Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Geeking Out with...Mark Sutton (Part One)

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 here.]

You’re weird…in a good way.” – Mark Sutton to me

This unexpected Facebook comment made in response to one of my posts was the first direct interaction I had with Mark Sutton of BASSPROV, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. As one of the early founders Annoyance Theatre, Mark Sutton is an expert in extreme randomness, so the improv geek in me melted into a puddlewonderful swoon to be called goodwayweird by Mark Sutton.

Mark Sutton was the Indiana University student corralled by his dynamic dorm-mate Mick Napier into performing in his crazy shows. Successfully sucked into the improv and sketch vortex, Mark has been performing, directing, and teaching comedy in Chicago since 1987. He’s taken part in more than 75 Annoyance Theatre productions, including the acclaimed Co-ed Prison Sluts, The Real Life Brady Bunch and Manson: The Musical, and served for over nine years as their Managing Director. To name but a few of his many, many accomplishments.

These days, Mark divides his time between his work as a facilitator and performer for The Second City, a board member of Chicago Improv Festival Productions which oversees the Chicago Improv Festival as well as the Teen Comedy Festival and the College Improv Tournament among other projects, and an improv teacher wherever you’re lucky enough to find him. (And I do recommend you find him!) Most famously of all, since April of 2001, Mark has been playing the part of Donny Weaver to Joe Bill’s Earl Hinkle in the award-winning and beloved BASSPROV, an improvised show about fishing, but really about life.
PAM VICTOR: It appears as though you are considered to be the Annoyance historian. Is that an official title or a role you acquired by default?

 MARK SUTTON:  I think by default.  Probably because I've never dabbled in the "drug culture," so my memory is more clear than most.

PAM:  Hahaha. So you weren't one of the guys dropping acid, or whatever, backstage during early Annoyance shows?

MARK:  No, mostly just beer. And to be forthright, we never did acid during a show.

Well...one guy did but that was a long time ago.

PAM:  Did that make you the odd man out, a little different from the oddball pack?

Mark Sutton
Normal...in a good way.
MARK:  Maybe a little.  But the cool thing about Annoyance was that everyone was really on equal footing for the most part.  There were times when I, or Mick [Napier], had to "be official" but those were few.

PAM:  I didn't intend to start here, but it occurs to me now that - and I hope you don't take this the wrong way - you seem remarkably...well..."normal" compared to the “Island of Misfit Toys” populating early Annoyance history.

I don't mean that as an insult at all either to you or the Annoyance folk. Just an observation.

MARK:  Ha. Yeah, I'm the normal one.  That's probably why I often played the straight man. One person observed once that it was sort of the Bob Newhart feeling.  One normal guy and a lot of oddness swirling around him.

PAM:  Exactly. I guess you are Everyman from the audience's perspective. But what did it feel like from your perspective? What drew you to hang out with all those freaks and geeks?

MARK:  I like it.  I've never been one for playing big characters...you know the kind that get on a coffee mug.  That's probably a reason why I never made it on SNL.  But I share a similar sense of humor with Mick, Joe [Bill], etc.  I just presented it in a different way.

I knew Mick in college before improv ever came into the picture.  We lived on the same dorm floor and became friends.  Then he started a group and cast Joe Bill, Faith Soloway and some others, and they pestered me until I joined.

PAM:  You anticipated my next question. (Thank you.) So let's go back to "back in the day" times to when you first fell in with the people who were to become Annoyance Theatre. There you were, studying broadcast journalism at Indiana University, and something happened that altered your life forever. Can you talk about your first introduction to improv?

MARK:  Ha. Yeah, Mick was my friend from the dorm, and I used to go see him in plays at IU.  Then I started hanging out with him at theater parties where the girls were way more interesting than most of the girls I knew.  Mick got tired of the program for theater at IU, which was very "method," and decided with a friend to start a sketch/improv group.  They had auditions and performed for about a year.

By the time he started the group, Mick and I were sharing an apartment with a couple of other guys.  One of those guys is a doctor now and the other one worked for the company that made the faulty O-rings that caused the first space shuttle explosion.

PAM:  Oh my god.

MARK:  Mick had auditions and found Faith and Joe.  Then I joined a year later.  We had a running gig at a bar called the Rathskeller, and we would do two shows every Saturday night.

