“Let me get this right, your 16-year-old son dressed up your dogs as lions for Halloween?” Greg Tavares confirmed with the audience volunteer on stage at Theatre 99. Ten minutes later, the audience erupted into belly laughs at a bit that incorporated a father confronting his teenage son about his dog-dressing fetish. It was good-natured, it was pure entertainment, it was improv at its best.
Theatre 99 was born out of a partnership between Brandy Sullivan and Greg Tavares when they were theatre majors together at the University of South Carolina. From humble beginnings as The Have Nots, a three-person improv group, they eventually settled into a space on Cumberland Street in Charleston before relocating to their Meeting Street location in 2005.
Today, Theatre 99 features over 50 members, has a thriving training program, and a live show schedule. They also perform at private and corporate events, and hold team-building classes.
Up on stage, a company member set the rule for a scene about a ‘Parenting Skills’ podcast based upon a suggestion an audience member yelled out. The two actors who play the featured guests can only reply with one word at a time, alternating their responses to create coherent sentences. The outcome was a hilarious exercise in completely trusting and anticipating their partner’s next word.
“Listening is very underdeveloped,” insisted Sullivan. “People feel respected when they feel heard. It’s a wonderful way to start a relationship ... an improv scene, or something at work.”
Cheryl Donaldson could not agree more. A therapist with an MA in Clinical Psychology and owner of local Charleston practice, Helping Families Flourish, Donaldson affirmed that engaging with a partner in an activity like improv creates a helpful, healthy connection. “Trying to plan what might be funny exercises a part of your brain that now doesn’t feel lonely or isolated and instead is looking for the ridiculous in situations ... Even the choice to do improv, choosing to be vulnerable with other people who are choosing to be vulnerable, creates a social connection that builds confidence and positive emotions.”
Donaldson loves the idea of being playful in a world that is otherwise full of heavy situations. “I use laughter in a session to introduce a lightness as an alternative to holding on to awkward situations.” After all, who doesn’t love to laugh? Donaldson noted that research shows how laughter triggers a release of endorphins in our nervous system that keeps our body relaxed for longer than even exercise. “That idea of being playful with your spouse, kids, or friends also introduces the concept of being carefree and letting go, which is what improv is all about. There is an energy about being silly that is important to capture.”
Sullivan clearly loves making connections. Theatre 99 has performed countless private shows in and around Charleston, instructing groups of all sizes and ages. “Since improv is not scripted, we can adapt easily to any situation, from a church group to a bachelorette party.” The only promise Sullivan can’t make is that every show will be the same. “It’s different every time because the audience is always different."
Erin Diehl, the founder and CEO of Learn To Improve It, a Chicago-based team-building company, recently visited Theatre 99 and attested to the quality of the experience. “What I witnessed was pure joy, the contagious type to be exact! The performers' talent was evident throughout the entire show, not to mention the genuine connection, ultimate support, and many, many laughs. I cannot wait to go back and am so happy that this slice of heaven exists here in Charleston!” theatre99.com
The power to make someone laugh is a special gift. Humor takes courage and empathy. Improvisation is the act of spontaneous thinking, acting, or playing and it always starts with the ability to really listen. A trained ear is a prerequisite to that.