Posts from the Interviews Category

Chris and Laura are staples of the comedy community. Chris shot and directed How To Spot An Improviser, and Laura is one half of hilarious sketch duo, Two Weird Ladies, among many other things. We got all real talk on their relationship.

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Chris: Laura claims it was at a party of a mutual friend. I have no recollection of this.

Laura: That’s because it was 2:30 am on New Year’s Day and Chris was drunk. Though it’s good to know I failed to make any sort of lasting impression.

The first time I noticed Chris was at a Vanguard improv show at The Supermarket. I thought he was really funny so I tucked his existence away in my mind. Then I tried to talk to him at the party he doesn’t remember. To be fair, the conversation was very boring.

Chris: One of my earliest memories of hanging out with Laura is the Del Close Marathon in New York the summer of 2010. At the end-of-festival dance party, we took a photo with one of our friends. We look like we’re having the time of our lives, and that we kidnapped him against his will. It’s one of my favourite photos and part of my earliest memories with Laura.

Laura: We hung out at DCM in 2010 and again in 2011, but the first time we really got to know each other was during the 2011 Toronto Improv Festival. We’d both gone to see shows alone, and although we knew lots of people at Comedy Bar, we were both pretty socially awkward and ended up just talking to each other all night.

A week later we were back at Comedy Bar for Halloween. I was dressed as Zombie Princess Di and Chris was dressed as some comic book character called Axe Cop that I’d never heard of in my life. Despite my tasteless costume and abundant zombie makeup, we got drunk and made out. Yadda, yadda, yadda – we’re getting married in November. I’ll really have to work on this story before we have kids. So they respect us and stuff.  

Chris: They can respect Laura all they want. I’m planning on being the embarrassing dad.

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Chris: I stage-liked Laura when I saw the remount of her Second City Conservatory show, Citizen Vain. I thought she was hilarious.

I started to like-like her at the Del Close Marathon in 2011. (Notice a trend?) Four of us were discussing Seinfeld, and which characters we were most like. She was Elaine, and I was George. I was a little distraught, as only in Jason Alexander’s fan fiction would Elaine ever fall for George. Luckily over the course of the festival we got to get to know each other more.

I wouldn’t make a move until months later when I ran into her at Comedy Bar. After a long discussion I came up with the brilliant flirting line, “I don’t want to date comedians.” Somehow we got together. (Booze.)

Laura: I found Chris appealing from the moment I saw him on stage as part of his Vanguard show. Mostly because he was funny and I really liked the way he improvised. But also he was attractive and was dressed in a weird skater/slacker/I-do-improv-and-have-no-money style that I particularly liked.

But I felt we really hit it off at DCM. Finding out Chris loves Seinfeld and relates most to George Costanza was sadly a big plus for me, as I am somewhat of a female Larry David.

Chris was just as excited as I was to spend hours in FAO Schwartz looking at toys, and together we came up with the plot to a sequel to the movie Big, called Little, starring Colin Hanks. A love for Seinfeld, affinity for Lego, and abnormally detailed knowledge of a 1980s Tom Hanks classic. What was not to like?

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

P&C: Have you ever performed together?

Chris: We were never on the same improv team, but we did write and perform in a sketch revue together. We’re both Type A (okay, I’m more of an A minus) so we got stuff done. She is a crazy talented comedy writer, so she brought out the best in me.

Laura: We were both part of a short-run improv show where we improvised episodes of Degrassi Junior High. Man – we really need to bring that show back. It was so much fun. I played pregnant Spike and Chris played Mr. Raditch.

Other than that, we’ve done a few one-off shows together, co-wrote a news joke podcast, and worked together writing and acting in an anti-Ford municipal election sketch show.

It’s great working with someone who shares your crazy work ethic and obsession with detail (even if it’s maybe because they’re a little scared of how Type A you are). I remember I initially said I didn’t want to be that couple who does improv together. Now I actually want to start an improv duo with Chris called “That Couple Who.” I should remember to ask him about that…

Chris: Laura, remember to ask me about that.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had improvising together?

Chris: In a workshop we were given the task of improvising as each other on a date. For some couples this could be an effective means to truncate a relationship. We certainly fell into the trap of pointing out each other’s flaws: she talked about superheroes and checked her phone a lot, while I took the entire scene to decide what to order. I also made note to correct the grammar of the menu.

