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In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” According to Gladwell, the key to success of giants like The Beatles, Bill Gates, and Wayne Gretzky is due in part to practicing for 10,000 hours or more.

Consider Joe Bill an outlier.

As a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, a master improvisation teacher, and one half of improv duo Bassprov, Joe Bill has been improvising since 1977.

Along the way, he’s developed a philosophy that he and Bassprov partner Mark Sutton call Scenic Power Improv. If you’ve ever taken one of their workshops, you know how exciting and empowering it feels to perform this way.

Now Joe has started a blog where he talks about his approach. Click to read his thoughts on different schools of improv, and why, as a student of Del Close, he enjoys performing with Keith Johnstone advocate, Patti Stiles.

Image © Tilman Dominka

Matt Folliott is an actor/improviser/comedian, and member of Standards & Practices. He’s performed in festivals across North America, including DCM, CIF, VIIF, Out Of Bounds, Improvaganza, and Mprov. He even has a couple of souvenir tattoos – but that’s another post.

Inspired by Amy Shostak’s 12 Tips for Festival Organizers, I decided to write a post from the other perspective: that of the festival performer.

I’ve had the pleasure and honour of attending some of the best comedy festivals in North America. There’s nothing like a well-run festival. The energy is electric, the performers feel welcomed and supported, and everyone leaves saying the same thing: “I’ll come back!”

These are just a few tips to help make your festival experience even more enjoyable and worthwhile.

1. Have a game plan. Plan your trip. Plan your trip! PLAN YOUR TRIP! Most festivals will have activities planned for their guests, and that’s awesome, but it never hurts to have your own agenda. Take advantage of your time like a member of the illuminati takes advantage of our ignorance. Also, if you’re heading to the States, have a game plan of what you’re telling Customs. They don’t like performers crossing the border, so make sure you have another reason for entering. You don’t want your trip ruined before it even begins; ruin it with drugs, alcohol and sex with strange people, not poor planning. Key Word: Research

2. Smile, be friendly and engaging. Let’s be honest. Only ten percent of improvisers get paid for festivals, so get that out of your head right away. You ain’t doing this for the money! You’re there to meet fellow performers, create friendships and make professional connections. Always be thinking, “I’m so LA,” and force yourself out of that shell, Franklin! Meet people, you won’t regret it. Key Word: Shmooze

3. If you have the option, stay with your fellow performers in hotels or on their couches. Bonding is key at any festival, so if you get the chance to live or crash with other performers, do it. That’s also were all the fun happens; you know, when you’re hanging out with ten or so other funny people with nothing else to do but crack jokes and be silly all while you’re being fuelled by beer and bad food. Also, being billeted can really lower the cost of your trip, so look into it already! Key Word: Bonding

4. Be on time. For your call times, for festival workshops, for planned activities, for everything. No one likes a Late Larry or a Tardy Tamara. People get that you might be running behind, you were probably up late partying, but try your hardest to be on time. Festival organizers have put in work to get you there and set things up for you, so show some love back and show up. Key Word: Punctual

5. Don’t be a comedy snob. If you’re asked to do mixer shows or short form improv or to judge theatre sports, say yes! Maybe you don’t like mixer sets because they can be clusterfucks, or maybe you don’t like shows sprung on you without notice. Well, get over it pal. Being asked to do other shows at a festival is a compliment, as well as an opportunity to make new friends and admirers. Take the chance to try new things, and challenge yourself to find the fun in things you haven’t enjoyed in the past. Key Word: Try

6. Kill your shows! It’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to impress. Think of the song Lose Yourself by Eminem; that’s the type of attitude you have to have before every show. Now stop thinking about the song Lose Yourself by Eminem, and never revisit that thought again. Just remember you’re there to do what you already do at home, so don’t stress. Remember, you’re awesome! So stop shitting bricks and have fun. Believe me, audiences in other cities want to see you succeed. So take a deep breath and go out there and show them what you’re made of: star light and cosmic dust. Key Word: Play Hard

7. Meet your audience. After your show is the perfect time to say hello to the local crowd that came out to support you. Let them know you appreciate them coming, and get to know your potential fans. Plus, you never know what hilarity will ensue when you meet the people. Next thing you know you’re in the back of a van with a guy named Rainwater, hitting a four-foot bong and getting a back rub from a limber cat. What? It could happen at a festival, man. Put on your politician hat and get out there, shake hands and kiss babies, and then kiss the mothers of those babies to see if they have fathers. If not move in for the kill. Key Word: Approachable

8. Sleep. Just do it. If you go too hard you’ll burn out partying or exploring your new surroundings or getting super high with Rainwater the Albino Shaman from the strip mall. Sleep is needed at these festivals to keep your head in the game and your stick on the ice. Key Word: Nap

9. Take Workshops. Most festivals offer workshops, usually with instructors you may never have the opportunity to work with again. Did you hear me? You might never see these people again, so what you are waiting for? Take a workshop already! Anyhooter, workshops and classes are always less expensive for festival performers, and are sometimes free if you’re lucky. Plus you’ll get to meet other improvisers and have the chance to refresh your skills. If you’re really lucky, you might put a brand new tool in that old leather belt of yours, grandpa. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for that workshop! Key Word: Register

10. See shows! Festival shows are inspiring and motivating. So many of the most memorable shows I’ve seen have been at festivals or on the road. So get that performer’s pass  and watch a show. Watch a bunch of shows. Watch some shows, then watch some more. You catch the drift. Key Word: Watch

11. Meet festival volunteers and administrative staff. This one gets overlooked sometimes, and it’s a damn shame because those people volunteering to rip tickets at the door or those lovely humans sitting in the office are the life blood of festivals. Without people like them, nothing would get done. After all, we’re artists. We think with our hearts not our heads. We need these kind, caring, lovers of comedy to make sure dopes like us know where we are supposed to be and where to point the jokes. Their service is invaluable. God speed tiny dancers, you are the wind beneath our wings. Key Word: Volunteers

12. Communication. This is a two-way street and is super important if you are to enjoy yourself in your comedic travels. Ask questions, ask for help, and keep the lines open with festival organizers and fellow performers. I mean how are you going to know if you don’t ask? Key Word: Ask

Well that about covers it I think. Maybe you have a few of your own that you would have added in. You know what? Keep it to yourself, no one likes a know-it-all. Happy travels fellow comedy nerds!

