“It’s amazing we’re even improvising at all.
So many people wouldn’t be able to be doing what we’re doing.
That in itself is exciting. Embrace that bravery.”
- Joanna Simmons, Story Pirates
The above is an improv mantra held dear by Elana Fishbein, one of the original members of Magnet House Team Featherweight. Hopefully you have seen one of their shows. If not, block off an hour on Wednesday and catch this notable Megawatt team.
On November 13th, 2013 I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with 6 of the 8 current members to pick their brains about the team, themselves, and how they play together. For all of you who don’t know, Featherweight is the most veteran Megawatt team at the Magnet. They were formed on late August 28th, 2008 by Peter McNerney, who also served as their first coach for almost a full year (they are now coached by Joe Miles). Their original line-up was Jesse Acini (now on All American), Russ Armstrong (now on Chet Watkins), Noel Dinneen, Elana Fishbein, Jess Lane (now out in Los Angeles), Blake Merriman, Jared McGrail (traveling the country doing a webcast), and Justin Moran. Their first form was The Harold and their name came from a scene that happened at their very first practice: Elana Fishbein had brushed her hand against Jess Lane’s breasts to which Elana exclaimed, “Oh! They’re featherlight!” From Featherlight came Featherweight, also pitched by Elana. Since then, Featherweight has gone on to be one of the most celebrated teams of the Magnet – playing for over 5 years on Wednesday nights, traveling to do the Philly and Boston Improv Festivals, performing at colleges, launching 2 pilots, and competing and losing in the very first Inspirado competition (their challenge, titled Farts! Farts! Farts!, required every scene to have a fart).
Like every veteran Magnet team, Featherweight since its inception has undergone changes. The line-up that you will see today is almost a totally different set of faces you would have seen a few years ago, or even a couple of years ago. Only 4 of the original members remain. After Russ left, Dave Maulbeck was added and also served as the team’s coach. Featherweight then experienced four more losses including Dave. Willy Appelman was added in late August of 2012, but left shortly after. In April, they welcomed veteran players Frank Bonomo, Matt Shafeek, and Lauren Ashley Smith. Matt and Frank were cast alongside each other on Megawatt team Skosh a few years ago. The two also played with Noel on Oswald prior to Featherweight’s original casting. In addition, Matt and Elana had played together on Flea Flurkus, a 2007 team that performed the Evente. The most recent addition was that of Will Quinn this past August, who had been coached by both Elana and Frank. Collectively, Featherweight has over 50 years of improv experience loaded onto its current roster. Despite the new look and massive transformation (this is the first time in many years that Featherweight is an 8-person troupe), the feel and quality of the team remains the same as it has always been: “The Featherweight I watched is the same team I’m on now. It’s the same energy.” -Lauren Ashley Smith. It’s a testament not only to the casting of the team, but the openness, support, and skill these players bring to the stage of why things have always worked out.
Featherweight, who warms up by hitting a ball up in the air with great effort to not let it hit the ground, improvises a free form, meaning they find the form as they go. “It comes off having a feel of a little town where the characters know each other and other characters branch out of that.” – Will Quinn. Something Featherweight prides themselves on is having a great range with their shows. The spectrum they cover not only in their 25 minute set, but week to week, rivals most sets at the theater. When I asked Noel Dinneen what the most important quality an improviser should possess is, he responded: “The will to improvise, meaning the willingness to actually improvise as opposed to be married to a structure or game.” Some shows might end up being slow mono-scenes and the next week everything blows up. Regardless of what their set calls for, each week Featherweight brings their flexibility, vulnerability, generosity of spirit, and “imperviousness to fear of judgment” (Justin Moran) to create their fun and their funny.
Frank Bonomo has a strong gift at bringing the humanity to Featherweight’s shows. He lets characters be affected; he knows how each character he plays will react emotionally and is still so versatile in his play. He considers the small human moments.. Also, his object work is insane.
