Opposites, a two man improv troupe, performs each and every Wednesday night at The New Movement theater in downtown Austin, Texas. If you attended the show, you didn’t witness any punchlines, they didn’t go for any cheap jokes. There was no steady, comfortable rhythm of laughter to settle in to.
And that’s what made it great.
Patrick Knisely and Mark Carpenter aren’t afraid to venture into those dark corners, those uncomfortable weird silences, and dedicate themselves fully to their character and scene. The performance had that suck-you-in kind of realism that a lot of comedy fails to achieve. And when a laugh out loud moment does happen on stage, it’s that much funnier, as it is in real life. Think about it, if people went around farting constantly, it wouldn’t be funny. What makes a fart funny and not just plain disgusting is timing, and the more unexpected the better. And it’s best when a fart breaks up a dramatic moment. It’s a quick reminder that we’re just a bunch of filthy animals. Opposites seems more concerned with exploring relationships than trying to be funny, providing their audience a much more fulfilling comedic experience.
And Knisely and Carpenter aren’t limited by being a two man troupe. Towards the end of the show, Mark and Patrick called back two of their characters created from previous scenes, and did a masterful job of juggling four characters at once, each speaking for two characters, switching seamlessly back and forth on stage. I spoke to Carpenter and Knisely before the show:
Describe Opposites in a sentence.
PK: Two guys who can’t connect in real life because of their differences do an improvised show and connect through performance.
MC: Opposites is the most dramatically comical world that two guys can conjure up in a thirty minute show without alienating their audience too much.
How and when did you guys meet, and how did Opposites get started?
PK: Mark and I met in the summer of 2008 when we were cast together on a troupe at a different theater, which was coached by Chris Trew initially. We both ended up dropping out of that troupe after some time, and Chris went on to open The New Movement theater (TNM). Mark and I both got involved at TNM separately. When we found out we were both there, we discussed doing a show together, a one off type of thing. There was a weekly show called The Main Event and we thought we’d enter it and do a show, probably lose, and never do a show again. Scheduling prevented us from doing it for a while, and then eventually it worked out. Mark told me he had this idea, for Opposites, and I politely listened and said sure, because it was a small commitment. Turns out the idea was good, the audience loved it, and we went on to win several weeks in a row. We decided at the point to keep doing shows and it evolved to where it is today.
MC: I thought of the show opening while in the shower. A little chant like “I am this, I am that, we are Opposites.” We couldn’t find a very good place to practice, so we just practiced in a park. A homeless guy watched for a bit and told us we were funny and then he told us that he was funny, and to prove it to us he told us a joke. I wish I could remember that joke. It wasn’t funny.
What role does costume have in your show, and has that element always been part of the show?
MC: I’m always big on a show having a “hook”, a visual style or something you can easily describe to other people. The idea that we would dress the same was always part of the act, and Patrick and I often wore a similar brown crew neck t-shirt so that was our look for the first show.
PK: I feel it’s important to consider what you wear in any performance, improv included, even if you decide that just normal street clothes is what you wear, so long as that’s a conscious choice. Personally I like to dress a little nicer than the audience, or just wear neutral colors for improv. I like that Mark feels that clothes and costumes are important, but personally I tend to prefer things that are simpler, because I fear loud and crazy outfits distract from the performance, and to me that’s the most important thing, but I also like the continuity of wearing the same Opposites shirts.
What was your recent trip to Washington state like?
PK: It was awesome. I think it proved that Mark and I can travel together and perform a really solid show in a new place in a new space. We went to Seattle and Olympia for the Improlympia festival at Evergreen State College in Olympia. We decided to try and do a couple festivals this year, and to not just eye the big ones but keep a look out for smaller more regional festivals. The show took place on campus and we were lucky enough to headline the Friday night set. I absolutely loved our show, and I think Mark felt good about it too, which is honestly pretty rare. Usually one of us feels good and the other doesn’t, so I think that’s one good sign for us that it was a solid set. Overall, we drank a lot of beers, watched a lot of improv, and wandered aimlessly around Olympia and Seattle. Which, for me, constitutes a pretty good trip.
MC: Personally the trip made me feel more legit. Even though I teach improv, it’s not a full time job. For us to be able to go somewhere out of state to teach a workshop and perform, it makes it feel less like a hobby and more like a legitimate art-form. Plus we got paid to do it.
What are some of the challenges you guys face being a two man group?
