Friday, October 24, 2014

The Zen of Improv: Curiosity Killed the Crap Scene

By Pam Victor

Do this. Don’t do that. Do listen. Don’t reject other people’s idea. Do play the patterns. (Don't play the patterns.) Don’t try to be funny. (But do be funny. Just don’t try.) Don’t do transaction scenes. Don’t ask questions. Don’t do teaching scenes. (Except when it feels right to do transaction scenes, ask questions, do teaching scenes.)

And behind all of these dos and don’ts is the big granddaddy of them all: Don’t be afraid. Fear kills every great scene. Fear that I’m going to fail.Fear that I’ll humiliate myself. Fear that I’ll piss off my scene partners. Fear of being too "in my head." Fear of not being in control. Fear of trusting my scene partners. Fear of doing a shitty scene and everyone will hate me and I’ll get cut from the team and nobody will ever want to play with me and I’ll never get to improvise again … and … and … and …

I think we can all agree that fear is where good improv scenes go to die. But how do you stop being afraid? I don’t know about you but the command “Don’t be afraid” only bounces off me like a rubber ball. It’s fun to contemplate the "Don't be afraid" ball whooshing towards my gut, but, like other “don’t,” it doesn’t stick. Bonk!, boing, boing, boing, it bounces off and bumps along on its little rubber ball way. Hell, if I could just stop feeling something through sheer desire and will, you can bet your ass that right now I would instantly stop feeling afraid and ashamed and regretful and longing and grief and a whole jackpot of other horrible feelings. But, hey, maybe you’re a better person than I? Maybe “Don’t be afraid” makes you stop being afraid? If so, then Congratufuckinglations! There is no reason for you to read any further. Go forth and improvise in greatness! Love and peace be with you.

Still here? 

Yeah. Me too.


"I think, at a child's birth,
 if a mother could ask a fairy godmother
to endow it with the most useful gift,
 that gift should be curiosity."

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor was no Zen master, as far as I know, but Curiosity seems like it would be a good wide-thinking idea. So lately, I’ve been experimenting with simply feeling curious about what it would be like if fear – or any unwanted thought habit - wasn’t a part of my work. Instead of wishing glumly for things to be different, I’m trying to be CURIOUS about what it would be like if things were different. And that's all. All I'm trying to do is think about being curious. So rather than, “Don’t be afraid of doing a shit show tonight,” I’ve been trying to think, “I wonder what it would feel like not to be afraid of doing a shit show tonight?” What would it be like to improvise with a simple sense of wonder as my guiding force? What would it be like to be curious onstage? I wonder what is going to happen next? If curiosity killed the cat, then in this case the cat would be the thoughts and habits that impede becoming the best improviser I can be. Those thoughts and habits are a bad cat. It's the cat that lets you pet it, its purring relaxing you into a daydream, then suddenly bites the shit out of your hand. Bad, bad cat.

I wonder what it would be like not to feel afraid tonight? I wonder what it would be like to not worry that I don’t know where the scene is going and how it will end? I wonder what it would be like to let go of worrying about the theme of the Harold? I wonder what it would be like to completely let go and trust my scene partners to be geniuses, artists, and poets?

Maybe at my next show, I'll just pick one or make up some other moment of curiosity. Instead of being bossy with that stubborn toddler of Fear inside  – Do that. Don’t do that! -  I wonder what would it be like to simply be curious about a show without Fear? I wonder what it would be like to let go and trust that it will all be okay?


That’s some terrifying shit. But I have to admit, I’m a little hot-stove curious about it.





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Still improv curious? 

Check out  some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews.

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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" in Western Massachusetts.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Essay: The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment (#12: The Mother of To-Do Lists)

by Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]

One of the hardest parts about the Experiment for me right now is trying to get it all done. For the last few months, I've been continuously putting lots of poles in the water, so that I end up spending a lot of time trying to manage a lot of different poles, as it were. The teaching. The comedy show producing. The writing. Catch a couple fish now and then. (Yay!) Put more poles in the water. Check the poles.

Ok, hang on a sec. You get the poles are emails and phone calls and general outreach to potential teaching/writing/performing gigs, right?

Good. I thought you got it it, but I wanted to check, just in case you thought I was spending a lot of time fishing. To be clear, I am spending zero time fishing. None. Not one minute. In fact, I don't like fishing because of the whole killing fish thing. (No offense, fisherpersons.) I do like eating fish, however, which I realize creates a complex and hypocritical relationship that I have with fishing, but - again - we're not talking about fishing here.

We're talking about this:



That is one of my recent, weekly to-do lists. 

