- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2016

In improv, anything can happen. And what happens up there can either lead to comedy gold or to uncomfortable silence. Improvisation workshops have also been the launching pad for many of Hollywood’s top comedians. Indeed, one of them, Keegan-Michael Key, stars in the new film “Don’t Think Twice,” a comedy-drama about a New York improv troupe trying to make their name in a rather crowded field that is the Gotham comedy scene.

However, in the film, the members of the troupe, called The Commune, discover that their theater will soon be shut down. At the same time, scouts from a prominent TV show are coming to see the show, which could propel some of them to stardom or indeed tear the troupe up from the inside.

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia, a standup comedian himself and veteran actor of such projects as “Trainwreck” and “Orange Is the New Black,” realized that the best way to tell his story of the impromptu nature of improvisation was to in fact write a fictional screenplay.

“My wife said, ‘Your standup friends are very combative and always making fun of each other — in a fun way … and your improv friends are so much more supportive … it’s all about saying yes and agreeing.,’” Mr. Birbiglia said in a statement. He added that his wife also found it ironic that “some of these people in your improv group are so successful that they’re literally millionaires. And some of them are barely paying their rent on their shared, five-person, one-bedroom in Bushwick.

“It was a very astute observation. I thought it was an interesting premise for a movie — the idea that in an improv group, everyone is equal until they’re not.”

Indeed, with news that a major TV show is looking for a cast, cracks within the formerly cohesive improv troupe begin to widen as the producers show clear favoritism for some members over others.

“This is a movie about giving up, and figuring out when it’s time you should give up,” said Ira Glass, who has worked with Mr. Birbiglia on his radio series “This American Life” and was a co-writer on the director’s previous film, “Sleepwalk with Me.”

Mike developed this screenplay the way that a standup develops material,” Mr. Glass said “We just did one reading after another after another after another in his living room.

“Most of us try to become something, and we struggle for years,” Mr. Glass said. “A few people make it, but most of us don’t. That’s a story people don’t tell as much.”

Mr. Birbiglia and Mr. Key have the same agent, who felt certain that Mr. Key, an alumnus of Chicago’s Second City, would be perfect for the film.

“We couldn’t stop talking about our mutual fascination with improv and the themes of the film and the importance of morale on movie sets,” Mr. Birbiglia said.

“I was reading the script and I was like, ‘I don’t even know Mike Birbiglia. How does he know this about my life?’” Mr. Key recalls.

The improv scenes in “Don’t Think Twice” were filmed before a live audience at The Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York.

In a sad case of life imitating art, during the production of “Don’t Think Twice,” presidential candidate Donald Trump bought the Improv for America building and shut down the theater.

“When I wrote the film, Trump was not a candidate, he was just an entrepreneurial lunatic,” Mr. Birbiglia said of the Republican nominee.

“The movie is about growth and stepping into the unknown,” Mr. Key said, “which of course is what improvisation is.”

The writer-director Mr. Birbiglia said that, because life isn’t fair, films with that subject need to be made as well.

“Hollywood isn’t selling a lot of tickets to movies about” the inequity of life, the writer-director said. “But it’s a truism and, in my opinion, it’s funny because if we can admit that about ourselves, then we can move on.”

“Don’t Think Twice” opens Thursday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema.

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