Kaci Beeler can add to her résumé a fantastic new honorific: First Person to Be Interviewed on YesAndrew.com Twice.
Her first interview took place almost two years ago (read it here). Plenty has changed since then: Bill Cosby is a paraiah and Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar.
In other words, nothing is predictable. Except this: Kaci Beeler is a busy bee(ler) and she has plenty of interesting things to say about the practice, teaching, and business of improvisation.
Years doing improv: 13
Shows and troupes currently involved in:
- Available Cupholders
- The Amazon and The Milksop
- The Big Bash
- Austin Secrets Season 5
Web presence: KaciBeeler.com
You’ve traveled more for improv than anybody I know. Other than America, what country has the best improv?
Wow. This is a hard question because improv communities are at many different stages in so many different places. Some countries might only have one group plugging away at improvisation while another might have several theaters and companies. Plus, the countries where a lot of their work is in a different language than English means I could never get a true sense of the work – or perhaps even fully find it on my own.
(Also, I don’t believe in saying anything is the “best,” especially in the creative world, where things are evolving at such a fast rate. And so much is dependent on personal taste. But I know what you mean.)
There’s a lot of great stuff going on in the U.K., France, Australia, and Japan. But as far as a country with a really widespread and diverse view of improvisation? I’d have to go with Canada. Is that a boring answer? (I say boring because Canada seems similar to the U.S. in a lot of ways, and I’m sure people want an exotic or surprising answer).
I’ve been to Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, and all of those cities have interesting and diverse improv communities, in addition to the fantastic work coming out of Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, and Regina. Plus, Canada has national awards for improv (yep!) and the Canadian Improv Games (a high-school improv tournament), so they get ‘em hooked on improv on a national scale young.
I’m sure if you were to take a World Poll, more plebeians per capita would know what improv actually was in Canada, and they probably would have an overall positive view of it.
What is an example of something that’s funny in America but not in, say, Thailand or Scotland? Or vice versa? Paint a global humor picture for us, Kaci.
I have learned a lot about the comedic sensibilities of different regions! In America, there is a lot of comedy contingent on speech. We love our word play, our sarcasm, our verbal nuance. When I started performing in Asia for Asian audiences, I realized that not only do we not have the same kind of word play, but word play isn’t valued as much in comedy (from what I could tell from two different tours of China, Korea, and Japan).
Often, comedy in Asia is based on physicality, expressiveness, and status/relationship. These things are more universal, too. So, while a conversation between two hipster teenagers comparing which obscure bands are best might make a fun scene here in the U.S., it would be pretty hard to convey in a comedic way to a Japanese audience. And that’s not just due to the language and cultural barriers, but a lot of the Japanese comedy I watched had an emphasis on bold characters, expressive gestures, and heightened emotions. I remember that some slapstick elements (like falling over or being overly surprised and startled) did well in Tokyo, and I’m not sure those things would have gone over quite as well here.
When PGraph was in Australia, we realized that Australians like comedy that makes fun of upper class people and doesn’t take itself too seriously. They don’t like comedy that feels pretentious or too insider-y. In Scotland, we found that making fun of Scottish or British people worked really, really, well. Though, we weren’t sure how they would like it until we tried it. I remember when a troupe from San Francisco came to Out of Bounds years ago and started off their show making fun of Austinites. The sold-out crowd was stone silent. Yeah, we don’t like it when other people make fun of us.
Now, I want to say, there are probably great exceptions to all of these things, as comedy is a complex art and varies so much by taste, region, and culture. Maybe I’ll go back to Asia in 10 years and have a completely different experience.
You’re a triplet. Do your siblings perform? Did growing up one of three affect the way you work as an improviser, both on- and off-stage?
You’re speaking of Brett and Brad Beeler! My brothers! Aww. I’m so glad you brought them up. They are not performers. But that’s not to say that they haven’t performed or wouldn’t do well with practice. I especially want to get my brother Brett onstage (he always DJs The Hideout’s Same Years Eve party as DJ Bouncehouse) because he’s taken an improv class in LA.