Noel Dinneen came to The Magnet to study with Armando. He considers his most influential instructors to be Mick Napier and Del Close. His team celebrates his fearlessness, range, and how he brings zero hesitation to his work. There is nothing Noel can’t yes and. He’s also got a pretty killer attitude.
Elana Fishbein came to The Magnet to study with Armando. She considers her most influential instructor to also be Armando Diaz. With a Featherweight set comes Elana’s ability to play a spectacular and effortless range of strong, intricate, fully-formed characters. She is so specific and grounds the work. Featherweight feels that when Elana is playing, the show is in good hands.
Blake Merriman is described as being incredibly emotionally present. He really lets his characters be affected. He is a reliable player and also a great actor and is emotionally present really lets his characters be affected by what is happening.
Justin Moran came to The Magnet to study with Armando. He considers his most influential instructor James Eason. His team refers to him as an “information robot” who not only brings incredibly smart scene ideas, perfect lines, and smart appropriate punchlines to his work, but amazing characters you could never imagine be a part of the scene but work every single time.
Will Quinn came to The Magnet because of the opportunities the theater would provide. He considers his most influential instructor to be Peter McNerney. Will has a great understanding of game and heightening as well as adding finesse to Featherweight’s sets. When Will plays, his joy as a player shines through. He brings to his characters a level of polish making things very clear and very full.
Matt Shafeek came to The Magnet to study with Armando. He considers his most influential instructor to be Michael Delaney. Featherweight describes Matt as a mature, confident, and joyful player. He’s always thoughtful and takes his time when making choices as opposed to exercising “quick lazy play.” He provides context and knows what a piece needs to create a successful scene.
Lauren Ashley Smith came to The Magnet because of its welcoming atmosphere, energy, and people. She considers her most influential instructor to be Armando Diaz. Her team pegged her as “a sniper” because of her sharp sense of humour, specific moves, and ability to bring to a scene exactly what is needed. Her mind is constantly exercising on how to heighten, instill more life, and bring things together.
Love ‘Duck Dynasty’? How about ‘Storage Wars’? ‘Hoarders’?
You’re not alone. And now you, along with millions upon millions of people, just might fall in love with A&E’s new show, ‘Think Tank’. Or not. Because it’s not like those other shows at all.
We sat down in the Magnet Theater lobby with one of the show’s actors, Ed Herbstman (The Mantzoukas Brothers), to get an inside scoop. It was a lively and wide-ranging conversation, and we hope you enjoy it.
Full Disclosure, Ed is one of the co-owners of Magnet Theater, and therefore we were very conscious of the appearance of a journalistic conflict of interest. In light of this possibility, we made every attempt to be even-handed and unbiased.
Magnet Theater: So. This show. What is it?
Ed Herbstman: Why do you ask that way? Are you mad at me?
MT: Oh, you’re tough now because you’re on a TV show?
EH: Wow. Do you hate me or something? You’re really hostile. Is this part of the interview?
MT: Can’t handle it Mr. I’m On a TV Show?
EH: First, it’s not technically a TV show. It’s a web series.
MT: You calling me a liar?!
EH: Your phone just fell off the desk because you’re pounding it so hard.
MT: SHUT UP! I’ll burn your house down!!
EH: Whoa, not okay. Calm down please.
MT: …burn it down… motherfu—
Magnet performer Amanda Xeller (The Flood) reached out to one of our performers currently abroad, Ross Taylor (The Wrath, Aquarius). Ross is performing full time on a Second City Cruise Ship. Amanda sent Ross our address and he sent us a lovely update from afar…
Oh how I miss you—your faces and your energy and yes, even you bathroom!
Life at sea is fantastic! Being paid to perform comedy is a gift from Del, and there are so many
ancillary benefits as well.
It all starts with a week of training in Chicago, where the people at Second City treat you like a
real professional and make you feel like a part of the family. All your heroes are on the wall and
you play on the same stage they played upon and the feeling is probably akin to taking batting
practice in Yankee Stadium.
