Posts tagged Todd Stashwick
This game uses physicality to find a character, heighten and explore it. Our thanks to Todd Stashwick for teaching us.
To begin, players walk around the room in a neutral gait. As you walk, become aware of what part of your body you normally lead with. It may be your nose, forehead, chest, shoulders, hips, knees… Whatever it is, heighten it.
Stay in this exaggerated walk for a minute or so, then be the complement to that walk. For example, if you were walking with your shoulders slumped and stomach protruding, throw your shoulders back and suck your stomach in.
Walk in your new character for a while, then be the complement to that walk. After 30 seconds or so, become the complement to that walk.
Staying in this last physicality, stop and find something in your environment. Reach out and shape the space in front of you. Feel space push back as you work with the object.
What have you found?
Is it heavy or light, large or small, rounded or angular? Feeling the weight and shape of the object, think about your name, age and occupation.
Remember your physicality and newfound characteristics as everyone takes a seat. At the front of the room are two chairs, angled towards each other. The Coach/Director sits in one. He or she will play the Interviewer, whose task is to hire a super spy.
The qualified applicant must know twelve languages, be a mixed martial arts expert, have excellent sniper skills, be able to crack codes and hack into enemy computers, etc. etc. Think James Bond meets S.H.I.E.L.D. on steroids.
The Interviewer buzzes an off-stage assistant to bring in the next job applicant. He or she then interviews as many unqualified applicants as there are players.
Each person’s unsuitability for the job will be revealed as the Interviewer questions them about their experience (or lack of), physical (dis)abilities, personality and other quirks or tics.
When the Interviewer can take no more, he buzzes in the next applicant.
As you can see from the photos, it’s more fun than a season of The Americans. Try it at your next rehearsal.
Love, love, love this reminiscence/meditation/love letter to improv by Todd Stashwick.
(Click on image below to read.)
“Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin'” – Nilsson
If the thought of doing a silent scene fills you with nightmare visions of Marcel Marceau, relax. You don’t need to chew the scenery, and not everyone has to be mute.
Even one silent character can steal the show.
Second City actor Jason DeRosse played a baby in a five-person scene. The other performers were hilarious, but the audience was riveted on Jason. He didn’t make a sound; just lay on his back looking wide-eyed and innocent, occasionally grasping a mobile overhead.
When I asked him about it afterwards, he told me “Strength in silence!”
If you want to strengthen your non-verbal muscles, the following exercises can help.
Music is a powerful emotional cue. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history use music in place of dialogue:
• The shower scene in Psycho
• The opening montage from Up
• The iconic slow-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs
Rob Norman and Becky Johnson did a silent scene with music at Comedy Bar. The audience shouted out “colonscopy” and “Titanic.”
Mark Andrada cued the title song, and Rob and Becky played out a love story between doctor and patient that could only happen in improv.
Now it’s your turn…
For this exercise, select two performers.
The Coach/Director plays a piece of music. It can be anything from Carly Rae Jepson to Jay-Z, from jazz to blues to hillbilly music.
The music sets the mood for the scene, which the players perform without words.
They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s eye contact and a connection between the characters. Let the musical changes inform the action and reactions.
Try it with different kinds of music, with or without chairs.
You can also try adding sound effects.
Watch how sound effects heighten the tension (and hilarity) in this scene from Boogie Nights. (Yes, there is dialogue, but the tension is in the spaces between the words and sounds.)
This is similar to the Gibberish Translation exercise, except the people on stage are silent.
To begin, choose four people. Two will be in the scene, and two will be Narrators. The Narrators stand on either side of the stage or rehearsal space. The other two ask for a location, then start the scene without speaking.
They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t really matter. The only rule is, no talking.
Allow the performers to settle in for 20 to 30 seconds, giving them time to get comfortable with their character and make eye contact with their scene partner.
One Narrator then voices a thought inside the head of the character closest to him.
The second Narrator then voices the other character’s thoughts.
Since all the dialogue is internal, the characters can’t hear what each other is thinking. For example:
Narrator 1: Look at Brad, sitting there all smug. What a d-bag.
Narrator 2: Cathy sure is pretty. I wonder if she likes me?
So we’ve established that Player 1, voiced by Narrator 1, is repulsed by Player 2. Meanwhile Player 2, voiced by Narrator 2, has a crush on Player 1.
From here, both the Players and Narrators can have fun ratcheting up the tension between them, since all of the thoughts – however outrageous they might become – are in the characters’ heads, while their outward appearance might suggest something else.
1 to 50
This exercise demonstrates the importance of tone and body language, and the unimportance of words when we communicate.
