David Razowsky wrote and performed in ten Second City Chicago revues. He is a co-founder of The Annoyance Theatre, has written for The Simpsons Comic, and is one half of the improv duo, Razowsky and Clifford. His special skills include juggling, photography, and – according to his resumé – ATM usage.
P&C: You’re big on truth in scene work. Why is truthfulness important when you’re improvising?
DR: To paraphrase Mark Twain, “When you’re honest you don’t have to remember anything.” I feel that when you’re honest you don’t have to work, and I don’t want to watch anyone “work.”
I’d much rather see you “float” or “glide,” easy things to do when you’re creating through honesty. Truthfulness is dangerous, it’s not an easy thing to begin to do, but once you realize your character needs to have an epiphany/revelation/turn/transformation, your courage to be truthful takes you there.
When you miss the cut-off for Truthtown, you don’t know when the next exit will come your way. It’s your job as an actor to be vulnerable, honest.
Also when you’re honest and open to express your honesty, you don’t have to fake feeling what you’re not really feeling. Try telling someone you love them when you don’t. Try expressing to your boss how much you love your job when you don’t. Try telling someone who’s just given you a turd for a gift what a nice gesture it was. It’s hard to do, so don’t tell someone you don’t love that you love them; don’t tell your boss you love a job you don’t; and don’t take a turd as a gift… That last one’s an easy truth!
Also, the time to play with being honest and truthful is on stage where there are no life-altering results of your honesty. Once you get good at it on stage, perhaps you’ll be able to be more honest in your life. Just sayin’.
P&C: You teach a method called Viewpoints. How did you learn about it? What drew you to it?
DR: I call it Viewpoints; I also call it Viewpoints Elements. It’s actually Viewpoints for Improvisers, Viewpoints for Actors… It’s probably not the same way that they teach it at a school that teaches Viewpoints. The reason I’m saying that is, it’s what I took away from watching people teach Viewpoints.
I first saw it with a woman named Kim Rubinstein, when I was working with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company… I was hired to teach improvisation, and I thought I’d watch the other teachers teach, and this woman was teaching Viewpoints and I went, “Oh my God, this is what I do. I do this! There’s a name for it?”
When stuff resonates like that so strongly, it does a couple of things. First off, it’s very inspiring, and second, you feel so much less alone because that which you thought you were not able to communicate with anybody is not only communicatable, but also codified in a way that you can learn something from the codification and then go, “Oh that’s great! It’s not just something that I know, it’s also something that I can learn.”
Viewpoints is so great. If you give yourself the presence of being present, it absolutely changes the way that you look at everything. And you don’t get confused by things, because you’re really aware of everything that’s happening.
It’s similar to what I would imagine a surgeon does, where a surgeon will open up a patient and look inside and know exactly what’s there and not be in a panic, and be able to go, “OK, that’s there, that, I didn’t expect to see that, and that. OK, good, everything’s there,” and then be able to work [with] it.
So with Viewpoints you are able to stand here and be in duration* and know what the fuck you’re doing. And move over there and know that you’re in topography. And move over there and hold onto something and know that you’re in the middle of being in your architecture, being in duration of all these things.
And not only that, but it is so fucking fun to start codifying things in that way. So that you can look at somebody and say, “Wow, look at their relationship with their architecture,” when they’re just getting drunk.
*Duration, Shape, Gesture, Tempo, Repetition, Topography, Architecture, Kinesthetic Response, and Spatial Relationship are the nine Viewpoints Elements
P&C: One thing you teach is, “Don’t get your partner on you.” Can you expand on that?
DR: It’s the idea that your point of view is your point of view, and your partner’s point of view is your partner’s point of view. And at the centre of every scene is pressure, tension and dynamic. So let’s just say at the centre of every scene is pressure.
I’m coming in with a particular emotion, let’s say anger. You’re coming in with a particular emotion, and let’s say it’s joy.
You come in and you say [happy voice] “Oh Jerry, I heard it’s your birthday today!”
And I go, “Fuck you, Bob! Fuck you!”
And then you go [angry voice] “I just said it was your birthday!”
At that moment we don’t have a scene because there’s nothing pushing up against each other. Instead of saying:
[happy voice] “Oh happy birthday, Jerry. I know it’s your birthday.”
“Fuck you, Bob, fuck you!”
[still happy] “Je-e-e-e-e-rrrrry…aw, getting old is hard, isn’t it?”
“Go to Hell! You wouldn’t know anything about it!”
“Jerry, when we get together tonight and celebrate the fact that you were born, it’s gonna be un-fuckin-believeable!”
You know? So, hold onto the emotional content that you had at the beginning of the scene, because the scene needs for you to be consistent. And if we’re working together, then I know the part that I’m playing is the Angry Guy. The part that you’re playing is the Joyful Woman.
And it’s interesting, it goes back to the idea of improvisers versus actors. Because an actor will look at a character and never feel like, “That character’s got to veer.” They’ll say, “This is consistent with that character. This character does that, because it’s written that way.”
