The Hearst Girls Bring An Inclusive Approach To Improv

by | Jan 24, 2020 | QUEER RVA

The all-female improv comedy team’s monthly shows at Coalition Theater highlight LGBTQ voices and focus on the humor and absurdity within dramatic real-life situations.

The Hearst Girls, an improvisational comedy team made up of Amber Hendrix, Kiersten Hoffman, and Casey Neeley, are making space for femme and non-binary comedians in Richmond. While the group didn’t come together with that mission, they quickly agreed that working exclusively with women, transgender, and non-binary people was something they wanted to do.

“It definitely felt like a natural extension of what we were already doing as an all-woman improv team,” said Hendrix. “We had a platform and a desire to do something unique with it that would be unlike a lot of what we were seeing both at the Coalition and elsewhere.”

They knew their own existence as a team made up entirely of women was unusual enough within the central Virginia comedy world, but they also recognized that they still carried a lot of privilege. “We also recognized our privilege as cis het white women and felt it was important to, in turn, amplify certain voices and make space,” said Hendrix. “It seemed important to give stage time to performers who were challenging the status quo in their discipline the same way we felt we were in our local improv community.”

Cast of the Hearst Girls & Friends December 2019 show at Coalition Theater.

The Hearst Girls’ monthly show, “Hearst Girls & Friends,” is performed at the Coalition Theatre in the Arts District. Each show features stand-up sets from comics based across the state, followed by an improv monoscene — an improv format that takes place in a single location within a single span of time — from the three Hearst Girls. The monoscene is a format the trio particularly enjoys.

“What I love about it is that I get to dig in deep and create a well-rounded character,” said Hoffman. “It gives me time to breathe, to switch between emotions, and to explore deeply how I feel about my teammates’ characters.” 

“There are multiple opportunities to reset within the scene, which is part of the fun and challenge of it. You have to constantly keep creating and building out your environment and relationships,” said Hendrix. “It’s a format that sort of condenses everything I like about improv — some great things can happen when you forget about being funny and instead focus on listening and reacting in the moment.”

The three came together as The Hearst Girls in 2016 when fellow Richmond comic Shamoniki Ellison proposed the idea for an all-female improv team. 

“We all were kind of strangers to each other, and really only knew each other casually through the theater,” Neeley said. “She envisioned us being in a group together after seeing us perform individually, and we all said, ‘Sure! Let’s try it!’” 

The Hearst Girls onstage at Coalition Theater.

The team name was decided after an early practice, when one of the comics played William Randolph Hearst in a scene about sensational journalism.

“I think it’s a good fit, as we gravitate towards absurdist scene work and themes,” said Hendrix. But in addition to the absurd connotations, there’s a deeper, more resonant aspect of the name as well.

“We were also poking fun a bit at the shared experience of being made secretaries or mothers or girlfriends in scenes,” Hendrix continued. “I think we all felt the difference in performing with other women. It was immediately comfortable and supportive in a way that was very palpable. We recognized each other’s range early on, and were also very grateful to not be typecast in scenes. There was a mutual respect from the beginning.”

Hendrix began doing improv in 2014 after a friend suggested taking classes. Soon after, she was enrolled in improv classes at the Coalition Theater, where The Hearst Girls now perform. For Hendrix, comedy was in her blood from day one.

“I’ve loved comedy as long as I can remember,” she said. “My dad was naturally very funny, and I grew up in a family that laughed a lot. Having a good sense of humor was valued and encouraged. I only ever got in trouble at school for making jokes and talking too much, trying to be the class clown.”

To this day, she’s still trying to make people laugh. “It’s really gratifying when you can put something out there that people enjoy, whether that’s an improv scene that will never be repeated or a joke you’re constantly workshopping,” Hendrix said. “Of course, another cool element is the opportunity to collaborate with people I find really funny and smart.”

Neeley came to improv five years ago, at a time when she was debating moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. She was inspired by comedian and actress Chelsea Peretti to start comedy, and has been performing ever since. 

“I’ve tried sketch and stand-up comedy through the Coalition, but ultimately I hate preparing, and love just showing up and doing it,” Neeley said. “I’m pretty tough on myself when I perform, but I always love being around this crew, so I keep on coming back.”

