Magnet Theater Blog
On this week’s episode of the podcast, we’ve got Julia Hynes who performs with Junior Varsity, The Stank, and Sad Kids. A founding member of long-running Megawatt team, BRICK, Julia talks to host Louis Kornfeld about her improv development, being “good at school,” and the freedom of improvising with an all-female team. We’re taking next week off, so we’ve made sure this one will tide you over!
Louis begins this interview by asking Julia about what it’s like to go from forming and being on BRICK for four years to joining a very established team in Junior Varsity (JV). One of the amusing things, she notes, is stepping into JV’s established ways of communicating with each other. Group email threads aside, Louis wants to know about Julia’s own differences in play between the two teams. She says that on BRICK she was a big editor and now with JV, she’s not as concerned with that task. Julia also describes a big improv lesson that came during her early days of BRICK which she has always kept in mind: Remember to make it feel honest and real.
Between the end of BRICK and when she joined JV, Julia was able to take some time off from performing on a weekly show. Louis talks to her about how nice it was to have the chance to get away from the theater for a bit. She’s a full time school teacher, so the additional time in her evening schedule was appreciated, as was the ability to step away from the pressures that can exist at a theater. Between her own shows and those of her husband, Nick Kanellis, it was starting to feel like she had to be at the theater all of the time. Since coming back to a weekly show, she says that it’s really on her terms that she’s there and, of course, it helps to be doing a show that she’s proud of.
Julia’s interest in improv began in college at Penn State, but she initially pursued academia after graduating. Eventually, she moved to NYC because a lot of her Penn State comedy friends were living there and doing improv at UCB. On a recommendation from a friend, she ended up taking Level 1 at Magnet with Tara Copeland and loved it. As a student, Julia says that she didn’t go to many shows initially because she was intimidated. It wasn’t until around Level 4, when she met some future members of BRICK, that she began to get more fully involved in the community. To that end, Louis asks her about how long it took to settle into “being an improviser” and declaring that as an identity. Though she said that was tough at first, because she knew other improvisers who had been doing it longer and perhaps took it more seriously, she eventually got over that fear of judgement.
Julia says she’s at a stage in her life where she’s evaluating, “What do I actually want and why do I want it?” This leads Louis to discuss finally facing our mortality after the age of 30 and how that change from “I’ve got plenty of time” to “time is running out” feels. Life is already happening, he says, which seems to cause him alternating feelings of crippling anxiety and a cool calm sense of acceptance.
Speaking of “who she is,” Julia is a full-time English as a Second Language 5th Grade Specialist in New York City who just finished her 8th year of teaching. Since high school, she was someone who wanted to make a difference in some way. Initially, went into Women’s Studies and felt she could make a difference through that field in the world of academia, but then found the cracks in that plan and decided to be a teacher in NYC. Since making the change, Julia feels like she’s making a bigger difference, especially in the last year, during which she feels she really started to come into her own as a teacher. Louis nearly shares the zen parable of the empty cup and also horribly misquotes Joe Bill, saying, in improv any class “…there are givers, takers, and prove-ers.” Everyone agrees that it much more difficult to teach the prove-ers.
Speaking more about teaching and class, Julia claims that she’s always been “good at school,” which is something that Louis has never really heard. For Louis, in adolescence, school became the straight man that he played against and he found it difficult to excel. As opposed to Louis’ oppositional experience, Julia says she had a good rapport with teachers and a family who encouraged her to take school seriously. And though she admits that she was not good at science, which she avoided, the rest just came easy to her. Louis goes further, saying that he had an aggressively contrarian approach to school, but Julia didn’t start feeling like that at all until college. They discuss the importance of having teachers that check in with you and care about teaching. They then talk about Julia’s own teaching methods and how she’s had to add more structure to her practices over the years and be “less chilled-out” than when she first started. What does it take to control a room of 5th graders? She enjoys finding the balance between making the kids laugh and having them get down to business.
Louis just has to ask, do Julia and Nick go to the zoo and look at animals together? For those of you who don’t watch Trike frequently, Nick Kanellis is really into animals and animal behavior.
