The Magnet Theater boasts an incredible roster of talent, some of which have been around since the theater’s inception. On March 19th, I (Amanda Ariel Peggy Xeller!) met up with veteran Magnet improviser Charlie Whitcroft (The Boss) to get a glimpse into his world of improv.
Where are you from originally?
I am from Staten Island, NY. I moved to Queens 7 years ago and I love Queens. I mean, Staten Island was nice, but I’m glad I moved off of it.
When did you realize you wanted to get involved in comedy?
I don’t know if I ever did realize that I wanted to get into comedy. I kind of grew up with Louis Kornfeld and Megan Gray and Corey Grimes. We all went to school together. They were all doing improv I’d say a year before I was. They would always encourage me to take classes. I guess it wore me down and I finally did and I never looked back. Somewhere in there, I guess maybe like 8 or 9 years ago, I decided that I wanted to do comedy. But I had been going to see them do improv shows for a long time before I worked up the courage to sign up. I signed up for a Level 1 with Armando that was announced just before the Magnet first opened up. At the time, the class I signed up for was just an Armando class. He was teaching independently. In the interim between when I signed up and the class started, the Magnet Theater was announced. I guess they got the space and it wound up being the first class there. I can remember, because Louis was involved already, going to the theater and helping paint it and not getting to hard core into the building of stuff. But it was a lot of fun. It was really exciting being involved back then, not that it’s not exciting being around now. That was 8 years ago or 9 years ago?
And you heard about Armando obviously through those guys?
Yes. Louis, Megan, and Corey were all already taking classes with him. Slow Comedy and Instant Brilliance were a bunch of old classes that he used to offer. Those were a lot of the shows that I saw them in too. That’s what introduce me to Armando and to improv and to the Magnet.
What is your improv and comedy history? Is it all Magnet?
It’s pretty much all Magnet. I’ve taken a few outside workshops. I haven’t really been through the programs at many of the other theaters but I’ve taken outside workshops with Joe Bill and with David Pasquesi and T.J. Jagadowski. Those are all I’m thinking of right now but yeah mostly just with the Magnet.
I took some sketch classes. I took a sketch class with Armando and one with Ed. I haven’t really kept up with the sketch writing. I would like to, I should get back into it. I have not tried stand up. The thought has crossed my mind, but I haven’t tried it.
Would you recommend that people interested in comedy start with improv or in another comedic medium?
I don’t know what I would recommend. I would recommend improv to almost anyone whether or not they are interested in comedy. Improv has helped my life in so many ways. I don’t think it should be thought of as therapy necessarily but the skills that you learn in improv just help with the rest of life. It helps with dealing with people. I passed my MA oral exams because of improv pretty much. I don’t remember what the exact questions were but it was an oral exam, I was sitting across from two philosophy professors and they kept asking me questions. Both of my questions were on Neitzsche somehow,…something about tragedy and Neitzche. I just remember walking away thinking I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. But a week or so before that, I had done an Instant Expert exercise with Rachel Hamilton where you start off talking about something you know a lot about and then halfway through she pauses you and gives you another topic that you don’t know anything about. The idea is just to mimic that same tone of confidence and authority. That exercise in particular helped me pass these MA exams. I don’t remember what I was talking about, but I’m pretty sure I was full of shit the whole time though.
How has improv changed you as a person?
I think that improv has helped me deal with other people. It has helped me recognize different perspectives. I get frustrated easily when I deal with people especially at work. Improv has helped me recognize that different people have different perspectives at different times. It’s just part of the human condition. It’s difficult to see eye to eye with people but the rules of improv and improv training are all geared towards finding that common ground. It’s easy onstage to agree with anything no matter how absurd or silly or stupid it is. In real life, it’s not so easy to agree with everything that’s going on around you but you can recognize what’s going on and how to play with it. That’s the simple answer – it has made me more playful towards real life, which is a good thing.
What were some of the first teams that you were a part of?
