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Up a narrow stairway off Coral Way, in a windowless backroom on the second floor, a young man screams, "I don't know which medications I'm taking anymore! I want to be me, but I don't know who that is!"
Sweat gathers on his wide sideburns. He hasn't yet changed out of his polo shirt from the cell-phone store where he works, though the shirt is wrinkled at the hem from having been tucked in all day.
"Good," Mike Nato mouths. Nato is boyish even in his early 40s, with messy blond hair atop his head and lines around his eyes that make him look like he's laughing even when he isn't. He has told his student to "think of the color black and try to embody that color." But before beginning the exercise, he warns in earnest, "I once gave a student orange, and it broke him. He just stood there, and then he broke."
3119 Coral Way
Coral Gables, FL 33145
Category: Performing Arts Venues
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
The unadorned off-white walls and mismatched chairs seem better suited for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than an improvisational comedy class, but that's exactly what Nato is teaching.
"I don't want this," his student bellows, a freight elevator door behind him instead of a curtain. He's trembling, his round face turning red. "Nobody sees me."
"And scene!" Nato barks. The six other class members applaud more than politely. "I'm just glad I gave you black instead of orange," he says.
The class includes a shaggy stoner hanging off a dining room chair and a clean-cut, square-jawed man who later acts out the color green as a financier who says, "I'm gonna drop my balls on your face." There's also a giant whose face bears patches of gray stubble and who clutches his side thanks to a recent bicycle accident. He will be assigned purple and deliver a harrowing monologue of having been abused as a child.
Just the Funny — that's what the bright yellow sign says in front of the 108-seat theater. Founded in 1999, it's one of Miami's longest-running improv groups and winner of five New Times Best of Miami awards. Later in the class, the cell-phone salesman will not be able to stop laughing when playing a convict with a foot fetish who's lusting after his cellmate's socks. But when he strays too close to shtick, Nato stops him.
"Don't distract yourself with jokes," he says. "Find something truthful and the jokes will come."
That's close to the essence of Nato's philosophy, says Maria Tomaino. She's in charge of events and marketing at the University of Miami's career center, and she's also a Just the Funny main-stage player. "When people come to our shows, they are paying to see live art," she says.
Carlos Rivera, who by day works in accounting at a property management company, proudly crows about having played characters such as a "combination gynecologist and brain surgeon" but will then quickly transition to talking about "craft" and "truth." Tomaino compares the restorative benefits of improv training to yoga in their abilities to harness energy and "give people the power to be themselves."
But in recent shows, Nato has also played a horny zombie and a man accused of using a tomato to sleep with his friend's wife. Luis Madera, another cast member, cites one of Nato's performances as the funniest thing he's ever seen on the Just the Funny stage.
"We were having an intervention onstage for Mike, who was addicted to tomatoes," Madera recalls. "If he could steal a V8, he would. He would find excuses to be alone with other people's pizzas. And it was silly, but he acted just like an addict. He was an addict up there."
There are two things to note here. The first is South Florida's apparently lurid interest in tomatoes.
Second, there's the cast's devotion to summoning truth and not jokes in the footlights. The Just the Funny performers don't talk about their performances as though they are comedians but as if they're all on spiritual quests. Nato says that to succeed in improv, "you really have to get away from yourself and go down this journey. And then five years in, you start to find yourself again."
Nato is cagey about his own journey, offering, "I'm from Detroit and was there for 31 years. I left about eight years ago to start over."
Sitting in the front row of the theater where two nights earlier he'd been a jock secretly in love with one of his fantasy football buddies, he looks away to the empty stage and quickly moves past the reasons for his reinvention. "I'm a single man. I have no family in the United States. This, to me, is my family."
He works in IT and has a master's from Florida International University. He installed the camera system in the Just the Funny theater but otherwise keeps one world confined to its 9-to-5 hours and lets another one live on the stage and in class. "My full name is Michael Schiavinato," he says, "but my name here, 'Mike Nato,' is something that digests easier. I'm perfectly fine with being that."