For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch.
P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?
TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.
P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?
Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.
After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.
P&C: What can readers expect from the book?
TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.
Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise
P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?
David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.
TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.
P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?
David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.
TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.
P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?
David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.
TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.
P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?
David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.
TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.
P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?
TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.
P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?
David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.
P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?
David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.
TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.
P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?
TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.
David: I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.
P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?
TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of
P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?
David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)
TJ: I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.
P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?
TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.
P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?
David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.
P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?
David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.
TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?
Improvisation at the Speed of Life is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:
• The Job of an Improviser
• Being a Good Stage Partner
• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)
• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)
• Fuck The Rules
• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement
• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal
• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble
• Taking the Next Little Step
• The People We Play
• Details and Specificity