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For ten years, I watched helplessly as Cameron spiralled downward into anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression. Just the thought of doing stuff outside his comfort zone made him physically ill – and everything was outside his comfort zone.

So how did he go from sick and scared to an improv ninja who now teaches others how to overcome anxiety?

Find out, in this funny and inspiring series of posts he wrote for his blog. If you’ve ever thought being anxious was a life sentence, this is for you:

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 1: Deciding To Change

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 2: Seeing A Therapist

How I Got Over My Anxiety Party 3: Meditation

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 4: Self-Help

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 5: Improv!

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 6: Facing Fear

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 7: Accepting Myself As I Am Right Now

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For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch. 

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?

TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.

P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?

Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.

After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.

P&C: What can readers expect from the book?

TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.

Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise

P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?

David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.

TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.

P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?

David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.

TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.

P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?

David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.

TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.

P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?

David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.

TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.

P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?

TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to  be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.

P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?

David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.

P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?

David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.

TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.

P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?

TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.

David:  I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.

P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?

TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of

P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?

David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)

TJ:  I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.

P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?

David: Essential.

TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.

P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?

David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.

TJ: Absolutely.

P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?

David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.

TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?

Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:

• The Job of an Improviser

• Being a Good Stage Partner

• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)

• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)

• Fuck The Rules

• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement

• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal

• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble

• Taking the Next Little Step

• The People We Play

• Details and Specificity

TJ and Dave book

David Shore is an alumnus of The Second City Mainstage and iO West. A 13-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee and two-time winner, he is the founder of Monkey Toast. In 2010 he relocated to the UK and is now Artistic Director of Monkey Toast UK, where he oversees both its improv school and shows.

David Shore & Monkey Toast Cast

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. It’s more something that just happened and I think a lot of people in my age range came about it this way. I wanted to write sitcoms and got into acting in a backwards way. I fell in love with long form the first time I saw Bitter Noah at the newly opened IO West. I never thought I could earn a living at this or the direction that it would take my life in. I just knew that I had to try it.

What were you doing before this?

I am overly educated. I have a BA and a BAA. The second degree is from RTA at Ryerson. I wanted to be a TV writer/producer.  That’s what took me down to LA and that’s where I discovered long form. As jobs I’d worked at a custom B&W photo lab, was the receptionist at a gay synagogue, and also worked as a headshot photographer. But I was trying, with minimal effort, to be a sitcom writer.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

That’s really hard to say.  I’ve learned so much and have been shaped by my improv teachers and cast mates. Scot Robinson’s class at the IO West in LA had a profound affect on me. He’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever had. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s one of the founders of The Annoyance. Shulie Cowen, my former coach taught me a ton and so did Jenna Jolovich, who taught me how to act while eating after a show at Canter’s Deli. Also, Paul Valencourt, who was in Bitter Noah and opened up the IO West and was my first teacher there. He was and is amazing.

There was one event that changed everything about the way that I play and the way that I teach was taking Alan Arkin’s workshop in Toronto at the Second City. He worked directly with Spolin and literally changed my life (and I know many others who took the course that felt the same way).

I still quote him to this day to all of my students and do some of the exercises that he did with us. Most importantly, he taught me that a character doesn’t need to change and in many cases, must not. I did a scene with Albert Howell, and Arkin told me to pick an emotion and play it. I was a baker in a bakery, and I chose happy. So when Albert came in, I was very happy. Then he said, “I’ve just seen Cynthia,” and I heard something in his tone, so I suddenly became sad. It was a good scene but at the end, Arkin asked me, “What was your emotional choice at the top of the scene?” I told him that I was happy. He then asked, why I changed. I told him because of Albert’s offer. He had us do the scene again, and told me, “This time, not matter what, stay happy.”  The scene worked on a completely different level. It was a real eureka moment.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

Well when I came back from LA to Toronto, I did a run of the One-Man Harold at the Tim Sims Playhouse and actually made some good money off of that. But I suppose it really would have to be when I was hired to join the Second City Mainstage.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

