BL&D Interview: Sea Tea Improv
Sea Tea Improv's 9 year rise is a fascinating tale of steady growth, friendship, and commitment. You may know of Sea Tea but you probably don't know their history or realize just how big an operation they run. We sat down with 10 of their members to find out.
Interviewees: Greg Ludovici, Julia Pistell Helena Morris, Casey Grambo, Jack Griffin, Erica Willis, Nate Gagnon, Brian Hines, and Steve Yenke
BL&D: So where are you guys coming from just now?
Sea Tea: We were at Tuesday night rehearsal for Sea Tea Improv touring company. It’s every Tuesday night, ensemble has a rehearsal, and sometimes also the touring company comes to those as well. Then we have tour training on Sundays. We had an average rehearsal tonight at our studios on Pratt Street. We’ve been doing that rehearsal consistently on for almost nine years.
Sea Tea: It’s pretty rare that they don’t happen, we probably only cancel four or five over the years. Standing rehearsals are one of the secrets to Sea Tea’s success. We basically have always done that. For the first five years, we actually did two rehearsals per week. Then eventually we did so many shows that we stopped that. There was also Improvised Horror Movie rehearsal, which is a one off show later in October that we can pitch shows to show at the theater. Then we get that approved, and put that on as a show that is not just a house show, or a monthly show, but something that puts different people together in a group to play and explore new things.
So, a bit of context here. You guys have been doing this for nine years?
Sea Tea: Yup.
You have a whole bunch of things going on to support a bunch of performances. Can someone walk us through all the things you’re doing right now as far as different projects?
Sea Tea: We have four branches of what we do. The one that’s most recent and easy to grasp is the shows we have in our theater. About a year ago, we opened our theater. We do shows there every week and every weekend. We did 650 unique sets in the first calendar year it was open. Number two is our touring company. That’s a group of us that will go out and do shows other places, like museums, fundraisers, breweries, comedy clubs, other theaters, or festivals around the area. It could be anything. It could be performances, workshops, or being an improviser that could serve as a sub for training. We’ve done simulation interventions at work, where they’re training their managers how to talk to their employees that are having issues, so they are trying it out on improvisers. For years I was a person brought in so that managers could practice firing people.
It’s really flexible. Some people are looking for team building. Others might be looking for flexibility and adaptability. A lot of the children and corporate employees that we encounter are afraid of looking dumb and failing. If you just kind of encourage people to let go a little bit, have fun, and trust each other, it’s amazing what that unleashes in the creativity of kids and adults.
Number three is our classes. We teach a ton of classes in our own spaces. Teaching people that want to do comedy for whatever reason. Everyone here has taken classes, and half of us are teachers. There are a lot of different reasons people do it; people that want to get on our stage, people that want to do comedy, they want to meet people, be more confident, or do it for professional reasons. Our classes are really the bedrock of the whole thing because that’s how people come and find us, and then they get hooked into the whole system.
Number four is our studios and our theater as a place. Our theater has been rented a lot, more than we actually expected with fundraisers, meetings, meetup groups, dating events. People can use the space for whatever they want. Everything that we do is a collaboration, so there’s no standard answer for the question if someone asks to use our theater, or I want to hire you guys, or I want you to come to our school, we say, “What do you want?” We will make something up and customize it for them.
And sometimes we partner with other programs. When we go into schools, a lot of the time it’s through the Hartford Performs Program, which is an organization we have been working with for a while. We go into schools and do workshops for kids, which is awesome and always super fun. The teachers are always great. Hartford Performs is a great example for applied improv. We talked about using improv to teach people how to be better public speakers. You can use improv to teach people about science. Our Science Improv is probably the most popular one.
What you guys just described is a very intense business. I feel like, outside looking in, most people don’t assume that you are even a business.
Sea Tea: Yea, a bunch of jokers haha.
They probably assume you’re a non-profit theater, or touring act. Other people in the area, their reference points for art in the Hartford area is non-profit based. Part of the reason we at BL&D are really fascinated about what you guys do is, while you practice a very normal art, the way in which you guys built a business that allowed you to practice your art is very unique. So, we were talking about this a little before, but could you give us a quick summary of your history? You have a studio space, you offer all these business lines. How did you go from a bunch of people that wanted to do a thing, to being a place that has a studio space, a theater, and all these different business products?
