Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Geeking Out with...Colleen Doyle

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. Check out all the Geeking Out with... interviews here.]

It’s almost impossible to watch Colleen Doyle perform without being struck by her improvisational prowess, her direct line to pure creativity, and her profoundly remarkable acting skills. She makes bold and refreshing moves that seem to inspire her scene partners and delight the audience. Watching her, I find myself in a state of slack-jawed wonder of how deeply Colleen commits to her characters and explores their lives with the primary focus on finding honest moments rather
Colleen Doyle

than playing to the laughs, though those come for sure. Ok, I’ll gush no more, but let’s just keep our eyes on Colleen Doyle because, if the comedy world is just and fair (and there are no guarantees in that arena, unfortunately), we will be seeing more of Colleen Doyle on screens throughout the land.

In the meantime, the lucky ones get to enjoy her company at iO Theater in Chicago, both on the stage and in the classroom. Ms. Doyle performs every Tuesday night with her comedy and life partner Jason Shotts in the much-deservedly acclaimed show Dummy.  A can’t-miss show if there ever was one. Now that the new iO Theater is (almost) officially open, Colleen also can be seen on the masterfully gifted cast of the debut sketch revue The Trap at TJ Jagowoski and David Pasquesi’s brand spankin’ new Mission Theater. Colleen also performs at iO’s new late-night, short-form improv show, The Spontaneous Show with a stellar, fun-loving cast that includes previous Geeking Out with partners Tara DeFrancisco and Peter S. Kim. On Wednesdays, we can also catch Colleen performing with a host of off-the-charts talented women in the tri-coastal* improv and sketch show Virgin Daquiri.  (The team even recently put out an album.)
Dummy show poster

Though improvisation is a team sport, Colleen had the opportunity to be hoisted on the shoulders of the winning team and celebrated for a lap around the bases at the campy Del Awards at iO Chicago where, just in the last couple years alone,  Dummy has scored “The Team Award for Excellence in Show Postering” (2013)  and “The 3033 Award for Excellence in Non-Haroldness” (2013, 2014) and Colleen herself won “The Sarah Fineout Award for Most Supportive Female Improviser” (2013), “The Liz Allen Award for Excellence in Teaching” (2014), “The Player Award for Excellence in Portraying the Opposite Sex” (2014) as well as the ultimate award of “Improviser of the Year” (2013). Not that awards mean anything but just so you know how much she is appreciated on her home planet.

*If you count Lake Michigan, then, yes, Chicago is a coast.

* * *

PAM VICTOR:  This has nothing to do with improvisation, but did you really write greeting cards? I’m strangely fascinated by that industry.

COLLEEN DOYLE:  I did indeed. First job out of college.

PAM:  Did you write the cards?

COLLEEN:  Yep. In the “alternative humor” department. Just geared toward humor.

PAM:  LOL. Alternative humor. What the hell does that mean, nothing with kittens? Did you have a card quota to meet every week? And, last question on this topic I swear, but what are the people in the greeting card industry like? Do they wear a lot of vests? I always imagine them wearing patchwork-quilted vests.

Sorry. I just pounded you with too many questions at once. See, I'm strangely fascinated by the imagery of people sitting around writing greeting cards.

COLLEEN:  Alternative humor just meant not traditional. Not those sincere cards for your grandma. We had a quota every day with a topic they were looking for -maybe 10 cards a day? And the people in the industry are interesting. Good artists and funny people. They were as good as characters as anybody else from an office setting. Lovely people and a bit weird.

PAM: I know you grew up in Cleveland (Go Browns!) It sounds like you got into improvisation by accident but into performing by fate.

COLLEEN:  I started doing short form my last semester in college. Then Second City opened a training center in Cleveland just before I graduated. My mom clipped the article out of the paper and pushed me to take classes. She's my biggest cheerleader. I don't think I'd be doing this now if it weren't for her.

PAM:  Yeah, it sounds like your mom really supported - in fact strongly pushed - you towards improv. Hello??? Great mom or the greatest mom in the world?
Colleen and Carol Doyle, Greatest Mom Ever

COLLEEN:  The latter. She's amazing.

PAM:  You're a lucky daughter. It seems like at that time in your life you were pretty interested in ANY and all areas of performing. What do you think it was about comedy that resonated with you (and your mom)?

COLLEEN:  I've always loved comedy - never thinking I could do it, but loving the doers of comedy and wanting to be near it. My mom is also really funny. And like probably all people, we've always used it to deal with life's shittier side. It is absolutely therapy for me.

PAM:  Absolutely. I had a friend who told me that his therapist wouldn't allow him to use humor in their sessions, and I remember thinking, "Ok. Well, I'll never be going into therapy."

