Seth Weitberg is a teacher, performer, and coach at iO West who began short form improv at Duke University before moving to Chicago in 2003 where he studied and performed at iO Chicago and Second City.
Seth has an organic approach to long form, in particular the Harold, a form which he teaches in Level 5. Here is our interview with him.
Let’s get this out of the way; Name drop! Who have you played with or coached that you thought “(s)he’s going to be a huge star!”
I was very fortunate to be on a team in Chicago called Bullet Lounge. It’s members, which changed over the years, include Ryan Archibald, Tim Baltz, Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Sarah Haskins, Barry Hite, Jordan Klepper, Thomas Middleditch, Rich Prouty, Bill Saveley, Blaine Swen, Steve Waltien, Charlie Wilkins, Brandon Sornberger, TJ Miller, Sarah Haskins, and Ryan Archibald. You may know some of those folks, and soon you will know all of the others.
You taught an openings workshop recently with Charna Helpern to all of the house Harold teams at iO West.What is your theory on a great opening? What should the team take away up top?
I don’t know if you are specifically referring to Harold, or any longform structure in general, but I guess my answer would be pretty much identical. I think most improvisers think of the opening as functional. In Harold you look to discover a thesis or point of view to explore, while in other forms you may simply be looking to create information to deconstruct. But if you accomplish that goal, then you’ve really only done a part of what you need to set yourself up for a great show.
The opening is not just functional. It’s the opening of your show. It’s the first five pages of your spec script, it’s the first paragraph of your novel, it’s the intro to your song, it’s the color you choose when toning a canvas. The greatest shows I’ve ever seen were all ones where the opening affected everything that followed, thematically, tonally, structurally, etc. So to answer the second part of your question, as to what the team should take away from the top, I would say, everything. They should take everything away from the opening, release judgment about it and instead make the assumption that what they just did is the start to a brilliant show that they never could have seen coming.
What was an early hurdle you had with scene work and how did you overcome it?
In my Level 1 class the best improv instructor of all-time, Liz Allen, pointed out that I really wanted to go fast and think ahead, in large part because I had predominantly done short form before then, where patience is not necessarily a virtue. She was basically saying, “listen.” I have spent the years since then trying to be a better listener on and off stage, and there’s no end to that pursuit. Liz also once told me, when the great improvisers go out on stage they just make a choice and then connect with their scene partners. It took me forever to have any clue what that actually meant on stage.
What is one thing you see a lot in classes/on stage that people consistently have problems with and how would you coach people away from it?
I’ll give two answers, if that’s alright. In early classes, it is extremely rare to get students who are really exceptional listeners. You simply do not have that many things in your life that require you to listen as deeply as improvisation does, so it takes months and sometimes a lot longer than that, just to get people to understand the depth of listening required in this work.
In upper levels I see people cling to form as a series of obligations which leads to uninspired work, the inhibition of true play and a whole ton of improv shows that end up looking pretty similar. The best example is with the Training Wheels version of the Harold. At iO, we believe that the form of Harold you learn in your Level 1 class or the book Truth in Comedy, is just an example. It’s an exercise. Great Harolds do not follow that format to the letter, they follow the show that they are in. The form is there to serve your piece, you are not there to serve the form. In other words, what the Training Wheels Harold does well is it establishes what your show will explore, it helps you create characters, relationships, locations and minor themes to explore that larger idea, it balances the use of scene work and presentational stuff (or game energy), and it shows you how to bring elements of your show back in a way that ensures you balance the breadth and depth of your exploration. That is to say, if I know Training Wheels Harold, I should know how to bring a scene back if I want to, whenever I want to. If I know Training Wheels Harold, then I know how to decide when the show needs an adjustment of pacing, or tone or to switch to something that is not a scene, and I know how to do it. A math function is far less capable of expressing ideas than a poem is. A recipe is safe, but never as inspired as a chef simply cooking. Students want to be good, and it’s much easier just to follow that recipe, but eventually you have to start seasoning your food, mixing up the syntax and going to your palette for a different color because you want to, not because you think you’re supposed to.
What is your current favorite form to play and why?
If I could do Nogoodnicks shows with Tim Baltz every night of the week, I would. With all due respect to the vast numbers of amazingly talented people I’ve been lucky enough to play with, Tim and I met very early on in our careers, and I would gladly sit in a 45-minute show with him 365 days out of the year.
Since he is busy dominating Chicago, and I’m out here, I always love playing Armando on Saturdays, and starting Thursdays at 11pm in November, I am going to put my money where my mouth is, and be in group with Matt Cavedon and Thom Vacca, directed by Brad Morris, called Pascal, that will be performing a three-person Harold. I could not be more excited about working with all three of these guys.
You worked very closely with Charna in Chicago and still today now in LA, whats the difference between the 2 scenes that you notice?
