This week's spotlight interview is on one of the most experienced improvisers in Tampa Bay. When a few local players are in the room, chances are Tony has been performing as long as all of them combined. We talked about his time at ComedySportz, his experience as the head coach of Spitfire Players, and why it's always a good idea to make an entrance with a bagpipe.
How did you get started doing improv? What's your story?
I started doing improv over 20 years ago in Indianapolis. My then-fiancée, Kari Ann, had been performing with ComedySportz, a professional short form improv group. I loved watching their fast-paced and hilarious shows. I was hanging around and sometimes volunteering at the box office and such, and when they announced they would be holding open auditions for new players, Kari Ann encouraged me to audition. At the time, I had no theater or other performance experience, so I was leery. After some arm-twisting and a little coaching, I auditioned. Surprisingly, I was asked to join the group and eventually earned my way onto the stage. During my years with ComedySportz, I had the privilege of performing with and learning from some incredibly talented people. Several of us also did after-hours “improv jams,” which got me interested in long form and prompted me to take my first long form class. After that, I was hooked and wanted to be part of a long form group, though there weren’t many opportunities at the time. Since moving to Florida, I’ve done mostly long form, taking classes and playing with different groups.
What have you been involved with at Spitfire? What's your favorite memory so far?
I play with and coach Spitfire Players, the short form troupe that performs in the weekly Whose Line St. Pete? show. It’s been really fun getting back into short form after being away for a few years. I also play with the long form group, Separate Checks. Recently, I’ve performed with my wife, Kari Ann, in our new duo, ‘bout time. My favorite memory here is probably the first duo show I did with ‘bout time. It’s not that it was the greatest performance ever or anything—I think what I loved was the pure joy of being in-the-moment and trusting just one other improviser, and her trusting me, to work together and co-create something fun and wonderful. (Sort of like a marriage.)
What's your personal approach to improv?
Play. Have fun. Trust. I feel like I’m at my best when I pay attention to my scene partner, respond, and just let go of everything else. I think I’m still learning that keeping things simple and real is often the best way.
If you had to choose one memory about doing improv that sticks out in your mind, what would it be?
So many memories, it’s hard to choose one. One particularly fond memory is from a ComedySportz show. Mookie Harris, Kari Ann, and I were a team that was about to play a guessing game, probably “5 Things,” so we were waiting out of earshot outside the theater while the referee got suggestions. A big parade had just ended and we noticed a bagpiper down the street by himself, packing up to leave. As soon as one of us said, “what if…,” Mookie was running across the street to talk to him. A few minutes later, our team was called back into play our game. When the door opened, we marched in proudly, preceded by the bagpiper wearing full regalia, leading us to the stage as he played loudly (and very well), to the amazement and cheers of the audience. Best entrance ever! I think that moment epitomized great improv: Say “yes.” Take things you have at hand and combine them in new and surprising ways, while having fun and giving the audience the best show possible at the time.
What sort of advice would you have for a new person who wants to be part of the Spitfire community?
What are you waiting for? This is a true community that’s open and welcoming to everyone. If you’re already part of a group, get on stage. If you aren’t in a group, you can probably find people here to form a team with. Or maybe you could audition for Whose Line St. Pete? If you’re not ready for that (or even if you are), take a class here. Just jump in and get involved!
What do you hope for the future of the theater and the St. Pete improv scene?
Many of my hopes for the theater are already being realized. I hope to see and be a part of a growing improv scene and a theater with more groups and different forms of comedy. I hope to see more diversity in the improv community, and I think this theater has already moved us in that direction. And I want to know that there is an improv “theater home” I can be a part of and count on to have my back, as we do great things here and for Tampa Bay—and beyond.
Improv isn’t only for entertainment and the stage. It embodies a set of skills and a way of thinking that are valuable out in the “real world,” i.e., that world you help create off-stage.
You can see Tony perform Fridays and Saturdays with his teams Separate Checks, 'bout time, and in Whose Line St. Pete with Sptifire Players.