She’s in the Maydays, Katy & Rach and Music Box. Here, seasoned improv-goddess, Katy Schutte, talks to Rhiannon Vivian about her favourite moments on stage, her teachers and heroes and why all comic performers should train in improv...
When did you first discover improv?
KS: I had a great drama teacher at secondary school who used to wear slippers, and unbeknown to me at the time, she played loads of short form improv games with us. I was a very straight kid but I had a rubbish English teacher so I used to skive his classes and sneak in on the other half of the year’s drama lessons with this teacher instead. She never said a word, even though I clearly wasn’t on her register! I remember getting laughs and loving it. It was nice to be in a class where I could chill out and have a personality and not get told off for being intelligent. My school was rough as fuck, and if you appeared intelligent you just got bullied loads. Drama lessons were my oasis.
Tell us about training in Chicago...
Rachel Blackman (Katy & Rach) had heard about Second City, and told me it was like the Mecca of long-form improv. So we thought, ‘right, let’s go on holiday there.’ We wanted to learn some new things, having done the same short form games over and over. We were skint, stayed in a hostel, ate spinach and walked everywhere, but it was fantastic. The Second City shows are more like sketch shows. They then have a free improv set later in the evenings - very loose and fun. Then some brilliant improv geeks told us about Improv Olympic (IO) down the road. At IO, the improv we saw was The Shit. It was improv purely for performance and it was amazing. I saw a bunch of shows at IO I loved like the Armando Diaz Experience. The whole thing was an incredible theatrical event: I’d never seen 20 seasoned improvisers in a show before! We also saw TJ and Dave (TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi) for the first time, a duo who we now base our Katy & Rach show on. I remember thinking, ‘this is like comedy theatre, but not gaggy.’ It’s very funny, but it’s all characters, realism and scene painting. Rach and I remember TJ & Dave’s first show like it’s a film we’ve seen together, because we have the same mental image of the places they went to. IO felt like magic. Also, we’d never done any musical improv before, and we found Nancy Walker at Second City who taught us how to improvise songs, which at the time was the scariest thing ever.
Had you sung before?
A year before I’d done my first lead in a musical, but I’d found it really hard and had singing lessons. So to go from that to improvising songs was scary.
Which teachers have inspired you most along the way?
I keep chasing after skills I see in other people, so I love all The Maydays because everyone has these core skill sets, and you can collect them like Top Trumps. There’s always a goal. From Chicago, Bill Arnett is my favourite ever teacher. Jason Chin was amazing...I also love Jay Rhoderick from New York and Tim Sniffen from Baby Wants Candy. There was also a teacher in Chicago who I thought was going to be awful, because we’d seen him in a not so good show. But as it turned out, he had some incredibly useful stuff to impart. One lesson he taught us, subtly referencing the show he’d done, was: ‘never think, “I’m going to take it easy tonight. Even if you’re tired or feel rubbish.” And it’s true. If everyone decides to take it easy, you’ve got a shit show. Of course, this guy took it easy and he became the protagonist in the first two minutes! He then had to carry the whole show and wasn’t in the right head space for it. It’s a brilliant tip because we’ve all been there. Especially in Edinburgh, when half way through you’re knackered.
What’s your favourite ever improv moment to watch?
There was a troupe in Chicago which had all of the seasoned improvisers in it, including TJ and it was amazing. We’d been learning organic openings all week and hated them. We thought they were shit, and looked like A-level theatre. But then this troupe blew us all away. They did an opening where were all enacting a chess game and were perfectly in sync, without looking at one another. It was theatrically powerful and it just looked incredible. I remember thinking I want to do this until I am that good at least. Very important in my improv journey was seeing Baby Wants Candy in 1999. I’d never even heard of an improvised musical, but they were so cool. In the show I saw - I was Born Without A Brain - they did all this cool scene painting, but the great moment was when they reprised a song. It fitted so beautifully with the show. And then there was a song where two people sang at the same time, by just looking at each other. At the time I was like, ‘how do you do that?’ Since then, in 12 years, I think me and George from the Maydays have done that well maybe twice.
What’s been your favourite moment on stage?
Me and Rach did a Katy & Rach show in Brighton, and I played a woman who was a sewer tour guide. I was in a scene where she was getting tested for her tour guide licence, weaving around the sewers with her examiner. When they finally came out into daylight, I had a blank moment - so I just disappeared. It meant I’d been a ghost all that time. It was like a proper sixth sense twist, and we’d got the audience audibly going, ‘nooo!’ And me too, as I didn’t plan it. I’ve watched the video back since, and it’s not nearly as good as I remember it! And I’m also sniggering.
Ever had a really awful show?
The Maydays did this corporate gig that just didn’t work at all. I’m not sure if it was before or after we got an award for our long form musical, but we obviously thought it was a good idea to ditch the short form, and do that instead. And they really didn’t get it. We went: ‘give us a name of a made up musical!’ And people were going: ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ and, ‘Mary Poppins.’ This went on for ages. It was like a press conference game. In the end we got something to do with a farm, and proceeded to do the worst improv show ever. The characters were shit, it made no sense at all and no one knew what was going on. And it was made worse by the fact we were earning several grand for it. Our Jim Bowen Guest Who show in Edinburgh last year was pretty mental too. Everyone had come to see Jim Bowen, but the trouble was, they all like darts and Jim Bowen - they don’t like improv. Right after the show, Jim came up to us and said something like, ‘you’re all very talented. I didn’t understand any of it, but I’m sure it was very clever.’
What improv books do you recommend?
If you’re new to long form, then Truth in Comedy, by Del Close, Charna Halpern and Kim Howard Johnson. Then again, it says so much useful stuff about scene work regardless. Guru: My Days With Del Close, by Jeff Griggs is all about Del Close’s life – a good read as he is thought of as the Godfather of long form. And if you are sick of your own work, then Improvise by Mick Napier. He sort of said ‘fuck IO’ and he hates clichés. Brilliant.
Why do you think improv has had such a slow burn in UK?
In America it’s like a total rite of passage that a comedy actor or stand up goes and does shit loads of improv. Whereas here, we put stand ups in improv shows, and watch as they crowbar their own material in regardless of the setting, which means the whole thing loses depth. If you watch old ‘Who’s Line...’ shows, they’ve got the two Canadian improvisers, Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles who are amazing – but then unheard of - and then loads of British stand ups, like Paul Merton and Tony Slattery. Basically, producers over here want a guaranteed laugh, so they’re scared of taking risks. I find it really sad compared to US. In the UK, we are too focused on instant gratification. And our improv tends to be more competitive - elimination games, people trying to be ‘better.’ It’s not a level playing ground. As Charna Halpern said (and Heather Urquhart mentioned on her blog): "If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on-stage."
Do you still get nervous before shows?
Not for improv. I do for things I have to memorise lines for! My fear is forgetting things and I can’t get scared if I have nothing to forget. Occasionally I get nervous for Katy & Rach because we rarely rehearse together, but mostly I just get properly excited. I get nervous if I feel like I have to be the funniest person in the room – which might be if I am auditioning for companies who are like that. But with freeform, what can you possibly fuck up? Nothing at all. And if it’s not going well, someone will save it – that’s the team thing.
What is your favourite improv show?
Baby Wants Candy makes me physically laugh. I love that it’s full of joy and so fucking silly. And the other end of the scale is TJ and Dave, where they’re deep into role and it’s like they’re psychic with one another.
How would you describe Improv in three words?
Spontaneous theatrical magic...