Photo by: Olivier Valiente

Build Tension and Release it Suddenly — an interview with Noah Levin

Sometimes you just need a few minutes of conversation to know that you’ve met an interesting person. I had this feeling with Noah Levin, improviser from Barcelona Improv Group, and I knew I had to make this interview. This is a talk about improving oneself and helping others in their improvement — all thanks to improv.

Who are you?

Is this you checking that you dialed right number?

I am an improv professional. I teach, act, direct and administrate improv.

Before meeting you I didn’t know that professional improviser was a thing. What does a professional improviser do?

I administrate the Barcelona Improv Group (BIG) School of Improv. I’m also a cast member and director of BIG and I do administration for the group. I also work as an applied improvisation facilitator with a company called The Present Moment. We go to companies to apply improvisation training in team building, improving communication, and other interpersonal activities. For example I’ve helped group of designers to evaluate the work of their department in a non-aggressive way. I’ve helped companies do their onboarding of new teams. I also travel around to different cities and I teach improv workshops for improvisers and I share my experience and perspective on improv.

How does improv help at work? How does it relate to everyday work at the office?

We use the skills of improv — listening, reacting, being in touch with emotions, communicating directly — and apply them to areas where the company would like help. Maybe they have a new manager and they want to bring everybody in together to work, or identify common vision and lines of communication, or just build trust. We can do all those things with the same skills we use as improv actors to create on the fly. We can show them how it’s possible to cooperate and create in a collaborative way if they can listen, understand, and have the mindset of saying yes. All this can help non-actors to function better as workers and as people.

During those workshop do you play improv games?

We do exercises that we would normally do as a warm-up exercises or skill building during rehearsals. But we do them with objectives related to company. Sometimes we’ll do short form games, sometimes we’ll do roleplaying, like real life scenarios from the workplace.

Let’s talk about you — what’s your history with improv?

I was first exposed to improv as a child during summer camp when I was nine years old. We did improv games as a part of drama curriculum and I took it every year. I remember that on Friday nights we would play this ongoing game of Freeze Tag. You come in, you play a bit, you leave, other people arrive — it would go on for about an hour. And I loved that, because I could go with my ideas and build something. Then I did drama in middle school and high school and then in university I majored in theater. I went back to that summer camp and taught drama. I bought Viola Spolin’s book “Improvisation For the Theatre” and used that for exercises and games with students aged eight to sixteen. Then I taught drama when I was a classroom teacher. I also used my theater degree to work in many areas in theater: I worked as a box office manager, stage manager, and producer; and I acted. I did just a little bit of everything in theater, including teaching kids. Then I moved to New York when I was 26 and I was doing gigs as a stand-up. I got to longform improvisation through The Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) and Upright citizens Brigade (UCB). I was teaching improv and performing improv and, when I moved to Barcelona when I was 31, I joined group of English-speaking improvisers that soon became BIG. We would do Sunday workshops open to everybody. We built our performance team. We built our classes, starting with “Foundation of improvisation”, then adding more and more levels to our school. And everything slowly grew. In our second season I visited the Finland International Improv Festival and got inspired to do our own festival in Barcelona. At the beginning of the third season, we had the first BIG IF (International Festival). The corporate work started from one of our students who enjoyed our classes and wanted to bring it to his company. Travelling came from me seeing travelling improv teachers coming to Barcelona — I wanted to do the same, so I started contacting people to arrange for trips.

But why improv — not regular theatre? What’s so cool in improv?

I like thinking on my feet and reacting at the moment. I started improv from very mental place, by being quick witted. And I’ve been learning the skills of being in my body and emotional realm as a character. I always try to expand my improv skills. When I look at the great improv performers I see variety in their skills sets and I always know that I have more thing to learn.

Your parents are lawyers.

It was a very intellectual household growing up.

Stereotype says that lawyers want their kids to also be lawyers. How did your parents react to your wish to become a professional improviser? Were they fine with it?

Not at first, because it’s not a great way to make a living. My dad was happiest when I was working as a teacher, with steady job, paychecks, health insurance, retirement savings and all of that. You don’t get it as an improviser. For the first few years in Barcelona I didn’t make any money from improv. I made money as a math teacher. Slowly I managed to earn from improv, but it’s tough, because I wanted to keep improv accessible. We keep our prices of tickets and courses low, because we don’t want to close the door to anybody who could really benefit from improv. My parents never pressured me to go to law school. They wanted me to be happy and financially stable. And now finally I’m self sufficient. It’s not 100% from improv, but I found this lifestyle and I will continue to tweak my lifestyle and make it work.

How do you find the New York improv environment? There are many groups, so in your opinion is it harder or easier to get there?

