Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Geeking Out with...Charna Halpern (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 on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]
Over 120 sweaty and nervous improv students crammed into the Cabaret at Chicago’s iO Theatre in the summer of 2012, most of us acutely conscious that we were nestled in the womb of improvisational comic theater as seeded by Del Close and delivered by Charna Halpern. Our instructors for the summer lined the back wall of the stage as the sigh-inducing smell of Chicago pizza improbably topped with mac and cheese held promises of free lunch. We were waiting for Charna Halpern herself. I settled in cozily. I would have waited all day and night.

Suddenly, a palpable rustle of energy washed over the room. Like leading members of a royal procession, two large dogs bounded through the audience and onto the stage. From the sound booth came the theme from Rocky. At iO Theatre this could only mean one thing: Charna Halpern was in the house. Bursting onto the stage, she ran down the line of teachers, greeting each one with a punch in the gut. "That's how I treat my people," she announced as she dramatically turned to us, held her arms above her head and triumphantly flipped us the bird with both hands with a booming, "Fuck you!" Then softening slightly as she opened her arms with a diva flourish, she intoned theatrically, “Welcome to my home!”

For the next five weeks, I watched her work tireless, day and night, in the offices, classrooms, and theaters of iO. Rarely pausing. Never stopping. As readers know, without Del Close there would be no longform improvisation as we know it today. And I firmly believe that without Charna Halpern, there would have been no Del Close. Genius is lost without a method of transmission. Art dies unwitnessed without an audience. Charna Halpern gifted improvisers with all that and more. In keeping iO Theatre running for over thirty years – in the early days, through sheer will power alone – Charna Halpern has delivered comedians into the world such as Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, Mike Myers...pretty much all our improv legends, and countless others who have trained there over the decades. Charna Halpern devotes her life to the theater, which presents the finest longform improvisation shows today, such as TJ and Dave, Improvised Shakespeare, Cook County Social Club, Dummy, Carl and the Passions and on and on and on.

Queen and worker bee, both. This is Charna Halpern.

* * *

PAM VICTOR: I don’t typically give homework to folks before they can read an article, but for purposes of time, space, and the speed to which we can get to the hot, juicy, geeky bits, let’s assume that readers have read both of your books, Truth in Comedy and Art by Committee. Every improviser who claims geek status should have read those books anyway. So we begin our time together, Ms. Halpern, assuming readers have a general background of your improv life and history. Fair enough?

CHARNA HALPERN: I assume everyone has read them.

PAM: Unless there are some particularly evil, naughty bits of your improv history that most people don't know and you're just dying to let loose...

CHARNA: Who knows what will come up?

PAM: Ha. Ok then....

All that said, I ask all my partners when improv lightening first struck for them. Improv is a calling for many of us, or as Mark Sutton called it, an avocation. When did you fall in love with improv?

CHARNA: In the late 70s, I went to a party where I met Tim Kazurinsky. I was not aware that it was a party of improvisers and Second City folk. I was doing bits with Tim and some others - not knowing what bits were, but having fun - and Tim suggested I audition for Second City. He set up an audition for me even though I knew nothing of improvisation.
Tim Kazurinsky

I went to the audition and failed miserably, but I watched a show that night and discovered that you could do this fun thing on stage. I began taking workshops at Players Workshop of Second City and was instantly hooked. I fell in love during the first exercise. I also remember being in a children show at Second City. I walked into the building the first day and got this feeling that someday this would all be mine.

PAM: Really? Is that true? You had a premonition? (I love it.)

CHARNA: I’ve had a number of premonitions about my work. My second big one was when David Shepherd came to town. I was in an improv troupe. I had just read about him in Something Wonderful Right Away by Jeffrey Sweet. David was in town auditioning folks for an improvised play he was working on. I wasn’t going to go to the audition because I was very busy in my children’s show.

On the way home on the highway, I remembered he talked about this competition he tried to do in Canada called ImprovOlympic, but that it hadn’t really gotten off the ground. I thought about my improv troupe, and Dan Castellaneta’s improv troupe, and Frank Farrell’s Free Shakespeare troupe, and I said, "I can do this ImprovOlympic thing. I’M GOING TO RUN IMPROVOLYMPIC.” I got off the cloverleaf, and headed downtown to meet David Shepherd. And the rest is history.

PAM: It's interesting how our sixth senses speak to us. But it takes a confident person to trust her intuition.

CHARNA: Intuition is important. Listen to the inner voice. Oooga booga!

I also got the role of God in his play, a modern version of Jonah and The Whale.

PAM: A role written for you.

CHARNA: Yes, I was thrilled to be God until I found out it was just a voiceover part and I never got to appear on stage.

PAM: I just interviewed David Razowsky, so my head is very much in the intuition space.

