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“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien

That quote pretty much sums up Ken Hall. He’s done improv and sketch across North America, performed as a clown with Cirque du Soleil, teaches improv and presentation skills at Second City, and plays an alien on the Conan-produced comedy, People of Earth. We spoke to him about the long and winding road to get here.

P&C: How did you get into improv?

KH: It was probably about 12 years ago. I’d never done drama or any acting or anything like that–

P&C: You didn’t go to theatre school?

KH: Oh no, good lord no, I barely got through high school. (laughs) I took the Social Service Worker program at Centennial College, and so the idea of performing was never on my radar. And the biggest thing too, was I so shy, I was such an introverted, scared person, fearful of so many things and so the idea of putting myself out there was really unheard of.

And then in my late 20s, I was doing creative writing night school classes, and for the first time in my life I was like, wow, I had no idea that I was actually a creative person. It was interesting because there was a lot of resistance to go in to class. I was like, “I don’t wanna go to class. I wanna play Vice City and stay home.” But I found that once I would go there and actually start writing, something took over and it was thrilling and exhilarating and I couldn’t stop.

I did that for two years and wanted to keep writing, but I wanted to do something else. I was going through the course calendar, and literally the night before registration was going to end I landed on the theatre page. I saw Beginner’s Drama, and at the bottom of the page it had the harlequin mask, the happy face/sad face, and I read the description and just had this weird sensation, this weird feeling of like, “Do it. Just do it.”

I still remember, I know where I was, where I was filling it out, and it was like an out-of-body experience. I did it on a whim, and this was very unlike me. There was a big part of me that was like, “What are you doing? You’re not this person.” Almost like “Stop what you’re doing. Stay here in the safety of your apartment with your video games,” and that world. But I signed up.

I didn’t tell anyone until about halfway through the course, when I told my best friend. He said “Great, man. You should’ve been doing that years ago.”

That very first class, we were doing exercises like, “Be an animal and go around the room,” and it was just so much fun. I loved it. When I [went] for the intermediate class not enough people signed up, so it got cancelled. But at that point I thought, I have to keep doing this. Someone in my class said, “You’re pretty good, man. You should go to Second City.” And for me Second City was John Candy, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, all these wonderful people that I grew up watching on SCTV, and I’m like, all right, slow down, I’m just starting. But I realised it was something I had been missing so much in my life. The idea of playing, being creative, and feeling connected with other people.

For many years I was very much adrift… My whole life, actually, I’ve never felt that I had a place in the world. I always felt, because I look physically different, and I just always felt different to everyone, I never felt like I fit in, and the world never really made a lot of sense to me. So this was something for the first time in my life where I found a community that was so supportive and encouraging and affirming.

The beautiful thing about improv is that it really affirms you, as a person. And even if the end result is that you don’t remain in improv, if you’ve had a taste, it still has the possibility to transform and change you. We know people in the Toronto community that have sampled some improv and they actually changed as people. It’s a really remarkable thing.

So I signed up for a Level A class at Second City, terrified, scared, happy that they had carpets because I felt like I was going to pass out! (laughs) The lights were so bright, it felt like a dream.

I still look back at those classes, and I know that they were fun, but I also remember them as just being a blur, almost like running through a burning building, just trying to get through it! (laughs) But I loved it at the same time. And I knew very early on that this was the very thing I needed in my life.

I went through A through E and took a few specialty classes, and then was encouraged to audition for the Conservatory program. I was going to school at George Brown and again, was like, “I’ll do this,” and that’s where I met Isaac [Kessler], my comedy partner.

My experience is interesting in the sense that, I relate it to my background in career and employment counseling: it’s about connecting with more things that you love in your life.

You don’t know what that end goal or result is gonna be, but if you just fill your life with more things that excite you, inspire you, that you click with creatively, then the probability of something good coming from that just increases.

There’s never any guarantees with any of this stuff of course, but I just feel like that’s the nature of improv: you’re just open, and it changed how I lived, it changed how I looked at the world, how I interact with people. This person who was incredibly shy and anxious and scared of the world is now…it’s the most remarkable transformation, it’s day and night.

And I don’t think that I’m so special in that sense, because we know the power that improv can have, and just the philosophies of “yes, and,” being open. My default used to be saying “no” to things, and being very resistant to change and trying things.

P&C: I think that’s the human default. (laughs) Cameron’s much better at saying “yes” because he lives it and practises it teaching improv. He’ll say “Do you wanna do blah-blah?” and my first instinct is “Nope!” (laughs) But I do have more self-awareness now. I think it’s something you keep applying to your life.

So, when did you first know that you wanted to do this for a living? When did it stop being a hobby?

KH: It was probably about eight years ago. I was working at an employment agency. It was a full-time job, 9 to 5, and an opportunity came up to take a one-week vacation. At that same time [I was] doing Cage Match on a team called What Would Jesus Do? and I was the only one who showed up in costume.

P&C: What was your costume?

KH: We were supposed to dress up in religious clothes. I went to Malabar’s [and] rented robes and a rope belt and a beard and dressed as Jesus. When I [got to the show] no one else was in costume. I was like, “I don’t wanna be the only one wearing a costume!” but they said “Can you please wear that?”

