Christian Capozzoli is an actor/improviser/instructor, member of the fiercely funny 4Track, and author of Aerodynamics of Yes: The Improviser’s Manual. We asked him a bunch of stuff, and he was nice enough to answer.
P&C: Why did you decide to write Aerodynamics of Yes? Is there a specific audience you wanted to reach?
CC: I’ve been touring and teaching for about five years now, and often I’ll come into town and have three hours to squeeze in an entire methodology. It’s a pretty big undertaking.
I know that my workshop is all about moving and reacting, but that leaves very little time for the students to take notes. It’s hard to read a billboard on a bullet train, and I’m asking them to play Where’s Waldo? So I wrote the book primarily to supplement my teaching – go back and unpack each lesson with time and care.
I suppose I did it because I also like to write. By no means do I think I’m saying anything new. I’m saying the same old stuff, just I’m saying it my way.
As a Master of Ed and Lit, I try to take into account all types of learners. Some need to move on their feet, others need to hear it explained, or tether it to a metaphor; some just need to see it written down pickled in prose.
P&C: Your book covers a wide range of topics, from improv fundamentals to scene work to formats. How long do you think it takes to truly master these things?
CC: You don’t. It’s forever. The more you do, the more you realize how much more there is. Or how choices can be made in minutiae: from sentences, to words, to syllables, and the gaps between when we speak, the heat and weight of what we say, every second, gesture, eyebrow lift can be filled with choice, colouring our scene.
And just when we learn to react in the now, moment-to-moment or second-to-second, then there will always be nano-seconds.
Improvising with Peter Grosz, I was amazed at how fast he was. How quick and textured. Speed is relative of course, but I don’t know that we ever master it. I think we just get comfortable with that speed, more familiar with these synapses, and we get more comfortable being present and making choices. So comfortable or Zen that it looks like mastery to others.
The less hippy dippy answer: 10 years of time, discipline, performance, rehearsal, and failure would be a good foundation to feeling competent.
P&C: Who were/are your mentors or heroes in the improv scene?
CC: Susan Messing – she uses all of her brain to be funny.
Heroes, in this order: Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Zack Woods, Jason Mantzoukas, TJ and Dave, John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Dan Backedahl, and Scott Adsit.
P&C: What’s the one thing you see being taught today – or not being taught – that irks you most?
CC: Anytime improv comedy forgets it is on stage, it irks me. Live theatre should be theatrical.
P&C: You say “Improvisers would rather be right than foolish.” How can improvisers get over that need to control?
CC: They have to be willing to fail. Unfortunately, we hold stage time and scenes so precious that we put too much pressure on ourselves.
Repetition is key. Let yourself be wrong. Scenes are a sine wave; they don’t have to start a specific way, they need only begin and invest in information and it will work.
P&C: You cover 4Track form in the book. How did it come about, how did you develop it?
CC: I was in a master class with Kevin Dorff. We hit on the idea of making scenes grow, [of] protecting energy.
I was also really into The Eventé, so I suggested we do a high energy-matching scene, followed by a character extraction to a series of tag-outs. It worked and evolved from there.
P&C: Many teams come and go, but a handful stay around long enough to become almost legendary. What makes a great team?
CC: Confidence, connectivity, trust, exposure to new things, agreeing to play a piece the same way!
Here’s a show we can all relate to.
Toronto improviser Steve Baerwald bares it all in a new show called Honest Anxiety at the Black Swan Tavern.
The normally soft-spoken Baerwald came up with the idea of performing with people who intimidate him as a way of dealing with his social anxiety disorder.
The third Wednesday of each month, he’ll take the stage with some scary good improvisers. Tomorrow’s line-up includes The Beasts, POMP!, and “anxiety inducer” Matt Folliott, who’ll (presumably) share the spotlight with Steve.
The show starts at 8 pm, May 15, and it’s Pay What You Can, with all proceeds going to Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Click below to join the facebook page for updates and full details.
