You can't help but smile when you're around Chelsea Coleman. Positive, thoughtful, and always encouraging, we were lucky to meet Chelsea back in our festival's first year. She, Ben, and their two-person In Transit have been a staple of the festival since then. It just doesn't feel like a California Comedy Festival with Ben and Chelsea. This year they also teamed up with Steven Sears to perform Steve, Chelsea, and Ben. We couldn't have hoped for a better show to close out the festival with!
We had an opportunity to ask both Ben and Chelsea some questions before the festival. And, even though the festival was a couple weeks ago, introspective answers and poignant thoughts are always timely! (I will post my interview with Ben later this week)
Q: When and where did you begin improvising?
A: I love questions like this, because you really can choose to answer however you want. Like a cocky "oh, I've been improvising since the womb," or a more self-deprecating "well, college doesn't count, so like, not that long."
I'm going to say 2005 at "The Next Stage" theater in Los Angeles. It's a theater that gets a bad wrap, but it hosts free Monday night improv workshops, every week.
My friend was going and was nervous to go alone, so she dragged me with her. We want back the next two weeks and were placed on their first house team. The team was called "iD Vicious." We did short-form "punk prov." Games like "Mousetrap" in which 3 people do a scene, at any given time one of them is wearing a blind fold. The stage is covered in mousetraps and your character has to justify why you occassionally yelp in pain.
Or "OxyDep." There's a bucket of ice water on the side of the stage, at any time, at least one performer's head must be immersed in the water, then they have to justify their exits and entrances and also justify whey they are covered in water.
I then dated the director of that troupe, and he introduced me to iO West and Second City. I then progressed on a very familiar LA improv route, but my first influences will forever be "iD Vicious" and "Who's Line Is It Anyway?"
I'll add, I did not make my college improv team.
Q: What troupes and individuals were your early passions and influences?
A: I learn the most from those I love. Lynn Trickey DID make my college improv team. I always enjoyed watching her perform. I somehow tricked her into becoming my best friend a few years later.
I can't forget my childhood idols. I loved Steve Martin, and know "The Three Amigos" and "Parenthood" by heart. I religiously watched "I Love Lucy," "Roseanne," "In Living Color" reruns of "Saturday Night Live." "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" was my first favorite show. John Sessions was my first favorite improviser, but I can still remember quips from Clive Anderson, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Josie Lawrence, Tony Slattery, every performer. VH1 Standup Spotlight was a huge influence, and all late night standup comedy shows. Those still ring in my mind profoundly.
I think every improviser can talk about their favorite movies and comedians for a long time, and the list never ends.
Q: How did your troupe come together?
A: Good question! Ben, how did we come together?
Oh, I remember! I think Ben had booked a two-man show with someone at a space called "Mosaic." If I'm correct, I think that person dropped out and he asked me to fill-in?
We had a fantastic first show and just kept it going. We first met on the iO team "The 3rd Rail" back in... some year.
Q: What do you love about your troupe?
A: I'm happy to be writing this AFTER the festival, as spending time with Ben and Steve only makes me love both of them more. I could sincerely write a novel about either Ben or Steve, and not just because I'm incredibly long-winded.
I'll start with Ben Leddick and "In Transit."
Ben, and I'm going to CC you on this email so you can read compliments.... Ben may be my favorite improviser performing today.
He is unlike any improviser or human I have ever met. His intentions and desires and goals on stage are completely different than anyone else I know. He genuinely LOVES taking risks and trying new things, and tricking and confusing people. He legitimately loves to make the audience uncomfortable. Of course, like all of us, he wants validation and to have a killer show, but I have never been pushed or more inspired by an improviser in my existence. He is vulnerable and aware and caring, but also risky and deviant and silly. His heart is profoundly huge, and his moral compass and sense of self is powerful.
We have completely different religious and political views, but he is such a compassionate, wise and understanding person, that our differences have only improved our friendships and performance rather than rip it apart. I learn from him every single time we hang out.
Now Steven Sears on the other hand.....
