The thought alone of walking on-stage and improvising comedy in front of an audience would leave most people sweating profusely in fear. For Allie Kokesh, a member of the improv comedy troupe First Lady, performing at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Manhattan is a creative outlet, a chance to express her dynamic sense of humor with her friends on-stage.
UCB was founded in Chicago in 1993 by Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser. The theater relocated to Manhattan in 1996, bringing with it the long-form improvisation structure known as the “Harold” to New York. Today, UCB has theaters in New York and Los Angeles for anyone who interested in improv.
Kokesh first fell in love with improv while studying theater at Trinity College. She continued her studies in improv after college by taking classes at the UCB training center in both Los Angeles and New York City. Since moving to Brooklyn in 2011, Kokesh has been performing long-form improv at the UCB Theater. We interviewed Kokesh after her Wednesday night “Lloyd” show about the ins and outs of improv as well as her aspirations and failures on-stage.
Journalistic Inquiry: Can you describe a little bit about what the Harold is?
Allie: The Harold is a structure made by Del Close. It originated in Chicago and the UCB Four brought it to New York and established the theater and the training center where they teach it. Basically the Harold is a structure, and if you just saw the show, there’s an opening to generate ideas, then you pull those ideas and you see them in the first three scenes. Then there’s a group game which is kind of like a palate cleanser. And then you see the second piece of those three scenes so either a time dash or analogous beat of those same games that have already been established, and then another palate cleanser, and then third piece is time for either making connections between all those scenes or Easter egg as I like to call them, where someone says something that caught your ear that you thought was funny, that you saved basically to do in the third beat.
JI: What’s a Lloyd Team exactly?
A: It’s an adversary term, there’s a Harold team, there’s a Mod team, and a Lloyd team; I don’t actually know where the names came from. I know that the Harold was what the performance was called, which is why there’s a Harold team, but the Lloyd teams don’t do the Herald stuff.
JI: Is there a certain type of humor, group or audience member that’s drawn to improv?
A: Oh that’s funny, I don’t know who the typical audience is because I’ve always been someone who’s so completely interested in comedy and improv especially at the UCB so I am obviously a biased audience participant, but I would say the type of people attracted to doing improv is someone that’s just kind, intelligent, and ready to experience playing basically “pretend” with grown-ups for hours. You just have to have a fun attitude for it.
JI: Where does your comedy come from? Where do you draw from the most in your life?
A: I would say, like any working actor, I don’t get paid to do comedy, so I spend a lot of my time doing different job mostly, I’m an assistant, so I feel like most of my comedy comes from that.
JI: Can anyone take classes at UCB?
A: Yeah, anyone can. You usually start at the 101 level and either in sketch or improv. And they also occasionally host storytelling classes, but it depends on the teachers that are available.
JI: How did you transition from classes to being part of a troupe?
A: There are audition classes for joining troupes. They hold open auditions once a year; in fact the open auditions are coming up on May 16th, and I think they’ll have about 500 people who sign up to audition. The number of spots changes every year. In the fall, they hosted closed auditions with 54 people auditioning, and there were only 4 spots. The time before that there were 11 spots.
JI: Describe the hardest you’ve ever bombed a performance.
A: Oh, god. I think I can always vividly remember bombing an audition the most, because that’s when I care the most. I would say the first time I auditioned for Herald actually, would have been 2011, I bombed pretty significantly, but I was green and hadn’t been performing a lot.
JI: What went wrong?
A: Well, I played a drunk person which is not unusual or funny, it was just a weird pretend that didn’t feel comfortable in the audition either, so it didn’t translate to be funny.
JI: How do you practice for improv?
A: We mostly just run exercises, it’s like sports, I think. Not that I play sports. Basically we run drills and work on the muscle of justifying and finding games and creating premises in the opening.
JI: Do you ever bring any ideas from practice onto the stage for improv?
A: I wish I was that thoughtful on stage, but it really is just about hearing the ideas that you’re generating as a group, and sometimes even if I go out and I’m like “this is definitely what I’m going to say” and then the other person says something first, you just have to react to what they’re saying, otherwise it just dissolves.
JI: Are you ever lost for words?
A: Um, yes, I am sometimes but not on stage. There’s no time to be, it’s like too thoughtful for stage. You’re overthinking it when you’re at a loss for words.
JI: So it just comes naturally?
A: Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of a UCB thing too, don’t think on-stage. You just go for it, just do it.
JI: In an improv, can you steer it in a certain direction?
A: I mean, that also assumes you have total control of the situation, and also that undermines your theme partner, in a way. It’s supposed to be collaborative. When you’re on stage and you’re thinking, “This isn’t going right!” you’re the problem, not the theme, so you should mostly focus on what’s going on on-stage.
JI: What do you do before an improv performance?
A: I drink coffee, sometimes a Red Bull. Everyone’s pre-show ritual is different. Sometimes I’ll just eat a whole bag of gummies, I really like the cherry gummies from Haribo. Those are my favorite.
JI: Would you say the audience’s reaction shapes the show as it is happening?
A: Oh yes, it’s hard because you really just want to do it for your teammates and for the sake of what you are generating in trying to perform but if I hear laughter I’m like, “Okay, do that again.” Even if you’re doing stand up and you start on a row of jokes and no one reacts you probably want to stop that row and just move on.
JI: When do you know something you’re performing feels overdone and you need to drop it?
A: As soon as the audience knows. I like performing at the theater a lot because you can’t see most of your audience; you can barely hear anything, sound travels differently when you’re on stage, but you can see the first two rows so clearly, their faces and how they react to what you’re doing on stage. My best bet is trying to ignore it but if I see someone going “No! What are you doing?” I’m like “Okay, change course. Change course now!”
JI: So you do think up there.
A: I’m a bad example. You shouldn’t be. Super talented people don’t think on stage.
JI: Do you ever take it personally?
A: Oh, man. Yeah, but I think I’m just sensitive sometimes. Now that I’ve been doing it long enough, I’m better, but a bad show would kill me for like two weeks and a good show would keep me cheering for three days. When I see it I try to tell myself to just let it be.
JI: What do you do on the weekdays?
A: I perform with First Lady, always on Wednesdays at 7:30. I just got laid off from a job I had for a year; I was a personal assistant. Before that, I was a paralegal for a year and a half at NBC. Before that I was an NBC paid. I find day jobs that don’t mind that I will go on auditions, or that I will edit scripts at my desk, that sort of thing.
JI: Have any opportunities arisen from UCB?
A: I have gotten auditions just for performing, I got an audition for Girl Code just because an intern was in the audience, but I don’t have an agent or a manager. That comes with time.
JI: Have you applied to get on Saturday Night Live?
A: That’s actually not my goal. I’m very realistic with my goals. I’m twenty seven years old, that’s when that happens. I’m not great at spot-on impressions of famous people. I would be happier writing and creating something for myself.
JI: How much longer do you see yourself doing UCB or comedy?
A: I set the arbitrary goal for myself that by the time I’m 29 I want to have a job that pays me to write comedy, but there’s no money in it now, and there’s no money at UCB, unless you’re on the touring company. Which I’m not.
JI: What’s your favorite part about this?
A: I guess the community, I mean, now that I’ve lived here for three years, all of my friends are comedians. I love it because it’s an opportunity to work with all my friends, and it’s also great because it’s a community of people who are super passionate about comedy and also working hard and turning out like clips and web-series and stuff. You always have someone to work with or hang out with.