IRC Podcast Transcript, Joe Bill, 2011-01-26

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Introduction: Because unless I'm a mind reader and we've been working together for 20 years, then I'm probably not going to be able to see what script is in your head. But if we've been working for 20 years then I'm probably not going to even want to play that script because that's not going to be fun. What's fun is fucking with each other. You know?

Kevin Mullaney: Welcome to the Improv Resource Center Podcast. I'm Kevin Mullaney your host. Today I'm going to be playing an interview with Joe Bill that I recorded last year. Joe Bill has been involved in the Chicago improv scene for over 20 years and has performed and taught at The Annoyance Theater and iO Theatre. If you have been to an improv festival in the last decade you may have seen him in Bassprov with Mark Sutton or SCRAM! with Jill Bernard. He teaches workshops in what he calls Power Improv here in Chicago and around the country.

A few months ago earlier this year I took a Power Improv workshop and one of the things I remember from it was that we did some exercises where you gave us some alternatives of ways to begin a scene. Different things to concentrate on. Do you know what I'm talking about or suspect it?

Joe Bill: Yes, well, I'm not sure.

KM: Let's just say you had two people coming out and we did a basketball drill where two people came out at once, and for instance, either you were concentrating on something on your own or you're concentrating on the other person.

JB: Oh, the point of focus. So if one of the consequences of doing good scene work or being in the character is a lack of self-consciousness, then what we pursue is definitive action, definitive emotion, definitive verbal offerings at the top of a scene. And so, by eliminating ambiguity we begin a pattern that can lend itself to self-consciousness not creeping up on us. So there's only three points of focus that you can indulge at the beginning of a scene: internally for yourself, your scene partner, or your environment. So the prescription is: can you start with something for yourself? Can you start with... it can be an emotion. It can be anything. It's the internal that flavors how you do what you do. I'm quoting Bob Fisher from years gone by. His definition of character, which is "how you do what you do is who you are." It's really the "how" that I'm interested in. It's an extension of the projection exercise: one line would project an emotion onto the scene partner and take them in while the scene partner then was projecting their emotion onto their environment and allowing the environment that they're encountering to effect what they're feeling; to inform what they're feeling. Then the person in the environment, once they're informed by what they're doing and they've engaged that for a beat then takes their focus the person who's taking them in. And now we discover what that moment is. What's that discovery?

KM: Why don't we talk about an example? Can you think of how might somebody be focused on their environment or focused on their scene partner?

JB: Sure. One person begins the scene jealous. It could be hurt, it could be whatever. So let's say that I'm jealous and I focus on you and from upstage left, you're crossing downstage right and you go in a pensive way. Let's say your emotion is melancholy, so you take melancholy, cross downstage right and you encounter a vase with some plants. My jealousy or my hurtfulness will then watch you do what you're doing in the way that you're doing it. Then I can infer whatever I infer beginning with the emotion. How does my emotion shift? How does my jealousy or my hurt shift based on your behavior? You don't have to take me in. I can go through that evolution all myself. So part of Power Improv is, while it's fun to play with each other, it's desirable even, we can go through evolution for ourselves by just taking in another person without their acknowledgment. Or if you take your melancholy down and you're sorting flowers and whatever you discover, whether you want to take a flower out or you want to pick petals off or you just want to adjust them or you want to water them or whatever, that environmental piece is for you to experience and inform in a richer way the melancholy that you're feeling. Now, it also does not matter if there's an agenda tied to my jealousy or there's an agenda tied to your melancholy. What the exercise is in what ways can we inform what we start with, whether it's decided or discovered. In my book, discoveries are momentary decisions embraced. So make a decision or make a discovery, it doesn't matter; just make one. And then we see what's up. And I think in that exercise I have people wait to talk, so in a way that gets to Cackowski's talking about, which is, if we're putting something into the environment and that's there for a short period of time, that feeling will be... the combo of those feelings will be present in both of us if you believe in that group mind thing.

KM: My most typical of way beginning a scene, I think over the years, has been I'm going to decide what my first line is. And/or I'm going to decide where I'm at and who we are. So we're lawyers and we're in a courtroom and I'm going to ask to start a plea bargain agreement with the other lawyer. So I have all this story narrative already planned before we start. I don't know really know where it's going to go, but that's probably my most common way of starting over the years. Not the most fun way to start a scene.

