Rebecca Krasny's new variety show, Raw Nerve, was created with a special focus on experimental improvisation, with the hopes to create the sort of experiential, you-had-to-be-there style moments that come from the most honest and exciting improv. Following last week's inaugural edition of the show, which runs Tuesday nights at The Mission Theatre at the new iO space, I spoke with Rebecca about the birth of the show and her growing interest in solo improvisation, which was, in part, the catalyst for Raw Nerve's creation.
The Steamroller: You've been performing solo improv for about a year at this point. What is it about the form that you're drawn to? Are there any specific performers who inspired you to explore that form?
Rebecca Krasny: Geez, great question. This is going to take me forever. Thank you for this. This is so cool.
I'm drawn to the solo form because I don't have to rely on anyone else. It's easy for me as a busy mom to schedule shows based only on my schedule. Solo improv is also the place where I'm listening to myself the most. Doofenshmirtz, who else am I gonna listen to up there, but it's that alone time that I crave so much and I get to have it and I get to follow all those impulses I have AND be on stage at the same time. It's perfect for me.
I also welcome the fear that comes with having to make up a show right there, alone. Fear is a wonderful energy for me to use. It triggers that emergency response and really gets me in a place of readiness for anything. Since there are no saber toothed tigers for me to fight anymore, I have the stress from the make 'em ups to take their place. Ask me to bungee jump or go on a giant roller coaster? Fuck you, I'm not sharing my cortisol for that shit.
Ya know I've only seen one other solo improv show at that was several years ago. I would think that there would be more in Chicago but maybe I'm missing it or if people want to go solo, they shift to stand up or solo sketch. It's been kind, open minded people at Spitballin and Upstairs Gallery like Sand and... Well, if you want the truth it's mostly been Mike Brunlieb, that Brunny Rabbit! He has inspired, encouraged and boosted me up so much over this last year, he also edits my scenes with whatever song I've chosen and he's the one that helped me jumpstart the exploration of this form by being so supportive.
TS: Can you tell me more about your first solo improv show, Kras Stands Alone, and its evolution into Raw Nerve? Was the show's structure influenced by any other shows you've seen/been a part of?
Rebecca: I think Kras Stands Alone is the daughter of I Think I'm Gonna Be SICK! That's how much that show influenced my solo improv. ITIGBS! is my and Irene Marquette's two-person born in 2008. We played a lot of bars, had a run at a small theater and finally settled down at Quenchers' Spitballin show.
We found our form by doing, never under any direction, just doing whatever we felt moment to moment. We'd interact with the audience, sing, tell personal stories about each other, do scenes, use stream of consciousness, never afraid to act like idiots and all with music edits (done by hosts Joe Phillips then Joey Dundale).
When my second child was born in '11, I decided to take a break from improv. Later, I was hot off my leave and ravenous for action. Irene was busy with a lot of really great projects and being out of the loop, I actually became fearful of asking people to play. I wondered for months if I could pull off improvising by myself. I just wanted to play.
It wasn't until Sand took over hosting at Quenchers that I decided to go for it. I wanted to maintain the same level of fearlessness and commitment as I did with Irene. To my amazement, I COULD "stand alone" and boy that was empowering. After some time, Bucks (Tyler Parker, Ingrid Walla) invited me to play weekly with them at Upstairs Gallery. Brunlieb's their coach and they're fantastic. When Brunlieb, his cast mates and directors of Trap needed to run material in front of an audience, they did it at UG on the same night a few times. Suddenly Tj Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi had to watch my show! That never would have happened if it wasn't for that Brunny Rabbit!
To my shock, two of the most respected improvisers in the world liked how I improvised! I gathered up my nerve to ask them if my show could work in their theater and they wrote back a couple minutes later (I couldn't believe that response time) offering me a slot on Tuesdays. I changed the name from Kras Stands Alone to Raw Nerve because I would be having other people perform their bits and because my husband, Charlie McCrackin, calls me that. I take that as me willing to expose my vulnerability and my inner most thoughts in the name of theater. I'll never get over Tj and Dave letting me explore on their stage. Geez.
Whoa, my answers are so long. Too long?
TS: It's definitely fine! When you're given a chunk of time to perform, be it either a short set on a show, or something longer, like with Raw Nerve, how do you go about deciding how to structure things?
Rebecca: Well, if I'm improvising as I will be doing in Raw Nerve, I leave it up to my gut on how it will go. It never lets me down. And I'd like to use an intuitive approach with the rest show too but a little reasoning needs to be in there as far as running order goes. I really like to leave things open for surprises. I feel like I set an experimental tone for the first show.
TS: Is there something that's uncovered when doing it that way? Do these improvised experiments and exercises expose things that might not be found in a more traditionally structured performance?
Rebecca: The experiments, the exercises! Yes, I'd like to set aside time during the show for these. Throughout all my training, I always loved the exercises the most and enjoyed them more than a performance because I wasn't judging myself, just having a creative experience. So why not make these experiences a part of the show?
It's this experimental spirit that Raw Nerve has that you don't see in a traditional improv show. I hope to grow a big, fat audience and have volunteers try an exercise. Let's do it!
TS: You had performers like Thomas Kelly, Irene Marquette, and Harrison George appear on the first show. What is it about these folks that you enjoy? Who else do you hope to have on the show in the future?
Rebecca: Yes, the first night of Raw Nerve I had friends Lynnae Duley give me a haircut on stage and we improvised, Harrison George read from the play Amadeus and commented passionately about theater and art, Thomas Kelly busted out a zombie clown bit and I gave Irene Marquette a real massage with my pro table and we improvised throughout. All four of these guys are some of the most open-minded people I've come to know in improv, on and off stage.
Future shows will bring folks who do or have done shows at Spitballin and Upstairs Gallery. This week, I have Bucks playing their last show- Ingrid is moving to L.A. Annie Donley and Joey Dundale will also grace the stage before they move to NY. My improv experiment this week is doing the improv exercise, Cocktail Party, but while one couple has focus, the other couples must be making out. I don't know, let's just try it! It'll be fun for me at least and this is my gosh darn show.