Bill McLaughlin studied and worked with Del Close in Chicago and has performed and taught in New York and Philadelphia over the past 25 years. I had a chat with him to see what makes him tick and find out about the teaching he’s bringing over in March.
So, how long have you been doing improv?
Since 1977, so about 37 years, I moved down to Chicago then. I’m from the Philadelphia area originally and I went out there to study theatre. Professors I had were from the Midwest and they had told me about Northwestern University and the Goodman Theatre out in Chicago, and I thought this sounds great and my sister lives out there so I thought I’d go and investigate.
I had never seen an improv performance, and she took me to a show and that was it, I was like a kid in a candy shop, that was that.
It was in a small little club and they were doing short-form, and what really caught my eye is that you could be or do anything. They did a series of different structures and games, typical short-form stuff. I noticed that, people got to be so many different things and deal with so many different situations, as opposed to a play where you audition and if you don’t look like the plumber from next door you won’t be that person. I saw the opportunity to be whatever you wanted to be, so if I wanted to be a gangster or a cowboy I could do it, just a range of opportunity there and the fact it was playing. Just playing and using your imagination. I had been doing that naturally for years, I just thought ‘Wow look people actually do that on stage!”
That’s interesting, I never thought about how casting in acting can limit what you get to do. Whereas in improv you get to choose all the time.
Exactly. It’s your world and you are the creators creating your world and anything you want to be in it. That immediately attracted my attention, the challenge of being in the moment was so amazing too. Plays are wonderful I love doing plays and doing theatre, but it was a completely different level I saw and I thought I’ve got to push myself to do that.
And did it feed back into your acting?
I tell people, one of the things it did for me as an actor, it made me totally aware of what was going on at any minute. As an actor you have your lines, your character, whatever else is happening in the play you have to be aware of, but you are not focussed on it, its already written- its already taken care of. With improv you are never away from what’s going on, even if you aren’t in the scene that’s going on with your partners, you might be needed at any moment.
It made me so aware in acting, whether it was working or not, I felt this spontaneous connection to what was happening, I was in the moment even if it was a scripted play.
They use improv as an acting exercise, but to take it up to the level where you are absolutely responsible for it, you are not doing an improv exercise to be emotional or to stretch some character stuff, then you absolutely are completely responsible for what’s going on. So you have to be aware of everything: what are we connecting to, is there a storyline here, is there a game between us? There are so many levels. It absolutely pushes your intellect, you have to bring your A-game, you have to play at the top of your intelligence as they would say at Second City.
What was your journey with improv?
I was in Chicago till the end of 79-80, we moved to New York and established a theatre, I was with this group but the director died and the group fell apart. I moved onto a group called the First Amendment, which was a much more freewheeling and extremely talented group of people, it was extraordinary. That was the group I preformed with at the Edinburgh festival, and we managed to hang together till 1990, the director lost the space we were in, and by that time people were branching off doing separate thing’s and I had a partner, a brilliant improviser by the name of Joe Perce, and we started doing corporate entertainment.
You’re doing a trade show, or product launch, all very corporate, but they were looking for people who could write a show and change it on the fly, who could deal with executives and have that flexibility to throw ideas that the client would like, and we had to involve. Again it’s your improvisational skills, you’re not just doing a show, you have to be informative and entertaining as well. It forced you to push your skills to another level, because I had the improv background, what ever the challenge is I will find a way to do it. I still do it.
I like to be a complete professional at that, I can go in and go to a corporate meeting and I know exactly what they are looking for but at the same time I am relaxed in the moment. Whatever comes up I say “Yeah!”
Sounds like improv really influenced you and is fundamental to how you approach life.
Exactly. Your brain has to adjust to the idea that you cannot predetermine what’s going on, you have to throw your expectations out the window sometimes, because things will change.
Yeah in improv, things don’t always work, there are those moment that aren’t the most brilliant, but you don’t worry about them. You learn from your success. That was one of the things Del Close used to teach, the only thing you can learn from your mistakes is not to repeat them, learn from your success and add to it. That builds your success and your strength.
You learn from the positive, and you have to recognise what stops you, what blocks you, what stands in your way- that’s great try not to do it again. But when I’m teaching that’s what I jump on, when I see the light go on for a student and they’ve done something that worked really well I’ll make sure they take a picture of it in their mind. Don’t lose that. That wasn’t an accident, what you did was actually just a really good move.
I like that kind of teaching, it’s about giving them the power. You didn’t give them anything, you just pointed it out for the student. They have the goods.
Yes! You mastered the technique!
A moment like that for me was when I was studying in Chicago at Second City. Whoever was playing with me was my boss and kept accusing me of making mistakes and I would ‘yes and’ it, I would say “Yeah when I turned on the photocopier that’s when the fire started.” I was almost ahead of my boss in showing how incompetent I was.
Del stopped the scene and said, “That’s what I was talking about when I said Yes anding.” And the feeling it gives you is that “Yeah I have this tool and I figured out how to use it!”
Those moments in improv you feel like you’re floating 3 feet off the floor.
Do you teach because you want to pass on that experience to others?
Exactly! Well first of all when I teach I’m entertained all the time. And I always have to learn, what can I do to take my teaching to the next level? It forces me to stay a student of what I do, I have to go out and see shows, see what’s changing, what’s evolving in improv. I go see shows up in New York and Philadelphia and see what people are doing because creative people are coming in and finding new ways to express improvisation and theatre. But yes, also teaching is giving people what I’ve had.
Last summer 3 of my students went to perform at the Slapdash Festival, Safe Weird (check our interviews with Safe Weird members Kaitlin and Rob & Andrew). I was talking to Andrew last night and he says he thinks about England every day, and he has to get back there some time, just the adventure of it. For me the places I went performing improv, I performed at the Edinburgh festival. With theatre I toured in Europe doing different things like Russian constructivist theatre. I love the adventure of taking a challenge and seeing where it takes you.
For me it’s always been where I am, who I’m with and what I’m doing. You’re meeting people who are like you. They raise your game, they raise your level of awareness and talent, and your enjoyment of it. So I love giving the adventure of it to people.
Even if they are just going to take a class and enjoy it, fine. If it makes you more confident getting up and speaking in your job, that’s great, because before that you didn’t think you could do that. So many students tell me “Before taking your class I had a hard time in conversation or a hard time with this.” I had a woman who could barely look or talk to anyone. When she finally let loose, because I set up the right environment where it doesn’t matter if you fail, by the end of it she revealed there was an incredibly intelligent person inside who could make some amazing choices. When somebody like that comes to you and tells you how much they appreciate what you did, what a reward that is.
I have a group of college students here I put together, they have only performed together a few times. I want them to perform more and get more experience, and hopefully they will go down into Philadelphia and take classes and get involved in the scene down there, or maybe go up to New York. I would love to see them push on with it and see them take that adventure.
Yes! It’s all about that adventure. That’s why it’s so good to have this international connection of people coming over. Do you have any words for people coming to take your workshop over here in London?
Be prepared to enjoy yourselves. I will stress generosity, bring that attitude with you. Bring that to my workshop.
There you have it! A lot of enthusiasm and adventurousness is headed our way in March. Bill is teaching his weekend workshop on devising formats in improv on the 22nd and 23rd of March. Find all the details and book here at the Nursery site.
I had a chance to sit down with Cariad Lloyd the other day. She does this thing, you may have heard of it, impro? I have enjoyed Cariad’s improvising ever since I saw her perform with The Institute many years ago. So it was a pleasure to find out about her journey so far.
How long have you been improvising?
Officially since 2005 though I did some at school and a show at university. In 2005 I did a course in short-form improv, run by Mark Phoenix.
That course was a changing point for you?
Yeah, definitely. I did a bit at school in drama lessons, and watched Whose Line is it Anyway? obsessively. I loved it but didn’t think you could do it as a job. I did a one-off impro show at university with Sara Pascoe (Sara and Cariad both went to Sussex) and it wasn’t great. I thought I didn’t really like improv because of that one night.
Then I saw this ten-week course that was run by Mark Phoenix, so I rang up and they said it was booked. A week later, they rang me back and said somebody had dropped out – do you still want to do it? I remember being in Richmond and thinking “Yeah, actually I do.”
I went and I was instantly at home. I found it easy. It felt like I just got it. It was the first thing I had ever really done that I just got. I bought Keith Johnstone’s book and it just blew my mind, all the things he was saying. I thought: I do that. And I realised I’ve always been improvising. I used to talk to myself in my room. I thought it was just a weird thing I did. I didn’t know I could do it out loud with other people.
The first course was simple basics; “Yes and”, “Who, What, Where”. I just loved it and we did a show at the end. Other people on the course were dreading the show and I just couldn’t wait to get on stage.
It just blew my mind. I felt like I’ve found my people, this is it. I did that course then I started doing bits of improv, and because there weren’t many girls then, I got recommended and I met people and did shows and then the next year I met Paul Foxcroft. The rest is history… *laughs*
When I talked to Lee Simpson he mentioned how few women were doing improv back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it seems only recently that has changed.
Yeah, sometimes I got a job because Pippa Evans or Ruth Bratt couldn’t do it. But then when I started The Institute (the improv group Cariad ran with Paul Foxcroft for two years in 2006) it had seven women, and three guys. It wasn’t conscious it was just the best people I could find coming up. It is a generational thing and has changed hugely since I started.
So was finding improvisers like finding your tribe?
Yeah, I was very scared of doing stuff on my own. I was so unconfident at that point I just wanted to do stuff that was fun. I wanted to be an actor, and acting was hard. I couldn’t get auditions or jobs but improv was a thing I did that was just fun.