I guess I already answered this question. If you don’t learn from the people that you’re playing with, then there’s something wrong with you or you’re simply not learning. I was lucky that I got to play with these amazing Chicago alumni rather quickly out in LA.  That gave me the confidence that I could play. But the people on my Harold teams were tremendous influences on me. I had a core of about 3-4 people that I played with regularly for three years in LA, and it was just so supportive and fun and really cutting edge for the time.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

I think most people get into it to do something else, like writing or acting. I did it because I had writer’s block and I wanted to meet people and form a sketch troupe. But once I got into Chicago-style, I wasn’t so concerned with writing anymore. For me it is an end onto itself, but it has certainly made me a better writer (or at least I think so). It’s also one of the most social things that you can do. I made and still have great friends out in LA, and made a ton of new friends in Toronto when I returned (I was not part of the scene before I left). Now almost all of my friends in London are through improv. Because you’re onstage with people with nothing but “yes, and” and trust, you bond much quicker and form deeper friendships.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind? 

To me that’s someone who earns most if not all of their living via improv. I think the majority do it through teaching and corporate work. While corporate work pays more, it is much less rewarding. I think there are very few who can earn a living by just performing improv. In Canada, I don’t know if anyone outside of Colin Mochrie, and the Second City Mainstage cast who earn a living from just performing improv. Certainly lots of people act and write.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t really have a typical day, and I suppose that’s typical. I teach a few nights a week and do a double on one day of the weekend. If it’s the weekend, I’ll drag my ass out of bed, eat, shower and make a sandwich before heading off into central London to teach. I’ll teach for six hours straight, and then most likely have a drink with the final class once it’s over. I may got out to eat, or meet my wife somewhere, but most likely I’ll head home and have dinner with my wife and spend some time with her.

During the week, I will get up and do whatever is on my to-do list. Depending on what time of year it is I may have a ton of admin to do as I run my own improv school. So I may have 4-6 hours of admin to do on any day (we’re looking for ways to streamline this). Right now, I don’t have much admin, so I might go run errands, work on promoting the upcoming show, book guests for future shows and then I’ll head off to work in central London. After class, I will sometimes stay for a drink and if not, I’ll head home and will relax a bit with my wife before going to bed.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I really don’t know what the salary range is in London. I know that I earn almost all of my income from teaching and running classes. I always tell people that if they’re getting into this to be rich, then do something else. There are far easier ways to make money.

What are the differences (if any) between improv in the UK and North America?

There’s a tremendous amount of talent here and work ethic is impressive. Performance-wise, some of the biggest differences are the lack of the “where” when doing a scene, and the Brits’ tendency to try and be clever. There is also a false belief that audiences in North America are better educated in improv, but I don’t feel that’s true. I think improv is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated art forms pretty much everywhere.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think there are lots of reasons for this. First off, in North America you need a machine behind you to put bums in seats because people just don’t go out as much. The Second City has people whose full time job it is to sell tickets. That makes a big difference.  Also, for whatever reason, if people see a bad improv show, they think all improv is bad. They don’t feel that way about stand-up or sketch.

Also, there’s a big problem with the way that groups promote themselves. How many groups promote themselves as being amazing or some of the best, when really they’re not very good or they suck? Yes, suck. Are you really pros? There is a difference, and unfortunately only people in the local improv community know the difference.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The worst was easily when the Signa Nu fraternity bought out the Second City for their international convention. Playing before 400 frat boys was the worst experience that I’ve ever had. Maybe that only qualifies for sketch. Doing improv in a tent in North Hollywood was pretty weird. They had this beautiful theatre where we thought we were going to perform, but someone thought it would be great to put improv outdoors, near the music tent. They even promoted the should as a children’s show, which it was not.  My coach was furious, and at one point jumped into a scene and started shooting people. I have a vivid memory of a mother grabbing her young son and quickly taking him out of the tent.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

I think that it probably is as there’s more people doing it so there’s more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Healthy, happy and still teaching but doing more Radio and TV as well.

David Shore & son Cale

David Pasquesi is an actor/improviser and Second City alumnus. He’s both lauded and loved by everyone who’s anyone in the improv community, and is the Dave half of legendary improv duo, TJ and Dave. His film and television credits include Groundhog Day, Strangers With Candy, Angels and Demons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep.