Photo © James Binnie

Courtney Walker is a writer, feminist, fiercely funny member of improv teams Corgi In The Forest and Beauty School Dropouts, and someone you want in your corner when the audience suggestion is “defenestration.”

Here are some lessons you learn when you’re a girl in the world.

1)    Be pretty.

2)    Care what other people think of you.

If you’ve ever tried to be/do these things while performing improv then I can promise you that those scenes probably weren’t very good.

So when we start doing improv we learn a lot of things about ourselves, right? Well one of the first things I became aware of was how I watched myself. And as I watched other female improvisers I started to see a pattern. In the way women were relating to themselves on stage.

If Judith Butler taught me anything (or more like, if I understood anything she was ever talking about) it was how we are taught to perform gender from the very first moments we spend on this planet.

And for girls one of the first things we learn, perhaps the most dominant lesson, is to be aware of our bodies, and more specifically to be worried about our bodies and how they appear to others.

I’m not really talking about the much ballyhooed evil effects of fashion magazines on the self esteem of teens (although ballyhoo! To all of them!). I’m talking about something much deeper, much… sadder.

We learn that our bodies should and always will be available for consumption by others. And because of this we are taught that our commodity must always be consumable.

Okay so what the fucking fuck does this have to do with improv? Let me tell you.

So I realized I was watching myself. To make sure that I was consumable. Not to make sure that I was, you know, doing my best work. I was correcting my posture not to better embody the physicality of my character, but to make sure my stomach fat wasn’t rolling over the top of my jeans. I was stopping myself from being physical on stage because I was afraid I would look ugly or stupid or decidedly unsexy or that my butt would be exposed.*

And this monitoring, this constant anxiety that I would not look good made me a shitty improviser in the following ways:

1)    I was outside of myself, judging myself. Which beyond just limiting the way I used my body in scenes, just generally made me more judgmental of myself and made me second guess my instincts in a way that me hesitant on stage.

2)    I just wouldn’t/couldn’t do interesting things on stage. I could/would only be a character/object/whooshpickle as long as I was sure that I would still look okay. And this pretty much limited me to standing with stomach sucked in turned on a 45 degree angle to the audience, or sitting on a chair, turned on a 45 degree angle to the audience.

And when I would watch other improvisers I would be blown away and I would think, “What are they doing that I’m not?” and then I realized they were using their bodies. Using their whole bodies, lying on the floor, bending over whichever way they could, whichever way they needed to, moving their whole face, embracing all the weird, ugly, messy, awkward things their body could do. And it was fucking awesome to watch.

And so I held a summit with myself, and from this summit there came a resolution.

“Be it resolved that Courtney will try her best not to care about how she looks on stage and that she will move her body and face in new and ugly ways in the service of creating exciting and engaging performances.”

And this wasn’t easy. I started small. I started crying on stage. A lot. And I’m not talking about dainty leading lady crying. I’m talking about ugly, snorting alien creature crying. (Which, full disclosure, is pretty much how I cry in real life anyway.)

And it was completely liberating. And the more I did it the braver I got. I started to move more, and more importantly I started to move without judging. I was no longer monitoring myself to make sure I looked okay. I was fully in the moment, using my body in the same way I would use my brain on stage – to discover great moments with the people I was playing with. And the more I had these great moments, the better I felt about myself as a player, which gave me more confidence on stage. And that confidence allowed me to take more risks… you see where I’m going with this.

All this to say: Women, be brave. Trust your bodies. Be generous to yourselves. Allow yourself to really play. And you’ll be awesome.

A Note On Show Photography

As a result of my resolution, facebook is now riddled with pictures of me looking really stupid. This used to bother me. I used to dissect them, consider untagging them, go on all-celery-and-fish diets etc. etc. etc. But then, in accordance with the subsection of the resolution that required me to be generous to myself, I started loving those stupid pictures. Because if I looked stupid in those pictures, it meant I hadn’t spent the whole damn show POSING and had actually existed in the moment. And I came to realize that when there is an especially stupid picture of myself, the scene that it captures is always one of my stronger ones. The scenes that I walk away from thinking “Shit, I gotta do more of THAT.”

* It occurs to me that maybe I just need to buy new pants, but while I’m on the subject, here’s something I’ve been meaning to say. I think it’s a really bad idea to wear skirts/stilettoes/tube tops on stage. It stops you from doing things. I don’t care if you’ve been clomping around in five-inch heels since puberty, wear limiting clothing items on stage and you will be a limited improviser. Period.

Photo © Andrea Ballantyne

Courtney (third from right) emotes with Corgi In The Forest

Photo © May Truong

The Premise: Ask well-known writers to pen two pages of a play, read them cold onstage, then improvise the rest of the play on the spot.

It’s the kind of thing that could go very, very wrong if the players weren’t very, very good.

Fortunately the players are The National Theatre of The Worldaka Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus and Ron Pederson.

Last year’s run was a smashing success, with works by Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor, and everyone’s favourite hemp merchant, Woody Harrelson. Now they’re back with a fresh batch of writers, including ex-Kid In The Hall, Scott Thompson.

I asked Naomi Snieckus for the low-down.

P&C: How did you come up with the idea?

NS: The Script Tease Project was invented to give a twist to our regular Impromptu Splendor format, to give us an extra challenge and to collaborate with excellent playwrights. NTOW is always looking for ways of incorporating theatre and improv in our work.

P&C: Do you know all the playwrights you’ve approached, or were some of them cold calls?

NS: We essentially made a wish list and sent letters. Edward Albee turned us down – but now I can say “I got an email from Edward Albee…or at least his assistant.” John Patrick Shanley from last year was through a friend of a friend of a friend. There were a lot of people we’d never met before but hoped they would be into a project like this.

P&C: What was your favourite play from last year, and why?

NS: That’s hard to choose they all had a different kind of magic. Mark McKinney’s was the weirdest and most stylized, Brad Fraser’s was the most fantastical, John Patrick Shanley’s was the most touching. They were all amazing for different reasons.

