Way back, in what we think was 1997, Amber Nash and Mike King took their first improv class together at Whole World Theatre. Since then, improv has had a profound impact on their life and career—taking them each on an incredible journey. In celebration of the inaugural Atlanta Improv Fest, this interview shows how two of Atlanta’s top improvisers made it to the stage.
What prompted you two to start improv class at Whole World in 1997?
Mike: A buddy of mine went on a date at Whole World and said “you would be awesome at that.” We started going to a show called “New Cats” on Sunday night there, and every time we went we were so impressed. They might not have been that great, but I was like “are they going to survive” and “how do they do this?” Eventually my buddy bugged me so much that I decided to take a class.
Amber: My story is very similar. I was in college. I had a friend who went to Whole World and said I would love it. After seeing a show, I was fascinated by it. Improv was fairly new to Atlanta at this time—Laughing Matters had been around for a while, but only Dad’s and Whole World had their own venues. I signed up for classes and thought “Oh my god, this is what I want to do with my life.”
What did you want to get out of improv?
Mike: Everyone always told me I should do standup. I felt like this was taking a back door to get into comedy. What I liked about improv was that it didn’t rely on me being funny. If you fuck up, there’s still other people on stage to support you and make you look good.
Amber: People always told me I was funny. Honestly, I just needed a creative outlet because school was going to terribly for me. I met a lot of people who became friends outside of school life, which I really wanted.
What happened by the end of improv class?
Mike: I remember the graduation class I did with Amber, and that was the most high I’ve ever been naturally in my life.
Amber: Me too.
Mike: We were told don’t drink caffeine, don’t do drugs, and don’t have booze before the graduation show. I was so naturally geeked out though that I felt great.
Amber: I remember after taking two improv classes thinking “I am an improv expert,” and thinking everyone in Atlanta should be clamoring to have me on stage. That’s a classic improv trap. Now I tell students you won’t be good until you’ve done it for seven years.
Mike: We had just learned the basics. We were having our first moment in front of an audience, and we weren’t fully comfortable yet.
What happened after you parted ways?
Mike: I eventually made it to the main stage at Whole World. I had the reputation as the guy who would get suspended. I still had a full-time job, but I got suspended religiously. My job with the Hawks that made me miss Wednesday night rehearsals at Whole World.
Amber: I continued to work at a regular job for a while. I was counseling kids. Eventually I quit my job so I could focus on improv. Then I got a job as education director at Dad’s Garage. I got a gig on a cruise ship with Second City, which gave me the idea that I could make a living doing improv. There’s maybe like 20 people in the country who can truly say they make their living doing improv, and I was really lucky I got to do that for a while. Then eventually I got the job on Archer.
What was Dad’s like back then?
Amber: Dad’s definitely had a reputation for being a boy’s club. It’s called “Dad’s Garage” for Christ’s sake! They were known for being raunchy and drunk and crazy. It was all these guys from FSU in their early 20s who were awesome and crazy. It was impossible to break in. Nobody got into Dad’s Garage. I was there cleaning toilets and taking classes from 1999-2004 before I became an ensemble member.
How did Village Theatre come about?
Mike: Some guys from Whole World were hanging out at my house and we started talking about what we hadn’t been allowed to do on stage… no drinking before or during a show. So we decided, fuck it, we’re making a show based on the drinking game “Asshole.” We did the show “Asshole” at the Ten High. We’d walk out of there on a Sunday night bombed like the jackasses of improv. Eventually we decided to open our own improv theatre. We found the space right under Lenny’s, but we had never viewed it at night.
Amber: It was loud as fuck.
Mike: We built the stage right under the pool tables. When a punk band went on stage, we were fucked. Looking back, we took the risks we needed to take.
Amber: I remember early on when there were three games in town at the time: Dad’s, Whole World, and Laughing Matters. Then all these groups started forming—Relapse, Freeze Dried Monkey, Village Theater—and there were a couple of meeting at Dad’s Garage where we were like “oh shit, there’s a lot more going on in town.” Then we realized that all these new organizations are great. It brings young people into the group, brings in new ideas, and makes improv more important in Atlanta.
What do you you hope for the future of improv in Atlanta?
Mike: When we were at Whole World, you were either Whole World or Dad’s Garage. But that has changed now. You can now go see a different improv group every week of the night. Each of them has a completely different brand and style.
Amber: I hope improv keeps growing in Atlanta. I hope more people find improv in Atlanta.
Mike: We are doing what Chicago did. We are making a scene here in Atlanta. It’s 20 years in the making for sure.
Amber: So by the time the Beltline is done we are going to have an improv district.
Mike: We want to make the Old Fourth Ward the comedy section in town. If you want to do comedy in Atlanta, find a space in that neighborhood. We can do this now, whereas just years ago we couldn’t do.