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April 2, 2013

Geeking Out with...Tara DeFrancisco
by Pamela Victor - 0


By 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 Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog. For behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page. And for the whole kit and caboodle, check out www.pamvictor.com.]

                                                        *** 

From the stage or in the classroom, Tara DeFrancisco shines with enthusiasm, commitment, and unrestricted love for the art form of improvisation. As you soon will see, Tara’s unbridled zeal, caring soul, and positive energy even bursts through the computer screen. I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing many comedians with a lot of heart; Tara was the first one to ask me about my own journey.

After studying theater in college, Tara DeFrancisco jumped with both feet into the improv mecca since arriving in Chicago in 2000. She has learned and now teaches, lives, and breathes the gospel according to improvisation at iO Theatre, Second City, and  ComedySportz as well as performed with the wildly talented musical improvisation troupe Baby Wants Candy. A winner of a Windy City Times award for “30 Under 30 as well as being named the “Funniest Person in Chicago” by the Free Press for her work in stand up, sketch, and improv, Tara won ComedySportz’s Most Valuable Player in 2004-2007, she was listed in 2008 as “One to Watch” in Time Out Chicago, and recently she won “Top 25 Funniest Women” in Curve Magazine.

After working as an understudy at Second City, Tara scored a coveted spot on the Second City Touring Company with whom she traveled for three years performing sketch and improv comedy. Now back in Chicago, lucky viewers can see her perform at iO Theatre with the musical house ensemble the Deltones, with the Harold team Chaos Theory, and in her own, very special show, defrancisCO. About once a week, you can catch her reveling in "competitive" short form improvisation at ComedySportz as well. Tara teaches at iO in Chicago and independently for fortunate improvisers around the world. Additionally, she’s busting onto the small screen with commercial work, such as nationally airing commercials for LasVegasdotcom. And I have a feeling Ms. DeFrancisco only is just getting started...


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PAM VICTOR: I like to start with the first moment you met improv, how you knew he was the one for you, and your falling in love story together.

TARA DeFRANCISCO:  Oh, that's nice. I like that. Let's see…I knew I wanted to pursue comedy at a very young age, and I was fairly serious about it. I grew up watching a lot of SCTV, SNL, Burnett, Carson, Letterman, etc. I was addicted.

I didn't know much about improv except that my family had the earliest version of Comedy Central, and we watched Whose Line is it Anyway? all the time, and
Tara DeFrancisco
 show called Mad Movies, as well as MST3K. [For the uninitiated, that’s Mystery Science Theater 3000]. I loved how those shows felt.

Then I came to Chicago on a spring break with a person I was dating at the time in college, and we saw ComedySportz and Second City, and I was like, “Wait. This is a thing? People do this thing? I am this thing! This thing is all the things I've searched for!” I did theatre here and there, and even double-majored with a performance degree in college, but I was so interested in comedic performance as well as dramatic, and there was no outlet for that in college. So, when I came to Chicago that first time, I fell head over heels. I moved about a year and a half later.

PAM: So the first improv class you took was in Chicago? Where did you take that first class? Who taught it?

TARA: I took classes Second City and iO on the same day, a Tuesday. I started in IFA (Improv for Actors) since I had a degree. I had Martin de Maat in the morning, and Charna Halpern at night. HEARD OF THEM? ;)

PAM: HOLY SHIT. (I'm digesting that. Imagining that. Loving that.)

TARA:  Ha ha haaa! It was the best. I fell in love with both of them. I fell in love with all of it.

PAM: Most people recommend you take classes at one place at a time. But you seem like you've approached it from 110% total immersion program. Can you compare and contrast a little of what each school had to offer at that time?

TARA: Honestly, I didn't know any better. At that time - again, not CRAZY long ago but it feels like it - there was no set course of how you did it. Now, as people use improv as a tool to construct and conceive different life paths, they have more of a framework of how to do it right. I just took those schools because I'd heard of those schools. I called iO on a whim, and I think Charna was the one who answered the phone. They told me to do it, and I did it. It's funny to think back on that.

I'll tell you what I think the schools have to offer at this time. Second City is how to create a revue.  ComedySportz is how to have stage confidence/make decisions/find the fun. Annoyance is for you to trust your voice and make no apologies, And iO? In my belief, iO is the most aggressive improv program in the world, teaching the structure of comedic theory with grace and permission to do what is necessary, take emotional risks, and find twinkly things to make patterns around and people to invest in. They all serve students differently and well.

PAM: Beautiful. What order do you suggest folks do their classes? Start at iO or...?

