This week Sammy Pontello talked to us about his involvement at Unscripted. Since day one, Sammy has been a staple of the Unscripted community and has lit up the stage more than any other performer in the lineup. He also may be one of the youngest performers in the scene, having just graduated high school and getting in with us in our first mainstage show. We talked to Sammy about what it's like coming from a traditional theater background and what he's learned about the potential of improv beyond short form game shows and sketch.
How did you get started doing improv? What's your story?
Once I caught the acting bug, I started doing improv in my high school theatre classes. We would do these improv shows for the school that are exactly like Whose Line St. Pete, and I enjoyed doing it, but outside of those shows improv was used more as a tool and as a warm-up exercise, so I never really got to delve deeper into it.
Last year, when Unscripted posted their audition notice on Facebook, I saw they were doing a show that was essentially an improvised play. That show, Blank Slate, combined with the awesome logo, got me saying, “Why not? The worst that happens is they say no.” And so I auditioned and got cast. Once we got into the rehearsal stage for that show and started getting into running it, something clicked and it was just a moment of “Ha, improv is more than just jokes and one-liners,” and that realization brought improv a lot closer to how I think about acting, and I started being able to let go and just perform. The main reason I perform is to give something to the audience, because I think performers have the ability to go beyond entertainment, showing little slices of life that audiences can connect with, feel for, and feel with, which allows them to let go of their lives for a little while. I think it’s a really great thing to be able to transport someone somewhere else for a time and invite them to join this big communal thing that improv is.
And not having to memorize lines has been wonderful.
What have you been involved with at Unscripted? What's your favorite memory so far?
My first show with Unscripted was Blank Slate, which was a lot of fun and a great learning experience for me that gave me a great crash course in some of the things about improv I had no idea how to do - like letting go and connecting and having moments. Since then, I’ve played in the first Flash Fiction show, which I’ll be returning to in May, Westworld Unscripted, which is absolutely insane in the best way possible and worth seeing while it’s still running, joined the Unscripted Players in the short form show Whose Line St. Pete. This season I play in the Improv Showcase with Blank Slate, which we reformed as a team.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to team up with two incredible guys, Sean Doran and Chandler Bodimer, to form The 30 Day Play Challenge, where we take somewhere between 3-4 weeks and devise an entire play complete with sets, lights, and costumes. It’s basically devised theatre at a breakneck pace, and it’s a really fascinating middle ground between traditional, straight-up theatre, and improv theatre. We’re excited to debut our first show, This Is Our Town, on May 4th. In June, I’ll be playing in Law and Order: Stupid Laws Unit, as well.
I have a lot of great memories from the last six months of playing at Unscripted, but among the best I’d have to say is the experience of consistently being made either an incredibly old character or a character who is secretly a drag queen in Blank Slate. Also, the Westworld Unscripted show where my character pretended to be dead in order to see how his friends really thought of him, which prompted Larry Bukovey to use my corpse as a puppet, is another favorite of mine.
What's your personal approach to improv?
My approach to improv has come from working with the incredible players at Unscripted and melding these improv concepts with acting technique. For me, it really boils down to being active in the moment, which includes listening and reacting realistically to what’s happening - not manufacturing what you think you should be reacting to, and keeping firm energy. Using real reactions just feels better for me, but I also think it’s funnier for the audience because when I’m caught off guard or surprised onstage, that bleeds into the performance. It's all about honesty and energy, really.
If you had to choose one memory about doing improv that sticks out in your mind, what would it be?
One of our Blank Slate shows I was playing this character that secretly was a drag queen, while his everyday occupation was an exterminator for a public pool. There was this wonderful moment where my character had a spotlight monologue moment and I was just pantomiming this very Gypsy-esque striptease, and I think I was actually singing “Let Me Entertain You” while locking eyes with an older woman in the front row. I hadn’t, up until that point, brought back the endowment from the audience that my character wanted to be a drag performer, and so when it came back at the least expected moment, it was great. As was being outed a moment later when another character came onstage and caught me wearing their Princess Leia bikini. The audience loved it, and I think we as performers did, too.
What sort of advice would you have for a new person who wants to be part of the Unscripted community?
Come ready to learn, accept, forgive, and do. Equally important, just go for it. The players at Unscripted are so welcoming and kind, and the shows and work that goes on here is really incredibly funny and just plain great. Improv is great for everyone because it teaches you to be more open and to deal with unexpected things, and it encourages a growth mindset and an attitude of “I’m willing to learn, and I’m willing to take chances.” If you’re an actor, it’ll help you be more honest, and it’ll help you get very comfortable with yourself and a crowd because there’s little else as raw and honest as getting up and making something new that’ll never be seen again. If you’re just someone who’s interested in picking up some skills, you’ll walk away an expanded, more open person, and it’ll feel great.
What do you hope for the future of the theater and the St. Pete improv scene?
For Unscripted specifically, I hope to see every show sold out, and remaining as busy as things have been lately. The people that are here making this place happen are so talented, and just wonderful people, and they really deserve to have their work seen and enjoyed.
For St. Pete as a whole, I think a growing awareness of the fact improv exists and is alive and well here would be wonderful, because it’s top-notch entertainment and you’re supporting a group of artists that work hard to perform for you. I’d also like to see a growing recognition of what improv is, and that it can be more than SNL and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, even though those are both great shows. I came into it with questions about what improv is, and I think if those kind of questions are broken down and answered, people get a lot more excited, and a lot less confused.
Support your local artists, and art in general. Art is such an integral piece of what it means to be human, and it’s so important to recognize that and recognize those that are brave enough to be any kind of artist. It’s hard stuff. And St. Pete and Tampa have such great communities of artists here for you to support.
I’d also like to sincerely thank Unscripted Theatre for giving me a leg up into the improv community and teaching me everything they have for the last six months, and giving me a place to perform consistently and with great partners. It’s all been surreal, and I can’t wait to continue to support Unscripted Theatre and bring St. Pete great work!
You can see Sammy perform Fridays in Whose Line St. Pete with The Unscripted Players, in the Improv Showcase and Comedy Cagematch with his team Blank Slate, Saturdays in Westworld Unscripted & later this summer in Law & Order: Stupid Laws Unit. You can also see his devised-play work 1st Thursdays as part of the 30 Day Play Challenge company.