I still had no intention of going into theater.  When I left school (before Mick), I went to work in radio.  I was a morning news guy at WIOU in Kokomo, Indiana, and sending out resumes, etc.  My big story was covering the school board meetings where they decided Ryan White couldn't go to school because he had AIDS.

PAM:  Wow.

But, backing up for a moment, you were working with the sketch/improv group that Mick first formed, which was called Dubbletaque, is that right? Is it true you guys had never studied any improv before?  It makes me silly happy to imagine you, Joe Bill, Mick Napier, Faith Soloway, and your friends at Indiana University meeting late at night, trying to figure out the whole improv thing. Can you paint me a picture of that time?

MARK: Most had not.  Mick saw a show at Second City with Dave MacNerland who was a friend from IU.  He bought Something Wonderful Right Away, and decided to start a group. (Mick is like that.) Joe had done some short form in Indianapolis, but that was about it.  We read about some [Viola] Spolin games, made up our own versions, etc. And the sketch stuff...we just did.  We had a goal to do an original show every week, and for the most part we did.  

Bear in mind this was while still going to school, so we'd rehearse midnight until two a.m. It was such great training though because you had to stay focused on getting the show up and didn't have time for bullshit.  That process carried over to Annoyance.  And also the idea - which is really in improv idea - that we didn't waste time talking about why we couldn't do something.  We just did it, and that's how we learned.

PAM:  Beautiful.  I am filled with continued wonderment that the planets aligned on the Indiana University campus to lead a bunch of people with a vision, energy to realize a concept, and totally fucked up senses of humor to come together.

Who was there at these first Dubbletaque rehearsals? You, Mick, Joe, Dave MacNerland (who later left improv to make actual money), Faith Soloway, and....

MARK: I wasn't there at the start.  I did one show that first year when they were short some people in the group.  The original group was Mick, Joe, Dave, Faith, Eric Wadell, Brian Marshall, Mark Henderson, and Andrea Brands.  Andrea and Mark left after one year and myself and Lisa Kampwirth joined.  

Reunion of some of the early crew:
Mark Sutton, Faith Soloway, Joe Bill,
Eric Wadell, David MacNerland
[Photo credit: David Razowky]
PAM: What do you mean when you wrote earlier, "Mick is like that"?

MARK: Well, Mick is someone who finds something and gets totally into it.  As a kid he wanted to be a Boy Scout, but his town didn't have a Scout Troop so Mick started one. And then ended up being an Eagle Scout. When Gameboys came out, Mick had one in his hand 24/7, it seemed like, and mastered it.  In the '90's he was always at his desk typing code into a computer for this thing called The Internet and telling us skeptics how big it was going to be one day.

PAM:  He and his buddy Mr. Twitter, right? [Dick Costolo, current CEO of Twitter, was an early Annoyance Theatre performer who was in a show called Modern Problems in Science.]

MARK: Yeah, but it's that obsessiveness that makes Mick a great director.  He will rehearse moments over and over that most directors would say, "That's good"...but not Mick.  If it's two seconds off, it's not right. And it needs to be right.

PAM:  Would it be too highfalutin to say you consider Mick Napier a visionary?

Mark and Mick
at The Chicago Improv Festival
MARK: He would hate that, but yes.  The entire Annoyance was really his vision at the start.  People bought into it, but it's his.  He just sees things - especially in comedy - that a lot of people don't see.  And he has a great ability to put people together in a way that good things happen.

PAM:  I'm very interested in the creation and content of the Annoyance philosophy. What do you think Mick sees in comedy that other people don't see?

MARK: I often tell my students that to really succeed in this stuff you have to cross the bridge between knowing when something is funny and knowing why something is funny. Knowing when is subjective. It makes you laugh, and that's a personal thing.  But knowing why is objective, and now you're working within comedy to create comedy. You can shape a scene, manipulate the audience, etc.

Nobody knows why things are funny better than Mick.  He is just great at seeing why a scene works and how to make it work over and over without looking stale.  He also protects the material so well that he can take the audience to places they never thought they'd go for a laugh.

 PAM:  Oh my. That is a Christmas morning of an answer...ok, let's see...What do you mean by "protects the material"? That is something Ms. Messing said to me about Annoyance too.