Paul and I had been involved in a one-off charity impro night at The Canal Café in London, and after that we were both involved in a show that went to Edinburgh, so we sort of decided to continue doing it up there. Paul and I ran three nights in Edinburgh. They were late-night, rowdy TheatreSports type gigs. Three sold out nights to 200 people in C Venues. We got on so well, we spent the whole summer talking about improv. He knew a bit more and knew other people, and he took me to see the Penny Dreadfuls’ improv show Shamwagon, which was longform, which I had never seen before.
When we came back to London we decided to form The Institute and The Canal Café gave us a residency. It was so easy to form a group, there was just a lot of talented people around at that time, especially at The Canal Cafe: Sara Pascoe, Jess Fostekew, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Arrowsmith, Shelley Islam, Lucy Trodd, Vanessa Hammick, Ben Van De Velde, Nick Ewans, Steve Mould. As I’ve found with all things in my life: when you are doing the right thing it’s easy, it’s not hard. We had a free rehearsal space every Sunday near London Bridge in a Georgian building. We had a giant hall to run around in every Sunday for two years, and we didn’t have to pay for anything. It got harder as we tried to build it up, but that first year . . . !
That room. I still describe it as the perfect improv space. Wooden floor, long but wide and windows both sides. Natural light but the sun never hit you. Ahh, it was a dream room!
Do you believe that the universe works by giving you opportunity when you are in the right place?
I’m a massive hippy, yeah I do. So, improv changed my life and two books changed my life. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay.
I think when you are doing the right thing, doors fly open. The moment I went into comedy it was easy. Of course I had hard moments, I didn’t swan my way to writing an Edinburgh show. I was trying to be an actress for so long, but the moment I started writing my own comedy, I got “Oh do you want to do this gig, this person wants to talk to you,” stuff that had never happened before and the same thing happened when I started doing improv.
How did the Artist’s Way help you?
I stopped doing improv for 18 months because my heart was broken when the Institute broke up. It was just so sad, that it didn’t work out, it was no one’s fault, just sad. I thought I would never do it again, then I did the Artist’s Way which made me write my Edinburgh show which changed my life, so I am a bit evangelical about it, sorry. There is a chapter about creativity you have closed the door on that you don’t need to.
I remember saying to my now husband “I haven’t done anything like that.” And he said “You don’t do improv any more”, and I thought “Oh god that’s true”. So I started guesting for people, and I did the rounds with various groups, and started being an improviser again. I didn’t have a group, and that was when Amy Cooke-Hodgson asked me if I wanted to come to a workshop for this Jane Austen show she wanted to try. And I was so ready for a group, and was finally saying yes to things in my life again.
So yeah, I firmly believe if you are doing the right thing and ask the universe for it and believe in what you are doing then that journey becomes easier.
What is it about improv that makes it special for you, as opposed to writing or standup?
I think what improv does that other things doesn’t is that you have to play nicely. You can do standup and do writing and not play nicely. But you can’t do that in improv. Somebody on that stage has to like you.
I teach actors sometimes that have never done improv. I always say you know when you see a group of kids and there is one kid who doesn’t play nice: don’t be that kid. Don’t be the grumpy one, don’t be the one throwing your teapot across the room.
Listen, take your turn. That is what improv really hones. It makes you aware of your behaviour with others.
You have to get on with people. Especially with the work I have done since then – it’s been a great tool. If you are in a writing room, you may hate an idea or be pissed off with a person, but you don’t have to block; you make them look good, let them win their game. It teaches you to work well with people, which is a really good and useful skill.
It teaches you to listen to others.
It’s interesting: I just started teaching drop-ins again for David Shore, and I think the biggest problem is people not listening to themselves. You do get a few people who don’t listen to other people and won’t let them in, but most people don’t listen to themselves. You have to Yes and yourself. People judge themselves before they have ever done anything.
That’s why those two books changed my life, because they are about stopping judging yourself and that voice that blocks creativity, and turning down that voice.
When I teach a class warm-up I say: “All of you had a voice in your head when it went wrong, saying I’m rubbish, I shouldn’t have said that. That person hates you. That person thinks you fancy them. We all have it, but when we realise we all have it, we can all turn it down.”
It’s useful for outside life, for crossing the road, but you can practice turning it down on stage. Judging yourself is the biggest problem for performers. Not willing to be bad, there is a whole chapter in The Artist’s Way about being willing to be a beginner, the humility of beginners is so important. Years ago I thought to myself if I ever think I’ve ‘got’ improv I probably shouldn’t do it any more. I’ve had moments where I think I know what I’m doing and then for six months the shows are bad!
I don’t care if you hate that teacher; go to the workshop, because you will learn something. You can take at least one thing from it. Those are my favourite improvisers, people who have done loads, done workshops, done clowning, writing, stand up, music, other things. They are taking from everything. When you talk to them about their favourite shows they are not just improv shows, it’s other things that are inspiring them.
I think you do need to create space between improv and life sometimes. You need perspective otherwise you have nothing to say.
I think the time I had off improv was the best thing I did for me. I had to think about what I thought about performance, what kind of improv I believed in. At that time it felt awful, but you can look back and find it useful, see what got solved during that time off.
How do you use improv in life?
After I read The Artist’s Way I sat down at the computer and started treating writing like improv. Before I would sit down and write one sentence and go “It’s shit”. If that was a scene and I was teaching and they did that I would scream at them! Why don’t you just Yes and your writing?
So I did that, then I showed it to people and they liked it and I did the show and people liked it, and I got more confidence with myself.
It’s the same things you do in improv that work that work in life. I was blocking myself, not writing anything down, not gigging. It took me four or five years to do standup, and people kept telling me to keep doing it and eventually stopped, and it took everyone stopping to make me realise I needed to do it.
It just gave me a kick up the arse made me think “If you want to do it, do it. Don’t talk about it.”
That’s a good last line for an interview.
Just do it! *laughs*
Earlier this year I saw Improbable’s show The Still, which was fascinating. They work for a week with an expert like a speech therapist or non-violent communications practicioner, then create a couple of improvised shows based on the work they have been learning about. It was eye-opening and a nice reminder of how flexible improvising is as a performance.
I had a chat with Lee Simpson, one of Improbable’s artistic directors alongside Phelim McDermott, about his long improv career (life?). With experience and influences ranging from the Comedy Store Players to Keith Johnstone he has absorbed much wisdom.
How long have you been improvising?
Well the joke philosophical answer is all my life, as have we all. When I was at school, my drama teacher, Bob Hewett, read Keith Johnstone’s Book Impro. That must have been ‘79, and it changed his life. One student was reported as saying “Mr Hewitt has read a book and it’s changed his life so now he’s trying to change ours.”
I was one of the last intakes into this grammar school that was in the process of becoming a comprehensive school, and Bob was the head of English, and taught Drama. The book sort of exploded his head, he became less interested in teaching English and more interested in teaching drama. So he set up a lunch-time drama club, where we exclusively worked on Keith’s stuff. That was when I was 16.
Was it his enthusiasm for it that sold it to you, or did it really spark something in you immediately too?
I liked doing drama anyway and I liked the teacher anyway so the combination of the two meant that when he said “Lets do this stuff!”, I gave up my lunch breaks to do it. As soon as we started it was fantastic. It was unlike anything we had done. We ended up doing impro shows for the school during lunch hour.
It’s hard to imagine these days but at the time it was sort of unheard of. Theatre Machine had been doing stuff but not for a while and it was before Omelette Broadcasting were born, so the idea that people could go on stage and make it up seemed genuinely revolutionary. It wasn’t genuinely revolutionary because people had been doing it for years, but in Great Yarmouth, where I went to school, it doesn’t take much to seem revolutionary.
It was mind blowing.
Sounds like quite an experience!
It was, and we kept with it after school. A little group of us, myself; Janita Rowland, (who is now my wife) Paul Hodds, Dean Lepley and Kevin Andrews. We set up a little group called ‘Play it by Ear’. We taught workshops in Great Yarmouth, for kids and teenagers
Then I went to drama school, and again was lucky to meet Andy Harman. Everyone has these meetings with people and you go “Wow how lucky was I to meet this person!”
So in addition to Bob Hewett, who’s still a friend, at drama school I met Andy. He taught improv at drama school and gave me my first gig in London. Andy’s great, I’m having lunch with him this Tuesday. So improv friends stay friends!
After Andy Harman I was lucky enough to hook up with Peter Wear, who is brilliant and very generous then ended up with Phelim. All big influences.
What is it that keeps you improvising?
Ever since I started it’s been constantly unfolding. The thing that keeps me doing improv is because it’s a practice and not a skill. Unless I wake up tomorrow and I’m suddenly Buddha why would I not continue?
It’s constantly evolving. We always say that if you think you know how to do it you’re in trouble. It’s not a skill because it’s not a finite thing, its an infinite thing. You can never know it, there are as many connections as there are connections in the universe.
And I’m old now, especially in improv years I’m incredible old! As you age your relationship to it changes, because your relationship to the world changes. So what you ask of it changes and what it asks of you changes.
It’s like a constant companion to you?
Companion, teacher, master, practice, world view. You could put any word you like in there. For me it’s an invitation to awareness, if there is any point in being alive it is to hopefully become aware and impro is an invitation to do that.
Improv says “Well, here you are: now is it possible to be aware of what somebody else is doing, what the audience is feeling, what the world is saying, what is going on inside you?” that’s an infinite list, an infinite number of things that one can bring one’s awareness to.
When a man is tired of impro he is tired of life.
