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The Mass Media

Serious About Being Funny

UMB Student Trustee Heather Dawood

UMB Student Trustee Heather Dawood

One good thing about the start of the semester is the chance to meet new and interesting people. Take Cathleen Carr for example: this is her first semester here at UMB. She is a theater major and a member of the Improv Asylum. I met her for the first time last week, and a couple of days ago we sat down to have a little chat. Here’s how it went.

Q: How did you get interested in theater, and why are you specifically interested in doing improv comedy?

A: Well, I don’t like to limit myself to improv comedy; it’s what I’ve been doing for five years, so it’s more my specialization. I’m interested in all aspects of theater.

I moved to Chicago when I turned twenty-one, and I went to the conservatory at Second City. Second City is the big improv place.

Q: Sure, that’s where a lot of Saturday Night Live people came from.

A: Chicago is a big improv town. I went through the conservatory program there, and I just fell in love with it. I liked everything about it. I mean, you’re not going to make a lot of money doing it. But I just like to laugh. I like to make-believe. I’ve always been kind of a comedy based person, every since I was little. My eighth-grade teacher always said I was either going to be the president or a regular on Saturday Night Live. Those were my two options. And I don’t think the president thing is going to work out.

I worked as part of a theater group in Chicago for four years. Then my boyfriend, who is a musician, got an opportunity to join the band Neptune out here. I found Improv Asylum on-line. I flew out here and auditioned, and I got into the touring company…I am now a part of what is technically known the N.E.T., which stands for North End Theater Cast, the resident cast at the Improv Asylum. It’s been exciting.

Q: You said you’ve always been more of a comedy person. A lot of actors just want to do the serious stuff. Is there any particular reason that you find comedy more attractive?

A: It’s what I naturally gravitate to. I have a firm belief in humor as a vital function of living. I have core convictions and I take things seriously, but I’m relatively a laid-back person. I laugh so much on any given day, and I’ve taken stock in that…it’s how I deal with conflict situations, emotionally draining situations; I always resort back to laughing about it. Some people might think that I’m in denial, but to me it takes away so much of the pressure. I feel you don’t have to live a morbid life. I feel like we can make fun of everything, there’s always some element of humor in every situation.

Q: Do you feel that using humor in the theater has a social function?

A: Yes. There’s a reason why people come to the Improv Asylum. It’s an amazing thing that people will spend twenty dollars to come inside, just to laugh for an hour and a half. It’s obviously a release that people need. They need to have an opportunity to laugh continuously, to take situations, or taboos, things that we’re not supposed to talk about, or things that are troubling and just take a moment to say, “Who gives a shit? Let’s just relax. This is all ridiculous.” Because, in the end, everything we’re doing in our lives is ridiculous. It doesn’t really mean anything. So, there is really nothing that we can’t laugh about.

Just because something is meaningless doesn’t mean that it’s depressing. I’m still a living, functioning human being who can still find ways of enjoying myself. I might consider life to be somewhat meaningless but I can go and have a great conversation or I can go on a roller coaster; I can satiate myself, and I can feel pleasure, so why is it depressing?

Q: Improv is a very different kind of theater from “traditional” theater.

A: Yeah, it’s kind of like the bastard child of theater. Among serious actors, improv is considered a jock sport.

Q: What is your response to that?

A: It’s difficult. On one hand, I can see where they’re coming from. Because improv is hit or miss, you have to have really good improvisers who can consistently pull it off. There’s a lot of really bad improv out there that can be torture to watch. Also, there is not an emphasis placed, in improv comedy, on the actor to study other forms of theater, which I think is bad and needs to change. A lot of people are attracted to improv who are not coming from a theater background…they don’t have any acting experience. So, they go out there and they aren’t using their bodies, they aren’t projecting their voices well, there isn’t the fluidity that a trained actor would have.

However, there are still so many beautiful things that come out of improv comedy that there needs to be some consideration made towards it. There are some brilliant physical comedians who have come out of improv comedy, and over-all comedic actors who might not have found their talent without that experience.

The American style of improv comedy is a very young art form, and it’s still evolving now. In Chicago, which is still the Mecca of the form, people are adding more artistic elements. There is an acting school of thought called the Meisner Technique, which is very reactionary. It’s about being entirely in the moment, and it’s very emotional. Some people are trying to take that, which is a very high-falutin’ acting theory, and incorporate it into improv. It’s at an interesting point right now in Chicago, where people are really trying to make improv more artistically viable. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I think it’s going to gain more legitimacy with the rest of the theater world.

Q: It seems to me that in a way being an improv actor is almost harder than being a traditional actor. You have to create your character completely out of yourself.

A: Yes, but it’s still very difficult to interpret a script and become the character. I know actors who are terrified of improv, and I know improvisers who won’t go near a script. I think it’s just what works for you. If you’re good at it, you’re good at it. But it is a challenge; it’s something that takes a lot of practice.

Q: Do find the element of teamwork to be more intense in improv as opposed to scripted theater?

A: Yes, it’s definitely more intense. The first tenet of improv is “Yes, and…,” which means you have to take what the person just said to you on stage, agree with it, and then heighten it. That’s how you build a scene. Improv is all about teamwork; it’s not about the individual. You have to put your ego aside, the same as if you were doing an improvised jazz set. It’s all about listening to each other, knowing when to take the focus and when to pull back.

It’s about creating a connection between the people in the audience and whatever is going on on-stage.

Q: Improv is generally associated with comedy. What is your take on the idea of dramatic or serious improv? Is there value in the idea of improv tragedy or improv melodrama?

A: I love the idea. I think it’s a wonderful thing; I think it’s a hard sell. Right now, I’m very interested in it. I’d like to explore it more. It’s hard to find people that are interested in it, because improvisers are generally comedians and it’s hard not to go for the laugh. But I think it can be pulled off, and I think it can be really good because what’s going to be stage will be so raw and so emotionally charged. And I think it’s starting to go that way. I think if people keep on pushing it, there might be more of an audience for it.

Q: Last question. What makes “funny” funny?

A: I think self-depreciation humor is very funny. I admire someone who can deconstruct his or her entire life and laugh at it. I’m not gonna lie; I still think that poo-poo is funny and farts are funny. Maybe presented in a more clever way.

Q: You’ve got to appreciate the classics.

A: I love satire. I love “The Onion”. I think that, in the end, what is funny is whatever makes you laugh.