Third World Improv Fosters the Feel-Good

by Gabriela Escareal (Published on 18 Jan 2021)

A Podcaster, Designer, and CEO walk into a Poblacion bar… and the night ends with a standing ovation. Respectively, Aryn Cristobal, Monica Cordero-Cruz, and Gabe Mercado don hats from different fields, though they share the trademark of esteemed talent and professionalism as founding members of Third World Improv, the first improv school in the Philippines. They are part of a dozen TWI instructors—called FaculTWI—who have collectively performed more than 750 shows worldwide, from Hong Kong to Amsterdam, New York to Bogota. They are also the group behind SPIT, the longest running performing improv group in the country with 18 years to their name. 

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Photo by Aih Mendoza

They constantly learn what it means to let go and let live, both on and off the stage, and Laughing Matters is eager to take some notes. We sit with Aryn, Monica, and Gabe for memorable stories, improv basics, and ideas for a gentle sort of world domination. 

Responses were edited for length and clarity. 

Laughing Matters:  What is life outside Third World Improv (TWI)? 

Aryn: I’m thirty-four. I’m a podcaster on Philippine comedy, so I actually interview a bunch of people in different aspects of comedy. I also do hosting and I sing. 

Monica: I’m thirty-nine [gasps]. Oh, kadiri. So, I’m thirty-nine. Actually, days ago. And I am [an interior] designer by profession and by education. 

Gabe: I guess you could say I’m a retired film and movie actor. And retired band singer.

Sell yourself as a comedian.

Aryn: I only started calling myself a comedian very recently. For many years, I’ve been calling myself an improviser and an actress, but I did notice that most of the things that I would do with the acting, the singing, the coming up with a rap on the spot, would make people laugh. 

So I decided to accept and own the fact that I am a comedian, but I am not very good at making jokes. So it’s a different kind of comedy, I would say, it’s not coming up with punchlines. It’s just being in the moment and having people laugh in the moment. 

Monica: I’ve always believed and looked at life as one big comedy. It may not always be funny, but it is what it is. And what I do in TWI and SPIT helps me to find the comedy in everyday things, in the mundane, in design, in motherhood, in dying plants, and everything. It has helped me by being super duper active in all the activities that we do within our community. 

Additionally: because life is the comedy, because life has no script, we improvise everyday. I got this from a book called Truth in Comedy. So, improvise everyday. Why? Because you’re never ready, which means you always are. 

Gabe: I prefer the word “humorist” rather than “comedian.” Humorist is finding the funny, and more importantly, finding the fun, because not all funny is fun. I’ve been a writer, comedic band singer, but I’ve loved improv the most. I’ve been doing it for twenty years. It has allowed me to meet wonderful people and life-long friends. And even if it’s “fun fun lang”, according to some people, we take it quite seriously. 

I’m the only Filipino under Paul Sills’ Pillars of Improvisation. I’m the only Filipino to have performed with Colin Mochrie. Although we keep it fun, funny, light, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we do put a lot of effort and a lot of craft into it, and that’s what makes it look effortless and easy.

And that allows us to build a community like this. TWI shares the principles, the lessons, the fun of improv to make good performers but, more importantly: to help people become great people who are self-aware, who are fun, and who look at being funny as not just a cool thing to have, but as a way to improve themselves, others, and their community.

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Photo courtesy of Third World Improv

Now, sell the group.

Aryn: TWI is a learning institution and a community. You can’t separate both of them; It’s a place where people can discover that they can be funny without trying and they can learn skills to make themselves better people. Better people with socializing, with speaking in front of a large group, with more confidence. 

Monica: My mantra for TWI, especially in this pandemic, is developing people one screen at a time. Nag-crossover na siya [with the first pitch]. 

What inspired the formation of the group?

Gabe: I’ve always been fascinated with improv, especially with the show Whose Line Is it Anyway?. Growing up, that show has been on the air in different incarnations for decades. Always fascinated, always amazed at what they could do. Then I got into reading books about it. Notably, Truth in Comedy. And then it was my weird idea to go on Improv Intensive in the US, because… while improv was being done in workshops here as a workshop tool for acting, it wasn’t really seen as a performance art, per se. 