While the people watching thought they were seeing a couple air their grievances, we were, in a way, retelling the night where I realized I loved her. I’d come back from the washroom at Fran’s Restaurant to find Laura correcting their menu with a green pen. They had a fascination with unnecessary apostrophes. It was at that moment I knew it was love. (I’m fairly certain she thought I would bail immediately.)

Laura: Not improv, but the worst for me was the one time Chris saw me do stand-up. I used to be a pretty decent stand-up, but I didn’t love it the way I love sketch and improv so I retired. A couple years later, after I started dating Chris, on a whim I did stand-up once, using new material I’d written the night before. Untested material, mostly about travelling to a crowd who either had never travelled or thought I wasn’t funny.

So the only time Chris saw me do stand-up I really fell flat. It haunts me. It’s like skipping Wayne’s World and Austin Powers and going straight to The Love Guru; you’re never going to believe that Mike Myers was once funny.

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

Chris: We’re in the final stages of planning our wedding. We have to keep reminding each other that we can’t just choose the funniest thing, that our wedding should also be sentimental.

Laura: If it weren’t for improv, we never would have met, never would have continued to meet and never would have yes-and-ed our Halloween drink consumption to get to the point where we were drunk enough to make a move.

Since then, I’ve realized how important it is to have someone who understands the desire to dedicate your time doing something you love for free. We both understand when the other person has stretches of time when they’re never home, we both understand the importance of going to each other’s shows and supporting each other, we both understand that there’s no “end goal” in doing improv – we both plan and hope to do it for as long as we are able.

People who aren’t passionate about an art form, playing a sport, etc, often don’t understand these things. Plus, our relationship has been fun.

P&C: What impact has improv had on your careers?

Chris: I was in a toxic seven-year relationship with a nation-wide book chain. In my interview with my current employer, my boss doubted my ability to take rejection well. I’d be doing sales if I got the job, and it’s not a job for everyone. I told him, “I auditioned for Second City Conservatory for five years until I got in, I think I can handle rejection.” He replied, “You’re hired.”

Laura: If we’re talking about my day job, not going to lie – improv has probably mostly hurt my career. While it has helped my people skills to a certain degree, it also means I say things without thinking and can be an unprofessional piece of trash who sometimes crosses the line without meaning to.

Recently before entering a meeting with a high-level exec, my boss had to pull me aside and warn me not to do anything dumb. Essentially all I can do is be myself and hope the people who matter like my sense of humour. And of course being involved in the arts makes it hard to sit at a desk being all non-creative and stuff. Improv is about creating, exploring new ideas and being innovative, but sometimes the corporate world is not open to change and just wants to go by the book, which I find challenging.

Outside of the office, improv has helped me immensely in auditions and other forms of comedy. Recently during my solo play, the power went out halfway through the show. Alone on stage in the dark, I’ve never been more grateful for my improv skills.

That said, making $40 on a play you spend hundreds of hours writing, producing and acting in hardly counts as a career. During the day I sit at a desk reading legal contracts and writing professionally-worded emails, then trying not to say anything that will get me fired when I’m in meetings with VPs. But I am slowly taking the steps I need to to become a writer for television, and once that dream comes true my improv skills will help me immensely.

Harper Halloween

(Chris wins for scariest costume as Stephen Harper. And did we mention the Comedy Bar Halloween show is right around the corner?)

A bunch of really cool, really funny people met through improv. We asked some of our favourite couples how they hooked up.

Photo © Kenway Yu

Photo © Kenway Yu

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Laura: Josh and I first met in a weekend musical improv workshop. I recognized him from Impatient Theatre Company, but he was a later generation than me, and I wasn’t really in that segment of the scene anymore.

Josh: Laura wrote an article for my blog after the improv workshop. I remember seeing her sing and being like – Whoa! Who is this person I’ve never met before? What a voice! I could tell she was captivated by me, but I played it cool.

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Laura: When we first met at the workshop, he was dating someone else, and I was aiming to seduce the instructor. We didn’t really think much of each other until the Comedy Bar Halloween party of 2011. He was dressed as Gazpacho the genie, and I was a slutty sandwich board for Occupy Sesame Street.

