The Phoenix Moment: An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv Pt. 3 (Extended Edition)

An Oral History of Sea Tea Improv Pt. 3 (Extended Edition)

By Briana Haynie

In September of 2012, Sea Tea added five new members; Casey Grambo, Helena Morris, Briana Haynie, Jeffrey Schaefer and Zach Herring. As a whole they’re known as Generation 3. In addition to growing in numbers and in presence, Sea Tea was hired by The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT to perform an interactive live game of Clue, using characters from Mark Twain’s books, inside the author’s historic home.

Soon after Gen 3 started, the company became proud owners of a studio on Pratt Street in Downtown Hartford. One of their proudest achievements yet; it was a major milestone for the company for now they not only could grow their education program but they could also offer up a home for the expanding improv community in Hartford.


JULIA PISTELL: On a certain level the moment I really realized we were getting into something bigger than I originally thought was when our friends, our personal friends, stopped coming to shows and all the shows were full of strangers.

KATE SIDLEY: I think a moment that really crystallized it for me was when we had our photo shoot this year and we recreated the original Sea Tea group photo of all of us walking up a street arm in arm. [This time] we were such a large group that we barely fit in the street and we joked that after our next generation we’re going to need to take a picture of us walking down the highway. That was a big shocking moment for me when I compared those two photos together and thought, “wow this is an army of comedians and how awesome to be a part of forming a comedy army.”

JULIA: I was recognized at CVS by my cashier and that was also, that was like one of the first times I’ve ever been recognized for anything, I was really surprised and until around that time I felt what we were doing was just a very small thing and I realized it was getting larger than I assumed it would.

DAN RUSSELL: The first time we got asked to be on the Colin McEnroe show, that was a big deal, that was pretty early on, that didn’t feel like we deserved it yet. And it wasn’t like it was just a show about improv and we were a guest; we were the topic of the show, the title was Sea Tea Improv and that felt like a big deal. Somebody had heard of us and I didn’t know who they were, it’s local radio but it still felt pretty big.

JOE LEONARDO: Right now it feels big and it doesn’t feel big at the same time. I’m just in a weird limbo where I go to Hartford and I feel accomplished and then I’m in New York City I feel like I’m not trying hard enough, like I’m not working hard enough.

LAURA MANASEWICH: I think probably the studio was a good visual for me to understand what we were. When I started, I wanted to be a part of playing all the time and for me that was what this was always going to be. I think that the realization of having a visual representation and a space to keep our stuff, a name and an address was really when I put it together, this is a big thing, this is bigger than it has been.


JULIA: We originally started looking for a theatre, years ago. Greg and Dan always wanted that and Greg being Greg, has looked at every empty space in Downtown Hartford with the mindset of “how can Sea Tea use this?”

SUMMAR ELGUINDY: Probably six months into our inception as an LLC we wanted a theatre. We wanted a theatre, we wanted a theatre, we were trying to get a theater and it kept on. There would be a surge of time where we’d be like, “we’re getting a theatre.” Then there would be a surge of time where we’d be like, “we can’t possibly get a theatre right now.”

DAN RUSSELL: Any theatre option would be extremely expensive and would be extremely likely to fail; going in would be very risky. And it would cost so much and so much time and we just didn’t have it yet. We started talking about the idea of a studio, I’m not sure who brought it up first, maybe Greg, and we started looking at places.

The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)
The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)

KATE: Getting a studio was part of our discussion of getting a theatre. We really did want to try to get a theatre but we quickly realized that it was not something that we could afford, financially or administratively.

GREG LUDOVICI: I was one of the ones who was fighting for a theatre by way of a studio. We needed to build a community first that loved improv, that wanted to learn improv, and that wanted to be high quality and professional about it. We didn’t have that community yet; we didn’t have a home to call Sea Tea.

KATE: The main reason why we decided to go for a studio instead of holding out for a theatre was because we wanted a space where we could teach classes because classes were a big part of our income and that’s income that we would need to get a theatre some day.

