« Jimmy Carrane Interview | Main | Groups Update »

November 9, 2006

Liz Allen Interview

Liz AllenI was able to meet up with Jimmy Carrane, co-author of Improvising Better, because he lives here in Chicago. The other co-author, Liz Allen, is currently in Las Vegas, working for Second City, so I interviewed her over email. The full interview is after the jump:

Fuzzy: If I read this book, do I never need to come to your workshop?

Liz: First, thanks for reading it. Second, after reading it, please continue going to any and all improv workshops that interest you. My guess is that reading this book will only enhance your learning in a classroom environment.

Fuzzy: Conversely, can I really fix my own blind spots with a book?

Liz: You can get started fixing them. Obviously, as an improviser, you need at least one other person, but preferably an ensemble, to help you improve, since improv is group art. But awareness of yourself is a big step. There's that saying in psych circles -- you can't change something about yourself until you acknowledge it honestly within yourself. So maybe our book will help you acknowledge or admit something to yourself. And then, within a safe ensemble, you can challenge yourself to grow.

Fuzzy: Aren't I blind to them?

Liz: Probably not. I think most people know their own tricks and bs, but pretend they don't. Also, I'll bet you've been given a note from a coach or teacher you didn't like or made you uncomfortable or you disagreed with... that just might be your blindspot.

Fuzzy: I asked Jimmy if, after you guys sent out the Ten Blindspots, anyone ever came into your workshops saying, "Number six, that's my problem, help me fix it." He didn't seem to think so -- did you have the same experience?

Liz: I agree with Jimmy's recollection. I will add that many people came to us outside of the workshops and declared which blindspot they related to most. In the workshops we generally heard, "I came here because of the Top Ten Blindspots. Please help with them all."

Fuzzy: I don't mean this series of question to be a confrontational "why'd you bother writing a book", but rather I'm really interested in your perspective as someone who both teaches in person and has written a book about a) the value of books to our live performance field:

Liz: I think, as I suspect most people do, that reading books help you learn about any field. It's always good to read about something you're trying to master. You'll take from the book what you're ready to take from it.

Fuzzy: b) how self-aware people can get about their own problems.

Liz: I sort of touched on that above. I think improvisers crave self-awareness, which is why they liked individual attention in a workshop. Hopefully our book will trigger something to help improvisers see themselves clearly, and see that there's hope for every bump in the road they experience while learning to improvise. Improv is such a personal art form -- it's you exposing yourself under the loose veil of groupwork and characters. But ultimately, you're out there unprotected by any pre-written words of a script, so it follows that the journey of discovering improv is also the journey of discovering yourself.

Fuzzy: Can you talk a little about the experience of co-teaching a workshop and how (if?) that influenced the co-writing of this book?

Liz: Co-teaching is great in the same way improvising is great -- I enjoy collaborating. Because of our time teaching together, Jimmy and I knew what each of us wanted to say in the book, and that really helped us write together.

Fuzzy: What's your favorite part of the book that's Jimmy's contribution?

Liz: Jimmy initiated writing the chapter, Love the Process, which we put at the end of the book. I love the message of that chapter, and it's such a great reminder about how to approach improv. It's especially good to remember the message of that chapter as you become a more seasoned improviser.

Also, I like his quote on page 25, "React to your object work like it's the third person in the scene," because it's so concise and accurate. It boils down object work perfectly. Object work is tough to teach, and to explain exactly how object work should enhance scenework. Also, it can be boring to teach -- the exercises tend not to be emotional. And, frankly, some people aren't very coordinated, which is awkward to watch! I think this quote is a good one and I've used it a lot.

Fuzzy: Who has influenced you as a teacher, and how?

Liz: Good grief, so many! I'll mention a few. Del. Del. Del. He just took no crap from us and wouldn't settle for crap in scenes. He'd stop any scene and tell you that what you were doing wasn't ringing true. He stressed that if you were going to portray someone or anything -- a busdriver, or a dad, a paper bag -- you better really portray them as they might really be. He taught me about the dangers of stereotyping.

Miles Stroth was a huge influence. He showed me in my level 2 class, then later on Frank Booth, that if you were open to seeing it, the whole scene resided in the first line or two of a scene. This is not scripting, but truly investing in the beginning moments of a scene. Also, he used to quiz us upstairs at the Wrigleyside during a show -- he'd asked us what a character in that particular Harold could do to raise the stakes of a situation. He was very analytical about the work, and I appreciated that.

Of course my coach on Frank Booth, Craig Cackowski, was hugely influential. He really taught us to take everything as it is at the very beginning of a scene. For instance, if a scene began in the front seat of a car that was obviously in motion, and several seconds into the scene you wanted to join it and be in the backseat of the car, you couldn't just go and jump into the scene and drag in your own chair from the side of the stage. He'd say something like, "You can't pass through speeding metal unless your character has magical powers or this is world has different laws of physics from our own!" From that we learned to deal with everything literally which inevitably led us to slow, real moments.

Also, I want to say that watching groups over the years taught me a great deal. When I first started at iO, I'd watch The Family improvise, and they were inspirational. Their support work was amazing. Teams like Mr. Blonde, The Lost Yetis, Jazz Freddy, and Faulty Wiring, to name a few, taught me tons. For example, watching people listen and respond to one another taught me better listening skills. You can really learn about group work by watching it. All groups as a whole can be teachers, whether they play together seamlessly or are still struggling to figure it out.

Fuzzy: By writing a book that not for beginners, but rather people that have been improvising long enough to have developed bad habits, you're making some assumptions about the maturity of the improv world -- that there are enough experienced improvisors out there to make a book like this useful. Care to make any bold statements about The State of Improv?

Liz: I've watched improv grow from a small community in a few places to a vast community worldwide. I'm thrilled by that, and I'm thrilled it's continuing to grow. I keep thinking that the wave has crested and improv can't possibly get any bigger, and then it does. My explanation stems from what Del taught us -- that our current American society stresses the individual over the whole -- and we humans are seeking groups that our ancestors couldn't live without. He taught us about early American Indian ensemble societies, where your view of yourself depended on how you fit into your tribe and how you supported the survival/success of the group. Your contribution could mean life or death to yourself or someone else in your group. I loved it when he'd talk about all that stuff. Improv is permission to be self-less, and to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Del said that we couldn't help but want to be a part of a group, and I think he was right.

Posted by Fuzzy at November 9, 2006 5:53 PM