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Posts tagged David Razowsky

Photo © Olivia Lecomte

The first time I encountered Viewpoints, I thought it was a class about character point of view, which I’ve since discovered is many improvisers’ assumption when they first hear the name.

Viewpoints are a set of elements that are always in play, whether or not you’re paying attention to them, but that can be easily manipulated by the actor through training and awareness.

It was February 2013 and the workshop was Improvisacting I with David Razowsky. Dave had taught in Toronto the previous year and Isaac Kessler, my coach, hadn’t stopped talking about him since.

I’d never been the funniest comedian, but I’d always been a decent actor, and that was what carried me through my first four years of improv training and performance. I played committed characters, but without much direction. The majority of my games were emotional heightening, but I often let the emotion overrule the scene. The few times I tried to be witty and aloof to stretch my boundaries, I forgot everything else I knew and played for cheap laughs that even I didn’t like. It worked sometimes, but it wasn’t consistent, and the biggest compliments I usually got were that I was high energy and had good stage presence.

In hindsight, the biggest mistake I made was taking improv scenes personally. I found it very difficult to separate myself from the character. I was immersed, as any young actor thinks they should be. I was so immersed that I often couldn’t see the scene beyond my character. Was there potential for a status shift? What move got a great reaction from the audience? When should I enter a scene? What was my scene partner actually saying when their character was talking? I’d been taught all of this in classes and rehearsals, but never truly absorbed it, and found it difficult to apply onstage in front of an audience. I allowed myself to get lost in the character instead of making the character work for me.

Viewpoints was what finally pushed me to separate the actor from the character. In turn, it made me, the actor, more present in scenes and backlines versus when I’d been getting lost in characters. Finally, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I began remembering scenes I’d been in, which made giving myself notes much easier, and made the notes more objective. I finally understood what people meant by “nice move,” because instead of throwing offers at the wall to see what stuck, I started making moves. Not always great ones, but I was able to recognize when a scene needed a move to be made, and was ready to provide one. I began to see improv through the eyes of a director and a content creator.

Viewpoints is a “technique of composition” created by Mary Overlie as a method of dance improvisation, then adapted for stage acting by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, and interpreted for improvisation by David Razowsky. It breaks down time and space into nine tenets: Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response, Repetition, Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Spatial Relationship, and Topography.

This may seem like a lot to pay attention to all at once, but the beauty of it is that they are already happening at all times, so even if you just want to try playing with one tenet at a time, the rest will follow.

As someone who’d always loved a practical approach, the idea of breaking down space-time seemed like a delightfully scientific method for improv. At the same time, the heightened awareness of my surroundings, the constancy of the tenets, and their malleability awakened something very spiritual in me as well.

If all I’m expected to do is define and use what’s already happening, I’ve eliminated the need to invent. I’ve eliminated the need to create funny, because the funny already exists and now I know how to simply reveal it to the audience.

One of my favourite things that Viewpoints gave me was the ability to outpace myself. With so many new things to react to, and so many new ways to react to them, I started reacting faster than I could think, and that got me into trouble. Lots of trouble. And holy shit was that fun. I no longer had to worry about “staying true” to a character or making the right move, because by the time I thought about it I was already making the move, which then further defined my character.

You know that high you get from having a great improv scene? I now had the tools to reproduce it and prolong it. Viewpoints is the science behind the state known as “flow.” It’s what’s generally known in the improv world as “having fun.” If you’ve ever been told by a teacher or coach to “have more fun” or “get out of your head,” this is exactly what they mean. Make moves before you’ve thought of them, and as long as you’re listening to yourself and reacting to everything your partner’s giving you, your character and scene will create themselves.

My newfound awareness on stage opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It made me realize the importance of taking classes. Suddenly I wasn’t taking classes to “get better,” which sounds like an exercise in humbling the ego. I was taking classes to add more tools to my tool belt. Nobody was right, nobody was wrong, everyone just had a different approach, and now I had an approach that worked for me, so I could take what I liked and forget the rest.

It also changed my approach to acting with a script. This isn’t surprising, as Viewpoints is already an established acting method. I stopped caring about finding “the character,” and started letting the words guide my choices. I started learning the words before rehearsals began, so I could spend my time in rehearsal experimenting beyond the script. “Beyond the script” meaning improvising everything else around the words, allowing myself time to try different moves and see what works best. (Believe me, your director will appreciate this as well.)

Viewpoints changed the way I play. The way I listen. The way I respond. It doesn’t replace other schools of improv, in fact it enhanced my ability to apply onstage what I’d previously learned. I already had tools, but now I was more proficient at using them. Viewpoints can work for you, and you can play with the exercises and philosophy for the next five years until it finally becomes a part of your being. Or you can forget the majority of it a month later because it’s too much to think about while you’re having fun. But if you’re lucky enough to find a class or workshop that’s accessible to you, I suggest you take it and find out. David Razowsky introduced me to a whole new religion that was, incidentally, based on science, and I’ve been living it ever since.

