Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Geeking Out with...Will Luera


[“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 me. 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.]

To know Will Luera is to love him. I’ve had several, “OMG, how much do we love Will???” conversations recently. And a not-surprisingly equivalent number of people credit Will with opening them up to the true joys of Really Good Improv. As comedian Zabeth Russell, who does the two-person show Ay Diego with Will, told me in a soon-to-be-posted Geeking Out with… interview, “I don't think there's anyone from my time at IB who hasn't been positively influenced by him.” And Women in Comedy Festival co-producer Elyse Schuerman confessed to me, “Will is definitely a huge influence on my style…that being my sexy Mexican American look.” See what I mean, you guys? If you’ve read other interviews in this series, you’ll know I’m not very good at hiding my fandom, nor do I want to be. I’m a dork. Whatever. If you don’t like that I’m a huge Will Luera fan, you can just bite me right on my lady ass. As I’ve blubbered embarrassingly to him on more than one (believe it or not, sober) occasion, he’s been a ginormous influence on my development as an improviser. But enough about me, let’s talk about Will.

Will Luera has been Artistic Director of ImprovBoston and director of and, until recently, performer in their acclaimed Mainstage show since 2000. Among many other shows, Will directed Sitcom, Blue Screen and Quest. In addition to his work at ImprovBoston, Will founded his own improv theater, Blue Screen, and has worked with Improv Asylum, Theatre Tribe, and Another Country Productions. But let’s have Will tell you all about it himself…


PAM VICTOR: I'm always curious about how people found improv or how improv found them. I know you grew up in Chicago. Were you exposed to improv as a kid?

 WILL LUERA:  Nope. I grew up on the South-side, the non-improv side of Chicago. The north side of a Chicago, where all of the improv theaters are, was a foreign concept to me growing up until I went to high school. It wasn't until around my senior year in high school that I even knew what improv was. Ironically, I wasn't truly exposed to improv until I moved away from Chicago. I really learned about it at Boston College.

 PAM:  That's funny (and sort of sad.) So when did you first do improv? In college?

 WILL:  Yep, spring of 1993.  The Committee for Creative Enactments.

 PAM:  What was that? A program? Or a funny troupe name?

WILL:  It was a bad name for a really cool group. Basically, we performed murder mysteries. The group would write two original murder mysteries per year. The shows would be about 2-3 hours long and the audience would be immersed in a show where about 40% of it was scripted and the rest was improvised. We would take over a house for 2-3 hours, and we would perform scenes that were part of the murder mystery. When we weren't in a scene, we would just be characters interacting with the audience.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, some valuable lessons were being taught to me that would become important to me later as an improviser and then as an AD:
1.) Before it was hammered home by Mick Napier, I learned to never drop my character's intention or goal;
2.) Narrative improvisation is possible - This became a valuable lesson that later lead to the ton of showcase shows we do at IB;
3.) Experiential theater - To this day, I'm a big fan of theater that involves all senses of the audience and allows them to immerse themselves in a totally different world for a couple of hours.

PAM:  Wow. That is a truly unique introduction to improv. You win for most original response to that question! So when did you start getting trained in improv comedy? Or did you just start performing straight away?
Will Luera

WILL:  I guess I was trained as part of the first show I did the spring of 1993. It was an improvised western show called The Good, the Dead and the Ugly. I'll never forget my audition - since I had started school at Boston College during the fall of 1992, I was looking for a way to do theater, which I got hooked on in high school (because of a girl...a whole other story). So, I had no idea how to "break in to" the theater scene at BC. But one night while I was walking to my dorm, I saw a flyer for an audition and it said the most important words for me at that time: "No preparation or monologue necessary." The flyer was for auditions happening that night at another dorm building. I walked there, auditioned for the part of "Tabasco Cabaillaro," and the rest is history.

PAM:  LOL!  I'm starting to get the feeling that most men go into theater and/or improv just to get laid. (But that's a whole other article.)

 WILL:  This is the reason I do theater today:

 PAM:  Ok, now you have to explain that story.

