Kat Kenny

QUESTION #1: The definition of an “omen” is a sign of how a future event takes place.  Are there any “omens” in improv?  Good or bad. 

Oooh, interesting question! Ok, To me, A good omen for an improv show is regular, consistent practice with your cast. Playing with a cast of actors who are all passionate about not just practicing but growing artisitcally and getting better, is huge, I think. Our product is a result of our process and in this instance, our process IS the product.  (Shout out to David Razowsky for that quote.) Add a coach and it’s an even better omen for consistently good work.  And Playing with a cast of people who genuinely like each other and like spending time together is priceless. Even better omen: trust among players. Trusting each other, trusting what’s happening.  

Another good omen:  A good show.  If we have a good show, it’s a good omen for another good show, especially when it comes to an audience. Nothing is a better advertisement for what we do than a great show.  People will want to come back.  A well produced show will also help with that, I think, in addition to the quality of the actual improvised theatre. It becomes a circle.  Please see visual aid here:  


(That is a zero but is a zero not a circle? #DeepThoughts)

I also think that good promotion is a good omen. Now, sometimes we do a nice job of promoting but will still have a smaller audience, especially if the show falls on a holiday weekend. 

 IMPROV EQUATION: Holiday weekend + Improv show = bad omen.

(I decided to show my work for that last part..  Because math matters, guys.) 

I think disorganization and poor communication is a bad omen.  If we have a show tonight and don’t know the run order, the host, the call time, the location, who is calling what set, etc, then it will probably be messy.  I think Clear communication = a well run show.  (Yup, more math.)

Now, I agree with you regarding practicing with your cast. In my current location I have seen people who want to avoid rehearsal and just perform at the show. These are typically people who have a lot of experience (relatively speaking).  What are your feelings about experienced people and rehearsing/practicing?

I see this here too. In fact, one of my own improv duos, Understated, is like this.  My partner Jeff and I live far away from each other and have never had a practice together.  We perform at fests and shows, sans practice.  We have a terrific chemistry and we trust each other completely. He’s one of my very favorite people to play with and our sets are fantastic, but I can only imagine that we’d be even stronger if we practiced. (Of course we would!)  In my opinion, it doesn’t mean you can’t have good shows, (but honestly, we’d be even stronger if we were able to practice. (An even better omen.) As a duo, I think it’s much easier to do this than in a group. More points of view = more moving parts = more practice is needed.  (If an improv equation only has = signs, is it still an equation?  Inquiring minds would like to know.)

Ok, it’s me.  I’d like to know. 

Ok, To be honest, I don’t really care. 

QUESTION #2: Improv is the process we share between improvisers. But if you practice improv there are so many things on the borders of improv – community, promotion, social media, coaching, classes, etc. What is really important in improv and what is extra?

This is such a subjective question, I think.  For ME, community is so important.  I completely understand improv being excellent and safe and fun while not being an active part of the improv community. That’s valid.  But for me, when we interact with and foster the community, we all do better as individual schools and theatres and most importantly, the students and actors benefit too. When we cross promote other classes, coaches, shows, improv casts, etc, everyone wins.  

I encourage people to study with other coaches and teachers and to not get too comfortable with one point of view.  When we’re new to something, I think it’s helpful to get different viewpoints.  

Promotion is important in getting NEW audiences to shows, not just other improvisers and students.  Social media can be a good tool for that too.

QUESTION #3: Has improv made you mindful and a better listener in real life? To what extent do you apply improv rules in your life?

So many things that make me a better improviser also make me a better human.  

  • The ability to risk 
  • Not fearing failure (as much)
  • Listening
  • Hearing the subtext behind what’s actually being said ( Another way of listening)
  • Remembering that it isn’t about me
  • Knowing that we all have something to contribute 
  • Knowing that different points of view can be a superpower, not a stumbling block.
  • Remembering the power of play off the stage as well as on the stage.
  • Getting curious about things, people, most everything
  • Finding wonder in the mundane
  • It connects me to other humans, because I’m in the practice of affecting and being affected. 
  • Remembering that my life is a process, not a destination.
  • Slowing down
  • Saying more by talking less (I mean, this is a process.  I’d say more here, but that would defeat the purpose.) 🙂
  • Being reminded that most of our power lies in what we do, not so much what we say.
  • It reminds me that improv, like social rules, were built by the patriarchy and that I get to bend or flat out ignore those rules.
  • Trust is something we talk about, but don’t always employ
  • Not rushing to judgment
  • The idea that most things in life are a gift, even if I don’t like it and I can’t see it right away.
  • Letting go of vanity
  • The ability to lean into what is happening, rather than what I want to be happening    
  • It connects me to my child self
  • It connects me to my creative self (Note: This feels the same as child self.)
  • I remember that emotions move me along, in a scene and in life. I get to feel it.
  • It reminds me to stay active, physically and to take care of my body.
  • It helps me to be more comfortable in the unknown
  • It reminds me to SOAK. IT. ALL. UP. because we never know when the lights will be pulled.

Ok, I am going to pick out one thing you said, because it completely relates to what I’m studying right now in my PhD (but I LOVE your point about “improv, like social rules, were built by the patriarchy “)  You say “Finding wonder in the mundane.”  What do you mean? Can you expand on that more?

 In improv, like in life, the magic is already happening if we’re present enough to see it and recognize it.  I think improv actors often work too hard to “make something happen” without realizing that something is ALREADY happening.  We don’t need dramatic plot points, or to go to crazy town to make magic.  There is so much magic in the minutia –  a look, a quiet moment of tension, the ordinary.  Magic can happen in a scene that takes place in a driveway in suburbia. We don’t need to go to the moon. If we relax and stop trying to MAKE something happen, we discover that it already is. 

If you aren’t following Kat Kenny Improv on Social Media you really, really, really, really should. Kat Kenny Improv = insight, support and inspiration. I have been so impressed with her drive, out put and authenticity. Many times people quest for the spotlight and by doing so they post platitudes or vanilla posts in hopes to draw anyone. Kat Kenny puts her heart out there – vulnerability not approval seeking. I madly respect that. I read her posts and I feel like “dang, I wish I had posted that!”

I feel like Kat Kenny is the future of improv. The future I want to see in improv.


Pranavi Pullagummi

Pranavi was kind enough to translate this interview into Telugu and English. This was a really eye-opening interview for me. I am always interested in the role language plays in communication. If you want to find out more about Tegulu here is a link to the Wikipedia page.

మొదటి ప్రశ్న: మీరు Improv Scene చేస్తున్నప్పుడు  మీరు Sceneని సరదాగా  ఆనందిస్తున్నారా లేదా అని ఎలా చెప్పగలరు?

Improv Scene అనేది ఈత కొట్టడం లాంటిది..  నాకు Improv Scene చేయడం, సరిగ్గా ఈత కొట్టినట్టు అనిపిస్తుంది. మొదట నీట్లో దిగినప్పుడు ఇబ్బందిగా ఉన్నా… అలవాటయ్యింతర్వాత  సరదాగా ఆటపట్టించాలి అనిపిస్తుంది. ఈత కొట్టేటప్పుడు మన శరీరం హాయిగా ఒత్తిడి లేకుండా ఉన్నప్పుడు మనం నీటిపై  తేలుతాం… ఇలా నీటిలో కలిసిపోతాం. ఆలా అలలు ఉన్నప్పుడు చేతులు కాళ్ళు లయ బద్ధంగా కదిపినప్పుడు ముందుకు వెళ్తాము.  

 Improv Sceneలో కూడా అంతే  తేలికగా ఉన్నా… మరో  వైపు  Balance కోల్పోతాం అన్న భయం కూడా ఉంటుంది . Improv Sceneలో కూడా అంతే ! మన మనసులో  ఒత్తిడి లేకుండా హాయిగా ఒక లయ బద్ధంగా అవతల మనిషి చెప్పేది  వింటూ, స్పందిస్తూ ఉంటే Scene అదే ముందుకు సాగుతుంది. 

