Latest News

January 14, 2012

Geeking Out With ... Elyse Schuerman
by Pamela Victor - 0

By WICF 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 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.]
Elyse Schuerman is co-producer of the Women in Comedy Festival, which has grown exponentially each year thanks to the efforts and good karma of Elyse and her co-producers and festival creators Michelle Barbera and Maria Ciampa. Elyse’s improv comedy roots firmly are planted in the fertile soil of ImprovBoston where she worked as Managing Director from 2003-08. In addition, Elyse has been a Mainstage ImprovBoston cast member since 1999, performed in a vast number of shows there (such as Bluescreen, Comedia d'ell High School, BackStory, and Gorefest I-V), directed (Micetro, UnNatural Selection, Trail Mix), as well as taught improv to students lucky enough to learn under her sweet, knowledgeable and generous tutelage.

An IB romance got legal when Elyse married improviser and teacher extraordinaire Don Schuerman. Three years ago, they  joined the IB procreation parade with the birth of their first child, and just a few months ago their son joined the ranks of sure-to-be-funny IB babies. In order to accommodate our crazy mother-comedian-everything else schedules, Elyse and I sandwiched our improv geek out session during a stolen hour on a Tuesday morning as the newborn on her lap held an animated discussion with the ceiling fan and as I monitored the studies of my 15-year-old homeschooled son via Google chat and the old-fashioned method of hollering upstairs. The hurried, hilarious experience seemed profoundly apt as that rush-rush-improvise-rush-rush tempo is what being an improv comedian mother is all about.

Pam Victor: I'm always interested in how people found improv - or how improv found them. When did you first get into it? Was it love at first sight?

Elyse Schuerman: I saw a show at the SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando while I was in college in Florida during a theater festival, and it was amazing. It was a Theatresports-style show and the performers were great. I also remember an episode of Reading Rainbow that had Second City or something like that on the show. As a kid, I thought that was pretty cool. I got involved with IB [ImprovBoston] through a friend/co-worker who got in to Theatresports.

Pam: Reading Rainbow? So Geordi La Forge turned you on to improv?

Elyse: Exactly.

Pam: I can see how you would be powerless in the face of that. Resistance is futile. (That's a Star Trek joke that I would expect you to be too cool to get.)

Elyse: Ha! Oh, I have seen my share of Star Trek. We all have a little inner nerd, don't we?

Pam: Particularly improvisers.

Elyse: Yes!
This is Elyse.
She is very nice. 
Pam: So in college you were exposed to improv, but you didn't start taking classes until you got to Boston?

Elyse: Well, I never "took a class.” It was 1999 and IB was looking to cast some women.
My friend Kristy, who was involved there, told me about the auditions. I think before that, they were in need of a tech person for a show one night, so I volunteered since I could operate a light board...especially an eight channel light board. (Inner geek.) So, I had done tech once, seen her perform a couple of times, and then went in to audition. I was a theater major, so I had done some improv games. I made it in along with a few other ladies. We rehearsed twice a week, and I learned a lot from Mat Gagne and Ron Jones, who were my directors.

Pam: How did you get from that first team to working there?

Elyse: I was on the B team at the time, which meant we rehearsed on our own and with the main troupe…and then Will Luera came on as Artistic Director, and that is when things got really good at IB. The B team just became a part of the main troupe under Will's direction, and attended the Chicago Improv Festival. I really started to "get it."

Pam: Did you go through the levels at that point or just get your learning on the stage?

Elyse: Just from the stage and watching a lot of improv. Both of those things really shaped me. I think workshops are great in the same way rehearsing is great, but to really become a good performer, you have to perform - in front of an audience
and a lot.

At my peak I was performing, rehearsing, and directing six nights a week.

Pam: I'm drooling.

Elyse: Sometimes seven.

Pam: Ok, now I’m doing more than drool…

Elyse: Sexy improv talk!

All that experience was great and really trained me. Again, practice and thinking about it all the time are keys to succeeding.

Pam: Thinking about what exactly? What is the angle about improv that connects you to good performing?

