Theatre 99 has faced a lot of challenges since its founding in 2000, but the comedians behind that enterprise were as surprised as anyone else by how quickly a spreading virus could disrupt what had been a thriving performing arts scene.

Piccolo Spoleto mainstays from way back, you won’t find the LOL-funny Theatre 99 crew on this year’s all-outdoor festival. Nonetheless, we know we’ll be back in those T99 seats soon, so  we recently caught up with co-founder Greg Tavares to discuss the art of improv, his long, laugh-fueled journey and the recent shifts that were necessary for the survival of the comedy shop.

City Paper: How did your background and education prepare you for improv?

Greg Tavares: I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in acting from the University of South Carolina and an Master’s of Fine Arts in directing from the University of Nebraska. I did my first improv show when I was 15 years old and never stopped. I have performed all over the country and taught at improv festivals all over. I even wrote a book called, Improv for Everyone.

CP: Who or what were some of your early influences?

GT: I still watch YouTube videos of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

CP: Has being based in Charleston informed your approach to creating comedy at all?

GT: I love the performing-arts scene here and I would love to see even more collaboration among groups. I think our style of improv comedy is unique. When other improv groups come here they talk about a Charleston style of improv. It makes sense to me because Charleston has such a distinctive style, why wouldn’t our improv have one as well?

CP: Tell us how Theatre 99 came together and who your collaborators are in this endeavor?

GT: Brandy Sullivan, Timmy Finch and I were in an improv group called The Have Nots! We used to tour all over doing our show but we thought it would be great to have a local venue. We rented an old coal warehouse on Cumberland Street, which served as our first version of Theatre 99. When we opened, people started coming out of the woodwork who wanted to try improv. Over the years we have met and worked with tons of super-funny local actors. Now we have a company of actors that perform year-round on stage at Theatre 99 [now located at 280 Meeting Street].

CP: How would you describe your overall aesthetic?

GT: Big characters doing funny things and, every once in a while, grounded realistic scenes to prove we are still actors.

CP: Is there a particular aspect of your work that you are especially proud of?

GT: I am very proud of being the educational director of Theatre 99. Teaching adults to remember how to play is very important to me. Play is important for mental health.

CP: It’s been a lot harder to play during the pandemic. What sort of changes did the COVID-19 outbreak bring about?

GT: It has ruined the performing arts sector and Theatre 99 has lost so much money. We are still in survival mode [actively seeking donations for the first time] and will be for another year. Lots of improv groups did “Zoomprov,” but we did not. We waited until we felt comfortable doing our show on stage and we just streamed it. It was just like we would have done if we had an audience, we just had an empty theater. I also recorded an audiobook of my solo show during COVID called, I am the Horrible Thing. It’s about the time when I almost died in the ocean while on vacation.

CP: What is your plan for moving forward?

GT: We are finally back to doing live shows again three days a week, every week. “Improv Strikes Back” is kind of a placeholder name for our we-are-still-here-and-still-kicking show. It is the same format that we have gotten known for in town. The first act is short-form games where the audience gets to decide most of the details that we use in the scenes. In the second act, we cut loose and do long-form improv based on an audience suggestion. We go for about an hour in the first act and about 30 minutes in the second act. Because we have a smaller capacity [approximately 45 people], shows tend to sell out. We also have adult classes and kids’ classes, plus we are teaching corporate workshops and we are doing private shows. We are so open for business you can’t believe it. Tell the world Theatre 99 is open! 

Note: Theatre 99 is not on the Piccolo Spoleto schedule as of publication, but stay tuned to the Charleston City Paper for news on performances during this year’s festival.

Check out the Charleston City Paper Piccolo Spoleto 2021 Guide to learn more about the event schedule.