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Published on October 1st, 2012 | by Ballard Lesemann

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Greg Tavares Wants to Improve Your Improv

Charleston-based actor-turned-author Greg Tavares has a new book titled Improv for Everyone. It’s his first book project, and it’s an amusing and informative read, but reading it won’t automatically make you any funnier. Tavares even says so in the opening pages. Rather, Improv for Everyone offers heap of insider tips, specific techniques, thoughtful exercises, and numerous theories on character development, interaction, and scene work.

For years, Tavares has worked as the co-artistic director of downtown’s Theatre 99. He, Brandy Sullivan, and Timmy Finch cofounded the theater in 2000. Tavares is an experienced stage actor, educator, and director, and he can be hilariously expressive on stage, in any scene at any time. Sometimes, he can be downright silly and weird. The methods and ideas offered in Improv for Everyone are pretty serious, though.

Metronome got a hold of Tavares this week as he was preparing for his official book release party this week at Theatre 99.

Metronome: When did you first decide to start working on this book, and how did you start the process?

Greg Tavares: For years, I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to write an improv book. God, maybe even seven or eight years ago. I started taking notes and traveling to see shows and take master classes. Actually, I take that back; I think the writing process with this book started when I started teaching classes at Theatre 99. I had to put into concrete terms what it was that I was doing when I was improvising. And once you start doing that — self analysis — it is hard to stop.

Metronome: What was your initial goal for Improv for Everyone? Did you intend to write a comprehensive “how to” book for beginners and intermediate performers, or did you allow the book to take shape as you worked on it?

Greg Tavares: I think I set out to do pretty much exactly what I did. A couple of times I would start to outline a chapter about “longform technique” or “how to open a theatre,” and then I would eventually delete it because it was kind of our of character from the rest of the book.

Metronome: You mention in the preface that this is the book you wish you had when you were just getting started years ago. What are some of main points in Improv for Everyone that any beginner should learn about right off the bat?

Greg Tavares: The whole noodles-and-sauce thing is very big with me. I can’t tell you how hard it is to do a scene if you don’t know what the fuck you are trying to make believe. So I really focus beginners in making concrete offers and saying yes to the other guy’s concrete offers.

Metronome: While much of the Improv for Everyone works like an academic workbook of exercises and methods, it’s presented in the first person with your own voice and tone. Was that part of the plan from the start?

Greg Tavares: Yes. I really want it to real more like a long time improviser giving you his best advice rather that just a dry textbook. I hope my personality bleeds through. Honestly, one of my big pet peeves with how people view improv is that it is silly. That is why I have gone so “straight” with everything in the book — the cover, the “this book will not make you funny” stuff. I want people to know that you can approach improv the same way you do acting. I do. I am just acting up there.

Metronome: There’s a lot of detailed exercises and technical tips from chapter to chapter, but there’s a lot of your own personal philosophies and life experiences along the way. How challenging was it to reflect on your experience as an actor, improvisor, and teacher and then communicate those experiences in this book?

Greg Tavares: I actually really enjoyed the process of using myself as an example. I have to credit Colleen Reilly, one of my editors, with that. She really encouraged me to use myself every chance I could to prove a point. It wasn’t hard because I’ve developed all these methods and techniques in response to needing to get better at doing improv. All I had to do is remember why I created a specific method in the first place.

Metronome: One of the most predominant themes of the book seems to focus on the relationship between sympathetic and believable characters — and how to heighten the emotional and physical interaction between them. How long did it take you to develop your approach to creating characters and aiming for the proper right perspective and expression for them?

Greg Tavares: I never really did improv without vulnerability, and that is what you are talking about. The whole “be emotionally altered by your scene partner” approach requires that the characters are vulnerable towards each other. I can’t remember a time when I did not use vulnerability in improv. Frankly, I’m shocked that I have to explain it to people. Whenever you watch a TV show or a movie, you see the characters being altered by each other, and that is because they care about one another and are therefore vulnerable. This is just not what I see with most improvisers. It has got to be their fear of failure or desire to be funny, but the lock up and emotionally shut down. I’ve never had that problem. I am, let’s say, in touch with my emotions.

Metronome: Improv for Everyone reflects your personal experience with improv and your love for the freedom and spontaneous nature of the form, but it also reflects Theatre 99’s support for improv — especially the training programs and teaching methods that you and Brandy Sullivan have offered over the years. Is it safe to say that there’s plenty of Theatre 99 and The Have Nots! within the chapters of the book?

Greg Tavares: The book is all Theatre 99, but less The Have Nots!. The training program at Theatre 99 is where I learned how to teach these theories. I’d create a system to explain my ideas to a class, and then I would see if it worked. Over the years, I would streamline or add more stuff based on what was working and what was not. So I kind of got my raw material by trial-and-error teaching classes at Theatre 99. The Have Nots! was always more about getting the job done — more about delivering great shows for audiences who had come to expect great shows. There was not a lot of time to think about how you were doing what you were doing in The Have Nots! The book came from me being a teacher — a teacher who taught what he did when he was on stage.

Greg Tavares with book in hand (photo by Marshall Bowles)

Greg Tavares with book in hand (photo by Marshall Bowles)

Metronome: How does the improv scene in Charleston compare to some of the major improv scenes around the country? Is there a subtle Southernness or independent spirit to it?

Greg Tavares: The improv scene here in Charleston is different from the major improv centers in a couple of ways. First, we only have one improv theater in town. In bigger cities they have three or four big theaters and there is a lot of competition — little cults form around a specific teacher or philosophy. Also, people in big cites are trying to “make it” and can be a little intense. Here, we have one theater, so everyone is on the same team and nobody famous is going to be in the audience. You can’t make it doing improv in Charleston. The people here are doing it for fun. That doesn’t mean they don’t take it seriously or work hard at it, but if they really want to make it then eventually they leave. Some of them do.

Metronome: Could most of your “micro-techniques” [in Chapter 21] be applied well to life in general? I do.

Greg Tavares: I use lots of the techniques in the book in real life. I use the one I call Momentum the most. It works great when people are complaining about something. Try it sometime.

Metronome: What’s the strongest piece of general advice about improv in Improv for Everyone?

Greg Tavares: Believe in your make believe.

Metronome: What kind of improv performance might be in store for the book release party? Will it be a full-team showcase of talent, or do you have any trick or surprises in store?

Greg Tavares: The book release show is going to be pretty straightforward. You know, a couple of longform jams with lots of Theatre 99 peeps all over the place. I will be reading a little from the book, so people will have a chance to listen to how I read aloud.

Greg Tavares and members of Theatre 99 perform at the Improv for Everyone Book Release Party at Theatre 99 (280 Meeting St.) at 8 p.m. on Wed. Oct. 3. Tavares will be in the lobby before the show selling and signing copies of Improv for Everyone. Admission is $3. Visit improvbook.org and theatre99.com for more.

Top photo by Robbin Knight.

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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.



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