I think there are many. I will name a couple of them. In Los Angeles, the idea of “the game of the scene” is much more prevalent as a part of our vocabulary. The point of access for an iO improviser will almost always be the relationships between the characters, but I think that Chicago would do really well to understand more about game mechanics. In Chicago, I think groups are pushing the art form in far more significant ways. I think, for whatever reason, it is a safer environment for pure experimentation and LA teams are less likely to push boundaries. I know that that last statement might make a lot of people angry to read, and I would be thrilled if those folks proved me completely wrong.
Improv technique is the same everywhere, but the nature of the community is reflective of the ethos of the city in which the work is taking place. Chicago is an ensemble town. It’s about doing it together and following the work. The whole theater community is like that. LA is not a theater town. It’s an industry town, and it would be naive to assume that the nature of the improv community would not be directly affected by that. I don’t think that LA teams need to be doing what Chicago teams are doing, but I think LA teams need to not just be doing what Chicago teams were doing 5 to 10 years ago. It’s near impossible to innovate in improv at this point, but you can help it evolve.
Early on did you model your play after anyone in particular? Did you study them? Do you suggest picking a few people and doing that?
All kinds of people. Baltz and I would have tons of discussions about players, groups, forms, styles, etc. and simply try to break down their style. Before I list the folks I can honestly say I have studied and tried to emulate at some time, I would add that I absolutely think there is merit in studying performers you love. But the goal should not be to simply imitate them, it should be to understand them. Sure, start by imitating, but only as another way of trying to understand the value in what they do as well as the potential pitfalls. Eventually, you jut figure out what works for you, borrowing little bits and molding all of them into your own self image. In all honesty, off the top of my head and in no particular order, these are the improvisers I have studied and/or tried to emulate in some way, at some point: Paul Grondy, TJ Jagodowski, Peter Grosz, Michael Patrick O’Brien, Jordan Klepper, Steve Waltien, Tim Baltz, Barry Hite, Kevin Sciretta, Katie Rich, Joey Bland, Sarah Haskins, Brian Wilson, Emily Wilson, Deb Downing, Michael Lehrer, John Lutz, Rob Janas, Neil Flynn, Brad Morris, TJ Miller, Alex Fendrich, Dave Koechner, Rush Howell, Thomas Middleditch, Joe Bill, Craig Cackowski, Andy Cobb, Laurel Coppock, Josh Funk, Peter Gwynn, Brian Gallivan, John Marnell, Forest Hynes, Porter Mason, Flynn Barrison, Gregory Anderson, Paul Downs, Dana Vachon and the 500 I’m leaving off for time.
Group games in the Harold: a way to revisit the suggestion or a thematic break from scenes or what? How can GG’s become as important as the scenes?
A Harold only has two things in it: scenes and things that are not scenes. They should be balanced throughout a show, in whatever way is best for that particular show. I’ve been in Harolds that only have a couple scenes, and others that were almost nothing but. Remember, the Training Wheels Harold is a suggestion that does not want to be taken. What you’re referring to as “games” I’m just referring to as “not-scenes”. Simply speaking from my own experience on Bullet Lounge, in most of our great shows, the not-scenes helped form the backbone of the entire show, the structure that scenes would hang on like lights on a Christmas tree.
For whatever reason, LA teams crutch incredibly hard on using group scenes as group games. But once you let the Training Wheels go, then scenes are just scenes, so most people’s shows end up just being nothing but scenes with maybe some attempt at game energy through an edit. People so easily forget that you can do absolutely anything in a Harold, and they should remember all of the presentational stuff available to them: personal monologues, character monologues, dance pieces, finger puppetry, physics lectures, movie trailers, etc. Learning to improvise presentational elements will make your team vastly stronger, because you will have the capacity to not only follow your inspiration in new directions, but also to have total control over the variety and texture of your show.
Finally, when is your never-to-be-released book on improv going to be released and what are you going to call it?
If I cobbled together all of the emails I’ve written to students over the years, and all of the massive treatises I wrote to Charna when we were rewriting the Level 1 curriculum in Chicago, I’m sure there is enough for a book. That being said, I’m not convinced that anyone really wants more books written about improv. If you want to know what I think about something, I’m obviously more than happy to tell you any time. I’ll probably write one someday anyway, though, because I do think my mother would get a kick out of it.
Over the coming weeks and months we are going to bring you tips, tricks and takeaways from improv all-stars, if you have suggestions of improvisors you want to hear from please let us know. Also, if you’re having problems with your own improvising that you can’t seem to get past, send us your questions and we’ll pass them along to our teachers and respond. Chances are, if you’re stuck on something there are hundreds of other improvisors having the same problems you are.
We really want to make this site a free resource towards improving all of our performing abilities. Of course we’re going to highlight shows, advertise our classes, and probably post funny pictures but above all, iO West is an improv school and we want to help everyone up their game!!