When I kissed him that night, and his breath stunk of garlic from all the gazpacho he’d been eating, I really didn’t think it was going anywhere. We’re getting married next year.

Josh: Laura was instantly taken by my confidence and sex appeal at the Comedy Bar Halloween party. It was clear she was smitten, and I decided to give her a chance. The next few months were a whirlwind romance.

P&C: What’s it like performing together?

Laura: We first performed together as a duo called Lil Zazzers. He wanted to name our child that, so I used the name for our improv duo to ensure that name was used for something else.

We also performed together on a team called Crazy Horse at SoCap. Josh and I often improvise scenes, songs, and characters privately to each other, so performing together is really just being our private selves in front of people. Our sense of play generally focuses on finding creative ways to annoy each other. Like my clown: Cramps, the menstruating clown.

Josh: When we have twins, they will both be named “Lil Zazzers” and will be a Vaudevillian comedy duo. Think gold lamé, canes, a top hat, pencil moustaches, etc.

P&C: How has improv helped your relationship?

Laura: We always listen to each other, say yes to each other’s ideas, and generally avoid judging each other, so that is wonderful. I think that listening all the way to the end of the other person’s sentence before formulating a response is a great skill for relationships and life in general, and one that I still work on.

And then of course there are the endless bits, voices, etc. Also, if one of us has a bad set, it’s great that the other can offer constructive feedback and not just be totally embarrassed. Josh has also coached me, and he is a fantastic coach!

Josh: What Laura said.

P&C: In what way has improv influenced your career?

Laura: I work now as a music teacher, and I’ll be teaching a class on performance skills for musicians this year to kids. It’s all improv based, because improv is a great way to help any type of performer come out of his or her shell.

Josh : I work at the University of Guelph. I use improv in my training and coaching to build rapport with my staff and help them get comfortable with their work.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or most memorable show you’ve done together?

Laura: My favourite show was a jam at Unit 102 a few years ago with some other people. The suggestion we got was “bigotry,” which is pretty heavy for a random jam. We were with a great group of people, and we really threw it to the wall.

Scenes included the Museum of Racism featuring Star Trek, a billionaire Chinese businessman becoming a soap opera director, Aunt Jemima taking questions at her Ted Talk, and 100-year-old Rosa Parks demanding a seat on a crowded bus. I don’t know if we moved mountains that day, but we certainly threw the audience’s shitty suggestion back in their face. I was proud of us!

(Hot tip: Comedy Bar‘s Halloween party is just around the corner.)

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

P&C: How did you get started in improv?

BN: I had an awful break-up my final semester of college. I had isolated a lot of my friends to spend time with my then-girlfriend, and the ones I did keep in touch with were moving away from St. Louis after graduation.

During that period, I was feeling sorry for myself and started listening to WTF with Marc Maron (those two things are unrelated). He was interviewing Jon Favreau, who mentioned getting his start through improv. I remembered I’d always enjoyed my acting classes in high school, and had performed in several plays. I thought about getting back into it, as a way to make friends and as a creative outlet.

When I got home that afternoon, I immediately Googled “improv in St. Louis,” clicked the first result, and signed up for the classes that were starting that weekend. I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

P&C: Why did you write Improv ABC?

BN: Back in April of this year, I was having a lot of trouble working my way through the UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual. It’s packed with great info, but it’s dense. It feels like reading a textbook. But other than that manual, most other improv books I’ve read are all about theory and encourage practice.

Where I am now in improv, that’s the kind of book I’m looking for. But when I was a student, I wanted to get really good really fast. I know everyone wants that, and obviously, that’s just not how it works. But there also wasn’t much in the way of resources about practical advice to improv. So I decided to write the book I wish I had when I was coming up and learning the craft – something practical, straightforward, and most importantly, fun.

Image © Ben Noble

Image © Ben Noble

P&C: What makes a great improviser, in your opinion?

BN: I think the single most important trait of the great improviser is that they don’t have an agenda. They don’t need to prove to the audience or the team that they’re funny. They’re kind and generous. Their only goals are to have fun and make their scene partners look good.

I hope that people come away from my book with some practical tips for creating character, having a point of view, etc. But I also hope they leave knowing that improv is just as much about who you are as a person as it is how well you can find and heighten the game, or how well you audition.

