In the midst of the busy 2017 summer season at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, artistic director Scott Schwartz and production manager Rob Reese found themselves pondering the importance of comedy to the acclaimed venue. Stand-up, Shakespeare, variety acts—so much comedy has graced Bay Street’s stage over the years. With that in mind, the two innovators envisioned a new, ambitious project.
“Basically, the idea emerged that Bay Street would support and house a group of the best improv performers in New York to create some comedy shows for the East End,” Mr. Schwartz said. “And the rest, they say, is history.”
The duo’s summer musings led to the formation of The Stowaways, Bay Street’s in-house improv troupe, which will have its debut evening of comedy on Saturday, February 3, at 8 p.m.
The name, Mr. Reese explained, is part of a comic premise revolving around Bay Street being located in the historic whaling port of Sag Harbor.
“The premise behind it is that we’re this offshoot group that really shouldn’t be playing at this respectable theater. We’re the outliers,” Mr. Reese said.
However, he stressed that this was merely part of their fictional narrative.
“The theater itself couldn’t have been more welcoming or supportive through our process, so it’s a comic premise, but it definitely has to do with the seafaring nature of the town,” he said.
Mr. Reese leads the group made up of an elite group of professional New York City-based performers, including a few triple-threats who will bring elements of music and dance to the shows, chosen through a large-scale casting call. He is an alumnus of The Second City in Chicago, the comedy theater and school that is known as the “gold standard of improv, satire, sketch comedy.” There, he shared the stage with celebrity comedians like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, who were just starting out at the time. He also taught for Second City, heading a class on writing and improvisation at the theater’s New York school.
With his professional background and continued passion for improv comedy, Mr. Schwartz said Mr. Reese was just the person needed to kick off this new venture.
Although a fair share of amateur improv groups exist on Long Island and New York City, Mr. Reese said this group will be the first of its kind.
“All the big theaters in and around New York that you’ve heard of really are running shows off of their students,” he explained. “There’s no professional group creating a show for a theater.”
The upcoming shows will have the same overall format each night, including games similar to those seen on television’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with audience participation and an impromptu one-act play, Mr. Reese said. However, what direction each show takes is completely up to how the audience reacts and which direction the comedians decide to take it.
“It’s fun and it’s fast and it’s a little bit dangerous because anything can happen,” Mr. Schwartz said.
And with comedians from Jerry Seinfeld to Chris Rock speaking out about political correctness’s impact on comedy over the past few years, Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Reese said they do not plan to censor what happens on stage.
“I’ve got a framed picture of Lenny Bruce over my desk and I’m a big admirer of George Carlin and all those people who have always pushed the envelope—that’s always been a part of comedy,” Mr. Reese said.
However, he clarified that there is a difference between pushing the envelope and shock for the sake of shock value.
“We have a love of all satire and art itself pushing [the] envelope, but on the same token we’re not out there to throw out offensive material just for its own sake,” he said.
With four shows already set for the next two months, the creative team behind The Stowaways hopes to build a following and become a permanent part of Bay Street, they said.
“We hope to have those shows well received enough that we get to extend our run out of Bay Street because it’s a lovely place to be,” Mr. Reese said.
And depending on their success, the team hopes to travel with the group all over Long Island and beyond.
“Basically we just want to make audiences laugh and think wherever we can,” Mr. Reese said.
“The Stowaways: An Evening of Improv Comedy” plays at the Bay Street Theater on Saturdays, February 3 and 17 and March 3 and 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $30. Call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.