Oh, man. Few things are sweeter than seeing regular, everyday people transformed by the power of improv.
As comedian Albert Howell points out, this video beautifully illustrates the importance of principles such as Be positive, Say “Yes,” and Make your partner look good.
We dare you not to smile:
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau
Cameron got let go (“restructured” in advertising parlance) a couple of weeks ago. And while we never could have predicted it when 2013 began, it’s quite possibly the greatest gift he’s ever been given.
When we met 15 years ago, Cameron was a bright young intern and I was a disillusioned senior writer.
“Don’t waste your time in this stupid fucking industry,” I said, even as I helped him put his portfolio together.
Not long after, I was fired (sorry, “restructured”), and Cameron was still unemployed. But I was totally smitten by this incredibly smart, incredibly funny person who, it turned out, was also incredibly anxious.
Slowly, I learned that Cameron had a deep-seated fear of crowds, strangers, going out in public, and pretty much anything that involved the unfamiliar.
For seven years he sank deeper into anxiety and depression. And yet through it all, his sense of humour shone like the sun through a summer storm.
Whether he was imitating a cheesy boy band video*, or re-enacting some bizarre thing that happened at work, I’d be doubled over with laughter.
“You should be a comedian!” I blurted. But almost immediately, I dismissed it. It was too far fetched, given Cameron’s fragile physical and emotional state.
Finally in desperation we saw a psychiatrist, who suggested Cameron learn improv.
I balked. Cameron couldn’t walk to the subway without having a panic attack. How the hell was he supposed to get up in front of strangers and be funny? But Cameron surprised me by finding the courage to enrol at Second City, and I went with him.
One day in Level A, we were learning “Make A Story” when the teacher pointed to Cameron. He looked down, shook his head, then threw up his hands in defeat and mumbled “Squirrel?”
Everyone laughed, and the teacher said, “See? The comedy gods gave Cam the word ‘squirrel.’ And it’s perfect!”
That was eight years ago.
The support and encouragement we received from instructors, the friends we’ve made, and the things we’ve learned have changed our lives completely.
I was going through some old files last night, and found a performance review from Cameron’s old workplace. It was during the dark days, just weeks after he signed up for Second City.
His boss commented on Cameron’s shyness and poor presentation skills, then made some notes for improvement, ending with the words, “Improvise. Take chances.”
Sometimes the universe is telling us something, but we don’t listen because we’re afraid.
One more thing:
A week before he was let go, Cameron put together a workshop. The theme?
We may not know what the future holds, but we’re letting go of needing to control it. And trusting that it’s in the benevolent hands of the comedy gods.
*(“Tonight” by Soul Decision)
Toronto comics are some of the best on the planet. But unless you’re already part of the scene, you might never know the comedy goldmine in our midst.
StreamFest aims to put an end to that.
In partnership with the Canadian Comedy Awards, StreamFest live-streams the city’s top comedians to the world, Sunday evenings at Comedy Bar.
As fans of live comedy ourselves, there’s nothing quite like being there. But for those who can’t (or don’t want to) visit our chilly part of the globe, StreamFest brings Toronto’s best to a whole new audience of fans
The carefully-curated mix of stand-up, sketch, and improv adds up to a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes of laughs. Established acts like Colin Mochrie, Ron Sparks, and National Theatre of the World share the stage with newer names like fab sketch duo British Teeth, stand-up Rhiannon Archer, and improv favourites RN and Cawls.
The show is produced by Brian Smith and Kyra Williams. Smith, who co-created the freakishly funny Live From The CenTre, knows how to build an online following. And judging from the live audience’s reaction this past Sunday evening, that shouldn’t be difficult.
StreamFest runs every Sunday at 7 pm till May 19 at Comedy Bar.
Life is absurd.
If you doubt this, just spend five minutes on YouTube, CNN, or public transit.
