An Interview with Paul Vaillancourt

paul-vaillancourt-smTwo letters: PV. It’s the mark of an ImprovOlympic (iO) great. An improv super hero symbol perhaps. It would beam up in to the night sky, glowing within a triangle (“GET THE TRIANGLE OF THE SCENE HAPPENING GUYS”).  For those of you who know this symbol, you have experienced his wisdom and passion first hand. For those of you that don’t know the reference, let me expand: Paul Vaillancourt. He is co- founder of the iO West. He’s sat in with legendary improv troupes like The Family (iO Chicago), he was part of the equally legendary Bitter Noah (his team that came to LA with him from Chicago by way of the Aspen comedy festival) and Tiny Hostages (one of iOWest’s first house teams and the winner of the first two Harold competitions)and he currently performs with the much loved Beer. Shark. Mice. He teaches level 1 and 3 at iO West, runs jams, participates in the student lottery and helps people fall in love with improv with his super power abilities. A real improv super hero. Plus, he’s a pretty nice guy.

I had a chance to chat to him about his improv team Beer. Shark. Mice, his younger years as an improv student, being a part of the iO West and got some great advice about improv as a way of life that I would love to share with you.

Firstly, I got a bit of background info on Beer. Shark. Mice. The group includes: Paul Vaillancourt (duh), Peter Hulne, Dave Koechner, Pat Finn, Mike Coleman and Neil Flynn. You need to see them if you haven’t already.  They dominate. The group has been together for about 10 years. Paul is the only non-original member of the group (hence the lack of his presence in the team photos – the lazy bums). Paul joined the group because he wound up sitting in as a coach for a few of their sessions, then he just fell in to it. He knew most of the guys from the time they spent together at iO Chicago.

GP:  How did Beer. Shark. Mice form initially?

PV: Once iO west had gotten started and it was clicking along, it was like a lightning rod that attracted people who had moved away from Chicago to L.A for work or whatever, and they didn’t really have a home improv wise. When they heard about iO West everyone was like “I know that thing; I wanna come back and do that!” The guys from Beer. Shark. Mice. got together on the idea that they wanted to play with people that had been doing it for as long as they had. Once you get to a certain point you gravitate towards people that have the same experience as you.

GP: What’s your favourite thing about being on the team with them?

PV: I think my favorite thing about being on the team with them is that everyone is so hilarious. Everyone is so good it forces you to bring your absolute best game and it’s just fun to do. The hardest thing about doing the show is standing on the side and just laughing and laughing and having a great time and going “oh shit, I’m IN the show, I gotta get out there”. Everyone is a stone cold killer and they bring their A game all the time. You get to play your hardest. If I play in The Lottery or on The Plus One show I’m trying to play but I’m also trying to facilitate you guys – and happily so, I love doing that, but in this, everyone is coming full steam ahead. You need to get out there, you need to make some space, you need to bring your A game because everyone is bringing their A game, but in the same token no one is making room for you but everyone is helping you. I love the velocity of it. A bunch of alpha males going for broke.

GP: How did you guys come up with the name?

PV: They were knocking around a bunch of names and Neil just said it Beer! Shark! Mice! Once you’ve been in improv for a while, arguing over names you just get sick of quickly because it doesn’t matter. It’s always the opposite of what people think. I remember in Chicago, and here in LA too, teams were always trying to come up with ‘cool’ names.    I mean it’s just like a band name. Cool flows in the opposite direction. If your show is good, your name becomes cool. Like the Beatles. I mean.. The Beatles? That’s what you’re going to call your band? Now it’s like “Oh the Beatles,what a cool name” because cool flows in the opposite direction. If your thing is good, the name becomes cool. Beer.Shark.Mice is a ridiculous name but now it means something.

GP: How many improv teams have you been in over the years?

PV: About a dozen teams. Well, a dozen consistent teams. Although, once you’ve been solid in a few teams, you become a hired gun so you go out and play with this group, then that group, you find your doing different shows for different groups, so now that I’m thinking about it probably closer to 20 teams. The name of my first team at iO was Faulty Wiring which was about 20 years ago.

GP: What advice do you have for new improvisers that are starting their own team?

PV: Get a coach. Especially in the beginning cause you’re finding your way through it. You go through the whole program so that’s about 1 year. You’re one year in to it. You still have tons of bad habits. I remember when I was 1 year in to ImprovOlympic I was 7 years in to improv when I got there so I still had tons of bad habits and was still finding my feet, trying to be consistent, that kinda thing. Find a coach. And find a coach whose work you like. Go to shows. Seeing shows is so important in so many ways. You get to see people whose work you like, whose work you don’t like and you get to set your own compass. You can see what kind of improviser you want to be and the kind you don’t want to be. Find a coach that has the same sensibility for you as a team.  That’s the number one thing; find the right coach to push you guys along. And also; follow your fear and relax. Del always used to say “follow your fear”. Whatever your fear is, follow it and do that thing. That’s really important. Just relax. It’s all going to be ok. It’s not brain surgery; it’s not life and death even though it feels like it sometimes. It should be fun. We don’t say “Hey, wanna come out and work at the show tonight”. Its “Hey wanna come play tonight?” Always remind ourselves to have fun with it.

