I’m geeking out. Because this week’s Sunday Interview guest is Stephen Kearin, whom former interviewee Kaci Beeler once said is “full of improv magic.” Indeed he is. Mr. Kearin is one-third of Bay Area improv supertroupe 3 For All and cast member of Impro Theatre in Los Angeles. Trained in all sorts of theater disciplines, including acting and mime and clowning, Kearin’s voice can be found in the DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar films. Perhaps his most enduring legacy (outside of improv) is as the creator of “Simlish,” the fake language spoken in the mega-hit The Sims games. But those of us addicted to improv think of him first and foremost as an Improv Master. (Hiii-YA!)
I was fortunate enough to take a 3 For All Improv intensive workshop a few months back, and it was both eye-opening and invigorating. Stephen’s sections were especially fascinating. Usually during workshops I get antsy or frustrated if there’s too much lecturing from the instructor; I wanna get up on that stage and go. But not so with Stephen. I wanted him never to stop talking. Some people are watchable onstage; but he is simply not unwatchable—i.e., you cannot look away even if you want to. It’s that magic that Kaci was talking about.
Stephen Kearin has been improvising a long time and sharing his wisdom for almost as long. Today, he shares his wisdom with us. YesAndrew.com is thrilled, in a very fanboy kind of way, to present…
City: Los Angeles
Number of Years Doing Improv: 26
Who’s your improv hero?
You know, in truth, it would have to be Pulp Playhouse as I was introduced to them in 1987 at The Eureka Theater at 16th and Harrison in San Francisco. Brian Lohmann, Barbara Scott, Rafe Chase, Regina Saisi, Mike McShane, Olan Jones, Reed Kirk Rahlmann, Diane Barry—and J. Raoul Brody on keyboards. I remember sitting in that late night audience and feeling a part of something so extraordinary and so far beyond anything I had ever seen in my life. It had a profound effect on me. They were all my heroes and remain so to this day.
Who’s your improv nemesis? Name names!
Clearly, that would be me…and it doesn’t appear limited to the stage.
You get to do an improv show with any human, alive or otherwise. Who would it be? And what type of show would you want to do with them?
Danny Kaye, in his prime. It would just be a night of open scenes, with a full orchestra at The Geary Theater in San Francisco.
Who, if anyone, first encouraged you to try improv?
My best friend, Cully Fredricksen. It was 1987 and he had to drag me kicking and screaming into Barbara Scott’s class. I was terrified and completely convinced that I would be asked to leave because I wasn’t smart, fast, or funny enough. That’s what I believed improv was about at the time, and so I just started killing time in class, miming objects and making sound effects until I believed they would eventually catch on and drop me off at the edge of town.
Who’s the funniest famous person?
Who’s the funniest non-famous person?
My wife, Jo. She is quietly and consistently the funniest person I know. I liken her to Snow White with a little shiv in her blouse.
Your most memorable improv experience in 30 words or less:
-Sting, when asked what was his most memorable show.
The hardest I’ve ever laughed at an improv performance was:
3ForAll was asked by some festival organizers to not play “too blue” and we, of course, wanted to ask them why they invited us at all, but to that end, before I knew it, early into the long form, Tim pushed me down onto a raised platform and engaged my character in a proper 69. I remember my face being smashed into the crotch fabric of Tim’s slacks and just completely losing it, and he was losing it, and the audience just lost it with us for what seemed like forever. When we came up for air, we lost it again…I think my hair was standing straight up or something. I have always prided myself on appearing so poised during a 69, but not that night.
Your biggest onstage improv pet peeve?
When we collectively lose heart and start trying to force a solution…that is, when we forget that the connection between the actors is everything…one scene at a time. We don’t always get it right, but I’m blessed to work with two companies that are committed to creating that connection on stage.
Your biggest offstage improv pet peeve?
Being told to “Just have fun tonight.”
3ForAll: Open scenes from nothing and focusing on space object work…the improv equivalent of just playing catch.
The warm-up you hate the most:
Anything that “fries the brain” instead of creating a simple atmosphere of trust between players, where we can drop out of the head and into the body, as t’were.
The thing that experienced improvisers do that drives you nuts:
Claim mastery of the art form…as if it belongs to us.
A piece of common improv wisdom that you tend to disagree with is:
Never block an offer. Blocking the actor is something else entirely.
Your “go to” move when you’re lost or confused in a scene is to:
Ask for clarification. Very liberating. (Rafe taught me that.)
Your “go to” character or character trait:
A guy who has “had it about up to here with all this bullshit” and needs a drink, downstage right…and of course, onstage space object smoking. I’m trying to quit.
The best way to connect with the other person in the scene is:
Just simply listen to them, and serve their offers.
The second best way to connect with them is:
You’re publishing a short manifesto entitled “My Personal Improv Philosophy.” What are the titles of the first three chapters of that book?
1. Simmer Down.
2. Can The Chatter
3. Cut The Crap.
What’s the coolest venue in which you’ve done a show?