CHARNA: I think most improvisers follow some spiritual belief. Improv is so spiritual. It leads you, and we learn to live our lives through many of those tenets.

PAM: Absolutely!

CHARNA: Like the things that happen are always more interesting than the things you plan.

PAM: Lately, I've taken to turning to improv tenets when I have a personal problem.

CHARNA: I do too. Like buying this new building that iO will move to. It’s very scary, but I have to trust and take the risk.

PAM: Yes, the new building. I'm very curious! Over the summer, while I was at the intensive, you announced you purchased a space...did you take that leap of faith? Had the psychic mentioned anything about this event?

CHARNA: Yes, I took the leap of faith. The process is hell, but I’m doing it. And yes, the psychic did seem to know about the stressful, expensive project, and she said it will be a huge success. Let’s hope she is really psychic.

PAM: Ha! Yes, let's hope. Where is it? What neighborhood?

CHARNA: It’s in Lincoln Park on Kingsbury; basically North and Sheffield, just south of North across from Whole Foods. It’s a cool area and lots of new things are also being built around there. It’s right near Weed Street and close enough to Second City that folks will want to zoom down the block and hang out in the outdoor Beer Garden on warm summer nights.

PAM: What do you have planned for the additional stages and spaces?

CHARNA: There will be improv, sketch, everything - maybe even standup. There will be more opportunities for longer runs as I’ll have more space for my current shows.

PAM: I hear TJ and Dave will have their own cabaret theater. How is that going to work? Is it wholly independent of iO, or do you have say on what they produce?

CHARNA: Yes, TJ and Dave will have their own theater. There are four theaters total, and one will be theirs to do all kinds of cool things. But they will be independent and produce their own shows. The theater will be for their use only.
They have big plans.

PAM: That is so cool! One step closer to David's plan for world domination.

CHARNA: I’m willing to share the world with him.

PAM: Can we take a moment to talk about how much we love that show?

CHARNA: They are brilliant. Dave has been performing at my theater since the late 80s. His team Baron’s Barracudas was my first Harold team. And I’m proud to call him my friend as well.

PAM: What do you personally think makes their show so special?

CHARNA: The show is smart and thoughtful and slow. That was Del’s teaching, slow comedy. It’s worth waiting for when there is real thinking on stage.

Wow. I wrote the answer before I saw the question.

PAM: I know! That happens a lot with my series. Group mind is a beautiful thing

CHARNA: Not to mention that they are the two funniest men in North America.

PAM: Amen. And yet...they are not trying to be funny.

CHARNA: Trying to be funny never works. That’s the first thing I tell my students.

PAM: I think some people would be surprised to hear you have taken people off teams for trying to be funny. (Though people who work at iO would not be surprised at all.) Even David Razowsky, who suffered that fate early in his career at iO, told me, “It’s a good practice.” Can you talk about that practice of taking people off teams for trying to be funny?

CHARNA: Dave Razowsky was taken off a team? So long ago I can’t remember.

Well, there is a difference between being funny and making jokes. If you are trying to be funny, you aren’t really "in it." You’ve stepped out of the moment. The humor comes from the reality of the scene, the tension of the scene. When you are committing to the reality of the situation, the humor will come from there. If you are being jokey, there is no scene.

Sometimes it’s hard for me as a producer because I’ll see some very funny people making jokes about a scene on stage. But nothing is really happening. And they get confused because the audience may still be laughing, so they think they are doing great. But they are being misled because they aren’t being true to the work. I want my shows to be funny. I don’t pretend I don’t. But when it’s all smoke and no fire, it’s just not interesting.

And we can’t always be funny, but we can at least be interesting. And we will be interesting if we are recreating slices of real life on stage.

PAM: I recently have been struggling with illustrating the difference between being funny and trying to be funny. For example, we try not to play broad characters, but then you can see some very skilled players play broad characters that are real and ground, and it works so well. It’s funny and real at the same time. Some of my players said, "But they're playing a big character! Why can't I do that?"

CHARNA: You can if you bring reality to that character. What’s that person really like? Can we see a part of you in that character? Is there some real emotion in her choices?

And let’s face it, sometimes the commitment is to play a genre. It can be funny if you commit to it. Anything can work if there is real commitment behind it.

PAM: From watching great improv at iO, I have learned that if you're going to spend a little time in a show being a bit jokey, you have to EARN it first by provided real characters and grounded scene work. I think iO does a truly amazing job at teaching that, at least in my experience.

CHARNA: Thanks. I think that’s what separates us from the others. We aren’t campy. That’s not the iO style – the, “Wink wink, we are doing a scene.” Del inspired us to create real art, and I try to pass those ideas down. Real people are interesting. You are interesting. I am interesting. We have something to say up there. Otherwise we shouldn’t be up there.

PAM: I think people laugh for many reasons. Where do you think the humor in improvisation comes from? The commitment? The truth?