COLLEEN:  It's such a release. It's almost like humor reminds us that we're all in this together. And that helps.

PAM:  Do you ever have that experience that once you get into the theater, you forget all your problems? Or at least they get tinier for a short time?

COLLEEN:  The latter. I was recently told, due to some personal stuff going on, to find some distraction. Being on stage or teaching allows me some respite from all the heavy stuff.

Improv tinys my problems.  Or something like that, (“tiny” being a verb).

PAM:  Of course, the "we're all in this together" element is pretty singular in the improv side of comedy. It's nice not to feel alone for a while.

COLLEEN:  I'm a lucky lady. And I think that being a part of this community - so many people say it's their family - is incredibly rewarding and positive.

PAM:  Indeed. I read that after Second City (Cleveland), where I believe they wisely cast you in their Mainstage show, you started your training at iO. Is it true you drove from Ohio just to take class in Chicago every week? That’s insane! (And so very sexy!)

COLLEEN:  Yes! I was young and very, very hungry. It was transformative – I definitely knew I'd found my home.

PAM:  I know what you mean. That's an awesome drive you had and have. (I mean internal drive, as in motivation, though it probably was an awesomely long drive in the car too.) 

COLLEEN:  iO was, and will always be, my home.

PAM:  I have a reminder on my phone that goes off whenever I walk into iO Theater. It says "Gratitude." And it's supposed to remind me to be grateful that I'm there at that moment on the too-rare occasions when I get to visit. It’s a special place.

After you moved to Chicago, it sounds like you continued your style of jumping in with both feet everywhere possible. What did you do after you went through the levels at iO? What was your tact to get into the improv world?

COLLEEN:  I got put on a team out of classes. An awesome team. I was intimidated for sure. Also I did a boat and understudied Second City TourCo.

PAM:  So you worked through iO and Second City in Chicago at the same time?

COLLEEN:  I played on a team at iO and during that time I also started working for Second City again.

PAM:  Who was in TourCo with you?

COLLEEN:  I only understudied, so it was a lot of people on TourCo and understudying at that time. Tim Baltz, Brendan Jennings, Dana Quercioli, Steve Waltien, Greg Hess. Heroes all.

PAM:  I saw you worked at ImprovAcadia in Bar Harbor, Maine. I LOVE that place.

COLLEEN:   I auditioned for Acadia in Chicago. Great experience.

PAM:  I discovered ImprovAcadia by mistake one summer a bunch of years ago when I was dropping my daughter off at oceanography camp. Larrance [Fingerhut] and Jen [Shepard, the couple who run the theater] are fantastic. Smart cookies too.

COLLEEN:  It's amazing. I'll never forget it. Very inspiring to see people have a dream and make it happen.

PAM:  Back to Chicago, what made you focus primarily on iO as opposed to continuing to work through the ranks at Second City in Chicago?

COLLEEN:  I understudied at Second City and just ended up not giving it my all. Not totally sure why, but it was a halfhearted attempt. The same thing was kind of happening at iO. I think I hit a wall and didn't feel like I was good or getting better. I was frustrated. But at iO, I was able to perform regularly and it kept me hungry. Then Jason and I started performing together and I started to get my confidence back.

PAM:  The dreaded improvisers' plateau. It’s discomforting when the thing upon which you've poured all your energy and drive seems to get blurred, if you know what I mean. It's just a loss of focus maybe.

COLLEEN:  Yes. It's hard. And for it to happen in the one area of your life that you rely on so heavily for fulfillment, that's tough.

PAM:  I'm sure you've told the conception story of Dummy too many times, so I'll spare you. I know that Charna [Halpern, co-founder of iO Theater] put you guys together when she was filling the time slot when TJ and Dave were working in New York. You guys were (and are) a couple, so she wanted you to be part of a show called The Better Half.  Do I have my history right?

COLLEEN:  Yep. Exactly.

PAM:  Another mother figure who saw your potential before you did...

COLLEEN:  I owe Charna a lot. A LOT.

PAM:  You have some guiding angels in your life, my dear.

COLLEEN:  I'm so grateful.

Thank you, Charna Halpern!
PAM: Do you want to take a moment to give Charna a shout-out? I always like to give that human her fair credit. 

COLLEEN: Yes! Shout out to Charna. She's given me every opportunity and looked out for me. I don't know where I'd be without her. She's gotten me my agent, put me in showcases, let me teach at her theatre. It's a laundry list to be sure.

PAM:  That's great. She knows talent when she's sees it, that's for damn sure. And she saw the chemistry and the potential onstage between you and Jason. I’m sure people gush to you and Jason all the time about Dummy and maybe you find it annoying, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to let my own fount of joy go wild for a second. Colleen, what you and Jason have created is a very beautiful thing. Dummy isn’t just a get-up-and-play improv show, Dummy is ART. It’s what Del was talking about when he said to be “geniuses, artists, and poets.” It’s Improvisation with a capital-I. And for that, I thank you.