MARK: A lot of our stuff is edgy, and we don't put a limit on material as far as censorship, etc.  So people take huge risks.  Mick is all about protecting the risk...for the performer and the audience.  The audience will go there with you if you make it okay.  If you don't, you will put them off and then what's the point?  

Original Co-ed Prison Sluts
Susan Messing, Tom Rosin (in glasses),
Mark Sutton, Ellen Stoneking
Take Co-ed [Prison Sluts, an early Annoyance show], for example.  When it first opened, it was not protected.  Characters did and said things that hadn't been properly set up or protected, so the audience was put off by the vulgarity and profanity. Mick and I looked hard at the way the show was constructed and realized this.  We changed the order of some stuff, added a couple lines, put things in a better context, and it all worked.  Then we had people singing along to a blues number sung by a child molester and laughing their asses off.  Because, for that moment, we made it okay.

PAM:  What do you personally think is the impetus behind presenting edgy theater?

MARK: I think we never intended to be "edgy.” It's just stuff we thought was funny. That was really the motive: Do you think it's funny?  Then people who also find that stuff funny get drawn to the work, and you start working together and pushing each other in those directions.  

Edgy is a word someone else uses to attempt to categorize your work.  We never looked at it that way.  That's why you could come for a week and see Co-ed, The Brady Bunch, Modern Problems in Science, and Idiotic Death of Two Fools, which was loosely based on Waiting For Godot.

I realize now that I used the word edgy and then said it's a word others use to describe you.  See how the opinion of others affects us?

PAM: Anyway, that edgy/funny point leads to the question of what you, as both an individual and part of the collective Annoyance mind, find funny?

MARK: I think it changes all the time.  I couldn't do the stuff now that we did then. I'm too old.  My influences were stuff like Monty Python, Bob Newhart, MASH, Carol Burnett, SNL.

PAM: And as a collective Annoyance mind? I guess I'm wondering where that edgy-but-not-edgy humor originates.

MARK:I think it's a bit different now with more people putting up shows and less of a "company mindset" if you will.

PAM:  Right. But originally? I mean, there must have been stuff back in college that you all agreed was funny. Like in college, my friends and I listened obsessively to Eddie Murphy's first album, and that could be where some of my humor comes from. But we also wrote a collective story called "An Ode to a Roo Called Jokes" on a giant cardboard tube inspired by an ancient sculpture we learned about in Art 100. Again, these are the things in college that formed my own brand of very weird humor...which leads me to wonder what you all found so absurdly funny during those college nights in which you all were wasted and laughing hysterically.

MARK: Since it was the early ‘80s, we were heavily influenced by SNL.  That and Monty Python. I had also been exposed to some stuff like Benny Hill and Dave Allen at large, from PBS, so I think that helped form some stuff as well.  

Part of the success of the group was that we had some acerbic, verbal people like me, some character guys like Joe, some pop culture people like Faith and Eric, and that sense of weirdness from Mick who, at the time, was really into John Water.

PAM:  I can TOTALLY see the John Waters influence in [Annoyance movie] Fatty Drives the Bus!

MARK: Yeah, Mick loved the randomness.

PAM:  I was going to ask where you got your improv training, but then I remember you mentioning that the first improv class you were ever in was one you taught. Is that true? You never trained with Del Close?

MARK: No. I was exposed to people like Martin de Maat, who was a great friend of Annoyance, and I basically grew up with Mick and learned from him by doing.  But I never took classes at IO or Second City.

PAM:  That's fantastic.

MARK: Looking back, I probably should have.  But we were all so busy performing, I didn't have time for class.

PAM:  That is equally fantastic.

Back to Annoyance philosophy, I feel like the classic Annoyance motto of “Take care of yourself first” is often misunderstood as a selfish thing. In my eyes, that motto and the iO philosophy of taking care of your scene partner are not exclusive. In fact, I see them as two sides of the same coin since taking care of yourself IS taking care of your partner. Am I being a Kumbaya dumbshit because I just want all my favorite improv teachers to get along in peace, love, and understanding?

