It turns out that being part of an improv comedy troupe isn’t so different from being in a band. “When you get the right group of people together, it just works,” says Kim Richardson. “I feel very much like that’s this group — everybody brings something to it that’s important.” A member of the Asheville-based collective Reasonably Priced Babies, Richardson was previously a singer-songwriter, so she speaks from experience. She also lends her musical talent to the group’s shows, making up Bluebird Cafe-worthy songs on the spot to hilarious effects.
“People keep coming up saying, ‘I am still singing that tampon song,’” troupe member Tom Chalmers points out.
“That was a big one,” Richardson says with a laugh. “I didn’t know ‘Tampon Song’ and ‘Applesauce’ would be my greatest hits.”
Reasonably Priced Babies return to Ambrose West on Friday, Jan. 17. The troupe also performs at Black Mountain Center for the Arts on Friday, Jan. 24.
The collective, which takes its name from a joke about an orphanage offering children at affordable rates, came together in 2011. Members Mondy Carter and Karen Stobbe approached Chalmers about a “Sunday drop-in improv jam kind of thing, and I was like, ‘ehhhh,’” Chalmers recalls. “But then they came back and said, ‘Magnetic [Theatre] would love to have a resident troupe.’ … I was like, ‘That’s different.’” Chalmers invited Josh Batenhorst to join, and the collective added musician Aaron Price while at The Magnetic Theatre’s original location. Richardson joined after the Babies had moved to the (now defunct) Altamont Theatre.
In fact, Chalmers jokes, “We do have a delightful history of performing at venues that ultimately close.” The back room at the former Lexington Avenue Brewery was among those spots. But Chalmers also points to each consecutive location as upward momentum in the comedy troupe’s tenure, eventually leading to its current monthly residency at Ambrose West as well as shows around the region and at benefits and other functions. (The Babies are also regularly voted No. 2 Best Comedy Group in Xpress’ annual Best of WNC readers poll.)
Shows are generally in short form — “Closer to the ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ format,” says Batenhorst.
“We go in with a written-in-pencil show order, just like a band would,” says Chalmers. “We have some standards. We always open with something called ‘Next,’ which is an intentional short-attention-span theater. We get one word from the audience and do a quick scene.”
Richardson adds, “There’s a lot of audience participation in our shows.”
The group ends, as many troupes do, with “Freeze Tag.” That structure, Chalmers explains, “is made up of short scenes [where] something funny hopefully happens, somebody else comes in, tags the person out, assumes the position but generates a new scene.” In between, The Babies perform “an assortment of structures we enjoy or maybe haven’t done in a while.”
Chalmers says each show is different depending on specific holidays, themes or ideas for highlighting the musical contributions of Richardson, Batenhorst (who also plays guitar) and Price.
Comedy troupes in New York or Chicago tend to have an accompanist, Chalmers notes, but in Asheville, Price sets the Babies apart. The musician has a background in local theater, performing in such shows as the 2011 N.C. Stage production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. His role with the comedy collective includes subtly upping the humor quotient with song snippets and sounds. “I’ve gotten to know my keyboard really well,” he says. “Where’s the bagpipes? Do I have Japanese Kabuki drums?”
Price’s playing also informs scenes in the moment. “In improvising, everything is information,” Richardson says. “Everything is input.”
And, in a way, improv serves as input to everything else in the lives of the Babies’ members. Notably, Carter and Stobbe — who moved to the area to care for Stobbe’s parents as they dealt with Alzheimer’s disease — applied the rules of improvisation to caregiving techniques. “Being with her father in the days leading to his death, Karen was struck by the surprising similarities between improvisational acting and caregiving for persons with dementia,” says the bio on Stoppe and Carter’s TEDMED talk on the subject. The couple “wrote and performed the show Sometimes You Gotta Laugh, an educational and entertaining take on Alzheimer’s disease, caregiving, humor and stress.”
For potential Babies showgoers who don’t necessarily know how they feel about the improv format, Chalmers insists, “It’s just funny. … Improv is how we get there, but I swear you’ll laugh a lot, you’ll have a good time.”
WHO: Reasonably Priced Babies
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m. $5 students/$10 general/$15 VIP
WHERE: Black Mountain Center for the Arts, 225 W. State St., Black Mountain, blackmountainarts.org
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. $12