P&C: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on the way you improvise?

BN: There’s a really great improviser in St. Louis, Andy Sloey. I remember watching a scene between him and another improviser, Kevin McKernan (here it goes… someone else’s improv story, ugh) in which one played a paramedic and the other a female by-stander. What struck me about this specific scene was that, despite their characters, they were just having a regular conversation I could see them having at the bar after the show. In that moment, I realized I could be myself and have a real conversation on stage, and that was way funnier than trying to be funny or think really hard about the game or whatever.

P&C: How has improv helped in other areas of your life?

BN: There are so many ways. I could go on forever. But I think most importantly, improv has given me the confidence to “yes and” my own ideas. To believe that my contributions are worthwhile and add value to the world. Without the confidence I gained from improv, I never would have started my blog or written my book.

P&C: What’s your favourite improv book?

BN: Truth In Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern. It was the first improv book I ever read, and I love how applicable it is to both improv and real life. Although I am excited to read TJ and Dave’s new book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life.

P&C: Do you have any plans for a follow-up? Say, Improv by the Numbers

BN: I would like to write a follow-up, but right now I have some other projects in the works, including a podcast that goes deeper into the themes I discuss on my blog: how improv can make you more creative, and how it can help you in real life. You’ll have to wait until next year for Improv by the Numbers or whatever book comes next. But in the meantime, if you want to check out more of my writing, sign up for I’m Making All This Up‘s weekly email. Every Monday morning, I’ll send you the latest from my blog for a little creative boost to start the work week.

Click to order your copy of Improv ABC. (Spoiler: “ABC” does not stand for “Always Be Clap-focusing”)

Ben Noble headshot

If you’ve just joined us recently, welcome! Below you’ll find some of our most-read topics to date, so pull up a bentwood chair and enjoy.

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

How-To Posts

Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv

Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv

How To Succeed At Anything by Being Yourself

Audition Tips From The Other Side Of The Table

How To Write A Kickass Performer Bio

Performance Anxiety: How To Dissolve Pre-show Nerves

Harold & Long-Form 

Openings: The Good, The Bad & The Funny

Somebody Edit This, Please

Enjoy The Silence: Improvising Without Dialogue Part One and Part Two

On Coaches, Chemistry, And Finding Your Dream Team

All By Myself: Solo Improv

How I Lost Interest In Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun

Great Guest Posts

12 Tips For Festival Organizers by Amy Shostak

12 Tips For Improvisers Attending Comedy Festivals by Matt Folliott

7 Tips For Surviving An Improv Jam by Laura Bailey

Now’s The Time To Know The New by David Razowsky

How Not To Get Sued (A Guide for Canadian Comedians) by Rob Norman

Never Give Up by Jimmy Carrane

Random Fun Stuff

Improv Explained In Venn Diagrams

What’s Your Improv Persona?

It’s An Improv Thing

When Improvisers Date

The Art of Comedy

Improv Forms That Don’t Exist (But Should)

When Ralph Met Becky

How Cameron Got Over His Anxiety (And So Can You!)

Web Series: Inside The Master Class

Stick This In Your Ear: The Improv Podcast Round-up

Video: How To Spot An Improviser


A blog post about blogging? Why the hell not?

St. Louis-based writer/improviser Ben Noble interviewed us recently for his improv blog, I’m Making All This Up. The result is exactly the mix of earnest (me) and funny (Cameron) you’d expect. Click here or below to read. Thanks, Ben!

Artwork © Nadine Prada

Artwork © Nadine Prada

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.

Matt& and Neil+1

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. 


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 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

Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z is the definitive guide to the Peabody-winning satire that rewrote the rules of comedy. We asked co-author and superfan Sharilyn Johnson for the truthiness, the whole truthiness, and nothing but the truthiness.

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

Cover Design © Kurt Firla

P&C: You’ve been covering comedy for 16 years, in print, radio, and with your blog, When did you first become aware of Stephen Colbert, and were you a fan from the start?

SJ: I was a loyal Daily Show viewer when Colbert was still there, but I wasn’t a fan of the correspondents. At the time, the field pieces still had a bit of the “weird news” angle, and I often didn’t feel good about their choice of targets. It felt like they were making fun of well-meaning people. I didn’t pay close attention to Colbert until I saw him on a Daily Show panel in 2005 at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. The energy and warmth he had in that context totally sold me. By the time the Report premiered that fall, I already had a sense of what was underneath the character, which made me appreciate the show more. Attending my first taping the following summer put me in overdrive.

