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Greg Hess is a member of the legendary Cook County Social Club and the equally-esteemed Improvised Shakespeare Company. When his Toronto workshop was announced, Susan Messing said, “Greg Hess is incredible. Anyone who misses this class is an asshole and an idiot.” With a letter of recommendation like that, how could we refuse? 

We asked him about his influences, the importance of team chemistry, and improvising in iambic pentameter.

Photo © Ryan Ward Thompson

P&C: You’re originally from Virginia. Why did y’all move to Chicago?

GH: I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and that’s actually the first time I saw improv, was in my freshman year orientation.

There was a short-form improv group there and it kinda has a unique history. It’s one of the older college groups in the country and a lot of the people from that group ended up in Chicago in the early ‘90s, studying under Del. So the group was started in 1986 and it was called IT, or Improvisational Theatre, in a really original turn of a name (laughs). So a few people each year seemed to move to Chicago. Among those were Craig Cackowski, who was on the Second City Mainstage, and Ali Davis, Brendan Dowling, Joey Bland…a lot of people that still perform in either LA or here. And I kinda just followed in their footsteps.

P&C: So when you moved to Chicago, what was your plan of attack, or did you have a specific plan in mind about what you were going to do next?

GH: I didn’t. I knew I loved improv, and I knew this was the place to do it. The really nice thing is, because I was sort of being a copycat, I had friends that were friends from college that I lived with that were also doing improv, and they told me what classes to take and where to go to see shows. So I sort of just fell in pretty easily with that.

My plan of attack was always sort of, I just loved doing it, and I didn’t know at that time what level I could be performing at. I just wanted to come find out more about it.

P&C: You studied at the School at Steppenwolf. What did you learn there that was different than some of your other training?

GH: Well, the Steppenwolf Theatre is a famous Chicago theatre known for doing great ensemble work. Their alumni [include] John Malkovich and Gary Sinise…. So the School at Steppenwolf is a summer training intensive that they do, and what I learned there was Meisner technique, Viewpoints technique, and believe it or not, some improv. Sheldon Patinkin who was a founding member of the Compass Players and Second City is a teacher there.

P&C: Is that where you studied Viewpoints with one of the originators of that technique?

GH: Yeah. My teacher that summer was a guy named Guy Adkins, who was an acolyte of Tina Landau who was considered one of the founders of Viewpoints method. And she was around, but he was sort of the mainstay. He was amazing; he ended up passing away at a very young age. He was a Chicago actor and it ended up that that was the last summer he taught. I think he died when he was 45 of cancer. That was obviously a heartbreaking time, but I consider myself to be very lucky, obviously.

P&C: What in particular, was it his teaching style, his personality, his technique…?

GH: If people are familiar with Viewpoints, in terms of improv, I really liked that Viewpoints just gave names to a lot of the things that we do in improv anyway. It’s really a director’s language to get actors to do what they want. So what I loved about his teaching was not getting lost in yourself, and realizing that your job as an actor is also to respond to what others are doing on stage. And probably at its simplest it’s that: he really gave a ton of focus to ensemble work, which was awesome.

P&C: How has all of that informed the way you perform?

GH: I was talking with somebody about this today – actually Ken, from Toronto – how I felt like at the time. I was one of the only improvisers going through that program, with a bunch of actors. I felt really out of my league at times. And it hasn’t even been until the last few years that that training has come out in ways I hadn’t expected. Being OK with text in a script and being able to attack it as an actor and an improviser at the same time has been super helpful.

P&C: We’ve had the discussion with a few people about the whole “actor vs improviser,” and is there a difference… Would you say that you feel less of a delineation now than you used to?

GH: I don’t feel a delineation for myself that much. I know actors who are horrified to improvise, and improvisers who are horrified to do anything that’s scripted. So I do think that there can be a difference, but I’m not one to lose any blood over it.

P&C: You focus on the “How” of the scene: How you enter a scene, how your scene partner reacts, how you connect with them. Did someone teach you that, or did you develop that approach of focusing on the “how” on your own?

