Under the leadership of founder and artistic director, Nannette Deasy, the Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble has become one of the leading improv troupes in merry old Manhattan and a welcome and uproarious asset to festivals and other engagements across the country. The innovative group mixes retro humor, clever off-on-the-spot wit, and classic theatrical techniques to present wildly unique and wildly funny shows.
This month, they’re opening their four-production season at The Producers Club. We asked a few questions of Nannette about her, her dreams, and her art.
We gave her some time to think so she wouldn’t have to improvise.
What was your [and your team’s] inspiration for creating IRTE?
A big reason for creating IRTE was the realization that as a performer I needed to start creating my own work. I was tired of waiting around for other people to invite me to the party – their projects – so I threw my own party, invited people I really enjoyed, and stopped being a wallflower. I realized I was free to create the shows I wanted to see and collaborate with the people I wanted to collaborate with. Looking around I felt that there was something definitely missing from both the local improv and traditional theatre scenes (both of which I loved), a bridge between both worlds. What I wanted was a new form of comedy theatre, melding traditional theatrical elements – staging, props, costumes – with the fun immediacy of improv. IRTE’s look and aesthetic is pretty basic and raw, but it’s also colorful, silly and over the top. While the meat of our shows is created spontaneously, the shows are grounded by a character-driven structure.
IRTE loves the retro. How does that work with various audience demographics? For example, do you get better responses from those that remember Scooby Doo and the old late night soaps or does it resonate better with those looking at it with fresh eyes?
It’s a funny thing – we do often gravitate towards the retro and nostalgia. Perhaps because our worlds are uncertain we enjoy looking to the past..? Perhaps what we absorbed as kids has become ingrained in us as adults..? Maybe we just watched waaaay too much tv when we were young. For me, definitely the latter. I was an addict. At any rate, the internet has become a great equalizer. There was a time when different audience members might not necessarily have had the same point of reference when it comes to pop culture. Since the explosion of the internet, just about any show can instantly be called up and consumed on You Tube or Netflix or Amazon or whatever. Just the other day, I overheard a conversation between two young women in their late teens/early twenties. One was bemoaning the fact that Netflix had just pulled 80s tv show Murder She Wrote from its menu and she “hadn’t finished the last season!!!” Who knew that 30 years later, people would still be intimately familiar with the antics of Jessica Fletcher!
How does today’s world effect your work?
It seems the world is HUGELY uncertain. Everyday, there is some new outrage or something new to fear. The worldview of many of us in the cast has probably changed quite dramatically from just a year ago (or even a month ago or a week ago). Right now, I don’t know how that’s going to affect our work as we begin the new season. It will, though. The type of theatre we perform is not agitprop or overtly political. Usually, it’s escapist. (Maybe a little escape is what we need now more than ever). However, our shows are improvised and live “in the moment.” What the actors feel and what we see happening around us can’t help but be channeled through the characters we play, especially since our words and actions aren’t scripted. We’ll see.
At any rate, I believe that live theatre is important. Sitting alone, yet together, in a darkened theater, sharing an experience and hopefully some laughter connects and builds us up as a community. It’s the closest thing I know to real magic.
Tell me about your journey as a female entrepreneur
After graduating from college in New York (I attended Columbia University as an English major), I began studying and auditioning as an actor and performing wherever I could, whenever I could. I eventually joined the union (Actors Equity Association), and was cast in shows and readings in numerous lower East Side store front theaters and some professional theaters including the Public, LaMama, and New York Theatre Workshop and in various indie films. However, when you start off in a market as dense as New York, it can be hard to be seen and get to do work that you actually find fun and rewarding. Eventually, I discovered that New York had this whole other alternative comedy scene and I was hooked. I became involved with improv comedy and sketch, which allowed a certain amount of freedom that was eye-opening, not to mention hugely addictive and fun! I was a cast member of numerous comedy groups and theatres, including Gotham City Improv for many years. I also performed with various comedy duos and trios. (Currently, I also perform with comedy partner Graceann Dorse as one half of the comedy duo Double D.
As I described earlier, waiting around to be invited to the party and cast in other people’s projects can be dull and frustrating – especially as a female performer. Women are so under-represented, that we damn well better start representing and creating space for ourselves. It felt a lot better, more fulfilling, to start taking control and initiating one’s own creative work and roles. At one point, I had been asked to be the Artistic Director of another improv theatre company. At first, it was exciting, but it quickly became apparent that because I didn’t have any ownership of the company, I couldn’t make the changes or ask for the help I needed to make it succeed in the way I thought it should. It was then that it dawned on me to start researching production and create a theatre company. I pulled together and outlined all I had learned from working on other people’s projects, took out every book I could from the library on producing, which was challenging – There wasn’t a whole lot about producing small indie theatre – mostly there were books about community theatre outside of NYC or large commerical Broadway production. However, I learned what I could from my peers and took advantage of a free seminar on small theatre production offered by AEA. I also made sure to surround myself with bright, like-minded talented and hardworking performers with whom I share IRTE. They are the main ensemble members and as such work with me to develop what we know and understand and research what we do not. It is very important to find good people you trust and want to work with.
Well, we’re opening our sixth season next month, so what’s next is four brand new shows, hopefully more festival appearances, a renewed and re-energized ensemble and a wider audience.