Saturday, February 11, 2017

Meet...Don Schuerman

The best performer I've ever had the privilege of working with is Don Schuerman.

I've known Don since 1994 and have been performing with him for almost as long and I have never worked with someone who is such a complete comedian. Actor/Director/writer/musician, the man can do it all and do it well; on top of that, he is one of the smartest performers I've ever seen on stage; AND ON TOP OF THAT, he is an amazing and generous human being.

"Play at the top of your knowledge" is a borrowed phrase that has been bouncing around the improv world for a couple of decades at least. I first heard it in 1999 from Joe Bill and he later refocused that same idea with the note to "Play at the top of your integrity". As a director, when I say "play at the top of your knowledge", I'm fully aware that the upper knowledge threshold is something different for each one of us. We all enter the stage with different experiences and knowledge bases. That's what makes improvisation amazing; to make it successful we create a world that is a meeting point of our mutual ideas. No two scenes can ever be the same because who you are at any moment in time is completely different from who you were the last time you did a scene. It's one of improv's uncertainty principles. For me, playing at the top of your knowledge is not about playing snobby uppity intellectuals, it's about playing characters who are trying to get through their world the best way they know how.

I consider myself a fairly intelligent person. I try to keep abreast of as many topics as possible. Some things will stay in my brain for a while...other facts are more transitional and leave a few days or even hours after I try to force them into a mind crevice. Some of us are just able to retain and regurgitate an amazing amount of information...Don is one of those guys. He is a walking encyclopedia/dictionary/Human Search Engine on an amazing amount of subjects. Regardless of the suggestion from the audience, you know that Don is going to have at the very least an idea of what it is.

However, regardless of the number of references he can drop in a scene, there is still a basic skill that he utilizes that anyone of us can learn from. He makes a scene real by painting it with grounded details and interesting facts. He doesn't smother a scene with references...he merely drops enough specificity to make the scene real for the audience and the actors. With Don, you can do a scene almost anywhere in the world at any point in time and he will be able to stitch a detailed reality.

Anyone can define a who, what, where and have it be supported by some edits that paint the scene. The true skill is to be able to lay down references and facts that draw upon our collective knowledge to then paint the scene in the mind's eye. This is what Don does very well. Then, once the scene is set, he digs even further into his knowledge base to build out the relationship of the characters. His attention to detail in a scene is so exquisite that you feel that if you were to commit any more to the scene, you would will the reality of the scene into our dimension.

Many directors advise that you should immerse yourself in as much knowledge as possible. As a young improviser I bought several cultural reference books just so that I could know a little bit about everything. These days, the internet, twitter, facebook and RSS feeds makes it a lot easier to cultivate news and data. I think that the knowledge immersion advice will always be applicable...but I personally believe that you should go further. Don't just develop your referential and factual knowledge but also develop your experiential knowledge. Force yourself to try new things that build upon your existing comfort zone. Force your brain to have to learn and comprehend a new emotional context or frame of reference. Break your routine, try something new, force yourself to engage in a new environment with new people and raise your upper threshold of experiential knowledge.

I have found that my clearest and longest lasting memories are the ones that lie right outside of my routines. New places I visit, unique meals, people I meet create a fresh foundation in my brain and tend to stay there a little bit longer. These are now fresh pieces of information that I can draw upon later. I can do scenes about cooking Burmese food and road-trips in Alabama because now, I've done both of them. If I ever have scenes that will require any of that information, it is there for me to use.

Developing your knowledge and breaking your routine helps you further realize the importance of patterns. You start to see that patterns aren't just something that exist on stage within a warm-up exercise, scene or a 25-minute set. Patterns begin before your set and continue after it. There are behaviors, situations, relationships, people that exist all over the world that are part of the same patterns and with an increased experiential knowledge base, you can make those more universal connections. It's this pattern recognition that resonates deeply with the audience because those are the patterns that they identify with in the real world. It's when we're able to find and explore those universal patterns that speak to larger truths that improv elevates to a special place that is at the same time hilarious, magical and profound. Like Don Schuerman.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Knowledge

A good improviser knows stuff. A lot of stuff. They not only need to be book smart but they have to have a brain that is hungry for information and for knowledge. That's the kind of brain that I want to improvise with. I don't care what kind of improvisation you practice, your quest for knowledge should be never-ending. It's this quest that ultimately makes you a better and funnier performer.

Pursuing knowledge trains your brain to not only remember information but to also make connections and find patterns. I don't care where you pursue your knowledge. If your thing is reading Entertainment Weekly and People every week, fine, but just let your brain absorb that information and then share that information with me on stage.

The most immediate effect is that by putting this information in your head, it's immediately becoming part of the hive mind of your ensemble. If I'm lacking information on the latest pop phenomenon, I know that if it's in your head, then it will be easy to get it into mine.

