Cecile Monteyne is so talented, she can make New Orleans laugh without saying a word.
How? By getting others to fake it.
For four years, Monteyne — arguably the Crescent City’s most versatile actress — has been the driving force behind the bizarro sketch comedy show “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” Every few months, the 31-year-old recruits four local writers to write sketches and then breaks up passages from the script and gives them to four different actors to play the scenes when paired up against four improvisers.
They, like the audience, have no clue what’s going on, and each pair tries to create some kind of coherent comedy out of the chaos.
For someone who has the capability of being a scene-stealer, Monteyne’s happy to work behind the scenes on this project.
“When someone’s having a good night, it’s partly because you’re helping them have a good night,” the Tulane grad said. “It helps to work with other funny people or other straight people who can play that cold fish who doesn’t have to respond. I think comedy is at its best when everybody is working together to make one another look funny.
“Then everybody wins.”
Just ask Emily Slazer, a 26-year-old sketch comedy performer who, like Monteyne, got lots of training in The New Movement and is one of the quicker improvisers in “You Don’t Know the Half of It.” It’s that kind of experience that inspired Slazer to co-found the Virginia’s Harem troupe, which recently performed in a featured “showcase” slot at the prestigious SF Sketchfest.
“What I think is really admirable is, Cecile is an insanely talented improviser, and she built this machine, and she gives it to us,” Slazer said. “She doesn’t perform in the show, which she obviously could. People clamber for her to perform. But it’s such an inclusive show.”
Slazer will join three other improvisers at the fourth-anniversary show Sunday, Jan. 17, at Le Petit Theatre, with the others being Grace Blakeman, Derek Dupuy and Mike Spara.
The actors represent an A-list of New Orleans’ theater scene: Lance Nichols, Sean Patterson, Jessica Podewell and Amanda Zirkenbach. The writers are top-notch as well: Eric and Joel Charleston, Jim Fitzmorris, Cavan Hallman and Rebecca Treuting. The “You Don’t Know” house band, featuring Sam Craft, Alexis Marceneaux, Marc Paradis and Amanda Wuerstlin, serves up songs tailored for each sketch.
The anniversary show is Monteyne’s first work in 2016 after a head-spinning 2015 that started with her returning to the LPO’s Young People’s Concerts playing Lennifer Jopez in the parody “Symphony Idol” and included nominated performances in a drama (Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and comedy (“Twelfth Night; or, What You Will”). Both productions were with The NOLA Project, for whom she began work in 2015 as the managing director. She was then named the Big Easy Entertainment Awards’ Entertainer of the Year and in late summer drew rave reviews for her starring role in The NOLA Project’s “Marie Antoinette.”
She also concluded production as a co-star in “One Night Stand Off,” an independent romantic comedy co-starring Ian Hoch and shot in New Orleans and co-written with her director brother Jules Monteyne. Oh, and she got married.
Said Monteyne: “2015 was a lot of me doing things that I said I was going to do but also a lot of opportunity.”
“You Don’t Know the Half of It” represents just one aspect of Monteyne’s comedic work in a city that has emerged as a comedy hot spot over the past few years. After graduating from Tulane in 2005, she spent several years in New York City doing theater and film. She gained invaluable experience working with the prestigious Upright Citizens Brigade, a bicoastal comedy troupe whose alumni include Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz.
“Playing to the top of your intelligence is something they are constantly hammering into your brain,” she said. “You’re always playing the reality of the scene.”
According to Christopher Kaminstein, a regular with the show, part of what Monteyne has done to make it work is creating the possibility of the unknown.
“Before the first show we did, she said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen!’ ” he recalled. “We were backstage trying to listen, and were wondering, ‘Were people laughing?’ ‘Is this going to work?’ ‘Am I going to be a fool out there?’
“But there was something happening that was working. It’s a fun thing, and a magical thing, about improv.
“Until you step out there, you have no idea.”