Oliver Georgiou is an actor, improviser, and comedian who takes himself way too seriously. He is the founder of SODA School Of Dramatic Acting where he produces SODA Theatre, SODA Underground, Hat Trick Comedy, and specialty improv classes, including an Intro to Viewpoints.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are many different, passionate schools of thought on plot in improv. If you’re doing a narrative form like The Quest, or a musical format that requires you to hit certain plot points, it can lead to great shows. But for “regular” long form, it’s always been a stumbling block for me. So when this appeared in my newsfeed via David Razowsky, I had to share:

Hey, improvisers. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and he has a great paragraph on the need for plot. As many of you might remember, I’ve said “Fuck plot.” He, of course, said it in a more elegant way. (At the final sentence, please replace “writer” with “improviser.”):

“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can –– I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

Improviser Dave Clapper added:

Both as a writer and as an improviser, I couldn’t agree with this more. Here’s another favorite quote that applies to both:
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.” – Ray Bradbury

Thanks, guys!

I’ve been asked by several people what I think about what’s going on at Second City (http://tinyurl.com/jy6ajlf). I’ve been waiting to see if any other info has come out, but it’s mostly the rehashed story attached.

Here’s my take: There are parts to this story, and there are parts of this story I don’t know about. There are events that took place backstage that I don’t know about. There are events that took place in producer’s offices that I don’t know about. There are internal politics involved that I don’t know about (which doesn’t make SC any different than any other business, and, yes, SC is a business).

When I was told that I was cast in the Second City National Touring Company, the first place I went to was The Old Town Ale House, to, yes, have a celebratory cocktail, but also to tell my friend and teacher Donny DePollo that I got hired. His response to my hiring stuck with me for my entire tenure (1989-2012) at Second City: “Do your job, don’t get involved in the politics.” That missive became a talisman for me. I left Second City before I got bitter, feeling SC never owed me a dime, and that everyday I was there I was grateful for the experience. I still feel that way, all things considered.

In regards to the audiences spewing indignities at the actors: Satire is subversive. We ask the audience for suggestions that come from their hearts. More often than not the suggestions from the heart ranges from mundane to beautiful. Oftentimes that heart is cold and closed and quiet and scared and ignorant and mean. When the heart is allowed to speak honestly under those conditions there’s bound to be an awful shattering to all those within earshot. It’s an awful sound to hear. It’s a terrible noise. The actors who heard that noise were understandably shocked, rocked, stunned, and temporarily paralyzed. It happened. It really happened. The question then becomes, “What do we do with that which just happened?” That question was asked on 9/11 and 9/12. The answer then was: We take it and we use it. We use it as a cudgel, we use it as a sword, we use it as a firecracker, we use it as the tool for change and awareness that made it appear in the first place. We take that suggestion and we build on its bones, covering it, creating a structure that does not deny its foundation, but rather shows that hate received in the right hands can help create, that truth inspires, that expressions of hope dilutes the rantings of the desperate. That humor can teach.

There hasn’t been an issue that SC has been afraid to tackle. Satire, like rust, never sleeps.

Wishing SC another speedy recovery. I can’t wait to see what they’ll create.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

When Ted Flicker saw the Chicago Compass Players in 1955, he said, “I knew improvisation had great potential, but I saw that they were doing it wrong.”

He went on to open the St Louis Compass Theatre, ushering in a louder, faster, funnier style of improv. But when Chicago founder David Shepherd saw it, he said, “You’ve turned it into entertainment. You’ve ruined my dream.”

Now, few improvisers would say they’re against entertainment. But the debate persists. Is improvisation art? Comedy? Unscripted theatre? Is there a right or wrong way to do it?

It’s like religion. Some people worship Del Close, others revere Keith Johnstone, while others are staunch followers of iO, UCB, Annoyance, or The Groundlings. Which is cool. The problem is when you try to convince someone their religion is wrong.

And it’s not just theatres that have differences of opinion. Even tight-knit teams or instructors at the same school sometimes disagree.

My friend Alanna Cavanagh says “Creative people are brats.” When you tell them “No,” they rebel.

Image © Bansky

Image © Bansky

These days you can see fast, game-focused improv, slow comedy, musical improv, improvised Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mamet, ComedySportz, and even a mix of short and long form in the same show. Different theatres use different techniques, but the end result is the same: laughter and satisfied audiences.

But isn’t there “good” and “bad” improv? Sure. You can see a crappy improv set any night, even with seasoned performers on stage. Most likely it’s because the players weren’t committed or connected, not because they weren’t following rules.

TJ and Dave are at the pinnacle of this art form, and they’ve said that you don’t “master” improv. Great improvisers – great artists – are constantly learning. How then, can there be one right way to improvise?

We asked some people who consistently knock it out of the park to weigh in with their thoughts.

TJ Jagodowski

If I try to think of people who thrill me, I can’t think of one who I would describe as always having done something correctly. “Oh boy, were they right!” doesn’t even sound good.

