Philly Improv Theater ad-libs 'B-Movie'


Termites. That was the suggestion in one of the first shows of Philly Improv Theater’s run of “B-Movie,” playing at The Shubin Theater, 407 Bainbridge St., through Oct. 26.

“It was around Halloween so we thought it’d be fun to do,” Mike Marbach, who directs the house team Asteroid, said. “It’s right up their alley and it fit their strengths very well. The idea of the show is part homage, part spoof of the sci-fi and horror movies of the ’50s and ’60s.”

A three-year resident of 15th and-Moore streets, Marbach, who also is the groups’s education director, helped the team prepare by running games and making sure they did their homework.

“They’re already very much a movie-loving team. We had several movie nights, sometimes they’d do it on their own, watching things like ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon,’ ‘The Last Man on Earth,’ ‘The Curse of the Werewolf,’” Marbach said of classic horror B-movies.

The performances are different than the typical Philly Improv Theater format, where performers will take multiple ideas and/or have one running suggestion that connects disparate scenes. In “B-Movie,” the performers — with five of the eight-man team hailing from the area, including Lora Magaldi and Jessica Ross from East Passyunk Crossing; AJ Horan and Brent Knobloch from Pennsport; and Caitlin Weigel from Queen Village — create an approximately 30-minute long ‘movie’ based on the suggestion.

“Improv is still a young art form across the U.S. because people don’t really have anything to compare it to. Since long form isn’t what you’d see on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ — scene-scene-based improv is something you discover. It’s a game you play as you do it,” Marbach said.

Audiences, however, are at an advantage with “B-Movie,” and the hour-long performances of two original ‘movies’ are catching on quickly.

“People have seen those movies so with this it is much easier to jump into it and suspend belief. You’re not trying to figure anything out,” the 33-year-old said. “The audience reaction is almost immediately onboard, whereas with other shows it may take a little time before they are completely invested.”

With a few performances in the books, audience reaction already has been very positive.

“There have been a bunch of people I have never seen and who had never seen improv,” Marbach said. “The best compliment an improv actor can receive after the show is, ‘How much of that was really scripted?’ They do it so well it’s seen as actually really scripted.”

Hailing from Northeast Philly, Marbach began theater work in high school.

“I did one show in high school which was really all it took before I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,” Marbach said of his role as Ed in “You Can’t Take It With You.” “I had aspirations of being involved in comedy long before that, even when I was just watching stand up and ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

His brief forays on the stage led him to matriculate at DeSales University, where he studied television, film and created his own minor in theater.

“I did a lot of one-act plays,” he said of being recruited by theater students who had to have non-theater majors in their productions. “I did all those shows and ran a sketch comedy show that I wrote for and directed, and the whole time I thought, ‘I’m moving to L.A.’ And I never did.”

Instead, after graduating with his bachelor’s in 2002, he moved with his mother to Indiana — which he justified as “being halfway to L.A.” — and worked in retail before a friend propositioned a move to Chicago.

“Chicago is when I really discovered improv. I went to Chicago and got involved in iO [Improv Olympics],” he said. “I had been in contact with a guy in Philly about coming back and doing a workshop … and researching the world here. There didn’t seem to be that much going on. In Chicago, it is completely oversaturated. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an improvist and have it bounce off and hit another improvist.”

After four years in Illinois, Marbach found his way back to Philadelphia, settling in South Philly for the convenience.

“In Philly, there was so much room for growth. I could be involved and helping to build the ground floor,” he said.

Since his arrival, he has grown the education program of Philly Improv Theater from a sparse offering to multiple sold-out sessions and higher-level courses. Though his teaching roles and directing position with Asteroid prevent him from performing as much as he’d like, Marbach still has his own projects on the burners.

“I do perform with The Deans, a group of the instructors. I also do an homage to ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson,” Marbach said, adding the next performance of “Here’s Johnny” will be immediately following ‘B Movie’ at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 20. at The Shubin.

That same day — Oct. 20 — will be Philly Improv Theater’s monthly free workshop, running from 3 to 5 p.m. for people who don’t know what to expect when taking an improv class. Marbach stresses that improv theater is an escape for anyone and everyone, not just aspiring comics. However, people are always invited to sit back and watch the professionals at one of the upcoming shows of “B-Movie.”

“You’re really not going to see something like this anywhere else in Philadelphia. You can go to the theater or rent something on Netflix, but you’ll never have the experience of discovering something for the first time and something that will not be seen again,” Marbach said. “It’s made for the people there that night. It’s the opening and closing of that particular show.

“The audience is a special part of that. We are in it together. We feed off of them and they feed off of us. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

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