 WILL:  The link I just sent you, by the way, is just her stage name. She's a very sweet person and still a good friend of mine. high school friend Juan was going to see our high school production of Godspell. He asked me to come with him. Mind you, at 13, I had almost zero exposure to American theater and/or the American musical...I was just a South-side, first-generation kid who was lucky enough to go to a good high school. So we're at Godspell, and immediately I'm hooked by the "magic" of theater. Mind you, this is a high school production in the "Utility Room" of our high school because we didn't have a real stage.

 PAM:  Oy, I fell in love with at least three different people during my performance of Godspell in high school. Ok. Go on.

WILL:  At some point, maybe in the middle of “Day by Day,” I noticed this girl...and I was in love. It became my mission to meet this girl. Well, for anyone who dated me before I was 30 knows, I play the long and slow game when it comes to dating.

 PAM:  (I'm cracking up over here.)

 WILL:  To make a long story short, by the end of my freshmen year, she knew who I was. By my sophomore year, we became friends and even talked to each other. By my junior year, we integrated circles of friends and hung out almost every weekend. And by my senior year, she was my prom date.

 PAM:  ::applauding::

 WILL:  But we never actually dated. It’s okay though.  We’re still friends.

 PAM:  Will, she is gorgeous.

 WILL: Yeah, she still looks amazing

 PAM:  Awesome. Ok, back to improv…

WILL:  As far as formal training is concerned, that happened after college. I found a class being taught by ImprovBoston alum named Marjorie Burren.

PAM: And what was that first class like for you? Was it an instant attraction to improv?

 WILL:  Oh yeah. That first class was awesome...suddenly all of these improv games and warm-ups I had been doing in college made sense. I started to get the idea that these improv games weren't about competition or one-upping each other, but about actually building something together. This was a big moment.

PAM: How did you get from the first class to being Artistic Director of ImprovBoston?

WILL:  Reflecting back to your first question, in a weird way and for my own improv path, I think I benefited from not being exposed to improv in Chicago. It allowed me to develop my own ideas of what improv was and could be. These ideas developed into a style of improv that I called "Blue Screen."

All of this was happening while I was in college doing improvised murder mysteries. I was already starting to formulate ideas for doing full-length improv shows that could be anything...thus the name Blue Screen, although I think green screen is more apropos these days. Anyway, this idea in my head of what improv could be was just reinforced and strengthened as I took classes.

Then in October 1997, I was cast at ImprovBoston with Don Schuerman (whom I went to BC with) and Amy Rhodes (who is doing well out in LA.) As a performer at IB, every show and rehearsal just continued to feed into my concept of Blue Screen. In the fall of 1998, I produced a show called Sitcom at IB which first introduced me to the Harold (which fed into my Blue Screen idea.) And then in the spring of 1999, I left ImprovBoston to rent a space in Davis Square which I called "Blue Screen Productions." This created quite a buzz around the very small Boston improv scene and a year and a half later, on September 1, 2000, I was hired back at ImprovBoston as the Artistic Director.

 PAM:  Explain Blue Screen, the style of improv, to me some more please.

ImprovBoston Mainstage players
WILL:  So basically, I was seeing this show where any type of scene can happen anywhere on the stage. All genres, all forms of stagecraft - the entire space was available to you. As I formed it in my head, I had no idea what sweeps or tagouts were, so scenes would just morph from one to the next using the previous scene or your scene partner as inspiration. What I was crafting in my head I would later recognize as "free-form." Later, all of my classes and lessons would provide me with the tools to teach this style. Ultimately, this idea is what became the IB Mainstage show. The fact that we were nominated for an INNY [Improvisation News awards] became a huge validation for me and for that young kid who was thinking up these ideas 15 years ago. 

 PAM:  That's amazing, Will….You invented improv!

 WILL:  Haha!

 PAM:  And it totally explains why you're such a talented teacher and player.

 WILL:  Awww...shucks. Thanks. That path is what has led me to make ImprovBoston not a theater that focuses on one school of improv, but one that embraces all of them. I think its important that we, as a comedy school and theater, embrace and appreciate the teachings of Viola, Del, de Maat, Napier, UCB, etc.

