We at The Unified Scene Theater have simply run out of superlatives to describe the brilliance that is VI Lenin. They are slow, patient, intelligent, and stunningly, arrestingly funny. Their chemistry is palpable and apparent whenever they take the stage: three improvisational actors — Joe Uchno, Rich Nyman, and Nick Murawski — seemingly uncanny in their ability to sense the others, the perfect moment to heighten, raise the stakes, and bring their improv scenes and structures to completion in a way that’s so comedically satisfying you’ll wonder whether it was scripted. And, of course, it isn’t. We’ve said this before, and not because they’re a TUS House Troupe : VI Lenin is, quite simply, the best improv troupe in DC, bar none. We sat down with them for a quick chat.
TUS: How did you all get together? Where/how did you meet, etc. And, more importantly, what do you think contributes to your obvious group chemistry?
Joe: Rich and I met a while back when I got into JINX, a WIT troupe which he was already a part of. That was maybe 2006. I met Nick when the three of us were all in The Haddington Club together in early 2015, a group assembled by Pete Bergen. During rehearsals for that group the three of us hit it off. Rich and I had been kicking around an idea about a certain type of show that we were interested in — a slower paced, discovery-reliant kind of show. We roped Nick into that and it became VI Lenin. It just seems like the three of us have very similar approaches to improv. Whenever we talk about something it ends up that we’re all trying to say basically the same thing. In one of the first rehearsals we talked about what kind of improv we wanted to do. Then we did a few scenes and were like “Yep, let’s do that.” We each have a lot of experience but I think we’re all open enough to benefit from each other’s approach especially where we differ a little.
Rich: What Joe said. We have a common style that we aim for, and we generally enjoy each other’s company. Except for Nick. Neither Joe or I really like Nick.
TUS: We’ve described your style as “patient, but not slow” (we’re trademarking that, so don’t even thing about it). Is this a conscious stylistic choice? A reaction to game-focused “edit-and-heighten” UCB-style so prevalent in improv these days? Or just something you all naturally gravitate to?
Joe: I think it is a conscious choice on my part, at least. I like a lot of different kinds of improv from the breakneck pace to the more slice of life, monoscene stuff. So doing the kind of show we do, which is rooted in patience and discovery at the top of the show, was something I actively wanted to experiment with more. I think that collectively we liked the idea of starting in the middle of something and discovering what the show will be about as opposed to starting with a premise and trying to heighten it to the extreme. I think we enjoy the comedy found in the subtleties of personal interactions. The payoff can be bigger if you start out patiently and make discoveries along with the audience
Rich: It’s definitely style I choose to pursue and one that I did not start out gravitating towards. I like to do big characters and accents, and those still are a part of our shows, but we like to more than anything play slow and take our time so nothing gets dropped. It might feel like super-realism but that’s almost a side-effect of just taking everything in and as Joe says really discovering what we have already given ourselves. That is when I feel like I connect most with the audience, when I look around at the things that are happening, pick them up, bat them around, and honor the fact that they only exist because we are all there in that moment. We do speed up and play big and wild, we just try to always try to maintain that philosophy. (at least its in ethos).
Nick: For me, it is definitely a conscious choice AND it’s a style I naturally gravitate toward. I would much prefer to rip as much as possible from a scene and truly respond to what is being done or said then to cut a scene early because of a laugh. It’s quality vs. quantity.
TUS: What advice would you give the new student just starting out, besides the obvious principles every new student learns in an intro class? Meaning: what is/are some of the most important lessons you learned in improv that you *didn’t* learn in class?
Joe: Watch improv. Maybe that is part of what is said in an intro class but it’s the most important thing. Nobody can verbally tell you what improv is with any degree of completeness. There is no substitute for seeing improv performed if you want to do it. Something else I’m big on is that improv never has to be bad. Of course some shows are better than others and any group can have a bad show. But bad shows are not a necessary result of the fact that you’re doing improv. Bad improv is a result of doing improv poorly. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing in class or rehearsal or in shows just realize that, yes, literally anyone can do improv but if you want to do the best improv you can do, you have to work at it. And if you do work at it, there can be huge improvements in your game.
Rich: Take note of scenes in life and on stage/screen for things you can take with you to improv. The difference between a well-acted scene in a movie and improv is nothing. Slimming that difference down to nothing is the trick. Take note of how different scenes in movies start — is someone talking off-stage, on a radio, telling a story? Where are the characters located in relation to each other? Do any of them leave the scene? How/when do they come back. Taking note of those things, establishing some patterns and adding that to the group’s vocabulary can add some momentum to the work you’re doing.
