The Society reigns supreme as Santa Clarita’s champion improv squadSean Malin October 23, 2018 1 COMMENT
On a balmy night this past September, the comedy troupe known as The Society found itself facing off against half a dozen drunken hecklers. Kirby Heyborne, the co-director and co-founder, opened with his customary introduction, but was cut off when an audience member yelled “Wooo!” partway through. Never one to lose the moment, Heyborne deadpanned back, “Fun crowd.”
That moment – a typical one for any comedian, but made hilarious by a seasoned performer’s wit, patience and goodwill – set the tone for yet another Saturday night comedy extravaganza. While many in the revolving cast are not local residents, The Society has embedded itself in Santa Clarita’s nightlife through an unending stream of fully improvised performances. Now, after more than ten years, the group’s (often sold out) monthly showcase has become this city’s premier comedy event.
Ahead of their November 3, 2018 performance at The Main in Newhall, Lincoln Hoppe – the group’s other co-director, distinguishable by his tastefully coiffed hair and elastic, gangly limbs – spoke about how The Society is keeping its collective dynamic fresh and what constitutes a “Santa Clarita audience” in 2018.
The Proclaimer: I’ve been a Santa Clarita resident for 25 years, so I can remember when The Society first started performing here. It is amazing to think about how long ago that was.
Lincoln Hoppe: It’s been over ten years. Kirby and I both live in the area. That was one of the reasons we started in Santa Clarita – we did what was most convenient for us. We also perform at the Playhouse West on Magnolia in North Hollywood, and I teach an improv program down there.
We have JR’s Comedy Club, which used to be in Marie Callender’s; and Fritz Coleman, our local weatherman, sometimes performs comedy at The Stage Door. But we never really had a space for improv, which meant that you never really had competitors for stage time.
LH: It seems that way, yeah. There were other groups that have popped up and then disappeared really quickly. I don’t know if it is because they were bad, or because they were college groups and people move on, but we are all professional actors. So it has always been something of a priority for us – not necessarily to run a business, but to do [sic] because we love it.
You have a role in the new Stargate series, and I see Kirby and Eric Artell in commercials all the time. At what point did it go from, “Guys, we have to do this so I can feed my children!” to “Well, we’ve done it for nine years, so I guess we have to do it next year, too.”
LH: Improv is what first got me into acting. It was something I always wanted to do, even if it cost us money, which sometimes it does. To me, it is still worth it to do The Society and try to balance the career at the same time because I get to work with some of my best friends, and make best friends with the people I work with. It’s kind of a win-win.
You have a new player in the group, Ali Kinkade, who performed with you for the first time at shows this year. After working for so long with people you know and trust, how do you choose to take on new members like her?
LH: People will come up to us after a show and say, “I’m an improviser!” and we’ve had them pop into rehearsals. But we don’t hold auditions; it has all been through networking. Ali had worked for years with someone I used to perform with in the Garrens Comedy Troupe in Utah. He called me to say that she was moving out here and that I should check her out. Usually, it takes months and months before someone can even get to rehearsal with us, but it just so happened that we needed someone pretty fast for some rehearsals, so we had her stop by. She had the same sensitivities that we did. We only like to work with good people – I’m not just saying “talented” people…
LH: Exactly. It’s not everyone. A lot of people who are interested in working with our group would not be happy with us because we have a positive, very upbeat style. We also keep things so clean which a lot of actors find [restrictive]. I learned a long time ago that our people have to work harder, smarter, better and wittier to make the audience laugh with clean improv. Just about anybody can get a shock laugh with potty humor or sexual humor or swear words. But it really strains an improviser’s skills to have to work without using those panic buttons.
Even though you keep it clean language-wise, that is not to say that The Society’s comedy is not for adults. Will Rubio plays characters that are often a little bawdier or more extreme; and Zanan [Schmidt] can seemingly slip a double entendre into the middle of anything. It’s not like there isn’t darkness or intensity to your humor.
LH: That’s really well put. We’re all adults and we all share this consciousness that includes those darker places, but we’re not throwing those buzzwords out there. They are working below the surface. Some of the best stuff happens when they begin to peak out, but not enough so that the kids know what is happening. That’s the thing with improv: it is all spontaneous, and you have to work a lot to get there; but really the only thing our cast has to work with is their experience and their humanity.
As someone who has performed here for longer than virtually any other comedy group, what does a typical Santa Clarita comedy audience look like to you?
LH: I don’t know if we get a good cross-section of that at our shows, but our audience tends to be there with an open mind to enjoy. We get people all the time who have never seen an improv show, and we also get regulars who come in knowing what’s about to happen and are ready to support. If people who don’t know what to expect are there, they probably heard about us through word of mouth from someone they trust, as opposed to a stand-up audience where, for each comic, it’s like: “All right, let’s see if you can make me laugh.”
The idea that improv comedy should be challenging for the audience is baked into the heads of comedy nerds who only see performances at The Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade. There is such pressure on them to be funny, especially when you have driven an hour outside of Santa Clarita to see the show. But The Society is not challenging – you project a very passive joy into the audience.
LH: At the beginning of our shows, a bunch of people walk in who do not know each other. Through watching the show collaboratively with the rest of the audience, audiences bond together by the end of a Society show. You don’t even have to shake their hands – a hundred different people in the room just seem to get on the same page as a group. I think that’s because of the nature of our spontaneity and audience interaction.
Another important aspect of your performances is that they take place at The Main. In Santa Clarita, we do not have any other venue quite like it. That space is becoming a hub for our performing arts; in fact, I would argue that it is currently our only hub for the kind of performance The Society does, right?
LH: We have been at that same theater for ten years, performing almost every first Saturday of every month, and we have no plans to change that with the exception of possibly adding additional shows in the future. We enjoyed working with the previous owners, too, but we absolutely love The Main. [Event Supervisor] Kyle Lopez, our point person over there, is so nice and so on top of things. We were actually a little worried when the city took over that they were going to kick us out, but it has gotten so much better. People take for granted the differences between going to The Main and going to a hole-in-the-wall in Hollywood. Those theaters think, “All we have to do is pay the electric bill and people will come see our shows,” but The Main is gorgeous. There’s an actual lobby! And there’s more than one bathroom, and none of them are backstage so that the audience has to walk through the stage to get there! It may be just about the geography, but it is an upscale experience.
Tickets for The Society’s upcoming shows are available here.
Tickets for The Main’s upcoming events are available here.
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