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Funny Girl

My interview with Catharine Robertson, executive director of the Baltimore Improv Group [BIG] for Baltimore magazine.

“What I like most about being on stage is the feeling of playing with the other people. It’s like playing a game of tennis. You hit a ball to them and you know a ball is coming, but you don’t know what kind of ball is coming back. You have to pay very close attention, and that’s what I love about it.

The basic tenet of improv is to say, ‘Yes, and . . . ’ which means if you hand me something on stage and say, ‘This is an elephant,’ even though it’s impossible that you’re holding an elephant in your hand, I have to say, ‘Yes, and it’s the smallest elephant ever.’ Basically, I have to agree with what you’re saying and add to it. This is hugely useful in life, especially in an office situation where you have some of the most horrible people ever. But you just make your life worse if you try to tease them. If you can just accept what’s going on rather than fight, then everything can keep moving forward.

The funny moments come from situations being built up, or funny character choices that performers make, or relationships between characters. One-liners tend not to do very well in improv scenes—and I find they’re not nearly as satisfying for the audience as the situations and scenes they have to invest a few minutes in.

I got the job as executive director because no one else wanted it; it’s a volunteer position, and it is quite a bit of work. I’m one of the older people in the group, so I’ve sort of been around for awhile and can let a lot of things roll off my back when I have to deal with theater nerds with hot tempers and a lot of drama.

I get nervous on stage all the time. I sometimes get nauseous, and, actually, what I do when I get really nervous is I tend to come out singing because, for some reason, it’s easier to deal with nervousness on stage when singing a song.

I’ve bombed plenty, plenty. It’s an awful feeling and you know right away when you’ve done it. But the great thing about improv is that you have the chance in the next two or three minutes to come back. What you’re supposed to do if you draw a blank is say the first thing that comes to mind, and you have to do that, even if somebody has just been talking about elephants and the only thing you can think of is ‘I see a toenail.’ And what you’ve done is basically served your partner a really crappy shot and they’ve got to figure out how to deal with it.

I’m not going to say they’re the worst, but the most difficult audience is other improvisers. The improv community in Baltimore is pretty small. But if you go to another bigger city like Philadelphia or New York or especially Chicago, almost the whole audience will be other improvisers. And they’re very, very tough. It’s like a standup comedian performing for only other standups—just imagine how critical those people are. But Baltimore doesn’t have that, almost all of our audiences are just Joe Blow off the street, and they’re wonderful.

This is our fourth year doing the Baltimore Improv Festival and we invite acts from all over the country to submit. We have three nights of shows, August 12-14 at the Creative Alliance, and then all day Saturday and Sunday we do workshops for people of all experience levels. It’s nine acts each night. There’s going to be something for everybody.

There are a lot of things that can be funny if you have the right atmosphere or the right audience. There are things that can be very darkly funny, but you have to know your audience and you have to know your setting. You can’t just suddenly go dark if you’re at a kids’ puppet show. That is not going to work out for you!

I think humor is hugely important. My favorite times onstage are when my fellow performers and I are playful and having fun with each other. Laughing with people is how you bond with them; it’s how you get to know them. Watching something funny together lets you know a person better. If you’re in a shi–y mood and you’re not laughing and you’re a depressed person, then how sad your life must be.

Improv allows me to be 41 years old and make a jackass out of myself all the time. Starting in school we learn via peer pressure that it’s not cool to be unusual, that we should conform. But what we want students to do in our workshops is actually be odd, make that different choice, and have the courage to fail. I remember that in my first ever improv class, BIG founder Mike Subelsky said that if you leave improv rehearsal and you didn’t fail at something you tried, then you didn’t try hard enough. That really resonated with me because it illustrated that this group and this atmosphere and improv itself are not only creative, but very forgiving.”

Originally published in Baltimore magazine.

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