And so that’s why Hamlet doesn’t become Polonius. Those are two different characters with two different wants. And that’s why Macbeth doesn’t become Lady Macbeth. Even going past the gender point, all of those characters have specific things that are expected for them so that we can have the dynamic that that scene needs.
So to not get your partner’s character on you means their point of view is their point of view, and your point of view is your point of view. But if you’re not present to what your point of view is, then you don’t know what you have to hold onto.
And if you’re not present to what your point of view is, it’s probably because…no, it’s most likely…it is absolutely because you’re not listening. And you’re not listening to the one person you need to listen to the most, and that is you.
P&C: You used an angry guy and a joyful woman, but I think a lot of improvisers have been taught you don’t go into a scene angry because then you’re gonna bring conflict, and conflict is a bad thing…
DR: Well, I’m not saying that we can’t have conflict. I’m saying what you want to avoid is an argument scene.
Now I’m reframing that idea that… I’m redefining what’s the basis of every scene. Or at least I’m introducing this – and you can take it or leave it – and it’s the idea that when we say conflict is at the centre of every scene, the word “conflict” is in there. And when the word conflict is in there, our system, unless you’re trained, our system goes to that being an argument.
[But] if we break it down into the elements of pressure, tension and dynamic, then we are really able to look at it in a different way. And the way that we’re looking at it then is not conflict, because if you say, “Oh, I’m angry and you’re happy,” I’m allowing you of course to be any emotion that you feel at the beginning of the scene. How can I not? How can I say, “No, you can’t be angry?” How can I do that, why would I do that?
At the beginning of scenes, people are angry. At the beginning of a play, people are angry. At the beginning of a one-act people are angry. There’s a character that’s going to be angry. Why is it that we, as fucking improvisers… somehow, “Somebody said that a while ago and it totally makes sense.” No it doesn’t make sense!
What makes sense is this: Let’s train the actor to be able to respond to that anger. Because right now we’re going, “Don’t be angry, because you’re going to have a conflict scene.” Well let’s train the actor what to do. It’s not that hard! It’s not impossible. It’s easy. It’s learning the same thing all the time; it’s always learning the same thing, and that is how to deal with what’s in front of you.
I’m blessed in that I’ve been able to look at everything we’ve been doing and put a lot more energy into it than other people are, because they’ve got a job that they’ve got to go to, and my job…I don’t work. I don’t work.
I just am sitting in front of people who just perform and it’s like, “Fuckin’ A!” I just look at that stuff and go, “Oh, that’s why that works.” Or “That’s why that doesn’t work.” Or “Oh, you’re not getting it because you’ve been taught this way.” That there’s a governor on you. And you want your mind to go wherever the fuck it wants to go, and you’re listening to some rule that some douchebag told you at some shitty fuckin’ improv school that you went to.
Martin de Maat was a brilliant, warm, kind, awesome fucking person, and he pretty much put the [Second City] Training Centre together as we know it. And Martin called Second City Training Centre an acting school. So when I was the Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centre in LA, it was like, “Welcome to our acting school. This is not an improv school, this is an acting school, and you are gonna act.”
And the people I worked with at Second City… you cannot tell me that Jackie Hoffman is not an actor. You know what show she opened? She opened a tiny little show called Hairspray. She opened it, she created that fucking part. And she was in a play called Addams Family on Broadway. She opened the part as Grandma. She is younger than I am, OK?
Steve Carell, Steve Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello… these are fucking great actors. Rachel Dratch. Great actor. And these are just people that you know, because there’s a bunch of people that you fucking don’t know.
Let’s talk about George Wendt. Let’s talk about John Candy. John Belushi. Aykroyd. I mean you look at Aykroyd and you go OK, Aykroyd, Blues Brothers. But how about this: Aykroyd: Driving Miss Daisy. Right?
If you want to codify yourself as an improviser, good luck, because you’re an actor who improvises. You’re an actor. Knock it the fuck off. Knock it the fuck off! And open yourself up. And stop driving the joke. The joke doesn’t drive your career, because right now it’s driving your career if you’re an improviser.
P&C: You performed in Chicago for years before moving to LA. How do the two differ in your mind, or is there a difference?
DR: Well Chicago’s a theatre city, and what somebody once said was really great – I don’t know who said this and I wish I could remember because I’d like to give them credit – “If you fail in Chicago, people look at you and go, ‘Well that was bad. What’s your next project?’”
And you think, that’s great, that’s it! ‘Cause I’ve seen some shitty stuff done in Chicago by some really, really good people. But it’s less about what… there’s this great phrase, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Right? So you’re there.
So I’m in Chicago and I’m kind of just lookin’ around going, “Ah, I’m here, I’m experiencing this, and I’m living this life!” And then I come to LA and it’s like, “Here I am, I’m experiencing, I’m living the life.” It’s whatever I bring to it.