But I have been thrilled by both improvisers and other types of performers who I would describe as unique, unafraid, generous, interesting, fun, truly themselves, or free. All of those states are very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, if there is a chunk of your mind in some deliberation over whether you’re doing it right. What is right is what your partner needs, your scene needs, your show needs. Do it right that way.

Jimmy Carrane

Since improv is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.

We said in Improvising Better that there is only one way to improvise: yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.

Susan Messing

Rachael Mason and I did a four-parter for Second City called I’Mprovising RIGHT, which totally sends up those who insist that there is a right way to get there – which is so ridiculous. To me that’s like having sex right. Isn’t the job to get off?

Are there suggestions that I could offer as a teacher to support you in getting off sooner, and your partner as well? Sure, but the ultimate responsibility is to have more fun than anyone else, and if your partner’s having fun that’s even more of a turn-on in terms of this work.

And then you win and the audience was in the moment with you, so they got off, too.

The audience, guaranteed, will never look at your show and say, “Hmmm. They are doing correct improv.”

However, they will see the insecure, overlooked, overbearing, condescending, judgemental players and immediately disconnect from the scene because they are either worried about the performer, or hate them for their in-scene judgement.

The Improv Police needs a hobby: like getting off more onstage, and stop worrying about the “rightness” of it all.

I’ve heard all the rules. I play major nice with my friends. Our assumption is we are respectful to each other in terms of basic agreement, et al. That said, I’m going to get off and it is contagious, and I don’t overthink it, because ultimately it’s simply getting to play like kids but with grown-up sensibilities, and if we’re lucky, maybe a piano player. The end.

We turned this shit into rocket science/brain surgery/physics/chess because we wanted to give it so much integrity to match the joy we felt when we did it. But this does not need to be as complicated as many have made it.

As a matter of fact, I am quite sure that if I can be a fucking improviser, anyone can, because I just didn’t give up.

There are so many schools of thought and all of them I have worked for or with, and they’re all only opinions.

And they’re all great.

And it might infuriate you because one day you’ll be given a note, and the next day you will receive the equal and opposite note from someone else, and that will drive you crazy.

But you’re an improviser and are malleable, and ultimately you’ll be the kind of improviser you want to be, doing the kind of work you want to do with who you want to be doing it with. But you will be able to do everything, and hopefully evolve and not be a tiresome, closed, right-minded little shit.

Isaac Kessler

A quote from my Dad:

“If someone says their way is the only way…run the other way.”

You can’t do improv wrong.

You also can’t do improv right.

You can, however, improvise.

Doing something right or wrong denotes a failure at achieving a final goal, and there’s no final goal in improv. There’s no princess to be saved or sunset to ride off into if we get to third beats in a Harold or defeat The Hepatitis B-Boys (last week’s shortform champs).

Improv is a process. It’s about the current moment, and this moment now, and oops-ya-just-missed-it-but-don’t-worry-it-was-behind-your-ear-the-whole-time moment right here.

So my question is thus: What fuels you through each moment? What’s pushing you off the back line? What’s truly driving you into the unknown?

What would happen if you tried Joy on for size? Not the kind of joy you get when meeting a puppy, but the Joy and excitement of tapping into your true potential. To be driven by the pleasure of exposing your love and your pain. Show us your laughter and show us your tears.

Don’t be right and don’t be wrong. Just be You.

Anyways, that’s the only way to improvise.

(please don’t run away)

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” ― Walt Whitman (not my Dad)

David Razowsky

Whatever works for me, works for me. Whatever works for you, works for you. I will be vocal in expressing what works for me. Please remember that my expression of what works for me has absolutely nothing to do with how much you should enjoy your approach to improv.

If asked what reaction I’d like you to have when you hear my enthusiastic rantings of what works for me, I’d tell you: “However you want to react, react that way. It’s how you feel. Knock yourself out.” If you’d like to argue how what works for you is the correct way, well, go right ahead. Please express your well-thought out opinion. The more you talk about it, the more you voice it, the more you understand what works for you and how best you can express that. Please don’t expect any reaction from me outside of, “Cool. Go knock yourself out.”

I get onto the stage, I look at my partner, I react in that moment. That works for me. Should I play with you and you don’t play the way that I play and I don’t care much about how our show went, please know that it’s very likely we’ll not play together anytime soon for I didn’t have fun, rather I had work. I’m not here to work. I’m here to play. Your play is your play and my play is my play. I’ll express my joy at having had the chance to play with you for I am grateful for that. I’m grateful for all chance to play.

Most likely I’ll walk off that stage and think, “How cool. We both have our own style. That’s what art’s all about.” I’ll then move on and knock myself out.

Joe Bill

If we’re going to use religion as a metaphor, then I guess I would be a Unitarian/Universalist. I think the consideration of right or wrong within improvisation depends on the context in which you’re doing it.