P&C: Do you find it easier having someone else establish your character for you, or is it harder than doing a regular improv show?

NS: The biggest challenge is processing the torrent of information in the two pages and retaining it. It’s harder than starting from scratch because you have to adhere to a specific structure with a particular tone and musical key. The playwright is making your original choices for you. It sounds helpful to be given the two pages, but it makes our brains work in a new and different way.

P&C: You’ve been playing together for a long time. How important is chemistry in putting on a great performance?

NS: We’ve put in hundreds of hours together, so the shorthand and like-mindedness has become quite keen. We also know how to challenge each other on stage to mix it up. So to answer your question: very. It’s a pretty exciting thing to share the stage with those two performers!

The show runs May 28 – June 3 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. Click here to purchase tickets.

David Razowsky wrote and performed in ten Second City Chicago revues. He is a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, has written for The Simpsons Comic, and is one half of the improv duo, Razowsky and CliffordHis special skills include juggling, photography, and – according to his resumé – ATM usage.

Photo © Kevin Thom

P&C: You’re big on truth in scene work. Why is truthfulness important when you’re improvising?

DR: To paraphrase Mark Twain, “When you’re honest you don’t have to remember anything.” I feel that when you’re honest you don’t have to work, and I don’t want to watch anyone “work.”

I’d much rather see you “float” or “glide,” easy things to do when you’re creating through honesty. Truthfulness is dangerous, it’s not an easy thing to begin to do, but once you realize your character needs to have an epiphany/revelation/turn/transformation, your courage to be truthful takes you there.

When you miss the cut-off for Truthtown, you don’t know when the next exit will come your way. It’s your job as an actor to be vulnerable, honest.

Also when you’re honest and open to express your honesty, you don’t have to fake feeling what you’re not really feeling. Try telling someone you love them when you don’t. Try expressing to your boss how much you love your job when you don’t. Try telling someone who’s just given you a turd for a gift what a nice gesture it was. It’s hard to do, so don’t  tell someone you don’t love that you love them; don’t  tell your boss you love a job you don’t; and don’t  take a turd as a gift… That last one’s an easy truth!

Also, the time to play with being honest and truthful is on stage where there are no life-altering results of your honesty. Once you get good at it on stage, perhaps you’ll be able to be more honest in your life. Just sayin’.

P&C: You teach a method called Viewpoints. How did you learn about it? What drew you to it?

DR: I call it Viewpoints; I also call it Viewpoints Elements. It’s actually Viewpoints for Improvisers, Viewpoints for Actors… It’s probably not the same way that they teach it at a school that teaches Viewpoints. The reason I’m saying that is, it’s what I took away from watching people teach Viewpoints.

I first saw it with a woman named Kim Rubinstein, when I was working with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company… I was hired to teach improvisation, and I thought I’d watch the other teachers teach, and this woman was teaching Viewpoints and I went, “Oh my God, this is what I do. I do this! There’s a name for it?”

When stuff resonates like that so strongly, it does a couple of things. First off, it’s very inspiring, and second, you feel so much less alone because that which you thought you were not able to communicate with anybody is not only communicatable, but also codified in a way that you can learn something from the codification and then go, “Oh that’s great! It’s not just something that I know, it’s also something that I can learn.”

Viewpoints is so great. If you give yourself the presence of being present, it absolutely changes the way that you look at everything. And you don’t get confused by things, because you’re really aware of everything that’s happening.

It’s similar to what I would imagine a surgeon does, where a surgeon will open up a patient and look inside and know exactly what’s there and not be in a panic, and be able to go, “OK, that’s there, that, I didn’t expect to see that, and that. OK, good, everything’s there,” and then be able to work [with] it.

So with Viewpoints you are able to stand here and be in duration* and know what the fuck you’re doing. And move over there and know that you’re in topography. And move over there and hold onto something and know that you’re in the middle of being in your architecture, being in duration of all these things.

And not only that, but it is so fucking fun to start codifying things in that way. So that you can look at somebody and say, “Wow, look at their relationship with their architecture,” when they’re just getting drunk.

*Duration, Shape, Gesture, Tempo, Repetition, Topography, Architecture, Kinesthetic Response, and Spatial Relationship are the nine Viewpoints Elements

P&C: One thing you teach is, “Don’t get your partner on you.” Can you expand on that?

DR: It’s the idea that your point of view is your point of view, and your partner’s point of view is your partner’s point of view. And at the centre of every scene is pressure, tension and dynamic. So let’s just say at the centre of every scene is pressure.

I’m coming in with a particular emotion, let’s say anger. You’re coming in with a particular emotion, and let’s say it’s joy.

You come in and you say [happy voice] “Oh Jerry, I heard it’s your birthday today!”

And I go, “Fuck you, Bob! Fuck you!”

And then you go [angry voice] “I just said it was your birthday!”

At that moment we don’t have a scene because there’s nothing pushing up against each other. Instead of saying:

[happy voice] “Oh happy birthday, Jerry. I know it’s your birthday.”

“Fuck you, Bob, fuck you!”

[still happy] “Je-e-e-e-e-rrrrry…aw, getting old is hard, isn’t it?”

“Go to Hell! You wouldn’t know anything about it!”

“Jerry, when we get together tonight and celebrate the fact that you were born, it’s gonna be un-fuckin-believeable!”

You know? So, hold onto the emotional content that you had at the beginning of the scene, because the scene needs for you to be consistent. And if we’re working together, then I know the part that I’m playing is the Angry Guy. The part that you’re playing is the Joyful Woman.

And it’s interesting, it goes back to the idea of improvisers versus actors. Because an actor will look at a character and never feel like, “That character’s got to veer.” They’ll say, “This is consistent with that character. This character does that, because it’s written that way.”

And so that’s why Hamlet doesn’t become Polonius. Those are two different characters with two different wants. And that’s why Macbeth doesn’t become Lady Macbeth. Even going past the gender point, all of those characters have specific things that are expected for them so that we can have the dynamic that that scene needs.

