Becky Johnson InterviewPosted: 29 May 2013
Becky Johnson is one of the headline performers at this year’s Slapdash Festival with The Sufferettes, on Saturday 8th June, 8pm. You can buy tickets for it here. She is also running a workshop: “Awareness, Impulse, Authenticity and Size” on Friday 7th June, 7–10pm. Book a place here.
So how long have you been doing improv?
Started when I was about 15, so that’s 20 years.
That’s a long journey. How has it been along the way?
For me, I have a very interesting and tumultuous relationships with improv. I started with the Canadian Improv Games which is a high school tournament, and then worked with a couple of companies in Vancouver after high school, till about 19 or 20, then became very disinterested with improv. I didn’t like the work I was doing, what I was exposed to felt very limited. So I quit, one of my many times quitting improv.
I went to theatre school in California, I studied physical theatre forms, clowning, melodrama, commedia dell’arte and mask. Then after that I did a little bit of improv, because I was stranded in Vancouver for a while after theatre school. I met Lee White from Crumbs, and we ended up doing some stuff together. It was interesting, I really liked his perspective, but I was still more into the obvious career choice: I wanted to be a clown *laughs*.
I moved to Toronto to study clown for a couple of years. Through all the clown work I realised what was missing for me in improv: this idea of heart, using your own material. That’s always a part of improv, but in clown the way I studied it, it was very clear that that’s what was happening.
So after a couple of years in Toronto, doing clown mostly and physical theatre, I came back to improv, and round this time we started a show in Toronto called Catch 23. We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. For me the improv was very informed by all the clown work I had done. Eventually I stopped doing clown because I felt like it was making me go crazy. It was really unexpected that I ended up back in improv, and really happily back in improv.
I quit one other time since, but that was just a personal financial decision. I had to focus on something that would make more money. I’m convinced improv doesn’t make money at all as a performance form, I’m sure people can challenge me on that. A lot of people who make money also teach, and at that time I just wanted to perform. I was in a committed relationship, now married, and I had responsibilities, I couldn’t perform so much. That was a year or two, and I found a way to perform and it’s not too much of a strain on me. I have other ways to make money and I teach.
So for me the improv journey has been, over these 20 years, realising that there are a lot of mechanics and skills in improv, but also much more of yourself involved.
Indeed, I am in one of those periods where I feel less like performing and more organising my thoughts and working out my direction.
Well I’m a big proponent of quitting, not to jump ship, but because a lot of times it’s because we are not being fulfilled. It’s not just absence makes the heart grow fonder, it also crystallises what was working, and time off is also that fallow time where you can process things and come back to it.
I quit the last time because I felt bitter and burnt out, and then realised all the things it was giving me. Came back and I’ve been really, really happy in the last handful of years understanding where improv fits into my life.
The older I got, the less I thought about where my career was going and the more I understood the importance of just getting on stage and making people laugh.
I was like “Oh! This is a thing, this is important.”
Would you say you found what you were made to do?
I don’t know. I wanted to be an actor since age 11, but I was a mixture of tough and outgoing and shy and awkward. I feel like my process to improv was very studied. I wanted to learn how to be funny and how to improvise. As a result I actually get very angry when some people express the opinion that some people have it and some people don’t, because I know that I didn’t really start being funny. I did improv for years in high school, but what I was really doing was learning the mechanics of it, and I worked with a lot of really funny men (but also lovely men). It took me while to realise the comedy that I had. I was somehow drawn to this work, but it wasn’t an easy process to me.
It took time to find your voice?
Yeah! And that’s why clown was so important, because clown is about you and about your comedy. When I teach I feel that same thing. Some people take classes from other people and they say “I wanna do what you do”. My point in teaching is, what I do is me doing my thing, and I want to help you find your thing, if I can. Because hopefully it will be different and new and more exciting than anything that I have done. For me it’s because I went through such a process of figuring out what it was for me. I had to actually be opened up into finding my own comedy, so I feel that everybody has that in them and I have a lot of sensitivity towards that. I really really hate the idea that some people have it and some people don’t
I’m not that altruistic! *laughs* I want comedy to keep evolving and I think it’s within other people.
