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“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.” – Woody Allen

Recently a friend was passed over for something he’d auditioned for.

Ouch. Been there.

When Cameron and I finished Level E, ooooh, about a million years ago, there weren’t many options for improv students.

Second City’s long-form program was still a twinkle in Rob Norman’s eye. Neither Cameron nor I had even heard of Bad Dog or Impatient Theatre, both of which specialized in something called “The Harold.”

So we did what everyone else in our class did: auditioned for the Conservatory. When Cameron called me to say he got in, I was thrilled. Then gutted, when I realized I hadn’t made the cut.

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“I was told to bring physicality.”

I replayed the audition endlessly in my mind, analyzing every word and gesture for signs that I sucked.

As I beat myself up for the 50th time about choosing to play a Mormon, my friend Marko said, “Sal, I’m sure you were fine. They probably just needed someone taller, or shorter, or younger, or older, or with acne.”

I laughed, because he was right.

As a copywriter, I’ve sat through hundreds of auditions and the truth is, no one knows how they’ll turn out. Not the actors, the casting director, the director, the creative team, or the client.

Sometimes you think you know what you’re looking for, then someone completely the opposite blows you away. Sometimes two people nail it, but there’s only one slot available. And sometimes even great actors just have a bad day.

I’ve seen talent rejected for being too fat, too thin, too pretty, too weird, and too “normal.”

One time a client rejected a girl because of her braces. We explained she didn’t wear braces (we checked). He didn’t care. End of discussion.

Auditions are a collaborative process, and as crazy as it might sound, even being the best doesn’t always get you the gig.

Just ask Louis C.K., Jim Carrey, David Cross, or the dozens of other A-list comedians who didn’t make SNL.

I certainly wasn’t the best in my audition, but I probably wasn’t the worst, either. Or maybe I was, and that’s OK. I’d rather try something and be terrible than never attempt it for fear of failing.

I tried out for Conservatory again and still didn’t get in. Looking back, it was a blessing. I now know I’d rather improvise than write sketch. Someone else deserved that place on the Second City stage.

Instead, I learned everything I could about long-form. I took Intro to Harold with David Shore, Acting for Improvisers with Shari Hollett, Power Improv with Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, workshops with Matt Besser, Susan Messing, Jet Eveleth, David Razowsky, TJ and Dave, Todd Stashwick, and Greg Hess. I learned Cat’s Cradle from Charna Halpern, and performed at festivals in Chicago and New York.

These days there are countless opportunities for anyone with a passion for improv. Even if you live in a small town, you can:

• Find like-minded friends (even one) to perform with, rehearse with a coach, and do every show you can.

• Do improv jams. Find out which shows use audience members and put your name in the hat.

• Attend drop-ins. For anywhere from zero to five bucks, you can flex your improv muscles and play with a bunch of new people.

• Support the community. Go see shows by friends and peers, as well as your improv heroes.

• Try your hand at producing. Maybe you’ve identified a niche for a format that no one’s filled yet. This is your chance to bring it!

• Take classes. Not just improv, but acting, writing, puppetry, singing…whatever floats your boat.

• Study other improvisers, live or online (search your favourite teams, teachers, and authors for videos).

• Listen to podcasts.

• Make your own comedy shorts. Invite your friends to participate. You don’t need fancy equipment; you can shoot and edit it on your iPhone. (Modern Family filmed an episode entirely on iPhones, iPads and Macs.)

• Read. There are so many awesome books, on improv and other topics. Some of our faves are:

• Write. Write Morning Pages, short stories, tweets, sketches, web series, screenplays, or a blog.

Above all, go easy on yourself. Hearing a “no” may feel like a dead end, but it’s really just a redirect. Remember the improv tenet of “go with,” and trust that it will lead you somewhere fun. Because maybe, to go back to Woody’s quote, God is chuckling because He knows how much cooler your future is than you could ever imagine.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

One of the great reasons to love improv is its fleeting nature. There’s no record of it. It comes, it goes. We’re left with our memories of it. Our memories. It’s a nice gift we let ourselves have. It helps if you like you.