Two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion. Instead of words, they can only say numbers. The players take turns until they reach 50. For instance:
Player 1: One.
Player 2: Two.
Player 1: (quizzical) Three, four?
Player 2: (excited) Five-six-seven!
Notice how quickly we become emotional when we don’t have words to hide behind. In order to communicate your point of view, tone and physicality become much more important.
Good Morning Fucko
This exercise is great fun to watch and play. The Coach/Director may side coach, in order to keep players focused on responding to each other, while maintaining their own point of view.
To begin, place two chairs close to each other, facing the audience. This will be the bed.
Two players lie back in the chairs with their eyes closed. They silently choose a deal, or point of view, for themselves as they “sleep.”
After 10 or 15 seconds, the Coach/Director says, “Good morning, Fucko.”
Both people wake up, in character.
The scene plays out silently, as the performers discover where they are, and who these characters are to each other.
Are they married? Roommates? Was it a one-night stand?
Remind players to check in with each other as they go about their day.
Don’t race through activities. If your character makes the bed, don’t just flip the covers and walk away – unless that’s how that character makes a bed.
If you step in the shower, turn on the taps. Then grab the soap. Does it have a hair in it? Ewww. Find the shampoo, and so on.
Or maybe you skip the shower and find yourselves sitting across the table having cereal.
What is the vibe between you? That’s the scene.
(Thanks to Todd Stashwick, Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Jason DeRosse, Susan Messing, Tom Vest, Greg Hess, and David Razowsky for their help with this post. Stay tuned for more exercises in Part Two.)
“We think in shapes and pictures. The shape your character takes informs who that character is, and lets your fellow players recognize him/her/it when they see that shape again.” – Todd Stashwick
Physicality is a gift, not just to your scene partners, but to you as well. The second your foot hits the stage to enter a scene, notice what your body is doing.
Is it hunched over, taking small, shuffling steps? Or upright and striding confidently?
Are you snapping your fingers as you walk? Did you prop one leg on your knee as you sat down, or cross your legs demurely at the ankles?
All of these things tell our scene partner, the audience, and – if we’re paying attention – us, who this person is, before we open our mouth.
When we see a shape or image of any kind, our brain immediately goes to work, trying to find a “match” for that image. Todd Stashwick teaches an exercise that demonstrates this.
To begin, one person goes up and strikes a pose, any pose, and holds it.
The rest of the team then joins that person, one at a time.
For instance, let’s say the first person is standing with feet apart, hands on hips. The second person could go behind and stand with their hands encircling the first person’s waist. The third person could stand with one hand on the first person’s left shoulder. And so on.
If someone looks tired holding their pose, you can help by supporting them with the pose you take.
When everyone has joined in, the Coach/Director removes one person at a time, randomly. After each person is removed, pause to observe the new stage picture. It’s amazing how much it changes.
When only two or three people remain, see what the remaining pose suggests – what scene is revealed – then have those players perform it.
The last two people might look like a cop arresting a perpetrator. Or a woman proposing to her boyfriend. Or someone choking a co-worker. Or Kali, the goddess of death.
Even if there’s just one person on stage, their physicality can suggest things too. Stashwick teaches students to look at the negative space on stage, not just the positive.
But besides helping players recognize characters, shape can help your stage picture too.
Stage picture is something that’s often ignored in improv, especially after the opening (if there was one). We’re usually too busy talking to think about what the audience is seeing, and what they’re seeing is probably two people standing around yakking.
The next time you find yourself rooted to the floor, change your physicality and see how it changes the scene. Not only will you feel different, but it will immediately look different than 99% of improv scenes.
An easy way to create a great stage picture is through symmetry. Susan Messing teaches that doing stuff together makes it look important. If one person goes in as a guard, go in as a guard as well.
Observe what’s happening on stage, then mirror it. If your team is large, and more people mirror a move or a pose, it looks even more impressive. It’s the kind of thing that makes the audience think you rehearsed it.
Try it at your next rehearsal or show. Use physicality to shape your characters, build your environment, and support your team. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it works!
“If you give everything importance, you won’t have to ‘remember’ to bring it back.” – Todd Stashwick
We’ve written a few posts about physicality, and how it can change your character, literally from the inside out.
When I change my physicality onstage, the scene becomes effortless. Suddenly it’s not me standing in my usual one-leg-locked stance; it’s another entity with their own point of view, and I don’t have to think about how to respond because my physicality almost pushes the words out of me.
This TEDX Talk with Joe Dispenza is fascinating, because it explains how the different parts of our brain inform our behaviour. It also explains how taking physical action helps to create new neural networks – and thus determine who we become.
