INTERVIEW: Micah Philbrook

Everyone is on their own journey.

Micah Philbrook

I met Micah at his theatre, pH Comedy Theatre, in Andersonville, on a Saturday afternoon. Our interview started informally as we just casually talked about the beauties and addictive nature of this art form and how it can accidentally become almost cult-like. However, we both agreed that it also happens to change people’s lives and life plans and both Micah and myself know this all too well.

So how’d you get started in this improv world?
I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I was an actor and theatre major studying at LSU (Louisiana State University). I was taking a commedia dell’arte class.

A what?
A commedia dell’arte class, ooooo, you’ll have to look that up. It’s an Italian Renaissance theatre form that was essentially a traveling theatre group that started in Italy and traveled throughout Europe. They would go from town to town with these stock characters that they’d play and then they’d find the specific local people in the town who were stereotypical town drunks, rich folks, politicians, etc, and incorporate that information into their stock characters, into their bits and it was pretty much the first form of improv. I took this class and we ended up talking about the modern forms of commedia and what it has evolved into and it was mentioned that it has given births to new forms of theatre, such as improv. They talked about Second City and Saturday Night Live and being a comedy geek, (Saturday Night Live was my pinnacle), I figured I needed to go to Second City. So I dropped out and moved up here [Chicago] and started taking classes as iO, Annoyance and eventually Second City.

So many people I know of have found improv and it creates this moment in their life where they’re like, “this is just pure joy and love and that’s what I want to do” and it becomes cult-like, because unless you’ve done it, you don’t really understand it.

Agreed. Ok, so you came up here for Second City and then…
I came up here for Second City in September of ’99, but I didn’t have anything lined up other than I could stay with my grandmother, who lived up here. I had to get a job and get things in order and then I looked for places to take classes. As I was looking for a job, I looked through the Reader and I saw an audition for an improv group, so I thought, “Why not? I have nothing to lose.” I auditioned and I got into this group called Low Sodium Entertainment. So I moved up here in September, I was in a group by October and I was performing by December and I was like, “I’ve done it, this is amazing!” It was primarily a short-form group, which was all I had experienced at that time.

This group had a very contentious relationship with the rest of the improv community because of the director and how he’d started it. We didn’t have much interaction or exposure to other groups and there were these strange rules in place in Low Sodium, where you couldn’t take class at other places or see shows or perform anywhere else. He would explain it to us as “they [the improv community] don’t like us” and being young and new and not knowing anything, I accepted that. Sometime that fall, I had a friend come up from Louisiana and we went to see a show at iO and I saw a couple of Harold teams and was like, “Holy shit, what is this amazingness that they’re doing?” So from that point forward, I was trying to figure out how to take classes at iO. I eventually talked to the director about letting me take classes at iO and he told me to “keep it on the hush hush.” I started at iO with a couple of other people from Low Sodium and while we were in our first level at iO, the group fell apart. But while it was falling apart, there were a number of us in Low Sodium that wanted to do our own thing, have our own company, so we launched pH in 2002. It officially started around the summer of 2002.

We ended up getting a bunch of people we were in class with to help us start pH and we started with approximately a 30 person cast. To this day, we maintain a 30-35 person cast. One of the things we did when we started pH, was tell our performers we wanted them to take classes and perform everywhere, so they can get better, be seen and have more exposure to other things.

I finished classes at iO. They recommended I go to Annoyance next, so I did those classes, back when their classes were at St. Alphonsas church. After that I ended up taking a year off because of money. But then I went to Second City and did their conservatory. That was the weirdest of all of them because we learn all this improv stuff and then 4/5ths the way through, they have you write all this stuff. I had a fun time, but I didn’t expect all the writing. Meanwhile, pH is going the whole time and we’re trying to be a theatre company that focuses on improv.

So you finished conservatory, pH is going strong, then what?
I was still on a team at iO. I ended up getting recycled through a few teams and got put on a team called Athens. It was filled with all these veterans and former teachers, people on touring companies, working at ComedySportz, me on pH, people that were active at Playground, etc. But that team could never find a coach or a rehearsal time, so it only lasted about a year and a half due to so many other commitments. But after that, I focused more on pH and Second City and whatever I could get paid to do.

