I started doing improv in 2011, but in 2017 it changed for me. I started performing in duos, just me and one other person. Spoiled by the attention, or by the patience, or by the quality of being with just one other person, performing in tandem has become my favorite way to take the stage.
I’ve been part of three duos. Despite having played Hamlet and Romeo, despite being the lead in some gritty dramas, or the ham in some goofy comedies, these random improv shows, seen for one-night and one-night only, became the performances that would define my sense of play.
All my duos started in 2017 at an event called Improprourri. It was a weekly improv open-mic, where anyone could show and do something spontaneous. What started as a fun shtick, a “fuck-it, why not?” moment, would become some of the most meaningful performances that I’ve had on stage. This post is about Kristen McKenzie, Anne Neal, and Trista Morgan, who with me created Radio Pigeon, FogHog, and T.T.
Radio Pigeon I met Kristen in 2015, shortly after I joined the Baltimore Improv Group. She hired me to coach Topiary, an indie team that she put together. Working with Topiary was affirming because I had never been approached to offer private lessons before. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it would mark a turning point in my career.
Initially, Kristen was just one of the people I coached. She was the team captain, organizing our practices and scheduling Topiary’s shows. I quickly grew fond of Topiary. Overtime, they became friends, and I would stay after practice to play games with them, see their shows, and have some drinks.
After one practice, around Christmas in 2016, Kristen, Benairen, Harold and I stuck around a longer than usual. We decided to do a montage of improv scenes, just for fun.
To be honest, it was mostly just Kristen and I. Harold and Benairen wanted to watch. After a few scenes, we fell into some British accents. Kristen became Pamela and I became Richard. We were a married couple. We noticed the old-time radio in our house was acting strange. Apparently, there was messenger pigeon inside the radio that delivered the broadcast. It was absurd, like so much improv tends to be. All the while, we were breaking the fourth wall, enticing Benairen and Harold to participate. We stayed in this imaginary world for a long time before ending the scene and bursting into laughter. It felt like a Monty Python sketch. We decided to take our Radio Pigeon to the world.
At the theatre, our first performance was enormously successful. We introduced ourselves as Richard and Pamela, already in character. With British vanity, we explained how we had just finished our very first improv class and bragged to the audience about how much we impressed our teacher. The teacher thought that we were “very talented.” In fact, we were so advanced, that they gave us a coveted performance slot at the open mic.
We always began by asking the audience for a suggestion of something “simple, but specific.” We would berate the audience if, and when, they gave us something that was complex, vague, simple but non-specific, or specific but not simple. For us, heckling worked both ways. After getting a suggestion that met our criteria, we would invite the audience to imagine the stage, not as it was, but as it could be, describing a locale where two lovers might find themselves engaged in the simple-specific task that we were given.
Throughout our set, we would compliment each other, in character, for the genius that the other one brought to the stage. Our improv was decidedly pretentious, amateur by design, and ironically detached, especially in comparison to the other troupes that performed. We continued to break the fourth wall, incorporating anxious or eager audience members into the domestic affairs of the Simingtons, Pamela and Richard.
Kristen and I would get raunchy. There wasn’t a single set that excluded bodily humor. One time, I stripped down to my underwear. We both died at various points, sometimes by accident, sometimes from murder, sometimes from murder-suicide. There was a lot of simulated sex, and when there wasn’t, there was a stream of inuendo, anxiety, and suspicion. We found ourselves in kitchens, offices, space stations, hotel rooms, drycleaners, grocery stores, dreamscapes, and bathrooms, and the audience was always in the scene with us. The fourth wall only existed for our convenience, but never for theirs.
Of course, not only did we perform at open mics, soon we started performing around the city, and then at comedy festivals too. In 2020, before the pandemic, we entered a competition, where we became the reigning champs: the audience pick for eleven consecutive weeks.
Kristen and I would joke that we never had a bad show. And that’s how it felt, like we never had a bad show. Not only could we tow the line with our low-brow comedy, we would fall deeply in love with these two characters and the actors behind them.
