BIG on improv comedy

Local troupes work to expand their community with performances, workshops

May 03, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

When Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) member James McGarvey practices comedy, he helps build characters and scenarios from scratch.

McGarvey, a 35-year-old sales rep, joined one of BIG's four comedy troupes in late January. Tomorrow, he and other BIG members will perform in a double-header comedy night at the Hamilton Arts Collective.

"It's a way of releasing some built-up energy and a way of sharing some of your experiences," McGarvey said. "I'm having fun with it."

BIG itself has grown significantly in the past few years. It started in early 2004 with about a dozen members and one troupe that performed about once a month. Now, it boasts 30 members in four troupes, who perform several times a month around the city.

This summer, BIG will sponsor its first improv training camp for kids, which stretches over two weeks at the Theatre Project in late July and early August. The group is also presenting a comedy festival this fall.

"It's absolutely taken on a life of its own," said Mike Subelsky, who founded the group. "No one could have ever imagined things working out so amazingly."

Subelsky, who is now BIG's artistic director, said the next step for the group is to secure its own practice and performance space. They're in talks with Hamilton Arts Collective. "Once that happens, it will add so much continuity to our organization," Subelsky said. "It will really unleash a lot of creativity."

Much of BIG's success has come from its introductory, intermediate and advanced improv classes, Subelsky said. The students bring their friends and family to shows, volunteer at BIG events and add to the group's sense of community.

"The people in the classes have been our biggest supporters," Subelsky said.

McGarvey, who is a member of BIG's "Gus" troupe, said he joined because BIG is still growing and offers great opportunities for aspiring improv comedians to hone their art.

"They're new, they're up and coming and generating a lot of excitement in the Baltimore area," McGarvey said. "It's great to be a part of something like this that's kind of in the beginning stages and bringing some new art to the area."

BIG performs regularly at the Hamilton Arts Collective, and occasionally at other venues such as Creative Alliance at the Patterson. The typical Hamilton Arts Collective show is standing-room only, with about 70 people in the audience, Subelsky said. At the Patterson Theatre, BIG has drawn double that number, he said.

"The shows are overflowing," Subelsky said. "People are volunteering and getting involved. We're definitely succeeding in our mission. Success breeds success."

The Baltimore Improv Group performs at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Hamilton Arts Collective, 5440 Harford Road. Tickets are $10 per show for adults and $8 for students and military. Parking is available for $1 in the Hamilton lot across Hamilton Avenue. For more information, call 888-745-8393 or go to

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