Keeping it Light: The Improvisational Life of Vicki Hanes
I wrote this profile of comedian Vicki Hanes after spending three side-splitting days accompanying her to rehearsals, voice lessons and improv shows.
Three-year-old Vicki Hanes sits in a plastic toy car in her backyard in West Roxbury looking annoyed and making a clicking sound. Brow furrowed, she rolls her eyes and sighs loudly. Her sister Melissa, 12 years her senior, watches curiously from the window as she grows more and more frustrated. Click, click, click. When Melissa finally asks what she is doing, Vicki replies with a thick Boston accent, “I’m tryin’ ta make a left turn heyah!”
It should come as no surprise that this three-year-old grew up to continue to make people laugh. Now 27, Vicki spends her weekends performing her best Boston accent impressions, among other characters, as a Main Stage cast member at Improv Asylum. Situated in the North End of Boston on Hanover Street, Improv Asylum is a no-frills black box theatre that features improv and sketch comedy shows every night of the week.
I meet Vicki on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a few hours before she begins her first show of the weekend, at Thinking Cup, a coffee shop in the North End. From our seats by the window, we are just steps from both Improv Asylum and her apartment, a two-bedroom walkup that has been passed down from cast members over the past decade. Living so close to a job could be a bit too close for some, but Vicki loves it. “I don’t know what I will do when I move and have to commute to a job,” she says, shaking her head and laughing. “I feel like I’m already always late for things.” (I feel compelled to add that she was on time for our interview.) She tucks her wild shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ears and pulls her oversized grey sweater tighter and shivers. Though it is quite chilly in the coffee shop, it’s hard to believe it’s even possible for this energetic comedian to get cold—she is moving constantly. Not in a fidgety or nervous way, but as though her excitement can’t be contained in her body. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, nodding enthusiastically and laughing loudly, but not shrilly, throughout our conversation. I can see why she made such a great preschool teacher, the job she previously held when just starting out at Improv Asylum. Almost everything she says could end in an exclamation point.
Vicki grew up in a close-knit family of teachers and artists who laughed a lot. “She would laugh at things and I mean really laugh—like a deep hearty laugh,” her sister Melissa says, remembering Vicki as a baby. “Things would really crack her up.”
Vicki began performing on stage as a six-year-old at Riverside Theatre Works, a small community theatre company in Hyde Park, where her father designed sets. It was here that her knack for performing grew. As she got older, inspired by her favorite television shows All That, Saturday Night Live, and Whose Line is it Anyway?, Vicki put on variety shows with her friends. “We were just really weird!” she says. “We knew no one else was playing games like that, but we loved it.”
She started performing more in high school, often in musicals. Never cast in the comedic roles because she didn’t have the right look,—“in old musicals the funny girl is always weird looking or something”—she had to stick with making people laugh offstage. She went to Suffolk College for Theatre Performance with a concentration in Musical Theatre, where she first played funny characters on stage. She knew she had found her calling.
During her senior year at Suffolk, she earned a spot as a cast member in Seriously Bent, the college’s improv troupe. It was there that she met director Jeremy Brothers, who was also the training center director at Improv Asylum. She began working as an usher there and took classes for free at the training center. Her bright green eyes light up as she discusses advancing through the ranks, and eventually becoming a member of the Main Stage cast in January of 2014. Vicki now performs alongside her five castmates three nights every weekend. In addition to performing improv, the six work together to write sketches and songs for the weekend shows.
“Writing is almost harder than doing improv,” Vicki says, her legs pretzeled under her as she perches on a chair, coffee cup clutched between her hands. “With improv you have people to help you out, but when you write you’re all alone.” She gives an exaggerated grimace and laughs. “I’m still getting used to it.”
At the Main Stage show that weekend, I get to see one of the sketches that she wrote. In it, three overly enthusiastic women drink wine together and eventually realize they’re all dating the same man. In the opening lines, Vicki’s castmate compliments her on her sauce. “You couldn’t guess the secret ingredient?” Vicki asks, her voice dripping with a thick put-on Boston accent. “It was just ketchup!” They compliment each other endlessly, exclaiming, “We’re doing it!” after everything the others say. Vicki fills her glass with wine at first to the brim, and then overflowing, while her scene partners lay under the glass catching the spillover in their mouths. The physical comedy is just over-the-top enough, and plays well to an already booze-soaked crowd.
When not writing, rehearsing, or performing, Vicki teaches classes at Improv Asylum’s training center, where she got her start. I meet her on a Sunday night outside of Improv Asylum. She bursts through the door right at 6pm, her coat unzipped and coffee in hand. “Sorry I’m late!” she says as we rush across the street. “Rehearsal went well, but of course I was the very last one to go. That’s my luck!” We climb the steps of a narrow building directly across the street, where she teaches a group of ten students the principles of improvisational acting twice a week.
Class members range from high school students to retired Cambridge therapists. Vicki, in a striped shirt, grey jeans, and her hair twirled back in a clip, bounces around the room and leads them through exercises, including acting out emotional words on a scale of one to ten. She yells out—“you’re a depressed 7!” “You’re a surprised 4!”—and writes down phrases that she hears them say. During the next exercise, she breaks them up into groups of four, and uses these lines as jumping-off points for improv. The phrase—“I want my money back”—caused one group to get stuck on whether or not the character had, in fact, worn the shirt she was trying to return to the store. Vicki let it go on for a few minutes, before stopping them. “You got a little negative there,” she said with a smile, reminding them to say ‘yes, and…’—a cardinal rule of improv—to agree with the scene partner and add something interesting. “No one wants to watch people argue on stage,” she added. “Let’s keep it light.”