So to not get your partner’s character on you means their point of view is their point of view, and your point of view is your point of view. But if you’re not present to what your point of view is, then you don’t know what you have to hold onto.

And if you’re not present to what your point of view is, it’s probably because…no, it’s most likely…it is absolutely because you’re not listening. And you’re not listening to the one person you need to listen to the most, and that is you.

P&C: You used an angry guy and a joyful woman, but I think a lot of improvisers have been taught you don’t go into a scene angry because then you’re gonna bring conflict, and conflict is a bad thing…

DR: Well, I’m not saying that we can’t have conflict. I’m saying what you want to avoid is an argument scene.

Now I’m reframing that idea that… I’m redefining what’s the basis of every scene. Or at least I’m introducing this – and you can take it or leave it – and it’s the idea that when we say conflict is at the centre of every scene, the word “conflict” is in there. And when the word conflict is in there, our system, unless you’re trained, our system goes to that being an argument.

[But] if we break it down into the elements of pressure, tension and dynamic, then we are really able to look at it in a different way. And the way that we’re looking at it then is not conflict, because if you say, “Oh, I’m angry and you’re happy,” I’m allowing you of course to be any emotion that you feel at the beginning of the scene. How can I not? How can I say, “No, you can’t be angry?” How can I do that, why would I do that?

At the beginning of scenes, people are angry. At the beginning of a play, people are angry. At the beginning of a one-act people are angry. There’s a character that’s going to be angry. Why is it that we, as fucking improvisers… somehow, “Somebody said that a while ago and it totally makes sense.” No it doesn’t make sense!

What makes sense is this: Let’s train the actor to be able to respond to that anger. Because right now we’re going, “Don’t be angry, because you’re going to have a conflict scene.” Well let’s train the actor what to do. It’s not that hard! It’s not impossible. It’s easy. It’s learning the same thing all the time; it’s always learning the same thing, and that is how to deal with what’s in front of you.

I’m blessed in that I’ve been able to look at everything we’ve been doing and put a lot more energy into it than other people are, because they’ve got a job that they’ve got to go to, and my job…I don’t work. I don’t work.

I just am sitting in front of people who just perform and it’s like, “Fuckin’ A!” I just look at that stuff and go, “Oh, that’s why that works.” Or “That’s why that doesn’t work.” Or “Oh, you’re not getting it because you’ve been taught this way.” That there’s a governor on you. And you want your mind to go wherever the fuck it wants to go, and you’re listening to some rule that some douchebag told you at some shitty fuckin’ improv school that you went to.

Martin de Maat was a brilliant, warm, kind, awesome fucking person, and he pretty much put the [Second City] Training Centre together as we know it. And Martin called Second City Training Centre an acting school. So when I was the Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centre in LA, it was like, “Welcome to our acting school. This is not an improv school, this is an acting school, and you are gonna act.”

And the people I worked with at Second City… you cannot tell me that Jackie Hoffman is not an actor. You know what show she opened? She opened a tiny little show called Hairspray. She opened it, she created that fucking part. And she was in a play called Addams Family on Broadway. She opened the part as Grandma. She is younger than I am, OK?

Steve Carell, Steve Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello… these are fucking great actors. Rachel Dratch. Great actor. And these are just people that you know, because there’s a bunch of people that you fucking don’t know.

Let’s talk about George Wendt. Let’s talk about John Candy. John Belushi. Aykroyd. I mean you look at Aykroyd and you go OK, Aykroyd, Blues Brothers. But how about this: Aykroyd: Driving Miss Daisy. Right?

If you want to codify yourself as an improviser, good luck, because you’re an actor who improvises. You’re an actor. Knock it the fuck off. Knock it the fuck off! And open yourself up. And stop driving the joke. The joke doesn’t drive your career, because right now it’s driving your career if you’re an improviser.

P&C: You performed in Chicago for years before moving to LA. How do the two differ in your mind, or is there a difference?

DR: Well Chicago’s a theatre city, and what somebody once said was really great – I don’t know who said this and I wish I could remember because I’d like to give them credit – “If you fail in Chicago, people look at you and go, ‘Well that was bad. What’s your next project?’”

And you think, that’s great, that’s it! ‘Cause I’ve seen some shitty stuff done in Chicago by some really, really good people. But it’s less about what… there’s this great phrase, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Right? So you’re there.

So I’m in Chicago and I’m kind of just lookin’ around going, “Ah, I’m here, I’m experiencing this, and I’m living this life!” And then I come to LA and it’s like, “Here I am, I’m experiencing, I’m living the life.” It’s whatever I bring to it.

So really the difference between the two – and I think other people are gonna say it’s not – but my experience is, in Chicago I could and did find my voice. I found my voice in Chicago, but it had a lot to do with me, what I was bringing into it.

Because I wanted to find my voice, I needed to find my voice. And if I wanted to, I could’ve gone to Second City and said, “What’s in it for me?” As opposed to, I went to Second City and said, “Oh my God, look at all you have, and I can do whatever it is that I want to do,” knowing that I could do whatever it was that I wanted to do.

And if I wanted put parameters on myself, I could do that. I chose not to. I chose to bloom, I chose to evolve, that’s what I chose to do; to listen to everything that was going on, every step of the way.

When I came out [to LA], it took me a long time before I realized, “Fuck all those people.” And I don’t mean that in a negative way. (laughs) I know that sounds negative. What I mean is, “I’m not gonna allow them to tell me who I am.”

Because the thought here is that this city wants to tell you who are. And maybe it does. But at the end of the day, they also reward people who bring who it is that they are here.

Now there’s a structure that’s here, and there’s an industry that’s here, and you live within the industry, or you work within that structure here, but that’s not to say that every once in a while you can’t try something that you really wanna do.

I’ve created a career, but my career is so different than what anyone is doing anywhere else anywhere, and I’ve found that by myself. And I’ve found that because Chicago and Second City helped me find my voice.

And then coming out here, and knowing that what I perceived as disappointments when I first came out here was just me being steered into following my bliss. To accepting the fact that I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to do that!

And people go, “Well, why aren’t you more famous?” I hear that a lot from people. And it’s like, “‘Cause I’m not?”