Our last performance was the last show at the theatre before it closed for COVID. This, admittedly, was the one show that didn’t go well. Since the world was ending, at the last minute, we decided to switch up our aesthetic and do something existential and dramatic. We called it, “The Last Improv Show on Earth.” Honestly, I don’t remember a lot about the performance, but I remember saying something mean to her afterward. I didn’t like a choice she made. I apologized, but the hurt was done and it damaged our friendship.
After the pandemic began, Kristen and I found ourselves deeply concerned about the bigotry in the theatre community and, specifically, at our home theatre. We were both vocal about the problem, and when change did not appear, we both decided to leave the theatre after signing a petition with sixty community members. She formed Highwire Improv with some friends, and I revamped Bird City Improv.
Although, we were no longer performing, I still felt like Kristen was my closest collaborator. We would talk on the phone all the time about life, love, and the politics of improv, joking along the way. During that time, I sometimes felt like it was me and her versus the world. She was one of my closest friends, and we now found each other trying to create something new, and more equitable, in the name of the art we loved. Kristen and I taught some classes together, worked on some committees, and offered each other emotional support.
Overtime, our friendship weakened. We were both going through some things and then we got into a disagreement. Now, we don’t talk too often, but I remain enormously thankful for her. She was my closest collaborator and I look up to her as a leader. I look back on our performances and choose to believe that, indeed, we never had a bad show. Kristen, thank you for the affirmations, for holding space, for your generosity, and for the laughter – the most I’ve ever laughed with someone onstage.
FagHag I met Anne when I first started doing improv in the city. She and I were members of a now-defunct company called Temple of Improv. For a few years, we were just fellow performers, but when Impropourri came to town, we started our duo.
I don’t know how it happened, but we decided to call ourselves FagHag. We introduced ourselves by saying, “Hello everyone! We are FagHag!” I would say, “I’m the fag,” and she would say, “I’m the hag!” When the audience gasped, I would say, “No, it’s true. I’m gay and she’s old.” Then they would laugh.
Despite our name, Anne and I did not perform any political or otherwise identity-conscious scenes. Our show was not faggy. It was not haggy. It was just regular two-person improv. It wasn’t edgy at all. In fact, of all my duos, me and Anne’s was the most restrained, but that didn’t stop some complaints from being filed against us.
The argument was made that our language was offensive. Admittedly, it was. Slurs are weaponized words used to attack people who hold marginalized identities. The things is – we were those people. I am gay. She is old.
For me, a “fag hag” is a term of endearment. It’s not used as frequently today, but it was used by the older generation, and that’s where I learned it from. I consider “fag hags" to be allies before the word “ally.” Does it engage and replicate tokenization? Yes. Is it a conscious engagement of that tokenization? Yes. Does it undermine heteronormativity through the deployment of irony? I think so. (If you disagree, I respect that too.) In my eyes, we were reclaiming language as a wink to gay men and their timeless female companions. Alas, it was not perceived that way, and we were asked to change our name. Reluctantly, we became FogHog. I was the fog. She was hog. Oink oink.
I was thankful for this experience because it made reflect on my connection to language as a queer-identified person. I wondered, and still wonder, whose responsibility it is to use language deemed appropriate and whose responsibility is it to care for people who are offended by mouth sounds, especially when those mouth sounds are healing for the speaker, but potentially triggering for the listener. I love language. Language is magic and magic is complicated.
There’s a lot of people who are contenders for world’s biggest improv nerd. Anne is one of them. That’s what endeared me to her. We would get together and gossip about the people, the craft, the style. Sometimes I would go over her house and she would make me coffee. One time she made me cinnamon rolls. Anne is good company.
Ultimately, we only performed together for a year. In 2018, there were a lot of new things in my life that I had to tend to, so I took some space. However, we remained friends.