ఈత కొట్టేటప్పుడు, ఎప్పుడైతే మన శరీరంలో ఒత్తిడి పెరుగుతుందో, అప్పుడు మన శరీరం నీటిలో ముణగడం మొదలవుతుంది. అలాగే సీన్ లో కూడా ఎప్పుడైతే మనం అతిగా ఆలోచించి “ఎలా హాస్య పరంగా మార్చాలా?

“అని సీన్ జరిగేటప్పుడు ఆలోచించడం మొదలుపెడితే ఆ Scene కూడా  ముణగడం మొదలవుతుంది . ఆలా చేసినప్పుడు మంచిగా సరదాగా అనిపించదు. ఆలా అని సీన్ మంచిగా ఉండకపోవడం ఎం నేరం కాదు..  ఈత వచ్చిన వాళ్ళే నీటిలో దిగాలని Rule ఏం లేదు కదా.. చివరకు మనం కేవలం మనుషులం మాత్రమే!! 

QUESTION #1: How can you tell when you’re having fun doing improv and when you’re not having fun?

I feel improv is a lot like swimming. uncomfortable initially, encourages sense of play and coupling with a bit of risk of being suffocated. Doing an improv scene, feels exactly like swimming. when your body is relaxed and free, you float on the surface and become one with water… we peddle with a sense of play going forward. But once you clench or hold any stress in any body part. That’s when the body starts to sink. That’s like when we think too hard/ have to force words. That’s when I notice that I’m not having fun. And it’s okay to not have fun always and its okay not to float and swim always… As humans we are always trying to have some control but also want to lose and become a part of something bigger than us.

(Metaphor lost in translation)

QUESTION #2: If improv were a cooking recipe, what would the ingredients and cooking directions be?

Before preparing its very important to wear the right clothes. Firstly, we wear the apron of Acceptance, then we put on some Intuitive Gloves. It’s very important to forget to wear formal pants in this process.

Take the lighter and ignite the sense of play and place it on simmer. First, we pour curiosity into the vessel and slowly warm it until it feels good. we cut the vegetable of Courage into smallest chunks just so that you can at least hold it, while adding it make a then we add some characters, specific details and emotions if you want more flavour. You can increase the sense of play if you want it to cook faster but beware you could risk burning the dish. The dish expands and something changes, you can smell a sense of discovery filling the room. When look around to check what’s the time you can decide if the dish is finished cooking or not.

మూడవ ప్రశ్న: మీరు Improv చేయడానికి  ప్రోత్సహింపచేసే కారణం ఏమిటి?

ఎందుకంటే ఏదో.. ఎవరికో .. రుజువు చెయ్యాల్సిన ఒత్తిడి ఉండదు. ఎక్కువ ఆలోచించకుండా,  ” ఈ క్షణం లో నాకు తెలిసింది/నేను తెలుసుకుంది ఏంటి?”

అనే దానిపై దృష్టి పెట్టేలా చేస్తుంది.

Improv ఉత్సుకతని  కలిగిస్తుంది. ఇతరులలో / నాలో కూడా తెలుసుకునేది చాల ఉంది అని గుర్తు చేస్తుంది.

QUESTION #3: What keeps you going?

Because there’s no pressure of proving something, mindset of looking at “what I already have.”

Curiosity, there’s so much to learn and discover in others and in myself as well. 

నాలుగో ప్రశ్న: మీరుఏదో.. ఎవరికో .. రుజువు చెయ్యాల్సిన ఒత్తిడి ఉండదుఅన్న భావన నాకు చాలా నచ్చింది. “ఏదైనా నిరూపించుకోవడంఅంటే ఏమిటి? అసలు రుజువు చెయ్యాల్సిన అవసరం ఎక్కడ నించి వస్తుందని మీకు అనిపిస్తుంది ?

సాధారణంగా దీనికి కారణాలు ఆత్మగౌరవం లేకపోవడం మరియు Insecurity. సాధారణ అవగాహన లేదా లోక జ్ఞానం లేకపోవడం , తమకు తాము మంచిగా అనిపించుకోవడం కోసం కూడా కావచ్చు.

మన పక్కవాళ్ళకు మనం ఎవరో తెలీదు. ఒకవేళ  వాళ్ళ అవసరం వస్తే సహాయం చేయరేమో అని సందేహంగా ఉంటే,  నిరూపించుకోవాలి అనిపిస్తుంది .

అయితే, ఆ అవసరం పరిస్థితిని బట్టి ఉంటుంది. మీరు ఒక Show చేస్తున్నప్పుడు,
మీరు ఎవరో తెలియని ప్రేక్షకులుంటారు.మరి వాళ్ళ దృష్టిని ఆకట్టుకోవాల్సిన అవసరం వస్తే, అప్పుడు మీరు మీ గొప్పతనాన్ని ప్రదర్శించాల్సి ఉంటుంది.

QUESTION #4: I love this concept of “not feeling like you have to prove something.” What does it mean to “prove something?”  Where do you think that comes from?

Generally low self-esteem and Insecurity. Also, general lack of awareness. To make themselves feel better. Poor self-esteem coupled a need to project a “better” self which is not their results in showing off. When a person thinks that others don’t consider them important, they will try to prove that they are important.

However, it’s not always bad to need to prove something. Depends on the situation. When you are doing a show, if you think that you need to attract audience attention as they don’t know you, then you’ll have to make efforts to display your greatness.

ఐదవ ప్రశ్న: ఇంటర్వ్యూల మధ్యలో మీకు మరియు నాకు ఇంగ్లీషు లేదా తెలుగులో సమాధానమివ్వడం గురించి చర్చ జరిగింది.. భాషలో తేడా ఏమిటి? అసలు మీ దృష్టిలో భాష అంటే ఏమిటి?

English లో Type చెయ్యడం సులభం , ఎలాగో లో అన్ని alphabets Keyboardలో ఉన్నాయి. తెలుగు లో Typing నేర్చుకోలేదు .

 తెలుగులో fluentగా  మాట్లాడొచ్చు మాములుగా అనిపిస్తుంది. ఎక్కువ సేపు శ్రమ అనిపించకుండా మాట్లాడొచ్చు. అదే Englishలో . నేను మాములుగా గంట కన్నా ఎక్కువ మాట్లాడాల్సి వస్తే కష్టంగా ఉంటుంది. మా ఇంట్లో తెలుగు లో మాట్లాడితే నిజాయితీ గా మాట్లాడినట్లు అని చెప్తారు..ఏదైనా పదం వాడితే దాని సందర్భం ముందే తెలుసు కాబట్టి దాని అర్థం పట్టుకోవడం సులభం.

కానీ ఏ భాష అయినా భావం వ్యక్తం చేయడానికోసమే  అని నేను నమ్ముతాను. .పదాలు పడవలు అయితే భావం నది లాంటిది అని ఒక Improv workshopలో చెప్పారు.

QUESTION #5: So, in the middle of these interviews you and I had a discussion about language – answering in English or Telugu.   What is the difference in language? What is language? 

While typing English is easier. I am not fond of Telugu typing on the computer yet. 

In Telugu I tend to be more casualness because I am used to talking and I feel Normal. Telugu feels effortless and I can talk for longer duration. In English I tend to feel tired sooner like after 1 hour. 

At my place, my parents say that I speak more honestly. Also, because there is more shared context while using words 

Language helps to communicate feeling is what I believe.

Metaphor I heard in an Improv workshop and I believe in it! If words are boats, emotions are like river

అద్భుతం !ఇది చూడటానికి అద్భుతంగా మరియు అందంగా ఉంది. దానికదే  స్వంత కళాఖండంగా మారింది!

దీన్ని నాతో పంచుకున్నందుకు మరియు క్షణం జరిగేలా నిజాయితీగా ఉన్నందుకు చాలా ధన్యవాదాలు.

సాధారణంగా ఇక్కడే నేను ఇంటర్వ్యూను ముగించానుకానీ మీరు మనస్ఫూర్తిగా పంచుకున్నట్లు మీకు అనిపిస్తుందా? నేను మరింత అడగగలను. మీరు చెప్పాలనుకుంది /అడగలనుకుంది పూర్తిగా నేను విన్నట్లు మీకు అనిపించాలని భావిస్తున్నాను  

This is amazing and beautiful to see. It has become its own art piece!