Not long ago, I realized that managing all those poles ... oh, fuck the stupid metaphor ... I mean, doing a lot of different jobs at once makes me anxious. The whole faux-multi-tasking pace stresses me out tremendously. ("Faux" on account of the fact that there is apparently no such thing as multi-tasking. There's just doing a lot of different things quickly and consecutively and, in my case, not always gracefully.) That's where this ugly to-do list comes in handy. It is absolutely required to write it all down. And I've found that due dates are essential as well. As you can see, various colors of highlighter figure into the system as well. Lately, I've been making sub-to-do lists (small, orange pieces of paper with the day's shorter list of things to do), which has been very helpful because it gives me a sense of completion at the end of the day. Plus it's fun to crumple up a little, orange piece of paper and throw it in the recycling pile. Two points!

I'm trying really hard not to get caught up in the stress, just to let it pass like a wave. Though after the last few weeks of being out almost every night, I also realized that working evenings are adding to the stress, which is problematic since all my improv teaching gigs, shows, and rehearsals are in the evening. So I have to figure out a way to get over that. As of yet, I haven't been able to get in any R 'n R during the day, on account of my generalized "Bonbons and Oprah" guilt of watching TV in the middle of the day. I'll figure it out ...

Oh, I should mention that I'm officially one-third of the way to my financial goal! Maybe it is possible to make a living doing what I love? The next trick is to do it without the acid eating away at my stomach lining.

If you dare say I should take up fishing, I'll fucking slap you. With a fish.

God, I love when people get slapped across the face with fish ... that just never gets old.

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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. 

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: David Pasquesi (The Scene Can't Begin)

Read more in Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi.

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Scott Adsit of 30 Rock
...Colleen Doyle of Dummy

and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!  (Yes, I said "breast.") And get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Essay: The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment (#11: "You Have a Weird Job")

by Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]

A couple nights ago, I fell into bed after the hour-long drive home from performing in an improv show where I had mimed the theme from Great Expectations, embodied a skunk shooting its stench from

its ass, and played a domineering, homosexual janitor in an improvised musical called Fast Times at West Spring High. Not quite as lively as the previous Tuesday when I had ridden a cast-mate piggyback across the stage, been dismembered by a candy called The Guillotine and wound up hanging upside down for five minutes, and had my left boob groped onstage by every member of the cast, but still, a good show. My husband was, of course, already in bed. (We don't always see each other standing these days.)

"How was the show?" he asked sleepily.

I mumbled back into my pillow, "An hour ago, I was singing Everyone is Great at Gay Night at The Smitty's." 

Falling into sleep, he said softly but not unkindly, "You have a weird job."

Job. This is my job.



Performing with The Majesters
Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA (Fall, 2014)
(R-L, Tony Silva, Tom Dahl, Scott Braidman, Mosie McNally and a lucky lady)
Before I started this experiment, nobody ever called improvisation my job, except me when I was trying desperately to make a point. But something is different now. Maybe it's because I'm getting paid regularly to perform. Maybe it's because I'm working my ass off. Maybe it's only my own attitude shift. But it's beginning to feel like I'm doing "legitimate" work. 

More often than not these days, I'm stressed and exhausted and running on fumes, but I am grateful to be working. This is my job. It's really fucking weird. And I love it.


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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: Scott Adsit of "30 Rock"


Read more in...Geeking Out with...Scott Adsit 

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:

Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Peter S. Kim about the Second City Bob Curry Fellowship
...Colleen Doyle of Dummy

and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!  (Yes, I said "breast.") And get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Geeking Out with...TJ and Dave: The Real Live TALK SHOW! (District Improv Festival 2014)

After their show at the District Improv Festival (Washington D.C.), I sat down onstage with
TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi
to delve into the process that goes into improvising TJ and Dave.

I wish I could share it with you, but as it is a 
"Real Live TALK SHOW" interview, 
you had to be there to see it.
Sorry.
(Though you can read most of the stuff in our book soon.)

The only tangible souvenir I have is this not-so-great photo of
us all, apparently napping during the interview.


Click here for more info. about the 
Geeking Out with TALK SHOW.


To keep on Geeking Out, check out all these yummy interviews
including pretty mind-expanding written interviews with TJ and Dave.