SUMMAR: It was a way for us to get a playground we could play in. On top of that we have a lot of stuff and we needed a place to put it. Julia and Greg’s apartment was too full. So we wanted a central location and as a Hartford centered business we wanted it to be in Downtown Hartford. It took us a long time to find a place but once we did find a place we were very happy being on Pratt Street.

JULIA: The whole decision was made really fast. I would say three days or so between when we saw the space and gave the deposit. It was so fun and exciting. It was before work, it was like 7:30 in the morning because we were just so afraid that someone else would take this space.  We went in, we negotiated the rent down and our landlord tried to say, “think about it, think it over” and Greg was so bad ass, he whipped out the Sea Tea checkbook and was like, “no, this is what we’re paying for rent and we’re paying the first months rent right now because we do not want you to give this place away to someone else.” And when you think about Greg and Vlad and I, you would think that Vlad and I would be the bossy ones but we were just like, “okay, yeah, whatever Greg says, whatever Greg says” bodyguards essentially as he did the actual cool business negotiating.

The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)
The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)

GREG: It’s interesting what makes a person feel the same excitement they might have felt as a kid. Those feelings of anticipation and ultimate excitement and pride and joy and passion are harder to come by as you get older and that was one of those moments where I was as excited as I was as a kid again, just very happy that I could dream about something with my friends and colleagues and work so hard, to see that come to life made me really happy.

JOE: I was in New York when the trigger was pulled. It was great, it was fantastic. It really strengthened us as a group, that rejuvenated us, that was the phoenix moment. We can focus our energy on that. As for me I’m not super involved with the studio as others because I’m [in New York] which is something that makes me sad but I just remember my whole thing was don’t paint dark colors, please don’t paint dark colors because if you paint dark colors, the room, it will be dark.

KATE: We have a neutral space that belongs to all of Sea Tea equally. Before the studio it was a lot of, where are all of these things that we need for a gig? One things at one persons apartment, one things in somebody’s car, there was a lot more coordination that was required.

STEPHANIE RICE: I don’t really remember them saying, “we’re getting the studio,” it was, “we have a studio,” it was like oh, okay. I found out Monday and by Sunday we were painting it.

LAURA: We got it right before I went on vacation for two weeks so, the night before I left, I stopped at the studio and I remember Dan, Greg and Vlad getting ready to go to Home Depot and buy paint and it was very rough and dirty and I just walked in, I think Greg filmed my reaction, it was like a movie where it’s just a dirty room [but to me] it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

CASEY GRAMBO: I really like The Studio; I’ve just recently started doing work in the office because I don’t have Internet. It is the best.

STEPHANIE RICE: I like that we have our own place, I know that I was often early to rehearsal when we had our rehearsal at City Steam, I had to sit around in the basement, which often smelled bad and was cold. That is one small part of having the studio that I like, there is a place in Downtown Hartford, if we show up early for something or if there is time to kill in-between gigs, we had a place where we can gather and be comfortable, an improv home away from home

CASEY:  [The Studio] is just such a cool thing. It’s not only really special for us to have our own space that’s so independent feeling and exciting as a company but to be able to invite people into a space that we have control over and it is serving the purpose of a home base for our community.

The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)
The Sea Tea Studio (Photo by Chion Wolf)

HELENA MORRIS: It felt like I was apart of something a lot bigger than just an Improv group, it felt like I was part of an Improv company. Part of a legitimate, not just business, but an establishment that’s trying to promote theatre for all of Hartford. It made me feel a part of something that has a real important presence in Hartford.

SUMMAR: This is something we’ve wanted literally since we started and we now have it. I think it was the biggest achievement Sea Tea has done to date. Like yay, we’ve brought in all these new members but any old troupe can do that, now we have a space and a home and we can achieve all the dreams we wanted to achieve.

DAN: It also felt like the first big responsibility. It was like, if we didn’t do a show before you know we’d be letting people down, clients, fans maybe but ultimately it would be we didn’t get to perform that night but with the studio if we don’t work hard to keep this going we won’t have this anymore. We have to find a way to make rent.