Weird shit happens everywhere, every day. So why do we try so hard to make improv scenes go the way we expect them to?
The answer is usually fear.
Fear that we won’t know where the scene is going. Fear that our partner won’t understand our offer, or we won’t understand theirs. Fear of the unknown.
But isn’t that why we do improv in the first place? To do something we’ve never done before, and will never do again.
When we visit new places, try new cuisine, go to an art gallery or watch a movie, we want to be surprised. And improv is one of the few art forms where the actors get to be as surprised as the audience.
The conscious mind loves to control things, and our ego wants us to believe we need to control things in order for them to turn out OK.
For a long time I feared not getting certain, specific references on stage. (Let’s just say I stood on the sidelines nervously observing Mortal Kombat scenes.)
But how much funnier is it when someone doesn’t know the reference?
Suppose I endowed someone as Iron Chef, Geoffrey Zakarian.
You think the audience wants to see a perfect impression of the Chopped judge? If they did, they should’ve stayed home and watched the Food Network.
Maybe you’ve never heard of him, and the first thing that pops into your head is, “Zakarian…sounds Hungarian.”
Awesome. And if your idea of a Hungarian accent sounds more like the Swedish Chef, well…Bork!
Think about the best scenes you’ve ever done for a moment. The ones where everything felt effortless, and you never wanted it to end.
However those scenes started, I’ll bet none of them turned out the way you expected.
When you let go of your improv steering wheel, you connect with something deeper than your conscious mind can fathom. It’s the same state of flow that artists, musicians, authors, sculptors, dancers, and even scientists tap into when they bring something awe-inspiring into being.
The more you can open yourself up to that state, the more you will be amazed.
For inspiration, check out: 42 People You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.
Anthony Atamanuik and Neil Casey are two of the funniest people you will ever see on any stage. Members of the legendary Death By Roo Roo, they’re also the cast of Two Man Movie, a fully improvised feature film of epic proportions.
Although this is only a three-minute clip, you can see how they build an incredibly rich world with just two guys, two chairs, and a crapload of imagination.
Makes us yearn for the sequel.
Click here or below to watch.
Mick Napier is to improv as Keith Richards is to rock’n'roll. In Part Two, we discuss acting skills, Chicago versus New York and LA, how to start an improv theatre, and erector sets.
P&C: You’ve probably seen more improv than most people on the planet. Do you ever want to scream when you see a clichéd scene that you’ve seen a million times? How do you stay fresh and motivated [in] your attitude towards seeing improv?
MN: Well, that’s a great question; it’s very hard to do. There are an infinite number of things you can do in improvisation, but there seem to be the same patterns of behaviour that show up often. So it’s difficult.
I think I do mention this in my book. If the suggestion is “bowling alley,” then someone’s gonna put their hand in the air in order to hold a ball, or they’re gonna hold a hand dryer if they’re clever. Or if someone says “graveyard,” they’re gonna grab a shovel to dig, and it’s just these associations that we make.
So those become trying after a while, and difficult to pay attention to because it’s the same constructs.
And then behaviourally, people do reference time a lot, or people will say they love things a lot, or there’s all these different words that become [unintelligible]. So it becomes crazy, and it becomes very hard to stay focused often.
Sometimes I don’t really even listen to the words of a scene so much; I just kind of can hear the cadence of a scene to know what’s up, or to know the kind of behaviour that’s behind the cadence in a strange way. I don’t even know how to say that… But oftentimes I am not really listening to the content all the time.
If I have a feeling that it’s going to go in a particular way, I can assess from the very beginning of a scene pretty much what’s going to happen and I’ll kind of check in to the scene. And I feel horrible because I’m essentially admitting that I check out of a scene, but sometimes I do.
And then over time I feel like, that, I’ve just become really good at also just looking past the content and looking at human behaviour. So when I look at improvisation, especially when I’m teaching, I really am thinking about the person, and what can I bring to that person, and what are they doing?