For some professional context, Brett is an attorney working in employee justice law and Brad is a U.S. Marshall (and a new dad!). And I do this crap. 😉
When we were kids we made up little plays all. the. time. We had a trunk of dress-up clothes and I had a pretty impressive doll and doll house collection. Make-believe was always encouraged. We even aped SNL and MADtv characters (Brett could do a decent Ms. Swan I remember) and re-created partially improvised sketches for our parents, grandparents, and random neighbors.
I often wonder about what it must have meant for my socialization to be with other people since my conception. I’ve literally never been “alone” my entire life, if you think about it. On top of this, I was the “little lady” of our trio. I embraced my feminine attributes, which felt special when compared to the two of them, but I was also very bold and not afraid to play rough when I felt like it. As a kid, my parents said I was lovingly bossy toward my brothers, whom I called “my boys.”
Later, I wondered if this socialization made it easy for me to relate to the opposite gender. I’ve never had trouble talking to or working with guys. The whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” stuff doesn’t connect to my world view. We’re just people. Perhaps this is also why I so keenly feel hurt by gender imbalance in the comedy world. It seems so terribly strange that this is a thing that we have to work on.
We also moved several times, so I had many experiences being the “new kid” in class (we never took classes together, they always separated us). So…meeting and working with people isn’t too hard for me. I’m pretty extroverted. I mean, I can only guess this has helped me as an improviser?
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
I like to laugh and I don’t hold back when I’m having a good time. I remember in high school laughing so hard with my friends at meals that I would have real spit-takes or water would gush out of my nose. Even in more recent years, if someone makes me laugh while eating or drinking, I have to cover my mouth/nose in order not to spray them with food or drink particles. It’s an involuntary response and reading over what I just wrote sounds super disgusting. I figure it’s a pretty high compliment to the person who made me laugh so hard that I cannot control myself.
You’re very busy. You act, you paint, you travel, you direct and perform a lot. What practical strategies do you use to manage a hectic schedule?
After my mental calendar started failing me a few years ago, I switched to putting everything into a Google calendar. Every night, I look at my calendar to see what’s coming up. Pretty simple. I’m also a big fan of to-do lists. I used to keep them in a simple word processor file, but now I use Asana for task management. The whole Hideout team uses Asana (it’s free!) and it’s helping my productivity a lot.
Another thing that helps is napping! If you freelance, like me, your schedule can be pretty varied day-to-day, so being able to take power naps is crucial. Also, I love sleep. If I don’t set an alarm, I sleep for 12 hours. I am not even kidding.
If you could never perform improvisation again, what would you do instead?
Improv wasn’t my first love; scripted theatre and art were. I think performing in scripted plays would scratch a similar itch. I think I’d be well-suited to touring shows, too. Performing several shows in a row is really fun for me: the challenge of it and the stamina it takes is thrilling. Also, acting in films and TV shows is exhilarating and such a different performance beast. It would be pretty hard for me to stop performing/acting and only focus on painting. Painting is such a lonely practice.
Why don’t you teach improv classes? I mean, you do workshops with your troupe, PGraph, but you don’t teach regular ole’ improv classes. Any particular reason?
In order to teach classes — at most improv institutions anyway — you have to lock down your schedule for several months in order to teach your class as they go through different levels. At the Hideout Theatre, that means approximately 18 weeks of commitment to locking down an evening of the week, or multiple evenings.
While I really enjoy teaching, I need to be a little more flexible to do all the other things I do. Freedom and flexibility in my schedule is the thing that makes it possible for me to constantly change gears and work on new projects. I’m open to the idea of teaching an upper-level class here or there if there was interest, and I especially enjoy teaching four-week workshops on special topics (and I should totally do that more).
Speaking of: Roy Janik and I are going to be co-teaching a four-week Improv For Actors class on Sundays, March 29th – April 19th at the Hideout Theatre. So there you go!
What’s something that any improviser could do right now, tonight, and become instantly better?
