IRC Podcast Transcript, Craig Cackowski, 2010-11-16
Introduction: Which means that a lot of your laughs in improv come from commitment and specificity and being in the moment and it kind of shows them that such a little percentage of the laughs you get in improv are actually from cleverness and wit.
Kevin Mullaney: Hi everybody, this is Kevin Mullaney, your host of the Improv Resource Center podcast. Today, I've got a great guest: Craig Cackowski. He was my coach years ago, when I was team called Frank Booth in Chicago. He was my coach for about four years and so I was very excited to get him on the phone and we'll introduce him in a second. Let me first say I've got a couple announcements. I'm going to be in New York City the weekend of Thanksgiving. I'm going to be there the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Thanksgiving. I'm going to be performing in the three-on-three tournament at the UCB Theater. And I might be doing a show at the Magnet. It depends on if I get into the second round of the three-on-three tournament. If I don't, then I'll probably be doing a show at the Magnet Saturday night. Then I'm really pleased to announce we're going to be doing a live podcast of the Improv Resource Center podcast. Live episode of the podcast at the PIT Theater on Sunday night at 9:30. I'm still working on the guests, so hopefully I'll have another podcast next week and I'll be able to announce who the guests are. In the meantime, please set that up on your calendar, that you're going to come out to the PIT Theater in New York City on Sunday night at 9:30 and see the Improv Resource Center podcast live. I'm hoping to have two guests, possibly three and interview them on the spot and have a little bit of a question and answer, possibly so that you can ask your questions as well. Alright. Let's get going with the show. Today's interview, like I said, is with Craig Cackowski. This is a long interview, but I think it's a good one. I think you're going to really enjoy it, so let's get going.
Craig Cackowski: Hi, Kevin. My name's Craig Cackowski and I live in Los Angeles. I'm an instructor at the iO West and Second City theaters out here.
KM: So it looks like on the iO website you teach a lot of level three classes out there. Is that right?
CC: Level four, actually is my level. Yea, this is actually a level that it's my level. I'm the only one who teaches it and everyone has to come through me. We splintered our program recently where levels one through four are more basic improvisation and scene work and then the bulk of the Harold work is done in levels five, six, and seven. Level four can be kind of a diving point for our program, by which I mean that people can stay in level four as long as they want until they feel comfortable enough with their scene work to move on to group longform. I got to design the curriculum based around things that I want to do. Basically I'm just trying to create confident and comfortable improvisers who, every time they go up there to start a scene, feel pretty good about their chances of being able to create a good scene with their partner. It's a lot of it is based on personal feedback. I send an email every week to each one of my classes with a breakdown of the exercises we did as well as personalized notes for them. It's intended as a dialogue back and forth between me and the students. I want them to let me know what they feel their weaknesses are or what they feel that they're struggling with and dialogue with me as the class is going along about what they're feeling more comfortable with.
KM: So the determination is when they're ready to go on to learn the Harold, that's mostly left up to them?
CC: Well, it's up to them and to me. In some cases I've held people back because I feel they need more work. In other cases people voluntarily stayed with me or have taken other teachers again in levels one through four. Usually when I've held somebody back, they've thanked me for doing so. In cases where people get angry, they usually leave the program. That's usually a case of somebody we didn't need anyway, but the vast majority of people that I tell them they need more work, they agree with me and they're thankful for the chance to get more work.
KM: So what was the thought process? Because that sounds like the curriculum that you're using out there or the structure that you're using out there sounds quite different from my experience at improvOlympic twenty years ago. What was the thinking in reshaping it like this?
CC: Well, I think... they do still get Harolds in levels two, three, and four. Then they get a little bit of the taste of it in one, so they get little nuggets of Harold, but they're not really expected to... there are no performances in levels one through four. There are performances in levels five, six, and seven and they're not really expected to be doing full Harolds in levels one through four yet. I think James Grace, who's our artistic director our here, just wanted to .. because in Los Angeles, we get a lot of actors who don't necessarily want to do long form improv. So he wanted to give an option to the people who are just doing it to improve their acting and they're not necessarily focused on doing long form. That's one reason for it. That's one thing that's specific to Los Angeles, but also just making sure that the students who are doing the student performances in levels five, six, and seven are really capable of understanding and doing Harold. It's a little protection for the program and for the student in that way.
KM: I wonder if you could identify for us the things that you are looking for. What tells you that a student is ready to move on to more concentrated long form and Harold work?
CC: It basically comes down to comfort and confidence. I audit the audition sometimes when we have Harold team auditions, and people ask sometimes what I'm looking for in a performer. I guess what I want to see is a performer who's in control. What I mean by that is not controlling the scene or steamrolling the scene, just control of their own performance, by which I mean everything they're saying and doing is something that they meant to say or do and that they're understanding what they're saying and doing while they're doing it. Just an improviser who looks comfortable and relaxed up there. Now, the bar to getting on a Harold team is different from advancing in classes. It's not strict and obviously, we let most students go on. But when they're held back or I feel they need more work, people who are just really in their head, beating themselves up a lot, judging their own choices, judging others' choices, people who are shutting down because they're in brain overload, that they're just putting too much thought into it, and just trying to get their instincts up where a lot of the basic improv skills are done more on autopilot rather than with the brain.
KM: What's your favorite or one of your favorite exercises that you do in level four?
