Those “make-em-ups”: 20 years of emerging art from Wing-It Productions

[media-credit name=”Courtesy Wing-It Productions” align=”aligncenter” width=”680″][/media-credit]As you drive down University Avenue heading north, past all the coffee shops, bars, restaurants and cross 50th Street, you cannot help but notice the large yellow theater on your right hand side that screams out at you.

Yes, this is Wing-It Productions theater, home to Jet City Improv. For twenty years now, Jet City Improv has been bringing Seattle not only its old reliables like Twisted Flicks and their classic short-form shows, but Wing-It Productions has been producing six to seven completely original, unscripted full-length improvised theater productions a year for over a decade now.

If you take a look at the Wing-It calendar, they pack an impressive two shows a night into their Thursday and Friday schedule, and an outstanding three shows on Saturdays. But how did this still mostly under the radar, yet wildly successful production company make it to twenty years here in Seattle?

I sat down with co-founders, Andrew McMasters and Mike Christensen, and marketing director (as well as ensemble member), Jeannine Clarke, and talked to them about where they started and how far they’ve come as a theater.

Seattle Star: What made you decide, 20 years ago, to create an improv theater company?

Mike Christensen: I came to Seattle after grad school to do improv because I was getting burnt out on theater. I got involved in TheatreSports. I knew improv was what I wanted to do, TheatreSports wasn’t it, and after a couple years I left that group. I met Andrew at an audition; we got cast in one of those ill-fated BarProv groups. Once that folded up, by that time, Andrew and I were living in a house together, and we said to each other, “Let’s take what we’ve learned and make a better crew.

Andrew McMasters: For Jet City, we cast a group – we had six people, and one person immediately dropped out, so there were 5 of us. And a keyboard player. We had rented a place in Pioneer Square, a little art studio. It was really cheap, I think we were paying something like $8 or $10 an hour to rent this place. And we started rehearsing. We were rehearsing two nights a week, from 7-10 p.m. (rehearsal ran from 7 to 9 and then we’d spend the last hour socializing and getting to know each other at the bar across the street). Our first introductory show was up in this art studio during an art walk in Pioneer Square.

MC: We contacted a comedy agent to perform at the Bite of Seattle, and she asked us for a tape, and we hadn’t performed yet. So we told her, “You have to come and see this show we’re going to do.” So, we packed in about 60 folding chairs in the back of this art gallery in Pioneer Square and performed. And she booked us for three appearances at the Bite of Seattle, with all these stand-up comics.

AM: So suddenly we went from doing rehearsals, to doing this free show with 60-70 people packed into this art studio, to performing three nights at the Bite of Seattle with audiences of about 350 people.

[media-credit name=”Courtesy Wing-It Productions” align=”aligncenter” width=”640″][/media-credit]

One of the first performances of what would become Jet City Improv at the Bite of Seattle in 1992

SStar: What brought Wing-It to the “Historical University District Theater?”

MC: We were doing a lot of following people and renting spaces here and there. But to get a consistent night, we had to say, “Okay, we’re gonna go late night, we’re gonna follow some show.” So, we struck a deal with Northwest Actor’s Studio — which is now the Annex Theatre — to do Friday nights at 11. So, we did that for a while. And then Andrew had a friend who was opening a new space in Belltown, The Belltown Theatre Center — which is now the Sea Sound Lounge. Eventually, the guy who owned it called up and said he wanted to have an improv group follow shows there. It was a little 50-seat theater, and we were there for probably about four and a half, five years. Meanwhile, Andrew was in grad school and knew someone who was managing the Ethnic Cultural Theater.

AM: The guys I knew who was running things at the Ethnic Cultural Theater basically came to me and said, “It’s a 180-seat theater, there are dorms right across the street, what do you think?” So, we took a leap, moved to the Ethnic Culture Theater. And we went from 50 seats to 180 seats, and pretty much started selling that out from the very first weekend.

