Recently, I had the privilege of grabbing coffee with Christian Capozzoli, one of New York City’s top improvisational comedians, the author of the improv manual, Aerodynamics of Yes, and a member of the team “Bucky” at the famous Upright Citizen’s Brigade theater. In addition to his presence at UCB, Christian is a respected teacher for both performers and students, with degrees in literature, comedy, and education. We discussed Christian’s complex relationship with “performing,” his philosophy as a teacher, and how he hopes to use improvisation to create meaningful change in the New York public school system. As a comedian, this was one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever done, and will be especially useful to performers or anyone who enjoys discussing comedic theory.
How do you define your personal brand?
Well it’s interesting because I come from a number of backgrounds. I’m not a performer by trade, I wasn’t trained in performing arts, so I still have a hard time seeing myself as that. It is experiential, and now I’ve been on stage so much that when people say, “we want you as an actor,” I have to take a step back and ask myself, “is that what you’ve become?” So I inadvertently have become an actor or performer type, but I guess when you talk about branding myself, I don’t think about it in that way. Some people coming up even in high school productions, they love the spotlight, and I actually have a really tough time hosting or being myself on stage. I’d much rather be a character or lose myself on stage. There is still a lack of comfort in identifying as “performer,” because there’s an air of phoniness to it. Over the years, I’ve had some great success touring and performing, so I’ve become more comfortable identifying as [a performer].
Bob Odenkirk gave me some advice one time, he said, “I was in Chicago for a while, and it’s really important that you’re touring around, because you can think that you’re somebody in one city, but if nobody knows about you outside of that city, you haven’t done anything.” He was telling me not to spend all of my time climbing the mountain only to find it is a tiny speed bump. It’s easy when you’re in a system to break it apart and overthink it, because you can find infinity in an inch. If you break it into pieces, you can get self-absorbed. He told me, not until he started touring and making sure people in Denver knew who he was and people in Portland knew who he was, was he able to build a brand. People can say your name in Austin and there’s a conversation about you because people know who you are. Of course, he was talking about a time before there was the internet, where now Picnicface and Halifax can release a bunch of videos and people know who they are. Giving me that little piece of advice, making sure I didn’t get too caught up in trying to get a weekend slot at a particular theater, I took that to heart. I started saying “yes” more to little opportunities, like going to Sarasota to teach for a week. If they want me, it’s an opportunity for that part of the world to see me, so I say “yes” to it. Sometimes we hold true to improv principles on stage, but not in life. So I tried to say “yes,” and that led me to Berlin and Herzberg and Norway. Then I started meeting more and more people, and at that point I had the experience of going to Edmonton and seeing all of these people in an international capacity.
They fly in people from Australia, Japan, all over the world, people coming and sharing. It’s a cross-polination. There were certain people from the [United] States that weren’t interested in learning from other cultures. They believed they were at the top, and they had an awful arrogance. There’s a great group I love from Bogota, Colombia, and they are circus performers and improvisers. They’re brilliant, and the Americans didn’t want to see it, because it wasn’t witty or quick or gamey. I went because I’m not a “performer” and want to learn as much as possible. I looked at it as, you know that Zen Cohen, it’s an elephant? And one person is touching the tail and saying, “I’m holding a paint-brush.” And the other person is holding the trunk and saying, “it’s a hose.” In New York we only know 5% of the elephant, but we declare it to be 100%, and you need to be open to other elements. When I saw how people interpreted the other Americans, you could hear the snootiness, and they would say, “you’re so different than other Americans who come.” Which surprised me, maybe it’s because I grew up on the border of Canada so I’m a little bit of a nice guy, but when I heard them say that it was how I wanted them to think of me. Being open, communicative, I guess, eager and willing to welcome any new points of inspiration. Art can’t exist in a vacuum. Even here, a lot of the improv is like pigs watching pigs perform, and so you’re feeding the beast, and it’s hard to get new input. I’ve wanted to brand myself as a person that seeks out different perspectives in a pursuit of art. I do think that improv is art, and a lot of people come at it in New York as purely comedy.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t come at it from a theatrical background, so that is the thing that scares me. And they always say in improv, embrace the unknown. If we’re always in control of a scene, managing it, we’re comfortable. I want to challenge myself to do things that aren’t comfortable to me, and as a result I’ve become one of the more theatrical, character-based performers. I look at scenes in a way where I don’t say my games, I play my games, and let my characters breathe, and don’t move the things around me but let them move me. Obviously those are all robbing from [Viola] Spolin, or Mick [Napier], or Del [Close], which have trickled-down, but I like to let everything that’s going on in the world around me be an influence and not just assume what I’m doing is always the best. So I want that openness to be a part of my brand. The classes I’ve created for myself, Christian Capozolli Improv Classes, really the offer is to break down the head-space we get in when we’re told a bunch of rules.