JB: Haha. How's that working for you?

KM: It's not very good. And instead you're suggesting, OK, you decide one of these three things: I'm going to be focused on myself, I'm going to be focused on something in the environment, I'm going to be focused on my scene partner. And in the moment you choose a point of view about that.

JB: Yes.

KM: And what happens is you don't know what the story is, but it sure seems like there's a story to it right away. You start in the middle and it feels like something's going on. "I'm sad and arranging these flowers and you're jealous looking at me." And immediately there's something going on. The beauty of it is we don't really know what's going on and we'll figure it out, but it sure feels like it.

JB: Yea, that's exactly right. And it's unencumbered by a bunch of words that have an agenda that you may have walked in with. Because unless I'm a mind reader and we've been working together for 20 years, then I'm probably not going to be able to see what script is in your head. But if we've been working for 20 years then I'm probably not going to even want to play that script because that's not going to be fun. What's fun is fucking with each other. You know? So to me it's like... God, for years you're taught to start a scene in the middle and what that always meant was don't introduce yourself. And I hate "don't" notes. So what if two people began in state? We're just in a state. That state then will make an impression on ourselves, on each other, and the audience. And if we follow our emotional state, the emotional evolution is a consequence of that. Perhaps we will find our way into story. I think it's an important distinction between the ... I think it's seminal in the way that sort of Del has worked versus Johnstone because Johnstone teaches "serve the story above all else and find your way into character from serving the story." And there's usually somebody outside of the story or people inside of the story who're taking additional suggestions and it really is essentially game. And in game, self-consciousness is allowed. Game hinges on self-consciousness, on right and wrong, on success and failure. Where scene may.. and to be fair, UCB has come up with the blend and the combination of the two. That is to say playing a scene as if it were a scene from a sketch comedy show. The goal is funny. And funny trumps emotional truth and informational reality, informational accuracy trumps emotional truth. So self-consciousness is allowed in. "Find the game, find the game, find the game:" The UCB approach. It's still tied to Del. That is to say the show will find its way. You're giving to the show on the first third, examining the show with the show in the middle third and then the show's telling you what to do at the end. That's the same way that I would coach Harold or if I was going to do a montage. But the main difference is we are getting to the story that's so important to Johnstone through the emotional evolution, the give and take and the exploration of honest reaction with a sense of... there's a sense of theatricality and theater that goes with us that I believe improvisers need to have inately in them, so whether they've studied it, or they're just drama queens, whatever, I think that it would be very difficult to do this without having a sense of acting and purpose and all that other stuff. That's why my next chunk of learning is to go back to more the acting stuff and I told you before we started recording I worked with David Rizowski in Philadelphia. We did this co-taught workshop where anything goes and we'll both get our points of view out there and then in the last hour we're going to do three person scenes with students. And David comes from a viewpoints background. I can absolutely see how it would be critical to an actor to understand that type of stuff. But because that stuff's not inate to me, I get the concepts.

KM: Well, let's talk about viewpoints for a second. It's not something I know a lot about. So what do you understand about it? Or what was Dave trying to get across with that?

JB: Dave was... it's really ... I'll preface by saying I don't a lot about it either.

KM: Well, that's great. The two of us should be the ones talking about viewpoints. Haha.

JB: Yea, I hate that. Haha.

KM: What do you think it means?

JB: My curiosity about viewpoints is the degree to which you take your internal director into the scene with you. I won't speak anymore on it, and Rizowski would be a great interview for you to do.

KM: He's on the list of people to interview.

JB: It really became ... it was fascinating and to me. It has a level of consciousness that I found myself uncomfortable with.

KM: Does it have to do with how you stage the scene and where you're at on the stage?

JB: So there's tenants of it that are the shape of your body and proximity. So there's things you read along the way. And again we're walking down the path of talking about it when we probably shouldn't. Haha. But there are signals that you send and receive that are based, I believe, in visual assessment, right?

KM: Based on your proximity to someone? Relative position...