Dispenza was featured in the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? Click here to see the TEDX video.
Todd Stashwick teaches and performs improv in ways you’ve never seen before. In Part Two he talks about his acting influences, his Victorian-inspired improvised show, The Doubtful Guests, and why he has sympathy for the Devil.
P&C: How do you find improv has helped you as an actor?
TS: A friend of mine said, “Acting is improv where you happen to be saying what the writer wrote.” And so when I’m doing a scene with somebody, even if someone gave me the lines, I’m doing all the things: I’m listening, I’m heightening, I’m exploring, I’m pretending. So the same act is in play, it just often yields a different results or the decanter is a different shape.
I’ve done projects where I’ve been told, “This is an improvised show,” like, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Well, not an improvised show like Doubtful Guests or an improvised show like Mayfly. They already decided where the scene is going; they’re just letting me write my lines.
And then they’re saying, “Say that one again,” and “Don’t say that one,” and “Now do it again.” So we’re just scripting on our feet, that’s all we’re doing, in a quote-unquote improvised show. It’s not like they grabbed a camera and just chased a story down, and then figured it out in the editing room; that’s completely improvised…like The Neutrino Project.
The act of improvising is contained within acting, and when I’m “acting” on a scripted piece, I’m improvising. You cannot do an improvised show without acting the roles that you’re playing. If I go to a 40-seat basement and do an improvised show, I’m acting.
I think there’s some people that don’t consider… “Oh I’m not an actor, I’m an improviser.” I’ve never understood that phrase, because it’s like, “Well aren’t you on stage performing a character that people are watching in a live experience?” Then how are you not?
It goes back to, I believe it’s a shame-based art form, and so I think a lot of people don’t wanna consider it real theatre or real acting, even though it is. And I think in many ways it de-legitimizes it in a serious sense. That’s why there’s a lot of spoof and sketch attached to improv, so that we can… Even though the performers – I’m tangenting right now, I apologise.
P&C: Please do…
TS: Even though the performers are deeply committed to what they’re doing and really engaged in the moment because they have to be listening like a thief to everything that their partner is saying, somehow they don’t consider it theatre, or they don’t consider it acting. It’s an “improv” show. It’s improv, apostrophe. I never understood why people de-legitimized something they spend so much time doing.
P&C: I know some people who are very good, very seasoned and very respected, who don’t like the term “actor” applied to themselves.
TS: But what are you doing? Are you saying lines that are… you’re not having a legitimate conversation; it is a pretend conversation. It’s not My Dinner With André,
You’re playing another role and you’re saying lines and you’re telling a story through a performed act. But somehow that’s not theatre. Theatre’s for, like, fuddy-duddies? It’s pretension? I dunno.
Then they twice remove it and then attach it to something like a parlour trick or a sporting event, where it’s scored and adjudicated, and competed against… It’s very confusing to me. When I say, “I don’t understand,” I legitimately don’t understand where the line started, where people stopped thinking that improvisation was theatre. Or improvisers weren’t actors. I don’t understand when that happened, or why that happened.
P&C: Who has influenced you the most as an actor? I feel like you’re going to say Bill Murray…
TS: That all depends on when you asked me. I’m a thief. I just like what people do, and so I could not say one actor. If you wanna say “influenced,” who blew the initial wind into my sails that influenced me to go into acting? Yeah, again, I wanted to be Bill Murray. So that was the first, growing up. And Star Wars and The Muppets…
Now as I get older I look at the work that guys like Daniel Day Lewis do, even Jim Carrey does, Kevin Spacey… I dunno. I continue to be astounded and amazed by actors, individual moments and performances. Idris Elba right now is blowing my socks off.
P&C: Who is that?
TS: If you saw Prometheus, he was the ship’s captain. He was Stringer Bell on The Wire…
P&C: Oh, oh, yes!
TS: He’s a force of nature. Tom Hardy… God, I don’t know, I can’t pick one. Heath Ledger. Daniel Day Lewis. Johnny Depp. But then you go, uh, Andrew Scott who’s playing Moriarty on Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s played Sherlock. David Tennant…
P&C: There’s so many…
TS: It also depends on the role, who I’m gonna steal from, you know?
P&C: I’m going to jump to your non-improv stuff. You have a very varied acting career; you’ve done drama, comedy… Is there a genre you prefer, or do you enjoy playing as many different roles as possible?
TS: I like working. (laughs) Again going back to that blue collar thing. I like being employed. And the diversity allows me to be employed more often, because I can go do a half-hour sitcom and then I can go kill somebody with a hammer.