JULIA: Clue started during one of the hurricane blackouts. I work for a boss who has a lot of ideas and during the blackout he was playing Clue and he came into my work at the Mark Twain house and he said, “oh my god I have an idea, I realized that the Mark Twain House has every room on the clue board.” It has a billiards room, it has a conservatory, and it has a secret passageway as well as all the normal rooms. So he said, “how can we do this? I want to do a live game of clue.” And I said, “that’s a great idea.” And one of us suggested that Sea Tea be involved.

LAURA: Clue! Clue is a live action version of the board game that we get to play in the Mark Twain House.  Tours from the public come in and there’s a mystery, they have to figure out who killed Huck Finn’s father, with what, and in what room.

JULIA: A tour group goes into the Mark Twain House and they go room to room interrogating Mark Twain’s famous characters in a clue like manner. So they might ask Aunt Polly if Huck Finn committed the murder in the library with the knife. It’s great because the groups get to interact with actors in an up close and personal way and they also get to see the entire Mark Twain house and deduce a mystery.


DAN: Clue was one of the first times we did something in costume. It still wasn’t scripted but there were scripted elements, like we’d have to know what the murder clues were, but all our interaction would still be improvised.

JULIA: It was really fun immediately and then the great thing about it is that Sea Tea just gets to be in the Mark Twain House in a way that no one else ever has. Just hanging out in the rooms all night, respectively hanging out around the historic objects and everyone in Sea Tea has now developed I think a great love for the house.

JOE: Clue is like live action Mad Libs. Where the story is already there, you give them the information and you can make up everything else. The beautiful thing about that is that it’s just straight character work. You can work on a character and really mess with people.

GREG: I’ve only ever played the Prince and the Pauper. I do really enjoy that particular character because he can be a number of different things and I’ve played him different ways on different nights for different audiences. Sometimes when he actually is the Prince, to times when he’s the Pauper dressed up like the Prince, to times when he is both. It’s like a fight club thing where he’s just having conversations with himself. It’s fun to explore all those possibilities with that character.

SUMMAR: I have always played Queen Morgan Le Fey. I like playing her, she’s mean, and I’ve developed ticks for her as the years have progressed so I enjoy playing her. I always make all the tours bow to me before they ask any questions and the first time we ever did this, this lawyer refused, she refused to bow to me and she said, “we’re in the 21st century and I’m a lawyer, I don’t have to bow to you” and the tour guide had to say “play the game.” She just would not play, she was so angry.

KATE: I’ve only ever played lady Guinevere in Clue so that is my favorite character to play. It’s fun to dress up like a princess and play in a historic house for an evening so that’s pretty nice thing to be able to do as an adult and get paid for.

LAURA: It’s funny because the very first time we did it I played Katy Leary and Steph played Aunt Polly but then we switched and I think we switched because Katy Leary’s not a suspect and I wanted to be a suspect. Also, Steph can do an Irish accent and I failed pretty hard at an Irish accent.

STEPHANIE: The very first time I played Aunt Polly and every other time I’ve played Katy Leary. As soon as the people knock on the door I’m supposed to be the one to signal to the rest of the house, I let out a blood curdling scream so anybody who doesn’t currently have a tour is supposed to scream and yell. I bring [the tour] in and I have a rapport that I’m supposed to do with the tour guide of “What happened?” “Someone’s been murdered” and it’s supposed to set up the Clue game. I lead them through a secret passage way, which is my favorite part, down into the basement and I explain to them the format of the questions they have to ask, some basic rules like don’t touch anything but I say it in character so it’s “remember the whole house is a crime scene so don’t touch anything, if you’re fingers get on it you might be an accessory to murder.”

HELENA: I usually play Eve. She’s really positive to possibly an obnoxious level. All I can think of are positive and ditzy [to describe her] but those are sadly accurate.

CASEY:  I usually play Huck Finn which is fun because he’s such a fun character but it’s also difficult because it’s your dad that’s been killed and it’s interesting, I try to make it realistic and some people ask you “how do you feel?” or “We’re really sorry” so it’s this weird experience of having a funeral at this game. So It’s like, how do I broach this without being like, a) a jerk or b) caring too much about accurately representing a person whose father has been murdered who was a bad father. It’s really weird, it’s very funny, and it’s very weird.