I taught Harold for the first time in a couple of years at summer intensive last year at iO, and coming back to it after not teaching Harold for probably three or four years was really interesting, because of the perception that the kids in their 20s have now. Which is more rigid, which is more rooted in this proposition of what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t believe in my heart, in my artistic heart, that it does the players any good while they’re doing Harold to think about what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t remember Del talking about a right Harold or a wrong Harold. He just spoke of Harold and not knowing what Harold was going to be until Harold’s here. He DID say things like “Play to the top of your intelligence” (for my money, the most overrated note in improvisation) and “Wear your character like a veil,” which could lead people in the direction of assessing the rightness or wrongness of a move, in that moment.

I think what’s right or what’s wrong really is rooted in an objective point of view to what you’re subjectively engaged in. And if you’re being objective to what you’re subjectively engaged in, then you can’t engage fully to experience what the magic of the piece can be, because you’re in primary conversation with yourself, and you’re in secondary conversation with your cast mates and the piece that’s unfolding.

When I see UCB Harolds, like strict Harolds, it’s like watching nine or twelve analysts on stage, analysing their way through a living writing process, as opposed to, once you advance your way through UCB, you get to what Del claimed Harold was anyway, which is, “Eventually if you give a group of people a suggestion which they theatrically brainstorm on for five minutes, and then that group of people improvises based on that exploration for 20 to 30 minutes, you come to some type of conclusion You’ve done Harold.”

I’ve been with Charna where a perfect, textbook Harold happens on stage at iO, and they hit all the things and connections were made, and you look at it and structurally, that was a Harold. But it was like a zombie Harold because there’s no soul, there’s no heart; the acting within that – that is, the theatrical proposition that we are here to affect each other, and we are going on an emotional journey, or one or more characters in this piece are going on an emotional journey as much as they’re going on an intellectual journey – if that magic doesn’t take place and we don’t see a transformation of spirit within the piece, we don’t really care.

If you’re improvising with people that have gotten to a point where you know that improvisation is just a state of being, and it’s a state of mind, and it’s a state that you’re in, that there’s nothing that can be wrong. There’s nothing that can throw you off. There’s nothing that can violate anything.

There’s the academic exploration of improv, and then there’s the practice of it. And I think in the practice of it, right or wrong are built into some contexts [like short form], that serve the audience. And in the academic pursuit of it, there’s right or wrong that can keep us drinking beer or coffee together.

There’s a fork in the road when you’re improvising that quickly comes up, and it is, ‘Are you pursuing comedy, or are you pursuing truth?’ And the pursuit of comedy, psychologically, is a masculine proposition. The pursuit of truth is a feminine proposition, if masculine equals goal and feminine equals process. And regardless of what you’ve got between your legs, we all have both in us.

But we’re wired, we have synaptic channels in our brain that tend to wire us towards one as our alpha personality and one as our secondary personality. And comedy is goal; the goal is laughter. Truth is a string of moments. And comedy doesn’t exclude truth, and truth doesn’t exclude comedy, but they may come up in different ways.

A big cornerstone of my teaching is, “What’s organic?” And it’s just, “Discoveries are instantaneous decisions we make that are unencumbered by the day-to-day self-judgemental bullshit that we walk around with in life.”

I teach the idea that “Obligation and inspiration are inversely proportional.” And I think people want to see inspiration in theatre, so the fixation on right or wrong puts you into a state of obligation, and you don’t want to be obliged…unless you’re doing short form, where obligation is a color of mindset and behavior paint on the improvisation palette to help you deliver laughter.

But the other piece is, would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

Camp Improv Utopia is an annual three-night retreat where improvisers from around the world come to learn in a magnificent and unique setting. We spoke to actor/improviser and founder, Nick Armstrong, about improv as nature intended.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

P&C: For readers who don’t know, what is Camp Improv Utopia?

NA: It’s an adult summer camp basically, so you have to be 18 and over to go. It’s kind of like boy scout/girl scout camp meets improv.

You’re doing workshops with great teachers from all over, but then we really also emphasize that we want you to be part of nature. So you have free time to do archery and swim in the lake and kayak, and that’s the boy scout/girl scout part of the adventure. So it’s kind of a mix of that.

P&C: Why improv and camping?

NA: I was an Eagle Scout growing up in California, and it’s very beautiful…there’s a lot of mountains, and Yosemite, and things like that. And I was really passionate about improv – I teach, I’ve performed for years – and I grew up being a boy scout and I was like, “Improvisers are so cool, I think they’d enjoy something like this.”

And so me and my friends from the Improv Olympic, I kinda threw them this idea, and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool, let’s try it.” So we found a summer camp. We asked “Can you rent a summer camp?” And yeah, you can rent a summer camp! They’d never really kind of heard of it back then when we started, but we found the perfect place, we rented it, and we hoped people would show up.

P&C: How many years have you been doing the camp?

NA: The first one was 2011. This’ll be our sixth camp. The idea started a long time ago; we just never pulled the trigger till 2011. (laughs)

P&C: I’m gonna backtrack a little. How did you get into improv?

NA: I went and saw a show in 2000, 2001 at iO West. iO was very new out here; we had only had The Groundlings, that was the big theatre out here. My friend [said], “My friend’s doing a show in LA,” and I was just out of college so I said “Let’s go see it.”

