Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski (Part Two)

By Pam Victor

[“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 hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

While I was in Chicago for iO Theatre’s Summer Intensive, I had the pleasure of watching TJ Jagodowski perform in a variety of shows such as: Monday’s talent-packed The Armando Diaz Experience at iO, Tuesday’s night-full-of-improv-delights at Annoyance Theatre where TJ performs first with Chicagoland and then In a World, Wednesday nights with Carl and the Passions and then of course  TJ and Dave at 11pm in the Cabaret Theatre at iO, and on Thursdays he’s in The Scene at iO. I regret that while I was in Chicago I wasn’t able to catch him in his Friday night show at iO, Challenger. And I sadly left before he started his run at Annoyance with fantabulous cast of Almost Atlanta.

 My respect and admiration for TJ’s work only grew each time I saw him perform this art form that I love so passionately. To me, watching TJ on stage is like watching an improvisation aficionado perform with the utmost respect and affection for the art form, his fellow players, and the theater itself. Yes, TJ follows Del Close’s edict to treat improvisers as "geniuses, poets, and artists" as we will discuss. Together, TJ and his richly gifted partner David Pasquesi make me believe in the Great Spirit of Improvisation. Amen.

(And I apologize profusely, Mr. Jagodowski, for blathering on like an eedjit. I really am sorry, and I would stop myself if I had even a sliver of self-control. If it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure you’ll suck at the next show I see you in, thus reversing my entire concept of you. In preparation, I shall be stockpiling savage and blistering adjectives for the scathing review I’m almost certain to write. You’re welcome.)

In Part One of our geek out session, TJ and I discussed his journey into the heart of improv, the fear of sucking (not in the good way,) and the process of performing TJ and Dave. This conversation picks up where we left off, with my eagerness to pry up the hood of TJ and Dave, and get a nice, long look at the inner workings of their process.


PAM VICTOR: Do you [and David] rehearse?

TJ JAGODOWSKI: Not every week. But we do rehearse.

PAM: Do you have a coach?

TJ: No, just us. We do the tops of the shows - the first five minutes, the first ten minutes of the show – and see if we’re intact. We try to make sure we didn’t miss anything, that we were true to the very first moment. Because usually we find that if we can get the first moment right – or the first minute right or the first two minutes right – we should be in a position to be able to execute the rest of the show. If we miss that first minute, we never get it back…the teeth don’t go back into the gears if you miss that first moment…

PAM: Do you have special ears for capturing those first few lines or those first few moments?

TJ: No. We just try not to rush it. If that first thing is really apparent – whatever that thing is – then we don’t wait to say it or act upon it. But if that first thing is not yet clear, we just want to make sure we give it time for it to show itself. So it’s listening with your eyes and all that. It’s nothing special. Anyone is capable of doing it. Sometimes you just get nervous, you feel like something needs to happen or something needs to be said, so you rush that first thing. As opposed to just letting it come to you, and when it presents itself go ahead and act on it.

PAM: And through experience you and Dave have been able to both agree on, “There’s the gem, there’s the germ of our scene”?

TJ: I think so. What we would refer to it as trying to get a read on the “heat” and the “weight.” The heat being the intimacy of the relationship – anything from strangers to being married and soul mates for 50 years and anything in between. And the weight being what is already in the room with you - what does it feel like is already going on? Like, “Oh my God, it feels like our common best friend is in a coffin in the other room.” Or it feels like one of us needs to sell a car today…

So what we trust is that we won’t have the same details exactly of the name of who we are to each other or the name of what’s already in the room, but that our read on how intimate our relationship is would be congruous to each other. And our read on the weight of the thing in the room would be congruous to each other. So that, “best friends” equals “brothers who really get along” equals “husband and wife” – the heat all of that would be similar enough. And the weight of, “We just survived a car accident,” or “We made it through the first night of our honeymoon,” that weight would be the same.

PAM: And that has been spoken out loud [in the scene]?

TJ: Not yet, but whatever we title it or whatever we end up calling it, the heat and the weight of that will be already groovy with what the other person is feeling. Dave and I wouldn’t get into a situation where he thinks we’re husband and wife and I think we’re absolute, total strangers at a bus stop. The heat of that would blow apart how we’ve already been behaving. So we trust that our read will be similar enough, that the details won’t matter because the level of our intimacy is what is important, not the name we put on it.