Thank you so much for sharing this with me and for being honest so that this moment could happen. 

Normally this is where I end the interview – but do you feel like you shared enough? I could ask more. I want you to feel like you have been heard (read).

అనేక కారణాల వల్ల తెలుగు కనుమరుగు అయిపోతున్న భాష అని చాలా మంది అంటారు. మరియు నా భాషకు వివిధ మార్గాల్లో సహకారం అందించడానికి నేను చేయగలిగినదంతా చేస్తాను. నేను కూడా తెలుగు టోస్ట్‌మాస్టర్స్ క్లబ్‌లో భాగమే మరియు మేము తెలుగు Improv కూడా చేస్తాము, మా గ్రూప్‌ని “తెలుగు కామెడీ సభ” అంటారు.

“మీ improv ని మరీ విలువైనదిగా కాపాడాలని అనుకోకండి .. మేము చేసే  improv పద్దతి వేరు అని చూడకండి  ” అని మీరు చెప్పినప్పుడు నాకు చాలా నచ్చింది . నేను దానిని నిజంగా నమ్ముతున్నాను.. కానీ ఇటీవల నేను నిజాయితీ గా Scene చెయ్యాలా? లేదా సరదాగా ఆటపట్టించేలా ఉండాలా?ఈ  రెండింటి మధ్య టైలో ఉన్నాను .. కొన్ని సమూహాలు ఎక్కువగా Improv ఆట ఆడడం వైపు కుతూహలం చూపిస్తూ  ఉన్నాయి, ఇంకొన్ని సమూహాలు ప్రామాణికమైన వైపు ఉన్నాయి..

ఇటీవల నేను ప్రామాణికంగా ఉండటం మరియు ఉల్లాసభరితంగా ఉండటం మధ్య సమతుల్యతను అర్థం చేసుకోవడానికి ప్రయత్నిస్తున్నాను. కొన్నిసార్లు ఈ రెండింటిలో  ఏది సరైనది అని నిర్ణయించుకోవాలి?నాకు ఏది ఇష్టం మరియు scene కు  ఏది మంచిది సమతుల్యంగా ఎలా వ్యవహరించాలి ?

ఒక సీన్‌లో ఎప్పుడు సరదాగా ఉండాలో, ఎప్పుడు ప్రామాణికంగా ఉండాలో ఎలా నిర్ణయిస్తాం.Sceneలో   అసౌకర్యంగా ఉన్నప్పుడు. మనం దాన్ని ఎలా బ్యాలెన్స్ చేయాలి?

Most people say that Telugu is a dying language because of many factors. And I do what I can to be able to contribute in different ways to my language. I am also part of Telugu toastmasters club and we do Telugu improv as well, our group is called Telugu Comedy Sabha.

I love the when you said “don’t be precious about your improv. be generous. Don’t go for tribalism.” I really believe in that. But recently I have found myself in a tie between two. some groups are more on play side and some of them are on authentic side. I sometimes feel lost between managing these two. not being able to decide which one I like or good at.

Recently I have been trying to understand the balance between being authentic and being playful.  How do we decide if we are doing a scene when to be playful and when to be authentic. when its unfamiliar uncomfortable. Do we balance it or how to we balance it?

ఇది అద్భుతమైన (మరియు కొత్త) దిశలో వెళుతోంది!

మీ improv ని మరీ విలువైనదిగా కాపాడాలని అనుకోకండి” అని నేను చెప్పినప్పుడు,Ratatoulie చిత్రం లో  Chef Gusto “ఎవరైనా వండగలరు ” అని చెప్పిన సందర్భం లాంటిది . “మీరు” మరియు “మీ improv” భిన్నంగా ఉన్నట్లు నేను భావిస్తున్నాను. Improv  అనేది ఒక భాష,లేదా భావాన్ని వ్యక్తీకరించే  సాధనం. మీరు మీ Improv పద్దతి  విలువైనదిగా కాపాడాలని అనుకోకండి… కానీ మీ గురించి మీరు విలువైనదిగా చూసుకోవాలి . పూర్తి Chef gusto Quote “ఎవరైనా వండగలరు . కానీ నిర్భయమైన వారు మాత్రమే గొప్పగా వండగలరు”…. “మీ Improv గురించి విలువైనదిగా ఉండకండి, కానీ మీరు విలువ ఇచ్చే మరియు మీరు వినాలనుకునే ప్రదేశాలలో మిమ్మల్ని మీరు చేర్చుకోండి ” అని నేను భావిస్తున్నాను. కాబట్టి, అవును. ఏ అనుభవ స్థాయి వ్యక్తులతోనైనా Improv  చేయండి , వారు ప్రసిద్ధి చెందిన వారు అయినా  కాకపోయినా… Scene  లో వారు మీకు విలువ ఇవ్వకపోయినా, మీ మాట వినకపోయినా, వాళ్ళ లాగా వాళ్లతో సమానంగా ఉండకండి

మీ ప్రశ్నకు నా సమాధానం ఏమిటంటే,

మీ ప్రశ్నకు నా సమాధానం ఏమిటంటే, ప్రామాణికమైన Improv చేయడానికి   నేను ఇష్టపడతాను. ఎందుకంటే అక్కడ సరదా దానికదే వస్తుంది . నేను సాధారణంగా ఉల్లాసభరితమైన వ్యక్తిని మరియు నాకు నచ్చిన వ్యక్తులతో నేను Improv చేస్తాను . కాబట్టి, ఇది మామూలుగానే సరదా మరియు ప్రామాణికత రెండింటినీ కలిగి ఉంటుంది  – నేను ఎంచుకుం.

నా అనుభవంలో *కేవలం* ఉల్లాసంగా ఉండే ఇంప్రూవ్ స్పేస్‌లు ఉపరితలంగా ఉంటాయి. వారు ఒకరినొకరు విలువ ఇచ్చుకోరు .అంతే కాక  తెలివిని మరియు వేగాన్ని సమర్థిస్తారు. నేను కేవలం Connect చెయ్యడమే లక్ష్యంగా ఒక ఇంప్రూవ్ సెట్ చేసాను. ప్రేక్షకులు లేరు. మేము మూడు సెట్లు చేసాము మరియు వాటిని రికార్డ్ చేసాము. నా మనసుకు నచ్చిన మంచి భాగాలు/భాగాలను మాత్రమే పోస్ట్ చేస్తాను. మేము అందులో ఫన్నీగా ఉండటానికి ప్రయత్నించడం లేదు, మేము ప్రామాణికoగా ఉండటానికి ప్రయత్నిస్తున్నాము. కానీ అది సరదాగా ఉంది! అంతే కాకుండా మేము చాలా నవ్వాము. మనం “కామెడీ” చేయడానికి బయలుదేరిన దానికంటే చాలా ఎక్కువ హాస్యాత్మకంగా ఉంది . మీరు ఎవరితో Improv  చేస్తున్నారో దాన్నిబట్టి  Improv  అనుభవానికి  నిర్వచనం వస్తుంది అని

నేను భావిస్తున్నాను. Improv  అనేది వ్యక్తుల మధ్య ఖాళీ మాత్రమే.కొంతకాలం తర్వాత వ్యక్తులు “అదే నైపుణ్యం ఉన్న వారితో” మాత్రమే Improv చేయాలని  కోరుకుంటున్నారని నేను కనుగొన్నాను.అయినా ఎవరు పట్టించుకుంటారు?!! నాకు నచ్చిన వ్యక్తులతో ఇంప్రూవ్ చేయాలనుకుంటున్నాను.

OMG!  This is going a terrific (and new) direction!

When I say, “don’t be precious about your improv” it is like the movie Ratatouille when Chef Gusto says “anybody can cook.” I feel like “your improv” is different than “you.” Improv is a a language, or a means of communication. You should not be precious about your improv but you should be precious about yourself.  The full Chef Gusto quote is “Anybody can cook. But only the fearless can be great.”  I feel like “Don’t be precious about your improv, but put yourself in places where you are valued and listened to.”  So, yeah.  Improvise with people of any experience level, whether they are improv famous or not.  But even if they are improv famous and have been doing improv for years … if they don’t value you or listen to you, don’t be in the same place as them.

