From what I can tell, Sand has become, in some circles, an improv version of a "comedian's comedian." Tons of improvisors have described the team as one of the best in the city, but they have yet to reach the sort of ubiquity that other contenders like TJ & Dave or the recently-departed Cook County Social Club. Obviously, both of those teams have been around for years, with regular appearances at iO and countless fawning profiles showering them with (much deserved) praise, whereas Sand has been quietly becoming one of the sharpest teams in the city, as the house team at a weekly show every Monday at Quenchers and at other independently produced shows around town.
Tonight at midnight, Sand performs a special one-off show in the Del Close Theatre at iO. In anticipation of this very exciting show, I spoke with all three members of Sand, Thomas Kelly, Mike Brunlieb, and Scott Nelson, about the team's history and The Camera, their unique, documentary-influenced improv form.
The Steamroller: Sand has been playing together for several years at this point, how did you first start working together?
Mike Brunlieb: We met each other in classes at iO around 2007-2008. After we graduated, a handful of us wanted to keep getting together & experimenting, so late every Tuesday night, we'd sneak into a classroom at Second City and hold a sort of improvisation study group.
Scott Nelson: We started as a 9 person team called 'Fletcher' and we got together to compete in some improv tournament at iO years ago. Michael Pizza won and we got creamed in the second round.
Thomas Kelly: I had some classes with Mike but I didn't know Scott too well. We lost but we decided to keep working with each other. Eventually, the others left and we changed our name to Sand.
Mike: We had a couple of really transformative rehearsals without a coach, and that's when we really kinda figured out what we wanted to be doing.
Scott: We were four, us three and our wonderful friend Lynnae Duley. That's when we started getting weird and we had a crazy new kind of fun. Now it's just us boys and we're always havin' a ball!
TS: I've read a bit about the documentary style form you guys work within from various bios and writeups, can you talk a little bit about your approach to improv when performing as Sand?
Thomas: We played around a lot with forms and making up short form games. We were rehearsing a lot with Charlie McCrackin who's great and knows a lot about forms. We would workshop an idea in rehearsal and then try and perform it, if we had a show that week.
I watched a short documentary called "Lotology" about people who collect lottery tickets and all the characters were so wonderfully eccentric. I wondered if we could do that in an improv form. So we worked shopped it with Charlie and we really loved the form and just stuck with it.
Scott: The idea with the form was to see interesting people, not characters. As if it was a documentary instead of something fictional. So we wouldn't play the wacky doctor that makes cheese puns all over the place, we would be Alan the doctor who is bad with money and has a terrible teenage son. Perfect example. But honestly I think that's the angle we start with.
Thomas: Since it's basically a documentary, we are pretty down to earth for the most part or we don't take advantage of the magical impossibilities that come when your environment and your props are invisible. Also, since there's a camera, there is no fourth wall. The characters are aware that they are being watched.
Mike: While we don't do very many of the direct addresses to the audience within scenes any more, I think the spirit of it has definitely informed the kinds of things we do in the show.
Scott: Also, we like to be very violent and say nasty things.
TS: You run Spitballin', a weekly show at Quenchers that seems very free flowing in format and inclusive, what's the history behind that show?
Scott: One of Sand's best fans/pals, Joe Phillips, started the Monday Spitballin' show several years ago and he invited us to do it a few times, then we did it more and more and more, until he finally asked us to be the house team! It was a huge honor!
Mike: Joe's a great improviser and a great guy. We got to perform there a handful of times, and he liked us. I Think I'm Gonna Be Sick (Irene Marquette & Rebecca Krasny) was the amazing house team there, but had to step down when Rebecca had her baby. Joe incredibly kindly let Sand take over, and we've been playing there every Monday since.
Thomas: I don't know how Joe got the opportunity but he set the tone of a night where anything can happen and with little overhead so you can come experiment and maybe have a bad show and you can still come back to fail and/or succeed and/or try something weirder another night.
Scott: Joey Dundale took it over after Joe P. moved to Bronco country, renamed it Kill All Comedy West, added some fun new twists to the night, then he passed it on to us, and we went back to calling it Spitballin', like when Cleveland got a new football team and just called themselves the Browns again.
Thomas: The opportunity to perform is a gift and we're trying to make it fun night and safe place for people to try stuff out.
TS: Is this Friday's midnight show at iO the first time the team has appeared there?
Mike: It's the first time in a long time. We played there years ago opening for the Reckoning, and we got to do some shows with Computer a few years ago, too, which were fun.
Scott: We did Computer's form with them and they did our form with us.
TS: As an independent team, is there a validation felt when you're invited to perform at a venue like iO that mainly features shows from their own house teams & cast members?
Scott: The improv community has made us feel validated for a long time now. Our friends, improvisors or not, have been so so sweet to us over the past few years. They say wonderfully nice things to us. In my mind, they keep us going, not a dream of being an iO show or anything like that.
Thomas: It's very nice to be invited but I don't have any glamorous or vengeful ideas about it. It's a show and people seem excited about it so hopefully, we'll be good.
Scott: This is just another cool opportunity to do our thing at a different theatre. I'm really excited about it! iO is great and I love performing there. All three of us have had that experience.
TS: Over the years, what are some of the most memorable shows you've done as a team, either because of the shows themselves or the circumstances surrounding them?
Mike: Almost any show we do at the Gallery really feels special - in particular some of those early Sick Adventures were some of the best shows we did - all four of us getting to play for a full house that was so warm, and feeling like we did good stuff was just an incredible feeling.
Along those lines, the Jangleheart show, even though we missed Scotty, is one that I'll treasure.
Thomas: The Jangleheart circus show is the most recent one to come to mind. It was such a fun festival and I love the Upstairs Gallery so much. I'm glad we were able to have a great show. It was also the first time me and Mike had done our documentary form by ourselves. We had always done different things when it was just us two.
Scott: One of, if not the first show that just the three of us, me, Mike, and Tommy at the OLD studio 44 location. What I remember most was this gross, teenager that Mike was playing, and he was playing Magic: The Gathering. Boy oh boy did he go off. It made me cry. Like most of the stuff that guy does. But after that show, it was such a cool feeling. It was something I hadn't experienced up until that point doing improv.
Thomas: We had a pretty watershed show at Studio 44. I think we were paired with a reading of Mike Kelly's Gotham High and it was a packed house. It was sort of the debut of the documentary form too. We'd done it a couple of times before that but to small houses. It was the first time we really hit a home run in front of big crowd.
Scott: Other than that, I have a hard time remembering specific shows, but honestly, there's nothing better on the planet than performing with those two guys at Upstairs Gallery on a night when we have a lot of friends in the house. Those are always memorable, so I feel stupid for not remembering them specifically.
Also, I remember one show we did at Gingers Ale House like in 2008 that was the worst, least committed, unentertaining show probably ever done live on a stage. I remember doing a pushup on stage and thinking to myself that life, in general, was way too difficult.