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

For a living? I didn’t know it was even possible. First class was with Judy Morgan around 1981. And I loved it from the start. I had found something I enjoyed that was not illegal and that I was not terrible at.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

There are many people who have helped me immeasurably all along, but the single person? I would have to say Del Close. He is the person who I had the most contact with. He was a generous man with his knowledge and experience.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job in the umbrella of entertainment was stand up. I was the M.C. at The Chicago Comedy Showcase as I was studying improvisation with Del.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Waiter.

Describe a typical day in your life.

Jesus. No typical day. Lately it’s been trying to run this fucking theater with TJ.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue improv for a living?  

If you are pursuing improvisation for the money…you are a fool. Do it because it isn’t a choice. You have to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe that’s your answer.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think because it is viewed as something everyone can do, there isn’t a need for me to pay to come see you do something I can do, too. So why should I pay to see you do it? Also, there are so many shows there isn’t enough audience to go around.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

Trying to do a Harold outdoors with no stage in the summer in a park on grass and dirt between stands of trees at Taste of Chicago as tourists ambled past on their way to ribs and cheesecake. And also, no one in the world knew what a Harold was.

Best for me is TJ and Dave, some highlights were doing TJ and Dave at Town hall in New York City. Also a European tour doing TJ and Dave. Factory, a TV show improvised with other guys from iO. Mitch Rouse’s show with me, Jay Leggett and Mike Coleman. All of us friends, we had a bunch of our friends come do stuff with us. And of course, the beginning with Del and just starting the Harold. That was very exciting.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

God yes. There was no way to make money as an improviser. The only paying job was Second City. And that was not to improvise.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?  

I don’t.

Susan Messing is fucking awesome. When we asked for a bio, she wrote: “Susan Messing has been an improviser and comedian for almost 30 years. So far so good, as no one has kicked her offstage. Yet.”

Photo © Brian McConkey

Photo © Brian McConkey

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I have always wanted to be an actor, a swimming coach, or a hockey goalie. After college, discovered improv and was hooked, especially because I wouldn’t have to memorize anything.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

I would say that Mick Napier had the greatest influence on the kind of comedy that pleases me as he was someone who was doing it. That said, there have been a myriad of people whose work I have admired: Lucy, Gilda, Dick Gregory…

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job was kind of improvised. I was hired for a murder mystery at the Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois. I was the ‘killer’ but had to pretend all weekend that I was someone who would actually pay money to spend a weekend at The Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois to do a murder mystery. Mostly lying as myself.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Everyone I have ever met has seeped into the core of my consciousness and shaped who I am.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Improv is both for me.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “working improviser”?

When I hear the words ‘working improviser,’ that sounds like it is describing my life, teaching and performing here in the States and abroad. That said, improvisers can become copywriters, astronauts, and corporate trainers. This question makes me want to slap someone.

Describe a typical day in your life.

A typical day in my life involves keeping my child alive. I teach either at iO, The Annoyance, or The Second City, and three nights a week perform in one of those theaters. I manage to see my husband and tell him he’s brilliant, because he is. We have dumb animals that I keep alive too. Usually one weekend a month I am booked to go out of town to teach and perform.

What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

No idea. I primarily make my living teaching and performing improv comedy, but I don’t think that most people do here in Chicago. Nobody does improv for the hope of a great salary. Ever.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

Here in Chicago and on the road, I am very spoiled and grateful in terms of having the best audiences, ever. That said, there are so many improv venues and opportunities to play that I think that people might occasionally get overwhelmed at their options. Also, they might just want to sit in front of the couch and smoke weed and watch The Bachelor.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

See first job. The other ones I have probably blocked out of my memory for damn good reasons.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

No.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ten years from now I hope to have the laughter and joy of a healthy and happy daughter and the continued love of my husband, family, and friends. I will be doing exactly what I am doing with exactly who I want to be doing it with just like the present moment. I will be spending a lot of time in the Redwood Forest in a tiny house or home in Chicago with our several golden retrievers and little to no cats. I will be super cute which will translate into very sexy. I will be in support of a far more humane world with improv as a fine template. Happy and grateful and hopefully helpful.

Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed the comedy cognoscenti, from TJ and Dave to Rachel Dratch to Bob Odenkirk. He is currently writing his third book about improv.

Jimmy Carrane headshot

Photo © Julia Marcus/Zoe McKenzie Photography

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

I think when I was very young. My first memory was I wanted to be a stand up. I always loved comedy. I thought I was going to be a big, famous movie and TV star and have my own sitcom. As you know, those guys make a lot of money.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Lately, I would say Howard Stern. I have always been attracted to this whole concept of truth in comedy. I love his honesty. He can really tell a great story and he does wonderful interviews. I am more inspired by him than jealous, which for me is progress.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

David Koechner tells the story, which I barely remember, that apparently I had gotten a gig for a group of us doing improv games at a race track. As I remember it, the gig was doing games for some guy’s birthday party. Either way, we got paid. They paid me directly with a check and I divvyed up the money. I went to the bank and cashed the check and then paid everyone cash. It was $50 bucks. This part we both agreed on: I Xeroxed the $50 bill that I paid him and said something like “Keep this as copy of the first money we made improvising.”

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

No one was a better hands-on teacher than Martin DeMaat. Much of my teaching style comes from him, just from simply taking his classes and observing how he encouraged us to spend a lot of time warming up and having fun and how he could side coach and say very little but get a lot out of you. Del Close was a huge influence as well. He taught me about the importance of emphasizing truth in comedy, and he taught me to respect myself as an artist. David Koechner was my roommate when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and before I met him, I really didn’t think I could do characters or impressions. But I would watch him do it and study him, and then I realized I could do it, too.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

It’s both. Improv is whatever you want it to be. Improv is flexible. For me, the skills that I learned in improv were extremely valuable when I started hosting a show on Chicago Public Radio. I knew how to listen very attentively to each guest, how to adjust in the moment to their personalities and drop my agenda in my questions. It helped me become an excellent interviewer, which of course has helped me in my podcast, as well.

What kind of things might an improviser do to make a living?

How do you know if you made it improv?

Any job that keeps you in the arts is something that can benefit from improv training. You can write for a sitcom, work in radio, create commercials, or work in advertising. Of course, if you want to stay closer to the comedy world, you can teach, coach, direct, act or produce. Over the years, I have done all of those as well as film and TV work that comes to town, acted at trade shows, written corporate shows and videos, served as an MC for events, and lead team building for companies using improv training. Anything that keeps you in the comedy-improv-acting-writing game is perfect for someone with an improv background.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I do not know that one.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

In my travels around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, this issue of getting people to your improv is a problem in every market. I think most improv is still dependent on improvisers for their audience. Today, improvisers have more performance opportunities and are taking more classes than ever. If you ask an improviser if they would rather go see a show or be in one, I think you know what the answer would be. So those people who would 10 years ago be in the audience are doing bar-prov or are in class or at rehearsal. I think improv needs to be more accessible to a mainstream audience. Shows like Improv Shakespeare and Baby Wants Candy seem to have accomplished this, but it’s very difficult to do. If you figure out how to get more butts in the seats, let me know.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

I was with the Annoyance Theater and we were doing improv on a hot and muggy August day on a children’s stage at an outdoor festival in Chicago. It was around 1997, and the general public didn’t really know what improv was, especially kids. The show before us was Universal Studio’s Beetlejuice ahow. The set was amazing. It looked like and it cost half a million dollars. It was a set from a movie. It had smoke and all these special effects. The actors dressed like the movie. It was the slickest, most professional thing I had ever seen. The crowd was packed with kids and parents. The parents were more blown away than their kids. The response they got was like were at a rock concert. I was like, “Oh man, this is like trying to follow the Rolling Stones! God help us.” At this point, we hit the stage, dehydrated and with half the cast hung over because it was Sunday around 10 a.m. We had about 15 children with their parents sitting on the grass and in the first improv game, one of the least edgy cast members decides to go blue. The audience dwindles at this point. We try to explain what improv was, but it was futile. Nobody cared. We pushed through and kept going. The only reaction we seemed to be getting were families getting up and leaving. Though we were humiliated, we were grateful that improv is a team sport, and we had other people to share in our misery.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

