It's not easy to do improv theater if you're not allowed to share a theater space with an audience.
Luckily for comedians and actors Alex Nichols, Bonnie Gager and Chris Gropp, they were busy working on a new improvisation podcast, The Gunkhole State Park Podcast, before the city shut down. The show chronicles conversations between a handful of employees at Colorado's most underwhelming fictional state park, who are trying to save the park's reputation — and failing mightily.
The actors, all tied to Voodoo Comedy, take on a variety of characters and banter about their dramas, issues and obsessions. They started recording the podcast in the pre-pandemic world, and have continued to do so over Zoom. Like many performers, they've been struggling to figure out how to make their creative work relevant to a quarantined population, and hope to do their part to make sheltering in place a little more tolerable.
Westword caught up with Nichols to discuss the new project.
Westword: Comedy clubs are shut down. How are you all navigating the closures?
Alex Nichols: Voodoo has done a great job of quickly putting up a whole schedule of virtual shows, which gives us improvisers an excellent outlet for the attention we desperately crave. As a father of two who worked from home even before it became vital to public health, the theater was also one of my main sources of social interaction with adults I'm not married to, so I've been doing a lot of Zoom calls with improv friends from my Chicago days.
We started recording this podcast before the virus, but now we're recording over Zoom. Once you get used to the weird, slightly-off rhythm of it all, you almost forget that you're not actually in the same room together. It's hard to replicate the energy of being on stage in front of a live audience, of course, but right now, it's either this or playing Zip Zap Zop alone in the mirror.
Talk about the premise for Gunkhole State Park.
It's an improvised podcast about three park rangers who work at what has been voted the "least majestic" park in Colorado. My character, Ranger Alex, starts the podcast in an effort to raise the park's profile and get some good PR out there, but things quickly spiral out of control. Don't want to spoil too much, but let's just say there are demons involved.
Where did this idea come from?
It started with me just wanting to do something fun. I listen to this hilarious Earwolf podcast called The Teacher's Lounge, and the best thing about it is how much fun the performers are having. Also, they mostly play the same characters every episode, and I liked the idea of getting to explore and deepen one character, which you don't often get to do in improv.
So one day I was driving and trying to think of a basic premise that would be fun to explore as a single character. And then I looked up from the notepad on my steering wheel and saw the mountains and thought, "Hey, I live in Colorado. Maybe it should be a Colorado thing?" And then I thought, "Parks are a Colorado thing. Maybe it should be park rangers...." And the rest is history.
What's inspiring these characters?
Some of it comes from our real selves. We went to the Tony Danza School of Character Naming, so our characters have the same names as us. I lived in Chicago before moving here, so my character is from Chicago. In one episode, Chris lists his top five real-life concussions. Bonnie may or may not be a bird. But for the most part, it's just good, old-fashioned "yes and"-ing. We give each other little backstory details to play with, and then just go wild.
Tell me about the team from Voodoo that put it together.
The three of us are on a short-form team called Laugh Track. I was a long-form improv snob for a long time, but then last year Lizz Mathews invited me to join a new short-form team, and we did some shows, and I was like, "Oh, right, this is fun!" I mean, it's not high art like long form, but it's fun! Anyway, after a few months, I had the idea for the podcast and thought Chris and Bonnie would be great co-hosts. So I asked them if they'd like to make the podcast, and they were like, "Sure!" and I was like "Great!" And the rest is history.
Episodes come out every Monday on Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple, Stitcher and a few other places. The first season is six episodes, and then we'll probably take a short break before putting out season two. Unless, of course, popular demand for more episodes is just so overwhelming that we feel compelled to keep going nonstop!
Anything else you want readers to know?
It has been several weeks since we've heard the laughter of a comedy crowd, and as a result, our validation reserves are running dangerously low. So if you listen to the podcast and like it, please consider leaving a comment on the Facebook page or a review on Apple Podcasts. It can literally just say, "Ha ha ha." We just... we need laughs. Please.
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