We did well, we started winning, and one week I went to New York City for the first time in my life. I saw UCB had a 101 intensive, and thought “Great, I’m gonna do that.” The intensive was Monday through Friday, but we had Wednesday off, and that was the night of Cage Match in Toronto. So I flew back to do the show, which we won, thankfully. (laughs) I flew back the next morning to finish the intensive and it was that moment where I realised, this is more than just a hobby.

As far as pursuing it as a career, I don’t know. While I was still working in employment counselling, an improv guy got in touch and said “Hey man, there’s this show that’s looking for improvisers.” So I got in touch with the Casting Directors for a show called Freak Encounters. It’s very similar to Scare Tactics, where you dress up like a monster and you scare friends or family members that are being pranked.

I started doing these gigs and it was like, “This great, I’m doing TV!” So fun. And then one of the Casting Directors reached out to me to say an agent is looking to expand her roster, she’s looking for someone with your skill set and size, and so she connected us, and she’s been my agent ever since.

Again, just the idea of being open and saying yes to opportunities, it’s just the nature of improv. You do a show with people and it’s a very close-knit community, and so when people [say] “I love your stuff, do you wanna do a show?” you say yes. And so for me it’s felt like a natural transition. It was never “I have to do this as a career,” it just slowly evolved into it. I went from full-time down to a part-time employment counselling, and it really allowed for that to take off. And now I don’t do any career counselling, just acting, comedy, teaching.

P&C: How long did it take before you felt, not just “I like this” but “I’m good at this”?

KH: It was when I was doing A through E. But I also feel like that was a big part of my ego. I was like, “Oh man, I’m great at this.” I still was very “wild stallion.” It wasn’t grounded, it was so, like, throwing paint up against the wall. It felt very manic, very uncontrolled.

That’s part of my own evolution, is trying to minimize my ego and calling myself out. That was a really awesome moment for me, because I got to realise I really don’t know anything. And it was very liberating in that sense. Not that I carried around this big head, but inside I felt like my capabilities were much further than where they actually were. And so that was a tough learning part, but it was so great. And now I just approach it like, “What do I know?”

I’ve done so many workshops with [David] Razowsky and Jet Eveleth and [others], and I love learning. I don’t want to come to a point where I’m like, “I’m a master at this.”                                             

The lovely thing about improv is that it keeps you humble. I did a show many years ago, it was a duo fest and my partner didn’t show that night, they ended up working. So I went into it knowing I had to do a 12-minute solo set. I got a standing ovation and thought, “Wow, I’m really good at this.” And the very next night I did a show at Bad Dog and it was terrible, it was awful. (laughs)

P&C: In addition to improv, you’ve studied clown. What effect has that had on your performance?

KH: [I studied with] Phillipe Gaulier. Isaac had trained with him. Isaac’s always been the pioneer, he’s always been the one to do all these classes and then [say], “Wow, you’ve gotta do this.” So I had the chance and it was expensive, but I decided this is such a great opportunity. I spoke to one person who said she’d taken his Bouffon workshop to help her get over her fear of authority.

Clown, [like] improv, has a lot of personal transformative effects. So that’s the stuff that I’m really excited about, because it’s terrifying! Stepping out there with no script to make the audience laugh, but you don’t know what is going to make the audience laugh. And what you think will make the audience laugh, doesn’t make them laugh. It’s exhiliarating.

I trained with Paola Coletto, who’s based in L.A., and Francine Cote in Montreal, one of the absolute best clown teachers.

Me and Isaac had already been doing clownish things without even being aware of it. Our director for 2-MAN NO-SHOW was Mark Andrada, who’s got such a huge clown background. But we just saw him and liked that he likes breaking rules and convention, which is very clown-slash-Bouffon.

We were doing it and people [said], “We love the Vaudeville aspect.” I’m small, he’s big, I guess there’s that aspect. Mark Andrada [said] “Guys, it’s a sloppy show.” But that’s part of our charm. We’re not looking for technical precision, we’re looking for fun.

Photo © Alaine Hutton

Photo © Alaine Hutton

For me clown has been so transformative personally, but also bringing it back into improv, I began to look at improv scenes in a different way, and looking to add an element of mischief and to mess things up. It’s just fun for me to do that, and to be aware of what’s working with the audience and kind of check in with them. They’re sitting there, I don’t have to pretend there’s a fourth wall there, let’s bring ‘em in, let’s include them in the environment.

P&C: Let’s talk about influences. Who are your improv or comedy heroes?

KH: Robin Williams was someone I really admired growing up. For me he kind of represents all the things that I would love to be: a great actor, funny, manic… I loved that energy and the fact that he was so fast and so quick, and I feel like he had a big heart as well.

John Ritter was one of my heroes, too. His physical comedy is exceptional; he was super talented. I remember emulating that kind of behaviour when I was in school, joking around.

I think of Isaac, who is, in terms of physical comedy, probably one of the absolute best that I’ve ever seen. And the amount of characters and playfulness, and the ability that we’re able to connect and trust each other and go all the ridiculous places that we do…

I remember quite a few times being on stage and Isaac just left the venue. He’ll go through the back, through the parking lot, and come in through the front. And it’s all good, it’s great. He’s such a great comedy mind and he can make anything funny, and anything playful, and I love that spirit and I’m very drawn to that.