MY answer to your question is I have a tendency to be drawn to improv spaces that are authentic.  Because there, play happens. I am generally a playful person and I do improv with people I like. So, it can be a space that has both play and authenticity – if I so choose. Whereas improv spaces that are *just* playful tend to be superficial, in my experience. They tend to uphold cleverness and speed over valuing one another.  I just did an improv set where the goal was to just connect.  There was no audience.  We did three sets, and we recorded them. I would only post the best parts/parts we liked. We weren’t trying to be funny, we were just trying to have fun.  BUT it was fun!  And we laughed a lot.  A lot more, than if we had set out to “do comedy.” I think the people you do improv with defines the experience.  Improv is just the space between people.

I really enjoyed this interview. I have always appreciated Pranavi’s discussions and comments on the Improv Boost social media pages. And much like that experience, this interview was insightful, creative and I walked away (I feel) better for it. Thank you so much Pranavi.

Josh Spence

QUESTION #1: You are prolific in your improv career. You must have tons of theories and thoughts about improv.  Tell me about one of them – the more detailed, obscure or superstitious the better!

First, I love the term “prolific.” Yes, I’ll take it! I have to be honest, and not to brag, but I’ve learned from some of the best improvisers anyone can ask for. People like Paul Vaillancourt, Brian James O’Connell, Craig Cackowski, Shulie Cowen, and Annie O’Connor. Real “Johnny Appleseeds” of the art form. Spreading the love everywhere and setting up new schools across the globe. Speaking more granular, The Deconstruction and The Movie forms HAVE. CHANGED. MY. LIFE. the way I look at things and, in turn, process and create art. So, I’ll leave theory to the masters of the art form. I always aim to be a student

What I can offer is about performance. DO NOT BE PRECIOUS ABOUT STAGES. Bring a brick, not a cathedral. Wherever a community forms, there will be a stage. Being in Los Angeles- for a time- there was theater stages (iO West, The Pack, Second City, USB, Groundlings, WCT) which is fantastic. And while there were six theater stages, there would be twenty independent stages just thriving with new and fantastic teams. Sure, people came to play, but they also stayed and watched the show after, developed friendships, and made new stages and shows. Those shows and stages served as the backbone of our community. And even now, in whatever state you consider the world the be in, it’s still the backbone now that the big-name theaters have closed.

Serve your community.

What is a “community?” What defines a community?

Webster defines community as…..nope, not gonna. Truly, though, I think in the loosest of terms its any people or objects that are aligned for a certain cause. And I know that you reading thinks, yeah- okay, Josh. But I look at a place like THE CLUBHOUSE in Los Angeles. A stalwart of the improv community. But it’s not just improv there. They have sketch, and classes, and standup, and musical improv. It was also one of the first places (if not the first) that supported the art of clown. I think LA has a burgeoning clown scene, but I think we’re all tied together and support each other because we support art and self-expression. I think we, as artists, like to really compartmentalize ourselves into these niche categories. Once we really tear down those walls we set up for ourselves, we’re very much the same.

QUESTION #2: If improv turned into a video game, what would “Button A” be for and what would “Button B” be for? And what would the cheat code unlock?

Button A would be “LISTEN,” and Button B would be “RESPOND.” That’s the nuts and bolts, right? I love how easy that sounds, even though we all know otherwise. It’s probably why it’s easy to see those who do it and those who don’t. And the ones who do it fast, we consider them as great. Honestly, it’s the place where I’m trying to be present at most. Gimmicks are easy, being loud is easy. Being present and doing listen/respond like a game of catch. That’s beautiful.

I would say the cheat code is to bring yourself to the proceedings. Don’t treat improv AS therapy, but it can be therapeutic. If you have listen/respond down and then if you’re able to allow small glimpses of yourself in your work to also shine? That’s what draws me to the art form. That’s what I’m chasing.

QUESTION #3:  (asked by previous person interviewed) Which is the least talked about yet critical quality of good improvisers?

EMPATHY. I think so many of us (myself included), even with the best intentions, try to inadvertently “fix” the scene. You’re on the sides or the backline and think, “OH! IT NEEDS THIS!” “How should I come in?!” regardless if you even need to. Or you’ll see some people sometimes missing all the gold in front of them because their writer brain is punching up a blackout line that may or may not work. WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE. And I have to admit it but I’m not a fan of detached irony. But EMPATHY? Empathy is so essential. And you can go to so many places with it. “What do I think of this character in front of me?” “What do they think of me?” “What do I (my character) think about myself?” “What does the other person think of themselves?” Simple options. Infinite pathways. EMPATHY.

One of my favorite improvisers, Rich Talarico from Dasariski, would say before every show, “I cannot wait to meet these characters!” I think that energy never fails.

It seems like Community and Empathy … it’s all tied into the group.  How do we participate in the collective without losing our individuality or identity?

I don’t think it’s a zero-sum proposition. You can do WHATEVER. You can do what you love and support other things outside yourself. It does take effort to seek it out but it adds to the overall experience. Adding those tools from other perspectives can only make you individually stronger. I get we’re talking about improv and I’m not a genius but that also sounds like a life lesson.

Josh Spence has produced improv teams and events all over Los Angeles. He is not only a elite performer but passionate fan of the craft of improv. Josh is a part of a fantastic podcast called The Super Legit Podcast. Brilliant use of improv in podcasting – highly recommend it!

Ankur Sardana

QUESTION #1: What is something new improvisers keep in mind?

I find the jump from their first ensemble to the next a big one. They tasted blood with their first group and expect the same connections to happen in the next one or a larger one. This might lead to some disappointment and eventual disillusionment. To avoid that they could keep in mind that improv is a team sport, and each team would take some time to develop bonds. Till that happens, the new improvisers can keep faith in the basics of improv, and do their bit. Which is to be playful, positive, imaginative and build on with their partners.

You mention that people might be disappointed when they leave their first ensemble and move to the next. This is interesting. Where do you think people find “success” in improv? Or in other words, what makes them quit or makes them stay?

Improv is at core a team/folk art form, success is closely tied to how I feel within the team. Yes, the thrill of making an audience go ROFL is there, but that’s secondary. 

So, success here would mean the love, support, trust that my most vulnerable self gets from the group; and in turn I can provide to the group. 

This takes time and learning together, which might not happen immediately when you join another ensemble. And in this gap, people can leave.

QUESTION #2: If improv were a painting, what do you think it would look like? How would it be painted?

It would be like Warli folk art, which is a mix of patterns and scenes from daily life.

The end product is not sophisticated but comes together as a memorable collage.

The details of the patterns portray the process of creation.

The painting is not defined as an individual’s style but created by a group.

And it’s about people, their life and relationships

Image Source: https://www.newsclick.in/Understanding-Warli-Culture

Ok, wow. This has blown my mind a little bit. Not only is this art engaging on an aesthetic level, it also has a cultural and pluralistic expression. What is the value of “people” over a “person” when it comes to improv? Why does improv benefit from being such a community or ensemble activity?

Only teachers can be ‘persons’ in improv, otherwise improv is a people/team/folk art form. Folk art is organic and imperfect (reminds me also of Japanese Wabi-Sabi as a construct, which is about appreciating the organic and natural), folk art is local, made together by multiple people of the community and for the community. If we were to judge it only through the eyes of sophistication, we might not be able to appreciate it fully, just like improv cannot guarantee great scenes all the time.

Taking the community angle further – In improv the role of the audience is not just to sit back and have popcorn, but to be a part of the performance, so they are the extended community in that sense.

To me it takes us back to performances around the fire with almost all the villagers participating. 

And isn’t being a part of a loving, comforting, playful community such a central part of Homo Sapiens being who we are?

QUESTION #3:   What form of improv that you’ve never tried would you want to have a go at and why?

Since Improv is nascent in India, the opportunity to experiment with our shows is limited. We stick mostly to short form improv as that’s funny and is more inviting for a newer audience. If we try long form it’s mostly Bollywood style improv. As a learner, I’d love to try more narrative, serious forms of improv. Though that would require more learning for the group and a more acquainted audience.