Training your brain to need and want information also trains your brain for good scenework. A curious mind makes for a curious improviser. A curious improviser is one who will leave no stone unturned in a scene. They will see the open door or the unresolved offer. They will pursue it, ask questions and if they can't find the answer, they will answer it themselves.

Finally, the hungry brain will be stronger at making connections than the static brain. The hungry brain will find the relationships between different subject matters...it will also find the connection between multiple scenes across the ethereal plane of improvisation. A hungry brain will remember how factoid from scene A is similar to the theme of scene B which relates to the characters in scene C. Even if its not 100 percent apparent to the audience immediately, as long as the connection is in your brain, everyone will soon benefit from it.

Don't live in a bubble. Connect ideas from different fields. Train your brain to learn and want more information. This will benefit you on a personal level but also on the stage.

Friday, August 9, 2013

30 years of ImprovBoston!

This August 9-10, 2013 ImprovBoston is celebrating its 30+ years with an alumni weekend. I will be proudly performing with other alum on Saturday night at 8pm. ImprovBoston has been a huge part of my life. I have been a part of it for over 15 years and it has influenced me in ways that will shape my life forever. A majority of my close friends and many of my major life memories are a direct result of ImprovBoston. If it wasn't for this theater I would've moved to NYC, Chicago or LA a long time ago.

I know that it's not considered a major improv market but I definitely think it's one of the most vibrant improv and comedy scenes around. The way ImprovBoston, ImprovAsylum and other improv groups around the area have evolved the scene over the last 15 years has been amazing to witness. Supplemented by arguably one of the best stand-up scenes in the country and you have one amazing pool of talent. I'm very proud of what this community has created during my time here and am excited about what's to come.

That being said, having a strong sense of history has always been important to me. So, one of my contributions to this alumni weekend is a collection of memorable moments in ImprovBoston history. Thank you to Ellen Holbrook and Nancy Walker for their fact-checking and contributions. And thank you to the current IB staff, Board of Directors, Mike Descoteaux and Zach Ward for giving me a place to continue performing, directing, teaching and creating!

So...you know you're an ImprovBoston nerd when you know that:
  1. In 1982, we were called the Improv Olympic. Sound familiar? We performed at Riley's Beef and Pub in Government Center for a few months, and then at Satch's at Copley Square for about a year. In 1983, while at Satch's, we started to use the name ImprovBoston, but we were still doing a version of the Improv Olympic with a lot of smaller troupes and didn't yet have a "mainstage" troupe.  When we started performing at Ryles (1984), we formed a mainstage company of our best performers so that we could be sure of more consistently funny shows!
  2. ImprovBoston has a long history of Master Class instructors that helped to shape the evolution and growth of our theater. They started in 1982 with David Shepherd (formerly of the Compass Players, predecessor of Second City) and Michael Gellman (former mainstage player and director of Second City) and continued into the 21st century with Keith Johnstone (2000), Amy Poehler (2001), Mick Napier (2002) and continues all the way to 2013 with Kevin McDonald, Jimmy Carrane and others!
  3. ImprovBoston was first incorporated as a Non-Profit Theatre Company in 1984. The Board of Directors was about 5 people and Jim Flaherty and Ellen Holbrook were the only performers on the Board.
  4. In 1984, Ellen Holbrook co-produced the First Improv Convention at Second City with Charna Halpern! 4 members of ImprovBoston did a road trip to Chicago to participate - Ellen Holbrook, Jim Flaherty, Roger Hard, and Dorothy Dwyer.  The convention was mostly an opportunity for improv troupes from all over the US and Canada to do showcase performances at Second City and to learn different formats and many other things from each other. After performing at Second City on their last night, everyone went out for drinks and food at a Blues bar down the street.  At one point in the evening, Ellen was looking for Jim Flaherty, and someone told her that he was in the back room playing pool.  So she went to the back room, and there found Jim Flaherty - who was playing pool with Bruce Springsteen!  Bruce was apparently in Chicago to do a concert.
  5. Steve Carell - who grew up in the Boston suburbs - was a college student at Denison University in Ohio when ImprovBoston started.  He would come home to Boston for holidays and summer vacations. Because of the open format show in the early days, audience members were sometimes allowed to get up on stage with us and do the Harold and other games. Steve was so funny that the cast invited him to perform with IB anytime he wanted. So he would come around to Satch's and Ryle's a few times and he was also at a show IB did at Northeastern.  While he was never an official "cast member" he was definitely one of the more memorable regular guest performers.
  6. All of the Artistic Directors
    • Ellen Holbrook 1982-1984
    • David Thibodeaux 1984-85
    • Leslie Curtin 1985-86
    • Jack O'Connor 1986-87
    • Brad Jones 1987-89
    • Nancy Walker 92-95
    • Larry Pizza 95-97
    • Ron Jones 97-2000
    • Will Luera 2000-12
    • Mike Descoteaux 12-Present
  7. You get excited when you see these folks on TV, movies, magazines or hear them on podcasts because all of these people have been a part or have had a connection to ImprovBoston -

    It should be noted that Jane Curtin was never officially a member of ImprovBoston. She had been a member of "The Proposition" which was an improv troupe that preceded IB by maybe 10 years but also performed in Inman Square.