That does seem to be the basic skill of impro. If a scene didn’t work it’s because you missed something, in yourself or the other person. An improv scene is a good litmus test for your awareness. What was different in the beginning for you?
When I started it was questions like: Can I do something without thinking too much? Can I say the first thing in my head? Can I speak dialogue and also build an environment?
The real basics, the technical basics which seem impossible when you start like how can one ever exists on stage and not just be in a blind panic? Then you grow and your relationship to time changes, so the things it asks of you changes.
We [Improbable] talk a little bit at the moment about the rule making software that runs in peoples brains. You don’t know that it’s running, it’s in the background so we don’t know that our brain is making rules for us as we go along based on what happens. So that dictates our behaviour the next time around and we don’t even notice.
So we learn a successful strategy which is a good thing and helps us, but we keep that strategy even when it ceases to be useful, even when it starts to becomes destructive. We keep that strategy even if our life is falling apart or our relationships are turning to shit. Then the good reason for doing it is buried under so much crap you don’t even know where it came from. In the middle of it there is some core belief that sustains these outer casings of old habit.
I see that rulemaking software too. We learn things in society and I have always thought we need to leave those rules behind to get better at impro.
You have to be aware. What am I doing? What is happening as I do that? What is happening in the world when I do that?
Then being aware of those habits just gives you more choice to play different scenes or learn new things.
Yeah! I think it gives you real choice, rather than that weird limited choice. Even Keith has stopped saying that you have to say the first thing in your head. It’s a great thing to practice but at a certain point you can choose, as long as you are aware of that process. Like the idea of accepting all offers: at a certain point you don’t have to, you just have to have awareness of what you are saying yes to. You are always saying yes to something. Even if you are saying yes to that part of you that doesn’t want to do something.
For example, if somebody comes in and says “Here is your tea my lord”
You say “I haven’t got a butler!” there’s your classic block right there. But you may be saying no to the scene about a butler, but you are saying yes to the part of you that doesn’t like the idea of that scene. You are always saying yes to a whole bunch of stuff and no to a whole bunch of stuff what ever you do.
More interesting to me is: can you have awareness to what you are saying yes to and what are you saying no to, and how you are saying no?
That is a very interesting way of looking at it. I’ve never seen it that way. I have seen that when I started I tried to learn the rules and apply them without thought and it was frustrating. Now I see that it’s about learning to act without rules.
I do think that at the same time, of course you have to practice saying “Yes”, because we don’t get a lot of practice in life. I’m about the billionth person to say that we don’t get a lot of practice in life, because if we did we wouldn’t be doing improv. We’d catch something unpleasant, end up dead or in prison. Or both. So of course we have to practice those things, and you have to go back to practicing them time and time again. It’s possible to kid yourself that you are making choices, when you are not because it’s a practice not a skill.
You are never in the same situation for 2 seconds running, let alone 2 shows running, it’s always different.
Have you used impro off stage as a tool?
I think I’ve changed through impro, I think as a child I was quite intellectual plan-heavy, really good memory recall. I was good at being a ‘good pupil’ at school. Over the years, it may be the age or the lifestyle after a point, I’m not like that so much anymore. It’s fucked up my memory basically! *laughs*
You don’t need to remember stuff if you can improvise.
Yeah, I once had the actor’s nightmare where you find yourself on stage and don’t know your lines. I knew my acting career was done when I had the actor’s nightmare and I was fine. In this dream I was onstage and I didn’t know my lines or what show I was in or have the right costume on, and I thought “This is great!”. I woke up and thought oh great my acting career is done, I’m gonna have to improvise now.
But I don’t think I have used impro as a tool in my life. I don’t know, it’s hard to say.
It’s just so interlinked with your life it’s difficult to imagine how you would be without it?
Yeah, I know that I’m rubbish at life. On stage the universe makes some sort of sense to me. The 2 hours I am on stage are the most relaxed hours of my day. The idea of ringing up a plumber fills me with fore-boding and dread. Maybe I imagine the consequences. If a real plumber does a bad job, I can imagine an armageddon like situation. On stage that’s fine.
I know it’s the other way round for other people, the idea of being on stage is their worst fear, but I think for performers it’s the other way round. The consequences are not as important.
The consequences can be that the audience doesn’t like you or not think you are any good. But that’s not serious. Very, very rarely have I been threatened with violence because of my performance. Very few abusive Tweets as it goes. It’s alright.
What does the future hold for you in improv?
There’s one project called Permission Improbable, which is looking at women in improvisation. Something me and Phelim have been interested in for a long time, since the 80s, when the situation of women in comedy and impro was way worse than it is now. Since then we have wanted to address it.
The landscape has undoubtedly changed for women in impro and comedy. I think we’re now free of the situation where there is only allowed to be one funny women at a time. It was Victoria Wood for a while, then Emma Thompson, then Josie Lawrence. Or it was Victoria Wood +1, there was only Victoria Wood and one other woman at a time who were ‘funny’.
Now, there are enough fantastic female comedians and improvisers to be well past that. Although I still think there is difficulty – the world is sexist, therefore impro is sexist if only because impro reflects and distils, its a microcosm of the world. Feminism is a much more complex issue in the first world than it used to be, but it’s still an issue. We’re really exited about the possibilities of looking at that, we did an R&D then did a workshop this year, and want to do a show next.
We’re continuing with the Still, which you saw recently. We would like to do the Season of the Still. We usually do The Still every 6 months and its just 1 show for a couple of days. We’d like to do 8 in ten weeks or something like that, see how that affects it. We were talking the other day about bringing Lifegame back. I had a really exciting idea about impro that I don’t want to talk about , I want to keep it under my hat for a while.
Oh god yes, and that’s with all the other Improbable stuff. Phelim just started the next show, then Improbable is doing an Opera. I’m touring again. Paul Merton’s Impro chums are touring in the autumn. That’s always fun. Mike McShane is coming back for that I think.
Something that isn’t well known I think is that The Comedy Store Players used to tour, way back, when really the only comedians who toured were big names like Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrott, maybe Phil Cool. Comics didn’t tour. It was Nica Burns who put us on a bus and we toured the country doing venues like rep theatres. That was kind of unheard of at the time. That was fantastic, as close to being in a band as I was every going to get. Tour bus to hotel, soundcheck, gig, tour bus, hotel soundcheck, gig. I thought “This is almost rock and roll!” I’m lucky enough to be able to do that again.
Sounds like it will be an awesome time again. Thanks for taking time to chat and good luck with all the hard work.
Check out http://www.improbable.co.uk/ for more info on Improbable’s projects and upcoming shows.
Alan Starzinski has been at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre since 2007. He has performed on Harold Night and various other shows including Sandino’s Unsolved Mysteries. He is the creator of the Creek and the Cave’s longest running improv show “The Kaleidoscope”. He has performed across the US. You can follow him on twitter @alanstarzinski.
So how long have you been doing improv?
Since 2007 so six years now.
What got you into it?
I always liked comedy. When I was a kid I wanted to be a clown because in my mind when I was 5 that was the only job that made people laugh. Then I realised there were comedians, that was what I wanted to do, and I always acted and stuff, and I did short form in high-school.
I always watched “Whose Line is it Anyway?” then I saw UCB had a special on the Bravo channel of Asssscat, their flagship show. I was like “Holy shit, what the fuck is this?” it blew my mind, it was amazing.
Before that I actually had a run in with Matt Walsh, one of the founders of UCB, at an audition. I took busses into New York from New Jersey all the time as a teenager to audition for commercials, and I had just seen an episode of the UCB show.
I said to him “Oh my god, I just saw you on your show that you had, do you guys ever do stuff any more?” *laughs*
He said “Oh yeah we got a theatre, you should come by.”
I said “Oh cool yeah, I’ll do that,” but I never did. That was before I saw the Asssscat thing. Then when I moved to the city I was still doing acting and stand-up, and then I started doing improv jams, then I saw Asssscat live at UCB Theatre, that was it, I was done. I put 20 dollars aside from every shift as a food runner at a restaurant, to save up for my first class. All the while still doing the free jams. It just cascaded from there, I dropped out of college to do it, I was gonna end up doing this when I was done with college anyway and I didn’t want that college debt.
It was the best decision I ever made, UCB Theatre became my college.
What was that learning experience like?
I worked really hard, I didn’t start out great. I was funny but I wasn’t at a skilled level. You know those people in groups, “Yeah he’s really funny, but he’s a destructive force”, that was me.
It took a while. I almost got kicked off my indie team, I also would notice the teachers weren’t giving me the notes in the scene, they were giving other people notes on how to have dealt with what I was doing. I remember thinking “No notes in the scene, cool.” but then realising after, that was a bad thing *laughs*.
There was a big turning point for me, where I emailed my teacher Anthony King, who was the Artistic Director of the theatre at the time. That was a thing I always did with my teachers, I emailed them halfway though the course and at the end to see how I was doing. And he said “I keep giving you the same note and you don’t hear it, you just don’t listen. That’s the problem, you’re not listening and not committing. I’ve given it to you several times and I stopped giving it to you because you didn’t hear it.”
That was a really big turnaround point, I thought “Oh fuck, oh shit, I’ve gotta do this”. It kicked me in the ass.
There were several of those moments that really helped me, Anthony was one of the best teachers I have ever had, one of my favourite teachers, the guy who really helped mould my improv.
You gotta check your ego at the door, and I didn’t when I started out. It still haunts me to this day, but if you’re gonna do it, you have to not let it affect you and keep going.