Yes, I think as a teacher there are far more opportunities both teaching in the corporate world and in improv schools and theaters. There are also more opportunities to get paid as a performer than when I started out. Today in Chicago, you can do a boat for Second City, or write or perform or do corporate training for most of the big improv theaters. There is even an ad agency in Chicago that hires improvisers to help with the creative side of adverting. Yes, there are a lot more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I would like to have a national radio and TV show, be a best-selling author and be a famous stand up/storyteller doing one-man shows in huge, sold-out theaters for 1,000 to 1,500 people. And I’d also like to be a loving father who pays attention to his kids and a great husband who pays attention to his wife – unlike what I got in my childhood.

David Razowsky is a master improv instructor. He’s the former Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centre, a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, and the host and creative force of ADD Podcast with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley. He teaches all over the globe, and has logged more flights than most airline pilots. 

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

When I realized that I could. Once you see that your skills are crystallizing and there’s a small call for them, you realize that call will get louder if you give it heat, warmth, air, confidence, and love. We all are born to successfully fill the position of who we are. We’re our job.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

The greatest influence on my career are the actors who come to my classes. They inspire me, they look to me for collaboration, they show me where we can go, they take me to where they wanna go. They are my guide.

What was your first paid improv-related job? 

I was hired as an actor in Geese Theatre Company for Prisons in 1983 or ’84. We traveled across the country in a painted 1963 International Harvester school bus. We did non-comedic improv that focused on education, visits, communication. It was done in masks. It had a profound impact on my art.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Michael Gellman continues to be a mentor to me. The late Martin deMaat continues to inspire me. Mick Napier is a guiding force both artistically and as a business owner (along with the great Jennifer Estlin). Rachel Hamilton reminds me that we are here to be present and to present the world with our skills and make a good living doing it. Second City taught me that great producing leads to great creative opportunities. Charna Halpern at iO taught me that your point of view is imperative.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both. Why must I choose?

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Forgive what might come off as snark, but the money that comes from being an improviser comes from the artist improvising her life. Transition, build, explore, push. Stop calling yourself a “starving artist.” You’re fucking it up for those of us who aren’t and you’re impeding your ability to manifest and grow a successful career.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I pour a cup of coffee that I set the timer to brew so it’s ready when I get to it. I go on line and answer follow-up messages from works-in-progress. I read news feeds on Zite, I cook oatmeal, I eat my oatmeal while reading a book. I do the dishes. I might have a podcast interview (ADD Comedy with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley), and if I do, I’ll spend the hour discussing, we’ll take a portrait with my YashicaMat 120 camera, then a selfie. I’ll edit the selfie, put our watermark on it, the guest’s name, I’ll write a bio, then upload the episode to Ian Foley who will edit it, and post it on line. I’ve done almost 200 interviews, and I love it. I still haven’t figured out how to monetize it, but once I do, I’ll be really glad. The rest of the day is about marketing, raging about gun violence, stupid American voters, and ignorant politicians who don’t give a shit about their constituents. I’ll cook lunch, dinner, and start a cocktail of vodka on the rocks much later than most. I go to bed around 2 am, unless I have my gf over. Then…mmmm.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I don’t know.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

Improv’s got a shitty reputation because so many folks market poorly, don’t rehearse, aren’t professional, don’t promote well, and don’t see themselves as artists and business owners (they being the business). They sell themselves short, and it hurts the rest of us. We have an uphill battle. If you said to me that you were in a play, I’d ask about it and come to it. If you told me your were in an improv show I’d compliment you on your jacket.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

I’ve worked in prisons. Everything else is cake.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

Yep. That’s the progression of an evolving entity. More people are learning, teaching, studying, working in front of people, more people are promoting, marketing, podcasting, taping, exploring. If you’re not, I hope to god you’re not bitching about “Where the fuck is MINE?” You want it? Make it happen. What you think it is isn’t what it is. You have no idea what it is until you do it. It’s a lot like improv because it’s improv.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Loving up People and Chairs. Just like now.

