Whether you get your chuckles from stand-up, rom coms, or laugh at your own jokes, there is nothing as satisfying as a good, hearty, embarrassing, snort-inducing belly-laugh. On the first Friday night of every month for almost two years now, an eclectic cast of players takes the stage at LKLD Live to give Lakeland a double bill of the absolute best medicine.
Though the thought of having to make a crowd of strangers laugh with no prepared material may send waves of panic through your body, there is an art to it – a way to take the stage with confidence, to win over a room with an eruption of laughter, to feel free enough to be silly – and no, it’s not picturing the audience in the buff.
Members of Swan City Improv opened up about how they made their way to the improv stage and how they now rely on their team to help them let it all go.
A BRILLIANT BATCH OF HUMORISTS
Swan City Improv was founded by funnyman Nate Fleming. Nate, from Richmond, Virginia, learned improv almost 14 years ago. He made his way to Lakeland to attend Southeastern University where he played in their group, Unpland Improv.
After years of trying to set up an improv team in Lakeland to no avail, he moved to Chicago, studying at all the major comedy clubs – The Second City, ImprovOlympic, The Annoyance.
He made a call to LKLD Live while still in Chicago. LKLD Live Executive Director, Shane Lawlor liked the idea of giving the new improv team a platform and after the first show asked them perform every month. “Truly, we owe a lot to LKLD Live for opening up their doors to us,” Nate said.
Swan City Improv now has a team of nine players including Nate, Meg Wittman, Jeremy King, Brent Adriano, Cameron Smith, Aaron Burns, Arielle Prepetit, Sean McKenney, and Kegan James. Shows are hosted by Jordan Rippy with musical accompaniment by pianist Anthony Riley.
We sat down with Nate, Meg, Jeremy, Brent, Cameron, and Aaron to talk improv.
Meg and Jeremy are both from Orlando. Meg has been doing improv for two years now, often taking the SAK Comedy Lab stage in Orlando. She was connected with Swan City Improv and was a natural fit. She describes the group as “an ensemble cast,” adding, “it really feels like a home and a family.”
Jeremy, a church youth director, started improv in the same college improv group as Nate, hosting for two seasons. “It’s been a cool transition between hosting it and being a part of the team, it’s been amazing,” he said.
“My first real exposure to improv was actually these guys,” said Lakeland native, Brent Adriano, pointing to Aaron, Nate, and Jeremy. “I saw them as a freshman in a café show at Southeastern University. They were on a team called Unpland Improv and I said, ‘I want to be a part of that someday.’”
“Someday” came for Brent when Nate invited him to play with the Swan City Improv team.
Both Aaron and Cameron were first exposed to improv watching Colin Mochrie, Brian Styles, and Wayne Brady make the country laugh on Whose Line is it Anyway? In college, they both played on Unpland Improv and were pulled back onstage when Nate started Swan City.
“I AM SERIOUS. AND DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY.”
Comedians past and present have given the Swan City players inspiration for their wacky antics and ability to let it all hang out on stage.
For Jeremy, it started with All That and Kenan & Kel. He said that seeing someone who looked like him on TV as a kid, playing a gamut of crazy characters, pushes him to attempt characters unlike himself. “I really pull that from Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell,” he explained.
Nate’s favorite comedians are those who “are goofy, but they don’t believe they’re goofy.” He named Leslie Nielsen, quoting one of his favorite lines in Airplane!, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” He noted his interest in the variety of characters and “lightning-paced” comedy of Steve Martin and Robin Williams.
Nate discussed the honesty of comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor. “They just speak to what they believe to be true and they commit to it whether or not you care. They just want to make you laugh by telling the truth that they’re able to find.”
Brent watches the ingenuity of his team, taking in everything they do to sharpen his own improvisational skills. Keegan-Michael Key and Jim Carrey inspire Brent to be very physical with his comedy on stage.
SNL alum Tim Robinson has been a comedic influence for Aaron Burns. “Everything that he does, they push past the normal point of ‘this is uncomfortable’ and then it finds this weird bizarro zone where everything is hilarious,” he said with a smile.
Cameron, without hesitation, pointed straight to Burns, saying, “Probably this guy. Aaron has a really high comedic IQ.”
Meg finds motivation in, “Kristen Wiig from SNL, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey – just people who kind of don’t care about the way they come across.”
As a person, and especially as a woman, it’s all too easy to get caught in the trappings of looking, acting, and being perceived by others in a certain way. But with improv, Meg said, “You kind of have to let that go.”
