If you’ve been lucky at an improv festival or camp in the last year, you may have been lucky enough to have had your picture taken by Sam Willard. Sam is a photographer who has been capturing improvisors offstage expressing emotions and feelings through his photographs. It’s a fascinating project and Sam was kind enough to share some thoughts on the project.
It’s clear from just the avatars on this page that many people on the National Improv Network have been involved with the Improvisors Project, but for everyone else. What’s the project about?
The Improvisors Project documents and celebrates the diverse pool of talent in the improv community, through portraits of its many members. As soon as I started getting involved with improv a few years ago, I saw the amazingly expressive people and knew that they had the potential to be great portrait subjects. That realization planted the seed for the project. My first photo shoot was in 2012. Since then, I have had shoots all over the country and photographed over 200 improvisors.
Everyone here loves improv. You love photography with equal zeal. But we’re all artists who appreciate the process. What brought you to photography?
I was always an artistic kid. From early childhood, I had a passion for drawing. I spent hours drawing every day after school. In my teens, I got more into making portraits, instead of just ideas from my imagination. But creating realistic drawings of faces was difficult for me. I suppose that the camera’s ability to realistically render faces is part of the reason I shifted toward photography, as my interest in portraiture deepened.
I spent years taking pictures as an amateur, starting in college and on into my twenties. I discovered that photography was a way to engage with people, and to draw out and capture something essential about them. During the time I was learning photography, I got a business degree and worked in business and tech for several years. When that started to lose its appeal—and at the same time my photography skills were maturing—I decided to make a career switch. That was ten years ago. I have been a professional photographer ever since.
Improv and photography are two very interesting art forms to bring together. One celebrates the immediacy and intimacy of a shared moment that will never be recreated. The other is about finding the beauty of a moment and preserving it. Being part of both worlds, how do those ideas play off of each other? How do you feel the marriage of the two helps you grow as an artist.
As I mentioned, photography was a way for me to engage with people and make authentic connections. I guess improv appeals to me for the same reasons. As you say, improv is ephemeral, and photography is more permanent. But that difference is in the product. I like both art forms because of the process. And in terms of process, portraiture and improv are remarkably similar.
When I meet with a portrait client, they have hired me because they need to project an authentic image of themselves, capturing those qualities that best communicate to their intended audience. But they have never met me before. I have never met them. And usually (unless they are a celebrity) I don’t know much about them. It can be awkward. And the photo studio is an intimidating place, with bright lights and this stranger pointing a camera at you. On top of all that, the only tools I have to tell my client’s story within the rectangle of the image, is their face and body, and my simple background.
If you think about it, this scenario is almost exactly like a basic improv scene: Two people. Simple stage. Bright lights. No props. Just your body and your voice to connect with each other and tell a story. Both performers have to engage and discover some essential truth, and go from there.
Without a doubt, my experience as a portraitist informs my improv, and vice versa. And they both strip away all the bullshit. Just two human beings, creating an authentic human connection. One is ephemeral and one leaves a record, but both are awesome. Life is full of so much noise. Authentic connections are precious, even thrilling. It is why I love portraiture. It is why I love improv.
Looking at your photos, it’s clear that this isn’t The Improv Project, it’s the Improvisors Project. Most improv photography in years past has focused on performance and the ensemble, but this project captures the individual performers outside of that environment. As a photographer this probably gives you a more individual connection. What was the motivation for the focus on the performer rather than the show?
What amazes me about improv is that so much can be created with just vocal and physical expression. For me, the best way to capture expression is by isolating the individual. This strips away context and narrative, and leaves pure expression. Also, these portraits are meant to be viewed in groups. The identical composition, lighting, and backdrop, framing the individual subject, makes it easier for the viewer to see the amazing variety of expression from person to person and shot to shot.
These aren’t mug shots. The photographs in your collection are filled with incredible variations in expression and ideas. What are you hoping to get out of an individual photo shoot? What goes into the decisions you make on a performer by performer basis?
My goal with every photo shoot is to capture a wide range of improvisors, and to make photographs that capture big, authentic emotion. I usually schedule photo shoots at times and places when I am going to get a lot of people in a short period (festivals, workshops, camp, etc). I photograph each improvisor for only about five minutes, but I schedule many people over a period of several hours on one or more days, so I end up with a lot of portraits at a single event.
