Mark Beltzman InterviewPosted: 7 January 2013
Mark Beltzman has been acting, writing, and directing since 1981. He was a founding member of Improv Olympic in Chicago and of the legendary group, Baron’s Barracudas. He’s worked and directed at Second City in Chicago and has directed many improvisational and theatrical productions at Second City in Chicago and Los Angeles, including the Second City Alumni Jam. He was also instructor/director at The Second City Training Center, Improv Olympic West and the Upfront Comedy Showcase.
Luke met up with Mark to find out a bit more…
First off, I would like to ask you about how you started with improv. I remember you said to me you cleared out your account to study with Del Close . . .
Well, I was acting at the time and doing a lot of TV commercials in Detroit Michigan, and was interested in acting, and I’d always been a huge fan of Second City and of course SCTV was really popular back then, which was a Canadian version of SNL.
I read in the Detroit News that Del Close was coming to town and teaching a workshop, and he was the acting coach for the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. I think his actual title was the Metaphysician for the NRFPTP. And so I cleaned out my bank account and met the guy who was running the workshop, and his name was Jonathan Round, and I took the workshop and from there I got hired in the Detroit Times Theater Company, which was just being formed by Jonathan and was part of the reason he brought Del in. He had some people in mind but I got hired, and that’s actually how I met my wife, Beverly Lubin, who was actually known by her stage name back then, Rev Bonneville.
You were already looking for a way into improv?
Yeah, I loved the improv community. There wasn’t really much of one back then in Detroit, but I had taken an acting class where we did some improv and it was something I was really interested in.
That’s why you got right on that chance!
Yeah, of course, to work with Del Close. He was the guru of all improv for everybody who ever has done comedy. He pretty much has shaped comedy as we know it in America today.
He had that rep then?
Yeah, because he started out Second City with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the early 60s. And then all the people he directed and worked with in Chicago at Second City were Bill Murray, John Candy, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd. Everybody studied with Del back then, he directed all the shows at Second City in Toronto and America.
What comedy outside of improv inspired you?
Mostly those guys I mentioned when I was growing up; it was Bill Murray and John Candy and John Belushi. The classic, Steve Martin, is a genius. I think Steve Martin is one of the most underrated artists in America. He can write, direct stage theatre, plays the Banjo, played Carnegie Hall, he’s a painter. He’s a huge influence. But the cool thing about Second City is that most of your heroes become your friends. I got to work with John Candy and Bill Murray. I never met John Belushi, but I was on According to Jim with Jim Belushi for three years.
Steve Martin . . . a Renaissance Man?
Yeah he’s just the most amazing creative source and he is at the top of his game in every possible category of artistry, whether it be painting, writing or comedy. He did standup and sold out stadiums and he played music at Carnegie Hall. He’s at the top of his game in every single category of artistry.
You mentioned your dad once said: ‘I don’t care what you do as long as you do it well.’
I don’t think he understood the complexity of that, but to me it really rang true. Yeah! Do it well, and in order to do it well you always have to be a student and always have to evolve, and you always have to be willing to learn and to listen. And that’s essentially what I teach.
What do you think is the relation of improv to other artforms?
It’s the basis of everything for me. I’m taught and trained as an improviser. To me it allows you to be a better actor, to get out of your own way.
When you do movies and TV, very often they come in with a new script, but it doesn’t phase me to get fresh pages on the day of a shoot.
Improv helps especially with relating to other people and breaking the ice with people on the set, directors or people behind the camera. Even in an elevator or grocery store, it makes it all more fun.
Does it help with tuba playing?
Oh yeah, the whole show is all improvised except the music! There is no real plan. I get everyone together and it’s called TubaCzar. I invite other artists to come play the music; they just have to write me a tuba part. So most of the time I get together with them ten days before the show to rehearse the music we are playing, but there is no other plan. I sit on stage and introduce my guests and we talk about how we know each other and the music we’re gonna play. So a lot of it is improvised and it makes for a lot of fun. It’s really audience interactive, like sitting with your family. Everybody can talk to each other and if people want to join in or yell something out they can. It’s a lot of fun.
Do you have any favourite scenes in improv?
I know when I work with certain people there are diamonds in the rough. Nothing comes to mind specifically so far as scenes go. Back in the day I can think of a couple of Harolds. There was one time Del said: ‘OK, we are gonna do this in twenty-two minutes.’ They were usually forty-five and it came in at exactly twenty-two minutes. And there was one famous Harold that was based on the suggestion of ‘Laundry’, which was just really banal but it was a lot of fun. I don’t remember the scenes that we did, to be honest; I just remember the show.
I guess that’s part of the magic of improvisation: it’s a disposable artform. Although you feel really good about doing it, you often don’t remember what you did.
It was the whole show that was elevated so that’s what you remember?
Yeah, the idea of it, the structure of it, the ensemble: everybody worked together really well. When you create something with a group of people there is always this dynamic and this energy you can’t really recreate. It’s kinda like going to a rock concert where there is a whole arena full of people all focussed on the same moment, at the same time, and that energy is palpable in the room. The thing with really good improvisation is you have a really great audience if everybody is on the same page at the same time. It makes for a lot of fun.
Who are your favourite improvisers to work with?
Dave Pasquesi, Mitch Rouse – who is a good friend of mine – Joel Murray. He, Dave Pasquesi and I went through iO together. We were in Baron’s Barracudas, then we all got hired at Second City. Chris Barnes is another great guy.
In LA these days I like working with some of the fresh talent that’s come out of Second City and moved to LA in the last few years – like Brad Morris and Andy StClair, Brian Jack, Joe Canale. They are just all top-notch improvisers who I love to work with in LA.
I got a chance to see of lot of Andy StClaire in Chicago last year.
I love Andy. He’s a great guy. I love working with him. Any time I get a chance to work with him it’s a great time.
What makes these guys good? Listening?
Yeah it’s all about listening, but the idea that you trust somebody and that you’ve got the same training and the same background and come from the same philosophy makes it really easy to play the same game at the same time. And when the game changes you don’t even have to look back. In basketball they call it a ‘no-look pass’, when you’re looking one way and you pass the ball to a teammate without even looking at him and he knows and he’s right there to catch it. It’s the same. Del actually used to call the Harold a team sport and it is in that sense. You can throw a no-look pass to your partner and know that they’re just gonna be there at the right moment and not only catch the ball but score.
You can all play at the top of your game?
Exactly! That’s what I teach as well: get everybody on the same page at the same time and play the same game.
How has improv affected other parts of your life?
I’m living it, really. Right now I’m in the UK and improvising my life, where I’m going and staying. Have been doing that for the past four months, since August and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ended, my wife and I have been travelling around Scotland and Amsterdam and now here, just embodying the idea of improvising our lives.
Improv has become your life?
Did you imagine when you started it would be such a large part of your life?
No. I know I love it and improv is one of the greatest drugs in the world to me, and people I continue to meet who are passionately involved in improvisation share that mentality. I love doing it, I love teaching it, and now living it.
But no, I never imagined years ago that I would be throwing caution to the wind and improvising my way through life.
Mark’s teaching a series of improvisation classes in London between now and the end of February. Details here.
He’s also guesting with Luke & Michael (hooray) at The Wilmington Arms on Sunday 3 February. Details here.
He will be taking part as Teacher and Performer in the New York Improv Festival at The PIT (People’s Improv Theater) on March 20–23. Details here.