I, Hustlebot | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I, Hustlebot

Improv group performs long-form comedy.

"You left me standing there all by myself!" Anne Marie Sweeney yells, flapping violently around the stage. Sweeney, one of six members of Hustlebot, is improvising from an audience suggestion -- "angry walrus" ---- and in what is just the comedy troupe's sixth show, she embodies the phrase surprisingly well. Hustlebot headlines Evicted, a comedy night held every other Thursday at Downtown's Future Tenant gallery.

Hustlebot's members -- besides Sweeney, they include Joe Wichryk, Christine Nangle, Dave Fedor, Larry Phillis and Drew Ludwig -- specialize in the type of improv known as long-form. The style consists of a series of improvised scenes, loosely linked. It originated decades ago in such theatrical laboratories as Chicago's famed The Second City, and Hustlebot claims to be Pittsburgh's only current practitioners.

"When most people think of improv, they think of that TV show [Whose Line Is It, Anyway?], where they do games, impressions and jokey things," says Fedor. Hustlebot, though admittedly a bit jokey itself, is more complex. Comparing the two kinds of improv, says Wichryk, is like "comparing apples to apple pie." Phillis calls long-form "closer to theater, while short-form improv is closer to stand-up comedy."

The troupe attacks its bits with zest, and the results are hilarious, bizarre and memorable. At the show in mid-February featuring Sweeney's walrus, other scenes riffed on such topics as curtains, teeth and Abraham Lincoln, and introduced the audience to a characters including a commitment-phobic boyfriend, a pair of overly curious neighbors, and a bicycle-building uncle with a grudge against Christmas.

The three scenes featuring those characters took center stage in turns, rotating until each reached its wacky conclusion. Phillis says, "I like the fact that it's a group mentality, we're creating something that didn't exist before, and tomorrow it'll be gone." But every other Thursday, it's reborn.

Evicted is the brainchild of Ryan Kiessling, Future Tenant's program director and a longtime long-form performer. Abby Fudor, an improv-lover and student in the graduate arts-management program at CMU (which operates Future Tenant), joined in as an organizer. The troupe began in August as a workshop open to anyone. Although the original six Hustlebots had already worked together in various Pittsburgh comedy groups, they had never done long-form. "Here are six people that really gelled together," Fudor says.

Hustlebot also does traditional short-form work. At the Feb. 15 show, audience suggestions included "human cannonball," played with determination by Wichryk.

Evicted nights also feature a second musical or comedy act; the Feb. 15 show featured locally based Southern-fried comedienne Sharon "Mama" Spell.

For now, though, Hustlebot has the spotlight. Day jobs held by members include youth pastor (Ludwig), banker (Fedor) and toy-store employee (Phillis). But their true love is comedy. "I think we all clutch onto day jobs in the hopes of one day getting paid to do what we love," says Fedor. And the audience in Future Tenant can feel the love, be it in the desperation of a human cannonball, a child falling into a tar pit or the screams of an extremely angry walrus.

Hustlebot at Evicted comedy night 8:30 p.m. Thu., March 1. Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave, Downtown. (And every other Thursday at Future Tenant, 801 Liberty Ave., Downtown). $7 ($5 students). www.futuretenant.org/evicted

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