Nannette Deasy is an actor, improviser, and sketch writer. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English and began to perform professionally. She is currently the Artistic Director for IRTE, the Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble. IRTE’s newest show, “The Scary,” opened April 12. We got to speak with her about the show, IRTE, and improvisational acting.
S: How did you get interested in improv?
N: I was invited to see some shows at an improvisational comedy theatre, called Chicago City Limits. This was before places like UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and the PIT (People’s Improv Theatre) opened. The Magnet Theater also opened, which led to an explosion of improv in New York. I remember being blown away by how immediate and fun [the shows at Chicago City Limits] were. There was nothing really written, but the improvisational element was alive and immediate for me! It felt like, Wow, they could make up everything! I got interested, so I started taking classes. UCB Theatre opened and I took some classes there. I also studied at the Gotham City Improv, once it opened. I became really involved in improve there and became one of their main company members. I still am actually. In fact, that’s how I met many of the cast members from IRTE there, since they were involved as well.
I’ve been performing and studying improv for fifteen years. I’ve done some acting with certain material, as well. But, I’ve always loved imrpov for how exciting it is.
M: Who, or what, are some of your influences? And how do you begin the process of improv?
N: Our pieces, at IRTE, are very much genre and character based. We develop the shows by getting the creative team together and pitching different ideas, during the pre-production period. There are seven of us, and once we all pitch our ideas, we vote. Once the show is chosen, its creator is in charge of molding it. They can either direct it or appear in it. I have a strict rule that no one can direct a show and perform in it; in order to direct a show you have to be outside of it. For “The Scary,” I decided that I really wanted to perform. Everyone else in the group wanted to perform, as well. So, we hired an outside director: Pat Shay, from PIT and, originally, Second City in Chicago.
However, one of my influences was always Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Harvey Korman. I grew up watching her show. I always wanted to be her so badly. I remember thinking they were so brilliant and funny, and they seemed to be having so much fun.
S: Obviously, “The Scary” is based on Stephen King’s works. What were some of your exact influences for the show?
N: A lot of them. I first thought of this, because I have, I think, read everything he has written. What really sparked the idea was reading, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, his book on advice for writers and is, also, part-autobiographical. I remember thinking that a lot of his comments about writing related very well to improv. For instance, the writing is filled with characters that are in very unusual circumstances, but the plot centers around “What if?” He doesn’t really plot, which is something we don’t do in improv. We don’t plan the ending, we stay in the immediate. He also has very archetypal characters: the unpopular girl with paranormal abilities, a group of lovable loser kids, an evil pet, an evil clown, or even an alcoholic writer.
The audience, at “The Scary,” gets to choose one of these characters to be the hero or heroine. They will recognize those archetypal. They can also choose the problem, a pandemic or something like that. If you, and the audience, are familiar with the archetypes, then you have freedom to play with the role and bring them to life for the audience.
M: What do you want people to take away from the show?
N: Most importantly, I want the audience to have fun. I want them to laugh. It will be a spooky show, but we want people to embrace the humor in the show. I want people to embrace the silliness of the show.
We also have live music. One of the things we do, at IRTE, is bring a musical guest to play during intermission. Sometimes, we can incorporate them into the show. One show we did a few years ago took place in a high school, so we had the band play during a “special assembly in the auditorium.” This past Saturday, we had Craig Greenberg. On April 19, we will have Pablo (Bluesboy) and on April 26, we will have Gift of Tongues. Gift of Tongues will be the most fitting for Stephen King; he will fit in very well. He will be in character for the show. For example, he sang a lovely ballad at a previous performance, but the lyrics are about a serial killer.
I really hope they have fun, expecting everything and nothing. One of the great things about this year, we have a residency at the producer’s club. Usually, theatres won’t let their audiences bring food or drink into the auditorium. However, we let our audiences bring as much alcohol as they want. We like our audiences to be a little tipsy.
M: Once a show has been created, how do you approach the rehearsal process for improv?
N: There is some structure to the show, but it is not scripted. When you come into a show, you have no idea what role you are going to play. No one knows who the focus is going to be on. The character is played by whoever wants to play the role, then they are free to interpret the role as they choose.
As far as rehearsing, we will have a basic structure. Start off with a prologue, maybe put a monologue into a scene as a flashback, and so on. We outline a possible frame, but we don’t look at or address character interpretation. It’s basically a road map for the production. We [at IRTE] have worked together for a long time, so we have developed a short hand for rehearsal. We are very comfortable with each other. That also helps for figuring out how to play the show together. Plus, it gives us more play time.
S: As you perform “The Scary,” you are in rehearsal for some other shows that are coming up for IRTE. Can you tell us a little bit about some of these projects?
N: At IRTE, we combine improvisation, spontaneity and comedy, with traditions and values of the traditional American repertory theatre. So, we pitch the shows at the beginning of the season. We have Small Claims, vIRTE Go-Go, and The Magic Zoo. While we are performing one of the shows, we are rehearsing and developing the next show. Once we complete the season, we bring the shows to different festivals.
We’ve been to festivals around NYC. We’ve also traveled to places like Tampa, New Orleans, and Portland. We want to travel more, so we’ve applied to some other festivals. And they are amazing experiences – traveling with friends and performing for different audiences. Plus, you can see different ideas and styles of improvisation in other areas. You can really see the arts developing at those moments.
There will be performances of Nannette Deasy’s show, “The Scary,” on April 19 & 26. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, check out IRTE’s website.