MC: And we were there for almost 5 years again. They renovated the Ethnic Cultural Theater and they told us we had to be out for 4 or 5 months, which really turned into about 9 months. Meanwhile, we were performing upstairs in the U Heights building, and we were doing both our shows there by that time – both Twisted Flix and Jet City Improv. I got an email one day from a guy who said he was the manager of the Paradox. By this time, that old space had become a punk rock club. But he had a big screen and we went over a looked at the space. So, for two years, Twisted Flix followed a punk rock act at the Paradox while Jet City Improv was going on at the Ethnic Cultural Theater. Then the Paradox closed, and we asked if we could take over the lease. So, we took over that space and cleaned it out (it took us over a month to clean it up since it was trashed). And little by little, we got the space ready for us to perform there.

SStar: What were the most significant milestones in Wing-It’s history?

MC: It’s gotta be getting our own space. Once we maxed out the Ethnic Cultural Theater, that was it. We couldn’t do any more; we couldn’t do any more shows, we couldn’t have any more people see us. Two nights a week, and we were done. Once we got our own space — wow. We had 7 nights! We could program, rehearse, teach, or do matinees.

AM: Before we got our own space, there was a moment for me. It was when we did the Northwest Burn Foundation Camp. I always picture that as one of the turning points in the company. One of our members had come to us and said maybe we should do a free show for this kids’ camp. And, we were a little freaked out about it. So, we went there and it was tough. But, they loved it. And we left that and we kind of felt like: Wow, we have the capability to do this kind of outreach.

So now, during the summer, we do six or seven shows for American Cancer Society, Northwest Burn Foundations, and so on. And that led us to start doing free classes for homeless youth, free classes for incarcerated youth, and it started to snowball. But I think that was the moment, the first time for me, when we started to figure out, “Wow, we can help people.” It’s a little bit beyond just doing shows. We have something that can really make people happy.

SStar: How did Wing-It Productions decide to start the education program aspect of the company?

Jeannine Clarke: I think it’s partly just a natural progression. Anybody who’s done improv to any extent has this major change happen in their life, sort of like they’ve discovered this secret that you then want to share with other people.

MC: We started off doing Improv DoJo because people were saying, “We want to play” and for us, it was a good way to see new people. And we would see people in this two-hour weekly workshop and we would say, “Hey, you might want to think about auditioning for Jet City.” But, then as improv gained popularity, more and more people were asking for classes.

SStar: What are the biggest challenges with improv theater that you’ve encountered?

JC/MC/AM (simultaneously): PUBLIC PERCEPTION!

JC: Public perception of what improv is. Sometimes people do know what it is, but they’ve seen bad improv, so they think they don’t like it.

MC: When we started, basically, improv was big in Chicago. So, here, Andrew and I were educating audience members. Then, we had to educate the corporate culture what improv was. Then we started teaching, so that was another step in the education process. Then, when we became a 501(c)(3), we suddenly realized we had to educate all of these potential donors about what improv was. We literally had a donor tell us, “We don’t think what you do is theater.” A lot of the public perception is that improv is stand-up comedy.

AM: We have one potential donor that refuses to fund us, the Paul Allen Foundation. Even though we fit perfectly into the description of what they fund: emerging art. And they literally have said to us, “We don’t fund improv.”

JC: Nobody does what we do. We launch six original unscripted plays a year. It’s really frustrating when you see other theater companies in town that get a big grant and a pat on the back because they launched a new play this season. Yet, we do that every two months [and have] for the last seven years.

MC: But I think that the perception is, in the theater world, that if there’s no written script, it’s just not taken as seriously.

AM: I think that what’s made us grow and led us to where we are over the last 20 years, is that the spirit of improv itself is the inventive spirit. We’re gonna take nothin’ and we’re gonna make something out of it. We’re gonna take a bunch of people who wanna do some stuff and we’re gonna make a thriving company out of it that can survive; that can have 30 actors and create new shows. And we’re gonna do it. It’s the ground floor, grass roots, theater movement, that will continue to grow and then becomes established. Much like the Seattle Rep that got placed here by the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] back in the 1950s, we’re doing that ourselves now.

