Rob Gentile & Andrew Stanton InterviewPosted: 3 June 2013
Rob Gentile and Andrew Stanton are resident performers for Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) and two thirds (with Kaitlin Thompson) of indie improv team Safe Weird (winners of Philadelphia Super Cage Match 2012). They’re in London for the Slapdash Festival, where they will be performing and teaching workshops.
Have you guys worked together long?
Rob: Pretty much since the start of our improv career. If you want to call it a “career”. We didn’t so much work together as collaborate on things occasionally. We’d support each other. But in the last couple of years we’ve started working together on a more substantial way. We put the group together.
What was your first experience of improv?
Rob: I was always obsessed with Whose Line is it Anyway? I always wanted to do improv in high school, but didn’t get any of it until I went to community college. That’s where Bill McLaughlin was teaching a class. He taught shortform and I did that for two years. I got the improv bug and continued with it.
What was it about improv that inspired you?
Rob: I remember I went to UCB in New York City. I was nineteen and I saw my first longform show. It blew my mind. I don’t even remember what group it was – I think it was The Stepfathers. I went back to Bill after I’d seen all this longform, not even knowing what it was at the time, just blown away, not sure what to think of it, not sure what it was that I’d seen.
Andrew: When I was in high school, I was in the theatre program. I did a lot of plays. I was really into that, and got lots of lead roles, but I was always more of a comedic actor. After high school, I also went to the community college, like Rob did, and I noticed that I hadn’t done any plays and I wasn’t missing it. I didn’t feel the desire to go out and audition, but I was still taking theatre courses. I think there was a printing error in the program guide so that the improv course was described as a technical theatre production course, so I took the improv course by mistake. But it was fun so I stuck with it. It made a lot of sense to me, I developed a taste for it and picked it up quickly. That summer, after the semester was over, one of the guys from that class invited me to be in a show he was producing. I ended up doing that, and it went really well so we decided to do another one. That went really well so we decided to form a group. That group continued for a couple of years and that got me into another group. We’d travel down to Philadelphia to do longform and it took off from there.
Do you have a goal that you were striving for, or are you making it up as you go along?
Andrew: A bit of both. What I would most like to do is to make a living doing improv and comedy. Maybe by working it into sketch writing, appearing in sketches, or something like that. I just want to be able to do comedy and have that be the main thing in life. Does that make sense? I’m not delusional – I’m not trying to become a big rich star. Just want to live and not have to do anything but comedy.
Do you regard yourselves as exclusively ‘comedy’ improvisers?
Rob: It’s the stuff that you play that’s real – which not necessarily funny to the character you’re playing – that the audience finds funny. Playing serious is sometimes the funniest choice.
Andrew: I agree wholeheartedly. The absolute funniest thing that a character can do is to be completely serious about what’s happening. I don’t like it when characters are funny and they’re winking and nudging each other. You can go into scenes ‘elbows up’, as I describe it, but if you don’t commit, then it’s not the same. Whatever’s happening to my character is the most serious shit that’s ever happened to him in his entire life. I like to talk about stupid things as though they’re important and dramatic.
Ken Campbell used to say that the maths was: “Serious + Silly = Funny; Silly + Silly = Stupid”.
Andrew: You need to print that out and put it on a wall somewhere. That’s perfect. I never heard it put that way. I consider it my goal to be a comedy person first and foremost. For me, it’s about doing something that’s funny. I lot of improvisers in longform like to talk about scenes, character and relationships. That’s great – that’s really important – but I don’t think that should take a back seat to being funny.
Tell me about memorable shows you’ve seen.
Andrew: I did have the privilege of seeing the Upright Citizens Brigade a few years ago. Amy Poehler wasn’t there, but Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts were. It was at the Del Close Marathon. I managed to get a seat at the theatre and watched a few hours of some improv that was really great and some that wasn’t so great. Then the UCB came out and it was an very tight and incredible show. It was like watching three masters at work. It was beautiful and hilarious. More recently, I was in Chicago for the Chicago Improv Festival and I saw a group called Hello Laser from New York. The theatre we were at was on the second floor. They did a show that was centred around one story – four Germans on a double date. A very efficient double date. At one point one of them got angry and stormed off. He walked off and down the fire escape and onto the street below and the others stayed at the top of the steps and they continued the scene outside the theatre, shouting up and down from the second floor.