You know, there would be groups that would try in the early 60s, 70s, 80s… Some groups would try to perform in 90s. Pero hindi talaga siya legitimate, it was just experiments. So, I really wanted to make a push for performance improv. So I took an Improv Intensive in the US with Paul Sills, one of the founders of Second City Chicago. Then when I came back a few months later, I started getting a group around me who wanted to play an experiment. And that started weekly, jams in my house. The fact that it just keeps going on, I think, attests to the fun and the value that people see. 

Aryn: I remember we would be in talks about giving workshops a lot. We weren’t sure if there was a market for it because we were the only ones who seemed to enjoy it and we noticed that.

Before the show, we always used to have to explain what improv was. Until we did a US tour, we got to perform in New York, Boston, and Chicago and we got to tour Second City. 

Second City [Chicago] is the biggest sketch and improv school in America. So when we got to go there, there were so many classrooms, stages, and students. We were thinking, “If there was a market this big in the US, we could have a small one back home.” 

I remember telling Gabe, “Gabe, look at this. They have an admin office for improv. An admin office, we need an admin office.” After that, that was the year we decided, “Okay, we’re going to open a school.” 

Gabe: [Laughs] During that time period, between the time that we went home and we really established it, we were already talking about yung mga feasibility ng mga ganyan. 

I remember passing by, like, at the heart of BGC, a store which was called House of Blow Dry. And I was like, pardon my French, “What the fuck”? [All laugh] 

If a store can be built on blow drying, then surely a business can be built on improv in the Philippines. 

Monica: There were like twelve of usone of the biggest ensemblesand we are the only Filipino group to actually perform in Chicago Improv Festival. 

Parang it all just came into place, and I feel that it really was a lot still of the spirit of improv. It was still in the spirit of “Yes, and.” “Oh, you have an idealet me build on that.” So from the very first class, there were fifteen people. Now, we have… 

Aryn: Four hundred forty plus. 

Monica: There you go, so four hundred forty plus. From that very first day in…

Aryn: September 2015. 

Monica: We were all outside, really waiting for the people to come and we were saying

Gabe: “Welcome!” 

Monica: Welcome committee talaga! There would just be one person coming in and there were five of us. 

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Photo by Mayee Foz Baquiran

What is the practice that goes into improv? 

Gabe: If you want to understand what improv is, think of a sporting event like a basketball game, where the best basketball games are the ones that are totally unpredictable, unscripted. People are in extremely stressful situations and they’ll make something happen. And the crowd is so absorbed with it; they laugh, they scream, they jump up and down, they cry. An improv show is like that. 

You see performers get into really difficult situations and somehow… worm their way out, and that gives you an exhilaration of seeing magic happen before your eyes. So, in the same way, the experience is like a sporting event. But the tools needed are theatrical. ‘Yan, you have to have a good voice, good blocking, good sense of story, all of that, and exposition. But it should be as unpredictable as a really tense game. 

Aryn: The way we teach students about improv is that we tell them it’s really about reacting and responding in the moment. So a lot of people say, when they see improv shows: “Wow, and witty nila! Ang bilis makaisip.” When the truth is the more you think, the more you’re probably going to fail. So, it’s an exercise in really listening and being in the moment. 

Because the more you use your brain, the more you’re going to get caught up and you’ll probably freeze because you’re not reacting, you’re thinking of what’s next. 

Would you say it has to do with intuition?

Gabe: Yes. Intuition and being lightning quick to make a decision, having the clarity and confidence to trust your intuition. A lot of people may have intuition but not the clarity, not the decision making, not the confidence to follow through on it. It’s as much intuition as it is empathy, and reading patterns, and surprising yourself. 

What is the criteria that you follow for improv performances? 

Aryn: The main thing that makes people laugh during improv shows is relatability. So if you’re doing a scene and the audience relate with what’s happening, then they laugh about it because it’s something that they sort of think: “Oh, I can experience that” or “I understand that”, “It’s something that I can relate to.” I don’t know, I think the main criteria would just be, parang, truth. Just, remember that you’re always working with truth. 