TARA: I have no strong opinion on that. It depends on what you're hoping for in improv, you know? iO is for people who want to be professional improvisers. Second City will help you design a sketch show, though obviously improv is part of their training. Annoyance is great for people who feel like they understand improv but feel lost, like their persona is gone.  ComedySportz is wonderful for people who are unfamiliar with improvisation and want to engage in the spirit of play. So I guess you can sort of choose your own adventure in that way.

PAM: Some day, when I grow up, I want to do it all.

TARA: Ha. I love that, girl!

PAM: While I was reading about your early comedic path, it seems like you concentrated first on stand-up. And you had the beginning of a solid stand-up career, but you decided to concentrate on improv instead. What compelled that change of course?

TARA: I enjoy stand-up, and I enjoy the crafting of an act. I sat in a lot of coffee shops and watched people. I treated it like a day job. It was wonderful, and I luckily had a good amount of success very quickly.

Here's the thing though, I started taking improv classes while I was doing these gigs, you know? And I just loved improv. I loved the sense of engagement, the play, and the community. Stand-up felt so islanded, so cloistered, like you couldn't celebrate one another's work, or it somehow took your own work down a notch. I hated that. I felt like I wanted to lift up other people and tell them they did well without my own work feeling threatened by offering accolades to another.

I just liked the way improv felt. So, even in the face of that success, I sort of transferred. It felt like the right thing to do - maybe not monetarily - but, heart-wise, it was the right thing for me.

PAM:  Did your experience as a stand-up comedian help or harm your development as an improviser? (That’s sort of a trick question because I know you know what it can be like to teach improv to stand-up comedians.)

TARA: It didn't hinder me, personally, maybe because of my theatre training. I was ready to attempt to be vulnerable. Though I think I'm much better at that now than ten years ago, and I hope to continue to be better year-by-year until forever.

I talk about this a lot, but comedy is a successful tool, a deflection mechanism, a way we cope. It's hard for people, who have used that tool to survive their whole life, to suddenly put their guard down and trust everyone implicitly. You've got to be a patient teammate and teacher. You must remember the source of that guarding. And then, eventually, it will drop.

PAM:  In the Comedy Pros podcast recently, you made an excellent point about comedians using humor as deflection in order to put other people’s attention on a topic the comedian is comfortable with, rather than on their own vulnerability. I totally relate this impulse. I had a friend once who told me that his therapist wouldn’t let him make jokes in therapy, and I was like, “Fuck that. I am NEVER going to do therapy.” The idea of having my comedy deflector taken away from me terrifies me. Know what I mean?

TARA:  Yeah. That's not right. Let people cope how they must, within reason. And eventually as they heal or process, the coping will lessen. That doesn't mean your comedy will get weaker; in this case, it will get stronger and more developed, because you're willing to "go there."

I have friends who I adore, and the best thing you can do is just exist with them and be who you are together. Eventually, they open up. If you ask them things directly, they clench. You don't pry open a flower. Just be. It'll bloom with some sunshine.

PAM: I want to take a class with you!!! [That bout of enthusiasm just burst forth without warning…ok, back to the interview.] This topic leads to the importance of vulnerability in improv, which I think about often these days. What does it mean to you?

TARA: I think vulnerability in improv is necessary or you will reach a certain level and severely plateau. We are a reflection of the human experience. We have to be that. If we are unable to engage in that way, comedy is only slapstick or farce, which is wonderful, but it's just one genre. My favorite laughs have been those waves of laughs in an audience where everyone unanimously laughs to agree, or there is an emotional statement that leads to the comedic release. I love that stuff.

PAM: Totally. What is the best path to playing vulnerable? How do you, personally, train people to play vulnerable?

TARA: I call out fear as quickly as I can when I see it.

PAM: What does fear look like in a player to you?

TARA: If I see someone skip past a monumental statement to continue the scene, that means they've premeditated where they want the scene to exist. They aren't staying present.

I think a lot of my students would say I have become a giant ballbuster on finding connection, remaining present, and playing catch. Improv is playing catch. You can't throw the ball and hang onto it and expect someone to catch it. That's not catch, that's scripting. Sure, you're not writing it down, but you're not letting go of the ball either. And I believe the reason we hold on so tight to that ball is fear and anxiety that the scene won't be good enough, or that we'll look exposed. You have to expose yourself. You must engage.

PAM: Great point.

