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. Find all the Geeking Out with... written interviews here.]
As David Razowsky and I spoke via online messaging, digging deeply together into the spiritual pursuit of improvisation, I began to imagine our shared, virtual world acutely resembling the dank, mossy cave where Yoda first trained Luke Skywalker in the second/fifth Star Wars movie. I phrase this metaphor with no intended snark whatsoever, for I really did feel like I was learning under the guidance of a master. What is the Force but that to which we connect for inspiration during a truly great improv scene? Yoda says, “You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.” Dave says, “There are times when I improvise when I'm me, my partner, the audience, the chairs, the lighting.” And as I spoke to my Yoda, David Razowsky, I felt like Luke Skywalker trying so hard to lift his X-Wing from the muck. How to lift it without giving myself over to the Force? How to try to be the best improviser I can be? “Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try,” said Yoda. “You can only be where you are,” said Mr. Razowsky. And how lucky I was to be with Dave Razowsky for our geek out session.
David Razowsky has one of those comedy résumés that makes me swoon. Early student of Del Close at back-in-the-day ImprovOlympic. Member of the one of ImprovOlympic’s first house teams, Grime and Punishment. One of the founding members of Annoyance Theatre. Member of the Second City Mainstage cast that included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, and Amy Sedaris. Artistic Director of Second City’s training center in L.A. Swoon-worthy, right? A couple decades-and-change later, he’s still going strong in Los Angeles, much to the benefit of his audiences, castmates, and students. David Razowsky currently performs at iO Theatre (L.A.), teaches master classes and workshops, and runs a weekly drop-in clinic at Theatre Asylum. He also hosts the increasingly popular A.D.D. Comedy podcast with recent guests including Stephen Colbert, Susan Messing, George Wendt, and Tim Meadows.
DAVID RAZOWSKY: Improv gave me the tools to see my life moment-to-moment. This is true of all aspects of what I am: traveler, reader, artist, friend, family member. All of those relationships (as well as consumer, patient, car driver, supermarket shopper) are affected by the choice to BEHERENOW.
PAM VICTOR: I'm thinking about how you got into improv. From the stories I've heard you tell, you sort of slipped into it.
DAVID: I never think in terms of what I've slipped into. It's a flow. All the places I've gone artistically I've gone there because I walked up to them.
I was an actor in Chicago from ages 10 until I left for college (NIU '81, BA, Photojournalism.) My last year of college, I auditioned for a show, got cast in a lead role, then it was all over. I went to Chicago, did some plays, was asked to audition for Geese Theatre Company for Prisons. THERE I was introduced to improv. Non-comedic. Educational. Mask work. Movement based. Intense. Changed my life.
From there it was back to Chicago: ImprovOlympic with Del [Close], Metraform [which became Annoyance Theatre] was formed with Mick [Napier], Joe Bill, Susan Messing, Mark Sutton. Then onto Second City TourCo, and three resident companies.
PAM: Because it appeals to my secret love of chick flicks, can you tell me about the first time you fell in love with improv? When did it “click” for you?
DAVID: Hmmm. I remember doing an improvised movie directed by Del in a class. I remember it just working. It flowed. It was magical. He wanted us to do a Cassavetes-type film. We did one. Del said we nailed it. I thought, "Great. I just improvised a movie by an auteur I don't even know. If I can do that, what CAN'T I do with this craft?"
PAM: That's great!
DAVID: From that moment on, I knew I could get this. I love the fact that I can play characters I would never in a million years get cast as. Secret agents. Cops. Tall people.
I was on my way to the Santa Cruz improv festival a number of years ago. While at the airport at LAX, I visited the bookstore. I came across this great improv book that's not about improv. This changed my improv so much. [Dave sends me a link for Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen, which I promptly bought because I always try to listen to angels.]
PAM: There is so much about Buddhism that is echoed in improv. Tell me about how this book changed your approach to performing.
DAVID: It's really at the core of all I teach now days.
PAM: Being present?
DAVID: You can only be where you are.
There is no "later."
You're imbalanced (dukkah) when you aren't present.
You're not alone.
You're not you.
You are not your story.
You are not anyone else's story either.
PAM: We are one. Everything and nothing?
DAVID: Yep. There are times when I improvise when I'm me, my partner, the audience, the chairs, the lighting.
PAM: I hear you, and everything you've mentioned highlights the heart of what draws me to the stage again and again. But I'm interested in how you, personally as a performer and teacher, apply these ideas to the practical act of improvising?
DAVID: Everything you do with me, I see. Everywhere on stage you are, I see it, and I'm inspired by it. I feel the emotional change with every shape change, with every tempo change, with every step you take in the space. You will not get away with anything when we play. I'm there to help you know that you are seen, inspiring and connected to me.