Rob Baker has a similar energy. Rob is an absolute joy to play with. Again, it’s this unbridled, almost an unending well of exuberant playfulness. And for a big part of my life I didn’t really have that, so I feel like now I get to play.

Jan Caruana, Kayla Lorette and Becky Johnson, Kurt Smeaton, Carmine Lucarelli…it’s such an infinite list of people. Then there’s people I haven’t necessarily seen a lot of, but I really admire their work, like David Razowsky, TJ and Dave, all the guys from Cook County Social Club.

I love the S&P style, it’s just fun, and like, [if] anything happens, it’s just jumped on. Everyone’s so happy to play that idea, there’s no self-consciousness. That’s something I really struggled with in my life, and it’s such a freeing experience to watch a team do that. With me and Isaac, I think the less time I spend in my head, the better. The more time I spend in my body or in the moment, then I’m on the right track.

P&C: What is the best, worst, or weirdest improv set you’ve done?

KH: One of the best: two years ago for Big City Improv Festival, Isaac came back from L.A. We did a show where we started out, we’re sitting on chairs. I was the father, he was the son, we’re waiting to see the Principal. Isaac had done something wrong, and in the first minute he said something kind of belligerent and I backhanded him. So of course Isaac went flying off the chair, really selling that moment, and he just lay there. And he didn’t move for the whole set.

I didn’t react either, I just kind of sat in that. I mimed getting on my phone, eating trail mix, and the audience was killing themselves laughing, and it was just such a lovely moment.

We’d often done sets where we said, “Oh, wouldn’t it have been great if you’d just done this the whole entire time?” This was exactly how it was supposed to go down, where he literally lay on the ground for 15 minutes.

P&C: So it was a completely silent monoscene?

KH: Yeah, from there on in. But all the things I was doing, all the expressions were from clown-based stuff, with the audience laughing at the absurdity of it all, and then I started laughing because it was just so absurd I couldn’t believe what was happening. That was absolutely one of the most fun and funniest sets that I’ve done.

In terms of worst, I did a corporate show out east. We had these mics that kept falling off, and it was at the end of the day, and no was interested. It was a room full of 200 people and they couldn’t care less. Once the side talking starts happening, it’s like… But they’re not there to see us, they’re there to see other people and drink and have fun.

P&C: What advice do you have for someone starting, or who wants to make improv a career?

KH: It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always said to people starting out, just have fun. That’s such a big part that I think people can’t miss. The other thing too is, trust the process. If you want to make improv your career, it will happen, because that’s just the nature of it [if] you go through training and you put in time.

It’s like a gym. You can’t expect to be the best there is in a short period of time.

It’s the repetition of continually doing shows and classes, without that sense of entitlement, and you’re going to get asked to do more shows. You’re going to have the opportunity to do more classes, you’re going to have the opportunity to coach teams, and then you’ll have the opportunity to teach. That’s just a natural evolution, depending on where you are.

If you live in Chicago, Toronto, you have an opportunity to perhaps work at Second City, to perform, and maybe there’s Comedy Sports or things like that. Performing and getting paid for it, that’s a rarity, but you can still be connected in that field, teaching, coaching, and trust that that will happen. But you have to put in that time. It’s a lot of hard work.

Always remember why you’re doing this in the first place: it’s because it’s fun. If it’s like an end goal, fine, I guess, but I don’t know if that’s going to work necessarily. Not just with improv, but with anything, it has to mean something to you and it has to be fun, otherwise why are you doing it?

There’s going to be ups and downs. You can have a bad show but still be like “But there’s going to be another one.” As long as you can say I still enjoy it, I love the community, I love putting myself out there. For me, I feel there’s going to be a lot more yeses than there are nos, but if there are some nos, that’s fine too. Look at those things and say, OK, if it isn’t improv, what is it that you’re really interested in? What excites you, what are you passionate about, what are your values?

I remember Mick Napier talking about the [Second City] generals, and seeing so many players who don’t do great because they take it so seriously, like, “Aaaargh, I’ve gotta get hired!” And he said, man, if they’d just let go and have fun and breathe into it… So I’d say just remember that, and trust in the process, and that good things are gonna happen.

P&C: Speaking of which… For people who don’t know you, you’re on People of Earth. It might seem like you’re this overnight sensation, when you’ve been working towards this for more than 12 years. How did the role come about?

KH: I went for an audition. About two weeks before, for the first time in my life I started working with an acting coach. So much of life is very serendipitous, and again being open to opportunities and saying yes to things.

There was a general audition for Storefront Theatre where I had to learn a monologue. I was teaching clown at a place that offered a variety of things, like Shakespeare, voice over, on-camera techniques. The teacher, Michael Gordin Shore, said “Hey man, when are we going to work together?” He kept asking and I was like, I don’t know. But he said if you want, sit in on my class. So I did, and I realized oh, this is great.

P&C: And he became your acting coach?

KH: Yes. Not too long after the Storefront audition came up. And then a week or two after that the audition for People of Earth came. And I put in so much work, and I realized, wow, I’ve been going into a lot of auditions relying too much on improv, not being 100% on my lines. So this time when I went in I was so on-book and so focused and so confident, not like ego, but in terms of, I know I’ve done the preparation so therefore I can play.

I got a call back and Greg Daniels was there, the creator, David Jenkins was there. We did the scripted portion and then they were like, “OK, we’re going to give you some premises and we’re just going to improvise some stuff.” And I was like, all right, let’s do this! So again, it was about being open, being in the right place at the right time, putting the work in and showing up prepared.

