An improv theatre is getting ready to open in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That alone is cause to celebrate. But the story here is pretty remarkable. And they could also use some help from the improv community. So check out their video and then read up on the quick interview I got to do with Jason Tomalia
Michigan has a long history of improv, but never really in Ann Arbor. Which is surprising. For non Michigan folks. Tell us a little bit about Ann Arbor and why it’s a town so in need of improv.
It did have a successful improv theater downtown for a while called Improv Inferno. I won’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of why it closed, but I can tell you it wasn’t because they were having a hard time drawing an audience.
Ann Arbor is a university town. There is a solid music scene and the University of Michigan even has a division devoted to musical improv. We’d like to have a stage that embraces improv in all its forms. Ann Arbor is also a counter-culture hub that thrives on questioning and challenging everything. Satire is a natural fit and improv is a medium that allows for pushing boundaries with topical and relevant material.
That said, there is improv all around the state. How have you been connecting with the other great performers and festivals in your state?
I have been active with the improv community in Detroit and did some volunteer work with the Detroit Improv Festival the last couple of years. I have a good relationship with the folks at Go Comedy! and we are working with Gary Lehman who heads up Go U (Go Comedy’s improv training program). Gary is also a performer and director who is well connected to the Detroit improv scene.
I am taking time to get out and watch other performers and groups. We will be inviting established groups in to perform on Fridays and Saturdays, so I will be continually looking to connect with groups from all over the state and beyond.
Tori and Jason will obviously be involved. Who are the rest of your ensemble? How did you come together?
I already mentioned Gary. Mike Fedel also teaches improv in the Ann Arbor area and has a connection to the improvised music scene and he is a musician himself. Meriah Sage is a counterpart to Tori and provides depth to our Saturday Family Series goals as well as creative dramatics for kids, which is essentially a precursor to improv. She is also an outstanding director, designer, and marketing guru. All of us have ties to Eastern Michigan University.
We will be forming our cast of Pointless improvisers (you like that?) through auditions and they will be pivotal in creating our improv, sketch shows, and array of other offerings.
We truly want to embrace a spirit of cooperation so we will be reaching out to others (theaters and individuals), but I don’t want to say too much because nothing has been finalized. (I know, mystery, right?)
When you faced a crossroads, you decided to make the world a little better. Why improv? What has it given to you in your life? How do you hope to share that with the world?
Oh, wow. Why not improv? What hasn’t it given to my life?
Just before Tori’s diagnosis, she was making a name for herself through teaching and directing at EMU and I was getting more connected to the improv scene in Detroit. After the news, I tried to maintain a level of normalcy and continue on, but I had to draw back and process our new reality. I fully relied on skills gained through improv, i.e. accepting change as fuel and going where the scene takes you. The experience has driven home the notion that life is one big improv set with the stakes constantly being heightened. It is up to us to find a way to cope, to “yes, and” and carry on.
Improv has helped me grow and become a better person in so many ways. It has given me an ability to dig down deep, trust my instincts, and find solutions. It has provided a safe place to truly question and it forces you to empathize. Improv builds confidence and character. It has taught me how to have someone’s back and trust in others to have yours. Okay, improv mixed with Tai Chi, meditation, and theatre experience.
Life is improv and improv is life. Conversation is the most natural form of improv. We all do it, everyday. To take that and turn it into a theatrical experience is totally awesome, and super scary. I think the scary part is also a draw. Fear gets in my way all the time. It is what has held me at plateau points with my own improv. It has kept me from making bold moves. Fear has kept me on the back line. The funny thing is that I say fear has done this, but really it’s just me letting the fear have control. Improv is scary, or at least it can be. We grab a suggestion and go. Who knows where we’ll end up? A group’s chosen form hardly guarantees success and can be a hindrance. Improv has taught me to take a deep breath and jump. It will work out. We will find a way to make it work. That’s a good note for life in general. Am I babbling? I should probably shut up. Whatever. The skills I’ve learned through improv have made it easier to cope with my wife’s cancer, have made me a better dad, and have given me the ability to tackle difficult times with a sense of calmness, strength, and belief that we can make the seemingly impossible a little more doable. Improv has also instilled a strong desire to live with honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, and love. These are the values we teach our kids. These are also values that help strengthen communities. Okay, we’ll call that good. I’ll shut up now before I write a book.
