If Bay Street Theater were a ship, its summer stable of famous Broadway and movie stars would be its captains and officers and, much to their chagrin, its new troupe of scrappy improv players its goofball stowaways — sneaking on stage and commandeering the set whenever they get the chance, while absolutely refusing to use a script.
“Now, of course, that’s really just the comic premise. The people who are running the theater couldn’t have been more nice and supportive of our process here,” The Stowaways founder Rob Reese said. “I feel like it’s something I should make clear.”
The brainchild of Reese and Bay Street Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, the five-player improv troupe will drive out from Manhattan for its premiere on Saturday night — the first of four contracted performances — and not one of them truly knows what to expect.
Not even during the car ride, Reese said.
“Honestly, that was one of the factors I had to think of when I was casting people: Who do I want to spend two-and-a-half hours in the car with getting out to Sag Harbor?” he said. “Because if we do this drive and we get out to the theater and we’re all annoyed with each other, we’re not gonna be able to put on a good show.
“I’m knocking on wood as I say this to you right now, we’ve done a pretty good job of coming together as a company,” he continued. “I’m older than all of them — a couple of them by decades — but even though our pop culture references aren’t exactly the same, we do have a shared love of theater and being on stage.”
Reese first fell for improv in high school, and worked as a technician for My Mother’s Fleabag while studying at Boston College — notably the troupe where comedians such as Wayne Wilderson, Nancy Carell and Amy Poehler got their start.
“When I got there, they weren’t hiring boys. They had a really specific three guys, three girls structure, and there wasn’t any room to get in there,” Reese said. “I started a second company after two years with them, and I ended up directing a lot, and that’s how I knew I liked creating these things offstage as well as onstage. Then, we all decided it’s time to go to Chicago and study this stuff for real.”
The lessons he learned there, under luminaries Del Close, Mick Napier and Adam McKay, have carried through every performance to date, said the 20-year improv veteran, who lives and performs for what he calls the “visceral response.”
“If you’re playing really well and really in the moment, you’re almost not using your brain through the process of making your moves. But you totally need everything you’ve ever learned in your brain in order to sound anywhere near stage-worthy,” he said. “If you think about what you’re doing, it’s going to feel boring and plotty, but if you’re up there reacting viscerally, it’s an exciting, fun moment. Improv kind of always makes me nervous. And after having done this for so long, there’s ways that I can translate that into confidence or excitement, but the excitement is the nervousness.”
Reese will channel it on the Bay Street stage, where half of each improv show will consist of games, much like those performed on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” while the second half will be a one-act play based on suggestions from the audience.
“It’s really gonna be kind of dangerous, off-the-cuff, we-don’t-know-what’s-gonna-happen-so-you-can’t-possibly-know-what’s-gonna-happen, surprising, hilarious work,” he said. “We’ve been working together for a couple months in rehearsals and these practice shows, but none of us knew each other off stage before the group came together.”
He describes the players as Muppet archetypes. Lexi Orphanos and Jake Parisse are like Miss Piggy squared — both musical theater triple threats, flourishing in the spotlight, but focused and direct. Sarah Galvin is like Animal, a musician who is simultaneously silly and primitive. Winn Kline is like the Scooter, or the Type-A mom, of the group, and Reese is like Kermit, popping in and out while keeping control.
As much as he can with a group like The Stowaways, that is.
“With any luck, we’ll fill up the house and they’ll want to keep renewing our contract to do more shows,” Reese said. “Right now, there’s nothing on their stage, but if it continues, we will literally be playing on the sets of whatever legitimate show is going on — and that I would love to see.”
The Stowaways will perform evenings of improv comedy on Saturdays, February 3 and 17, and March 3 and 17, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $25 to $30. For more information, please call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.