Not too long after that I found out I got it. We shot it, and we found out new year’s eve that it was picked up to become a series.

It was so thrilling. It was the best experience that I’ve had so far, just the people I get to work with and the amount of comedy talent on that show, and the writers and the directors. It’s a dream come true.

P&C: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Or where would you like to see yourself 10 years from now?

KH: Happy and healthy.

P&C: What?! (laughs) With a gold statue of you as a fountain on the front lawn of your L.A. mansion.

KH: (laughs) I love the surprises. I’m already on my way, wherever this is going to go. It’s like, great, let’s find out what happens.

Photo © Ken Hall

Photo © Ken Hall

David Shore is an alumnus of The Second City Mainstage and iO West. A 13-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee and two-time winner, he is the founder of Monkey Toast. In 2010 he relocated to the UK and is now Artistic Director of Monkey Toast UK, where he oversees both its improv school and shows.

David Shore & Monkey Toast Cast

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

I don’t know that it was ever a conscious decision. It’s more something that just happened and I think a lot of people in my age range came about it this way. I wanted to write sitcoms and got into acting in a backwards way. I fell in love with long form the first time I saw Bitter Noah at the newly opened IO West. I never thought I could earn a living at this or the direction that it would take my life in. I just knew that I had to try it.

What were you doing before this?

I am overly educated. I have a BA and a BAA. The second degree is from RTA at Ryerson. I wanted to be a TV writer/producer.  That’s what took me down to LA and that’s where I discovered long form. As jobs I’d worked at a custom B&W photo lab, was the receptionist at a gay synagogue, and also worked as a headshot photographer. But I was trying, with minimal effort, to be a sitcom writer.

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

That’s really hard to say.  I’ve learned so much and have been shaped by my improv teachers and cast mates. Scot Robinson’s class at the IO West in LA had a profound affect on me. He’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever had. He doesn’t get enough credit. He’s one of the founders of The Annoyance. Shulie Cowen, my former coach taught me a ton and so did Jenna Jolovich, who taught me how to act while eating after a show at Canter’s Deli. Also, Paul Valencourt, who was in Bitter Noah and opened up the IO West and was my first teacher there. He was and is amazing.

There was one event that changed everything about the way that I play and the way that I teach was taking Alan Arkin’s workshop in Toronto at the Second City. He worked directly with Spolin and literally changed my life (and I know many others who took the course that felt the same way).

I still quote him to this day to all of my students and do some of the exercises that he did with us. Most importantly, he taught me that a character doesn’t need to change and in many cases, must not. I did a scene with Albert Howell, and Arkin told me to pick an emotion and play it. I was a baker in a bakery, and I chose happy. So when Albert came in, I was very happy. Then he said, “I’ve just seen Cynthia,” and I heard something in his tone, so I suddenly became sad. It was a good scene but at the end, Arkin asked me, “What was your emotional choice at the top of the scene?” I told him that I was happy. He then asked, why I changed. I told him because of Albert’s offer. He had us do the scene again, and told me, “This time, not matter what, stay happy.”  The scene worked on a completely different level. It was a real eureka moment.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

Well when I came back from LA to Toronto, I did a run of the One-Man Harold at the Tim Sims Playhouse and actually made some good money off of that. But I suppose it really would have to be when I was hired to join the Second City Mainstage.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

I guess I already answered this question. If you don’t learn from the people that you’re playing with, then there’s something wrong with you or you’re simply not learning. I was lucky that I got to play with these amazing Chicago alumni rather quickly out in LA.  That gave me the confidence that I could play. But the people on my Harold teams were tremendous influences on me. I had a core of about 3-4 people that I played with regularly for three years in LA, and it was just so supportive and fun and really cutting edge for the time.

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

I think most people get into it to do something else, like writing or acting. I did it because I had writer’s block and I wanted to meet people and form a sketch troupe. But once I got into Chicago-style, I wasn’t so concerned with writing anymore. For me it is an end onto itself, but it has certainly made me a better writer (or at least I think so). It’s also one of the most social things that you can do. I made and still have great friends out in LA, and made a ton of new friends in Toronto when I returned (I was not part of the scene before I left). Now almost all of my friends in London are through improv. Because you’re onstage with people with nothing but “yes, and” and trust, you bond much quicker and form deeper friendships.

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

To me that’s someone who earns most if not all of their living via improv. I think the majority do it through teaching and corporate work. While corporate work pays more, it is much less rewarding. I think there are very few who can earn a living by just performing improv. In Canada, I don’t know if anyone outside of Colin Mochrie, and the Second City Mainstage cast who earn a living from just performing improv. Certainly lots of people act and write.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t really have a typical day, and I suppose that’s typical. I teach a few nights a week and do a double on one day of the weekend. If it’s the weekend, I’ll drag my ass out of bed, eat, shower and make a sandwich before heading off into central London to teach. I’ll teach for six hours straight, and then most likely have a drink with the final class once it’s over. I may got out to eat, or meet my wife somewhere, but most likely I’ll head home and have dinner with my wife and spend some time with her.

