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Remembering Ken Manthey

When we think of the people who are in the improv community, performers, teachers, directors and even the people who run the theaters come to mind. But there are other people who may not possess those same talents who also have a special place in the community.

Ken Manthey was one of those people. Ken died this week.

When Ken first showed up at The Annoyance Theater’s dingy, original theater on Broadway  back in the late ’80s, he was at least ten years older than all of us and he had real, adult day job, booking Disney films into movie theaters.

He would show up on the weekends and watch shows, sometimes four in one night. He sat in the first row on the aisle. That was Ken’s seat and he was so protective of that shitty yellow plastic folding chair that he put his jacket on it to save it. He was proud of being the Annoyance’s Number One Fan. After the show he would go down to the bar with the rest of us derelicts. Sometimes he would drink too much and end up sleeping on the couch in theater.

Then after watching Co-ed Prison Sluts close to a million times and working the box office, he became an actor in that show. In those days, you got cast by hanging out and being a nice person. Ken did both. He played the Warden, which was a thankless part. He only had a couple of lines at the top of the show and a couple of lines at the end and an hour-and-a-half to kill in between, during which he would sit at Mick’s wooden desk and count the money from that night’s box office.

As my friend Gary Rudoren reminded me in his Facebook post this week, Ken “would go from working the box office right into playing the Warden in ‘Co-ed Prison Sluts,’ and I realized he was probably the only actor to be on stage with hundreds upon hundreds of dollars in his pocket.”

Ken was not much of an actor. He was stiff. His delivery was always the same — flat and self-conscious. When he did get a laugh, you were never really sure how. Susan Messing called him “our Larry Bud Melman.” She was right. But he was not there to become a star, or to be in a hit show, or to get more stage time. Like most of us, he was there to feel like he belonged, to have a sense of community, to be part of something. He found his family at The Annoyance.

I am lucky to be in Chicago where there are lot of people who contribute to this community in their own way. I think of Jerry Schulman who photographs every important comedy event and improv show that is going on in the city. And Tom Vencill who has come to countless Improv Nerd shows and holds the record for attending Messing With a Friend the most number of times. There is Adam Jacobs who audio record shows live improv shows. These people are often taken for granted, but they are as much a part of the community as the performers, teachers and directors.

We need all sorts of talents in our community, and sometimes we only place value on what happens on stage, but when I heard about Ken’s passing, I was reminded that we also should be grateful for all of the people who contribute to the community in their own way.

(By the way, the Annoyance will be holding a memorial for Ken on Sunday, July 30 at 3 p.m. for all of those who wish to attend.)

Who in your community makes contributions that go unnoticed? We’d love to hear about them.

Only 4 spots still available in Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Intensive, happening July 29-30. Sign up today!

Why I Still Do Improv

What still excites me about improv after all these years? I get this question a lot. And the answer may surprise you. It is the teaching. I love teaching. I love teaching improv even more than doing shows or the podcast Improv Nerd.

And this will blow your mind coming from Mr. Self-Hatred and Self-Loather himself, I am great at it. In fact, I am a terrific improv teacher and I keep getting better. I have put more time and energy into becoming a better improv teacher than becoming a better performer, which is how I have become so incredible at it. (Now even I am getting uncomfortable). I think the fact that I can admit that I think I’m good at it is quite an accomplishment. Let’s move on.

There are so many things I love about teaching improv, but one of the biggest ones is being able to create a sense of community for people. I love taking a group of strangers — it doesn’t matter if it’s a three-hour, one-day workshop in Omaha or a six-week class in Chicago — and creating a place where students feel safe taking risks, being vulnerable and making lots of mistakes. At the end, the students will say they feel “bonded” or “really close to one another.” That is community. And that is the thing that brings me so much pride and joy as an improv teacher.

I cannot think of a better gift to give people than a sense of belonging. You cannot have group mind without it. You cannot build trust without it. Support does not exist without it. Having a sense of community is what attracted me to this crazy art form in the first place as lost teenager more than 30 years ago, and it’s why it’s so hard to leave. Community is the number one reason improvisers do improv in the first place and they are not even aware of it. Why else would you choose an art form that relies on other people?

The biggest compliment you can give me besides “You are the best improv teacher” is to tell me that you made friends in my classes and workshops and you stay in touch with them.

In the years since I started doing improv, I have seen it grow up from being a local thing that was unique to Chicago to a global thing that’s done across the world. But despite how widespread improv has become, the thing that’s as still true today as it was when I started out is that everyone is striving for that sense of acceptance and that feeling of belonging.

I know as read this, you might have been kicked off a Harold team or never made one or auditioned for shows and never got cast and you feel that you never became part of the community that you wanted. But the beautiful thing about the size of improv today is that people are creating their own communities. Smaller sub-communities. Musical improv is its own community, and inside that community are even more sub-communities.

Nothing makes me more proud than when my students create their own shows or start their own groups or find a theater that they call home. And I can’t think of anything better than if they start coaching and teaching and take what they have learned from me to bring even more people that sense of community around the world.

Are You Lost in the Improv Community?

Improvisers in Chicago have it really hard today. I can’t tell you how many improvisers I know who fell in love with improv in their home towns, and then moved to Chicago with stars in their eyes about arriving in the improv Mecca. And within a year, they are discouraged and depressed and don’t know why they ever decided to move here.

Today, the improv community has gotten so big here in Chicago that it’s really hard to feel a part of it. Sure, there are more opportunities, but there is also a much bigger chance you’ll feel lost.

This was never an issue when I started out in the ’80s here in Chicago. From my first class at The Players Workshop to my first house team at IO, I always felt like I was part of an instant community. Jazz Freddy and The Annoyance became my surrogate family. Back then, improv was happening in vacuum, and because so few people were doing it and you only did one project at a time, it was easy to develop bonds with the people you played with.

This clearly doesn’t happen today. Today, many improvisers struggle to find their niche here in Chicago. And when you don’t find a community, the more likely you are to feel lost, isolated and lonely. Even worse, you become depressed and tell yourself that if only you had made a Harold Team at IO or were hired by Second City all your problems would be solved. You moved here, left your friends and family behind to do something you love — learn an art form that is built on people — and you cannot understand why you feel so alone.

Community is something I took for granted when I was a student, but today, if improvisers want to be part of a community here in Chicago, they will have to work harder and harder to create it.

What many improvisers don’t know is that community doesn’t just happen. You have to build it. A great way is to commit to one group, and form strong friendships with them.

Unfortunately, many improvisers suffer from the improviser disease, FOMO — fear of missing out. So they participate in as many projects and groups as possible, always chasing a dream, but never really finding where they fit in.

I look back at all the friendships I have made in improv and they have outlasted the shows I was in. And those friendships are what kept me going when I was filled with doubt. It was the fucking people — they carried me when I wanted to quit. And you know what? The friendships I have made as a performer, director and teacher have been the best part of improv. I could not say that at 20 or 30, but I am saying it now.

Take it from a wise old guy who has been around for a while. When you move to this big, crazy city, make it priority to get a core group of friends. They’re the ones you can lean on from time to time for support and encouragement when you want to quit and move back home with your parents.

And if that means doing one less class or, God forbid, one less project, to give you time to nurture those friendships, then do it now. You can thank me later.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? His next sections of Advanced Ensemble class starts Oct. 25 and Oct. 27. Both include a performance on the last day of class. Sign up today!