The book
(I got the photo in.)
(And the link.)
CHARNA: Mainly the TRUTH. Hence the book, Truth in Comedy. (I got the plug in.) There is nothing funnier than the truth. The audience laughs because we share the same world, and they can relate to you. But they also laugh at moments of real discovery when we see the player hear what fell out of his or her mouth at the same time we heard it. An “Aha!” moment.

We love to see how players handle themselves when they are on the spot too. Sometimes just playing the mistake is funny. Often times playing the mistake is funny, as a matter of fact.

PAM: Personally, I'm in this weird little phase as a developing improviser when people might be laughing, but I have no f'n idea what I just did to get them to laugh. I find it incredibly freeing. I can't wait for the next opportunity for it to happen...but I have no control over when it will be! It's like you have to stop trying for improvisation to work its magic.

CHARNA: AH, THE MYSTERY LAUGH!!! Yep. No explanation for it. It happens a lot.

PAM: I looove it. I think it's that commitment and truth thing.

CHARNA: Just accept it. Don’t look around with a perplexed face like, “What’s so funny?” The magic is there and who knows what’s affecting your audience. It could be a reaction something honest in the moment. It’s grand.

PAM: It IS grand. Back to playing the mistake, I'm interested what you mean by that. Is that a different version of the game of the scene?

CHARNA: Sometimes a newer player will think they know what’s going to happen, and what they consider a mistake will happen. And they ignore it. That’s the wrong thing to do. Play with the mistake. We see it. It can’t be ignored.

The Baron's Barracudas
Left to right: David Pasquesi, Steve Burrows,
Brian Crane, Bill Russell, John Judd,
Honor Finnegan Middle: Kim Howard Johnson
and Judy Nielsen
Let me give some examples here. Ok, back to Baron’s Barracudas. They were doing a Harold; and in the game slot, Howard Johnson came out and began flapping his wings like a bird. He stood center stage flapping, and the folks in the back line were scared. They didn’t know what he was doing, so no one came out to join him. He flew back into the line and the scenes returned. In the next game slot, Howard came out again, repeating the flapping move. Again no one joined him. They were scared and confused. They were looking at each other like, "I’m not going out there. He's crazy." At the end of the Harold, Howard came out again and flapped. This time they all joined him as birds and made an inverted vee and flew off the stage with him, flying over their earlier scenes and making last minute connections. The audience screamed. They didn’t let the mistake go. It then became one of the most important moves of the night.

PAM: I saw one of the most beautiful examples of taking advantage of an early mistake by Improvised Shakespeare. They were playing soldiers. A player made a very general, non-specific comment about the home country the soldiers traveled from. I think I might have winced a little because he just said something so lacking in detail, which was surprising in the context of that specificity-rich show. But the players jumped all over that! It was BEAUTIFUL. The whole sub-plot joke became all about how their country had no name, no flag, no national song...It was one of the most incredible examples of yes-anding and making use of everything I've ever seen.
Improvised Shakespeare

CHARNA: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. What I’m trying to say is everything gets used. Everything is heard. THE MASTER WASTES NOTHING.

PAM: Those Improvised Shakespeare folks. Ooooh boy. They take improv to a whole new dimension. What do you think would Del have thought of them?

CHARNA: He would have loved them.

PAM: They are the smartest of the smart.

While I was at the summer intensive, my husband came to visit. I took him to an Improvised Shakespeare show. As we were walking in, my dear man said, "You could do this show, Pam. I've seen you improvise Shakespeare stuff in short form games. You could totally do this."

I said, "Just watch. Talk to me in an hour."

At intermission, he turns to me and says, "Yeah. Now I see what you mean."

CHARNA: Amazing work. And they have to transcribe their lines to the Elizabethan language while keeping the timing. And when they improvise sonnets and are still’s just too good to be true. The show used to be at my theater in LA many years ago with Blaine [Swen, creator and director of The Improvised Shakespeare Company.] Then one day, he was in Chicago and said, "Hey, I moved. Want me to do that here?” I couldn’t believe it. What a lucky day that was.

PAM: I couldn't do what they do. But I'm deeply grateful they can!

CHARNA: I’d love to try. I love Shakespeare. But woman can’t play.

PAM: Really???!

CHARNA: Yep. They are being true to Shakespeare.

PAM: Fuck that. (Sorry. The Smithie in me popped out.)

CHARNA: Well, I guess there were no women in his plays. Men played women.

PAM: Yeah, but not anymore. I've seen them rap in Shakespearean verse, and the Bard never rapped. (They were brilliant by the way.)

CHARNA: I’d complain if they didn’t play such great women, but I don’t think I’ll touch that show.

PAM: Yeah, no. Don't touch it. It's a miracle.

CHARNA: My favorite one was, "The Bar Mitzvah." Never laughed so hard in my life. Painful laughter.