JB: Yeah. Barriers change and there's some internal stuff. So the commonality we've found our way to, is what do you recognize the change in you? And he was using words like... the third wheel in the scene would deliver a line outside of the primary focus to and Dave was looking to see if that line got to somebody. So are you moved? "Are you moved" seemed to be our common ground. And it seemed that if you are moved then do something now. Do something different now. Then change now. Then address that now. And for me, not addressing is addressing. That is to say not responding is responding. I think if our job is to create tension in scenes then I think one of the things available to us is the tension of non-acknowledgment. And that can be not verbally acknowledging. Not visually acknowledging. Not movement acknowledging. That creates tension for the audience, that can create tension for us, but it's also pretty ballsy because it flies in the face of traditional improv, which is we need to know everything, we need to take in everything. Which again, I don't dispute, but can you know and take in stuff without using your eyes? Can you feel? I go back to what Craig is saying. When you can feel the weight of the scene, when you can feel the nature of the relationship, the heaviness or lightness of the relationship of the circumstances of the space, then you can do more than if you're just standing there trying to invent something.

KM: I was working with a group recently and they were starting a lot of scenes and I could tell from the way they were starting the scenes, they were concentrating so hard on their circumstances. They tried to sort out their circumstances at the beginning of the scene. It's like the three line scene exercise where you've got to know your "who, what, and where." I felt, watching it, like it would be so much more interesting if they just were in the scene and not worrying about it. When you're in your real life, you always know where you're at, unless you're lost. So you always know where you're at, you always know what you're doing. You're not searching for it and it's better to just be there and concern yourself with how you feel and how you think the other person feels and the interaction between those things and the circumstances will take care of themselves.

JB: Totally! And remember the get-up: the who, the what, and the where, I think came from the institution that uses improvisation as a tool to create sketch. Or to create a review.

KM: Well, it seems like really a good exercise when you're starting out. Maybe as improvisers you have to get past that because you are so worried when you first walk on stage, like "I have nothing. I have no idea who I am. I don't know where I'm at." So maybe in the earliest steps of improv, you need that. But it seems like it's so much more interesting just to watch two people who they are to each other by feeling it out, rather than, "I'm going to say a line and establish we're in a bakery. Then you're going to establish you're my boss. Then I'm going to establish I need a day off work." That might be an OK way to build a scene but it's not very interesting to watch.

JB: And I believe it's because of the presence of self-consciousness. I believe that when you are trying, you are not doing. It's the Yoda line. "There is no try, only do and not do." The unfortunate thing about teaching improv is you have to oblige students to do things in order for them to learn or find themselves in a place of discovery or whatever. And I'm also a believer that where... in a space the more obligation there is, the less inspiration there is. And vice versa. When you see a show that's inspired, there's very little of any evidence of them being obliged to some bullshit rules or each other or anything. They're just purely inspired. And that tends to usually have an emotional presence to it. On the one hand, I do agree with you. I think that in the first two years it's worth getting smacked in the face with every rule, every suggestion, every improv obligation and playing with it so you can find your way, but I don't think experienced improvisers are concerning themselves with that.

KM: Right, they just go out and do.

JB: You just go out and do! And regardless of your method, I don't think there's one method that's "the" method. I just think good improv is good improv. Bad improv is bad improv. And it doesn't matter if it's game or short or story or long or scene or whatever. You know it when you see it.

KM: Let's talk about your trips to New York. You have made quite a few out there in the last decade since UCB got going. To the Del Close Marathon and other things. And you've done a lot of workshops out there. At the risk of making gross generalizations about the differences between improvisers out here to there, what's something that in your workshops out there that you run into that, like a specific thing you're trying to get people to do, and what might be an exercise you use to get them to do that? Does that make sense?

JB: Like New York as opposed to Chicago?

KM: Yea. Anything that you've run into more than once, let's say. So it doesn't have to be "every improviser in New York has this problem." It's more what do they need that maybe they're not seeing as much.