So that’s the part that becomes stimulating to me; not whether the scene’s funny to me or whether the scene’s working, but y’know… “Sally just did that twice. Is she gonna do that again? She didn’t or she did. That becomes a pattern. Is that pattern an asset for improvisation, a deficit, or is it merely something she needs to find balance with? And how can I say that and asses that, and remember that.
And that’s the part that becomes stimulating when I’m teaching.
P&C: I was blown away when you came to Toronto and just nailed everybody’s style and their go-tos, and you did it so quickly. I understand that you have a lot of experience, but I also think you have a gift for that, because it seems like you enjoy that kind of analysis.
MN: I do, I really do. That is stimulating. And I really do like to see if I can empathise with the feeling and thinking of the person while they’re improvising.
I think if I have a gift, one of them is that I don’t forget ever what it’s like to improvise. Because I still improvise, and I still remember the same feeling I have when I improvise. I remember the same feeling I had the first time I saw the Mainstage at Second City. The first time I saw a Harold. The first I auditioned for the Generals or Tourco at Second City.
I’ve been running those auditions for twenty years, and I always, on the way to those auditions, stop and remember what it’s like to audition. Because it’s scary.
So I feel like that, if I do have any abilities, that’s one of them, is just to remember what it’s like and to always feel like I’m improvising and to see if I can get inside a person’s head. Because improvisation is scary as fuckin’ hell. It’s scary…so I get it.
P&C: You wrote a list of twelve tips for people auditioning for Second City in an Annoyance newsletter. One of the tips was “Study acting. You won’t, but you ought to.”
When David Razowsky was here recently he said that the last generation of improvisers was taught by actors, and this generation – to a large degree – is being taught by improvisers. Do you agree, and if so, how do you think that affects the quality of improv we’re seeing?
MN: Wow. I almost wish Jennifer would answer that question. She just said she agreed. I never thought of that, but boy, as I think about it I can agree. It becomes increasingly surprising to us that people don’t know stage left from stage right, or don’t, you know, know how to be on stage… I think that’s probably true.
I think of Dave Razowsky and me, I had theatre training, and it does come from an acting point of view. I don’t watch other people teach, but I do know who is teaching, and as I Rolodex who that is in the city right now, many of them just come from the improv community, and I can’t think of a lot of them like, 30s and under, that have had a lot of acting experience.
P&C: There’s some amazing talent [in Toronto] and obviously in the States, and I feel like actors bring more subtlety to their performance.
MN: I think that’s probably true; a little more substantive, a more grounded approach to their improvisation.
I say that, but I also think that right now, the younger talent pool at least in Chicago is… there’s some really good people. So I certainly don’t want to throw that away either, because I really do believe that the younger talent pool here is really impressive, and their ability to be good on stage and get laughs is really great.
P&C: Do you think people don’t take acting lessons because they’re afraid to?
MN: I think that that’s part of it. I’ve always seen a fear on both sides: from the theatre community, they’re afraid of improvisation, and I feel like improvisers are afraid of acting.
But I also think that a lot of young improvisers just feel like they don’t need…that it’s a given that they can act, or that it’s something they don’t really have to deal with. That they’re…“Of course I can act.” And I see that being a huge issue all the time.
Especially if you’re paid to do it. You’re not paid to do improvisation, you’re paid to probably do sketch comedy, or probably act in archival scenes at Second City, etcetera. So it is an acting job first.
I’ll see really good improvisers improvise at the Second City Generals, and they get called back. And in the callbacks, they’ll have to read from a script, and it’s pretty much the thing that will either get you hired or not get you hired. It’s the edge that you need to make that final step to get hired professionally.
P&C: In that same list, you stress the importance of doing things other than improv, and that you have a lot of hobbies. I know quibit, or rapping is one of them. What are some others?
