Friday, January 13, 2012

Geeking Out with...Elyse Schuerman

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 only hardcore, improv dorkwads.  The piece below is the extended, full-frontal geek-out version of this interview. If you’d like to read the more compact version, please visit the Womenin Comedy Festival blog.]

Elyse Schuerman is one of the managerial wonders behind the Women in Comedy Festival, which has grown exponentially each year thanks to the efforts and good karma of Elyse and her co-producers and festival creators Michelle Barbera and Maria Ciampa. Elyse’s improv comedy roots are planted firmly in the fertile soil of ImprovBoston, where she worked as Managing Director from 2003-08. In addition, Elyse has been an ImprovBoston Mainstage cast member since 1999, performed in a vast number of show there (such as Bluescreen, Comedia d'ell High School, BackStory, and Gorefest I-V), directed (Micetro, UnNatural Selection, Trail Mix), as well as taught improv to students lucky enough to learn under her sweet, knowledgeable and generous tutelage.

An IB romance got legal when Elyse married improviser and teacher extraordinaire Don Schuerman. Three years ago, they joined the IB procreation parade with the birth of their first child, and just a few months ago their son joined the ranks of sure-to-be-funny IB babies. In order to accommodate our crazy mother-comedian-everything else schedules, Elyse and I sandwiched our improv geek out session during a stolen hour on a Tuesday morning as the newborn on her lap held an animated discussion with the ceiling fan and as I monitored the studies of my 15-year-old homeschooled son via Google chat and the old-fashioned method of hollering upstairs. The hurried, hilarious experience seemed profoundly apt as that rush-rush-improvise-rush-rush tempo is what being an improv comedian mother is all about.

Pam Victor: So I've been up every two hours for the last couple nights with our new puppy. I think between your late-night nursing and my late-night puppy-petting, this sleep-deprived interview should be interesting!

Elyse Schuerman: Agreed!

Pam: I'm always interested in how people found improv - or how improv found them. When did you first get into it? Was it love at first sight?

Elyse: I saw a show at the SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando while I was in college in Florida during a theater festival, and it was amazing. It was a Theatresports-style show and the performers were great. I also remember an episode of Reading Rainbow that had Second City or something like that on the show. As a kid, I thought that was pretty cool. I got involved with IB [Improv Boston] through a friend/co-worker who got into Theatresports.

Pam: Reading Rainbow? So Geordi La Forge turned you on to improv?

This is Elyse. She is nice.

Elyse: Exactly.

Pam: I can see how you would be powerless in the face of that. Resistance is futile. (That's a Star Trek joke that I would expect you to be too cool to get.)

Elyse: Ha! Oh, I have seen my share of Star Trek. We all have a little inner nerd, don't we?

Pam: Particularly improvisers.

Elyse: Yes!

Pam: So in college you were exposed to improv, but you didn't start taking classes until you got to Boston?

Elyse: Well, I never "took a class.” It was 1999 and IB was looking to cast some women. My friend Kristy, who was involved there, told me about auditions. I think before that, they were in need of a tech person for a show one night, so I volunteered since I could operate a light board...especially an eight channel light board. (Inner geek.) So, I had done tech once, seen her perform a couple of times, and then went in to audition. I was a theater major, so I had done some improv games.

Pam: (Um, saying "eight channel light board" with that kind of pride, sweet'ums, that ain't *inner* geek, I'm afraid. Just sayin'.)

Elyse: I made it in along with a few other ladies. We rehearsed twice a week, and I learned a lot from Mat Gagne and Ron Jones, who were my directors.

Pam: Wow. You must have a natural talent. 

Elyse: No natural talent - just a lack of talent in Boston at the time. There weren't many good places to train, so IB took the best they could get and molded us. If I had auditioned now, with the same skill set I had at that time, I would not have made it in. That is a fact. I wouldn't have made call backs. I didn't know anything about “yes and.” I just played big characters - that's all I knew how to do.

Pam: Still, Elyse, I've seen you improvise. You have natural talent. But leads to the question as to whether you think good improvisers are born or created?

Elyse: So interesting you ask. I just heard a piece on NPR about this…the gist of the piece was asking how much of talent is truly talent and how much of it is passionate love for a field.  I think anyone who is great or even good has to really think about it a lot and do it a lot to get good at it. I think you have to have a sense of humor and be pretty good at listening - from there, I think most anyone can do it. Of course not having crippling stage fright is probably a bonus.

Thanks to LeVar Burton,
Elyse does improv.
Pam: So back to your roots… (Like that LeVar Burton call back?)

Elyse: Yes!