During the week, I will get up and do whatever is on my to-do list. Depending on what time of year it is I may have a ton of admin to do as I run my own improv school. So I may have 4-6 hours of admin to do on any day (we’re looking for ways to streamline this). Right now, I don’t have much admin, so I might go run errands, work on promoting the upcoming show, book guests for future shows and then I’ll head off to work in central London. After class, I will sometimes stay for a drink and if not, I’ll head home and will relax a bit with my wife before going to bed.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I really don’t know what the salary range is in London. I know that I earn almost all of my income from teaching and running classes. I always tell people that if they’re getting into this to be rich, then do something else. There are far easier ways to make money.

What are the differences (if any) between improv in the UK and North America?

There’s a tremendous amount of talent here and work ethic is impressive. Performance-wise, some of the biggest differences are the lack of the “where” when doing a scene, and the Brits’ tendency to try and be clever. There is also a false belief that audiences in North America are better educated in improv, but I don’t feel that’s true. I think improv is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated art forms pretty much everywhere.

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 there are lots of reasons for this. First off, in North America you need a machine behind you to put bums in seats because people just don’t go out as much. The Second City has people whose full time job it is to sell tickets. That makes a big difference.  Also, for whatever reason, if people see a bad improv show, they think all improv is bad. They don’t feel that way about stand-up or sketch.

Also, there’s a big problem with the way that groups promote themselves. How many groups promote themselves as being amazing or some of the best, when really they’re not very good or they suck? Yes, suck. Are you really pros? There is a difference, and unfortunately only people in the local improv community know the difference.

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

The worst was easily when the Signa Nu fraternity bought out the Second City for their international convention. Playing before 400 frat boys was the worst experience that I’ve ever had. Maybe that only qualifies for sketch. Doing improv in a tent in North Hollywood was pretty weird. They had this beautiful theatre where we thought we were going to perform, but someone thought it would be great to put improv outdoors, near the music tent. They even promoted the should as a children’s show, which it was not.  My coach was furious, and at one point jumped into a scene and started shooting people. I have a vivid memory of a mother grabbing her young son and quickly taking him out of the tent.

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

I think that it probably is as there’s more people doing it so there’s more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Healthy, happy and still teaching but doing more Radio and TV as well.

David Shore & son Cale

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.

Susan Messing is fucking awesome. When we asked for a bio, she wrote: “Susan Messing has been an improviser and comedian for almost 30 years. So far so good, as no one has kicked her offstage. Yet.”

Photo © Brian McConkey

Photo © Brian McConkey

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

I have always wanted to be an actor, a swimming coach, or a hockey goalie. After college, discovered improv and was hooked, especially because I wouldn’t have to memorize anything.

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

I would say that Mick Napier had the greatest influence on the kind of comedy that pleases me as he was someone who was doing it. That said, there have been a myriad of people whose work I have admired: Lucy, Gilda, Dick Gregory…

What was your first paid improv-related job?

My first paid job was kind of improvised. I was hired for a murder mystery at the Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois. I was the ‘killer’ but had to pretend all weekend that I was someone who would actually pay money to spend a weekend at The Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois to do a murder mystery. Mostly lying as myself.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Everyone I have ever met has seeped into the core of my consciousness and shaped who I am.

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

Improv is both for me.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “working improviser”?

When I hear the words ‘working improviser,’ that sounds like it is describing my life, teaching and performing here in the States and abroad. That said, improvisers can become copywriters, astronauts, and corporate trainers. This question makes me want to slap someone.

Describe a typical day in your life.

A typical day in my life involves keeping my child alive. I teach either at iO, The Annoyance, or The Second City, and three nights a week perform in one of those theaters. I manage to see my husband and tell him he’s brilliant, because he is. We have dumb animals that I keep alive too. Usually one weekend a month I am booked to go out of town to teach and perform.

What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

No idea. I primarily make my living teaching and performing improv comedy, but I don’t think that most people do here in Chicago. Nobody does improv for the hope of a great salary. Ever.

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?)

Here in Chicago and on the road, I am very spoiled and grateful in terms of having the best audiences, ever. That said, there are so many improv venues and opportunities to play that I think that people might occasionally get overwhelmed at their options. Also, they might just want to sit in front of the couch and smoke weed and watch The Bachelor.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

See first job. The other ones I have probably blocked out of my memory for damn good reasons.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

No.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ten years from now I hope to have the laughter and joy of a healthy and happy daughter and the continued love of my husband, family, and friends. I will be doing exactly what I am doing with exactly who I want to be doing it with just like the present moment. I will be spending a lot of time in the Redwood Forest in a tiny house or home in Chicago with our several golden retrievers and little to no cats. I will be super cute which will translate into very sexy. I will be in support of a far more humane world with improv as a fine template. Happy and grateful and hopefully helpful.

Jimmy Carrane is an improviser, interviewer, teacher, author, and long-time member of the Chicago improv community. As creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, he’s interviewed the comedy cognoscenti, from TJ and Dave to Rachel Dratch to Bob Odenkirk. He is currently writing his third book about improv.

Jimmy Carrane headshot

Photo © Julia Marcus/Zoe McKenzie Photography

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

I think when I was very young. My first memory was I wanted to be a stand up. I always loved comedy. I thought I was going to be a big, famous movie and TV star and have my own sitcom. As you know, those guys make a lot of money.