DAN: I was playing Arkansas a lot, which is a very, very minor character in Twain’s work. It’s a guy who’s in one half of one chapter in a book that had very small chapters so this guy has like four lines. So we made an angry cowboy character and I get to yell at people and that’s fun.

JOE: I think I play a different character every time. My favorite character was Arkansas. With Arkansas, I scream at people and everyone is silent. The only thing is they’d be like “um, was it, um, so and so, Tom Sawyer with the wrench in the library?” and I’d be like, “what did you say?!” and they’d get all scared again and wouldn’t ask me anything else.

GREG: Because clue is so unlike our other gigs it has a specific amount of people who must there.

JULIA: We had a very last minute drop out so Vlad had to play two characters. One of them wore a wig and one was a bum and so he had to run back and forth between two rooms and do two totally different characters and I was trying to cover for him and I told Greg that he also had to stall. It was Christmas and Greg was holding a Pointy Settia, that was the weapon that he had and Greg was playing The Prince and The Pauper so he already had a personality disorder which is Greg’s interpretation of this character, an unhinged Prince and Pauper talking to himself. But he ended up addressing the poinsettia and talking to it for a long time, for so long that Vlad came back out and was ready to go and was just staring at him like Greg’s lost it. Greg’s totally unhinged and Greg just thought he was stalling. There was just no way that I could figure out, in character, to interrupt him. The group was looking at him like he was completely insane, it was unrelated to Clue, he was just talking to the plant.


HELENA: One time, there were all these little boys there, they were adorable. And I was playing Eve and this time I was holding the gun, that was my weapon. Eve was born yesterday so she knows nothing about what’s going on in the world so I’m holding this gun and I’m like “I don’t know what this does” and one boy goes “point it at your head and pull the trigger.” And I was like, “really?” so I went to do it and the other kids were like, “No!” but that one kid was like, “do it! do it!” The other kids were nice enough to not want me to commit suicide. So that’s my favorite Clue story, when a kid told me to kill myself.

CASEY: It has to be entertaining so it’s very difficult to get the information out and be entertaining at the same time. That’s my struggle, it’s also fun honing your bit as the night goes on so you’re writing a stand up bit through improv and then by the end you’re like, I’m a professional Huckleberry Finn and here’s my bit.

DAN: It’s almost like when they talk about sketch-prov, writing sketch from improv. It’s like, let’s do an improv scene, let’s find what’s funny about that, write it down and we’ll define it and make a sketch and that’s kind of what clue ends up being. It’s like you’re improvising at first, you’re kind of just going with whatever you think might work, you get some laughs and you end up coming back and you have a sketch by the end with a bunch of lines that fit the character.

KATE: Yeah, I think that things like Clue or anything where it’s scripted or partly scripted or sort of these gigs that we do for historic houses are great because it forces us to stretch ourselves a little bit and gives us opportunities to do things that we normally wouldn’t do.

JULIA: I think one of the best things about Sea Tea is that we want to say yes to everything and while that can be overwhelming and has resulted in a lot of weird gigs it’s also allowed us to carve out a really great space for ourselves in the community which is a group of go to people who will try anything and try to make your event good. I think for the improvisers it’s good because Clue requires real bravery. It’s you alone in a room with people who are in your face and for an improviser to have to use that situation to create a fun experience for the guest is a lot harder for some people than others. I still get nervous all the time. But it’s good for us, it’s good for us not to hide on one particular stage, we’ll do improv everywhere.


CASEY: I have so many excited and forward thinking thoughts. I see the future of Sea Tea as being the comedy school of Hartford and Connecticut. While Connecticut has it’s own little niches, I think Sea Tea is the only one that’s grabbed on to the business format and it’s not just about performing it’s about educating it’s about reaching out and making the message of improv vital and important to folks with the moneys, corporate, etc. so I would hope in the future Sea Tea would acquire some sort of space that there could be performances in.

JOE: I don’t see Sea Tea slowing down any time soon in regards to growth. Sea Tea is not a house of cards, its sturdy. To that point, we all still have full time jobs, but Sea Tea is an established Hartford thing now. Even with now, it’s going to be four [of us] living out of state; it’s still successful; we’ve got great people still in Hartford. Sea Tea has roots.