Ankur Sardana is the founder of Nautankibaaz Improc Collective based in Gurugram, India. Ankur works tirelessly to make opportunities for others and is super creative human being. His passion for improv is felt around the world.

Alicia Ingram

Question #1: What are your strengths as an improv performer?

 I think my strengths as an improviser come from my pure love for creativity and collaboration with the people I’m sharing the stage with. Despite having done improv for a while now, I’m always still astounded by the brand new things performers can and will come up with on the spot. I love taking the scene somewhere unexpected and seeing the joy from both the audience and other performers and the ‘new’ thing they’re seeing. 

In terms of style, I’d say my strengths really lie in musical improv. Working with other performers whilst singing or rapping is super challenging but incredibly rewarding. I’ll never get over the vibe you get after ending a fully improvised song or rap and feeling the audience completely on your side and enjoying the thing you have created with them

What role does the audience play in improv? (Are they extensions of your team? Do you try to meet their expectations? How is it different from other forms of performance? Etc…)

I wouldn’t say they were an extension of the team necessarily, but maybe they are their own team! We definitely wouldn’t be able to do anything without them though – in improv you can rehearse and rehearse as much as you like, but until someone yells out their suggestion you never know where it’s going to go. The audience can also make or break a performance though, it can make things difficult if they are too shy or nervous to provide prompts so it’s always key to make sure they’re on your side and ready to yell haha.

That being said, improv audiences are definitely some of the most fun I’ve ever performed for! For the most part they love anything silly, and anything that goes exactly in the opposite direction of what they’d expect – which is often the beauty of the game. I think having an audience who knows they are allowed to have an input, that they provide the starting point and in some ways that their words can steer a performance is super fun and exciting.

Question #2: If one of your friends had a bad experience in an improv class, what advice would you have for them?

 Definitely to try again! The beauty of improv, of course, is that it’s different every time – meaning it’s likely the people you meet, the games you play and the scenes you create will all be completely different. When I was at university I was a part of our Improv Society, and we had people dropping in and out of our regular rehearsals all the time. You could tell that their experience was different each time, and that they were getting something new out of each visit which was amazing. 

I’d also suggest to maybe try something that different that might tie into a passion of theirs. There are so many different specialist styles of improv now that there’s likely a different class out their that could offer something more to them – whether this be musicals, short form games or more specific things like Sondheim or Jane Austen!

Question #3: What is it about improv that keeps you excited? What keeps you coming back for more? 

 The improv community is such a joyous space, and I feel like every time I perform in a show or attend a workshop, I meet a whole host of brand new and wonderful people. I particularly love being a part of both Do the Right Scene and Track 96. Being in a visible group of black improvisers is so important and in doing so I’ve made some great new friends with whom I have so much in common. Hip-hop improv with Track 96 also keeps me challenged in a way that nothing else can, and makes me a better person in my personal and professional life.

There’s also always something new, and as someone with an incredibly short attention span that’s a blessing! I know I’ll never feel like I’ve seen it all which makes everything so exciting. It also makes me want to drag all my ‘non-improv’ friends do every different new improv show I see, so they can see how fun and amazing it all can be.   

I haven’t seen Track 96 yet!  Tell me about them.

Track 96 are London’s premier improvised hip-hop improv group! I always have so much fun performing with the Track 96 team and leave every show on such a high. We usually take one work from the audience, make up a rap on the spot based on that word and then go into a longer show using that word as inspiration for scenes and further raps etc. Performing with Track 96 was the first improv I’d done after uni when moving to London and I’m so happy to be a part of the group. We took a show up to Edinburgh Fringe this year for a week which was incredible fun. It was called The RAPture, and was an exploration of a Hip-Hop Apocalypse – we’re still performing it around the country a bit so do try and catch us if you can!

I had the absolute pleasure of being in some improv scenes with Alicia at a Do the Right Scene show. She made me feel welcome, seen and heard – and I was a guest! I hope to make others feel as safe and as supported as she did. If you get a chance to see her perform, DO IT. If you ever get the chance to perform with her, you will learn and be inspired.

Amy Jordan

QUESTION # 1: What issue/lesson in improv do you think about the most?

In my opinion, the most important thing in improv is to connect with the other people onstage with you. We need to just relax and let our guards down with our scene partners. Often, when I work with a new group, the first thing we work on is trusting each other. I make them all promise that they will be kind to each other and to themselves.

I teach all kinds of tips and tricks for moving the plot along or making the scene funny but the central idea is always about just TALKING to the other person onstage. This is just a person and you know them and trust them. Say anything and then riff with your friend!

One assignment I like to give my students is to do a scene and watch their scene partner to find out what that person is great at. After scenes, we talk about what it is that the person noticed about their scene partner’s ability. This helps in many ways – first, it relieves the observing player of having to worry about their own performance while they focus on their partner; also, the discussion afterwards gives the observed player a chance to know how other people see their play and they get to know one thing (at least) that their scene partner enjoyed about playing with them. In this observation exercise, I only ever let them give each other compliments. People like receiving compliments and so whatever is said about them usually bolsters their confidence and then they play better. 

I know it seems like a lot to ask for improvisers (especially beginners) to be fully trusting of their scene partner and to be (mostly) confident in what they bring to the table, but these are the first two things I work on with new students. Not having confidence in oneself and trust on one’s scene partners can often be what holds people back in improv. 

“Not having confidence” is an interesting observation in improvisers. I can see how it’s related to fear.  Tell me more about confidence in improv – in the process and in the community.

Confidence can be built in performance by establishing a safe, comfortable environment to play in. When I start with a class, I go over with them the main rule of my class – you MUST be kind to yourself and to others. No laughing at others ideas and no judging yourself for your own ideas. We need to create an environment in which we feel safe to TRY things. We are here to HELP each other. We are not here to critique one another. We are here to develop a bond that gives us the comfort we need to create. Now I do believe that this is more about the confidence of a group. So this would apply to the development of the machine of the improv troupe. How do we work together? What parts do each of us play? I urge them not to judge themselves or each other about what part they play in the group dynamic. Connect with these people and flow with them.

As for individual performer confidence, I think that’s a person’s own decision. Some people like themselves and think they are good. Others do not. I find that a healthy balance of confidence with a willingness to learn is what makes a good performer. Blind belief that you are good is great and all but you have to back it up with actions. If the moves you are making in your performance are not flowing within a group, then the improv probably won’t feel as smooth.

This brings me to the idea of having confidence in your community. It’s all about action. How do we rally around each other to take care of each other? What moves are made to assist you when you ask for help? Does your coach have your back when you mention an injustice that has happened within your troupe? Does the community? In the end, actions speak louder than words. And that’s a big takeaway from the post pandemic developments in the improv world. Some of these improv schools are really trying to improve. Others are just paying lip service.

QUESTION # 2: When you come across a scene that’s going flat, what do you do to pick it back up again?

If a scene is going flat, I just look for a sharper contrast.

My improv journey has been in the comedy realm. My education in improv had the 3 beats of comedy full embedded into it so every scene I’ve ever done or ever taught has been for the purpose of making the audience laugh.

A few years ago, while teaching a summer intensive, I had an epiphany that comedy is contrast. Sometimes you can try to put two things together to make them funny but you don’t hit the sweet spot unless the contrast is different enough. So, if a scene is not going well in my world, I believe what it needs is an extra dose of contrast.

For example, a character choice could be made to be a sneezy dentist. It’s got the makings of comedy because it is something no one would want to interact with. But if it isn’t played in a HUGE way, it can seem gross or distracting. So I would up the ante and make it so the dentist wasn’t just sneezy in general but rather that the patient is making him sick. Even bigger would be that the patient’s TEETH are what this dentist are allergic to. How does a dentist work on teeth if he is allergic to them? I don’t know but I bet it could be really funny.  

Do you think “comedy” is the opposite of “a scene going flat?

