Stacey Smith can’t sit still. Mediocrity and stasis are anathema to her. The idea of performing the same improv style or format forever scares her, so nothing is off limits to her.
She describes her new show, StaceJam, as “A 40-minute party that is chaotic fun.” She’s party of not one, not two, but FOUR improv groups – STACKED, Brouhaha, ImprovBoston, and StaceJam.
We sat down with Stacey to get a better sense of what makes her tick, and how she keeps improv interesting for herself and the audience.
How’d you get into the improv world?
When I was a senior in college in New York, I worked at an intimate theater in the round – like a 100-seat black box theater. The woman who mentored me said, “You need to study at The Second City.” So I did. I went to The Second City for a week over Christmas break. During that week, I took a writing class and an improv class, five days a week, from 10AM to 5PM, I saw a show every night, and the rest is history.
You often combine improv with other art forms. Why do you love mixing things up?
I think I just love the explosion of creative possibilities. Why not mix things up? Why follow the recipe? That’s boring.
I’m constantly drawn to adding something. I always want to challenge myself, because I’ve done millions of improv shows. If I kept doing the same show, I’d get bored! Adding something extra makes it interesting, and it makes my show stand out.
Millions of improv shows, you say? I take it you’re no rookie.
Oh, I’m very experienced. After improvising for so long, I’ve learned so many great genres at different, amazing training centers around the country. I gained so many brilliant insights at the Improv Conservatory at The Second City. At the iO Theater (which I’m currently part of), we learned a format of long-form improv called “The Harold.” I was also blown away by the improv puppet show at iO, which inspired me to work with one of the guys who directs Brouhaha.
Who are some of your comedy and improv heroes?
In terms of scripted comedy, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett are my favorites. In terms of improv, I love Aidy Bryant. I had the honor of watching her for years before she got on SNL. She was a brilliant improviser in Chicago – and she’s only one of many.
You’re a bit of an improv innovator, but you don’t work in a vacuum. You’ve got your eye on other innovators, and what they’re doing this instant.
Exactly. I always want to know what’s the next thing – and I’m always thinking about ways I can make it different. They’re so many people doing what I do. I know I’m not the only game in town – especially in Chicago, which is the Mecca of Improv. I have to ask myself: “How can I stand out and do something that’s different for audiences?”
Musical improv often involves ensembles. In StaceJam, you are basically a one-woman band. How does that work in practice? Do you use instruments or acapella?
Well I am a musician, though I work with different musicians wherever I go, usually with piano players. I’ve now done StaceJam in ten different countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy.
There are a lot of great musicians around the world, like Jim Prosser, who I’ll be working with here in Sarasota. With StaceJam, I follow the structure of “The Harold.” In the opening number, I set up three distinct story lines, and then do callbacks to them throughout the show. I’ll play multiple characters in each scene, or I might mention a character you don’t see, and then play that character in a later scene. As the show goes on, I’ll connect all the characters and story lines together.
Looking back as an improv veteran, have you seen the annual Sarasota Improv Festival (and the art of improv) evolve over the years?
Absolutely! Improv changes with time. More formats have been created, and more people are being included. I think that’s one of the most obvious signs of evolution. Theaters and festivals have been striving to be more inclusive over the last decade or so – both in terms of performers, and the audiences they relate to. That alone is transformative. Because improv is so accessible in so many places, the diversity of people alone changes the art. It adds more perspective, and that’s always good for comedy.
Keep an eye out for Stacey Smith who will be at the helm of StaceJam, and lending her talent to ImprovBoston. For tickets, click here.
Portions of this interview were quoted in The Observer’s preview of the 2019 Sarasota Improv Festival. Used by permission.