I was not a fan when I first met him. My instinctive reaction was one of I don’t know about this stranger.

SUMMAR: I couldn’t remember who was Vlad and who was Dan. I messed up their names a thousand times and to this day if you pay close attention I will sometimes call Dan Vlad and Vlad Dan, I don’t know why, it’s the beard thing. Even though they are a hundred percent different they are the same person in my brain.

JOE: I remember thinking Dan was basically a carbon copy of Seth Rogen at the time.

MATT NEUFELD

DAN: There was something about the way Matt taught, he was very like, spiritual and like, touchy feely. He had a way of making you feel like there was something important about improv and it had meaning. It brought this level of magic to improv. There’s something we’re doing here together that we’re creating.

JOE: There was this exercise where he wanted us to walk around the space and walk around your environment and exaggerate a body part.  Which is now a standard improv exercise but at the time I was like, “wow, this is like artsy shit we’re doing. “

SUMMAR: I steal a lot of his warm ups. I mean his warm ups became Sea Tea’s warm ups for years, they’ve slightly modified in the last little while but you know, we kept a lot of his basic style.

VLAD: He cared more about us playing the gimmick of the scene as opposed to playing scene. As we got better we started playing scene with the game but at first it was just like, just serve that game with your characters.

DAN: He was also big on performance stuff. Like staging and whether or not you faced the audience. The level of professionalism that we try to bring to our staging came from that. You can do a polished short form show with bad improv that runs well. It gave us that crutch of even if we do bad improv, it will be a nicely staged short form show and then we got good too.

JULIA: I think his obsession with a polished show was very good for us because we had a long “fake it ‘till you make it” period. We were pretty good but I bet if we went back and watched the stuff we were doing we would be like ugh. He also was really into object work. He was obsessed with that.

DAN: He told us the best thing you could ever do in a scene would be walk into a scene with a drink. Set it down, do your scene, pick it up exactly where it was and walk out. And I remember doing something similar in a scene once. I had some scissors stuck in a mannequin head, I was in barber school and I wound up going back and getting the scissors and it felt great. That attention to detail he liked, he really wanted that.

Photo: Laura Dee Photography
Photo: Laura Dee Photography

BEGINNINGS OF SEA TEA

JULIA: I think there was pretty quickly, after a couple of these classes, a sense of these seven people are doing something and they’re a unit. I think we emerged as a force pretty quickly. After rehearsal, we’d sit around and be like, “hey that character you were playing, what was that?” And that was the beginning, that’s how the friendship started forming. We’d go down to City Steam for some drinks and then share our common knowledge about stuff.

DAN: And we’d email each other about all the references.

JULIA: Someone would email out okay, we talked about the Wu-Tang Clan, Arrested Development, Singin’ in the Rain being the best movie ever. It would be about 10 to 15 things and I or sometimes Dan would send out all these links and it’s funny because now our interests are so much closer together because we’ve spent so many years together, but at the time, we were all just downloading everything that everyone knew.

DAN: We were building the group mind almost literally. There was a chemistry among the seven of us that we wanted to use and do stuff with. We started talking about stuff like, “oh we should have a name, we should do shows, it doesn’t need to be a class show we can just do this somewhere.” When we weren’t taking classes we weren’t meeting together and that sucked and we didn’t want to have to take another class just to find a reason to get together.

JOE: We were like, “we have something special here,” so Dan being the amazing organizer he is allowed us to practice at this place in Charter Oak, his job. He had this conference room and we practiced there and filmed ourselves doing short form.

JULIA: I don’t particularly remember any moment where we said “we are now a team” but I do remember Dan asking us, Greg and I, on the sidewalk outside of our apartment if we would want to be on a team. It was probably if we wanted to do those Charter Oak rehearsals and that to me felt like the moment that Sea Tea was born.

DAN: I think I had a lot of side conversations of “Are we going to really do this?”

VLAD: I remember having conversations back in City Steam of like, we should have a real team with these guys.

KATE: I was all in right away, I kind of had no, like for the most part I would say I’ve never had any life plan so I was just like, this is fun and I like this so I want to do this hard until it’s done. 

PICKING A NAME

JULIA: [After a rehearsal] we decided we were going to all come in with names the next time, and I came home and I said to Greg, “We need as many puns as you can come up with.” And Greg came in with, not an exaggeration, maybe fifty puns. It was insane. I was like “WE NEED PUNS!” and he was like “OKAY!” And he wrote a million of them.

GREG: It was April Fools Day [when we chose our name] we literally didn’t realize that until weeks, maybe even longer, later when Dan went back to look at the day he registered the domain name.

DAN: We decided to all bring in names. I remember one of them I was like, Favorite Sweatshirt because I listened to a lot of Emo punk at the time.

SUMMAR: I was driving Greg and Julia [to rehearsal] and Greg whips out his blackberry and is reading like the thirty hundred thousand puns that he has created for Sea Tea and I thought it was hilarious.

VLAD: I think I wrote one or two horrible ones.

JULIA: We were almost Improv Bus.