* * *

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave

Geeking Out with...Laura Hall, Rick Hall, Mike Descoteaux, Megan Gray, and Jenny Z: The Live TALK SHOW (Boston Comedy Arts Festival, 2014)

I had a fascinating conversation onstage 
about the art and business of comedy with 
Laura Hall (Whose Line Is It Anyway?), 
Rick Hall (Factory, Second City), 
Mike Descoteaux (Artistic Director, ImprovBoston),
Megan Gray (Artistic Director, Magnet Theater), and
stand-up comedian Jenny Z (TBS's Funniest Wins

And the best news is, 



[Photo credit: Scott Isvan/BCAF]

With Jenny Z
[Photo credit: Scott Isvan/BCAF]

With Laura Hall and Rick Hall
[Photo credit: Scott Isvan/BCAF]

Talking to Mike Descoteaux and Megan Gray
[Photo credit: Scott Isvan/BCAF]

Click here for more info. about the 
Geeking Out with TALK SHOW.


To keep on Geeking Out, check out all these yummy interviews.


* * *

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave

Essay: The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment (#10: Two Months In)

by Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]

I'm two months into my experiment, and things seem to be financially on target so far. I actually exceeded my monthly goal for September a bit, more than making up for the little shortfall I had in August. I have far more work to do than hours in the day. Most of that work is paid at least a little. A goodly chunk of the work is an investment in future jobs - such as, promotion for gigs and classes, updating websites, and sending in proposals for potential jobs. Some of the work is more for fun than profit, like my Geeking Out with... interviews. (Did you read the Jason Shotts interview? That one was a surprising delight! I was scared he was going to be a gruff, intimidating guy, but he turned out to be a super smart, articulate, gentle man.) Also under the unpaid-but-worth-it category were the live interview shows that I performed at District Improv Festival (Washington D.C.) last week and the Boston Comedy Arts Festival the week before. Oh, and I'm helping my son apply to college for next year, but let's not talk about the financials of that endeavor please.

When visiting my little brother in D.C. last weekend, I told him about the various jobs and projects I'm doing and he quite simply said, "That's too much. That is just too much." 

I can see what he means. I can feel it in my weary bones. But I'm determined to ignore the exhaustion and how much I want to spend more evenings at home watching The Good Wife with my husband. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, right?



Since my experiment started on two months ago, here are jobs I've been paid for:
  • teaching three different weekly academic classes to elementary school-aged homeschoolers
  • teaching a weekly improv class for adults
  • taught an improv workshop
  • taught a week-long improv class for teens
  • organizing and facilitating a bunch of comedy workshops
  • I have not been a good wife.
    But finding a new series to
    watch with my husband might make
    a better wife!
  • performing nine improv shows! 
Plus, I'm working as a project manager on a book project (haven't yet been paid but I've worked billable hours), I'm set to start teaching a weekly improv class for teens next week (barely enough kids registered so it's a bit of a six-week, investment-in-the-future project), and I'm about to open registration for my next series of weekly improv classes for adults (that one will fill quickly). I also have one active proposal for an improv-based class being considered by a local business, and I have two more proposals that I need to write and send in to other places (fingers crossed).

Teaching is definitely the biggest source of income so far, but I am the most proud of the paid improv gigs. Paid improv, you guys! In the last two months, nine of the times I've performed, I walked away with money in my pocket. It's like I found a unicorn that poops magic fairy dust! It's loooooong been my dream, my visualization, to perform that often with the quality of improvisers I've been lucky enough to share the stage. Even if I don't keep up this dreamy rate, I am extraordinarily grateful (so grateful!!!) to be in that position now. I am here to tell you, fellow improvisers and theater managers, it is possible.

Today is Saturday. Even though I was coma-inducing exhausted after our show last night, I couldn't sleep past 6:30 this morning. Very frustrating. I'm kind of stressed out. I have too many thoughts about last night's show - our first one in a regular theater in a small town that has never seen improv - and how to expand and improve our work for our show there next month. So I'll work today. And maybe a little on Sunday. But I really am looking forward to sitting on the couch and watching The Good Wife with my husband for at least a couple hours this weekend ...

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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: David Pasquesi


Read more in Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi.

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Scott Adsit of 30 Rock
...Colleen Doyle of Dummy

and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!  (Yes, I said "breast.") And get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: David Pasquesi (Improvisation Happens)

In the improv class I teach, we did my version of an exercise that I learned from TJ and Dave. It's a beguilingly simple (and strangely challenging) exercise in which the improvisers engage in honest conversation. During the exercise, my students performed many lovely, engaging scenes full of truthful moments. Afterwards, one student said to me, "But we weren't even improvising!"

Aha!

Luckily, it had only been a few days before 
that I had been sitting in a workshop when David said this...



Read more in Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi.