GP: Do you think brand new teams should do shows?

Absolutely. You learn a ton in front of an audience. Once you, as a team, have your thing, and have your feet a little bit, yeah, why not? You learn so, so much from doing a show as opposed to being in class even though class is rigorous. One thing I admire about the UCB is that they have a sense of recklessness. I’ve seen shows there that were barely together, it seems like it could shake apart any second, but they just go for it. In the same token I don’t think the show should be haphazard. It’s the difference being sparring and fighting. You learn a lot sparring, but you fight a guy who’s trying to knock your head off you learn a ton more really quick. Do shows.

GP: Is there anyone you learn from?

PV: Yes of course. I’m learning all the time. I learn a lot from teaching you guys. I really love teaching level one because people come in totally fresh without any preconceptions about it and I get to see their fresh take on it.

Teaching level 3 I learn a lot because I have an idea of what I think a Harold is, and when I see you guys do it I get to see your interpretation of it and it is different every time. It broadens that vision for me. It’s exciting. It’s a new take on it. It’s really interesting.

I learn from the guys of Beer. Shark. Mice. all the time. Before I was on the team I would watch Pete and Neil in The Family all the time and I really I looked up to those guys.  I remember when I first got to Chicago I used to watch The Family, which was the house team. They were “the guys”. They were The Rolling Stones of that place. They ran the joint, so watching them was really inspirational, but also really frustrating because I was like “Goddamnit! Fuck! I’m never gonna play with those guys, I’m never gonna be on that team its fucking ridiculous”. It made me laugh, laugh, laugh but it made me mad the same time. Then in a weird twist, I ended up playing with them a couple years later. I ended up filling in for their team, and I was like “Whaaat, this is crazy!” It was definitely like being called up to the big time for me.

GP: How did you feel when you got asked to play with The Family?

PV: I was in my little studio apartment and Charna called me. They were doing a show called The Dynamite Fun Nest. It was 3 forms: the Harold, the Improvised Movie, and the Impressionist Horror – which is this really off the wall form, and so it was a whole evening of improv. I think at the time Adam McKay was out of town. So one day out of the blue I get a call from Charna who asks “Would you like to sit in with The Family tonight with The Dynamite Fun Nest?” And I was like umm, YEAH! It’s like someone says, “Hey wanna come and be a part of The Rolling Stones tonight?” I was terrified of course. I was super excited. I think I called my mom maybe… I was just super excited, really nervous and ready to go for it. I showed up ready to warm up. It wasn’t like that at all.  It was just hanging out, shootin’ the shit. None of the guys were really talking to me (he’s laughing), Neil was nice to me (he laughs some more), and he was the first one to talk to me. It was nerve wracking. That was another group that was all alpha males. The Family was: Neil Flynn, Pete Hulme, Matt Besser, Adam McKay, Ian Roberts, MilesStroth and Ali Farahnakian. That’s a crazy powerhouse. Pete is like 5’8 and everyone else isover 6 feet tall and crazy aggressive and their coach was Del Close. The show must have been OK because they asked me to come back and I ended up doing it a lot after that.

GP: Do you remember anything you did as a younger improviser that you look back on now and think “Oh geez I shouldn’t have done that”?

PV: My first show, we were zooming along, I was on the side and I turned to this guy and asked him what the next scene should be before we went out and did it. Talking out the scene before going out and doing it?! It’s ludicrous ‘cause once you go out it’s always going to be totally different to what you plan.

GP: I’ve taken two classes with you now, and one thing that really drew me to you as a teacher is how passionate you are about improv. Your energy is so contagious. What is it about improv that gets you so fired up?

PV: I saw my first improv show when I was in college and it just really resonated with me. I feel like it’s got to be like when someone has a calling to the priesthood. That totally makes sense to me. It’s been my religion for so much of my life. At this point I’ve been doing it for longer than I haven’t been doing it. It hit me in such a powerful way and I was really lucky to be able to work with so many great people and have some great teachers (Del Close, Charna Halpern, Matt Besser, Adam McKay, Ali Farahnakian, Miles Stroth, Pete Gardner and  Noah Gregorapoulos to name a few) that it kept that fire burning.It was such a crazy time at the Improv Olympic during that period. Del Close was still alive and I got to work with him on a few different things. It infused every part of my life. So many things I’ve done in my life I can trace back to improv. If someone has been like “Hey can you do this thing” maybe for a job or whatever, I’ll be like “Yeah I can do that”.  That good “Yes And” spirit, then quickly figure it out later. I love to watch people catch fire on it. I love to teach level 1 because I get to see people catch fire for their first time. Like when someone does their first scene and they get some laughs and you seem them catch fire and you’re like “There it is!” There’s that moment, and it’s super exciting.

