Posts Tagged ‘comedy’
Step right up and listen to Episode #59 of our show with veteran performer, beloved instructor, and resident clown, ALAN FESSENDEN. Alan joins host Louis Kornfeld to talk about clowning, theater, nervousness, and of course, a deep dive into improv philosophy. It’s always great to hear two seasoned performers discuss the ins-and-outs of improvising and this episode is no exception!
Louis begins the interview by asking about Alan’s background in clowning. Though he says that blackmail got him to take his first clown class, Alan soon found himself very interested in the process of finding one’s own clown and how performers can magnify certain characteristics of themselves for use in clowning. Louis asks him to describe what a clown show might look like and we get to hear Alan’s clown Bartholomew say “vagina” several times. Clowning has helped Alan open up a particular path of communication within himself that informs all performance he now does.
Getting into his background before improv and comedy work, Alan tells us of going to school for theater and trying to forget that he once did musical theater. He’s come around to appreciate the latter at this point in life, which causes Louis to opine that dismissing any type of genre or show isn’t any good for us. These vets talk about the arc of doing your first shows, filled with excitement, to the hard work of getting good, and then becoming an expert. Despite his experience, Louis like to always feel a little bit lost and confused. Similarly, Alan likes the first time he runs an exercise with a class or team, because he’s exploring it with them, rather than simply handing something off to a group.
Hear Louis and Alan talk about nervousness and fear before and during shows!
Louis gets to talking about how Alan improvises and engages with the audience, particularly within Hello Laser. Describing his own development, Alan feels like he had a great freedom of play for a while, then became complacent, and now he fears losing it. They debate relaxation versus putting forth effort in improv and Louis shares with us that he feels tight if he finds his body going for laughs. There’s a nice bit about exploring and being playful even within scenes where you know where you’re trying to get to and Alan talks about eating cake.
Plus, Alan shares great enthusiasm for Louis’ thoughts on “Yes, And” and his habit of playing shows with a secret. They talk about experiencing life and moments, and Alan worries that maybe he doesn’t teach comedy, just moments. While it’s good to know that something is funny, he wants to know, can it be real? They also talk a lot about finding truth and being challenged, which is something that theater is perhaps more readily suited to do than improv.
Finally, Louis and Alan touch on the ability to laugh at who we are and the difficulty of being good people. How can you be a part of the problem even when you’re trying to fix it?
The Magnet Theater Podcast triumphantly returns from a late-summer respite with a glorious episode featuring Magnet performer, gamer, Training Center House Manager, and boy made of metal, PAT MAY. He sits down with host Louis Kornfeld for a sweaty conversation all about going to comedy camp, his approach to improv scenes, and how he seeks to create shows that are truly for the audience. He also discusses writing and performing sketch comedy, TV Party Tonight, and his incessant self-deprecation.
Louis begins this episode by asking Pat about his summers spent at Buck’s Rock Performing & Creative Arts Camp and doing comedy for the first time at age 16. At Buck’s Rock, Pat met a lot of folks now in the comedy world like Rebecca Drysdale, Louie Pearlman, Griffin Newman, and Sam Rogal. He grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, which allowed him to do some open mics in NYC as a teenager, but the stand-up environment soon turned him off. Pat believes that the open mics he went to were like YouTube commenters in a circle jerk, which is a beautiful analogy.
It didn’t sit well with him that people simply wanted to be funny, or simply to be funny to themselves. When performing or putting up a show, Pat always tries to think: “What would make someone get off their couch and come out to the theater?” He loves to make things that people genuinely enjoy. Pat tells of a recent show he put up to which zero people showed up and gets into the topic of failure. Even on his team Metal Boy, which is a sucessful team, Pat knows that he’s still going to have fuck ups. It can be frustrating to know that you’re not in control of the whole show or team, but part of that is also what’s exciting about improv.