I think that shows a lot of drive to get better, I had a similar experience where I was just funny and it was a hard wake-up call to realise I needed to be doing a lot more in scenes.
Yeah, it really fucking made me put the pedal to the metal. I auditioned for the house teams twice, without getting a callback even. The second time I got an email from the AD saying “You had a good audition, if we had more space we would have called you back. Keep going you’re on the right track”.
So then I created a show- so that I could ace my audition pretty much. It’s a show that’s still running, I don’t host it any more because it’s a tradition that when you get on a house team you give up hosting. It’s called Kaleidoscope, there are 4 captains of teams and they form a combination of people that don’t ever play with each other. You can only have 1 person that you really know on a team.
So I was playing a 20 minute set every week with people I had never played with before. I was grinding that stone, preparing myself to be able to improvise with anybody, learn how to do anything in any situation. Asking myself “Why didn’t this set work, ok it was because of this thing, I could have done this instead”. That really helped me.
Also my indie team at the time, we would do different forms all the time, we would practice a form for 3 months, do it in shows for 2 months, then practice another form for 3 months, perform that so on and so forth. I learned all of these different skills and different abilities, just know how to adapt. Now, I am fairly confident I can adapt to most improv situations.
I think that’s one of the real core skills of improv. Is Slapdash another chance to work that flexibility?
Yeah, this is a good opportunity to do that. I loved doing that jam that I did (the Fancy Pants Jam). I enjoyed that the most, just doing scenes with different people, seeing how they play. If I’m playing with somebody for the first time I will let them initiate so that I can just react to it, it gives me a better idea of how they are from that first line.
That sounds like quite a freeing way to play, just react to whatever comes to you from the other person.
Whatever somebody does or however somebody says something that’s what I take from it. I was a silly player first, then I was a very heady player, like a robot. Now I feel like I am more fluid, I always reference the Bruce Lee quote of be like water.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
That’s my goal, just be water, whatever situation I’m in.
Why is improv joyful for you?
Because you are never gonna do it again or see it again. Sean Conroy always refers to it as throwing diamonds in the ocean. Well it’s throwing diamonds and also throwing turds. The greatest scene that you ever do, the best you can do is write a sketch of it, you never get to do that scene again.
And the bad scenes that you do you never have to do that again. I’ve probably done my 200 worst scenes already and I’ll never go back to them, because I know how to not do that. I realised it’s all about having fun, that’s one of the main concerns, have fun. We don’t get fucking paid for this, it’s just your joy.
Sometimes when I coach or teach I say “There is no excuse to not be having fun in this scene, because you can control the reality- you are gods when you are onstage”.
With that power comes great responsibility, to quote Uncle Ben *laughs*.
I’ve taught older people and I think it’s a little more difficult for them. Like the movie Hook, Peter Pan grew up and forgot all of these things, but the Lost Boys didn’t because they were younger. I started at 19 and I think that really helped me because I was still a child, and improv is essentially being a child, letting those inhibitions go and playing and having fun and letting lose. There is structure to it, but there is structure to Duck Duck Goose or Tag.
I think that kid’s games are actually better than beginners improv because they still know how to play. When I played with He-Man toys I knew who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. The stories were all simpler and more fun.
Yeah, When you played Cowboys and Indians, the second a kid goes “I’m not shot you just grazed my arm!” that’s when it stops being fun, when you don’t play along to the rules.
The same thing in improv, if somebody goes “Ah actually I’m not dead”, ok man, alright fuck you *laughs*. This is what I have to deal with? It’d be a lot more fun if you just got shot!
What is your focus in comedy at the moment?
I’m still doing shows all the time. I’m writing sketch more, I’m focussing on writing my one man show, a couple of sketch shows, a web series.
Just trying to work on characters so I’ve got some stuff to present. Because improv is great, I love it and I want to do it until the day I die, but I do want to do film and television. My main inspiration to do that is so that if I’m on TV I can turn up and do improv whenever I want. That would be a dream come true! If I could just show up and sit in, that seems like the most fun to me.
I know people who do that and can do that. Robin Williams has turned up to UCB a few times and asked to sit in with a team, and it happens. It’s really cool.
Has improv improved your writing and performance then?
Oh, a fucking hundred percent! Just knowing the concept of game of the scene, and reading a sketch before I started doing improv, it’s like “What the fuck was this, come on man, you wrote this? Shit!”
Its like reading poetry you wrote in the sixth grade, oh I did not know what feelings were at all! *laughs*
It’s definitely helped both, I’m a performer first and foremost. I like writing and I enjoy it, but if somebody told me I never had to write again and I could just perform, that’s fine by me.
I started doing stand-up again. I found improv and I kind of abandoned stand-up. I think that my stand-up now is better than it was. I know how to centralise what’s funny in something, like the science of comedy kind of thing.
Improv is also working with people, being able to build with people. It’s all about teamwork and that’s so important, which I love. It’s made me a better person, made me a better listener. I’m so much more confident now. It’s crazy!
So it has given you some pretty solid skills in a lot of areas.
I always say there are 4 pillars to improv, Committing, Listening, Reacting and Having Fun. Even if you just have listening and reacting, the other two things will come, and if you are having fun and committing those other two will come. Every note that you will ever get will just stem from one of those four!
I really think that’s true, every note I get or give myself always comes down to one of the basics.
Always! It’s just packaged in different ways. I always say to my classes it’s always going to be one of these things and that’s what I’m gonna tell you.
When somebody days you’re not doing anything in a scene, it’s because you are not listening and reacting and taking it in, that’s what it stems from. You know people say you need to do something in the scene so its not two talking heads, but that can actually be fine.
I talk a lot about movies, like Daniel Day-Lewis, the motherfucker just talks a lot, but he talks reactively, he’s got passion in it. That’s why he’s so great, but he is kind of just standing there talking.
In plays a lot of those big moments are just people standing there talking, but they are doing something they are putting emotion out there. They are reacting to the situations around them.
You have to be affected if you want to affect the audience
Yeah. Yeah! That’s my biggest thing, when people don’t react. Come on! Really? If this person had sex with a tarantula in front of you, that’s how you’d react? You’d just shrug. That’s the weird thing, that you are not freaked out by that! Fuck you! *laughs*
If I was fucking a tarantula in a scene and you weren’t reacting, I’d have to do something, like say “Your fear of spiders makes you blind!”
You use it to endow them.
Yeah you have to give them a reason why they are not reacting. But it’s not as fun as them reacting:
“Woah! Why are you fucking a spider man?”
“Because I want to get super-powers” *laughs*. However you want to justify it.
If somebody’s not reacting I just feel like I have to do more work. Come on man, fuck you- do something, I’m fucking a spider! You have to react, you’ve got to.
I realised at some point, if they don’t react I can’t control what they do, I can only control what I do. So I have to react to it. Even in life you can’t make somebody do something they don’t want to.
What are the other influences on you as an improviser?
I toured with Baby Wants Candy for a bit, and Eliza Skinner was the best musical improv teacher and one of my favourite teachers. She really helped mould me as an improviser too. Musical improv is a big part of my formation as an improv. I miss that a little bit.
She taught me the importance of emotion. Helped make me more comfortable with committing onstage, so did Neil Casey.
I would say Anthony King, Eliza Skinner, Neil Casey, Kevin Hines, and Joe Wengert. Those are the teachers that really helped form me. Shannon is amazing too, but it was those five at the early stage that really helped.
Kevin Hines was a mentor of mine, I could go talk to him, he coached me for a year and a half so he saw so much change in me.
There would be other people that hadn’t seen me since I was that shitty cocky 19-20 year old, that said “Wow man you changed a lot you really stepped up your shit”, and I was “Oh thank you so much.”
It really comes down to squashing that ego thing. After that went all the other cards aligned, it took that chipping away. That self-reflection. Self-reflection always sucks. It’s like telling some-one you want to break up, that’s why people stay 6-12 months in a bad relationship because you don’t want to deal with it.
Only you can make that choice like you say, and deal with your own stuff.
Yeah. Emotions like fear, guilt happiness and sadness and stuff, you can control yourself feeling those things. Sometimes it hits you and it’s sad and you don’t want to deal with it, but who knows it could have some happiness for this reason, who knows. Let’s let it play out.
Especially that fear thing. That’s what I notice a lot in improv, people are just afraid to fail. I realised that’s a big thing. You know what, fuck it I don’t care about failing any more. I’ve failed so many times I know what it feels like, it’s not gonna kill me.
I still am afraid but improv helped me get over a lot of general fear of things. Improv helped me emotionally be a better person.
What have you enjoyed here in the UK so far and what are you looking forward to?
Gambling and drinking. *laughs*
I enjoyed teaching a workshop. I’m looking forward to playing more with people more over here.
It’s the same every where, I look forward to doing improv with different people. I love performing with people who have never done improv before too.
I don’t know if there is a single person who exists that I hate doing improv with! Even the biggest train-wreck, I wanna do improv with that nutcase! I love it, I love it.
That is certainly clear from talking to you. I look forward to seeing your show with Shannon. Cheers Alan.
Alex Fradera and Julia Pöhlmann make up make shift, who are performing tonight at The Nursery as part of the Slapdash International Improv Festival. Michael had a mug of tea with them.
Tell us about your team history.
Alex We met a couple of years ago at the Würzburg Festival, which Nadine Antler was the key organizer.
Julia Then we kept running into each other. Denmark… Chicago…
Alex In Chicago we had a lot of time to work together. The group was given a fifteen-minute scene to do in pairs and we happened to be together and we thought ‘This kinda works. It feels easy. It doesn’t feel stressful.’
It’s nice when it’s easy, isn’t it?