PAM: Total commitment to listening with your heart, eyes, mind.
Joyful. Alive. Alert. Present. Constantly inspired, never panicking.
Never having stage fright.
Never wondering, "How's this gonna turn out?"
I haven't had a bad show in 25 years. Others might disagree, but I'm not there to judge you, the show, or, certainly, myself.
PAM: How do you advise your students on how to best hone this state of being in their scenework? Aside from philosophically, are there exercises that build those muscles needed?
DAVID: In my classes I have the luxury of time. How? Because I do. It's not "LET'S GET TWO UP THERE. DO THIS. GREAT. NOW LET'S GET TWO MORE UP THERE." Scenes in my classes are given the time that's needed to get to the core of what I'm imparting to them. I don't teach structure, I don't teach games. I remind the actor what it feels like to be inspired, to live in the moment and react to the moment at the moment that you've been emotionally changed.
I heavily side coach. If you don't like to be side coached, you're going to have a hard time. I'm very good at noticing when an actor has an emotional change, and I'll let them go on for a second to see if they change. If not, I stop them and expose them to the emotional change they had but didn't notice/act upon.
PAM: I am interested in this moment of change and how it relates to [Mick Napier’s edict] “holding your shit.” I know we are meant to hold our shit until we're inspired to change. But in a scene sometimes, I'm not yet always sure when that moment is the right moment.
DAVID: "Once you define it, it exists." At the start of the scene you get to notice your emotional content. That's also your point-of-view. You stay on that track until you feel changed. You then act upon that.
The best example I can give of when to surrender (as defined by, "letting go of that which no longer serves you"): How do you know when it's time to tell someone for the first time that you love them? You just know. Ego stops you from taking the bull by the horns and charging into it. TAKE THE CHANCE!!!!!
PAM: This topic is very relevant to me right now. I'm having trouble teaching the difference between working from inspiration rather than creation. Especially for players who are very heady rather than heart-y.
|David Razwosky and Susan Messing|
two heart-y improvisers
Photo credit: Sam Willard
DAVID: You need to have exercises that let people know that the scenes are driven by the emotional connection between the scene partners. This takes time and patience because you're needing to break through ego and fear. They need to be reminded of the power of the moment. They’re controlling the scene because they want to control the outcome. They need to be reminded that in spite of what we think we NEVER know the outcome of anything.
PAM: Personally, I improvise to get high. And the thing that gets me the highest is by creating with someone in the moment on stage. Pure discovery. That total Zen moment you were talking about, where it’s you, the people on stage, the audience, and magic. What’s the best way to get into that groove most consistently?
DAVID: Be present as much as you can. Take in as much as you can as often as you can. Be patient and know that every time you stop seeing, you start thinking. Let yourself be surprised at being surprised. And know that every scene needs a character to have a revelation, and yours is soon to be here.
I am not eager to speak, I'm eager to respond. That way I can't wait for you to tell me what you think. I then get to respond to THAT.
It's a practice that's as fun to get as it is to miss. When you miss it you get to be present to the feeling that you missed it, then you get to laugh at your human-ness.
PAM: Lovely. When you want to bring yourself more into the moment, is there a mantra you use? Or a way of closing the fearful, judgmental mind?
DAVID: I am as attuned to my heartbeat and breathing as I can be. When I find that I'm out of whack, I come back to the present. I need you to tell me who I am because you need me to tell me who I am. When I'm not there to tell you who you are, you can't be there to tell me who I am.
Every moment contains the energy that brings me joy. When I find that I'm away from that, I gently and lovingly bring myself back, not dwelling on the time I was not present, but celebrating the here-ness.
PAM: Listen. React.
DAVID: Listen to your partner.
...then listen to your heart...
...then let your brain do what it's supposed to do…
…then say those sentences....
…then be internally still and await the wonderful response that's coming your way. That's your new move.
PAM: Do you warm up before a show?
DAVID: Yes. It's called gossiping. I then go on stage.
PAM: Hahaha! That's mine too!
DAVID: Please don't slap my back and say, "Got your back." If you have to let me know that you do, you probably don't.
Carrie Clifford, my improv partner, and I will gossip, do a location word association (one location inspires another location), do "8s," then gossip until we're told "places." It works for me.
|Carrie Clifford and David Razowksy|
See them play in Razowsky and Clifford!
PAM: I ask because I'm wondering if you have a transition from every day life into this whole-spirited listening.