JOE: Improv Bus was one that Vlad pushed so hard for. Fucking Improv Bus, yeah and we’d laugh at it but nobody wanted it. We’d be like, oh it’s funny and he was like, “No! Improv Bus!”

VLAD: A lot of mine came from Banged Bus, from porn.

DAN: He always wanted it to be a sex group.

JULIA: One of Greg’s puns that Summar was obsessed with was Hard Hittin’ New Kitten because all of our posters had kittens on them at the time.

SUMMAR: It’s a play on the Hard Hittin’ New Britain tag line which I was obsessed with at the time because I was teaching New Britain kids but luckily that one got voted down.

VLAD: I would have never joined the group.

JOE: Sea Tea Improv is Greg’s pun that he came up with.  Sea Tea, we were like, oh this is fucking great. Sea Tea, we loved the idea, there’s a visual when you see Sea Tea improv. S-E-A T-E-A, it brings a visual to mind. We googled it on Dan’s iPhone and the first thing that came up was a gay cruise and my first reaction was like, yes. We have to. This is too funny.

SUMMAR: I liked the name because I thought that it was funny in that it was a pun, it wasn’t boring like in CT, like the letters, which is very stale and cold and corporate. But it was still very clear, audibly, that we were from Connecticut.

Summar Elguindy’s original logo concept
Summar Elguindy’s
original logo concept

GREG: One of the things that has always been pretty important to us is the importance of what a group of people can do for a city, for a community. We always felt we were Connecticut based and so a lot of our names did have some form of Connecticut or Hartford or New Britain in them, and Sea Tea was all of them wrapped into one. Also because it’s spelled S-E-A T-E-A it had legs outside of Connecticut as well, people might not get the pun at first but they’ll envision something. It has its own image to it.

JULIA: If our name was literally Connecticut Improv then we’d go to Rhode Island and we’re irrelevant but when we’re Sea Tea people often don’t get the pun at all and it just sounds like a weird Improv name.

GREG: We love that about the name it’s one of those added blessings. People very frequently want to talk to us like, “Hey, I just figured out your name, I just got it.” And that’s delightful in itself. It makes people feel smart.

FIRST SHOW

JOE: Travelers was our first show, Greg got us the job. It was a lunchtime gig and we played a couple games and I remember being so fucking nervous.

SUMMAR: I don’t think we knew what we were about to start. I don’t think we had any idea that this was the start of Sea Tea improv and that we were about to go on a fucking roller coaster ride. I think it was just like, “cool, we got a gig guys, let’s do this.”  And it was pretty relaxed.

JOE: It was a huge audience, a bunch of corporate people. Sea Tea, like it’s so funny, because we started the completely ass-backwards way. Most indie teams start with like a coffee house basically with their grandmother showing up. We started like, corporate, 150 people per show at the door.

KATE: I remember doing Travelers and being nervous because it was a very full performance. It was very crowded and it felt like it had a lot of weight because it was Greg’s work and these are professionals who don’t necessarily care about doing this but they just kind of have to.

VLAD: We were so professional in our “fake it till we make it,” playing the games the right way, and performing it right. Every single thing we did for this new audience that had no idea what was going on they were like, “oh my god.”

SUMMAR: I remember leaving that gig and being like “cool.” Like “we just did that, we just had our first improv gig. Let’s do it again, that was really fun.” 

CITY STEAM

JOE: City Steam came about because Julia was a waitress there and Julia can persuade anybody to do anything. There will come a time where she’s going to persuade someone to assassinate the president. It’s going to happen. She was a waitress at City Steam and she was in with the manager, Tony. And she was like, “Hey I’ve got this group. On a dead night can we perform?”  And we performed one of our first shows in the Richardson Room in the back.

Left: Performing in The Richardson Room. Photo: Laura Dee Photography
Left: Performing in The Richardson Room. Photo: Laura Dee Photography

JULIA: The first ones in the Richardson Room were so lucky because our audiences did not know what the fuck we were doing. They had to be open minded in order to even process the show.

JOE: I remember being super nervous. Vlad and I were just singing. There was a Geico caveman commercial and there’s a song “Let me be myself so I can fly.” And we would try to harmonize with each other and we sang that song for six hours straight because we were so nervous.

DAN: We had a heckler walk into one of our shows. It really threw us off. She was really drunk.

VLAD: Matt’s big idea was, “hey, let me draw some extra people in.” But he didn’t realize he was begging people that were there hammered already and had been there all day.

JOE: She kept saying “Lower. Lower.” I don’t know why. I remember personally, one of my big laughs, I was in a game after that and I just kept saying “Lower. Lower” and I got a big laugh for that.  

KATE: The Richardson Room felt for me like, oh we’re really doing this. Because our warm-up area was just this supply closet that we didn’t all really fit in so it made me feel, like oh, this is kind of dirty and gross, now we’re doing comedy.

THE BUSINESS

JULIA: so we did a couple of those shows in the Richardson room and the audiences were mostly Dan’s friends and they were awesome.