P&C: Your book, Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z covers almost a decade. How has the show evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s been fascinating watching some of the old, lesser-known clips again. In the show’s initial eight weeks, in late 2005, the character was very heavy-handed. His voice was different. And he was a bit more of a jerk at the beginning, when the show was intended to directly mirror The O’Reilly Factor. It did find its stride quickly, though. Within the first year, the show started creating its own world, with its own rules, and the execution of the character loosened up. These days they really can do anything they want. They can think big, and Colbert is free to openly show the audience how much fun he’s having, both of which result in the show’s greatest moments.

P&C: TCR has a killer team of writers, including Stephen. How do you think his improv background has helped with his character and the show itself?

SJ: The majority of his writers have improv backgrounds. They typically work in teams of two to generate material, so collaboration is part of the process from the start. I think they use their improv brains to approach their writing the same way any improviser would. In any news story, they’d be looking for that “first unusual thing.” In the book, we talk a bit about the construction of The Word, and you could look at the verbal portion of that segment as an “If this, then what?” thought process.

As for Colbert himself, his interviews are perhaps the most obvious illustration of his improv skills at work. He has some prepared questions, but for the most part he’s reacting to the guest’s responses as his character. He’s also an incredible listener. Viewers might not realize that, because his character listens to nobody. That’s something we’ll see more overtly when he takes over the Late Show.

He’s sometimes talked about how at Second City, he learned to wear his character “as lightly as a cap.” I think his ability to show his humanity underneath the character has been an essential, if not the most essential, ingredient to the show’s longevity. Viewers would’ve gotten tired of “Stephen” if there wasn’t something else there to connect with.

P&C: When Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Tom Lehrer said that political satire was obsolete. Why do you think TCR (and TDS) are so popular?

SJ: Aside from being hilarious? It used to be just the politicians who told you what to believe and what to think. Now it’s “journalists” doing it. People have this overwhelming sense of wanting to call bullshit on everything that’s being fed to them, but don’t know where to start. I think Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver are doing that for us. (But mostly, it’s that they’re hilarious.)

P&C: The Colbert Report is so brilliant night after night, it’s hard to think of highlights. That said, what are some of your favourite segments or episodes?

SJ: There are some obvious ones. Walk up to any Colbert fan and utter the word “Munchma,” and watch them dissolve in giggles. The Super PAC stuff was brilliantly executed. The Daft Punk episode was incredible, even more so when you learn what happened leading up to it. The Wheat Thins “sponsortunity” was proof positive that sometimes the simplest idea is the best idea. An early 2006 episode that had both the Charlene video and Stephen’s Laws of Love was a great one-two punch.

As far as lesser-cited ones? There’s a segment from 2011 called “Close Sesame” where he incompetently does the “marshmallow test” on himself. It’s pure clown and just wonderfully, innocently dumb. He was clearly having a blast performing it, too.

The band Gorillaz, which is made up of animated characters, was on the show but “Stephen” refused to interview the real guys behind the characters. He stormed off the set and returned in his own street clothes to interview them as the mild-mannered “Steve Colbert,” which was a wonderful reality-bending meta moment.

For the medical segment Cheating Death, he introduced a fake medical product called Vaxa-Mime, and did a great little mime routine to go with it. I’ve heard he did killer object work as an improviser, which I would’ve loved to have seen.

And obviously, I’m partial to the 13 episodes that I saw live in the studio.

P&C: Was there anything you learned about Colbert while writing this book that you didn’t expect?

SJ: Is it egotistical of me to say “no”? There might’ve been if this was a celebrity biography, because I’m not really interested in his personal life and I just don’t retain that information. But I’m deeply interested in his work, as is my co-author [Remy Maisel], and that was our focus. I like to say that I’ve been researching this book for nine years. The hardest part about writing it was compiling the citations. Almost every little-known detail in it was something one or both of us had been carrying around in our noggins all this time, but we had to go back and find legitimate sources for them. It was almost like writing the book backwards.