The very first was the Necropolitans. It was an indie team that we put together. The original group was Jon Bander, Kelly Buttermore, Louis Kornfeld, Megan Gray, Corey Grimes, Rylan…at the time her last name was Morrison I think it’s changed…and myself. It was so early on for me. I kind of felt like I was the inexperienced one most of the time. But it was fun. Alex Marino was directing us. We were doing a form called The Wake that I think he came up with, or at least he takes credit for. That was a fun little form. We took an obituary from the paper as our suggestion and tried to invoke that person. It didn’t really get morbid, but it wasn’t really full on comedy either. That sounds terrible that I said that. It wasn’t funny all the time, but I guess that’s improv.
First sort of Magnet team, Megawatt team, was Milk Milk McGinty. We didn’t last very long but it was definitely fun.
I was with a bunch of different stuff early on, I just have trouble remembering it. Long Bottom, Puppy, Alan Fessenden’s team Puppy, where is that guy now right? I was a part of a bunch of different shows. One of my favorites from way back when was a show Louis put together. It was before the Director Series but if it happened now I guess it would be a part of that. It was called The World of Tomorrow. It was improv, but it had a sci-fi theme. We created a futuristic world. I think we got a suggestion of a modern day problem that might be solved in the future. We improvised around that – of how it might be solved. That was a lot of fun.
And then there’s The Boss, we’ve been together a long time. Dan, Quinton, and I are the only remaining original members. Lou came on board pretty early on. Kelly Buttermore was on the team originally, Eileen Mullane, Beth Cartier, Greg Wilker, and Eden Gauteron. Yeah, those five and Dan, Quinton, and I were the original members. Over the years we had Hugh Strange, he was onboard for awhile. “The greatest teams are formed through attrition,” that’s an Alan Fessenden quote. Chet came on 2 or 3 years ago, somewhere in there. She was the newest addition and we’ve been solidified since. We’ve thought about adding other people or changing things up but we can’t agree on anything anymore. It’s just been too long it’s a little bit like a marriage. We agree onstage. Offstage it’s all silent treatment and bickering.
So you’ve been at the Magnet since its inception. How has the theater grown and changed since you’ve been a part of it?
It definitely has gotten bigger just in terms of the community and the number of people involved on every level – teaching, taking classes, working at the theater. Back when it first started, this is one of the reasons why I think I’m still around, it was just a lot easier to stay around. It was kind of the wild west. If you had a show idea, if you wanted to do something, you just did it. You had nothing else to compete with. Now, obviously, as the theater grows, that can no longer be a possibility because there’s just too much. There’s not enough time, there’s not enough days in the week to put up everything that everybody has. And it’s all still great. That’s a great change – to see it grow so big. At the same time it’s so frustrating to see so much great stuff that can’t go up and great people. What else,…oh, Quinton is managing the theater now. It’s weird.
Besides improv, have there been other projects that you have taken on and put up at the theater?
There may be one or two sketches that I went up with. There used to be Casual Sketch back in the day. Oh, I took an improv to sketch class with Scott Sherman back when he was with the theater. I think he called it Spit Shine. We did a sketch show with that. That was fun. It’s been mostly improv with sprinklings of sketch.
What was one of the best shows you’ve seen at the Magnet and why do you consider it outstanding?
There were definitely times when I was at the theater every single night for long spans of time. I guess back when they played Tiny Spectacular, it was always amazing. They were one that I went to regularly and were consistently great. There have been so many great shows. The Mantzoukas Brothers were always great. I enjoy pretty much all levels. It’s just a matter of regularity, which I guess is The Tiny Spectacular and Megawatt throughout. I haven’t been around too much on Wednesdays lately. But back when Megawatt was Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I used to tech Saturday nights, I would see it every week. There’s not too much that I don’t like at the theater.
What are some proud accomplishments that you have had as an improviser, or creator, or teacher, or just with anything in the comedy world?
My proudest by far: The Maggies has happened two years in a row now and are coming up on a third. My proudest accomplishment so far is that both years there’s been a Theory of Everything joke. Theory of Everything has stopped performing. We stopped performing 3 years ago. The Maggies has made a joke about us for 2 years even after we were done. That is by far my happiest and proudest accomplishment.
Is there a specific aspect or style of improv that truly does fascinate you?