Circling back to this idea of being surrounded by guys who quickly identified as comedians, Louis wants to know how that has influenced her, especially in an improv world that still has a male majority? While she was comfortable always being the one girl hanging out with the comedy guys in college, she says that it felt good having female teachers at Magnet and then being put on BRICK with strong female players Amie Roe and Fiona Bradford. Many of the improv moments that have felt the best, she says, have been a lot of the all-female shows that she’s gotten to do, like We Might Just Kiss, which brings together women of all skill levels to play with each other. Julia finds it very hard to explain the feeling when, on a nearly all-male cast, something she says isn’t given the space she hopes for. The feeling of ownership of the stage is just very different with gender taken out of the equation. Louis admits that maybe cast diversity can hamper group mind.
Louis tries to avoid asking about the difference between playing with an all-female show versus a mixed-cast show, but he asks anyway! Julia says that the biggest difference is, “Whatever I say is going to be just embraced…” in a way that is beyond what happens normally. She also credits the women she plays with. On her duo Sad Kids, she notes that partner Beth Newell has a way of molding whatever Julia says into a beautiful game. On The Stank, they’re all seasoned improvisers, strong players, positively minded, and nonjudgemental — all of which goes a long ways. Julia goes further to says that, even when the men on a team are great, there’s just something there that doesn’t quite feel the same. There’s a added sense of pressure to be the token female, which then can inhibit how she plays. There’s a feeling as if she has to represent for all women. Relieving that pressure opens up more freedom of play.
Finally, Louis and Julia discuss playing real people from their lives and pantomiming objects that they actually own in order to make scenes feel more real to them. Louis is really taken with the idea of the original improvised theater companies, which viewed improv as an opportunity to show people what we know and who we are. The people performing are the people creating the art, so it showcases them in a way that other formats maybe can’t. He finds it exhausting simply to engineer comedy night in and night out without getting to be himself.
But really, finally, Louis asks the hard-hitting question: How cuddly is Nick Kanellis???
We’re now accepting applications for the 2015 fall season of Megawatt. Please fill out THIS FORM no later than SEPTEMBER 2ND to apply for an audition slot.
Anyone who has completed Magnet Level 6 is eligible to apply, though please note that a completed form does not guarantee an audition slot. Due to the high volume of eligible improvisers and a limited number of slots, priority will be given to students and performers who have finished the class or performed on a Megawatt team within the last year.
Confirmations will be sent out by SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5th. Good luck to everyone!
Magnet instructor, writer, and performer, MIKE DWYER, takes a few minutes out of his comedy-making schedule to talk with host Louis Kornfeld about simplifying improv scenes, the difference between talent and skill, and how he missed the point of film school. These two gentlemen find that they have remarkably similar paths to becoming comedians and relate over their experiences studying with Rebecca Drysdale. You can catch Mike performing with The Wrath and Friday Night Sh*w at Magnet and Southpaw at UCBeast.
Louis kicks off our interview by referencing a recent show of Mike’s with The Wrath. He describes a quintessential Mike Dwyer move, which is characterized by very quickly finding an opportunity that others might miss and then using it to crack a scene wide open. Louis wants to know how Mike is able to be such a lightning fast player and more specifically, how he’s able to take on points of view so quickly. Though Mike thinks that his process is more patchwork than precision, he says that he approaches scenes knowing that his characters are doing what they do on purpose, which leads quickly to POV. He certainly doesn’t think of it as, “Better have an answer real fast.”
Despite his patchwork approach, Mike tells us that he does have conscious goals, and currently, he is working on making scenes be as simple as possible, even dumb, if they have to be. There should be no over-complicating a scene, which happens very often in group scenes. Mike says that it comes from a feeling of wanting to add your own thing, but that it’s liberating to know that everything you need is already there. Louis thinks maybe the over-complication comes from AND-ing too hard and that people botch the YES too often. Mike and Louis get into the difference between passively accepting offers versus enthusiastically accepting them and agree that you don’t have to add things to every single moment of the scene. Mike likens new improvisers to goldfish in a loving analogy.
