Ceej Allen is a one-of-a-kind improviser — a vibrant concoction of support, weird, and smart. He’s been improvising in Austin a long time, and he’s seen and done a ton. Anyone who’s played longer than a week or two at the Hideout or at the Institution have probably shared the stage with Ceej, and in so doing, have seen up close just how clever he can be. He knows what a scene needs, and he’s unafraid to deliver it. See for yourself…
Years doing improv: 12
Troupes/shows currently involved in:
Let’s start with the name, “Ceej.” Where’s that come from? Who first called you that? Do people ever mess it up big time?
Many years ago, when I signed up for an internet e-mail account, I chose the name C.J. Allen: Christopher James Allen condensed. I was paranoid about using my actual name in this newfangled internet world. People in my first troupe, Foolish Mortals, called me C.J.
Then, out of the blue one day, someone said, “Ceej!” It became a nickname within that troupe. Then, a couple years later I completely embraced the name while tripping on mushrooms in a fireman-themed Christian cabin with a bunch of friends. True story.
The father of one of my my ex-girlfriends called me Sarge and Surge. Someone else recently called me Sage. I am fine with all of these.
Give us the short version of how you got involved in improv in the first place.
My job screwed me over, changed my schedule abruptly. This was done in an e-mail that I received when I got back from vacation. All of my managers were off the week when I got back … on Christmas break.
I got depressed. Eventually I went into therapy for six weeks. I changed many bad habits and got into writing sketch comedy. I decided to see a sketch show at this place called The Hideout Theatre. The show was OK overall, but very inspiring because I couldn’t believe that live sketch comedy was being done in town. I happened upon a flyer for improv classes and, scared, decided to take a class. Shana Merlin was my teacher.
I. FELL. IN. LOVE. I stopped working on trying to be a feature screenwriter and try this new thing.
You’ve been around the Austin improv scene for a long time. What’re the major differences between improv now and when you got involved?
I don’t really see any difference in the craft of improv.
When I started there was only one theater doing improv regularly. Now we have five theaters with improv shows and training. The training, overall, has gotten stronger. Students graduate being stronger as imps this days. I am floored at how well some of them perform.
So maybe that’s it: the instructors have gotten better at teaching/coaching improv and it reflects on stage.
If you had to describe your “theory of supporting an improv scene,” how would you do it?
Always pay attention and be ready to contribute. Don’t steal focus from a scene that you enter. Do your bit to enhance but be ready to stay too if you get “pulled in” to the scene.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
It was in a movie theater watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It’s the moment when the two main characters accept a ride from a farmer and his wife. The obviously very pregnant farmer’s wife was loading the luggage into the pick-up truck and Steve Martin’s character offered his help. The farmer stopped Steve and said something like, “It’s okay. Her last one came out sideways.” The farmer meant it too. He was not being funny.
The absurdity of that unreal possibility made me laugh so hard that I fell out of my theater seat laughing on the floor. When I laugh that hard I almost pass out.
After so many years of performing, what keeps you engaged in improv? What does it take to sustain your interest in a project?
I couldn’t possibly do improv if it didn’t keep surprising me. Failing and surviving through rough scenes. Seeing new improvisers surprise me too. Seeing the joy on their faces when they pull off a beautiful scene, that’s the best.
Also, as a veteran, there is this responsibility to make others feel comfortable on stage. It floors me when a new player has played in a scene with me and they thank me. I’m like, “What? Don’t you understand that we both just made that happen?”
What’s your worst habit or tendency onstage?
Hesitancy, believe it or not. I actually refrain sometimes when I have an idea on how to help support a scene or an overall narrative. I hold back. I am much better performing in genre narrative than I used to be. I always want to avoid “offer soup” in these kind of shows, so I hold back.
Now brag. What is something you’re especially good at onstage?
I try to play earnestly. No matter how odd the situation or character. If it’s true for the character and you commit, it’s good for the scene. People have complimented me for my characters and physicality, but neither of those matter if the improv does not come from an earnest place.
Who’s an underrated performer or troupe in Austin?
