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Photo © Lorenzo Hodges

Todd Stashwick is an actor/improviser, and the co-creator of Devil Inside, an online horror/action comic that launched at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2010. His acting credits include The Riches, Heroes, Justified, Childrens Hospital and Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

P&C: I read that you started tearing tickets at Second City when Steve Carell was on the Mainstage.

TS: Second City Northwest. And that cast was Dave Razowsky, Steve Carell, John Rubano, Ken Campbell, Claudia Smith-Special, and Fran Adams, and that was back in the summer of ’90.

P&C: When did you know you wanted to be on the Mainstage; was it when you took that first job, or had you known for a long time?

TS: Meatballs.

P&C: (laughs)

TS: When Meatballs came out, and Saturday Night Live, and I was watching Bill Murray. I was watching Bill Murray and I had a great deal of affinity for this Chicago jamoke.

Entering through, like, Stripes and Meatballs, which led me to going back – because I was too young when he was on SNL – but going back to then investigating his trajectory. And then Ghostbusters sealed the deal.

I just wanted to be Bill Murray growing up, so I just figured out what his trajectory was, and it was like, “OK, well he went to Second City.” So that always was dog-eared.

Before I worked there, I was in college and I went to see Second City Northwest and Joel Murray, who I’m now friends with, he was in the cast. And I just was like, “That’s a Murray! That’s a Murray!”

And I remember going to Loyola… The first day of school when we had freshman orientation, the Second City Touring Company performed and I walked to the front of the stage. And Holly Wortell was, after the show she was putting her shoes on, and I asked Holly, “How do you get into Second City?” And Holly said, “I would get a job there, like tearing tickets, so you can watch the shows and know what it is you’re auditioning for.”

And so literally the first day of college I had tucked in my head, “Well, when I get out of college I’m going to Second City.”

Because y’know, I always walked that line; I’m a blue collar performer. Amongst my family I’m the arty one, but in the world of theatre I’m a blue collar one. I’m like, “Oh, OK, do that?” Like a carpenter. “Go to Second City, learn that trade? OK. Then apply that trade? OK.” And don’t complain about your job.

For four years I was studying Stanislavski and watching these people rip themselves in half for these roles, but in the back of my head I’m like, “This is cool and awesome and I’m glad I’m learning all this training, but I just wanna be Bill Murray.”

So literally the day after I graduated college, I went and applied for a job at Second City Northwest, and they hired me to tear tickets. And I started watching Carell and all those guys, and studying.

So I was studying at Second City Northwest, then I moved downtown and transferred the job, then I was studying at Second City downtown, and then I was studying with Del and Charna at Improv Olympic, performing at Improv Olympic, and then performing at Second City in the students’ programs. And then I was hired into the Touring Company.

For two-and-a-half years I toured, then I did Second City Detroit, then Second City Northwest. Then I understudied Mainstage and then I moved to New York because I was up for SNL in ’95.

P&C: You studied with Del and Charna, and I think there’s a lot of fascination with Del because he’s almost such a mythical person now. How did he influence your approach to improv?

TS: I would say I didn’t really get to apply the stuff that Del was imparting [to] me until I was doing Burn Manhattan in New York. I think there’s something so… I get in trouble when I talk about this. (laughs) There was something so… That which was being rewarded and encouraged, often, often, onstage in Chicago, felt antithetical to what it was that Marty and Del and Donny DePollo and Viola Spolin were teaching.

There was a lot of… It’s just naïve performers – I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean young – who were being moved up through the ranks and rewarded for being really clever on their feet. And what I found that those guys were teaching me was much more physical, was much more listening-based, was much more discovery-based.

It’s not “The who, what, where in the first three lines of dialogue,” which I found a little fascistic. And I thought, Well that’s one way to start a scene. But it seemed to be the only way to start a scene. And I always found that would put me in my head and so therefore antithetical to being out of your head, which was what Del wanted you to be, in raw discovery. Del wanted you to find your demons and rip them out on stage.

