Stacey Reed Hanlon
Stacey Reed Hanlon is one of the Valley’s funniest performers. As a veteran actress who got her improvising start in New York City, Reed has brought her natural knack for creating zany characters with strong personalities to Phoenix, helping found the Valley’s longform improv theater The Torch Theatre.
Reed Hanlon, a 37-year-old Phoenix resident and client specialist at Standard Printing Company, has been performing improv in the Valley for almost 10 years, in notable troupes such as Mail Order Bride, Light Rail Pirates, JaxN Reed, and The Foundation. She’s also an instructor at Valley Youth Theatre and The Torch Theatre, and does private musical theater coaching and improv troupe coaching. The talented improviser also has serious acting chops, having taken the stage for memorable gems such as A Bloody Mary Christmas at Space 55.
You can catch Reed Hanlon on stage with Mail Order Bride, Light Rail Pirates and JaxN Reed at the 13th Annual Phoenix Improv Festival, taking place this Thursday, April 17 through Saturday, April 19, at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. Read on what drives her passion for theater, as well as to watch her talk about her favorite reasons for living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m originally from Clinton, Ohio and went to college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study English and French. I had always wanted to live in New York, and I moved there after college and worked in public relations for about seven years.
I met my boyfriend at the time, now my husband, whose parents had retired here. He moved here to be closer to family and really enjoyed the change of pace. I went through some professional changes in New York, and I missed him, so I decided to give Arizona a try and come out for a year, back in 2005. Here I am nine years later. I never would have thought I’d be living in Phoenix, and I never thought I would move across the country for a boy!
When did you first start acting?
Around age 9 or 10, I started taking acting classes after bugging my mom to do it. She probably obliged because she was sick of me listening to the musical Annie over and over again.
My mom was definitely influential in me listening to musicals and singing, since she’s really musical herself. My teacher suggested I audition for something, and I was in my first play at 10. It was Winnie the Pooh at a professional children’s theater, and I think “Fuzzy Bunny” was my name in the script. I did musicals and plays through high school and a little bit in college.
How did you first get interested in improv?
The theater troupe I was a part of in college started an improvisational off-shoot, and I had done some improv through acting classes and enjoyed that.
When I moved to New York, I saw an improv show at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), and I left thinking, “This is awesome.” It was improv as an art form, and I’d never seen that before – I’d only seen short-form improv, not improv in a scenic situation. I remember walking away thinking, “I wonder if I can do that.”
I started taking classes at UCB, and I was so terrible. After I finished, I found out Armando Diaz, after which the improv format the “Armando” is named, was teaching his own courses. I took a few of his classes, and that was the turning point for me with improv. He came at it in a little different way, and I felt like I was finally starting to get it. I met people in his class from Chicago who were like-minded, and we ended up forming a troupe together in New York.
How did you get involved in the Arizona improv scene?
After I moved here, there was an ad on (audition notice site) Durantcom.com for an improv group called The Originals. Working with this troupe was great because we not only had fun on stage, we genuinely enjoyed each other as people. We spent tons of time together once we joined the troupe. It was great to be able to become a part of the improv community by performing with that troupe.
The Originals were doing short-form with a little bit of long-form, but I wanted more long-form improv. I started becoming more involved with the Phoenix Improv Festival, and ended up forming a new troupe, Light Rail Pirates. We’re still going strong.
What makes a great performer, and what makes you a great performer?
I think the key to being a good performer is to be fully present and to trust yourself and your fellow performers, even if it’s a manufactured trust. That’s the hugest thing.
In a play, once you’re off-book, the character can start to have a life of its own, and you just begin to live in the moment. When you’re improvising, you should be in the same mindset, in that you’re not “thinking” any more, you are just in the moment and allowing this relationship to happen between two people.
I almost equate it to when you learn a foreign language, where you start to think in that language, rather than simply translate.
What are your tips for staying fully present and in the moment?
Eye contact is huge. Being fully engaged and really listening to what the other person offers you is really important. It’s not just listening to what someone is saying, but figuring out what they mean.
Do you have any tips for strong character development in improv?
Choosing an emotion is always a great way to go, because it will force you to have some type of relationship with whomever you’re playing with.
How would you describe The Torch Theatre’s improv instruction?
It’s awesome, and it’s become a nicely accessible program. You start with games and exercises that will get you started thinking in the right way, then you move into scene work, then you move into specific formats. It’s a very natural progression and easy-to-digest way of learning improvisation.
I think The Torch does a really nice job of giving its students an opportunity to perform, because that is really where you’re going to learn about where the audience is being responsive and how that changes your energy. I think that’s really cool, because a lot of other theater programs don’t have as many opportunities for students to perform.
How would you describe yourself as an instructor?
My goal as an instructor is to obviously make you better at what you’re doing, but also to make you more confident with what you’ve already mastered. I think constructive criticism is huge, and I do it with love.
Why is long-form improv so appealing to you?
There are definitely merits to both short-form and long-form, but for me, long-form is more challenging than short-form. I see long-form as a more artistic type of expression than short-form because it does border on a play or something that’s a little more thoughtful work, and you have a bigger pay-off.
Doing short-form, it feels good and you get laughs and that’s great, but long-form is really a team sport. You have to support your fellow players, and at the end of it, you should be exhausted and have no clue what just happened.
What can people expect from the Phoenix Improv Festival?
We’re having troupes from L.A., New York, Chicago, and Boston coming in. It’s always cool to see troupes from other parts of the country and how their performances are different from what we do. Even though all of our troupes with The Torch Theatre are all really different, you kind of start to form a similar style, so it’s nice to shake things up a little bit.
How would you say the Valley’s improv scene stands out in the country?
It’s very different in its mindset in that it’s a very welcoming community of improvisers. People – hopefully – immediately feel welcome, whereas in New York, the improv scene is great, but it’s competitive and political and definitely not a place where people are always supporting each other’s efforts.
Here, it doesn’t matter if you’re a part of The Torch Theatre, or National Comedy Theatre, or Jester’Z, or Chaos Comedy, or any other improv troupe – there’s a lot of cross-pollination, and we’re all supporting each other. It’s only in everybody’s best interest to want everyone to succeed.
Also, other improv markets are really heavily male-dominated, while Phoenix and even Tucson have a lot of strong female performers and troupes. It’s such a cool thing to see really strong female improvisers.
Why should people check out The Torch Theatre?
Improv is a relatively new art form in the scheme of art forms, and it’s becoming much more mainstream. It’s pretty amazing, because whatever we’re creating exists for that one moment in time, and then it goes away. It’s such a unique show for the performers and their audience to experience. We’re in this room, and this thing is being created in front of our eyes, and it will never happen again.
Also, people should come to laugh and be entertained. It’s a magical experience.
Who should take an improv class?
Anyone. We have people who want to improve their writing, or who want to improve their public speaking, or who want an excuse to do something goofy. And we have people who are professional performers who want to flesh out a way to creatively approach something. Really, anybody can be an improviser. We have a student who is literally a rocket scientist.
People approach improv from so many different ways, and that’s where the magic happens, because there are so many different frames of reference. Even when you’re playing a character, some element of you is in that character, for better or for worse, and that’s what makes it so amazing.
Learn more about The Torch Theatre founder Bill Binder here on Phoenix People.