A Chat With Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts

I got a chance to sit down with Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts, the improv duo known as “Dummy”, to chat about things like teaching, the good ol’ days, how trying to be famous is overrated, and learned a few cool things along the way.

Colleen Doyle and Jason Shotts

Photo Credit: Lindsay Williams

How did you guys get started with improv?

CD: I actually auditioned for a short-form improv ensemble my last semester of college, (got cast) and really loved it. Then, just by happenstance, Second City opened up a training center in Cleveland the summer I graduated from college, so I started taking classes there and was hooked.

JS: I moved to Chicago in 1997 and I had a roommate that had a neighbor (before we moved in together) that came to iO, and she invited us to come see shows. Me and my roommate then started coming to the theater a lot, as just something to do, so we saw a lot of Harold shows and we saw a lot of jams, a lot of late night stuff –never did it, never performed, never was interested in taking classes, -just really loved the theater and loved coming to see shows. That went on for like 4 years until finally, after a few friends kind of told me I should probably take a class. I was like “no, no, no, I could never do it” but I finally got convinced into taking a class by a friend. That was…10 years ago, no…it was12 years ago –

CD: Gross.

JS: It was 12 years ago. And yeah, took Second City “A” through “E” [classes] and came over to iO immediately when the next session started. I got on a Harold team [after classes] and I’ve been playing here since.

Were these classes your first time performing or did you guys have a theater background?

CD: (shaking head)

JS: I didn’t. My first class was at Second City and then I came over to take the program here [iO], but I had never performed before that.

Who did you guys have when you were students here, and who were some of the people you looked up to as performers?

JS: “4 Square”.

CD: Yes – when I came here, I had no job and I was here all the time with my student ID. My favorite team to this day is 4 Square, which was John Lutz, Rob Janas, Peter Grosz, and Dan Bakkedahl. I had really, really wonderful teachers like Paul Grondy, Peter Gwinn and Susan Messing… -I was in awe of pretty much everybody when I moved here, for sure.

JS: I went to a lot of “jams”, (a show that existed at iO that was all short form games and anyone could come watch and get up on stage to play), and they were always kind of big chaotic nights that were very silly, raucous, and drunken fun. I remember John Lutz was there one night, and people started chanting “Lutz! Lutz! Lutz!”, and then he got up on stage, played a game, destroyed, and got this huge applause afterwards. It was the first time it ever hit me that improv was something you could be good at. I just thought it was people screwing around. So I was like, “Oh, that’s somebody who’s good at this, you can actually be good at this”, and that was crazy to me. As for teams, the same thing for me: 4 Square for sure. TJ and Dave were starting right around the time I was in classes, so I remember seeing them pretty early on for the first time, and just kind of like, “Whoa, what is this? This is pretty insane.”

“4 Square” was before a lot of the people’s time but I still hear great things about them. What made them so good?

CD:They were four guys…and they were super tight and they used everything up and they had these really crazy transformational edits… I mean, they were just…

JS: -Just really good.

CD:-Yeah.

JS: Just really good and really sharp and very trusting of each other. Someone once told me that Lutz was kiiiind of the coach of the group. Rumor has it that Lutz would do things with them like, “Alright, we’re going to rehearse Tuesday at 8, and I want everyone to go online and pick a member of the band KISS, and we’re all going to decide which member of the band KISS we are, and then, you have to spend the next 2 days researching as much as you can on that particular member of KISS, and then when we show up at the rehearsal space, we’re going to show up as that person, and then just do a two hour improv rehearsal as that person, and then just go home afterwards and never discuss the fact that we were all KISS members”. So, like, they were a little crazy. (laughs)

But like Colleen said, they had these phenomenal transformational edits and they just leapt on everything immediately, -no judgment, no hesitation. It was just kind of amazing to watch four guys who had absolutely no judgment of what was happening in terms of being weird or strange, and just jumped on everything. The other group for me (when I started) was “People of Earth”, which was the big Harold team at the time when I was in classes. They were a phenomenal Harold team because of these killer openings that were…mind blowing. They were really playful and fun.

That sounds awesome. So, were you guys here at the same time? How did you eventually come to know each other?

JS: I had been – I started playing here in 2003 and…you started when?

CD:Mmmm, my God, 2003. I moved here in 2003.

