Spearheaded by Grafenberg Productions, Camp Atlas is a weekly comedy show at the Atlas Theatre that follows the lives of the fictional camp's counselors and campers as they navigate their hilarious way through "wacky shenanigans." The cast features local improvisers Peter Nesbitt, Rachel Walker, JuLee Simmons, Dexter Schiller, Trista Charnas, Castle Searcy, Todd Resley, Benny Kaplan and Emily Coates. Before the next installment on August 13, Westword caught up with Coates to discuss the show, how the Denver improv scene is growing, and whether or not summer camp is inherently funny.
Westword: For uninitiated reader, what is the format of Camp Atlas? How have the shows gone so far?
Emily Coates: Camp Atlas is an improv show first and foremost, which means that it's totally made up on the spot. We have a cast of nine (that includes JuLee Simmons, Rachel Walker, Dexter Schiller, Peter Nesbitt, Trista Charnas, Castle Searcy, Todd Resley, Benny Kaplan, and myself), and we each have two characters that we play: a camper and a counselor. The campers and counselors all live at a fictional summer camp called Camp Atlas. We play either of our characters — or sometimes both! — week to week. None of the dialogue or situations or plot are preplanned. We get a suggestion from the audience at the start of the show and just go. The shows have been going very well. We explore new, silly situations every week and it's always fresh. That's one of the best things about improv!
Between your show and Wet Hot American Summer, what do you think makes summer camps so rife for comedy?
I don't know that summer camp itself is a funny thing. I remember being at summer camp growing up and I never found it particularly funny at the time. However, now it's fun to look back and I see the potential for comedy everywhere in it because of the weird power structure. We talk a lot about status in improv — high status, low status — and everyone's status is all out of whack at a summer camp. You can have teenagers who are way more powerful and popular than a camp director. And the counselors are "supposed" to be in charge, but so often they're still kids themselves! You add in elements like hormones, the woods and dramatic personalities, and you've got comedy gold.
Who came up with the idea for the fictional summer camp setting?
I went to summer camp a bunch growing up and I love movies like Heavyweights and Wet Hot American Summer. They just make life brighter. Heavyweights, especially, is one of my favorites and near and dear to my heart. I thought it would be fun to use the summer camp setting, but in an improv show, and especially an improv show that's running during the summer months.
How did you get involved with Grafenberg Productions?
I started doing improv almost four years ago and met Justin Franzen (Grafenberg Productions founder and director) shortly after that. He started Grafenberg in 2013 and had been teaching improv for a very long time, but not through Grafenberg. I watched him grow that improv training program from nothing and it just keeps getting better and better. Last September, I was finally in a place where I could commit to taking Grafenberg classes every Sunday for almost one year, and so I did! One of the best decisions I've ever made — which I knew it would be. Great education and great people, and it's affordable as far as acting and improv classes go.
Brien Excell Hollowell
What's your take on the Denver Improv comedy scene? Do you think improvisers have less local visibility than our standup comics?
Our improv community is amazing and growing very rapidly. I think we'll catch up visibility-wise to the standup community here pretty soon. We have several improv training centers now, and our improvisers are doing great work. I've seen some improv elsewhere, and I really do think that Denver improv is just as great, if not better, on any given night. Plus, we're a super-supportive community. Everyone here is kind. That fosters a fantastic creative environment to grow and improve in. We're only going to get better and better. And you can see an improv show pretty much any night of the week now in Denver, at various venues. That's outstanding.
As someone who performs standup as well, do you find the crossover between forms helpful? Like, does doing improv make you a better standup and vice versa?
Improv makes me a better person and it definitely makes me a better stand-up. Similarly, stand-up helps me with improv. I couldn't do stand-up without improv, that's for sure. I love the support that I have in improv, and improv has taught me almost everything I know about comedy: the timing, what's important to convey to an audience, delivery, character choices, all of it. And stand-up helps so much with practicing the "saying more with less" concept. I try to choose my words very carefully in both art forms and try to make sure those words have weight.
You generally have a lot of irons in the fire between performing and producing. What other projects do you have in the works?
For now, my focus is on keeping up with improv and stand-up. Performing regularly is very important to me and I feel rusty if I take even a day off — especially in improv. It's so easy to lose your skills. So live performance is critical for me. Other than that, I'm writing, and I want to get back into shooting my own work (like video). It's just very difficult. Apart from improv, I think that filmmaking, or video work, is the ultimate team sport, which makes it a tremendous challenge. Unless I'm shooting images by myself out on a street — and I don't think anyone would want to watch that footage — you need to assemble a team, and it's a big ask to get so many people together. But I hope to do more of it soon because I love it. I've also been busy prepping for the Denver Improv Festival and I'm so excited for this year. It's gonna be so much fun!! It'll be November 6 through November 7.
Anything else you want to mention, or people you want to thank before we wrap up?
I would like to thank Justin Franzen for founding Grafenberg Productions, and for working so hard to make improv great in Denver. I would like to thank the cast of Camp Atlas for being so supportive and smart and talented. And lastly, I would like to thank our improv and standup communities for making the world brighter and funnier. Everyone rocks!!
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.