When you open a theater with a small but boisterous improv scene already established, people come out of the woodwork to help you carry the vision forward. What most theater owners don't talk about is that beyond the helpful hands and generous donations, it's the attitude and goodwill of the people they find themselves supported by that makes the difference between a good day and a bad day. Longtime Tampa Bay improviser Matt Rodriguez has been one of these people to the staff at Unscripted - his ability to light up a room and bring out the best in people is a gift that embodies the true spirit of this art form. We caught up with him this week for a Spotlight Interview.
How did you get started doing improv? What's your story?
I had been going to Dear Aunt Gertrude shows for a while and found myself laughing not just at what they said but also at how players like Darryl Knapp moved, their body language and the faces they made. There was just so much to enjoy. So, I started taking classes at the Box theater which was about 6 years ago. At the time I was in my first post-college job doing social work and I was more stressed out than I had ever been. What started as taking an improv class out of curiosity became my weekly escape from stress. I was free to play like a kid again and Artistic Director Crystal Haralambou made it clear that anything was welcome and we applauded mistakes! This was a complete departure from my work day. Needless to say, I was hooked and I kept taking classes through level 3 until finally auditioning for the mighty Dear Aunt Gertrude improv troupe.
What have you been involved with at Unscripted? What's your favorite memory so far?
I think I’ve touched a little bit of everything including sets with my team, The Escape Artisans and my duo with Madison Kirby called Wyrds With Friends, and some super fun Whose Line St. Pete shows. I’m currently playing in Westworld Unscripted which has been such a wacky and fascinating adventure. My favorite memory would probably be performing my first ever duo set. It was such a whirlwind and went by so quick!
What's your personal approach to improv?
*steps up on soapbox* - What I love, love, love about improv is that it is the antithesis of current American culture. What I mean is, most of society says “go succeed all by your lonesome” aka the bootstrap mentality - which I hate and think is maybe the worst way to live your life. Improv says “go work with this small team with no script, support each other’s crazy ideas and build a dream onstage.” It’s community, it’s listening, it’s humbleness and it's how your favorite improv teams make those crazy shows you remember 10 years later. So that, for me, is where my approach comes from. I believe you’ve gotta zero in on and support your scene partner like your life depends on it. That’s absolutely the most important thing you can do. It’s just the two of you up there, so focus, listen and go build your world.
If you had to choose one memory about doing improv that sticks out in your mind, what would it be?
This one’s easy - It was performing in the first Love Show 2 years ago. I was doing a scene with Madison Kirby and she was playing the best worst spouse ever. I was timid and terrified. It was awesome because the audience was right there with us! It was the first and only time I felt fully in control of the audience, that every movement I made they’d follow and react. The cherry on top was seeing Darryl beside the stage raising his hand making the “good job” sign - that was all I needed.
What sort of advice would you have for a new person who wants to be part of the Unscripted community?
I’d say jump right in! Take classes, meet people, watch shows and ask questions. This is how you build connections with the people who will be your future teammates and how you learn the many styles/forms/approaches that are out there. Find your improv voice, so to speak.
What do you hope for the future of the theater and the St. Pete improv scene?
Oh man, bigger and better things I hope! St. Pete is the best city for improv with such a focus on the arts already being here. Hopefully more folks come and learn the craft that so many of us love! As a Latino, I’d love to start seeing more diversity among players and teams and see how minority voices translate into the wonderful world of improv. Jeff Quintana from Villain Theater in Miami recently told me “the sky’s the limit” and that is true for St. Pete improv!
THANK YOU Nicholas Riggs and Hannah Prince for making a place for us to play in St. Pete and THANK YOU to anyone I’ve seen play anywhere in Tampa Bay! You inspire me :)
You can see Matt on stage Friday nights in the Improv Showcase & Comedy Cagematch with his teams The Escape Artisans, Wyrds With Friends, and Wesley and the Crushers. He is also host of the Improv Showcase this season. You can also see him Saturday nights in Westworld Unscripted through May.