Today we hear from Ms. Valerie Ward, an improv coach and one-fourth of globe-trotting improv theater troupe Parallelogramophonograph. She also happens to be co-owner of Sweet Ritual, a vegan ice cream shop in the heart of Hyde Park (Austin, TX). And I’m happy to be able to personally endsore Valerie as both coach and director. She’s coached my troupe, Mandinka, several times, and we always leave her sessions better improvisers. And her work directing last winter’s “Bedtime Gorey” solidifies her as a real theatrical presence in this town. But enough of my yakkin’, let’s boogie…
Years doing improv:
Valerie, what is something that could make someone a better improviser right now?
Emotion. Filter your character’s responses through an emotion towards the other character, and magical things can happen.
You and your troupe, Parallelogramophonograph, just returned from a European trip, which was on the heels of an Australian trip earlier this year. Why do you travel so much with this troupe? And how do you continue to get along with each other so well?
We love to travel! We love to see other cities and see how other improv communities work. There’s nothing better than teaching other folks what we love so much and seeing how those seeds we plant will blossom and grow years later. Also, we want to eat all the foods.
As to how we get along so well … practice?
If someone dreams of having a troupe with P-Graph’s longevity and success, what advice would you give them to make it a reality?
1. Everyone should have the same level of priority for the troupe if it’s going to last. And if it’s going to be successful, then it should be a pretty high priority. We’ve all spent a lot of our own money to travel around the world, we’ve given up vacation time, we’ve even given up jobs to have more time for improv. So, you’ve gotta work pretty hard for it. Luckily, the work is fun.
2. Be nice to everyone. Be welcoming and supportive of everyone from the newest improv student to the most experienced guru, and treat them all with the same warmth and respect.
3. Remember why you’re doing the work. Love what you do and keep pushing yourselves. If you’re bad at something, get better. If you’re good at something, figure out how to teach that. Share that love.
You teach improv at the Hideout Theatre. What do YOU learn from teaching?
Oh, so much! Teaching is a whole other level of learning. I have to break down what I’m already good at and figure out how to lead other people there. I’ve learned how to read people better and give them specific instructions for their own needs. I’ve learned how to fail gracefully again, but this time from a position of authority. And I’ve learned that love and trust are the most important things to a successful show, so I always emphasize that early on.
[If you’re a troupe in Austin (or anywhere in the world, really) and you want to hire Valerie as your coach, you can do so here.]
What’s the very first thing you want to teach on the first day of Level 1?
That it’s okay, and in fact very fun, to fail! Which is really about loving and trusting yourself.
P-Graph and the Hideout focus on “narrative improv.” How would you define “narrative improv,” especially when compared to other styles of improv?
Narrative improv is anything tells a complete story.
You get to follow the same characters and situations throughout the show. You can build really deep relationships. You get to see consequences of decisions. And you get to commit to the world you’ve created.
I love narrative because when you create a simple enough story you have so much room to play, find games, and explore character. I don’t think the lines between narrative and other styles are as hard and fast as they seem. TJ and Dave from Chicago, I think I could argue, tend to do narrative shows. You see the same characters over a show, you see their decisions affect each other—everything exists in a contained world. They leave a lot of room for the audience to write the story, which I think is lovely and very advanced work.
And in terms of story structure, it exists in a kind of fractal state. Each story, each act, each scene, each beat has a repetition of the basic story structure in it. So even a show like an Armando, where each scene is a reset with a new premise, the basic structure of story exists within those scenes instinctively.
So I guess narrative is just a matter of how much focus you put into the story structure aspect.
You directed the excellent mainstage show at the end of 2013, A Bedtime Gorey, inspired by the art and writing of Edward Gorey. And you’re currently directing a student show based on Roald Dahl. Upon which children’s author will you be basing your next show?
Ha! I think I’m running out of slightly morbid children’s authors.
If you were writing a manual on improvisation, what would the first three chapters be entitled?
Pgraph is actually working on a book right now. But if I were to write my own personal book, let’s say the first three chapters would be as follows:
1. It’s Okay!
2. Of course!
3. Hell yes!
Does P-Graph have a theme song? If not, pick one. What song embodies your troupe’s aesthetic?
Hard to say! Something by the Decemberists seems like an obvious choice, they pick up on a lot of our own obsessions while still covering a wide range of genres and not taking themselves too seriously, but still striving for quality and always challenging themselves.
Anything you want to plug?
As you mentioned, The Dahl House, the Hideout’s next student mainstage show, which I’m directing, is going to debut in August. And come see Pgraph every Friday night at 10:00.
What’s one thing not many people know?
Roald Dahl is rumored to be the inspiration for James Bond. He was best friends with Ian Fleming.