CC: Well, a lot of my exercises are based on feeling, seeing, and before thinking the scene. I'll do a lot of things that are based on feel first. Gibberish scenes are one thing. It takes the pressure off being verbal right away. The other day we were doing shared emotion or tone. I call out a tone, like frustration or serenity and two people come out together and they have to vocalize that tone or energy together. So if it's serenity, they might be, "Hmmm..aaaah." And they're both doing the same thing, trying to mirror their partner. If it's frustration, they might be, "Oh uggggh!" And they're both doing that thing together. One thing I'd say that happens that'd be a negative emotion like frustration, the frustration can't be with the partner. Your partner is commiserating with something you're both frustrated about. It's easy to turn negativity on the other person, make the other person your problem. So let's say you're both cut from the basketball team or whatever and you're both frustrated about it and so you're commiserating together. So the start of vocalizing that emotion together and let it turn into dialogue whenever it wants to. And the process for each scene is pretty much the same, which is feel feel feel and then label it. Justify or label whatever this thing that you're feeling is. In some cases, it's expected, you know, if the tone is grief, then the justification might be that someone in the family died or it might be that their favorite TV show was canceled or whatever. So in some cases it's a warranted emotion or in some cases it's an inherently comic. But just trying to get them in the place where they're giving a performance before they know what it means. I think that a lot of teams start with a lot of dialogue and a lot of agenda and then the players have to figure out what kind of performance to give for this agenda or premise or dialogue that they have. Why not come out with a performance first and then figure out what it means, the thing that you've just seen.
KM: Do you find that things they come up with are more surprising when they do it that way?
CC: I think so because the less calculated and they're thinking less about plot or premise or game. Also the audience gets to be a participant in that. So if the audience see your performance, they see your emotion and then it gets justified. They feel like they were a participant in that creation, that they notice something that was strange or unusual or extreme and then the players justify that for them as opposed to when you come out with a whole lot of dialogue up top or a whole lot of agenda, it might be funny and it might be clever but the audience recognizes that's something you chalked up in your head ahead of time and they didn't get to be a participant in that process. They're both valid but I think when the audience gets involved, that's really taking full advantage of what's unique about improv to me.
KM: What's another example of an exercise you do to get them feeling the scene before they actually are coming up with the circumstances of the scene?
CC: Well one of the exercises I do in week one of class is I pretend the class is a scene study class and that last week, of course there was no class last week because it's the first week of level four for them. Last week as you remember I assigned each of you a classic scene from a play. And I assigned you a partner, you went off and memorized the scene. You rehearsed it, you blocked and now you're going to perform it for the class with full emotional commitment. These are some of the greatest scenes of contemporary theater. They're moving. Every line of dialogue has been agonized over by the playwright and it's just beautiful and poetic. So you create a mindset where they're just going to perform an already scripted scene. They should not worry about going for laughs with these. They tend toward melodrama anyway, which I like. So I tell them the title of the play and the type of scene it is. And they're all fake play titles and so I'll say, "Let's do the stakeout scene from 'The Zimmerman Incident.' Let's do the hospital scene from 'A Rose for Miss Maple.'" Then I take out the lights. I let them set the chairs, kind of get in a mental space to perform the scene. I slowly fade up the lights. And then I let the scene go five, six, seven minutes, whatever the arc in the scene needs to be. And then whenever it feels done, I take up the lights to thunderous applause and then they take a bow. What I see in that exercise then is, I tell them that I don't want it to feel like improvised dialogue, I want it to feel like scripted dialogue, which usually slows them down. It usually creates more pauses and silences, which are organic to the conversation and they fill those silences with behavior. I think most beginning improvisers are afraid of silence, but silence is good because silence creates tension and then tension produces laughter. When they feel like they've blocked the scene already, their movement is more organic and purposeful. For instance, when the lights come up, they're usually in a chair sitting backwards lost in thought or leaning against the flats. The lights come up on an interesting stage picture of characters who are already in the middle of something. The scenes are usually incredibly successful and they feel really empowered from doing it and what they usually say when it's done, that really took the pressure off of me, which raises an interesting point of where are you feeling this pressure? It's usually a self-imposed pressure to be brilliant and articulate and funny when people come out, whereas if you just treat it like everything that's being said and done is the perfect thing to say and do. This is a scripted piece, it's only ever going to go this way, because when you improvise a scene, it's only going to go the way that it goes, and so you have to trust that whatever you've created is the perfect thing to create. There's no room for judgment or rethinking it or editing it while you're doing it.
KM: You know that reminds me a lot of a similar exercise that Susan Messing used to do. Maybe still does. Where she would similarly come into class and say, "Oh, so you guys have been working for the last four weeks on a performance art piece and today's the day! Today's the day we're going to perform those performance art pieces for each other" I think she would give suggestions to each, but not call them suggestions. Say, you're going to be doing a piece on water and you guys have rehearsed it and that it had similar effects although the piece...
CC: Is that Caligula?
KM: No, it wasn't called Caligula. I think it was called Performance Art Piece. Yea, Caligula was a more amorphous, simple exercise.
CC: Well, that might be where I got it from. Like all teachers, we steal from the best.
KM: I think it's a great adaptation of it. Is it something that you came up with or did someone else suggest it?
CC: I think I came up with but that doesn't mean I did.
KM: That's really strange, isn't it? That if you kind of give yourself a fiction that this is a piece that is from a play and that you have rehearsed and that you've memorized, that somehow that takes the pressure off.
