Shades of Grey is a two-man team from San Francisco, and they played with us our very first night of the festival. They referred to themselves as “like brother and sister”; I thought they were like the siblings who started a lemonade stand together when they were 10 and are still operating it today. They are earnest, effusive, and wonderfully outgoing. Their show is a three act: present, past, and future, exploring a relationship as it evolves over time, and is very theatrical and contemplative. I sat down with them for 10(ish) questions.
CG: What do you think is the flavor of San Francisco improv that makes it unique?
J: It’s changing a lot. In the last few years, it has changed a lot. So, I think that there’s a lot of variety. There are four main schools or institutions in San Francisco.
M: I started doing improv in 2005 actually with Leela, Jill’s company. From 2005, I’ve never seen as many students popping up, more classes. I’m teaching with Jill and I’ve been able to break off and teach my own independent classes, also. It’s really a thriving scene and its growing, fast. Very quickly.
J: I think in the diversification, I think that’s a big part of the thriving. People are finding stuff and finding their own voice. And doing their own personal views on improv.
CG: What’s a phrase of advice that you hammer into your students?
M: Well, I know your slogan.
J: Leela’s mission is truthful artistic play. We try to keep all our classes and shows within that. I think something I’ve been trying to hammer into my students lately is specificity and playing to the top of your intelligence. Playing things real, under that umbrella of playing to the top of your intelligence, playing things real, playing things truthful. Specificity. Really getting to know your point of view of the character, your specific point of view as your character.
M: I personally came into improv as an actor, so I’ve always been fascinated in the craft and actually teaching usable tools. A lot of people talk about VoPaVo.
CG: I don’t know VoPaVo is.
J: It’s Jill Bernard’s book.
M: Work on the voice, work on posture, point of view. It’s an acronym. For me, I’m all about listening to your heart. I love David Razowsky always says your brain is an asshole and a liar. For me my whole thing has been what the hell do you want, go get it. More and more my whole thing is listen, because listening is the one skill that we’re never taught as a human being to actually do. You can get so much information out in just one line of dialogue.
J: And I think specific to Leela too, a big part of my mission is to teach people empathy. A lot of our people that come in for our classes we teach are coming from the tech world, and they stare at screens all day and they don’t get a lot of eye contact with other people and they come into our classes and they think “What? Pass the clap? I have to look into someone else eyes?” And that’s huge. A lot of them are craving that person to person connection. A lot of what we do at Leela is teach people empathy and personal growth skills and to step into the shoes of another and have a heart to heart. From there once they learn those skills, then we can sort of work on putting all this other crap on top.
M: On that whole empathy thing is to tell my students to go into crowded place like a park or a subway station or wherever and just sit down and look at people. Don’t get in trouble over it, maybe wear sunglasses, and have a want for them. Because then it’s less about you and more about what you want for the other person. *Person walks by* “God, I hope she finds a puppy.” And if you can come on stage with just that, and just learn to really read people, you don’t need words. Words just get in the way.
CG: If you could have any superpower, which one would you have?
J: This is a hard one. I guess like, instant manifest powers. Like you think it and it happens. Like in Star Trek when he says “Earl Grey, hot.” But I have to use it wisely, I have to be very careful.
M: Instant manifest powers? Okay, alright. Oh my god, this is such a hard question.
CG: Some people just say flying.
J: I was considering flying. But if I said fly now, and then it happens.
M: God, I want to say that too. Because you can do so much! You could do good, you don’t do evil. As long as the manifest power didn’t take away from someone. I would totally say a stack of benjamins and then give those out. That would be nice. Or I could manifest sandwiches.
CG: If there was going to be a movie about your team, who would you cast as the other person in your duo?
J: You know who I always said you remind me of, who’s the kid from “That 70’s Show”?
CG: Wilmer Valderama?
J: Totally Fez.
CG: And Marcus?
M: If she had more dialogue, I would say Smurfette.
J: That’s sweet. She’s the only woman among all the smurfs in smurf village.
M: Well, you’ve got the hair too.
CG: What kind of hamburger are you?
M: I’m going to take this question, and this is a true story back in college. Very hungry, we went to Carl’s Jr., and I had this vision of a perfect hamburger but it didn’t have hamburger on it, it had the chicken patties, so I bought one of the 6 dollar burgers with two chicken patties, cheese, guacamole, bacon, and BBQ sauce – I think when it was said and done it was a 12 dollar burger, but hey, it’s college, right?
