Brooke, Hevner & Laybourne
On April 25th, three of the members of the all-women's improv group, The Heartless Floozies, will reunite for an evening of fun at the SUNDAY NIGHT IMPROV jam. They all used to be regulars at SNI, and here are their stories, as reprinted from vintage issues of The WINGNUT GAZETTE:
Suzanne Hevner loves when things go awry. She remembers her senior year in college, when she was doing the showHow the Other Half Loves. The gimmick in the play was that two people used the same set simultaneously, pretending that they were in two completely separate apartments. They would walk around the space performing their scenes, never acknowledging that the other person was there. An unscripted accident occurred during one performance when Hevner’s co-star knocked over a pitcher of water in Hevner’s area, resulting in a pool of water.
“She had gone through the physical boundaries into my room and there was a little tension in the house because the audience wanted to see how I’d react to having that water in my space,” Hevner recalls. “There happened to be a thunderstorm that night, so I picked up the wet tray, looked up at the ceiling, and acted as though there had been a leak.”
The audience went wild, stopping the show with applause. “I always loved when things went wrong and I had to think on my feet,” she says. “I loved the challenge. Half the time in situations like that the audience does not know anything is off. But in that case, the audience knew and applauded in the middle of the scene, and we had to wait. Having that kind of effect can be very powerful.”
It’s no wonder that Suzanne Hevner loves improvisation, an art form based on making sense out of the occasional nonsense that comes from audiences. “Improv is like almost nothing else I do,” says the former member of Chicago City Limits and a regular performer at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam at The West End. “It’s about communicating with the audience and getting a response that is so powerful, so much more intense than any television, film, or commercial work that I have done. With improv, there is such energy from your fellow actors and from the audience. It’s a natural high. And it’s a lot cheaper than an unnatural high.”
Hevner’s path to improvisation began early in life with musical theater. She developed a taste for music growing up in Media, Pennsylvania. Part of that was fueled by her mother, who played soundtrack albums from Camelot and South Pacific to wake her. But there was also the joy that the musical gave her.
“I learned every single movie musical I saw, all the MGM, Fred Astaire, RKO stuff. It was magical to watch. As I found out later, whensing in a musical on stage, it’s the height of expression. There is the same power you have singing a great number that you feel as an improviser when you get a great laugh.”
Hevner was also spurred on by events at home. As a member of the local choir, her mother often had the troupe over at the house to practice. “I was eight years old, and it’s such an incredible feeling to walk into your living room and have 60 people singing full-out.”
Hevner was soon singing on her own, in high school, at Syracuse University, and then in road productions of Broadway shows. Her travels eventually led her to New York City. “I wanted to continue studying, but what I didn’t like about scene class was you had to meet someone else and carry props around. I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I wanted something without homework. I had always liked comedy. My brother had records by Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart. I got a kick out of the comedy teams on the Ed Sullivan Show like Stiller and Meara. They were fresh. I also liked those moments in Carol Burnett’s show where she cracked up and you’d see how they had to deal with it.”
She was soon studying with both Chris Oyen and David Regal at Chicago City Limits, and then worked briefly with temperamental improv legend Paul Sills. “He made me run back to CCL,” she recalls. “He was not in a good mood. He yelled at us and was cantankerous and angry. I knew improv had to be about having more fun than that.”
Eventually, Hevner was drafted into CCL’s touring company, where she performed regularly for five years. She finally left in 1992 to appear in an Off-Broadway musical called Balancing Act. “The hardest thing about improv,” she says, “besides having a myriad of skills from singing and thinking fast to being dexterous with Shakespearean language – the hardest thing to me is the whole idea of ‘yes and,’ of saying yes and adding to the scene. That is the simplest and most important philosophy we have to follow to be able to do the things we are doing. But you become very independent and forget about doing that, about being in team. If you can carry that idea outside in life, it is very helpful. It’s very important to carry that openness with you because there’s a lot that makes you not be open. That’s the biggest challenge for me. That, and finding something to wear.”
Call her funny. Call her charming, witty, and attractive. But don’t call Emmy Laybourne an actress.
“My grandma always wanted me to be an actor,” she notes. “She would give me a dollar for every passage from Shakespeare I could memorize. She had spent her youth traveling around the Midwest teaching Shakespeare to farmers. But I personally never liked being called an actress. I just have an innate dislike of acting. I prefer writing and performing. That’s why I love improvisation.You can write and perform at same time.”
Laybourne, the tall redhead with the big smile, is familiar to audiences at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam at the West End for her inspired improvisations. She has played everything from a psychic but dim-witted contestant on a parody of the game shoe Jeopardy to a feminist intellectual on a spoof of The McLaughlin Group. In between, she has played lovers, mothers, and best friends, singing and dancing her way into the hearts of those in love with spontaneous comedy.
Laybourne began her improv career at Vassar, where she was part of a college improv group called, appropriately enough, Improv. From that, she learned how to think quickly in the pressure cooker environment of the stage. “It was terrifying,” she says, “especially because we had no rules or no respect for each other in the group. It was survival-of-the-fittest improv.”