Sea Tea: What you’re saying is interesting, because you’re saying that’s business, that’s not a non-profit. But every single one of those branches that we described is something that any good non-profit has. But, we did them in a different order. We didn’t say, “We’re opening a theater, we have to scramble to create these other things.” It was more like, eventually, we want this outward facing home, so first we’re going to really slowly, in a way that we never lose money, build the foundation first and be really patient before we do the most obvious part of the thing. So, nothing makes us different from a non-profit other than that we pay taxes, and we don’t have a board.
Our expenses are low. With improv, it’s a very different financial landscape. When our theater opened, we relied on sponsorship or tickets. Then we needed revenue generators, which is where the outward facing classes came from.
Just to point out, we’ve gone back and forth on the non-profit thing a million times. But, we are just a little bit more open about, “Yea, we are a business.” Now, a lot of nonprofits are having the backdoor conversation of, “We need to treat this more like a business.” Nonprofit and business aren’t mutually exclusive. It comes down to who pays taxes and who runs it. So now, we’ll have Greg take you through our 10 point history. There were 7 founding members of CT improv who all met taking classes through the Hartford Stage Company. Originally, 6 of those 7 met in the fall of 2008, so 9 years ago.
Were you guys friends first, or did you all meet in this class?
Greg: It was interesting. It was literally the day that Julia moved to Hartford. We had known each other for a long time. We’re now married, but we were dating at the time. The day she moved here was the day of the second improv class. I was like, “Hey, it’s a way to make some friends and meet some new people.” So we knew each other. Summer and Kate were two of the other founding members. They were both brand new apprentices at Hartford Stage Company. They knew each other but they weren’t best friends yet. Dan and Vlad had taken another improv class at another studio first. Everyone came in in pairs, but didn’t know each other. The last person, Joe, was a local standup who was looking to do more comedy. He arrived in January of 2009.
By April of 2009, we had taken every class we could twice. We were starting to want to perform, and we were adding extra rehearsals on top of class so we could practice. It was April 1, 2009 when we came up with the name “Sea Tea” as a play on “Connecticut.”
Sea Tea: Was this at the fire hydrant? This is really important. Sea Tea was formed at the hydrant between City Steam and Temple Street.
Julie: This is a crucial piece of information. One thing that I think happened very early that I definitely didn’t expect at all, but in retrospect is very obvious why we made it so long, is that everyone had different professional skills that they brought to the table. It was not just seven people saying, “We want to do comedy!” Greg and Dan were both in business school. A couple of us were in marketing, a couple of use worked in theater. A few others worked in sales. We had all the parts of a company. So, as soon as Dan pulled that trigger of, “We should be a company,” it went into motion. It went into motion; there was no big hole. We knew how to sell the show, we knew how to market the show. Dan, one of the founding members, right away recognized that we should incorporate, we should have a name. Let me grab a domain name. If you knew him, this is very normal behavior.
Greg: This was just after a class. There were other people in the class who weren’t as into it. But, he recognized the few of us twenty-somethings who were all at that exact right point in our lives. Each of us wanted something….
Casey:...6 other losers!
Greg: Well, Dan knew how to motivate everyone in front of this fire hydrant. Once the classes ended, we started practicing together. We came up with that name and wanted something that had legs.
How long was it from the point you met each other to the point you incorporated?
Sea Tea: Six months. That was August 2008. And on April 1, 2009, Sea Tea Improv was born. That was the day we got the domain name.
Julie: It was ridiculous. We weren’t doing anything. But, there was a groundwork set right away. With the groundwork we started thinking, “We are going to be professional; we are going to do shows.” We started doing shows at City Steam once a month, because we wanted to do shows. We have done 100 monthly shows there. We did at least one show a month for 100 consecutive months.
Then, we started getting invitations to do little shows here and there, like a birthday party, or a museum. Then we started adding people. We added people a year later. Then, a couple years after that, we added the next group, which included Casey and Helena. That was in July of 2012.
