A few years ago, Briana Haynie compiled a series of oral histories about the founding and development of Sea Tea Improv. Over the past year they ran the most successful kickstarter for a comedy theater ever and on August 20th they officially opened their doors to the public! We spoke to Julia Pistel, a founding member and managing director of Sea Tea Improv, in the fleeting calm that would follow opening weekend…
As a founding member of Sea Tea, how does it feel to come this far?
Amazing. It has been so intense for the last year—the founders and owners are just trying to catch our breaths and enjoy what we’ve done. It’s funny, I was going through some old emails—someone was asking us for milestones—and I don’t remember this, but some of our founders were talking about opening a theater one day. Back in 2010 that was unrealistic, so it’s really something we’ve been working slowly but very steadily towards for seven years. It’s really exciting to have those doors open and get to work.
I imagine the role of Managing Director changes from theatre to theatre depending on size and content. Describe your role as the Managing Director for those who may not know what that is.
Let me start by not answering your question and describing the Artistic Director first, and then I’ll describe the difference between the two, because that’s where it gets interesting.
The Artistic Director, as we see it, is to make sure that everything that is happening within the theater is excellent. Of course, that can mean a number of different things. It can be the best improv you’re ever going to see, it can be some really experimental stuff, it can mean including a lot of people. His job is basically to make sure what happens on the stage is reflective of the quality that we want to see and bring to Hartford and Connecticut.
My job as the Managing Director is very different. It’s to keep the doors open, keep the place running and make sure we stay alive. What my job covers right now is a really interesting question because I’m in transition. Until last week, the main focus of my job was to make sure the construction project got finished. Now that it is done, my job is managing the staff that’s working and running the theater; building community relationships and connections to help build out the audience; to keep an eye on the big picture, making sure everything under the umbrella is getting done; and making decisions about what our priorities are as a company to make sure we are fulfilling our mission.
To any Annual fans in Connecticut (or surrounding areas), be sure to check out The Hartford Improv Festival this weekend. It’s being put together by Sea Tea Improv who we covered in a three part oral history. Find out all you need to know below:
On March 27th – 29th at Spotlight Cinemas in downtown Hartford, Sea Tea Improv will bring back the Hartford Improv Festival for a second year. Last year’s festival drew crowds of hundreds throughout three days of improvisational comedy activities, as well as dozens of improvisers from around the country. Tickets can be purchased at www.hartfordimprov.com.
Sea Tea Improv is delighted to announce that performers will hail from all over the country. Teams from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and California will be performing, along with twelve of Connecticut’s best improv teams. Selection this year was very competitive with nearly ninety troupes competing for forty-four performance slots. The performers this year represent the best the country and the state have to offer.
Connecticut is well-represented with not only Sea Tea Improv, but Parachute of Conard High School, Purple Crayon of Yale, Horse Lincoln of UConn, The Great Make Believe Society of Middletown, Tick Tick Boom of Manchester, and Ad Hoc and Hot Garbage of Hartford. Connecticut’s growing improv community will demonstrate its talent throughout the weekend.
The Hartford Improv Festival (HIF) is Connecticut’s largest improv event of the year as Sea Tea Improv continues to establish Hartford as a hub for comedy at the national level. The Hartford Improv Festival is designed to attract local and national talent to Hartford and showcase the art of improv comedy. Now in its second year, the Hartford Improv Festival (HIF) is continuing to establish Hartford as a hub for comedy at the national level. Each day of the festival will consist of improv comedy performances featuring both local and national comedy talent as well as workshops and master classes.
The events this year include four workshops by improvisers from around the country (New York, Boston, Providence and Chicago), held at Sea Tea studios; dozens of improv shows; a Friday-night drop-in jam, a Saturday-night private party at Vaughan’s Public House, and a Sunday night wrap-up consisting of an improvised movie dubbing at Real Art Ways and a performance at City Steam Brewery.
Tickets can be purchased for single shows, whole days, or the entire festival. For a full schedule please visit www.hartfordimprov.com.
Most of the performances will take place at Spotlight Cinemas in downtown Hartford, where audience members can enjoy the full complement of food and drinks from the theater’s restaurant while watching comedy from across America. One entire movie theater will be given over to HIF comedy shows for the duration of the weekend.
Sea Tea Improv is dedicated to showcasing local businesses and talent to the teams and patrons attending the festival. Through post-festival surveys sent to performers and audience members, Sea Tea Improv can report that 70% of last year’s audience respondents and 90% of performers patronized one or more downtown restaurants while attending the festival, and many performers stayed overnight in hotels in the city.
HIF2015 is made possible through the generous support of Dr. Steven A. Fischman, D.D.S., Shall Be LLC, Bridge to Choice Coaching, and The Tobacco Shop in Downtown Hartford. Sea Tea Improv is still accepting sponsors for the 2015 festival. For more information on sponsorship opportunities, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sea Tea Improv is an award-winning comedy company based in Hartford, Connecticut and serves students of all ages and experiences.Sea Tea Improv has performed hundreds of shows throughout Hartford, New England, and beyond for the past five years. Their mission is to bring the highest-quality comedy and improvisation to Connecticut, build upon the cultural offerings of Hartford, and lead a dedicated community of improvisers.
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.
The Annual #7 is being printed as we speak! So, what does the first Annual of the new year hold? How about a fascinating interview with Greg Proops, Whose Line cast member and Smartest Man in The World. But it doesn’t end there, The Annual #7 is more than 6 pages long and it brings the anticipated return of Animals Fighting, and the conclusion of Briana Haynie’s Oral History of Sea Tea Improv. Still not sold? Do you like Twitter? Groundhog Day? In/Out Lists and self-referential humor? Because The Annual#7 has all of that!
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.
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.
So how do you know if this issue of The Annual is for you?
Well perhaps you’re a fan of Ron Funches, or you have a comedy nerd appreciation for improv/live in Connecticut and have been supporting a group known as Sea Tea since it’s inception. Maybe you enjoying sitting on your butt and analyzing different types of laziness rather than doing something productive. It could be that you’re in need of some completely serious advice, headed back to school, or wandering about the day-to-day life of a Murse. All in all, we’re guessing you like to laugh, perhaps comedy is your thing and here’s your chance to support independent comedy and to have a nice printed magazine sit on the back of your toilet for two months as you slowly thumb through it.
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.
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.