In 2007, I ended up getting fired from my waiting job. I kind of picked a fight over not not wanting to put down water napkins and ended up getting fired for it. I found myself out of a job, so I reached out to Second City and long story short, I ended getting a call back from Ann Libra asking if I wanted to teach Level A. So from that point forward, I was teaching as much as I could and doing freelance video editing. Every term since then, I was getting more classes and since about the middle of 2008, I’ve only been teaching classes for my living.

And that is your full income?
Yes, it doesn’t pay a bunch. I don’t live well, but I scrape by, which is awesome. So during the course of this, I auditioned for a boat and toured for a bit and while I was on that boat, pH ended up winning a Chase Facebook competition as a non-profit and ended up winning a $20,000 grant. So that was huge, since we were able to put it away for this [pH’s theatre] eventually.

I ended up teaching more classes, went on another boat and came back and was asked to start teaching writing classes, which was crazy because I don’t consider myself a writer at all. I’d never even taken the writing program. It’s a whole different style of teaching and mentality, which was really fun and challenging.

So, improv just took over?
Yea, everyone I know now is an improviser. Something I’ve discovered through improv is how much I see myself and others decide things for now and not decide things for later. We all have plans. Like when I moved up here, my five-year plan was to come study at Second City, then move to the west coast and study with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, because they still do commedia. Then my goal was to move to Europe somewhere and do some kind of theatrical art. But when I got here, everything else just went away and I decided this was what I wanted to do.

Alright, well that was quite the run down. You may have just about answered everything, but let’s clear up a couple of things. When pH first started, where did you first begin?
We wanted to do weekly shows. So we rehearsed as a group and got our form down, this show pHrenzy, that we wanted to do and then started trying to get one-off shows at different places. We ended up performing in Wicker Park at Wing and Groove and rented out their late night slot, then we went to Live Bait, then to Stage Left (which is now Second Stage) and we stayed there for about four years. We also got to do shows at the Viaduct Theatre and then Studio BE opened and we got a resident artist company spot there where we could grow with the intent to eventually move on. We were there for about three years and then we moved out and we opened this theatre in June.

Ok, switching gears a little bit. What advice would you impart to yourself as a younger improviser?
Shit. Patience is probably the biggest thing I’d tell myself, because you want everything now. I think the smartest choice I made was taking classes one at a time and not doubling up and doing them all at once to get into the scene quicker. But in general, patience and pacing yourself. I see a lot of people burn out because they take a bunch of classes all at once, then they’re on a team and doing things every night of the week and they get tired of the life or they’re doing mediocre work because they don’t have the time or the energy to put in all of it. I was like that for a while and while it was fun, a lot of times it would be mediocre work.

And this took me a while to accept- know that everyone is on their own journey, especially with improv because it’s such a subjective art form and there’s no linear path to follow. When your peers and contemporaries get picked up on teams and boats when you don’t, it’s really hard and you question, “Why not me?” But the thing is, we’re all on our own journey and you have to accept that and know that as long as you’re working hard at it and not half-assing it, all the success you get is the success that you deserve. It’s not because you are less talented or not as good, it’s because you have a different thing to offer that might not be what a team or a touring company needs.

Patience and accepting and loving your own journey, that and read more.

Read what?
Read anything. Read everything. Read. Watch. Be aware of culture in the world because there will be a time when your whole world is improv and you stopped getting a cultural perspective and your characters become less rich, your content becomes less diverse and you can get into the self-fulfilling loop where your reference level and content becomes the same thing over and over again because you don’t have new information coming in. Getting involved in something that is not improv related is crucial, because it’s so easy to become an improv nerd and just do this over and over again, but read the news once in a while.

I agree with that. I find that for me the biggest issue is finding the opportunity to balance it and finding the time to do it. While I love improv, dearly, I love a lot of other things too.
Yea, since starting with Low Sodium and getting involved with pH, there have been very few periods of my life where I have not had some sort of show responsibility on a Friday or Saturday night. Which means, for 10 years, I haven’t been able to see bands or live music or other plays or anything else that I really enjoy because I always have something I have to do on Friday and Saturday nights. Which has cost me so many relationships and has also caused me to miss some of my favorite bands. The amount of sacrifices I’ve made for this art are immense and sometimes it weighs on me, but then things happen like finally getting this theatre and I’m reminded that this is why I did it.