“Playing ugly, dirty, weird characters is just really, really fun. Those three ladies are super strong, and they’re not worried about the way they look. They’re just trying to get the story across,” she said.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO BREAK A LITTLE GLASS
With visions of sweaty palms and shaky knees in my head as I pictured myself on a stage, I wondered how this improv troupe is able to get on stage and just have fun. And then a terrifying question arose – what happens if a player freezes up on stage?
“It’s about trusting yourself and trusting your players,” said Meg. She feels that she is able to play her most honest self with the Swan City Improv group specifically because of how comfortable she is with everyone. In improv, teamwork is everything. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses can help to work through a tough scene or push each other to do things they might not normally go for. She quoted actor, writer, teacher, and improv legend Del Close, “Fall, and then figure it out on the way down.”
Jeremy agreed, saying, “You just feel safe with your team. When you know your team really well, you can tell when you blank out or if something’s missing and they’ll naturally jump in and save you or continue propelling the scene forward.”
Those ‘oh no,’ spaz out, brain freeze on-stage moments are often when the best scenes happen. It is their humanity that the audience wants to see said Meg. Those little hiccups and weird moments can drive the show. She posited, “It’s almost like a gift you’re accidentally giving yourself. It’s giving yourself the ability to say something weird and having your players be like, ‘that’s cool, let’s go with that,’ and supporting you.”
The team uses failure as a building block for many of their scenes. “Failure is a huge thing that we’re all about. You want to fail,” said Nate.
Aaron Burns had the perfect anecdote for this. His father-in-law, who is a glassblower, told him a common phrase in the glassblowing community, “If you’re not breaking them, you’re not making them.” In other words, falling flat on your face on stage (figuratively or literally) is all part of the process. And, to quote Meg quoting Amy Poehler, “No one looks stupid when they’re having fun.”
GETTING DOWN TO FUNNY BUSINESS
Swan City Improv puts on two shows on the first Friday of the month. The 7:30 pm performance, Top Swan, is a competition style in which all the players compete for points earned based on applause. It is made up of a series of fun short form games based on audience suggestion.
At 9 pm, the troupe goes on again for Swan City Cinema. During this performance, players create three different movies. From there, the audience gets to pick which movie they want to see all three acts of.
Not even the rain could stop improv fans from showing up to LKLD Live that Friday for a night of kicks-and-giggles. I got a glass of cabernet and settled in, watching as people young and old packed the house. I was a little surprised at just how diverse the audience was. There were families with kids, a few friends out for some fun, older couples, teenagers – everyone – and the scene was definitely “everyone-friendly” as the troupe put it. The humor wasn’t dumbed down, just cleaned up. Or, as Nate said with a wry grin, “I don’t want to toot our own horn, but we’re kind of like the Pixar of Improv.”
Dynamic host Jordan Rippy garnered suggestion during each scene. We then clapped based on how hard the players made us laugh and by the end of the night, Jeremy King was crowned Top Swan with Meg Wittman in close second.
I laughed until my cheeks hurt. I even snorted a little, but don’t tell anyone.
There’s nothing quite like seeing someone do “Away in a Manger” in the style of Norwegian Death Metal or when Aaron’s character’s accent was tapering, “somewhere between France and Russia apparently.”
I’ve already have plans to see the next show.
THE FUTURE OF COMEDY IN LAKELAND
Can anyone do improv? Yes, you do it every day. As Nate articulated, “You don’t sit down and write out your script for the day. Every conversation that you get into, every interaction, you’re doing improv.”
If you’re interested in learning the art of improv, sign up for Swan City Improv’s classes starting this month. The group thinks hosting classes will help them supplement their roster and introduce some new faces from the community onto the LKLD Live stage.
Beyond classes, the team would like to do more corporate events where they can use improv to promote team building and communication skills. They also hope to travel to different festivals in the future and expand to more than one night of shows a month.
Above all, the Swan City Improv founder says he’d love for Lakeland to become a strong, beautiful, diverse comedy scene. “A bigger more vibrant comedy scene where the improv feeds into the stand-up, the stand-up feeds into the sketch, and people have an opportunity to come out at night, laugh, and see people create some really fun art,” that, is what Nate Fleming hopes to see for the future of comedy in Lakeland.
Swan City Improv
LKLD Live: 202 N Massachusetts Ave, Lakeland