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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

There’s a scene in 500 Days of Summer where we see a split screen of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character’s expectations, versus reality.

That’s how I felt the first year I produced The October 21st Greater Toronto Improv Festival.

For those who don’t know, the O21GTIF is a one-day festival. In other words, a show. A regular show. Except in my mind.

You wanna talk expectations?

I shit you not, I pictured (and believed) I’d need a velvet rope to control the crowds in the alley fighting to get in. I emailed the teams involved to warn them that they probably wouldn’t get seats to see the other teams perform. AND, and this is true, I fought with people at the venue because I wanted to knock down a wall to make more room for seating. I was, as they say, batshit crazy.

The show was stacked with amazing performers and more than anything I wanted the world to see them. I wanted the whole goddamn world to be there and experience the joy and love of improv and spread that love around the world.

The night of the event about 25 people showed up.

I was devastated. Where were the crowds? Where were the news cameras? Where were the ghosts of my grandparents proudly doing a slow clap? Where was the whole world?

To make matters worse, my team was the opening act. I struggled through the set with a broken heart and mind, handed over hosting duties to my teammate Isaac, and collapsed onto one of the many empty seats in the audience. Defeated.

Two things I learned that night:

1) It’s much worse in your mind than it actually is.

I remember going to the bar after, and the other performers were laughing and having a good time and talking about how fun the show was. Outside my devastated mind, a great show had happened. Wish I’d been there (mentally) to see it.

2) Know the difference between expectations and reality.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, and dreaming big. Just know that desperately wanting something to happen doesn’t guarantee it’ll happen. 500 “going” on facebook doesn’t quite translate to 500 actually showing up. Or 50.

This last year I took my own advice and went in with no expectations, and fucking loved it. So much fun. I was more relaxed and open to whatever, and enjoyed the shit out of it. And not surprisingly, when you’re not smacking of desperation for people to show up, more people show up.

I recommend everyone try and produce their own show at least once. You’ll grow as a performer, and as a person. And I guarantee you’ll appreciate producers a hell of a lot more.


There’s a theory in personal finance that says, “Your income is the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

It’s enough to strike fear in the hearts of actors everywhere.

If you’re not earning big bucks, the thinking goes, you need to seek out people who do and start spending time with them. (What they don’t say, is what to do if those five people are douchebags.)

Before you quit improv to become a commodities trader, there’s another concept that’s far more valuable in my opinion: the idea of “psychic income.” It involves all those things that you don’t get paid for, but which give something back to the world – and in so doing, fill your cup as well.

For most of us, improv pays little (if anything), but it’s off the charts in terms of psychic income.

Few things compare to the high you feel when you’ve finished a great set. The same goes for coaching or teaching. You may not be earning six figures, but where else can you experience the joy of watching grown men and women play “Big Booty”?

Citibank’s slogan used to be “Live richly.” (That was before the whole subprime mortgage meltdown. Then they changed it to “Citi never sleeps” – presumably because no one was sleeping after the subprime meltdown thing.)

If you want a rich life, it’s simple:

Surround yourself with people who enrich you.

People you admire or aspire to be like. People who are smarter than you, who broaden your understanding of the world. People who go out and make things happen, as opposed to just sitting around criticizing. People who make you laugh.

When I look at my favourite improv teams, they’re made up of friends who respect and support each other. They share what they have unreservedly, and celebrate each other’s successes.

That’s living richly.

Bonspiel! Theatre’s Ashley Botting, Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker & James Gangl spin comedy gold

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When you hear the word “artist,” what do you picture?

(a) That Picasso guy

(b) That Van Gogh guy

(c) Turtlenecked hipsters who say “juxtapose” and “deconstructed” while stroking their Llewyn Davis beards

It’s time for a new definition.

I don’t care if you’re a barista, a broker, or a shoe salesman. I couldn’t care less if you haven’t picked up a paintbrush since 1992. I don’t give a shit if the last time you did something creative was when Mr Beresford gave you a D minus in pottery.

What you do in your day job is not who you are, even if you work in a so-called “creative” field. Also, fuck Mr Beresford.

Being an artist doesn’t require paint or clay or a stage. It’s not about the medium you choose, it’s about using your ability to create, and using it daily.

That last part is key. Because while you’re an artist, the chances are very good that you’re blocked. Most of us are. We spend hours, weeks, months, years working on other people’s ideas, but somehow we never seem to find the time for our own.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron will unblock you.

It’s a 12-week course in recovering creativity. You’ll learn how to silence your inner critic, make new discoveries as you heal old wounds, and find the joy in making space for art in your everyday life.

As a kid, I loved to draw, write stories, play the piano, and make my own “TV shows.” I did these things every day as far back as I can remember. But when I started working in advertising, I stopped making art for myself.