Cast members congregate in the green room at Improv Asylum before shows and in-between sets. It could easily be a college student’s windowless hangout space, complete with Ikea lamps and peeling pleather couches that have supported the bottoms of countless comedians. A bulletin board above a water cooler displays pictures of the cast, a Chinese takeout fortune—‘When you’re not afraid to get it wrong the first time, you’ll eventually get it right’—and a page torn out of a coloring book emblazoned with the words ‘Yes, and.’ A tiny plastic hand, purpose unknown, is perched above a wall of hanging wigs. There’s duct tape everywhere, securing mirrors to the wall and rugs to the floor. It’s not much to look at, but the sense of community here is palpable. In a dressing room lined with bright yellow lockers just off of the green room, Vicki picks out an outfit with the help of two female castmates before the first show begins. They pass shirts and dresses back and forth, laughing wildly and offering feedback like “I love the pockets, Vic,” and “Great boot choice.” On the fading couches, two male cast members share bites from a sandwich and discuss the possibility of getting a Keurig backstage. Vicki, in a long-sleeved flowered dress with black tights and suede boots, pokes her head out and asks if anyone would like tea.
The stage manager breezes through to give a five-minute warning, and then a two-minute warning. The cast members all stand in a circle with their hands held like fake phones, touching pinkies to thumbs of their neighbors. On the count of three they yell “AAAAASS SOUP, hello!” and answer the “phones.” It’s time to start the show.
The lights go up as Vicki, playing a frazzled fourth grade teacher named Miss Plow, approaches the microphone at a spelling bee. Her eyes are darting wildly around the room. “The kids made me do it. They put me up to this, I can hear them laughing at me,” she breathes shakily, too close to the microphone. “They’re horrible.” Wringing her hands, she pushes her hair back nervously. Her word: phantasmagorical. She swallows loudly. “Phantasmagorical. Fan, f-a-n, oh boy these kids are not a fan of me. Okay, tas, oh Taz is the coolest kid in class but he’s so mean. He told all of the kids I have cooties, I know it was him!” Learning from the judges that she exceeds the age limit for the spelling bee—and just how did she get in here anyway?—she runs from the stage in mock tears as the audience erupts in laughter.
It’s a grueling Saturday night for Main Stage cast members, beginning with the first show at 4pm and ending at 1am. The audience gets increasingly more incoherent as the night goes on, and the suggestions from the audience turn from “library!” to “porn!” People cheer for the wrong punch lines, and it’s hard to tell whether they realize that the message behind what they’re watching doesn’t exactly lean right. During a scene depicting a press conference about a shooter that is armed, dangerous, and also happens to be a baby, Vicki asks how a baby was able to buy a gun. “We have determined that the baby exercised his second amendment right and went through the proper channels to obtain a weapon” the spokesperson replies. Several people in the crowd cheer. The absurdity of how a baby can get access to a gun is clearly lost on them. “Guys, don’t cheer for guns” cast member Christine Cuddy says, breaking character. “That’s just weird.”
After a show, cast member Erin Berry laments, “Sometimes I feel like satire is a dying art form, because people are agreeing with the horrible things we’re saying.” She shrugs. “They don’t always get it.”
“That’s probably my least favorite part of the job” Vicki says, discussing the rowdy crowd. Getting used to chatty audience members or people who yell inappropriate things—“One time, on Valentine’s Day, someone yelled the ‘c-word’ at me. I’m just like why would you shout that? At me! Come on!”—is something that comes with experience, Vicki says. It’s certainly not something she was comfortable with during her early days of improv, but it gets easier with time. Still, it’s a difficult balance to strike. On one hand, you want the audience to have a good time and get comfortable giving suggestions when prompted, but on the other it’s still a performance. “Once in a while we’ll just get like a big group that’s out for the night celebrating something and they’re drinking, and, like, I want them to have fun and celebrate what they’re celebrating, but it’s tough when other people can’t hear the show because they’re talking” Vicki says. “But we can’t let it affect us like that. It’s never like ‘ugh I can’t do the rest of the show!” she says, laughing. “You just kind of get used to it.”
Throughout the night Vicki plays over-the-top and socially awkward characters like a Zumba teacher at a neighborhood watch meeting trying to recruit members for her class, a wildly dancing Macy’s perfume counter employee, and, of course, Miss Plow: the sweaty palmed fourth grade teacher at a spelling bee. “Maybe I’m an old soul,” she says, laughing. “It somehow became my go-to to play an old lady that’s, like, sad and filthy and just says crazy things.” There’s a lot of humility in Vicki’s performances, sister Melissa says. “She's self- effacing, but in a playful, joyful way so she maintains a really positive vibe about her even when she's making fun of herself.”
It’s this positivity that is so electric to watch, both on and offstage. Having a conversation with Vicki, it’s hard not to match her enthusiasm for everything she’s talking about. Even when discussing the next step in her career, which for many is fraught with stress and uncertainty, Vicki remains upbeat. Not that it’s always easy, however. “You have to be in a good head space [to do this work],” she says. “It’s easy to have days when you don’t feel funny, or you’re tired, but it’s like any job. You have to put on a face, so you do.” She is thinking of where she should move next and which training center would be the most beneficial for her career, but she’s reluctant to leave Boston, where both her biological and comedic families are. “It’s so fun performing with friends,” she says with a broad smile. “You’re lucky if you get to do that.”