KEEP CHANGING: A Sea Tea Improv Oral History Pt. 2

In 2010, Sea Tea had established itself in the small Hartford, CT improv scene. Due to the rising number of gigs and the fact that two members were moving away, three new members—Stephanie Rice, Graham Snow and Laura Manasewich—were added to Sea Tea as Generation 2. In the two years that followed, Sea Tea found itself teaching improv, learning long form improv and creating its own form called Sex and The Sea Tea, an R-rated, fully improvised show based on Sex and the City.

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GENERATION TWO

SUMMAR ELGUINDY: Auditions came primarily at a time when Kate and myself were leaving Hartford. So there was a decision made that we needed new members.

DAN RUSSELL: We were losing two of our Hartford members. Back then, Vlad was in Wallingford, Joe was in Andover, I was still in Vernon. Our core were people who lived in Hartford and that was going away so that was a big deal.

JOE LEONARDO: We basically had to fill their roles in regard to performance and we didn’t really know what was going to happen, we didn’t know if them going to Boston and New York meant that they’d go away and we would never hear from them again.

KATE SIDLEY: We were growing anyways, we were getting a lot more gigs; so just the sheer number of gigs started to be a draw on everybody.

VLADIMIR JOHN PEREZ: There was an issue originally of bringing on anybody. Even though we were losing two people.

GREG LUDOVICI: To this day they don’t want to be thought of as being lost because they’re still around. You can’t say we’re losing two people; we grew.

KATE: We never doubted that it needed to happen and it would be good ultimately but I think we all were nervous about how it would function for us and also for whomever we brought in. How would they fit in with this really, really, perhaps too tight, family?

JOE: When we did auditions we had no qualifications, you didn’t have to do improv before, we just said come and audition. We had no pre-requisites. We were willing to train and teach everybody.

JULIA PISTELL: Auditions were great. I remember Steph’s entire audition; she was amazing. She got a suggestion for chain murder mystery that was morgue, like pet morgue, something like that and she opened all the drawers and each was a different pet . So it was really fast, “Woof! Meow! Caw! Hiss!” And it was amazing. She was just really on point and great.

VLAD: She had just come back from China where she had been doing short form and we were a 98% short form group at the time and it was apparent right off the bat that, here’s someone who’s 100% comfortable doing this.

STEPHANIE RICE: The timing of me getting into Sea Tea actually worked out incredibly well. I’d just gotten back from China and I was interested in staying involved with improv, because I was in two improv troupes in Shanghai. I found out about Sea Tea and thought I would check out one of their shows. So at the first and only Sea Tea show I saw before I auditioned, they mentioned auditions and I was like “Yes!”

GREG: She did the wise thing of scouting us out; she came to a show before auditioning and introduced herself, explained her experience and then said she was going to audition.

VLAD: I remember seeing Graham at a mixer; he had come to a couple mixers and we were like, “Oh wow, this guy is good. He’s got some chops.”

DAN: He used to improvise with a Western Connecticut State University group. He didn’t go there, he just knew people there. He would go and hang out with them and improvise. I’m not sure what other experience he had but he got it. He knew what he was doing.

SUMMAR: Graham is one of the best teammates. Graham knows how to roll with the punches so well. You could throw rocks tumbling down a mountain while he has to juggle three puppies and hunt a unicorn, and he’s like, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do that.”

JULIA: We knew Laura before so when I think of my first impression of her at auditions, it was my first impression of her as an improviser. What I loved about Laura then and what I love about Laura now is that she uses the English language in a way that’s slightly different than everyone else in the world. She says things just slightly strangely and that often results in awesome, unusual things for improv scenes.

LAURA MANASEWICH:  I first saw Sea Tea at their class show. It was a Christmas-themed show. I was really jealous that I didn’t know that this was something that Hartford had and that these guys were doing it, and I was like, “I need to be doing that.”

SUMMAR: I think her answer to one of our audition questions was very memorable because she said, “I have come to so many shows, I’ve watched you guys, I feel like I’ve known you since the beginning and all I want is to be part of this,” and I think we all really dug that.

