How an improv show hit Broadway, won a Tony Award and is now at ACT

S.F. actor Anthony Veneziale gives the backstory on “Freestyle Love Supreme”

“Freestyle Love Supreme” was a little pressure-releasing project born from the surfeit of creative energy among early “In the Heights” collaborators and rap enthusiasts Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail and Anthony Veneziale. Two Broadway runs and a Tony Award later, “FLS” — as fans and friends call it — launches a multicity tour from the Geary Theater this week, courtesy of American Conservatory Theater.

“Improv on Broadway? That’s just not even a dream an improviser has,” says Veneziale. “Getting a Tony Award for doing an improv show on Broadway is ludicrous. I was not audacious enough to have that dream.”

Veneziale did, however, have a long-standing interest in the vocabulary of hip-hop and freestyle (spontaneous, improvisational rap) and traditional rap. “Rap is a Black art form and hip-hop is a Black art form. Improv, especially when I was a part of it in New York in the early 2000s, was a white art form. Bringing freestyle into the improv world felt like a way that I could interact with the Black art form and honor it without appropriating it.” He also wanted to widen the perspective of the improv world. “What’s so great about freestyle is you’re gonna be changed by those around you and I think that’s such a great thing about improv as well.”

In 2002, as development of “In the Heights” progressed in earnest, Veneziale recalls, “During the breaks I would just be like, ‘Lin, everyone says that you’re incredibly good at freestyling. This could be a fun way to blow off steam, to help us celebrate, to help you write.’ So, we started just meeting up outside of rehearsals.” Veneziale’s eagerness for “any chance I could get to do a little bit of freestyling with Lin” became a bit destructive to the “Heights” development process, he said. “So, how do you turn that destruction into creation?”

At Kail’s instigation, Miranda and Veneziale spun off the group participation sessions into a separate development stream. Eventually, came the question of performing publicly. “Everyone except Lin and I were like ‘noooooo!’ but we did a couple of shows anyway.” Membership in the loose association ebbed and flowed. Kail finally came to a performance, saw the seeds of something and started offering structural suggestions. “That’s when I think Freestyle Supreme became Freestyle Supreme,” says Veneziale.

When Kail suggested the full name, Veneziale recalls, “Everybody was like: ‘That’s a terrible name. It’s really long, and who’s gonna understand why you’re paying homage to John Coltrane and what it means to put love in the center of this silly thing that we’re doing, which is making up rap songs on the spot?’ But our show has always defied description.”

Anthony Veneziale, co-creator with Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” moved from New York to San Francisco in 2006 to support his partner’s completion of a doctorate in public health. The move was on hard on his career, but good for his improv skills. (Photo by Nicolas Zurcher)

Anthony Veneziale, co-creator with Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” moved from New York to San Francisco in 2006 to support his partner’s completion of a doctorate in public health. The move was on hard on his career, but good for his improv skills. (Photo by Nicolas Zurcher)

Audience participation is a key element of each unscripted performance and surprise guests were often announced in the New York run, including Miranda and a coterie of other “Hamilton” stars. (Local guest artists are planned for San Francisco and the other tour cities.) Performances Off-Broadway at Ars Nova in 2004 and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2005 are group milestones, and the documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” was released in 2020.

From 2006 until late last year, Veneziale, his partner Caricia Catalani and their daughters Jettaya and Ociela called San Francisco home. They moved to New York four months ago for his Broadway run but, he says,“To be honest, the jury’s still out. I don’t know if we’re leaving San Francisco for good. My kids want to move back very badly.”

The move here was to support Catalani’s studies to earn her doctorate in public health, but it proved a hit to Veneziale’s career. “The year before I moved, I went on 600 auditions and booked maybe 10 things. That’s 590 times ‘no.’ Actually, it’s like 40 times ‘no.’ And 550 nothings. The cruel truth about being an actor is the lack of feedback. It is the most deteriorating aspect of the job,” he acknowledges. The year he moved to San Francisco, he says,“I went on two auditions.” He was also becoming increasingly unsure if acting was his calling. “I was sort of shoehorning my improvisational skills into what they call acting. I think a lot of really good improvisers do this.”

Veneziale can take on an evangelistic enthusiasm coupled with an academic’s breadth of knowledge over the course of a rangy conversation punctuated with deep — and, yes, freestyling — dives into psychology, gene structure, political analysis and social engineering. It all reveals him to be a keen student of the human condition. This made him an ideal collaborator for “Speechless Live,” a comic takedown of the universally loathed corporate PowerPoint presentation, which he co-founded here with Sammy Wegent. (The cast of FLS will make a dash from the Geary downtown to Club Fugazi in North Beach for a late-night “Speechless Live” performance on Feb. 12.)

The “Speechless Live” experience birthed the consulting company Speechless, a major two-track training system for corporate team building and individual creative development. “Being yourself and being heard is in the core mission statement of what Speechless is trying to put out into the world and there’s just so much similar ribonucleic acid inside of both Speechless and ‘Freestyle Love Supreme.’ They both ask the question: What if you were yourself, and people saw and heard and felt and were affected by the authentic version of who you are?” notes Veneziale.

“I got involved in theater because I think it’s a powerful tool to get people to explore different perspectives and to try to build empathy and I think improv is the best empathy-building tool there is. So my goal is to try to be involved in different projects that bring about perspective shifts and empathy, and to support and build community with others who are doing the same.”

IF YOU GO

“Freestyle Love Supreme”

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays–Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Closes Feb. 27.

Tickets: $5 to $130

Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

NOTE: More than 15,000 tickets priced as low as $5 have been made available through a direct gift and matching funds from Salesforce, with additional support from the Koret Foundation. A.C.T. is also offering a “Pay It Forward” option to allow individual ticket buyers to add a premium to their purchase to make additional low-cost tickets available.

Tags:
Caltrain seeks $260 million to complete electrification

State budget surplus eyed to finish transformative rail project

Future of the Castro Theatre? Depends where you sit

Historical preservation and cinephile experience up against live-event upgrades

Savoring the Warriors’ remarkable run: Five lessons learned

Every postseason tells a different story. This one might be a fairy tale