Since we opened our doors, Mike Barbieri has been there. Joining narrative indie team Cult Classic last fall, he's been a mainstay in almost every capacity at the theater. We had to find out more about what brought him to the art form and why he's so dedicated to making sure there's a home stage for improv in St. Pete.
How did you get started doing improv? What's your story?
It was the end of 2012 and I figured - just in case the world doesn't end - it was time to add something new to my life. And I knew I wanted to be some kind of performer. In school I was the kid who understood that when the teacher says you only get note cards, it doesn't mean write your speech in full on the note cards. I always got exceptional grades and teacher comments after being up in front of a class. As a software engineer, I hadn't been doing much of that at all, and I missed it.
It was between improv and Toastmasters, and I finally Googled "tampa improv classes" and found The Box in Tampa. I signed up for their Level 1 class with Crystal Haralambou as instructor. I wasn't expecting anything of it, but in the class I quickly realized that the skills for making you a better improviser are the same skills that make you a better friend and partner: listening, vulnerability, emotional honesty, a constructive orientation toward others. I realized this could be something very useful not just on the stage, so I took Levels 1, 2, and 3, and auditioned for a new team being created at The Box that eventually became Alpaca Suitcase.
I wasn't sure how far I wanted to go as an actual performing improviser, but I took a week-long intensive in Miami in March 2014, largely out of curiosity. My instructor was Lyndsay Hailey from Chicago (now in LA). I was blown away by spending the week with her. She was very into elevating the art form by getting in touch with the actual feelings you are having on stage and making the show about exploring the relationship authentically. But it even went beyond art. For Lyndsay, you could sense this was about more than acting. It was about healing and re-integrating long-disowned parts of yourself.
Returning from Miami with a new love of improv and a new look at its potential, I kept working at it and in a few short years the Tampa Bay improv community grew from a few ragtag outfits to something resembling a real scene with hundreds of performers. Unscripted caught my eye, in part because it was closer to home for me than anything else in the area, and in part because of its ambition to put a real, dedicated improv theater on the map right here in St Pete. The goal stimulated me and I wanted to be a part of it.
What have you been involved with at Unscripted? What's your favorite memory so far?
Oh boy, everything. My first shows here were with the troupe Cult Classic, which is currently putting on film noir narrative shows during the Showcase and Cagematch. Besides that, I've been a regular in short-form shows, I've been in The Duo Show with Andrew Springer, I've hosted, I've teched, I've worked box office. I also play James "Jimbo" Hurley in Westworld Unscripted.
My favorite memory is probably playing a sperm during Level 1 Showcase rehearsals. The other one that comes to mind is breaking with Zach Mouriz in a Flash Fiction show during a scene about a restaurant that serves nothing but flan. Say what you will about breaking, when you have to struggle to contain your laughter you know you're having a good time.
What's your personal approach to improv?
I'm still finding it! When I first took classes, I was playing a lot of sports, and I tried to use my athleticism as a comedic resource. So I did a lot of very physical comedy.
Then I took Lyndsay's intensive and I became much more interested in the possibility that something deep and moving can happen on stage and that maybe the audience could leave the theater feeling like they've learned something about themselves. I'm still interested in this idea.
Lately, I've returned to realizing I still have a lot to learn, and still need to work on getting past my stage fright enough to have my whole being accessible to me on stage. So my current approach is to be a generalist: play in a lot of different types of shows and give each particular show what it needs. The goal is to reach a point where I feel generally competent. Maybe someday I will discover my true personal approach by doing this.
If you had to choose one memory about doing improv that sticks out in your mind, what would it be?
Literally weeping in a scene during Lyndsay Hailey's classes. She knows how to bring your deep crap out of you. She was convinced getting in touch with that stuff is key to really stand-out improv. Whether that's true or not, she's not someone I'll soon forget.
What sort of advice would you have for a new person who wants to be part of the Unscripted community?
Take UT-1. That class makes it easy. You'll ease right into it and come out the other end having had no idea you were capable of the stuff you just did.
What do you hope for the future of the theater and the St. Pete improv scene?
Well first of all I want it to succeed. It's still new and it's an ambitious project. But so far, so good. Ultimately, I want to see improv "on the map", something the average resident of St. Pete knows about and knows it's something they can go see on a weekend. I’d love to see improv go viral and more theaters open, and more people than ever before become performers. That’s a good thing. Improv is good for the soul.
Sorry I kill you every show, Rooster. No hard feelings.
Mike will be hosting The Duo Show this season and running both Tech & Box Office on select nights. You can see him performing with Reckless Fireweavers, Cult Classic, in Whose Line St. Pete every other week as part of the Unscripted Players and in Westworld Unscripted through May.