Award-winning journalist JC Monahan discusses her part in Urban Improv’s funniest fundraiser, ‘Banned in Boston’

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Photo courtesy of Urban Improv

What is it like to perform at Urban Improv’s annual fundraiser, comedy, and music revue Banned in Boston?   For the last five years, Emmy award-winning journalist and Chronicle host JC Monahan has taken the stage to support Urban Improv’s dedication to youth empowerment each year while leaving seriousness at the door.  Sometimes the backstage antics are as hilarious as what is happening onstage.

Urban Improv is celebrating its 25th anniversary and presenting Banned in Boston, an evening of delicious food from top restaurants such as Mei Mei, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Eastern Standard, and East Coast Grill, improve featuring guests from business to politics to media personalities, and much more on Friday, April 7 at House of Blues in Boston, Massachusetts at 6 p.m.  This is a 21+ event.   Hosted by WGBH’s Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, click here for this year’s featured guests and tickets.

As the guest list grows longer each year, this exciting, highly-anticipated event get sillier and more inventive.  Anything can happen.  Emmy award-winning journalist JC Monahan talks about her experiences.

Sally Taylor and Charlie Baker

Onstage at Banned in Boston – Governor Charlie Baker and musician Sally Taylor

Jeanne Denizard:  Last year, I interviewed returning musician, Sally Taylor.  Sally said she had a blast at Banned in Boston.

JC Monahan:  She participates every year and is such a big supporter.  I think a lot of the fun happens backstage, but we also have fun onstage too.  It’s a chance to connect with so many other people in Boston behind the scenes talking and getting to know each other, laughing at the costumes we’re wearing and the lines that we’re saying, and it’s a blast seeing some of these people put into crazy situations.  For example, one of my all-time favorite memories is Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton, dressed in this fantastic blue prom dress, as one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.  Tom has achieved so much in his life and it’s so great he is totally willing to get onstage and be silly all for Urban Improv.

JD:  He’s local too.

JCM:  We have amazing people right in our backyard and it’s fantastic they all get onstage for this cause.  We’re all from different walks of life contributing in our own way in our personal lives, but we are also contributing together onstage.  I am as much a fan as I am a participant.  Sally Taylor is so sweet, so down to earth, and so talented.  I’ve become good friends with WGBH’s Jared Bowen and that is completely through Banned in Boston.  Emily Rooney is hysterical and Matt Siegel, who I only hear on Matty in the Morning.  I usually don’t get to see him face to face.   It’s a little reunion every year.

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Urban Improv presents their annual fundraiser, Banned in Boston Photo courtesy of Lisa Kessler/Urban Improv

JD:  This year, Banned in Boston is hosted by WGBH’s Margery Eagan and Jim Braude.

JCM:  They are two of my favorites and I listen to them all the time.  Jim usually gives me a hard time which is perfect.  It’s a great night and I love everything about it.

JD:   It’s such a great cause.  Urban Improv helps youth cope with real life challenges such as bullying and violence through topical improvisation.

JCM:  Exactly, you’re there to support the arts in many ways, but you are also using the arts in such a constructive way to help kids learn to communicate.  We can all benefit from being better communicators.  I love that they are starting young and reaching kids who may not know how to solve a problem.  Maybe Urban Improv will be that change in their life that sets them on a new path.  How can you not want to be behind that?

JD:  These kids may lack the guidance and are not in an environment where they can get it.

JCM:  Exactly, it takes all of us.  Urban Improv steps in and reaches those kids.  If I can help keep that program going in a very small way, I’ll be there.  I’ve participated for four or five years, but I feel like I’ve been there since the beginning since they make you feel like part of a family.  It is a very inviting, warm, environment and it allows you to be even sillier that you would be.

JD:  Oh, I know!  The funny things I have heard.

JCM:  When you have the congressmen get up onstage and act silly, the Governor, and the people I know through charity events as well, it’s just fun for everybody.  One of the funnier ones is Sonia Chang-Diaz who was funny as Miley Cyrus one year.  Banned in Boston oftentimes have a ringer who is an actual actress or actor that will blow us all away.  Kathy St. George will be there this year and she’ll be amazing.

JD:  You need a few to keep people guessing.  Are any of your characters created with you in mind?

JCM:  No, I think they work hard to keep us outside our comfort zone.  Politicians don’t play politicians most of the time, though last year I did get to play a reporter a little on the nose.  Then, years ago, I was a bratty yoga devotee.  I’m all for putting me in the most uncomfortable, craziest role because it’s much easier than something that’s close to who you actually are.  I’d rather play Miley Cyrus than have to play myself.

JD:  Do you have certain people that you click with better onstage?

JCM:  Anyone who is all in is the person I want to work with and I don’t think there has been anybody who hasn’t been all in.  Lisa Pierpont is always all in.  She came one year in a big, long wig.  If you take yourself too seriously, this might not be the place for you.  The list of people who have said yes are ready to be silly, ridiculous, and get people to laugh and enjoy themselves because we want people to come back year after year and continue to support Urban Improv.