Gabe: Yeah, jokes kasi are convenient, I guess. Siguro parang… I’ll relate it to cooking: Jokes are like flavor cubes, parang Knorr Cubes, you know. They can do wonders, but they’re really just a small part of the whole… of everything that makes something yummy. So in the same way, jokes are just a small part of the whole universe that can make somebody laugh. 

If you go back to your own experiences in life, you probably made a breakdown of all the times you’ve laughed. I would say that’s probably less than 10% that it was because of a joke. 90% would be things like, just seeing your friend and making the same mistake together or recognizing something familiar, and that’s what makes laughter. 

So if the joke is the realm of the stand-up comedian, it’s surprise and scenes and recognition and relatability that’s the domain of the improviser. Although, we can make jokes as well [laughs]. Usually, we actually advise against it and that’s what they unlearned in our classes: don’t be joke-y, just look for a punchline. That’s not the point of improv. And to overextend the sports match, that’s the foul we call the most often. 

A lot of people may have intuition but not the clarity, not the decision making, not the confidence to follow through on it. It’s as much intuition as it is empathy, and reading patterns, and surprising yourself. 

Gabe Mercado

Monica: In addition to that, we don’t really go for the funny. We go for truth. So that just echoes what Aryn and Gabe said. Parang, why the experience becomes meaningful is because it becomes a shared history between you guys. I feel that that’s what makes the experience in an improvised show more meaningful, more deep. And that’s why the memory kind of lingers more when you come see a show. So what I like to refer to it as is you don’t see a show, you experience it kasi you share the emotions also that’s been shared onstage. 

So not only do you give suggestions which inspire the actors for their own scenes, but then their scenes become true to you also. Kaya for an audience member, the experience would be like, if somebody else asked them, “So, how was the show like?” “Ah, masaya.” And then when pressed for again for a vivid moment, chances are they can’t limit… Kasi it was the relatability, the resonance for you. “Manood ka na rin na kasi!” [All laugh] 

Aryn: I like what Monica said about the audience being part of the show. It’s funny because you didn’t prepare a show for them, you are actually discovering what’s happening at the same time as the audience.

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Photo by Mayee Foz Baquiran

What are important characteristics to have as a TWI comedian? 

Aryn: Ooh, I guess as TWI faculty and as SPIT, our dynamic is also very different because we at SPIT already know each other very well and trust each other very well. TWI instructors, though, you have to put more effort because you know that there are people coming into this for the very first time. 

And we, from the start, already sort of set the foundation that while you’re learning this, you’re going to be more vulnerable and you’re gonna learn more about yourself and about everyone else. That requires a certain sense of care because you have to be able to make them feel, from the initial meeting, that they can trust you. 

Gabe: I think also, well, we really throw the exercises through the group, so our classes really get to know each other. We do encourage confronting some issues when you’re ready, because it’s only then when you are able to improvise without victimizing somebody else, without triggering somebody else. We’re fans of improvising from an authentic place that touches on human experience. And if you have a lot of hangups, you can’t do that because you’re always projecting, trying to project something. So, parang, that’s the care part. 

But also don’t forget to be playful because we’re not a, you know, it’s just not a therapy group or an alcoholics anonymous. So, I don’t know if it’s a student or one of us came up with the mantra of “Gago with care”: that naughty, naughty school child who’s super playful and does something totally unexpected, but do it in a respectful way pa rin with others. It’s that dynamic which I think captures best what we, and SPIT, is all about. 

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Photo courtesy of Third World Improv

Since improv is dependent on audience relationship, we’d like to know who your usual audience is. Who are they and how do you best connect with them? 

Gabe: Over the years, we’ve learned to accept that improv is not necessarily for everyone. So, parang, after the first few years, we’ve chosen venues that attract independent figures. That has meant art bars, coffee shops, schools. Definitely, schools. Because for improv, you’ve got to be expecting a surprise. You’ve got to expect to participate, you’ve got to expect to think in a non-stressful way. And you’ve got to be playful na rin, sa ganon. 