  8. In the 90s, ImprovBoston would perform a show called the Fruitcake Variations which was quite controversial. IB received angry letters because at the end of each show we’d ask for an unusual death and then improvise a scene which culminated in the death of an actual fruitcake in that manner. People were outraged that we would destroy food.
  9. Around 1990, Noah Gregoropoulos from iO came out to Boston to teach the Harold to members of ImprovBoston and other improv groups around the city like the Guilty Children and Angry Tuxedos so that they can compete in a public show at "Catch a Rising Star" in Harvard Square. For a while after that the ImprovBoston show consisted of first-half short-form and a second-half Harold.
  10. In 1993, after performing at the Back Alley Theater at 1253 Cambridge St. in Inman Square for a few years, the cast took over the lease when the space became available and made it the first ever permanent location for ImprovBoston. On a limited budget they built out the seating area, stage and hung lights. ImprovBoston now had a place to call home. 
  11. In two seperate fundraisers, famous celebrities have helped out ImprovBoston. In the eighties John Cleese met with several members of ImprovBoston when they were working on getting their first venue and in the 00s, during a fundraiser for our new space, Janeane Garafalo met with members of ImprovBoston and shot this video with us - Janeane Garofalo visits ImprovBoston
  12. If it weren't for a chance encounter at a Cinco de Mayo party, Adam Felber and Nancy Walker would not have met Steve Gilbane who they invited to join ImprovBoston. If this never occurred, Gorefest would have NEVER EXISTED! Or at least the music part of it wouldn't.
  13. You know that the first ever Showcase show was "Election" directed by Ron Jones. It has returned every election year since! Although in 2008, we did a twist when we did a 5 hour mega Boston News Net show! For one night we moved the BCN show from the Studio to the Mainstage for an amazing 5-hour extravaganza which included comics, dancers, music and more! 
  14. The original Harold team at IB was Project D, which was started in 2002 by C Todd Lombardo and included performers Michell Barbera, Neraj Tuli, Sue Constantine, Selena Coppock, Mike Manship, Lisa Cordner, Matt Cuccaro and more! Project D was also the first Expansion team (predecessor to the Studio Teams). It was ultimately directed by Joe Kendall and then Will Luera.
  15. The first weekly stand-up show started in 2003 when Chris and David Walsh brought The Great and Secret Comedy Show to Thursday nights at ImprovBoston. It quickly became one of the hottest nights in Boston for Alternative Comedy.
  16. YAP was started by community member Bill Griffin who passed away in 2007. It was originally a meetup group that met at MIT and then in Davis Square. As it grew, IB and Bill decided to work together to bring YAP to ImprovBoston. 
  17. You have heard of and know of IB's integrated history with the Angry Tuxedos, Renegade Duck, Guilty Children, Comedie Du Jour and of course, The Tribe!
  18. BCAF initially started out as Goonfest (in honor of the now retired ImprovBoston goon). It ran for two years at the old Inman Square space.
  19. You have heard of the capital campaign, led by Elyse Schuerman, that helped move the theater from Inman Square to Central Square. Elyse was assisted by many IB performers including John Serpico, Katie Leeman and Rachel Rosenthal (and many more) that helped move the theater from Inman Square to Central Square. There were several amazing fundraisers including the memorable Bachelor/Bachelorette auction! 
  20. You watch this video from our 25th anniversary and tear up!  You also remember the epic night when we brought together several generations of casts and did snippets of every showcase show ever. If you were there you would also remember the infamous "Uniprov" incident...and cringe just a little. 
                                                 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Post-College Years

ImprovBoston, Inman Square, 1997


Due to my own academic laziness and indecisiveness, I graduated a semester late from Boston College. Instead of the Spring of 1996, I graduated the following winter. After my graduation, I continued to hang out on campus (my then-girlfriend was still a student there) and I even participated in a couple of theater department productions. After a few months of being on campus on an almost daily basis, I started to feel like a hanger-on and I knew that I had to get out of there and move on.