MN: Oh my lord. Goodness… well, all my hobbies are… (laughs) Like, I do cards, I like to do a lot of card stuff. I played pool every night for like, fifteen years. I love pool, I studied pool a lot. I was into lock picking for a while. Weight lifting. Guitars…
P&C: Is it because you like learning new things?
MN: I do, yeah. I think the internet was a hobby of mine before you could click on anything. I was on the internet in 1988. That was all Unix. I knew Unix, and used to be on IRC and Gopher and all that.
The fun thing about me and the internet is that an old Annoyance actor is… I’d heard about the internet and heard he was on it, and I asked him how to get on it and he told me…his name was Dick Costolo, and he’s the CEO of Twitter now.
P&C: Oh wow. (laughs)
MN: Yeah. (laughs) I’m also into erector sets. Do you know what those are?
MN: I’ve have probably five thousand dollars’ worth of erector sets. And what’s funny for me is – I think this is telling for me in the world of process versus product thinking – is that I will spend four or five hours making something with an erector set, and just seconds after I finish it I will tear it apart.
MN: Yeah, I never care about the outcome of it. I think I’m like that a lot; I hate to go backwards and look at stuff. I’ve never read my book after it came out.
P&C: Go back and read it, it’s great!
MN: (laughs) I just kinda like do things and kinda move on. It’s probably called A.D.D.
P&C: It’s funny, because I listened to Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd podcast interview with you, and he said you’re very good at being present. It sounds like you really enjoy this moment, and not so much the past or the future.
MN: Yeah, I try. I try. You know, I worry about stuff and all that, but yeah…
P&C: A lot of great improvisers move to New York or LA, while others stay in Chicago. Do you think there’s a certain type of person who flourishes more in one city, or is the type of career you choose?
MN: That’s a real good question. I feel like that, to move to New York… Well first of all if I had to advise anyone where to move, it would be New York. I think New York’s a better chance of actually getting paid to do it. And I actually think that New York’s a more exciting and more fun place and vibrant place to be, so I always tend to advise people that way.
I think that it takes a certain mentality to live in Los Angeles, and a certain amount of patience, a certain constitution… To be able to feel like that you’re always waiting, and that you always have something that’s a possibility for future success. I feel like that’s a huge part of the psyche of someone living in Los Angeles, so I think that you have to have the make-up for that.
I think that in Los Angeles you have a better chance you can get there quicker, so if they want to go to LA I’m always like, “Well you should go right now.” The more you wait in Chicago, the less marketable you’ll be in a weird way.
With New York I think they have more tolerance for that. So I think that if you’re someone who keeps the quality of life and their desire for that kind of adventure as high on their list as their career, then I think that’s a fuller person in a way.
Someone who stays in Chicago could be someone who is so immersed in the culture here and has such a love for it that they forgo other opportunities, like TJ Jagodowski. Or it could be someone who is probably in fear of making that leap, like Jimmy Carrane, self-admittedly. Or it could be someone who has tried it and then comes back to Chicago. And it could be a mixture of all those things, which I think is me.
I was in New York for three years and loved it, and wanted to get back to the Annoyance in Chicago. So for me there’s times where I’ve regretted not fully moving to New York. Because Jennifer was there for seven years and worked there as an actor and did well, and there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh fuck, I wish I would’ve done New York and, you know, had that life there.”
I’ve never wanted to go to Los Angeles. I worked in television for a bit and I feel like that I’m…I guess almost like, too angry to work in television.
I can’t have that conversation with twenty producers that I don’t respect, who are constantly providing input that I have to negotiate and compromise and through attrition agree to or subscribe to, and acquiesce power and all that. I’ve done it and it’s just enraging.
I admire people who can do it, I really do, and come out with a good product on the other side. But then I think about that, and usually that’s in New York.
I respect Tina for being to get through all I know she had to do to in order to get 30 Rock the way it was. And I respect Stephen Colbert, and people I’ve known through the years who’ve made that leap. It just takes so much energy, and I respect it so much.