I do not think comedy is the opposite of a scene going flat. I think a scene goes flat when the performers are not connected to each other, or supportive of each other. I think a scene goes flat when the performers over complicate the plot and then lose the threads of what is going on. It’s all about staying IN THE MOMENT. Comedy in improv is like a spice. It adds flavor to the scene but it’s not the meal itself. Yes, of course, you can overdo it with comedy in your scene. Like adding too much salt to a dish.  Comedy is a delicate balance and it need not be the only spice you use to enhance your scenes.

QUESTION #3: At what point did you stop feeling ‘new to improv’ and start feeling like an ‘improviser’? What was the moment/scene/event that caused this?

When I started my improv journey, it was with a nascent school so pretty much as soon as the leaders taught me their 5 level model of teaching, I was sent into the workforce for them as a teacher. I started right away after my graduation through their five levels (honestly maybe before). They were building their team and snatched me up quickly and got me working for them. There was very little time to question my own abilities because I was immediately put in charge of other students and their journeys. (This is probably why my fave lesson above is watching other people as a means of getting comfortable – it’s how I had to do it.)

Interview of Kevin McDonald on “Yes But Why” Podcast

Amy Jordan is the host of “Yes But Why” podcast and has been teaching improv and sketch in Austin for 10 years. She has been a huge supporter of improvisers of all levels, and is a fan of the craft. Check out her podcast here: https://www.amyjordan.biz/yes-but-why-podcast/

Paul Quinn

What are the limitations of improv? 

Okay so I think there’s a few different ways to interpret this question. Firstly I just want to say that I have been guilty of having so many pre-conceived notions about improv, and I’ve seen every last one of them be shattered. For the longest time I was sure improv was meant for comedy and comedy only, that an improvised dramatic play for example would be pointless, and I now know multiple groups doing that successfully and to great acclaim. When lockdown hit and improv moved online, I sat out all those zoom drop-ins for months because I was convinced improv couldn’t be done virtually, and when I eventually tried it I realised I was dead wrong. I’ve improvised in places I would never have expected, with people from all different backgrounds.

So part of me wants to say: there are no limitations, but I’m sure that’s not quite true. There are limits to everything. But as long as we’re mindful and considerate and patient, let’s just keep pushing the boat out. If we hit something we don’t like, it’s okay to pull back and re-calibrate. 

The other thing I’d say is that this question did make me think of something Chris Mead said in a workshop recently: “Improv can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.” I think if you’re getting into improv to help with anxiety, with confidence issues, with any sort of social problems – hey, that’s great! It’s definitely helped me with some of those things. But heads up, it’s not meant for that, and as such will only go so far. It can ease the symptoms and teach lessons and values that might help if you implement them outside of it, but it’s not the whole solution and if you’re coming to a drop-in hoping it will solve all your problems, I’m worried you’re going to be ultimately disappointed. Try seeing a therapist as well. I can recommend mine, she’s great!  

You say “But as long as we’re mindful and considerate and patient, let’s just keep pushing the boat out. If we hit something we don’t like, it’s okay to pull back and re-calibrate. ”  Now I love this.  Have you thought of new ways, new formats, new edits, etc … to try out? 

Constantly. I have a notes app entry on my phone that is just FULL of weird concepts for shows, or games, or edits. Most of them are just semi-ideas, half-thought-out maybes that are patiently waiting to be fully fleshed out. But if you’d really like an example… okay, so as I’ve already said, I’m a part of the Chester Improv Collective, but I’m not actually Chester based, so every Wednesday I get a 45 minute train from Liverpool to Chester, and a 45 minute train back. This might sound like a chore for some people, but I gotta tell you: I love trains. Love ‘em. All time favourite way to travel. And this has kind of become a bit of a running gag amongst the other folks at Collective, and in our WhatsApp group recently we started talking about Train-Prov. A whole improv show that could be any type of scenes with any types of characters, they just all need to take place on a train. Honestly it started as a joke but then when we were throwing out ideas for different mechanics – like using stops on the train as edit points, e.g. two person scenes, but then one person leaves because it’s their stop, and another character gets on and begins a new scene with the remaining original character, almost like a slacker or park bench format – and I think there might actually be something there? So yeah. Train-Prov. Arriving soon, maybe. 

QUESTION #2: What moves do you love in improv – whether you make them, or someone else does? 

Okay so we all know mistakes are gifts in improv, but I think sometimes when you’re out there and you’re in the moment and you mess up, it’s very easy to just instinctually freeze or cover up or try and walk it back. That’s human, right? We’re in front of people in a performative environment and what came out of our mouth wasn’t what we intended. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to panic about that. But then, what I love, love, LOVE is when a teammate grabs a mistake out of the air before the person who made it can regret it, and makes it part of the show. So for example, I saw an Austentatious show where somebody meant to say thimble but instead they said thumble, and literally all night characters were offering each other thumbles, and every time without fail it got a huge laugh. I think the reason this always turns out so cool is because

  • the audience feels like they just almost saw a plate fall but somebody caught it at the last second, and that’s thrilling,
  • when a team sees a mistake become something fun right in front of them, it can make them fearless and lead to bolder choices, and
  • it’s a free joke that you can use as a callback as many times as you like.

QUESTION #3: When have you felt the most seen in improv? (asked by previous person interviewed) 

Like the first question, I think there’s a lot of ways you could interpret the concept of being seen, and I’d love to read other responses to this question just to see how varied they are. One thing that was really lovely for me: I’m a part of the Chester Improv Collective with the incomparable Sekki Tabasuares, and a few times now she’s complimented me on how I tie together different narrative strands of a scene. The first time she did this was a real moment for me because I honestly hadn’t realised I was doing it. But when I’m not improvising, I’m an aspiring writer, so I sit around thinking about story structure and narratives a lot. It was just nice to be made aware that I have my own little super power based on what I do outside the improv space, and it started making me look at everybody else and what they do best, and realising the same is probably true of them. We’ve all got a life experience that’s uniquely ours, and without realising it we’re sprinkling it into the mixture of team environments to make something that’s personal and one of a kind.

It’s interesting that we do stuff unconsciously. Like you said, as a superpower. What would you tell people about their “super power” if they were just starting in improv? 

Don’t force it. It will make itself apparently eventually. And honestly, I might hesitate to even mention the concept to someone who’s completely new, because I know I personally was so in-my-head at that stage, trying to strike the balance between using everything I had learned in classes and also training myself to let go of the wheel and see where things took me. I wouldn’t want to throw another ball in the air for a newbie to juggle by also making them wonder what their thing is gonna be, the thing that only they can bring to a scene. That’s comes later, when you’ve settled a bit, and your entire mood/opinion of yourself as an improviser no longer depends on whether each individual scene is a hit or a miss. Once you’ve relaxed into a comfortable stance, when you’re yes-anding reflexively and all that good stuff, you’ll find that your personality creeps out and puts a little stamp on some of the things you do. So don’t push it. It’ll get here when it’s ready. 

It is my pleasure to have worked with Paul on several occasions. He is a brilliant improviser. It’s hard not be impressed by how his mind works. I look forward to every chance I get to do a scene with him. You can follow him on his new FB page Paul Quinn.

Sonya Feibert

photo credit: Dave Cook 

QUESTION #1: What is one of your favorite memories of improv?

I feel lucky to have so many phenomenal improv memories, which have only multiplied by a million over the last two years in the virtual space. One that came to mind right away is a show I did a few weeks ago with Trash Kingdom, the women and non-binary team I get to play with through Queen City Comedy, coached by the incomparable Jenn Bianchi. The amazing Vera Chok started a scene by asking if anyone was there to help her at a hotel, and my spectacular teammate Chris Calabria and I both turned on our cameras at the same time. It would have been so easy for that to feel like a ‘mistake,’ and I started to say, “Oh, you’ve got it,” to Chris’s character. But Chris embraced the heck out of the situation, and quickly replied, “No no Rachel, we do the morning shift together!” And that choice created this beautiful relationship between Chris’s character and mine. It was so delightful and
made for a fun scene. That feeling reminded me to embrace everything that happens in improv. I break Every. Single. Time I play with Trash Kingdom because we have so much fun, care about each other so dang much, and listen so well that magic happens and it’s fun and funny. Joining this team was one of the first times that I felt like I 100% belonged in an improv space, like I didn’t have to qualify or prove myself, but was accepted and embraced completely.

