The Groundlings are re-opening their doors for live performances and classes, and it’s a momentous occasion for the iconic comedy brand. While the company did an amazing job of pivoting to virtual instruction and Zoom shows during the past year, there’s nothing that compares to improv comedy with a live audience.
I connected with Groundlings main company member and teacher Leonard Robinson to discuss how much the change not only means to him as a performer, but what impact it has creatively, and how much comedy changes depending on the where and the how. Learn more about both Leonard and The Groundlings in our interview!
Brittany Frederick: From a performance standpoint, how important is it to have a live audience? Since we associate improv comedy in particular with that audience element.
Leonard Robinson: I think it’s very important to a lot of our members to be doing stuff live, because that’s the nature of the performance—the interaction with the audience live. You can kind of feel it all out based on the audience reaction, which has been very different with Zoom. We had to find different ways to interact with the audience, which mainly occurs in the chat function of Zoom.
But there’s just something magical about the live experience. Leaving your house, showing up in a new space and watching everybody literally make it up in front of you. Or if you’re watching the sketch show, seeing the costumes from top to bottom. All those things are what I think a lot of people miss about live theater.
BF: The Groundlings pivoted to virtual programs very early on. What was that experience like for you, given how different it was from what you normally do?
LR: I was up for the challenge. I thought it was exciting new territory. I wasn’t necessarily excited about having to do it, but you get your lemons, you’ve got to make lemonade. The biggest takeaway I think that we got out of it was that we were able to reach a lot of people who previously weren’t able to have access to The Groundlings. Either because they live in another state, or because it’s cost-prohibitive to move to study, or see a show. So now we have a really strong virtual audience and base that hopefully we can continue to grow.
The biggest experience was really just connecting with people who couldn’t get to The Groundlings. I’ve had students log in as far away as South Africa, and we’ve had people login to watch shows as far away as Vietnam. Typically, we get people from the East Coast and the West Coast and even in the South, because a lot of people moved due to the pandemic.
But we were able to adapt [into] a new form. Our improv shows are not exactly the same as they are on the live show, but we’ve had some really great directors like Lisa Schurga and Deanna Oliver and Annie Sertich. Michael Churven [was] able to come up with a lot of interesting new games and ways to interact and do our improv shows online. I was able to do our first ever virtual sketch show online with the holiday show back in December. And so it was really a great learning opportunity, and we definitely got a lot out of it. We’re looking forward to bringing it back into the future.
BF: You’ve reached these worldwide audiences on Zoom, and you’ve done stand-up all over the United States as well as in Europe. Do you find that comedy changes based on where you’re performing, or is it more universal?
LR: I think it’s both actually. I think the nature of everyone all over the world, for the most part, is people want to laugh. The big difference comes in clarity—in how clear can you make these jokes and these setups for someone who is not from your background or actually physically living in your space. If we were live in the theater on Melrose, we might have a reference or two to something locally. So it allowed us to think more globally with our comedy, I think.
BF: The Groundlings has and continues to be a company with some of the best comedic minds in the country. What influence has being a member had on your career?
LR: The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from The Groundlings, and one thing that I think you’ll find that’s probably consistent with everybody in the company, is learning and having the opportunity to really fully develop your comedic voice in all aspects. Groundlings company members write and perform in their own material, and you’re always improvising your own material. Whereas just regular actors, we’re at the mercy of the writer and the director to get a job.
At The Groundlings, if I have something funny that I want to say or a sketch or something that I want to do, I can write it up and put it up in a relatively short amount of time. That’s actually been really monumental for me in my career is helping to refine and redefine what my comedic voice is, because I just get to go out there and test it. I’ve been able to grow in other areas that I didn’t know I previously had any talent in or interest in.
For instance, musicals—I’m not a classically trained singer, but I love musicals, and every now and the, I’ll think of something stupid that could be a musical and I get to do it. Whereas if I would have auditioned for Hamilton or something like that, I wouldn’t get past the first round.
BF: Teaching is also part of the company; you give as much as you get from the experience. What does teaching other comedians do for your perspective as an artist?
LR: Well, they always say, if you can’t teach it, you don’t know it. So that has really opened up a lot of things for me—teaching and just seeing how many reservations people have about performing in improv that are just consistent across the board. I teach basic improv, and it’s interesting to see how some people are really great and maybe have a lot of experience. And then also somebody who’s never done it before ever, watch them grow into something. You can see a little light bulb and then we’ll switch in and turn on when they’re like “Oh, I can do this. This is great. Thank you for helping me see this.”
I’ll often find improv is much like having a good conversation. And at the same time, there are a lot of people that don’t have good conversations in the world, so it’s funny to see that come up in the improv setting.
I think good improvising comes from great listening and patience. I didn’t really see the patience piece until I started teaching. It’s like everybody wants to be funny all the time immediately right away. And I find some of the best improvisers just listen and are patient until they can figure out where a scene will go and where the major points of funny are going to come from.
The biggest thing here people can latch onto is just be patient. And that’s not only just for your scenes, not only just when you’re improvising in a scene or if you’re writing a sketch or even stand-up comedy developing jokes. Have the patience to allow yourself to be great. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer. Some people get in right away, but just be patient with yourself and your own journey. Everybody has a shot at it.
For more about The Groundlings, and a full list of both in-person and virtual programs coming up, visit their website.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.