[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest only hardcore, improv dorkwads. You can find all the Geeking Out with... interviews here.]
When I saw the all-African American troupe The Jamal at this year’s Del Close Marathon, I was excited by the much-needed cultural expansion they bring to the improv world. I couldn’t help but to be particularly awed by Keisha Zollar’s firecracker performance. In addition to her total commitment, she added verve and vivacity to every scene. Zollar improvises with such apparent fearlessness that no boundary seems safe in her realm. And I, for one, am grateful for that.
Keisha Zollar has been performing improv since her college days at the University of California (San Diego) when, on a whim, she tried out for the short form troupe “When the Script Hits the Fan.” Upon graduation, Zollar decided to pursue a career as “a serious actress,” so she moved to New York City to attend the MFA program at The Actor’s Studio in The New School. But the lure of comedy always beckoned her, so her first audition upon graduation was for the short form group Chicago City Limits. She got a callback and took that as a sign to get back into improv. After two and a half years touring with a short form troupe, Zollar trained at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and the People’s Improv Theater. In 2009, she became the Diversity Coordinator at the UCBT. These days, Zollar divides her time hosting The Soul-Glo Project at UCB, and performing with Nobody’s Token, Doppelganger, and an indie, all-female Harold team called 8GH, to name a few of the many comedy pies Zollar has her fingers in.
PV: Well, let me say thanks for doing this interview. It's nice to "meet" you.
Just so you know, I've been doing improv for almost a decade. I founded my own troupe here in western Mass. over eight years ago, and I produce a comedy show up here among other things. So that's where I'm coming from...
KZ: I kinda stalked you.
PV: So you know how many guys I fucked in high school?
[Um, seriously, Pam? Awkward much? My ability to start an interview off on the weird foot is almost pitch perfect. Alas. Enter immediate, quasi-professional, backpedalling mode.]
PV: Tell me about how you started in improv. Who turned you on to it?
KZ: I was a freshman in college, and I wanted to be social. I had just started performing, and a friend and I decided to audition together. She was a big theatre lady and I wasn’t.
PV: So you both made it in the troupe (I hope)?
KZ: I did. She didn't.
PV: Oh no!
KZ: It was kinda funny because I was just used to being kinda the weird funny one in my group of friends.
PV: Were you always considered funny?
KZ: I was the funny, kinda strange kid. Not so strange I never had friends, but I was weird-funny because I loved pushing the limits, being crude, rude and loud….I was a fart, poop, sex joke kinda kid at 4.
In general, I've always felt like an outsider. I never quite fit any mold. I was funny, but polite…but I hated rolling with cliques. My mom raised me to be distrustful of establishments.
PV: So when did you find longform?
KZ: About 2006, I took my first class with Ari Voukydis at UCB…[but] I dropped out at level three. I felt isolated.
PV: In what way?
KZ: I was clearly the odd thing in the room, being a black woman. I just felt like my offers weren't always accepted. I felt like I wasn't being invited to hang out, or go to shows, or to join practice groups.
PV: That's intense, Keisha. I'm sorry you had that experience.
KZ: Eh. It wasn't malicious. It was just people going towards what they were used to. I was this early twenties, black girl, and there were very few women and even fewer people who weren't white.
PV: So you've hit upon a very important point here. Improv is predominately a young, white, male show.
KZ: It is, even more so in NYC. It’s also the economics of it all, so middle class to upper, and rich, white men. In NYC, you have to have the money to take classes or the free time to be an intern. I see the financial [issue] as a barrier to entry.
PV: I hear what you're saying, but the lack of diversity in improv can't only be an economic matter. I mean, a lot of kids come to improv through college troupes. Are the black kids not in the college troupes, or do they just not transition to the professional scene? I'm just struggling to understand why there isn't enough racial and cultural integration in improv.
KZ: Haha! I struggle too. I think it is a perfect storm. Improv is a personal thing where you pull from your experiences, and if people can't relate to you, they kinda discredit you - not intentionally. And if you can't afford to take the classes, you cannot even be discredited!
The lack of females [in improv] has always been the greatest mystery to me personally. Growing up my mom was and is one of the funniest people I know.
PV: Well, I'm quite certain the fact that there are fewer female improvisers than male has nothing to do with whether women are funny or not.
KZ: YES!!!! I think there is an inherent laziness in humans to go for what they know.
PV: I think you hit the nail on the head, Keisha. I think that since men started out dominating the improv scene - and since improv requires so much trust and intuitiveness - the men would relate more to the men. They would subtly reject the women's offers.
KZ: Men have had an unfair balance of power in the history of this country. Shit, we are still figuring that out.
PV: Seriously. I almost never improvise with men. Not by design, but by circumstance.
KZ: I tend to perform with either women or other black performers.