PK: When people are newer to improv, they see two person groups as being particularly difficult as you’re on stage performing for most of the show, and in larger ensemble shows you can catch your breath on the side. However, over time, for me at least, I’ve found that the smaller the ensemble the easier it is. The less people there are to be confused about what you’re doing and the room for miscommunication and confusion becomes smaller. It’s also easier to stay on track with just one other person. Large ensembles are necessary in some cases, depending on the type of show, but I much prefer two person improv. The challenge, I guess, comes from performing on stage the whole time, and not having a moment in the side-line to just listen or run through your memory. But over time you get used to it. I suppose, in some ways, the biggest challenge comes from just having two of us. We have to both be available for every show. When you have a large ensemble, if someone’s sick then you can still do the show short one person or ask someone to guest and it’s still the same energy for the most part. If one of us is sick or unavailable, we can’t do the show.
MC: Too many cooks spoils the kitchen or something like that. With just input from two people I feel like it’s easier to keep a show coherent. Of course I think a negative is that it puts all of the burden on us, there’s not much of a safety net.
How do you keep things from getting stale? You guys have a weekly, is it a challenge to bring something new to the stage when you’re performing that frequently?
MC: I sort of worried about this at first, but none of our shows has ever been the same. That’s delightful in some ways and nerve racking in others. Will our show have recurring characters? Will it have a consistent story? How many characters or locations will be involved. Our show goes wherever it goes. Anytime we try to wrap our show into a specific format it ends up stifling us a bit and the performance seems a little stale. So we keep it loose and we’re always surprised by what happens. I think that’s the point of improv comedy – presenting something that isn’t expected. I always enjoy doing Opposites because things happen that even I’m not expecting and I’m just as entertained as the audience.
PK: At this point our weekly show is still pretty new. It started at the very end of April, and we had a couple of weeks here or there where we didn’t do it for various reasons. So it still feels fresh to me. Also, I feel like our show is always evolving in terms of the shape of it, the format.
How often do you guys rehearse, and has that changed over time?
PK: Our rehearsal schedule has definitely changed over time. When we first started doing shows, we weren’t sure it was going to be a long-term thing, so we’d rehearse once between shows. When we realized we wanted to keep going on, we were doing a show every month or so, and we’d typically rehearse once or twice before it. Then when we really gained some momentum, we started rehearsing every week, and that was great. Earlier in the year we got this weekly show slot, and we’re still working on figuring out how rehearsals fit in with that.
MC: One thing that Patrick and I are NOT opposite about is how seriously we take improv and rehearsals. The concept of improv practice sounds like an oxymoron, and I’ve had a few people tell me that practicing makes their improv shows less spontaneous. I disagree. It’s important for me to connect with the people I’m performing with. Improv is scary and dangerous and I want to trust the people I’m doing it with. I wanna get a feel for how they react to certain situations on stage. That’s important.
Do you guys have a coach? How open to criticism are you guys at this point?
PK: Right now we don’t have a coach. Chris Trew coached us some early on, and spiritually he’s our coach, even though he’s not around to coach us in person. We’ve talked about bringing other people in to coach us, and we probably will at some point, but we’ve been self-directing for a while now and it seems to work okay for us. I think we’re very open to receiving outside feedback because the danger in self-directing, of course, is that you don’t have an outsider’s perspective on things. This is something we continue to discuss from time to time and we may end up getting a more consistent coach at some point.
MC: Just as with practice I think a coach is essential, especially for a two person troupe where both performers are ALWAYS on stage. Even so, we’re both pretty seasoned so we know what we want, and usually know how to get it or what went wrong when we didn’t. I feel that Patrick and I are thick skinned enough to take each other’s criticism, but we’re also very careful not to say anything that will hurt the other. And to tell you the truth, we usually apologize and blame ourselves rather than find flaws with each other. Our post show talks go something like, Mark: “I’m really sorry I didn’t pick up on that.” Patrick: “No no, *I* should have noticed that you hadn’t seen it.” Mark: “Well, you would have noticed had I done a better job of making it clear..” Patrick: “Well it would have been clear if I hadn’t done this and that..” on and on.
True or false: in real everyday life, Patrick and Mark are Opposites?
PK: True. I mean, in some sense. We’re both white dudes, and that’s where the humor comes from in the name and our appearance, but we’re very different. I think what unites us is our passion for improv and desire to do a good show and get better, but we often approach things very differently.
MC: To anybody who doesn’t know us, we’re the same, also actually most people that do know us think we’re the same: sort of introverted, sort of nerdy, tall, very good looking of course, but I think to each other we’re pretty different. For instance, we both like classic rock. But Patrick is into Prog Rock and I’m more of an AOR guy, so you know, totally different, right? Seriously though, our opposing personalities are underscored on stage. I feel that Patrick is more subtle, patient and flexible, I’m more analytic, forceful, and polarizing. On stage Patrick devotes a lot of his energy to the art form and I’m more about making the audience laugh at any expense. This is why we’ll usually have the opposite opinion of the success of a show. If the crowd was laughing, I’ll say it was great, if the audience was as quiet as stone but Patrick felt artistically fulfilled, he’ll say it was great. I could talk about the dynamics of our personalities forever.