GH: I sort of developed that on my own after I went to the School at Steppenwolf and learned some of the skills of just identifying human behaviour in your scene partner, and that’s actually kind of a Meisner technique.

The actual language that we use for it, I think maybe other people have used. I don’t wanna say that I’m the first one to ever say that. But I actually developed that with my friend Mark Raterman who is in Cook County Social Club, and we ended up building essentially a three-level training program with that being one of the foundations.

P&C: You’ve been with Cook County Social Club for, is it ten years?

GH: Seven years.

P&C: What do you enjoy about performing with them, and how have you and the team evolved or changed over the years, or have you?

GH: (laughs) We have changed over the years. When we first started, we were really serious about trying to do something new.

Well, at first we were really serious about trying to copy 4 Square, which was a really great group in Chicago that was John Lutz, Dan Bakkedahl and Peter Grosz and Rob Janas. And they were sort of the great, four-person, small ensemble playing at iO at the time. And all those guys have gone on to do great things: John Lutz is on 30 Rock, Bakkedahl was on The Daily Show, Peter Grosz was a writer for Colbert, and Rob Janas was at Second City and just sold a movie.

So they were sort of our heroes and I think we wanted to do something like they did in terms of, they brought their own style, and we really wanted to kind of create our own style.

We rehearsed for, I think like six months with Jeff Griggs, who has been at iO for years and years and wrote Del’s book actually, Del Close: Guru. And I think when we first started we really just wanted to try to bring our own style and our own way of navigating a long form, and that started really by doing four-person scenes where we would all be on the stage at the same time and we wouldn’t do any sweep edits. (laughs)

Over the years we’ve experimented in all sorts of different ways, ranging from lazy to really adventurous. And I think the nice thing about that group and to answer your question, the thing I enjoy most is, the one kind of unifying thing is, the shows are always fun, and those guys are my best friends. So even when we feel like maybe we’re not at the top of our game, it’s pretty rare that we don’t find something really fun or funny to play in a show.

I think of any group that I’ve ever played with, “play” is the operative word among those guys. It’s just all-out play.

P&C: It’s interesting to hear you say that. Someone asked [P&C] a couple of months ago about “How do you make things work with a Harold team?” So we started thinking about all the great teams that have longevity, and the big thing seems to be – whether you wanna call it chemistry or friendship – genuinely liking each other and respect for each other seems to be huge in having trust and being playful on a team.

GH: I totally agree. And I think it’s always hard when you are assembled by an outside force. For example in Chicago it happens a lot that you’ll be chosen for a Harold team that isn’t by your own design. And you can look at the statistics: I mean, really one out of every, probably ten or twelve teams that gets made has any longevity. And I think that’s because you have to first choose who you play with and love that, or if you don’t love it, find a new group.

I think it’s always hard when there’s no chemistry because you have to first, I think, enjoy each other and find each other funny. Find each other fun to play with.

P&C: Who are your improv mentors or heroes, and why?

GH: I think, for me, those guys that I mentioned in 4 Square I think were the first time I had that epiphany. They were just those people who… there wasn’t a week that I wasn’t there. That was probably my first real fanboy experience.

And then… my wife. (laughs) Holly was, I think I mentioned this, one of my first teachers when I moved to Chicago. And the thing that I really always loved about her – and her group, The Reckoning, was probably the other big influence on me – was how they just weren’t afraid to really trust things going in an odd direction, and really letting it be an adventure of improvisation. It just never seemed like they were afraid to take it wherever it needed to go. And that’s what I really loved about them, and still do.

Maybe as an individual performer…um…gosh, there’s a whole litany of Second City alums that I always really loved. But probably actually after working at Second City, it’s Stephen Colbert. I love watching old tapes of him.

After I got to have fingers in the archives of those guys, I mean… Actually I was watching Pinata Full of Bees, which is a show at Second City that was really famous with Rachel Dratch and John Glaser.

P&C: I’ve heard of it, but you’re saying they have it on tape?