JD:  I know it is an improv show, but do you do any preparation for it?

JCM:  We get the script less than a week before the show, but they do give you a costume comment.  One year I played a judge, so I overnight shipped a graduation gown on Amazon for the show.  I played the yoga devotee and they said to please come in yoga clothes.  You have no rehearsal time and we walk onstage with our scripts.  We are pretty much a mess, and that is the fun of it.

JC Monahan onstage at Banned in Boston

JC Monahan during an improv sketch at Banned in Boston as a judge with cast Photo courtesy of Lisa Kessler/Urban Improv

JD:  What kind of surprises stick out for you over the years?

JCM:  You don’t know what character you are playing opposite until you get there, so it’s always fun to see who got what character.  A couple of years ago, the chefs in Boston made this awesome music video.  Nobody knew they had done it and it wasn’t part of the program.  That took some coordination, preparation, and effort for people that are super busy, but it was hysterical.  This year’s Banned in Boston’s theme is offense, misdeeds, and comedic infractions.

JD:  That sounds dangerous.

JCM:  Yes, you never know.  When I see the script in my inbox, it’s Christmas morning for me.  You find out where they put you, the songs we sing at the beginning and the end and coming up with new lyrics to fit the always Boston-centric theme.  Anybody from this area will get the jokes.  The jokes are always about Boston accents, Boston parking, Boston drivers, Boston politics.  Nothing will be missed and the audience will get it all.

JD:  You talked a lot about what you look forward to each year and what drives you to return.  What do you think is the best reason people should see Banned in Boston?

JCM:  There are a lot of wonderful Boston fundraisers, so it’s hard to capture people’s attention, time, and money, and Banned in Boston has found a really unique way to do it that captures the spirit of what Urban Improv is.  It has great food, great drinks, and a fantastic space at House of Blues in Boston.  There’s no better mix than that.

Urban Improv kids

Youth improv work in action Photo courtesy of Urban Improv

Click here for more information and tickets to this hilarious, one night only event starting at Lansdowne Pub for a cocktail reception at 9 Lansdowne Street on Friday, April 7 at 6 p.m.  Banned in Boston at House of Blues, located at 15 Lansdowne Street, kicks off at 7:45 p.m.  Click here for more on Urban Improv and its mission.

New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira talks anniversary concert, NEP’s future plans, & more

New England Philharmonic President Ann Teixeira is often encouraging music lovers to broaden their horizons.  From taking field trips to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to becoming the President of the New England Philharmonic (NEP), Ann became a music lover at a young age having been exposed to a variety of music throughout her life.  The NEP offers a unique blend of contemporary and traditional classical music, which has enraptured audiences for decades.

The New England Philharmonic has a great deal to celebrate.  Led by Music Director Richard Pittman, who is starting his 20th anniversary year, New England Philharmonic presents its 40th Anniversary Concert:   A Child of Our Time. This exciting concert, featuring a number of special guests, soloists, and musicians, takes place at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

Ann Teixeira gives an inside look at the NEP orchestra, shares her music background, fond memories with the New England Philharmonic, and NEP’s future plans.   The New England Philharmonic thrives on the support of the community.  Click here to support the NEP, sign up for their newsletter for upcoming performances, and more.

Jeanne Denizard:  What first inspired your love for music and what led you to pursue a career in the music industry?

Ann Teixeira:  I was fortunate to grow up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan with an excellent and well-funded school system.  We took field trips to Detroit to hear the Detroit Symphony, attend plays, and visit the art museum.  I participated in music and art classes at school and had friends who took piano lessons, ballet, and acting.  That gave me a great deal of exposure to the arts and I found myself attracted to music.

By the time I was in junior high school, I was part of a music club and we attended performances.  I also took piano lessons until my piano teacher told my parents it was not a good use of their money.  That didn’t dampen my interest in music, but it did puncture a hole in my balloon.  Growing up in the 1950s, I was always exposed to classical music and the only contemporary or popular music I heard was on the radio.

JD:  Please tell me how you first got involved with New England Philharmonic.

AT:  At intermission at the Boston Symphony, I often chatted with a man I worked with a number of years ago and he was on the NEP board.  Seeing me at Symphony, he thought I might be interested in joining the board of an orchestra and asked if I’d be interested.  He told me about NEP and the rest is history.

I had been a member of the Board of Overseers of Opera Boston which had closed down about a year before and was wondering how I might get involved with another music organization.  That was spring 2012, and the New England Philharmonic had distinctive programming like Opera Boston, so I thought it would be a good fit for me.

JD:  What is it like as President of NEP?  I’m sure being part of the arts everyday is an exciting venture with its share of surprises.