Life on the ship is like living in a luxury bubble, especially compared to the grit and struggle
that NYC requires—food is taken care of, alcohol is ridiculously cheap for crew, and everyone
knows who you are. The sketch shows are usually a packed house of a thousand and the material
works flawlessly. The improv is very different from what we’re used to, of course, but a quick
reminder that it’s providing my livelihood is all I need to sleep well at night. After the first crazy
week on board, rehearsals are few and all in all it’s a pretty light workweek. The passengers are
mainstream America, likely trending a little older, so they aren’t impressed by “improv moves”
but they are pretty good audiences if you give them jokes, which they consume like so much
Aside from work, I get a ton of downtime that I use at the gym, in the sun, reading, writing,
playing music, and hanging out with the rest of the cast and crew. The other performers are great
fun and the crew is pretty friendly. We port every few days and in the first four weeks I’ve gotten
to visit Bermuda, St. Thomas, St. John, Barbados, Caracao, Aruba and Mexico. I’ve zip-lined,
gambled, had beers in the ocean and gotten several layers of sunburn. I’ve chased an iguana and
grabbed a fish and got wifi in the middle of a pack of roosters.
Rooming with Bander is great—I’m somewhat shy at heart, so having a comrade throughout this
experience has made me feel comfortable very quickly. I couldn’t ask for a better cast in that we
all like each other and work well together on and off stage. I’m only a month in, so it’s possible
the turn into cynicism is just around the corner, but thus far I would call it a life-changing
experience and couldn’t be happier to be here.
That said, I miss NYC and the Magnet terribly. The work we do is incomparable and I miss my
teams enormously. The world has a habit of spinning on without you, so I hope that everyone
still remembers me when I return and I look forward to coming home and resuming God’s work
on that stage of ours. All my love to you Magnet—I’ll see you in February!
The Wrath & Aquarius
On Tuesday, November 19th Magnet will host the first ever Musical Mustachewatt. The night will be the typical Musical Megawatt affair (with Jezebells, Aquarius, Wonderland, and Mint Condition) however throughout the night we’ll be taking donations to go towards the Movember.
Movember is more than just a bad pun putting together November and Mustache. It is a month long movement where men grow mustaches to show support of men’s health. Unfortunately, science has not found a way to turn mustaches into the cure for cancer. In the mean time we are raising money to go towards the Movember Foundation, the Live Strong foundation, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. For more information on what organizations are benefiting from Movember and how you can help out even more, check out the US Movember website.
Movember has grown into a friendly competition between men to see who can grow the best mustache and who can raise the most money. Everyone starts clean shaven on November 1st and does their best to grow a full “Burt Reynolds” and raise a ton of money.
We know it’s hard to just throw your money at something. So in exchange for your donation towards men’s health you can grab some delicious home made treats made by the Musical Megawatt performers! In the lobby there will be a bake sale! From tradtional sweets to mustache inspired munchies, you’re donation will get you some serious goodies.
Come out and support musical improv comedy, men’s health, and those poor souls who can barely grow even a “John Waters” above their lip. Shows at 7, 8 and 9pm. Bake sale all night long.
During November, Alex Marino directs the latest installment of The Director’s Series, The Wake. Every Thursday night at 9pm, The Wake takes you on an adventure inspired by an obituary. I interviewed Alex via email to discuss The Wake and his inspiration behind the form.
What is The Wake and why did you choose this form?