Greg: So basically, starting in 2009, once the team formed, we operated as nomads. Our teacher was moving to St. Louis and said, “Now you guys need to take over the class and start teaching.” We were thinking, “Woah! We were just the students, we can’t rest on our laurels.” So we decided, we’re going to reach out. We did our research and tried to figure out about other improv schools. We reached out to the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, and started studying with them. We brought them into Hartford for the first class, and then we all started commuting into there to take other classes.
They’re famous, is that fair to say?
Greg: Yes. One of the family members there is Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec fame. So at that point, we were doing shows and also in a constant learning mode... Why don’t we have Casey and Helena describe the studio opening and what that meant.
Helena: First, my thing was that I heard about Sea Tea through the grapevine. You guys were well known enough at that point where a random guy at a concert was like, “Hey you like acting? Check out Sea Tea Improv!” So it was enough of a thing where I heard about it.
Casey: I googled it. I came up to Hartford to do an apprenticeship at Hartford Stage, and was missing the improv I had done in college. I auditioned and shortly after, we got the studio which is on Pratt St.
Helena: I was concussed during this period, so I can’t talk about it.
Casey: Yes, Helena was in a dark room for 5 months. She got punched by a wave.
An ocean one?
Helena: Yes, an ocean one. I was fixing my hair after body surfing all day and a wave smacked me in the face at such an angle that it gave me a concussion. It was probably overplayed by the doctors and my mom, but I wasn’t taking chances because my brain is already pretty scattered. Anyways, go on…
Casey: When we first got in, we were rehearsing in the City Steam Basement. We were grateful to be moved to the studio on Pratt St, which is very nice. Shout out to John Cohen for being a wonderful landlord. It was kind of the beginning of the spacemaking that Sea Tea does, because it was something we were in charge of and that we were responsible for. We still clean it every Tuesday after our rehearsals. It is very much a shared effort.
I think around this time, we started expanding and doing more shows. There were three monthly shows, and there was this thing called “E-Improv” that started happening. It was an online improv show, so that was another thing that we were doing. They were all in different spaces.
Was that around when things started stirring up?
Sea Tea: It was right around iConnect thing. It was hard, because Hartford has never been on a straight trajectory. There were times where I thought, “Wow, we're just a part of a million things.” Then other times where it was really challenging. One advantage to not being a non-profit was we were never really reliant on grants. We did get some great grants, but it was all part of what I was describing before, which was, “Alright, we’re just going to take the next baby step. Can we afford the few hundred dollars a month for a tiny studio space? Sure. Do we need a second room? OK.” We never were taking huge leaps until very recently.
Greg: We actually started looking at the studio space in 2010. But, we were sitting there running the numbers. We were teaching classes. But, since we were nomadic, the places where we were running these classes only wanted to run them once a year. We thought, “There’s more demand. We don’t want people to have to wait until September to start these classes.” So, we started finding other places to teach until we had build up enough classes and enough demand so that we could afford our own space. And then that afforded the next step to even more classes.
Julie: Totally! And enough talent. Not represented here is that by the time we got to these guys, we had fourteen or fifteen people. We started with seven, and at that point we had essentially doubled. So, we had more people to do things. We were building the talent, the audience, and the product at the same time.
Helena: We used to have friends that would come to stuff. You kind of lose all your friends after a while. I’m just kidding. But, you have a lot of friends that come to stuff, and when you’re new to improv they’re like, “Oh yea, we’re going to come watch you perform!” And then eventually, after a number of performances it outlasted the patience of my specific friends. We grew an audience overall. I’m saying for my personal social life, it was not helpful. [Laughs]
Julie: It becomes less of what’s called in comedy, “a bringer audience,” where you are bringing your own group of friends, and more of building an actual audience for your art. After that, we had auditions again. At this point, things were growing really quickly. And then Steve came in during the fourth generation.
Steve: That was in August 2013. I had done improv at UCONN, and I had Sea Tea perform before at UCONN. I was living in Avon and I had wanted to see Sea Tea perform at City Steam for so long. Finally, for my birthday I went, and saw Casey Grambo wearing the striped shirt. I thought, “That girl is good.” You guys announced you were having auditions. I was like, “Why not? Give it a shot.” And here I am now.
You mention auditions. So you don’t just let anybody in? How does that work? How do you build your own group?