JULIA: It was tough figuring out stuff with the new guys, but they were overall really great about it, and bringing them in made us define ourselves in a way that many other groups don’t do. I would say one of our top priorities is to always be looking forward, always be growing—that means we’re always having to figure out some new dimension of the company and how to interact and what our ideas are. It does feel like we’re constantly creating things from scratch and then when we take new people in, that means we have to do this big scramble to figure out what we are now and who we are now.

SUMMAR: We didn’t think it entirely through. There was a lot of miscommunications in the beginning. I mean, we were a young company, we didn’t know what we were doing entirely, so there were some mistakes and communication errors.

LAURA: It felt strange having known them ahead of time and trying not to be an asshole to my new teammates who I didn’t really know. Finding the relationship dynamic among the ten of us was probably the biggest growing pain, and I’m sure everyone felt that.
STEPHANIE:  It was a little intimidating entering a group that was already established. I remember having a lot of mixed feelings about it because I like being an organizer and a helper and it’s very hard for me to take a back seat, and that’s what Sea Tea wanted in the beginning. They wanted us to just focus on our improv. Being impatient was one of my growing pains. Being impatient; to want to constantly be doing more.

JOE: Of course it changed the group; it changed the voice of the group.  It wasn’t just the original seven of us that were super tight. We now had these added members but you need to keep changing, otherwise you become stale. If we were the original seven members doing the same short form games, not doing long form, what would be the fun in that, that would be boring, nobody would want to see that anymore.

Sea Tea Generation Two: Photographed by Laura Dee
Sea Tea Generation Two: Photographed by Laura Dee

CLASSES

GREG: The decision to teach classes really came about from Matt Neufeld getting a new children’s theatre in St. Louis, so when he learned he was going to be leaving, he started bringing us in to TA [Teacher’s Assistant] with him.

JOE: Matt Neufeld is a huge influence in regard to our teaching style, and I still think we continue to do his style of teaching, and it’s now Sea Tea’s style.

SUMMAR: We definitely use a lot of his warm-ups and his style of short form games in our classes, so it’s a little bit of a mix. Now that we’ve gotten into more advanced classes we’ve kind of lost the Matt Neufeld influence, but you know he’s always there. He’s like our initial seed, so he’s always in our bark. That was a beautiful analogy.

KATE: We felt sort of naturally inclined to go in that direction, and we also started to have people come to us and want opportunities to take classes.

SUMMAR: I am the Education Manager of Sea Tea Improv. I was always interested in offering classes, and everyone else was on board. We didn’t just want to be one of those improv troupes that suddenly offer a workshop and has no credentials for doing that. So we all trained at UCB, we trained at ImprovBoston, The PIT, all sorts of different New York theaters, and we built our own personal education that we could then turn into curriculum for our own adult classes.

GREG: I enjoy helping people see the fun in improv and the fun choices that they can make and to feel confident about it. I love seeing people progress, catch on, learn the rules and say, “Oh my gosh, this is fun, I want to do this.”

JULIA: I try to approach it like my students are already very smart, and my idea is to just reduce the fear that they are already experiencing. Improv is scary for anyone, so I like to go in with a healthy respect for how nervous the students can be and work to chip that away and build confidence, slowly and over time.

SUMMAR: I approach teaching improv to keep it fun but also to keep it serious, because we have a lot of personal education and training. This to me is something serious; I want to train good improvisers. I want them to have fun; I want them to meet new people; I want them to discover things about themselves that they never knew but I also want to cut through a lot of the bullshit that gets passed through in improv. I want to make excellent improvisers.

JULIA: We also were very aware of our business and teaching was a pretty good moneymaker. We all needed to make a little extra cash because we were shoveling so much of our time and money into improv as well, so teaching was a good boon to us right away.

STEPHANIE: In Sea Tea, we have the rule where you have to have completed a higher level of improv education before you can teach a class so I can’t actually teach because I haven’t completed any UCB or ImprovBoston training. But I can TA and I do like TA-ing. 98% of the time I improvise with the same people so it’s nice to see other improvisers and improvise with other improvisers and get a new way of looking at things. It’s just fun to be around other people that like doing what you like doing.

KATE: My favorite moments in improv classes are when we have to stop class and have a big discussion about what’s funny. Those are really, really invigorating and enriching for me. The last class I taught in Hartford, we had to stop class in the middle of a scene to discuss is it funny if a character in the scene is just being bullied and can that be the game of the scene. It’s like great, let’s stop and have a twenty-minute discussion in the middle of class about is anything off limits? Is there anything that we can’t make fun of? Why is this less funny than other things? Or is it not less funny and where is the line between sensitivity and something that is generally not funny?