Talking about improv mechanics, Pat has never really cared about labeling from inside the scene. It’s all about the present dynamic for him. “Who cares about labeling?” he asks. “Just improv nerds!” What does Pat think about before a show or do to prepare for it? To describe his style, Pat says that he’s not a thinker, which you might have already known if you saw his recent show where he repeatedly fell out of a window. Among the different members of Metal Boy, Louis takes particular interest in exploring Pat’s relationship with Sam Rogal, his frequent collaborate, former roommate, and longtime friend. Louis observes that Sam doesn’t let things go and Pat won’t give up on any small thing he’s doing, which often allows them to continue scenes forever. Breaking the rules of improv is one of Pat’s most favorite things. Louis thinks that if a team says they’re going to follow the fun that night, they’re doomed to fail. Pat weighs in on The Spokane as a form. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t like it.
Paying him a compliment, Louis says that Pat’s characters are always very clear and have obvious wants. What kinds of choices really click with Pat? He relates to a lot of the teaching he received from Louis and Rachel Hamilton.
Pat talks about his farts. For real. He also burps a lot. Powering through his bodily functions, Pat and Louis discuss being in the moment and having needs, wants, and drives in scenes. Both guys comment on big characters. Plus, you will learn Pat May’s improv cure-all. It’s really dumb!
Louis finally cuts through the heavy self-deprecation and asks Pat why he shits on himself all the time? Laughing at being called out, Pat claims he’s just trying to check himself and reign in his ego. He holds himself to a high standard and needs to be reminded of that.
Finally, they talk about Pat’s show TV Party Tonight and how he loves to create shows that the audience can feel a part of. TV Party Tonight is a show where Pat, his friends, and special guests watch TV and make jokes, talk to the audience, and give out free beers. For real though, Pat cannot stop burping and farting. Louis asks about translating the experience of hanging out with friends to a show meant for an audience. Pay says that performing can often be selfish, but a show like this is one that the audience too can get involved in. He really wants to make shows for other people.
Plus, these important topics:
- Do you ever feel truly great about what you’re doing in comedy? Or is ownership the best we can do?
- Pat talks about Sketch Jesus!
- Louis vamps a whole lot!
Back from our one-week summer vacation, we have longtime Magnet performer JAMIE RIVERA on the show us to talk about science fiction, having fun on stage, and how improv can help us through difficult times. Along the way, host Louis Kornfeld talks to Jamie about playing characters, performing for various audiences, and The Little Rascals. We love Jamie and we’re sure that you’ll love this episode.
To start things off, Louis asks Jamie about his interest in science fiction, which is something he inherited from his father. Jamie shares a funny story about going to see Star Wars for the first time as a kid, which gets Louis talking about how children make curious assumptions. Jamie claims that Inside Out might be Pixar’s best film and admits that it had him crying. What a softy! This gets the two of them discussing the power of film to move us, even if it’s not very good. Also, Louis loves Teen Wolf.
Continuing with this train of thought, Louis suggests that television and film allow us to give structure and resonance to our lives by framing them as narratives. Jamie relates this to religion, saying that even though he’s not a religious guy, there does seem to be a guiding force that many of us seek out. People similarly interpret dreams to have meaning, when perhaps there is none. All of this is done in an effort to give more meaning to our lives, he says.
Admitting that tropes from popular media often creep into improv shows, Louis asks Jamie how he feels about stealing moves from tv and film while improvising. Jamie wants everyone to know that he has ditched his gremlin on the airplane wing move and also, that engaging in tropes feels like pretending they way you pretended as a kid. As expected, Louis sometimes thinks he’s McNulty from The Wire and the two talk about archetypes versus specific characters. Louis wants to know: Is playing characters something that increases or decreases with age? He also talks about Shakespeare. Big episode for Louis.
Onto the topic of improv fuckery, Jamie and Louis talk about how Junior Varsity is a team that really indulges in having fun with each other and we get to hear a bit about how they approach their shows. Known as a fast-playing team, Jamie chalks much of their speed up to something akin to muscle memory – a result of being together for eight years. Their longevity has also created a great deal of trust amongst the members, which Louis thinks is the hallmark of a really good team.
After a bit about how to access your subconscious, Louis talks about showering. Really! This gets them chatting about entertaining yourself as a child. Jamie was a quasi-only child, and a latchkey kid, so he didn’t have a lot of friends very early in childhood. Jamie would simply make stuff up on his own and Louis notes how often children ostensibly put on shows for no audience. The theme of childhood carries through to a description of The Little Rascals as a proxy for the improv community and Louis tries to figure out when he stopped being mortified by being on stage.