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

Lately, I would say Howard Stern. I have always been attracted to this whole concept of truth in comedy. I love his honesty. He can really tell a great story and he does wonderful interviews. I am more inspired by him than jealous, which for me is progress.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

David Koechner tells the story, which I barely remember, that apparently I had gotten a gig for a group of us doing improv games at a race track. As I remember it, the gig was doing games for some guy’s birthday party. Either way, we got paid. They paid me directly with a check and I divvyed up the money. I went to the bank and cashed the check and then paid everyone cash. It was $50 bucks. This part we both agreed on: I Xeroxed the $50 bill that I paid him and said something like “Keep this as copy of the first money we made improvising.”

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

No one was a better hands-on teacher than Martin DeMaat. Much of my teaching style comes from him, just from simply taking his classes and observing how he encouraged us to spend a lot of time warming up and having fun and how he could side coach and say very little but get a lot out of you. Del Close was a huge influence as well. He taught me about the importance of emphasizing truth in comedy, and he taught me to respect myself as an artist. David Koechner was my roommate when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, and before I met him, I really didn’t think I could do characters or impressions. But I would watch him do it and study him, and then I realized I could do it, too.

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

It’s both. Improv is whatever you want it to be. Improv is flexible. For me, the skills that I learned in improv were extremely valuable when I started hosting a show on Chicago Public Radio. I knew how to listen very attentively to each guest, how to adjust in the moment to their personalities and drop my agenda in my questions. It helped me become an excellent interviewer, which of course has helped me in my podcast, as well.

What kind of things might an improviser do to make a living?

How do you know if you made it improv?

Any job that keeps you in the arts is something that can benefit from improv training. You can write for a sitcom, work in radio, create commercials, or work in advertising. Of course, if you want to stay closer to the comedy world, you can teach, coach, direct, act or produce. Over the years, I have done all of those as well as film and TV work that comes to town, acted at trade shows, written corporate shows and videos, served as an MC for events, and lead team building for companies using improv training. Anything that keeps you in the comedy-improv-acting-writing game is perfect for someone with an improv background.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I do not know that one.

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?)

In my travels around the country teaching and doing live tapings of Improv Nerd, this issue of getting people to your improv is a problem in every market. I think most improv is still dependent on improvisers for their audience. Today, improvisers have more performance opportunities and are taking more classes than ever. If you ask an improviser if they would rather go see a show or be in one, I think you know what the answer would be. So those people who would 10 years ago be in the audience are doing bar-prov or are in class or at rehearsal. I think improv needs to be more accessible to a mainstream audience. Shows like Improv Shakespeare and Baby Wants Candy seem to have accomplished this, but it’s very difficult to do. If you figure out how to get more butts in the seats, let me know.

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

I was with the Annoyance Theater and we were doing improv on a hot and muggy August day on a children’s stage at an outdoor festival in Chicago. It was around 1997, and the general public didn’t really know what improv was, especially kids. The show before us was Universal Studio’s Beetlejuice ahow. The set was amazing. It looked like and it cost half a million dollars. It was a set from a movie. It had smoke and all these special effects. The actors dressed like the movie. It was the slickest, most professional thing I had ever seen. The crowd was packed with kids and parents. The parents were more blown away than their kids. The response they got was like were at a rock concert. I was like, “Oh man, this is like trying to follow the Rolling Stones! God help us.” At this point, we hit the stage, dehydrated and with half the cast hung over because it was Sunday around 10 a.m. We had about 15 children with their parents sitting on the grass and in the first improv game, one of the least edgy cast members decides to go blue. The audience dwindles at this point. We try to explain what improv was, but it was futile. Nobody cared. We pushed through and kept going. The only reaction we seemed to be getting were families getting up and leaving. Though we were humiliated, we were grateful that improv is a team sport, and we had other people to share in our misery.

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

Yes, I think as a teacher there are far more opportunities both teaching in the corporate world and in improv schools and theaters. There are also more opportunities to get paid as a performer than when I started out. Today in Chicago, you can do a boat for Second City, or write or perform or do corporate training for most of the big improv theaters. There is even an ad agency in Chicago that hires improvisers to help with the creative side of adverting. Yes, there are a lot more opportunities.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I would like to have a national radio and TV show, be a best-selling author and be a famous stand up/storyteller doing one-man shows in huge, sold-out theaters for 1,000 to 1,500 people. And I’d also like to be a loving father who pays attention to his kids and a great husband who pays attention to his wife – unlike what I got in my childhood.

David Razowsky is a master improv instructor. He’s the former Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centre, a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, and the host and creative force of ADD Podcast with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley. He teaches all over the globe, and has logged more flights than most airline pilots. 

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

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

When I realized that I could. Once you see that your skills are crystallizing and there’s a small call for them, you realize that call will get louder if you give it heat, warmth, air, confidence, and love. We all are born to successfully fill the position of who we are. We’re our job.

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

The greatest influence on my career are the actors who come to my classes. They inspire me, they look to me for collaboration, they show me where we can go, they take me to where they wanna go. They are my guide.

What was your first paid improv-related job? 