JULIA: I think Sea Tea will have a theatre someday, I don’t know how soon. I think it will continue to be the leader of comedy in Connecticut but as comedy in Connecticut grows we’re going to have to keep pushing ourselves to redefine what that means to be the leader. I think we will probably get more into sketch and larger productions but that also means we’ll have to get even more organized, more time, more space, more people. And I think within the next couple of years, someone will have to do Sea Tea as their full time job and that will be so exciting.

GREG:  I think that someday we will have the opportunity to have a theatre.  Don’t want to rush into it, because again, we’ve done things well so far in that everything that we’ve done has been sustainable. We’ve proven that this can work if we go about it patiently and focus on our true mission, which is to build a community of professional improvisers

DAN: Graham is an architect and he used this 3D software to model and render what our theatre would be in a couple spaces in Hartford and it’s so, so real to see it, I can almost, I can see us being there and that’s a big dream to have that theatre because then we can do what we wanted to do in the beginning. We can offer all these groups, all our students and all these people, we can offer them stage time, you’re on stage, you’re performing and not just for the Apple Fest audience or for some private party somewhere, you’re performing for comedy fans and improv fans and hopefully the cool hip with it people over the greater Hartford area.

KATE: I do think that we’ll get a theatre eventually, I think it’s important that we, and this is just my opinion, I think it’s important that we wait to get a theatre until we need a theatre. Because I think we’ve wanted a theatre since day two so I think it’s important to get it when you need it not when you want it. I think we’re on the road towards needing a theatre just like we were on the road towards needing a studio.

LAURA: I hope that we just continue to grow and I think its crazy to think that all of us are going to be in this group forever. I think that the people who are leaders today will help train the leaders who will take it over as time runs its course. We have smart, dedicated, talented performers who will keep something good going and beyond.

STEPHANIE: Sea Tea’s already changed so much since the beginning, I mean from the beginning when I came on, there was a beginning before that but even back then it felt like a rag tag team trying to act more professional than we are and now we have no choice but be hugely professional because we are called on to be such all the time.

Sea Tea Group Photo by: Laura Dee Photography

HELENA: We’ve been doing more education stuff, which I love. And I think that’s something that we can really get into. Not just with the adult education program or our classes, but more of this Hartford Performs kind of stuff where we’re going into schools and we’re teaching kids improv because I’ve found that improv is a thing that kids really get engaged in. I think that improv is gaining more of a reputation around the country as something that’s good and positive for mental growth because we’re getting hired by corporations too so it’s definitely something that people see as an easy inexpensive way to do some quality artsy team building.

JULIA: I’m happy that we’re a goal for people and that people want to collaborate with us. We’ll continue to grow our education, we’ll continue to grow our collaboration with other Hartford organizations, continue to take on a lot of people until we’re an insane blob of funniness.

JOE: What Sea Tea Improv is going to become is the place for creative output. If we do have a theatre I can see it as a training ground for comedians but more of an output for hobbyists, a creative output for hobbyist. Maybe it can inspire comedians, maybe someone takes it as a hobby and you take some improv classes because you’re bored or because you’ve heard of Sea Tea Improv as a theatre and then you go to LA or New York and you make it big you can always say you started at Sea Tea Improv.

KATE: If somebody from Sea Tea was suddenly like, you know what, I’m going to go to Chicago and I’m going to try to make it at Second City. I think that would be the best thing, I think that would be phenomenal. Seeing Vlad move to LA to really pursue comedy was so exciting you know as sad as I am to see him go, I’m so excited to see him go because I think that’s the next level of what it takes. To see people go away and achieve amazing things and then say it’s because I started at Sea Tea. I think that’s the next thing it takes to make a great comedy company.

DAN: If other groups are out there and they’re just starting out, they’re rehearsing together, they don’t know what to do, you know, I hope they read this oral history and I hope they have an example of what they could possibly do if they wanted and it would seem achievable to them.


