Improv oracle David Razowsky returns to Chicago for all-day workshopContinue reading.
Improv guru David Razowsky: “I teach Buddhist theater”
David Razowsky began taking drama classes in the fourth grade after his family moved to West Rogers Park. Post-college at Northern Illinois University, he joined the Geese Theatre Company, which offers “drama therapy” in prisons, and hooked up with a nascent iO Theater when it was still called ImprovOlympic. His biggest break came when he was hired by Second City, on whose storied mainstage he appeared with such current-day stars as Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris.
“I never thought that I would work at Second City. I never thought that I would do anything at Second City,” he said during a recent conversation at Kopi A Travelers Café in Andersonville, a favorite stop when he’s in town. “I would go to see Danny Breen and Shelley Long and George Wendt, and I would feel like, ‘That’s something someone else does.’ I had low self-esteem at that moment. I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
That is no longer the case and hasn’t been for some time. Until his exit in early 2010, the impassioned Razowsky served for nine years as artistic director of Second City’s L.A. training center. These days, besides hosting a comedy podcast that’s produced by his creative partner Ian Foley, he traverses the country and globe imparting wisdom to pupils in small, intensive workshops. Himself an erstwhile student of revered Chicago improv instructors Del Close, Martin de Maat, Don DePollo and Michael Gellman, Razowsky has officially joined their ranks as a master of his craft — a so-called “guru.”
A couple of days after sharing a tiny stage with fellow improvisers Rachael Mason (a former pupil of Close’s and head of advanced improvisation at Second City’s training center) and Joe Bill (a teacher at iO and co-founder of the Annoyance Theatre) during Chicago’s 17th annual Improv Festival, and not long before the improv workshop he’ll lead Saturday, April 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at StudioBe on N. Sheffield (as of this writing, there are still a few slots available; cost is $125), Razowsky talked about improv and life. The two, he will tell you, are inextricably intertwined.
The gift of presence
I don’t care about your history. I don’t care about your resume. Are you able to come to my class and just be present? All you have to bring is your presence.
If you bring your presence to the class, we’re going to start at a zero-point. That zero-point is non-engagement. [When] I walk into a scene, I don’t think, “It’s gotta be good.” Or, “I had a great show yesterday.” Or, “Who’s in the audience?” I just think, “I am here right now.”
My class isn’t about learning the Harold, it’s not about getting the who, the what and the where out of a scene. It’s not about the game of a scene. All of those are improv things. It’s about, “Let’s be here right now.”
There is no product. It’s all process. Everything I’m doing is a process. A process leading to what? More process. So what is it that an improviser does? An improviser doesn’t worry about what the ending is going to be. An improviser doesn’t worry about anything. A great improviser is like a Buddhist. I teach Buddhist theatre. It’s that concept of, “I am here in this moment, and let’s live in this moment and let’s be in this moment.”
When I give an improv class, I say, “Your personality’s not allowed in the room, your ego’s not allowed in the room.” Because what I need for you to do is be right here, right now with me, and for me to know that you know that I know that you know that you’re here right now. Because I need you to tell me who I am. And the moment you go away, the moment that you’re thinking, you’re not here.”
An attitude of gratitude
Replace ambition—that idea that the scene has to be great—with the gratefulness of “this is what I have.” Because the only source of suffering is non-acceptance, and if you don’t give me what it is that I want in a scene, that’s my fault.
The how and the why don’t matter. What matters is it happened. In improv, we have a phrase, and the phrase is this: “That happened.” Something happens in my life, I go, “That happened.” Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it good? Is it bad? No. It just happened. At this moment, I get to interpret what it is that I feel just happened. It’s not, “Why did you do that?” Because the “Why did you do that?” is a history lesson. People feel they’ve got to justify what it is that led up to this point as opposed to [justifying] this point.
Don’t worry that you’re worried
Worrying is just rehearsing for something that you hope doesn’t happen. And your worry isn’t just in your head. You worry is in your heart and your gut and your groin and your ass. In an improv scene, why do I want to worry [about] if it’s going to be a good improv scene?
It’s not that I don’t worry in life. But when I do worry, I’m aware of it. I don’t judge the emotion. The gift that you give yourself is the acknowledgement of being in that emotion.
When the emotional change happens, I jump on it. Because it is not going to get better, it is not going to get worse. I live in that improv scene for that revelation, that transformation, that turn. When I have an improv scene, I’m aware of what’s happening in the beginning, and that’s all that I know. That is going to change. And when that changes, we’re going to have a different scene.
Improv as meditation
All improv is meditation. When you meditate, you sit there and you let things come to you and you let things wash through you. But here’s the interesting thing: When something comes to you and you decide to engage in it, you get to be aware that you engage in it. If you weren’t aware that you engaged in it, you’d then let it go. In an improv scene, you’re going to be talking to me and something that you say is going to hit me emotionally, and then I get to engage in it.
Lose the ego
No great piece of work has ever existed that’s been a union of ego and inspiration. Because the ego is like the character. The ego wants everything to be OK, which makes everything great. In improv, if you’re part of the problem, you’re part of the solution. Once you solve the problem, get another problem. It’s right there, whatever you want it to be.
The a-ha! moment
The a-ha! moment is not a moment that comes out of nowhere. It’s all that work that suddenly pops out and you go, “That.” The tip of the iceberg has the rest of the iceberg underneath it.
Take it or toss it
My feeling has always been this: take what you want and throw the rest away. If it doesn’t feel right to you, let it go. I have this book club that I’m the only member of. It’s called “F— that book.” You know that book that you have on your nightstand that you’re never going to read? You know that book that you have on your bookshelf that someone got for you and you’re never going to read? You know that book that you started that you’re never going to finish? You know that book that you hated? F– that book. And so for me, it’s all about letting go, surrendering. And surrendering has been the greatest thing that I’ve had.
Razowsky’s Recommended Reading
Buddhism Plain and Simple, by Steve Hagen
My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor
An Improvised Life, by Alan Arkin
Days and Nights at the Second City, by Bernard Sahlins
Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan