By Libby Cathey
In a community of hopeful comedians, working temporary jobs by day and performing for laughter by night, Allie Kokesh, 27-year-old, San Francisco native, found a home at Upright Citizens Brigrade. The Training Center, started by Amy Poehler, Matt Bess, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, has been teaching improv and sketch comedy for the past fifteen years.
Like most aspiring performers, success in the future is uncertain. But Kokesh’s improv troupe, First Lady, shares a steady stint in the spotlight every Wednesday at 7:30pm at UCB’s East Village location. Kokesh is realistic in her goals as a young, female, comedian working in the city. She no longer dreams of stardom or Saturday Night Live but aspires to write and create something on her own accord.
JI: How did you get started with UCB?
AK: I started doing improv in college. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I wasn’t finding the theater program to be very enriching, so I started doing improv and fell in love with doing that, and then the professor said if you want to keep doing comedy go to UCB in New York.
JI: And when did you come to New York?
AK: I came to New York at the end of 2010. I moved to Brooklyn in 2011, and I’ve been doing this ever since.
JI: What’s your favorite part about UCB?
AK: I guess the community. I mean, now that I’ve lived here for three years, all of my friends are comedians. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I love it because I get to work with all of my friends, and I think it’s also great because it’s just a community that is really passionate about comedy and is also working really hard and turning out scripts and web series and stuff. You have someone to work with and hang out with.
JI: How do you transition from taking classes at UCB to joining an improv team?
AK: There is an audition process. They hold open auditions once a year, and in fact they are coming up in May. I think they will have 500 people who will sign up to audition. And the number of spots changes every year. And they hold closed auditions also in the fall. So they’ll invite about 64 people to audition.
JI: Your troupe, The First Lady, is a Lloyd team. What exactly does Lloyd mean?
AK: It’s an arbitrary term. There’s Harold teams, there’s Maude teams, and there’s Lloyd teams. I don’t actually know where the name came from. I know that the Harold was what the form is called, that’s why there’s Harold teams, but Lloyd teams still do the Harold.
JI: Can you describe what the Harold form entails?
AK: Del Close originated it in Chicago and the UCB four brought it to New York and established the theater and the training center where they teach it. So 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. And then there’s a group game, which is kind of like a palate cleanser. And then you see the second beat of those first three themes, so either a time dash or analogous beat of those same games that have already been established. And then another palate cleanser and then the third beat is a time for either making connections between all those scenes or Easter eggs, as I like to call them, where someone just says something that caught your ear, that you thought was funny, that you get to basically do in the third beat.
JI: How often do teams practice?
AK: Every week for three hours with a coach that we pay for. So I think I pay $60 a month for Lloyd and another $60 for Maude. We mostly just run exercises. It’s like sports. Basically we run drills and work on the muscle of justifying and finding games, creating premises in the opening.
JI: Do you ever bring ideas from practice onto the stage?
AK: 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 about to say, and the other person said something first, you just gotta react to what they’re saying, otherwise it just dissolves. That’s kinda a UCB thing, too: “Don’t think.” You should just go for it.
JI: If you don’t like the way a scene is going, can you gear in the direction you want to take it?
AK: I mean that assumes you have total control of the situation and also that undermines your team kind in a way. If you’re on stage and you’re thinking, “This isn’t going well,” you’re the problem, not the scene. You should just be focused on what’s going on on stage.
JI: Where does your comedy come from?
AK: 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 jobs. Mostly I’m an assistant, so I feel like most of my comedy comes from that.
JI: So what is your day job?
AK: I just got laid off from a job I had for a year, I was a personal assistant, and before that–what did I do–I was a paralegal for a year and a half at NBC and before that I was a page. Mostly I find day jobs that don’t mind that I will go on auditions or that I will edit scripts at my desk.
JI: Who inspires you?
AK: Steve Martin is a huge deal for me. Mindy Kaling is really inspiring as someone who worked really hard and did the things she loved to do; that’s how she got discovered.
JI: Is there a certain type of person that UCB is for?
AK: I’m a bias audience participant, but I think the type of person that improv is for is kind and intelligent and ready to play pretend with grown-ups for hours. You have to have a fun attitude for it.