DAVID: They're the same thing. I don't suddenly think, "I need to be present now." I'm always either present or in need of waking myself up to it…
PAM: It's interesting you bring up the "I got your back” thing because Mark Sutton and I were talking about the statements to make and the headspace to be in as you go into a performance. He doesn't like, "Have a good show" because “good” is so hard to define that it basically becomes meaningless.
So we can't say, "I got your back." We can't say, "Have a good show." Lately, I've been saying, "Let's have fun…" Obviously, it's not about the words as much as it is about the intent.
DAVID: Before we hit the stage, look at me and remember that I'm on stage with you in order to support you, and that whatever we create together is all we have and need. "Have a good show" brings an element onto the stage that wasn't created in front of the audience. It's in your head. Leave it there.
If you need to say, "Let's have fun" something is wrong. I know that sounds bad, but having fun is a given. You don't go to a restaurant and say, "Let's have good food." You don't say, "Let's have good sex" to your partner/lover when you are about to get physically intimate.
PAM: Ha! You're sure to have bad sex.
So I'm supposed to say, "I want to fuck the shit out of you?"
DAVID: Thinking about having a good show isn't having a good show. Wanting to fuck the shit out of someone isn't fucking the shit out of someone.
That sentence looks worse than it sounds.
PAM: Not to me. (But I'm fucked up.)
Hey, but wait, David. I listen to your podcast, and you talk a lot about the importance of words as a guide for manifesting your destiny.
DAVID: Placing a definition or a need to define something removes the experience of doing it. You'll spend your time measuring it, comparing it, defining it.
PAM: I'm talking about words as a form of setting Intent.
DAVID: I'm not improvising to have a good time. I'm improvising to experience my joy in action. You say you improvise to get high. I used to smoke a lot of pot in order to feel differently than I did a moment ago. I stopped getting high because I realized that improvisation does the exact same thing for me.
DAVID: My intention is to be in the moment with you. That's it, that's all. I'm not going to remember that you told me to have a good show because it's not what's happening in the moment we're playing together, which is the only thing that matters, the only thing I care about then, and the foundation for my life and art and being.
PAM: My job, with this series and with my life as an evolving improviser, is to explore and understand the most effective way to get high the most consistently as possible.
DAVID: I'm high like that all of the time. I often feel like I'm not walking on earth, that I'm hovering over it, observing, feeling, laughing, being surprised, being awed, being saddened, being inspired. Always inspired.
PAM: You must not have kids.
DAVID: Nope. No kids.
PAM: What I mean is, life has a way of crushing the inspiration. Snotty noses are not inspiring.
PAM: I improvise to escape the tedium of daily life. I wish I could be high like that all the time. It's a nice place to aim for.
DAVID: I don't see it that way. Life doesn't crush inspiration. You decide that your inspiration is crushed. It's all a practice, and when you don't feel inspired you need to see the inspiration in THAT.
There is no tedium in my life, and I'm no different than you. We paste emotions onto our reality. We choose which emotions we paste. Tedium is a label.
PAM: I dig everything you're saying, Dave. You're TOTALLY speaking my language. Absolutely. If my friends read this piece, they're going to wonder how I stopped myself from getting on a plane, and flying over to LA to stalk you mercilessly until you agreed to be my best friend. But the conundrum for me is you're talking about getting out of your head, which is one of those commands that puts you instantly in your head. Like, "Breathe unconsciously." The instant you say it, you're consciously breathing.
DAVID: If you are trying to get out of your head, you're engaging in "trying to get out of your head." The worst note a director can give you is, “Get out of your head." It doesn't tell you where to go, or guide you. The full note needs to be, "Get out of your head and into your heart."
PAM: To me, a lot of the magic of improv boils down to discovery vs. invention. I constantly am in a quest to open myself to moments of mutual discovery. But of course the kick in the ass with discovery is its elusiveness. The more closely you try to tail it, the farther away you get from it. How do you get yourself into moments of discovery on stage?
DAVID: I am eager and open for anything that comes. I don't think about "discovery," rather I realize my present emotional content and play that out until a new emotional content is in front of me. I then jump on that. I don't think I have to discover. I just let the moment evolve, blossom, and bloom. Following my emotions, not the story, not the rules, not the plot. Never the plot.
I don't care about getting out the who, the what, and the where. I don't think about nor play the game of the scene. All of that is math. I don't do math. I unfold, unfurl, and evolve. I get energized. I just wanna hug and kiss and touch the person on stage with me. And not always in a creepy way. :)
PAM: Ha! Right. Relationship and emotion live anywhere. Plot does not.
PAM: LOL. Say that again in another way.
DAVID: Your ego is not allowed in the room. Your personality is not allowed in the room. Your politeness is not allowed in the room.
