Byline: Mandy Ellis
A love of performance and problem-solving the nuts and bolts of a theater business make it clear why Carrie Gergely signed on with The Groundlings Theater and School. Now interim managing director after 10 years of helping run the show, she’s deciphering the (sometimes all blue sky) puzzle pieces with her analytical mind from budgeting and blocking to organizing and ironing out show complications. Across the decade, she’s helped the school award hundreds of scholarships, launch a diversity festival with unparalleled panels, classes, and shows, and provide a stage for unique performers to share their one-of-a-kind stories.
EMINUTES, who recently provided a sponsorship to The Groundlings, talked with Gergely about what’s changed in 10 years at The Groundlings, why growing diversity in the improv and sketch comedy space matters, how character work helps tell diverse stories, and how their partnerships with high-level brands made a difference for underrepresented performers.
Over your last decade working at The Groundlings, what transformations have happened, and what’s made you stay for over 10 years?
Our school has exploded in a good way, and we’ve been able to expand programming and are almost triple the size of when I first started. We’ve added a new level to our core track called advanced improv to get nuanced with character work before people get to the performance track, which is the writing lab and advanced lab that leads to the Sunday Company.
We’ve also got our diversity program, which started back in 2015-2016 and came from a need for more diversity. We wanted to look like Los Angeles and the nation so we began scholarship programs and offered them to students of a variety of backgrounds. This year we also started a sponsorship with Saturday Night Live, which is really exciting, and we’ve seen a lot of change in our student body and in our Main Company.
Why is it vital to grow the amount of diversity in the performance sphere? How does including a wider range of races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and physical abilities change the improv landscape?
There’s so many unique voices and different perspectives, and here, you want something new, fresh, and interesting all the time. And in one of the most diverse countries in the world, it’s vital we have voices from everywhere. It helps people not only laugh and have a good time, but connect with each other and understand different cultures, races, and perspectives. It also introduces some people to the idea of, for example, gender identity. Many of our students have never been asked to share their pronoun or talk about gender identity in an open, positive way. It’s impacted our students in a better way and helped normalize it, which is important to keep people with different gender identities safe and accepted.
You’ve mentioned that the world has diverse stories that need to be told. How does The Groundlings help tell these stories through comedy?
I think that comes from character work. When our students are in an improv, it’s a little harder; people are on the fly so they’re drawing from anywhere that’s comfortable and part of their identity. But when they get to character work, they can really flesh it out and develop a character in more detail. That’s where we get a lot more of the fine-tuned comedy from different perspectives.
The Groundlings has given out over 600 Diversity Scholarships and awarded $190,000 in scholarship credit. How else is The Groundlings committed to change and social accountability?
We have workshops specific to our diversity students and offer free workshops annually plus talk-backs after shows with diverse cast members and directors. During the talk-backs, they can discuss things they’ve faced and how they handled the show, and it’s a great way of engaging. We’ll also invite diversity scholarship recipients and students to shows.
How did The Groundlings’ Diversity Festival begin? What’s been your favorite thing that’s come from its classes, panels, and shows?
I believe our diverse alums, including Phil LaMarr made suggestions about the diversity festival as we created the diversity program. This year we really made an effort to get as much diversity as possible. We had a panel about physical disability, one on racial diversity, several on gender and women in comedy, and black women in comedy, some of whom were trailblazers in many ways. We had a great panel with a show, called The Black Version. Jordan Black is a Main Company alum, and not only discussed the show, but did a mini show within the panel.
I love that the diversity festival is a mix of so many things in a day; we have a whole range of panels, shows, and classes. This year, we had a three-day event online and expanded programming. You can start your day taking a cool class, then normally go out to our parking lot, which is turned into a cool lounge with food trucks. Then, see a show and after the show, you can see the panel. It’s like a little mini conference; it’s awesome.
Why is it important to support programs like The Groundlings’ diversity and inclusion initiatives?
Equity is such an issue nationally and it’s an issue around the world, and everyone should be making an effort to improve equity and inclusion. There are so many unique stories and amazing performers that should have the opportunity to shine. It’s our responsibility to try and find as many wonderful voices as we can so that we have a better representation of the human race.
How does the EMINUTES sponsorship impact The Groundlings? Any upcoming plans for the sponsorship?