Julie: Basically, after Steve’s generation, that brought us up to 21 people. At that point, if you’re in, you’re doing everything. You’re doing shows, you’re doing all the styles of improv, you’re doing those regular rehearsals. You’re expected to take on a certain amount of work. You’re doing touring company and other things like that. Teaching, marketing, promoting; everything. Everyone from that point of time is still doing the bedrock of the work. Then, after that, we had this other pool of people who took our classes that were really talented. They formed other teams. So, always part of the original idea was that we didn’t want to be the only game in town. It was really great when there were enough talented people to form their own group. At a certain point, when there were a lot of classes and a lot of shows happening, there was an explosion of other teams. When we say Sea Tea Improv and the Touring Company, which is the first for generations, we’re still one team. But, there’s actually almost thirty teams now that perform at the theater. That’s happened just in the last two years.
Steve: So, when we opened the theater last year, there were just over sixty performers. This year, after our latest auditions, we have over one hundred performers that regularly perform at the theater.
Julie: When we say auditions, there are several different levels to that now. There’s auditioning for the main ensemble, which we don’t do very often. There’s auditioning for teams, to be put on a team. There’s one more level, which is where Jack is right now. For that, you take a bunch of classes and you form a group. Then you decide, “Are we a team? Are we a group? Are we a practice group?” For that, you don’t have to audition at all, you can do whatever you want. A lot of people end up on multiple teams or practice groups. The only really good word for it is “ecosystem.”
Greg: Depending on what your skills are, your interests, or your goals, you audition for different things. If you want to travel or teach, or you want to make sure you’re getting paid for the majority of the work you do, you audition for the touring company. If your goals are more artistic, then you’re probably going to audition for a theater team, because that way you have more control over your art. The touring company it’s about saying, “Hey customer, what show do you want? We’re giving exactly that to you.” Whereas at the theater, there is more artistic control. It’s more like, “Hey audience, this is what we want to do.”
So are you at the point now where you’re ready to launch a crazy, wild endeavor?
Julie: I think it would be useful for each of these guys to explain how they got in. They all entered through our classes, they’re all doing their own thing, and they’re all really important members of our community. This is an interesting time because this is when it branches less into our one system. Now, there are multiple paths.
Brian: I had the weird wrinkle that I knew Greg and Julie before, or right as all this started through mutual friends. I got this weird look from the outside like, “What are they doing now?” The other weird thing is that I have two brothers involved in the Upright Citizens Brigade who do it pretty much for a living. So, I have two weird things where, I knew who it was, I knew what they were doing, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. Then I got an email randomly from the mailing list that said, “Hey, do you think that you’re the funny guy at work?” Check! [Laughs] “Do you enjoy hanging out with your friends and making them laugh?” Check! “Have you ever thought about trying improv?” Yup, Check! I read this all out loud, and my friend goes, “Well, you’re signing up.” That was June 2013, and now I’m on three teams.
Sounds like a great newsletter/marketing campaign.
Brad: Yeah! And then I started taking classes. I was able to latch onto one of these what we call “Indie Teams,” not part of the Sea Tea umbrella per se, but we certainly performed a lot together, used the same space, took a lot of the same classes. That’s how I met Nate, Erica, and now Jack. A lot of the languages we speak are similar. And now, as Greg was saying, we all have our own goals. Some want to be a teacher, some want to be on the tech side, some want to produce a show.
Sea Tea: The indie team moment was an important time. It changed Sea Tea from being a single group. When we had the studio, and we were thinking about opening the theater, we were thinking, “We need to create opportunities for people to start feeling comfortable performing that are ready because, we can’t perform 656 times per year. We will die.” So, that was the idea, to basically let go a little in those spaces. We created shows like “Team Night” and “Indie Team Jams,” which were experimental performance opportunities for improvisers in front of other improvisers at our studio. Giving people that time to grow and screw up helped to make them. All of these guys debuted on the same stage, the same as we did because of spending that time the two years leading up to it.
Brad: One big difference is that I never wanted this thing to be my job, but rather pursue it as my passion. I think that sets this community apart. You could certainly go down the path of trying to get paid to do this, that’s awesome. But, you don’t have to. For me, the draw was that there’s this other half of my brain that’s been dormant, probably since college. Let’s fire this thing up again.
