How do you make the leap from doing improv for laughs to launching a career? We asked some of the brightest lights in the improv community for their perspective. First up, Calgary native, Rebecca Northan.
When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?
My brother and I used to do commercial parodies in the living room for our parents. Tensions were high, we thought if we were funny we might save their marriage. No dice…but we did both become fairly OK improvisers. So. You know. Plus side to everything.
I had a more concrete notion in Junior High. We would do “skits” (such a terrible word). People wanted me to be in their group for assignments, so I guess I was bringing something to the table.
When I was 16 years old, I discovered the Loose Moose Theatre. It was the most amazing and magical place I had ever been. I never wanted to leave. I lived for Sunday night Theatresports. I met Keith Johnstone and mistook him for the caretaker; I was baffled by this odd Englishman in a parka. He changed my entire life.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?
Keith Johnstone. Loose Moose was his theatre, and everything I hold dear, and believe about improv and theatre stems from my exposure to Keith. At the time I was so young I had no idea who he was in the context of the international theatre community, or how he was a pioneer in improvisation. That may have worked in my favour. Dennis Cahill, who is the Artistic Director at Loose Moose for going on 35 years, is the second most profound influence. He was always easier to understand when I was a teenager. As a mature artist, he always offered me the most support and the best clarification when I have had questions about my improv practise.
Loose Moose does an International Improv School every summer. I highly recommend it!
What was your first paid improv-related job?
I was asked to do the All-Star Show at Loose Moose when I was 19. This was a very big deal to me. The notion that I might get paid to perform was a dream come true. Playing with improvisers 15 – 20 years my senior, players I looked up to and wanted to emulate, I felt unspeakably lucky. We were paid a cut of the door. There were many, many times when our take for the evening was better than a month of babysitting!
How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?
Derek Flores, who now lives and improvises in New Zealand, started at Loose Moose within a week of me. I think of him as my Improv Brother, and one of my dearest friends. When I have ideas for shows, I’m always thinking of Derek in a key role, even though we’ve lived in different countries for years now. He’s always been a touchstone. He’s also kicked my ass when I needed it. There are few people I trust as much on stage.
Patti Styles (former Loose Mooser, now based in Australia) is another serious influence. My Big Sister in improv. We can go for YEARS without seeing each other, then reconnect, and are on the same page.
I would say freely that the people who were my contemporaries at Loose Moose are my family. Even those company members who came before, and after; we have a certain something in common. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time around Keith – they feel like cousins. Rebecca Stockley (San Fran), William Hall (San Fran), Dan O’Connor (L.A). Veena Sood (Vancouver). Cousins. Family.
Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?
Improv at its best can be the most amazing live performance you might ever see. Staggering moments of spontaneous creation. Moving drama. Gut-busting comedy. What more do you need?
Improv at its worst will make you wish you’d been born without eyes and ears.
It can be a wonderful development tool, or an excellent team-building experience.
When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?
To be honest, I’m not a fan of the notion of “working improviser” if it implies that it’s your main point of focus. I prefer improvisers who are doing all kinds of other things, who have day jobs, or who work as actors. I believe that improv is made better when people have a rich life experience to draw from. Otherwise you risk disappearing up your own improv asshole and recycling experiences you’ve never personally had, but have seen on TV, or in the movies.
I realise this will not be a popular response.
I am interested in improvisation that explores human truths. I want to see moments of spontaneous theatre. I’m not keen on impromptu sketch comedy; certainly not as a regular diet. For variety, yes. But I challenge performers to go deeper.
If you’re a working improviser who is telling great stories, exploring narrative, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, exposing something about the human condition…and your audience is laughing not because you’re clever, but because they see themselves in something you do…then I will bow down and worship at your improv feet and bless you for being a “working improviser.”
I suppose you can also make some good money spreading the cult of “Yes, And” to corporate-type people. The philosophies behind good improv can most certainly make us all better human beings. If you can make money sharing that, I think you should go for it!
Describe a typical day in your life.
I don’t just work as an improviser. I work as a mainstream theatre actor, film and TV actor, director and producer, teacher, coach. I’ve created a few shows that I work on selling to theatres: improv/theatre hybrids that I refer to as “spontaneous theatre”: Blind Date has played off-Broadway and in London’s West End, as well touring Canada and parts of the US. Legend Has It, a fantasy adventure, is in extended development, as is An Undiscovered Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival of Canada.