Along with JV and The Friday Night Sh*w, Jamie has also been a part of UCB Harold Night and the Second City Cruise Lines. So, Louis wants to know: “How do all the different audiences influence being on stage? “Jamie breaks down his time at UCB with Trillion, noting a high level of of pressure, and talks about how ”muggle” audiences don’t see the same connections as other improvisers do. He even shares one particular experience on the cruise ship where his heart was melted by a very special audience member.
Jamie continues the heartfelt sentiment saying that hopefully, even if we are doing fart jokes, we are exploring the human condition. What he’s really getting at is comedy’s ability to have meaning, even in its silliest moments. Jamie concludes this episode for us by speaking candidly about death and how improv has helped him through tragedy.
- Friday Night Sh*w
- Harold Night
- Inside Out
- Jamie Rivera
- junior varsity
- Little Rascals
- Louis Kornfeld
- magnet theater
- magnet theater podcast
- magnet training center
- new york
- new york city
- science fiction
- Second City
- Star Wars
- Teen Wolf
- The Wire
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???
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
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.
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.
STEPH GARCIA – ON MOVING TO LA, WRITING COMEDY & BEING AN ASSISTANT ON A TV SHOW!
Comedy in New York:
Steph studied improv at the Magnet Theater through level 5, completed the sketch program, and performed on sketch teams: Alchemy, Colorado Dad and Dispacho.
She also performed on an indie improv team Gilda and on the sketch duo Firecracker, that made the web series White People Problems.
Performs weekly at the Nerdist with her improv team Pilgrim. Hosts an Entertainment Industry panel for women at the Nerdist School with fellow teammate Lindsey Barrow. Co-hosts a monthly all female mix-em-up improv show called Girl on Lady Action with Maura Ruth. She also recently wrote a web series and pilot, with Dave Warth over Skype and they are in post production of their first episode.
All while working as a writer’s PA on Selfie and now ABC’s The Catch.
How long have you been in LA?
It will be two years in October.
How does the improv scene there compare to NY?
There is just as much opportunity in LA, I just feel like it’s more spread out, and, for me, it’s a little more difficult to do. I remember jumping theater to theater in New York and here it’s different because you have a car and you have to drive and park. But there are a lot of indie theaters.
Do people tend to be members of a few different theaters or do they stick to one?
No there’s a lot of crossover here. It’s the same as in New York.
Are you primarily a writer, improviser or a sketcher?
Right now I am primarily a writer. I do perform weekly, but I’m not auditioning. I’m working on writing for TV. I got a manager out here and so I’m working on having some samples that are more TV. They have all my sketches and they have been using them to pitch, and I’m working right now with Nerdist to get the video production side up. And I’m actually hoping to get live sketch up at the Nerdist as well. I just love sketch so much, but in terms of having something to make a living off of, I want to write TV so you need to have good samples.
How hard is it now to pitch to sketch shows that are currently on the air? Do you have to know people on them?
Yeah, and that seems to be the case in general. You can still get hired off your samples and stuff, but it always helps to know somebody. I’ve gotten my last two jobs because of recommendations from people.
How did you know people in LA?
My cousin is a set designer and he worked with somebody who was working on Raising Hope at the time, and she invited me to set, which was freaking amazing, and I met the production coordinator on that. That production coordinator happened to get hired on the pilot of Selfie and gave me a chance. So for two weeks I was working on the pilot and I spoke to everybody and said ‘I want to write!’ and so when the time came around for the show, the showrunner’s assistant who was working on the pilot asked if I wanted to interview for the writer’s PA gig. And from that, the director of that pilot also directed The Catch pilot, so her assistant forwarded my resume on.
I’ll come back to your jobs, but first tell us about your writing process.
I like deadlines, so if it’s something like a writer’s program or festival deadline, that’s what feeds me. So it depends. I’ll sit on an idea for a year, and I won’t do anything with it until I see – ‘oh, someone will actually look at this.’ And I’ll sit and I’ll write it in two weeks. I don’t know why I do that, and it’s not good and no one should do that.