SUMMAR: I loved switching out the Sea Tea teachers. I love watching what other instructors do with the curriculum. They keep the same skeleton, the same curriculum and often times the same games and exercises but the way they approach it, the focuses, the things they’re pulling from are all different, and I think that’s interesting to see.

STEPHANIE: At the beginning it was mostly a dedicated group of the same improvisers that would take our classes.

JOE: We owe them a big thank you, because them coming back and paying for classes and coming to our shows is what keeps it alive, that’s how these things start. It starts with just one person and a couple fans, and then it grows into a couple more fans—all of that keeps it alive.

SUMMAR: There was a small improv community before Sea Tea, but I think that what Sea Tea did was add fertilizer to that soil and brought a big-city mentality to offering courses that were geared toward creating professional-level improvisers.

STEPHANIE: Having our classes helped centralize the community. We want to be able to have people in one place and be able to mingle with each other.

JOE: Our classes brought people together to play together. It’s hard to flat-out start an improv group, even in New York City. You have to take a class, meet people and then from that class you can start a practice group or an indie team. And that’s what came out of our classes.

SUMMAR: Especially nowadays where we have a lot more fresh, off-the-street brand-new people coming to us. If you search improv classes in Connecticut, you are going to get Sea Tea Improv; we are it. We are the ones to look for right now, and that’s a lot of responsibility for this community and I love it.

LONGFORM

JULIA: We all started branching out and pursuing long form on our own for a year or two at our own pace.

DAN: I remember feeling a lot of heat, a lot of pressure coming from Vlad and Joe for Sea Tea to do more and more long form.  Vlad and Laura started performing in this group Moebius, which was a long form-only group. We didn’t want to lose them over the fact that we didn’t do long form, so we took it seriously.

KATE: It was necessary in order for us to continue our comedy educations, because we wanted to take more classes and the next level up for us was UCB at that point.

VLAD: You read all the books and they all talk about long form. So it’s like, “All right, I’m going to try to do this.”

JULIA: What made me want to do long form was that all the short form we were seeing was bad and all the long form we were seeing was good. And it was a huge influence, huge, I mean, we were in love with Horse Lincoln. In. Love. With Horse Lincoln (a UConn improv troupe). When we started seeing really good long form that made me feel more dedicated to Improv. Not, this is funny, but this is smart. How are they doing this, how are their brains working, I want to do that, I want to be that.

JOE: There were some members of Sea Tea Improv who were very against long form improv at the beginning and it took a lot of persuading.

STEPHANIE:  I was really reluctant personally to get involved with long form. It is weird for me to think back at how reluctant I was—I even said to people in Sea Tea, “I’ll do long form if that’s what’s expected of me, but my heart is in short form, and if I have to choose only one form to do from now on, long form or short form, I would choose short form.” And that’s weird for me to think now because I’ve been having a lot of fun with long form, especially since we do so many different types of long form.

JOE: A lot of people start off in short form and just move to long form, it’s a little bit more satisfying in a creative way. Short form is satisfying in an entertaining way; when you perform short form you can get some good laughs, but there’s something creatively satisfying when you do a great Monoscene or a great Harold or even a great Montage. You’ve created this piece of theatre out of one suggestion, and you were consistently entertaining, and you were thought provoking, and you were engaging.

SUMMAR: I think it was this desire to grow, and I feel like Sea Tea would not have survived this long if we hadn’t gone in the long form direction because there’s only so much short form you can do before you burn out, and long form gives us that new direction, that new drive.

JOE: Long form clicked for me outside of Sea Tea, and then it clicked with me inside of Sea Tea. Group mind clicked for me inside of Sea Tea, and just how to do a Harold and how long form works and the mechanics of it clicked outside of Sea Tea when I was taking UCB classes.

GREG: We had basically committed to saying, yeah, we’re going to study long form, we’re going to see long form any chance we get, we’re going to practice it, we’re not going to put it out there ’till its ready, and then we all graduated from our studies and said all right, now we’re ready to try this performance, invent something of our own that is the combination of all the things we thought were great.