CC: Absolutely, and the dialogue is great. And that these scenes although are not trying to be funny are usually hilarious, which means that a lot of your laughs in improv come from commitment and specificity and being in the moment and it kind of shows them that such a little percentage of the laughs you get in improv are from cleverness and wit and I think beginning improvisers are so pressure to come up with cleverness and wit. When they watch performances, they think people are being clever and witty, but they're really not. They're really just saying what they'd say or saying what the character would say and it looks brilliant, but it's more about keeping your integrity and doing the honest thing in the moment. I try to do .. as they're a doing a scene, try to call them on it, if they're subverting their integrity in anyway. In a way, the more intense and dramatic they play these scenes, the funnier they are. A lot of the mechanics that make us laugh in improv are just built into the fact that it's spontaneous and it's being made up on the spot and that the audience knows that. That can be a good lesson for students to trust that. That laughter is a byproduct of doing the work correctly.
KM: Do you know of any of other exercises that have that built in fiction to them, where we're lying to ourselves in order to, you know, produce a different effect? I'm not sure if I can think of any, but it's an interesting idea.
CC: Let me think.
KM: I guess there's exercises where it's like, "It's opening night!" You know, you do a Harold in class and hype it up as if it's a dress rehearsal where it's opening night and see if that effects anything. I don't know if that would necessary produce better results.
CC: Well another thing that I do in my class that's somewhat similar, and this I know where I stole this from. I stole this from Tammy Saeger. I have two students stand at opposite ends of the stage. Just face the wall, clear their head, think about nothing and then I have them turn around, make eye contact with each other and just stand there for a moment checking in with each other and have them slowly walk toward the chairs which are center stage maintaining their connection with the other person and then sit down and then I sit in the front row and I interview them in character about themselves and about their relationship. They create a character organically. They're not trying to preconceive of character or relationship as they walk together. They're just using the energy that's already there. And they're getting a lot of non-verbal communication from their partner and they're getting a lot of ideas about the relationship without even having to think about it. And then I start to interview them about what their name is, where they're from, how they know each other. Just a full range and biographical information about the partners in the relationship. And they just have to give answers that feel honest for those characters. And what's good about that is if they give any funny "answer" then I as the interviewer really or somebody who said that and so then I kind of, not necessarily call bullshit on it, but then I have 10 more questions trying to get out the information from that funny thing they just created and to make it believable and real. In a way they kind of screw themselves by trying to give funny answers, they just have to be true to whatever the character is. And then people will spend those interviews into two person scenes about those characters and they usually create an entire world they come to explore. And then the scenes are easy to do because they know everything there is to know about the characters going into this scene.
KM: Lemme ask you a different kind of question. Let's say you were given this challenge: you were going to put together a class, an 8 week class, maybe even longer and the restriction is you can only do one exercise. What exercise would you do, and let's take this similar kind of level, so these are people who aren't absolute beginningers, they've taken a few improv classes. One exercise for 8 or more weeks. What would it be?
CC: I'm tempted to be perverse and say 3 line scenes. I remember when Ollie was teaching at iO. I think one time he did nothing but three line scenes for the first two weeks of the level and the students were going crazy. But he was going like, "If you can't get the exposition down and figure out what's going on in your scenes, then you're in trouble." But I would agree that's probably frustrating from the students. You know, this isn't so much any exercise, well I guess it is, but it's kind of a focus for scenes. Later in the term, I do a day where just scenes that begin with a scene of time and place. So I think a lot of improv scenes obviously, the what (of the who, what, and where) are always the fuzziest of the three. We just want a sense that life is going on in these scenes, that they're not two people coming out and just deconstructing a relationship, telling not showing. In time and place, I just call out everyday activities. Brushing your teeth, trying to find parking, auditioning for a musical, shopping at Ikea, and then later I add "time of day" to it too and try to add time of day as a factor in the scene. Because when you think about it, the time of day that it is is a huge factor in how we behave in the specifics of our lives. Like I got up this morning knowing we were doing this interview at 9AM, so I was focused on this. To me it's a good time to do a full on interview. Later in the day I might have other things to do. My brain might not be as clear, but I didn't schedule the interview for when I first woke up. I needed an hour to adjust to my day. Because I'm incredibly groggy when I first wake up. Anyway, if you add a sense in a scene that people are in a real place doing a thing and it's a particular time of day that gives them a lot of information about the characters and why they might be there. It gives them more of a sense that they're starting in the middle that they know already the other person and what's going on. I think there's a tendency to, when you give improvisers a suggestion of a location, they walk into it is if the characters are walking into it, so you give them suggestion "library" and two improvisers start, "Oh, hey! Look at this library." You know? The characters... that it's brand new to the characters and I think you have to begin scenes with a mentality like, "We're now joining this scene, already in progress." And the characters are already engrained in their environment. They know everything that there is to know. It's a big lesson for students: Just treat your circumstances in your scene like they've already been agreed upon. Everything that's going on is something you've agreed to. You may not like it. You may be in detention and you may think it's bullshit that you're in detention, but you agreed to be in detention and so there's no point in spending your scene protesting your circumstances, so just accepting your circumstances. I think it's a tangent from the original idea, but the one exercise I would do is focus on a sense of time and place in a scene.
KM: Now you've been coaching and teaching for quite a long time. You were my coach for about four years, weren't you? With Frank Booth?
CC: Yea! I started coaching in 1993 and have been teaching since 1995.
KM: Can you think back to some of the exercises you used to use back when, say you were coaching Frank Booth? Are there any exercises that you still use today or that have morphed over the years and changed, but that you still use a version of it?
CC: That's funny. I actually, I shudder to think that I was teaching people 15 years ago, and coaching people 17 years ago. I'm just like, "What the fuck was I telling people?" But I guess it goes to show you don't know it all. You just need to know a little more than the people you're working with because I think I learned a lot from coaching you guys. Certainly, I still learn, I still learn as a teacher all the time and I still have new insights about improvisation. I just know what I was like as a player that long ago and I can't imagine what I was telling people. Here's another thing that I thought I came up with that I may not have. It's Le Ronde. Because when I brought it into Frank Booth rehearsal, I thought it was an original idea and I'm sure that anyone familiar with the long form improv and the play of Le Ronde would have a similar insight. So I'm not sure exactly where...