JOE: I think a huge thing to our success was Dan inviting his family and friends. He had a huge collection of college friends or friends in general. And for the first six months, seven months it was all Dan’s friends.

JULIA: We used every connection we could find. We never had any doubt that we should ask for things that we should very aggressively go towards what we wanted. We never felt like it was impossible for us to do anything. All seven of us are so aggressive in one way or another, in a good way. Well, I think in a good way. But saying all right, I’m going to fucking do this and every single person had stuff they could bring to the table in that way. Joe worked at The Funny Bone at that time and he got us a show at The Funny Bone pretty early on. Dan got us in front of so many people, Greg got us that Travelers show.

VLAD: I got that Photographer at a wedding a month before we needed pictures. I met her at a wedding and when we needed pictures, I asked her on FaceBook because she too was just starting off.

Original Sea Tea Poster Designed by Brian Cook
Original Sea Tea Poster Designed by Brian Cook

JULIA: Brian Cook is the person who designed our posters, who still designs a lot of our posters. He made us look about a hundred times more professional than we were because those posters were so amazing.

KATE: That was another fortuitous thing that happened is that we came upon this person who’s this great artist who on the surface doesn’t follow any of the rules of advertising. But that became our thing of like, these posters are just random works of art, and also, go see this comedy show. We were represented by something that already broke the rules. Which I think served us in a way that we didn’t really realize at first.

JULIA: Another thing that makes Sea Tea, Sea Tea is that we went at it at the business side of it as hard as we went at the Improv side and that almost exclusively came from Dan and Greg. Dan set us up with individual emails within literally hours of us picking the name.

GREG: As an individual artist so often you have to choose. Either I’m going to do my art or I’m going to have to do my business. But when you have a team of people, you have this opportunity to do the art and the business and some people are going to be heavier on one side than the other and that’s okay. We started applying everything that we could to make this thing that we had, professional, well-marketed, and self-sustaining from a financial perspective

BrianCookLarge_1
Original Sea Tea Posters Designed by Brian Cook

DAN: Early on we had a lot of struggles where Kate and Summar were huddling together getting as many little art jobs as they could around the area, they didn’t have big full time jobs and they wanted to get paid for this kind of stuff. People were driving in from Wallingford and Andover. Taking really long drives and needed gas money. So it was really important for us to pay ourselves to be in this thing because otherwise we were getting to the point where some of us were too broke to do it and that was a damn shame. Why should money be the reason why we can’t do this?

KATE: I don’t think we realized at the time how smart of a choice it was to not be a non-profit. I think it does two really good things. I think it says art is something that has monetary value and can be part of a strong economy. Which is uncommon, not unheard of but uncommon, and I think it allows us to pursue more things that we want to do.

SUMMAR: I think it gives us an edge in the theatre arts community because I feel like there’s so many non-profit theaters out there and there’s so many hoops to jump through with non-profit that it’s almost like the cons out weigh the pros.

JULIA: I think for some artists it seems like a bad idea or a trap to make it a business so fast or so intensely. But it really helped us, it helped us book shows, it helped us seem professional, it helped us be organized. Sea Tea was bigger than any individual in it pretty much right away.

SUMMAR: My father has owned his own business, so I’ve grown up watching him run this company and he hates non-profits. Well he doesn’t hate them but he’s like, “you should own your material. Own your work. If this is your company, if this is your baby, you own it, run it, don’t leave it up to some board” and I feel very strongly about that too. So I’ve enjoyed owning this company with these six other people.

KATE: I think the great thing about Sea Tea was that all of it was ideal circumstances all happening at the same time. We were just the right group of people that all had different interests and different training and all of us are pretty much alpha personalities so it’s unusual for any of us to approach a task passively. We said if we’re going to do this, let’s be the best at it. I know when we started I didn’t understand what the universe of improv was and the more I did it the more I understood how lucky we were in finding each other.

SUMMAR: As the seven founding members we are very passionate about improv and we’re very passionate about theatre. I believe in the six other members that I’m doing this with and that’s the reason why we can sit through four-hour business meetings and why we can cry and laugh and get angry and get passionate about things because we care so much. I think what makes us so unique is that we don’t have just one leader. It’s not one person trying to rally the troupes, it’s not one person making all the decisions. It’s seven people together, rallying each other.

DAN: So can we leave this on a cliffhanger? So we have company, we’re an LLC, we’ve got these gigs and suddenly, Kate and Summar want to go get into graduate school. Summar’s looking at schools in Texas, Kate’s looking at all over the place. I tell Summar, “Hey Emerson up in Boston is just a drive away and they have a program you’re looking for.” Kate decides to go to New York. They’re moving away. Do we need more people to cover all the gigs that we have? We had some very intense conversations. Dun Dun Dun….

This is an extended version a piece originally published in The Annual #4, which can now be purchased for only $2!

Click here to read Keep Changing, pt.2 of the Sea Tea oral history!

Click here to read The Phoenix Moment, pt.3 of the Sea Tea oral history!

And visit Sea Tea on the web at: seateaimprov.com

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