And it has nothing to with I’m angry at anybody, or anybody owes me anything, it’s more along the lines of, that’s not what I do. And yet there are, I think, there are hundreds of people who would look at me as somebody…how can I say this?…who would look at me and go, “Oh, Dave Razowsky. Oh, you know Dave Razowsky?” And I’m like, I’m just me.

I had a girlfriend who really had a hard time when I said things like, “I cannot believe that that person remembered my name! How great.” And she’d say, “You’re Dave Razowsky!” And I’d say, “I have no idea what that means.” I am me and that’s who it is that I am.

And I’m not looking around going, “Oh, aren’t I great?” And I don’t look at my resumé all the time; I hardly ever take my resumé out, I hardly ever audition anymore. And to say I’m OK with that, on paper, looks like, “Oh, he’s resigned.” But I’m not, I’m evolved.

And whatever it is that anybody is doing with their career is what they’re doing with they’re career. And they have to be happy with it. And if you’re not happy with it, then change it. But how do you change it? You have to change your attitude about it.

There’s that great phrase, “Whatever it is that’s taking away from doing what you want to do, is what you’re doing.”

P&C: Interesting.

DR: It’s such a beautiful phrase. ‘Cause whatever is taking you away from what it is you want to do, is what you’re doing. That’s what you’re doing. “I’m not doing that.” No, it’s not that you’re not doing that, it’s that you’re doing this.

P&C: You were at Second City with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. Did you have any sense of how good you all were, that one day you’d be legends?

DR: Back then I think everybody was just having a good time. And I think the common denominator between all those people [was], “This opportunity doesn’t happen very often, and if we wanna fuck it up, we can fuck it up. And I’m choosing not to fuck it up.”

There were a lot of people who felt that Second City owed them something, and I always looked at that and thought, How does that work out? How does that work out at all? Because you’re able to do whatever the fuck it is that you wanna do, as much as you wanna do, as often as you wanna do it, and that opportunity doesn’t come very often, so while it’s here you’ve got to replace ambition with gratitude and be grateful. And I believe that everybody that was there was very, very grateful.

Did we know that the work was good? I will say that there were certain scenes, Second City scenes… Certainly there was a scene called Pictionary that Paul and Steve and Fran Adams and Ruthie Rudnick did, and I wasn’t in that scene but I would go backstage and then come out and sit in the audience and watch that scene. I watched that scene every fucking night that it was on. I watched it Every. Fucking. Night. That it was on. I never tired of that scene.

And so looking back on that now, because at that time it was like, “Oh, Pictionary’s on! I’m gonna go watch Pictionary…”

P&C: (laughs)

DR: But to look at it at that moment, I appreciated being in that moment and being able to watch that in that moment, and being excited that that moment was coming up.

To not feel jealous… because the people that felt jealous of you, or that threw jealousy in there, their work wasn’t as strong because it didn’t come from a place of collaboration, it would come from a place of desperation. And nine times out of ten, if you’re trying to work a scene or create a scene through desperation, it’s not gonna wanna bloom because everything’s in its way for it to become… and it wants to become.

So I know that there were a bunch of scenes that I was in, that if I weren’t in those scenes I would watch those scenes. And there were a bunch of scenes that I was in that I was thinking, “If I were in the audience right now, this is when I’d go to the bathroom.” So… there. (laughs)

Photo © Kevin Thom

David Razowsky is.

If that’s a little too Zen for you, he’s a master improvisation teacher, actor and director who’s worked with DreamWorks, Steppenwolf, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris. He’s also the former Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centre.

I had the privilege of speaking with him about his approach to improv, life, and everything.

Photo © Kevin Thom

“The minute you let go of ego, you will surprise the shit out of yourself.” – David Razowsky

P&C: You’ve started teaching a course at iO West called “You,” that comes before students learn the Harold. Why is that important?

DR: I think people get caught up in the need for structure. It’s why you teach children to like religion, because it’s a structure. And then you’ve gotta let them leave when they want to, y’know, because it’s a structure that you’re gonna look at.

Until you know how to improvise, you shouldn’t be doing the structure. Because you’re adding so many things onto… you’re layering so many things. It’s like, “Get all these fucking blankets off me. I don’t need any of these blankets, just get them off me.”

So you’re saying, “How does this structure work?” “What is it that I do now?” And all of these fucking questions, as opposed to, “What is the foundation of everything that I’m doing?” And the foundation is really a relationship that you have with your partner. Everything else is built around that.

If you’re doing a structure, I don’t care what it is, and you don’t know how to improvise, you’re gonna be drowning in ego. Drowning in judgement and self-doubt and all that stuff. But at the end of the day if you know how to connect with somebody, you can do whatever you wanna do. Anything.

So what this class is teaching is, you to give yourself permission for you to evolve. You give yourself permission for you to artistically evolve, and for you to know that what you’re thinking is great. But you’ve got to know that you know it. It’s about you being present, and that’s what this class teaches. It teaches presence.

P&C: You’ve been performing with Carrie Clifford for some time now. What do you like about a two-person show versus a larger group? Do you think you can accomplish different things with a two-person dynamic than you can with a larger team?

DR: Oh for sure. With a two-person show, working with Carrie specifically, we can watch a relationship grow. And that’s why I think people come to theatre, is to watch these two characters build a relationship and grow from there.

Working with Carrie, it’s a very positive experience, she’s a very joyful person, and to be connected to somebody so joyful, it makes you feel joyful to watch it.

It’s never work. It’s just two people who are unfolding, evolving, and not working. We listen to each other very, very well. And we don’t just emotionally listen to each other, we’re deep-tissue listening to each other. I’m aware of where she wants a certain character to go, or to stop, or to move, and I’m aware of all that.

But that’s what you get out of working with any group, is listening to what they’re saying without them having to voice it. And I listen to what Carrie’s saying, even though she never voices it. She may say one thing, but I know that’s not what her intentions are. And that’s not to say that she’s confusing, it’s to say that I know one thing will come out of her mouth, but she clearly wants me to do something else.

Any group that you work with, if you don’t have listening, you don’t have anything. And I’m gonna go back to your question about the structure.