I’d never seen a Harold before. It was a group called The Youth Group, and it was amazing. I never knew what I wanted in improv, but I saw that and it was like, “Hey, I wanna do that. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna do that.” And it just clicked.

I took classes right away and then I eventually started teaching there, and then I started [at] The Groundlings, and now I teach at The Groundlings. And then I started the camp, and National Improv Network, and started touring because all these festivals started blowing up. When I started going to festivals in 2004 maybe, there was like, maybe five in the country. Now there’s like 110 listed on our site…

P&C: Holy crap! I didn’t know it was that many.

NA: Yeah 110, but I’m sure everyone’s not listed on our site, so I’m assuming there’s probably a little bit more than that. We’re starting to get worldwide.

P&C: Some people get into improv and then say, “OK this is fun, but what am I really gonna do?” (Cameron’s laughing.)

NA: It’s a career for me. I’m able to call improv a career, in acting, so it’s very nice to do that. I still perform two or three times a week, every week since I started. I love it. It’s not like, “Oh God, I’ve gotta do my show this week.” I’m on the longest-running Harold team in LA called King Ten, and they’ve been together for 13 years. So it’s a fun experiment, because how many times does that happen?

P&C: Ooh, I’m gonna have to interview you guys. Long-running teams are not that common.

NA: They get broken up…

P&C: People move on to other things…

NA: It’s interesting because you keep trying to do things new, trying to push the envelope of a Harold. We don’t even do a traditional Harold anymore, it’s something that’s evolved into something different. The people on that team are just masters, so it’s really fun.

P&C: That’s great. Getting back to Camp Improv Utopia, it’s a non-profit. Why was that important to you?

NA: I was just talking about this yesterday. It was really important to me that it be non-profit, just like a boy scout/girl scout organization, because my philosophy is the spirit of improv should be how you run your business.

I’m not saying “Don’t be a for-profit,” but for us it was nature, improv, giving back more than we’ve been given.

So the idea was to bring all these people and do a two-part thing: we’re going to educate them in improv and give them a slice of nature. But then the money we raise there goes back out into the improv world.

When it first started, it funded the National Improv Network…endeavours like that. We help the Detroit Creativity Project, which helps kids that don’t have access to arts; that’s one of our main people we sponsor.

And then we help people build their theatres in the States. If they’re non-profits we help them a lot more; we do help for-profits that are starting out too. So [if] they’re like, “We need a stage,” we have a budget for who we help.

Now that we have even more camps – we have two in California now and one in Pennsylvania – we can allot the money. The money from the Pennsylvania camp goes to that region of the country.

We give out scholarships, and if someone has a diversity program at their theatre, we’ve donated to that, to specifically go to diverse talent coming in to their theatre. We’ll see someone’s Indiegogo or Kickstarter [saying] “We’re trying to open the doors to our theatre,” and we’ll donate to those.

Sometimes people come to us and ask for help, and we do that as well. It’s just kind of a feel-good thing, but growing up that was always kind of my thing, just the motto of, “Give back more than you’ve been given.” And improv’s given me a ton, so this is kind of the best way to do it.

P&C: That’s amazing. I don’t know if you’ve read Matt Fotis’s book about the history of the Harold. It’s fantastic. I’m reading about the struggles of Charna and Mick and the early days of Second City to find a space, and that can be such a huge obstacle to getting something off the ground, so the fact that you’re doing this is amazing.

NA: Our thing is, the ships rise with the tide; we want everybody to be successful. We know improv because we live and breathe it all the time, but not a lot of people do, you know, still.

I was telling you about the festivals, there’s 110. There’s over 100 theatres listed now too. So we’ve gone from 10 improv theatres in the United States to over 100. There’s one pretty much in every state. Maybe not Wyoming…

P&C: (laughs)

NA: But like, every state has either one or two festivals, or two or three theatres now. In big cities like LA, of course Chicago, but also smaller cities like Cedar City, Utah, which is a population of maybe 20,000 people, and they all have great theatres and festivals happening.

P&C: I honestly had no idea it had spread that much. I know there’s Austin, Detroit, Boston…

NA: It’s kind of like The Secret of improv right now. The big markets everybody knows about, but nobody knows about these successful theatres that are happening in smaller markets. I just got invited to the Omaha Improv Festival which is in Nebraska, and it’s their third year doing it.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

P&C: Your mission statement advocates improv as an art form. Are you a strong proponent of Del’s views?

NA: I believe in Del’s philosophy; I grew up in the iO philosophy. Craig Cackowski is kinda my mentor; I’ve grown with him, he’s now my friend, and he’s helped me with these camps too. And he definitely sees it that way and that definitely rubbed off on me. It’s an art form and it can be funny, it can be both, and that’s what we try to do, but I love when there’s serious moments when you make the audience not laugh, and you make them gasp, and that’s really magical.