We teach through negativity, “don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t say this, and don’t say that.” Then you’re asking people to have a normal reaction or reflex, when their normal reaction would be to do some of those things. I think most improv training is designed from big mug to littler mug to littler mug. And often times the big mug was a teacher who understood how to get through to people, but that trickled down to people who are just good improvisers and that trickled down to a hand-me-down version of that. So you end up with lists of how to teach something by handouts, not by people understanding how to teach in different ways. I don’t know that people have the training as teachers to do that, so my brand of teaching has been to find ways to get people to a place of reflex, so they are being their ideas instead of over-thinking and judging themselves. To avoid a place where they are crippled with fear. Largely my mission has been to offer a place where people feel comfortable failing in a culture of “yes.” The “aerodynamics of yes” are the words that people will write to me about, people have used my book as a textbook and that’s pretty cool. Because a lot of training gets started at a place where maybe only 1 in 7 people can enter through, and I think people find with my approach that we all can do this, let’s make everyone as exceptional as possible.
You studied/taught at the Annoyance Theater, founded by Mick Napier. How has he influenced your teaching style?
He becomes this kind of legend. Because he’s a mentalist, I don’t know that he’s training to be one. But he can have everyone say their name, and he remembers everybody, knows every scene. He can watch 30 minutes of 5-line scenes and remember every one of them. Then he will say, “you’re always leading with your head,” or “I notice you do this.” Not only that, he can do that while shuffling cards in his hand while watching it. I remember, in talking to him, I went to a directing workshop he did, where he talked about using and maximizing time in the classroom. And it’s like, a lot of improv coaches, you’ll do a set, then you’ll get 30 minutes of notes which takes as long as the set did. Then you’re like, where’d that time go? Is it Emerson or Thoreau, I’m not sure? But the idea of being like a cleaver, and getting to the heart of things. You don’t need to recap everything, just speak to the specific of the note. He does that, he’ll make little corrections and there is no panic anymore. He’s really a surgeon when it comes to that. I’ve been coached by a ton of people, and when they take a lot of notes, I question if they are even experiencing it as a theatrical experience. I also remember reading about the Beatles, and I’m not sure if this is true, I want to believe it is, but they said they would never write down their melodies. If it was worth remembering it, they’d remember it. And once I heard that I never took notes again, because I want to process it as live theater. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. And then what sticks as a note, if I remember it, it should be given. If I forgot it, then I would’ve forgot it as an audience member as well. Not that I’m saying I’m Ringo or anything, but I think we have the capacity to remember what is important. If I’m writing notes the whole time and not “in it,” and my note is “you need to be more ‘in it’” then it’s probably more on me than you.
I put this group together one time called “Crush,” and it really was a super-group at the Magnet. I went to the JTS Brown 20-year anniversary that was done at CIF 6 years ago and when I came back I wanted to do that, to get directing credit and work on experimental forms. I put together this incredible group and I coached them for free. We would do 3 hours of experimentation a week, then we would individualize, meaning I’d partner two people together and they had to get in a room for an hour with each other and no coach and just do scenes together. And I would randomly show up and be in the room with them and give them free notes. It’s like breaking down tape, and we would do that, we’d record the rehearsals and go back, and they were all down for it. And they were because it’s rare to get pointed notes on behavior. It’s the same as a golf swing, you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, but once you see it, and I can tell a person they’ve entered a scene three times looking at the ground, it’s easier to fix.
You’ve worked to bring improvisation to the school system. Tell us about that.
It’s been really tough. I have an education background. I have a BFA in writing literature, I have a comedy degree, and I have a Master’s degree in education. I was a teacher in the New York City school system as well as Boston. I worked at ABC University High School, which is for at-risk youth. I was one of only two people that was not military. Girls would show up with razor blades in their mouth and we had a daycare in the basement for all of the students who had kids. I worked there, felt like I was making a difference, then after I left Boston I wanted to do it here. I felt like if I could do it in at-risk schools I could do it in public schools. And I worked in Leadership and Public Service down on Wall Street. It was a decent experience at first, but the ramp-up program was in effect. So you literally had a list that said, “Minute 1-3, welcome students. Minute 3-5, encourage them to take out their books.” Then there would be a person in the back of the room taking notes and marking if you went off the schedule. So you’re being babysat on top of it. They want robots to watch these kids in that structured way.