SStar What drew you to improv and what do you think draws others to this specific genre of theater?

MC: I was born with it. I always love it.

And I had done everything from Greek tragedy to melodrama, which was a grind. It wasn’t fun anymore. And I thought, well, I always liked making people laugh. I had a friend when I was in undergraduate in Nebraska who went to Chicago to take some improv classes, and came back and did some stuff and I though, “Wow, this is really cool.”

Even after grad school, which was more drudgery, I said, “Okay, I’m done with this.” And I came to Seattle to do improv, because it’s the most exciting kind of theater I’ve ever done. There’s something for me that’s very natural to get on stage and improvise.

About a third of Jet City improvisers are actors, the rest are not actors. Most actors are not comfortable with improvising, because the script is such an important tool for them.

AM: For me it was a lot of the same thing. I got my MFA at University of Washington, and basically the other people I was in graduate school with were like, “That improv stuff, I’m scared of it.”

But it is the exact training you need to be an actor. I don’t care whether you have a script or whether or not you don’t. You are in the moment, you are listening to what happens, you are honestly responding. It is the base of all acting.

And the fact that you can do it without a script and become both playwright and director at the same time? Wonderful!

I found [improv] to be the most fascinating, the most wonderful, the most scary…which was part of the appeal.

JC: Actors spend a lot of time convincing themselves and setting up rules for themselves about what they can’t do. I was really fortunate to go to this little high school in Springfield, Oregon that had this amazing preforming arts program. And at the age of 15, I was writing, directing, producing and performing. I was one of the head writers for our sketch comedy show.

When I started at UW, all of a sudden there was this brick wall between being a decision maker and being a performer. So, when I was at UW, I got pushed into the actor tract.

I found an improv group, The Collective, and I had never done improv before, but it was a lot closer to the commedia that I had been doing [in high school]. And then when Wing-It started doing long forms, I realized, “Oh! This is totally what I did in high school!” It felt so familiar.

MC: I think the big reason people get hooked on improv is two things: We love story and we love doing stuff as a team. Once you create a story as a team, and you get that feeling, it’s hard to walk away from that.

SStar: So what’s on the horizon? What now?

MC: I think that at our rate of growth, pretty soon we’re going to max out the Wing-It Productions Theater and we’re gonna go, “Well, we need to have another space.” My dream is to have a space that’s just for the 8 o’clock shows. So that we can build a set for that show and not have to worry about other shows sharing the space and do whatever crazy light plot we want. And of course do classes there and workshops.

AM: Strategically, looking at what the company needs and how the company will move forward too – we’re relaunching all the education stuff again in September, we’re launching an entirely new education program, series of classes – with the whole idea of getting up and creating their own groups. That means that we need to then be able to provide space and opportunity for those groups to perform. That means we also need to secure enough rehearsal space for those groups, as well as our classes and our shows.

MC: We also want to keep improving the theater that we have. Some of our light instruments are older than some of our players! Easily. So, we want to continue to improve the Wing-It theater and keep making that a better space.

I think there are also more inroads to be made in the corporate education area. More and more corporations are going, “Wow, this is a powerful teaching tool.”

I think that’s going to take off, I think it’s going to enter the school systems – I think it’s going to get more cred in the theater world too. More and more people are going to come to see shows, especially our long form shows and say, “Wow, this is a really cool art form.”

AM: And it is listed on the Washington State EALRs as part of the learning requirements for schools. Improv is listed as one of the key things for theater training. We’ve made a lot of inroads, especially in Washington state to make improv more mainstream. And we’re going to just continue to do that.

As mentioned, Wing-It Productions puts out six original works of long-form improv a year. The next show on the docket is GAUNTLET: An interactive video game comedy. The show starts May 3 and runs through May 18, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. Visit the Wing-It site for more details and to reserve tickets.

Wing-It’s Laugh for the Future: 20th Anniversary Bash will be May 19 at Hotel Deca from 7:30-10:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 regular admission, $50 for “Super Donor” tickets. Again, visit their site to RSVP for the gala and to secure a spot for the event.