Bluff City Liars’ founder Zephyr McAninch talks improv, theatre, and community
I first met Zephyr McAninch in a writing group created by a mutual friend of ours. During the middle of the pandemic, most of us creative-minded folk sought a way to stay creative outside of work. I had published some poetry in a few online spaces and performed at open mics, sure. But I had been nervous about joining the group since I was new to the writing world of Memphis. Never had someone in my field affirmed that I belonged here, in this creative space, until Zephyr.
If I remember correctly, I had said something out loud about my nervousness. Zephyr McAninch quickly responded, “Oh, are we supposed to be big deals? No one told me. I would have worn something fancier.”
Their joke immediately eased all the tension I might have felt among my peers. I felt welcomed and embraced and I think that’s something that makes any creative circle work well—when it makes you feel welcomed right away. I feel the same way at Zephyr’s improv shows with their troupe, The Bluff City Liars.
Each show I attended was majestically performed and riotously funny. In one of their Christmas shows, the entire troupe acted out a tree decorating scene using all audience suggestions. I remember suggesting the troupe build a tree, something I used to do with my grandfather. In my head, I meant building a store-bought fake spruce. Zephyr took my ideas in another direction: woodworking. They began to mime a workbench and all the necessary tools. Zephyr then pretended to fashion some strange shape cobbled together by awkward blocks where the tree was too tall for one spot and too short for the other. It was magical seeing my suggestion masterfully molded into something unexpected by another person’s creative mind.
But, I digress. Let’s let Zephyr McAninch explain the real magic of improv themselves.
What got you into Improv?
I guess I just can’t stop thinking of quips. No, but, honestly, I watched a lot of Whose Line Is it Anyway when I was younger. I especially loved watching Ryan Stiles. His quick wit made it look so effortless you start to think you can do it, too. In college, I auditioned for an improv troupe and joined thinking it could be a fun hobby. Then when I started learning about the craft and theory of it, I ended up taking it seriously. It became really special to me.
Something that I appreciate about improv is that it’s all happening right now, in the moment. Sure, you can record a sketch, or write a joke. But improv has a special intimacy, for the audience and yourself. The idea that you’re creating a moment that only exists for the both of you right then, and then it’s gone forever. The ephemerality of it can be beautiful, but it can also be a little tragic.
God, I have to agree with you there. Although, I suppose it has been difficult running a troupe, too?
It was much easier in college since everyone was all in the same space essentially, with fewer responsibilities. It’s gotten harder in adulthood now that life gets in the way.
But, once people get here [Zephyr’s house], it does become effortless again. Of course, it needs to be worth their time, so another issue is making sure we’re doing exercises that are accessible but challenging. You want people to enjoy what they’re doing, but take something meaningful away from it. And another struggle is that when one person leaves, sometimes it can be like losing a load-bearing wall. The group dynamic is unique to the players present. There’s a saying, “Acting is reacting.” You have to react to what the people on stage with you give you in that moment, and you’ve got to trust each other implicitly. So any changes to that camaraderie can usually be felt.
Why do you think the theater is so popular among queer people? Is it because it’s a space where you can express yourself much more fully?
Theater is definitely queer, for sure. And I suppose improv can serve as neutral ground for people to act queer. It has a nice fluidity to it. In that regard, I suppose it can be attractive to queer folks who feel marginalized for who they are, and then, well, here’s a space where you can be anyone or anything you want, and everyone is there to witness it with you in a positive environment. That aspect can certainly be alluring.
Catch the Bluff City Liars show “Love Dies” on Friday, February 2nd and Saturday, February 3rd at 8pm at TheatreWorks in Overton Square. Follow @bluffcityliars for more show updates!