What to do This Weekend: Steel City Improv is hoping to get screams of laughter

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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The two come to life -- so to speak -- in a pairing of macabre improv shows tonight and every Friday night at Steel City Improv Theater on the North Side.

As if improv wasn't scary enough, these performers are doing it from the perspective of the afterlife. Sort of.

Like a zombie's coffin lid, the concept is kind of hard to nail down.

Steel City Improv Theater was started two years ago by Kasey Daley and her husband, Justin Zell, who were looking for life after New York.

"It's a rough place to live. We were 30 years old and still had a roommate," said Ms. Daley, 35, who grew up in the North Hills and had moved to New York to study improv theater with the People's Improv Theater, the Magney Theater and the Upright Citizens Brigade.

"So we decided to move to Pittsburgh and do our own thing, and it's the best decision we ever made in our lives. We've been able to do things we could never do in New York. We bought a house, we opened a theater. We have amassed an amazing community of performers in less than two years. In my wildest dreams I never could have expected this."

Pittsburgh had its share of improv acts, she said, but not the "long-form improv" she and her husband had studied.

"Long-form improv is different from what you might have seen on 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' on television," Ms. Daley said. "That's like a game. It's a little schticky. Long-form is improvised theater. It will hopefully look like either a one-act play or a really good episode of 'Saturday Night Live' with sketches, but they're completely improvised."

Steel City Improv Theater was rolling along, drawing nice crowds of 40-some people to each of its shows on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights. And then, last fall, the performers introduced a dark turn in anticipation of Halloween.

"There was no real reason, just the schedule," Ms. Daley said. "But everyone liked it, so we kept doing it. We started creepy Fridays."

It begins at 8 p.m. with The Death Show. You have to admit, it's a funny name.

"The Death Show gets a willing volunteer from the audience who gives the players their wallet or purse," Ms. Daley said. "We go through it and take tidbits -- nothing real personal, and we never say their real name. But we take the things that are in there, that information, and we use it for material for the show."

It's presented in the form of a funeral, with each of the performers taking turns presenting a short, improvised eulogy about the cast member who has passed away. And then they present a comic scene riffing off the eulogy.

The pattern is repeated a few times.

"It's an improvised funeral," Ms. Daley said. "It may not always be linear, it may not be a cohesive narrative, but it's a fun piece of theater that you put together in your head. And then the dead person, the person whose funeral it was, will have a monologue at the end."

Then the show ends and everyone leaves in preparation for the next show -- Nebby Spectres -- which is more of a concept show.

"You walk in and there are six dead people on the stage," Ms. Daley said. "They are actors who died in a theater fire on this night in 1845. They come back to life and do a show for you.

"It's really fun because you get to see the show that they're putting on but you also get into the interpersonal relationships. They will talk to the audience a little bit, maybe ask some questions. Then they'll start doing scenes off the information the audience has given them."

You might suspect that the performers would be tempted to cheat by doing certain bits every time. I dared to ask about that.

"I swear that will never happen!" Ms. Daley said. "First of all, we're improvisers. So most of us get bored easily. We want to surprise ourselves and surprise our scene partners.

"My husband and I will do a duo, and we've been doing it for a very long time. So once or twice, there have been times when it feels like we've done this before -- and we'll immediately change it. We don't want to do the same thing. If we wanted to do the same thing, we'd be doing scripted theater."

But that doesn't mean that these professional performers don't hone their craft.

"We're not doing rehearsed scenes, because everything is made up on the spot. But we rehearse forms," Ms. Daley said. "It's exactly like a football game. You never know what's going to happen, but you're still going to practice."

You can see if the practice pays off tonight at 8 at the theater, located at 808 B Tripoli St. on the North Side. The shows are $5 each. (Please pay in cash.)

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/trypittsburghpress/


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