Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Geeking Out with...Craig Cackowski (Part One)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of super improv-geeky interviews 
with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. 

* * *

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching a friendly, bearded man spin a chair or two like a stage-bound circus act while giving dead-on feedback on a scene, then you’ve been lucky enough to be one of Craig Cackowski’s students. I was one of those lucky ones last summer in Chicago when this three-time Del Close Award-winner for Teacher of the Year took the helm of my team during the fifth and final week of the iO Summer Intensive. My notes from that week are full of quotable Cacky gems, such as:
 “Being an improviser is being your best possible self on stage.”
“Comedy is a by-product of doing improv correctly.”
“Specificity begets specificity.”
“Comedy is in the extremes.”
“Improv is a relationship between your inner actor and your inner writer.”
“Pronouns are the enemy of improv.”
“Scenes are like babies. You need to nurture them in their earliest moments.”
“When two things are at war, the needs of your character and the need to action, choose action.”
And the Cackowski classic, “Choose to know.”

(See? You’re only one, wavy paragraph into this piece, and you already got your money’s worth.)

Craig Cackowski
during iO Summer Intensive
In 1992, Craig Cackowski began his formal studies in improvisation under Charna Halpern and Del Close at iO (then ImprovOlympic) in Chicago. It wasn’t long before he was delighting audiences and teammates alike on the iO stage. Craig went on perform with the Second City TourCo., BoatCo., e.t.c.,  and Mainstage, where he appeared in and co-wrote five revues, including History Repaints Itself, Slaughterhouse 5, Cattle 0, and the Jeff-nominated show The Revelation Will Not Be Televised.  Craig Cackowski has been a cast member of some of improvisation’s most seminal shows such as Baby Wants Candy, Carl and the Passions, Close Quarters, and The Armando Diaz Experience,Theatrical Movement and Hootenanny as well as directing J.T.S. Brown. In Los Angeles, where he has been living and working steadily since 2002, Craig continues to improvise and teach at iO and Upright Citizen Brigade theaters in addition to appearing most recently on NBC’s Community, the movie The Kings of Summer, HBO’s Veep, and the sadly short-lived improv show Trust Us with Your Life. Craig often can be seen now in Comedy Central’s new show Drunk History.

In this, the first part of our geek out, Craig and I talk about his early history and defining influences in improvisation.
* * *

PAM VICTOR: It seems like iO really resonated with you from the start. Tell me about what you experienced there at that beginning that clicked.

A very dapper Craig Cackowski
[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski]
CRAIG CACKOWSKI:  It was full of cool people my age. There was an automatic social clique that it felt like I belonged to. And it really felt like we were working toward something artistically, there was no reason to do improv other than the fact that we loved it and wanted to be good at it.

PAM:  Who were the "upper classman" who influenced you in the beginning?

CRAIG:  The team The Family was the group that we all aspired to be, and most of that team were my coaches as well: Adam McKay, Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, Miles Stroth, Ali Fahrahnakian, and later, Neil Flynn.

PAM:  Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.

CRAIG:  I still have an intimidation factor with those guys to this day, just because they came before me at iO and were already great at it before I started. You never really shake that underclassman feeling.

PAM:  I totally get that. Plus, some of those folks are strong personalities. I'm curious what about The Family really wowed you. I assume they were playing fast and hard.

CRAIG:  Del described them "six guys falling down the stairs at the same time and all landing on their feet," which is a pretty apt description. They were anarchic, experimental, whip-smart, but most of all, really funny. And they really challenged the Harold form and tried to elevate it. Later, they did the form The Movie and were really fantastic at that too.

PAM:  Speaking of her colleagues, I just saw Amy Poehler perform improv in person for the first time at the Del Close Marathon. I have to say, I was pretty excited just to breathe the same air.

CRAIG:  Does she still have it?

PAM: "It"? Or air? Because I didn't choke her, if that's what you're implying.

CRAIG:  Haha. The "it" factor.

PAM:  Oh gosh. She had me at hello. (And she didn’t even say hello to me.)