When the Baltimore Improv Group imploded in 2020, Anne and I found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. We had some different opinions about what responsibility looked like, but to her everlasting credit, Anne prioritized accountability. She stepped down from her leadership position on the board and did what she thought was right. We didn’t speak for a while, not because we had a conflict, but because it was a generally traumatic situation. When we finally spoke, she said, “I didn’t join the improv community to lose friends.” So true, Anne. Neither did I. I guess that’s the growing pains of a performing arts community.
Over the past two years, BIG has come under new leadership. Anne and I rejoined the theatre and now we just so happen to be on an improv troupe together. It’s called Snake Oil and it feels good to be back onstage with an old friend. She makes me one happy fog.
I met Trista outside the Single Carrot Theatre in 2017. She had bleached blonde hair, a chic black top, and a silver necklace that reminded me of a chandelier. I remember we were talking in a large group after a show. The next thing I knew, we were screaming at each other, playfully, acting out some sort of comedy bit. She picked up a chair and held it over her head like Tarzan. “Wow,” I thought, “I fucking love her.”
Trista and I started performing soon after. I wanted us to have alternate personalities onstage, inspired by my work with Radio Pigeon, ones that allowed us to access our crazy, the eccentricity from our first meeting. We landed on Trisha and Travis. They were our vapid and volatile alter egos. Eventually, we would introduce ourselves as “the millennials that everyone loves to hate.”
Trista takes the cake for most arguments that I’ve had onstage. In fact, every single one of our sets is an argument. It’s not always shouting, it’s a lot of passive aggression too. Only in the eleventh hour of our story, do we reveal what is really going on. We are hurt. We are scared. We have been wanting that we have not been receiving. Usually, it’s something like psychodrama – couples therapy edition.
Don’t get me wrong - sometimes our sets are just funny, and that’s it. They are like animated Twitter feeds of superficial nonsense. Other times our sets get deep. One of my favorites was a set at Zissimos where we talked about sexual harassment. We got a lot of compliments after that show. Beneath whatever toxic behaviors Travis and Trisha embody is a a real, but oh-so-codependent, love.
Trista and I have also performed around the city and traveled to festivals. In Frederick, we did a set that brought the house down. It was about a lawnmower, but really it was about our failing marriage. Sometimes our sets get sexual, but mostly they get weird. One time we turned into birds. We never explained why, it just happened. One time Trista cut off my nose. Just two weeks ago, after performing together for the first time in two years, we escaped an alternate dimension only to end up being surrounded by the police, who I called by accident, while I was hung over, in a moment of panic believing my sleeping Trisha to be dead. The week prior, Trisha and Travis weren’t on speaking terms because she lent our vacuum to Chris, who had since moved to New Mexico, and our carpet was covered in lint. Despite being the same characters time and again, we’re always able to find something new and bizarre. I keep wondering if it will get old, and it never does.
Offstage, Trista and I developed an affection for each other. We hung out a few times. I went to go visit her and her son. We find time to catch up with each other on the phone every few months. We listen to each other’s ideas, and I ogle at her artistry. She’s a visual artist. Collage and photography are her specialties, but she’s also a feminist fashion icon. Whenever we perform, I always let her take the lead on what we are going to wear. She sends me her outfit and I try my best to match.
Trista and I are both Virgos and we seem to get each other on an unspoken level. That doesn’t stop us from speaking though. It’s usually pretty deep. If it isn’t about love, then it’s about self-care; and if it’s not about self-care, then it’s about community; and if it’s not about community, then it’s about this fascist nightmare society that we find ourselves living in. The truth is we are the millennials that everyone loves to hate. We’re just not the millennials that we pretend to be.
(^Except when we take selfies. Folx, GTFO our way when we're taking a goddamn picture. Love you - Thank you!^)
Trista, Anne, and Kristen – thank you for taking the stage, fearlessly, with me. Thank you for helping me to deepen into my artistry and for being some of the most delightful, and lovely, highlights of my twenties.
Kristen, Anne, Trista & Me
This post is part of a series called "A Month of Gratitude," about the people, places, and things that I am grateful for on the precipice of 30. You can read the first post here and all other posts here.