AT:  It is interesting, challenging, gratifying, and demanding.  Having a Composer-in-Residence program with a volunteer orchestra, a Call for Scores competition, and a Young Artist Competition, NEP is unusual if not unique.  In Boston’s rich music environment, NEP’s programming, which includes composers and compositions without wide-name recognition and premieres of new works during almost every concert, makes it a constant challenge to attract an audience.  Though reviewers laud the challenge, creativity, and interest of NEP’s programs, it is challenging to fill the hall with people willing to try something new.

The surprise has been the success of the Chamber Players small ensembles from within the orchestra who have been welcomed by major institutions in the area to present chamber concerts, such as the Boston Athenaeum, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Children’s Museum, King’s Chapel, the Newton Library, and the Harvard Business School Chapel among others.  These ensembles are greatly expanding the audience for the NEP, and the musicians love the opportunity to prepare pieces written for quartets, quintets, and septets.

JD:  Do you have any exciting or memorable stories over your time in NEP that you’d like to share?

AT:  Several experiences stand out.  In April 2013, the NEP played former Composer-in-Residence Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 which culminated with The Star Spangled Banner which was written in the summer of 1814, a piece just written that summer.  The chorus sings the verse we are know very quietly, and then sings three unfamiliar verses, rising in volume along with the orchestra for each subsequent verse.  It still gives me goose bumps.

Gunther Schuller, a good friend of our Music Director, Dick Pittman, whose music the NEP often played, continued to attend performances throughout his life.  In 2014, he was named NEP Composer Laureate.  The last time he attended a concert and spoke with the audience, he was in a wheelchair and quite weak.  His appearance at our concert may have been his last public appearance.  He died six weeks later.

I remember their fondness for the NEP and the generosity of former Composers-in-Residence who contributed compositions, fanfares to start the three principal concerts this season.  Robert Kyr, the first Composer-in-Residence, wrote a lovely tribute to the longevity of the NEP, its commitment to contemporary music, and the fact that there is only ‘one music.’

I am also so proud  for the NEP that The Boston Globe recognized NEP’s 2012 War Requiem by Benjamin Britten as the ‘best classical performance of 2012’ and ArtsFuse called NEP ‘best local musicians’.

The NEP Chamber Players emerged as a new component of the NEP, enthusiastically supported by musicians who already hold full-time jobs outside the NEP, play in the NEP and sometimes in other orchestras as well.  They have families and are still willing to take on new music in new ensembles playing in new venues, all for NEP’s benefit.

JD:  I understand part of what sets NEP apart from other orchestras is it is an all-volunteer orchestra with a composer-in-residence.  The NEP sets great stock in original, contemporary work and commissions a new work each season from its resident composer.

AT:  Yes, NEP is one of a few all-volunteer orchestras.  Ours is made up of trained musicians, many of them from major university schools of music and nationally-known conservatories who make their living in another profession including research scientists, physicians, a pilot, sales people, music teachers, and many other professions.  Dick Pittman’s challenging music programming requires substantial personal practice between orchestra rehearsals and sometimes section rehearsals.  Their time commitment to the NEP is mind-boggling and impressive.

The Composer-in-Residence and Call for Scores programs were established in 1985. The Call for Scores is an open competition.  Composers are invited to submit a recently composed work without regard to any theme or other programmatic criteria. The Composer-in-Residence writes a new composition each season to be premiered by the NEP, and he judges the compositions submitted to the Call for Scores competition, selecting finalists for review by the Music Director and their joint decision on a winner.

The winner almost always attends and speaks to the audience about the winning piece, when it is performed during the following season.  Thus the Composer in Residence program ensures a minimum of two premieres each season, one a world premiere and the other a Boston or U.S. premiere.

However, it is not unusual for each program during the season to a premiere of a recently composed piece.  Consistent with the NEP’s tagline: ‘Innovation and Tradition in Concert,’ every program includes several contemporary classical music and typically one lesser known or less frequently performed traditional classical piece.

JD:  Please tell me what other works you are looking forward to this season and what are NEP’s future plans?

AT:  Our final concert of this season is on April 29.  We are particularly looking forward to Concertmaster Dani Maddon’s annual performance as soloist for a violin concerto.  This year, it will be the world premiere of Current Composer-In-Residence David Rakowski’s Violin Concerto No.2 written for her to perform on this occasion.  Andy Vores and Bernard Hoffer also have written pieces for Dani to perform.

We also look forward to performing the Boston premiere and Call for Scores 2016 winner, Liliya Ugay’s Oblivion.  Former Composer-in-Residence Peter Child is also contributing a world premiere fanfare to open the concert.

The program is rounded out by Aaron Copland’s Orchestral Variations, Sebastian Currier’s Microsymph and Zoltan Kodaly’s Peacock Variations.  This program should be a wonderful end to the 40th Anniversary season.

New England Philharmonic presents the 40th Anniversary Concert:  A Child of Our Time at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m.  Click here for tickets, how to become a subscriber, and more.