The Sunday Interview: Cat Drago

What can I say about Cat Drago? Of all the people I know (other than my mom) Cat exhibits the largest disparity between hard work and amount of grumpiness. Which is a clumsy way of saying that Cat works non-stop and has never complained in my presence. Not once. To me, that is a superpower. 

She's also a nurse; a talented improviser, singer, and actress; a generous daughter; a homeowner; a devoted believer; a jewelry maker; a supportive friend; an ex-goth; and a golden-era-Hollywood beauty. 

But enough of my yakkin', let's boogie...

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Age: 30

Years doing improv: 5

Troupes/shows you're in: Currently I’m just in Cascade, my duo with Sarah Marie Curry

Web presence: http://www.cascadeimprov.com/

Why do you improvise?  
Man, you jump right into the hard questions!

I have always loved theater, and I've performed in one form or another my whole life. As a kid, I did film and voiceover acting for my dad's self-made production company; then I moved to stage acting; and when I moved to Austin, I fell into this.And right now I can't imagine ever not improvising.

I love the team aspect of improv, the spontaneity, the fact that a group of people collaborate to form a beautiful little piece of performance art that only lasts for a show, and then it magically disappears and you have a clean slate for the next time.

You do a weekly duo show with Sarah Marie Curry. How did that come to be? What do you like, and what do you find challenging, about two-person improv?  
Well our duo came about because of her. She saw me play a blind Samurai in Kenjutsu, an Improvised Samurai Epic that happened at the Hideout Theatre two years ago. She sent me a beautifully worded message a couple of days later laying out a proposal for a duo, and then we just sort of started it.  

It's gone through different phases over the last two years, but I love it because it's exactly the sort of work that I wanted to be doing from the moment I overheard Andy Crouch mention the phrase "dramatic improv" to someone in my level 1 class. I didn't know that was an option. And then I couldn't get it out of my head. So when she agreed to go in that direction I was thrilled.

The challenge with a duo is the duo itself.

I've heard from different people that you'll never grow more in improv than you will in a duo, and I've definitely seen that firsthand. In an ensemble cast there's always some downtime, sometimes long moments where you aren't saying anything, even if you are on stage. You're getting creative feedback from multiple people, multiple sources of inspiration. If you're having a bad day or you’re feeling uninspired you can wait on the sidelines until you find a juicy moment to step in (don’t do that though, get out there!).  

In a duo there's no waiting on the sidelines, there's no one to rescue you, and the only sources of inspiration are your own brain and the offers coming from your partner. It's just you and them, and you have to be present and "on" in every single moment.

It's exhausting at times. You don't realize how much work it is to be constantly outputting until you've done it. But the payoff for a duo is equally exciting, I think. There have been many days where, on a Sunday night, I tiredly drag myself to the theater, thinking, "Oh man, I'm going to produce crap today," and then I walk away thinking, "YES. THIS is why I do improv. For shows like THIS." It's hugely rewarding.

Also, your duo, Cascade, tends to do more "dramatic" improv. Why? And what's it like doing more serious improv vs. funny stuff?
I grew up in a really comedic family. My dad was a hilarious person, and would make us all laugh until we cried, and mom can find laughter in anything. So I learned from an early age to love and appreciate comedy.

But as far as art consumption, for some reason I always gravitated toward drama. I adore watching something that makes me feel on a deeper level, or provokes me to think about something in a different way.

As a kid I always preferred being in and watching dramatic plays and movies. Now I really love both, but there's just something special for me about dramatic improv. It’s quite fulfilling for me to do a show where people walk away with feelings of empathy or new perspective, or remembering a moment in their own life that felt the same way as my character felt.

And I think Sarah Marie feels the same way, so it was great to find someone that was excited about doing that kind of art with me.  

It feels SO great when you get that HUGE laugh from the audience, but the moments I love the best are the moments where someone comes up to me later and says, “That improv show you did? That character? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It made me remember a time in my life when….”

I’ve been exploring a lot of ideas about dramatic improv, and a lot of people seem to have really strong opinions for or against it actually. I’ve heard people say, "Dramatic improv can work, but only if it happens accidentally. Otherwise it’s phony or forced."

Certainly dramatic improv done badly can be like a Lifetime movie. But comedy has an equal potential to be disingenuous, I think.

When a new improvisor comes in and is working SO hard to be funny and comes out with dick jokes and everyone groans…. no one tells them to stop trying to do comedy just because the comedy they just did was forced. They just recognise that it takes practice to get to the point where the comedy is natural and real and actually funny.

I look at dramatic improv the same way. If we keep saying “Weelllll, if it goes that way it’s fine, but we’re not aiming for dramatic,” we’re never going to really dig deep and figure out what makes good improvised drama vs. Lifetime movie improvised drama.

