Humor is medicine

The laughter and the magic of improvisation with TBD Improv.


I often hear people say that we could all use a little humor in our lives, especially in this day and age. But I disagree. I suspect we’ve always needed humor, no matter what day and age. I wonder if cave people performed standup, or wrote sketches on cave walls, or laughed when someone did a pratfall off the back of a wooly mammoth. I suspect they did. After all, life was hard then too. There was no indoor plumbing, Alexa, or hot fudge sundaes. Humor isn’t fluff, though. Cracking jokes, sending funny texts, or performing in a comedy troupe isn’t just about having fun at all costs. Humor has sustenance. It calls us out on our nonsense, knocks us off our soapboxes, and reminds us that although life is hard, there is still room for laughter. I’d even go so far as to say that humor is critical to our health and emotional well-being.

Recently, I was reading an article in the New York Times called “When Everything Is Heavy, a Touch of Humor Can Help,” and came across a sentence that struck me. “Levity is a mindset,” said Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who advises executives on leading with humor and humanity. “It’s looking for reasons to be delighted rather than disappointed in the world around you.”

Though sometimes finding delight is challenging, Bagdonas is on to something. We’re lucky on the Island. There are comedy shows happening at various venues, especially during tourist season, and we have the Island-based comedy troupe TBD Improv, whom I like to think of as community caretakers healing our wounds, dishing out medication, and soothing the fiery curmudgeon living inside us. TBD was born in the spring of 2023, and their name literally came from the subject line in the emails they wrote to one another before they were fully formed. TBD artistic director Sean Roach and his wife, TBD manager Heather Dyas-Fried, have diverse theater backgrounds, as do the six other seasoned Vineyard players: Shelagh Hackett, Katherine Reid, Elle Lash, Chris Roberts, Heather Beeman, and Travis Tack.

“The people we cast were handpicked,” Dyas-Fried said. “I think it’s so important to have experienced actors because they’ve got that natural stage presence. They understand things like articulation and projection, they know how to move onstage, like cheating out to be seen. Shelagh is our improv queen. She has been doing theater all over the Island for decades. Besides being a great actor, she directs and sings. And Katherine is our youngest member, giving her an extremely valuable perspective. Her positivity and energy is contagious.”

TBD’s ensemble is also somewhat unique in that they have three married couples among their professional cast. ”Sean and I moved here in 2017 from Philadelphia to care for my father, who had been living in Vineyard Haven year-round since 1985,” Dyas-Fried said. “He passed away in 2020, during the pandemic, and we decided to stay on the Island. Elle Lash and Chris Roberts moved here from New York City. Travis Tack and Heather Beeman moved here from New York City, and before that, Chicago. We all have connections to the Island, and the right chemistry. That chemistry helps us trust each other, which is important in improv.”

For those not in the know, Improv comedy is a type of performance in which actors have no script. Though improv is used in numerous ways (song, storytelling, training, spoken word, poetry, and comedy) in comedy, there are three common forms: Short-form, long-form, and narrative. Short-form consists of short scenes that are often created from a predetermined game, structure, or idea, and are sometimes driven by an audience suggestion. Long-form consists of performers creating shows in which short scenes are often woven together by story, characters, or themes throughout the performance. Narrative form is more like storytelling, where you have more time to develop characters and relationships that tell a story. In any of these forms, there is sometimes also a host who sets up the improv games for the audience, and helps move things along.

TBD performs short-form, and Roach is not only the artistic director, but also the host and a player in the cast. “Last January, Circuit Arts approached us about performing in their “Locals” show,” Roach said. The “Locals” show is a mini-festival that features music, theater, dance, and various performances by folks in the Vineyard community. “There were six acts. We went last each night because we were the most boisterous. We were very well-received. So many people said, ‘You have to keep doing this!’”

Roach earned a degree in fine arts at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and studied theater at Temple University. He has performed in theater and on television, and was the host and co-producer of two TV shows, “The Sunny Side Up Show” and “Noodle and Doodle,” which have aired on Sprout, NBC, and networks all over the world. Roach’s interest in improv began in 2006 when he became a member of CSz Philadelphia, an award winning improvisational comedy troupe.

Dyas-Fried is not only TBD’s manager, she’s also a talented improviser. She studied theater arts in college, and for more than 20 years, worked with Equalogy, inc., a touring theater-for-social-change company, working as an actor, activist, artistic director, casting director, and a founding member.

“In college and after, I worked on developing a few plays using improv. We would figure out the characters and come up with the outline, then start improvising to create scenes,” Dyas-Fried said. “Improv comedy is so fun and fresh every time. As a group we learn to trust our scene partners, as well as trust ourselves. I really look forward to meeting and rehearsing.”

Rehearsing improv? Indeed. “People think improv is just — go!” Roach said. “But you still need to understand the structure of an improv game. We get together each week to practice scene work, character development, word association, and more. We have to know the games very well.”

Yet even with regular rehearsals, improv is always new. Each show can differ based on a variety of factors, including audience participation. This is partly what makes improv so much fun for the players, but also for the audience members, who might come to a show one month, then return the following month and have a completely different experience.

An example of an improv game TBD players (and the audience) enjoy is “Pick a Line.” “I get suggestions for lines of dialogue from the audience. We write them on separate sheets of paper and then lay them on the stage floor. The players start a scene, and from time to time, pick up a piece of paper and immediately incorporate whatever they read aloud as a justified part of the scene,” Roach explained. “We love this game because it really shows the magic of improv. The players don’t know what the lines will be, because I send them out into our ‘soundproof lobby’ when I get them from the audience. It’s super-fun to watch the players find a way to make the line make sense in the moment, no matter how tangential it is.”

TBD performs in a few locations on the Island. Once a month they are either at the Grange or at the Barn Bowl and Bistro. “Our wonderful hosts, Brooke and Brian Ditchfield at Circuit Arts, and Mike Sawyer at the Barn Bowl and Bistro, have been eager to support TBD,” Dyas-Fried said.

“Both locations are great,” Roach added. “At the Grange our shows are a bit more family-friendly. Kids come to the shows sometimes, so we ask the audience to keep that in mind when they’re making suggestions. When we’re at the Barn Bowl and Bistro, it’s a bit more adult. There’s a bar, and people often have dinner, then watch the show.”

Roach said that they plan to perform once a month year-round. “We’d also love to hold improv workshops for anyone from the Island community who watches us perform and says, ‘I want to try that.’ We’ve also talked about doing long-form improv or sketch comedy. We have a lot of ideas.”

“I look forward to having TBD Improv grow and evolve with the community,” Dyas-Fried said. “And eventually add more diversity to our experienced performers. Improv is a healthy hobby. It’s a great exercise for the brain, keeping it sharp, flexible, and creative. And laughter is extremely beneficial to one’s health.”

“I love improv because it’s a form of meditation for me,” Roach added. “It requires me to be fully present, aware, and a great listener so I can support my partner. I think what the audience gets from watching improv, aside from having fun and laughing, is seeing people being really courageous on stage. That can be intoxicating and cathartic. Improv is inherently creative. It’s also funny, and we could all use a little of that.”

TBD has three shows coming up. On Friday, Jan. 12, they will be at the Grange, and on Jan. 19 and Feb. 16, they will perform at the Barn Bowl and Bistro. All performances begin at 7 pm. The cost for shows at the Grange is pay-what-you-can, and at the Barn Bowl and Bistro, tickets are $15. To learn more about TBD, the cast, and show listings, visit their website at