Rob: My favourite improv group of all time – and I’ve seen an unhealthy amount of improv – are also from the Magnet Theater in New York. They’re called Trike. It’s two guys and they do a 45-minute bastardized Harold. They do five or six scenes, seconds beats of all those scenes, and then blend all of those worlds together. Their scenes will last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, and they don’t drop anything or forget anything. It’s continuously funny and they do it every week. It’s extremely impressive. They’re maybe the best improvisers I know of at the moment.
Andrew: I’ll verify that. They are unhumanly talented. Crazy. Fantastic.
Has improv changed your life?
Andrew: I don’t keep in touch with friends from school. All the friends I have now are either directly or indirectly connected to improv.
Rob: Yes. Both of us are pretty obsessed with improv.
Andrew: It’s my main thing. It’s what I do.
Rob: When you’re constantly pursuing something at that level, it’s easy for people who are not interested in it to lose interest in you!
Andrew: In addition, my last three jobs I got all through people I knew through improv. I’ve been steadily employed for the past five years and I wouldn’t have had any of those jobs if somebody from improv hadn’t set me up with them.
Is that an improv thing: a good community?
Andrew: I think so. Even when we’re working on a project that isn’t necessarily improv or comedy related, we’ll still go to other improvisers for it. I record a weekly Game of Thrones recap podcast called Stark Raven Mad. It’s all improvisers who are on it.
That’s great to have that community going on. Do you also employ improv skills in your day-to-day life?
Andrew: I’m definitely find myself more willing to try new things, to roll with it and go with the flow now that I’m in improv. I think if I hadn’t got into it I wouldn’t be so adventurous. I’m willing to do more and to travel more.
Rob: For example, what we’re doing right now – visiting another country just to do comedy.
Andrew: It’s a bit crazy and outside my comfort zone.
Rob: And it’s very last minute. The planning at our end was: “You’ll go. Just say yes now…”
Andrew: “… and we’ll figure it out later.” Last year we went to Nashville Tennessee at the last minute. That’s a fourteen-hour drive. We just did it. There wasn’t a ton of planning. It was: “Hey, we’ve got an improv festival happening this weekend. You guys are coming, right?” So we rented a car and drove for fourteen hours, straight through the night.
Rob: I can’t imagine that we’d have done that for any other reason than for improv.
Have you been to London before?
Rob: We’ve never left North America before. We’ve been to Canada, but that doesn’t count as another country. We’re both enthralled to be going.
Anything you’re looking forward to while you’re here?
Andrew: Chips. Pies filled with meat. Room-temperature flat beer.
Rob: I’m really interested to find out what the UK improvisers, and the other guests, have to bring. There’s a lot of people going to be working collaboratively on things. I’m excited about seeing things that are different from what I’m used to – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia.
Andrew: I can’t wait to see the difference in style, and the country in general. I’m anticipating the improv and anticipating just going there in equal measure. It’s hard to imagine being there!
Rob: It hardly seems real.
Andrew: I’m assuming that as soon as we get to London, we’ll constantly be seeing our favourite British celebrities. I’m looking forward to meeting the Top Gear gang. I’m waiting for a call from Ricky Gervais about a lunch date. I know Rob’s very excited about meeting Gordon Ramsay.
He’s very excited about meeting you guys. We all are. The improv scene in London feels relatively small and young compared to North America, so it’s great to have international guests over.
Andrew: It seems like improv scenes are blowing up everywhere. Even five years ago the scene in Philadelphia wasn’t very good. There would be a show once a month. Now there’s shows every night. Multiple shows every night.
Rob: There’s more than one theatre, and everyone hosts their own independent nights. There could be two, three or four shows on a night and every one has a crowd. It only takes a few people to catch the bug to get that scene going. It snowballs.
Andrew: We’re looking forward to creating an ongoing relationship between the improv community here and the improv community there. We can only help each other.
I think it’s great to mix up the different traditions.
Rob: Absolutely. There’s never one right way for improv. It’s great to get different perspectives, especially from a different country.
Safe Weird are performing at The Nursery on Thursday 13th June at 7.30pm. Buy tickets here.
Rob Gentile is teaching a workshop on ‘Twoprov’ – improvisation à deux – at The Nursery, on Wednesday 12th June, 7–10pm. Book your place here.
Andrew Stanton is teaching a workshop on ‘The Deconstruction’ – a rich and rewarding show format – at The Marlborough, Brighton, on Monday 10th June, 7–10pm. Book your place here.