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagodowski  of TJ and Dave
...Scott Adsit of 30 Rock

and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!  (Yes, I said "breast.") And get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Geeking Out with...Jason Shotts

by Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on the blog My Nephew is a PoodleFor behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

Once in a blue moon, performers get to meet their improv soul mates. Some improvisers wait years. Some of us are still waiting, always looking, forever hoping. And some wind up cudgeled with the lucky stick and get to share the stage every week with their missing piece. Jason Shotts is one of the fortunate few. (I hope you are too.) If you’ve seen DUMMY at iO Chicago, the show Jason Shotts performs with improv soul mate and real-life love Colleen Doyle, you know what it looks like to see performers bend and sway around each other as they seemingly effortlessly weave together shared discoveries in a show that awes, inspires, and entertains. DUMMY was christened “must-see improv” in 2012 by the Chicago Tribune, who went on to croon that Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts “have that all-important ability to create believable characters in an instant and they displayed what appeared to be a simultaneous (if unspoken) acknowledgment of the direction their narrative should take …”

During his decade-long tenure at iO Chicago, Jason most recently also played with Smokin’ Hot Dad, and he has been a member of several iO teams, such as Henrietta Pussycat, Armando Diaz, Otis, Willie Nelson Slept Here, Cougars, Felt, Brad Renfro, Mayhem, Chesterfield, and Dr. Shotts and Big Rig. Jason also is a valued teacher at iO, receiving in 2011 The Del Close Award for Excellence in Teaching. (Jason notes that he knows that awards mean next to nothing and you should never take them seriously, but he still thinks that one is pretty cool.)

Recently, Jason revealed that he and Colleen Doyle are leaving their beloved Chicago, and there is no doubt that the Chicago improv community mourns yet another big loss to their ranks. But their loss is Los Angeles’ gain, as West Coast audiences now get regular doses of the improv delights served up by DUMMY.

* * *

PAM VICTOR: I pretty much always start with this question - on account of the fact that I'm a secret romantic ...

When did you first fall in love with improvisation?

Jason Shotts and Gary 


JASON SHOTTS: It was back in the fall of 1997. I had just moved to Chicago in August of that year. One member of my circle was working at the Cheesecake Factory with John Lutz. She would go to iO and watch him perform, and one night she took me with her.

I had never seen improv up until that point, and I thought the show was really fun.

PAM: So Lutz is to blame. That was 4Square?

JASON: It wasn't 4Square. I saw two Harolds, and I'm thinking he was on Valhalla at the time. And that night, my friend poked me during the show and pointed backward at a man with a long white beard and she whispered to me, "That's Del Close."

I had no idea what she was talking about.

PAM: Oh wow.

JASON: But I REALLY fell in love with The Jam at iO. The Jam blew my mind.

PAM: It was a short form jam? Where you could come up from the audience?

JASON: Yeah, sort of. Let me back up a little.

PAM: Okee doke. Back up as far as you want. I’m happy to hear it all!

JASON: My roommate and I started going to iO a lot. Friday night and nothing to do? He and I would go to iO. We'd watch pretty much anything, but The Jam slowly started becoming our favorite. Yes, it was short form games and audience members jumping up onstage, but they also preplanned bits and sketches. Weird stuff. Craig Uhlir and Jim Carlson hosted it back then. The show was always different, and we loved how chaotic it was. We'd lose it and come back over and over. I never got onstage; I just loved watching it.

One night, Lutz was there and when he got up out of his chair to do something, the crowd started chanting "LUTZ, LUTZ, LUTZ!" and when he got up onstage, he killed. That night was the first time I realized that improv was something you could be GOOD at and not just ... people onstage screwing around. That kind of melted my face.
John Lutz and Scott Adsit
[Copyright John H. Abbott,
Photographer for CIF]


PAM: LOL. Awesome. I am a big Lutz fan. I love both 2Square (with Peter Grosz) and Scott and John (with Scott Adsit). So so so good.

But you still didn't think at that point that you wanted to try it out for yourself?

JASON: I just watched for four years. Never took a class, never got onstage. Friends always pushed me to take a class, but I was so scared of it. But after four years in Chicago living like a weird vagabond, I signed up for Level A at Second City.

PAM: Four years! Why Second City? Why not iO where you first were drawn in?

JASON: I had another friend who was taking classes at Second City and I think she recommended not starting at iO. I think she put me under the impression that iO would be too advanced for me. She was right. iO would've been too intimidating for me. I had ZERO performance experience and Second City’s beginning classes were perfect for me.

Plus, I didn't imagine I'd ever be an improviser, but I thought I should probably take a class just to see what it would be like. At the time, I was temping, bartending ... I drove a trolley for about a year and a half. I really didn't have any direction, and I guess I was looking for something to stick.