TS: I came up through comedy, and then I think because I have a deep voice and dark circles around my eyes and I have theatre training, it lends itself to villainy.
Right now if you were to ask me “What do you want to do?” I wanna do an hour-long supernatural or science fiction show. That’s what I enjoy. Like if I could be Dr Who I’d be thrilled.
P&C: I could totally see you doing that.
TS: But they’ll never hire a Yank, so I’m trying to make my own version of it. But I like anything allows me to enjoy what I’m doing.
I like the cerebral gymnastics and dexterity of half-hour sitcom, because all that is just math and music, and finding where the joke lands and double-flips and stops and starts. I love doing that. But then I also love being covered in mud at 2 o’clock in the morning while my father is dying in front of me in the middle of the woods as a sociopathic hillbilly.
I don’t know, I don’t wanna pick one because then I’d miss the other one.
P&C: That was actually one of my questions. You’ve played a sociopathic hillbilly, a replicating carny, the editor of an alternative newspaper… Do you have a dream role? You probably don’t want to limit yourself, I just wondered if there was one specific role?
TS: I’m getting too old now for it, [but] the role that I would love to do and develop the script for… Well, two of them. Because I write a comic called Devil Inside where I’m the Devil, and it’s about the Devil having a crisis of conscience and going on the lam in the Southwest desert. Our joke is it’s Breaking Good.
TS: It’s that kind of show; it’d be a Breaking Bad show with a supernatural element. That is a thing that I created with Dennis Calero; [it’s his] amazing artwork. We met when he was illustrating the Heroes online comic. He’s my collaborator, he’s drawn for DC and Marvel. He’s the best.
UCP, Universal Cable Productions, has optioned it to pitch as a TV series. So that would be a dream role.
And then the other role, that I’m probably getting too old for, is George Tilyou, the guy that started Steeplechase Park in New York, Coney Island in 1897. That’d be a dream role to play.
P&C: Why that particular role?
TS: I’m fascinated with turn-of-the-century Coney Island. I’m fascinated with the people that worked very hard to… they worked very hard to create entertainment. To alter one’s experience in a whimsical way. I find those people fascinating. P.T. Barnum…
And he in particular, he fought corruption and then became corrupted, and then finds his way back. There’s a lot in his story, and I also love that era. I love Coney Island at the turn of the century. I just find that a wonderland. I’m sure it smelled awful, but in the fog of nostalgia it holds a very high place in my heart.
And then Jack Springheel, which is the Devil; just the ultimate crisis of conscience. Having the Devil not wanting to, you know… We have a line in Devil Inside where he says, “Evil isn’t a force, it’s a choice. I’m just weighing my options.”
I like that kind of conflicted… y’know, I always play villains, and villains always wind up with a bullet in their head at the end of the episode. And so I thought how do I create a character who lives with that conflict, is the ultimate villain, in a supernatural setting, but doesn’t die at the end of the episode – in fact, is the protaganist?
So that was the genesis, no pun intended, of the idea of Jack Springheel in Devil Inside. So I would like to play that in a TV series.
P&C: I was gonna say, he looks an awful lot like you, so did you have a movie planned?
TS: I would see it as a series, like an FX-type, AMC-type series where we could be poetic and beautiful, as well as brutal and dangerous. We quote Kerouac an awful lot in the series, so we wanted to have that kind of Americana road thing and then at the same time have a crow-headed demon shove his beak through someone’s face.
I love walking that line. Like Stephen Moffat, Neil Gaiman, and those guys, they’re onto something.
P&C: Devil Inside has fantastic artwork, it’s extremely tight writing, and one of the things I love about it that it has in common with Sandman and Hellblazer for me, is a sense of humour. You have the dark and then you have this very dry sort of…
TS: For me, obviously I’m a comic book kid from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I was weaned on Sandman, I was weaned on Hellblazer, and Alan Moore and all of those existential comic books. And Batman and Frank Miller.
And so given the chance to write a story… but it’s an American version, and it’s funny because you read Preacher and you’re like, “Oh well that’s a Brit interpreting America.” And so it’s interesting for me to go, well, here’s how I see the American Southwest.
But the lineage is there and the DNA is there. And at the same time – and I reference Moffat and Davies – there’s a Dr Who thing going on, too. So you have this extraordinary eternal guy who has a smartmouth sidekick. And he’s on the run. I’m mixing all my influences in one place.
So I think if you can wring terror and comedy out of the same second, there’s something there. And I think when you’re dealing with mythic structures like Biblical characters and you’re reducing them into human shapes, and limiting them to human language, the jokes write themselves.
