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Posts tagged David Pasquesi

For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch. 

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?

TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.

P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?

Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us, This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.

After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.

P&C: What can readers expect from the book?

TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.

Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise

P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?

David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.

TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.

P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?

David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.

TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.

P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?

David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.

TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.

P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?

David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.

TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.

P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?

TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to  be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.

P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?

David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.

P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?

David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.

TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.

P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?

TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.

David:  I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.

P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?

TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of

P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?

David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)

TJ:  I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.

P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?

David: Essential.

TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.

P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?

David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.

TJ: Absolutely.

P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?

David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.

TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?

Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:

• The Job of an Improviser

• Being a Good Stage Partner

• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)

• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)

• Fuck The Rules

• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement

• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal

• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble

• Taking the Next Little Step

• The People We Play

• Details and Specificity

TJ and Dave book

David Pasquesi is an actor/improviser and Second City alumnus. He’s both lauded and loved by everyone who’s anyone in the improv community, and is the Dave half of legendary improv duo, TJ and Dave. His film and television credits include Groundhog Day, Strangers With Candy, Angels and Demons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Veep.

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

For a living? I didn’t know it was even possible. First class was with Judy Morgan around 1981. And I loved it from the start. I had found something I enjoyed that was not illegal and that I was not terrible at.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

There are many people who have helped me immeasurably all along, but the single person? I would have to say Del Close. He is the person who I had the most contact with. He was a generous man with his knowledge and experience.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job in the umbrella of entertainment was stand up. I was the M.C. at The Chicago Comedy Showcase as I was studying improvisation with Del.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Both.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

Waiter.

Describe a typical day in your life.

Jesus. No typical day. Lately it’s been trying to run this fucking theater with TJ.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue improv for a living?  

If you are pursuing improvisation for the money…you are a fool. Do it because it isn’t a choice. You have to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe that’s your answer.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so difficult to get bums on seats at shows? (Or is it, in your experience?)

I think because it is viewed as something everyone can do, there isn’t a need for me to pay to come see you do something I can do, too. So why should I pay to see you do it? Also, there are so many shows there isn’t enough audience to go around.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest improv gig you’ve done?

Trying to do a Harold outdoors with no stage in the summer in a park on grass and dirt between stands of trees at Taste of Chicago as tourists ambled past on their way to ribs and cheesecake. And also, no one in the world knew what a Harold was.

Best for me is TJ and Dave, some highlights were doing TJ and Dave at Town hall in New York City. Also a European tour doing TJ and Dave. Factory, a TV show improvised with other guys from iO. Mitch Rouse’s show with me, Jay Leggett and Mike Coleman. All of us friends, we had a bunch of our friends come do stuff with us. And of course, the beginning with Del and just starting the Harold. That was very exciting.

Do you think it’s easier to make a living as an improviser today than it was when you were starting out?

God yes. There was no way to make money as an improviser. The only paying job was Second City. And that was not to improvise.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?  

I don’t.

“What do we do to prepare? Observing people and people’s idiosyncracies. We practice. We practice paying attention.” – David Pasquesi

TJ and Dave make improv look easy.

In theory it could be, maybe even should be. But as anyone who’s spent more than five minutes doing it knows, there’s a whole lot that can get in the way.

All those rules you learned (don’t ask questions, don’t talk about people who aren’t in the scene, don’t turn your back to the audience)?

TJ and Dave break them all, and they have a great time doing it.

There’s a reason these guys have attained cult-like status. Besides being masters of their craft, their style is unlike the fast-paced, frenetic improv most of us are used to. But their scenes, their characters, and the audience are all richer for it.

The set-up is deceptively simple: just two guys playing a handful of characters over 50 or so minutes. They don’t even get a suggestion from the audience.

It’s what they do in those 50-plus minutes that defies description. The stories they weave and the people they play are so funny, so utterly believable, it’s no wonder some folks think they planned it beforehand.

Filmed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, Trust Us… features one complete performance, plus a glimpse of the two pre- and post-show. Thanks to multiple cameras and skilful editing, Director Alex Karpovsky captures the essence of their relationship, both on and off-stage, beautifully.

Improv may not be easy, but TJ and Dave prove it can be hilarious, truthful and – that rarest of things in this ethereal art form – memorable. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing them in person, this is the next best thing. Trust me, you’ll be a fan.

You can buy the DVD here.


Photo © Sharilyn Johnson

Tom Vest has been improvising in Toronto since 1997. As one of the admins of the TJ & Dave fan page, he has been dubbed the “Official Overlord of the Electronic TJ & Dave Empire” by TJ. (www.facebook.com/tjandave)

I’ve been a fan of TJ & Dave for a few years now, and yet for the life of me I can’t remember when and how I first heard about them. It must’ve been around 2004 on the “yesAND…” forum boards. The discussion was probably something like “Best Improviser(s) in the City.”

In those days I was even more dedicated to unravelling the mystery of improv and all its secrets than I am now, so when I came across the comments on why they were so good, I was intrigued. It wasn’t long after that I went to their Myspace page (yes, 2004 seems about right) and purchased a few of their shows on DVD. They were everything people had said they were.

When they came to Toronto for a workshop and show, I was asked to pick them up at the airport. Some people thought I did it so I could ask them a bunch of improv questions, but the opposite was true. I picked them up so they wouldn’t have to talk about improv at all. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to travel to another city, only to get trapped in a car, answering questions about improv the whole way.

Instead, we talked about the details of what was right in front of us: the outdated decor of the waiting lounge, the parking lot and its confusing enter/exit lanes, various sights on the way in to Toronto. David admired the wind turbine at Exhibition Place and was very outgoing, while TJ was more quiet. They were both pretty laid back and fun to talk with.

When it was time for them to leave a few days later, I drove them back to the airport. This time the conversation went all over the place. It felt a bit like doing a three-person set, only no one was watching.

Last summer I performed with my group The Seedlings at the Del Close Marathon. On my last day in New York, I was walking down Fifth Avenue towards the Flat Iron when I spotted David about to enter a coffee shop. My mother and brother were with me, and they continued walking as I stepped over to say Hi. When I called his name he turned around and recognised me right away, to my relief. It’s always fun to run into people, but he seemed genuinely pleased to see me in a way you don’t encounter often.

We talked briefly before I mentioned I was on my way to the airport, and had come to the city with my mother and brother. Immediately David wanted to meet them, so we went over and I introduced everybody. We’d gone to see him perform with TJ the night before at the Barrow Street Theatre, and it was probably the best 50 minutes of improv I have ever seen. My mother and brother both liked it, and had fun talking about their favourite moments after the show.

Without doubt, David has a unique way of paying attention that makes you feel like you are really being listened to. It’s a really genuine way of relating to another person, and something that’s very rare. To take time to meet my mother and brother wasn’t something he had to do, but he has a way of making you feel like he has all the time in the world for you.

I came away from the encounter wanting to have that kind of “availabilty.” To be more open, genuine and considerate. It’s qualities like these that help to make a TJ and Dave show what it is, and I don’t think they could do it on stage if they weren’t like that in real life.

When they returned to Toronto for a show at Second City, they both spotted me in the line-up and came over to talk. After the show TJ invited me out with him and David, and we went to a local bar where we talked about a variety of things. For such funny guys, I really like how there is no “ON” button. The conversation may be funny, but nothing is ever forced and the easiest thing I found was just to “go with.” (TJ also paid for my 7Up before I even knew the bartender had asked. You’ve got to be alert with these guys!)

Before the night was over, we got a picture of the three of us, and while there may be a story behind it, that’s one I’ll keep to myself. : )

Tom James Vest

TJ, “TJ” and Dave

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