I was hired as an actor in Geese Theatre Company for Prisons in 1983 or ’84. We traveled across the country in a painted 1963 International Harvester school bus. We did non-comedic improv that focused on education, visits, communication. It was done in masks. It had a profound impact on my art.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Michael Gellman continues to be a mentor to me. The late Martin deMaat continues to inspire me. Mick Napier is a guiding force both artistically and as a business owner (along with the great Jennifer Estlin). Rachel Hamilton reminds me that we are here to be present and to present the world with our skills and make a good living doing it. Second City taught me that great producing leads to great creative opportunities. Charna Halpern at iO taught me that your point of view is imperative.

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

Both. Why must I choose?

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

Forgive what might come off as snark, but the money that comes from being an improviser comes from the artist improvising her life. Transition, build, explore, push. Stop calling yourself a “starving artist.” You’re fucking it up for those of us who aren’t and you’re impeding your ability to manifest and grow a successful career.

Describe a typical day in your life.

I pour a cup of coffee that I set the timer to brew so it’s ready when I get to it. I go on line and answer follow-up messages from works-in-progress. I read news feeds on Zite, I cook oatmeal, I eat my oatmeal while reading a book. I do the dishes. I might have a podcast interview (ADD Comedy with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley), and if I do, I’ll spend the hour discussing, we’ll take a portrait with my YashicaMat 120 camera, then a selfie. I’ll edit the selfie, put our watermark on it, the guest’s name, I’ll write a bio, then upload the episode to Ian Foley who will edit it, and post it on line. I’ve done almost 200 interviews, and I love it. I still haven’t figured out how to monetize it, but once I do, I’ll be really glad. The rest of the day is about marketing, raging about gun violence, stupid American voters, and ignorant politicians who don’t give a shit about their constituents. I’ll cook lunch, dinner, and start a cocktail of vodka on the rocks much later than most. I go to bed around 2 am, unless I have my gf over. Then…mmmm.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

I don’t know.

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?)

Improv’s got a shitty reputation because so many folks market poorly, don’t rehearse, aren’t professional, don’t promote well, and don’t see themselves as artists and business owners (they being the business). They sell themselves short, and it hurts the rest of us. We have an uphill battle. If you said to me that you were in a play, I’d ask about it and come to it. If you told me your were in an improv show I’d compliment you on your jacket.

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

I’ve worked in prisons. Everything else is cake.

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

Yep. That’s the progression of an evolving entity. More people are learning, teaching, studying, working in front of people, more people are promoting, marketing, podcasting, taping, exploring. If you’re not, I hope to god you’re not bitching about “Where the fuck is MINE?” You want it? Make it happen. What you think it is isn’t what it is. You have no idea what it is until you do it. It’s a lot like improv because it’s improv.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Loving up People and Chairs. Just like now.

James Gangl is one of Canada’s awesomest improvisers. He’s a comedian, writer, storyteller, filmmaker, member of Bad Dog Theatre Company, and performer with improv troupe extraordinaire, Bonspiel! His one-man show, Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups won the Ed Mirvish Award for Entrepreneurship and a Canadian Comedy Award. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/jamesgangl

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

I always felt like an actor. I remember when I was three I would put signs up all over the house that read “the show starts in five minutes.” Then I’d herd my parents and whatever guests were over into our living room so I could put on a show. Of course I hadn’t planned the show…who needs a script, right? I just demanded attention, jumping up and down on the sofa and making up songs about vampires.

I knew I wanted to do it for a living as soon as I realized there was a living to be made. Again, I always loved it so I guess my dream was to be an actor but I was also super practical so I got a degree in Business and Computing instead. I worked in marketing for five years while auditioning on the side until I finally made the leap to focus on my passion full time.

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

Jesus.

I grew up super-religious and every aspect of my life was touched by my belief system. Mostly I just felt guilty about swearing and being lewd on stage but eventually my experience with religion became a wealth of inspiration for my writing.
Besides Jesus, my brother Alex was an excellent influence. My family wasn’t unsupportive of my ambition but they weren’t supportive either. I always looked up to my brother Alex and he was the only member of my immediate family who openly celebrated my love of performing. He was always behind me and he went to all my high school plays, beaming from the front row. He’d even brag about me to his friends. I get warm fuzzies just thinking about it now. His encouragement was a key motivator.

What was your first paid improv-related job?

A guy, let’s call him Jeff, from my level D improv class invited me to play a version “slide show” at his 40th birthday party. My job was to make up the narrative to Jeff’s life using real slides that were being projected. As slides flashed onto the screen I’d point to the people projected and label them as “Uncle Henry, the alcoholic” and “money grubbing Aunt Louise.” Unfortunately, the slides involved his real family and friends who sat shocked and offended in the audience. In hindsight, it may have gone better is I was actually introduced and the audience was told that I was improvising. Instead I was some stranger talking smack about the families most initiate memories. Ah well, hindsight is 20-20. $40 well earned.

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Their influence is huge. When I started I was watching Slap Happy (Kerry Griffin, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Dave Pearce, and Tabetha Wells) tear it up. I thought what they did WAS improv, period. So I copied them completely. Alumnae Cafe was huge with Bob Martin, Jack Mosshammer, Paul O’Sullivan and Linda Kash…god were those folks pros. They made me realize how good improv really could be.

As I got better so did my friends and colleagues and because improv is my work and my play, my colleagues became my best friends. Now my pals are helping my growth. Jan Caruana regularly helps me with scripts and I’m always bouncing ideas off Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker and Ashley Botting.  Really, at this point I’m surrounded by stupidly talented people. I’m making a movie with former Theatresports member Alex Hatz, I get photos done with Big in Japan Alumni, Kevin Thom… Most of my artsy projects are done with improviser pals.