Flattering him once again, Louis says that Mike is an incredibly good game-based improviser — so, what’s his approach to finding games in scenes? Perhaps surprisingly, Mike thinks that game is merely a result of good improv, so he’s usually not thinking hard about it. He trusts that his training has worked and instinct will lead him down the right path, so that he can find himself in a place of flow. Louis offers two rival takes on how we learn game as improvisers: You have conscious thought and effort, but you can also absorb a lot of that skill by being around it all the time.
What pisses off Louis in class? When people don’t want to do the hard work it takes to gain skills. Both improvisers agree that coasting through your improv education isn’t going to end very well for you and it isn’t very fulfilling. They examine the difference between skill and talent, noting that no matter how much talent someone has, they’ve got to keep developing their skill in order to feel satisfied. Mike finds the skills that he’s acquired to be more interesting than any talents he may have held innately.
What’s the highest compliment Mike could get about a show? That it was funny, duh. Louis talks about the roots of “funny” being a dirty word in improv. Maybe believing in “don’t be funny” is only really important early on in an education and scene? Mike concurs, saying there needs to be a set up in order to have a punchline. Improv scenes are like inside jokes and Harold is a sophisticated form of hanging out with your friends at the bar. Often, when people start getting decent at improv, they focus too much on the unusual thing and forget about the boring stuff. Mike describes a phenomenon regarding going back and forth between the unusual thing and the base reality. The mundane things in our scenes make the ridiculous shit digestible. Louis prods everyone to look up Norm McDonald’s “The Moth” joke from CONAN. Spoiler alert: It’s great.
Although Mike spends nearly all of his time doing or teaching comedy these days, he started out as a film student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Louis had the exact same path, he says. He talks to Louis about his writing partner and best buddy from high school and how they took themselves very seriously. Comedies, interestingly enough, were never a focal point until later on when they finally attempted to write one. In fact, he first took an improv class simply because he wanted some basic comedy training. In film school, Mike thought of himself as very serious and very lazy. He’d always loved comedy, but had no pretense about being a part of it. Because of his perceived laziness, Mike thinks that perhaps he missed the point of film school at the time. Louis and Mike have strikingly similar backstories, including the fact that they were both great illustrators at the age of 12. For both of them, realizing that comedy was going to be the central thing in their life was a very slow process.
Since it wasn’t immediate, Louis asks Mike when it was that he began taking improv seriously. When he felt competitive about it, Mike says. He shares an an eye opening experience from a Rebecca Drysdale class that came directly from listening. Louis says that he also had a breakthrough moment in a Drysdale class and they discuss for a bit what it was like to study with her.
Mike teaches Level 3 now, so Louis wants to know – what’s he focusing on? Coming back to some earlier points, Mike says that he focuses on keeping scenes simple, committing to the mundane, respecting each others’ ideas, and getting enthusiastic about what your scene partner is doing. These two teachers discuss how to encourage people to be enthusiastic without planting a fake enthusiasm in them. He also shares a note that stuck with him: Always have a sense of mischief. The rules of polite society are exactly the things we look to avoid in improv. This is something The Wrath is very good at, Louis claims. But they’ve been together for years, so what can less experienced groups do to instill that sense of troublemaking? Mike shares a fun exercise in that pursuit and clarifies what we mean when we say, “Everything you need in a scene is already there.”
Louis claims that improvisers look younger than everybody else and quotes Magnet founder Armando Diaz, saying, “The trick to improvising is to do just enough to not get fired.” If that doesn’t get you excited for this episode, I don’t know what will.
Our very own Lauren Ashley Smith stops in to talk about Speech & Debate, loving television, and engaging with her dog brain. A writer for Bravo’s “Fashion Queens” and VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” Lauren also performs at Magnet with Megawatt team TITAN and The Friday Night Sh*w. Host Louis Kornfeld kicks off their interview by discussing how she came to be involved in comedy.
Originally from St. Louis, Lauren first became interested in comedy during her days doing Speech & Debate in high school. She once found herself thrown into a “humorous interpretation” tournament and did quite well, which gave her the idea that maybe she wanted to pursue more laughs. Louis, too, did Speech & Debate in high school, which is where he finally talked to girls, so it sounds like both of them have lots of warm feelings regarding their time in S&D. Lauren’s story is particularly heartwarming because her father was her coach and director, which gave them a lot of one-on-one time together. Louis wonders what traits Lauren garnered from each of her parents, and while her dad taught her how to talk forever about a subject, she says that her mom gave her a sense of humor.