And then you have a character like Sophie who the safest person in the universe that she trusts is the Devil. And to me there’s something so wonderful about that, and the idea that, Hell, if the Devil can seek redemption – self-redemption – then we all can. Then anyone can.
Because I don’t believe this idea that “the Devil made you do it,” and I state this overtly in the strip. That he doesn’t make anybody do anything. Everybody makes a choice.
He can make it harder. I would say it’s like throwing the drunk his car keys. He can cloud your judgement, but still there’s a voice in your head that says, “Maybe I should give my keys to my sober buddy.” Or you go, “Screw it, I’m getting in the car and I’m gonna wreck it.”
I still have that choice because it’s all about choice. People choose to behave poorly to each other; they choose to behave kind to each other. And on a daily basis, a moment-to-moment basis, we have to make that choice: to make the world better or worse. In a microscopic and a macroscopic way.
I think by reducing the idea of evil and the Devil into a man who’s also making choices… the humour I think is what makes him relatable. So if I can relate to this mythic character of the Devil, then maybe I can tell my story and people will be willing to go along for the ride.
P&C: There’s a thread of the macabre that runs through a lot of your work. What is it about that sort of goth/steampunk/Victorian aesthetic or history that appeals to you?
TS: I don’t know. For me, I think it’s… I was very blessed. I grew up with very little darkness. Much like Tim Burton. Not saying I’m Tim Burton, but he grew up in Burbank. And so I grew up in a lovely quaint suburb of Chicago, riding my bike… There was not a lot of darkness in my life.
So because I’m a person and duality exists… I was never a goth kid. But I’ve always been tickled by dark whimsy. Like Something Wicked This Way Comes. Circuses. It always felt forbidden. And I think through literature, through film and whatnot, it was a safe way for me to explore a darker side of life.
I certainly am not a violent person; I’m a vegetarian. I’m not morose, I’m not depressed. I was the kid who listened to The Cure, but I wasn’t mopey, I’ve always been optimistic and uncynical. But I’ve gotta be honest that I have canines; we were built for ripping flesh so that has to come out somewhere. And for me it comes out playing violent video games and it comes out loving zombie movies and exploring the darkness of steampunk and Doubtful Guests.
I like that dark whimsy; Edward Gorey, Stephen King. I like the salty and the sweet.
And I think when you get to macabre, it is salty and the sweet. There’s something circuslike and playful, and at the same time it’s like It: like the clown has sharp teeth.And I think there’s something really fun about that, because it’s provocative, literally meaning “to provoke.”
I love being scared. I love that jump-out-of-your-seat stuff. I love a really good, scary horror film.
I think horror and comedy are the two things that provoke each other. Comedy elicits a response immediately, and horror elicits a response immediately. And if you talk about macabre things, like The Joker… Going back to Doubtful Guests, if I can elicit horror and comedy at the same second, well then I’m hitting you on two angles.
And those are the two biggest, most involuntary reactions as an audience: a scream or a laugh. And so I’m fascinated by both of those. I like to do both of those. I seek out things that will make me laugh hard, and things that will make me terrified.
P&C: So you do The Doubtful Guests once a year?
TS: We bring it out around October. It’s a Hallowe’en show. [It’s me and] Sabrina and Ezra Weisz, and Jason Ades.
P&C: So the inspiration for that was everything you’ve been talking about?
TS: Well, going back to what I was saying about Burn Manhattan, I had seen a show called Shockheaded Peter with a band called The Tiger Lilies. It was puppets and macabre; it was German children’s stories set to the music of The Tiger Lilies, done in this Victorian-macabre fashion. So I just said, “I wanna do an improvised show like that. How can I improvise that? What kind of stories would I tell? What would the show look like?” Bring some production value to our improvised piece. And then I pitched it to three other people and they were on board as well, and that was kind of the genesis of it, was taking that Moulin Rouge-y, turn-of-the-century thing… So that was the impetus for The Doubtful Guests.
I had come from New York having done Burn Manhattan which was really high tech: we had video, electronica, guys in black suits. And then I said, “Well, what if I went low tech? What would happen, what would it look like?”
Well, first, “What would an improvised show look like at the turn of the century?” So it limited all of our references to, nothing can be post-1888. And then what kind of storytelling that does lend itself to, and what kind of costumery and music and what does a band have to sound like, and that.
P&C: You still do Mayfly?
TS: Yep, got another one on the 7th.
P&C: Can you tell readers a little bit about it, for people who aren’t familiar with it?
TS: The genesis of Mayfly was, I had gone to an improv festival in Chicago with Doubtful Guests and some of my old Burn Manhattan cohorts were there from New York as well, and we all got onstage and played together. And everybody just sort of got the form. And so people that had never met were able to jump into this deep, physical, absurd thing.