Robert Slack is wonderful. He’s so very patient and committed in his scenes. He is new to our scene, but he has performed improv for many years elsewhere. Along those lines, I also appreciate Katie Dahm. She is always ready to be in a scene. She starts scenes as if she’s already been in that moment. I feel very comfortable playing in scenes with both of these talented people.
You also do video sketches and mini-movies. What kind of creative fulfillment do you get out of that? Would you like to share one with us?
I am a filmmaker. I studied film in college. I have been a filmmaker for over twenty years. No, I don’t have an extensive list on IMDB. I. LOVE. CINEMA. I shoot guerilla style, fast and furious. I edit in my head as I shoot. There is something really beautiful about how improv has pushed me even more into making video shorts happen quickly.
Here’s my “Out of Bounds Trading Cards” video…
You’re in two duos, Franz & Dave and My Best Fiend: Improvised German Movies, both of which improvise using your impressions of actual real-life human beings. Do a quick compare/contrast between these two shows.
First, I must explain these shows.
In Franz & Dave, my partner, Brad Hawkins, plays writer Franz Kafka, and I play filmmaker David Lynch. Together we create a film where we direct the movie as these two real-life people while playing all of the characters in the movie.
In My Best Fiend: Almost German Movies, my partner, Andreas Fabis, plays filmmaker Werner Herzog and I play actor Klaus Kinski. There is a documentary titled My Best Fiend that is a bout the collaboration they did on five films. We do a documentary about a sixth missing film. I try to perform the show in German (I took German twenty years ago in college) and Andreas (who is German) translates what I say.
Now compare and contrast? Hmm … Franz & Dave is often faster paced with many characters and many stage pictures. Meanwhile, My Best Fiend is much slower, and I only play one character. Also, I have to rely on physicality and emotion more since I am verbally restricted by speaking in a second language.
You’re also in Confidence Men, which is improvised David Mamet. What’s the key to improvising in the style of Mamet?
Play strong, but don’t force any ideas. Mamet is all about rhythms of speech. Plot is secondary. Emotion and intent is key. You’ll find out as you perform the show what the central “thing” is. It’s a beautiful game of verbal ping-pong. Dialogue interrupting dialogue. Ideas sparring.
Two characters can be talking about, say, pineapples … for awhile … and then something is said that makes you realize the scene is really about divorce or something else deeper in a character’s world. Characters sometimes hide their true emotions by talking about inane things. But you always know there is something more on his mind.
Also, some of our shows go more dramatic, even become dark. There’s something truly special about not having a clue where the show is going tonally until it comes togethers organically on its own. A couple of our shows have ended with audible gasps by the audience followed by rabid applause. It’s the best feeling in the world to be awakened out of an intense show by the audience. Like, “Wow … what just happened? Where am I? A theater?”
The only time I have ever cried on stage was in a Confidence Men show. The only time I ever felt like a true actor was in a CM show. I love performing with those guys.
What’s next for Ceej Allen?
I am hoping to bring my vision of “fringe” to The Hideout Theatre’s Free Fringe show in 2015. (I’ve got one thing up my sleeve already.) Also, I am very happy to be traveling with my two duos to the Alaska Improv Festival which is run by an imp as “out there’ as I am. There’s also a potential new duo I might be in. And, of course, any random improv that comes my way.
Let’s say you wrote an improv manual. What’re the titles of the first three chapters?
3. Play Earnestly
Anything you want to plug?
Wanderlust and Late Night Time Machine.
Wanderlust is in its rehearsal stage where we are discovering what “our world” will be. That’s exciting.
LNTM is an improv show that takes place in 1968 on a talk show. Each sow is heavily structured, but the improv is all improv. Also, I really enjoy playing with both of these casts.
What’s one thing that most people don’t know?
I was confirmed Lutheran in Worms, Germany, on the year of Martin Lutheran’s 500th anniversary. For lunch, as a sort of reward for my achievement, we ate at a McDonalds. I guess I loved greasy fries and bad burgers just a little more than schnitzel. But that has changed.