After high school, Lauren did short-form improv at Dickinson College and then moved to NYC, where she became involved with Story Pirates. Though she was very shy when she got into SP, Lauren figured out that a lot of other Pirates were Magnet improvisers, which is what led her to study there and eventually, become a Magnet performer herself. Lauren describes that time in her life as a transition from that of a wallflower to the confident, outspoken person she is today.
Switching gears, Louis wants to talk about pop culture, since that is at the foundation of Lauren’s livelihood. In addition to her work with Fashion Queens and Best Week Ever, Lauren also writes for humor site Reductress and other talking head and reality recap shows. She got her start producing for VH1’s “Best Week Ever” and talks about the production process for that show and how she got that job in the first place. From the production side, she began pitching a lot and eventually got to submit as a writer, for which she was then hired. Writing actually became harder once she had the title, she says. When asked if she prefers working alone, or having other people to bounce ideas off of, Lauren says that she likes working in a group and using improv concepts in the writers room to collaborate on ideas. Louis shares his last writers room experience and both profess that it’s very important to have a producer that trusts the writers’ ideas.
So, how did Lauren become an authority on pop culture and reality TV? Her secret is out: Watch a ton of TV and be on Twitter all the time! She proves her prowess by quickly naming all of the Real Housewives locations. Though she always has favorite shows, Lauren says that she often becomes a fan of new shows by doing research for work. Lauren talks about her parents battling over whether or not she and her sisters could watch The Real World and Louis admits his TV addiction to world. Even though a lot of TV is crap, Louis thinks that you can still grow up okay despite watching it all. How does Lauren feel being a part of the negative stereotype that reality TV is rotting people’s minds? She says despite the fact that many reality TV stars may serve as poor examples to younger people, there are still enough incredible moments to help her keep the faith and that there are many other factors at play for how an audience might internalize what they see on TV.
In a moment of great humility, Louis asks Lauren to explain Twitter to him. She does so very gently, and also tells us that she finds out about all major news events on Twitter and loves to play #hashtaggames. They talk about what constitutes something as newsworthy and how there’s a difference between dumbing things down and making sure that shows are accessible and relatable. To that end, she wishes she were a sillier person. Louis relates, saying that he wants to start closing the gap between his “show brain” and his”shower brain,” which Lauren says is the same as her “dog brain.” There are a lot of brains at play in this episode!
Finally, learn about who Lauren idolizes, the price we pay for being so angry all the time, and how Lauren’s family feels about her comedy.
Tune in to hear all of that, plus Lauren and Louis say “magnet” twice without intending to reference the Theater!
- All That
- armando diaz
- Best Week Ever
- Black Twitter
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer
- Dickinson College
- Fashion Queens
- Friday Night Sh*w
- Friday Night Show
- hashtag games
- James Eason
- Lauren Ashley Smith
- Louis Kornfeld
- magnet theater
- magnet theater podcast
- magnet training center
- new york
- new york city
- reality TV
- Speech & Debate
- speech and debate
- St Louis
- story pirates
- The Real World
Hello friends and family at the Magnet Theater.
August makes the end of summer Megawatt, and with the change of season the time has come for me to step down as Megawatt director. Come September, I’ll be turning the show over to the endlessly amazing Nick Kanellis.
To accommodate the transition, we’ve decided to push the next audition back to mid-September. Dates will officially be announced on this blog within the week.
I’ve had the privilege of getting to be a part of this show for the last four years, and have watched it grow in leaps and bounds. Hell, I’ve watched the whole theater grow in leaps and bounds. The work on the Magnet stage has never been funnier, smarter, or more exciting to watch. And there’s no doubt that it will only be getting more exciting as we move forward. The bar just gets higher and higher. Well done, everyone.
It’s truly been an honor to have been a part of all this.
Megawatt is brilliant. Magnet is brilliant. Long live improv!