When I got back to Los Angeles I thought, If it works and if people are willing to go along for the ride, why don’t we just throw together new people to do an improvised show with an improvised band? And it’s called Mayfly because it just lives for that 24 hours. That group will never be reassembled, and it’ll be dead, and then we’ll get another group of six people to play together.
So it’s basically the Burn Manhattan/Beast format, but with people who’ve never performed together, and never done this. We do it at Bang once a month. We get a band together, and then the show goes for an hour without suggestions and it ends when we say it’s over.
The idea was, I wanted it to feel like you’re in a pub in Ireland and everyone’s drinking, and then suddenly people just sort of stand up and grabs instruments and jam together, and when they’re done they just go back to drinking. They sit back down in the crowd at the different tables that they came from. Just this sort of pub-punk-improvised jam.
P&C: Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we go?
TS: We’re selling a printed copy of Chapter One of Devil Inside. It’ll go on sale after Comic-Con, July 11. We’ll make those available online. That’s exciting because we’ve assembled the first year’s worth of strips into one book.
P&C: I am a paper person. I think a lot of people will love that. Well, thank you so much for your time, Todd.
TS: Nice chatting with you again.
Todd Stashwick is an actor/improviser, and the co-creator of Devil Inside, an online horror/action comic that launched at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2010. His acting credits include The Riches, Heroes, Justified, Childrens Hospital and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
P&C: I read that you started tearing tickets at Second City when Steve Carell was on the Mainstage.
TS: Second City Northwest. And that cast was Dave Razowsky, Steve Carell, John Rubano, Ken Campbell, Claudia Smith-Special, and Fran Adams, and that was back in the summer of ’90.
P&C: When did you know you wanted to be on the Mainstage; was it when you took that first job, or had you known for a long time?
TS: When Meatballs came out, and Saturday Night Live, and I was watching Bill Murray. I was watching Bill Murray and I had a great deal of affinity for this Chicago jamoke.
Entering through, like, Stripes and Meatballs, which led me to going back – because I was too young when he was on SNL – but going back to then investigating his trajectory. And then Ghostbusters sealed the deal.
I just wanted to be Bill Murray growing up, so I just figured out what his trajectory was, and it was like, “OK, well he went to Second City.” So that always was dog-eared.
Before I worked there, I was in college and I went to see Second City Northwest and Joel Murray, who I’m now friends with, he was in the cast. And I just was like, “That’s a Murray! That’s a Murray!”
And I remember going to Loyola… The first day of school when we had freshman orientation, the Second City Touring Company performed and I walked to the front of the stage. And Holly Wortell was, after the show she was putting her shoes on, and I asked Holly, “How do you get into Second City?” And Holly said, “I would get a job there, like tearing tickets, so you can watch the shows and know what it is you’re auditioning for.”
And so literally the first day of college I had tucked in my head, “Well, when I get out of college I’m going to Second City.”
Because y’know, I always walked that line; I’m a blue collar performer. Amongst my family I’m the arty one, but in the world of theatre I’m a blue collar one. I’m like, “Oh, OK, do that?” Like a carpenter. “Go to Second City, learn that trade? OK. Then apply that trade? OK.” And don’t complain about your job.
For four years I was studying Stanislavski and watching these people rip themselves in half for these roles, but in the back of my head I’m like, “This is cool and awesome and I’m glad I’m learning all this training, but I just wanna be Bill Murray.”
So literally the day after I graduated college, I went and applied for a job at Second City Northwest, and they hired me to tear tickets. And I started watching Carell and all those guys, and studying.
So I was studying at Second City Northwest, then I moved downtown and transferred the job, then I was studying at Second City downtown, and then I was studying with Del and Charna at Improv Olympic, performing at Improv Olympic, and then performing at Second City in the students’ programs. And then I was hired into the Touring Company.
For two-and-a-half years I toured, then I did Second City Detroit, then Second City Northwest. Then I understudied Mainstage and then I moved to New York because I was up for SNL in ’95.
P&C: You studied with Del and Charna, and I think there’s a lot of fascination with Del because he’s almost such a mythical person now. How did he influence your approach to improv?
TS: I would say I didn’t really get to apply the stuff that Del was imparting [to] me until I was doing Burn Manhattan in New York. I think there’s something so… I get in trouble when I talk about this. (laughs) There was something so… That which was being rewarded and encouraged, often, often, onstage in Chicago, felt antithetical to what it was that Marty and Del and Donny DePollo and Viola Spolin were teaching.