PAM: Interesting. So you had no theater or performance interest up until that point?

JASON: None.

PAM: Woah. And did you have an interest in comedy before that? I mean, aside from a "Haha! John Belushi is funny on TV" sort of interest? (I may have just dated myself. Sorry.)

JASON: You're not dating yourself! I’m no spring chicken.

PAM: Well, I’m a fall chicken.

JASON: I was painfully shy growing up. I didn't have a lot of friends and always felt like an outcast. But I remember the first time I made a classroom laugh at something I said, and it felt AMAZING. The other kids smiled at me and I think that changed me.
Jason Shotts at iO Chicago in Wrigleyville

I love comedy movies. Ghostbusters. Monty Python. Eddie Murphy anything.

PAM: Did you have Eddie Murphy's first album? The one called Eddie Murphy?

JASON: I didn't have albums. I remember seeing his standup on HBO as a kid, Eddie Murphy Raw.

PAM: Right. I think Raw was his second one. I had that first album memorized. We listened to it obsessively in college.

JASON: Ha!

PAM: I still can recite most of it. Except I try not to do it in public because I sound too racist.

JASON: Right? It's really hard to recite anything from Chris Rock without sounding ... terrible. Right?

PAM: Yup. Exactly.

That first album is online (on Spotify), I think. You should listen to the part about when he puts aftershave on his dick. Very funny. And the talking car. And the part about the Pope mobile. And ... well … anyway

JASON: That's something I wish I had more of, comedy albums. Maybe that's how I'll handle getting old? I'll just listen to old standup albums at the library.
If there are still libraries.

PAM: Floating library in space maybe. But they laser beam the album directly into your brain.

JASON: I was just talking about downloading knowledge into our brains like The Matrix.

PAM: Though I don't think we'll have brains by then. Just nerve endings that momentarily process information from the Internet.

Anyway, you were in college - a fan of good comedy and ginormous hamburger jokes - but still not even close to trying out for a play or anything?

JASON: Nope. I was so shy. But I had an interest in filmmaking. I wanted to be Steven Spielberg and make movies. I’d be behind the camera.

PAM: Were you able to overcome the shy boy?

JASON: Yeah, by the time I got to high school, I was a bit of an ass. Sarcastic. Cutting. That carried through into college. The shy boy faded back. He still makes appearances though.

PAM: How were those first classes at Second City for you?

JASON: The first classes were great! I was lucky to have Andy Cobb for Level B, who was great. He's definitely a major influence on the way I teach improv.

PAM: In what ways did he influence you?

JASON: Well, he was so energetic and FUN. When we'd do scenes, Andy would crouch down on the stage in between the two improvisers and look up at you. He seemed to really care about us. I didn't have any confidence in my abilities, but he built me up. He was the teacher that made me think, "Could I be good at this? Could I really be an improviser?"

After he taught our class, I heard he quit teaching. Months later, I bumped into him at a bar and I said to him, "Andy, I heard you quit teaching! You were definitely my favorite teacher at Second City. Why did you quit?"

He said, "I quit because I felt like a fraud. I don't think you can teach improv. Improv is something you learn to do onstage, and no one learns improv in a classroom. I felt dirty taking money for that."

It kind of blew my mind.

PAM: That’s crazy. Do you believe he was correct?

JASON: Yes and no. I don't think you learn to improvise in classroom, but I think improv classes serve a purpose. His take just made me sharpen up what I focus on in a classroom. If we just let improvisers get reps in a class, they don't learn anything. So ... let's not do that.

Instead, let's focus on fundamentals and understanding concepts. Then I encourage students to go PERFORM, which is where they're going to learn anyway.

PAM: Yeah, I guess it was explained to me that the classroom is where you strengthen particular muscles. Then you let it go when you get onstage and that’s when you learn in a whole different way.

What is your aim as a teacher? What do you hope students take away from your classes?

JASON: I think it's my job to help improvisers with the moment they get offstage after a show, that first moment when you get in the green room. My aim as a teacher is to get improvisers to NOT say, "Well, that sucked and I have no idea why!" They should know why a show (or their scene) ended up good or bad. They need to be able to analyze what just happened and learn something from it. They shouldn't feel victimized by a bad improv show. Shows should be a learning experience. And classes should provide students an understanding of improv, so that improv doesn't feel like a invisible leprechaun they're chasing after.

Improv can feel magical, but it's not magic. It's a conversation. It's easy!

