Out of Bounds Comedy Festival
Out of Bounds Preview: Now connecting to Switchboard
The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival is officially underway, and comedians from across the country have descended upon Austin.
Among the better-known names and faces appearing this week is a headliner that—if you aren't a die-hard improv fan or an improviser yourself—you likely haven't heard of before, but that you do not want to miss. Switchboard is a three-woman improv group composed of comedy veterans Jean Villepique, Rebecca Sohn and Debra Downing-Grosz. Based out of LA and Chicago, they offer up some of the funniest improv comedy and theater available.
Inspired by friends and fellow improv group 4square (whose members include former Daily Show correspondent Dan Bakkedahl and 30 Rock's Jon Lutz), Switchboard formed in 2005 for a limited run at iO Chicago. The group clicked so well that they've continued touring nationally despite now residing across the country from each other. Switchboard only performs a couple times a year, and it's primarily at improv festivals. Though a chance to see them is a rarity, Austin has been lucky: this is Switchboard's second visit to the capitol city (they did a special performance at Coldtowne Theater in 2008).
With credits including Second City, iO, 30 Rock, The Office and a recurring role on NBC's upcoming Up All Nightto their names, it's obvious these performers have serious chops. But they also put on an unusual show that's constantly unfolding and changing. How, exactly? That part is a little difficult to explain, even more so than a regular improv performance.
Switchboard's name is indicative of their show, which is truly a 40-minute comedy carnival ride. It's editless, meaning that instead of abrupt ends to scenes signaled by someone walking across the stage, their scenes melt into each other. Sohn, Villepique, and Downing-Grosz follow each other closely, at times seeming to move with one mind, which is truly a feat considering the sheer number of scenes and characters they’ll play in a short time period. They create ridiculous characters running the gambit from old ladies with cataracts to street thugs to male strippers to joyriding teenagers, and through it all is the sense that they are having a ball of a time.
Switchboard's comedic sense is sometimes silly, always smart and laced with a hint of playful mischief. They're always side-splittingly funny, but what’s special about the group isn’t just their ability to leave audiences in stitches (though they do), it’s how far they go beyond that. Rather than simply standing onstage and trading wit back and forth, they use physicality and emotions, sometimes going to serious places and then quickly calling back earlier moments that their audiences have already forgotten about.
Throughout their performances Switchboard also breaks into impromptu a cappella melodies so beautiful it's tempting to think their songs were written and prepared beforehand. They're not. At all. The ladies of Switchboard are just that good.
On top of it, they often perform wearing dresses and heels, all without sacrificing the slightest bit of physicality--something that's difficult in the improv world when any given show might have a performer climbing a faux mountain or playing a boxer. You know that old joke about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels? Well, Switchboard has three hilarious Gingers and no need for a Fred.
This week brings two opportunities for Austinites to catch a Switchboard show: Saturday, September 3rd at 10:30pm at the Hideout with the Frank Mills, and Sunday, September 4th at 7pm at the State Theater with Greg Proops and Gorilla Improv. Get your tickets now (really, it will sell out), get there early and save me a seat.