One beautiful thing about improv is that each theatre can pursue their own passion. You’re passion about life is clear from your video. What kind of improv really motivates you? What will Pointless be sharing with the rest of the improv world?
I love long form improv. I love the story structure and the freedom to go anywhere and create anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love short form too, but long form is my true passion. I love satire, as well as social and political commentary. I want our improv to be fun and funny, who doesn’t, but I also want it to question and challenge.
OK, so craft beer. What makes yours delicious?
I brew with love. This may sound cheesy, but I approach beer like improv. Beers have styles, just like sets have forms. Think of a Harold like an IPA. Strong aroma, hoppy, and you’ll probably love it or hate it. There is little in between. Anyway, there are specific elements and points you are trying to hit with various styles of beer, but it is always the brewer that adds their own twist on the recipe. Go out and buy three or four different IPA’s, stouts, porters, lagers, or whatever and sample them along side of each other. There will be differences even within the same style. The same is true of improv forms and groups.
We will be brewing on a small system so that we can take audience suggestions and develop new recipes on a constant basis. This means that even our “go-to” beers will have some slight variation from batch to batch. I look at this as good. Grains and hops are slightly different from year to year. I say embrace it. I’m not interested in modifying ingredients to make sure that each and every time we brew the same recipe it tastes exactly the same as it did before. It will be damn close. To the point that most won’t notice the subtle differences, but the avid consumer will be able to say things like, “oh, this has more citrus notes than the last batch.” There are improv groups that I’ve seen tons of times. Their sets are always different, but almost always delicious… uh, I mean entertaining.
Pointless can only grow. How do you want to see it blossom? What impact are you hoping to have on the community?
Initially blossoming will entail the addition of sketch comedy shows, a college team night, music-based improv, group events, and web content (shorts, web series, etc.). I also want us to get into feature length film/video projects, both improv based and fully written material.
We would love to add a larger brewing system in the future where we could brew and distribute our favorite beers. I also want to do tribute beers to all the improv greats, e.g. Viola Spolin, David Shepherd, Paul Sills, Del Close, Dudley Riggs… Honestly, we could have a tap dedicated to beers inspired by improvisers all over. Think about a beer that honors the intensity of a Mick Napier, or the fun-loving quirkiness of Jill Bernard. Oh, man, great people, great beers.
We will want our classes and workshops up and running as soon as possible (when our doors open, if not before), but that will be another offering. I’d like our school to become the premiere place in the Ann Arbor area for training in improv and writing. I’d also like to see our performers build a body of work while they are with us. I would love to see our little pocket of the country become a powerhouse in the realm of improv and new media offerings.
Our family lives in the neighborhood where we are opening our business. We have a vested interest in making this community stronger for all who live here. My goal is not to become a millionaire, if that is a side effect then cool, but my goal is to provide for my family and give back to the community in any way we can. I firmly believe that businesses have a responsibility to the communities they serve. I know that we want to have events that align with the values I mentioned earlier. I will figure out a way to give to lung cancer research. I ultimately want to find a way to create financial opportunities for improvisers. It gets hard to work for free, so I want to be forward thinking on devising ways to make sure improvisers are compensated for their time, energy, and hard work.
To wrap up, I thought about being a doctor when I was younger, but my heart wouldn’t let me get too far away from the arts. When I was a kid, I was doing an improvised one-man baseball game and shows with my cousins in my back yard for my mom and grandma. I knew this was going to be my life. I devoted my adulthood to theatre. B.A. in theatre, M.F.A in creative writing, an M.A. in theatre with an emphasis in improv, a diploma in improv/sketch writing from the Brave New Institute, and a diploma in improv from GoU. When we went through the intense pregnancy with our twins, my son’s surgery, and then my wife’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I wished I had become a doctor. Then I realized that I had chosen the profession that helps people find meaning and peace through the tough times. Comedy helps us cope with the harsh realities of life. The importance of play is highly underemphasized. I am at my best when I keep things light, funny, and don’t take myself too seriously. I want to give that back to my community and offer skills that will help people tackle issues with new eyes. We need to be willing to work together, and more importantly, play together in order to make cool things happen.
To support Pointless, you can head over to their Kickstarter for the next two weeks.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.