Q&A with Dark Side Of The Room
Dark Side Of The Room is an improv troupe and show format created in 2013 by African American performers at Dad’s Garage. Current members are Cris Gray, Kirsten King, André Castenell, Jr., Jon Carr, Rickey Boyton, and Mark Kendall.
Q: What was the original inspiration for DSOTR?
Cris Gray: Joining Dad’s in 2011 was the first time I had been a part of an improv theatre where we had a significant number of black cast members. I began thinking of ways we could perform together and in what kind of format that could be in. Up until then, the only other black improv group I had seen in Atlanta was Black Top Circus. However, what they were doing was different from the narrative style of improv that I enjoyed. I was in LA in 2013 and saw a group called The Black Version with an all African American cast like Cedric Yarbrough, Phil Lamar, and Gary Anthony Williams. They got a suggestion of a movie from the audience and they did the “black version” of that movie. I really enjoyed it and wanted to do something similar. I didn’t want to do exactly what they were doing but I was inspired to do something using the narrative of existing movies. We began workshopping different ideas and we ultimately landed on our format, which is to improvise the deleted scenes of the black characters from classic movies. This gave us the freedom to improvise in the world and setting of the suggested movie without having to try and recreate the movie.
Q: How has DSOTR evolved over the years?
CG: In the beginning it was all dudes. We were very happy to welcome Kirsten into the group to have a strong black woman’s voice on the stage.
Kirsten King: In 2017, we made a conscious choice to start thinking of ourselves more as a business and it gave shape and purpose to how we approached and promoted ourselves. There was a time where we were more focused on doing more local shows and in the last couple of years, we’ve focused more on finding a balance between doing local shows and traveling for festivals.
André Castenell, Jr.: I think our shows have definitely gotten tighter. I think we are also less afraid of feeling like we are going to alienate a crowd if we get a little too black or too political. I think that’s where some of our best moments come from. We’re able to have a sense of social commentary in our shows without that being the only thing that is going on.
Q: You like to spotlight “non-improv guests of pigment” in your shows. How did that start? And why is that important to you?
CG: Being part of the artistic community of Atlanta and Dad’s Garage exposes us to other wells of great artistic talent in the city. When we see other artists doing incredible things, we are excited and want to meet them and work with them. Showcasing them in a show for our improv audience to be exposed to them is really cool. It can inspire that young person of color sitting in the audience. Sometimes you don’t know what’s possible until you see someone else doing it. For some people, we are not only the first improv show they’ve ever seen but we’re also the first black performance they’ve seen. If that young person is looking at us or an opera singer or ballet dancer or poet and now is inspired to go and pursue that, I feel like we’ve done our job and earned our reward in the next world.
Jon Carr: We started this because of how many people (both white and black) were just surprised to see black people doing improv. For a lot of folks improv was just one of those things black people don’t do. As we did more shows it was cool getting to change the perception of what African Americans were capable of and we wanted to continue to do that. We get our “non-improv spotlight guests of pigment” from all areas of life but we love focusing on those categories that people think “black people don’t do.”
Because of our relationship with Dads we’ve had an opportunity to be seen by a lot of people over a pretty short time frame. The exposure has been incredibly helpful in getting booked for shows all over the world. It’s important to us that we take what influence we have and use it to elevate other performers of colors in our city. Whether it is music, comedy, or anything else, we want to be a group that helps develop the next generation of Atlanta’s black artists.
Q: What does DSOTR mean to you?
Rickey Boynton: This may be a cliché, but DSOTR is a group that reminds me of a barbershop. It is a group who treats each other as family every time you walk in. No matter what the subject is about, we can still relate with one another. I could start singing an R&B song from the 90s and I guarantee members of the group will sing along. Also, each member of DSOTR has their own point of view about different cultural topics. Even though we may agree on numerous ideas, it is amazing to see the different ways we may come to the same conclusion. DSOTR is a group that welcomes you as a part of the team and celebrates you as an individual as well.
JC: A few years ago we had the honor of being a part of an exhibit at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. It highlighted groups and organizations that were taking the principles of civil rights leaders in the past and putting them in action. That was the moment that DSOTR become something more in my mind. It wasn’t simply about telling jokes; it was about continuing the journey that so many activities and leaders began before us. DSOTR is my contribution to the effort of moving African Americans forward.
Q: What does DSOTR mean to Dad’s Garage?
RB: Dad’s Garage’s mission statement is to transform people, communities, and perspectives through laughter. The company has always strived to find ways to start conversations with people through humor. I believe DSOTR helps Dad’s by bringing in our own perspectives and experiences to the table through our culture. The Dad’s family has championed this group from day one and continues to be our biggest supporter. We are so lucky to have such a loving group of people helping us bring our voices to the narrative.
AC: It’s another reflection of some of the things that Dad’s Garage has done to set itself apart and make it one of the leading improv theatres in the US. The fact that this company has continually pushed for diversification of its performers and taken those chances to highlight people of color and women in a way that is very genuine and real is such an important beacon for the improv community.
Q: What are your goals for DSOTR?
CG: I would love for it to live beyond me. Maybe someday my daughter will grow up and be a part of it with her generation. Dad was just one of the O.G.s.
KK: My goals for Dark Side are to not only see us be a great example for younger generations and other groups out there wondering if they can do it, but also to continue to grow with our audiences in our reach and impact. There is a wonderful element of our Dark Side shows that is the opportunity to wrap racism and stereotype awareness in a laugh to make it go down a little easier than if it were just a conversation. Improv is the gift of being able to have a conversation and wrap it in a laugh. So, a Dark Side show has a goal to encourage our audiences to think about the “why” of that point of awareness and to hopefully be a catalyst for them leaving our show(s) and going out into the world and having that bigger conversation with their friends and families. So hopefully Dark Side will continue to help combat racial injustices one Dark Side experience at a time.
AC: World domination.