One of the great things about performing improv is that we aren’t able to watch ourselves improvise. We have a vision in our skull of what we look like when we’re in the act of unfolding a character. It helps us unfold and evolve that character, for there’s no evidence as to whether we’re “doing it right” or “doing it wrong.” Because we don’t see it, we give ourselves the opportunity to just create without self-judgment.

That is, until someone does something that puts our process smack dab into our eyes.

When I was the Artistic Director at Second City Los Angeles we had a very small space that was our theatre. Just a black box, a small riser of a stage, and flat black walls. One day our stage manager, all on his own, decided it would be a good idea to put mirrors up on the walls. All the walls. Covered ’em. Now every interaction was brilliantly reflected, every action apparent, every movement mirrored.

I hated it. I’m long gone from that event and I still cringe. When I was on stage living a character that was a beautiful woman, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage being a young boy character, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage acting all suave Daniel Craig-y, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me, Jewish David Razowsky.

That mirror invited my ego in, my “self” in. It trumped my imagination, it heavily challenged my suspension of disbelief, it brought “me” in, when I didn’t need “me” to appear, nor to be an arbiter of how I was doing.

Over the years I’ve learned to be mindful, to be in the moment, to give focus to what serves my joy and my scene partner. I’ve learned to stop looking into a mirror, realizing that so often that mirror isn’t literally a mirror, rather it’s a mental reflection where we artists sacrifice the joy of the process for the “thrill” of falling down the rabbit hole of doubt, dancing with judgment and second-guessing. I’ve learned to see the mirror, but not to look into it.

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 has a long list of celebrity friends, and an equally impressive collection of Bloody Mary photos.

Matt Holmes (below, left) performs improvised shows with a stranger in Philadelphia. Neil Curran (right) does the same thing across Ireland. They connected recently to talk about their experiences, and the improv scene on both sides of the pond.

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P&C: How is performing with a non-improviser different from performing with someone who understands “Yes, and”?

NC: I find that eventually the audience member naturally realises that they should “yes, and”, even though they don’t know what they’re doing.

MH: I think everybody has a child-like sense of playing and creating, somewhere inside.

NC: Yes, the less experience the better. They’re pure of heart then!

Neil: What attracted you to the format, and what inspired you to do it?

Matt: It sort of came about organically for me. There wasn’t one particular impetus for it. It was kind of an experiment. I liked the idea of coming up with the idea myself.

Neil: How does it feel to be at the forefront with the format?   

Matt: I really like advising other people about this kind of show and seeing what variations people make.

I’ve found that people can take the basic notion and tailor it to themselves with little adjustments. I’m very loose with it, but I like seeing similar shows that frame it uniquely for the performer doing it.

Neil: I’d love to try to do it with yourself and two audience members, as a foursome.

Matt: Oh, I never would’ve thought of that. We should pitch that for some festival.

Matt:  What’s your history with improv in general?

Neil: I grew up immersed in theatre. My mother is an actor and a drama teacher/examiner, so from an early age I was involved in theatre in some form.

I always had a love for improv though, and while improv in the drama world is often different to what we do, it was the liberation and freedom that came with it that I loved. No restrictions.

Whose Line Is It Anyway? was also running when I was a teenager, and I was addicted to it. Imitating games with friends, it was my favourite show on TV, and Ryan Stiles became a hero.

Later in life, I set up a theatre group in Dublin that held weekly drop-in workshops. Improv was used a lot in those classes, so I started to take improv more seriously, short-form first, but the lightbulb moment wasn’t until I was introduced to a UK improv troupe, The Maydays, and in particular, John Cremer.

That’s when everything changed for me. John is one of the most inspiring teachers I’ve met, and their skill at long form made me want to work hard at being the best long-form performer that I could be. Through The Maydays, I was introduced to other great teachers, such as Jason Chin, and Marshall and Nancy behind Zenprov.

Matt: I don’t know what improv is like in the UK or in Ireland.