If we understand all of them, then we can try to reach for something that unifies all of them. Of course, that's also my math/physics brain talking.

 PAM:  True to form, you're leading seamlessly into my next question: As the Artistic Director at IB, what do you think defines ImprovBoston stylistically and philosophically? (We will come back to your math/physics brain, I promise! That is another one of my questions.)

WILL:  I'll begin by describing what I consider to be the main goal of our 601 class, the final class of our improv core: Finding a form where there is no form. In my opinion, again math/physics brain talking, the first move in a show can define the DNA and characteristics of the rest of the show if you're truly in tune to what that first move is doing. That first move will tell you what the show wants to say, what it wants to be, what the style of it will be, what it will look like, its pace, its length, etc. I can also apply the same philosophy to the start of a scene, but for this discussion, I'll look at it on a show level.

That first move exists without judgment or a group, we observe it and act on it and then the laws and DNA of the show start to reveal themselves, and then the form where there is no form starts to appear. That for me is free-form at its purest level. In order to get there, we teach our students to embrace short-form, the Harold, Viola [Spolin]'s theater games, etc. Before you can understand Relativity, you need to understand Newtonian laws, modern physics, mechanics, etc.

PAM:  Hahahahaha! Can you hear the sound of my brain exploding from there?

WILL:  Oh no! Your brain!

 PAM:  It's okay. I hardly use it at all. I'm all limbic system these days.

 WILL:  Okay, I feel less guilty.

 PAM:  I have a theory that pretty much every strong male improviser has some other major geek action going on, which is somehow related to why they are good improvisers. I still haven't figured out what the correlation is, but I'm working on it.

WILL:  I definitely think you're on to something there.

 PAM:  I know, right?

WILL:  I'm curious to know what your findings will be.

 PAM:  But it's not the case with female improvisers, who usually are super smart but typically not in the same intensely mathematical or scientific or superhero comic ways.

 WILL:  I created my show Quest because when I started to sit in on D&D games, I realized that the veil between both was insanely thin.

 PAM:  Yeah, I suppose that improv is just a staged role-playing game…Or D&D is just improv in a dark room with greasy food and boys who haven't gotten laid yet.

 WILL:  Ha!

 PAM:  Ok, backing away from brain-exploding theories and into the world of the practical. What are you listening for when you're performing? I'm always interested in getting down to the bare bones essentials for good improv. The seed of a great scene, I guess.

WILL:  Well, I'm sorry to say that my answer will tie back into theories, although not as brain-exploding because I think it’s theory that we all accept: The building block of any scene for me is emotion and how emotions relate to each other. Emotion + emotion = relationship. So, I'm listening for an emotion. How do you feel about me or about what you're doing right now? Once I know that, I can calibrate myself around that choice. And if I'm working with a novice, I try to introduce a strong emotional choice into the scene for them that forces them to respond.

PAM:  Dude, we are SO in tune with each other right I now I wish we were in stage. That is totally my next question.

WILL: :-)

 PAM:'s that thread of questions I wrote on that point:

Pardon me if I have told you this before, but you, kind sir, have been extremely instrumental in my development as an improviser. Even though I don’t get to work with you nearly often enough, the skills you have taught me have lasted years. So, first of all, thank you, Will.

(I'm not just flattering you or brown-nosing or whatever. I actually have a strong belief system that relates to the importance of expressing gratitude when given the opportunity.)

I know that different teachers have different philosophies about what improvisers should use at their go-to, whether it’s finding the game or establishing a firm character or whatever. But, in my observation, you boil it down to relationship and emotion, and that really resonates with me in my scene work. Can you talk about relationship and emotion?

 WILL:  Thank you, Pam!

 PAM:  Thank you, Will.

Ok, enough of this sappy shit. Answer my question, bitch.

 WILL:  Yessssss. Finally!

 I really do feel that if you peel away all of the fancy forms and improv buzz words, an audience is there to see a relationship play itself out. An improv audience (for the most part) wants to see a relationship that reveals interesting characteristics about some characters, explores that revelation, and resolves it in a humorous way.