Pam: You're on your first team at IB. How did you get from that first team to working there?

Elyse: I was on the B team at the time, which meant we rehearsed on our own and with the main troupe…and then Will Luera came on as Artistic Director, and that is when things got really good at IB. The B team just became a part of the main troupe under Will's direction, and attended the Chicago Improv Festival. I really started to "get it."

Pam: Did you go through the levels at that point or just get your learning on the stage?

Elyse: Just from the stage and watching a lot of improv. Both of those things really shaped me. I think workshops are great in the same way rehearsing is great, but to really become a good performer, you have to perform - in front of an audience
and a lot.

At my peak I was performing, rehearsing, and directing six nights a week.

Pam: I'm drooling.

Elyse: Sometimes seven.

Pam: Ok, now I’m doing more than drool…

Elyse: Sexy improv talk!

All that experience was great and really trained me. Again, practice and thinking about it all the time are keys to succeeding.

Pam: Thinking about what exactly? I mean, what is the angle about improv that connects you to good performing?

Elyse: For me, it was analyzing what made other performers good. And I talked about it a lot with my roommate at the time, who was also an improviser (and then of course my husband, then boyfriend.) In addition, our conversations were like improv games - not all of them, but many. It's hard to turn it off, I think.

Pam: More sexy improv talk.

Elyse: To make it sexier, I will take off my pants...oh wait, there is a sleeping baby on my lap….

I came to realize that commitment was really the key to success. No matter what you chose at the top of the scene, hold on to it, like it's your lifeline.

I learned a lot from watching students and the performers I directed too…and the ones that committed were the best. And commitment also means, "If that's true, what else is true?" So, if you start as a pirate and your scene partner sets you up in an office, you find all the ways to be a pirate there. After being disgusted by the copy machine, you throw it overboard, you ask for your paycheck in gold coins, etc.

Also, always be a pirate.

(No, don't really. Pirates are so five years ago.)

Pam: LOL! I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of working with Will Luera, who has greatly influenced my improv abilities. From Will, I learned to value taking time to develop relationship in my scene work. Can you talk about how you approach relationship?

Elyse:  Relationships are important too, and not just with people, but with the environment. There is more to work with when performers build relationships.

That was my biggest objection to the little UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre] style I have seen/trained with: they tend to focus so much on "the game" that at times it's like watching someone solve a math problem. It's exciting and good to see how smart and funny they are, but some thing often seems lacking in the shows...the really good performers of their style add relationships to the scenes.

Pam: I guess I'm trying to get to the core of your improv skills set.

Elyse: My skills or bag of tricks are trying to anchor or commit at the top. And try to complement my scene partners on stage. (It’s hard to totally step out and judge my mad skills.)

Will is definitely a huge influence on my style…that being my sexy Mexican American look.

Pam: So you bring up the interesting current dichotomy between UCB-style improv and other comedy theaters. It seems to me that each major theater has its own take on improv philosophy. How would you describe as the core of the ImprovBoston style?

Elyse: For years, it was a blend of many theaters, and now I think Will has pushed a more theatrical approach with showcase shows, with his focus on relationships, etc. The curriculum is evolving (in workshops) to reflect more Harold work, which is good, I think. I don't really enjoy Harolds to perform or watch, but I love what they teach.

Pam: I always think of The Harold as ballet. It's a necessary core to learn. But personally I prefer to jazz dancing...

Elyse: Exactly!

Pam: ...and anything done to the soundtrack of Flashdance.

Elyse: Any correlation to jazz dancing has to be accurate. Harolds make you listen deeply, explore theme while not thinking too hard on it, and discover as an ensemble. All of that is important, so I think it's a good piece of the curriculum.

Pam: ImprovBoston seems to me to be a theater that really values the contributions of female comedians. At least from my outsider’s perspective, the theater seems to be very successful in balancing women and men on stage, and the whole environment there is very unified and cohesive. First of all, do you agree? And secondly, if so, how did the theater get to that place?

Elyse: I totally agree, though I don't think it worked too hard to do it. I think more and more ladies started taking classes and shined just as much as the men (per capita). And then they just started coming into the casts. I think Will, Don [Schuerman], Matt Mosher and my other IB contemporaries were so open to diversity too. They didn't just cast people they were friends with.

(Hang on…baby crying.)

Pam: Sure.

Maybe it was just dumb luck, but I think we need to give IB some credit for making the theater a welcoming place for women. There are some theaters where women feel more valued, and some where they don't. I think there has to be some basic managerial decision - or something - that makes a theater more diverse in gender, culture and race.