JS: Our paths hadn’t quite crossed yet. A while back I remember hearing that iO was building a “super” Harold group of all these phenomenal players and they were putting these two girls from Cleveland on it. Before anyone knew who they were, we were all kind of like, “Who the fuck are these girls that just showed up and are getting put on this phenomenal Harold Team??” It ended up being Colleen and her friend, Dana Quercioli, who were on a Second City stage in Cleveland, before they moved here.

I got invited to play on that team once because they were short people, so the night I sat in and played on that team, she and I actually did a show together.

CD: (laughs)

JS: She does not remember that.

CD: I really don’t.

JS: We even did a scene together! Anyway, then probably like another year after that we were just randomly at the theater together and I just went up and talked to her…she was not the most social person at the time.

CD: Nooo, I wasn’t.

JS: So when I saw her, part of me was like, I’m probably not going to see her again for another six months, so I might as well talk to her.

CD: We didn’t really know each other, but we went on a date… and that was it. Trouuuuble. (laughs) The next summer TJ and Dave were in New York, so Charna (Halpern) put together a show called “The Better Half”, which was couples improvising together in TJ and Dave’s slot. That was the first time we ever did a show together and then we just kind of enjoyed it and…

JS: Yeah, it was a fun show, Super weird, super fun show.

When did you guys start teaching here?

CD: I’ll go first because mine is an easy answer. 4 years ago.

JS: I was probably… 7 years ago? I’d been playing here for 4 years when Charna opened up a training center at an improv theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the thought being that it would be a short-form theater with an iO long-form training center, and I went down there as the inaugural teacher to start them for 8 weeks.

I had never taught before then, so when Charna asked me to do it, I was like, “Oh, I don’t think I could do it”, and she was like “Yeah, you can, you could do it”. I kept trying to talk her out of it, and she kept calling me a pussy, and then I went.

It was great because it was crash course in teaching Level 1. I taught 5 classes a week for 8 weeks and it was great.

Is that place still there? I’m from North Carolina.

JS: Oh really? The theater is still there, “Comedy Works”, in Raleigh. They still teach long-form classes its just not affiliated as an iO Training Center anymore. It was known as “iO South” for probably two years.

Oh cool. What are your teaching philosophies or just goals as teachers in general?

JS: Well, it’s a philosophy thing for me. When I was at Second City, my favorite teacher was Andy Cobb. He was very playful and very invested in his classes, so I was a big Andy Cobb fan. Then, like two classes later I heard that he quit teaching. I saw him at a bar one night and I said to him, “Andy, you were like my favorite teacher and I heard you quit, why’d you quit?”

He looked me in the eye and he goes, “Because I feel like teaching improv is a fraud and I don’t feel good about myself when I teach an improv class.” I was like, “what do you mean by that?”, and he said, “I don’t think anyone learns to improvise in a class room. You learn by doing it. So, I feel bad taking people’s money and saying I’m going to teach you how to improvise in improv class.”

That kind of always stuck with me. So I think my philosophy in my classes is that I stopped worrying so much about giving people 8 weeks of stage time and hoping they figure it out on their own. Instead, my class focuses on spending 8 weeks dealing with comprehension and I want you to understand how a scene works. Because as Andy said -and I think this is true-, you’re going to learn how to improvise when you start getting on stage in front of an audience. So, to me, what a class should do is prepare you for what happens when you get off the stage after a show.

My job as a teacher is to eliminate improv ‘victims’ and focus on making sure you understand what happened in the show or scene. If a student understands, they will improve and they’ll get better on their own. I don’t worry about whether everybody has a great scene on the last day anymore because… They’re just there to learn and figure out, “Ok, that scene’s over, what did I like about it? What didn’t I like about it? What could I work on next time?”

I think that’s what a Training Center should do. I think there’s a lot of improv that’s taught that is very much about –and this isn’t bad, I’m NOT saying this is bad – that’s it’s very much about praising students to make them feel good about what they do, and if they feel good about what they do, they’ll feel like they learned something. To me, if I taught a class like that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, because I wouldn’t feel good about myself and I’d feel gross doing that in a classroom instead of focusing on making sure the student at least understands it.

So, if you understand it, then you’re going to get better. That’s the angle I take.

CD: I try to walk a line between, making it a joyful experience, a fun experience, and being instructive with people. What has crept into a lot of my classes is just empathy, because I’ve been where they are, and I’m actually there all the time. You know, you learn the same lessons over and over again. So I guess ‘just to be gentle’ has become my philosophy. You’re in art school, so let’s treat it as a journey rather than a destination.