CRAIG:  She's pretty great. There's someone who absolutely never needs to go on stage and improvise again...what does she possibly have to prove to anyone? But she still does it because she loves it. She's a real alpha, too...she dominates the show (in a good way).

PAM:  I saw her perform Gravid Water with Michael Cera. Rachel Dratch, Zach Woods, Michael Delaney, and Scott Adsit performed too. Oh, and Rebecca Drysdale, who I don't know personally, but sort of want to have her improv baby.

CRAIG:  Those are all great people.

Mr. Blonde '93
Back Row (L to R): Neil McNamara, Craig Cackowski, Rob Mello,
Jon Rosenfeld, Ed Herbstman
Front Row (L to R): Gwyn Ashley, Doreen Calderon, Pam Gutteridge,
Jeff Richmond lurking in the shadows on the left
[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski]
PAM: Totally. Anyway...It seems like the first team you felt a real kinship with was Mr. Blonde, coached by Matt Besser. That must have been a huge coup for you. How was he as a coach?

 CRAIG: Yeah, I kicked around a few different teams my first year. I think Mr. Blonde was my fifth or sixth team? Besser was tough and demanding. He set the bar high. He didn't have any tolerance for hacky stuff, but he had a strong idea of what was funny. And he really pushed experimenting with the form and working together as an ensemble. It was good for me to have a coach who clearly cared a lot but was never satisfied. He wasn't there to give you a pat on the back. He was there to dangle the carrot just out of your reach.

PAM:  I'm excited to be having this conversation with you because you worked with both Matt Besser and Del Close during an influential time in your life. I'm very curious about the differences between their two styles and the effect that's had on the improv world. (And continues to have more and more every year.) How did you find their philosophies complementary and conflicting in your experience as a student?

CRAIG: You know, I don't know if Matt was necessarily big on the "game of the scene" back then in the way he is now. At least, I don't remember that phrase being tossed around a lot. My memory of Matt is that he was very much in the image of Del. He definitely skewed a little more toward comedy than toward art, but he pushed us artistically, too.

I think there are a lot of disciples of Del out there (myself included) that have all taken his teachings in a different way. They're all valid, and they all come from him, but they're combined with that person's practical experience doing improv.

PAM:  You’ve said in a great, previous interview that class with Del Close was like, “the opportunity to study Quantum Physics with Einstein.” It’s mind-boggling when you consider that Del created or distilled all the basic components for great improvisation, and decades later people still are exploring and extrapolating from his core beliefs and theories. And these people are no intellectual or artistic slouches either! A lot of smart, immensely talented improvisers, such as yourself, continue to knit together theories and shows from Del’s ball of yarn. (Please for the love of all that is good, excuse that metaphor. It got away from me almost right away, but I couldn’t seem to stop it. It’s abhorrent, but it exists.) Will there ever been another Del, someone with such huge impact on upon the art form, do you think?

CRAIG:  No, I don't think so. He was unique, and he was in on the ground floor of modern improv, so he's always going to be the papa. He also was THE guru for a number of years at a time when not that many people were doing and teaching improv. So he was able to get his philosophies and influence out there in a way that no one else will ever have an opportunity to do again. I mean, there are literally hundreds of improv teachers in Chicago, LA, and NYC each, as well as improv communities in every city in the country. So I don't see anyone having that level of influence again.

PAM:  It astounds me that even when someone feels like they've come up with an original idea about improvisation, it often can be linked to something Del said or taught.

CRAIG:  That's happened to me many times! My friend Michael Jeffrey Cohen, who was on Mr. Blonde with me, used to have a blog on the IRC site where he posted his old Del class notes. And I would read them, and be like "Ah, that's where I got that!" I've stolen from Del many times.

PAM:  It's like he thought of and verbalized the whole gene structure.

CRAIG:  Yeah, I think Del was pushing the Harold for years at a time when not many people thought longform was a viable form of performance, so he had access to a laboratory of willing subjects. And he tried out everything he thought of.

PAM: You studied for about a year with Del. I know that he was different for different people and at different times in his life. I'd love to hear who he was at that time for you, and what your experiences were of working with him.