Elyse: That's true. I know we were very aware of how troupes were stacked. We all wanted to see equal balance in the genders; but as more ladies performed, more were taking classes and getting in to troupes. I think now it's just a fact that 50% of the folks who audition and are good are women.

Pam: Let’s talk about being a mom who improvises. Several years ago, I saw the absolutely sweetest scene you and your husband, Don, did together. You were in the last month or two of your first pregnancy. You guys were playing a (not pregnant) couple who were dancing romantically in a very small bathroom.

I see a lot of improv, Elyse, but I think I’ll always remember that scene because it was so real and precious. Also, as an improviser who has kids, I brought to the viewing my own experience on how motherhood changes a woman’s availability to improvise, and the scene became even more touching to me because I knew improv was going to change for you once you had your first baby. Now you've just had your second munchkin. How have you experienced that change?

Elyse: It does change you in some ways. It's harder to do shows/rehearse as often, so you aren't always on your game. I just can't be there as much, and I can't see as much, so I can feel my confidence and skills start to droop a bit.

But it's okay. I still want improv in my life, but I have other priorities now. It's especially hard when they are so little.

Pam: I wonder if you’ve found motherhood to expand and enhance some elements in your improv toolkit?

Elyse: Well, I do it quite a bit of improv during the day. I am usually a witch or wicked queen when Greta (my 3 year old) is around.

Pam: Hah!

Elyse: I still don't wince at scenes that show silly cruelty to kids or babies, like, "Daddy left because of you."

I think I can listen better in some ways, too. I spend a lot of the day listening to my daughter, working, cooing at the baby, whatever. But maybe I'm slowly declining from not focusing on one task at a time?

Pam: And do you mind if we talk for a minute about what it’s like to improvise with your spouse? Is it easier or harder than working with a friend?

(BTW, I have 15 min. before I have to drive my 15 year old to his piano lesson, so I'll try to shoot out the questions as quickly as possible).

Elyse: For us it was easier. And a joy. Don is so talented, it's hard to feel like a bad improviser in a scene with him.

Pam: Let’s talk about the Women in Comedy Festival!  What lead to its creation?

The old-school communication  mad skillz of
WICF's Elyse Schuerman, Michelle Barbera, and Maria Ciampa
Elyse: Michelle and Maria proposed it to IB when I was Managing Director, and we said yes to producing it. The next year, after I left the Managing Director position, I came on as a third producer. (I asked to be a part of it, as I totally loved it and the ladies.) It is a great festival, and not just for the ladies to perform in. We felt the name would attract female performers, and it has, but we are open to both genders. It ends up flipping the usual male to female ratio. And I am getting to meet my favorite female comedians - that is good!

Pam: It’s so exciting to watch how the festival has grown and attracted some big name comedians. How has that process been for you?

Elyse: It's wonderful. We all work well together and have similar instincts on the headliners. And, of course, seeing so many talented ladies is fantastic
(and men too).

Pam: What have you learned from being exposed to all these great female comedians?

Elyse: I've learned a lot more about the industry than I wanted, but it's been fun. I think it's hard to be a woman comic who wants to write for TV.

(Sorry, major baby spit up, here...)

Listening to how it all works at the panel discussions, I mean. No one griped, but it's a rigorous process.

Pam: Yeah, those panel discussions are an incredibly - and to me surprisingly - valuable part of the festival.

Elyse: Yeah, our goal is to keep them free to the public - an important part of the festival, for sure.

Pam: I know you’re still early in the process right now, but can you give us a sneak peek into what to expect from the next WICF (March 21-25, 2012)?

Elyse: We had double the submissions, so some awesome talent will be there. We will be adding some new and exciting venues. And one of our confirmed headliners is Carol Leifer, who I LOVED when I was a pre-teen when she had a show on A&E and she was fantastic. She still is, but she was my first introduction to stand up so it is pretty cool. She has done so much writing for TV and producing too, so it will be interesting to hear her talk about it.

We will have more headliners this year... Keep looking at for exciting announcements! (That's my commercial in this interview.)

Pam: That's SO exciting, Elyse. What you ladies are doing is so important and I think it will have implications on the improv world on the national and maybe even international scale. How do you feel about the state of women in comedy today?

Elyse: I think it's the best it has ever been. I think the final glass ceiling is seeing [more] women writers and directors in comedy. We need to push our numbers there. We have plans to see that happen, or at least make some impact in that area. (We hope).

Pam: Oh wait. Look at the time. Shit. I have to go to piano….Sorry to cut it short. Mommyhood calls. And I'm sure you need to change your shirt after the spit up attack. THANK YOU!!!!

Elyse: My pleasure. Thank YOU!


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!

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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