That's my other aim as a teacher. I believe it all boils down to human defense mechanisms. We get in front of an audience (or a classroom), and we feel anxiety. Fear. And the body takes over. We get defensive. We can't help it! We've evolved to do this! And now the scene is dog shit. And we panic because no one is laughing. And that panic leads to more defensiveness. And now I'm not listening to my scene partner. And I don't know what to do. And I say, "Fuck you, Larry! And that's not a chair, it's an AIDS MACHINE!"

And now? Improv is the worst, hardest thing in the world. And it just doesn't have to be. It's easy!

PAM: LOL.

JASON: And I tell my students from day one, "I'm not going to be telling you what's good improv vs. bad improv. I'm going to point out what's easy vs. hard."

PAM: Continue with this line, please. Because when I hear big dogs like you say that it's easy, I think some people might interpret that as, "It's so easy my granny could do it." But I suspect that's not exactly what you mean. Do you mean that it's ease-full?

JASON: I think anyone can improvise. Of course, I think some people have an easier time with it than others. Some of us are more defensive than others. If you stick with improv long enough, you'll have no choice but to start dropping some (if not all) of your defenses.

Improv wasn't easy for me for a long time. Why? Why was it so hard? Because I made it hard. It wasn't that my scene partners were doing terrible work; it was me being defensive. I argued. I tore scene partners apart. I backed away from what they said. I said no.

And what took me a long time to realize, as a teacher, is that when these things happen in a class I can't look at the student making his scenes hard and say to myself, "Wow, this kid is an asshole." I see a human being acting defensive. I've been there. I've made it hard. I get it. Can I help them make it easy?

You can watch any bad improv scene and see the parts where it gets hard. A line is missed because the partner isn't listening. Are they a bad person for that? No, they're a human being. An improviser wrinkles their nose at something their partner said. Is that bad? No, it's hard. You can actually just nod instead of wrinkling your nose and POOF!, you're suddenly yes-anding your scene partner and the two of you are having fun onstage.

My favorite moment as an improv teacher is the moment when a great scene has just ended and one of the people onstage looks puzzled. They furrow their brow. The scene was great and they look weirded out. And I'll ask them, "What's wrong?" And they say back to me, "It can't be that easy, can it?"

PAM: LOL.

JASON: Which is not to say I nail every scene I do now. I don't. I fuck this up all the time. But I can always look back at it and say, "Here's where I fucked that up. Here's where it got hard." Duh.

PAM: While I was writing the book with TJ and Dave, we had this same debate as well. (TJ says it's easy too...) I find it very multi-dimensional because I don’t see it as an easy-hard continuum. It's a different dimension of easy, one you can't chase ...

I mean, lying down is easy, right? You just lie down. Babies do it right out of the womb. But I don’t see improvisation as that kind of easy.

JASON: I reference TJ a lot in my classes.

PAM: Yeah, I reference TJ in my brain all the time. He's insidious. (In a good way.)

Maybe this isn't how you see it, but I see it as a Buddhist-type of "easy." Easy but also hard. An easy that can take a lifetime of practice to approach.

JASON: I tell my students to watch TJ’s body language when he's onstage. He does this thing I call the "TJ Bounce" when someone is talking to him. His whole body is listening and he's physically bouncing his head and shoulders. He's finding a way into what you're talking about.

When I was a student, he was the guy I watched the most because he made it look so easy and I had to figure out what was doing. He bounces!

PAM:  Aw, shit. All I need to do is bounce!

JASON: Try it! It helps! It turns down the defenses!

PAM: I'm seeing them on Saturday. I'll watch for The Bounce. (I bounce when I'm overly excited to be onstage. It's not helpful. I'm doing it wrong, clearly.)

JASON: I push body language a lot in my classes. Arms, body positioning, etc. I push my students to smile more, too. It pushes the agreement. It makes the scenes easy!

PAM: That's a good one. I’m stealing that one for the class I'm teaching tomorrow.

JASON: I believe that if I were to take any improv student and put them somewhere where they're anxious (e.g., a party where they show up early and they don't know anyone at the party), they're going to use the same defense mechanism they use onstage. Getting aggressive, passive, managing, acting silly, etc. We can't help it! But if you can identify your mechanisms, you can work on them.

PAM: Interesting. By awareness, you can make your self-defenses less powerful.

JASON: Correct!

PAM: I’m in this strange stage right now, where I’m not taking many classes anymore because, after over a decade of study, I’m feeling like there are too many voices in my head to hear over my own voice. (This is partially a result of something TJ said to me about the downside of too much training.) How did you go about developing your own unique comic voice?