Do you ever set your own deadlines or does it have to be external?
I have on occasion, but it’s usually – ‘this festival deadline is this week, so my deadline is a week and a half before.’ It’s not a way to live. Don’t do it that way.
[Just now – Steph gets a pizza delivered. AND she doesn’t eat it until the end of the interview. Obviously displaying some extraordinary mental toughness required to gain writing chops in LA.]
How did you get a manager?
I have a friend of mine who I knew in New York who is an actress. She started her own production company and produced two shorts that went to some festivals, and so when I came out here, she said ‘give me sketches’. And I said ‘here you go.’ We shot some stuff, and then someone I met through her was a manager, and at the time I guess, not that I wasn’t looking – I love acting, but I came out here because I knew there was more opportunities for writing than in New York. And then when I did the CBS Diversity showcase I ran into her again, and they were opening a literary division at their management company. She said just come and meet with us and see if you like the team, so I met the team and they’re now repping me.
What did you have to send them?
I sent them so much stuff. I think I sent them an original pilot and a Bob’s Burgers spec. Then they were like ‘great, send us more stuff’, so I sent them a bunch of sketches and I sent another pilot and some shorts that I’ve written.
What I’ve heard the trend is now is to have an original pilot and if someone likes that, then they want that spec to see if you can write in somebody else’s voice.
How long does it take you to write an original pilot?
It depends. The last pilot I wrote took me two and a half weeks. But technically if you add all the time I’d been sitting on it and thinking of the story, at that point I had all the beats in my head before I sat down and started writing.
Do you show people your work? Do you have a writer’s group?
I have a writers group and then I have some other people that I bother. You can’t be precious with your writing. And that’s another thing that being on a sketch team at the Magnet definitely helped me out with, you just can not be precious with your writing.
When I’m really working on something I’ll sit down for 2 – 3 hours at a time and knock out what I can.
You mentioned Russ Armstrong was a memorable sketch director. Was there anything you learned from him that you think about today?
Russ has a really good work ethic and my favorite thing I learned from him was about keeping everything succinct and short and your jokes being real clear and not having any of that junk around it, because it just muddles the joke.
What do you mean by work ethic?
He was fantastic at giving notes and really tried to get us to memorize our sketches and then run them and run them, always e-mailing and being supportive but also saying ‘we have to get our stuff up’ and ‘does everybody have their things.’ He was always present at the meetings. Always ready to give feedback and ready to keep it moving and make sure we got as much as we could from every meeting. There wasn’t a lot of messing around, which can happen when you have a group of writers together.
You currently work as a writer’s PA. How is a writer’s PA different from a writer’s Assistant?
A writer’s assistant and a script co-ordinator, depending on the show, overlap some. A writer’s assistant generally takes notes in the room, and then because you’re (hopefully) writing down everything everybody is saying, at the end of the day you have to organize it, and so depending on the show a lot of the time the script coordinator and the assistant, they’ll kind of swap off that duty. And once the scripts come out, you’re also responsible for proofing the script and making sure that everyone gets the newest version of the script and that you’re not messing that up, and you’re also making sure there’s no typos. And then on my last job they were also dealing with intellectual property stuff. So if you want a song in there you have to deal with that too. As a writer’s PA – lunch is my biggest duty. I mean, it’s like food. It’s really a lot of food. Lunch, the kitchen, coffee. You also handle the paper and office supplies. Once scripts get going then you’re responsible for distributing the scripts. On Selfie though, because it was such a social media based show, I got to help write some things like fake yelp reviews. I also got a tweet on the show with my twitter handle, that I wrote – so that was really cool – those little things where I got to pepper in creativity.
Does everyone assume that as a writer’s PA or Assistant, you want to be a writer?
The assumption is there, and depending on the staff, both my staffs have been amazing, they’ll ask you what do you write? what’s your genre? Who do you like, what shows do you like?
Do you find writing pilots hard?
Oh yeah. Well you know what’s difficult is that balance between introducing all your characters, but also having a compelling story, because you don’t just want an episode of ‘here’s all the people you will be seeing for the rest of the season.’ There needs to be a contained story within it.