JB: You know, early on when UCB was starting, like in the first five years of UCB, most of my students were UCB students. I'm always up against that squaring, "find the Game, find the Game, find the Game" with theatrical or scenic improvisation that isn't necessarily about comedy. So it comes down to honest emotional moments. The one thing is when there's a lot of pressure, I mean you're in New York, it's high pressure, you're there for a reason. The one thing I love about New York is when you teach a workshop most people are taking notes. And in Chicago, nobody gives a shit, which is fine, but you see people there wanting to get it and take away something. It's like, "I've given you a check, give me something." Because of that importance they place on improv and the work and the art, then I think the whole notion of "find the Game" really freaks people out because they are not able to let go of the fear aspect of their self-consciousness and that in and of itself has them miss what the Game is. There's always a Game if you can recognize it and now it just becomes, I believe, a question of are you adaptively creative or innovatively creative? And adapters tend to be second-line players and innovators tend to be first-line players. Adapters tend to need to underscore with emotion and innovators need to keep it simple and shut up. There is a lot of thinking that goes along with playing in the UCB approach. I do find myself... I think it's ... we're all Del-heads, you know? I find myself often doing things that illustrate for people the difference between pursuing the circumstantial funny pursuing the chain of events or the chain of reasoning that if this true in this world then what else might be true, which is really an analytical proposition, versus "if I feel this way because you did this, now where are we" which is just the emotional aspect of the UCB Game. Does that make sense?

KM: I think so. I mean, one thing with that is .. you know I taught for UCB for years and tried very diligently to get that in the curriculum and make it work in the curriculum, the idea of Game. Because that's what they wanted. And it's something I enjoyed about improv as well. For me there was always this tension with the Game, which was "OK, yea, but that's not the whole thing." I think the more perspective I get on it, the more I think of Game as a .. it's a skill, it's a background skill. For instance, we look at in terms of music. You're learning to play guitar, you're learning to play different chords, you're learning different ways to strum. The Game is one of those skills you need or that you can learn really well and then if you get very good at it, you can forget it and let it go. It's like a process that's going on in the background of anybody who knows how to play Game really well. So they just naturally make choices that accentuate what's already funny about the scene and they're not necessarily stuck in that analytical mode. I think if it's done well, that people can concentrate on it for awhile, learn it and then just trust that it's there and move on and think about other things. About how to make their improv more interesting, how to make it more fun to do that's not in this analytical mode all the time of like, "What's the Game? What am I going to do next? If that, then what?" At a certain point as an improviser I think you want to put that away. All of my favorite improvisers are people who play Game really well, but I doubt they ever think about it or rarely think about it while they're thinking about it. They're just improvising.

JB: Yea, and listening. I think there's two ways you can listen and one is circumstantially and one is emotionally. I think that UCB's emphasis is on circumstantial listening and I think that there are also aptitudes that people ... there's an aptitude for funny for comedic invention that people are born with, that I don't think you can elevate too high internally. At least that's my thesis because I don't perceive myself as having a high level of funny instinct. I think I'm funny enough, but I'm sort of an emotional listener and that if I'm going to play with the best improvisers, I essentially become a straight man. I'm not going to be able match wits with Besser or Walsh or Furman, you know, people that can stand there and rattle off. I can't just go toe to toe. That's not the way I listen and when I find myself then emotionally disconnected, then there's really nothing left for me to do but look at somebody and edit the freaking scene. That's not to say there aren't moments where I'm inspired and I can get in there, but I need to be clear and I need to not be having a conversation with myself, which what you just sort of illustrated. That's what students do, that's what takes them out of Game because they're in conversation with themselves. But then there's some people that are brilliant out of UCB that will also play slow and if I can play slow, I've got a shot. I love improvising with Chad Carter because he can play slow, he can play fast, he can whatever. Even though he's deadpan, there's always a music to him. I've not played with him a lot. He's brilliant and there's a couple of scenes that I did with him that will always stand out where we buddies in a scene, and then the crazy Game swirled around us, but it would always come back to us and I always felt that emotional connection which made me feel, "OK, cool. This guy's way smarter and quicker than me, but I'm emotionally connected, so I'm the wheelhouse and I know I can take care of whatever I need to take care of." The students that I typically get in New York at least two thirds of them are in the earlier levels at UCB and it's just getting back to scene work, honesty of moments, plan the emotional capacity, suspend your worry about that just so you can get here and be honest with somebody face to face.