I guess if I had to describe our current audience right now, it’s probably between twenty and thirty, works in a non… not necessarily in a corporate setting, but if ever in corporate, they’re in creatives, marketing, training. They [laughs] watch Netflix. A good percentage of our audience is LGBTQ; we’re very proud of that. More Quezon city than Makati, but they would go to Makati if we had a show. 

Aryn: That’s not to say, though, that we don’t appeal to people of many other demographics. We have done shows for all kinds of people. Wedding… 

Gabe: Despedida ng archbishop, parang ganon. 

Aryn: Bingo! For a crowd that was playing bingo, remember. We did a show for that. And I feel like… 

Gabe: A crowd of 3,000 students, ganon.

Aryn: Yes, students are really the best, that’s our favorite demographic. Students are the best because they “gago with care” all the time to each other. So even at the show, you get to see that. But we did notice that we are expanding our audience now, especially with our new shows. 

We are starting to get people like OFWs. We’re hoping to expand our demographic, definitely. But pre-pandemic gave us the crowd that we usually get, because we do perform in Poblacion which was, you know, the hub of all the gimmickeros. 

Gabe: Ang sakit, was. 

Aryn: Was, wala na siya eh. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, what is a day in the life now for the group? 

Aryn: Well, we immediately thought to continue performing over Zoom. I remember the day that lockdown was announced: we were supposed to have a show in Commune, and then we decided to cancel it because [VP] Leni made an announcement on that day. After that, we decided that Thursday Improv shows can stop. So since the announcement of the lockdown, we’ve been doing online shows. 

And we figured, since we’re doing online shows, why don’t we try doing online classes as well? So we tried, we changed the curriculum for an online experience. We tried it out, we tested it out with some exercises for people who have already done improv. We tried giving teaser classes for people who have never tried improv. We’ve been doing that as well as corporate training for companies. 

Have you taken up any new interests, like becoming plantitas and plantitos?

Aryn: So, Monica and I tried. We got plants that died, but… [laugh] 

Gabe: Same.

Aryn: I really enjoyed the germination process of seeds. So it would come to a point where, when I would eat a fruit, I would wash the seed and plant it, and it would grow, but it would die. 

So I’m good at birth but at maintaining it, not so much. I also got into baking for a while. I started baking bread. In fact, I baked bread during a SPIT show one time and made it part of the show. 

May be an image of 9 people, including Bibay Cordero de Larrazabal, Aryn Cristobal, Ariel A. Diccion, Chester Jose Cruz, Amador Bongcaras and Dingdong Rosales, hair and text that says 'Third World mprov raining Center Melissa Maramara Akong Bongcaras Aryn Cristobal Gabe Mercado Dingdong Rosales icci Monica Cruz'
Photo courtesy of Monica Cordero-Cruz

Today, what are your inspirations in the world of comedy? Have they changed from your initial inspirations? 

Aryn: I would say because I really love improvising music, it is up there for me. And if you actually watch [Wayne Brady’s] earlier stuff with Whose Line is it Anyway? and see how much he’s grown now, he’s brought so much maturity and experience to it. It really just proves to me that improv is a learning experience all through your life. So, I would say that Wayne Brady is one. 

Very recentlyI really enjoyed on Netflixthere’s a duo called Middleditch and Schwartz. I also think it’s because I have a crush on one of them, that’s why I’m so drawn to them. I admire what they did in a sense that they made improv comedy very mainstream and easy to digest for people who have never done or seen it before. 

Monica: For me, it would really be still Whose Line is it Anyway?, the ultimate heroes, especially Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie. I’m so, super duper bad with names of celebrities. But I would even refer to Colin as “the old guy” so parang, “Oy! Ayan na yung favorite ko, yung matanda.” My favorites were… Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace, and Palibhasa Lalake… A lot of Filipinos shows, actually. Ernie Barong and all that. 