CRAIG:  You know, I didn't grow up in Chicago, and I had very little knowledge of Chicago improv history when I moved there, so he was never this intimidating figure to me. Charna definitely did her best in Level 1 to build up his legend.

I felt like he was really engaged and interested at the time I studied with him. We had a good class of people, and he enjoyed working with us. We experimented with form a lot. We would do Deconstruction (in its nascent form), Movie, different types of Harold, poetry, tribal rituals…you name it.

He would normally begin class with a lecture that could last up to an hour sometimes. There would always be someone trying to get him to tell Belushi and Farley stories, and he would indulge them sometimes. But he mostly was trying to inspire us by sharing stuff he had been thinking about over the previous week, things he had been reading, etc.

And I kind of liked that he could be a scary asshole who kicked people out of class. The people he kicked out always deserved it.

PAM: NoahGregoropoulos also was a teacher and coach of yours, and I wonder if you remember the big lessons you learned from him. Unless I get TJ Jagodowski to tie him down and, even then, hold the interview at the iO bar, I don’t think I’ll ever land that big fish here in this series. But I’m fascinated by how much he’s influenced so many people who influence me, and I’m curious about his particular philosophies and style.

CRAIG:  Again, Noah is someone who very much inspires you to play to the top of your intelligence, and has very high standards that he wants you to adhere to. But he also really cares about the art form and you, and wants you to succeed, in a tough love way.

The best and longest experience I had working with Noah was on the show Close Quarters. We had a six-month rehearsal process on that form, and it depended on creating three-dimensional, real characters. So Noah was always forcing us to think of our characters as human, and call us on it when we were making choices for the short-term joke.

PAM:  I've heard of Close Quarters, but I'm not familiar with the form.

CRAIG: The basic conceit of it is a bunch of scenes taking place at more or less the same place and time. So if it's an hour-long show, it might cover 15 minutes in a bowling alley, jumping around to various sub-locations within the larger location. We would play around with space-bending and have to figure out the chronology of the show, i.e. the first scene of the night was usually the last one chronologically.

There was also a character-heightening aspect to it...every scene would build to one character having to juggle a bunch of their two-person relationships at once, kind of like when you do a bunch of tagouts to heighten a character, but we wouldn't tag out.

PAM:  Since we're talking about influential teachers, I need to take this opportunity to thank you for being one to me. You gave me a note, Craig, which I found very helpful. Regular readers (all three of them!) know that I’m very big on gratitude. So I do need to thank you for this note. You basically told me that I played like the hostess of a party who is so busy with her hosting duties that she doesn’t enjoy her own party. You said I needed to stop taking care of people and the scene so much and have more fun. Thank you very much for that guidance. I’m pleased as punch to say that I have taken that note very much to heart, and I think it’s transformed my play and experience of a show. Now that I have a bit of a good handle on that skill, I do need to get another chance to work with you to get my next transformative note!

CRAIG:  You're welcome, Pam, that makes me happy when I can help someone with a note!

PAM:  Well, you should be a very happy man. You have help hundreds and hundreds of people.

CRAIG: I think I was more into improv theory and dogma back in the day. Now I work more on helping the individual improvisor get better and more comfortable. What they do with their art is up to them.

PAM:  That is interesting. I'm going to ask you some more questions on that subject of teaching down the line. But popping back for a moment into your history, I know that in ’95, you got on Second City TourCo. Who was in the company with you?

CRAIG:  My first TourCo was Tom Greene, John Farley, Laura Kraft, Kara McNamara, Shulie Cowen. [The second cast of that team included Horatio Sanz and Jack McBrayer.]


Baby Wants Candy, 1997
Ali Davis, Peter Gwinn, Don Bardwell,
Stuart Ranson, Mary McCain, Al Samuels, Jen Bills,
Nick Kanel, Bob Kulhan, Craig Cackowski, Larrance Fingerhut

[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski]

PAM:  The ‘90s were some pretty heady times in the Chicago improv world. Some of the greatest and most powerful comedians today have roots in that place and time. Was there something going on that isn’t there today? Or is the power defused from so many different groups and theaters and players?