This week, the delightful Ellie Kemper takes a quick break from making TV & movies to talk with us about positivity in comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and of course, improv! In the midst of hosting the TODAY show last week, and performing at Magnet with Christina Gausas (as KempSas), Ellie was kind enough to sit down with our lovable host Louis Kornfeld for a brief interview.
Louis wastes no time getting into it, asking Ellie, “How do you make positivity so funny?” Ellie admits that there is a a fine line between grating and funny when it comes to positivity. And though many positive characters have a naiveté to them, she maintains that you can bring more to those characters than simply ditziness. Louis believes that earlier improvisers shy away from being positive because it feels like there’s not much fuel to burn, yet he observes that Ellie is able to keep positive characters going endlessly. Perhaps it’s a psychological reflection of the performer?
Continuing in this vein, Ellie talks about her one-person UCB show centered around a cheery airline attendant who is falling apart on the inside, which of course brings us to Kimmy Schmidt. On Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, all of the characters, and particularly Kimmy, maintain a very upbeat disposition despite the darkness that seems to exist just offscreen or looming right behind them. Why are they able to stay funny? Probably because they all make good on the show’s motto: “You’re stronger than you think.”
In an improv scene, what makes one dark character entertaining to watch and another just sad? Both Ellie and Louis agree that confidence goes a long way and gives the audience faith in the actors trying to pull it off. Ellie talks specifically about how Christina Gausas’s confidence puts her at ease when they play together. The focus that Christina gives her scene partners takes their stress away and let’s them know they’re being taken seriously. Ellie and Louis both feel that anytime you have to sell what you’re doing to the audience, it puts a stress on the scene. A great strength of an improviser is to simply “be here right now.”
Louis then wants to talk about relaxation. How does Ellie deal with the difference in scale between the pressures of earlier performances and auditions, and the types of high-profile projects she does now? Interestingly, Ellie has actually gotten more anxious as time has gone on and, despite her prowess on stage, is still mystified by how other performers improvise so well. Louis digs deeper, asking Ellie if being famous has changed what it’s like to improvise in front of people. She says that audiences will laugh at things that aren’t really very funny and that you run the risk of becoming a lazy improviser. She’s returned to improvising more regularly this past winter after being away from it for some time, and though she felt rusty at first, she’s been loving it.
Louis’ favorite shows are the ones where he knows it was great improv but the audience was lukewarm about it – the pride of content over response. But that pride doesn’t prevent even great performers from going for the response sometimes. Ellie and Louis discuss the terrible feelings associated with making an easy joke in a scene. Guilt keeps you honest.
For his concluding question, Louis asks Ellie to describe what it’s like to come from the grungy, DIY world of NYC improv and sketch, and now, to be working amongst the most successful, absolute best people in comedy. Her answer is simple and reassuring. They’re all cut from the same cloth, right? Hear her answer to that question and all the others on this week’s episode. We know it’s a short one, but we swear on the skull of Del Close that it’s packed full of great stuff.
Are you an improv coach or looking to become one? An arts teacher? A teacher in general? Someone who works with groups? In charge of picking icebreakers for the company retreat? Have you ever led a game with a group of people that was just a dud and you couldn’t figure out why? Do you want to get better at leading games and activities?
Have we got the workshop for you!
Mark your calendars for Thursday, July 30th from 1:30-3:30pm at the Magnet Training Center for Pick the Perfect Warm-Up: The Social Group Work Theory Behind Improv.
This interactive workshop will explain social group work theory and how it can be used in different contexts, and teach you how to choose and use improv games purposefully for the groups you’re working with. Learn the social science behind why a game might bomb in one group but do well in another, what “failed” games can really teach you, and how to best pick activities that allow groups to grow.
This is a FREE workshop designed and led by experienced social workers, teaching artists, and the teenagers of the “Life Lines” Performing Arts Troupe and is open to ANYONE interested in this topic, no previous experience required!
To RSVP please e-mail Caitlin Steitzer, MSW at firstname.lastname@example.org
Who are the presenters? The “Life Lines” Performing Arts Troupe is a program from the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park Brooklyn. Teens selected to participate in this program spend the summer training to lead games and activities with 160+ middle school campers at our specialized arts camp. In the past, the Troupe has developed and led improv workshops all across New York City, with participants as young as 5 and as old as 95. They have spread the love of improv and games to over 2,000 people since being founded in 2012.