MARK: I agree with you.  I think it's just a nuance of how you define "taking care of." I think that notion, like many improv notions, gets watered down through time to mean something different.  “Taking care of” does not mean "helping" in the sense that you jump onto whatever your scene partner wants, etc.  I think perhaps it's more proper to say that you both are entered into an agreement to take care of the scene and make it great.  And the way you do that is to present two compelling characters with their own points of view for the audience to watch and get invested in.

PAM:  This is related to "hold on to your shit,” another basic Annoyance philosophy.

MARK: Sure. You have to be you, and I react off of who you are.  If you are concerned too much with me, what can I react to?  In your effort to be there for me, you've not defined yourself and thus given me nothing.

 PAM:  Terrific. So would you say when people ally themselves with the Annoyance philosophy over the iO philosophy on this matter, they are missing the point?

MARK: I think so. I always say that it doesn't matter how you get there, it's that you get there.  THERE to me, is a compelling scene.  You must be compelling from the start or the audience will tune you out.  And that has to do with energy.  You must present a compelling energy and then play that energy off your partner through listening. I think the biggest difference to me between Annoyance and IO is the devotion to form.

PAM:  You mean The Harold?

MARK: Yeah, and others.  Most Annoyance shows hold no real form  - Messing with a Friend, Screw Puppies, etc.  You start and you travel a road of inspiration until it's over. Or the form is theatrical, like Modern Problems in Science.  I find most standard improv forms to be either restrictive or gimmicky, especially for newer improvisers

PAM:  A couple years ago, I took your workshop at the Chicago Improv Festival. (And I loved it. Thank you for that.) You worked a lot on staying with that first moment on stage, and playing with that initial connection between the characters, which I personally think is one of those skills that I could study with as equally great enrichment for two hours as for two decades. Can you please talk more about the beauty of that first moment on stage and how best to stick with it?

MARK: I think it's a matter of knowing what is enough.  I find that improvisers spend so much time and energy at the top of scenes trying to figure out what it's about.  When really all it's about is what you just did. Then you build on that through listening and trust...and discovery.  That's improv.  You decide that this is what it is, and you follow that path. You don't search for another path that you like better.  Now your energy is focused on doing and not on "trying to do."

I have taken lately to saying that if you go out even thinking that you're doing a scene, you're in trouble because now your brain wants to find a beginning, middle and end. The problem being, the end is not up to you because someone else will edit.  So all you can do is focus on the "now" and play it to the fullest.

PAM:  Aw, man. I love that.

MARK: It did turn out pretty good. :)

PAM:  Hahaha.

Here's the thing though, Mark. Focusing on the “now” is a remarkably beautiful concept - in improv as well as life - and certainly a practice that one can pursue for an entire lifetime - again, in improv and in life - but why is it so fucking hard to do in practice??? (I mean, in improv, at least. Unless you want to go all Yoda on my ass, which you are most welcome to do.)

MARK: I think because we want it to be more than it is.  That has to do with expectation. Think about the best scenes in shows that you've seen. I'll bet most of them are pretty simple. TJ and Dave....pretty simple. Brilliant. But really just listening and discovering.  BASSPROV...pretty simple.  

Mark and Joe
For me, after 28 years, it really comes down to commit, listen, and trust.  But it's art, so we think it has to be more and there has to be more to it. But not really. We just don't want to believe it could be that simple.

 PAM:  Coincidentally, while you were writing that, I was writing this:

I've been studying improv philosophy for a while now, and I've been blessed with the opportunity to speak with the great minds in the field on this topic. Yet I find myself simplifying my improv practice more and more with merely the goal of listening and reacting. That's all. Listen. React. Then listen and react again.

"TJ and Dave"
(Actually, Dave Pasquesi and TJ Jagodowski)
MARK: That's it. That's where the fun is…in that moment, what are you gonna do? Then, what happens because of what you've done?  Moment to moment....that's it for me.

PAM:  But here's the rub, Mark. TJ and Dave, BASSPROV, both of those are deceptively simple. That is the most fucking complex simple improv I've seen. If it were so simple, then everyone would be doing it at that level.

MARK: Circumstance has something to do with it. That's the trouble with improv sometimes.  Students ask me, “How can I be more like TJ?” Or “Why can't I do a show like TJ and Dave?”  Well, the simple answer is: ‘Cause you're not them.  