TARA: Thank you! Sometimes it's easy to identify in body language, tone, or just the simple inability to say bold lines of dialogue on how you really feel. If there's too much exposition in a scene, I make them pare it down. Students - well, lots of improvisers - think that exposition is the only way to build a scene, but really, they are building plot, not the scene. If you have said more than three sentences of dialogue, you're probably spit-balling to see what sticks rather than giving a gift.

Try this instead: Make an offering. Relax. Receive. Now go.

PAM: You're busting people's balls on finding emotional connection, you mean?

TARA: I bust balls when I feel there is inauthenticity, or someone is being disingenuous at the sake of the scene or their partner. It is consistently appreciated, and we all laugh about it, because it's easy to see from a 10,000 foot view. Adrenaline blocks our ability to navigate out of those moments when we're gripping comedic theory so tightly, so a little co-pilot can be helpful as you're getting lifts.

PAM:  Nice. I have had several friends take classes with you, and I can just tell that you're a terrific teacher full of passion. And you’re playing and teaching all over the place! iO, Second City, ComedySportz. What class do you love teaching most?

TARA:  You are adorable. Thank you. I am very passionate. And I adore students, and I really want them to thrive. I also like to be held accountable for the things I teach, so when I perform five times a week, I'm doing the work I yammer on about. ;)

I currently cut back, so I only teach at iO and independently (I fly to help sketch and improv troupes all over the world.) It’s been a fairly recent change, and it's been a good one for me. I’m teaching in tandem with shows and doing commercial work, etc.

PAM: I should ask in case someone wants to hire you to help their team, how can they hire you to fly to them? Contact you through your website?

TARA:  Oh, thank you! Yes, that's fine. My website is www.taradefrancisco.com.You can contact me straight from it.

I love that stuff. I love meeting people. One of my favorite parts of touring with Second City was meeting people and seeing how invested they were in their own communities and growing art. This year, I'm teaching folks from a bunch of east coast states, plus Finland, London, Belfast and Dublin. I can't wait.

PAM: What shows are you performing in regularly these days?

TARA: A typical public show load is…let's see…ComedySportz once a week, some random show once a week (like Powerball or Del forms, etc.), the improvised musical Harold Deltones on Saturdays at 8pm (iO), the iO house closing team Chaos Theory on Saturdays at 10:30pm, and defrancisCO every Monday at iO.

PAM: I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone who has worked at ComedySportz, the “longest running short-form improv show in Chicago.” Can you tell me about your experiences at the theater?

TARA:  Sure! It was the first place to make me an improvising professional (meaning, I get paid for it.) It’s an incredibly sharp, accessible, high-energy show with a culture that is pretty unmatched and incredibly positive. People get work because they work at ComedySportz. Being in that cast, you get good faster than anywhere else. ComedySportz started in 1984, and it's a league of sorts with theaters in around 20 cities worldwide. The Chicago cast is sweetly revered, and has about 40 ensemble members that switch into 7-8 person main stage casts. Its main stage show runs Thursday at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm and 10pm, and Saturdays at 6pm, 8pm, and 10pm.

PAM: I actually started in short form, and we still do short form games in some of our shows. It’s interesting how short form feeds longform skills and visa versa. What’s your view on the interplay between these two forms?

TARA:  Oh man, I'm the poster child of that. Sketch, short form, and long form are all usable. People being prejudiced against any kind of comedy are truly idiots. You don't go to the gym and only work your lats. You cross train. It all helps each other. Short form forces you make decisions, act, and engage with low judgment of your own work, so you can progress forward with a scenic lay-on. Long form helps you hunt for emotional connection, intensity, and a lens to view the world with. Put them together, and you are unstoppable. People that write off short form haven't seen or done good short form. To me, they are noisy, blustery buffoons.

PAM: I don't write off short form - and I know it's not fashionable in Chicago to toot one's own horn, but I'm pretty good at short form actually. But I have to admit, sometimes when we do a whole short form show, I feel empty afterwards. I rarely get the same high as with longform. I know it’s an art when done well, but do you know what I mean? Sometimes it feels like a meal of just cake. I’m probably doing something wrong, and you’re going to give me an attitude adjustment…

TARA: I definitely don't feel the same, but I understand. I think that's probably because you don't feel you played the show as a piece. In a Harold, we have an opportunity to connect the dots, to fold in the world. We have that opportunity in all improv, but it can be easy (and sustainably so) to only play game by game, and use the gimmicks, and have a fine show. It's more fun to remember that short form devices aren't a cover for lousy scenework. The scene should be worth something without the device, and the device should heighten the fun. Challenge yourself to do a short form rehearsal with just scenes, no lay-ons, no ringing bells, no slips of paper. Are the scenes good alone? People lean heavily on the device. If the device is funnier than your scene, you're doing it wrong.