A centuries-old opera house in Tampere, Finland.
Got a good improv festival story?
Coming very close to getting into a fistfight off stage right, literally moments before our entrance at The Chicago Improv Festival. That’s all I’m going to say. You know who you are.
What’s the biggest mistake improv theaters routinely make?
We lose touch with the basic idea that we need to bring the best out in each other.
The funniest troupe or show name you’ve heard:
Not sure if they’re still out there, or if there’s more than one, but it would have to be: Room For Improvment.
Your 2013 improv goal:
Show up and not get ahead of myself.
Your lifetime improv goal:
To keep improvising for the rest of my life.
What is the one thing you’d like people to think when they think back on you as an improviser?
He had pluck.
Analogies & Errata
If my personal style of improvisation were a _______________ it’d be ______________:
Example: If my improv were a superhero it would be The Hulk.
Getting Over Yourself
Piece of technology:
A Super Collider…mostly because I don’t understand how it works.
Barringer Crater: Flagstaff, Arizona
“You Make Me Feel So Young” (Sinatra version)
The worst thing that’s ever happened to me during a show was when:
3ForAll was improvising a musical about a fire at a high school. I was playing the school principal and Tim was a troubled senior who had found himself on the roof of the burning administration building. I told him to jump and I would catch him…so, while we sang a duet, Tim leapt off the “roof” and he landed in my arms in beautiful and overused improvised slow motion. Unfortunately, as we collapsed onto the floor, we both botched the landing, which resulted in the cracking of two of my ribs…and then we had to sing the finale. To add incredible insult to my injury, as we came offstage, and I was trying to signal the boys that I was dying, Gerri, our lighting improviser ran up from behind and gave me huge hug, which brought me to the edge of consciousness and I dramatically collapsed to the floor. That’s the worse, thus far…
If you could offer one piece of advice to an improviser who’s considering dropping out of improv altogether, you’d tell them:
“To each one, I say the same thing. Don’t back away. Don’t run away. Don’t give your mind this option. Don’t respect the mind. Mind is not your friend…not yet.”
If you could wear only one outfit in every improv show for the rest of your life it would be:
White shirt with the standard brown pinstriped vest and 40’s cut trouser ensemble, (designed by Bruce Zuckerman), vintage tie, argyle socks and a pair of Rust Poremic Concorde Stacy Adams shoes with string laces.
The difference between a good improviser and a bad improviser is:
The willingness to not be anything special.
What’s the longest period of time you’ve gone without performing any improv since you began?
I think maybe a month, tops.
I have an improv crush on:
Jane Austen Unscripted
It’s a tale as old as time: Because of your rudeness to a homeless gypsy woman, she curses you. The curse, known in Romania as Klok dáng, presents an interesting dilemma for you…
You’re instantly blessed with perfect improvisational talent. Perfect. Everything you do in improvisation is the ideal. Every line is exactly what the scene needs at that moment. You’re funny when the audience needs funny, and you’re heartwarming when they’re feeling a bit cynical. Your physical movements redefine the discipline. Your spacework is so realistic that the more entranced members of the audience would swear you were holding an actual coffee mug. You are handsome but malleable and can play any status required of you. You can do all formats and genres. You’re infinitely watchable onstage, and yet you maintain humility and deference to the art form.
In other words, you are the best improviser the world will ever know.
With that talent comes some nice fringe benefits. You’re a bigger deal than Del Close and Keith Johnstone rolled into one. You’re the messiah of modern improv, and you get plenty of opportunities to perform. Everyone’s dying for your time and wisdom. They pay you enormous sums to fly all over the world doing whatever show you want, with whomever you want. Your influence and talent makes you rich, famous (but not too famous!), and well respected. Life is grand.
Except for one thing…
Every time you use the word “you” or “I” in an improv scene, somewhere in the world a koala explodes.
Now, there are plenty of koalas. They aren’t endangered or anything. You’re not going to drive them to extinction with your deathly powers. It’s just simply this: If you say “you” or “I” in a scene, a koala explodes.
Gatorade, who for some reason has decided to sponsor you, calls you up one day to finalize your plans for a new worldwide “Improv Guru” tour. Five million bucks, the finest hotels and travel in the world, and tens of thousands of fans cramming into theaters to watch you perform.
The Gatorade rep on the phone asks you, “So! We’re very excited to get you out there on the road. But first, we need to know if you have any conditions that would prevent you from starting this latest tour. Anything at all?”
What do you say?
“Well, first of all Richard, I need you to fly a homeless Romanian gypsy woman First Class to Gatorade headquarters at 555 West Monroe Street in Chicago, so we can work this whole Klok dang thing out…”
For more information about Stephen, check out his IMDB page and his bio at the Impro Theatre website. Also, be sure to enjoy a bunch of fantastic clips of Stephen performing with Tim Orr and Rafe Chase (3 For All) on their official YouTube channel.