Then, I think for myself in my career, a turning point would have to be the Manila Improv Festival which we did in 2012. There were people from Hong Kong and Beijing. On the local side, we had Bacolod, Cebu. It was very small, but it just furthered the idea of having a community, having the same thoughts about a certain thing but different about everything else. It just became a very, very safe space for me. 

Gabe: In terms of acts that I admire, yung mga recent: North Coast is a hip-hop improv group, and I wish I could do it as effortlessly and as… cool as them. I was able to improvise once with Rebecca Northan and she does a show called Blind Date. It’s a one-woman improv show and the whole premise is she got stood up on a blind date. 

So, they pick out an audience member to go on stage with her and the whole ano is their improvised blind date on stage. I haven’t seen that show itself but I have performed with her and chatted with her. And I just found the concept so amazing because her motivating factor was: “How can I love this person more?”, at every step. 

That’s the kind of improv I resonate with. It’s not about making fun of others, but to get authentic human connection across. I resonate more with the term “spontaneous theater” than “improvised comedy” because in a really good improv show, you really laugh, and you could also cry, and you could also get life realizations. 

And I guess as many people in improv do, the original cast of Whose Line is it Anyway?. And yes, always my favorite was Colin Mochrie, before pa. 

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Photo courtesy of Gabe Mercado

We’ve heard of the question [popularized by the Nescafé Classic commercial]:“Para kanino ka bumabangon?”. As performers, bakit kayo umaakyat sa entablado? 

Gabe: Ako, it’s having fun with these guys. Grabe yung… the kinds of connections and the kinds of stories we weave. I’m sure I cannot weave and make with any other group and make an audience so, so happy and make them realize deep things. Over the pandemic, it’s been refreshing for me to keep watching an extra of a show we did about one year ago. It was a musical number about a dystopian world. 

The premise was: “Dineclare na sa heaven na hindi na kasalanan and pagiging LGBTQ.” So, St. Peter had to let in everyone who has LGBTQ+, but then they faced an overpopulation problem in heaven. So, they just decided na “Okay, ang mga bakla, tanggap sa heaven. Ang mga hindi tanggap, mga vegetarian.” So creating a new dynamic of making another class of people ostracized and branding them as sinners. 

Ultimately for me, it was about how silly that whole thing is and how intolerant we all are. One, making fun of how vegetarians think of everyone else. So I can’t imagine the mix of irreverence, fun, and making a statement with any other group. And doing it… not half-assed, but really, great acting, great singing. So, yeah. I get up for the opportunity to make social commentary in a fun, crazy way with talented, generous people. 

Monica: I have to echo what Gabe said. I always perform for SPIT because obviously we’ve been together for a long time. As in, our thirties in SPIT. Si Aryn pa nga, she went through her twenties [laughs]. You wouldn’t really have met a more different bunch of people, and you won’t believe how much ups and downs we have gone through. As in with each, individual person… Talagang, it’s you against everybody else, ganon! 

With every week, we kinda get to have a catharsis. Each show for me is always a new start, whether for ourselves, between us, or even our lives outside of improv. Kasi not only is it a breather for us from our everyday activities, our everyday responsibilities… But you get to do it in such a delightful, intelligent, and magical way. If you ask any of us what our absolute favorite moment would be, it would be trying to come up with just one. 

Before, the first performance we did as SPIT for the Manila Improv Festival last year, we were running on fumes on the very first day because we had to organize everything ourselves. ‘Cause wala lang, gusto lang namin, diba? And then, we didn’t have time to think up of a show for ourselves because we were busy, parang— 

Gabe: Taking care of everybody [laughs]. 

Monica: Parang, minementor namin silang lahat. Making sure they were all taken care of. Is your transpo okay, is your hotel okay, et cetera. “Do you guys want, ano, vegetarian? You don’t eat meat?” As in, ganong level talaga. 

And then, we didn’t have time to think of our own performance, so much so that this was five minutes before curtain [laughs]

Aryn: So when were already going on, we were introduced and we were all on stage, I heard ChesterMonica’s husbandjust say, “Guys, anong gagawin natin? Anong gagawin natin?!”