There was a lot of… It’s just naïve performers – I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean young – who were being moved up through the ranks and rewarded for being really clever on their feet. And what I found that those guys were teaching me was much more physical, was much more listening-based, was much more discovery-based.
It’s not “The who, what, where in the first three lines of dialogue,” which I found a little fascistic. And I thought, Well that’s one way to start a scene. But it seemed to be the only way to start a scene. And I always found that would put me in my head and so therefore antithetical to being out of your head, which was what Del wanted you to be, in raw discovery. Del wanted you to find your demons and rip them out on stage.
For four weeks he had us…he thought this was a really great idea to go, “What if you could catch mimes?” “I caught a mime and now a mime is just mocking me everywhere.” So people would do scenes and we would do the scene behind them, mocking them in mime fashion. But then after a month he was like, “Well, this is not getting us anywhere.”
And at the time it just felt like the ramblings of a crazy man, but it was that spirit of experimentation, and that spirit of “There’s not only one way to do an improvised scene,” there’s not only one version of improvised theatre, that I think Del taught me. Take a risk. Be hard on yourselves. Take it seriously.
The people that I know that are really devoted to the art form, a lot of them studied with Del. Del took the art form very seriously. He did not think of it as a second-class form of theatre; he felt that it was very legitimate. So I think that sense of experimentation, and just a very liberated view of the work. It was punk rock.
P&C: It sounds like the same sort of thing you were excited by when you visited Scotland, and saw a fringe play that changed your idea of what improv could be. Could you tell us about that?
TS: In Chicago before I went to Scotland, I had done a show called Mobius American Theatre. And Mobius was a form that we had developed where we would rehearse different playwright styles in non-spoof fashion. Like legitimately go, “OK, let’s take Mamet, let’s take Tennessee Williams, and what are the tropes?” As opposed to pointing at the tropes, like what truly are the types of themes that recur in these stories, in a non-satirical way. There were some great people; Brian Boland and Gwynne Ashley were in that group.
We would improvise a final scene, and then go back to the beginning of the play and justify that final scene. So that we would go back and improvise, slowly build, over the course of an hour. And so I was already kinda dismantling what I thought you could do. And we would have act breaks, we would have set changes, and it felt like a real play.
Then I went to Scotland and I saw these guys doing a three-act play with just the three of them. This was Rejects Revenge. They would create a swing and a butterfly and hieroglyphs with their bodies, and this very European clown tradition of physical theatre.
And what I always do is I look at something that is not in the improv world and go, “How can I improvise that? I want my improv show to look like their scripted show.”
The seeds got planted with doing Mobius, and then it carried through like, “OK, well we could do an improvised play, but we could be all the things. We don’t need props, we don’t need anything.” And not just Spolin-based object work, but like (mimes a butterfly flapping its wings) butterflies.
And that fascinated me, how those three could take us to the tombs of Egypt in a Victorian adventure. It blew me away, and so like a barnacle I attached myself to their neck and bled them for all information they would give me, and that’s what I carried with me into New York… So I just had to reverse engineer.
P&C: And that became Burn Manhattan.
P&C: So when you moved to New York, the improv scene there at the time was not what you were doing, obviously.
TS: It was game-based, and sketch-based, and there were whispers of a Harold finally making its way east.
But going back to what I was saying about… And again I’m not slagging Chicago. There were places like The Annoyance that were really trying stuff, but it was just harder because you had this Holy Grail which was Second City, so so much of people’s work in the outside groups was designed to get us ready for that Second City audition once a year, or twice a year.
And New York didn’t have a Groundlings; it didn’t have its one thing that sort of set the benchmark for what improvised theatre is. There were pockets of lots of game-based improv, and a lot of great, amazing improvisers, but they were hungry for something else.
So we were able, having gotten the whole Second City thing out of our system – myself, John Thies, Mark Levenson, Kevin Scott, Jay Rhoderick and Matt Higgins – and we didn’t have anybody telling us, “Well that’s not gonna get you anywhere.” We weren’t trying to do anything but it. We weren’t trying to get hired by anybody. We weren’t trying to be ready, and so we just didn’t care. We had Shira Piven at the helm, pushing us all into new places.
Kevin was in a group called Bang Bang in Chicago with Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts, and he had already been pushing the bounds a little bit, but they were way on the north side of Chicago so they were really separate from the community. So we had all the pieces together for us to do something, and no community that was telling us not to.
P&C: You’re big on physicality, object work and spacework. Why is physicality so important to improv, at least for you?