For four weeks he had us…he thought this was a really great idea to go, “What if you could catch mimes?” “I caught a mime and now a mime is just mocking me everywhere.” So people would do scenes and we would do the scene behind them, mocking them in mime fashion. But then after a month he was like, “Well, this is not getting us anywhere.”

And at the time it just felt like the ramblings of a crazy man, but it was that spirit of experimentation, and that spirit of “There’s not only one way to do an improvised scene,” there’s not only one version of improvised theatre, that I think Del taught me. Take a risk. Be hard on yourselves. Take it seriously.

The people that I know that are really devoted to the art form, a lot of them studied with Del. Del took the art form very seriously. He did not think of it as a second-class form of theatre; he felt that it was very legitimate. So I think that sense of experimentation, and just a very liberated view of the work. It was punk rock.

P&C: It sounds like the same sort of thing you were excited by when you visited Scotland, and saw a fringe play that changed your idea of what improv could be. Could you tell us about that?

TS: In Chicago before I went to Scotland, I had done a show called Mobius American Theatre. And Mobius was a form that we had developed where we would rehearse different playwright styles in non-spoof fashion. Like legitimately go, “OK, let’s take Mamet, let’s take Tennessee Williams, and what are the tropes?” As opposed to pointing at the tropes, like what truly are the types of themes that recur in these stories, in a non-satirical way. There were some great people; Brian Boland and Gwynne Ashley were in that group.

We would improvise a final scene, and then go back to the beginning of the play and justify that final scene. So that we would go back and improvise, slowly build, over the course of an hour. And so I was already kinda dismantling what I thought you could do. And we would have act breaks, we would have set changes, and it felt like a real play.

Then I went to Scotland and I saw these guys doing a three-act play with just the three of them. This was Rejects Revenge. They would create a swing and a butterfly and hieroglyphs with their bodies, and this very European clown tradition of physical theatre.

And what I always do is I look at something that is not in the improv world and go, “How can I improvise that? I want my improv show to look like their scripted show.”

The seeds got planted with doing Mobius, and then it carried through like, “OK, well we could do an improvised play, but we could be all the things. We don’t need props, we don’t need anything.” And not just Spolin-based object work, but like (mimes a butterfly flapping its wings) butterflies.

And that fascinated me, how those three could take us to the tombs of Egypt in a Victorian adventure. It blew me away, and so like a barnacle I attached myself to their neck and bled them for all information they would give me, and that’s what I carried with me into New York… So I just had to reverse engineer.

P&C: And that became Burn Manhattan.

TS: Uh-huh.

P&C: So when you moved to New York, the improv scene there at the time was not what you were doing, obviously.

TS: It was game-based, and sketch-based, and there were whispers of a Harold finally making its way east.

But going back to what I was saying about… And again I’m not slagging Chicago. There were places like The Annoyance that were really trying stuff, but it was just harder because you had this Holy Grail which was Second City, so so much of people’s work in the outside groups was designed to get us ready for that Second City audition once a year, or twice a year.

And New York didn’t have a Groundlings; it didn’t have its one thing that sort of set the benchmark for what improvised theatre is. There were pockets of lots of game-based improv, and a lot of great, amazing improvisers, but they were hungry for something else.

So we were able, having gotten the whole Second City thing out of our system – myself, John Thies, Mark Levenson, Kevin Scott, Jay Rhoderick and Matt Higgins – and we didn’t have anybody telling us, “Well that’s not gonna get you anywhere.” We weren’t trying to do anything but it. We weren’t trying to get hired by anybody. We weren’t trying to be ready, and so we just didn’t care. We had Shira Piven at the helm, pushing us all into new places.

Kevin was in a group called Bang Bang in Chicago with Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts, and he had already been pushing the bounds a little bit, but they were way on the north side of Chicago so they were really separate from the community. So we had all the pieces together for us to do something, and no community that was telling us not to.

P&C: You’re big on physicality, object work and spacework. Why is physicality so important to improv, at least for you?