Slow down and make eye contact with their scene partner. Real and genuine eye contact. Actually seeing the person, and not just glancing over and then breaking the eye contact, but continually checking in. It’s the genuine connection and joy onstage between the improvisers that brings some pretty amazing work, instantly. Get out of your head and into that open, creative space with those other people. That’s where the work really lives and breathes, not up in yer dumb ole head by yerself.
Why do you improvise?
Such a simple but meaty question. I feel at this point that I am almost compulsively driven to perform, to improvise, to create. If I’m not doing something with my mind and my hands I don’t feel like myself. Roy and I went to Hawaii (the big island) in December for a belated five year wedding anniversary trip and it took me by surprise how much trouble I had relaxing. But it also gave me an epiphany – I don’t want to relax (and that’s okay)! I’m happiest when I’m working on projects that I love with people I admire. That’s my bliss.
I have trouble being a spectator or a consumer. Watching good theatre makes me want to do theatre, same goes for improv, art, and acting.
When it comes to improv specifically, I love the truly collaborative nature of the work. In order to do well, you absolutely have to work well together. You have to clearly communicate ideas and like each other. You have to be in the moment and you have to love what you’re doing. If you drop any of those attributes, the show suffers greatly. I’ve described improvising before as being the purest form of living, for me. There’s something so peaceful and all-consuming about the zone we get into when we’re improvising. I feel so keenly alive, as if my whole body is humming a rhythm that matches my fellow performers onstage.
We’re also always chasing the orgasmic bliss of those near-perfect shows. The shows where everything worked in effortless harmony, every improviser was fully utilized and in the moment, the audience was in the palm of our hands, and it all came together in the end. I am lucky to be a part of a lot of really great shows, but truly spectacular shows are much more rare. Experiencing one is as close as I get to spirituality.
PGraph, your troupe, which has been performing weekly for, like, two thousand years — y’all still rehearse every week, right? Why? You’ve got this stuff down by now, don’t you?
We definitely meet every week, but we don’t always rehearse improvisation. We improvise if we’re working on an upcoming run or if someone has an idea of something to try, but mainly we use our time together to reconnect, plan and do housekeeping/business stuff, and work on our book, Instinctual Storytelling.
Early-on in our time together we did perform full-out narratives in rehearsal, but now that we’ve had a weekly show for over eight years non-stop, we get a lot of our reps in onstage. If we’re debuting a new form, we’ve never performed a full version of the show until opening night. We’ve discovered that we’re at a point where making those discoveries on stage in front of an audience is really fun and worthwhile (instead of in the rehearsal room).
After so many experiences performing together in unlikely or weird places around the world, it would take a lot to throw us off in a bad way on our own turf, so we take it upon ourselves to chase risk and failure whenever we can. We have to keep challenging ourselves and keep our communication open, even though our 10-year anniversary is later this year, we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. In fact, we have several new surprises in the works.
Who’s an underrated troupe or performer in Austin?
Sunaina Suhag (penname is “Freedom Treespirit” on Facebook). She’s got natural talent for improv and she’s super charming onstage. I remember watching her in a student showcase and thinking, “Who is that girl!?”
Also, the teen group “Of Mice and Mostly Women” from St. Stephens is really, really great. They’re more adept than a lot of adult groups I’ve seen!
Do you think improvisers should get paid for their work?
This is such a tricky question! As both an often unpaid performer and a low-paid theatre-maker, I think that the arts in general should have more support. Running a full-time venue is such hard work, and I think being a showrunner/producer is often a thankless non-stop slog. Only those who have tried to produce a show can fully appreciate the many things that must happen in order for a performance to meet an audience.
My simple answer is yes, they should. I think we’re all working toward that in Austin. The reality is more complex.
There was that recent Austin Chronicle spread on acting/tech pay in the arts. It shared what I think most of us know: many people work hard for a small stipend or for the love of what they do.
One of the big benefits I see from the improv side of things (as opposed to the scripted side) is that learning/investing in the practice of improvisation is a life-altering practice. I constantly hear, “Improv changed my life, my relationship, my passion, my personality,” or, “Improv brought me love, a job, a focus, a sense of self.” I never hear people say, “Acting made me a better person, a better lover, and more open friend.” I’m sure it’s true for some people, but do you ever hear that?
