When it comes to "special skills" in show business, few are more special than the ability to perform well in an improvisational situation. Undoubtedly, many actors who are talented enough to give great performances in challenging roles by Shakespeare, Williams, Brecht, and Albee would fall apart if they found themselves onstage without a script, asked to perform fully improvised skits and songs based on suggestions thrown out by audience members.
Though some thesps might consider this a particularly horrifying version of The Actor's Nightmare, others sem to thrive on it. Four cases in point are Joe De Gise II, Tara Copeland, Rob Schiffmann, and Victor Varnado, the cast members of Chicago City Limits' current show in NYC. I recently spoke with De Gise about the joys and perils of improvisational comedy.
TM: I'm told that you've been with the group for quite a while.
JOE DE GISE II: Yeah, since maybe '93. I started off in the touring company, which was a load of fun. Then I went into the resident company, doing all the shows in Manhattan. I still get to travel because, sometimes, we do corporate and industrial gigs.
TM: The company is based in New York?
JDII: Yeah, the name kind of throws people. The group started in Chicago with Second City in the '70s. I think it was Del Close who said, "You guys have got it, go and do it now," so they came to New York to try and make it. That was over 20 years ago.
TM: And where are you from, Joe?
JDII: New Jersey. I had been involved with improv through high school and I was in a group in the late '80s that played around Manhattan; it was called Unexpected Company. After that group broke up, I auditioned for Chicago City Limits.
TM: Every time I see an improv show, I find it amazing. I assume there are some aspects of the show that must be set beforehand, to one degree or another.
JDII: There are a couple tricks of the trade, but those tricks are not deceptive; they're just skills that you develop. The only thing we know ahead of time is the structure of each scene, what the game is. We know that, in one game, the bell is going to ring and we're going to have to change what we say. Song-wise, there are a couple of forms where the music is set and the lyrics are improvised. But the mini-musical we do at the top of the second act is completely improvised -- words and music. We don't know what the structure of each song is going to be and we don't know what chords or melodies are going to come out of us. That's where our musical director, Frank [Spitznagel], and the cast have to work closely together, to try to read each other and determine where to go with any given song. An important point is that we're not trying to throw each other: If the mood of a scene that leads into a song is quiet, then we trust that Frank is going to come into it with something like a plaintive ballad. But if the scene is "Hey, I won the lottery," it's going to be "ba-ba-ba-ba!"
TM: Do the Chicago City Limits performers stay together in set groups for long periods of time?
JDII: Right now, it's four people, but it's not rigid. People come in and people leave. Since I've been in the resident company, I've been through, maybe, four totally different casts. This group has been working together since the beginning of the year. The ideal is to work with the same people for the most part, because then you really get to know each other and better anticipate where somebody is taking something. It's smoother. Whenever anybody can't make a performance for whatever reason, we get the understudies from the touring company.
TM: The group's press agent told me something that I find fascinating: You're a Hare Krishna.
JDII: Yeah, that's true. I love this work and I'm an artist in some capacity, but it's not the goal of life, you know? I think human life is a rare and precious gift to be utilized for that which is lasting. For me, Krishna consciousness explained everything in the overview. I was brought up Catholic and there were a lot of questions that were left unanswered. The Vedic literature from India is such a vast compilation of knowledge; it covers every area. So I chant Hare Krishna every day. That's what keeps me going and keeps my priories straight.
TM: I'm sure there are different levels of observance. There are people for whom Krishna is an entire lifestyle, but you're probably not that extreme.
JDII: Actually, I'm doing it my best to make it my lifestyle. You don't have to renounce your job, it's just a process of changing the consciousness with which you perform the activity. So I'm still an actor but I'm not sort of soaking in the applause and thinking, "Look how great I am!" I recognize that Krishna has allowed me to do this and has given me some facility for it, so I do it in service to God rather than just to inflate my own ego.
TM: But you don't go out in the streets and chant and dance?
JDII: Actually...I do! The bliss that comes with that is unimaginable, so I do it as much as possible. I don't flag people and try to proselytize and sell them books and stuff, which some devotees do, but it's important to get the knowledge out there.
TM: Getting back to Chicago City Limits: Are there times when you guys get stuck on stage? And, if so, how do you get out of it?
JDII: There are a few rules. One is that you make up whatever you don't know, and then that becomes the truth. Any scene we do is a kind of suspended reality, or we create our own reality. It works as long as we stick to it and keep it consistent. The other thing is that, among the four of us, we all have our areas of expertise. As far as getting frozen in the moment -- like, "Oh, man, I don't know what to do now!" -- that doesn't really happen because we have each other and we're trained well enough to do something.
TM: Could you give me an example of an improv moment that went exceptionally well?
JDII: I remember one thing that happened a while ago. We were doing the Jeopardy sequence and I was playing a pimp. Our house manager has a dog that sometimes hangs out at the theater. Somehow -- I don't know how -- the dog went through the green room, which is upstairs beyond the bathroom. Then she walked down a long corridor, down the steps, and came out on stage. The audience started laughing and we were all looking around like, "What the hell?" So, as the pimp, I said: "Don't worry about it, she's just one of my bitches."
TM: Wow. That was a gift!
JDII: A total gift.