There are many variables that will make a scene fun and funny: the physicality of our character, the voice, the mannerisms, the space-time of the scene, our own experiences, etc. But before any of that, I like to have actors who are comfortable making and committing to interesting emotional choices.

There are your default-but-interesting emotional choices - love/hate, love/love, hate/fear, happy/happy, happy/sad - but then there are more interesting emotional contrasts, and I think that's where the real tension (and comedy) lives.

And I try to remind my students: Relationship is what happens between any two emotional states co-existing in the same space. The mere fact that these two emotions are co-existing on a stage right now IS the relationship. Now it’s our job to explore that, not justify it.

This whole idea came to me when I started to think of characters on stage as objects in space with a gravitational pull. In physics, we say that every particle in the universe has some sort of gravitation tug on every other particle in the universe. I apply that same theory to the stage, but the particles are people. Physics helped me conceptualize it, and I'll always remember when Joe Bill reinforced it with a similar concept in one of his workshops.

PAM:  What was that concept? (My guess is that it either has to do with neuropsychology...or masturbation.)

WILL:  I remember he did an exercise where two people were on the stage and he said, "Lights up. Lights down," so the scene was about 1/2 second long. I remember him saying that the fact that they were onstage together automatically gave them a relationship.

I was like, "Yes!" In the "universe" that is the "stage" the mere fact that they’re onstage at the same time already gives them a relationship.

…And then we all masturbated.

 PAM:  Hahahahahaha! (That was a literal laugh out loud.)

Once again you're leading to my next question. I'll see your exercise and raise you one:

Like most of the readers, I’ve done a wadzillion improv exercises and warm ups. I’m actually really tired of “walking through Jello” or whatever. But you did a simple exercise with us once that I come back to in almost every single one of my scenes. Can you guess what that is?

WILL:  Maybe, "I blank you"/"I know" ?

 PAM:  Yes! In my head, I call it the “I feel…” exercise in which (correct me if I get this wrong please) players cycle through two by two, starting a brief interaction with “I ____ you” (insert feeling), and the other player receives that and eventually, as the exercise expands, reacts to it. You can surely do a better job of describing the essentials of that exercise and why it is so powerful.

Anyway, I think that different philosophies resonate with different people and their individual learning and living styles. I've worked on finding the game and all that shit, and don’t get me wrong, I love it. But in the end, when I'm in a scene on stage and I have a spare second to think, I always go to relationship and how my character feels about the other person. This is something you taught me. And I gotta say, it never leads me astray.

 WILL:  Thanks! In my opinion, a strong relationship and exploration of that relationship is the game...but that's just my thing.

I think for me, it’s that I think of improv as theater. As soon as the "curtain is up," you're on. You shouldn't be trying to find anything; your scene is in motion. That's why over time, I try to remove and improve stagecraft shorthand moves that reveal the strings behind improv. The fewer taps, sweeps, etc. you can do, the more it looks like theater. However, if it’s just a good, old jam with a bunch of improvisers, I don't see anything wrong with using the shorthand moves

 PAM:  I was just watching some video of you and Zabeth Russell in Ay Diego. Your transitions were very cool.

WILL:  Yeah, I remember when we first thought of it. I liked it because it speaks to my physics mind. I like exploring how one line can exist and be said in an infinite number of ways and mean something different each time, even though it’s the same words.

 PAM:  OMG, you are so f'n geeky. I love it.

 WILL:  ;-)

 PAM:  What is your idea of a PERFECT improv experience?

 WILL:  Hmmm...I'm thinking back of my most memorable experiences over the years, but I have to say that the show the IB Mainstage did at last year’s Del Close Marathon was the closest to perfection that I had ever been apart of. It was a free-form set where scenes were folding on top of one another and morphing in and out of different relationships and scenarios without a tapout, tag, sweep, etc...and then, in the final minute, we completely unwrapped all of those scenes and tied up multiple scenes in a matter of seconds. And the great thing about that show, and why I love free-form, is because no one was ever thinking about what had to happen next. We just explored and kept discovering new awesome scenes together.