COLLEEN:  Oh, my stars. That's a wonderful compliment. The best, actually. We so badly want to put up a great show every single week. It's the source of 90% of our fights, talking about the shows afterward.

We're trying to raise the bar for ourselves. When you play at the same theatre as TJ and Dave, you always feel like you can improve. By a large margin.

PAM:  What do those discussions between you and Jason sound like? You guys don't give each other notes, do you? 

COLLEEN:  Oh, we do. Even if it's just a question like, "When you made that move, what was your intention?" it can sound pointed. Like a note. It's tough not having an outside eye.

PAM:  So you don't have a coach?
(August, 2013)

COLLEEN:  No. Which I don't recommend to anyone.

PAM:  What were your goals going into that first Dummy show? Did you just get onstage and see what happened or did you set out with a vision of some sort?

COLLEEN:  The first one. The only goal was to make it out with our relationship intact :). We had a great time and were like, "Let's keep doing this.”

PAM:  Do you have a structure?

COLLEEN:  Nope. No structure. But we probably always play between one and four scenes, and we try to make it feel like a little play. Often we play multiple characters.

PAM: Is the show always in real time?

COLLEEN: We're not always in real time, but it happens a lot.

PAM:  Do you now have a philosophy of play? Or something you're aiming for?

COLLEEN:  We try to play things as truthfully as we can, while still keeping it fun and funny. We try to burn things down as much as possible: suggestion, want, relationship. Really make the show feel like a cohesive piece. And to always be getting better.

PAM:  Burn things down?

COLLEEN:  Sorry, use everything up. The idea that we try to use everything that we say/create.

PAM:  Oh, I see. Lyndsay Hailey calls that “digging deeper in the same ditch.”

COLLEEN:  Or, as Ms. Messing might say, “Chew your food, smell your fart...”

When you’re performing, are you thinking about getting laughs or about what might be funny?

COLLEEN:  I really try not to. I try to let the character's voice be clear and strong and make discoveries in that voice. I absolutely have learned that trying to be funny is never as funny as when it just happens.

PAM:   What do you think the relationship between improvisation and comedy is for you? Do you think a show with fewer laughs is less successful?

Colleen Doyle (and friend) in the web short "Maids"
Photo courtesy of Jack C. Newell

COLLEEN:  When I think of improv, I think of comedy for sure. But, the longer I improvise, the more interested I am in the other possible outcomes and scenarios that can arise. To put it in an artsy fartsy way, I’m more confident that improv is a tool to show the truth. And that truth may not be comedic. Doing this sketch show, we are definitely exploring honest moments and difficult moments and mining the comedy AND tragedy.

PAM:  I would expect that of any sketch show directed by TJ and David. And I can see how  Dummy is a great vehicle for that sort of exploration because your partner Jason seems to have that same gravitas and honor in his work as well. But how it is when you play with other people who are more interested in finding the funny?

COLLEEN:  I very much enjoy playing in other settings with other people who may not share that same desire. I love to goof and yell stupid shit. But I will say that many people I get to share the stage with are interested in emotion/relationship but go about getting there in a different way than maybe I would.

PAM:  The thing that is so striking about your work is that you are, first and foremost, an extremely talented actress. Is that something you’ve consciously honed? Assuming you think it’s a necessary trait, how do you think improvisers can become better actors?

COLLEEN:  Wow. Again, thank you. Such an amazing thing to hear because I never thought I'd be considered a capable actress. I haven't consciously honed it; I think it's a byproduct of age and experience and wanting to put up good scenes and shows. Allowing the people I play to be emotional and not being afraid to be vulnerable. It's probably being able to “fuck my fear” a bit better now. (Thanks, Mick.)
You have to check out Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts
in the hilarious "Dummy Comedy" shorts directed by Jack C. Newell 
(who also directed Colleen in the improv-friendly films 
Close Quarters and Open Tables)

PAM: Tell me about your stage relationship with Jason.

COLLEEN:  We push each other for sure. I'd say our tendency is for me to be the emotional weirdo and Jason to be the voice of truth and reason. And knowing that, we try to mix it up.

Jason is really great at being able to see the whole show - to know what we are driving towards and keep things in his back pocket for later -  and I really try to play viscerally in the moment.

