Durham’s creative collective Mettlesome specializes in improv comedy, but they’re certainly no joke.
In three years, Mettlesome has evolved from a small group of comedians performing in the garage of founding stakeholders Ashley Melzer and Jack Reitz to a full-fledged company producing a myriad of local comedy shows. Currently run by six stakeholders — all accomplished improv performers themselves — Mettlesome was born out of frustration with the lack of autonomy within the local improv scene.
“Six years ago, the way it worked was you would sign up at a theatre and then you would just do whatever they told you to do,” Reitz said. “You were either affiliated with a theatre or you didn’t exist. That model still exists right now, but we [at Mettlesome] are really trying to reward people who want to make cool shit.”
Living up to the spirit of their name, Mettlesome’s calendar is brimming with their various endeavors, from regular improv comedy classes to a weekly live show based on secrets submitted by audience members. Much of the group’s programming involves a form of collaboration with other creatives, best exemplified by their biweekly project Golden Age. According to Reitz, the performance is “part talk show, part art exhibition, part comedy show” and features a new local maker each time.
“Comedians interview [the artists] about who they are and what brought them to their work, and then there’s a comedy show based on that,” Reitz said. “I love the way that Golden Age is a show where art inspires other art. It’s a great way of reaching out to other artistic communities.”
Reitz’s journey in improv began in high school, parlaying into a stint performing with UNC’s improv and sketch comedy group CHiPs and eventually a professional career in the industry. A native of Chapel Hill, he returned to the area after several years spent studying theatre and comedy in New York City.
“In New York, I learned to respect [improv] as an art form that is both fun and also really challenging. The improv that we teach at Mettlesome is specifically focused on the art of improv comedy, and not just the art of improv,” Reitz said. “The work that we do and rehearsals that we run are drilling our performers to be better comedians. Though we’re improvising, we try to be smart and deliberate about the comedy that we make.”
The fundamentals of improv comedy that Mettlesome teaches transcend pure silliness — the group regularly facilitates professional workshops for corporate clients, emphasizing principles of team building and communication.
“It’s very easy to think comedians just get on stage and act goofy … but it’s not just that,” said Hillary Yonce, one of Mettlesome’s stakeholders. “When we do those workshops … you see this ‘a-ha’ moment where people are like ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this is something that could be helpful to my life.”
Yonce, also a professional hydrologist, touts her 12 years of improv experience on her academic resume. After finding her way into improv during college as a member of CHiPs, she encountered a local comedy community rich with multi-faceted performers. Fellow members of CHiPs, she recalled, included statistics and music majors. Yonce herself earned a degree in environmental science.
“Of course I wish I could be doing comedy full-time … but I also love my job as a scientist. I think the fact that everybody [in the Triangle] is wearing multiple hats is what makes it so interesting,” Yonce said. “Everyone here is so smart … that when you bring them into a room, you’re just going to get such explosive energy.”
Alongside her husband Tristan, Yonce produces and performs in the project Vaudeville Varieties, the latest iteration of which will take place this weekend from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. The project, a “hodgepodge of music, comedy, clowning and ‘feats of amazement,’” was created to showcase the varied talents of the couples’ friends and creatives in the community.
“I think if you ask the average Joe outside of [the state], ‘Does North Carolina have a good improv comedy scene?’, they probably would be like ‘I have no idea,’” Yonce said. “But the answer is yes … we have some really amazing talent here.”
Belief in the Triangle’s creative, independent spirit drove the inception of Mettlesome and continues to drive it today. According to Reitz, the level of talent in the area rivals that in bigger creative communities like New York and Los Angeles.
“There wasn’t a doubt that there was a capacity for independent comedy [here] — I think it just took a couple of talented folks to start doing something,” Reitz said. “In New York, nobody’s going to give you stage time, so you have to make it yourself. I took that lesson with me when I moved back to Durham. That’s a lot of what Mettlesome is about — if you have something that you want to make, Mettlesome’s goal is to help you make that thing. We want to help you take your vision and make it into a reality.”
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