Do you guys feel teaching affects your performance at all?

JS: Totally

CD: Totally. Makes you a better player.

JS: Susan Messing once told me that: “Nothing will make you a better performer than teaching”, and she’s right.

I just saw both of you in “Shrink”, the pilot that Ted Tremper made. Do you think that sort of thing will encourage more people to stay in Chicago? You know, stuff that is shot here and allows improvisers to actually improvise on camera?

CD: It’d be great. I would love it if I could get paid to improvise but that has yet to become a thing. I think that good improvisers make competent writers, so what I tell people –and myself a lot- is to try to be a better writer and try to hone that skill. It’d be nice if there were more writing jobs in Chicago.

Speaking of writing, it seems like a lot of improvisers we hear about getting work seem to get writing gigs. Why do you think that is?

CD: I think it’s because there are more writing jobs, and as improvisers, we’re uniquely trained to be great at dialogue and fleshing out characters.

JS: And people want to work, you know? Improvisers don’t want to have to have day jobs, so it’s a question of “how else can I get work in this business and get paid?”

I see. More and more shows and movies are using improv as a writing tool, but what about a performance, do you think long-form Improv show can be sold as a TV show?

CD: A while back UCB taped a few ASSSSCATS for TV, and as remarkable as all those players were in those tapings, I still think there’s something about the immediacy and intimacy of improv that you lose when viewing it as a TV show. Then again, there are shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, that have structural elements like, they know when it’s going to begin and when it’s going to end, and in between they know what they have to hit. Somehow that type of improv on TV works in that structure. I would love it if long-form could work that way.

JS: I think it’s also the thing of like: stand-up has been around forever, right? So, if you turn on Comedy Central and see a stand-up comedian on stage, you know what that is immediately.

Short-form improv has gained some traction from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, so people know what that looks like and understand that it’s an “improv” show. But I think that right now long-form improv would still be really hard to sell to a mainstream audience.

CD: I think it’s also just an innocent ignorance of what it is. If one doesn’t know what to expect, they tend to not be patient. To not know and to be patient is a lot to ask from a society that is not inclined to do that.

JS: I’ve done some film projects where a director who knows I’m an improviser will say things to me like, “Well, do the line, and then do it again and improv it”. He doesn’t know that to me, improv means to build off what someone else is saying. He thinks it’s just, “make funny stuff up and say them”. So again, people just don’t know how it works and what it is, which makes it hard to sell.

Hopefully that could change soon. How do you feel about those that come to Chicago to study improv but simply because they want to get famous?

CD: To me it’s kind of depressing. When I was taking classes in Cleveland there was no theater, there was nowhere to go, you weren’t going to get hired for a stage. And I remember those as the hay days, – we did it because we enjoyed each other’s company and we had a lot of fun together. When people are like, “I gotta get through the classes, I gotta get on a team, then I gotta do this next thing, and this next thing so I can get to that brass ring that I want”, etc. etc, as opposed to shooting the shit and staying out way late and going out in the big city and doing all those social milestones. It’s a process, and if you’re not enjoying the process than I kind of feel sorry for you.

JS: I was listening to an interview with Dave Razowsky and Dave Pasquesi the other day and they were reminiscing about the good old days just like I do. The thing that Pasquesi said that just killed me was the good old days in Chicago for him, were the days when people in Chicago doing improv knew, or on some level assumed, that doing improv was a dead end, that you weren’t going to get a job doing this, it’s just what they loved to do.

When I speak to students who are frustrated with the process and feel that improv isn’t getting them anything, I tell them that improv isn’t supposed to give them anything. It’s a fun skill set that’s fun to do on stage. It’s an art form. Its not supposed to give you a damn thing. If you’re Ok with that and you still want to do it knowing these things, this town will accept you for as long as you want to be accepted.

I had a very blessed experience coming into this because I didn’t move to Chicago to become an improviser; I didn’t get into improv because it was going to make me famous.

I’m very lucky that I stumbled into this theater with a friend. I thought it was super fun, and I didn’t have anything else really going on in my life. So I was like, “this seems fun I wish I could do that”, and that was the beginning of the process. For me it was never like “And then I’ll get famous.” It was more like, “I just want to get better at this. I want to be one of the good improvisers”, and that was the only driving force that was really pushing me. It was never to get famous.