KM: I thought that came from Del.
CC: Did it?
KM: I think so. I feel like he.. that would be really bizarre if it really didn't come from Del. Because that's an exercise I use all the time. Or at least I did, I use it a lot in New York. So there's a ton of people in New York who know how to do Le Ronde in large part because I brought it there.
CC: Well, I remember when I first did it with Frank Booth and I came up with it on the way there. Now that doesn't mean ... I may have also been in Del's class and forgot that I had done it, but...I remember on the IRC board that Michael Jeffery Cohen posted the notes from Del's class. He had that as a blog for awhile and I remember reading all of Del's notes, and I was like, "Oh yea, right. Yea, that's not an insight I had. Yep, that's where I got that exercise." You know? Truthfully I've probably stolen everything from Del, or from my initial teachers and coaches, like the guys from The Family. Adam and Besser. But yea, Le Ronde is something that I still do today and I think it's a great exercise for focusing on character and relationship and disregarding plot.
KM: So let's explain it then for someone who doesn't know what Le Ronde is. Why don't you give an introduction to it that you would give if you were presenting it to some students who haven't done it before.
CC: Le Ronde is a series of two person scenes. It's where there's 8 people in the class and we'll do 8 two person scenes. Let's say the first scene is Susan and Kevin. Susan is a mother and Kevin is her son. Then the next scene would be Rich and Kevin and Kevin would be that same son that he is from the scene with Susan, but Kevin is also taking a tennis lesson and Rich is his tennis instructor. And so that would be good to see the same character in two different contexts. One way to think about is it work, home, play. If you saw them at work, let's see them at home or at play in the next scene. Rich as the tennis instructor doesn't necessarily Susan, Kevin's mom. So he doesn't need to reference from the previous scene at all. We're just trying what's unique about that relationship that the two of them have. Now, it does create a loose plot of sorts. As you begin to string the scenes together. And maybe it's OK to occasionally reference a character from another scene, but you want these scenes to be able to stand on their own. If you pluck this scene out of the form and shared it to an audience, would it be interesting and funny on its own? Because there's a tendency by improvisers to just reference what we already know. And so to have your scene in reaction to the previous scene. And then it would progress from Rich, the tennis instructor, let's see him on a blind date and then let's see the girl from the blind date and she works at Radio Shack with a manager with a thick mustache. And the manager with the mustache has bad relationship at home with his wife and the wife is having an affair with the pool boy. So it's just a series of two person scenes. The next person just comes in or just initiates a scene by calling out the name of the character that they want to stay. And then it loops back at the end. So the 8th scene would be Susan, who left from the first scene, as her character from before, but completing the circle: Le Ronde. It's from the play by Arthur Schnitzler, which I think is from the 1920's, which is a series of ten two person scenes and the conceit in the original play, Le Ronde, is that they were passed from one person to another, but that's not a requirement for the improv version.
KM: One thing I always found with it, that maybe this is more New York, is that often times when I would introduce it to people, they would want to do it very fast and treat it almost like freeze tag, and so that was one thing: trying to get people to slow down a bit and get them to do full scenes, which I think it works best with fuller scenes.
CC: Yea, for instance, if you have a 10 person cast, you could do a Le Ronde for 30 minutes and just do ten 3 minutes scenes. Each person is in exactly two scenes and there's a certain elegance to that, I think. Now, people don't like to do that because they're like, "I don't want to... I'm done with my scenes I have to wait on the sidelines for a long time." But I like the elegance of that, that it's almost character and relationship improv at its most basic. So some of the things that people need to know as they're doing it, as I'm side coaching it, when I first teach it, I might side coach the first scene and "Freeze! What do we know about Kevin's character?" And people usually begin with plot points first. They'll say the plot points of the scene, but what I want them to pay attention to is, I'll ask for them to give adjectives that describe the character. "He's hesitant." "Great! He's hesitant." So for the next person coming in, your choice should be based on the hesitance, rather than the plot points. So you're going in there to try to exploit or emphasize something about their behavior. Then other things you can do is, well if a character is high status in one scene, let's then show them in another situation where they're low status. Same character, same life, but in these two different relationships we get to see a slightly different side of them. The classic example of guy gets yelled at by boss and then goes home and yells at his wife, so he's low status with the boss, high status with the wife. And so it's a good exercise for improvisers to have to maintain their character qualities and point of view from scene to scene, but also adjust to the specific relationship they're in now. I think the other thing you also need is a lot of variety of character. So it's a good exercise in terms of when somebody establishes a new character, that they can't be confused with any other character that we've seen already. People have a tendency to let the other person's energy to be contagious to them. So if you know, there's a hick, then we see the hick's mother and then we see a whole bunch of hicks. You want to make sure that you're coming in with a new energy that we haven't explored already. And you want to leave the scene knowing that you've created a character that's unique and memorable because there's other versions of Le Ronde where you complete the circle and then you start to accelerate the edits and then you start to bring back characters and you still create new characters at that point. But you want to create characters that as soon as they walk out on stage the audience is like, "Oh that's Rudy! I know Rudy!" You don't want to have to explain to the audience who a character is through dialogue. Associating with a character should be so visceral that we immediately recognize them by either their name, or their physicality or objects in our environment they're associated with or a particular character voice or emotion or point of view. You want it to be a visceral experience, rather than, "Hey remember this guy from before?"