And I’ve definitely been a part of both. You can taste it when it’s bad. But it’s so beautiful when you get it right. 🙂 And I’ve been so grateful to get to be a part of so many dramatic shows. Kenjutsu, RISEN, Nothing and Everything.

Gah. I love it.  

Who's the funniest person you personally know?
My friend Tucker and my niece, Emma. Tucker makes me laugh with almost every word that comes out his mouth. He made me pee myself in Walmart once. Which, you know, I shouldn't have been in Walmart in the first place.  

And Emma is going to out-perform us all one day. Best comedic brain I’ve ever met and she’s only 17. I’m hoping she’ll move to Austin and do improv with me, but I haven’t quite convinced her yet.

You've never really taught or directed improv. Why or why not? Any interest in that?  
Well, that's not totally true. I teach kids improv classes at my school, and I've done TA'ing at the Hideout and the Institution.

I love teaching. Really I love teaching anything, so naturally I'm highly interesting in teaching improv. So far it's mainly just been my schedule that has prevented me. But I'm currently putting together a workshop with Sarah Marie, so that'll roll out soon. I'm really excited about it. And who knows what the future holds.

You're a nurse, currently a school nurse. How does your experience in improv help serve you as a nurse (if it does at all)?  
Oh, yeah it totally does. Teaching improv after school aside, I use improv for my job all the time. Kids come in screaming hysterically over one thing or another, and I've been known to break into song or dance, or some other distraction.

You also really have to think on your toes with these kids. They're pretty hilarious themselves.  I break out into singing "The Circle of Life" every time a kid comes in upset that they've lost a tooth. So that's entertaining for ME at least!  

(This isn't what you asked, but my mom told me a couple of weeks ago that she feels like improv helps me taking care of my dad as well. Which I never really thought about before. I help take care of my dad who is in the end stages of Alzheimer's, and she told me a few weeks ago that she sees what I do with him and credits a lot of my approach to my improv experience.

Which was a cool thing to hear, and think about. I think she's right. When you're caring for someone, anyone really, you need to be flexible with what they need in any particular moment. So whether it's the preschooler at my job who is too nervous to talk out loud so I have to come up with a not-scary way of communicating with her, or it's my dad who can no longer talk to me and I have to try to entertain him, I do think I use improv as a way of caring.)

You're a devoted Christian. Do you find it difficult to square that with your improv experiences?  
Both emphatically no and sort of yes. I think that improv itself has actually helped my journey of following Jesus.

Following after Jesus is often an adventure, in that sometimes the Lord asks things of us that are outside of our comfort zone or downright hard or scary.

Here in the United States, that’s probably one of the hardest parts about being a Christian. It’s downright easy for us here to just stay comfortable. And Jesus did not call us to a life of comfort. He says to go, to serve, to give, and to sacrifice of ourselves.

Before improv, I spent most of my life attempting to do only what was safe. Often that meant saying NO to the things God asked of me. So in that respect improv itself has been wonderful for me.  

But also most of the people in the improv community are not on that same path, and some people are quite angered by Christianity in general, which I empathize with considering some of the things people have done in Christ’s name.

Sometimes that’s hard. It’s hard to hear people make fun of Jesus. But you know, the Hideout Theatre in particular is a place I feel very safe at, and so many people in the community (yourself included, Andrew) from all different theaters have been quite supportive and tolerant, so I’m very grateful.

"Dating in the improv community." Discuss. 🙂
HA! Well, I’d be thrilled to date an improvisor, but I’m looking for someone of the same faith as me, so there aren’t all that many options… Lots of great awesome men, just so far not any for me.

If you find one, send him my way.

What's the hardest you've ever laughed?
That’s the hardest question to ask an improvisor! Um…. well, maybe see the above story about peeing in Walmart. Also, I’m sure it may have happened sometime in the 46-hour Improv Marathon last summer… but I was delirious so I don’t remember.

What's something that newer improvisers should (or shouldn't) do right now, tonight, to be more successful?  
If you’re new to improv, don’t get trapped in the thought that eventually you’ll be noticeable enough for people to make room for you on stage, and THEN you’ll get to shine. Screw that mess. I thought that for a really long time. NO ONE is going to make room for you. And waiting for that moment isn’t helpful to you, or anyone else on that stage.

MAKE YOUR OWN ROOM. Fight for it. Dream after it. Push and claw for it. Time spent on the sidelines beating yourself up or doubting yourself is time horribly and needlessly wasted.

Get out there. Fail. And succeed. And you’ll get so much better when you do.

What's one thing that most people don't know about you? That I’m Hispanic. Everyone thinks I’m generically “Asian” of some kind, I’ve even randomly had some people legitimately ask me if I’m half black, but no. Mom’s Mexican, dad’s Sicilian.   

Anything you want to plug?  
ImprompTwo happens every Sunday at 7 pm at the Institution Theater. It’s free, sometimes there’s free wine, and it’s a pretty little show that we have a lot of fun doing.

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