Alex It is. It inspired us to do duo stuff together with that iO flavour.
Julia We were both at the iO together, and we’ve both done some Keith Johnstone training. We’ve done mask improvisation together.
Alex For me, at least, I feel like I’ve been struggling – not in a negative sense – to see how these different ways of doing improv work together, how they speak to each other. It’s quite nice to be playing with someone who has the same reference points. So we can talk to each other and say ‘This scene felt really fun because it was true to such-and-such a spirit’, or ‘That scene didn’t work because we were trying to do two different things at once.’ We can have a dialogue about it. We talk through our improv quite a lot. We can be critical. It’s one of the things I like about it.
You set time aside for analysis?
Alex Yes. When that’s missing, I don’t think progress can be made in the same way.
Julia At the moment we’re focusing on character development and relationship-based scenes, a show inspired by images. We want to build strong characters and try to value both of them in the scene, and see where they go.
Alex We have similar but different styles. For me, because I have so little acting background, one of the ways I find characters is through improvisation. I’ll keep yes-anding the things I know about a character until something three-dimensional comes out the other side. There are lots of amazing techniques of physicality and emotional beginnings that I try to use whenever I can, but the thing I find fun to keep exploring is to use every fact that comes into the improv to say something about the character. Keep building out from nothing. Every step can tell you more about them. In theory, if you’re ten steps in, then you’ve got a ten-step character.
Sounds like characters are a big thing for you two at the moment.
Alex Yes, character, point of view…
Julia … and relationship.
Alex Patterns and games are gifts that fall into that, but they’re not a dominant theme for us at the moment. Finding the game or the joke is a happy accident rather than the point of the play that we do.
Julia I think Alex is right! To be funny on stage, or to be a comedian, is one thing, but to see a person, a true character, is way more interesting: someone who has attitudes, a strong view about the world, or who seems to contradict himself, someone who isn’t just a pure evil person, who has little edges. I find that more pleasing and inspiring to watch.
Is it more inspiring to perform as well?
Julia Yes, it gives you more to work with. It creates a richer atmosphere on stage.
Alex I feel the same. For me, it’s more fun like that. It’s great to make people laugh. It’s wonderful. But the thing that I take away from a show is when there’s been a really interesting character, especially when I get to play one. It’s lovely to be around them. It’s even better to come away thinking ‘That weird guy who has an aggressive shouting tic but loves to hug people, and cries when he starts watching soap operas. He came out of me!’ It’s wonderful that that’s in there somewhere and that somehow it can get tickled out. It’s a really pleasing thing.
When I started doing improv, it was all about story. Then I realised that story is one way you can see inside people – a character goes on a journey and you get to seem them change. But even a slice-of-life scene, in which there isn’t much story, can be pleasing if the character unfolds in front of you and you can see into their guts. I love story so much, but only because I love the characters in the stories, more than the plot.
So it’s about exploring a character?
Julia I think jokes, funny lines, games, and even stories make you laugh on the spot, but the characters are something you can take away from a show.
Alex I like that. I’d like to think that the characters have a life beyond the edge of the stage. Following us around like a zombie horde.
Julia When the relationships are rich, they can affect each other so much. There’s so much they can do to each other.
Do you draw on your own creative relationship
Alex We definitely draw on dynamics that are real.
Julia I guess everyone does that.
Alex Sometimes in retrospect, we might look back on a scene and see that a dynamic that we played out is something we could talk about in real life as well, on a different scale. We often surprise ourselves, but there’s a reality behind it.
Julia Anything that comes from you has a reality behind it – it just got bigger.
I like creating monsters that have a basis in reality.
Alex It’s like pulling on piece of thread. You can keep pulling and start to make shapes in front of you from a single point.
Is that what you’re doing with this project, or do you have an end goal?
t the moment we’re in the exploring phase. Trying out everything we think can be fun.
Alex We just want to keep exploring this furrow of working with realistic characters and coming to a point where you have two fully fledged, distinct points of view that are both interesting, and fun, and funny. There’s belly-laughs funny and then there’s the funny of recognition – ‘Oh yeah, my aunt is a bit like that.’ Either is good! For me, the end goal is to see how far we can go with starting with the accessible and familiar and finding out how odd we all are. My take on it is: everyone is weird and that’s great.
Julia So far as improv technique goes, we’re looking for a way to highlight both characters – not just one hero and one helper, but to make sure they both get their time. Sometimes you do want to see a hero and watch them struggle, but very often both characters have potential and we want find a way to get that out of them.
Alex Another aim we have is to go to darker and more taboo and difficult places and staying with them, not just to mine for melodrama and pain but to find comedy and pathos. It’s really fun to watch.
Julia … and to do.
What’s the process like?
Alex It’s a lot of small advances and massive retreats! Sometimes we’ll be really honest about it and sometimes we fall back away from it. And there are moments when you can actually feel it. I think Del Close said you should wear the clothes of your enemies. If you’re going to play a racist, don’t just make them an easy target so that they’re ridiculed within the first minute. Fully inhabit that character. Make them big. Make them strong. Make them defined. Only then can we open them up. Play the biggest racist you can find! Go further into the darkness. It can be fun and nasty.
Fun and nasty, Julia?
But ‘fun’ is a word you’ve used quite lot.
Julia It has to be fun! Otherwise why should we do it? If the performers aren’t having fun, the audience won’t.
I agree. But not every artform is driven by ‘fun’. I think improv might even be unique in that.
Alex It’s ‘fun’ over ‘funny’, for me. A show doesn’t have to be funny, but if I feel that the performers didn’t have fun making it, as an audience member I struggle to appreciate it. If they seem to be working hard, if they seem shaken by the process, if two of them seem bored and the other one’s trying to fit it all together, even if it ‘worked’, I don’t think I would enjoy it. But if it was slapdash, but they seemed to be having a good time doing it, even if there weren’t that many jokes, but they were enjoying building a big world with crazy detail, then I probably would enjoy it.
Julia In my experience other art forms can create an expectation that work is necessary to find success. I sometimes feel a bit of that too even in improv. Then I tell myself: ‘I’m not here to do art. I’m here to have fun!’ If the show happens to be ‘Art’ then that’s good, but it’s not something I want to worry about. Otherwise it’s work. And you can feel it when there’s a lot of hard work in a show.
I sometimes put pressure on myself to find the fun, so I turn fun into work.
Julia That can happen, and it’s OK. Sometimes I find myself working in a show, and afterwards I’ll say ‘Oh fuck, it was a lot of work tonight!’ Then it just happens, and it’s all easy and light. I guess it goes back and forth.
Alex I think preparation for a show makes a big difference. In the past I’ve done warm-ups that weren’t right for me because they put a premium on quickness. There’s a balance to be struck, but I know it when I feel it. Sometimes I’ll do an exercise and think ‘I didn’t need to get any more fast and frenetic. I needed to do something around eye-contact, touching, taking a breath.’
I like the idea that there are so many possible patterns and directions in a show that there’s no way you can pick up on them all. You shouldn’t even worry. You’re watching the scene to see what strikes you. If nothing strikes you, then keep doing what you’re doing, or introduce something on a whim and see where it takes you. There will be something. There’s a philosophy that everything in the scene can come out of the very first offer. I like that, in the sense that it encourages you not to create more than you need, but actually I’m happy to think that the first offer could be cool, but if I’m not inspired by it, then the second offer might hold something fun, or the third offer, or the fourth offer. Hopefully not the five hundredth offer – there’s a limit to it! I find it’s helpful to relax and see what comes. I find my horizon narrows when I try too hard to find the thing, as if I’m looking through a telescope to find the details of a scene. Better to relax and let it wash over me.
That’s a nice idea. To be receptive.
Alex For me it’s useful, maybe because I tend too much toward the other way – perhaps other people need the opposite advice to become more focussed. In my case that’s when I feel most relaxed and most likely to pick up an interesting moment in a scene.
What relaxes you?
Julia For me, it relaxes me when I’m on stage with someone I can trust. When I know how far I can go. When I can go further with something and know that they can take it. For example, I know with Alex that whatever I do, he’s going to save it! I just go on with that feeling, and that really relaxes me. I also like the idea that there is always something there when we enter the scene. It means that we don’t need to think – we just go on and open our eyes. All we need to do it use our eyes and ears. More than our brains.
Another thing that relaxes me is giving myself a task for a show. Alex will say something like…
Alex … I want to see happy high status tonight …
Julia … or ‘I want to see a break-up scene’. Something like that.
I want to see you ride a turtle. Are you looking forward to the show?
Alex Yes! It’s the first show we’ve done in the UK under this name. We didn’t have a name the last time we played here. It’s a première.
Julia A UK première!
Catch make shift at The Nursery tonight. Doors 7.30pm. Show 8pm. Get tickets here or on the door.
Here follow Kayla’s thoughts on feelings, improv and vulnerability.
So how long have you done improv?
About 10 years, we have the Canadian Improv games at high-school, so I’ve been improvising since I was 15, professionally since I was 18. They start us young there
I think it’s great that kids get to start improv at school
It’s amazing. The improv games are very structured, very Keith Johnstone, very story based but it’s a good place to start as an improviser because you have all that ingrained in you. When you leave it there is a tendency to pull back from the highly structured 4 minute scene you were used to doing, but that skill is in you.
Did you change your direction in improv after leaving school?
I think so. I had seen that one style for so long, and I grew up in a small town, so then I moved to a bigger place where I could see other improv companies, I was like:
“Ok there is all this other stuff we can do wit this art form!”