Neil: The improv scene in Ireland was very small.  There was a very long-running, successful short-form group in Dublin (Dublin Comedy Improv), but no one was really doing long form.

So I started to teach long form and performing it with the troupe I was playing with at the time, Laughalot Improv. I think we performed Dublin’s first Harold, but I could be mistaken.

Over time, my workshop numbers grew and grew. I now have four levels that I teach. More and more long form groups have been sprouting up. It’s fantastic.

Matt: Your story is surprisingly similar to mine. I was semi-aware of improv as something that actors do and that comedians learn before getting on Saturday Night Live or MADTV, but then Whose Line really crystallized it into a specific idea.

I was shy and never would’ve gotten on stage, even though I was really interested in performance. Then I tried short-form in college and shifted into long-form after college, starting up Philly’s small comedy scene with shows and classes and workshops.

And now I have that same situation as you, with lots of groups sprouting up around me.

Neil: It was challenging trying to continuously train at long form, as I had to go to the UK to learn. Fortunately, The Maydays run intensives, which proved hugely beneficial.

I then met a lady who used to live in the U.S. but lives in Galway, Ireland, now and has since become a very good friend: Órla Mc Govern. Órla is an actor and a veteran long form improviser. She performed with a number of groups in Seattle and beyond before moving back to Ireland.

Matt: For me, the improv festival circuit was a great way to learn more about improv via experts from Chicago, New York, Toronto, etc.

That was where I really leveled up and incorporated those different approaches, along with learning by teaching others and having to get my head around it all.

Neil: How do you find being independent of the Chicago/New York/LA scene influences your improv?

Matt: I think it has allowed me to pick and choose what works for me personally.

Neil: Yes! I find that’s the same in Europe.

Matt: I feel like being separated from the “official way” to do it has kept me open to all kinds of styles, interpretations, and influences.

I think improvisers in those saturated places go through one specific idea of what improv means. Some do multiple tracks or branch out with an intensive at another institution, but they’re still these firm routes.

Neil: I agree, and we’re witnessing almost a hybrid style emerge in Europe, which is truly wonderful.

Matt: How is improv different in Ireland/UK/Europe from other places you’ve been?

Neil: The UK scene is very evolved, although players there may disagree. However, things are really flourishing, and there are some tour de force acts there. The scene in Europe is growing rapidly, with more and more festivals emerging. The sense of community is huge.

Matt: What do you mean by “evolved”?

Neil: I mean that there are some high-calibre groups doing cutting-edge things. The standard is very high.

Matt: I see. How is the material itself different (if it is)? I’ve read about cultural differences that led to improv in Latin America being different in style from American/Canadian/European improv.

Neil: You see less improv events here being marketed as Armando nights or Harold nights, etc. because frankly audiences don’t know what it means, nor do they care.

Troupes are developing their own formats and styles, putting their own slant on things. Slapping ‘Chicago long-form improv’ on a poster in Europe won’t sell seats to non-improvisers, as people don’t know what that means.

Matt: Are people doing Harold/Armando/etc. or just “long-form” and their own new stuff?

NeilIt’s a mix, to be honest.

One of my goals (and Órla’s) in Ireland is to establish long form improv as an art form in the eyes of the arts community and media, beyond the improv community.

Matt: Philadelphia is such a theatre town. It would be great to have more-artistic improv connected to that realm.

Neil: I agree. I try to stage as much of the Neil+1 shows in theatres as I can.

Órla’s troupe, The Sky Babies, have been accepted into the Galway Theatre Festival, a first for any theatre festival in Ireland. Their show The Suitcase is very much a great example of improvised theatre.

As awesome as Whose Line is, to the people not familiar with improv, they assume that Whose Line is all there is to improv.

When I first announced Improv Fest Ireland, one journalist asked me “How do you expect to entertain audiences for a week of just Whose Line Is It Anyway?-type shows?”

Matt: I’ve had that same kind of experience. Nine times out of 10, I can tell what people are thinking when I say “improv.”