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

Yes.

Look, if you are doing improv because you want to be a great actor, stop doing improv. If you are doing improv to become a great stand-up, stop doing improv. Same for sketch and film and music and cooking. Take an acting class, write jokes, write some sketches, buy a tambourine and a Dutch oven…that will get you to your goal quicker. Having said that, if you do improv because you love it, you will continue to do it. That’s what happened to me. I loved it. I was addicted. I couldn’t stop.

Improv was my introduction to the world of performance and became my means to doing other work.  Spending hours becoming a better improviser improved my stage presence and acting ability. It gave me confidence in my comedy. It helped me in front of the camera and gave me the motivation to write. It was the catalyst that lead me to everything else and continues to influence my work in wonderful ways. Having said that, there’s not a lot of money in improv. So YES! Beautiful improv is amazing and wondrous and fulfilling…but, if you want to live off your art you will likely need to learn how to act and/or write.

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

I think a working improviser is someone who is regularly performing, teaching, coaching and directing improv. At the moment I don’t think it’s possible to sustain yourself with performing improv alone. At the very least a “working improviser” will be teaching as well.

My advice to the improviser that wants to pay rent is this: Get yourself an agent. Like right away. The agent doesn’t have to be good, they just have to send you out for commercials. Improv prepares you best for commercials. The ad industry loves improvisers even if they don’t know it! Ads are usually 30 seconds long and comedic, and therefore they use broad archetypes like “the geek,” “the love interest,” “the goof,” “the thug” as their staple characters. When I started improvising all I did was broad characterizations and that’s exactly the kind of stuff ad folks want. Plus you can improvise! Throw in a button at the end of your audition and everyone will think you’re a genius. Plus, commercials can pay tons of money. So…go get an agent. (And it wouldn’t hurt if you took some on camera classes as well. Acting in front of the camera is much smaller.)

Describe a typical day in your life.

The days are really different. A typical week looks like me going to a handful of auditions and prepping them if they are big and chunky. I cook a lot of my own meals, which is great because I can easily keep a stew bubbling as I run lines. I write too. I’m on the pitch list for DNTO and regularly come up with pitches for stories I want to tell on the radio. At night I teach and do the odd show and try to flirt with girls. And play embarrassing board games that 15-year-olds play.

What’s the salary range for an improviser in your city?

Honestly, I don’t really know. Most improvisers are doing other things to pay the rent. Here’s the range for various improv related sources of income: For teaching you make anywhere from $30 – 55/hr (CAD$). For coaching maybe $20 – 50/hr depending on who you are and who the troupe is. You might get paid $20 – $40 and some beer tickets to do shows at an improv or sketch stage at night. If you can get into corporate workshops or shows, well that’s a whole other story (put an additional zero on those numbers).

As a side note: if a producer invites top talent to play and uses their names on the bill, the talent should be treated very well. Be nice, buy drinks, have snacks. You’ll want the talent to come back even if you can’t afford to pay them well on that particular night. Having said that, if that producers fills the room they should pay well too (add zeros).

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 the amount of people seeing improv has been rising steadily. Fifteen years ago there were maybe two or three improv shows that ran weekly.  Those shows had ups and downs like shows do today. Compare that with today where there are three shows a night (at least). That’s part of the reason it’s hard to get bums in seats. The audiences have grown but the amount of improv performances have increased exponentially and so there is lots of competition for eyeballs.

The second problem is an old one but it persists: People don’t know what improv is. Yes, its popularity has been growing, but compare improv with more popular mediums and the challenge becomes obvious. Movies have trailers that tell you what you’re getting into. Stand-up is funny and has years and years of TV exposure. Even today, every late night talk show on network television starts with a stand-up set. Improv is slightly harder to explain and hence the barrier to entry is higher.

People order the same thing at the same restaurant because they know they’ll like it; improv is still an unknown element.

There are a zillion improv shows. Having a zillion show dilutes audiences, so even if the total amount of people going has increased, the number of improv show has increased exponentially too.

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

The best improv gig I ever did was in Vienna. I was a  green improviser but I convinced Jim Libby at the English Lovers to let me play. It was the opening night of their new season and the space was big and beautiful and jam-packed. We were doing a montage and if the scene started in English it would continue in English but if it started in German it would continue in German. I speak German like a three-year-old and the audience found that out pretty quickly. The more I tried to speak the language (and failed), the more the audience loved me. The show ended with an improvised musical number. My scene partner was a professional opera singer with the Vienna State Opera and I wasn’t. Still, as the underdog I got to sing the last verse in terribly broken German and the crowd leapt to their feet. A standing ovation at an improv show… Crazy.

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

100%. There’s way more awareness and that has led to bigger houses, more students, more corporate work and more opportunity. Fifteen years ago paid improv coaches were virtually unheard of, now it’s common. It’s not easy, but there is money to be made.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Hopefully splitting my time between LA and Toronto. I love my city, but am also loving all my experiences in front of the camera. That’s driving me toward LA. I hope my day job is regular TV and film work, and I get to continue to write and perform my own solo work.

Either that or learning to cook professionally in Chile.

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.

Photo © Gordon Hawkins

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