TS: If the goal is to remain in a state of discovery, our minds can wander, but our bodies are always connected to the space. Our bodies are always standing there. And if we keep our bodies in motion, it keeps us in a state of discovery.

If we connect physically to the space, if we connect physically to each other, and we throw our focus external as opposed to internal, it keeps us out of our head. It keeps us literally in a state of discovery. I have to have my eyes open, I have to be discovering things physically in order to keep feeding the beast.

P&C: I remember that from your workshop… I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was, “If you do something physical, that keeps the left brain busy so your right brain can play.”

TS: The left brain contains judgement. It also contains speech. But it also controls movement. And so if you move, the left brain’s going, “I gotta do this, I gotta do this right now, I don’t have time to judge myself!” So the right brain can go, “Oh, butterflies! Oh, finger painting! Yay! Improvised song!”

P&C: As part of your workshops, you teach clown. What do you think clown brings to an improviser’s or actor’s repertoire of skills?

TS: Well I’m no expert on clown; I’m stealing anything as I go along the way and shoving it in my bag. Clown is a willingness to be vulnerable and fearless. A willingness to fail and pick yourself up and keep moving forward. It is attention to physicality and it’s very connected to the audience.

And the kinds of shows that I enjoy doing, whether it’s Doubtful Guests, Burn Manhattan, Mayfly, are very, very connected to the audience. And allowing what is happening in the audience in front of you in the room to really inform the show.

And clown is very wide awake and vulnerable. Clowns don’t lie. They are clowns. They aren’t playing clowns, they are clowns.

P&C: You do a lot of creative things. Do you think of yourself as an actor, or do you think of yourself as an artist? How do you define yourself?

TS: That’s a very curious question, because I think all my life, growing up, I’ve always thought of myself as an actor. Just because that was my gateway drug into entertainment, was acting. So I just think it’s all part of this big ball of just entertainment, whether I’m writing a comic, or working on writing a pilot, or doing an improv show, or creating a stage show. Honestly, I’m not trying to be cryptic or anything. It’s just what I do. So I don’t see it as “acting,” “producing,” “creating the poster for it.” It’s all just making entertainment in many forms.

If somebody came up to me and said, “So what do you do?” I would say “Actor.” That’s the first thing that comes out of my mouth, but I know the parameters of that job description are limited to somebody handing you a script, and you memorizing those lines, and either standing on a stage or a sound stage or on location and saying them.

I think of myself as an actor. What I do in practice, is a whole bunch of other junk.

P&C: What do you love about improv versus scripted work?

TS: What do I appreciate about improv that is not contained within scripted work? Because they’re not at war…

P&C: That’s a better way to put it.

TS: When you say the word improv or improvisation, it’s always a live experience for me, and it has a finite performance time. It begins, it middles, it ends, there’s a curtain call, there’s an introduction. It’s contained within an evening and you get immediate communication with the audience.

I can walk home at the end of the night and hold in my head what I did that day, as opposed to working on a film, I’ll do this piece from, you know, Scene 23, and so I’m not the one who has to hold the whole story in my head. Nor at the end of the night can I walk home and go, “OK, I know what I did.” You know what I mean? And I also get to behave in ways, improvisationally… Like, rarely am I ever gonna be cast as an 80-year-old black blues musician. But in an improvised scene I could play that, and it’ll all take place inside the letter “I.”

The absurdity of live theatre that we are discovering as we go gives me opportunities to perform and to discover in ways that I’m not afforded in scripted work.

I like the 40-seat-basement people. I like performing for people in a black-box theatre on a hot Friday night and we all have a glass of whisky afterwards, and it’s that live, kinda punk feeling that you get from a live experience…

I don’t do improvisation for money, I do it for the love of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever really been paid to perform as an improviser. I’ve been paid to do Second City, but we were paid to perform scripted shows and then we improvised as well. But that has always been kind of my hobo’s heart.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we discuss acting, writing, and get the scoop on Jack Springheel.

Drawing © Samantha Claridge

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