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November 16, 2011

Geeking Out With ... Keisha Zollar
by WomenInComedy - 0

By Contributor Pam Victor

“Geeking Out with … ” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest only hardcore improv dorkwads like me. For an extended, full-frontal geek-out version of this interview, please visit my blog, My Nephew is a Poodle.

When I saw the all-African American troupe The Jamal at this year’s Del Close Marathon, I was excited by the much-needed cultural expansion they bring to the improv world. I couldn’t help but to be particularly awed by Keisha Zollar’s firecracker performance. In addition to her total commitment, she added verve and vivacity to every scene. Zollar improvises with such apparent fearlessness that no boundary seems safe in her realm. And I, for one, am grateful for that.

Keisha Zollar has been performing improv since her college days at the University of California (San Diego) when, on a whim, she tried out for the short-form troupe “When the Script Hits the Fan.” Upon graduation, Zollar decided to pursue a career as “a serious actress,” so she moved to New York City to attend the MFA program at The Actor’s Studio in The New School. But the lure of comedy always beckoned her, so her first audition upon graduation was for the short-form group Chicago City Limits. She got a callback and took that as a sign to get back into improv. After two and a half years touring with a short-form troupe, Zollar trained at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and the People’s Improv Theater. In 2009, she became the Diversity Coordinator at the UCBT. These days, Zollar divides her time hosting The Soul-Glo Project at UCB, and performing with Nobody’s Token, Doppelganger, and an indie, all-female Harold team called 8GH, to name a few of the many comedy pies Zollar has her fingers in.

Pam Victor: Well, let me say thanks for doing this interview. Just so you know, I've been doing improv for almost a decade. I founded my own troupe in western Mass. over eight years ago, and I produce a comedy show up here among other things. So that's where I'm coming from ...

Keisha Zollar: I kinda stalked you.

Pam Victor: So you know how many guys I fucked in high school?

Keisha Zollar: Hmmmmm.

[Um, seriously, Pam? Awkward much? My ability to start an interview off on the weird foot is almost pitch perfect. Alas. Enter immediate, quasi-professional, backpedalling mode.]
Pam Victor: So when did you find long-form?

Keisha Zollar: About 2006, I took my first class with Ari Voukydis at UCB…[but] I dropped out at level three. I felt isolated.

Pam Victor: That's intense, Keisha. I'm sorry you had that experience.
Keisha Zollar: Eh. It wasn't malicious. It was just people going towards what they were used to. I was this early twenties, black girl, and there were very few women and even fewer people who weren't white.
Pam Victor: So you've hit upon a very important point here. Improv is predominately a young, white, male show.

Keisha Zollar:
It is, even more so in NYC. It’s also the economics of it all, so middle class to upper, and rich, white men. In NYC, you have to have the money to take classes or the free time to be an intern. I see the financial [issue] as a barrier to entry ...
The lack of females in improv has always been the greatest mystery to me personally. Growing up, my mom was and is one of the funniest people I know.
I think [the lack of diversity] is a perfect storm. Improv is a personal thing where you pull from your experiences, and if people can't relate to you, they kinda discredit you  not intentionally. And if you can't afford to take the classes, you cannot even be discredited!           
The lack of females [in improv] has always been the greatest mystery to me personally. Growing up, my mom was and is one of the funniest people I know.

Pam Victor:
Well, I'm quite certain the fact that there are fewer female improvisers than male has nothing to do with whether women are funny or not.

Keisha Zollar:
YES!!!! I think there is an inherent laziness in humans to go for what they know.
Pam Victor: I think you hit the nail on the head, Keisha. I think that since men started out dominating the improv scene — and since improv requires so much trust and intuitiveness — the men would relate more to the men. They would subtly reject the women's offers.

Keisha Zollar: Men have had an unfair balance of power in the history of this country. Shit, we are still figuring that out.

Pam Victor: Seriously. I almost never improvise with men. Not by design, but by circumstance.

Keisha Zollar: I tend to perform with either women or other black performers.

Pam Victor: In addition to the fact that I think you guys are incredibly skilled improvisers (and I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass  I really mean it!), I personally love the cultural diversity The Jamal and Nobody’s Token brings to the festival circuit. What are the advantages for you of playing with an all African-American troupe?
Keisha Zollar:
Well, the best part of being in an all African-American troupe is not having to explain any cultural things. Yes, I listened to R&B more than pop. Jesus is big with black people, gospel too, [plus] church and music and food and more. We have the same cultural rhythm, and it's pretty bad ass.
I think there are scenes that can expose painful truth through humor, but you really need the diversity to do them justice.
I started playing with a great group of women called Mrs. Jones, a group of black women, and the shared experiences ARE awesome. First off, I LOVE playing with ladies. I don't feel weird making a joke about my body or feelings. Also playing with black women ... when something racial comes up, no one's buttholes tense up. There tends to be a level of sensitivity because we know what it's like to be the outcast. So if we push an issue, it is because we are intentionally doing so!

Pam Victor:
 Well, and you have the advantage  so to speak  of being able to go there. Know what I mean?

Keisha Zollar:
YES!!!! Women handle rape scenes differently, in my experience, than men. And black people handle a slave scene differently. I think there are scenes that can expose painful truth through humor, but you really need the diversity to do them justice.

Pam Victor: ABSOLUTELY. But here's the thing, we are talking about how it's more fun and easier and more comfortable to do improv with people who share common experiences with ourselves. But if we only do improv with people who are like us, then how is improv as a big unit going to become more unified?

Keisha Zollar:
Well, I think it is a balance. I also try to play with people VERY different from me whenever I can. I think you find your voice and empowerment when you are playing with like players, and you find freedom and the stretching of your abilities and thoughts when you play with people vastly different from you.
Keisha Zollar
Pam Victor: Well said. And please don't think for a minute I'm saying it's your responsibility as a black woman to unify the improv world. It is a two-way street. I'm talking from my own experience as a female improviser who often feels more comfortable working with other women, but also frustrated by those same limitations.

Keisha Zollar: I think it's a constant balance. I think the male-heavy or -only groups have the same tendencies — there are just a lot more of them. They form groups from people who are similar, and then they start going for the people who are most different for the creative challenge.

Pam Victor: So who are you performing with these days? Where can we see you?

Keisha Zollar: I am still performing with Nobody's Token and Doppelganger. I also play with 8GH, which is an eight-lady Harold team (indie). In addition, I actually host a show highlighting diversity in comedy called the Soul Glo Project. The Soul Glo Project is a UCB show.

Pam Victor: It seems like UCB is very supportive of your efforts to diversify the improv scene.

Keisha Zollar:
 THEY ARE! And Nate Dern, the new AD, is amazing. He cares about diversity. He's made more considerations and has supported and welcomed, and is welcoming, diversity. He sees that diversity isn't about the minorities getting a chance, but about fostering the best comedic talent, and giving diverse talent ways to express that. He sees the struggle.

Pam Victor: So there are reasons to be optimistic about the coming diversity in the improv world.

Keisha Zollar: Yes. Nate gives me a lot of hope. And others, too.

Read the rest of Pam's interview with Keisha Zollar at My Nephew is a Poodle.

Photo credit: Jeff Hausthor
Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Shows. Pam directs, produces and performs in the hot, new comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."

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