Upright Citizen’s Brigade Now. Next Up, Saturday Night Live?

By: Daniela Franco

For Allie Kokesh, improv became her passion when she was studying theater at Trinity College in Connecticut. Kokesh would eventually audition for the chance to become a performer on the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, alongside roughly 500 aspiring comedians. Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, and Amy Poehler originally founded UCB in 1993 in Chicago. In 1996, the theater made a move to the Big Apple, bringing with them a long-form improvisation structure created by Del Close known as the “Harold”.

Since her audition, Kokesh has performed in three different comedic teams during the last two years within UCB and can now be seen Wednesday nights with the team ‘First Lady’. Kokesh and her teammates attempt to win over the crowds every night with their wonderfully imperfect humor, as they embrace their stage that has become Kokesh’s outlet to show her aspirations and concerns as a comedian.

Journalistic Inquiry: Can you describe a little bit about what the Harold is?

Allie Kokesh: 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: Where does your comedy come from? Where do you draw from the most in your life?

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 job mostly, I’m an assistant, so I feel like most of my comedy comes from that.

JI: Can anyone take classes at UCB?

AK: 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?

AK: 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: Do you aspire to be on Saturday Night Live?

AK: That’s really not my goal cause I am really realistic with my goals. I’m 27. That’s when that happened. I ‘m not great at impressions –I mean actually thought out impressions of famous people. I would be happier writing and creating something for myself.

JI: Describe the hardest you’ve ever bombed a performance.

AK: 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 Harold actually, which would have been 2011. And I bombed pretty significantly, but I was pretty green and hadn’t been performing a lot.

JI: What went wrong?

AK: 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?

AK: 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?

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 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?

AK: 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?

AK: 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?

AK: 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: Would you say the audience’s reaction shapes the show as it is happening?

AK: 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?

AK: 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.

AK: I’m a bad example. You shouldn’t be. Super talented people don’t think on stage.

JI: Do you ever take it personally?

AK: 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.

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