James Gangl is one of Canada’s awesomest improvisers. He’s a comedian, writer, storyteller, filmmaker, member of Bad Dog Theatre Company, and performer with improv troupe extraordinaire, Bonspiel! His one-man show, Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups won the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship and a Canadian Comedy Award. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/jamesgangl

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When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living? What were you doing before?

I always felt like an actor. I remember when I was three I would put signs up all over the house that read “the show starts in five minutes.” Then I’d herd my parents and whatever guests were over into our living room so I could put on a show. Of course I hadn’t planned the show…who needs a script, right? I just demanded attention, jumping up and down on the sofa and making up songs about vampires.

I knew I wanted to do it for a living as soon as I realized there was a living to be made. Again, I always loved it so I guess my dream was to be an actor but I was also super practical so I got a degree in Business and Computing instead. I worked in marketing for five years while auditioning on the side until I finally made the leap to focus on my passion full time.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Jesus.

I grew up super-religious and every aspect of my life was touched by my belief system. Mostly I just felt guilty about swearing and being lewd on stage but eventually my experience with religion became a wealth of inspiration for my writing.
Besides Jesus, my brother Alex was an excellent influence. My family wasn’t unsupportive of my ambition but they weren’t supportive either. I always looked up to my brother Alex and he was the only member of my immediate family who openly celebrated my love of performing. He was always behind me and he went to all my high school plays, beaming from the front row. He’d even brag about me to his friends. I get warm fuzzies just thinking about it now. His encouragement was a key motivator.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

A guy, let’s call him Jeff, from my level D improv class invited me to play a version “slide show” at his 40th birthday party. My job was to make up the narrative to Jeff’s life using real slides that were being projected. As slides flashed onto the screen I’d point to the people projected and label them as “Uncle Henry, the alcoholic” and “money grubbing Aunt Louise.” Unfortunately, the slides involved his real family and friends who sat shocked and offended in the audience. In hindsight, it may have gone better is I was actually introduced and the audience was told that I was improvising. Instead I was some stranger talking smack about the families most initiate memories. Ah well, hindsight is 20-20. $40 well earned.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Their influence is huge. When I started I was watching Slap Happy (Kerry Griffin, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Dave Pearce, and Tabetha Wells) tear it up. I thought what they did WAS improv, period. So I copied them completely. Alumnae Cafe was huge with Bob Martin, Jack Mosshammer, Paul O’Sullivan and Linda Kash…god were those folks pros. They made me realize how good improv really could be.

As I got better so did my friends and colleagues and because improv is my work and my play, my colleagues became my best friends. Now my pals are helping my growth. Jan Caruana regularly helps me with scripts and I’m always bouncing ideas off Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker and Ashley Botting.  Really, at this point I’m surrounded by stupidly talented people. I’m making a movie with former Theatresports member Alex Hatz, I get photos done with Big in Japan Alumni, Kevin Thom… Most of my artsy projects are done with improviser pals.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Yes.

Look, if you are doing improv because you want to be a great actor, stop doing improv. If you are doing improv to become a great stand-up, stop doing improv. Same for sketch and film and music and cooking. Take an acting class, write jokes, write some sketches, buy a tambourine and a Dutch oven…that will get you to your goal quicker. Having said that, if you do improv because you love it, you will continue to do it. That’s what happened to me. I loved it. I was addicted. I couldn’t stop.

Improv was my introduction to the world of performance and became my means to doing other work.  Spending hours becoming a better improviser improved my stage presence and acting ability. It gave me confidence in my comedy. It helped me in front of the camera and gave me the motivation to write. It was the catalyst that lead me to everything else and continues to influence my work in wonderful ways. Having said that, there’s not a lot of money in improv. So YES! Beautiful improv is amazing and wondrous and fulfilling…but, if you want to live off your art you will likely need to learn how to act and/or write.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

I think a working improviser is someone who is regularly performing, teaching, coaching and directing improv. At the moment I don’t think it’s possible to sustain yourself with performing improv alone. At the very least a “working improviser” will be teaching as well.

