Beneath the hustle and bustle of Asylum Street in Connecticut’s Capital City, lies a hidden gem. Sea Tea Comedy Theater is Hartford’s leading comedy company, providing comedy shows and classes since their opening in August 2016. Promotional posters are plastered to the walls, descending stairs to the small theater. Exactly eighty seats surround the stage – a large plot of wood on the floor. Tonight, like many other nights, people gather with hopes of getting a good laugh.
“All we need to start is a word that isn’t food,” the five girls on stage announce, falling silent to signal it was okay to respond.
“Justin Timberlake!” the audience shouts back. The digital clock on the wall counts down fifteen minutes of stage time. The first word the group hears is the word that will be the center of their next skit.
“Alright, we heard espresso first, so we’re gonna go with that!” A brunette girl with rosy cheeks claps. Immediately two others emerge with chairs, pushing them to the center of the stage. The remaining girls recede, now standing against the wall to watch their group members in action. Until she claps again and the scene changes, in the spotlight is a vibrant, middle-aged woman with glasses that magnify her eyes—and my friend Amber.
About a year ago, Amber walked into an audition after a year hiatus from acting. With her sense of humor and a dream of being involved in the magic, she became a member of the Hartford based improv group, Golden Ratio.
She sits next to the woman with the glasses, informing her of the “dangers” that come with espresso consumption. Her brown hair is parted in the middle, two braids circling her head. She’s clad in grey jeans and a black t-shirt draped with a sleeveless red flannel. Her makeup glitters underneath the spotlight. The company members cover almost every body type; ranging in age from twenty to forty, some of the girls are short, some are tall, some wear glasses and some don’t. All of these personalities mold together to create a different breed of performance: improvisation, or improv for short.
By definition, improv performances are unscripted, created spontaneously by the actors on stage. It is believed that improv has been around since about 391 BC. Over the centuries, actors would travel from village to village using makeshift stages, creating their own lines as they went along. In recent years, improv has grown quite a following—particularly on Saturday nights.
The first thing I notice while sitting in the Sea Tea Comedy Theater is a small, golden plaque on my seat dedicated to Chris Farley— a former member of Chicago’s Second City Theater, and one of the famous alumni of Saturday Night Live (SNL).
The Second City opened in Chicago in December 1959. Since opening, it has grown to be the world’s premier improv club. Pretty much anybody who’s anybody in improv used The Second City as a launching pad for their career, including Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey. These are just a few from a long list of alumni. SNL scouts look for new faces at comedy clubs, wanting to recruit up-and-comers with little experience in TV and film.
“And my girls are really supportive. Now I’m a different person I have a different idea on how to live my life. Improv helps a lot of people.”
Today, there are Second City shows every night in Chicago, Toronto, and Hollywood. It’s possible to put on a show every night, because when it comes to improv, you’ll never see the same thing twice. It’s impossible.
Before the Sea Tea Comedy show begins, I catch up with Amber in the theater. I ask her why they want suggestions that aren’t food, and she replies with an amusing anecdote of a show in New York City.
“We were doing a opener that was called a monologue opener. Basically you ask the audience for a one-word suggestion and the teammates, depending on whoever jumps forward, would give a three to five minute story based upon what the suggestion was. So our suggestion was quinoa and I whispered to my teammate next to me, I was like, ‘what the hell is that?’”
The Amber on stage is bubbly. She’s funny. She seems as though she radiates happiness. But despite her stage presence, she has struggles, too.
Amber was diagnosed with Lyme disease in November 2015. “I was in miserable pain and I didn’t know why,” she says. “The main reason I knew I was sick was because I went from a person who loved to be out always out doing stuff with my friends, hiking, working out, and having fun to someone who never wanted to go out or do anything because I was in constant pain.” Lyme disease significantly decreased Amber’s quality of life. Thankfully, her mother was familiar with the disease and urged her to seek treatment. Because she was unable to do the things she loved, she grew more and more depressed. Her big dreams of being an actress were suddenly out of reach, until her mom pushed her to take the risk and audition for Golden Ratio. Since then, Amber’s life has turned around completely.
“I didn’t even want to audition. I was afraid I was too sick, but did it and I’m so happy I did because it helped me get back out there,” she recalls. “And my girls are really supportive. Now I’m a different person; I have a different idea on how to live my life. Improv helps a lot of people.”
Improv acting actually has an interesting history of treating mental illness. It’s a creative and playful way to deal with the dark issues many people have, serving as an escape, as well as a learning and self-realizing experience. Many psychologists think if patients engage with this type of comedy, they can reconnect with their inner self. The idea is to get them to “loosen up” and have fun, giving them relief from the reality of dealing with a mental illness. Improvisation can influence those with anxiety to learn how to live in the moment when in social environments, rather than stress over what will happen next. Not only that, but relying on others to create something such as an improv scene strengthens bonds between people. This can help those with mental illnesses build relationships with those around them.
Back on stage, Amber now observes two of her other group members. She laughs hysterically, watching her friends ramble onstage. One girl is wearing a birthday crown, expressing to the audience that it’s her twentieth birthday, and she receives an espresso machine as a gift.
The funny thing is, it really is her birthday.
“She just doesn’t understand, you know? I just really need my espresso!” The birthday girl says to a blonde with glasses and two braids that frame her face. She rolls her eyes, taking on the role of a concerned mother worried for her child’s life.
Their movements are erratic under the spotlight, causing the audience to erupt into fits of laughter with each joke made. The laughter grows even louder when their faces twist in desperate attempt to keep a straight face.
The timer on the wall reads that there are thirty seconds remaining in the show. Amber emerges from her place against the wall, laughing in the spotlight, clapping to signal the end of the scene.
When the timer runs out, the stage goes dark. The audience erupts in applause.
The lights go on again, and the M.C. stands center stage.
“Alright, give it up for Golden Ratio!” she exclaims, waving the girls back onstage to take their final bow.
Amber is beaming, laughter lines etched into her face.
The girls bow and disappear backstage.