I love to share my love of it with other people. Using the religion reference, it’s like I’m preaching it to these new people, and when I see them fall in love with it a little bit I think “Yeah I did it!” That’s why I’m so passionate about it and that’s why my approach is the way that it is. I talk loud, I talk fast. I try to speak from my heart and share that love.

GP: Were you ever not amazing at improvising?! If it wouldn’t pain you too much, could you tell me about a time when you really ate shit on stage?

PV: Yeah for sure. I mean you have to start out being sucky at something, that’s the learning curve. I had a lot of experiences in my early years that really strengthened my spirit (he laughs). One time my college improv group got hired to do this Greek show for this big Greek event at our college. We were totally inappropriate for the venue. The fraternities and sororities that were doing skits had pre-recorded their stuff and were just lip syncing in this huge venue. We got up there and no one could hear what we were saying and they totally booed us. They didn’t want to hear shit from us. Our whole set got trashed. It all worked out fine though and you just go off and think, “Oh OK, I’m still alive, it’s not that bad”. We organized other shows with the same guy that hired us they worked out great.

Another time we were performing at a homeless shelter and they were going to show a movie after us; North By Northwest- or something. During our set the homeless people started shouting “SHOW THE MOVIE! SHOW THE MOVIE!” Even homeless people had something better to do than watch our show! Pretty humbling that’s for sure. You learn those lessons and you move on. My personal mistakes are so typical. I should have done this instead of that, I thought I was saying this hilarious thing but it doesn’t land. You just keep going. My journey was totally typical mistakes. I remember being that beginner. I fell in love with it so hard and so fast there was never any question for me. I was never super scared. I could never get enough of it. That was the hardest thing for me: how to get more? How do I get in to my college improv group, or this next group? I couldn’t get it fast enough. It was like a drug. I struggled with stuff, with the game of the scene. Or you get to a point where you plateau out and all your shows are just fine, you don’t feel really great. Chicago was great ‘cause you could just walk places so I would walk home and think “What, what, what could I have done differently?” You’ve just got to stick with it and keep after it and eventually you just have a break through. You don’t have that break through unless you stick with it and keep going.

GP: I think the fear of failing, and of the potential of bombing on stage can be what holds students back, and stops other people from having a go. Is there any advice you can give to people that may help them overcome that fear?

PV: Our fear of failure is really our fear of death. We think the audience is going to jump out of their seats and run on stage and murder us and that’s never happened. Ultimately we’ve got to know that it’s not that bad, it’s all going to work out and it’s all going to be fine. The only way to get that visceral experience is to do it. Go out there and push yourself to go for it, and then you don’t die, and you realize that wasn’t so bad. Maybe you wish you hadn’t done that thing, but hey, I’m still alive and I’m still Ok. Having those formative experiences early on in my college years was really helpful. Those shitty shows where people were booing us off stage and did not want to hear shit from us, were really helpful because you get over it, you’re still alive at the end of it and you just do it again, and do it again and do it again.

GP: How do you feel about improv teams covering taboo subject in shows? Race, religion, sex etc. Is anything off limits?

PV: No I wouldn’t say anything is off limits. Some things are delicate so they require a lighter touch. Like race. It’s tricky for sure. As a white guy, and especially usually performing with other white guys, it’s difficult to tackle race. But I’ve been Asian in scenes. I’ve been black in scenes. You’ve got to have some sort of take on it; you can’t just be playing stereotypes for the sake of playing stereotypes. There are other issues like rape, which I think is a super delicate issue. I don’t think it’s impossible to do, but I think you need to find that right angle. I hate to say that anything is off limits, but if you find the right angle on something then that’s it. Some shows like to play blue, especially a team of all guys… ya know, rapin’ each other and ass fuckin’ each other. Improv is a medium. It’s not an end. You can do comedy improv. You can do serious improv. When I was in college, I worked with these kids who would do outreach programs aboutsuicide, depression and substance abuse and they would do improv scenes for stuff like that and that was obviously not hilarious,but it still uses the same rules of improv.It’s just a medium. If you’re going to do something delicate then you need to do it delicately.

GP: Is there always going to be someone that’s offended?