One theory I have — and jeez, I hope this doesn’t upset people because it’s honestly just an innocent musing — is that scripted acting can be done well even when a person is a bottled-up mess (especially if they’re playing someone who is a wreck). Try to improvise well as a bottled-up mess and, well, it doesn’t really work.
I’m not saying it’s ideal to have an actor who is a wreck, but it’s not by any means unheard of. You have to be okay with failure, risk, collaboration, and honesty to be a good improviser.
Marilyn Monroe in her darker periods would have been fucking horrible to improvise with.
I never hear people say, “He’s a total egotistical jerk, but he’s brilliant, so we had to cast him” when it comes to an improv show. That probably still happens, but it’s lousy and I believe 100% that it will be visible in the work and hold the performance back. Being an asshole carries onto the stage just as much as it affects the work offstage in improvisation.
So, at least if you’re not getting paid to improvise, you’re becoming a better person in the process. 😉
I’ve noticed lately how difficult it can be to end an improv scene — or especially a full narrative show — neatly. The very end of a show is often a little off somehow. Any tips on how to end a show wrapped up in a neat little bow?
Oooh! I have been thinking about endings a lot lately. I think a good ending is much more important to a show than a good beginning. Keith Johnstone speaks at length about setting expectations. He believes in lowering the audience’s expectations at the beginning of a show in order to give them a better experience as the show escalates.
But endings are so hard. You can’t easily practice them in rehearsal, because the best way to really practice is to do the entire show that comes before them. Yep. So, first off, do a lot of shows.
But also, something from the beginning of a show is usually helpful for the end. If you’re ever lost, think back to what was established at the beginning. For instance, say we establish a protagonist at the beginning of the show, and we see this character’s home life, friends and family. There are some random interactions that are fun with these various character, particularly a small detail about the protagonist’s beloved cat:
“You’re always there for me, Marshmallow.”
The rest of the show takes off, and the protagonist is off on an adventure, meeting all kinds of new people and foes, making moral decisions, etc. As the story begins to wrap up we hear a “meow” from offstage,
The audience had forgotten about the cat in the midst of the rest of the story, but they had not completely forgotten him.
How satisfying is it to see something poignant or interesting make a return at the end? We like feeling like things have come full-circle, in a way.
It also helps for a character to have changed, and to show or speak about these changes by the end of a story. I know that sounds dumb, but when we see the contrast between Frodo at the beginning of LOTR and the end, it’s a pretty significant difference, and this contrast is key for paying off the rest of the journey we’ve seen.
Anything you want to plug?
Parallelogramophonograph (aka, PGraph) plays every Friday at 10 p.m. at the Hideout Theatre. This is our ritual, our blood-pact, to perform this show as time withers all around us. Also, it’s super fun.
The Available Cupholders are doing a special show called Tiny Plays on Friday Feb. 20th at 10 p.m. at The Institution Theater (which I’m skipping the PGraph show in order to do). We’re all writing short plays for five people and then performing them cold during the show, followed by an inspired improv set. This is a totally new thing for us and I’m super excited that we’re doing it.
Austin Secrets Season 5 premieres in March. The Amazon and The Milksop are in The Threefer on Feb. 19th. If you want to spend Valentines Day with me I’ll be in the “Love is A Funny Thing” show at The Hideout, aaand I’m looking to do more scripted stage and film work … so if you have a bead on interesting projects of that ilk, let me know.
And, like I said, Roy and I are going to be co-teaching that four-week Improv For Actors class starting on March 29th!
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I saw you, Andrew (you were called Andy then), at a poetry slam when I was 17 or 18. I remember thinking you were a talented performer and poet as well as somewhat intimidating. You seemed a lot older to me then, mainly I’m sure because of that awkward gap between adolescence and young adulthood. I find those early path-crossing memories so fascinating – it’s as if you were a different person. Why did I think our paths would never cross again?
But they did! In a big way!
An interview with Station Theater’s Katy Manning →