I auditioned for many local plays in an effort to fill that creative void that I was leaving behind. One day I was out on an audition at the Boston Playwrights Theater in Brighton when I saw a flyer for an improv class being taught by a local instructor named Marjorie Burren. I wrote her number down and gave her a call. Later that day I was registered for my first real improv class.

The classes were being held at the Piano Factory Space in the South End. It was the first time I took classes with non-college students so I was a little nervous because I would no longer be the "big man on campus" sort of speak. For the last couple of years at BC, I was the go-to person for improv exercises or side-coaching. I had developed a reputation for being able to direct and teach improvisation to comedians and actors. I had a fear that now that I was out of the comfort zone of my campus I would end up hating these classes, but instead my love for this art was renewed and stronger than ever.

I was doing exercises geared towards acting professionals and everyone there applied the necessary level of discipline and hard work needed to succeed. After feeling like I had reached a pinnacle of improv achievement as a senior in college, I could feel myself being challenged in new ways and becoming a better improviser. Aside from the actual improv instruction, the ability to break through this threshold was one of my biggest takeaways from that class. I was suddenly exposed to a deeper and more meaningful level of improvisational theater. It was great to receive instruction from a seasoned veteran.

As we finished up the first 8-week course, she informed me about upcoming auditions at a local improv theater named ImprovBoston. She put me in touch with the space and within a few days, one of the actors, Greg Wymer, told me about the auditions and what I should expect. I'll never forget that he said, "We don't expect you to be Robin Williams or anything". That allowed me to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

I don't want to sound cocky, but the first round was a breeze. A handful of us were invited to callbacks the next week. Based on the talent I saw I felt that I had a good chance to be cast. They said that they had two open spots and as far as I was concerned, me and a recent grad from Tufts, Amy Rhodes, were strong contenders after the first round of auditions...and then He walked in. I'll never forget the moment he walked through the front doors of ImprovBoston. He had intimidated me with his raw skill and intelligence at Boston College and now he was here in front of me with all of his flowing golden locks...Don Schuerman.

Don was one of the most brilliant improvisers and comedians during my tenure at Boston College. His ability to do the mental gymnastics of twisted and mutated short-form with about a dozen different suggestions was beyond my comprehension. Sitting among the sea of co-eds, I would be in awe of his talent...and now he was here...and I was in fear.

It was clear that they were going to be casting two people...one man and one woman. When Don arrived, I knew that my fate was sealed. Despite my certain ending, I gave it the old college try. During the three-hour callback with director Ron Jones and other members of the ImprovBoston troupe, we played a variety of different improv games. Some of which I knew, most of which I didn't. I held my own against Don, Amy and a few other folks but I knew what was in store for me. I left the building feeling that in the future, I would only be returning as an audience member.

After a few days, there was no news...and why should there be, right?! Now that I knew where the theater was I told my girlfriend that we should go check-out a show. We made plans for the Friday Night production of TheatreSports.

As we walked towards the darkened doorway at 1253 Cambridge Street, we were welcomed by the Artistic Director and director of the ImprovBoston cast, Ron Jones. Ron is an unforgettable teddy bear of a man who is as solid as he is cuddly. The man gave me a hug and then told me that the tickets were free. I felt kind of like a big shot while holding my girfriends hand when he said..."Shows are free for cast members. Welcome!"

The elation that went through me was instant and amazing. Against all odds (in my head), I had been cast in a professional improv troupe as one of the newest cast members of ImprovBoston. Those words were still bouncing around in my head and all through my body as I sat down. This theater...this dark little theater with barely enough lighting and no matching chairs was now my home. That night, I might as well have been sitting at Radio City Hall. It was the most beautiful theater I had ever seen.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Introduction


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I've been meaning to do this for a while.

I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Boston Improv Scene since October 1997 when I was first cast at ImprovBoston. Since then I've been able to witness the evolution of an improv scene that for better or for worse has kept me from ever pursuing my career (and life) elsewhere.

As I approach the completion of my tenth year as the Artistic Director of ImprovBoston, I've had the benefit of history and time to allow me to reflect on what I've been a part of. In the grand scheme of everything, is what we do that important? - no, not really - but I would argue that these last ten years have affected and touched many people in so many ways that their lives and subsequent progeny have forever been affected. I, for one, know that if it weren't for ImprovBoston I would not have made so many amazing friends and probably not have met my wife.

What do I intend to do with this blog? I'm not really entirely sure but for starters I know this:

  1. I want to capture the history of the Boston Improv Scene from 1997 - present from my perspective
  2. I want to share highlights from some of my favorite performers
  3. I want to share my thoughts and perspectives on improvisation
My goal is to write one post a week. I might miss one or double up on some weeks but that's my goal. This has been percolating in my head for a while so I'm glad that I'm finally taking the first step in capturing it in some form.

Will