First of all, for example, between TJ, Dave, Joe, and myself, you're talking about somewhere around 100+ years of improv experience. Combine that with the fact that Joe and I have worked together for over 25 years. You can't manufacture that....it just happens and it informs the work. If we had done BASSPROV when we were 25 instead of 45, it would have been bullshit – made-up stories and attempts at reality - and it would have sucked. But now it's based in something grounded, and it works.

PAM:  Right. Time, experience, innate talent play into it. But even Mr. Jagodowski calls it "magic." I wonder what another name for it is...

MARK: Serendipity.

PAM:  Geez. Maybe it is just magic and serendipity. Maybe that's why we do it, to step into the magic?

MARK: Sure. Why do most people get into improv?  Because they see it done well and they want some of the action.

PAM:  Perhaps. But I think the question is why do people continue to do improv? Especially given the fact that it's a mostly unrecognized art form and certainly an unpaid one.

MARK: I think because it's a feeling that you can't get from any other art form.  You are connected to your scene partner, your group, your audience, and what you're doing in the moment will never happen quite like that again.  It's a tremendous high. But it doesn't last because once the show is over, it's over, and most of the time you can't even remember it.  So you do it again, so you can feel that thing again...and you just keep chasing that high if you will.  

There's a quote from Springsteen that I love, and I use it to answer that question often. Someone once asked him why he kept touring and performing live since he really had no status-related or financial reason to, and, at the time, was approaching 60.  He responded, "I do it because of the way it makes me feel and because of the way I know I can make other people feel when I do it".  That's why I still improvise.

PAM:  Fuck. I swear I had one question about listening, and then this was my next one: Bruce Springsteen said, "I do this because of how it makes me feel and how I know I can make others feel when I do it."  I assume this is how you feel about improv?

Dammit. I just missed the chance to blow your mind. Damn groupmind…

MARK: Exactly...that's the beauty of it.  

Here's a related story. We were once up in Toronto doing BASSPROV, and we sat in on a show at Second City.  One of the performers was a brilliant guy named Doug Morency.  I knew him, but we had never performed together before.  Our first scene together just clicked. The group let us ride it, and the audience loved it.  We were just reading each other, listening, pushing it....and when we walked off, we just looked at each other and smiled.  It was that improv smile of, "That just kicked everyone's ass." And we shared that moment.  We've never performed together since, but I'll never forget that look.

PAM:  I'm getting a contact high just hearing about it.

Here is what I am interested in learning from you about listening: I’ve heard you advice, “Talk less. Listen more.” Joe teaches the same thing in his own poetic terms, “Shut the fuck up.” Can you expand on the virtues and challenges of listening? (And I’m not talking about just ear-listening, if you know what I mean.)

MARK: I think it's awareness.  We have - not to get too highfalutin - become less aware as a society.  People say we are ruder...I don't think so.  We just are not aware of others and how our actions affect others. Too much isolation - headphones, computers, etc.  In improv you must be aware.  You must work that muscle and see, feel, listen.  We want to talk, we want to be heard, but power comes from understanding.  And I can't understand you by talking at you.  I have to see you, hear you, feel you...."get you." Then I can react and respond to you with purpose and power.  Improvisers have to be okay with silence. They have to be okay with simply sharing the space, being together and experiencing the moment...otherwise it's forced.

PAM:  I LOVE what you just wrote. In another interview you said,  “…that fine line between lunacy and reality is the constant tension -- exactly what I feel when I’m improvising.” Can you expand on that please?

MARK: I love characters that surprise you.  I enjoy having the audience think one thing about me, and then show them that this person is something a little different.  Not out of nowhere, but within the character.  My favorite characters are those that seem normal but are just a bit off. Maybe you can't tell it right away, but it comes out.

PAM:  Yes, yes! In my opinion, Dina Facklis is one of the performers who does this surprise character move, much to my delight.

MARK: That goes to life too. I'm perceived by most as a "normal guy," and then people who know me from my kids’ school or something come to a show and say, "I had no idea you could do that.”  SURPRISE!


Keep geeking out with Mark in Geeking Out with…Mark Sutton (Part Two)
in which we dig deeper into Mark’s improv theories, BASSPROV history,
and how to make a living doing improv.

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 

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.

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