Theater company gets ‘personal’ with audience

A local company creates improv skits based on the audience’s personal lives.

Tongue & Groove, a Philadelphia-based unscripted theater company, always asks the audience to give “something personal.”

“It’s a chance for people to anonymously share something they would never share out loud,” said Carrie Spaulding, an actress and founding member of the company.

Like most improv theaters, Tongue & Groove creates the content based on suggestions from the audience. But Tongue & Groove does things a little differently.

Most improvisation theaters perform short-form, which includes multiple scenes that are disconnected from one another. At Tongue & Groove the improvised scenes become interconnected as the evening progresses, creating long-form performances.

On Friday, the company performed a new show, “ART,” in which the performers asked the audience to come up with “a title for a work of art that depicts a true and important moment in their lives,” said Noah Herman, a first year graduate student in the MFA directing program and actor for the company.

Bobbi Block, founder of the group and professor in the theater department at Temple, has training in different kinds of improvisation. Block formed the company because she “wanted to take the bests of those improv worlds and put them together with acting training,” she said.

“Each performance has a theme, and we call those themes ‘formats,’” Herman said. “All the formats consist of a question asked to the audience.”

As opposed to the typical “shout out a word” asked to the audience at normal improv shows, Tongue & Groove actors take more direction from the audience.

“One thing that is interesting in particular about ‘ART’ is that we’re thinking about a visual,” Spaulding said. “We can be inspired by all kinds of things, but in ‘ART,’ we’re thinking about what could be inspired by a frozen moment in time.”

Block wanted to create “authentic relationships on stage” that just “happened to be improvised.”

“We’re definitely funny, but we’re poignant and real,” Block said. “There’s nothing wacky, or out of the realm of reality.”

The titles of the sketches inspire the part of the show where performers do something called “scene painting.”

“We take the title and describe what a painting or work of art would look like,” Block said.

The performers do something called an “emotional check-in” as part of their warm up, to find out what’s going on in each actor’s life.

“When we go on stage, we’re connected on an emotional level that actors don’t always have,” Herman said. “Often times, we use things that come up in our check-in for inspiration for our shows.”

Block said the performers are physical with each other, and comfortable with kissing, pushing and other actions.

“We can do all different types of relationships,” Block said. “We reflect everybody in the audience.”

“Our approach is to improv what you know,” she added.

The group performs the second Friday of every month at the Playground at the Adrienne Theatre and on the first Monday of every month at the Drake.

Tongue & Groove’s biggest show is “Secrets of the Heart: Lusted, Busted and Trusted,” where the audience writes a secret anonymously on index cards and submits it to the performers.

“I remember one time I was at an art fair at Penn’s Landing, and one of the artists asked me if I was in Tongue & Groove,” Spaulding said. “She said, ‘You guys used my secret,’ and years later, both of us remembered that shared experience.”

“Tongue & Groove is emotionally honest,” Herman said. “We can be serious or comical.”

“It’s exciting to know that the work has touched an audience member,” Spaulding added. “And helped them feel as though they were part of making something.”

Tsipora Hacker can be reached at

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