When an improvisor steps in front of my camera, I don’t have any set ideas of what I want before I begin. I start with a clean slate and an open mind, like at the beginning of an improv scene. I usually let their physicality cue me toward an emotional state of mind, then I prompt them to heighten. For example, if they look uncomfortable (as people often do when first in front of a camera), I might say—as if I am their inner voice—“Timmy Jenkins, don’t you dare wet your pants, no matter how bad you have to pee! Everyone on this school bus is going to call you pissy-pants, and you will be the laughing stock of Third Grade!” Then, once he or she starts to squirm, and get into the state of mind, I might engage with them as a scene partner. “Hey guys, look! Timmy looks like he’s gonna piss himself! Pissy-pants! Pissy-pants! Hah, hah!” This heightening can go on for a few rounds. When the emotion gets dialed up as high as it can go, that’s when I start making pictures. The whole process from start to peak to done lasts just a few minutes, then it’s over and the slate is wiped clean again with each new person.
I should say that much of my work goes on after the fact, during the editing process. The photo shoot is a frenzy of activity where I try to create as much raw material as possible. Sorting through everything afterwards is where I do the precision work of finding those peak moments of authentic emotion. And, as you said, the end result from a series of portraits is incredible variation.
You’ve had the opportunity to meet many incredible performers, but specifically, you’ve had the opportunity to work with The Committee. That’s a pretty rare and special thing. What are your memories with working with that group of incredibly talented performers?
Hands down, the best part of doing this project has been the access it has provided me to people I otherwise would probably never have met. Photographing members of the Committee did indeed feel rare and special.
The 50th anniversary reunion event earlier this year had almost every living Committee member in attendance, and I jumped at the chance to participate. Many guests were in their 80s, and hadn’t performed in decades. But every individual brought incredible presence when they stepped in front of my camera. And to my pleasant surprise, many of them twinkled with incredible mischief and glee, as if they were still young actors creating live improvised theater every night.
Some of my favorite portraits from The Improvisors Project were created that night. But I have to say the highlight of the evening happened off-camera. As the event started, and the room filled up with people, arriving one by one, old friends lit up seeing each other for the first time in ages. Many of the original Committee members in attendance had lived 40+ years living elsewhere and doing other things after the Committee. But being together with dear old friends brought everyone back to 1963, and all the youthful camaraderie that time held for them. I wasn’t even alive in the 1960s, yet I was overcome by the emotion in the room. Like seeing old soldiers being reunited long after the war had ended. I was reminded of the great fraternity that improv creates, and the close bonds I have in my own group of improvisors.
I notice one important omission from the project so far. No pictures of Sam Willard. At least none that I’ve seen publicly. Do you consider yourself – as an improvisor – to be part of this collective, or do you feel yourself more the observer in this project?
Hah. I definitely consider myself to be part of the improv community. It’s just technically a bit hard to do a self-portrait, with the way these images are made. I actually did get in front of the camera on my very first Improvisors photo shoot. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. Maybe there will be a Sam Willard portrait at some point.
Just like any great improv set, this project started from a simple idea. Where it went from there was not based on invention, but discovery. What have been the discoveries you’ve made along the way? How has the project shaped you and those around you?
As an artist, this project has shown me that the old axiom is true—follow your passion. The elements of this project are things that I am passionate about, things that excite me. That got me energized, and in turn energized others whose support have been essential to the project’s success.
I also discovered that—like in an improv scene—being open to serendipity is more fruitful than having a rigid plan. At each step of the way, I was uncertain what was next for the project. The more open I have been to possibilities, the better things have worked out.
Finally, by meeting so many improvisors, I have discovered that the improv community is even more awesome than I had thought. I have been fortunate to meet a ton of people who are fantastic on and off the stage, and it motivates me to continue the project, so I can meet and photograph many more.
Along those lines, what’s next? Do you think this is a project that will ever be complete or will it keep on growing? Have your ideas on what to do with these photographs changed over time? What’s the next step for The Improvisor Project?
This year I got married and had a lot of other big events in my personal life. Time to work on The Improvisors Project was limited. Now that my schedule is opening up a bit, I am planning to dedicate more energy to the project in 2014. I hope to travel to several cities and festivals, and photograph many more awesome improvisors. I have a “bucket list” of people who I particularly admire, and hope to photograph starting next year. All the while, I hope to continue sharing the project with the improv community that it represents.
I recently set up Facebook and Twitter pages to announce photo shoots and show off new work. I share an “Improvisor of the Week” every Friday. I plan to roll out a dedicated website in early 2014 (and in the meantime, you can see portraits from the series on samwillardphoto.com). A year from now, I will probably be thinking about putting together a book and exhibition.
The project is ongoing. As long as there are improvisors expressing themselves so creatively, I don’t see why I would stop.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.