How the New Movement Built a Comedy Scene from Scratch in New Orleans

The MC yells, “Please, sound like a million people for…!” and sweeps his arm as he announces the name of the improv group taking over the stage. This exhortation a familiar one to regular visitors to The New Movement Theater, a major player in the ongoing development of New Orleans’ comedy scene. Just that little tweak from the traditional  “Give it up for…” or “Please welcome…” affects audiences’ expectations, whether there are ten people seated or a full house. People respond to it and cheer like a multitude.

Tami Nelson and Chris Trew, the founders of The New Movement (TNM), have shaped their brand by challenging the expectations of what a comedy show and the scene around it looks like, how performers should engage their audience on and off the stage. They have two underlying principles: improv is a life force that can fuel all types of comedy, and that no one should have to leave New Orleans in order to build a national reputation in comedy.

Nelson and Trew met in New Orleans in 2004, and have been working on comedy together ever since. Trew studied at Improv Olympic in 2005, and considered moving to Chicago full time, but “then I just got bit by the idea of creating a comedy scene in the city I wanted to live in. So basically, everything we do is filtered through that. We don’t want people to think they have to move to get stuff done. In fact, what we’re starting to see now is people who have moved away are coming back or regret moving in a certain way, and we’re proud of that.”

In the early 2000s, New Orleans had a close-knit group of stand-up comedians and a handful of open mics around town, but there is no comedy club in New Orleans, despite its prominence as a tourist destination and renowned reputation for entertainment and revelry. Almost all locally produced shows take place in a bar, a small multi-use theater, or, more recently, an independent one-screen movie house. Before they decided to build their own theater from scratch, Nelson & Trew were in the same situation dozens of people interested in improv found themselves in: anyone who wanted to put on a show had to find their own space, do their own marketing, and build their own audience.

One dedicated improv and sketch group, Stupid Time Machine, did just that. The group would eventually become the foundation of The New Movement faculty in New Orleans, but in 2007 they were taking their own crash course in show production and networking. Mike Spara, a founding member who also teaches sketch for TNM, says the group had the desire to play at a higher level, but they had to build it on their own.

Part of that hinged on creating an experience for the audience, Spara says, “something beyond just being entertained by the performers: the entire evening, from the time somebody steps in the door, from the way that they’re greeted, the way that they’re treated, the type of show they see, and then at the end, how they feel afterwards.”

They intentionally set out to be inclusive and identifiable not just by their style of comedy but by their interactions with the audience. Early on Stupid Time Machine tried to build a “show culture” to entice audience members to return the next week with friends in tow, and that tactic of constantly courting the people not just to return but to also sign up for classes is still a New Movement mainstay.

The group  took over Tuesday nights in a small room attached to a larger venue called the Howlin’ Wolf, a mainstay in the local music scene. It’s a small brick-walled room, called The Den. When they mounted their weekly show, they had little idea that they were paving the road for Louis CK and Hannibal Buress and many other nationally touring comics to drop in and pace the same stage years later.

At the same time the members of Stupid Time Machine were finding their rhythm, Trew & Nelson were in Austin, Texas, their temporary home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While there, Trew says, “we had a weird opportunity that fell in our lap to open up our own theater in a very low-stakes situation. Five of us ended up opening a theater that became our livelihood, then we split off from the other three and created The New Movement. The long-term idea was always to move back here to do it.”

Trew & Nelson wrote their own training syllabus, drawn from their own experience in performing hundreds of shows and how they felt about improv in contrast to the prevailing wisdom of how it should be taught. While Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and iO are all respected programs, Trew & Nelson envisioned a different path, one where the old mainstays of improv – taking suggestions from the audience, high reverence for ‘the Harold’ format – took a backseat to intimacy and immediacy in both scene work and the expectations of how rapidly a student could be prepared for actual live performances. Nelson describes it as coming up with “our own language.” Though the syllabus is annually updated with input from advanced students, the bedrock of their philosophy can be found in their book, Improv Wins.

“One of the things Chris and I had always identified with was that improv is an incredibly awesome art form, but it’s tethered to this super dorky, nerdy-ass traditional, antiquated way of doing comedy. We were both like, This has a different voice, it doesn’t have this old voice anymore. We need to take ourselves out of this hokey-ass, everybody-has-matching-t-shirts kind of a show, and let it be what it actually is: incredibly smart, creative people following a comedy math and doing really good shows consistently.”

Their style of improv emphasizes following a chain of reactions between the improvisers, always raising the stakes and following through on patterns and making the smartest edits. They insist a scene (and even a whole hour-long show) can branch out from an initial, spontaneous exchange, dependent on how the performers recognize their relation to each other and forge their path. Trew & Nelson always hated the idea of taking suggestions from the audience in order to prove that the show is made up on the spot, so they’ve never taught students that that’s necessary.