If you’re listening to the ego or your teacher within you, telling what you need to do or have to do in order to get this math equation working, you’re not able to connect to yourself emotionally to know where this person lives, emotionally lives.

In a group you have entrances and exits and you get to fuck around with more people, but it all goes along the same lines. If people aren’t listening, if people have agendas, it’s going to be hard.

To be honest with you, I don’t have a problem with that because I don’t play with those people. I will play with a group of people, but I will not play more than once with a group of people who have an agenda. I will play with you once if you have an agenda, then I will not play with you again. That is all. I am done. I’ve got enough, no more thanks. No, I won’t take it to go; you eat it.

P&C: Do you ever have what you would call a “bad show” anymore? Do you ever judge your performances?

DR: I think I mentioned to y’all that I don’t think I’ve had a bad show since the late ‘80s. I know that sounds weird, but something happened one day where I decided, I’m not gonna judge myself that way. I’m not gonna look at it as, Did I have a good show? Did I have a bad show?

I’m gonna look at it and think, Did I have fun? Did I listen to people? Did I forward the action? If I did find myself having an agenda, how did that work out for me? It probably didn’t work out well, and then I’d think, OK, I’m not going to do that again.

So the way that I look at it is, every single performance is a class, and if I’m not learning from me, I can’t learn. So it’s been 20 years, 25 years, whatever it’s been since I’ve really looked at the performance I do in that moment in a negative way.

But I think it has a lot to do with your attitude. What’s your attitude about everything? You can say, Did you have a bad show?, or Did you have a bad day?, or Did you have a bad experience at the supermarket? And I’ll go, No, No, No.

You know, I look at people’s facebook status and it’s like: “I’m having a hell of a day.” It’s like, keep publishing that… It’s boring to me, it’s just boring. If you wanna do it that’s great, I’m not gonna knock it, but I don’t want any part of it.

P&C: You have a very Zen approach to improv. Which came first, your interest in improv, or your interest in those kind of teachings?

DR: Improv first, and then I fell into that. I remember clearly when I fell into that. I remember it so clearly: I was at LAX, and I was about to take an American flight to Santa Cruz for the improv festival they had up there.

I went to the bookstore at the American Airlines terminal and I saw a book that said Buddhism Plain and Simple, and I thought, “Oh, it’s plain and simple. I’ll buy it.” It was written by a guy named Steve Hagen, and I bought it and I thought, “This speaks to me. This speaks to me! Everything that he’s saying speaks to me.”

And once that started happening I started to read more about those things. It washed over me in a way where I’d find myself being in an improv scene and saying, “OK, this is a wonderful place for me to practice some of this Buddhist stuff that monk Hagen was talking about.”

And as it went on I was thinking, “That worked.” To be present, to be here in the moment. Not to be ahead of myself or behind myself, but just to be here. Not to have any idea of where it’s going to go. To know that if I find myself in a place where I’m confused, to be confused.

And that is such an important thing, because in improvisation you may say, “This scene isn’t going where I want it to be.” Well, where is it? It’s “I’m confused right now,” or “I’m lost now.”

That’s the gift that you give yourself, you give yourself the gift of acknowledging what you’re feeling in that moment, and being A-OK with it because really, there’s nothing else you can do.

When I’m in an improv scene and I feel like I’m lost, it’s like, what a gift I just gave myself. I gave myself the gift of presence. I gave myself the gift of what it is that I’m doing in this moment.

I know certain people are gonna look at it and go, “You don’t know anything about Buddhism,” and it’s like, you got me on that one. I’ve read a couple of books, and I do this practice that people look at and go, Oh that’s Zen, and it’s Buddhism, and it’s like, that’s great. If that’s what it is, great.

All that I know is these precepts. I don’t need to codify it, I don’t need to tell you where it came from, it doesn’t really matter… at the end of the day, my experience in the moment with you while I’m in that scene is all that fucking matters.

And I also believe that it helps your life. So that came, and then what ended up happening was it just spilled over into the rest of my life. Where I started to gravitate towards people that had that same sort of feeling, without even really knowing it. Someone would say, “You’re talking about presence.” It’s like, Oh! We’re speaking this secret code that everybody feels but no one talks about.

A lot of people go, “Yeah, this is all mumbo jumbo.” And I just wanna go, Sure, if you say so. It’s not up to me if you’re gonna get it. I’m living it. I’m living it. I can teach it to you, or you can just watch me. Right now I’m living it, and that’s OK.

P&C: You prefer the term “actor” to “improviser.” Why is that?

DR: It cuts right to it. Because if you say you’re an improviser, you then want to put an improv structure on something that you’re going to get to anyway, and that is, you’re acting. You are acting. No matter what, you are acting.

If you wanna tell me, “Yeah, I just improvised. I’m an improviser, I’m not acting,” I wanna say, All right, you explain to me what the difference is.

Because if I’m gonna tape you and show a performance of you improvising, and then I’m gonna tape somebody who’s reading scripted material and I show it to the average person, they’re not gonna know what the fucking difference is anyway, because it doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day the end product is the end product. In Spain, they make something called pan. Here we make bread. It doesn’t taste any different.

What it also does is, one may think, “I don’t wanna be classified as an actor.” Why the fuck not?

And here’s another thing. If I say to you, “I want to pay you to act,” you go, “Ohhh, great!” If I say to you, “I’m gonna pay you to improvise,” you may be expecting less money.

P&C: (laughs) I’d say that’s probably 100% true.

DR: You might go, “OK, maybe I’ll get enough for a couple beers.” But if I say I’m gonna pay you to act, you’re like, “Ooooh, pay me to act.”

Another thing: when you look at acting – all improvisation is acting – you’re able to look at all behaviour as inspiration for you to engage with. Whereas in improvising people sit in fucking chairs and that’s all they do.

I wanna say if you’re an actor, let’s talk about blocking. Let’s talk about duration. Let’s talk about shape. Let’s talk about object work. Let’s talk about all those things.

But let’s not talk about all those things in terms of, that’s what an improviser does. Let’s talk about all those things in terms of, this is what an actor does. Let’s talk about all those things in terms of, this is what an artist does.