My advice to the improviser that wants to pay rent is this: Get yourself an agent. Like right away. The agent doesn’t have to be good, they just have to send you out for commercials. Improv prepares you best for commercials. The ad industry loves improvisers even if they don’t know it! Ads are usually 30 seconds long and comedic, and therefore they use broad archetypes like “the geek,” “the love interest,” “the goof,” “the thug” as their staple characters. When I started improvising all I did was broad characterizations and that’s exactly the kind of stuff ad folks want. Plus you can improvise! Throw in a button at the end of your audition and everyone will think you’re a genius. Plus, commercials can pay tons of money. So…go get an agent. (And it wouldn’t hurt if you took some on camera classes as well. Acting in front of the camera is much smaller.)

Describe a typical day in your life.

The days are really different. A typical week looks like me going to a handful of auditions and prepping them if they are big and chunky. I cook a lot of my own meals, which is great because I can easily keep a stew bubbling as I run lines. I write too. I’m on the pitch list for DNTO and regularly come up with pitches for stories I want to tell on the radio. At night I teach and do the odd show and try to flirt with girls. And play embarrassing board games that 15-year-olds play.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

Honestly, I don’t really know. Most improvisers are doing other things to pay the rent. Here’s the range for various improv related sources of income: For teaching you make anywhere from $30 – 55/hr (CAD$). For coaching maybe $20 – 50/hr depending on who you are and who the troupe is. You might get paid $20 – $40 and some beer tickets to do shows at an improv or sketch stage at night. If you can get into corporate workshops or shows, well that’s a whole other story (put an additional zero on those numbers).

As a side note: if a producer invites top talent to play and uses their names on the bill, the talent should be treated very well. Be nice, buy drinks, have snacks. You’ll want the talent to come back even if you can’t afford to pay them well on that particular night. Having said that, if that producers fills the room they should pay well too (add zeros).

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think the amount of people seeing improv has been rising steadily. Fifteen years ago there were maybe two or three improv shows that ran weekly.  Those shows had ups and downs like shows do today. Compare that with today where there are three shows a night (at least). That’s part of the reason it’s hard to get bums in seats. The audiences have grown but the amount of improv performances have increased exponentially and so there is lots of competition for eyeballs.

The second problem is an old one but it persists: People don’t know what improv is. Yes, its popularity has been growing, but compare improv with more popular mediums and the challenge becomes obvious. Movies have trailers that tell you what you’re getting into. Stand-up is funny and has years and years of TV exposure. Even today, every late night talk show on network television starts with a stand-up set. Improv is slightly harder to explain and hence the barrier to entry is higher.

People order the same thing at the same restaurant because they know they’ll like it; improv is still an unknown element.

There are a zillion improv shows. Having a zillion show dilutes audiences, so even if the total amount of people going has increased, the number of improv show has increased exponentially too.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

The best improv gig I ever did was in Vienna. I was a  green improviser but I convinced Jim Libby at the English Lovers to let me play. It was the opening night of their new season and the space was big and beautiful and jam-packed. We were doing a montage and if the scene started in English it would continue in English but if it started in German it would continue in German. I speak German like a three-year-old and the audience found that out pretty quickly. The more I tried to speak the language (and failed), the more the audience loved me. The show ended with an improvised musical number. My scene partner was a professional opera singer with the Vienna State Opera and I wasn’t. Still, as the underdog I got to sing the last verse in terribly broken German and the crowd leapt to their feet. A standing ovation at an improv show… Crazy.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

100%. There’s way more awareness and that has led to bigger houses, more students, more corporate work and more opportunity. Fifteen years ago paid improv coaches were virtually unheard of, now it’s common. It’s not easy, but there is money to be made.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Hopefully splitting my time between LA and Toronto. I love my city, but am also loving all my experiences in front of the camera. That’s driving me toward LA. I hope my day job is regular TV and film work, and I get to continue to write and perform my own solo work.

Either that or learning to cook professionally in Chile.

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