It’s been a great pleasure – and challenge – to study with Caspar Schjelbred at Impro Academy in Paris over the last few months. Lithe and intense, with a mercurial combination of tension and fluidity, his presence is both poetic and comic, graceful yet controlled. Based in Paris, Caspar travels the globe to perform and teach his particular brand of physical expression and creativity. His approach to improv, Impro Supreme, is influenced by the work of Ira Seidenstein and Keith Johnstone, focusing on the body as a means of expression and a source of inspiration. It’s certainly a lot more than standing up in front of people and trying to be spontaneously funny. Our chat brought us to some interesting common ground: fear, the difficulty of accepting oneself, and the importance of being a body.
The Attentive Body: You’ve been practicing physical expression for 16 years now. How did you make the switch from Sorbonne student of the History of Science? Was it a big leap?
Caspar Schjelbred: There was never any “switch” from History of Science to this. I never had any career plans whatsoever in that field, nor in this one. I studied the history of psychology and then the study of emotions in France at the end of the 19th century, which is connected to all the big questions about our humanity. So there was really no leap at all to what I’m doing now.
TAB: What’s the connection, for you, between the big questions about humanity and physical theatre?
CS: I see the theatre studio as a laboratory of practical philosophy. You practice how to make sense of – literally create – your life here and now. The work in the studio gives me hints for the rest of my life, so to speak.
TAB: What specific elements of your training have carried over into your “real” life?
CS: It’s hard to tell. I always did it for real-life purposes. I’m more interested in being a good person than a good actor.… Anything that “blocks” me on stage is the same as what blocks me in life. The sticking points are the same.
TAB: While improvising, I’ve noticed that negativity comes more easily and spontaneously to many people (including myself) than acceptance and agreement. Any idea why that is?
CS: Yes. Fear.
TAB: Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!
CS: When you’re afraid, the default response is to say no and to close down and become smaller, occupy less space, disappear….
TAB: Yes! Absolutely. One of the main realizations I’ve had in your classes is how difficult it is to really see, hear, and respond to the person you’re “playing” with. We’re so busy with what we’re going to put out there that we cut off our awareness of what’s going on around us. I trace it back to fear: being afraid to not be funny, to not know what to say or do….
CS: Exactly. The great tragedy of improv is that most improvisers don’t understand that they are, in and of themselves, the fundamental “offer.” So people practice coming up with stuff and get very good at it. But as far as I can see, it’s futile. Most people can’t stand being on stage and being looked at for even five seconds without having to say or do something.
TAB: So what do you teach about handling this fear?
CS: You have to first simply acknowledge it. Not be ashamed of it. It’s really about accepting yourself, your presence in the world. I am what I am and what I am is here. In front of you. Being in your body is the answer. Feeling yourself. That’s what we call stage presence, charisma.
TAB: You said recently that one of the most important things you learned from your mentor, Ira Seidenstein, is that you need to know how to stop. I’m intrigued, because my mentor, Avi Grinberg, says exactly the same. In terms of my work, it means identifying and stopping automatic or routine ways of using the body (and the mind, actually), to allow room for adaptation, spontaneity, and variety, and to avoid the strain and dis-ease that unconscious repetition can often lead to. What does stopping mean in your work?
CS: Stopping means making a pause, and even: a pose. That’s where you can choose to go on doing what you were already doing, or make an adjustment. It’s where you can make a conscious choice. Actually make use of your intelligence. Compose. Not be a victim – and create other victims – of “forward panic.”
TAB: “Forward panic” meaning having to do do do instead of taking the time to be?
CS: Forward panic, in this realm, I guess means that you’re afraid to stop and feel. Actually I got the expression from reading about American soldiers in Vietnam: how they’d be all psyched up to attack the enemy, then wouldn’t be able to stop, and continued killing civilians. It’s a form of blindness. It’s our old friend fear again.
TAB: One of the pioneers of physical theatre, Marcel Marceau, came into popularity in 1947. In our age of iPhones and Twitter, do people have the patience for improv and physical theater? Both as actors and audience…
CS: The way people improvise reflects how they are in life, to a high degree. I don’t see a lot of patience in improv. It’s very rare. There are a couple of guys here in France who do a show called “SLOW.” They really take their time. It’s not that nobody else does it, but it’s rare.
I think the audience appreciates it when they get it – or some do. But generally speaking… probably not.
TAB: Does the actor have to adapt to that somehow? Or do you insist on people meeting you on your turf?
CS: An issue in improv is that people are too polite, too socialized if you will, and adapt too quickly to “society,” i.e. their fellow actors. Personally, I am getting better at making people meet me on my turf. But that sure as hell did not come from improv. That came from working with Ira.
TAB: So aside from the SLOW guys, improv is speeding up like the rest of life?
TAB: Could you explain just a bit about the distinction between improv and physical theatre?
CS: That’s easy: improv is not physical at all. The classes you’ve been attending [at Impro Academy] are far from your normal improv class. I’ve yet to do a thorough analysis of it all, but I can tell you this for sure: 99% of all improv classes start with group warmups or games. People are not trained to confront themselves. They go straight for the fun — let’s play together. Which is…fun. But empty calories.
TAB: So you teach Carnivore Improv.
CS: Let’s call it meat and potatoes.
TAB: I’m guessing you don’t spend a lot of your free time at improv shows.
CS: You bet. Improv shows are extremely predictable.
TAB: How do you feed your inspiration?
CS: I watch circus and dance. Modern or contemporary circus usually has real drama or better acting than theatre performances, and more exciting, acrobatic, movement than a dance piece! I started taking ballet classes five years ago myself. I love it. And I read, of course.
TAB: What are you reading now?
CS: Right now I’m reading David Malouf’s The Writing Life. It’s brilliant.
TAB: You said earlier that your work in the studio gives you “hints” for the rest of your life. Can you give an example?
CS: Live and let live. And sometimes let die.
TAB: You mean you’ve learned to let go of things?
CS: I haven’t quite learned to let go of things yet. That’s a big one. Letting go. Let’s say I’m learning to hold things more lightly.