KM: Right, right. I remember doing that a lot in rehearsals with Frank Booth. It may be have been exaggerated in my memory. We may have only done is a half dozen times. But I feel like we did it for a year. Of mostly doing it wrong.
CC: I think we did do a lot. Yea. Well then because, did you work with Cinco de Bob or was that Lily?
KM: Yea, well we both did. Lily was the coach of theirs at first and when they did an outside show, I stepped in and that was sort of half the form they did, was a Le Ronde.
CC: Right, and then when Lily did Calendar Girls with Sue that was Le Ronde.
KM: Which I thought, when I saw their show, I thought that's the perfect incarnation of Le Ronde. Or maybe a three person one would be... but that's sort of addresses the issue of, "Oh, we've done a scene and now we're done. We've done our character now we're done. We have to wait for a half an hour before the form is over."
CC: I think it's a great structure for a two person show. I've done it.
KM: The other thing I thought was, it was really excellent for breaking us out of the structure of Harold. In a really good way. That our second beats got a lot more interesting once we'd been doing Le Ronde for awhile because we were making those kinds of choices much more often where we would take a character from the first beats of a Harold that we thought was interesting and instead of doing an obvious second beat with that character, we would take that character and put them in a situation we thought would be interesting and different from this situation they were in in the first beat and I thought that had a really beneficial effect on our Harolds.
CC: Yea because you're following character rather than plot points. And in a way, you can still say you're following Game. You're just following the character's Game and you're establishing rules for how that character behaves. It's like, well, "Rudy is this kind of guy, so in this scene we saw him in this sort of situation. Well, here's a different situation to put Rudy in, but he's still going to behave in the ways we expect Rudy to behave." Which to me, is still Game; it's just character Game.
KM: I think it's also... one thing I usually brought up when I was explaining to people about how you make those moves and see characters in different spheres of their lives, I really think it's kind of related to what makes a really great character. Especially for a pivotal character in, say, a television series and the one I always think of first is Tony Soprano, where instead of having just a guy who's a mob boss, you also have him as a suburban dad and then you also have him as a patient of a psychologist. And so you see him in these different spheres of his life and he has different status and different ideas that he's dealing with in different parts of his life. And if it was just one of those aspects, it really wouldn't be that interesting of a show, if it was just Tony Soprano, the suburban dad, well, it really wouldn't have been a very successful show. Or the ... I can't think of his name, the character from Breaking Bad. Very similar kind of thing. But again, he's a chemistry teacher in high school. He's a father and a husband and he also cooks meth. He's dealing with cancer, so it's that combination of things which makes him a really interesting character. And that we don't see enough in him, probably. We'll latch on to one thing he is. He is the really soft spoken cop and then we see a lot scenes where he's a cop and is soft spoken rather than putting him in other things, other parts of his life.
CC: And there's only so much you can do with that first thing. It's that simple. You know? You run out of stuff really easily.
KM: Yea. Well, let's see. Now you brought up side coaching. This is something I've been talking a lot about with other people that I've interviewed. What can you tell us about side coaching? What do you focus on? What are the kinds of things you tend to do? Do you have any advice about side coaching scenes?
CC: Yea, this is actually just a discussion at the... we just had a Second City teacher's meeting on Monday. And it was brought up. I remember... I think Charna [Halpern] said... Charna encourages side coaching because the goal is to have the student to have a successful scene. So if there's anything you can give the students to make them achieve success, they learn more from success than failure. So if they're just have a miserable five minutes and then the scene's over and you just berate them about the things they did wrong, you're probably missing out on teaching opportunities there. Now, in the meeting, it was brought up that the Paul Sills style would be to just yell things from the sidelines at them without interrupting the flow of play. And I don't necessarily do that. Sometimes I will just yell out a simple instruction without stopping the flow. Sometimes I will freeze the scene and make an adjustment. You don't want to talk it to death. Anything longer than 30 seconds is probably going to put them in their heads and they go back and try to do that scene. But it's important to enhance what is already there. Make them realize that they have something that already.. and maybe call their attention to what they have already. So it's important that you're not side coaching them into choices that you would make, but rather than point that they've already done something, they've already made a choice that's worth pursuing. Now of course that's still kind of inserting your own point of view because maybe the thing you see isn't what somebody else would see and that's worth pointing out to the audience as well in saying that, "Now the thing that I had them do is not necessarily the 'correct' thing, just a thing that I was interested in pursuing a little more. There's dozens and dozens of other things in that meaning that if you're looking for them are also worth pursuing." And I kind of feel choices are a dime a dozen. It's not quality of the choice, it's how you back up the choice and build on it. I could give you... spend your time waiting for the perfect choice or perfect idea in an improv scene, you're going to be edited and you never got around to it because the perfect choice is never going to come out.
KM: Oh I know what I wanted to ask you about. There's a couple of things. One is, well first, something you mentioned right at the beginning of the interview, that piqued my interest because it's something I'm trying right now, which is following up classes with notes via email. And how did you start doing that? And what are the challenges that you find doing that?