Nate: At the time, I really wanted to get into sketch comedy, and so I was writing sketch. I had been reading all these books and everything and found out that a lot of sketch writers and actors came out of improv schools. Essentially, I just did a google search and found Sea Tea. I left it dormant for a while, for more than 6 to 8 months. I didn’t have enough money to pay for a class. So, I sent an email, and thought I was being super funny. I was like, “I’ll let you borrow my cat, but I’ll never give you my dog!” No one responded back. [Laughs] They probably thought it was one of them joking with the other people. I started taking classes in November of 2013, and from there I really enjoyed it. It was a twice a week class, so I got a lot out of it. All of a sudden it was over and I thought, “What do I do two times a week now? I’m so used to it?” I started going to an open rehearsal on Tuesday nights, where you can just come in and practice. Essentially, just for a couple bucks you can hang out with some people and practice. You don’t have to get on everyone’s group text and figure out who’s doing what. You just drop in, show up, and do it. I did that for a while until the next class opened up and just kept on taking classes. Within the next year, I helped to turn a practice group into a team that played at one of their new Team Nights at Hartbeat Ensemble. Only one of the teams that played that night is no longer a team, out of five teams. I continued, used to do a monthly show at the Billings Forge, where they would invite a guest group in. Sometimes the team would be from out of town, and sometimes it would be a team from around. We got to play a couple of those shows, and do a couple of shows around the state too. By the time the theater was about to open, it was audition with your team. We came in and had a lot of fun. Now, we still perform there; at least once a month.
Erica: So, I moved to Connecticut to start grad school in the Fall of 2014. Immediately, I was not enjoying my experience. During the Christmas break between the Fall and Spring semesters, I was like, “I need a group of creative people to have fun with and have a creative experience with again.” I googled a bunch of things, and found Sea Tea. I thought, “Cool! I’ll take this really fun, easy intro class. It’s no big deal. If I hate it, I hate it. If i love, then cool, I love it.” After my first class I thought I was really bad at it. But, I wanted to get really good.
Sea Tea: Erica’s an overachiever. [Laughs]
Erica: I finished that class and started going to shows. Immediately, I signed up for two more classes. Also, my intro class was with Gregg, which is a good point to make. I have the personality where I go 120 percent into something, and I recognized two things immediately. One was that I really liked doing improv, wanted to continue, and wanted to learn more about everything that went with it. I also recognized the community that Sea Tea had created and how it was super supportive, encouraging, and really cool group of people who are from all kinds of different places and backgrounds. I knew it was a group of people that I wanted to spend my time with, join teams, and take classes with. I jumped right in 100 percent. So, that’s my story.
Sea Tea: And now she’s directing shows and made her own touring company!
Jack: I was slightly older than everyone here at the table, but also the newest person to the group. By happenstance, I was up in the studios in a practice group, came down to watch the soccer game, and walked into this interview. I retired from the Navy last year, in April 2016, and I was talking about doing comedy writing with this guy I was working with down in DC. He said, “Maybe we’ll do that.” And then he said, “I’m taking an improv class.” I asked, “What’s improv?” He told me and I said, “OK,” and then I came back and, like these guys, Googled and found Sea Tea. I’m going, “Well, improv classes, but in Hartford? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I live in Lebanon, and I was thinking, “Hartford’s a nice little city.” It’s the only game in town, so after a few months I signed up and started taking classes this past March. Now I’m into my fourth class now.
Something they haven’t really mentioned is that anyone can get on stage at Sea Tea Comedy Theater and do improv, even if you’re not on a team. I go to the mixers, and you get paired up with an experienced improviser, and we do two scenes every night. That’s open to anyone who wants to do that, and there are other opportunities. The Family Night Show on Sundays is great, little kids get up there. It’s an amazing community. I have three legs of retirement. Going to the gym after thirty seven years at a desk, doing a Master Naturalist program for the state, which is volunteering to teach about nature, and improv. They’re all keeping me very much in the present, and I’m really enjoying it.