PAM: So the weight thing of the “other thing that is in the room” -  you might do a first a few lines about husband and wife and you’ve agreed that you guys have known each other without even-

TJ: All it will take is [dropping into the voice of a wife], “Babe.” So we don’t have to explain-

Most of those lines of exposition are usually because the players think the audience is not on the same page as you. So you say [taking on a gruff character voice], “Well, Ron, you and I have been brothers-in-law for ten years…” You don’t say that to anyone ever [in real life.] The equivalent of this is like, “Ron, you’re a total retard because I’m explaining to you right now how long we’ve known each other and in what capacity.”

So those lines are designed to inform the audience, but they already know. And also they don’t really care. It doesn’t matter that the title of this relationship is “brothers-in-law.” What counts is that [in gruff brother-in-law voice], “We shoulder-chuck each other and throw barbs at each other because we love each other.” That’s what’s important about the relationship.

PAM: So you have the scene about the brothers-in-law, say, and you could both stop it after 30 seconds and say, “I have a feeling there is something going on here. There is something in the other room…there seems more, that something is happening today for these people.”

TJ: We would have already felt it.

PAM: Without speaking about it. So there is sort of a spiritual aspect to it or a psychic or…

TJ: It’s not psychic. It reveals itself. There are already clues being established as to what else is going on by how we’ve behaved. That maybe we get the feeling that these two guys are being a little extra jocular today. So why is that? Did one of these guys say something yesterday that he’s worried that the other guy still is taking to heart, so he wants to make sure that there’s no problem? Or is there some sort of sadness in the other room that they’re trying to take their minds off, so they’re being extra, “Hey, everything’s aces, buddy!”? Clues are being given that you basically solve the most obvious mystery of.

And Dave will refer to Occam’s Razor. If you see a hoof print in your front yard, it’s more likely a horse and not a zebra. We just try to go with the most obvious answer that makes sense with what’s already happened.

 TJ discussing "heat" and "weight"

PAM: You and Dave are very highly respected in the improv community, as you know...

TJ: Sheerly through our ages.

PAM: There are people older than you, who have been doing it longer than you, who come to see your show-

TJ: Usually as a favor.

PAM: I’m making you uncomfortable…

You know it’s so funny…I’ve talked to a lot of people now, and they don’t want to take credit for their stuff. Maybe when I get to be a great improviser – I hope I’m humble, but I hope I can recognize…[To TJ]  You worked hard. You deserve it.

TJ: It wasn’t work.

PAM: Why do you think it makes you so uncomfortable to be so highly regarded? Because it can always go wrong?

TJ: I don’t know… I might be prone to put a decent amount of pressure on myself, and so if there’s a way to fly under the radar, that’s a lot easier to deal with. And if I am highly regarded, then I’m absolutely grateful for that. And I like being part of a community where I do feel respected, and hopefully return that respect…I know I’ve been luckier than I’ve been good. I know there’s a lot of work still to be done. And, yeah, anything can go wrong at any given time…so I don’t know if that answers your question or not.

PAM: I know it’s a hard topic, so I won’t talk about it anymore.

TJ and Dave
Theater on the Lake
(July, 2012)
You did a run at Theater on the Lake, which is really cool. And Dave called that “legitimate theater” when he was talking to me about it, which I thought was interesting. [TJ laughs.] It’s not surprising that your show in particular is making this transition into unscripted theater because it is so perfect for it.

TJ: We’re not alone in that. Improvised Shakespeare is doing it. Baby Wants Candy has played some of the places we play too. And part of that is this fellow Scott Morfee who’s been bringing us to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York who is really intent on trying to help show that bridge between improvisation and theater. We’ve been lucky to be part of that, but we’re certainly not alone in that…

I’m also fortunate to be with the group Almost Atlanta who have been trying to do that as well, doing an improvised play. We got to do it at the Garage Space at Steppenwolf. Almost Atlanta, as well, is working that bridge.

PAM: Are your goals for TJ and Dave to become more “legitimate theater”?

TJ: My goal for TJ and Dave is on a weekly basis to do a decent show. My goal for TJ and Dave is to dodge bullets. Whatever else happens is groovy. Dave has plans on world domination. I have plans to have a Jameson after that show is over…

PAM: Tell me about what “playing the relationship” means to you?

TJ: Finding out how these two people are interacting in this moment in this place. How they are affecting each other.

PAM: What specifically do you go to when you’re developing a relationship on stage?

TJ: I would say you don’t go to anything, you’re given it. Your partner gives it to you. Dave says – you should interview Dave again [He laughs. And I make a wish.] - he doesn’t get anything about who he is from him. He gets everything about who he is from me. And I do the same. I don’t go to anything; I just try to be ready to receive everything.

PAM: Do you come in with an emotional state?