CC: Well, I started doing it a few years ago. I would teach a 4 week elective class called "Dr. Cacki's Improv Cleansing." And Dr. Cacki's Improv Cleansing was focusing on flushing the impurities out of your system and getting people back to basics; out of their head. I wanted to make a real quality experience for the students who took that elective. Because 4 weeks is also compressed as well. I would contact them before the first class and ask them what they wanted to focus on in this class. It could be in general or specific as they wanted. Now everyone wrote that they're in their head to various degrees, but what I'm interested in is what are the thoughts that are going on in their head? Are they thinking about improv rules? Are they self-judging? So 'in your head' doesn't mean anything because it's particular to the person. What are the thoughts going on in your head? So then I would try to make some of the exercises for the needs that particular people had. I also videotaped those classes and then watched the tapes when I went home and then I would send an email and have a break down of each exercise we did and why we did it. And then I would write each person's name and then maybe about two or three notes for them. Not too much at a time. Let me read something from recent notes. Here's something I liked: "Work on your flexibility. You can be strong, true to your character and still say yes your partner's ideas. Even the mighty oak tree sways in the breeze. Also give and take emotionally. Don't get so enamored that your forging ahead and leaving your partner behind." So those are all specific to the student, so rather than take notes on the exercise, I take notes on the student during a class. During a class, I'll write each students' name, dash, and then as individual things come up for each student, I'll write them down and then I send them on to the student. Now at this point, I've done these same exercises time and time again, so sending the exercise break down is just a cut and paste. But I do spend about an hour the day after the class writing out the email to the student. Now at certain point I stop videotaping because I've had as many as 100 students in this level at a time and I don't want to have to sit through 10 hours of video tape a week. Also I've just gotten better at focusing on individual students during a class and what they need. And I also encourage people to write me back and challenge me on a note if they don't think it's applicable or if they want specific examples. Sometimes I just send them a general thought and not the specific scene it came from. So sometimes they want a little more specificity on it. But you know, it's dialogue that keeps me informed of your progress and what's brewing in your head now, what's good and so I feel like I've honed the level over time now. I've been teaching it for two years and I really like the exercises that I do in it, and the format i have and the students really seem to respond to a more personalized feedback which is what they always say is missing from class.
KM: Yea, I used to get that a lot from students. You know, requests for more feedback. And I guess that in the middle of it, I didn't have the time to think through, "Well, how can I do that?" I always felt like if I had a constructive note, I've already given it to you. You know? Forcing yourself to give notes, personal notes, to every student just inevitably, you're going to get better at it. Did you feel that? Have you felt like you're much better at giving individual notes than you were?
CC: Yes. Yes. I can recognize tendencies much quicker. I'm able to formulate the ideas and obviously like any improv teacher I have my pet concerns and they might not be the pet peeve concerns of other teachers. So I tend to write a lot of the same things and I don't mind it even if I'm in a 16 person class and I'm giving 5 people the same sort of note. If it's something they need to work on, it's worth giving to them. For a lot of people it's holding on to point of view, not changing character just because of something that was said and opening moments in a scene are really important to me, connecting with your partner in the first moment, making lots of eye contact, not ramming home the idea, but also not just kind of being a blank slate. So getting the right kind of leading and following is a really important thing for students. And yea, there for some students, it's really hard to come up with a new note every week because some people are just doing great and what I want to say to them is like, "You're fine! You're exactly where you need to be right now." You know? And it could be praise too; it doesn't need to be constructive criticism. Especially if they're taking note from a previous week, you can give them a note of praise or you can tell the things that they're doing right as well. And then there's some students where I feel like I'm giving them the same note week after week. And those are students that I'm normally looking to maybe have repeat the level if those lessons are just not getting through to them. And then the final week of class I do (and this is something that's also from Susan Messing) do a peer evaluation with them. So rather than do a one-on-one with the teacher, I have everyone get up in front of the class and we talk about them individually, get praise from their fellow students. I ask what are their go-to characters or energies. I ask what would surprise you from this student and then I segue into my assignment for them in the next level with constructive criticism. And then we do some exercises for that student and that student alone. So there's somebody who hurts taking ownership of the scene. I might do something where they're a drill sargent and they have 8 soldiers they need to talk to and the other students who are playing the soldiers can't talk back until they're directly addressed by the drill sargent. So that's something for somebody who needs to be a little more verbal and play a strong character in a scene. That's a good exercise for them. So I've got maybe a couple dozen of go-to exercises for specific students' needs and the final class is usually pretty fun and successful because each person is getting that exercise for their specific need.
KM: This is what I wanted to say. This is really... I find this fascinating because I didn't know anything about this, that you had been emailing students and that you'd been videotaping your classes because this is exactly what I'm experimenting with right now. I taught a couple workshops in St. Louis over the last couple weeks and I videotaped them. I did a 3 hour class and then had an hour that I videotaped where I didn't give any notes. We just practiced as much as we could. Just doing whatever it was that we had done that day. I then loaded all of the video up onto the internet. This last week I was using Vimeo, so I put everything up on Vimeo with a password, so that they could look at their own performance and then I'm giving notes. I didn't do the individual notes the first week. I'm in the middle of the process for the second week and I actually was hoping to do that. I find that sort of strange that... because I'd never heard that in all my years, I hadn't heard of someone videotaping a class and then giving notes on it afterwards, after reviewing the videotape. I find it funny that you had done that a few years ago.
CC: Well I think you took it one step further of lettering the students see it as well because although it can be really hard to watch yourself, you can learn so much from doing it.
KM: Yea, I think so too. I'm learning that one of the other parts I'm doing is I'm playing with them. Not in the regular class, but in the bonus hour that I'm videotaping. I'm playing along. So I'm able to see my own work. And this is partly because I haven't been able to perform in the last few years; just a little bit in the last 6 months. I've been going up and doing Armando and feeling like, "Man, I really need to practice myself." But it is an interesting experience. I don't have trouble watching myself. I'm obviously very critical of myself, but it doesn't discourage me. So I'm a little worried about that. I don't want people to be discouraged by watching themselves, but I think it is very useful. They're able to see things. I think people will sometimes... there are a couple of people who were in both workshops and I felt like they were adjustments that I hadn't even noted them on, just by watching themselves, but I wasn't sure. It'd be interesting to ask them.
