For a city devoted to and proud of its process, Chicago has remarkably few events or venues devoted to talking about improv. We refine our ability to use it as a tool, but seldom spend time reflecting on its meanings or how it affects us personally.
Whether that’s indicative of Bernie Sahlins triumph in the argument of improv as art or simply a facet of Chicago’s pragmatic, work focused comedy scene, there’s long been a gap in my mind between how much we learn to do improv and how little we talk about what it means and how it affects our lives. This is especially resonant for those of us beyond our first few years of training centers and student shows.
Jimmy Carrane’s Improv Nerd (returning in the fall of 2012) is part performance, part interview, part post-show debrief. It provides a unique opportunity to peer into the hearts and brains of great improvisers to hear about their process and their lives.
The show is a culmination of the talents and skills that Carrane has cultivated in his long career as a teacher, interviewer and performer. “I interviewed people on WBEZ for ten years. For the last 4-5 years I did a segment called “Studio 312.” It was a comedic segment and I got to interview lots of great people…I’ve done 4-5 personal one man shows and I’ve been improvising since I was 18 years old. I really feel like I’m teaching by doing this show. It really brings all those elements together. It definitely is a combination of all my years of work.”
The show’s guests come from all corners of the improv world from Chicago regulars to Comedy Central stars to movie actors, most all whom have roots in the Chicago Comedy scene. (For a full list, check out the itunes podcast page here.) Guests are conceived and booked by Carrane and his production team. “Each time it gets a little more difficult because the show has been going on a while. My producer and I are always on the lookout. If we have interns who are students we ask them who they think it would be good to have.” (If you have a suggestion for the show, post it on the show’s facebook page here.) Among his many guests Carrane sees only one common thread: a passion for improvisation. “It’s more than something they do, it’s very much a part of who they are.”
Each show begins with a personal monologue from Carrane. In his view, this opening is a chance to set the tone for the interview to follow. “I get up there and my objective is to get the guests to be as personal as possible. So if I get up there and set the bar and I’m honest and I talk about my insecurities, then my chance of them talking about their insecurities is much better.”
The personal nature of the show continues into the initial interview where Carrane talks with his guests about their work and their lives. Questions are both personal and professional but always cluster around improv; how they came to it, how it affects them and what it means to their lives.
Every show contains a performance. The format of the collaboration changes depending on the guest. Guests with a special or specific format (like Improvised Shakespeare or Baby Wants Candy) will be joined by Carrane. Otherwise he and the guest will agree on a format.
The transition from posing personal questions to improvising can be a difficult one for Carrane. “It’s always been a struggle and it all depends on my level of shame. If I have really pushed them [during the interview] I may feel more tentative to improvise with them. But the longer I’m doing it the more I’m able to separate the parts of the show.”
After a the performance Carrane and his guest sit down and expose audiences to a discussion seldom seen by non-improvisers: the debrief. Carrane and his guest digest the show, their intentions, thoughts and the result.
The performance is frequently revelatory for Carrane. A recent show with performers from Second City All Stars challenged Carrane’s long standing bias against short form improv. “…having Ryan Archibald and Rachael Mason was great. I have such judgment about short form but it was a really fun evening to work with them doing short form. To discuss the judgment I had before doing short form and then having fun doing it. That is the kind of stuff that I really personally enjoy.”
The show is also affecting Carrane’s teaching. “Performing on a regular basis really infuses your teaching and so it’s so great when you get to work with these masters of improvisation and then you go back to the classroom. It’s so helpful. It gives you different points of view. There is no one right way to improvise. You keep studying and performing with different people and that’s how you evolve as an improviser.”
Though the show is a satisfying culmination of his work, Carrane sees it as much more than a personal vessel for expression or exploration. “My goal is to see that we all have insecurities, we’re all struggling with the same process and regardless of your level, if we can expose it, it makes it that much easier to deal with.”
The show will be on hiatus for the summer but will return in the fall. “I don’t know how long it can go for. I would like to keep it going as long as I am having fun with it and not feeling burned out. My ultimate thing would be for this to be like “Inside the Actor’s Studio” for improvisers. There are so many people who use improvisation in their work.”