P&C: A lot of TCR fans (ourselves included) are gutted at the loss of his character. While we understand the demands of the show, he did so much that transcends mere satire (the Super PAC, the White House Correspondents Dinner, his championing of Hachette authors, to name a few). What do you think the show’s legacy will be?

SJ: That’s hard to say. Many fans view this as the loss of a great political satirist. How political he’ll actually be at CBS remains to be seen, but even though the character will be gone, the point of view that informed the character will live on. Stephen will continue to view the world partially through that lens. He’ll just express that point of view in different ways. Plus, so many of his greatest bits on the Report are entirely apolitical. He could deliver a segment like Cheating Death in his own voice as a traditional talk show desk bit, and it would still work.

Something like the Super PAC, or his run for president, or even going back to the Green Screen Challenge — these are all games he’s played with his audience. He has a very unique relationship with viewers, and I think we’ll look back at that as something that couldn’t be recreated. The sense that we’re all in conspiracy with each other to create this world and propel these games forward.

I think the legacy of The Colbert Report will be determined largely by what the Late Show turns out to be. None of us have a clue what that is yet. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.

Bears & Balls is available now in paperback and Kindle editions. Click here to order.

Photo © Chantal Renee

Photo © Chantal Renee

Sharilyn Johnson has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat Magazine, has been called “the Wikileaks of comedy” by CBC Radio. Her comedy coverage has also appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Star, and she’s appeared on CBC Radio’s LOL and Definitely Not the Opera. 

Rob Norman is a pillar of the Toronto – make that Canadian – improv community. If you’ve seen him perform or taken a class, you’re a fan. We asked him about the serious subject of make-’em-ups on the eve of launching his new book, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide To Modern Improv.

Photo © Rob Norman

Photo © Rob Norman

P&C: You’re one of the busiest improvisers we know. You act on TV, do The Backline podcast with Adam Cawley, teach at Second City and Bad Dog Theatre, and perform with Mantown, Filthy, and other teams. How did you find time to write a book?

RN: Finding the time wasn’t a problem. As a comedian, you work nights, leaving your days free. I have some friends who spend that time going to the gym or taking acting classes. Instead I wrote a book. It took me seven years and my body looks disgusting when naked. But I wrote a book.

P&C: How did you get started in improv?

RN: I was part of a youth community theatre group producing musicals at this huge 500-seat theatre. As a side project, I offered to put together a small improv show. The Board (consisting of one 26-year-old and a bunch of teenagers) approved it. So I went out, found a copy of Truth In Comedy, and auditioned 16 people to be in the cast. I was in Grade 11 teaching longform that I had never seen or done myself.

I’m sure the improv was terrible. And I was a terrible teacher. But we did it for three years to sold-out crowds. I’ve been doing jobs that I’m unqualified to do ever since.

Fun fact: In that original troupe was Steve Hobbs (El Fantoma) and Joel Buxton (The Sketchersons). They both work as teachers at the Second City Training Centre now.

P&C: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?

RN: So much has changed! When I started Second City had gone bankrupt. The Bad Dog was struggling. The only company doing longform was collapsing. No audiences. No mentors.

Toronto improv is better now than it ever has been. Improv shows sell out. Consistently. Improvisers are booking TV and film, but sticking around to build the live comedy scene.

It’s the kind of comedy boom I dreamed of when I was first starting.

I used to get made fun of because I was so eager. I had read every improv book. I knew the Second City archives better than my teachers. I was a very special kind of improv nerd. There is an army of beginner improvisers mastering Game of the Scene, shortform and narrative structures early in their career. It’s a work ethic that makes my generation look uneducated and lazy.

P&C: Your book is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Modern Improv.” How do you define “modern”?

RN: I teach a lot of improv classes. And there are some lessons that I’ll look at and think, “I have never used this technique onstage. No one I know does this onstage. Why am I teaching it?”

Improv has changed so much since the 1980’s. Not only our own improv vocabulary, but also the expectations of our audience. You have to be faster. More direct. More revealing of yourself.

For me, modern improv is the techniques, tricks, and tips that improv professionals are using onstage right now. I don’t want to hear anecdotes of how improv used to be. I want to know what I can do tonight onstage.