So. Typical day: sleep in. Coffee. Internet. Emails. Gym. Auditions. Meals. I only improvise with a select group of people. I’m currently working to get a show off the ground in Toronto that showcases Loose Moose-trained improvisers.
A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?
There’s not a lot of glamour in improv. You’re going to make your best money doing corporate work. I believe you ought to have a minimum of 10 years experience under your belt before doing that kind of work. Corporate shows require decorum, professionalism, and an understanding of that world. Don’t quit your day job, basically.
You can expect to make $0 – $10,000 annually if you’re lucky. If you’re affiliated with a company who is already doing corporate work, and you get in there, you could stand to make much more. But my experience is that those jobs are few and far between until you are in a position to offer workshops to Senior Managers. That’s not something you’re going to have the chops for in your 20s.
Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows (or is it, in your experience)?
Honestly? Most improv shows are terrible. Gangs of improvisers, over- excited by doing a show, storming on to the stage with way too much energy, yelling, not listening, trying to out-joke each other, or worse: saying “yes” to ideas that no one is inspired by…it’s off-putting. The average ticket buyer has a multitude of options in terms of spending their money. What are you offering that’s special? If your improv show is the equivalent to sitting around at a party riffing with your hilarious friends, you’re better off hosting a party.
The best improv shows are people working to inspire each other in search of a spontaneous miracle. Those are very, very, very rare groups. I think Dan O’Connor’s group is doing that in Los Angeles with their “unscripted theatre.” They do long form, genre-based improv, and are extremely skilled actors with years of improv training. You’ll see solid work at BATS in San Francisco. The gang who produce Die-Nasty in Edmonton are fantastic.
If all you’re doing is spontaneous sketch…well, I can see that on YouTube and I don’t have to put pants on, or spend money to see it.
What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?
I showed up for an industrial that took place in a family’s living room on an acreage outside of Calgary. It was Grandpa’s 80th. We performed in our socked feet. We were also informed the sump-pump was broken and we weren’t to flush the toilet unless “necessary.”
There was also a corporate show where the audience was so drunk they threw butter at us. We called the show and walked out after our first scene.
Lessons in humility.
Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?
When I started 26 years ago, improv was a real Boys’ Club. I was given opportunities early on because I showed promise and there was a shortage of women. I got better faster by playing with more experienced improvisers. I am grateful for that. I was also often told, “We just need you to play Moms, or secretaries.” I nipped that in the bud by barging into every scene and asking if anyone needed coffee, or for me to take a memo? – regardless of the scenario.
I’m not entirely sure. Depending on where you are in the world, it feels like the improv scene is 20 years behind mainstream entertainment sometimes. I always feel like the women I see are better than their male contemporaries because, as in the corporate world, they have to be.
What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a woman, period? This is a huge question, far too large for me to answer here. It can be a bonus to be a rare commodity. It can be an exhausting drawback to feel like you’re fighting to be seen in an equal light.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Ugh. God. Still performing. Teaching more and more. This amazing, life- changing training was given to me for free, in exchange for ripping tickets and slinging popcorn. I feel a responsibility to pay it forward. It gives me pause that the concepts that Keith has been teaching for 40 years are still considered “radical” in so many ways, even in the improv community. I want to continue that kind of work, to inspire improv that means something, to challenge performers to be better human beings, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be changed, to tell stories that matter.
I had my biggest light-bulb moment in a Kundalini Yoga class. The instructor approached me, aware that this was my first class, to ask what my previous experience was. I told her I had done both Ashtanga Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. She smiled slightly and said, “So you’ve never done yoga.” I was taken aback by how exclusive that seemed. Then I realised the world of improv can be just like that. People will say, “I studied with So-and-so, the way I improvise is the ‘right way,’” or “the best way.” I am so guilty of that. Now I tell people, “I come from a particular school of improv, with a specific set of values. Some of those values may seem to be in direct conflict with things you’ve learned with other improv teachers. All I can ask is that you practise cynical benevolence, and just try what I’m suggesting. Then decide for yourself. Keep what works for you, throw out what doesn’t. Follow your bliss. Work to inspire your partners. If those around you are working to inspire you, and give you what you want, in theory, we’ll all be having a good time.”
Rebecca Northan is a professional Artist who acts, directs, writes, produces, educates and improvises. Her one-woman improv show, Blind Date, has toured across Canada, the US, and London, England. Rebecca continues to pioneer her brand of Spontaneous Theatre and is currently honing her latest show, Legend Has It. She is also developing an improvised Shakespeare project at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccanorthan Web: http://www.northan.com