I’m definitely into what I call ‘slow comedy.’ Armando offered a class called Slow Comedy back in the day. He hasn’t offered it in a long time. But patient play. Really taking your time and playing reality based. Not reality based so much that you are playing yourself, but reality based in that slower pace, real time onstage. The type of thing that TJ and Dave do pretty regularly. And when I say Slow Comedy it could be fast moving but still patient. It seems to contradict itself, and I’m sure different people have different ideas of what ‘slow comedy’ means, but that’s definitely where I see myself just always practicing and pursuing getting better at.
I used to teach The Art of Patience, which was based on that Slow Comedy idea. I like doing that. I like teaching and coaching people to play patiently and focus on relationship instead of game, which is kind of the same thing depending on who you are talking to. I think relationship carries a different weight to it than game.
Is there an improv mantra that you hold dear? Or something you say when you are in a slump to help get you out of that?
Nah whiskey works for that. One of my favorite bits of advice, not advice really, but a description of improv was in a Kevin Dorff class. He talked about improv as fucking around, but taking fucking around seriously, which I always like. I like that as a sort of description of what it is. Maintaining that balance of being super playful and fucking around with stuff but at the same time never really crossing that border into a complete mess of mayhem and mischief.
Would you call Louis Kornfeld your partner in comedy crime?
I don’t know. He’s way busier than I am. We definitely go back a long ways and I love working with Louis. He’s great to play with on The Boss, but he’s also a fantastic director. I don’t know why he keeps asking me back to do his Director’s Series. But he does and I told him that until I disappoint him so much that he stops asking me that I’ll keep doing it. He’s all around great. I love working with him whenever I can.
In improv, do you see yourself tending to explore specific ideas that fascinate you? Like, do you explore certain colours of love? Or how the mind works? Or death? Or…?
Yeah. Kind of. I read a lot in general. A topic will get on my mind and you know I’ll buy a book on the History of Secret Societies. I got on a Philip K. Dick kick for awhile. I read everything he wrote practically. I’ll get on these reading kicks and that’ll sometimes inspire either ideas on how to behave in a show or even content wise it’ll inspire me to initiate specific locations or specific motivations or situations that characters are in. Things like that.
Are there any improvisers that you want to play with who you haven’t played with yet?
I’ve got tons of improv heroes that I would be scared to play with. TJ and Dave – heroes. But I would probably run away crying. Yeah, there are plenty of people that I haven’t played with and would probably love to play and have a lot of fun playing with. But overall, I see so many people as better than me that I get intimidated. And I’m not self-deprecating. I love myself. But I still think so many people are better than me. I get nervous around other people.
What’s the most important quality to possess as an improviser?
Definitely playfulness. There are probably tons of answers of what makes that person good at improv or what makes that person funny. But I think bottom line it has to be playfulness. Elasticity is a good word for it or whatever the opposite of rigid is.
Any Charlie Whitcroft projects that we should look out for that are on the horizon?
I’ve been trying to, I don’t know what to call it,…I’m trying to self-publish more. I don’t want to say a book because I don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but I’ve been working on all the steps leading up to some kind of book. I’ve been brainstorming ideas of collaborations with Louis for one, and he, like I said, is a lot busier than I am, so who knows when this will happen. That’s something to keep an eye out for – self-published work.
I wrote a novel as a part of NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, and I edited it. It’s a first attempt. I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s probably not great. But I had a lot of fun doing it and it was a good introduction to it. It’s called Squid Brain.
And I’m going to be a Director Series in June.
Do you have any parting advice?
Stick with it. There was that Ira Glass thing…it popped up again…it’s already old, I don’t know if you’ve seen that video of his advice to people exploring creative endeavors in general. It’s all about how you sort of have good taste but when you start out doing something it tends to not be so good. The whole point of his video is to not get discouraged and keep doing it because you’ll eventually develop a voice. I feel kind of shitty for ripping off Ira Glass, but that video just happened to pop up again on facebook and in a couple places so it’s on my mind. I know a couple of years ago I was very close friends with people who didn’t make teams or got cut from teams and were taking it very badly. I definitely understand that disappointment but at the same time it’s kind of like, “Who cares?” Put together a show anyways. Do a show anyways. Don’t let that be something that stops you from doing work, from improvising.
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