Theatre 99 – Charleston’s Home for Improv Comedy
Story and Photos by Tonya McGue
At a recent packed show at Theatre 99, Brandy Sullivan was a small child, then a Walmart shopper and then a sultry girlfriend, all within 30 minutes. The laughter in the small theatre was contagious as Brandy and other company members improvised their way through two hours of non-stop improv comedy.
Improv performers have no costumes, no sets, no scripts, and no time to prepare. All they have is an empty stage, audience suggestions and each other. They must be spontaneous and witty, work well as a team and be able to change characters every few minutes. It’s brilliance, comedy and acting all mixed together.
Brandy, co-founder and?co-artistic director?at Theatre 99, has been making people laugh in Charleston for almost 25 years. After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a B.A. in Theatre and Speech,?it wasn’t long before she?started doing improv during Piccolo Spoleto with her college friend Greg Tavares and three other friends.?They called themselves The Have Nots! because?Greg had a difficult time finding a space to do shows during the festival?and felt like “a Have Not.”?They did 16 shows during the 1995 Piccolo Spoleto season and “we became hooked on improv,” Brandy said.?Nine?months later Timmy Finch joined the group and the three of them have been performing together ever since.
The Have Nots! performed in over?80?different spots in the Charleston area including bars, churches, schools, hotel ballrooms, movie theaters and every once-in-a-while in a real theatre.? They even took their show on the road, rented a van and toured 225 colleges in 26 states over a six-year period. They averaged 100 shows a school year, and during one busy season did 72 gigs in 67 days. “Those first years were fun, but also a little rough,” Brandy said.
After?four?years of college touring and stage-hopping in Charleston, they saved some money, and thought, “maybe we can find a home base and have the audience come to us,” Brandy said.
They rented a place on Cumberland Street?in 2000?and named it Theatre 99 because it had 99 seats. In 2005, they found their current location at 280 Meeting Street (above the Bicycle Shoppe). Even though they now have 130 seats, they kept the name. The Theatre 99 company has grown to over 45 active performers, and they?perform four shows a week.
The Have Nots! show is still produced once a month and is the longest running performance in Charleston. They have?performed during?Piccolo Spoleto since 1995 and started Piccolo Fringe in 2001. They also founded the Charleston Comedy Festival in 2004 and are now partnered with?The Charleston City?Paper?for the 4-day citywide festival each January.
“I love the Theatre 99 community,” Brandy said. “We have a lot of fun. It’s a very healthy place. Doing improv feels like part of who I am. I grew up around funny people – my parents, brother, cousins,?aunts and uncles?and even my grandmothers. We had a lot of laughs.”
She became captivated by comedy in middle school watching?Saturday Night Live. In high school, she performed in productions and gravitated toward the comedic side. “I loved Second City, Gilda Radner, Robin Williams and all those great comedians. It became my dream to be on?Saturday Night Live.”
When she switched her college major from political science to theatre, her family was supportive. Brandy said,?“They did have the feeling,?‘Isn’t that just a hobby?’?They are very happy that I have been able to use my degree.”
Brandy, a native of Columbia, met her husband, Sean, 21 years ago through mutual friends. He was a professional juggler at the time. He later owned a used book store for several years. Sean has also worked with Brandy at Theatre 99 for over 20 years. He is the funny MC who adds a lot of laughs to the show or as Brandy calls him, “the cute guy in the booth.”
Brandy and Greg, co-founders and artistic directors of Theatre 99, both turned 50 in June and are sharing their gift of comedy with younger generations and anyone else interested in improv. Theatre 99 offers several classes and a multi-level educational program.
“Brandy is a great teacher,” said Belvin Olasov, who recently completed her Level 1: Intro to Improv course. “She totally transforms on stage to very dramatic, extreme, animated characters. She uses a lot of different voices and huge mannerisms. She’s got improv down after decades of doing this and she seems happy to share her talent and knowledge.? She’s full of energy, kind and encouraging.”
Brandy said she sees her future as continuing to grow the business?and improv community. “I want to keep this going. Greg and I have an awesome partnership. I love improv and what we’re doing at Theatre 99. I meet so many great people. It’s like a family. I feel really lucky.”
Though Brandy hasn’t made it to?Saturday Night Live, she has brought the world of improv comedy to Charleston, and for that, we’re the lucky ones.
Go support this local treasure. The hundreds of 5-star online reviews say it best, “Go. Go. Go. Do not hesitate for one minute.” “It’s a fun night out in an intimate space and the drinks are totally affordable.” ?“Theatre 99 is certainly the place you go for a good laugh.” “Have not laughed this hard for a while.”
The cost is only $5 on Wednesday and Thursday and $12-16 on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are highly recommended. Seating is general admission (first come, first serve) so arrive early and be ready for a fun night.
Black and White Photo Credit: Adam Chandler