PAM: And you have them in a prime slot on Friday nights. Audiences come in off the street - pack the house - to see them improvise Shakespeare, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

CHARNA: 8:00 and 10:30pm every Friday night.

PAM: I am amazed that this smart a show is packing them in. And I am grateful to you for seeing that potential and providing smart comedy for people off the street. That leads to my next question...

I produce a comedy show in a small town in western Massachusetts, and I spend a good amount of time on figuring out how best get people in the seats. Lately, I’ve been pondering how best to maintain the balance between giving people what they want – yuckity yucks - and producing grounded, real longform. I secretly suspect the audience actually would prefer that we do a live version of Whose Line is it Anyway? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) However we, as improvisers, would prefer performing beautiful, iO-style longform. It’s like we’ve had to educate our audience. What’s your taking on maintaining that balance?

CHARNA: You’re right. You have to educate your audience. What do they know?

I had the same problem. There was no long form before Del and I started doing it. The audience didn’t know what the hell they were watching. And for a long while, our performers outnumbered the audience.

But the craze slowly caught on. You can do a Harold and throw in a couple games to keep them happy. Then they will soon realize that they like the long form better than the games, which are just a quick joke as opposed to a longer piece where scenes connect and take on more meaning and ideas weave together. Then they realize they are watching great players who are listening and remembering each other’s ideas and reconnecting them. They will appreciate that more.

PAM: In his interview with me, TJ Jagodowski said, “iO teaches you how to make fire. Annoyance teaches you how to make it flame thrower. And then ideally Second City teaches you where to point it.” Personally, as a former dancer, I see it as iO being ballet, a foundation upon which everything else is built. How do you see the value of an iO education in the context of the greater improv community?

CHARNA: I like your metaphor. I think we are a strong foundation. We can make a performer so strong that he is capable of doing anything, creating a play through improvisation, a musical, inventing their own form, learning how to make a character real, and taking on the task at Second City of creating a show and making it fresh each night. Everyone in the community has something to offer. Annoyance has a different style, but there are folks who take to their style and some who take to mine. There is room for everyone.

PAM: I just realized that I have an opportunity I can't pass up to talk about an issue about improvising as a woman over 40 (as I am) with in expert. So pardon me, but I'm going to be selfish (and very, very vulnerable) for a minute....

I guess I'm perimenopausal, which is humiliating to admit in a field when youth, and often maleness, is a prized quality. I like being my age - and my gender for that matter - and I think I bring a unique quality to the work. But I can't remember all the little details as well, and it's driving me f'n crazy! I want to be brilliant and remember everything and use it all...but my wee brain...I'm just not as sharp. I hear it comes back in a few years. But I'm trying to figure out ways around this issue because it scares the crap out of me.

CHARNA: Its very scary, and it gets worse before it comes back. I can’t remember names very well and sometimes I grasp for words. That’s why I don’t do monologues anymore for Armando. I know what I want to say, but I can’t grasp the word. It sucks.

I usually love older people because they have some life experience to bring to a scene. I think that has to be your mission. You may not be the one who will do the callbacks, but at least give them an interesting character who really has some life lessons to share. I think you’ll be able to see when things connect anyway. It will just be the vocabulary issue.

PAM: The beauty of improv is that in the moment when things are working well, I can remember a lot. I'm a good global thinker.

CHARNA: Keep reading. Do crossword puzzles. Stay sharp.

PAM: Yeah, I play online word games a lot. Thank you.

Back to iO's style, of which I am a very big fan. How would you sum up iO's philosophy?

CHARNA: In Del’s words, "If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage." I love this philosophy. I think iO makes better people because that philosophy of taking care of each other and making each other look good forms bonds that last on and off the stage. We make better people. And create friendships that last a long time.

PAM: Dangnabbit, Charna. You anticipated another question! I was just about to ask, “How do you interpret Del's ‘geniuses, poets, and artists’ quote. I love it, and I use it all the time.”

CHARNA: We are connected.

* * *
Take a peek at “Geeking Out with…Charna Halpern (PartTwo)” 
in which Charna gives me an important lesson about being judgmental on stage.

In the meantime, check out “Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi” 
in which Dave says, 
“Improvisation is itself an exercise in faith. In faith of Improvisation. 
That if I do the next tiny thing, all will be fine.”


Catch up on past 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!

1 comment:

  1. From Michael Golding:

    "Great interview, with one historical inaccuracy. The Improv Olympics was successful in Canada. First, in 1974 at the Homemade Theatre in Toronto, where David Shepherd developed Time Dash, Space Jump and various other events. In 1977 it morphed into the Canadian Improv Games (originally called the Canadian Improv Olympics until the Olympic committee reared its ugly head). The program is about to enter its 36th year, involving over 300 high schools nation-wide, with a week-long festival at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in late March."