P&C: Do you think it’s necessary to learn different styles of improv, or is it possible to fall in love with one approach and stick with it – even though you also perform outside your particular theatre?

RN: Modern improv is a mosaic. You are responsible for knowing all of it. Personally, I tackled each of them one at a time (I should say, I am tackling them…)

It’s not about forcing your style on a show. It’s about understanding the dominant energy of the room, and complementing that shared mental model.

P&C: Do you think it’s possible to unlearn bad habits (blocking, dropping offers, etc), especially if an improviser has been doing them for years?

RN: Sure! But I don’t believe in good improv/bad improv. There’s tons of improvisers bulldozing, blocking, dropping offers – AND getting paid for it. Really good players doing “bad moves” that audiences and other improvisers love. The difference for the experts is that these moves are choices. They come from a place of power.

Your desire to block, be negative, to avoid being affected by your scene partner, is a symptom of a more fundamental problem: your fear, panic, or issues with control. Don’t unlearn anything. Try something new. Find another path. Focus on doing something you’ve never done been before. Way better than using your psychic energy to avoid doing something you always do onstage.

P&C: What do you think separates good improvisers from great ones?

RN: Talent is an exceptional love of something. Some people LOVE being funny onstage. Others LOVE the act of improvising. I want to play with people who understand the craft, who cultivate technique, and get off on building something with someone else.

P&C: A lot of improv teams break up or dissolve within months. Very few last more than a couple of years. What’s the secret to long-running teams like Mantown?

RN: Friendship. Adam, Jason and I have been best friends for ten years. I didn’t know Bob Banks and Rob Baker incredibly well when we started working together. But over eight years you become incredibly close. Ending Mantown would be like ending a marriage.

P&C: In the States, a lot of students see improv as a means to get on Second City’s Main Stage, and ultimately, SNL. What about Canada? What do improvisers aspire to here?

RN: Yeah. There’s this idea that you if work hard as an improviser, you’ll get hired for Second City and then whisked away to star on Saturday Night Live. But it’s not true in Canada. And I think that’s increasingly less true in Chicago. Lots of my friends have finished Mainstage or starring on television shows, then gone back to working day jobs.

Your aspirations as a comedian in Canada should be simple: work in comedy. Build things. And then try to sell them. If no one is buying them, build them anyway.

P&C: Do you consider yourself an improviser, an actor, or both?

RN: Improviser. I could star in the best scripted show, and I wouldn’t be satisfied. We’d finished bows and I’d already be in a cab on my way to Comedy Bar. It’s a problem really…

Click here or on the image below to order from Amazon. It’s a must-have for any improviser’s library. 


In 2012, Sam Willard began photographing performers as part of an ongoing series called The Improvisors Project. Born out of his fascination with the talent and expressiveness of improv actors, we asked Sam about the project as he prepares to photograph the Chicago Improv Festival.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

P&C: You’ve been a professional photographer for 10 years, specializing in portraits. What is it about portraiture specifically that appeals to you?

SAM WILLARD: I started making photographs as an amateur long ago, and I was interested in a variety of subjects. But my eye always went toward people more than anything else. Faces are just so varied and interesting. I have always been a people-watcher, and am curious about what expression, posture, etc say about a person. Portrait photography is, in part, an excuse to look longer and more deeply at a person, to uncover more about what makes them tick. The work of accessing, understanding and capturing someone’s inner self through a portrait session is never boring or repetitive, and is always full of discovery. Kind of like improv.

P&C: You started taking improv classes in 2009. Has it influenced your photography, and if so, how?

SAM WILLARD: When I took my first improv class, I immediately recognized how the act of creating a portrait (and the skills involved in doing it well) are very similar to the act of creating a good improv scene. In both situations, you start with nothing, and have to find a relationship and a reason to connect. The skills I had developed as a photographer–support, engagement, listening–were incredibly useful to my improv scene work. And skills I picked up in improv have definitely helped my portrait work.

More than anything else, improv teaches you that you can find ways to connect with someone, no matter what the situation. In my regular client work, I often get portrait subjects who are distracted, or scared, or at least very self-conscious. Improv has given me tools to cut through their armor, build trust, focus, and create a portrait together that is honest and compelling.

P&C: You have to work quickly, typically spending about five minutes with each person. How do you connect with them in such a short time?