Do you get to see how much influence the showrunner has in a writer’s room and on breaking story? And does that relate to how our sketch directors are at the Magnet?
Yeah – it’s an interesting process because everything does go through them, but both showrunners that I’ve seen are very open – I mean it’s so much of a collaboration of the room, and basically what happens is you break a story, and then it’s one person’s episode so they really get to write it and then they bring it back and then you all edit it together. But then there’s this other person not in the room, that’s the studio, and that’s where the showrunner comes in. They have to go and say – ‘here’s the story we have.’ And then they get notes like ‘Oh we don’t like this, we do like this, can this be like this,’ and then the showrunner has to bring that back to the room.
Please eat pizza if you are hungry.
That’s one fun perk about being a writer, there is so much food, so you eat all day long.
How many hours do you pull a day?
The hours really depend on the show. Both shows that I’ve worked for have been pretty great with their hours. But there are others that the writers will work on until, like, midnight.
What would be your dream tv show to write on at the moment.
I have two. Last Man On Earth, and Veep.
You’re a dart champion?
Oh yeah! I was. We used to play darts in NY. I was in a league, it was every Monday night and I did that for about seven years. And I really miss it. I love this business and I love writing, but to have something that’s completely outside with a bunch of people that don’t give a shit, it’s really nice.
Last Question. What things did you wish you’d known before you moved to LA?
Unless you come out here already with rep or already with some big credits under your name, no one will really appreciate what you did in New York. And it’s a really hard thing to accept. Especially when you first get out here. Someone I know was on Broadway who came out – and it just didn’t translate. It’s something that you have to accept. And there are a lot of people here from New York, so you’re not totally starting at zero, but it’s definitely like taking two steps backwards. So that was the biggest thing for me. And you kind of accept it and you don’t have a chip on your shoulder and just keeping on working, people will recognize it, and eventually people who work with you will be like – ‘oh you’ve done all these things?’
And the other thing is parking sucks. Always give yourself 15-20 minutes just for parking wherever you’re going.
Thanks Steph! We wish you luck! You may now eat the pizza.
Interview conducted by Ally Kornfeld for Magnet Theater.
We welcome a national treasure of the improv comedy world, Christina Gausas, into our studio for a conversation about ensemble support, form development, Del Close, improv notes, and wanting your scene partner. Still basking in that post-DCM glow, Christina begins her conversation with host Louis Kornfeld recapping her DCM, talking about the support of the ensemble, and being in the moment.
Louis brings up the difference between bragging and acknowledging you’ve had a great show. Christina says that bragging feels counterintuitive because the whole thing relies on ensemble. Without the rest of the team, the hilarious line you delivered would have never happened. In the same vein, they discuss the difference between a real gift and a “bailout” gift and the two parts to every improv gift: the giving and receiving.
Following dual admissions of performance anxiety, Christina and Louis talk about some of Christina’s Chicago teams and how they went about developing new forms. Both agree though, that content — great scenework — comes before any concern about which form a team chooses. Christina’s advice? Create something that is your own and put the work into it. Also, explore the intention behind a show.
Christina indulges Louis’ request and shares some fond memories of the late, great Del Close. He was an artist who valued authenticity, creating complete characters, and not being topical simply for the sake of being topical. He wanted people to find the universal implications behind the suggestion, to not be literal with it but be expansive with it. While many might bring up Del because they really love discussing the rebellious and outlandish aspects of his life, Louis says that he most likes the idea that Del pushed people to go beyond their limits. Plus it’s possible that he was the Forrest Gump of the improv world. Don’t believe us? You’ll have to listen.
Inspired by Del’s approach to notes, Christina and Louis talk about the use of direct notes and how they can be useful or harmful. Both maintain that players need to develop the habit of taking notes easily. Louis pitches his idea that an improv team should approach the craft with a smart mob mentality and Christina tells us how great acting integrates with great improv. Finally, hear about Christina’s most recent revelation that people should truly want their scene partners at all times.
This is a great episode featuring one of the game’s very best players, so we recommend you turn the volume up to 11.