I think there are a couple reasons for that:

  1. Queen City Comedy and Jenn Bianchi creating a safe space and building trust and love between improvisers first and foremost.
  2. Feeling fully accepted by the team for everything that I bring. The intergalactic level of support I feel from this group has given me a big confidence boost because I know whatever choice I make in a scene will be embraced.
Trash Kingdom show 

You highlighted some important things: safety, trust, support,confidence … but nothing about “comedy.” Do you think things lead to comedy? Or do they lead somewhere else?

Absolutely. I think they’re essential to comedy. Comedy, particularly in improv, happens when people have a well of trust and understanding built. Comedy happens when people can be vulnerable and bring all of themselves. And that only happens when there’s oppeness and safety built in. Talking about boundaries helps. When you feel threatened, uncomfortable, or triggered, comedy can’t really come into the equation. Confidence too is such a big one: the confidence to make a choice in a scene, to commit to it, and the confidence to say exactly what comes to you in the moment, and trust the other person is going to take that gift and run with it. The most comedic moments I’ve been part of or have seen happened because trust was built and someone created a safe space for bold choices, and someone else responded authentically in the moment.

QUESTION #2: What sort of strength does improv bring you?

Improv gives me the strength to be goofy and silly out loud. Improv is freedom from
overthinking, overanalyzing, and judgement (something my brain does far too often). Improv reminds me how central play is to life. Improv reminds me to stay curious and to show interest in what’s happening around me. It strengthens my relationships and helps me connect with others. I’m also a writer and improv is so helpful with writing! So much of improv applies to writing: if this is true what else is true, creating strong relationships, making someone care, staying curious, defining why this moment matters. The more I learn in improv the more I feel like it benefits my writing, which is such a bonus.

You say “Improv gives me the strength to be goofy and silly out loud.” I think people reading this would automatically say “that’s not a strength.” But it truly is. Why do you
think people would feel it’s not a strength?

Love these questions! Maybe it comes more naturally to some people? I think it also stems from our values. It seems like, maybe especially in Western culture, we value strengths like being assertive, organized, and stoic over being silly and playful. We reward seriousness and productivity. Work environments don’t usually foster silliness, and the ‘class clown’ is usually punished, not rewarded. We — and I think especially women — aren’t always encouraged to be loud or silly.

It’s only been through improv that I’ve realized how valuable this skill is. Feeling free enough to express ourselves and be goofy is such a strength, and safe enough and confident to express that goofy side of ourselves. As an adult, I’ve often felt like I was taught to push down and quiet that goofy side of me in favor of being more ‘professional’ or ‘ladylike.’ It’s funny even now to write that — what nonsense! I love that improv encourages me to do the opposite: let it out! I think it makes me stronger in my relationships with others, too, because I’m not hiding part of myself.

QUESTION #3: If improv gets wildly famous and becomes the most demanding skill in
organizations? Would you still perform it the same way or set a corporate format for it?

I’d like to think I’d still perform it the same way. When I think of ‘corporate,’ I can’t help but think of words like ‘productivity, synchronicity, KPIs, and metrics.’ I don’t know if improv needs to shift to meet that structured world, but rather the structured world could let go a bit to meet improv. What if the corporate world were more fun and playful? What’s beautiful about improv is there are no mistakes, there’s no goal that needs to be accomplished — the only focus is to be present and listen. If we can translate those elements to the corporate world, with an emphasis on play, that would be fantastic. I also think about the grassroots start of improv, with Viola Spolin creating these games to help kids connect across languages and backgrounds. Something I love about improv is the fact that we can do it anywhere and need absolutely nothing but our minds. We can improvise even if we speak different languages. We can do audio-only improv, or silent improv. There are so many ways it can be adapted, and that’s beautiful.

I have had the pleasure of working with Sonya several times. And every time she says something insightful that inspires me – she is one of those people that as a student, inspires the teacher. If you get the chance to work with her, do it. You are doing yourself a favor.

(photo credit: Recycled Minds Comedy)

Jayant Chopra

QUESTION #1: What is the role of the audience in improv? How important are they?

The role of audience in my improv journey kept changing. When I first started learning improv. I kept looking at Ankur sir (Founder, NIC)  for a laugh or a smile in the Level 1 classes. He then told me after three classes to focus on my enjoyment rather than the audience’s enjoyment because they are along with you in this journey. These were golden words. I tried this in my 5th class and then in my student showcase afterwards. It worked and people enjoyed it because I got involved in the scene and not worried that much but gradually I went back to trying to be funny.

NIC does wonderful things. One of them is that always at the end of the show, they make the audience play with the improvisers the games they played and blurs the line between improvisers and audience. Nobody returns home as an audience.

My student showcase
Audience performing at NIC’s show

During the pandemic, my improv journey was actually boosted because resources from all around the world were presented to me via social media. There I met Aree sir (a friendly legend), he asked me to do a set with him online when I had very little experience. We ended up doing two sets cause in one of them I was nervous and lagged like a video game not because of the connection but because of my monkey brain thinking “it’s not funny. It’s not funny. No one is laughing.” After the set he asked, “why are you so nervous?” I said, “I’m not good at this and if people were watching nobody would laugh”. He said, “exactly nobody is watching, who would watch us in the middle of a working day.” 

Left (me) and Right (Aree sir)

I kept learning set after set with different improvisers and teachers from all around the world and I learnt a lot. Jay sir, Brenna, Sandra-Lynne, Christian, Michelle, Karla, David and many more. I learnt a lot from them. While we’re performing, we shouldn’t be worried about the audience but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make sense, the audience is smart and looking at us from a third person view. They can catch our mistakes very easily. If I put in a statement like “ I used to pop my fingers when I got nervous in college days” I have to justify it somewhere during the scene. Audience is important because they’re giving us their time, it’s on us to show them and make it worth their while. Being authentic and caring about my scene partner, helped me create awesome scenes in the moment. I got to know it was awesome cause when I took feedback from the audience they said so, they were able to relate to my emotions during the scene; and laughed when it got weird and it made sense to them. I started my improv journey as an audience; giving suggestions and seeing them become alive. Three years later, I’m performing as an improviser in a team. At that time, improv struck me NIC did something right that in the first go I wanted to play with them. My mission is to make the crowd aware about improv and its power which helps us to believe in ourselves and take a decision when nothing seems comprehensible.

Left (Me) and Right (Jay sir)
Left (Brenna) and Right (Me)

I noticed in some of your answer you use the term “sir.”  I’m not familiar with that. Thank you for sharing some of your culture with me.  Can you tell me when and why you used it in reference to some people?

In our culture, we call our elders sir and ma’am, formally. Uncle and aunt, casually. However, in work environment, everyone calls each other by their names only. None of my teachers be it Ankur sir or Aree sir or Jay sir have told me to call them like this. They have always motivated to call them by their name but since I had made them my mentors I attach “sir” after their name out of respect.

You mentioned the part about performing and nobody laughing – when Aree said nobody was watching.  How did this effect you? How is improv different when you have an audience and when you don’t?

Before the pandemic, my approach towards improv shows was to make the audience laugh. I tried to be funny; listened to my scene partner just to make something funny out of it and not being actually changed emotion wise with the scene.  It happened sometimes by making fun of myself during the scene. Sometimes, I was ok. Sometimes, I crossed and hurt my self esteem a lot. I focused on my scene partner and audience and most of the time I played low status roles as I found them easier to play. When I had my first set with Aree sir. He told me that I’m the expert in the scene. So whatever I’m doing is right and if you can make sense out of it then the audience can.

With an audience there is constant support and a validation source that it is making sense. Earlier, I needed the audience a lot to do improv but in pandemic I learnt to perform without an audience or a need to get validation. Now, most of the times, I totally get lost in the scene with my scene partner while performing and that is the best feeling for me; to enjoy and be present in the moment. When I used this approach I bomb less scenes than earlier.

QUESTION #2: Let’s say improv was a painting. What would it look like?