When she came to New York City, she studied improvisation with Leslie Upson at Chicago City Limits. She eventually was recruited by Freestyle Repertory Theater, where she cut her improv teeth performing in the troupe’s regular shows and also in performances at public schools throughout the city. “We probably did a thousand shows, about 45 minutes each, over a year,” she recalls. “The great thing about doing those shows is that kids get bored really quickly, so your story has to be both physical and a good story or else they’ll start spitting spitballs at each other.”
While at Freestyle, she also began writing material, much of it based on improvisational work and technique. “I started doing comedy in the alternative comedy scene,” she says. “I liked it so much, I quit my day job and ended my membership with Freestyle. I was drawn to writing because I knew there had to be a way to get down the magic of improv on paper so I could do it again and again.”
That led to her successful three-woman comedy, which debuted last November and returned in March, The Miss Alphabet City Beauty Pageant and Spelling Bee. Laybourne says it is about “six lovely contestants, one emcee named Todd, and plenty of kick-ass spelling.” The piece stars Sheila Head, Debbie Rabbai, and Laybourne. The New York Post called it “an exceptionally funny three-woman show ...restores faith in our country’s comedic future.”
“The show was created to be a showcase for character work, but evolved into a real little play,” Laybourne notes. “Sheila said if you put strong characters together, you get a plot. That’s what happened. She takes everything in stride: “All I ever wanted to be was fearlessly funny. I think that women don’t get to be fearless in our society too often. Maybe that’s why I get so much joy out of following my gut and doing improvisation.”
But please, don’t say “actress.”
LUCY AVERY BROOKE
When Lucy Avery Brooke was five years old, she saw Peter Pan and asked herself: “If Mary Martin can fly, why can’t I?”
Not a simple question, but Brooke has been answering it in her own way for years now comedically “flying” as part of the renowned First Amendment improv troupe, a charter member of the women’s sketch-writing group Womedy, and regular performer in the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam at the West End.
To Brooke, whose improvised characters have included precocious little girls on political talk shows, impassioned beat poets, and flustered Margaret Rutherford types, acting has been in her blood since she was five, growing up in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “I think I had always wanted to be in theater,” she recalls. “But when I saw Mary Martin flying in Peter Pan that cinched it. I said to myself, ‘If actors can fly, that’s for me.’”
At 12, foreshadowing things to come, she had her first improv experience. While in summer camp, an acting teacher picked Brooke to perform an improvised scene in a show. “I had the most paralyzing case of stage fright I ever had,” she notes. “But when I was on stage, I just started speaking. It was a case where something else takes over. I didn’t know what I was saying but everyone was laughing and they all thought I was amazingly funny. It was instinct.”
By 17, she was studying acting in college, and after earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater at Stevens College in Missouri in the 1970s, she moved to the West Coast, where she became involved in avante-garde theater. After countless bizarre performances, Brooke had had enough. She migrated to New York City where she fell into an improvised life, turning up at an audition for First Amendment.
“During the audition I was one of the first people up, and we did three-person freezes [in which the improviser has to play a series of completely different characters in a variety of scenes]. I was really scared I wasn’t going to remember to change characters every time. So I just used a different accent each time. That’s basically how I got into improv. [First Amendment director] Barbara Contardi turned to me afterwards and said, ‘You’ve done this a lot, haven’t you?’”
She began studying surreptitiously with the troupe, readying herself for public performances. “I spent the first month of rehearsals soaking things up. I kept worryingsomeone would point to me and say, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing!’” Pushed on by fellow First Amendmenteers Tom Carrozza and Nancy Lombardo, Brooke found herself enjoying the process.
“Tom and Nancy were very good at pushing me on stage and that’s how I learned. Experience is always a good teacher, especially in this case, when there were so many good people at First Amendment. It was very beneficial because I saw the different ways that they worked, and through that I learned to trust my own instincts. For me, that was the essential thing, learning that you couldn’t plan it beforehand. You had to trust that what came out would make sense and if it didn’t, you could justify it afterwards.”
After about five years with First Amendment, Brooke moved on. At first, she gave up theater altogether, turning to portrait painting. But she found she missed the thrill of creation and at the urging of Carrozza, returned to the stage, performing at Jane Brucker’s Comedy Jam and Ian Prior’s All-Star Improv Comedy Jam at the Eagle Tavern.
She also began writing again. During the First Amendment days, Brooke had been crafting monologues. When she returned to improv, she met Gail Dennison, who was founding an all-woman’s sketch troupe called Womedy. Brooke signed up and, because of her improv, found that writing came easily.
“To me, writing is the same as improv,” she observes. “You have to trust what comes. When you’re writing, it’s like you’re walking down a dark corridor. You want to go down there, but you can’t see very well, maybe just a foot in front of you, but you go ahead because you trust it’s going to be alright. Even though it’s dark, you’re going to get where you want to go. I think it’s the same with improv.”
Improv may be scary to some, but for Brooke, it is an essential part of staying comically limber. “I only have three rules for improv: the first is to trust yourself and your surroundings, the second is to go with what you’re given, and the third is to break the limits, never get stuck in old patterns. You should always try and see if you can work another way or go down another path, so to speak.
“I enjoy doing the [Sunday Night Improv] jams,” she adds. “I’m generally very disdainful of actor’s warmup experiences, of rolling heads and lolling tongue about. But I think if I had to tell the truth, improv is my warmup for everything else I do creatively.”