So I think this is around the point where we reached out to you guys. The first interaction Breakfast Lunch and Dinner had with CT Improv. Essentially BL&D started by throwing a bunch of parties. We were really looking for an excuse to dance in Hartford to good music, which is still far too rare. We were looking for another opportunity to throw a party, and you guys were running that crowdfunding campaing, and...well you guys can tell us the story.
Julie: So, I don’t particularly remember exactly how that came together, but we were looking to open a theater for a long time. That was always on the radar, and for a long time we had debated when we would know it was time. It’s kind of like twenty people deciding when to have a baby together. How committed are we? Can we do this? How much will it cost? One of the crucial elements was that it has always been our goal to fill empty spaces in Hartford. Greg was obsessively touring around spaces in the city for around three or four years, saying, “What’s the right spot?” We really, really needed a landlord that would get it.
Not easy in Hartford.
Julie: Not easy in Hartford. But, we are lucky to have two landlords who are really supportive. In fact, our landlord here on Pratt Street, John Cohen, who we are very loyal to helped us expand our studios. He also was the one that said, “You guys are ready to rent another space, not from me.” It was a total Miracle on 34th Street move. He said, “There’s this space available. You guys should go look at it.”
Greg: I had looked at all of these spaces in Hartford that were owned by large corporations, and I was really struggling. I checked in with him about it and he pulled me out on the fire escape behind his own building and said, “There. There’s a basement space nobody knows about, and it has been vacant for years. That’s where you should look.” He was right!
Sea Tea: We eventually ended up maintaining both spaces, but the other landlord is not as around physically, but he definitely shares the philosophy of, “Yeah, this is empty. I bought this building, let’s get you guys in here.” He really worked with us to create a system that I don’t think I could legally go into. [Laughs] I mean, we can’t say, “F U fill in the blank corporation,” but there are a couple of corporations who own buildings that make it really impossible for people to rent them, and you probably know who they are.
He was really great because he actively wanted us in the space. He was like, “Tell us what you need, tell us who you are, and what it’s going to be like.” We took more than a year to do a Kickstarter, sign the lease, and fill out the space. The Kickstarter was launched at the second Hartford Improv Festival. So, we did the Hartford Improv Festival at Spotlight Theater, who was a delightful partner. If you’re looking to do a festival, do it there. It went really well. We had a lot of teams from all over the country show up, and then it grew again the next year. We launched a Kickstarter that year. It was the most successful improv theater Kickstarter in history, we raised $63,000.
I’d argue that it’s the most successful Hartford Kickstarter. There’s a couple that raised more money, but they low-key raised $6 million behind the scenes outside of the campaigns and the campaign was just marketing.
Sea Tea: We’d have to check, but we didn’t have any quiet phase things. There were discussions with major donors, around $5,000 gifts, but it was basically raised by small individuals. That was so cool!
We raised like $60, $100 at our party, at most [laughs]
Sea Tea: Yes! Thank you. Tons of badasses at that party, it was so much fun. That’s what Hartford is made of, are these little collaborations that add up to something for everyone that’s involved being successful.
So your key is that you had fifty teams there at the Festival?
Sea Tea: Yeah about that. There’s a ten point scale on each team [laughs]. There were that many there at the festival, because it was the festival. We had about fifty teams from the US and two from Canada. The first Hartford International Improv Festival [laughs]
You should definitely put international in the name.
Sea Tea: Yes! It was a really cool experience because we got to see relationships that we had created over the course of six or seven years pay off. It was not just the people that were improvising, but also loyal audience members who never want to be on the stage, ever. They felt like we had never really asked them for anything. We weren’t constantly doing fundraisers, or donation campaigns. We were like, “This is the one time and we really want to do this.” They all came through for us. That, and when we rescued the dog on Pratt Street. People donated fast for that one. It went a lot faster than the theater one [laughs]. People like dogs more than art, it’s true.
After we raised that money, after so much meticulous planning about how much everything would cost, it ended up costing three times as much as we thought it was going to. If we had known beforehand, we probably wouldn’t have done it. But, that’s how it goes. Through the generosity of some more folks, and through some smart new business moves, like getting a line of credit, we got it done. We turned into a business more than an improv group for a long time. Finally, we opened it in August two years after the Kickstarter kickstarted. Now, it’s gorgeous.