GH: I have a tape of it, and I actually popped it in two nights ago and I was just like, “Oh my God… “ Scott Adsit was in that cast, Adam McKay, and Jenna Jolovitz. I was like, man, this show was just so awesome. I love watching those guys. So definitely some Second City people in there too. Colbert, Adsit, Rachel Dratch.

P&C: I’ve not seen The Improvised Shakespeare Company, but I’ve heard from anyone who has how amazing they are. Can you please tell our readers, for people like me, a little about it?

GH: Sure. Improvised Shakespeare Company is a company, I think we’re about 16 strong now, and we improvise a two-act Shakespeare play that’s never been performed before. So the audience gives a suggestion of a title, and then we do a two-act play in Elizabethan language, rhyming couplets and all, and try to navigate a Shakespearean improvised story.

P&C: And do you do it in American accents, or faux British accents?

GH: We do it in all sorts of accents. (laughs) Probably the best description somebody has given is, it’s Shakespeare and at times meets Monty Python. So there’s definite absurdity to it. But the cool thing is that everybody that’s in the company has either performed Shakespeare before or has a genuine love of Shakespeare, so there’s some real nerdy nerds up in there.

P&C: So which one of those camps is you?

GH: I’ve performed some Shakespeare and also love reading Shakespeare. And probably didn’t love reading Shakespeare until I joined this group, which is kind of funny. We try to read a play, and we meet with a college professor at Loyola University and we have honest-to-God, like, sit-down discussions about the plays.

P&C: Wow.

GH: Which is probably the nerdiest thing any improv group has done for a while.

P&C: I love that. So how long have you been involved; have you been involved since the beginning?

GH: I have been involved for a long time. Not the very beginning, but I think I was the first wave of people that started doing it after the initial audition. So I think the show ran for about a year, and I joined in the second year, and I’ve been with them for probably six or seven years.

P&C: That’s two very long-running [teams], for improv. You’re also in Baby Wants Candy, which is another long-running Chicago success story. You must like singing.

GH: I do, I love singing. I was a very middling musical theatre guy in college and in high school, so, I tried my best to really do musicals. (laughs)

P&C: When you say middling, you mean you think your talent was middling, or you just weren’t as involved in it as you wanted to be?

GH: I think I straddled the line for a long time of wanting to be not only an actor, but also a soccer player. (laughs) And so I’d do a couple of plays and then I would say I didn’t like them and go back to playing soccer. So I guess middling may not be the right word, maybe just closeted. (laughs)

P&C: Do you still perform with Baby Wants Candy?

GH: I haven’t performed with them in a while, and it’s only because it conflicts with Improvised Shakespeare. I’ll do a road show every once in a while with Baby, but actually Baby was my kinda first, to me, my big dream come true in Chicago, because all these people that I knew and loved and loved watching played on Baby Wants Candy and I remember being asked to be in that show was kind of an epiphany.

P&C: Is there an audition process, similar to Second City, or…

GH: They do have auditions, but I actually just got asked because one of the founding members was a teacher of mine at iO, Al Samuels, and I think after taking his class and kind of performing around Chicago for a year or two I just got the invite to sit in, and then that became more of a regular thing as I performed.

P&C: [In Canada] in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of interest in musical improv. Is it becoming more popular in Chicago as well?

GH: It’s always kind of been around Chicago. I feel like Baby had the crown for a long time of the only people doing it, but everybody sort of knew about it. And now you do see there are other improvised musicals here in town. A friend of mine from Improvised Shakespeare hosts an improvised rap battle, there’ve been other rap battle shows, and so, sort of the skill set is the same of being able to improvise songs on the fly.

P&C: That would terrify me, rapping.

GH: It terrifies me too. I’m going to try and do it next week. I’ll make sure to send you some video footage of me getting booed off the stage.

P&C: (laughs) We’ll post a link.

In Part Two, we discuss acting skills in improv, making a living as an improviser, and Greg’s most memorable moment on stage. 

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