HELENA: I love being able to tell people we are a actual professional improv company, we’re the only professional improv business in Connecticut I love being able to say, you know, we work with schools, we work with adults, we teach people things because I think people view theatre as a selfish thing so I love being able to tell people, the theatre company I’m a part of does a lot of community work and it’s not about us it’s about the community.

JULIA: I’m proud that it’s out of our control now. That we have created something that seems like it was always there and that’s how people talk about it now. For a while it was frustrating that people weren’t acknowledging that we were this new cool success story and now I realize that’s because people are like, oh, Hartford Stage, Theatre Works, Hartbeat Ensemble, Sea Tea Improv and it’s that simple, we’re just a part of the community. And I’m really proud at how many good shows we’ve done. Every good show I’m proud of Sea Tea, every bad show I just want to make it better.

GREG: I’m proud that other generations, newer generations, are taking ownership of Sea Tea and making it their home or making something out of it or putting so much into it as we did in the beginning. As long as there are people who are in to Sea Tea Improv and care about it and want to keep it going than it can live on past any of us and that’s what I’m most proud of.

KATE: I think one of my proudest moments with Sea Tea was sweeping the CT Cage Match and also then sweeping the Indie Cage Match in New York. My proudest moments with Sea Tea though I know we’re a very accomplished business, my proudest moments with Sea Tea are when we have great artistic accomplishments. And I know that those are intertwined and they rely on each other but my proudest moments with Sea Tea are when we achieve really great comedic things.

LAURA: I think that I’m most proud that we’re all so proud and that sounds ridiculous but I am so happy that this company is built by people who care so much about it and that the people that keep coming in care so much about it and everybody who’s involved in this company only wants to do the best things for it and it just makes everybody see what a beautiful and special thing we have.

Sea Tea Group Photo by Laura Dee Photography
Sea Tea Group Photo by Laura Dee Photography

STEPHANIE: The whole reason I like doing improv is because I like making other people laugh and making other people happy so the fact that we have a company built off of that, a company built off of bringing joy to other people, is awesome, there’s no greenhouse gasses we’re putting off by our product, just copious amounts of laughter and I’m proud of that.

SUMMAR: What makes me proud is that we are always challenging ourselves and never allowing ourselves to be comfortable like even if we’re doing well it’s like, okay, what else? I think that’s what makes me proud we’re never like, we’re done, that’s it, this is as big as we need to get. Yeah and I’m proud our name is a pun.

CASEY: I’m proud of everyone who started this company because they made something out of something that didn’t exist before and it’s existing and they have allowed me to be a part of it. I’ve gained a lot of confidence and esteem from being a part of this group and I think everyone has benefitted in that respect from it but like from my own perspective it’s like, wow, what an exciting place to find yourself in, I’m part of this really cool thing. We’re really doing it. That’s something Sea Tea says a lot “we’re really doing it guys!” that’s how I feel. We’re really doing it.
DAN: I’m proud of every aspect of it. I’m proud that we created it, that it exists because it didn’t have to you know, it could have been some rehearsal group, some practice thing. The fact that we even made it happen when it first started I mean, the fact that we’ve stayed together this long. The fact that we have fans, like there are people out there, this still blows my mind, that love to come to our shows that’s so cool. It’s really something to be proud of. Every time I’m reminded that we’re not just doing this for ourselves, that it’s not just, even though we have fun doing it, it’s not just for us to have fun that by us having fun on stage, somebody else is having a great time, that’s cool. That reminds me of when I wasn’t on this side of the curtain and I would go see comedy shows and I would just have a good time, be glad that I went to a comedy show and I have so much fun doing the Sea Tea stuff, I forget, sometimes I feel like it’s just for me or just for us on stage but to remember that everyone out there is having fun seeing a show that’s awesome and I’m proud that we have this community, it’s a comedy cliché, the weirdo misfits but there are a lot of people out there that are connecting over improv maybe they wouldn’t have found a place to be without it and that’s really cool. I feel like we matter to people’s lives. We’re giving people happiness, I’m proud of that.

To learn more about Sea Tea Improv and their upcoming Hartford Improv Festival, click here!

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

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

Click here to support The Annual and spread the joy of bi-monthly humor!

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