When I first saw a show, I want to give that feeling to someone else, because my thing was like, this is funny, but there’s something magical about it [too] that I didn’t know when I was seeing it for the first time. I wouldn’t have maybe come back to that show because, “Oh, that was really funny,” y’know? But it was that extra “sauce,” whatever that was, that got me to come back, and that was the art form that was pulling me towards it. That’s really how I love it, and that’s why I’ve done for so many years, and that’s how I teach it, too.

P&C: Is there a common thread among the teachers you’ve chosen?

NA: We’re very careful about how we choose our teachers.

We choose teachers that are great in the community. Not only are great teachers and well established – that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a Second City teacher or an iO teacher or something like that – but it’s also someone who gives back to improv more.

We recognize someone like a Jill Bernard, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. We like to honour those folks and bring them in because they really mesh with that community well, and it really works.

So that’s kinda what we look for: Are they great teachers? Do they go above and beyond in improv? Are they helping, are they going to festivals, are they trying to build this community?

P&C: That’s awesome. I see there are three camps now…

NA: We haven’t opened the third one yet; that happens next year.

P&C: OK, two-part question: Do you have plans to expand to other parts of the country eventually? And do you have students who’ve come more than once?

NA: We’ve had people come all five years. And when we opened East they started coming to the East Camp, and some East Camp folks are now coming to the West Camp, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination. And kinda the idea behind it was, “How can we connect the East Coast improvisers with the West Coast improvisers and really get that community talking?”

That was kinda the goal, to circle the US, and do that, and that’s working! (laughs) Now these festivals over on the East Coast, there’s people from the West Coast coming to them and vice versa, and that cross-pollination is totally happening, and I’m so excited about that.

And then we came up with Yosemite I was like, wait, we have one of the most beautiful places in the world at our fingertips. Why don’t we do a summer camp by it? But we’re also doing a different curriculum with that one, so that one filled up really fast – and we only promoted that to our previous campers, we didn’t even put it out to the public.

But that mission of that camp is, you take one teacher the entire the weekend and you learn one form, like the J.T.S. Brown, the Deconstruction…

P&C: Oh, great idea!

NA: … and these are taught by people that created those forms. And then the idea is to hopefully take those back to your community, experiment with them more. Maybe do the form itself, but then maybe be inspired to make the next great form.

So…we’ll do another camp if it’s necessary, and right now we have the Yosemite one, and if we see an opportunity to do another we will, but it’s not, we don’t wanna be a burger chain.

P&C: (laughs)

NA: We wanna do it right, and it has to be associated with our mission statement, and it has to help a community.

P&C: You talked about the one-instructor, one-form curriculum at Yosemite. Can you tell us about the curriculum at the other camps?

NA: Our East and West kind of share a similar curriculum. There’s five teachers, and you can pick four, so there are more skill sets.

So if you wanna learn character, or you wanna learn slow play… I always try to tell the teacher, teach what you’re passionate about in improv. I don’t care what that workshop is, but I’m hiring you because I want you to bring what you think people should know in improv.

And for Yosemite we’ll just be teaching a form, so for instance Craig Cackowski will be teaching the J.T.S. Brown, which he was the original director of in Chicago. So that’s kind of how we separated it to be different, and that was kind of the purpose of that whole new camp.

Again, it’s not all education; we perform. We have little cabins, there’s like 10, 20 different cabins, and that becomes their troupe that weekend. So then they perform a show at the end of the weekend, too.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

P&C: And I was reading you have axe throwing?

NA: We have axe throwing, archery…

P&C: Sounds dangerous!

NA: (laughs) They’re little axes. They’re, I would say, hatchets. We have professionals handling that, we don’t handle the axe throwing, we let the camp run those. No one’s been hurt in the six years we’ve run them!

P&C: Safety first. OK, who are some of the instructors you’ve had?

NA: Craig Cackowski, Dave Razowsky, Susan Messing, those are some of the bigger names we’ve had out.

P&C: Isaac Kessler…

NA: Isaac’s gonna be teaching. Rick Andrews out of New York. There’s so many… Paul Vaillancourt, who’s on a team called Beer Shark Mice, and he started the iO West. We have James Grace, the Artistic Director of iO teaching at our West Camp this year…

P&C: After six years, do you have any favourite memory that stands out for you?

NA: I always tell this story actually… Me and my buddy Johnny, who helped me start the camp, we rented the place, we put all our own money down on it and just said, “We’re gonna do this, so hopefully people come.”

So people signed up, and we were at the camp, and we got there Friday at like six in the morning, going, like, “We’ve gotta get there so early. What if someone comes?!” And we put out a table and we were ready to register. And my friends, now who are my board members, are all there, and we’re sitting there.

And seven o’clock comes…and eight o’clock comes…and nine o’clock comes, and ten… And we’re like, “Nobody’s coming.”

But now I think about it, it’s ludicrous, because no one’s gonna be there Friday morning at six! But we didn’t know, because we’d never done it before. And so at like, one o’clock a car rolls in, and it was a camp cook.

I remember 1:30, our first camper ever rolled in. He pops out his car, his name is Bob, he’s from Chicago and Arizona, and he goes, “Is, uh, this an improv camp?”