[All laugh] 

Monica: But, magic! Magic pa rin… 

Gabe: It was a beautiful… We got a standing ovation for that show. 

Monica: We did, we did. 

Aryn: I’d like to add to that the reason I do what I do is because, if I may be selfish a little bit, I know that performing with SPIT will give me a high [laughs]. It always does, especially when it’s a really good show. You’re on a plane of happiness that’s just unmatchable. 

Also, everything that they said: we performed together for so long that there’s so much trust. And, you know, if you come in really tired, really cranky, you come in at any, like, any situation, any disposition… We’ve had SPIT members come in really sungit from the entire day and so it’s like, no matter what, come as you are. We will take care of you. 

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Photo courtesy of Jong Clemente

You have a wealth of experience from different countries. What are some differences in improv culture and practice with the Filipino scene? 

Gabe: Hm… Ako, I’ll just say that performing in America, watching American improv, they seem to have a problem more with authenticity. So they sometimes tend to go to scenes with aliens and their favorite post-apocalyptic zombie whatever, panay ganon. 

Or the opposite, one really great improv, that improvised Shakespeare. But often the relatability that they come up with is towards a generic, American sitcom. Friends type of culture, which can be very different from the reality that people are living in. 

Aryn: I agree with that. Also, having lived there, what I noticed is that they’re really a talking culture. Filipinos don’t just approach other people in an elevator and ask, “Oh, how was your day? Did you have your coffee today?” Bla, bla, bla. Americans are very talkative, and that comes out in their improv as well. Sometimes, there are entire scenes where they’re just talking and nothing else is really happening. But it works for them because that is their culture, that is what they relate with. 

What I have to say about our improv here is that we sort ofwe move more with our gut and the way we move around the stage, the way we set the environment. Like, for example, if Gabe says something: if he were doing that in America, may hirit na agad with something that he said. “Oh, so you sleep on the floor, oh!”. That’s not how we teach it and that’s not how we do it here but, again, it’s just a cultural difference. 

Gabe: The most common scene that you might see between two male, white improvisersand it happens so often that it’s funnyis they’re always fishing. 

[All laugh] 

They’re always fishing. And that’s the scene, their conversation. 

What do you think characterizes Filipino humor? 

Gabe: One kind of Filipino humor is very pun-ny. We love puns. How one thing is funny through a translation or through mangling English. I think my favorite is yung, ano, how there’s supposedly a legendary flower shop in Quezon city called Petal Attraction. I think that’s Filipino humor, which is finding the playfulness and puns and words. 

Aryn: I agree with that. And I’d like to add that I think we are the only country that finds hugot really funny. I have never seen that living in the US, they have overly dramatic scenes. So I think that’s another thing that we enjoy. Maybe we share it with Latin Americans, but the way we do it is also very crazy. 

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Photo by Mayee Foz Baquiran

Where do you see TWI and SPIT in 2021? In the next three years?

Aryn: In 2021, I think we’re still gonna be doing online classes. But my main goal for TWI is to form improvisers that if they go abroad, people are going to ask “Where did you study?” or “How did you get to know this? How are you able to play so well?”. 

I want TWI and the Philippines to be known for breeding improvisers that way because, at the moment, I already think that we have the most nurturing and loving community. I want that to transcend to as far as it possibly can. 

Monica: I still see SPIT doing shows [this] year virtually. Beyond that, maybe onstage na. ‘Cause everything that we’re working on right now is virtual. Virtual everything. 

For TWI naman, additionally: for the improv scene to be bigger, to have more performers, more shows, not just SPIT. Kasi right now it’s like that, eh: “Oh yeah, I saw SPIT.” Kasi pag sinabing improv, SPIT ‘yon. So parang, if [other] groups also can do that, that would be nice. 

Gabe: I want it to be even more than that. I want the next generation of leaderscivic leaders, social leaders, leaders in the academic business or whateverto be able to say: “Wow, I learned these in Third World Improv.” And that they make a change in the world through the principles that they learned. ✧

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