Published on April 1st, 2015 | by Sharilyn Johnson0
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Trust them, this is all written down.
The two legends of the Chicago improv scene co-authored the book with Pam Victor, a Massachusetts-based improviser, teacher, and improv blogger who quickly moved from admirer to collaborator. Here, she shares insights about the process and the end product, more of which can be read on her blog My Nephew is a Poodle.
Third Beat: When did you first become familiar with TJ & Dave’s work?
Pam Victor: I live in Western Massachusetts, so I really don’t have easy access to Chicago-style improv. Or pizza, for that matter. (The pizza isn’t such a big deal because, like almost everyone north of what we call “The Tofu Curtain” in Western Mass., I am lactose-, gluten-, and food fun-free.) So my first exposure to TJ & Dave was their documentary “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up.” I remember being absolutely blown away by it. I could almost hear the rusty squeeeek of the improv bar being raised in my mind. Suddenly, improvisation seems so much more vast and deep than I ever imagined.
The first time I actually got to see their show was out here in Western Mass. T.J. grew up here, and his family still lives out here. So they were doing a fundraiser for an organization his mom used to run. The show was sold out, but I still went there without a ticket and begged my way in. Literally. It was magical. That’s where I first met David and asked him to do the “Geeking Out with…” interview with me.
TB: When you first connected with them about doing a book, did you each have similar ideas of what you wanted the focus and structure of it to be?
PV: Actually, I think I would say yes, we relatively quickly got on the same page as far as focus and structure. Basically, I sat down and made a list of every single element of improvisation that I wanted to talk to them about. A big list! And then we spent a year or so talking about each and every one. They were pretty terrific about answering pretty much all of my questions about improvisation, even the real dumb ones. After everything was on paper, so to speak, we all worked together to try to refine the focus. And then our editors had a pretty good whack at it, which refined it still further. You should see the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. Breaks my little improv geek heart!
My main goal was to facilitate a book that they would be proud of. It’s their book. Their ideas. I was the surrogate mother – they provided the DNA, and I cooked it up for them. (In my brain, not my womb.)
The next book? That one will be all mine. Womb and all.
TB: Is there anything you’ve learned from them that seemed counterintuitive, or goes against the common wisdom of improv rules?
PV: Well, only ALL the improv rules! We actually have a chapter called “Fuck the Rules,” where they take down most of the rules of improvisation. I had an on-going debate with David about whether the so-called rules of improvisation were necessary at all. He says no, that there is no reason to learn them only to unlearn them. And I thought that it was necessary to learn them in order to release yourself from them. I thought you had to learn about the pitfalls of transaction and teaching scenes, for example, before you could do good scenework.
But Dave makes a strong case, and he piqued my interest. Since the manuscript has been completed, I’ve been developing and teaching my own multi-level improv class curriculum, called The Zen of Improv (like the blog series). I mostly teach through the approach and philosophy I learned while writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life, adding on my own special sauce and making it mine. And I don’t talk about ANY improv rules until the advanced classes. Even “Yes, and…”! I have to say, Dave was right.
I could talk about this topic for way too long. It’s been a fascinating endeavor.
PV: Interesting question. Several years ago, I had the unique and mind-blowing experience of performing in a play with folksinger extraordinaire Erin McKeown, who happened to be my favorite female singer at that time. (Before even knowing she lived near me, I used to listen to her stuff on repeat constantly. It drove my family mad.) It was crazy. I got to sing with her, and she performed a little all-request mini-concert for me one night before we went on. I’m telling you, mind. blowing. At the cast party, I finally confessed to her that I was a huge fan, and she said to me somewhat sadly, “It will change the music for you. Knowing me will change the music for you.” And it did. My feelings for her as a person influenced the way I heard the music. And taking her off the hero pedestal and knowing her as a mere mortal took some of the shine off of the beauty of her work for me. Though, of course, I think she’s still an amazing singer and songwriter. (You should look her up!)
So, yes, the mere act of having a personal relationship with TJ and David certainly influences how I see their work. It’s hard to keep someone on a pedestal after a lengthy process like one. Plus, I have this extremely intimate knowledge of their process and inter-dynamic. I have been studying them as people and professionals for over two years, practicing how to channel their voices. During a show, I can see tiny details, maybe the occasional wobble, and communication between them that other people might not see.
And then sometimes, I get so wrapped up in their show that I forget to analyze it. Because they still astound and delight me onstage to no end. I mean, they’re TJ & Dave!
TB: Did the process change the way you improvise?
PV: Yes, absolutely. I hope that it’s made me a better improviser. I know it’s made me a slower, more thoughtful, and honest improviser. It’s totally changed my relationship to the comedy part of improvisation – I am much, much less interested in getting onstage just to get a laugh. Before learning from those fine gentlemen, I had no interest in teaching improvisation. It seemed a shallow prospect to me. But now I absolutely adore teaching because it’s something bigger than just yuckety yuck make-em-ups for me. It’s a way of life. (God, I sound so barfy! Are you gagging?)
I gotta give big ups to my improv team in Western Mass, The Ha-Ha’s. Those gals have stuck with me during the years-long evolution, always willing to help me try to put the ideas TJ, Dave, and I were writing about into a practice. I have to say, it’s been almost a year since we’ve done any writing, and the effects of the process are still pushing my evolution as a performer and as a teacher. In a very good way.
I am very grateful to have been allowed access to the inner sanctum of TJ and Dave.
Improvisation at the Speed of Life is available on Amazon.