TJ: Not for TJ and Dave. I will for a Harold show or whatever, from the information at hand. I find it easiest to internalize an emotional point of view and have that be my starting place and then figure out everything else…

No one ever goes in absolutely blank. There’s already something, your posture, or something you’re going to be doing by accident. You’re going to be doing something when the lights come up. But what [Dave and I] both do is try and figure out what exactly do we both have, what is the combination of what we’re both doing right now. Because before those lights come up, you may think you know exactly who you are and what’s going on. And then you meet another person’s eyes and realize you were wrong about that entirely because that does not make sense to what’s going on, balanced and in conjunction with, what’s coming back at me from him.

PAM: That first moment [in a TJ and Dave show] – that much talked-about first moment, at least in my circles – you guys are looking at each other…

TJ: The way we perceive that is that show has already been going on. The lens has just been opened on our participation on it. But whoever we just pop into, they’ve already had a life until then. We’re just occupying it for a little bit. We have to figure out what moment did we just jump into.

TJ and Dave at UMass (Amherst)
May, 2012
PAM: So what are you looking at? Are you looking at something or are you receiving something when you look at each other?

TJ: I’m looking at Dave. I’m receiving that information and trying to be as aware as I possibly can of what I’m giving to him because I have to be responsible for that as well. So I have to be aware of what my body, what my face, what my eyes are saying, what he’s saying with his body, and his face, and his eyes. What our proximity is. If one of us glances away, what were we looking at because that can start to tell us where we are, whether inside or outside.

It’s all a gradual process of eliminating possibilities. Before those lights come up, literally the possibilities are infinite. But as soon as the lights come up, a bunch of possibilities are removed. And someone moves or someone looks at something – other possibilities are removed. What we end up trying to get to is this sense that we are now doing the one and only thing that this was absolutely from the beginning…

It’s a gradual process of like, “Well, he just talked in a man’s voice. I feel like I’m a man. We know we’re not a man and a woman. Ok, now that possibility has been removed. We both just used a voice and a posture that seems like we’re not 15, 16, 17, 18, or 19, so those possibilities are removed. Dave just looked up and wiped his head as though he was looking at the sun. Ok, so we’re not inside – those possibilities are removed.” And so you just keep trying to chip away stuff until you realize, “Oh. Of course. We’ve always been these two guys stranded by the side of a road in a hot climate waiting for a tow truck to come and fix our automobile.”

PAM: How many minutes into the scene is that?

TJ: It could be forever. Sometimes we haven’t realized we were until 20 minutes into the show. Sometimes it happens within the first 30 seconds or minute. We try not to call anything something until it has shown itself to be that, or until the clues that are offered lead us to having that be the most obvious conclusion. But uninformed action and uninformed speech leads to more uninformed decisions. Until we feel informed in a way that we can make a conclusion or informed in a way that we would take action, we try not to take action or jump to conclusions.

PAM: I think that is not the way we’re being trained right now.

TJ: This is a specific show with a specific amount of time allotted. It’s two people and it might be an hour long. And so that is really useful for us in the way we want to go about that show.

Frankly, if you’re doing a Harold, you just don’t have that amount of time. You have to get into your opening. You have to start making decisions, and start getting information out. Especially in an opening, you have three hard minutes of work to do, and if you do hard work the rest of your show is nice and free and easy. You gotta’ get to work at the beginning of a show like that.

Mark Piebenga, Linda Orr,
Noah Gregoropolous
and TJ Jagodowski
(Annoyance Theatre, 2012)
I get to play in a show called Chicagoland that’s kind of location- and environmentally-based. In that show, we move pretty quick off the beginning to try to get that location flushed out and maybe a couple of themes. And then that show can breathe and move in any way, shape, or form as it wants to. As fast or as slow as it wants to go from there. Every show is different. The things you have to do for each show are probably different. But with any show you can still operate from an emotional point of views. You can still listen and pay attention. You still be as honest as you possibly can. So those things you bring to any form, any show.

PAM: Do you get high differently from that pure, mutual discovery than you might in, like, an Armando [Diaz Experience show]?

TJ: Yeah. It’s a different feel. But there’s also other things that can happen in Armando - like you can run a ten-person heist with farcical elements, doors opening and closing – and Dave and I just wouldn’t be able to pull that off.