PAM: Let go of everything you think you need, and then all that is left is your heart?
DAVID: Nothing good has ever come from a union of ego and inspiration. Your feeling that you understand these things in your head...well, that's what you're engaging in instead of just being present to all that is there. You're a parent, you know about how to pick the things that need to be focused on and what can wait.
PAM: Sure, on my good days.
So you’re saying with improv, it all comes down to the emotion of the scene. "Feel something.” Can you expound on that belief?
DAVID: You always feel something. It's, "Be aware that you're feeling this and commit to the emotion." The only thing we ever "know," the only thing we ever "own," is what we're feeling right now. You don't know that there's money in the bank. You don't know that the school your kids go to isn't on fire. You don't know that family that is out of your sight right now are okay. But you DO know that you're now worried. Go with the worry and build on that. There's no invention needed, for all you need you have. "Replace ambition with gratefulness." True in the creation of a great scene as it is in creating a life of presentness.
PAM: How best to heighten the emotion of the scene?
DAVID: Be present to the emotional energy at the top of the scene and keep increasing that commitment to that emotion. As you do that, your partner is doing the same. At some point you're going to be faced with your new emotional choice. You then build on THAT one just as you did on the first emotional content. Rinse and repeat, as the directions for proper shampooing suggests.
PAM: Ha. Add jojoba to get better results. Do you remember when jojoba was in everything? I wonder whatever happened to jojoba.
Anyway...I’ve been processing a lot lately about finding the comedy through the truth of a scene. I love grounded, real scene work, but of course we’re advertising ourselves as comedians. People are coming to the shows and paying to see comedy. How best are we to take advantage of the comedic moments without selling out the truth of the scene?
DAVID: The work will always be funny if you are being honest and truthful. It will NOT be funny if you try to be funny. The humor comes from not being polite, but from being honest. People come to shows to be voyeurs. Our job is to be voyeur meat.
DAVID: By the way, I never give the note, "It would be funny if..." My actors will be funny because they know how to be truthful. I teach and direct people to recognize what they're feeling, then to say it. Period.
PAM: Was it you that Charna Halpern kicked off a team for trying to be funny?
I mean, back in the day.
DAVID: Yep. At least me. She'll do it to anyone. It's a good practice.
You shouldn't be rewarded for trying to be funny. You are encouraged by being connected and present to your partner. Your need to be seen as funny is self-centered. It has nothing to do with what we're trying to do on stage right now. You're bringing that package in that your ego wants you to present.
PAM: I get that. However, the audience would be delighted to see us do Whose Line is It Anyway? for an hour-and-a-half.
DAVID: The audience that comes to my shows aren't interested in that at all.
PAM: “Joe and Mary Audience,” who are just going to a comedy show, are. They may end up at your show by chance.
DAVID: I don't play for them. They come to my restaurant; they don't get to determine the menu. Too many people vote Republican for this point not to be true.
Folks who come to see me, or Joe [Bill] and Mark [Sutton of BASSPROV] or Susan [Messing of Messing with a Friend] or Jill Bernard or TJ and Dave, know what they're getting. I don't pander. One thing Second City teaches you is that the audience is smart and wants more than what they get elsewhere. You want mindlessness? Turn on the TV.
PAM: I think I know what your answer will be, but I'll ask anyway: Where do you think the laughter in improv comes from?
DAVID: The surprise of witnessing the character build up to and explode with honesty.
PAM [after a long pause]: Sorry for the delay in responding to that statement. I'm just sitting here smiling.
DAVID: I know.
PAM: I’ve heard you say that you consider improv a sanctuary. What do you mean by that?
DAVID: Martin de Maat said that the moment you enter the classroom or stage you surrender all rights to judge yourself or others around you. We are here to soar, to fly, not to think that we shouldn't be here, or that anyone else is better than we are, or that we don't deserve the joys of life and success and artistic fulfillment. As a teacher/director, my job is to be the midwife to your voice. When you come to me I let you know that. You must trust in yourself, and the only way to do that is to know that where you're working is a sanctuary. The next step is to realize that the world is also a sanctuary!
PAM: I believe this next point may be related to your sanctuary belief. Tell me what this Del Close quote means to you: "If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on-stage."
DAVID: “Everyone you ever meet knows something you don't.” - Bill Nye
PAM: Bill Nye the Science Guy!
DAVID: Have a childlike mind. Be curious. Be suprisable. Improv is about plasticity.
[At this point, I realize that our time together is almost up, and, much to my dismay, I have hardly covered any of David’s wonderful improv history. So I regretfully plan the end of our geek out with him.]