After 20 years of squeezing what creativity I could into ads for cars and banks and cleaning products, two things helped me find my own voice again: learning to improvise, and The Artist’s Way.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

If you feel like you’ve lost your sense of play…

If you yearn to make short films or decorate cakes or write your own comics or make things from popsicle sticks…

If it’s been so long since you did something creative, not for money or someone’s approval, but just for the fun of it, you need The Artist’s Way.

Just as important, the world needs your art.

P.S. I bought the watercolour set above four years ago. The colours made me smile, so pretty in their little trays. But when I got home, I got scared. What if I tried to make something and it SUCKED? So I put it in storage and promptly forgot about it. Within two weeks of starting The Artist’s Way, I got over my fear, as you can see.

A special thank you to Shari Hollett for introducing me to it.

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Improv attracts some very smart, very funny people, each with their own unique style. You can learn a lot just by studying how your fellow improvisers perform. Here are some of our faves:

The Chameleon

Most of us have a go-to on stage; some back-pocket character we can pull out if we start to panic.

Not Matt Folliott.

He’s equally comfortable being low or high status, male or female, hyperbolic or grounded and real. What’s more, Matt’s talent for accents is nothing short of astonishing. He does Southern, New York, Jamaican, Italian, Liverpudlian, German, Australian, Spanish, and dozens more so flawlessly, you’d swear he was born there.

The Magician

Kurt Smeaton finds something playful in everything, no matter how small or mundane. His ability to turn straightforward scenes into something Spielberg-ian is awe inspiring:

• He once played an entire village of people running from an exploding volcano. One character saved the day by stopping the lava with his bare hands, then rolling it up like a rug.

• His motorcycles sound like horses. He once rode one into a scene, kicked it and gave a “Yaarrr!” to send the bike on its way.

• After initiating with “The end of the world is nigh!” he mimed handing things out to passersby. What would have been flyers in someone else’s hands became “Frisbees! Get your end-of-the-world Frisbees here!”

The Shapeshifter

Mark Meer is the king of transformation. Watching him perform The Harold of Galactus is a master class in character and physicality.

His characters are always strongly defined; once he establishes them, they’re instantly recognizable later on. In one swift motion he transforms from a stiff-spined butler, to a hunchbacked gnome, to a drug-addled lunatic and back again.

The Clown

Jet Eveleth, Becky Johnson and Isaac Kessler all have strong elements of clown in their playing style.

There’s a fluidity, vulnerability, and openness to whatever is happening on stage that characterizes their performance. Nothing is off limits, no move is too risky. (That’s him as a ribbon-twirling gymnast in the photo.)

The Imp 

Sarah Hillier has a childlike, mischievous quality that makes every scene sparkle. Her playfulness is infectious: she has an ability to make scene partners corpse like no one we’ve seen.

If you’re the kind of improviser who likes rules and order, beware. The only thing predictable about Sarah’s performance is that it’ll be wicked funny. (Click here for a glimpse of her as Arya Stark.)

The Wild Card

The Wild Card comes out of nowhere and fucks with reality. Andy Daly, Rob Baker, Devon Hyland, and Cameron are all Wild Card players.

On his improvised podcast, Andy Daly and Matt Gourley played water-skiers, with Andy standing on Gourley’s shoulder to form the top of a human pyramid.

“I got your foot tattooed on my shoulder!” said Matt.

Without missing a beat, Andy replied, “Yeah, I had no idea you were gonna get that till I saw you.”

With one small move, he shifted time and smashed preconceptions. Suddenly Gourley’s character had to justify getting a foot tattooed on his shoulder before Andy’s character stood on it, which is hilarious. When the world you thought you were seeing is turned upside down, you’re watching a Wild Card.

The Everyman

Some performers stand out for their ability to blend in. While everyone else is larger-than-life, the Everyman quietly plays in the spaces between, often the scene’s voice of reason.

That doesn’t mean the Everyman is boring. Far from it. Because he (or she) plays so many roles with ease, they can do weird stuff like this and be totally believable.

Jim Annan, Jameson Kraemer, James Gangl and TJ Jagodowski are all superb Everyman performers.

The Kraken

We had to make a category for this rare, sometimes terrifying improviser. Jason Mantzoukas is one. So is Alex Tindal.

The Kraken is fearless, owning the stage the moment they set foot on it. Like the Clown, they don’t flinch from what’s happening, but rather, turn it up to eleven.

We witnessed Mantzoukas play a psychopath at the Friars Club Improv & Sketch Competition. His character took Ed Herbstman’s hostage, raped him (in real time), then shot an audience member in the head. If that doesn’t sound funny, it wasn’t. But it was electrifying, honest, and completely unforgettable.


The intent isn’t to mimic your favourite performers, but to find ways you can bring as much commitment and passion as they do to every set.