Instead, the lights go down, the troupe lines the walls of the black box stage, the lights come up, and two people make a decision to come forward. Everyone who has gone through the five levels of TNM training has the language within them to start from scratch and use patterns to gravitate toward the center of a scene.

“It makes me proud,” Trew says, “that there is a growing identity for improv in New Orleans style, and the same in Austin to a certain extent, that you don’t take suggestions. We love that there are people who are dynamite improvisers who have only trained at TNM and have worked their asses off and they have never taken a suggestion in their life.”

When it came time for Nelson and Trew to lay the groundwork for expanding from Austin back home to New Orleans, they turned to the members of Stupid Time Machine for help. They trained the members in their own brand of improv while at the same time prepping them to turn around and become the first teachers of the new classes. At the time, CJ Hunt, a founding member of Stupid Time Machine who has also launched the web series Our Sunken City (playfully skewering clueless New Orleans entrepreneurs), was deciding whether or not to return to Chicago and get involved with Second City.

“I’ll admit that I took some convincing at first,” he says, “because I was so into chasing fame, chasing Chicago…I think it takes a lot more bravery and a lot more faith and lot more faith in the unseen to just say ‘No, don’t get in that game, you have the players to make your own game.’”

Derek Dupuy, a performer, writer, and show producer with TNM, says, “In order to make a comedy scene, you need a collective of people who are smart and driven and passionate to say, ‘We are planting our feet here, let’s do this.’” That the right group of people crossed paths at the right time was fortuitous, but he is emphatic about the commitment they all carried at the outset.

“It’s so hard to do if it’s just two people. Because you have to have people who will believe in an objective who will push through all the bullshit. It still bugs me when you hear people who are like ‘You have to move, it’ll never work in another city.’ And I’m like…Well, can it not happen or did nobody try it right? Did nobody do it from a passionate point of view and actually make smart business moves and actually encourage people?”

They started out holding classes in places like spare rooms above coffee shops, clearing out before yoga classes moved in. Eventually, they secured a spot on the first floor of a building that used to be a Mardi Gras den, a place used for storing floats and props for a carnival parade. They converted the space into a black box, and started training, putting up recital shows, and their signature Megaphone Shows, improv based on the stories local influencers share. The New Movement now has its own building in the St. Roch neighborhood, an acquisition made after an impressive $50,000 Kickstarter campaign this past spring.

One student, Cyrus Cooper, went through the training cycle quickly, and is a model graduate of the system. Alongside comedian Andrew Polk, Cooper now co-hosts Comedy Beast, the standup showcase that TNM runs at the Howlin Wolf Den on Tuesday nights in the same slot that Stupid Time Machine pioneered. Together they’ve made Comedy Beast both a landing strip for traveling comics and launch pad for new talent. Cooper has also become a teacher in the program himself, and is also a member of one of the city’s best improv groups, Dean’s List.

“We have a wealth of fantastically and talented improvisers who have been great resources,” Cooper says. “It’s just a clearinghouse of people who have done a million shows, and you can pick their brains.”

The New Movement has launched extended tours by groups like the two-woman, multimedia show Rude., shepherded experimental acts like Drunktoons (live, animated sketch comedy), and created Hell Yes Fest. New Orleans’ only annual comedy festival is a non-stop endurance rally of national and local acts putting up dozens of shows all along the St. Claude Avenue corridor for four days. In early 2015, Chris Trew’s documentary Air Sex: the Movie will be released. It’s a film about the people who participate in the popular competitions of simulated, hyperbolic sex moves similar to air guitar contests.

The overlap between improv, sketch, and standup comedy is a goal of TNM, not a restriction of the small sample size of participants in New Orleans. “We’re all about the Swiss Army Knife,” Trew says. In fact, a substantial part of The New Movement’s growth has come from people looking just to build on their traditional theater education. The theater isn’t just a closed circuit for comedy; it’s become wired in to the overall performance network in the city, with actors and musical theater performers taking classes to expand their range and build their notoriety with audiences.

New Orleans still has the luxury of being a large city with low barriers between any kind of performers and their people. “In other cities,” Cyrus Cooper says, “it’s more of an out for yourself type of deal, because it’s natural. You’re in the Thunderdome at that point, and here, you know, we’re all very different, but we’re still building the Thunderdome.”

It’s a work in progress, but the rule of thumb for everyone involved is “always heighten.” It’s not just a guideline for improv scenes: it pervades all aspects of the business model. How to improve tours, how to cultivate eager audiences, how to get more professional videos out there. Always heightening, Mike Spara says, “means not just the practical application of comedy, but also the community that we’re developing.”

For more information on The New Movement and their production company Studio 8, visit their website.

Ryan Sparks is a writer based in New Orleans. Follow his random thoughts on Twitter.

How the New Movement Built a Comedy Scene from Scratch […]