Matt: What sparked the original idea for you to try performing with an audience member?

Neil: It’s somewhat unorthodox. I travel a lot with work and otherwise, but when I was in my first improv troupe, not everyone could afford to travel or want to, and I always wanted to take a show on the road.

So I asked myself, “Can I perform improv solo, so that I only have to worry about myself when I travel when arranging a show?”

There was the whole taboo of using the audience as guest performers. That’s when I met you. I believe your words were “Just book the gig and see how it goes”!

Matt: I didn’t think about how well the set-up works for the road until I had been doing it a while.

Neil: Yes, for me Neil+1 evolved quite rapidly as my confidence grew. The first show was very successful, so that set the stage.

Matt: You do an hour-long show. Did you start off doing it that way?

Neil: Now it’s an hour long. When I was finding my footing with the show, I moved into turning it into a narrative piece, and the extended time came naturally.

Matt: I’ve done shows to fit any timeframe: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45-ish minutes, but a full hour seems daunting.

Neil: To me, I make the show completely about the audience member. They play themselves. The show tends to be an alternate universe view of what their life could be like, or could have been like.

I play with the formats too. So I have the general “anything goes” Neil+1 format, but since November I also have the Boy Seeks Girl format, where the interview is actually a first date.

Matt: I was going to ask about that new take on it.

Neil: The new take is interesting, it’s a study into our dating lives, I guess. I had a “Eureka!” moment when I performed Neil+1 in San Francisco a while ago. The audience member became teary after the show.

I had played his father in a few of the scenes. There was a fallout and a reconciliation in the show. He told me afterward that his father had died over a year previous, but the show had been the first time he had emotionally connected to his father’s passing since the funeral. He was very grateful for the experience.

I realised that the show can become an avenue to explore aspects of our lives. Boy Seeks Girl became the next obvious step for me.

I’m debuting a new format this year called You’re Dead! which goes a step further, and the opening interview is set at the gates to the afterlife, and we talk about the audience member’s review of their life, regrets, etc.

Matt: Do you see these formats presenting the show as theatre that just happens to be improvised, as opposed to being an improv show?

Neil: It’s hard to say. I see the show as improvised theatre. One reviewer called it interactive theatre. I often say spontaneous theatre.

The labels though are really for connecting with the non-improvising public and media. At the end of the day, it’s long-form improv, and proudly so.

What I love about the format is you can’t bullshit your way throughout. You have to work hard to make the show work, and you have to make your co-star look awesome.

If we learn in improv there is no wrong way to do it and to make your partner look good, then it shouldn’t matter what experience your co-star has.

P&C: Do you ever worry about the people you bring onstage with you clamming up, or not giving you enough to work with? 

Matt: For me, it can occasionally be a challenge. I’ve learned to accept and welcome that hesitancy. It makes it all the more wondrous when they do open up and play along.

Neil: Never. The only thing I worry about is alcohol.

If I ‘yes, and’ the whole way and respect the way the audience member feels, then there is nothing to fear. It’s important to be conscious of how the audience member is really feeling.

Matt: You worry about your partner being drunk?

Neil: Yes, I would worry if I selected someone who had been drinking.

Matt: Some of my best shows have been with tipsier partners.

Neil: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t be comfortable with it. We don’t perform with improvisers who are drunk, so the thought of performing with a drunk audience member is not something I’m keen on!

Matt: I think it’s different, because that person is not an improviser. They exist in a limbo between performer and audience.

P&C: Do you find that this kind of show is more “real” than a lot of the regular improv you do?

Matt: I think it’s remarkable how similar it is to a regular improv duo. There’s an added element from bringing somebody from the audience onstage, but the material itself is usually like any other improv of equal caliber.

I don’t consider it a solo show or just some gimmick. My audience partner is my partner, who just happens to be from the audience.

It does have a kind of coalesced quality to it, though, like it’s pure and cooked down: freebase improv.

Neil: I think it can be more real. And that’s why I make the narrative about the audience member. Their feelings on stage are real. Their emotion tends to be more raw and real.