Let’s talk about the fact that if you’re an artist, if you’re a painter, you know what each fucking brush does, you know what the nap of the brush is, you know what all that stuff does. But an improviser is lazy. It’s lazy, lazy, lazy, lazy! (laughs)

Although there’s a lot of people I love watching who aren’t fucking lazy. But they’re not lazy because they’re really thinking about, present to and mindful of all that’s occurring to them, at the time that they’re doing it.

But I’m certain of that difference there.

Also if I say to you, you’re an actor… Anyone who’s reading this right now, if you say to yourself, “I’m an improviser,” it’s a narrow thought. And the energy of that is narrow. If I say to myself, “I’m an actor,” if I admit to myself that I’m an actor, I’ve got thousands of years of help behind me. As opposed to “I’m an improviser.”

People have been improvising for as long as they’ve been acting. But if I call myself an actor, I get to be broader. And I don’t mean to be bigger on stage or chew up the scenery or ham-fisted; I mean broader in terms of my base knowledge. Broader in terms of everything that’s going on onstage.

P&C: Sometimes Cameron will come home from a show and he’ll say, “I had a scene tonight and there weren’t a lot of laughs, but some people may have, if not cried, maybe felt a different emotion than the usual…” and he’s excited when that happens.

DR: But what you’re saying there is very interesting as well. It’s also, what’s your expectation from the audience? Because if you call yourself an actor, you don’t have an expectation that the audience needs to be fucking guffawing every minute. And the pressure is a lot, the potential to have the ego come in… The pressure is diminished, because you don’t have expectations from the audience when you call yourself an actor.

Now people are going to come to the show and they’re gonna expect improvisation but you know what? You’re improvising. If someone comes to an improv show and they don’t know that you’re improvising it’s like, Did you have a bag over your head, and you were kept in a box and then just released into this room?

That’s why I also feel like, I don’t take suggestions. I fucking don’t take them. If you don’t know that I’m improvising… And half the time that you take a suggestion the audience doesn’t remember.

P&C: I haven’t seen you improvise with Carrie, but I’ve seen TJ and Dave a number of times and they just start their thing. They don’t need this artifice of a word to get rolling.

DR: Right? Carrie and I have a bunch of videos online…

P&C: Oh great, I’ll check those out.

DR: There’s at least three produced shorts that we’ve done that are totally improvised. There’s one called Lambrusco, Mediterranean Diet, Ovened Bread, Marathon, and Maladies.

The one that I would watch first is Ovened Bread. It’s about ten minutes long, and it looks totally scripted. It looks so scripted. We didn’t go back, we didn’t re-edit it. It was just two cameras. Carrie’s husband put two cameras out and he was directing it. As this camera’s on here, he would move this camera around so it looked like three cameras.

P&C: Who are your acting heroes? Whose work do you admire?

DR: I’m thinking about somebody that I just saw that I thought, Oh my God I love everything that they do. She played Bob Dylan in that Bob Dylan movie…

P&C: Cate Blanchett?

DR: Cate Blanchett, I love her. I love her so much. Tilda Swinton, I love her. Meryl Streep… I’m one of those guys. Look, I just named three women. Oh, Steve Buscemi. Johnny Depp… Only because I like these guys, like, they know who the fuck they are. It’s like, “This is who the fuck I am.”

In terms of comedy I really like Kristen Wiig. I really like her a lot… [I'd] better get some men in there. (laughs)

I love Pasquesi. I think he’s fucking great. I really like David a lot; I like what he does. That’s plenty right there, right?

P&C: That’s great.

(In Part Two, we discuss David’s Viewpoints approach to improv, his experience at Second City with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello, and how not to get your scene partner “on you.”)


Devon Hyland is one of those annoyingly talented people who acts much older than he is. (Meaning he’s as funny as Don Rickles, but without the receding hairline.) He writes and performs award-winning Fringe plays, plays a mean guitar with his band Fashion Tips, and does improv with The Second City among other things. When he’s not making people laugh, Devon has been known to attend the occasional Blue Jays game.

Photo © Ian Brown

DISCLAIMER:

Firstly, I was asked to write this article about improv. Don’t be getting all uppity because you think I’m not smart enough to be writing articles on anything.

Secondly, I was going to write an article called Shows Not Starting On Time! or Behaving Professionally! or Angry Face Emoticons: A Visualization Of My Views On Toronto Improv!, but I realized that was completely negative thinking.

Improv teaches us to be positive, so instead of telling people what I think is bad, I’m going to focus on the good. That’s why I chose to write this positive list of positive things that I have found to be positive (true) about improv.

1. People Change: You And Your Fellow Improvisers Will Get Better

When I was a younger pup than I am now, I’d sometimes watch performers and write them off. I determined that they were “the performers that they were,” and that I had seen all I needed to see from these people to know how good they would become. They did not have the “It” factor. Because of this, they were simply not destined to be performers.

I imagined they would eventually slip away and I would be left, alone, centre stage, reaping the benefits of being born with the “It” factor. It was only a matter of time.

Now, however, I do not believe that someone cannot obtain this coveted “It” factor.

This is because I’ve been shown over and over that I was wrong in my initial assessments. These performers are funny, I discovered, and I don’t know why! And it’s not just me; they now succeed in entertaining rooms full of varied audience members with ease. These are the same people I thought were never, ever going to become as mysteriously wonderful as I now think they are. And with good reason: they stunk!

They were lacking confidence, quiet, hunched, and non-deliberate in their actions. They literally repelled my eyes. Why couldn’t they realize they weren’t meant to be performers? Why couldn’t they realize that people like me – naturally wonderful people – had a more of a right to the stage?

Now I look on and mope as a bubble of beautiful potential (the “It” factor, I’d argue) surrounds their bodies.

With hard work, performers have the power to find the gifts that are hidden within themselves. Maybe barking jokes isn’t your thing. Maybe subtle acting ain’t your forte. You’ll eventually discover what you believe to be your skill set. This skill set is the reason you started improv in the first place, and once you’re confident in it and can show it to your audience, the world’s your oyster.

People do change, and the boring performer you’re watching (or are), has the potential to blow you away (or blow yourself).

