When San Diego's National Comedy Theatre marked its 5,000th show last weekend, the celebration was pretty low-key: a small pre-performance reception, the unveiling of a proclamation from the mayor.
Of course, "I think every puppet show has a proclamation from the mayor," says NCT founder and artistic director Gary Kramer.
"But we're not every puppet show!"
It's true; in fact, the only people pulling strings at NCT's improv performances might be the members of the audience, who are an integral part of the company's ever-unpredictable mainstage show.
Kramer's company has been doing its freewheeling improv thing here for 18 years now, and the mainstage offering has long since become San Diego's most durable live show, passing the play "Triple Espresso" to set a new longevity record four years ago.
While NCT's 5,000th show may have been business as usual, Kramer says the milestone still meant a lot to the company.
"When we opened, we didn't think we'd last five weeks," he says, remembering how that initial lean period was financed by maxed-out credit cards.
National Comedy Theatre
When: Mainstage show: 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.(Additional programming Thursdays and Sundays.)
Where: 3717 India St., Midtown
Tickets: $18 (discounts available)
The theater NCT now occupies on India Street was at the time being used by the landlord for long-term storage, and had been shuttered for five years.
"It had its own ecosystem," Kramer recalls. "Imagine what happens inside a place after five years. It was a perfect, balanced system of the insects and the birds and the cats."
Kramer and Co. rehabbed the place, and the rest is history. Although more of it for some people than for others: Both Kramer and cast member Dave George have been with the company since opening night.
NCT rolls out several shows every week (including performances by a college team and a late-night "unrated" offering), but the Friday and Saturday mainstage shows are the marquee event.
"The connection to the audience is what it's all about," Kramer says of what powers those performances. "It' s not just a string of silly skits - that's when improv goes bad.
"There's really something profound about collectively finding a moment between the cast and the audience, and all laughing about it together."
5 lessons from 5,000 shows
National Comedy Theatre founder and artistic director Gary Kramer offers tips on improv survival. ("Five Things," by the way, is also the name of a popular improv game.)
- Surround yourself with talented people and nobody will figure out you don't know what you're doing.
- Keep one foot on the stage and one foot in the audience. (Says Kramer: "I stole that from Bruce Springsteen.")
- If you keep looking back at the idea of failure, you'll never see the success ahead of you.
- Letting the show evolve on its own has led to unexpected artistic discoveries.
- Get someone else to climb the ladder to fix the lights. (Kramer was seriously injured after falling from a ladder at the theater in 2015.)