In their first show (in front of a private audience) at the soon to be opened theater space at The New Movement's new building at 2706 St. Claude Ave., longtime improv duo and theater founders Chris Trew and Tami Nelson delve into a scene playing strangers meeting in a bar. He's wearing a purple cardigan and his head is cocked back, displaying his full beard. She stares at him serenely. They're teasing out the awkwardness of the situation, exchanging odd compliments and half truths to be embellished and twisted later.
"What brings you here?" Nelson asks, miming drinking eagerly from cocktails in both hands.
"I came on a horse," Trew says, twisting her meaning.
"A horse?" she says. "You mean that literally?"
"Yes," Trew responds. "We can take a ride on my horse."
"We can ride your horse, literally?" Nelson asks.
"Yes, literally," Trew says. "If you know what I mean."
The banter continues, prolonging the flirtation and tension without letting it spin off into absurdity. The scene changes to an adult kickball team plagued by incompetence following a coach who's about to give up on the team himself, and back to the couple, now in a hotel room, and back to the kickball team as it defies its own haplessness.
Nelson and Trew share a natural rapport and they're creating their own brand of improv via The New Movement (www.newmovementtheater.com), which took another step in its growth, moving into its new space, or "campus" as they are calling it, from its former location on Burgundy Street, which opened in 2012. They began classes at the new site in early August and were due for a city inspection Oct. 3 to get approval to open the theater. In the meantime, they're breaking in the space with private events. (Since this story was published, the theater's grand opening was announced for Oct. 15-18.)
The former theater had a larger performance space, but essentially only one room. The St. Claude space has a first floor theater equipped with more seating and there are plans for a bar. Its second floor has room for an office, a classroom, a small studio to record podcasts and another video room with a green screen, as well as a green room for performers.
"Our long-term goal was to have a space like this," Trew says. "We had people downstairs rehearsing a sketch show. Then I walk through upstairs and Tami is teaching class, someone is writing, and there's so much going on. It's so cool."
The two are making a living as comedians, including performing, teaching improv classes, touring and now renting recording and video studio space to others at the new campus. A total of 120 students are enrolled in current classes and there is a waiting list. There's also a New Movement theater in Austin, Texas, which the two founded when they evacuated there after Hurricane Katrina. Both are New Orleans-area natives, and they lived in Austin for five years before returning to open a theater here. The Austin theater was successful from the beginning, and it helped them learn the ropes of running a business and comedy theater, Nelson says.
Having two theaters puts them in the company of some big names in the comedy business, such as Chicago's Second City, and not just in figures. A successful $50,000 Kickstarter campaign helped them move into the new space, and it garnered some support on national comedy blogs. (Trew notes that much of the campaign was not asking for donations but asking people to pay for show tickets and classes in advance.) The theater acts as a landing pad for touring comedians, and Trew says they can help comedians fill slots throughout the region, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to Baton Rouge to Houston and Austin.
The theater also is a training ground for their vision of improv.
"One of things that differentiates us from other theaters is we don't take suggestions at the top of our scene," Nelson says. "You'll never have a host come out and say 'OK everybody, we need a suggestion for something you like to throw in a smoothie?'
"When we opened New Movement, we were like, 'We hate suggestions. It feels dumb. Let's not ever do it.'"
Taking suggestions is one of the ways to show an audience that a performance is truly improvised, but they think the convention is gimmicky. It's one of many improv norms they'd like to kill.
"Improv had a bad reputation for so long," Nelson says. "When improv got nationally popular through Whose Line is it Anyway?, all these college troupes formed and they're all called 'Banana Giggles.' Whose Line was great. But I loved it when I was a child. You come out onstage with a curly red wig and a T-shirt that says 'Fart' on it. You've got a big foam finger and (you say) 'I need a suggestion for something that you might find in a trunk.' It has this old, roadside hotel kind of entertainment feel. It doesn't feel modern. It feels old and done and easy to make fun of."
They schedule improv, stand-up and sketch comedy at The New Movement. At Hell Yes Fest (Nov. 12-16, www.hellyesfest.com), they'll feature less stand-up than in recent years and host more alternative types of improv. They'll also take advantage of the neighborhood and use several venues within walking distance. They plan to sell festival wristbands so attendees can easily take in multiple events, and they're lining up food trucks to sell refreshments. It's taking shape in the style of Austin's South by Southwest, Trew says.