J: I think I’m a very simple classic burger, but made very well. The bun is toasted and light, the burger is medium, the cheese is just plain cheddar, nice and melted, a little bit of sauce, no lettuce, pickles, none of that. Just cheese, bun.
CG: How would you describe the vibe of your show in ten words or less?
J: It’s all about the relationship we just explore one relationship so we’re really digging down deep in these characters. We’re really forced to really say what is it that is keeping these two together.
M: I think you used your word quota.
CG: I don’t think she left any words for you.
M: I think of what we do as a romantic comedy.
CG: Do you guys have a favorite romantic comedy?
M: I don’t like watching romantic comedies. I like the explosions.
J: I like “50 First Dates”, I think it’s a great premise. I think it’s really fun. I love “When Harry Met Sally”. Just a classic romantic comedy.
M: We’re going to have to go watch some romantic comedies together, and tell our significant others.
CG: You always ask for something that you wished you had said to someone today that you didn’t, and an object you held in your hands. What’s the weirdest responses you gotten to that ask for?
J: The one that’s in a different language?
M: The one that’s in our submission video, its such a testament to sweet Jill here. This lady says something in another language: *fushinyaqua* or something like that, and then she tells us what it meant. Jill heard “you’re really knowing me”, but what she actually said was “you’re really annoying me”.
J: We really used the suggestion. Because my character was all about questing this connection with him and he was just getting annoyed with me.
M: You just kept saying my name over and over and narrating what was happening in real time.
CG: What do you guys do to prepare for a show?
J: We just kind of like do that snap thing. Get connected.
M: I usually tell whoever that I’m improvising with before I improvise with, and you may have to edit this, “no matter what the fuck happens out there, I’ve got your motherfucking back.” I want them to feel so supported that if they fall, I’m going to be there to catch them.
J: I’m doing so much directing and teaching that sometimes I can be so critical. “I need to do this right and this right.” But then I’ll just tell Marcus: let’s just go play pretend tonight and the craft is underneath all that. And then it’s just, “who cares”.
CG: Do you guys have a favorite “let’s just go have fun” exercise you like to work on?
M: I’ve been playing a lot of “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” which is a game that I made with Chris Blair from Endgames. Everyone gets in a circle and sings “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That”, and then everyone takes turns saying things that they either do or don’t have time for. Whoever’s in the circle gets to decide if they have time for that.
J: I like Bunny Bunny. I direct this all woman group called “Cinevista” and they play that and get all amped up and they all get super connected. I also do the counting game when they count up to twenty.
CG: If you were going to become a new animal to do an improv show, what would you transform in to?
J: These are good questions.
CG: I’m putting that in there.
M: I would probably have to be a squirrzelle.
CG: That would be a combination of a squirrel and a gazelle?
J: The first thing that comes to mind is like a predatory animal. Like a puma or a lion that’s really like, taking everything in and watching for the hunt. Taking everything in and then they just pounce. I think that’s the skill you need as an improviser.
M: Pumas are very silent.
J: Well some silent improv is very good.
CG: I think he’s hinting at something.
M: No, no. I’m saying that they are silent killers.
CG: What’s the thing you look at in the other person that’s the biggest cue to you for what’s going on?
J: I think we’re both big facial expressive people. I would say his face.
M: Her eyes.
CG: What’s one goal you have for yourself, improv-wise, this year?
J: One of the big goals for us this year was to get into the Chicago Improv Festival. And we got in! I think just having more, real solid shows. Craft wise is good. Connection is good. Entertainment is good.
M: I’m trying to expand classes. Trying to get to a bigger market. Trying to get to the actor market. I go to so many auditions up in San Francisco and so many actors say “I suck at improv”. Improv taught me the immediacy of now. The moment at hand. As an actor, you can’t suck at improv. For improvisers, getting paid acting jobs.
CG: Since improvisers usually end up getting type cast in roles, what do you typically find yourselves getting cast in?
M: In San Franscico, unfortuantely there is a lot of commercials and a lot of industrial. And, IT stuff. IT stuff all the time. I used to work in IT, so it make sense. I would personally like to do roles, and in San Francisco if you want to do that, you have to make your own roles. So I started a production company with a friend. And we’re doing a feature film now. I used to have hair. Apparently to play a villain, I have to shave off all my hair.
Shades of Grey is Jill Eickmann and Marcus Sams; Leela’s company has a website at http://www.leela-sf.com/about/ which has information about booking workshops or performances.