We just all started cheering and he probably thought we were crazy. And we’ve now made that a tradition that we always cheer when someone comes to camp.

There’s been so many memories after that, but that’s the one that sticks in my head just because it was so cool.

P&C: Last question: what do you hope people take away from their experience?

NA: That they have an experience. That it’s different than being at an improv theatre. It’s not all about improv out there. It’s about looking in yourself, it’s about being out in nature.

When I started the camp, I said I don’t want it to be like a festival. I want it to be an experience where people do get quality instruction that they can’t get in their communities, and that they really immerse themselves in nature. And just being out there without technology – because cell phones don’t work at our West Camp really, so that’s a good thing.

But also just meeting people. The fun thing after camp is you get a hundred new Facebook requests. We have our own private group pages; I see afterwards, “Hey, I’m going to Baltimore. Can I crash on someone’s couch?” And it’s like, “Yeah, come crash on my couch!” “Hey, also I just got us a show. We’re doing a show!”

And at festivals there’s enough campers that go to festivals that sometimes festivals have allotted us a Camp Show, a Camp Jam. And we’re doing it in Ireland, we’re doing a Camp Jam. So that stuff to me is the coolest part. It’s not just at camp, it’s what happens after camp, and that’s what you want, you want them to be, “Hey, you’re coming to California? Crash at my place.” “Hey, I got a show at iO, let’s do it.” And that’s how the National Improv Network grew out of it.

P&C: That’s fantastic, just spreading the joy of improv on a global scale. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Enrolment for Camp Improv Utopia East is now open. Click here to register.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Camp Improv Utopia: Community, Camaraderie in Nature

Featured Instructors for 2016 include:

West – Celeste Pechous, James Grace, Bill Binder, Eric Hunicutt, plus more to come!

East – Jaime Moyer, Elana Fishbein, Isaac Kessler, plus more to come!

Yosemite – Paul Vaillancourt, Craig Cackowski, Brian O’Connell, Karen Graci

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

One of the great reasons to love improv is its fleeting nature. There’s no record of it. It comes, it goes. We’re left with our memories of it. Our memories. It’s a nice gift we let ourselves have. It helps if you like you.

One of the great things about performing improv is that we aren’t able to watch ourselves improvise. We have a vision in our skull of what we look like when we’re in the act of unfolding a character. It helps us unfold and evolve that character, for there’s no evidence as to whether we’re “doing it right” or “doing it wrong.” Because we don’t see it, we give ourselves the opportunity to just create without self-judgment.

That is, until someone does something that puts our process smack dab into our eyes.

When I was the Artistic Director at Second City Los Angeles we had a very small space that was our theatre. Just a black box, a small riser of a stage, and flat black walls. One day our stage manager, all on his own, decided it would be a good idea to put mirrors up on the walls. All the walls. Covered ’em. Now every interaction was brilliantly reflected, every action apparent, every movement mirrored.

I hated it. I’m long gone from that event and I still cringe. When I was on stage living a character that was a beautiful woman, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage being a young boy character, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage acting all suave Daniel Craig-y, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me, Jewish David Razowsky.

That mirror invited my ego in, my “self” in. It trumped my imagination, it heavily challenged my suspension of disbelief, it brought “me” in, when I didn’t need “me” to appear, nor to be an arbiter of how I was doing.

Over the years I’ve learned to be mindful, to be in the moment, to give focus to what serves my joy and my scene partner. I’ve learned to stop looking into a mirror, realizing that so often that mirror isn’t literally a mirror, rather it’s a mental reflection where we artists sacrifice the joy of the process for the “thrill” of falling down the rabbit hole of doubt, dancing with judgment and second-guessing. I’ve learned to see the mirror, but not to look into it.

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 has a long list of celebrity friends, and an equally impressive collection of Bloody Mary photos.

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.

Last year we posted Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv. Here’s some more.

1. Be willing to fail.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

When we’re learning to improvise, we fail constantly. Improv teaches us that mistakes are OK, and life becomes freeing and fun. But after a while, we can start to fall into certain patterns of behaviour.

  • You always go in to first beats with Bob
  • You start every scene by holding an imaginary beer
  • You reference Star Wars at least once every show
  • When all else fails, zere’s always your hilarious Cherman accent, ja?

We repeat these patterns because they’re safe and familiar. Chances are they got laughs in the past. But if you want to grow as an improviser, you need to step outside your comfort zone.

Jump in the deep end. Throw something out there without knowing where it’s going. Get yourself into trouble. When you give yourself permission to fail, you open up new possibilities.

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

2. Go with your gut.

There are times when performers are so in sync, their responses so lightning-fast, it almost seems supernatural. When we’re truly in the moment, improv is effortless. Like UCB’s motto, we “don’t think.” So what’s doing the thinking for us?

Your brain is designed to filter out information, or else your conscious mind would be overwhelmed. But your subconscious takes it all in.

We make moves based on the information we have. Consciously, we’re usually focused on ourselves and our scene partners. Subconsciously, we’re doing much, much more.