CRAIG:  It's a tough question to answer. I'm sure that when someone in 2033 looks back at Chicago 2013, they'll say, "Can you believe that all those people were playing there then?" There's talent in any era.

But I will say that because it was so much smaller back then, and the path to success was so much more obscure, that I do really think people from that era put a huge emphasis on doing the work and getting better, and not on getting ahead. Maybe I'm naive and everyone back then was super-ambitious and I never knew it!

But it's weird to think that upstairs at a shitty bar or a shitty stage, playing to houses of next to no one, were Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Jon Glaser...

PAM:  Exactly!

CRAIG:  Those were our years to fail and experiment and just get better. And we got tons of stage time to do it.

PAM:  Are you suggesting that the mindset is different now? (Though maybe now I'm being live in LA, after all.)

CRAIG:  The path is clear now. Everyone knows what improv can get you. You can see its influence on pop culture and the media.

PAM:  What?! Improv can get me something??? Oh crap. I'm doing it wrong.

CRAIG:  I don't mean to suggest that everyone moves to a big improv community to get famous, but a lot of people do. And you're competing with more and more people all the time for stage time. I'm happy I started when I did.

PAM:  As far as I can glean, the best way to get famous through the path of improv is to do the work for the joy of it and don't be a dick. Do you have anything to add?

CRAIG:  Absolutely. I think it's about finding your voice and discovering what you have to offer that no one else does. The more confident and the more comfortable with yourself that you appear to be, the more people will want to work with you.

PAM:  One more question about your early days. I think I need to hear a little more about  “Dance Music for Italian Rabbis.”

CRAIG:  Dear god! How did you find out about that? 

PAM:  ::smiling::

CRAIG:  My best friend Toby and I recorded songs together all throughout our teenage years. We used a Casio keyboard for most of them.

PAM:  LOL. What was the name of your big hit? And do you still have a recording?

CRAIG:  Some of our hits were "I Like Slugs," "It Makes Me Barf," "The Flying Yak Of Romania," "Dance Your Buns Off," and "Big Banana."

PAM: LOL. Those sound very funny.

CRAIG:  Most of them, I think, are lost to history

PAM:  The 14-year-old boy in me is laughing her ass off.

CRAIG:  I have “It Makes Me Barf” on my iTunes.

No, I will not be posting a copy.

PAM:  Must have it.

CRAIG:  Some things are best left private.

PAM:  I don't understand that concept, but fine.

CRAIG:  Particularly when they're that embarrassing. My friends did sing it at my wedding however.

PAM:  Awwww! That is beautiful. I'm getting teary. Also now I know to ask Carla [Craig's wife] for a link to it.

CRAIG:  Haha!

[We'll let Carla Cackowski have the last word on Dance Music for Italian Rabbis: "My impression of it was that it was super hilarious and creative. I just remember being impressed that he and his friends were able to collaborate in such an easy way...I guess that collaborative nature that Craig displays in improv as an adult was learned at an early age with Italian Rabbis."]

PAM:  Hey, I saw 2 Square a couple nights ago at DCM! [2 Square is a show featuring John Lutz and Peter Grosz which is inspired by their time with J.T.S. Brown, which Craig directed.]

CRAIG:  Good stuff?

PAM:  Naturally. The transitions! Which leads me into my J.T.S. Brown line of questions...

CRAIG:  Cool.

[Readers: At this point, we need to take a break in the interview to address those of you who are bona fide cape-wearing, improv supergeeks. For them (us), I include a little tutorial about J.T.S. Brown. The rest of you can skip down a ways.

Founded by Jason Sudeikis and Ike Barinholtz, J.T.S. Brown rehearsals began in late-1998 and lasted over a year, leading to a six-month run at iO. Once you have seen a J.T.S. Brown show, you’ll understand why such a lengthy rehearsal process is so necessary. Described as “not a form so much as a philosophy of play” by Craig in the article below, the structure is complicated and requires an especially tight cast with excellent communication skills. Craig provided the detailed list of show elements – or “wrinkles” as they were called - outlined below, which I gleaned/stole from the IRC Wiki, (though it potentially was originally posted in the Chicago Improv Network wiki):

“It was designed for a large cast (10-14 people), to involve as many players as possible at a time, to have a higher level of theatricality and polish than a typical improv show, and to encourage any move to be made at any time, with the idea that anything that happened was the perfect thing to happen. We didn't have a set structure, but we had a few rules to abide by:

No sweep edits. Every edit was a transformation. Transformations could come from within or without. Even in a 2-person scene, an improvisor could abruptly change character, initiating a new scene with the same partner.