PAM: You're right, of course. I think I'm in the place in my development as an improviser when I'm trying to figure out how best to integrate the two styles.

TARA: That is AWESOME! Good for you, Pam. That's amazing.

PAM: I love all the tips you give in your blog post, “Auditioners/Auditors: Spoilers form the Other Side of the Table.” People should read your blog post to get the whole vision, but what is the primary advice you have to people walking into an audition?

TARA: It's all there, man - ten bullet points to hit, and it's all there. I wrote that out of frustration and love, watching people, who I KNEW had better work under their belts, just blow it for themselves. Some of that was anxiety and understandable, but some of it was those simple mistakes outlined in the article.

I had no idea that article would go so viral, but I get people thanking me for it often. Thank you for thanking me, people! I just want everyone to be able to show themselves well.

PAM: You are on the Harold Commission, which reviews all auditioners at iO, is that correct?

TARA: I AM! DOES THAT SOUND SCARY WHEN I CAPS IT?

PAM: Commission sounds scary. COMMISSION makes me wet my pants with fear.

TARA:  Ha ha. I'm sure it does.

Ugh. There is no good system for art criticism and advancement, but I think this Harold Commission is the best incarnation it has ever been. No corruption, kind people, rooting for everyone. When I was asked to be on it, I really hesitated; but I like to think of it as student council, so that we are equally a voice for the people as well.

PAM:  What exactly is the Harold Commission and how does that system work?

TARA:  A team of teachers, seasoned performers, and coaches watch a lot of shows and teach a lot of folks, and you check in on their development over time. You must be a graduate of iO to be placed on a team, and the best equivalent is scouting. (I like sports metaphors.) Through collaborative watching of graduation shows and a thorough note-keeping system on students within the program, we select people to be placed on teams after their training. The Commish also has the lousy job of breaking up teams; but truly, I think that's going better than it ever has. A lot of it is about room to put good people - we are busting at the seams with students, and good students, and not enough room to place all the amazing ones.

PAM: I’ve heard you say that 1 out of 15 students at iO get on a team. Pretty tough odds. What’s the best way to be in the 7% who get on a team?

TARA: Do good work, period. Don't worry about getting placed. Care about the curriculum. Care about your friends. Invest. Play to win, but don't care if you lose. The training alone is worth it anywhere else in the world. Making a team is amazing, but now more than ever, you can make your own and thrive.

Take notes from your teachers too. We know which notes you've applied or selectively forgotten. We keep a file on people, so we can better serve and teach them. If you have only taken some of your notes, or done no time on your own to critique your play, or have trouble looking at the piece rather than just you, then that's gotta be something you change.

PAM: And if you don't get placed on a coveted iO team? What's a girl in Chicago to do?

TARA: You live your life. People get so caught up in what others allow you to do. Hey, you go do what you want! I hope you have all the successes you wanted, but you won't! None of us will, and then you make your own success. Don't let anyone gate-keep you or your talent. Likelihood is high that they didn't even mean to. So what do you want to do now? Go do it, you know? Do it.

PAM: Yes! Exactly. I started my own troupe when I didn't get asked to be in the one and only team in my area. Ten years later, my troupe is still around...

TARA:  There ya go!

PAM: I love that you’re doing a show, defrancisCO, when you bring up a student from the audience to improvise with you. During prime time. On the iO Theatre stage. (Frissons of pleasure.) Tell me about the idea behind that show and how it's going.


TARA: Oh man! It is my favorite thing. I feel like it's one of the most favorite things I've ever done in improv life, for sure.

PAM: Terrific. I'm sure that's why it's successful.

TARA: It started on a dare, in a talk with a couple theatres here, about the high risk/high reward possibility of it. Powerball already existed (which is a show where five iO players play with five students.) I just wanted to up the ante, to give someone time, investment, and a chance. I wanted to prove to everyone that if you believe in someone, they will rise to the challenge. I wanted to make myself uncomfortable again and remember what it meant to be only there for someone.

It's an incredible reminder of the tenants of improv: More yes. Stay here. Play. Your partner is bigger than you. Play the piece and don't sacrifice one another to do so. I am amazed at its reception. It is amazing. The culture of the room was a thing I worked hard on from the beginning, and it is EXACTLY where I want it to be. It's truly some of the best improv moments of my life. And the people are all so wonderful. I'm probably 25-30 deep or so now.