I was just exploring long form for a long time, I don’t know how good it was when I began *laughs*, but it was fun to have these bigger tools to work with.
What kind of improv are you drawn to?
I think it’s definitely changed a lot. When I was starting out I was still really interested in narrative and scene painting and telling cohesive stories. But as I’ve developed more as a comedian outside of improv, I became more attracted to very character based work and more slice of life moments than story telling.
Just that little moment where you’re seeing these people exist, watching them wax poetic, or go through an emotional experience, maybe separate from a bigger story. The arc is more emotional and character based.
Sounds like you are always learning in your approach?
I think always learning, that’s what I love so much about the art form it’s so malleable, and it changes with what period of my life I’m in. So right now that’s what I’m really interested in, it helps me do other work, helps with my writing.
I’m sure it will change, I can already feel with The Sufferettes, we’re missing story now, we want to go back and try to start telling more stories because we’ve left them for so long.
It’s instinctive, you know when you’ve had enough of one thing and want something new.
Totally yeah, it feels very natural and organic, that change. I’ve been doing this a while, I can see my patterns and they’re becoming clear so now I’ll do something to shake that up and inspire the work.
That makes sure you really are always learning.
Exactly. The fear of being complacent in your art keeps you a bit nervous and keeps you learning and adding more to the tool-belt of skills.
I read If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland recently and she talks there about the difference between the divine ego and the conceit of the human ego. Conceit is static and rests on you having done stuff, whereas the self-confidence of the divine ego is about the challenge of doing new things.
I really like that. That’s a really good way to put it. With any kind of work I’m always putting myself in situations where I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed because it forces me to make decisions and see what I can do.
I didn’t go to any post-secondary education, I just started improvising right out of high school, so I have to keep educating myself in whatever ways I’m interested in, otherwise I’ll be an idiot *laughs*.
Does your learning in improv feedback into the rest of your life, in terms of knowing specific skills or the general attitude it teaches?
I think both. I think there is the practical structure that helps with other work, the idea of being able to see story arcs in a fast way or be able to make connections between characters, emotionally and narratively. I think that my mind is just geared towards that.
And then in a more blue sky philosophical way I think improv has helped me have more of an ease about creation, I’m not so precious with it. It was hard to start but now it’s easier to look at practically and remove parts without being too precious.
Coming from improv it almost scared me to commit to something in writing, it’s easier to make art that’s disposable, but now I can remove and sculpt it. It’s very satisfying when you spend so much time making stuff that only exists for a night and goes away, to write.
Is your attraction to emotional work a personal thing for you?
Oh yeah. I’m an only child and a girl so I think a lot of my life is reflecting on emotions and why I feel different ways and why other people might feel different ways and trying to be empathetic. Two things that I really care about are emotions and food, so I think about those two things a lot *laughs*.
I think exploring emotion on stage is a really important skill.
It depends on the improviser, when you think about comedic voice and what you want to say. I’m getting more comfortable in the fact that what I want to say usually is connected with feelings and emotions or experience emotionally because that’s how I life I guess. So I’m giving that more power in my work and appreciating it.
I haven’t pinpointed my comedic sensibility or voice yet, I don’t know when that happens, but I’m homing in on what I care about right now.
Something that inspires me in that respect is WTF with Marc Maron. That podcast is totally his voice.
I really like him. He is so open, he talks about his feelings a lot, which I really like. He’s always in a process of analysing, and figuring out why he’s feeling things, and I find that so interesting
I love that he seems genuinely interested in the processes of his guests too.
I love the shape of his interviews starting from childhood or early development, getting the roots of where everyone has come from and going through that middle time when they were struggling or figuring themselves out, it’s so interesting and universal. I really enjoy his interviews, he has so much of himself in it.
I liked his response to a question about what was edgy in comedy now, after we have seen so much boundary breaking in comedy. He said “There is nothing scarier than a man on stage asking for help.
That’s, yeah, that’s beautiful. I think vulnerability and emotion is getting more exciting and definitely influencing comedy. Another podcast I really love is Julie Klausners “How Was Your Week?”. She is very emotional and talks about, and does incredible interviews, I really love her.
And an HBO show that got cancelled: Enlightened, created by Mike White and Laura Dern. It was so beautiful, it took a step back from that hard edgy intense comedy. It was very emotionally vulnerable, talking about feelings and experiences and growth and it was so funny but also sensitive.
I think that’s a nice direction that maybe comedy will go in. We’ve seen everything, the internet allows us to see anything, so now we need more personal voices and emotional expression.
I certainly discovered the joy of being open in improv. When I see people or characters talk about what is going on for them in the moment it’s the most beautiful they can be.
Yeah it’s beautiful, I completely agree, that’s what I’m excited by.
Something that Becky said was that to be good at comedy you need to be laughed at, which is essentially that vulnerability.
Yeah, I pull back from comedy that is very shiny and removed from the ugliness of people or it’s just ugly in a contrived way, it’s very controlled. If you are going to show your ugliness, show the beautiful side of it too.
Yeah that bores me, if a comedian is not sharing anything personal then he or she is not really doing something more scary than anyone else.
Yeah, yeah I agree. Your job is sharing your voice and opinion and experiences, and hopefully people connect to them or take something away from them. Your job is to constantly be trying to get closer to your truthful voice.
It takes the pressure off being ultimately creative or keeping up with the newest thing. Obviously we all have a duty to stay relevant and stay on top of what is going on, I like that side, but it’s less stressful to be as truthful as possible as a goal. If you can sell that part of you, then you’ll have a good career, I think.
I think that Marc Maron’s success with his podcast proves that to be true. For me its an antidote to the shiny chat-show segments of people selling a new album or movie.
Yeah, as we are exposed to much more I think our skill for sussing out sincerity and authenticity is growing.
I think the performer’s job is being authentic as possible without being emotionally irresponsible with yourself. All of that emotion but still remembering you are a performer and people have paid to see you- there’s an expectation of skill and control. Not going up on stage and just vomiting out your opinions and emotions in a way that is selfish and boring.
In a workshop or training that’s where you can be messier and explore the corners of yourself, in a show you still have a responsibility to do a concise and tight show that’s interesting.
Yeah otherwise don’t take money on the door.
Is it a challenge to be finding your voice as a performer, having that quest?
It tough but also liberating, and it’s newer to me. When I started performing it was so overwhelming as an individual to make sure I was doing a good job. I was self conscious and insecure, as I’ve gotten older and I feel more firm in who I am, now it feels like a time where I am reflecting on what I want to say and I can focus outwards more, when it was so inward before.
So it’s been a liberating process in the last year to start having a stance on what I believe in and what I care about in art, and what I want to do. It is hard. It’s a lot of looking at yourself which can be gross, and terrifying, or boring which is the worst! *laughs*
But thinking about it as a life long process is comforting to me, that it will change as I learn and as I get older and get more experience.
Really its an incredible gift as much a responsibility.
Yeah it’s a responsibility that I’m happy to have, of self-reflection because I find it so exciting and fun to have a short hand for my emotion and opinions, and developing that is exciting. I find that it helps me communicate better with people, deal with personal crises, understand why I feel a certain way faster.
Learning those skills is fundamental I think. We are full up of strange issues and we need to learn how to sort them out. Those skills are like being given robot arms to tidy up the inner warehouse.
Yeah, I’m developing an Ipad app that categorises my boxes more effectively! And there will always be more technology that will help us categorise that weird disturbing warehouse that we all have.
“I gotta work on my exports now, I don’t even know how to do an invoice!”
It’s all learning at the end of the day. That is our life, we need to learn how to use the machinery of ourselves, let alone anything else.
Exactly. That’s nice to me. Amongst all of the practical things about whether I’m making great life choices or terrible life choices, the comfort is all you can do is just try to be a better person. That’s vague and open but its relaxing to me, because that’s something I can do. A long process but it’s satisfying.
What are your thoughts about coming over to the UK?
I’m excited to see what the vibe is. I know stand-up is very big in the UK, but I’m not super familiar with the improv. I saw School of Night in Canada, and they were incredible, but that’s a very specific skill set and thing they are doing.
Interested to see what the general aesthetic and sense of humour is. There are stereotypes of British comedy from watching programmes, everything is very dry and witty and dark, which I like, but I don’t know what the voice of the improv community will be.
We look forward to hearing your voice over here, thanks Kayla.
Rob Gentile and Andrew Stanton are resident performers for Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) and two thirds (with Kaitlin Thompson) of indie improv team Safe Weird (winners of Philadelphia Super Cage Match 2012). They’re in London for the Slapdash Festival, where they will be performing and teaching workshops.
Have you guys worked together long?
Rob: Pretty much since the start of our improv career. If you want to call it a “career”. We didn’t so much work together as collaborate on things occasionally. We’d support each other. But in the last couple of years we’ve started working together on a more substantial way. We put the group together.
What was your first experience of improv?
Rob: I was always obsessed with Whose Line is it Anyway? I always wanted to do improv in high school, but didn’t get any of it until I went to community college. That’s where Bill McLaughlin was teaching a class. He taught shortform and I did that for two years. I got the improv bug and continued with it.
What was it about improv that inspired you?
Rob: I remember I went to UCB in New York City. I was nineteen and I saw my first longform show. It blew my mind. I don’t even remember what group it was – I think it was The Stepfathers. I went back to Bill after I’d seen all this longform, not even knowing what it was at the time, just blown away, not sure what to think of it, not sure what it was that I’d seen.