PAM:  God, that's so weird you just said that - it's exactly on the topic of my next question. (That type of kismet happens a lot with these interviews, but I always love it.) One of the most challenging elements of doing a two-person show, for me at least, is that you never get a chance to step back and take a bird's eye view of the show as a whole for a moment. I wonder if it's liberating for you to know you can spin off into whatever character you're playing while knowing that Jason will be holding down the center pole of the tent, so to speak?

COLLEEN:  Yeah, I think it works for us, with the danger being that those become our proscribed roles. Jason doesn't want to feel like he has to frame the show and make the moving parts work, and I don't want to feel that my character’s wants are solely responsible for driving the show. If that makes any sense. So we end up talking about that kind of stuff post-show.

PAM:  That makes sense. Because then it lessens the thrill and limitless possibilities of improvisation. What elements do you consider essential for a good show? 

COLLEEN:  Clear wants, relationships with stakes, having something shared between characters that brings them together, introducing something that complicates everything. Using stuff up. Surprises.

PAM:  Talk to me about "wants." I'm used to hearing that in a scripted theater context. Can you break it down a little for what it means as an improviser?

COLLEEN:  I think we talk about it in improv in a number of ways: What motivates this person's behavior? How do they see the world? What's their point of view? Do they want a family? To be respected? To be young again? Want basically dictates behavior. That's my two cents.

PAM:  Money well spent. Thanks. People compare your show to TJ and Dave, and I have to concur. There is a similarity in the honor, discipline, and integrity that you and Jason bring to the stage. And the truth-seeking. Is it hard for you when people make those comparisons? I mean, even Charna put your shows up against each other for a while there, so I'm sure you've heard it before.

COLLEEN:  It's just a compliment of the highest order. They set the bar and if we near it in any way, shape, or form then I really do feel proud and overjoyed. Being mentioned in the same breath makes my year.

PAM:  And then there was THAT day ... that day when David Pasquesi asked you to substitute for TJ one Wednesday a few months ago. What was it like to get that email? That’s basically the call that every improviser dreams of getting … and has nightmares about getting too!

COLLEEN:  I said yes and then started to freak out. I obviously had to do it, but then I immediately wondered if I could get out of it. Dave is an amazing and intense improviser as well as a brilliant and successful straight actor. I really didn't want to shit the bed that night.

 PAM:  Yeah, I would imagine that would be the nightmare part of it. So how was the show once you were in it? I mean, were you able to have moments of ease?

 COLLEEN:  It was really fun. I knew that if I got into my head too hard, it would be a disaster. So I really had to put my fear in the “fuck-it bucket” and just play. Dave's really easy to play with, so that helped me to relax right away.

PAM:  In my little opinion, you and David are very well matched, Colleen. I imagine you would pull and stretch each other in ways that felt good to both of you - while being a pure delight to watch for those of us on the other side of the stage. I would love to see you onstage together more. I hope I get that opportunity someday.

COLLEEN:  Ooooh! Me too.

PAM:  And now you’re performing in TJ and Dave’s new theater at iO, The Mission, in their sketch revue cast. I need to know every juicy detail about that process and show pleeeeease! I mean, holy fucking shit, Colleen Doyle! That's cooler than cool.

COLLEEN:  It's extremely rewarding and completely overwhelming. TJ and Dave have a pretty specific idea of what we are trying to make together. We are not shooting for good, and we are not shooting for familiar in terms of content or tone. We are aiming for outstanding and thought provoking and intelligent. Honest scenes and a really fucking funny show. It's a tall order. Sometimes I feel like I should be paying them for their insights and guidance. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm obscenely grateful for the job.

PAM:  Yeah, they're pretty big thinkers, those two. So how does work, the process of the Mission's sketch show? Are you developing sketch through improvisation?

COLLEEN:  Yep, sketch through improv. Two  acts. Music, blackouts, scenes.

 PAM:  Do I know anybody else in the cast? (Like you know who I know...what a dumb fucking question.)

COLLEEN:  They are all amazing: Laurel Krabacher, Tanner Tananbaum, Michael Brunlieb, Mike Jimerson, Paul Grondy, Peter Collins. I mean it - they are awesome. Great chops and smart.

As luck would have it, you can see a Dummy
set for yourself! A show captured in 2012 at iO Theater.

[Update: Soon after this interview was posted, Colleen announced that she and Jason are moving to Los Angeles. Lucky ducks in LA can see them perform (and hopefully teach eventually) at iO West. The first regular Dummy show in LA is schedule for October 16, 2014 at 8pm!]

* * *

...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre

and many more!


in which she says, 
"Smell it touch it taste it touch it feel it fuck it NOW. Be in the moment. The audience gets off on your specificity, not your "funny" specificity. You can eat a meal of Ritz cracker jokes, but you'll eventually say, "Did I just fucking eat an entire meal of Ritz fucking crackers?"

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.


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 heart 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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