No walk-ons. As soon as someone joined the scene, it became a new scene. Anyone in the previous scene should instantly choose to either exit, become a new character, or become some inanimate or expressionistic element in the new scene. If someone knocked at the door to enter a scene, it became a new scene the second the door was opened.

No sidelines. Anyone not in the scene was watching from backstage. Anyone the audience could see was in the scene.

The playing area was not limited to the stage...the whole space was used.

Any scene could recur at any time, so the players were fine with a scene being edited after 10 seconds, knowing they could bring it back whenever they wanted.

There were "worlds within worlds". If, for instance, Scene I transformed into Scene II into Scene III, it was fun to spiral back out and have III become II and then I again (similar to the shortform game "Spacejump" or "5 to 1" or "7 to 1" or whatever).

We had a number of "gimmicks"--devices that we had rehearsed that could be pulled out at any time. They included:
Hemingway: The players narrate their own scene as well as playing it.
EdTV: A scene can return to a pivotal moment at any time, presenting an alternative outcome. Usually done in threes. (This was named after Ed Goodman, not the Ron Howard film).
The Third Degree: The players could come out and ask 3 rapid-fire questions of a character at any time. These were the sort of questions that you might ask while sidecoaching a scene ("How long have you known this person?", etc.)
Shadows: A character was sometimes "shadowed" by a another improvisor playing their essence, or id, or subtext. The 2 characters' shadows would then have a scene of sorts in the background, presenting a more representational version of the original scene.
Shapeshifting: Any improvisor could play anyone's character at any time. Particularly effective in cross-gender scenes. This fostered the idea of group ownership...every character is owned by the group, not necessarily the improvisor who created it. The show began with a shapeshifted character monologue, which allowed the audience to meet the cast members one at a time.

There was an emphasis on physicality, sound, and environment. The players were encouraged to be architecture, inanimate objects, animals, weird shit, etc. All this probably sounds crazier than it actually played. We tried to eliminate weirdness for weirdness' sake. The idea was that the form was crazy, but the content was solid. It was an interesting package for good scenework. We worked hard to emphasize gift-giving and relationships in the scenework. In fact, we tried to, at some point in the middle of the show, have a "spotlight scene", a 6 or 7-minute 2-person scene that was not fucked with in any way. In the middle of a fast-moving, constantly evolving show, it was a nice to have a little scene oasis and to take a deep breath."

Now back to the interview…]

PAM:  You directed and assisted the cooperative creation of J.T.S. Brown. My first real introduction to that structure was during my live interview with John Lutz and Scott Adsit at CIF. Lutz was explaining the pretty complicated structure and rehearsal process, and Adsit’s face during the explanation was hysterical. He was…I guess the best word might be “agog.” I am completely fascinated by it. (I mean the show, not Adsit’s face – though Scott has an exceedingly pleasing face, worthy of fascination.) I hope to learn it some day if only to get my wee mind blown to smithereens. Can you tell me about your history with your show and the J.T.S. Brown philosophy?

CRAIG:  J.T.S. started as a rehearsal group founded by Jason Sudeikis and Ike Barinholtz. They got a bunch of young players together who were hungry and wanted to rehearse and experiment. There was no immediate goal of doing any shows. At first, they rehearsed with Mick Napier, but then they brought me in when Mick got busy with Second City.

After one rehearsal, I was like, "You have to let me direct you in a show. You could be the next Jazz Freddy!' I encouraged them to do a rehearsal process similar to what we'd done with Close Quarters, three 3-hour rehearsals a week for 6 months.

