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.