By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
When I arrive at B52, Margaret Ogden and Mary Quick are already sitting inside the door, waiting for a table. It’s an early dinner hour on a Monday, so we didn’t expect to have to wait. But it’s a good sign about the quality of the meal to come.
B52 is a Middle-Eastern inspired vegan cafe and espresso bar in Lawrenceville. It’s a relatively small place that sits near the intersection of Butler and 52nd St—hence B52.
Together, Quick and Ogden make up an improv duo dubbed Elizabeth, after the middle name they share. And the three of us make up a trio of hungry non-vegans who don’t plan on making the switch, but understand that there are a lot of good reasons to cut back on the consumption of animal products.
We could sit at the bar right away, but we decided to wait it out for a table. It ends up being the right call when we’re sat at a nice round table that’s tucked away from the rest, right by the big front window. The window proves perfect for one of Ogden and Quick’s favorite pastimes: dog watching. It’s a beautiful spring evening and the streets of Lawrenceville are teeming with dog walkers. The women of Elizabeth are happy campers.
Dog-loving is one of many things that they have in common. Quick and Ogden met in an improv class a few years ago and became fast friends, bonding over a desire to destroy the patriarchy and a sense of millennial ennui.
They quickly decided to take their friendship to the next level: improv partners.
“One of the big things in improv is this idea of the ‘group mind,” Ogden says. “You practice with people, you interact with people and then you all kind of get the same ideas—like I’m going to say one word and that’s going to trigger a memory or a shared experience we have that’s going to instantly get us on the same page in a scene.”
In other words, it’s easier to play make-believe with someone who truly understands you. Ogden and Quick’s friendship enhances their improv, giving them a basis of common ideas that helps them to speak to each other in their own language. Sometimes, they don’t even need words.
Quick remembers hearing improvisers say that you know what’s happening in a scene because it’s in your partner’s eyes.
“When somebody first said that to me when I was in an improv class full of people I didn’t know, I was like, ‘what is this? This is some hokey hippie shit,” Quick says. “But doing improv with Margaret, literally I can look in her eyes and be like ‘ok, I kind of know what she’s doing.’”
I can see their group mind at work while we talk. When one can’t find the right words, the other fills in the blanks. And when it comes to ordering appetizers to share, there’s no argument.
We start with water and kombuchas all-around. For the uninformed, kombucha is a fermented tea drink. I’d say if you’ve never had the thought ‘I love vinegar so much, I’d drink it,’ kombucha probably isn’t for you. But I would drink vinegar, so I’ve had a few kombuchas. B52 makes their own, and it’s great. It doesn’t have that chemically taste that makes some store-bought ‘buchas taste like cleaning solutions.
For starters we share a spinach pie, buffalo cauliflower and a cashew cheese flatbread. It’s all tasty, but the delicious cherry pomegranate harissa sauce on the cauliflower makes it the stand-out of the three.
Knowing your improv partner well helps a lot, we establish, but really liking who they are is also quite helpful. Quick says that when you’re doing improv and your scene partner takes the scene in a direction you wouldn’t have taken it, it can be hard to keep going with enthusiasm.
“If you’re doing a scene and you as a human don’t like the person you’re up there with, it’s much harder to be like ‘yeah that’s what we’re gonna do,’” Quick says. “The energy you bring in is very important.”
But Elizabeth doesn’t have that problem. Their trust in each other as friends and performers sets the stage perfectly for Quick and Ogden to enjoy themselves.
“It’s this idea of taking joy in your friends ideas and not like making them better, but playing around with them together in a way that honors the brilliance of your friend,” Ogden explains. “When you have someone whose ideas you like and enjoy, it’s much easier to have that element of common play together.”
When our main dishes arrive, we remark on the beauty of the food. There are vibrant hues of purple, green and red—it’s amazing how much more color their is in plant-based meals. And at B52, there’s plenty of flavor, too.
Quick and I both went for falafel—hers in a salad, mine in a sandwich. The Mediterranean slaw and pickled turnips paired with the falafel create the perfect bite. Ogden enjoys her shawarma made with seitan, a wheat gluten protein.
We all take home leftovers, and although I’m quite full, I don’t feel incapacitated by a food coma. Vegans may be onto something.
It seems improv for Quick and Ogden is, at its simplest, playing around with a friend. It makes perfect sense, then, that their monthly show “Four Square” puts them in a schoolyard recess setting with another duo. It’s a competition between Elizabeth and their guest duo and even the audience at times. They mix short form improv games and long form duo improv to create a show with fast-paced fun that is accessible to people who have never seen improv before.
They wanted “Four Square” to give people a chance to enjoy some short form improv, which is rarer than long form in Pittsburgh, and to highlight improv duos.
“A lot of times duos are people who are friends and it’s really obvious when you’re watching them that they’re having fun, which I think is the most important,” Ogden says.
“You’re there to have fun.”
The next “Four Square: a 2×2 Improv Show” with Elizabeth and special guests Iguanatron is April 26 at Arcade Comedy Theater at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 online or at the door. arcadecomedytheater.com