Elyse: For me, it was analyzing what made other performers good. And I talked about it a lot with my roommate at the time, who was also an improviser (and then of course my husband, then boyfriend.) In addition, our conversations were like improv games - not all of them, but many. It's hard to turn it off, I think.

Pam: More sexy improv talk.

Elyse: To make it sexier, I will take off my pants...oh wait, there is a sleeping baby on my lap….

I came to realize that commitment was really the key to success. No matter what you chose at the top of the scene, hold on to it, like it's your lifeline.

I learned a lot from watching students and the performers I directed too…and the ones that committed were the best. And commitment also means, "If that's true, what else is true?" So, if you start as a pirate and your scene partner sets you up in an office, you find all the ways to be a pirate there. After being disgusted by the copy machine, you throw it overboard, you ask for your paycheck in gold coins, etc.

Also, always be a pirate.

(No, don't really. Pirates are so five years ago.)

Pam: LOL!

I guess I'm trying to get to the core of your improv skills set.

Elyse: My skills or bag of tricks are trying to anchor or commit at the top. And try to complement my scene partners on stage.

Pam: ImprovBoston seems to be a theater that really values the contributions of female comedians. At least from my outsider’s perspective, the theater seems to be very successful in balancing women and men on stage, and the whole environment there is very unified and cohesive. First of all, do you agree? And secondly, if so, how did the theater get to that place?

Elyse: I totally agree, though I don't think it worked too hard to do it. I think more and more ladies started taking classes and shined just as much as the men (per capita). And then they just started coming into the casts. I think Will, Don [Schuerman], Matt Mosher and my other IB contemporaries were so open to diversity too. They didn't just cast people they were friends with.

(Hang on…baby crying.)

Pam: Sure.

Elyse: I know we were very aware of how troupes were stacked. We all wanted to see equal balance in the genders; but as more ladies performed, more were taking classes and getting in to troupes. I think now it's just a fact that 50% of the folks who audition and are good are women.

WICF Producer Goddesses
Elyse Schuerman, Michelle Barbera, Maria Ciampa
Pam: Let’s talk about the Women in Comedy Festival! What lead to its creation?

Elyse: Michelle and Maria proposed it to IB when I was Managing Director, and we said yes to producing it. The next year, after I left the Managing Director position, I came on as a third producer. (I asked to be a part of it, as I totally loved it and the ladies.) It is a great festival, and not just for the ladies to perform in. We felt the name would attract female performers, and it has, but we are open to both genders. It ends up flipping the usual male to female ratio. And I am getting to meet my favorite female comedians - that is good!

Pam: What have you learned from being exposed to all these great female comedians?

Elyse: I've learned a lot more about the industry than I wanted, but it's been fun. I think it's hard to be a woman comic who wants to write for TV.

(Sorry, major baby spit up, here...)

Listening to how it all works at the panel discussions, I mean. No one griped, but it's a rigorous process.

Pam: Yeah, those panel discussions are an incredibly - and to me surprisingly - valuable part of the festival.

Elyse: Yeah, our goal is to keep them free to the public - an important part of the festival, for sure.

Pam: I know you’re still early in the process right now, but can you give us a sneak peek into what to expect from the next WICF (March 21-25, 2012)?

Elyse: We had double the submissions, so some awesome talent will be there. We will be adding some new and exciting venues. And one of our confirmed headliners is Carol Leifer, who I LOVED when I was a pre-teen when she had a show on A&E and she was fantastic. She still is, but she was my first introduction to stand up so it is pretty cool.
She has done so much writing for TV and producing too, so it will be interesting to hear her talk about it.

We will have more headliners this year... Keep looking at for exciting announcements! (That's my commercial in this interview.)

Pam: That's SO exciting, Elyse. What you ladies are doing is so important and I think it will have implications on the improv world on the national and maybe even international scale. How do you feel about the state of women in comedy today?

Elyse: I think it's the best it has ever been. I think the final glass ceiling is seeing [more] women writers and directors in comedy. We need to push our numbers there. We have plans to see that happen, or at least make some impact in that area. (We hope.)


Read the extended version of this interview and others in the "Geeking Out with..." series at My Nephew is a Poodle

Photo credit: Jeff Hausthor
Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she producesThe 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."


No comments

Post a Comment