So you want to pass on the insights you gained through that work?
Yeah! The mechanics are important, knowing your place on stage, all that stuff but also as a teacher, what I’m trying to say is “OK, all of this stuff exists, but who are you?”
I was also angry about the early improv teaching I had, which was all about story and narrative and structure. And I felt that the people who are actually succeeding are showing a lot of themselves, is that a teachable skill? And then I studied clown and was like, oh it is, it is. It’s hard, but it’s teachable.
Do you think that because its hard that a lot of improv teaching can focus on that technical side instead?
I don’t now. It’s also hard for me because my entire formative education in improv was structural, so I talk about how important the individual is, but I also had all that training. So I wouldn’t say all you need is to take care of yourself, because that can lead to some serious self-indulgence. But I feel it’s a very big hole in improv education, ok we’ve gotten to a point where we can do all these things, but the question of you has never been addressed.
I see it as the actual improv coming from your core, and your technical mind is just a side coach. Your logical mind can point out what’s missing but everything ultimately comes from your belly.
Yeah, I ask this a lot in workshops too: “What is the minimum amount of information that the audience needs?”
You can do a scene where they don’t know who you are and don’t know where you are, and somehow it still works. When I was young I would watch this happen and I would watch a scene where so many of those things hadn’t been done and it was clearly successful and wonderful. So the question I ask myself a lot is: What’s required, and what’s not? I believe in this stripped down idea. Especially fun to work on with really experienced improvisers, where you have all of this, let’s see what the minimum amount is.
In the last 5 years, when I came back to improv, I ended up asking a lot of questions about mystery. Mystery is clearly okay as a storytelling device, but how much mystery is useful in improv, and how much mystery actually makes the scene a little more fulfilling? So those have been areas of exploration for me. And sometimes you go to far and no-one knows what the fuck is going on. *laughs* You’re floating in oblivion.
But it’s interesting to experiment in that direction and realise how little you actually need. Which is self-empowering, you on stage is the thing that’s interesting. Which of these are the essentials, and which of these are extra noise that you don’t need?
I think that’s something I had to get past, the idea of needing to provide information as the basis of improv. Trying to be funny or interesting are things you don’t need to do, because everyone is already genuinely interested in you by virtue of you being another human being.
Yeah, and if you get on stage with all the ideas in your head of what you are going to do, you actually become a little bit invisible. Whereas if you get on stage self-possessed, people will watch you for way longer than you believe. It takes a long time to train yourself to understand how people will just watch. It’s like an investment in a sort of self-confidence.
I believe that, as performers, and especially comedic ones, our job is to get up on stage and mirror the audiences experiences back to them. Probably in a weird or skewed or abstract or absurdist way, but still they see themselves on stage and if you muddy it with too much information they don’t see you any more. And you are them, if that isn’t too weird and abstract and idea.
I see it the same, I think. We are built kind of similarly, and we want to see other and understand ourselves and have that connection.
Yeah, for example Kayla and I perform in Catch 23 pretty regularly and a lot of times we’ll be, if not the only females on stage, the only all female group. I noticed when our show is judged by the audience the higher votes are higher pitched because it’s women. It’s not about gender politics, but it is about them seeing themselves reflected in one way or another.
I taught workshops for women. At first I thought, “This is silly: it’s the same for everybody.” and then I realised that of course it’s not. And one of the biggest things I had to say was: “OK, you might have a frustration that you’re in a company where you are the only woman and you keep being asked to play mothers and girlfriends, but what’s frustrating you is not that you are being asked to play those things, it’s that you are not being allowed to play them in the way that you know them to be. If you’re playing a wife who is just a stereotype that’s not fulfilling, but you know what it is to be in that situation, so … do it. Do it in all its complexity.”
That’s been my world of interest. Do these interpersonal dynamics you know inside and out, but do them fully.