I don’t believe in regret, but there are a lot of things that might lean towards that. It’s all about balance and if you can figure out a way to do the things you want to do outside of improv it’s only going to help your improv.

Ok, but if you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I think I would take classes sooner. I would have spent my time at iO differently to try and know people more. Just like any place, iO can feel like a great community, if you get inside the community. But since I had pH going on, I never took advantage of that. Very rare would I go to hang out at someone’s house or hang out after shows or go to the Christmas party they have. I was always doing pH stuff. So I would have tried to spend more time getting to know that community. Through the years, I’ve gotten to know more people from iO and they’re all great people and sometimes I feel like I just missed out on that a little bit.

I love iO. I’m probably a bit biased, because that’s all I really know, but I’m not mad about it. At least not right now in my life. It’s like this family. I’ve been so fortunate to have these experiences that nowhere else in my real life would those things happen.
Yea, that’s something I’ve lucked my way into, teaching at Second City and going on those few boats. That’s something I love about pH, we created our own community because we wanted to do it as well. I think that’s how this art form changes and grows is people say, “Oh I love what’s going on, but I want to add to this and do something a little different” and then all these other theatres start forming. But now I’m on Rick, so I get to occasionally play at iO still, which is great.

Ok, apart from wishing to be more involved at iO, what has been your greatest struggle in this journey?
I think my greatest struggle is deciding and accepting that I have skill at this. The constant struggle of wondering, “What if no one thinks I’m funny?” and getting over that confidence barrier is pretty hard. Secondary is feeding myself and paying rent.

Ha, that’s a life struggle.

We’ve talked a lot about doing improv related things, what other interests and hobbies do you have that you wish you could invest more time in?
The biggest one would be political activism. Over the last year or so, I’ve been getting involved pretty heavily in Occupy Chicago and that whole movement. Previous to that I was involved in a lot of anti-war stuff in the early 2000’s. I focus most of my energy on improv and try to put a little political activism into my work. As this theater opened, I’ve been focusing more on that, so I’d love to be able to try to figure out how to balance both.

Gotcha. Ok, Micah, please tell me where you are currently performing.
Currently I perform with pH Productions, at iO on a Harold team, Rick, and at Donny’s Skybox with a sketch project called the tim&micah project. The tim&micah project also performs at Chicago Sketch Fest every year and we tour occasionally.

Ok, so here’s my signature question: what is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
Specifically through improv, I’ve discovered that listening and staying in the moment has made my life so much more rich and fun. Life just goes by you so fast, so being present in the moment and enjoying the moment for what it is, is really hard to do, but I think it’s really important. Enjoying the now and not worrying too much about the future.

Also, the idea of saying “yes” to more things. Saying yes to things that you wouldn’t normally say yes to, within safety boundaries of course, leads you to more experiences that just enrich your life. Either way, good or bad, they are experiences that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Saying “yes” also pushes you out side of your comfort zone. You grow so much more as a person from those experiences.

So enjoy the moment for the now and say “yes” to more things are the two biggest things I’ve learned from comedy that I’ve applied to my real life.

Absolutely. Last question, do you have any final comments you’d like to include?
I think that improvisational theatre and the rules, guidelines and concepts and all of that are some of the most amazing, life-affirming, growth-creating things people can do. One of the things I enjoy about teaching improv, is getting people excited about the art and doing this and applying it to your life. Improv is a life-changing art form. It doesn’t matter if you ever get on a stage or do a show. Just the idea of improv and the things you do with people you’ve just met but you fearlessly throw yourself into- it changes lives. And the more people that can take this art, experience it, even if it’s just one class, the world would be a better place. It’s not about greed, it’s not about you, it’s about the group and surrendering to the ensemble and saying “yes” to things you don’t know will work and about trusting your fellow performers, who in some instances are complete strangers, but trusting them with this openness and taking care of each other. That mentality transferred to the real world would make the entire world better. So if anybody who hasn’t wants to, take improv.

I completely agree with that.


Micah Philbrook was raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and moved to Chicago to pursue improvisational theatre. He has trained with the iO, the Annoyance, and the Second City Conservatory. micah creates improv at iO Chicago and creates sketch with the tim&micah project. He is very proud to be a faculty member at the Second City Training Center, and is extremely proud to be a founding member of pH Productions.

Interview conducted on November 17th.

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posted on by Kiley Peters posted in Chatter, Interviews

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