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SEX AND THE SEA TEA

JOE: Sex and the Sea Tea came from Vlad just saying the name first, Sex and the Sea Tea and then saying that a bunch of times and then saying, “Hey, we should make that into a thing.” Just how Vlad works a lot of the time, it comes from him making a sound or saying a phrase and then it turns into something else afterwards.

JULIA: Yeah, he made a joke and then a year later returned to it like, I thought this through, I’ve watched some TV. Let’s do this. So it was completely his idea.

VLAD: I saw Sex and the City and was like, oh, you know, usually, they’re just meeting up for drinks or brunch and that’s how they transition into each other’s stories. So I was like if you could put certain people with a table on one side you could then transition to improvised dates.

STEPHANIE: I just remember Vlad coming to us with this idea, me saying I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’ve never seen the show before but I’ll try it. That’s my memories of the beginning of Sex and the Sea Tea.

GREG: Originally we were trying to figure out what the length of the scenes would be like. Whether it would be like a Harold and you’d see the start of the date and then you’d come back to the date or whether it would be all at once. We tried it out with the four long scenes and everybody really seemed to like it, that way it felt good.

STEPHANIE: There were a lot of little different things to work out with Sex and the Sea Tea, it was stuff like, how often should the girls at the table interject in the story or how far is too far? It’s a very fine line to walk of being able to conjure in people’s mind—hey, we’re talking about this, we’re doing this, we want you to imagine this, without actually being uncomfortably vulgar and being able to always find the humor in it.

JULIA: It got the audience on board with long form in a totally better way than seeing a Harold. If all you think of improv is Whose Line is it Anyway, it’s too much for some people to go to an organic opening. But watching you roast some lady about her love life and then seeing that direct inspiration, they loved it, they really, really loved it, right away. When we put it on live and we had this girl talking about this guy that was obsessed with Muppets that she was dating, it was already going to be a good show, there was nothing we could have done to mess that up because the story was great.

GREG: The reality of the show is that it is the riskiest improv show we have tried; it takes trust. It takes a real team to put that particular show on because you’re going to be talking about things that maybe you don’t talk about in life, and it’s edgy, so fortunately the team was in a place where we trusted each other and felt comfortable with each other, so we weren’t afraid to go there.

KATE: I mean, sex is funny. I think the crazier sex stuff we do, the funnier, it is; so it was a recipe for success.

JOE: My favorite moment in a Sex and the Sea Tea actually came from a rehearsal and it was a scene with me and Julia and Julia was in France and I was a mime. I basically just made a gesture towards my crotch and because you narrate over what you’re doing, she goes, “This mime has a huge dick…” and I turned around and sort of gestured towards my back, but I meant to kind of turn away and be shy, and she goes, “… and a tiny asshole.” So I was a mime with a huge cock and a tiny asshole. It turned out that I would put my penis in my asshole and then do an interpretive dance and that was our scene. It was just this weird organic thing where I would mime something that was vague and wasn’t specific and then Julia would justify what it was but she would stamp it with something absurd like, huge cock, tiny asshole, he’s fucking himself and now he’s dancing interpretively. And that was one of my favorite moments because it was such a fun, simple scene.

KATE: We did a lot of weird sex stuff to each other in scenes. I remember one rehearsal where we did a ring around the orgy kind of a thing where we were all in a moving circle, butt fucking the person in front of us and getting butt fucked by the person behind us but in this conga line circle. I remember that one very clearly.

STEPHANIE: It is a little unnerving to perform Sex and the Sea Tea in front of a live audience. I know when Sea Tea rehearses in private, a lot of the times we’re already at such a high level of comfort with each other that I think we sometimes lose sight of where normal boundaries and lines are. But I personally become hyper aware of where those boundaries might be when we’re in front of an audience.

KATE: The fun of making Sex and the Sea Tea is that it brings in the best sides of what we love about long form and short form. It has the structure and the narrative challenges of committing to a long form style where you have to be really, really committed to the reality of the scene but also just be insane with the physicality and cartoony lunacy of short form, and I think it stretched both those sides of us and brought out some of the best sides of Sea Tea.

Briana Haynie

Click here to read Fake It ‘Til We Make It, pt.1 of the Sea Tea oral history!

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

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