Also, a second answer to your question: I love when improv is treated as theater by both the actors and audience. I'll never forget when I directed in an improvised play series at IB, and at the end of the show we had the audience crying because two characters kissed goodbye after realizing that they would not be able to spend their lives together because they were stuck in their current relationships.

PAM:  Awesome. I have to just add, for the record, that IB Mainstage is always off the hook at DCM, but I think the last couple years have taken it to a whole new level. You guys are becoming one of the must-see shows.

 WILL:  Thank you! Yeah, we love performing at DCM. I think it has to do with the audience. They are so open to what we're doing.

PAM: Who are your improv role models, the people whose methods continue to inspire you?

 WILL:  My head was cracked in three phases - Todd Stashwick and Burn Manhattan, Joe Bill, and Mick Napier. I find it amazing that I can call Joe and Mick friends. It's still amazing to me.

Will and Don Schuerman
As performers, Don Schuerman and Zabeth Russell are the two most brilliant improvisers I've ever performed with, so giving, and they can turn anything into gold.

 PAM: You have gotten to work with the big Mexican improv troupe, ImproTOP. Tell me about that experience.

WILL:  I met them in 2006 at a festival in Puerto Rico. They are an amazing talented group, and I'm proud to have them as friends. After I saw them perform I had to get them to Boston and also introduce them to Jonathan Pitts of CIF [Chicago Improv Festival]. I'm glad that they've done so well over there.

One of the important facts for me about their style is that they were created outside of the American improv system. Many gringos think that improv has to come from Second City, iO, UCB, etc., but they came from outside of that and are kicking ass.

That's why I feel it’s important to always be in a position to absorb new ideas and philosophies instead of cornering yourself into one mindset. IB is like the UU of Comedy Schools. ;-)

 PAM:  Now you're speakin' my hippie language.

Have you performed in Mexico? I’m really interested in knowing how it differed from performing here. Do the audiences laugh in the ways you expected them to?

 WILL:  I have...and in Puerto Rico and Columbia. The biggest lesson for us is when the audiences didn't laugh. We learned that American improv is very subtle. We are huge into talking and keeping it real. The Latino troupes are big and larger than life, just like Univision TV shows.

After our first night of shows in Puerto Rico, we quickly learned that we had to adapt and play bigger. Jokes had to be more explicit. We had no time for building a joke. That being said, ImprovTOP does a great job of switching gears and just doing some straight up theatrical improvisation. I love that they are all trained actors first who also do improv. The concept of people who just do improv is foreign to them.

PAM: I may have mentioned this previously, but I saw ImproTOP at CIF last year, and their handling of environment work, in particular, was at a whole new level. They raised the bar right up for me on that regard. I've never seen anybody do environment the way they did. You should get them to teach a workshop on environment some time. It would be mind-expanding, I think.

 WILL:  I sure will.

 PAM:  Ok. You can answer this one in one word if you want. Improv: Art or craft?

 WILL:  Art.

 PAM:  This is my absolute last question. It comes from The Dorky Pharmacist of FacebookLand.

Will Luera: Innie or outie?

 WILL:  Way innie...explanation:

Until 10 years ago I had a belly button, a cute one in fact. Then, it started to balloon - like, literally, it looked and felt like a small balloon - you push it and squeeze it and it would fill back. I was in Mexico showing it to family and my uncle was like, “I think that's a hernia.”

Sure enough, I come back home, go to the doctor, and she tells me that I have an umbilical hernia. Basically, it’s there because my belly button wasn't tied up properly as a kid. So, I have to go under the knife, so that they could fix it...and now my belly button is gone.

It's just a crevice.

It’s sad.

 PAM:  Oh no! You had a bellybutton-ectomy?

 WILL:  Yup.

 PAM:  I'm sorry I'm laughing.

 WILL:  It’s okay. It is funny

 PAM:  You're the virgin birth!

You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. Not only did Will invent improv, but he's the son of God.

 WILL:  I'm putting both of those things on my business card.

 PAM:  I think you should also put "It's just a crevice" on your card too. Or it could be the name of your memoir.

 WILL:  Memoir, definitely. 
Will's future memoir?
Artwork by Heather Dawson


Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
…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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