PV: There might be. Honestly when you’re up on stage,you can’t be thinking about the audience. If you are then you’re not doing your job as an improviser. I think about my teammates and how to make them look good. That kind of dicey territory you might find is with newer teams.They wander in to that territory and all of a sudden someone is a stereotypical black guy or stereotypical Asian guy and they’re like “Fuck, how did we get here, how do we get out of this”. That outrageoussness for being outrageous sake is more a hallmark of a newer team. When I first started in L.A., I noticed a lot of people playing really flaming gay characters. I guess there’s a place for that, but I think that’s an easy option. Most of the time when I play a gay character I just play it like I would any other character, they just happen to like guys. I don’t necessarily avoid stereotypes; they’re just not the choices I make. I’m not thinking about it in that way. I just have other choices that I’m making. One time in Chicago we were doing improvised movie and we were doing a movie about the Civil War and I was this plantation owner’s female black slave. I was reading him a letter in the scene and I was like (in Southern accent)“You know sir; it’s against the law for me to read”. The joke wasn’t that I was black; the joke was how ridiculous it was that it was against the law for slaves to learn how to read. I’ve been down that road. Once you get there, if you have a purpose then just do that. Plant your feet. Once you start to be tentative about it then the audience can sense that and then they start to be offended, they don’t know why they are, but they feel your energy. You have to be confident in the point you’re making. It’s tricky.

GP: Do you have a ritual or anything you do before a show?

PV: When I was starting out I would give myself a little goal before the start of each show, like “In this show I’m really going to try and use my environment” or “Whenever I enter an environment I’m going to pick out one thing I love and one thing I hate”. So in the beginning I would set little goals. Things to concentrate on or focus on. I like warming up. I like a formal warm up, like with The Lottery, which I love to do, I always go a half an hour early so that I can be a part of the warm up. I feel like the warm up is your transition from the real world to the ritual world of theatre – not to get too over the top about it. I really try to facilitate the students and make sure they have a fun time in any shows. When you’ve been in it for 25 years it’s very easy to just go for broke, you have a lot of tools, you can easily be in every scene andyou can easily make plenty of space for yourself.I think a more interesting challenge, and more fun for you guys I’m sure, is when someone tries to give you a little nudge here and there. Like a lifeguard; get out there guys, swim, swim, swim, I’m just going to make sure nobody drowns. So that’s a different sort of challenge too.

GP: Do you still get nervous?

PV: I get excited. I’m excited to know what the show is going to be about. Really, really excited. I’m always like “I wonder what the show is going to be about tonight”. The difference between new improvisers and old improvisers is that as an older improviser you expect the show to go well. It’s going to be fun. When you’re starting out you’re like (angst ridden voice) “Oh my god! What’s going to happen, this is going to be terrible”. You’ve just got to get out there and do it. Sometimes people boo you off stage and you realise that wasn’t so bad and I’m still alive. You build up successes. You build up a body of work and your average gets higher and higher, ideally. If you’ve done 2 shows and one was good and one was bad then you’re at 50 percent. If you’ve done 1000 shows and 10 were bad you’re at 1 percent.

GP: What you like about iO West?

PV: The sense of community. Knowing people. Knowing I have this home. Knowing that people are working together and helping each other. I met my wife at the iO. It’s great. There are tons of improv theaters. For me, that’s the greatest achievement. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of. People like it and they think that’s its home. When I was starting out in Chicago I would go to iO 6 or 7 nights a week. Just to hang out, see shows.

GP: Is that one of the reasons you put a bar in the theatre, which I think we all really love by the way!?

PV: When I started the iOWest, we were definitely moving in that direction from the beginning because that’s really important. When we first started,we were at the Stella Adler Theatre and we would all go and hang out at the bar around the corner,so that was our unofficial place. When we moved to the Complex, we had a space that had access to this little hut where people would hang out after the show. It was really important. The thing is, what you bring to improv is yourself. That’s what the great thing is about it and that’s what the risky thing is. That’s why it’s so scary sometimes. It’s not just a play that some playwright has written. That’s you. You said that. You’re putting yourself out there as a performer and as a thinker, and hanging out after with the community is so important in a lot of ways. You can support each other and talk about what worked and what didn’t work. Even before we had a bar everyone found a way to do that.

One of the last things he said:

I’ve given so much of my life to improv, it’s like a thing I can never repay. Teaching is one of the ways I pay it forward to you guys. It’s great. I love improv and I recommend it as a lifestyle to everyone.

Thank you Paul.

Paul Vaillancourt has contributed so much to the iO community and I know we are all grateful for his dedication. His honesty and joy is a real inspiration for me, and I’m sure many of you too. For anyone that wants to take a class with him, he runs level 1 and 3 at iO west at the moment. If you want to be challenged, get excited, feel some amazing camaraderie and have lots of laughs while you do it, I highly recommend his classes.  Watch him in Beer. Shark. Mice. on the main stage every Saturday night in October (except for the 18th) 2014.

I’ll bring the improv matches, you bring the improv gasoline bottle… Let’s catch fire together!


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