So really the difference between the two – and I think other people are gonna say it’s not – but my experience is, in Chicago I could and did find my voice. I found my voice in Chicago, but it had a lot to do with me, what I was bringing into it.
Because I wanted to find my voice, I needed to find my voice. And if I wanted to, I could’ve gone to Second City and said, “What’s in it for me?” As opposed to, I went to Second City and said, “Oh my God, look at all you have, and I can do whatever it is that I want to do,” knowing that I could do whatever it was that I wanted to do.
And if I wanted put parameters on myself, I could do that. I chose not to. I chose to bloom, I chose to evolve, that’s what I chose to do; to listen to everything that was going on, every step of the way.
When I came out [to LA], it took me a long time before I realized, “Fuck all those people.” And I don’t mean that in a negative way. (laughs) I know that sounds negative. What I mean is, “I’m not gonna allow them to tell me who I am.”
Because the thought here is that this city wants to tell you who are. And maybe it does. But at the end of the day, they also reward people who bring who it is that they are here.
Now there’s a structure that’s here, and there’s an industry that’s here, and you live within the industry, or you work within that structure here, but that’s not to say that every once in a while you can’t try something that you really wanna do.
I’ve created a career, but my career is so different than what anyone is doing anywhere else anywhere, and I’ve found that by myself. And I’ve found that because Chicago and Second City helped me find my voice.
And then coming out here, and knowing that what I perceived as disappointments when I first came out here was just me being steered into following my bliss. To accepting the fact that I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to do that!
And people go, “Well, why aren’t you more famous?” I hear that a lot from people. And it’s like, “‘Cause I’m not?”
And it has nothing to with I’m angry at anybody, or anybody owes me anything, it’s more along the lines of, that’s not what I do. And yet there are, I think, there are hundreds of people who would look at me as somebody…how can I say this?…who would look at me and go, “Oh, Dave Razowsky. Oh, you know Dave Razowsky?” And I’m like, I’m just me.
I had a girlfriend who really had a hard time when I said things like, “I cannot believe that that person remembered my name! How great.” And she’d say, “You’re Dave Razowsky!” And I’d say, “I have no idea what that means.” I am me and that’s who it is that I am.
And I’m not looking around going, “Oh, aren’t I great?” And I don’t look at my resumé all the time; I hardly ever take my resumé out, I hardly ever audition anymore. And to say I’m OK with that, on paper, looks like, “Oh, he’s resigned.” But I’m not, I’m evolved.
And whatever it is that anybody is doing with their career is what they’re doing with they’re career. And they have to be happy with it. And if you’re not happy with it, then change it. But how do you change it? You have to change your attitude about it.
There’s that great phrase, “Whatever it is that’s taking away from doing what you want to do, is what you’re doing.”
DR: It’s such a beautiful phrase. ‘Cause whatever is taking you away from what it is you want to do, is what you’re doing. That’s what you’re doing. “I’m not doing that.” No, it’s not that you’re not doing that, it’s that you’re doing this.
P&C: You were at Second City with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. Did you have any sense of how good you all were, that one day you’d be legends?
DR: Back then I think everybody was just having a good time. And I think the common denominator between all those people [was], “This opportunity doesn’t happen very often, and if we wanna fuck it up, we can fuck it up. And I’m choosing not to fuck it up.”
There were a lot of people who felt that Second City owed them something, and I always looked at that and thought, How does that work out? How does that work out at all? Because you’re able to do whatever the fuck it is that you wanna do, as much as you wanna do, as often as you wanna do it, and that opportunity doesn’t come very often, so while it’s here you’ve got to replace ambition with gratitude and be grateful. And I believe that everybody that was there was very, very grateful.
Did we know that the work was good? I will say that there were certain scenes, Second City scenes… Certainly there was a scene called Pictionary that Paul and Steve and Fran Adams and Ruthie Rudnick did, and I wasn’t in that scene but I would go backstage and then come out and sit in the audience and watch that scene. I watched that scene every fucking night that it was on. I watched it Every. Fucking. Night. That it was on. I never tired of that scene.
And so looking back on that now, because at that time it was like, “Oh, Pictionary’s on! I’m gonna go watch Pictionary…”
DR: But to look at it at that moment, I appreciated being in that moment and being able to watch that in that moment, and being excited that that moment was coming up.
To not feel jealous… because the people that felt jealous of you, or that threw jealousy in there, their work wasn’t as strong because it didn’t come from a place of collaboration, it would come from a place of desperation. And nine times out of ten, if you’re trying to work a scene or create a scene through desperation, it’s not gonna wanna bloom because everything’s in its way for it to become… and it wants to become.
So I know that there were a bunch of scenes that I was in, that if I weren’t in those scenes I would watch those scenes. And there were a bunch of scenes that I was in that I was thinking, “If I were in the audience right now, this is when I’d go to the bathroom.” So… there. (laughs)