CC: Here's why it's an important lesson: ultimately as the improviser you need to be able to see and hear what the audience sees and hears. Although a lot of things I've been talking about have been losing yourself within the character, you are still a writer of the scene too, and as a writer you need to have an outside eye while you're performing the scene. Also taking note of what the audience is seeing and hearing. People need to remember that the improv scene is what the audience has seen and heard and nothing else. If it's in your brain and the audience hasn't seen it or heard it, it's not part of the scene. It seems like a "duh" thing, but people come in with all this stuff in their head and they forget either that they didn't say it or they didn't share it with the other person. They forget that nobody knows it except you and so how is that part of the scene?
KM: OK, I've a hypothetical situation for you.
KM: You're in the middle of a scene, and the scene is going well. It's not going badly, but you reach one of those moments where you're not really sure what to do next. You know? You know that the scene is fine as it is, but you want to bring something new into the scene. Or maybe not? But what would you suggest to a student that something that they might do in that moment where they're not really sure what to do next.
CC: One thing I say is if you're ever in a scene and you feel like you have no idea what to say next, it's because you don't know who you are. When you know who you are, you should be able to react to any stimulus and know exactly what you would say or do to that. So knowing who you are is really important. The other thing that sets a routine and this kind of ties back into the time and place thing I was talking about before. You always need to be in a place doing a thing. Even if that thing is just sitting on a park bench. Like, when I say "Action" for the purposes of an improv scene, it doesn't need mean you're running on a stage and just doing tons object work or anything. Just know I am just like, "I'm on a park bench looking out at the park. There's some squirrels there eating. There's some drug dealers over there. There's some kids playing on the playground. There's tons of things around me that I can look at and interact with and comment upon." So just being in a real place can always help. If you feel stuck, either touching something in the environment or commenting on something in the environment can reinvigorate the scene. And the last thing I would say is... or one more thing actually is creating patterns. Do something again or say something again that you've done or said already in the scene because I think a lot of scenes are just where everything is to the power of 1 and when everything is to the power of 1, everything is equally boring or uninteresting or interesting as the case may be. Everything's equal. As soon as you say or do something a second time, immediately the audience perks up and they interested in that just because you're doing it again. So you don't need to know why you're doing it again. I would even say you can just repeat the opening line of the scene again because again, I think opening lines and opening moments are really important. You don't know why you're saying the opening line again; just say it again! And immediately you'll figure out why you're saying, why your character is saying it again. And the last and simplest thing I would say is just have a huge reaction to whatever your partner just said. Just give good emotional significance to whatever your partner just said. "Can I get you a coke?" "A COKE? A COKE?! You know I come from a Pepsi family!" You know? Just make the last thing they said really important. I think a lot of time students don't bother to make anything interesting for themselves in the scene. They're trying to improvise correctly. They don't really get interested in anything in their scene. And if you're not pursuing a thing that's fun and interesting for you to play, the audience is not going to have fun.
KM: Do you remember the Southern slash Country Harold that Wolf did?
KM: Can you give me your version of that story?
CC: Well, probably the myth is larger than the reality at this point. But this was 1995 or something? It was before iO had moved to its current space; permanent space, or temporarily permanent space I guess, since they're about to lose it, maybe, right by Wrigley Field. We had an additional space on Belmont.
KM: That's right.
CC: Right at Belmont and Racine. And Wolf was a team that was a hodgepodge of 12 people, most of whom had come from Faulty Wiring and Mr. Blond and I think Plum Dumplings. Like 3 teams that had just been recently broken up. And then Charna put us all together in this ginormous team together. And, I don't even remember what the suggestion was. Was it "the South?"
KM: It might have been. It was something like "the South" or "the farm" or something like that.
CC: And we had the suggestion "the South" and the whole opening was just playing like hick, redneck, stereotyped characters. And then we did 3 first beats and they were all the same thing. You know? It wasn't really a conscious choice, it just was the kind of thing that just sort of happened. And then I think I came out to do a monologue to say that I was from Virginia and I was from the South and that there's an enormous cultural heritage there and that Thomas Jefferson was the founder of University of Virginia, was a Southerner, whatever and that somewhere in the South there's a group right now doing a Harold making fun of Northerns. And then I think we went back and played the opening and did everything we did in the opening just flipping the point of view and then I think we replayed all those scenes and the group game again from the North/South point, making fun of the North. And then I think the lights went out because it was just a two beat Harold, there was nothing else left to do after that.
KM: Yea, that's pretty much how I remembered it. I remember two additions to that. One is that in the opening, you brought up the idea that there were a lot of stereotypes about Southerners and people from the country and that you sort of put it out there. You hoped that you guys would do better. And that you would do better than that. And then it was sort of like everyone willfully ignored you and then went out to do all these stereotypical characters.
CC: So it was a strategy? OK.
KM: And I remember the Thomas Jefferson, where you came out and you talked about the South, and you talked about Virginia and you talked about that. The one caveat was that I remember, it wasn't you that suggested that there was another Harold going on, it was that Tina Fey came out to sort of comment on your monologue and said, "You know, somewhere down in the South right now, there's a Harold going on where they're making fun of us." And then that's when it flipped and everybody came out to do that Harold. You were thinking probably when everybody first came out, that they're just going to do a little taste of that, by redoing the opening as a group game. But then it just kept going from there. And the thing that I remember that was really cool about it was that it was such an exact mirror, the second beats. And that they included walk ons. Some of the characters in the first beats, I think there was at least one scene where there was a character from the South in city or something like that and the settings were reversed. You know, who was the idiot was reversed. In the second beats it was the idiots were all people from the North.