2. Somebody’s Probably Enjoying It

The unfortunate reality is this: many audience members do not want to be there. So as an improviser, you’ll often perform a show for crowd of people who:

a) have no interest in improv, or

b) have no interest in you

This is usually demonstrated by eye rolls and yawns. But even though it seems like the whole crowd is against you, I’ve found that there’s more often than not at least one person in the audience who’s enjoying him or herself. There’s no way to know where this quiet, happy peanut is sitting, so why don’t we just pretend he or she is at the back of the room? Play to this person and don’t worry about the naysayers.

And while you’re at it, why not play to someone else at the back of the room, too? Imagine a person you love and want to impress. Maybe it’s your soon-to-be-girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife/soon-to-be husband. Maybe it’s Lorne Michaels. Perform your heart out for that ghost person. Hopefully doing this will bring out a better performance in you, and those dumb yawners will shift their focus to the stage. After all, yawners change.

3. You Can Learn From Anyone

I used to think I was above taking classes from my peers. Ohhow wrong I was! Please don’t believe that just because you have equal or greater experience than someone that they can’t teach you anything. And please don’t disregard somebody’s opinion because you think you’re a better performer than they are.

Because I’ll tell you this: you are not a 100% all-around perfect performer. In at least one instance, I’ll bet these new scrubs have got you beat.

Whether it’s the way they drop puns into medieval references, or the way they paint the stage with more whimsical grace than an a-squiring knight, they have something to teach you. Everyone has something to teach you. There is no person in this world from whom you cannot learn, so take classes often and anywhere.

4. Don’t Wait Your Turn

Apparently I have been younger than everyone else my whole life, because no matter what my age, there’s always someone who pats me on the back and says, “Oh, you’re just a young thing.” I find this more telling of them than it is of me. After all, they’re only stating my age – something of which I should hope I need no reminder. In their case however, they’re pointing out that they see this as important. I do not.

While I’m not advocating that new improvisers should disregard experience as an asset, I would encourage newbies to believe that their experiences will resonate with an audience just as profoundly as those of a seasoned veteran.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on this Earth; you’ve experienced life in an infinite number of unique ways that open-minded audiences are clambering to have shown to them. You’ve also experienced life in so many universally-common ways that crowds will have no problem connecting with you.

Show your audience you’re confident in the connection you have with them, and they will respond positively. You don’t need to wait until you’ve performed 300 shows before you start thinking your improv is worth watching. You are an interesting and funny person now.

Now get up there and let us all bask in your glory, jerkwad.

5. Good Show > Good Improv

I’ve watched improv troupes sink deeper and deeper into a hole of unfunny, boring improv about a thousand times. They’re stuck. The audience knows it, and they know it. What could the non-performing members on the sides be thinking at this point?

“This show is going so badly. I can’t wait for it to end. I’m going to stick on the sidelines of this scene and just ride it out. Eventually we’ll all get through this. Then I’ll grab a beer and think about my wrongdoings.”

Just sweep it. End it. Cut your losses. For your own sake and for the audience’s sake.

Nobody wants to watchfour more minutes of a boring scene so you can show us you’re able to weave your way out of a seemingly-contradictory situation. We won’t appreciate the accomplishment as much as we’ll appreciate laughing. And we want to laugh!

The positive angle on this seemingly-angry rant is this: you do not need to believe that your audience is only interested in “good improv.” They want to have a good time.

While it may be true that some on-looking improvisers will snub their noses at you for contradicting your stage mates, sweeping a struggling scene instead of saving it, breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience, or pretending to eat what you’ve just said and moving forward as though it never happened (a favourite of mine), there are more people in the crowd who will thank God that they do not have to sit through any more “good improv.”

I’m not advocating that you sell your teammates down the river. I’m advocating for you and your teammates to recognize that the #1 goal in your performance… is a good performance.

Once we recognize something isn’t working, we have a chance to make it out alive. We just need to do something about it, instead of hoping the Improv Gods will respect us for playing nice and riding a terrible scene through to completion. Because they won’t respect you – they’ll be furious with you for boring the heck out of the audience members who aren’t improvisers themselves. This was positive, right?

6. Talk to People You Admire

One of my favourite early experiences in improv was congratulating Marty Adams after one of his first Second City Touring Company shows. He was thrilled. At least, he acted thrilled. He put on a big smile and shook my hand and said “Awww, thanks so much.” I felt great, I’m sure he felt great, everyone felt great. So don’t be afraid to talk to people you respect, unless you hate feeling great.

For a long time I was deathly afraid of talking to people I admired. I used to go and watch the improv sets at Second City, and afterward I would stand outside for a few minutes for the performers to come out. I’d only wait a few minutes because that’s how long my nerves would allow me. After that, I’d scurry back to the subway, thinking to myself, “I’ll never get the confidence to talk to those people and oh how they must think I’m square!”

My advice to shy people is this: engage the performers you respect. If you start a dialogue with a performer you admire, you’re more likely to learn something about why they are such a great performer.

On top of that, people love to be told they’re awesome. Can you name someone who doesn’t like to be told they’re awesome? If so, give him or her this email address: donttellmeimawesome@devonhyland.ca. I would love to talk to this freak. Seriously, that email address works and I would love to talk to this freak.

What’s the difference between American and Canadian improvisers? Some say Canadians are “polite” on stage, but there’s another dead giveaway. For our improv friends south of the border, Cameron demonstrates.

Holding A Starbucks, vs…

 Holding A Tim’s (That’s Tim Hortons for the uninitiated)

Got any other international mime tips? Post a comment below. For more on Object Work, click here and here.

Shrink is an improvised web series starring Tim Baltz (Second City Chicago), created, edited and directed by Ted Tremper.

Baltz plays David Tracy, a doctor in training who gives free therapy sessions out of his garage. His “patients” include Rebecca Sohn, Jason Shotts, Colleen Doyle and TJ Jagodowski (whose episode made me spit steeped tea on my laptop).

Locked-off camera and spare set design allow the actors to shine. The performances are beautifully nuanced: funny, uncomfortable, and sometimes sad. Watch the whole series here.

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