Six Quotation-ishes from Stephen Kearin

I’ve mentioned once or twice that Stephen Kearin is one of my favorite improv minds. He has nearly 30 years of improv experience—something nobody in Austin can claim. Doing anything for 30 years gives you a rare depth of insight. If a 30-year-long garbage man wants to share with you his philosophical musings about garbage, listen to that man.

And when deep expertise is shared—when it’s generously, eagerly shared—with wit and flair and panache, as is Stephen’s when he teaches improv, well, listen to that man too. I dare you not to.

Last weekend, Stephen visited Austin as part of the Improvised Play Festival. He taught three workshops; I took two of them. Let’s see if I can’t recall some of his lessons and soundbites, shall we?!?

(Note: relying on my memory for full or accurate recall is a dubious experiment.)

“Falling out of bed is a bit more difficult than directing improv.”

Stephen said this to himself, chiding himself for side-coaching a scene too much. This one is more tongue-in-cheek than the others, I think.

That said, it brings up an interesting question: How hard is improv directing? (Which I’m thinking of as separate from “improv coaching.”)

We’ll tackle that in future, but for now: I think it’s pretty easy to be a perfectly acceptable, middle-of-the-road, no-harm/no-foul improv director.

I think it’s much more difficult, and more rewarding, to be an excellent improv director. 

“Don’t settle for being a Hollywood star when you’re the whole universe…”

This is Stephen quoting someone. I thought I heard him say “Rumi,” whom, I’ve since learned, was a 13th century Persian poet, making his reference to Hollywood highly prescient.

Whoever said it—or if it’s a mash-up of other quotations—it’s illustrative of what makes Stephen  a good “teacher of things”: he doesn’t laud his ego over students.

When I think of people whose work I admire, I think of: Stephen Kearin and Stephen King and Stephen Fry and Steve Martin. (The “Stephen” thing is an honest-to-god coincidence.) And what do those four guys—and the dozens of others of people I admire—have in common? A seeming lack of ego.

Sure, in some sense, anyone who seeks out fame has some ego. Just as anyone who breathes air has some ego. The challenge is not to let your ego be mistaken for you. Those people who avoid believing themselves somehow inherently “better than” might find success of one form, but they won’t have many admirers.

Nobody admires Donald Trump. Because he’s a fucking prig. I’d rather be Warren Buffet any day.

{Pointing to his wedding ring} “I used to think that this was a prison. It’s just the opposite.”

This was said during a digression, so I can’t directly trace it to an improv lesson. But a moment after he made this gesture and said these words, Stephen began talking about Tim and Rafe, the two other thirds of mega-troupe 3 For All. And he spoke of them, briefly, in the same terms he’d just mentioned his wife. Commitment. Dedication. Ride or die. Loyalty.

And then, mentioning how much he adores his brothers-in-improv-arms, Stephen choked himself up. Just briefly, just a quick catch in his throat and pause of his kinetic energy. But it was clear that talking about how he loves the people he performs with still resonates—all these years later.

How lucky we all should be to find, cultivate, endure, and reap a relationship (or two) that special.

“I don’t believe in that ‘I have to love myself in order to love others’ bullshit. That’s bullshit. Love others first. Love others and this—this ego of yours—it just falls away.”

This one resonated with me, because lately I’ve pondered my romantic life more often than normal. I’m single. For a couple of years, my urge to be single far outstripped my urge to couple up. Of late, though, the balance has shifted, and I find myself … yearning? No, that’s not what it is. Yearning is what pale British men do in the rain on the moors.

I find myself wanting to fall in love. And so, I decided that, following the conventional advice, I should begin by investing in some self-love—the proper, healthy kind. Getting in better shape, finding more balance, feeding my mind and body in healthy ways, etc.

During these periods of focused, disciplined self-improvement, perhaps I’ve lost sight of others. It’s hard to be selfish and selfless at the same time, after all. To upend the equation, to say that no, you should love outward first, and the inner-love will follow?

Duh.

“Go at one-third that speed.”

This quote is a stand-in for a whole bunch of quotes all revolving around the same idea: Slow down, especially with your object work. Stephen, being made of vulcanized rubber himself, notices every movement, and most of them go way too quickly.

It’s easy enough to harp on improvisers to slow down, but the psychology behind why we move so haphazardly onstage is worth a quick mention:

For starters, as I’ve noted in this blog before, I’m a recovering laughter junkie. Laughter still has a strong grasp on my improv—the hunger to hear the audience guffawing—but it’s loosening. As a laughter junkie, I’ll sometimes zip from thing to thing onstage until I get a laugh, then I’ll dig into that and try to build.

But all those things I zipped past in the ravenous hunt for a chuckle? Each of those things deserved its due. And what’s more, if I’d give them their due, new pathways would’ve emerged.

Opening a cabinet and grabbing a wine bottle onstage shouldn’t take the 3-4 seconds you spend doing it! It should take 20 seconds at a minimum. And each discrete step—putting your hand up, grasping the cabinet handle, pulling open the door, stepping back, selecting the right bottle, etc.—each step needs to be shown to the audience.

Maybe that’s why I’m so charmed by Stephen’s teaching style: it’s theatrical, and I’ve always been a sucker for theatricality—a little ham makes me happy. When Stephen opens a cabinet onstage, it has some meaning.

Movement is the sincerest form of self-expression. Let it be. Slow down. Go at one-third the speed you’re going now. Your audience will thank you.

“If information comes into your brain, you can drip it through your character.”

This is revelatory stuff.

Stephen is saying that if you, the improviser, are feeling hungry onstage, say so—as your character. If you, improviser, notice that the other player is blinking an abnormal amount—if that thought pops into your head, Hey, she’s blinking a bunch!—you don’t have to ignore that thought; you can “drip it” through your character. You can just say it: “You’re blinking a lot, Patricia!”

You don’t have to do this. You probably shouldn’t do this with every damn thought. But the point is that you can. You don’t have to think of IMPROV as some “separate thing.” It’s here.

Improv is all up in your face. Might as well use it.


Let’s see, I listed six quotations—the ones my memory actually stirred up—and only one of them is a specific “how to perform better” note. The other five refer to things larger than, but integrally entwined with, good improv practice.

Love each other. Play with intention. Don’t take it so damn seriously.

And here are the notes of one of my fellow, more prepared, more meticulously organized workshop students:

photo 2photo 3

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