JASON: Hmm. I don't think I have a comic voice. I just try (TRY!) to treat my scene partners like they're a fun person to be around ... then I do what I'd do in real life if the improv scene's scenario was happening to us.

PAM: I think "comic voice" isn't the right phrase ... hang on, let me try again ...
It's not “voice” as in what I use onstage; I mean “voice” as in what is in my head. My guiding light as an improviser. I have a lot of philosophies in my head after studying so many places and talking to so many big brains in improvisation. I guess what I'm trying to ask is how you developed your own approach to improvisation?

JASON: Teaching. Teaching for eight years forces you to be more analytical of improv. The student's improv and MY OWN improv.

PAM: That is useful! Thank you.

You, in particular Jason, seem to be paying attention to what is going on in a scene in a very multi-leveled way. You seem to be listening, of course, to what is happening in the scene, but – correct me if I’m wrong here – you also seem to be paying attention to the show as a whole. Is that something you’re consciously doing?

JASON: I try (TRY)!

Colleen and I try hard to figure out (without thinking about it too hard) what we WANT. What's her character after? What's mine after? "Colleen's character wants to feel romanced. And she loves lilies. Maybe we can end the show with her answering the doorbell and it's a flower delivery? And the flowers are from the office mate she was talking to in the first scene. But they're roses." And then you put that in your pocket, and if that's a scenario that we can use later, let's use it. If not, I gotta toss that out.

With DUMMY shows, I push the both of us to have ideas as to where the show is going. If Colleen has an idea and I have an idea, one of those ideas will probably end the show. Having ideas like that help me relax. And the more relaxed I feel? The less anxiety I have! Less defense mechanisms!!!
iO Bathroom Selfie with "Dummy"
Colleen Doyle, Sarah Dell'Amico, and Jason Shotts
[Photo credit: Sarah Dell'Amico]

PAM: Cool. So you really are consciously looking at the show with an “overhead eye”? (I'm pretty sure that's a term I stole from TJ.)

JASON: I TRY to. I was on a phenomenal Harold team back in the day, Otis. Shelly Gossman was on the team and she would always talk about shows with an overhead eye. She could see the whole thing. And that KILLED me. I was so jealous of that. We'd run first beats she always seemed to have a great idea about where she thought it was going.

The analogy (SO MANY ANALOGIES!) I use for this with improv students is that improv shows are like a fast-moving train. When you do your first improv show, you're standing three feet from the train. It's gigantic and scary, and it's moving so fast you can't see anything. But the next train is five feet away. Less scary. After a couple of years, the train is a hundred yards from you. After ten years? That train is a mile away. And you can see the whole thing from the engine to the caboose. And it's not scary at all.

And that's why it takes time to learn to improvise! You gotta step back from that train!

PAM: And now I'm singing a Grateful Dead song. Thank you, train analogy.

JASON: HA!

PAM: And now you're singing it. You're welcome.

JASON: By the way, "overhead eye" is quoting you and not Shelly.  :) 

PAM: Quoting me probably quoting TJ, not quoting Shelly. Got it.

In our little chat together, Colleen mentioned that you both share the goal of “burning up” everything that’s been discovered in a scene. Can you break that down that process for me please?

JASON: Yeah, I'd say it's really fun to remember the little things talked about at the beginning of a show and try to find a way to bring them back later in a more important way. The show builds the importance, and when we recall the little things (and they're more important now) it can be a dazzling thing for an audience. And for us! We're like "Oh yeeeaaaahhh ... I mentioned wanting a new cooler for camping trips at the beginning of the show and now Colleen's bringing out a wrapped gift ... it's gotta be the cooler. Sweet.” And we both know it. But I won't open it for another ten minutes and let the audience go, "Oh yeah ... the COOLER!"

We'll always drop stuff, but afterward we like to talk about the little things and then go, "Shit, we could've made the squirrel you mentioned you're new pet at the end. We could've flash-forwarded to you a year later with the squirrel. DAMMIT!"

That's why analyzing the shows a little bit sharpens up those things. You start looking for those things together.

PAM: And here I am left wondering if there is a dead squirrel in the cooler …

JASON: HA! Right?

PAM: Tell about the philosophy behind DUMMY. I’d like to know what went into its creation – why you chose to do a two-person, multi-character, freeform structure – and how its continues to evolve.

