Scott Sheppard is a high school English teacher. Jesse Paulsen is a lab rat. Alison King and Jack Meaney are staffers with arts nonprofits. These are their day jobs. But in their free time, they’re known as the Groundswell Players, a motley crew of four college friends out of the Main Line’s Haverford College who have spawned a model of thriving DIY theater in the city.
Walking the tenuous line between scripted theater and improvisation, the Groundswell Players have been concocting fresh lunacies and playing finely drawn misfits since 2005 when they were members of an undergraduate improv group at Haverford. With elaborate kidnapping induction ceremonies and unpredictable sketches at the Philly Improv Festival and small venues around the city that eschewed the concept of taboo, the group quickly gained a fan base.
After deciding to make the move toward scripted drama, the Players developed their collaborative process of experimental improvisation and riffing. Though much of the Groundswell appeal comes from their smart dialogue, King says that in rehearsal it’s all about going back to basics: “To help keep us from being plotty, sometimes we’ll speak in gibberish to each other,” she says, “or we won’t speak at all. Eliminating language from the mix helps define characters’ physicality and emotional gravity.”
The Players then called in a little help to turn their kooky concepts into scripted realities: painter/writer Alex Cohen, and director Charlotte Ford, creator of esteemed Live Arts pieces Chicken andFlesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl. “Coming from a background of sketch and improv comedy, our plays have always been highly verbal and plot heavy,” says Sheppard. “Charlotte is inspiring us to reinvest in the physical, visual, and emotional elements of our comedy. Her voice is helping our style mature in really exciting ways.”
With two productions under their belts ( How to Solve a Bear—which followed a rogue woodsmen’s Captain Ahab-esque quest to destroy a bear that was wreaking mayhem on a fictional Montana state park—and the winter 2011 production Little Plates, Big Tapas that featured the entire Callahan improv team in a story of culinary intrigue), the Players’ highly anticipated newest project, The Speed of Surprise!, will debut this September at the Adrienne Theater as a part of the Philly Fringe Festival. All we know about it is that intergalactic assassins will “negotiate deep space and alienation whilst their murderous destiny fast approaches” and local technology non-profit the Hacktory is contributing old computer parts and obsolete parts to give the show a “a nuanced and farcical science fiction aesthetic.”
The new show promises to be just as jam-packed with compelling oddballs and inventive stories as the first two, but with a little more polish. Not that the Players are shying away from taking risks. “[We] have an overarching ‘game,’ Sheppard says. “We want our audience to relish the horror in watching our rickety characters take flight, only to plummet when the sun begins to melt the wax in their wings. We celebrate the drama and humor in grand, beautiful failures.”
PW continues its effort to profile the people who make Philly what it is. In this issue, we profile First Lady Lisa Nutter, a former Suicide Girl, a choreographer, a beloved drag entertainer and a group of DIY improv-ers.
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There’s no question she has her husband’s back, but it’s evident the first lady also has her own game plan. “I came into the role with an agenda, which is with youth development,” she says. “If anything my role has given me a platform because people want to listen more than they did before. I didn’t have any expectations. What I did have is a sense of things I wanted to accomplish.”
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