KM: What's an exercise you use that you've used for a long long time? That you can remember using ten, twenty years ago and you still think it's something you like to do in workshops.

JB: Every one in awhile I'll pull out... and I love it. So it's really the nature of energy exchange between people, so it's two rounds. Round one is, I will say a word and there's two lines of people near upstage. I'll say a word. As soon I say the word, I want both people just to begin talking. Just they're both talking over each other and both walking downstage and they have to arrive at an object and put their hands on it. So now they're talking and they're doing object work. There's an object in their hands.

KM: Each their own object?

JB: Each their own object. So they're completely apart. I label this as ... no I don't label it until after this round. So, it's like, "OK. Two people. I'm going to say a word. You both start talking, walk downstage. Get your hands on something." And I often side coach and just infuse energy. "Yep, yep. That's it. That's it. More, more. Talk more. Yes. What is that? Yes, more, more, more. Talk more. Talk" So they're just in chaos. They're talking and they're doing stuff with their hands. And when I see that they have come to sort of at least a little bit of congruence, sort of like words, actions, emotions, then I'll say, "Turn!" And when I say "turn," they have to bathe each other in whatever they've got going on, and they're not allowed to hurt or molest somebody else. And I say, "Whatever bathing means to you, you're right. Do it." So I'll have them turn and some of them will continue talking over each other, some lose the object, some will stop and they'll do a scene. Anything can happen. But the important thing is that you just let happen whatever's going to happen. So, then you say, "How was that?" And it's like, "I felt weird. We were talking over each other. We weren't really listening and I didn't feel connected to my partner." And then you ask people, "Well, what did you see?" "Oh, well you know, as soon as they turned everybody seemed to get angrier, everybody seemed to get louder or everybody..." There's always an evolution that when these two energies meet, they affect each other. Then I say, "OK, you might that's the worst that you can start a scene in improv, right?" And they'll nod. "No, no, no, this is. So now, I'm going to call two people and I'm going to yell a topic. I want you to immediately beeline toward each other in the center stage and start speaking on the topic whatever brings up, including, 'I don't know. I don't know. I've got no fucking opinion. Whatever.'" And I tend to give suggestions of topics that have the potential for inflaming them. I'll try to read the people. I'll do this an hour into class after I've formed prejudices or judgments about people or what they're buttons are. So it can be advertising or professional sports or lawyers or divorce or astrology or the environment or cats or whatever. And then, people just they go at each other and they're just "LA LA LA" in each other's faces. And what happens is they very quickly come to an agreement on the nature of their exchange, only it's not conscious. They come into harmony and they end up... it's Malcolm Gladwell stuff. We can't help but affect each other, so what if we're just completely screwing the words of improv or all the laws of improv and just blabbing at each other. You see that there is a give and take, but it's not the way we're taught to give and take. You see often times that the exchange is compelling or entertaining or good or whatever and you say, "How was that?" and they're like "I love it! It was great!" "Why?" "Because they're not having a primary conversation with themselves, they're having a conversation with someone else and they get to do battle." I think I love it and I think it works because it really is the visceral platform that we work from once we become experienced improvisers. We learn all this shit for why? So we can just mess with each other and do it in a way that's artful, that has a scene happen, that has something compelling happen. It's play. It's dodge ball. You know? I've been doing that exercise for years and I still love it. And take a run at it. Let me know how it goes.

KM: What's something new in your repertoire? Something that maybe an idea that came to you from something else, from a book that didn't have to do with improv or maybe you're learning about something kind of art or skill and that gave you an idea for something to try in your improv class.

JB: Oh man. Hmm.

KM: Haha. Have I stumped Joe Bill?