Andrew: When I was in high school, I was in the theatre program. I did a lot of plays. I was really into that, and got lots of lead roles, but I was always more of a comedic actor. After high school, I also went to the community college, like Rob did, and I noticed that I hadn’t done any plays and I wasn’t missing it. I didn’t feel the desire to go out and audition, but I was still taking theatre courses. I think there was a printing error in the program guide so that the improv course was described as a technical theatre production course, so I took the improv course by mistake. But it was fun so I stuck with it. It made a lot of sense to me, I developed a taste for it and picked it up quickly. That summer, after the semester was over, one of the guys from that class invited me to be in a show he was producing. I ended up doing that, and it went really well so we decided to do another one. That went really well so we decided to form a group. That group continued for a couple of years and that got me into another group. We’d travel down to Philadelphia to do longform and it took off from there.
Do you have a goal that you were striving for, or are you making it up as you go along?
Andrew: A bit of both. What I would most like to do is to make a living doing improv and comedy. Maybe by working it into sketch writing, appearing in sketches, or something like that. I just want to be able to do comedy and have that be the main thing in life. Does that make sense? I’m not delusional – I’m not trying to become a big rich star. Just want to live and not have to do anything but comedy.
Do you regard yourselves as exclusively ‘comedy’ improvisers?
Rob: It’s the stuff that you play that’s real – which not necessarily funny to the character you’re playing – that the audience finds funny. Playing serious is sometimes the funniest choice.
Andrew: I agree wholeheartedly. The absolute funniest thing that a character can do is to be completely serious about what’s happening. I don’t like it when characters are funny and they’re winking and nudging each other. You can go into scenes ‘elbows up’, as I describe it, but if you don’t commit, then it’s not the same. Whatever’s happening to my character is the most serious shit that’s ever happened to him in his entire life. I like to talk about stupid things as though they’re important and dramatic.
Ken Campbell used to say that the maths was: “Serious + Silly = Funny; Silly + Silly = Stupid”.
Andrew: You need to print that out and put it on a wall somewhere. That’s perfect. I never heard it put that way. I consider it my goal to be a comedy person first and foremost. For me, it’s about doing something that’s funny. I lot of improvisers in longform like to talk about scenes, character and relationships. That’s great – that’s really important – but I don’t think that should take a back seat to being funny.
Tell me about memorable shows you’ve seen.
Andrew: I did have the privilege of seeing the Upright Citizens Brigade a few years ago. Amy Poehler wasn’t there, but Matt Besser, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts were. It was at the Del Close Marathon. I managed to get a seat at the theatre and watched a few hours of some improv that was really great and some that wasn’t so great. Then the UCB came out and it was an very tight and incredible show. It was like watching three masters at work. It was beautiful and hilarious. More recently, I was in Chicago for the Chicago Improv Festival and I saw a group called Hello Laser from New York. The theatre we were at was on the second floor. They did a show that was centred around one story – four Germans on a double date. A very efficient double date. At one point one of them got angry and stormed off. He walked off and down the fire escape and onto the street below and the others stayed at the top of the steps and they continued the scene outside the theatre, shouting up and down from the second floor.
Rob: My favourite improv group of all time – and I’ve seen an unhealthy amount of improv – are also from the Magnet Theater in New York. They’re called Trike. It’s two guys and they do a 45-minute bastardized Harold. They do five or six scenes, seconds beats of all those scenes, and then blend all of those worlds together. Their scenes will last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, and they don’t drop anything or forget anything. It’s continuously funny and they do it every week. It’s extremely impressive. They’re maybe the best improvisers I know of at the moment.
Andrew: I’ll verify that. They are unhumanly talented. Crazy. Fantastic.
Has improv changed your life?
Andrew: I don’t keep in touch with friends from school. All the friends I have now are either directly or indirectly connected to improv.
Rob: Yes. Both of us are pretty obsessed with improv.
Andrew: It’s my main thing. It’s what I do.
Rob: When you’re constantly pursuing something at that level, it’s easy for people who are not interested in it to lose interest in you!
Andrew: In addition, my last three jobs I got all through people I knew through improv. I’ve been steadily employed for the past five years and I wouldn’t have had any of those jobs if somebody from improv hadn’t set me up with them.
Is that an improv thing: a good community?
Andrew: I think so. Even when we’re working on a project that isn’t necessarily improv or comedy related, we’ll still go to other improvisers for it. I record a weekly Game of Thrones recap podcast called Stark Raven Mad. It’s all improvisers who are on it.
That’s great to have that community going on. Do you also employ improv skills in your day-to-day life?
Andrew: I’m definitely find myself more willing to try new things, to roll with it and go with the flow now that I’m in improv. I think if I hadn’t got into it I wouldn’t be so adventurous. I’m willing to do more and to travel more.
Rob: For example, what we’re doing right now – visiting another country just to do comedy.
Andrew: It’s a bit crazy and outside my comfort zone.
Rob: And it’s very last minute. The planning at our end was: “You’ll go. Just say yes now…”
Andrew: “… and we’ll figure it out later.” Last year we went to Nashville Tennessee at the last minute. That’s a fourteen-hour drive. We just did it. There wasn’t a ton of planning. It was: “Hey, we’ve got an improv festival happening this weekend. You guys are coming, right?” So we rented a car and drove for fourteen hours, straight through the night.
Rob: I can’t imagine that we’d have done that for any other reason than for improv.
Have you been to London before?
Rob: We’ve never left North America before. We’ve been to Canada, but that doesn’t count as another country. We’re both enthralled to be going.
Anything you’re looking forward to while you’re here?
Andrew: Chips. Pies filled with meat. Room-temperature flat beer.
Rob: I’m really interested to find out what the UK improvisers, and the other guests, have to bring. There’s a lot of people going to be working collaboratively on things. I’m excited about seeing things that are different from what I’m used to – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia.
Andrew: I can’t wait to see the difference in style, and the country in general. I’m anticipating the improv and anticipating just going there in equal measure. It’s hard to imagine being there!
Rob: It hardly seems real.
Andrew: I’m assuming that as soon as we get to London, we’ll constantly be seeing our favourite British celebrities. I’m looking forward to meeting the Top Gear gang. I’m waiting for a call from Ricky Gervais about a lunch date. I know Rob’s very excited about meeting Gordon Ramsay.
He’s very excited about meeting you guys. We all are. The improv scene in London feels relatively small and young compared to North America, so it’s great to have international guests over.
Andrew: It seems like improv scenes are blowing up everywhere. Even five years ago the scene in Philadelphia wasn’t very good. There would be a show once a month. Now there’s shows every night. Multiple shows every night.
Rob: There’s more than one theatre, and everyone hosts their own independent nights. There could be two, three or four shows on a night and every one has a crowd. It only takes a few people to catch the bug to get that scene going. It snowballs.
Andrew: We’re looking forward to creating an ongoing relationship between the improv community here and the improv community there. We can only help each other.
I think it’s great to mix up the different traditions.
Rob: Absolutely. There’s never one right way for improv. It’s great to get different perspectives, especially from a different country.
Safe Weird are performing at The Nursery on Thursday 13th June at 7.30pm. Buy tickets here.
Rob Gentile is teaching a workshop on ‘Twoprov’ – improvisation à deux – at The Nursery, on Wednesday 12th June, 7–10pm. Book your place here.
Andrew Stanton is teaching a workshop on ‘The Deconstruction’ – a rich and rewarding show format – at The Marlborough, Brighton, on Monday 10th June, 7–10pm. Book your place here.
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.
She can be seen every Friday night with The Stepfathers, every Sunday night in UCB NY’s longest running show, ASSSSCAT 30000 and hosting her monthly talk show “Strangers Wanted”, during which she hauls audience members onto the stage to be her announcer, her guests and even her house band. Outside of UCB she can be seen on The Chris Gethard Show (www.thechrisgethardshow.com), in her web series “Shannon O’Neill is…” and on twitter @spotastic. Shannon is one of the international guests of the Slapdash Festival: performing, teaching and hanging out.
How did you get into improv?
In college I was a communications broadcasting major, so I was mainly into TV-type stuff. I was in an organisation called the National Broadcasting Society and we took a trip to Chicago for a conference. I knew Second City was there, and I was always a huge Saturday Night Live fan so I wanted to see where all the people on SNL had come from. I organised my own little side-trip to see Second City and I was blown away.
They did sketch but they had an improv set afterwards. That blew me away, seeing it live in person, and I decided I wanted to try it. So when I moved to New York in 2000 I took my first class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
My first exposure as a kid was Whose Line is it Anyway? on TV. It must be very different to be introduced to improv live.
I hadn’t seen Whose Line…? until I was in college, it was interesting to me but when I saw improvisation live, it was like: “That’s insane!”
And how did that first class go?
It was awesome, I was hooked after the very first class. It just felt like it was tapping into a part of my brain I hadn’t tapped into before. It was like an awakening, this was something that was really fun and it felt like my brain could handle it. So I didn’t stop, actually kind of became addicted [laughs].
You’ve been doing improv constantly since then?
Since 2000 yeah, my first class at UCB theatre was June 2000, so it’s almost been thirteen years.
Has that been a journey of ups and downs in terms of learning and doing shows?
Oh yeah, always ups and downs. Still, if you do shows that don’t feel so good you try to take lessons from them and kind of realise where you were. Maybe I was not focussed enough or something like that.
At the beginning mainly ups because I was just constantly learning, and I knew I was in the stage of learning and trying things. So in classes when I messed things up I would be OK with it because I was trying things out all the time, learning new forms and whatnot. But once I got on a team at the UCB theatre, then it was more pressure. Which is great; I’ve worked hard and am now performing on stage there regularly, but a bad show is a little more down, because its not just a class show, it’s a “show” show.