The wake is a form I started thinking about when i was taking classes in LA. I was feeling kinda frustrated because we had been working on the invocation, which I found really interesting, but a lot of my classmates were really dismissive–they’d roll their eyes if they didn’t think the suggestion was cool, they seemed a little bit mocking of improv itself. It was LA and they were just too cool for it. So I started trying to think of a way to approach the invocation that would force performers to at least have a little bit of respect for the suggestion… and I figured “what if you had to do an invocation of a person who had just died… in a room full of people who loved them.” So it kinda stayed in my head gestating for a while. Then when Magnet first opened I was approached by a practice group, it was one of the first groups I’d coached in New York, and that was Louis Kornfeld, Megan Gray, Charlie Whitcroft, Jon Bander, Corey Grimes, and Kelly Buttermore. And after working with them for a little bit I asked if they’d like to experiment with this form I’d been thinking about and they were totally game. What we arrived at was a modified invocation of someone in that day’s obituaries, inviting them to come into the theater and share their story before they go. I heard, and this may be apocryphal, that the practice of holding wakes came from a period in Ireland where they disinterred a lot of old graves and found scratch marks on the inside of the coffins. They realized that something like 1 in 10 people were being buried alive. So they decided to leave the dead out in for a period of time after they passed to give them one last chance to wake up. So the Wake seemed fitting as a name for the form. I kinda liked the notion that this show is one last chance for the dead to come back.
I chose it for this Director’s Series because it had been a while since I’d seen it done and I wanted to work with the original cast again. A couple years ago I taught a class in The Wake, and those bozos have been asking me when they were gonna get to do it again, so I thought I’d invite them along too.
What do you find funny?
All kinds of stuff. Smart stuff, dumb stuff. Deep stuff, light stuff. Lots of things are funny. To me, the funniest thing to think about is that we’re all just a huge biological accident that learned how to wear clothes and comb its hair. That shit is hilarious to me. We’re a mostly bald, mostly flimsy, slow moving animal, with small, dull teeth and worthless claws. We can barely climb, we can’t fly, or hold our breath very long. We have bad backs and lethal allergies to peanuts and shellfish–but not all of us, so you don’t even know if someone is allergic until they just almost die. We eat and drink through the same hole we use to breathe and speak, and somehow we’ve survived long enough to figure out space travel, novelty t-shirts, iPhones and art that goes on your fingernails. It’s incredibly funny to me just how we spend our time.
Do you find death funny?
Death is not funny, no, but everything around death is funnier because of it. Death is the ultimate straight man. I think to have laughter there needs to be a break in tension, which means there needs to be tension to begin with. The more the tension and the bigger the break, the more satisfying the laugh. The uneasiness people feel when they’re faced with death is a great primer for laughter, and that kind of laughter makes it easier to live with death.
What is the future of improv?
I dunno. At some point enough people are going to complain loudly and correctly enough about not getting properly recognized and compensated for content they improvise for commercials and movies… so probably a union will come out of that. And you’ll see “additional content improvised by” in the credits of films which will be good, but things will be weird… or maybe they wont. Maybe the improviser union will be chill. Eventually there will be an improvised show that is so undeniably good that it will get a run on Broadway. Eventually there will be an improvised show that wins a Tony. Some people will be upset by that… or maybe they wont. Maybe Broadway will have relaxed a bit by then. Someone is going to bring a true and honest, disinterested study of improvisation with all its techniques, history, and various applications to the university level, build a curriculum around it, and just like performance studies and jazz you’ll be able to get a college degree in improvisation. I would like to think that degree in improv would be worth more than getting a degree in performance studies or jazz, but it probably won’t be… and after four years, it definitely won’t make anyone a better improviser than performing in every black box and bar that will let you… but, no matter how much actual experience you may have in the field, you’ll need to have a degree in improv to be able to teach improv at the university level… So that will be a nice little scam.
The Wake plays every Thursday in November at 9pm. Make Reservations Here!
Time Out NY chatted with Magnet Theater’s Trike (Peter McNerney & Nick Kanellis) for their 2013 Comedy Glossary. The list includes stand-up and improv words you probably didn’t know existed. Trike described the ins and outs of improv and explained some of the forms most confusing terms. Check the Article out HERE!
If you’re interested in catching Trike at Magnet, catch them every Saturday at 10:30pm. Reserve Tickets HERE!