Hoffman kicked off her comedy career at only 13 years old.

“I was fortunate enough to go to a school with a focus on experimental learning, so the drama curriculum was based on improv or writing our own material,” Hoffman said. “I loved improv so much I took a course for teenagers at the Second City.”

After taking some time to focus more on her writing, Hoffman came back to improv after her move to Richmond over four years ago. 

“I love that improv teaches me to focus in the moment and that it’s a team sport. I get to build my character around the details and environment that my teammates are building with me!” Hoffman said. “What I love about comedy is that I do it for me. I find performing incredibly validating, in giving myself permission to be big, bold, and to be myself completely. I don’t do comedy to get the laughs, although it is a joy to receive them. By getting on stage I am saying that I am worthy, and that I can put myself out there even when I’m scared — it is life-affirming.”

The Hearst Girls shows radiate a positivity that’s felt by each other, fellow comics, and the audience. Their dedication to inclusivity brings everyone in the room in on their personal brand of absurdity, collaboration, and warmth. There’s no gatekeeping allowed at a Hearst Girls show; instead, they focus on celebrating their fellow comics.

“We’ve really tried to create a welcoming environment and want everyone performing to feel that and have the best experience possible. It’s part of our obligation as hosts,” said Hendrix. “It’s been awesome bringing people on who are just starting out, and giving them stage time in front of what is usually a very enthusiastic audience. It also gives us the info we need to do individual comic promo posts starting the week before the show. We love to share other shows our comics are doing, and cross-promote. And a lot of our guests host showcases and/or run open mics, so we want to make sure we highlight those too.”

“I love that we have continued to iterate and be open based on feedback,” Hoffman added. “For example, we are huggers and LOVE hugging our comics, and so we ask for consent for the hugs, or what people are comfortable with us doing when we greet them onstage.”

Cast of the Hearst Girls & Friends November 2019 show at Coalition Theater.

A Hearst Girls show feels refreshingly therapeutic. There’s a huge sense of release, of letting go of perfection and committing to the weird. Whether they’re going for laughs or pulling on your heartstrings, you’ll always walk away uplifted and inspired.

“Personally, I like exploring my own journey of self-discovery and self-love,” Hoffman said. “I was a child that was scared of not being perfect, and I wanted to do everything right, so today I love exploring how things were and how things are now, and pointing out the contrasts. I have created characters that come from places where I may have been upset or confused or felt hurt, and while those stories don’t serve me in my day-to-day, they can get a life and purpose on the stage.”

The Hearst Girls describe their monoscene style as “dramedy,” blending elements of comedy and drama. 

“For me, it means an ebb and flow of seriousness and comedy, and also the idea that there’s humor in pain,” Neeley said. “I have always loved finding humor in dark moments. I think it can be therapeutic, and I like that we play in that space.”

This approach also gives them more wiggle room to explore scenarios, characters, and reference points the audience has never seen before. 

“We often skew towards absurd themes, which is something I love about this team. Not matter how bizarre it gets, we will support each other,” Hendrix said. “One of my favorite festival sets we ever did was structured around waiting for our father to return from the front during the Crimean War. We were at a train station somewhere in Europe and it gave us this starting-off place to explore the characters and blow out some common war-movie tropes. We often go for literary and historical references based on our own personal interests, but there are also a good amount of pop culture references to round things out.”

Neeley’s favorite themes to explore through her comedy?

“Pepperoni nipples.”

You can see The Hearst Girls live at their first show of the new year on January 25th at 8 pm at the Coalition Theater. This show will feature stand-ups Jenny Questell, Christine O’Dea, Kathryn Michael Schmidt, Kim Villamera, and Julia Lewis. Tickets are $10 in advance, and can be ordered from the Coalition Theater’s website.

The Hearst Girls plan to keep growing in 2020 with new venues and an upcoming website, so follow them on Facebook and on Instagram @hearstgirls to keep up with the latest news.

Photos courtesy The Hearst Girls

Allison Tovey

Allison Tovey

Allison Tovey is a freelance writer and publishing intern in Richmond, Virginia. Her passion for sharing stories is rivaled only by her love of photography and teen movies.

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