I agree it’s not a gimmick. The audience member is your co-star. They get laughs, and they cause the audience to emote.

Matt: I’m struck by how such similar shows can be so different. Your show seems like it’s a bit more dramatic and theatrical than mine, especially with your partners playing themselves.

Neil: It felt like where I excel better; let the audience member be himself or herself, and I will play all the other characters.

Matt: I’ve had some partners who revert to being themselves and also try to get me to be myself, which is not comfortable for me.

I like to get into a scene with different characters and situations and have it feel like somebody from the audience has been pulled in, like Alice going through the looking glass, or Pleasantville.

P&C: How do audiences respond to this kind of show, versus other improv sets? Is there a difference?

Matt: I’ve still gotten audiences who don’t understand how improv works, that there are no planned parts, or how we use the suggestion, but still loved the show.

And I’ve also gotten audiences that get a clearer picture of the fact that we’re making it up as we go, because the audience member on stage is kind of a stand-in.

Neil: Interesting question. I asked Will Luera his opinion when he saw my show. I was interested to find out if the audience liked the show because I and my guest survived, or because it was an entertaining show. He said it’s both.

So I guess it gives an additional edge for the audience. The element of risk is perceived to be higher.

Matt: There are more layers to our shows. Every improv show has the performance and then an underlying game of being improvised. It’s more transparent in this case.

I think it’s the kind of thing that really grabs a new viewer, but also an experienced performer who can see what’s being done.

Neil: True. Audience reactions vary from being entertained and impressed, to claiming the show was rehearsed and a stooge was used.

After one show, I overheard one audience member in the bar ridicule the show because he believed my guest was clearly trained and scripted. As funny and complimentary as that is, it’s unlikely I’ll see that guy in the audience again. He probably now thinks all improv is scripted!

Matt: I love hearing audiences question whether a show is improvised.

Matt: What has surprised you most about doing this?

Neil: It never ceases to amaze me how, eventually, every audience member will naturally realise it’s better to ‘yes, and’ than to block.

Obviously, he or she will have no idea what they are doing or even know what ‘yes, and’ is, but every show, at a certain point, the “Eureka!” moment kicks in.

To me, that’s when the magic really happens.

P&C: Have you ever had a show that just bombed? What happened?

Neil: Not bombed, but I have had very challenging shows.

I had one show where my guest went through a random pattern of accepting reality and then denying it a moment or two later.  It kept me on my toes and really re-emphasised the need to listen hard and justify more.

I had another show where the guest just asked questions for most of the show.  That was also challenging.

Matt: I had a bunch of shows that just didn’t click into place. It was really more about me as a performer than about this unique set-up.

I think all improvisers hit slumps like that and need to get back on track.

Neil: What has doing this format taught you about yourself?

Matt: I think I’ve found that it’s possible to make the best of your strengths and your weaknesses.

This show builds on my natural talents, but it also takes my bad habits (for a standard improv show) and makes them into necessary elements.

I think this kind of pet project can allow for more exploration about what’s important for an individual artist.

P&C: Have you ever stayed in touch with anyone you’ve performed with in this way?

Matt: I’ll chat with them after the show, and sometimes I’ll get an email or something.

More than once, I’ve had a partner return to the show with friends or family members, hoping to see them go through the same experience.

Neil: Occasionally. Two of my guests took up improv classes after taking part in the show. With others, we connected after on Facebook, and more often than not we have a beer in the bar after.

I’m planning on doing t-shirts for future shows that say something like “I was Neil’s +1″ so I can leave a physical memento for the guest.

I haven’t had any tell me after that they had a negative experience, and that’s the most important thing.

Matt: Yeah, I just think that the person gets as much of a kick out of playing with us as we do from playing with them.

Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “Best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. 

Neil Curran has been performing and teaching improv for many years and has a passion for formats involving audience members. He also performs with the Poets of Penance, and is the founder and Artistic Director of Improv Fest Ireland. 

 

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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.

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