We’re pleased to announce the newest ensembles for the Summer 2015 round of The Circuit! Shows will be every Friday at 10:30pm, beginning Friday, July 24th at the Magnet Training Center (22 W 32nd St., 10th Floor). Congrats everyone!
Coach: Jesse Acini
Christopher De La Cruz
Siva shankar pemmasani
Coach: Matthew Sellitti
Kevin Mc Inerney
Coach: Charlie Nicholson
Coach: Alex Tracy
This is going to be another great round—come out and enjoy these FREE shows!
This summer, Magnet will be putting together an exciting new video project entitled “Exquisite Corpse: The Movie.” Performers, video/sound people, and video editors will collaborate to make a short comedy video that will be screened at the theater on Thursday, September 10th, 7pm. The video will be made in pieces, exquisite-corpse-style, with teams filming their pieces in the video one after another.
The first team will create a 2-minute long video (either written or improvised). They then pass that off to the second team who will have a week to continue the narrative of the first team, who will then pass it off to the third team, etc.
All Megawatt, Musical Megawatt, Thursday Night Out, Level 6: Team Performance, Circuit, and Sketch teams are encouraged to apply, as are all members of the community with video editing, filming, and sound recording skills. Teams will be given a week over the summer to film their portion of the project and will be assigned to camera/sound/editing people.
The deadline to apply is Monday, July 20th, 5pm.
Please email: email@example.com with any questions!
Beloved Magnet Theater alumnae, Bianca Casusöl, visits from North Carolina to talk about her improv origins, making adjustments for shows, and the weird games she plays all alone in her head. Currently a performer and instructor at Dirty South Comedy Theater (dsi) in Chapel Hill, NC, Bianca spent several years in New York performing at the Magnet on shows such as Megawatt, Kiss*Punch*Poem, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Fortunately, we caught her while she was in town and convinced her to catch up with her old pal Louis Kornfeld on our podcast.
The conversation appropriately begins with our two stars talking about dropping back into a community after being away from it. Though they both claim to do a poor job at keeping in touch with people, Louis insists that Bianca has an ability to open people up and make them feel like a million bucks no matter how long she’s known them or how long it’s been since they’ve spoken. Has she always been that way? They talk about their birth orders and what that might have to do with their adult personalities.
Bianca started at Magnet on Jan 9, 2010, but she first got into improv at her NC high school with Viola Spolin’s theater games. She had a less than amazing experience with a practice group before taking a long break from the art form. When she eventually picked it up again at Magnet, she says she felt like the kid sister who was always just hanging around, which meant that she got to know the house managers quite well. In contrast to Bianca’s natural ability to make friends with strangers, Louis recently took a personality test and related deeply to a question about being a wallflower.
Catching us up on her current home, Bianca talks about the improv scene in North Carolina and how dsi has grown by leaps and bounds since she first came into contact with it. One major difference, compared to the NYC theaters, is that dsi does both short form and long form improv. This creates a pressure to perform for and entertain different kinds of audiences, even families with children. Before continuing, Bianca says a really uncomfortable word, but then the two of them talk in detail about making adjustments for various audiences and Bianca claims that manners are just shorthand for respect. We like that phrasing a lot.
On a related note, Louis talks about how easily impressed certain audiences are and that we lose out by judging them for liking what they like. He says that those of us in the comedy world are spoiled because we’re surrounded by people who let us be weird and indulge our ideas, but that many people (kids in particular) don’t have that luxury. This is why they delight in something as simple as an improviser using their suggestion in a scene.
Bianca reveals to us that when people aren’t nice to her, she thinks they’re trying to sleep with her. Louis claims that she has a gift for playing uncomfortable moments in scenes and Bianca chalks a lot of her improv skill up to expressing a lot of feelings on stage and her love of exploring “the weirdos.” Plus, she tells us about the strange games she plays in her head, like “Who is dreaming up the people in the world?” and “What would this person be if they were a beverage?”
Check out this week’s episode for a really fun conversation about all of the above and more. And if you don’t, well then just remember that kids deserve respect too.