Everyone was on board. We tried a lot of different things during the process, but the end result was basically a show that followed dream logic - no hard edits, all transformations. Scenes bleed into one another and come back at random times. They also were a big ensemble, 12-14 people, so I wanted to design a form that allowed all of them to play balls-out at all times, rather than being polite. The philosophy was that anyone could try any move at any times, and the group would instantly support it.

PAM:  For those readers who didn't get to see Jazz Freddy - or at least read my recent piece of the group - tell me what you meant by "the next Jazz Freddy"?

CRAIG:  Jazz Freddy was the other group that influenced me the most, along with The Family. They were another big ensemble of 12 people and they played in a theater as opposed to a bar or cabaret. They focused on character and relationship. Some of those people were Noah, Pete Gardner, Dave Koechner, Brian Stack, Jimmy Carrane, Rachel Dratch, Theresa Mulligan, Carlos Jacott, Pat Finn, and Kevin Dorff.

PAM:  Who were some of the players in that original group of J.T.S. Brown?

JTS Brown, 2000
Front Row (L to R) Rob Janas, Gillian Vigman,
Ed Goodman, Case Clay
Back Row (L to R) Jason Sudeikis, TJ Jagodowski,
Sarah Gee, John Lutz, Jed Resnik, Peter Grosz, Christina Gausas
[Photo from the vaults of Craig Cackowski]
CRAIG:  Ike founded the group, but left to do Boom Chicago and never did a show with us. Jack McBrayer and TJ [Jagodowski] also started with us, but dropped out when they got cast in shows at Second City. (TJ later came back to do shows.) The rest of the ensemble was Sudeikis, Pete Grosz, Rob Janas, John Lutz, Jed Resnik, Ed Goodman, Case Clay, Bumper Carroll, Jen Bills, Christina Gausas, Sarah Gee, and Gillian Vigman.

PAM:  Umm....yum.

Jay-sus. I just registered the idea of three three-hour rehearsals a week for six months! First of all, in diction stolen from ee cummings via Susan Messing, ohmygodyespleasemorepleasehorny. Second of all, I want to do that so badly. I would even trade in my copy of “The Flying Yak of Romania” for the chance to rehearse a show like that with such a talent-pack cast and director. Oooh, baby.

Having seen 2 Square, I can see why that much rehearsal would be necessary.

CRAIG:  It took a while to get that groupmind going, where everyone could anticipate and recognize the transitions when they occurred.

PAM: In the show I saw last week, John Lutz and Peter Grosz were doing some fast and subtle stuff. I couldn't figure out how they knew what was coming. Tell me how you helped the group prepare for the fluidity of transitions. It seems like mind reading.

CRAIG:  It helped to know that there were NO walk-ons, so any move coming from outside would be recognized as a transformation. But you can also transform from within, so you're looking to be perceptive in ANY change in the scene, like someone using a different voice, a different physicality, etc. When a transformation happens, you must immediately decide whether to a.) exit, b.) stay as a new character, or c.) stay as environment.

PAM:  Were there exercises that you used that seemed to help most to strengthen that level of listening and attention?

CRAIG:  A lot of give-and-taking focus. First, we did a sound and movement exercise where everyone is frozen around the space, except one person who has the focus. Then anyone can take it at any point. Get to the point where the focus is being handed off every two seconds without anyone stepping on each other. Then, do a two-person version, with ten people frozen and two people who have the focus. They could do the same thing or two opposite things. Then, when a third person grabs focus, one or both of those people have to defer.

But spending that much time together as an ensemble working on ANYTHING is helpful and is going to promote awareness and groupmind. And familiarity with how everybody plays.

PAM:  It seems like the players would have to be trained to make strong choices reflexively. (I mean, of course we all are supposed to be like that; but in that structure, those moves had to be popped into on a dime. Or smaller. Like one of those really teeny tiny, foreign coins.)

CRAIG:  Absolutely. Politeness and vagueness don't help anyone in that situation.

PAM:  You seem to enjoy complicated and strong improvisation.

CRAIG:  The two main types of improv that I love are big, group clusterfucks that are chaotic and dreamlike, and slow small group shows that are simple and elegant, so I'm kind of pulled in two directions there.

 PAM:  That's a great dichotomy.