JB: A lot of my newer thoughts... so there's this idea that ... I heard Chris Collinsworth say this. I think I said this in the workshop you were in. This was five or six years ago. Chris Collinsworth was talking about Donovan McNabb and he said, "Circumstances do not define character; circumstances merely afford character the opportunity to present itself." After cussing to myself and jumping out of my chair and stomping my foot because it was Chris Collinsworth who said that, it was like an onion of brilliance as applied to improvisation. I think, I'm going after different ways to get improvisers to reveal their character through the most simple of circumstance. There's exercises that I'm trying out that sort of speak to that and some of it gets side-coachy, or some of that means I'm imposing something or maybe laying something on. It's almost like going back old school, you know David Shepard and Paul Sills shit, where it's like, "We're back to laying a scenario in bean pole so we can see who the character is." Sutton does stuff where you have people say lines, but you deliver the lines with a completely different emotional base than you would typically deliver them through. So that, for sure is a fixation. My fixations right now are also psychological. I'm interested in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and its relationship to self-consciousness in improv scenes and take a nap. I've learned some things that turn this thing on, so I'm playing with fixed focus. The eye projection stuff is all an effort to keep the eyes from quick moving, from doing saccades. When we encounter a problem, our eyes go back and forth, it turns on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, it makes us self-conscious. It makes us consider ourself within the context of the problem we're trying to solve. What are the consequences to me given this problem? So one of my theses in the book, "The Improv Glance" is just the theatrical version of saccades, which turn on self-consciousness. Can we just be purposeful? I think it's just.. . ironically, I'm just really about exploring purpose while moving farther and farther away from that in my real life. Haha.

KM: So let me see if I can paraphrase.

JB: Please, Jesus, God, Kevin!

KM: I'm just trying to understand this for myself. So you're concerned with the avoiding self-consciousness in improv. Where you're suddenly in your head thinking about the scene and "what am I doing" and all those different versions of I'm in my head.

JB: And I would put it, rather than avoid self-consciousness, it's be present.

KM: Be present. So you're suggesting that when you're eyes are darting around and trying to figure out what's going on, that puts you into that mode. Whereas if instead you really put your focus on one thing then it might be your scene partner, might be yourself, your emotional state, might be an object in the environment, that kind of quiets that and makes you more present to actually be in the situation that you're improvising in. Is that what you're saying?

JB: Yes, it is and a character ... can we be present and be purposeful in the way that we are present? And purpose means a number things. For me it's, can we be emotionally present with emotional purpose and my purpose is, "I feel this way and I am here to manipulate you." At any given time in the scene what you're doing is going to inform me in the direction of you're with me or against me. I believe we organically work our way in improvisation into curiosity and suspicion, but if I don't find myself going in that direction then that's a choice I'm also laying on students. Is the way that person behaved towards you, is that making you more curious about their intent or more suspicious about their intent? If we're going to think anyway, then think that and get back to the interpersonal as opposed to the circumstantial or the verbal equivalent of your eyes darting all around. And that's not to say you can't make a character choice where your character's eyes are darting all around. That can be your deal, that can be your thing, you know, your Napier thing. What I'm saying is be focused, be present, be purposeful in how you present yourself from the top of the scene. I'm also a believer that the golden time in improv is 15 to 30 seconds. 15 to 30 seconds is the amount of time it takes any improviser to hate what they've intially done in the scene. The goal is to be present, focused, committed in that first 15 seconds so when that golden time visits you, and it will regardless of how long you've done it, you're not prone to doubting yourself. "I'm in this, I'm here, I'm fine. Yes, evil inner critic, I'll be with you after the show at the bar. That's where you belong anyway. Stay out of my head." Does that make sense?

KM: Yea. Do you have anything you want to plug?

JB: Let me see. Jill Bernard and I will be doing SCRAM! at the Seattle Festival Improvisational Theater in February. We have a group on Facebook. I love doing the show with her. We'll be doing it more. Mark Sutton's expanding his family, so we're sort of off the boat for a year. Then I'm doing an improv dinosaur tour, so if there's any other older improvisers out in America that want to do a two-maner with me or somewhere, give me a call and let's play. There's my plug. Thanks, Kev.

KM: Well, thanks for being a part of the show. Hopefully, we'll talk again sometime.

JB: I'll bet we will.

KM Epilogue: That's the show for this week. I'll be back soon with more episodes. I have a couple more recorded that I'll put up in February. You can talk about these podcasts or just about anything else at forums at I also blog at We're getting really close to 1,000 members on the Facebook page, so please follow us there. And we can always use more comments on iTunes, so please review the show. The music you hear on this podcast is by Gringo Motel.