If improv was a painting then it might be a complex one to understand like one person helping another who is already helping the first.

Improv for me is based on my scene partner and how they wish to  make the scene with me. Of course, we have our choices and emotions but it just contributes to the one scene which is happening. 

As Jon Hildreth described it to us, “it is an ocean where all of us are drowning and there is a boat. We need to swim to it as fast as we can and take others along with us. Nobody knows how they are gonna do it but they do it cause they believe in each other” This has been imprinted in my mind and cannot think of a better way to describe it.

I’m pretty sure it would look somewhat like this:

QUESTION #3: What is something that you’d like to see more of in improv shows? 

I would really love to see an improv show where all the performers are keeping in mind the boundaries of each other and not putting out stuff, punching somebody’s identity down just to be funny. Brenna’s bare minimum improv jam is of that kind where whoever joins in will be taken care of at all times.

Brenna’s bare minimum improv jam

I really love Improv Boost’s ideas of community takeover and The Greatest Improv Festival. All the ideas of including teams from different parts of the world makes me excited and I feel included. ICB did a 24hrs birthday marathon, ImprovisAsian was when I felt how we Asians are deeply connected. Their theme song has never left my mind: “This is improvisAsian.” Queen City Comedy also gives a lot of opportunities to perform in a variety of shows and formats.

NIC performing at ImprovisAsian Festival

Also, here in India, long form improv is yet to be discovered properly. Short form improv here is still being confused with standup. I would love to see all the formats and approaches like Harold, Living room, Armando, Disaster Time, storybox, etc. I have learnt to be performed in the shows here.

I had the opportunity to perform with Jayant on a team called “Intentional Boaters.” Jayant is an energy that builds up the entire show. He is someone you want to perform with. Before then, I used to interact with him all the time in the comments of the Improv Boost. I feel lucky to know him. I hope you get the chance to work with him! You can catch Jayant at Nautankibaaz Improv Collective and on the team “Horrible Friends of Mine” at Queen City Comedy.

Paul Vaillancourt

QUESTION #1: This doesn’t have to be the “right” answer or the “best” one, just the first one that pops into your mind.  What is the best memory you have of doing improv?

I have about a million great memories of doing improv but the one that leaped to mind when I read this question is a show that I did at the iO West.  I really don’t remember anything about it except for this moment.  In the show, I was trying to win back my girlfriend and ran off the stage and halfway up the big staircase that was against one wall and started singing “You Lost the Lovin’ Feeling” and the whole audience spontaneously joined in and started singing as well.  There we were, about 100 strangers all improvising together and singing together, this one random night.  It was magical.  

What is it about groups of people doing the same thing that we find so rewarding?  Even if it isn’t necessarily “entertaining?”

Keith Johnstone said (paraphrasing) that people don’t come to improv shows to see people be funny, they come to see them agree – like THAT’S the novel thing to see. At that moment, when each person in that audience made the decision to sing along it was just great to see all those people agreeing.  They all, spontaneously, pointed in the same direction and did this thing.  I think that agreement is the thing that seemed so rewarding to me.  Sidenote: It also reminded me of a story that Del told about one of the first Harolds which was about the Vietnam War.  During the piece, one of the characters, a soldier, got injured and was calling for a medic and two guys from the audience sprang to their feet and grabs this guy, and carried him to the medical area then they went back to their seats and the Harold continued.  Del said that it was, to his knowledge the first case of the fourth wall being spontaneously pierced from the audience side.  In a similar way, when the audience started singing as part of the scene they were also, in a sense, penetrating the fourth wall of that scene.  Side, side note: I think the sound of a bunch of voices joining together and singing (outside of a formal choir, etc.) always has this quality of sound that I love. 

QUESTION #2: Do you teach “jokes” or “how to be funny” in your improv training? If so, how? If not, why not?

I don’t teach “jokes” or “how to be funny” per se.  I feel like what’s funny is so subjective and everyone has a different set of tools they’re working with and, as a consequence, their own individual way of being funny. I try to teach strong improv technique and that, oftentimes IS funny, but overall I don’t think that being funny is the only goal or the highest goal.  My answer above about my best memory wasn’t funny at all really.  I think that, in some ways, learning how to improvise is like learning how to paint so, as a teacher, I’m trying to teach my students how to mix paint, how to use their brushes, how to best apply the paint to the canvas to achieve certain effects, etc.  Then, once they’ve got a handle on HOW to paint, they can paint whatever they want and express THEMSELVES, what is on THEIR minds and what’s funny to THEM.  It’s the same thing with improv.  I want my students to be the best improvisers THEY can be not a copy of me, improvising the way I improvise or doing what I think is funny.

You say “I want my students to be the best improvisers THEY can be not a copy of me.” I love this. But I think it’s easy to say, but hard to do as a teacher.  How do you do that?

I actually think that it’s actually pretty easy to do as a teacher.  I think making copies of yourself is harder because you need to tamp down all the students’ own instincts, choices, and creativity and replace them with yours.  

But, to answer your question a different way here are two things that I keep in mind: 

1.   I try to teach tools rather than answers –  “Yes and…” is a tool.  Giving big gifts to your partner is a tool.  Using the where is a tool, etc., etc.  Once a student has a handle on a tool they can use it in whatever way they want to build whatever they want and express themselves and what’s on their mind or in their heart.  When you pick up a hammer, you can use it to build whatever you want.  You don’t have to build a chair.  A good improv tool is like that too.  It empowers the player rather than restricts them.

2.  I try to NOT say these things in class: 

  • “What you SHOULD HAVE done was…” 
  • “What I WOULD HAVE DONE was…” 
  • “The RIGHT thing to do was…” 

Because, ultimately those things don’t matter.  The players will probably never do THAT scene again, so that kind of advice is useless and also completely discounts the students’ creativity which is what I’m really trying to help them express.  Rather, I try to focus on ideas and questions like:

  • “How did that feel?” 
  • “Why do you think that scene was so easy/so hard?”
  •  “What were you going for/what were you trying to accomplish?”

And I try to get the students to use the tools that we are practicing in class to evaluate their own work.  For example, “Why do you think your characters didn’t have a relationship in that scene?  Was it because you didn’t give big, playable gifts?  Was it that you gave big gifts but then didn’t PLAY the gifts you gave and were given? Was it because you weren’t ‘yes and-ing’ each other?”  Once we have the tools in place, they help us play the scene and they help us evaluate our work after the fact so that we can identify the cause of our struggles and avoid them moving forward as well as recognize that causes of our successes and replicate them (in the broadest sense – not exact scenes, obviously) in the future.  I believe that in class that players are setting and calibrating their own internal compasses.  Those compasses are what they’re going to use to navigate scenes moving forward rather than trying to guess or do an impression of what I’D do in a scene.  

All in all, this question kind of reminds me of this thing that Austin Kleon says about being inspired by other artists, “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.  You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” 

QUESTION #3: Describe a “mistake” you made while teaching or performing… and how you evolved as a result of that “mistake.”

I don’t know if this is a mistake but, for a long time, as a teacher, was in the “convincing business” – I was trying to convince people about this or that thing related to improv.  But, as I got older, more confident, and more experienced I got out of the “convincing business” and into the “sharing business”.  I’m not trying to convince anyone about anything in improv anymore.  I’m sharing what I know, the experiences I’ve had, exercises that I think will be useful, etc. People can take it or leave it as they see fit.  I just encourage everyone, when we first start working together, to “take the ride”, not for me but for themselves.  Take the ride.  Try what I’m suggesting.  Maybe it’ll be something that really works for you.  If so, you’ve got a new tool to use.  If not, you’re only with me for a few weeks at the most, and then you can go back to doing what you were doing before.

I have a TREMENDOUS amount of respect for Paul Vaillancourt. He is one of those rare people who is talented, well connected, kind and still loves to work with people of any experience level. He supports new ideas. Paul helps new teams and new performers find their way in the improv world. We are so lucky to have his passion and his presence in our field. Please check out his YouTube page https://www.youtube.com/c/PVImprov that has TONS of free improv resources or check out his book “Triangle of the Scene” which is one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE books on improv.