It seems to me that a show like J.T.S. Brown would risk getting players stuck in their heads at a time when they most need to be improvising from their nerve endings. Let’s talk more about that stage an evolving improviser goes through when they’ve learned so many rules that they’re stranded in their heads. Is there an exercise or a mindset to help them get out of their heads?

CRAIG:  The group support was the thing that prevented people from being in their head. And the thing I say to any group working on J.T.S. today is that I don't want you to be worried about "doing the form right." I want you to play free and take risks.

For getting out of your head, I encourage people to think character-thoughts rather than improvisor-thoughts (Improvisor-thoughts being: “What's the game?” “How do I heighten this?” “Why aren't people laughing?”) Anything that's going to get them to trust their energy and follow emotion rather than headiness.

PAM:  Lately, I’ve been thinking about the evolution of an improvisor. For me at least, there is that long stage when you’re learning, learning, learning, and you get so many rules and edicts and theories that you’re working through. But then there seems to come a point where you let all that go and just…improvise. These days, for better or worse, the mantra I think about most before a show is “Listen, and react.” That’s all I try to do.

I wonder if an improviser needs to learn all those rules if it is just bound to come back to those simple guidelines. Do you think there is another, rule-free model to follow to develop improvisers equally adept?

CRAIG:  Funny, I was just having this conversation with my wife this morning and she's a big advocate of people knowing rules first and newer improvisors finding them helpful. I think the key for a teacher if you're imposing rules is to a.) Phrase them as positives (e.g. “Choose to know.”) rather than negatives (“Don't ask questions,”) and b.) Make it clear that in any good scene, you're probably going to have to break a rule in order for this particular scene to work.

PAM:  As far as the usefulness of the rules go, I side with your wife. New improvisers tend to be constricted by inactivity, to which the most common rules apply. However, I'm starting to wonder if there is another rule-free path...

CRAIG:  My experience is that rules begin to set red flags off in improvisors’ heads, and they're so worried about negative behavior. I try to get them to trust in and rely on their instincts. The vast majority of the time when I give a note, the improvisor felt like they should have done the thing I'm telling them they should have done, but second-guessed it due to some previous improv rule or guideline. That can't be a good thing.

It doesn't get much more simple and helpful than, "Listen and react." I also tend to think of a scene kind of like Quantum Leap, i.e. you get zapped into the body of another person and you have to figure out who you are via clues and context, but you can't betray at any point that you're NOT really that person or the jig is up. So I encourage reacting to everything with familiarity. It may be new to the improvisor, but the character knows everything already. “Listen and react” isn't enough if it's just the improvisor treating everything as if it's new to them.

 PAM: One of my mentors, Piero Procaccini, often uses the Quantum Leap metaphor!

CRAIG:   Ha! Piero is a brilliant man.

PAM:  Yes, he is. And just last night at rehearsal, I was talking about “Choose to Know,” which is a phrase that I have scrawled all over notes from our week together last summer...

Stay tuned for Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski (Part Two) to hear more about the idea of “Choose to know”  
as well as many more insightful theories and quotes.

If you are in Los Angeles, and you’d like to see Craig Cackowski’s work yourself (you lucky dog, you), once a month he plays in Dasariski (with Bob Dassie and Rich Talerico)  at UCB and in The Thrilling Adventure Hour at Largo, which you also can hear every week via podcast. At iO - West Theatre, his popular, talent-packed shows Quartet (with Bob Dassie, Tami Sagher, Jean Villepique, Stephnie Weir, and Jack McBrayer) and The Better Half (with Lucas Neff) are on hiatus right now, but coming back to soon. If you’re on the improv festival circuit, you’ll probably run into Craig sooner or later, and I recommend you take his workshop and see his show! Whether or not you’re in LA or on the road, you can see Craig as a regular in Drunk History on Comedy Central every Tuesday at 10!

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Read Geeking Out with...TJ Jagodowski (Part Two) in which he says,
"I used to try to fall in love one time with whatever - 
a person, a thing, a moment, a place. 
It gives you a positive area to call your base."

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre
...Jimmy Carrane of The Improv Nerd podcast

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

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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