But there’s no show that make me- when I’m playing with Dave for that hour, I feel like I’ve gone away for a while. I can’t come back to this world too quickly or I get the bends. It takes me little bit to come back because it does feel like the bubble seals with that. I don’t feel that way with Armando because there is so much time off. You sit back. You’re out of the show for a while. You’re present, you’re paying attention to it all, but you’re on the sidelines. So you get a chance to breathe; you’re out of that world for a little bit. With Dave, you never leave that world. It’s not an option to break the fourth wall because that wall is a wall, or that wall is a vista to a canyon ten miles away. You can’t break out…

PAM: Speaking of the fourth wall, you sort of redefine the concept of stage picture [in a TJ and Dave show] where you’ll turn your back to the audience at some point, sometimes for almost a whole scene. I’m wondering if you’re doing that in order to tell the audience, “This is a real fourth wall,” that space is truly three dimensional to you…

TJ: Just about everything we do is out of necessity, convenience, or because it’s closest to real. If you were playing a bar scene, the bartender and the patron might both be facing the same exact way and stuff like that. That would be harder for us to read exactly. We’d be denying ourselves information because I can’t really see him. I’d be coming out of my periphery and Dave the same. It’s just more natural to try to play it that way. It’s easier, frankly. We try to do what makes the most sense, what’s the easiest, and try a little bit louder. [Laughs.] We don’t ever purposefully want people not to be able to hear, but that’s how the bartender stands. He stands facing his patron. So that’s how we stand.

PAM: Do you think it’s for you or for the audience, where you’re saying, “We’re not playacting. We’re really inhabiting a world”?

TJ: I think it’s just what’s easiest for us. Hopefully it’s good for them too. It’s real. It is real. You can’t walk through this car door because it’s a car door. And the way this bar is set up, that’s where the bar is…

PAM: Tell me about your take on discovery versus invention in improv.

TJ: Invention is just harder. It takes effort. It’s work. I just picture in my head like inventors are toiling away in laboratories and doing experimentation. Discovers just stumble across the damn thing. [Invention] is more effort than it needs to be. You’ll probably get something cooler by discovering it than by inventing something that wasn’t there to begin with.

PAM: There are styles of improv that rely more on invention.

TJ: I imagine, like story-based or narrative-based stuff…

PAM: I guess the UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre] philosophy could even be argued is more invention-based.

TJ: My experience with that is it’s a little more “tag-heighten, tag-heighten.” So, yeah, there might be a little bit more invention. But, man, does it work for them. When you get some of the funniest people and best writers in the world, that’s going to work.

And I was only joking a little bit earlier that one of the reasons Dave and I get along pretty well on stage is that neither of us is fast or one-line funny, so it’s easier for us to allow those things to come out of a different place because we’re just not that quick.

PAM: You’re playing to your strengths.

TJ: Yeah.

PAM: Would that scare you to be in an ASSSSCAT show?

TJ: I’ve done one or two, and, yeah, it is scary. And I no way want to disparage [them] and say that they don’t play relationships. The couple times I’ve seen it’s just a much faster kind of form. Yeah, it’s scary. But, like I said, everything’s scary…that might be a little extra scary.

PAM: I think going more in the “slow comedy” direction personally, as a 45-year-old woman with two kids and that brain drain….I don’t know if I’m going to be capable of as being as fast. But I get off on [slow comedy] more, so…

TJ: Well, as a 45-year-old mother of two, I’m glad you’re getting off on anything.

PAM [Laughing.]: Oh, I get off on a lot of things. Right, Peter? [Peter is videotaping the interview.]

TJ: Woah.

PETER: I tape it. [More laughter.]

PAMI don’t know if you think of it in the same spiritual ways that Dave is thinking of it – he and I got into a conversation of improv as a spiritual [pursuit], which is the only way we understood it at the same level. And I always find the “god” of improv, if there is such a thing, is found in those discovery moments, when we’re both in the moment and mutually discovering something together. That’s what gets me high. Do you have any suggestions for evolving improvisers, such as myself, to get more into that discovery mode?

TJ [shaking his head]: No.

PAM [laughing]: Ok, thanks. Next question…

TJ: It’s probably right along the same lines of what we were talking as to how you go into a show wanting to be great, you really want to rock it. You can be as prepared as you possibly can to receive those moments of discovery. And I find that through calm and, like you say, being in that moment. Because you really can’t get there if you’re thinking too hard or still wondering about something that already happened. You just have to be there at that same time with your partner. But I don’t know how you make it happen other than you both just have to be ready for it to happen.

A very short clip in which Pam say, 
"I get off on a lot of things."
Want more improvlusciousness?
Check out the final part of our conversation in

In the meantime if you're in Chicago, do yourself a huge favor and see TJ and Dave at  iO almost every Wednesday at 11pm. They also perform occasionally at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. But even if you won’t be in NYC or Chicago, you can see their wonderful documentary Trust Us, This is All Made Up. It is the rare opportunity to see improv brought to the screen in a most adept fashion. Trust me, it’s true.


Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi of TJ and Dave
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of The Chris Gethard Show
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!

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