It makes me a little sad that people don’t enjoy the ride and don’t enjoy being an improviser as much as they probably should. When class is over everyone goes home and I’m just like, “ugh! this should be such a fun part of your life”. You’re taking a class together, you could all go hang out and get to know each other and laugh and make friends and bond with people. You’ll probably never have an opportunity again to meet so many like-minded people who are a good time. You’re going to squander that because you think you need to run off to another rehearsal for another show or something? Then you’re kind of missing out on the fun of the right now. This is the best part.

Wow, that’s fantastic. I like what you said about going out after class. I mean that’s not something that like I’m naturally inclined to do, but it kind of seems like if you can’t let your guard down and go out with people and build camaraderie after improv class, then when can you?

JS: Absolutely.

CD: Yeah, it’s just sad, I could never be upset with those people because I get it, but I mean it used to be like you go out and drink for hours, and everyone knew all your secrets and –

JS: –And literally everybody went out. You were chastised if you didn’t come. We got out of class at 10 and stayed out ‘til 3. It was a blast, and makes me so sad seeing students just be like “I can’t, I have rehearsal in two hours”.

CD: “I have four rehearsals and two shows”.

JS: “I’ve got a show at Studio Be”.

CD: “And then I have to get on the bus and go to another thing”.

JS: “Sorry guys” …And then there’s always like two dudes left being like, “Aw, man I wish we could all hang out.”

CD: And those two guys who went to “Pick Me Up” [a late-night restaurant] and ate, like, pork sandwiches and were like, “We should do something.”, are going to put up a fucking amazing sketch show in three years and are going to get a fucking job writing for something.

That’s how things happen, man. “Find your tribe”, -Ms. Amy Poehler. *

Ha! Funny but true. Where do you guys feel you are now in your creative careers? Is there something else outside of DUMMY and teaching that you still feel you have left to do – or for that matter just want to do?

JS: Well, I think that ultimately both Colleen and I would love to be doing something performance/creative/writing based…that paid…enough money for us to live on.

CD: (laughing) Oh, my god that is so depressing.

JS: But in reality it could be anything. Our agent asked us: “So if you guys got a job would you moved to Los Angeles?”, and I said we’d move to Albuquerque – it doesn’t matter where, it would just be nice to try to have a “career”. If it doesn’t happen that’s fine because I don’t think Colleen and I are hell-bent on like “If we don’t get a job in two years we’re going to jump off a bridge.” We both like our life and we’re doing our best to get a career but, again, – stupid analogy: – it’s like we just turned 18 and we’re allowed to go buy lottery tickets., and someone’s like “Hey, you can buy lottery tickets so…are you going to win the lottery?”, and we’d be like: “Uh, no, but we can buy lottery tickets and that’s pretty nice, right…? That feels pretty cool.”

CD: Oh, brother.

JS: (laughing)

I think I get it.

JS: Oh, get this: Lately they’ve filming “Chicago Fire” and some other things in this massive soundstage on the South side…-.

CD: -And they’re not shooting any comedies here! Not one comedy. They’re shooting six shows in Chicago and not one of them is a comedy. Now see, that doesn’t make any fucking sense to me. You could shoot a fucking sitcom on that soundstage and have some of the funniest people in the whole world right here in Chicago. It just kills me, I don’t understand it one bit. So let’s make it happen, let’s get everyone working, some local actors, writers. I’ll make some phone calls.

JS: Let’s get everyone paid. Not rich, just paid.

CD: I don’t want my friends to keep leaving. You know, people leave and go to LA, –and God bless them, but I know a lot of them just miss Chicago.

JS: I hear things are different now, but years ago, a friend of mine had moved to LA and jumped into the improv scene. I asked him how improv was out there and he was like, “I’m used to seeing a team go up to do a show, do it, bow and get off stage”. But in LA, he once saw a team go up and be like, “Hey, we’re “Funny-Team-Name”…individually we are” –they would say their own names going down the line and then start the show! Again, this was years ago, but still, it was like, “I hope you like our improv show but we’re really here to get discovered.”

CD: “Uhh, Hi my name’s Brian, and I am willing to shave.”

(Laughing) Well thanks a lot guys, it was really fun talking to you.

CD: Of course, thank you.

JS: Just make us sound cool, man.

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“Find your tribe, find people who are good to you and nice to you. Improvise with people who make you laugh. Art comes out of that.” – Amy Poehler.

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