TS: If the goal is to remain in a state of discovery, our minds can wander, but our bodies are always connected to the space. Our bodies are always standing there. And if we keep our bodies in motion, it keeps us in a state of discovery.
If we connect physically to the space, if we connect physically to each other, and we throw our focus external as opposed to internal, it keeps us out of our head. It keeps us literally in a state of discovery. I have to have my eyes open, I have to be discovering things physically in order to keep feeding the beast.
P&C: I remember that from your workshop… I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was, “If you do something physical, that keeps the left brain busy so your right brain can play.”
TS: The left brain contains judgement. It also contains speech. But it also controls movement. And so if you move, the left brain’s going, “I gotta do this, I gotta do this right now, I don’t have time to judge myself!” So the right brain can go, “Oh, butterflies! Oh, finger painting! Yay! Improvised song!”
P&C: As part of your workshops, you teach clown. What do you think clown brings to an improviser’s or actor’s repertoire of skills?
TS: Well I’m no expert on clown; I’m stealing anything as I go along the way and shoving it in my bag. Clown is a willingness to be vulnerable and fearless. A willingness to fail and pick yourself up and keep moving forward. It is attention to physicality and it’s very connected to the audience.
And the kinds of shows that I enjoy doing, whether it’s Doubtful Guests, Burn Manhattan, Mayfly, are very, very connected to the audience. And allowing what is happening in the audience in front of you in the room to really inform the show.
And clown is very wide awake and vulnerable. Clowns don’t lie. They are clowns. They aren’t playing clowns, they are clowns.
P&C: You do a lot of creative things. Do you think of yourself as an actor, or do you think of yourself as an artist? How do you define yourself?
TS: That’s a very curious question, because I think all my life, growing up, I’ve always thought of myself as an actor. Just because that was my gateway drug into entertainment, was acting. So I just think it’s all part of this big ball of just entertainment, whether I’m writing a comic, or working on writing a pilot, or doing an improv show, or creating a stage show. Honestly, I’m not trying to be cryptic or anything. It’s just what I do. So I don’t see it as “acting,” “producing,” “creating the poster for it.” It’s all just making entertainment in many forms.
If somebody came up to me and said, “So what do you do?” I would say “Actor.” That’s the first thing that comes out of my mouth, but I know the parameters of that job description are limited to somebody handing you a script, and you memorizing those lines, and either standing on a stage or a sound stage or on location and saying them.
I think of myself as an actor. What I do in practice, is a whole bunch of other junk.
P&C: What do you love about improv versus scripted work?
TS: What do I appreciate about improv that is not contained within scripted work? Because they’re not at war…
P&C: That’s a better way to put it.
TS: When you say the word improv or improvisation, it’s always a live experience for me, and it has a finite performance time. It begins, it middles, it ends, there’s a curtain call, there’s an introduction. It’s contained within an evening and you get immediate communication with the audience.
I can walk home at the end of the night and hold in my head what I did that day, as opposed to working on a film, I’ll do this piece from, you know, Scene 23, and so I’m not the one who has to hold the whole story in my head. Nor at the end of the night can I walk home and go, “OK, I know what I did.” You know what I mean? And I also get to behave in ways, improvisationally… Like, rarely am I ever gonna be cast as an 80-year-old black blues musician. But in an improvised scene I could play that, and it’ll all take place inside the letter “I.”
The absurdity of live theatre that we are discovering as we go gives me opportunities to perform and to discover in ways that I’m not afforded in scripted work.
I like the 40-seat-basement people. I like performing for people in a black-box theatre on a hot Friday night and we all have a glass of whisky afterwards, and it’s that live, kinda punk feeling that you get from a live experience…
I don’t do improvisation for money, I do it for the love of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever really been paid to perform as an improviser. I’ve been paid to do Second City, but we were paid to perform scripted shows and then we improvised as well. But that has always been kind of my hobo’s heart.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where we discuss acting, writing, and get the scoop on Jack Springheel.
I love this game. It’s as fun to watch as it is to play. The multi-talented Todd Stashwick teaches it to heighten listening with your whole body and engage your primal brain.
To begin, players spread out around the room and close their eyes. Turn out the lights for added darkness.
The Director/Coach chooses a Scorpion by silently tapping him or her on the shoulder. Once a Scorpion has been chosen, everyone begins walking around with their eyes still closed.
When the Scorpion comes in contact with another player, he or she stings them by making a “Zzzzzz!” sound. Once you’ve been stung, open your eyes and stand against the wall. If you see players about to walk into walls or other obstacles, gently guide them back to the centre of the room.
When there are only two people left with their eyes closed, both have the power to sting. Whoever stings the other first, wins.