Nick: See as much improv as possible. I think it’s also important to see different improv… different styles, forms, etc. If you can’t get out to a theater to see quality groups perform (which is a shame)… read about it, watch clips on the ‘ol computer and listen to podcasts. Immerse yourself.
TUS: Two of you have been on DC’s improv scene a long time. What are your thoughts regarding the scene today? What are its benefits? It’s drawbacks? What would you change, if you could?
Joe: Oh man. I have many opinions that run the gamut but the most common thought I have about improv in DC is that there is a lot of excitement and investment by people in the improv community here. And that’s unequivocally good and something that you can’t fabricate if it doesn’t happen organically.
Among the benefits are a lot of opportunities for stage time. Between the established theaters in town and the indie scene producing shows at bars and theater venues there are many shows to see and many opportunities to perform. There are almost 1,500 members of the DC Indie Improv Facebook page. That is insane. I think improv in DC is done by a lot of people who do not self-identify as comedians or actors. People come to DC for different reasons and they become improvisers once they experience the scene here and get hooked. If you go somewhere else (NY, LA or Chicago) the people doing improv there are often people who went to those places to pursue comedy or acting in some way. So I think the improv scene in DC benefits from the different experiences and perspectives offered by those who perform it here. The drawbacks are unfortunately the same as the benefits. In DC there isn’t the same competition for relatively few coveted performance spots that you see in other cities. So people get to perform shows earlier on in their improv career, which is great for getting better, but may not present the same level of quality to that particular audience. Everyone gets better as they gain experience. But in a lot of places that experience is gained in practice groups and in auditions, etc. before getting actual stage time. It can be a lot of work to sell enough tickets to fill up even some of the smaller venues in DC. I think that is partly because the people interested in improv here have full lives with time-consuming jobs, families and other hobbies. Like I said, in some other places the improv community is made up of people who have made life choices based on the pursuit of improv or comedy so they just go to shows by default. And if someone in DC who is a lawyer, or whatever, decides they actually want to pursue comedy, often times that means they move away from DC to one of the bigger comedy cities. So there is kind of a comedy brain drain that happens here. But if I’ve learned anything in the extensive amount of aging I’ve done so far, it’s that I don’t necessarily know very much. So while the scene in DC doesn’t get the respect I think it could and which I think it deserves, I guess I wouldn’t change anything because there is a good possibility that I would make it worse by mistake. And things are pretty good already.
TUS: Who are your improv comedy influences/idols/heroes? Who or what made you want to do this yourselves?
Joe: The first improv I ever saw was at the UCB Theater in New York when it was first getting going. There was a show called “Feature, Feature” which was great. They did The Movie format and used to do two shows back to back. Early Harold Teams there like Respecto Montalban, Mother, Monkey Dick and especially Optimist International got me hooked on doing improv. Other groups (which may or may not still be existence) that I think are great are: TJ and Dave, Four Square, 4Track, OneSixtyOne and The Reckoning. Those are groups that either got me excited to do improv or made me want to improve by showing me that it could be better than I thought possible.
Rich: I didn’t know what longform really was until I came to DC. OneSixtyOne and Jackie were big influences out of DC. Teachers there were great, Patrick Gantz made a big impression and told me about TJ & Dave and I’ve been hooked on them ever since. ASSSCAT, Beer Shark Mice, Four Square, Cook County Social Club, Dasariski, Rare Bird Show, to name only a few and whole lot of shows I took in at festivals or different theaters. DC has such a great indie scene now though, I’m learning a ton taking in some of the new shows/people/formats right here in the District. It’s pretty awesome to see.
Nick: Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, TJ & Dave, Cook County Social Club, Tim O’Malley, Jet Eveleth, Mike Patrick O’Brien, Pat Reidy, Bill Murray
TUS: What are your thoughts about having found a home at TUS? What is it about the space, or its community, that makes it unique?
Joe: Being a part of TUS is really exciting. There is an energy and vibe to the theater, the neighborhood, the audiences that makes it really fun. I like that the space is intimate and that you’re very close to the audience during a show. You can see everyone; they are close enough that you could touch them if you wanted to. It kind of keeps you honest during a show because the people you are hoping to entertain are right there and the reaction you get from them is palpable.
Rich: Loving TUS and being a part of it, and that really comes down to Shawn and Kathy. They are amazing people and their devotion to creative expression in this town is the driving force behind everything that is happening there. College nights, house troupes, avant-garde, non-avant-garde, it’s all coming online. Shawn and Kathy are really pushing the envelope in terms of what they are putting up and we are excited to be a part of their mission.
Nick: It’s very nice to have a home and a consistent place to create.