JASON: Well, I don't think it's a philosophy thing. We started as a fun "Why not?" thing, and it just started to click. We'd get offstage and say, "Damn, that was good!" After a while we got really comfortable onstage. Too comfortable. The shows were so laid back they wouldn't be about anything. It was just Colleen and me babbling. So we gave ourselves goals. We kinda said, "Let's focus on this …  Let's focus on a want in the early part of the show. Let's try one long scene. Let's do it all in one location." Things like that.

We were doing a show at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy one night during a run, and these two sisters showed up and sat in the front row. The theater was BYOB at the time, and I noticed them right away because they brought a box of wine and two wine glasses. The theater probably had ten other people in it (which was normal for us back then).

Anyway, we're doing this show as two co-workers at the post office. I'm an older guy, and we’re friends. And I'm trying to give her love advice. She deserves better than the guy she's seeing. He doesn't treat her right. She's defending her boyfriend.

The second half of the show is Colleen's character and me, now playing the boyfriend. I'm trying to play him as honestly as possible. He's a shit, but he's also not an 80s movie caricature. I say something mean and then follow it up with something sweet. Push and pull. Colleen's character is dealing with all this inner conflict. Should she go? Should she stay? So fun. Not really that funny, but very honest.

There's a silent moment. Colleen's character doesn't know what to do. It's quiet. Just then, I hear one sister turn to the other and whisper (just loud enough that we can all hear her), "Ugh. She's never going to leave him."

And that was probably my favorite DUMMY moment of all time. It was one of those magical little improv moments where it felt like we were improvising a play, and these two sisters were eating up every word of it. SO FUN!

PAM: Love it. That's like the time I was tying a mucous bow tie around my neck during a short form show and the audience all said, "EWWWW!" And I'm thinking, "WTF? It's AIR, bitches. I'm just touching air, not snot."

Ok. Maybe it's nothing like that...

JASON: It's very similar! Some nights, they believe!

PAM: A generous response from a gallant gentleman. Thank you.

Congratulations about your impending move to L.A., Jason! I am not at all surprised that you two are moving out there - it seems like a natural next step for you both. Though I'm sure Chicago is heartbroken to lose you. What brought that about? Is there a specific project that is bringing you out there?

JASON: No, nothing specific. I've lived here for 17 years now. 17!! And I've lived in the Midwest my whole life. It's time for something new. We've got agents that have been great, and we've had little meetings in L.A. and introduced ourselves and talked about potential things ... nothing concrete.

It feels like the Chicago comedy scene is in a state of flux right now. And that's great! But in talking about a move, it seemed like the right time to do it.
Plus? I'm kind of done with Midwest winters. I've had my fill.

PAM: I hear that. Seriously.
Dummy

Will you be doing DUMMY out there? And teaching?

JASON: I think so. We've already got a few shows scheduled at iO West in October. We'll see how that goes. We'd like to keep performing weekly, if possible.

Teaching is tougher. We're hoping to pick up a class or two, but it's tricky. And you don't want to be the Chicago assholes that show up and say, "We're here! Where are my STUDENTS?!??!" But I'm sure we'll be coaching and teaching wherever we can.

PAM: I hope so. I'd like to send my L.A. friends your way.

Last question before I reluctantly let you go ... What’s your L.A. dream, Jason? If I get lucky enough to interview you in five years, what accomplishment would you be so f'n excited about telling me?

JASON: Honestly, I've worked day jobs in Chicago from day one. Offices, offices, offices. And last April, I finally quit!

My dream? It’s that five years from now I'm making a living writing or performing, and I'll never need to work in another office again as long as I live. That would be a dream come true!

Colleen and I have started writing together, and I think if we could sell a pilot or two or five, that would be phenomenal. But avoiding any sort of 9-to-5 would be the best!

PAM: That's the dream we all have, right? To get paid to do comedy full time.

I've been enjoying your videos. Truly funny stuff. I'd love to see more of that.



JASON: Yeah, we'd love to make more! If anyone out there wants to put the money up, we'd LOVE TO!!! ;-)

PAM: Ha! Anybody who wants to produce some DUMMY videos, just email me and my people will put you in touch with Jason's people

JASON: Yes, please!

PAM: Well, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, sir! This conversation has been delightfully entertaining and enlightening. Honestly.

JASON: Thank YOU! This has been fun! I’m honored you asked.

PAM: The honor is all mine. 

Oh, and also this ... from me, to  you:


*

If you’re in Los Angeles, you lucky souls can see DUMMY’s first show on October 16th at 8pm at iO West. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this show!


Read "Geeking Out with...Colleen Doyle"
in which she says
"To put it in an artsy fartsy way, 
I’m more confident that improv is a tool to show the truth. 
And that truth may not be comedic."


And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam performs "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page! And get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com.