PAM: Ok. You choose. We could do a hasty jaunt along your improv journey through iO, Annoyance and Second City - historical stuff - or continue to ponder great philosophical and spiritual questions. I have plenty of questions to do either.
DAVID: Let's do history. I'm feeling toasty.
|Grime and Punishment|
Mick Napier, Madeline Long, Richard Laible,
Tim Meadows, David Razowsky
Photo from Charna Halpern's Art by Committee
PAM: Okee...Let's stop at iO first, which I was believe your first stop into formal improv, yes? You were in the fabled iO team Grime and Punishment, which I believe was a house team after Baron’s Barracudas. Do you remember who was on that team?
DAVID: Mick Napier, Richard Laible, Tim Meadows, Madeline Long...I hope I'm not getting this wrong. I think that was who was with us. It's really awesome how long I've been doing this. It's a good problem. An embarrassment of riches.
People gave each other shit, people supported each other, Del was clean, inspired, and at his peak. What a great time.
PAM: Mmmmm. Yum.
DAVID: Baron’s was so inspiring to all of us. Pasquesi, John Judd, Stephen Burrows, Bill Russell, Joel Murray, Mark Beltzman, Honor Finegan, Brian Crane.
PAM: You've been in some pretty incredible teams. I mean, now that I think about it, you've been in some REALLY incredible teams at iO, Annoyance and Second City.
|Second City years|
Steve Carell, Paul Dinello,
Stephen Colbert, David Razowsky
Photo from www.nofactzone.net
Sorry for the awesome run on sentence that that was. The times demanded the sentences be run-ons.
PAM: Then you were at Annoyance before it was Annoyance - when it was sitting around a table at a cafe thinking up Splatter Theater with Mick Napier. You were working with Mick, Joe Bill, Mark Sutton, Susan Messing, Tim Meadows, Faith Soloway, Jill Soloway...I mean...Hello Dolly, what a crew. This is improv porn to me.
DAVID: Chicago theater was blooming. On fire. Anything went. People were brave and careless and courageous and smart and funny and vulnerable and supportive, and the scene was fucking beautiful.
Everyone who was creating in that time had very little need to sleep or eat healthy foods. Why sleep? You WANNA miss shit?
PAM: Fantastic. You’ve worked at all the major improv theaters in Chicago. How did your experiences contrast at iO, Second City and Annoyance?
|Dave as the Blind Hobo|
DAVID: The Venn Diagram converges at the truth that those venues insisted you live and create in.
PAM: And now you're in LA, where palm trees loom. I have a friend who is studying improv in L.A. right now. She’s taking classes concurrently at The Groundlings and UCB, and it’s really fucking with her head. If someone is moving there to study improv, how do you recommend they proceed?
DAVID: Take classes at one place at a time. Why date as many men as you can when all you want to do is find someone to nuzzle up with, who understands you, who hears you, who speaks and understands your language? Be on ONE journey.
PAM: Ha. I think she wants to get on TV. And though iO speaks to her heart, The Groundlings and UCB speak to her ambition. I get that.
DAVID: Unless you know who you are, what your voice is, and you really OWN it, you aren't going to work. If you're looking at the end, you aren't seeing where you are. Same thing in an improv scene. Because we start a scene in a doctor's office doesn't mean at the end of the scene we can't sacrifice a goat.
PAM: Let’s talk about A.D.D. Comedy, your podcast. I love it. I get to feel like I’m the coolest chick ever hanging out with these super talented people who love improv, the thing that I love most. I also find it personally inspiring. I think of A.D.D. Comedy podcast as life coaching through improv. How do you choose your guests? What sets your podcast apart?
DAVID: If you are joyous we can talk. If you're trying to sell something, I won't help you. I really don't care about your credits. I care about your energy and passion and love for acting and creating and living and connection. There have been a couple of people who (early on) heard what the show was going to be focusing on and said "Oh, touchy feely stuff? No, thanks." I wanna say...okay. Blessings to you.
PAM: I know our time is up, so I'll let you go. Thank you so much for your time and generosity, Mr. Razowksy. This interview is a hard candy that will melt slowly in my mouth. And I mean that in the best possible way.
And speaking of melting in one's mouth...
And speaking of melting in one's mouth...
If you haven’t read it yet,
check out Geeking Out with…Mark Sutton (Part One)
in which Mark says,
“… all you can do is focus on the ‘now’ and play it to the fullest.”
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…TJ Jagowski of TJ and Dave
Geeking Out with...Dave Pasquesi of TJ and Dave
Geeking Out with…Chris Gethard of The Chris Gethard Show
and many more!
And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.
Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where 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. TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.