Steve is my husband and I'm in love with the guy, so I'm a little biased on that front. As an improviser, I'm also in love with Steven Sears.
Watching Steve on stage is mesmerizing, he is physical and engaging and bizarre and dirty and his "first choice" is different than anyone else's first choice that I have met. He will "Yes And" anything, even if he has no idea what he's saying "yes" to.
The combination of Steve AND Ben is silly and ridiculous and confusing and magnetic, and one my favorite things. I didn't really get to see the depths of their silliness until this festival, and I want so much more of it. I sometimes regret not letting our three man show just be a 30-minute show of their eating pizza together.
They could have done it for 2 hours.
If you ever want to hear more great things about Steve, hit me up.
Q: Improv can be exhilarating. What do you personally consider to be the most exciting moments in your work?
A: This changes and morphs constantly, and I hope it continues to do so. It's hard to beat the high of getting a truly huge laugh or having a truly wonderful show, beginning-middle-end... I think that will never change.
The moments I really love, are moments that I refer to as "magic." Those moments where you are truly present, not planning anything, just engaged and listening to your partner, and piece by piece you find yourself falling into something terrifying and magical. Callbacks that just happen because they belong there, not because you were rifling through your back pocket. Those true, vulnerable, moments of art. That's what I really love.
I'm now adding a NEW element which terrifies me.... but it's being terrified and committing to something you are horrible at.
I had a hard time moving on from our "In Transit" show at this year's festival because I made a bunch of choices due to rustiness and defense rather than power. I was IMMEDIATELY caught in "accent regret" and have never in my life done a full show with a Southern accent.
Then I remembered Ben's workshop, about pushing what you're horrible at, going forward with it, becoming a better improviser with a larger arsenal and failing triumphantly in front of people.. That is still a battle, but I'm hoping to start practicing what I preach.
Q: How would you define what differentiates a successful live performance from a poor one? What can improvisers do from your point of view to improve their live act?
A: Again, this year's festival has shifted my perspective. I wasn't happy with the shows I performed in this year. I was beating myself up. If I had gone to my crutches and the things I'm "really good at," I could have hit the shows out of the park. Instead, they were risky and made me uncomfortable and sometimes totally fell short.
Spending time with Steve and Ben, I'm accepting that is EXACTLY the point and where I want to be headed as an artist, but OH MAN is it harder to do than it is to say.
In general, a "successful live performance" has so many factors and elements and honestly depends on the show, the venue, the audience, all of it. A show you perform in a loft space in an experimental theater will be different than one you do on a cruise ship, for example.
What I really feel is: one, improvisers should define their own destiny. Improvisers should find their own voice, what they're drawn to, what kind of shows they'd like to be doing, and encourage that to the ends of the earth. Some love character-driven, silly improv, with a loaded arsenal of pre-created characters that they know kill. Some love very artistic, fluid, changes-every-night, keeps-you-on-your-toes, may-not-even-be-funny, vulnerable art performance improv. It really depends on you;
Second, I think the key to a successful performance is setting simple goals for yourself and prioritizing those goals. What is the one, MAYBE two (don't ask too much of yourself) goal that you really want to achieve in this particular show on this particular night? Then after the show, simply ask yourself if that goal was met. Was it to try new things? Was it to really focus on object work? Was it to listen and support? What are YOU working on? Did you achieve that?
Oh, and third.... in coaching and performing, I think there's really only one thing that tanks shows.... I call them "bad eggs." The UCB method has specific terms like "pulling the rug out" etc.... but it's anything that negates, or throws your partner under the bus. Those moves where everyone's on board and someone says "Cut! Now for the next take, make it funnier." Anything that really sells everyone out, or negates any offer, or you're afraid that you're going to look bad so you bail on your own team.
You wouldn't want that going into battle with someone, and you wouldn't want it in an improv show.
Q: What's the most important lesson you have learned as an improviser?
A: This is such a deeply profound and difficult question. I think I'll go with: You are good just as you are. You are enough.