The sponsorship is helping fund our scholarships so $3,000 funds about eight or nine students for a full class; that’s a big impact for us and every little bit helps. And those eight or so students are over the moon. That’s eight more students we can award a scholarship to, and usually each quarter we award 20 to 25 total scholarships. With this new SNL scholarship, we got over 200 applications where we usually average around 125 to 150. And they’re amazing applications from interesting, unique people with a lot of talent so being able to award more of funds is really exciting.
How does The Groundlings’ connections to Saturday Night Live, NBCUniversal, Nickelodeon, and other high-level organizations make a difference for underrepresented performers?
Those partnerships help give us more opportunity to give to our students through sponsorships and support. They help us get panel members for the diversity festival and often send scouts so performers can be seen that aren’t usually if they weren’t already in this program. And they’re essential to launch people to the next level.
What’s been the most striking moment from your time at The Groundlings? Any stories that have stuck with you?
There’s certainly a passion for this place that we see at every level of our school. The student that comes to mind is one who never made it past Basic, but he loves this place. He watches shows and has taken Basic many times, but he loves it so much that he’s returned for years now. That’s an inspiring story to me; I love that he loves it so much that he comes back and even takes workshops in between. He loves the art and the student body is very supportive and embracing so it’s wonderful to see them get engaged.
When you’re not managing one of the premier comedy programs in the country, who are you and what are you doing?
I’m a mom with two kids at home. Outside of that, I have a big passion for literacy and am a founding and board member for a nonprofit called The Book Truck. It’s a wonderful organization that provides curated books to underserved teens who’ve never had books or the opportunity to buy something. I ran a bookstore for a while and was the coordinator of the West Hollywood Book Fair so I have a lot of fun doing that and it’s rewarding.
What show, class, or program are you most proud of?
Most recently, The Groundlings Holiday Show. This is the first time we’ve ever done a sketch show on Zoom, they’ve had less lead time than usual, and been doing everything virtually. We’ve been figuring out tech in a totally new way and everything jelled. I saw the dress rehearsal last night and I was so proud. It’s funny, it’s festive, it’s zany, and hilarious, and there’s cool elements that we just can’t have in a regular show.
There’s a great little commercial, scene changes, and technical things that make the show a little bit more interesting. We figured out how to have singing because that’s always hard on Zoom, having six people sing at once, and different ways of incorporating music. I was so thrilled and proud and happy for the cast and the director and everyone who worked on the show. Everyone put a lot of effort into creating something that is so out of the norm for us and doing it so well.
What should we be looking for from The Groundlings in the next few years with all your amazing Company members, performances, and programs?
Most certainly our reopening; that will be an exciting one. We adapted all of our classes online and never had that bandwidth before, and we’ll probably keep that permanently. People have been able to tune in from all over the country, which is not something they could do before. They literally had to get on a plane and rent a hotel or an apartment, and come here or move here.
We’ve had staff and students in Australia and China, and it’s been amazing to see such a unique expansion of our classes. It’s also great for people who need a different kind of accessibility. Sometimes going out physically to a building is hard so now they can stay comfortable and tune in where it works well for them. It gives us a lot of flexibility with our classes that we’re excited about that.
What advice would you give to aspiring improv and sketch comedy performers from all backgrounds?
Try everything; audition for things it’s free, try classes. And outside of our program, try as much as you can. Improv is a wonderful foundation for performers, and it gives you tools to be prepared for anything. If you’re live on Broadway and you have improv skills and something goes wrong, it gives you the ability to get through that scene. There are also many movies with sketch and improv performers with hilarious bits that are added to the movie that enrich the story because it came from something improvised.
And it gives you life skills, makes you more confident, and it’s easier to speak publicly. Even though I performed, public speaking as myself is very nerve-wracking. But going through improv training a long time ago, helped give me the tools to barrel through.
I also want to say we want to hear your voice; we want to hear all the voices and all those stories. We want to see those crazy characters that are out there based on your mom or your uncle or your best friend, and we want to see more of that and share those stories.
BIO: Carrie Gergely is the interim managing director at The Groundlings Theatre and School, an improvisation and sketch comedy nonprofit that’s been based in Los Angeles for almost 50 years. She’s also a founding and current board member of The Book Truck.