After a year I gave up on it, because I couldn’t really affect change there. The school politics are such so it makes it difficult to actually teach students and roll with the class. It is organic, so you need to be able to go off the grid to give more attention to what is needed. It doesn’t make sense to always head due North, so it was frustrating and I got out of teaching. Then I got into improv and did a lot of touring in Canada, and I met Alistair Cook, a great guy in Vancouver. He runs the Vancouver International Improv Festival. But for I think 15 years he was the Canadian National Improv Games head honcho, and the number might be off, but I think 3 in 5 high schools in Canada have improv teams. All the provinces will elect two groups to go to nationals, and they do it in Ottawa in this huge opera house, and it’s just a bunch of kids cheering each other on. I got invited to be a guest workshop coach and judge, and it was unbelievable. The chemistry and the level of play and willingness and support coming out, it was the type of change that I could see having a really profound impact. And I was like, “I want to bring this to the [United] States, specifically New York City.” Because when you look at the numbers, there are more kids in high school in New York City than there are in all of Canada. So to think they are managing to do this across an entire country, and you could do it in the 5 boroughs, I thought it would be great. I came back and he gave me permission to bring the curriculum to New York and make it the New York City Improv Games. I went to Winthrop High and all of these different schools in different socioeconomic brackets to try and be part of it. And we would get two months in, and then we’d hear, “sorry we can’t afford to have you do this free thing for us, because it involves somebody having to watch you in the classroom.” Or, “it involves another teacher’s time and they aren’t willing to give it anymore.”
I’d start with 5 schools and end up with 1 at the end of the year. It was hard. You’re always starting over. It’s hard to prototype something that way. I worked at one point at the LCG, which is through the Media Lab at MIT, and I developed a documentary-film curriculum through them. We used a statistician, Dr. Tim Shea, through UMass Dartmouth, and it was unreal what we could do in a school t0 build a case. But here, it’s almost impossible to get that initial siphoning effect to take hold. But I’ve had some great successes, at Winthrop specifically. Kids were sneaking into the school after school just to do the improv classes. And if that is happening that’s a good sign. I’m going to a school right now after we speak to volunteer some time. I’ve let it fold on itself from the first wave of trying, but now with some friends who are similarly minded, trying to make a difference in the community, like Cipha Sounds, the Hot 97 DJ. The aim would be to prototype something for a year, and then invite some big celebrities to do a show at the Apollo, where we would rent it out, let the kids be shown what was possible. But you hook certain people and it all comes down to the red tape. A lot of it is structuring, fortifying, and through statistics quantifying why this is a good idea.
A lot of the attention kids get in school is for being bad, and coming into the improv workshops in schools, you could see how addictive it was to get positive feedback. Just that we were listening to them made a difference. And you could see them, top of their intelligence, want to go to class, so they’d have funny things to reference. It’s so empowering, I’m hoping in the next year to get one or two schools to document it.
We had one girl, who was hard as rocks. The teacher said, “don’t make eye contact with this girl.” She sat in a chair the whole time and stared us down. We were playing a very simple game of hitchhiker, where the energy that one person has everyone has to adopt. She was not told to enter or anything, and she just hopped up and yelled, “Nawwwww!” And I matched her and went, “Nawwww!” and we went back and forth and heightened it. Her energy was mean so we were mean, and then she peeled off and sat back down with a smile, but never participated again. You could see her wanting to play, it was contagious and it welled up inside of her. This hard girl who the teachers said not to make eye contact with, couldn’t help but want to play with this very fluid form. That’s what I want to bring, a sense of goofy play. It’s like when we were children, there is something very pure about it. I always give the example of pea vines. When the original Pilgrims came everything was covered in pea vines. And they had to take their machetes and cut through it. Eventually it makes a hole, which makes a trail, which makes a road, which makes a superhighway. We’re the same way with how we think and process the world. We get stuck in a rut where we go to work, go to the same lunch place, come home, and it’s a wired sense of self. It’s easy to get in a rut, but when you improvise, you get back to when it was pea vines, and any choice can be made. It does eradicate that line of thinking. That’s why the first improv class is incredible, because you realize you can be anything. Then you realize you like the way the world is to you when you’re happier, or more assertive, or more definitive.
Thank you to Christian for spending the time with me, I could have listened to him talk about comedy all day. If you want to learn more, or sign up for one of his classes, visit his website.