When your subconscious takes in what you’re doing, what your scene partner is doing, what the rest of your team is doing, what the audience is doing, what the person in the booth is doing, what song is playing at the bar, every single scene you’ve ever seen or played, and sends you an idea…you take that damn idea!

3. Slow down.

“If it’s done well, I’ll watch somebody tie their shoe.” – David Pasquesi

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

When the lights go up in Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ and Dave stand silently on stage. No one says anything for a full 14 seconds. Most improvisers would be chewing their hand off by that point, but taking the time to read each other is par for the course for this duo.

Here’s an exercise they teach, which is great for connecting with your scene partner:

Two players stand across from each other. One is the sender, the other is the receiver. The sender tries to communicate their character, their relationship to their scene partner, their want or situation – all without miming or speaking. The receiver then says what they got from the other person’s energy and body language.

The first time Cameron and I did this exercise, TJ asked what I got from Cameron’s character.

“Well, he’s my husband, and he’s about to tell me that he told his boss to stick it, and now he’s been fired.”

Cameron’s eyes widened. “I was her husband, I’d just told my boss to go fuck himself, and I quit!”

(For the record, this was waaaaaaay before he basically did that in real life.)

The next time you walk onstage, take a moment to pause, breathe, and fully check in with your scene partner. You don’t need to rush to be funny.

4. Be here now.

We spend a lot of time in our heads, and not just when we’re improvising. If you’re feeling guilt and shame, you’re thinking about the past. When you feel fear and anxiety, you’re thinking about the future.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re worrying about tonight’s show, stressing about what character to bring next, or feeling bad about that stupid thing you did in fourth grade: now is all that exists.

Know that you have everything you need in this moment. When you bring your focus to what’s in front of you – whether it’s your scene partner or a plate of lasagna – then you’re truly living. (And who cares if you forgot your swim trunks in Grade 4? Underoos are the coolest!)

Of course, like all things, it takes practice. For further reading, we recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.

5a. Reach out and touch someone.

Have you seen that show, Two People Standing And Talking in a Void? It’s the one where no one touches anyone, physically or emotionally.

If you’re in a scene professing your love to someone, and you’re both standing still two feet apart, move closer. Couples touch. Touch his cheek. Caress her arm. Boop his nose. Hold hands.

Touching is a great way to show you’re humans with emotions. Patting your scene partner on the head, or putting them on your shoulders says a lot about your characters.

5b. Reach out and touch something.

Before a scene starts, the only things that exist on stage are people and chairs (ohhh, that’s where they got the name). After the scene starts, everything exists. Like The Matrix, we just need to declare it.

We learn about ourselves by exploring the world around us. So grab some chairs and make a hot tub, a ferris wheel, or a TARDIS. Reach out and find an object, then use it to define your character. You don’t have to know what you’re reaching for. The joy is in the discovery.

6. Study the masters.

Read Napier and Norman and UCB. Read interviews and e-books and blogs. Subscribe to podcasts and listen on your way to work.

Most of all, go see live shows. If you live in a big city like New York, Toronto or London, you can see top improvisers almost any night of the week. If you live in a small town, festivals like the Del Close Marathon, Vancouver International Improv Festival, or NC Comedy Arts are a great way to see these people all in one place.

And for a mere ten dollars, you can see TJ and Dave perform at their brand new theater in Chicago. That’s like seeing Simon and Garfunkel in concert at 1965 prices. Heck, if you have to jump on a Greyhound to get there, it’s worth it.

7. Play with people who are better than you. Play with people less experienced than you.

There’s a tendency to stick with the same group of people throughout our career. It might be your Con class, your first Harold team, or any number of other cliques.

Ensembles are great for building trust, but if you feel like you’re in a rut, mix it up a little. (See “Be willing to fail.”)

There are great young performers who are still students. And great veteran performers who are still playful. Don’t be scared to ask one of your heroes if they’d like to perform with you. And if you’re an old pro, do a show with your students. It’s a great reminder to take care of your scene partners, and they might surprise you by how much funnier they are.

8. Have other interests.

We said it before, but it bears repeating. Improv is an incredible gift, but there’s no surer way to suck the well dry than to drain it constantly.

If you’re taking five classes, doing three shows a night, and spending all your free time with other improvisers, it’s time to reassess before you burn out.

The pros know this. In between directing the Second City Mainstage, opening a new theater, and writing a new book, Mick Napier practises card tricks, shoots pool, plays guitar, and builds stuff with erector sets. David Razowsky travels the globe teaching improv, but he also spends time discovering each city, trying new foods, and honing his photography skills.

Enjoy all that improv has to offer, but be sure to make time for other things.

“The more art you bring to your life, the more life you bring to your art.” – David Razowsky

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Editor’s Note: Regarding #3, David Knoell prefers the word “patient” to “slow,” to avoid confusion between having awareness and bringing low energy. David Razowsky prefers “mindful.” These are both great descriptors, so use whatever resonates with you.