SAM WILLARD: Five minutes is indeed a short time to form a connection. But this is a perfect example of how improv has helped my photography. I performed improv for a long time, and every scene in every show was different; and I didn’t have 5 minutes to figure out an angle and go with it, at best I had 5 seconds! Any improvisor can relate to this.

One of the great things about photographing improvisors is that they are so receptive to a suggestion, and so willing to commit to an emotion, that it really isn’t difficult to make that quick connection, because they are used to doing it on stage. For example, if someone walks on to my set standing tall, chin up, with a slow, confident stride, I might initiate a mini-scene in which they are a general surveying the battlefield after a victory. If confidence and bravado are the emotion, I might play the role of an adoring corporal, eager to celebrate the general’s win and heighten his esteem.

The process of going from an initial hit–bravado–to a moment of peak emotion (and back to baseline again) can be quite fast. With energetic and open improvisors, I can sometimes go through this process of “hit, heighten & reset” several times in a short five minute session.

P&C: Improv attracts a very diverse range of people. After photographing so many different performers, are there any similarities that you see?

SAM WILLARD: As I mentioned earlier, I am attracted to portraiture because every person is different, never repetitive. This holds true with improvisors. However, the common thread is their openness. The average person out in the world has walls and defenses up. Social norms to evaluate. Rules to play by. Much of what we do in life is informed by what we cannot do. The amazing thing about improv is that those rules from out in the world are flipped. On stage, all things are possible, and everything you do and commit to will be embraced and supported by your fellow players. That incredible and precious trait of openness and supportiveness is what I see wherever I go to photograph improvisors.

P&C: You photographed members of The Committee at their 50th anniversary reunion. What was that like?

SAM WILLARD: Attending that event was a special privilege. There was so much talent in the room, many of whom I photographed. The best thing about the experience was seeing the strong bond between those artists. Many of them had not seen each other in years or even decades. But the love in the room was palpable. It reminded me of the great bond that improv creates between performers who play together.

P&C: You’ve got a busy schedule ahead of you. This year you’ll be attending CIF and the Detroit Improv Festival. Is there a difference in energy between shooting people at a festival versus in your studio?

SAM WILLARD: Yes, 2014 is going to be a busy year! I will be at the Chicago Improv Festival April 4-6, and the Detroit Improv Festival August 8-10. And some other photo shoots are in the works, as well.

Festivals are a great venue for making portraits for The Improvisors Project because energy is high and many talented people are gathered in one place. For simple logistical reasons, there are limits to who I can gather to my studio in Oakland, California. Festivals are also an excuse for me to get out and see more of what the wider improv world has to offer. This project has allowed me to meet and photograph so many great people who I would never have had the opportunity to know otherwise. I look forward to starting this year off in Chicago!

P&C: What’s more fun for you: watching the shows, or photographing the performers?

SAM WILLARD: When I am photographing improvisors, I am participating in an improv performance with them. As an improv performer myself, I would always choose to do improv over just watching; so I would have to choose photographing performers as my answer. The photo shoot is a unique experience, different than being on stage. But it is really great. I love it. And the 200+ people I have photographed so far all seem to love the experience too. It is a win-win.

P&C: You’re also attending Camp Improv Utopia. Can you tell us a little about the camp, and your involvement in it?

SAM WILLARD: I attended the first Camp Improv Utopia, a few years ago. The founder, Nick Armstrong, conceived of an improvisor’s paradise, with an old-school summer camp vibe. The camp attracts a diverse group, features great instructors and workshops, and the venue itself (on California’s Central Coast) is beautiful. This year will be my third trip to Camp, and my second year making portraits of improvisors there. It is the best possible environment for making good portraits–positive and creative energy, and people from all over the country.

P&C: You’re on twitter, instagram and facebook, and people can also follow your blog. What’s next on the agenda for the project?

SAM WILLARD: The best way to stay up-to-date on The Improvisors Project is to follow it on Facebook and Twitter. I post new images regularly, and announce details of upcoming photo shoots. I encourage anyone who is interested in participating to follow on social media, and reach out to me with an email if they want to be photographed. Everywhere I have traveled, I have met nothing but great people in the improv community, and I can’t wait to meet and photograph many more this year. And look for more photo shoots and a book in 2015!

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard


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