CC: So it followed the template exactly.
KM: As best as you could. That certainly was my impression watching it.
CC: Well, that's just good group listening and good group remembering. Well, it's funny that I'm taking credit for Tina Fey's idea.
KM: Well and the thing is, it's just how I remember it. I could be wrong.
CC: Well, let me tell you about my sitcom idea for 30 Rock as well...
KM: I could be wrong!
CC: No, I think you're right, actually.
KM: I think you'd be happy to know that legend lives on. Because I would tell that story to classes in New York a lot. So there's a lot of people who would know that. And I think, you know, when Peter Gwynne finally moved to New York, I remember telling people he was one of the people in that Harold you already know about. One of the things he worked on a lot in New York was the idea of creating Harolds that were very specific to the suggestion. Everything about the Harold was very specific that night, that when you edited, the group games, and so forth. And that was one of the examples he would probably tell people about. And in a lot of cases they'd already heard about that Harold. I should ask him about that.
CC: That's great.
KM: This is kind of a strange question, but let me see if I can briefly introduce it. I recently heard a story about the School of One Concept in New York, and it's a public school, like charter program where they're taking a bunch of students and instead of teaching them in one modality (modality is the word they use), where you've got 25 kids in a box with a teacher, they experiment with a variety of modalities. That was one part of it, where they would design a personal curriculum for each kid that was changing everyday, and sometimes the kid was working by themselves. Sometimes the kid was in a small lecture situation with the teacher. Sometimes the kid was working with a computer doing exercises. So there were all these different modalities of learning. It got me thinking a lot about improvisation because in our classes we pretty much have, you know, that same one modality that we've unconsciously taken from the public schools, in a way. It's different but it's the same sort of thing. We have a bunch of people, 16, 20 people maybe, in a room with a teacher. You do some warm-ups. You do 1 to 3 exercises that they and everybody does those same exercises. Maybe they do them once. And I wonder if you've ever thought about this idea in a different form or what would be some other modalities you would suggest that are good for learning? That people need to do in addition to those classroom situations.
CC: Hmm. That's really interesting. I guess it's so hard to shatter the paradigm we've been working on for so many years. In terms of learning improv, I've always said that the classroom setting is the laboratory, where we're just experimenting there. Where they really learn is from performance in front of an audience. That's where the real learning takes place. The classroom really just gives them tools for their tool belt. This is stuff they're doing anyway. So I don't know that... I think they're getting these modalities just from creating their own experience which is going to see shows and trying to do shows and experiment on their own as well. I think it's good for people to put practice groups together and you know do some coached and do some self-coached. Do some fuck around shows, let's do some shows we take really seriously. Go to see as much improv as possible. To get better at it, you really have to immerse yourself into the world. Taking 1 3 hour class a week is not nearly enough to improv. It's pretty much enough to tread water. Some people can handle studying at different schools at the same time doing UCB, Second City, iO at the same time. Or in Chicago, it'd be iO, Second City, and Annoyance or Comedy Sportz or whatever. Some people need to focus on just that one school at the time, you know, different brains work differently. I'm definitely not the kind of teacher who's going to take my students outside and have them look at the flowers or whatever.
KM: Or pick up garbage in the case of Ali. Did you ever hear that story?
CC: He had to pick up garbage? No.
KM: He had some interesting classes apparently when he was first teaching in New York and one of the was he took his students outside onto the streets of New York and handed them garbage bag and told them to collect garbage.
CC: Well, he's big on improv as tool for social change. My class is mostly just focused on learning the mechanics of improvising better. I don't want to change anyone's life or make anyone more socially or politically aware; anything like that. I just want them to improvise better.
KM: All right. So if someone were in LA, where could they see you perform?
CC: They can see me perform every Thursday at iO West with Rich Talarico and Bob Vassey. That's 10PM on Thursdays. That's the only regular improv show I'm doing now. Occasionally I play at ASSSSCat at UCB and occasionally I play Armando at iO, which is going to be moving to Saturdays in August. And so I'll be able to play with that again in August. I actually do a show once a month at Largo called The Thrilling Adventure Hours, which is not improv, but highly scripted. It's serialized radio adventures and we have lots of cool guest stars from the world of film and television and recurring characters that come back, like Monk. And I think it's the first Saturday of the month at Largo in Los Angeles. And also I'm ... one more thing to plug, is I'm keep a blog called 20yearsofimprov. Last year I celebrated my 40th birthday and my 20th anniversary of starting to improvise. So I've been keeping a journal of my improv life and that's on yesand.com, which is a site and it's called 20yearsofimprov, so you can read my blog there.
KM: Great! And I'll put a up a link to that if I remember to, which I probably will. OK, thanks for doing this!
CC: Thanks, Kevin!
KM: So that's the interview. I hope you enjoyed it. One more thing that Craig asked me to plug is Camp Improv Utopia, a four day improv retreat next summer in California where he will be teaching along with Susan Messing and Schuley Cowan. Check that out at improvutopia.com. Also Datsurisky is now performing at the UCB Theater in LA and Craig does a show called Quartet at iO West on Thursday nights. You can discuss these podcasts and just about anything else at ImprovResourceCenter.com. I blog KevinMullaney.com and you can also join our fanpage on facebook. The music on this podcast is by Gringo Motel.