In some ways, comedy is a game of dedication.
You start with dedicating time to study comedy. From there, you to dedicate some time to actually doing it. And if you get good enough, you dedicate a good part of your life to making people laugh.
One of the area’s most dedicated comedy troupes is Pants Labyrinth. Recently, I had a chance to interview one of local comedy’s most active players, Melissa Hoadley (who’s coincidentally one of the driving forces behind Pants Labyrinth).
We talked about how PL started, long form improv in general, and some of the stuff they’re getting up to…
Spinoffs are a very popular way to showcase something familiar in a new light while exposing new personalities to the public. What exactly led the members of Pants Labyrinth to spin your troupe out of the Shut The Front Door Training Program?
I would say it was a lack of opportunity, to be candid. The original members of Pants Labyrinth met in STFD classes about two (maybe a little more) years ago, and at that time they were quite a bit smaller.
We were fortunate in that we got a lot (if not almost all) of the Shut the Front Door troupe at each class, so we were able to improvise with people who had much more experience, and to watch their dynamic. We pre-date (JUST!) multiple streams, and multiple troupes, so there wasn’t anything to do after “graduating” multiple times except to keep starting over… groundhog day style. So, Pants Labyrinth was formed as a student troupe.
Some of our members now are from later streams, but we all came from Shut the Front door.
For those who don’t know the difference, could you explain the fundamental differences between long form improv and improv games?
Absolutely. Short form refers to games that usually have some condition imposed (such as it’s a quiz show, someone has to guess who the characters are, improvisers incorporate lines written by the audience, etc.). A suggestion, or many suggestions are used for short games. The premise of the game helps create/set up the laughs.
Long form often has conditions imposed as well. The most popular form: the ‘Harold’ is almost mathematical in its formula. It’s the improvisors creating the entire world of the piece and the entire longer piece from a single suggestion. Ideally, they’re getting into a group mind and finding the game of the scene while doing it.
What do you feel are the key contributing factors to good long form improv?
In terms of doing long form, I think patience is the #1 thing because it can feel like driving an unwieldy train with each car trying to move into a different direction at times. It’s stepping out there with a group of other people with the intention of creating something good, compelling, and something that the audience will want to watch. Not knowing what or where that is until you and your fellow improvisers uncover it. So you have to trust that collectively it will happen. You have to be patient enough to keep looking for it and not be tempted to try to be funny or do a pratfall because there are no laughs at first. I think you have to be ok with the fact that it might not get as many laughs as short form games right away (or at all.)
So you have to trust that collectively it will happen. You have to be patient enough to keep looking for it and not be tempted to try to be funny or do a pratfall because there are no laughs at first. I think you have to be ok with the fact that it might not get as many laughs as short form games right away (or at all.)
I’ve seen a lot of good long form (it’s the reason I wanted to learn improv in the first place). To me, it’s good if it seems seamless. I have been more delighted as an audience member as I have learned more about long form. To see the strings that people are pulling technically in their scenes and how effortlessly they’re making it look so the majority of the audience has no idea they are doing anything technically “right.” It’s like blatant magic and that is exhilarating.
I love watching people create good, watchable characters and then see how they navigate that character through different scenarios. And to watch a good troupe play games, do clever callbacks, and in the end, tie everything neatly together is everything I love about improv. That kind of talent is a form of artistic genius.
Anybody who knows you knows that you’ve taken some courses at the UCB in New York City. How do you feel those classes have helped improve and influence your improv?
UCB was a game changer for me. I’d been to Second City in Chicago before that. So I thought I knew what to expect class wise, but I was wrong. UCB was very serious, I feel very awkward and self conscious playing warm up games and doing over the top improv. That kind of thing wasn’t part of the scene at UCB. It was about creating ‘realistic’ base reality and building the scene. It could get to any level of weird ridiculousness, but because it didn’t start there. That was the main part of heightening it, making it feel more true and less “I’m doing this because I know it’s funny.”
