And, Scene! Funny Business at Bay Street

The Stowaways — a group of the New York area’s talented young actors, musicians, and comedians who share a love for the classic and modern improv comedy forms
The Stowaways, Bay Street’s own group of quick-witted improv performers, will be onstage at the theater during February and March. Marnie Joyce

Improvisational comedy, the cornerstone of American comedy, is coming to Bay Street for four one-day shows beginning Saturday and continuing on Feb. 17 and March 3 and 17. 

Since Viola Spolin, the idealistic teacher who developed improvisational games in the 1940s that actors and comedians would study for generations, the art of improv comedy has become arguably as important as stand-up in theaters across the country. 

The venerable Second City club opened in Chicago in 1959 — founded by Ms. Spolin’s son, Paul Sills — and since then this small comedy theater has become the most influential and prolific in the world, with such alumni as Bill Murray, Mike Myers, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey, in fact, almost every writer and performer ever to grace the stage of “Saturday Night Live.”

Now, Rob Reese, a teacher from Second City and a veteran improviser, is bringing this unpredictable style of live entertainment to Sag Harbor. Mr. Reese, a self-described “improv dork” who has performed around the world, has formed the Stowaways — a group of the New York area’s talented young actors, musicians, and comedians who share a love for the classic and modern improv comedy forms. 

The Stowaways will feature five or six performers in what the Bay Street website describes as “a crew of hilarious, irreverent, goofballs who simply refuse to utilize a script.”

“If the audience has seen ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ ” said Mr. Reese, referring to the iconic television show, originally British, on which a panel of improvisers perform zany jokes and songs hatched on the spot following an audience prompt, “then they’ll understand the basic premise of these shows.”

But spontaneity and television regulations can make for strange bedfellows, often leaving televised improv feeling stilted and forced. It is an art form that truly belongs onstage.

The Bay Street shows will involve some audience participation, admitted Mr. Reeves. “But only to get the comedians started,” he said, “nothing that will embarrass anyone or put them on the spot.”

The Stowaways troupe will comprise some of New York’s brightest improv stars, among them Sarah Galvin, Winn Kline, Lexi Orphanos, Jake Parisse, and Mr. Reese. “And maybe a few others as well because you just never know what happens with improv,” said Mr. Reese.

The basic premise of improv is that the performers don’t know what will happen in their show until they are onstage. The audience is asked for a word or prompt that the group will use for its freewheeling improvisation. But while the comedy is impromptu and spontaneous, there is a formula at the core of all good improv: the “Yes, and” rule, meaning that performers must accept whatever their scene partners do or say as part of the reality of the scene and then build on it with their own contributions. What this requires is focused attention, and that an improviser must be present in the moment, intuition activated, alert, and ready to play.

In her 2011 best-seller, “Bossy Pants,” Tina Fey, the actress and comedian, illuminates this all-important rule: “The first rule of improvisation is agree,” wrote Ms. Fey. “Always agree and say yes 

[. . .] this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!’ then we have started a scene because we have agreed that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”

Scott Schwartz, the artistic director at Bay Street, came up with the idea to add improv to the creative offerings because of the theater’s long and successful history with comedy, “dating back long before my time,” he said.

“The whole idea for the Stowaways,” he explained, “is to give our audience more comedy; more laughs in the cold winter months and more reasons to come out and have fun.”