Justin Zell and Kasey Daley of the comedy improv group The Union, one of four Steel City Improv groups headed to New York's Del Close Marathon.
By Benjamin Mueller Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The suggestion was peaches.
As always, The LuPones, a group based at Steel City Improv Theater that invents songs and scenes on the fly, had opened by asking the audience for "a word or phrase at the top of your intelligence or integrity." At Saturday's show, The LuPones were given the word "peaches" to mine for its associations.
"Peaches made us think of Georgia, which made us think of Southern belles and debutantes," said actor Connor McCanlus, 23. From Southern belles and debutantes they moved to Northern sex fiends, a baby with a face like peach fuzz, and Mr. McCanlus' character, a man who didn't understand women and left his girlfriend for a boy named Chuck.
"Our finale was 'Be Who You Are.' You may not be the smartest person or the most attractive person but you have to be who you are," he said.
The LuPones, along with three other groups from Steel City Improv, are riding that maxim from Pittsburgh to the improv stages of New York City. The LuPones, Blue Stocking Babes, The Union and AKA may not be from a traditional locus of improv comedy talent, but these groups were among 200 chosen out of thousands of applicants to perform this weekend as part of the prestigious Del Close Marathon at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on Manhattan's West 26th Street. The event allows participants to meet top improvisers from around the world and take master classes taught by renowned New York performers. The weekend honors Del Close, a comedian who mentored legends such as Bill Murray, John Belushi and Amy Poehler.
Mr. McCanlus said there was nowhere to take an improv class when he was an aspiring actor at Winchester Thurston in Shadyside in 2007.
"Then when I came back after graduating [from Clarion University], I discovered this gem of an improv theater," he said. SCIT opened in January 2011 and hosts shows and classes throughout the week. Mr. McCanlus took an introductory musical improv class last fall and was invited to help form The LuPones. Now, Mr. McCanlus said, "I bleed for this theater because it's given me so many opportunities."
The LuPones are one of six musical improv groups to be selected for the marathon, and one of two from outside New York City.
Nicole Antonnucio, 23, had never taken an improv class before she showed up at SCIT in September for a Level 1 class. Before long she found herself performing as part of AKA. Although Pittsburgh's improv scene may not be a launching pad to "Saturday Night Live," Ms. Antonnucio said that there are advantages to training in a small, supportive community.
"In a lot of other cities there's a very systematic structure for improvement where you take classes and get to a certain level and then audition," she said. "It's very much a process. But here you're more comfortable. You can try things out and improve just by getting practice in a more creative and fostering environment."
Ms. Antonnucio said she moved back to Pittsburgh after graduating from Cornell University with the intention of leaving within six months, but she now credits the creative community she found at SCIT for helping convince her to stay.
Kasey Daley, 35, founded SCIT with her husband, Justin Zell, after moving back to her native Pittsburgh from New York. She wanted to stop fighting to pay rent and start paying attention to her craft. She also hoped to spread the life skills that improv teaches -- active listening, saying yes, trusting collaborators -- and debunk the myth that improv is only for the quick-witted.
"It's not just about being funny," she said. "Improv is about reacting truthfully and emotional play."