It’s all because I have no idea what’s funny to other people. I want to become a character and do what they would do, but as me, I feel like an idiot making bunny ears with my fingers and saying “Bunny bunny” to another person, and that fit in at UCB. So I guess my answer is, it felt more serious and I think that’s why it felt like such a big leap In my improv consciousness. It was all day long and the other students were super serious, almost everyone was a professional in some way, lots of actual actors. I think my improv life can be divided before and after UCB. It’s because it was more in line with what I’d seen in good long form shows. It’s about being more real and trying to find the funny intellectually.
Since you commute from Sarnia for London shows are there any good road stories that you have to share?
Not really. I drive with fellow Pants member, Sarah, and she’s a semi-slow driver. So we usually have a lot of time to catch up. We sing quite a bit. We always talk about having a cover band that dresses really primly. All the while covering really over the top impolite songs, so we often practice one particular song by Riskay.
On one of your previous shows you offered a 50% discount with the donation of a used or new backpack or suitcase. For those out there wondering, what exactly inspired this great initiative?
We have this great fan, Gillian, who works with kids in foster and group home care (troupe member, Kevin Cope’s wife does as well). Gillian posted about these kids moving things from home to home in garbage bags, which really upset me.
It bothers me that they are lacking in a possession that would bring dignity to an already tough situation. We collected over 50 bags. I know all of us in Pants are looking for ways to do more, and to contribute more.
Your troupe has been known to end their shows with a little game called “Improv Against Humanity.” How did this come to be and what is the worst combination of cards that you’ve had to act out?
I’m always looking for things we can do differently in improv, and trying to come up with new games for Pants Labyrinth. I was playing Cards Against Humanity at a friend’s house and could vividly picture how horrible it would be to act out some [or] a lot of these cards, so of course, we had to try it.
It’s been a little controversial for us actually, even within the troupe. We had a vote whether or not it was too dirty, but here it is, a signature game. I had a senior citizen hand me one of my most horrible cards the same night as another called me shocking and dirty (not for the same card!) so it’s definitely polarizing. Which I’m completely ok with. I had to act out putting baby carrots up my posterior more than once.
It’s fun to do because there are so many ways to portray each card, and because it can be shocking. Being a little shocked can be a good thing, I think.
Lately with the introduction of the London Music Office, it seems the London music scene is improving. What do you think the London comedy scene has to do as a whole to follow suit?
I think forming a group would be a good start. I don’t know if London comedy people are committee type people but to accomplish big things, I think you need many minds. It’s insular now. By working together despite doing different types of comedy, being in different troupes. I believe it’s the way to create a larger scene that is truly a scene and experiences organic growth.
Do you think a “London Comedy Festival” would be an important step in that direction?
I think it would be a great idea as it is inclusive of many types of comedy (stand up, sketch, improv, etc) without one type having to sustain it all. Creating a festival would involve a ton of work and thus a lot of people but I think that’s a community builder. Ideally, the more people you have involved the more emotional involvement and buy in you get from people. I’m very pro committee-style of leadership though vs. one dictator, so I like big, inclusive projects like this.
One Last Question…..
Anybody who has seen you perform knows that you draw great inspiration from classic movie heroines. So with that being said, what’s your favourite classic movie?
I think this might be you being very perceptive, but hope people do think this, because I love this question! I am a HUGE classic movie fan, so it’s really difficult for me to pick a favourite. I have a giant soft spot for the entire oeuvre of Judy Garland. I absolutely adore her, and have since I was very young. I also really love Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Marlene Dietrich… it’s SO hard. But if I were forced to pick one, I’d say Funny Girl which is a true story.
I love it because it’s complex. Fanny Brice isn’t beautiful and she’s constantly trying to fit into this world that values beauty and continually reinforces that she isn’t that. I like that while she’s trying to fit into that space, she isn’t doing it at the expense of changing herself “I’m a bagel on a plate of onion rolls!” That’s how I often feel. Plus this is better, she never fits into that world.
She gets the guy she wants and it’s not happily ever after (spoiler alert!). He doesn’t change and she doesn’t get more conventionally attractive. This is the theme of almost every Barbra Streisand film, done differently and beautifully each time. And Fanny Brice is successful not because she is attractive, not because she was in the right place at the right time, but because her talent cannot be denied. It’s incredible. All that and a musical!
Pat Tiffin is a local comedian and contributor for LondonFuse
Feature photo via Facebook / @pantsimprov