PAM: I’ve recently made it a personal goal to get better at playing with people who have beginner skills. Not only do I think it makes me a better improviser to strengthen the “making other people look good” muscle, but it can be really fun. How can improvisers get better at making each other look good?

TARA: It does. It's so good for you. Sometimes beginner skills are better – there is less theory to muck things up. We are great at convincing ourselves we aren't funny half way through training programs, and you always have improv slumps in life here and there.

Yes, shake it up. Play with your best friends, and play with someone who surprises you, whatever that may be. I am a believer in the zero moment, the hope for a real brand new experience in the world. I love that. Get it.

PAM: I've never heard of "zero moment."

TARA: This is my favorite - it was a chess term to describe Bobby Fischer's style of play. (Nerd City.) All chess moves are recorded when they go to high level competition. When you make a beginning move, there's a record of how many times it has been made (i.e., 8000 times,) and as the game continues, it lessens as the win comes on (i.e., 742 times.) Bobby Fischer made a move that was all risk and had been made zero times. His partner was confused. There was no script. Then he won.

PAM:  Haha. That is Nerd City. It's great. I'm going to be gnawing on that idea for a while.

In your audition blog post, you speak to this point by advising people playing with less experienced players, “If it feels weird, get weirder.” I’d love to hear more about that advice and to understand it better.

TARA: There's nothing engaging about something halfway. The least charming improv is someone standing on the outside of an idea and essentially commenting on it without doing it. If you are physically doing something, go hard. If you are emotional, show it.

If you are doing some weirdo, organic, vulnerable improv opening where you're all geese and one person is sort of smirking and hipsterizing the concept, that person is selling out your team. You know why? Because they're afraid - so don't hate them - but don't be that guy. If you are that guy, do the digging on why you're afraid to commit to something terrifying. Nothing looks worse than nine people working their asses of and one guy smashing down all the Legos. When ten people work, it's play and effortless.

I've been fighting my instincts so hard not to ask you questions about your own journey. Ahh! But, how are YOU doing?

PAM: I think of these interviews as a dialogue. Fight no impulse, m'lady.

My improv story is long and short, of course. The gist is that I'm a mom of two now-teenagers in western Massachusetts where there was no longform improv scene. So I've spent the last ten years creating my own education and improv scene driven by a lot of passion, frustration, and sheer, blind determination. And I've been producing an improv show out here for several years, where my troupe performs alongside a special guest, usually from Boston. I created the show so I can see great improv from ImprovBoston without driving the four hours roundtrip.

Then last summer, I abandoned my family to study in Chicago for five weeks, after dreaming of the iO intensive for many, many years. And I have some other exciting improv writing and interview plans in the works. It's starting to get moving for me, which is exciting. But it's a constantly challenging balancing act of home and improvisation, like so many women have. So that’s the short version of my story.

TARA: That's amazing! Such initiative. Way to have some gumption, gal!

PAM: Anyway, back to YOOOOOU! (But thanks for asking.) Our time is just about up, so, sadly, last question, I guess...

TARA: Let's hear it.

PAM:  Let’s talk about musical improvisation. I love musical improv and I loooove the Deltones and Baby Wants Candy! But the sum total of my musical improv training consists of Dave Asher telling me I was doing it wrong. ;-) What is the secret to a good musical improviser? How do the scene-building skills going into it differ from a regular improv show?

TARA: I love musical improvisation too. The biggest help is to ask yourself, Are your scenes surviving without singing? If yes, proceed. :)

Musicals rely heavily on the idea that when you run out of words to express emotion, you MUST SING! It's not your choice anymore! So, in that way, all good musical improv relies heavily on already being heightened by the time the song begins, which leads to incredible fireworks. There is very little fun like doing a really, really good musical improv Harold. Audiences lose their mind, just like Shakespeare. It's a tool to express oneself. Prose and music heighten our state. There are stakes. If you sing and there is no heart, the show will fail.

PAM: Having no heart is nothing you need to worry about, Tara DeFrancisco.



* * * 
Check out Geeking Out with...Charna Halpern
in which she says, 
"The humor comes from the reality of the scene, the tension of the scene. 
When you are committing to the reality of the situation, 
the humor will come from there. 
If you are being jokey, there is no scene."

*

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with…Dave Pasquesi  of TJ and Dave
...David Razowsky of iO West
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.


Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. In addition to geeking out with hot improvisers, Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page! And all her business can be seen at www.pamvictor.com.


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