PV: In addition to the fact that I think you guys are incredibly skilled improvisers (and I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass – I really mean it!), I personally love the cultural diversity The Jamal and Nobody’s Token brings to the festival circuit. What are the advantages for you of playing with an all African-American troupe?
KZ: Well, the best part of being in an all African-American troupe is not having to explain any cultural things. Yes, I listened to R&B more than pop. Jesus is big with black people, gospel too, [plus] church and music and food and more. We have the same cultural rhythm, and it's pretty bad ass.
I started playing with a great group of women called Mrs. Jones, a group of black women, and the shared experiences ARE awesome. First off, I LOVE playing with ladies. I don't feel weird making a joke about my body or feelings. Also playing with black women. . .when something racial comes up, no one's buttholes tense up. There tends to be a level of sensitivity because we know what it's like to be the outcast. So if we push an issue, it is because we are intentionally doing so!
PV: Well, and you have the advantage - so to speak - of being able to go there. Know what I mean?
KZ: YES!!!! Women handle rape scenes differently, in my experience, than men. And black people handle a slave scene differently. I think there are scenes that can expose painful truth through humor, but you really need the diversity to do them justice.
KZ: During DCM, Doppelganger did a rape scene, and I mentioned how in this state we were in you can't technically rape your wife. Now in some states those ARCHAIC laws still exist, which is why it’s truthful, sad, and, done right, humorous. . .hopefully.
PV: But here's the thing, we are talking about how it's more fun and easier and more comfortable to do improv with people who share common experiences with ourselves. But if we only do improv with people who are like us, then how is improv as a big unit going to become more unified?
KZ: Well, I think it is a balance. I also try to play with people VERY different from me whenever I can. I think you find your voice and empowerment when you are playing with like players, and you find freedom and the stretching of your abilities and thoughts when you play with people vastly different from you.
PV: Well said. And please don't think for a minute I'm saying it's your responsibility as a black woman to unify the improv world. It is a two-way street. I'm talking from my own experience as a female improviser who often feels more comfortable working with other women, but also frustrated by those same limitations.
KZ: I think it's a constant balance. I think the male-heavy or -only groups have the same tendencies - there are just a lot more of them. They form groups from people who are similar, and then they start going for the people who are most different for the creative challenge.
PV: But then it just ends up looking token, to me at least, 'cause they end up with a bunch of white guys, the woman, and the black guy. I mean, look at SNL.
KZ: Ha, I know. I feel like actors and performers are cast for stereotypes. There is a feeling of tokenism in the comedy world sometimes. We can have one large, funny lady, but not two. One South Asian, but not three.
PV: I know, right??? Can you about how you started Nobody's Token with your friend Rob?
KZ: NBT came out of my frustration that there weren't many black shows or comedy that was really for everyone, but with the specifics of coming from black cultures. We mainly do shows at the PIT. Most of us are either PIT or UCB trained, and sometimes both!
PV: I might as well just come out of the closet as a fan, especially since I’ve written about it publicly. I saw you at DCM 13 with The Jamal, and I thought you guys were stellar. I also saw some of the same players as Nobody’s Token at this year’s Boston Improv Festival. I know you’re with that group too. Plus you’re part of the Upright Citizen’s Bridage house team Doppelganger. That’s a lot of groups! Help me keep them straight. Who are you performing with these days? Where can we see you?
KZ: I am still performing with Nobody's Token and Doppelganger. I also play with 8GH, which is an eight lady Harold team (indie). In addition, I actually host a show highlighting diversity in comedy called the Soul Glo Project. The Soul Glo Project is a UCB show.
PV: It seems like UCB is very supportive of your efforts to diversify the improv scene.
KZ: THEY ARE! And Nate Dern, the new AD, is amazing. He cares about diversity. He's made more considerations and has supported and welcomed, and is welcoming, diversity. He sees that diversity isn't about the minorities getting a chance, but about fostering the best comedic talent, and giving diverse talent ways to express that. He sees the struggle.
PV: So there are reasons to be optimistic about the coming diversity in the improv world.
KZ: Yes. Nate gives me a lot of hope. And others too.
[At this optimistic point in the interview, I realize it’s well after one o’clock in the morning. I wish Keisha and I could continue the conversation over great margaritas in a divey, Manhattan bar, but, alas, I have to get up early to play mommy to my off-stage brood. Ironically, this tug-o-war is part of the price of being a woman in comedy.]
PV: I could improv-geek out with you all night, Keisha, but I gotta get some sleep. I have to drive my kids to a class in the morning, and then book down for a quick lunchtime, short form gig. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts.
KZ: Ha! Kick ass tomorrow.
PV: I'll do my best.
Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
...Mark Sutton of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!
Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches "The Zen of Improv" to the best students in the world, as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.
She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.