The random musings of Kate Grace
The “Artists I Adore and You Should Know About” series is morphing into something more to give the artists a voice.
I’m a writer, but I’m also a performer, a photographer, an in-the-shower singer… At the core I am a Creative. That’s how I define it. Our imaginations can expand outside of the genre box, medium box or what-have-you, so we should also look to other forms of creative expression for inspiration. Get out of our heads and egos for a bit and swim around in the overflowing juices of creativity like a marinade.
This is a first for the series, but an important first. The artist who will introduce the series’ new format to us is a performer. To make it more complicated to show you his work, he’s a performer (a mind-bending, awe-inspiring performer) of Improvised Theater. That’s right… not exactly something you can bottle up and put on a blog. But there is such golden information here I think both this artist and this creative form are invaluable to those of us searching for our artistic path both creatively and realistically.
For me, improvised performance has been the greatest tool to open me creatively and bring down the barriers of mental restraint like the Walls of Jericho. Because of improv, I was able to write a book. Because of improv, I was able to take it bit by bit never feeling overwhelmed by the massiveness of the whole body. Because of improv, I was able to trust the story was taking me somewhere and amazing moments of discovery occurred.
And when I was in the meat of learning improvised performance in New York City, my coach and mentor was the cherished Jay Rhoderick of the notorious Burn Manhattan, currently of the horizon-chasing Centralia, and founder of revolutionary Bizprov. (I’m not going to lie, I lucked the frack out getting Jay and thank my lucky creative stars for that opportunity every day!)
Can you describe your creative journey? How was it born and where are you going now?
As a kid I always loved to play in an imaginary “fort” outside, play dress-up, do impressions and voices, and do plays in high school. This is something most kids do. I felt so comfortable doing it that I continued with acting classes when I moved to New York, and fell into improvisation as part of the cast of a political satire sketch show. That led to my creative life becoming all about improv—comedy, teaching, business training—and a long association with my improvisational theatre collective Burn Manhattan/Centralia.
With improv, can you describe the sensory experience of creating in the moment?
For me it’s always most productive to start physical. I usually begin a scene doing some sort of labor or maneuver. Maybe it’s the Meisner training of finding a “independent activity” to do so as to stay out of my head, but getting the muscles and bones busy tends to ground me. I can feel the weight of the chair or whatever I’m pushing around. I feel warm, or I sweat, or I may have a sweet flavor in my mouth if my character starts off by eating, say, a candy bar. The physical-sensory stuff helps anchor me. From there I get to react viscerally to some new discovery in the environment and then build a scene.
Does the presence of an audience alter your creative process in anyway?
Yes, it makes me focus more, because as much as I want to make my scene partner look good, I also want to bring the audience in, and have them go on the ride with us. It’s exciting and sharpens my reflexes, I think. It’s positive pressure.
In improv, you’re forced to draw from your own truth and subconcious – how does that experience leave you feeling?
I don’t know any alternative. Sometimes it can feel very exposed, and if a moment doesn’t fly (as happens all the time), I sometimes feel like I’ve been inauthentic or unimaginative or boring. That feeling passes. The feeling of being emotionally vulnerable is powerful and scary–but makes for a highly theatrical performance. So does drawing on dreams, nightmares, and fantasies.
Has there ever been a time when you felt completely exposed or vulnerable to an audience? If so, what was the circumstance?
Yep, there have been scenes that touch on personal life, family issues, that feel pretty close to home. The difference between those and drama therapy is that we make it a character scene, and the story takes over, gets explored and heightened. So the vulnerability drives the buzz and energy of the scene, but doesn’t just become self-absorbed autobiography. I think of one scene where all 3 of us in our group were characters dealing with the death of their father. All 3 of us in real life have lost our fathers, so it was an emotional, ironic scene. I felt like laughing, crying, and then wanted to NOT do the scene, out of respect. But we stayed connected and I realized that grief, confusion, and loss are universal, the audience can relate to it, and there’s plenty of comedy there about being human, and particularly about being the son of an absent father.
How has improv and performing changed you as a person, if it has?
I think I’m more flexible onstage, and as I get older I realize that less is more in a performance, and in life. It’s often not about the words at all. In doing scripted plays, I have often preferred improv rehearsals to the rehearsals where we’ve had scripts in hands. I think I’ve also come to value silence onstage and off–which is about comic timing–but also about getting a wee bit wiser as a person, perhaps.
Tell us about Bizprov – where did the inspiration for Bizprov come from?
Bizprov emerged from requests I kept getting from former students to come and lead improv workshops with their office teams–often just for holiday parties and such. I’d done corporate improv-based training work for years, and I’d always wanted to be a consultant on my own, so things seemed to fall into place. My partner Chip is an MBA and he had some terrific ideas about strategy and marketing, and it was off to the races. We became obsessed with using improv to stimulate creativity, collaboration, and communication skills. When it clicks with clients, it’s as fun and rewarding for me as performing a strong, funny show. I’ve also discovered that I’m a pretty ambitious businessman, though running this business remains highly improvisational!
Looking back on the creative path you’ve taken, was there ever a moment (or moments) when you felt yourself “drinking the kool aid”? If so, what was that moment (or moments)?
Hmm. I think actually it was in acting school at the William Esper Studio, which uses the Meisner technique, which consists of improvised scenes for the whole first year. So I didn’t come to drink the improv kool-aid by way of Second City or UCB (my group and UCB started up in NYC at the same time anyway). It was through actor training. The improvisation approach was a no-brainer and yielded astonishing moments of discovery, surprise, visceral emotions, huge risk-taking, and glorious mistakes. Boy did I make some horrible mistakes! And I learned a ton from them because the improv was genuinely in-the-moment. I realized that since we improvise our lives, if we improvise onstage, it can truly seem authentically life-like, surprising, ugly, funny and fascinating. It felt so easy–and it felt really comfortable accepting and building on ideas and feelings. I became addicted.
When did you realize this was the path you wanted to take?
The early years I spent with my improv group made me feel a part of something exciting, underground, maybe even hip. We never made much money, though we’ve flirted with commercial success and played with lots of famous people. What did it for me, and led me to make my living as an improviser-teacher in schools, theatres and businesses was the ongoing sense of wonder and collaboration. The fact that I could survive on it was stunning and yet made complete sense. It never gets boring.
Do you have any tactics of your own to keep creative blocks at bay? What advice do you give those you mentor if they feel creatively blocked?
Blocks are a beast. For me it usually comes down to outside stress and preoccupation. I get self-absorbed and thus disconnected from all the great offers coming my way. So, I say take a walk, get some air, relax, get really interested in something OTHER than the show. If you have no time to take that walk–say if you’re in the middle of a show or scene–play silently and support your partner. The temptation is to sweat and wait to be rescued. Instead, PROVIDE support and help to your colleague. Don’t panic, get simple. Take a minute and make eye contact with others. Make their success of intense interest to you. If working alone, find something outside yourself to support, even if it’s a phone call home, a letter to the editor, finding a charity online or volunteering at the food pantry. Creative constipation is usually the result of inward looking and self-recrimination. Look outward!!
Have this creative beast transform your imagination!