And the people, the mediocrity you have to meet along the way, and the product-oriented people coming at you all the time. It takes a lot of energy.
I worked on Exit 57 and I learned a lot about the quality of life one must endure to be in television, and I was so angry all the time at having to deal with everything you have to deal with, that I think that became a decision for me to never, ever immerse myself in the culture of Los Angeles where that would be pretty much the constant. And add to that the waiting, and the feeling like my next phone call was gonna be something… and it was just, oh my God…
So to answer your question, I think it takes that kind of constitution, or that kind of demeanour in order to live there without absolutely going out of your fucking mind.
P&C: Whenever I see the part in Annie Hall where Woody visits LA and he watches the guy put the laugh track on, that’s pretty much my concept of what it must be like to work in TV. I work in advertising, which is not even art, and the compromises are often nauseating. Doing a TV show, I can only imagine how many fingers are in that pie.
MN: I’m sure. And I’m sure you’ve seen in advertising some very funny, original concepts just be homogenized to lukewarm mediocrity.
I’ve read The Art of Chicago Improv, and it became really clear that it’s a very tough thing to do, to open a theatre. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start an improv theatre today.
MN: It’s boring advice, but to go to the trouble of finding out all the logistical things you need to do in order to run a theatre legally and safely. I know that is such a 50-year-old person’s answer, but what I learned is that I’ve done it many different ways, and I’ve found that it takes a lot less energy to do it legally and right than it does to skate around. And it’s also less expensive to do it correctly than to not.
The reason I say that, first, is that when you’re starting out you feel like you want to skate around this. You don’t want to really have to get a fucking permit and do all this other shit. And what I’ve learned over time is that it takes so much more energy and so much more secrecy and so much more money to do it that way.
So I guess my first piece of advice would be – as boring as it is – go to the trouble of and have the courage to just do it the way you want to do it, and that will give you more creative freedom later, because you don’t have to be hiding behind shit.
Now that is the first thing that comes to me while I’m in the process, just this morning, of looking at a space to try to move the Annoyance. So I’m in that mindset for sure.
We’re really close to moving, and so I’m kind of in that mind space right now, and just reflecting on the way that I’ve created theatres in Chicago, and really wish I would’ve taken the energy to do it a little differently when I was younger. But that’s on the business stuff and boring side.
On the artistic side of things, I think that having a real clear idea of the voice you want to create with your theatre, and completely being relentless about the fervor that you want to bring to that voice, and not letting the way you think it should be, or the way you think it should be perceived, be the thing that guides you.
You’ll lose artistic ground and respect if you’re attempting to acquiesce to other people’s opinions and thoughts, etcetera.
That’s one thing I’m hugely proud of with Annoyance. If you’re really going to go to the trouble to get a theatre together, you might as well at least own what your point of view is and what your vision is.
P&C: And that’s going to dovetail me nicely into my final question, which is: you are a legendary figure in the improv community. What are you most proud of in your career?
MN: As far as improv goes, I’m most proud of creating the Annoyance Training Centre. That’s the thing that if when people ask me right now “What are you most proud of at the Annoyance?” it’s the Training Centre.
I’m proud of creating an alternative way, a different way of looking at improvisation, a different way of learning it, and I’m proud of creating the Annoyance’s training that reflects that.
I really am proud of a lot of shows I’ve directed and stuff, but when it comes down to it, when people ask me that, that’s my first answer and I think it’s the most honest answer.
The shows have happened at the Annoyance, some of them have been great, some of them have just sucked. And I’m proud of the fact that allowing them to create whatever they want on stage, I really am, and above and beyond that, I’m just really proud of the training.
We have the courage to give people individual notes, and individual assessments, and keep it playful, keep it uncensored and all that.
P&C: Wonderful. Well thank you so, so much for your time. Please thank Jennifer for letting me take you away from her for an hour. Truly a pleasure to talk with you Mick.
MN: Thank you so much. Tell everyone hello.