I say this and also I did a show last week where I played a shoe-horn! It’s not like I only believe in this, but I felt like somehow it was never fully addressed that you should be the things that you know as well.
What is a memorable moment in improv for you?
I know the best improv thing I’ve done ever. Probably the very best thing I will ever do and it was very hard to realise that in the moment, so I truly felt it.
My old partner Graham Wagner and I, we were called Iron Cobra, we did a series of shows, I don’t really know how to categorise what we were doing.
We did this scene where the audience was endowed to be one character, the two of us were in the scene and the entire audience was another character in the scene, anybody in the audience could speak and we accepted it as this person. We named the character as Franklin. Graham and Franklin were interviewing me for the job, and it went well and some-one in the audience, Franklin, says:: “You have the job.”
“When do I start?” I said.
Franklin says “Now,”
So I left the stage, done I got the job. So Graham was on stage with Franklin having this conversation, and then someone in the audience says “I’d better get back to work.”
And Graham says “OK I guess I’ll go,” so Graham leaves.
I have to give big props to our technical improviser, who is my favourite technical improviser Mark Andrada, cos he kept the lights up. So Graham and I are now both back stage looking at each other, and Franklin is still going. The entire audience who have paid us to see a show is a character, doing a monologue together, Franklin talking to himself in his office.
Graham and I are facing each other behind the curtains being like “This is it, this is the best thing we can ever imagine happening. The audience has dismissed us from our show and is playing on its own without us, this is the most exciting and terrifying and amazing thing that has happened to us and probably will happen to us in improv.”
It was the most beautiful thing I can ever imagine happening in an improv show, the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced as a performer.
Do you take your improv skills into real life?
I’ve been doing it so long it’s hard to know. Overall I actually separate it a lot from my personal life. That also relates to why I stopped doing clown, because performance world of clown and improv really should have less rules than normal life. I’ve been doing improv since I was so long I had to find more space between the philosophy of my performance and my life.
Of course, I’ve met a lot of people for whom improv changed a lot in their personal life, but for me improv was formative in my personal life, so I had to find that separation.
I was working with this clown teacher in Toronto, and she said this amazing thing “This work can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” That is a very subtle distinction.
It’s possible you do an improv show where something comes out of it for you that is really important for your personal life, but that can’t be your main goal. I’m very upset by performers who are overly selfish about themselves and their experience over the experiences of the audience. For sure, I’ve been in front of audiences who are crazy and out of control and don’t deserve me paying attention to their needs, but that’s pretty rare.
All these contradictions in performance and comedy!
I think that is the responsibility of any role in life, there comes a point where you just have to drop your shit and then get on with the job, because everybody else has that too.
Well, one of the aphorisms of the clown training which was very important to me creatively was “In order to do this work you must look at yourself from all directions and then allow people to laugh and find it funny.”
So the therapeutic side is the exposure of yourself and realisation of yourself, but in the end it’s not about you, you have to open it up to be funny to the audience. You can’t do one or the other, you can’t just be funny and you can’t just self-realise, but its both. I will expose myself to allow the dialogue to open, but I am still the performer and I have a very important job here. For me personally I have a huge amount of respect for that job.
To me that’s a gigantic part of improv, the dialogue with the audience. What makes it work is the audience having the moment of discovery with you, completely a part of the process.
Everybody is capable of incredible comedy, and the people who aren’t considered to be capable of it don’t like the feeling of being funny. In this clown workshop in Toronto, every single student in the class had one moment of brilliance, and for some of them afterwards they hated it. To be good at comedy you have to be laughed at, and some people hate that feeling so much.
This is how I feel about comedy, everybody is actually capable, but some people don’t like that feeling. To me that’s very empowering.
That’s always why I believe in that separation between performance and personal life, because I do want to be the joke on stage because I get that role and like it, but that’s actually not how I want to live my life. I don’t wanna be a laughing stock in my personal life! *laughs*
Have I answered all your questions?
Yes and more! Thanks Becky – we look forward to seeing you in the UK.