Do you think it is important as a performer to strike that balance between honing your own voice and also thinking about the audience and giving them a certain level of show?
Yes, you want to be able to explore and try new things, and UCB is really good about that.
For example, now I’m at a place where I watch teams and help figure out who gets placed. So I’m on the other side, and we are aware if a team is experimenting with stuff, we know they are doing that, so they’re given a little leeway to have some clunky shows whilst they are challenging themselves. So the theatre very much embraces that experimentation.
Sounds like you have found a spiritual home at UCB because of that?
Yeah. I found likeminded people. I get to see other people try out, not just improv, but written shows, sketch stuff. People are trying to find their voice, and UCB allows for that.
We have shows that sell out all the time. Our weekend shows pretty much all sell out, and those shows are the ones that subsidise the more experimental stuff where you might not get as big a crowd. That’s a really cool awesome thing about the theatre, because we are basically all supporting each other.
I do my Friday night and Sunday night shows, which sell out, and that’s awesome to have that really big crowd, which is going to allow somebody to come in and do a weirder show.
You really get to give back to the place you learned from.
What are the memorable shows you’ve seen along the way?
The ones that hit are the ones where you see something new that you’ve never seen someone do before.
My very first improv show of course, I had never seen it live before.
One of the first Harolds I saw at the UCB theatre: I remember being blown away by it, just seeing how these characters were coming back and these connections being made at the end.
Then as you see a lot of improv, they are all still really good but the inspiring ones space themselves out.
There was a Harold team called Neutrino that I saw. They were playing football, and watching them throw a football that wasn’t there: that blew my mind!
The first show I saw where the performers were really interacting with the audience, and I think most of the UCB 4 were in it: Amy [Poehler], Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, Adam McKay and Ali Farahnakian. It was just this amazing interactive show, they were being funny and yelling at the audience, not going over the limit, but being very hilarious.
I thought, “Oh wow, you can interact with the audience and they will enjoy it!” That really blew my mind. I really like to do that, not necessarily in improv, but in my non-improv work I like audience interaction.
Most recently the first musical improv show I saw, Baby Wants Candy, based in Chicago.
Improvised Shakespeare, when I saw them, in fact every time I see them! They are mind-blowing. Seeing something I know I would never be capable of is awesome. That’s a whole other level, the Improvised Shakespeare. Always see stuff that’s beyond your reach. Improvised Shakespeare is way above me, but there’s something in-between that I can keep striving for.
I really think it’s important to try new stuff, challenge yourself. In any art form, go do something you would not normally do.
What do you do outside of improv that feeds back into your art?
A good thing for me is that I’m married, and my husband is not a performer. So I have somebody who has a normal life. I have that great connection with someone who is not in the comedy world.
I like to read. I’m trying to read all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, because it’s almost a guarantee of all the books being good but also a wide variety of books that win.
I’m into animal rescue because I’m an animal lover, that’s something I read about. That’s a sad thing I read a lot about, like puppy mills [laughs].
Most of my friends are from the theatre, but I also love basketball so I joined a league in the city. I got put on a team of complete strangers, and that’s been great, because I’m having non-comedy conversations. Although one of the girls is a comedy nerd I have slowly found out! [laughs]
I like real crime documentaries: those are fucked up and dark. My brain does like to read about dark terrible things. I did a one-person show a few years ago, called Prison Freaks: four real fucked up dark super insane characters, almost like monsters.
One was a cyclops, one was covered in eyeballs, all freak experiments. They all had dark terrible pasts, but I made them in a way that the audience still enjoyed watching them and could laugh at their good qualities, hard as that was.
There is an indie movie theatre near my apartment that has a lot of good stuff I see. Pretty normal stuff I guess.
Apart from the puppy mills and dark crime.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]!
I think a lot of that stuff is the normal way of charging yourself up for life, never mind art.
Yes, also I really try to follow that improv thing of just say yes to things.
Today I don’t have to go into the city, but if somebody called up with a cool thing to go try that I normally never do I try to say yes to it.
That’s something from improv you decided to take into the rest of life?
Definitely. In improv by just saying yes to stuff, you can find and discover really neat scenes. At the end you try to describe the scene and it sounds so insane but it made sense because you got there in a deserved way. You were just saying yes to the fun ideas on the way.
That really is how life works in the long run!
Yeah! Even this trip to London, obviously it’s an easy yes to say, but I’ve never been to London before. So I’ll be saying yes to lots of stuff when I’m there, stuff I’ve never done before!
What are the other things you use from improv in day to day life?
It’s always helpful with conversations. You really do learn to be a better listener in conversations. Not always, I still sometimes zone out!
I think it allows me not to get as frustrated with stuff. So, for example, if you order food in a diner and it comes and it’s wrong, some people blow up at that stuff, but there are no mistakes in improv so I try and let that be true in life.
In improv we always say “remember, don’t invent”. You can always use stuff from your life. So with family stuff I might listen to an opposing point of view more than I would before. Instead of just saying I disagree with you, now I say “Tell me more”, not in an aggressive way, just to hear more about what they’re saying. Just to observe their behaviour. I can let them know I don’t agree with their point of view but I will still listen to what they have to say. But then I might also edit that conversation and call “Scene!” [laughs]
That is a great like skill I had not considered, being able to eject from conversations with editing.
Yeah: “We have reached the peak of this conversation, time to go!” [laughs]
So on that note of ending a conversation, what are your final thoughts about coming over to the UK?
I’m really excited about coming over. Our student body at UCB is getting more and more diverse. I’ve had quite a few British students, even just visiting for short amounts of time or move here to study, and some of the lingo is different. I’m excited to see what I’m going to say which will be misinterpreted, and be exposed to British slang.
I’m excited about the ensemble stuff that Alan [Starzinski] and I are going to do. That’s always the fun part of festivals, getting to play with people you’ve never played with before and might not play with again. It’s great, it’s exciting.
Also the teaching, to come over and share what I know with groups and students.
We are always happy to get experienced teachers come over! Thanks Shannon, and we look forward to seeing you in the UK.
We are lucky enough to have various international improvisers coming over for the Slapdash Festival, and excitingly we have had the opportunity to interview some of the performers before they reach our sunny (not guaranteed) shores. Feast your eyes on the thoughts of Kaitlin Thompson who will be coming over from Philadelphia with Safe Weird.
Philadelphia improviser and sketch comedian Kaitlin Thompson began performing in 2008. Kaitlin writes and performs sketch comedy with regularly with ManiPedi. They were nominated for the 2012 and 2013 WitOut Award for Best Sketch Group in Philadelphia. The group was featured in the Ladies are Funny Festival 2012 in Austin, TX, as well as the 2012 Boston Comedy Arts Festival, where they were named one of the top festival picks by Dig Boston. Kaitlin currently improvises with independent teams Kait & Andrew and Safe Weird, and she wouldn’t change that for the world. Kaitlin has performed in the 14th Del Close Marathon as part of the late-night show Improv at Bernie’s.
How did you get into improv?
I never did any school plays or any kind of acting or comedy until taking an improv class at Bucks County Community College, but I was always interested in comedy. So many of my favorite comedians had done improv. I loved to watch the outtakes from TV shows and movies, seeing incredibly funny actors just making each other laugh, professionals breaking and cracking-up. Comedy seemed so fun to do, but I was too afraid to try acting or standup. I took the improv class because I wanted to desperately, but at the time I made the excuse that I took the class to keep being a full-time student so I could stay on my parents’ health insurance plan. That way, if I was abysmally unfunny I could brush it off as nothing but a 3-credit class with no homework.
What keeps you improvising?
It’s as fun as it looked. I’m also chasing that dragon of the first time I got a really big laugh in improv class.
What’s so great about improv?
That relief and pride you feel when your teammate walks out with an idea that’s ten times better than whatever stupid thing you had a mind to do when you first walked out to do a scene.
Also, you don’t have to worry about making and carrying around props.
What is a memorable improv show that you have seen or been in?
I saw Bassprov at the Chicago Improv Festival in 2012. It was my first time in Chicago, so I was already excited, but I was a total improv pleb. I had no idea what Bassprov was before I saw them. Their set was hysterically funny with this calm execution, it was great.
What is your ideal venue for a show?
A smallish black box theatre that is easy to pack with people. And it’s BYOB so no one is angry from waiting in the beer line for forty-five minutes.
How would you describe improv to a new audience member?
First, I would try not to let myself get too excited. I don’t want anyone to be underwhelmed.
I describe the bare-bones mechanics of improv to my friends who have never seen it: team gets a suggestion, they make up scenes. I try to emphasize that the performers could be on and have a great show or they might have some slow points or scenes that don’t end up going anywhere. I tell friends to drink enough so that they’re laughing generously but not so much that they’re talking during show.
How has improv changed your ‘real life’?
I’ve made a bunch of friends. It gave me more excuses to travel. I don’t agonize as much over little embarrassing things I might do throughout the day.
What is your impression of the UK, in general?
Friends who have been there say it’s beautiful and that I’m going to have a great time. I like beer, so I expect they’re right.
Anything else you would like to say?
I would just like to caution those who might meet me: in the same way that you should not judge all improv on one bad show, please don’t judge the United States on the embarrassing things I will do or say while visiting your wonderful country.
Catch Safe Weird on Thursday 13th of June at the Nursery Theatre, as part of the Slapdash Festival.
Stay tuned to our blog (you can’t untune from our blog) for more interviews, including the rest of Safe Weird, members of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and other improvisers who are coming into the UK from outside the UK. Prepare yourself.