San Antonio has never been a comedy hub, but there’s a small, yet growing group of performers in town that aim to change that.
They’re in the business of making people laugh, but improv troupes also attract creative talent and equip participants with valuable skills that can be taken off the stage and into everyday life, said Shelby Seier, a recent Trinity University grad and founder of the local, all female improv group Missed Opportunity.
“(Improv is) one of the most useful skills you can have,” she said. “It’s learning how to problem solve and how to communicate and it’s about listening to a person’s viewpoint, but then showing them that there are other possibilities.
“Really, it’s just a huge umbrella that has so many skills under it that, if you can practice it, it’s good for life.”
Seier, who started her improv training at The Backline Comedy Club in Omaha, has a background in theater and coaches weekly improv workshops in the San Antonio.
It was January when Seier realized “there was a lack of opportunity (for improv) in San Antonio. So, rather than wait around for an institution to pop up, I founded this little diddy,” she said, remembering the beginnings of Missed Opportunity. The six-member group includes Seier, Andrea Medina, Samantha Grubbs, Liz Metzger, Margaret Browne, and Maddie Smith, who are all Trinity students or alumnae.
Missed Opportunity has a regular show at The Playhouse San Antonio in the Cellar Theater behind the main building that has garnered a cult following ever since their first show in February. The entire hour of their long-form, often sold out, performances is based on an audience member’s “missed opportunity” in life that they share with the entire group beforehand.
Virtually anything is fair game, from a deer hunt gone awry to a pre-teen’s missed chance for making friends his first time at summer camp. The troupe, however, does shy away from “blue comedy,” meaning anything that can be perceived as offensive or crude.
“We never want to alienate our audience or make people feel uncomfortable,” Seier said. “We want to make sure that people don’t leave with any sort of sour taste in their mouth.”
The women of Missed Opportunity consider themselves lucky to have The Playhouse as a home base, Seier said. Unlike other major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Austin, San Antonio does not have a venue dedicated solely to welcoming various improv groups. There are only a handful of comedy venues in the city that will host them.
“Without having a home (for improv), it’s really hard to keep the scene growing and those opportunities available for people. So, what’s happening is that the troupes are forming and they’re lucky to get to perform at certain venues, but as far as making it sustainable, there’s still work to be done,” Medina said.
Because of this, many troupes leave the city to pursue more established improv scenes elsewhere and to take more advanced classes and workshops to improve their skills. Metzger, for example, is currently taking improv classes in Austin, and Smith had the opportunity to study at the People’s Improv Theater in New York where she also interned at the well-established Caroline’s Comedy Club.
There are some “Improv 101” classes in San Antonio, Seier said, and other 201, 301, and teen improv classes at ComedySportz, but “compared to others cities we’re very behind.”
It’s time to catch up, Medina said.
“Every thriving city needs improv,” she said. “It generates this community of individuals that are inspiring, funny, on their feet and ready to make cool shit happen.”
More local improv troupes are emerging in the city, which could create greater opportunities for individuals looking to seriously pursue the art form in San Antonio. It’s difficult to count exactly how many troupes there are in town, Seier said, but popular ones include First Time Offenders and Carefree Radicals – which Smith co-founded – based at Trinity, all-female improv duo MoJo, Alamo City Improv, The Denials who perform at the Overtime Theater, ComedySportz, Night Squatch, and the newest local troupe The Five Seasons.
Kyle Gillette, director of theatre and associate professor at Trinity, teaches an improv class at the university. He can’t say with any sort of statistical certainty, but anecdotally he feels the improv scene is only growing, especially among Millennials.
“There’s always a big waitlist when I offer the class at Trinity,” he said. “Back in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I learned about improv, it was big among Silicon Valley professionals, college students, and curious urban-dwellers. (I’ve) seen a similar kind of interest blooming in San Antonio since 2014 or so.”
Gillette said he’s observed the scene grow more diverse, too, and pointed to Missed Opportunity – a group made up of some of his former students – as an example of that.
“They seem to bring both a level of precision and training into their work and a connection to deeper social questions beyond cheap laughs,” he said.
Missed Opportunity’s biggest accomplishment to date was performing at The Del Close Marathon, the largest improv festival in the world, which was founded by the Upright Citizens Brigade, the same group that gave comedy powerhouse Amy Poehler her start.
The group had the unique opportunity to not only perform in New York City, but learn from the other big names in the business like Saturday Night Live cast member Bobby Moynihan and actor/comedian Nick Kroll, among many others.
“Amy Poehler gave me a high five on the first day of the Marathon for being shorter than her,” Medina said.
Especially after gaining improv experience around the country, Smith said that San Antonio is a unique space for improv because “there’s really no competition (between troupes). It’s all about collaboration, it’s all about working together to make the (improv) community stronger.”
San Antonio is ripe with opportunity for the improv community, Gillette said. “(The city) fosters people who want to collaborate, riff on each other, and play,” he said. “Their audiences are casual, open-minded, but also smart, and ready to see their community dynamics explored.
Metzger sees San Antonio’s low profile as a plus for beginners and newer troupes like Missed Opportunity who are still getting their footing and finding their voice. Most local performers have only been in improv for four or five years, she said. “So, it’s a young thing, and we’re all learning from each other and the best part about it is that we’re going out there and experimenting with it.
“We’re all making a mess and learning so much from each other.”
Missed Opportunity offers free improv workshops for both beginners and more experienced performers age 18 and up every Thursday at the Cellar Theater from 9-11 p.m. The workshops are coached by Seier and Smith. For more information, contact Missed Opportunity on their Facebook page here.
Top image: Missed Opportunity founder Shelby Seier puts her heart and soul into each improv performance at The Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Missed Opportunity.