It’s harder to become established, to get audiences, to make money, because the pool is so large. I came to Barcelona and because of my experience in New York I had the most improv experience of the English language community. But in New York I was very low comparatively. I would not have been teaching improv classes within a year and I would not have been running improv festival within two years if I stayed in New York. Because there are so many more experienced improvisers there, established schools and theaters. You can get a lot of experience, but it’s harder to get sunlight to grow.

Is there a smaller market in Europe and it’s easier?

In Barcelona — yes. There was some improv and stand-up in English before I arrived — in Spanish it’s been here for years. But when I came, my drive was to push the improv we were doing to the highest level possible. So we continually improved. It was great for us, but also for our audience. As we got better, we kept raising their expectations. And now on the international stage we hold very well with many international groups. Five years ago we would not have had the same level, we wouldn’t be as entertaining and engaging as a team to international audiences. But for our audience we were the best they could see. Continuing to improve ourselves and measuring ourselves to international standards — we were able to improve.

So maybe one day you will go back to New York as this famous guy from Barcelona?

Possibly, but I would imagine that the credits don’t transfer. I’ve heard of actors in Chicago, they had their own show, they’ve been teaching, but when the go to Los Angeles and show resume of ten years of professional acting work, the director wants to know what they did in Los Angeles. So I don’t know if going to New York or even London I would be able to step in anywhere but lowest level, because scenes are so well established. But I know about others like Anders Fors, who has a great reputation from Sweden who went to New York and took the scene by storm teaching and performing.

How come?

He’s incredibly talented, so it helps. I had him teaching and performing in two shows at the last BIG IF, all to great acclaim. I can’t imagine what my reception would be if I decided to move to New York though.

You’ve said that credits don’t transfer to USA. Does it work both ways?

It depends. I’ll get people, whom I don’t know, writing me that they want to teach classes and they send me a resume. For example people teaching for last 12 years — they probably are good teachers and I want them. But it doesn’t say everything. I had one 20–30 year veteran from Chicago who was in Barcelona. He wanted to coach our team, so I invited him to our rehearsal. And he proceeded to spend an hour talking about basics as if we had just started doing improv that week. He had no idea that we’ve been performing for several years and we had developed skills without ever studying in Chicago. Since then I research potential teachers.

Photo by: Fernando Bagué

And does it help you find the best teachers?

It’s very subjective. At our last festival we had a teacher that some people absolutely loved, and other people were horribly offended and didn’t care for his teaching style. I ask around for recommendations and warnings from other festival organizers. For myself, I try to get lots of feedback on what I do and how I behave, because reputation is very important for every improviser. I try to do my best as a teacher and improviser, be friendly and professional. One of my workshops I just taught in Wrocław this summer, I had previously taught in Tel Aviv this Spring. And from one improviser there I got feedback that he didn’t like my warm-ups, that they were not connected to the substance of the workshop. So when I did it in Wrocław, I changed it so I could use the warm-ups as metaphors for the objectives of this particular workshop. I think it really improved it. So using that Israeli improviser’s feedback, I improved what I offered to Polish improvisers.

Is it possible to be a good improv teacher, but not so good improv actor — and vice versa? What makes a good improv teacher?

Everybody teaching should have some natural talent for teaching. But I think that an empathy of an improviser transfers well as empathy that a teacher needs. And a lot of it is practice. I do a lot to develop our teachers. We have our open Sunday workshops, which we don’t charge for, just ask for a donation. And I encourage my teachers to use it as a laboratory to get an extra two hours of teaching experience, to try exercises, to just be more experienced in managing things — when you have a bag full of mixed-level of skills and language levels. Sometimes you have an uncomfortable situation or you have someone who’s just a lunatic. And you learn how to deal with this kind of situation. For people being better in teaching than performing it’s absolutely possible, because it’s much easier to see what’s going on in a scene from the outside than the inside. So you could have a very good eye and be a very good communicator about what students need to change to improve their performance than to realise what you need at the moment. And I imagine it’s especially true for some niches. For example I’m not a good improv singer, but I can watch somebody singing improv song and give them some feedback. Probably not as well as other teachers, but I can tell you about what you did.

I want to ask you about doing stand-up in New York. What do stand-up and improv have in common?

A good stand-up responds to audience’s energy and adjusts to it. Both artforms — and any live performance — deal with creating and diffusing tension. So when you’re doing comedy — whether it’s stand-up or improv — you want to build tension and release it suddenly. You do it in different ways, but it’s mainly what we do: we build up excitement and suspense and then we give our audience a moment of catharsis.

Does improv has to be comedy?

No. Improv is theatre and can be comedic or dramatic.

Sometimes I have a feeling that people coming to see improv want to see something funny.

It’s all about expectation. Lots of people associate improv with comedy and most people start doing improv to do comedy. Only later do they choose to develop the dramatic side of their improv. And it’s very rare that somebody comes from a dramatic theater and goes into improvised performance. Maybe they will do an improvisation as an acting exercise, but rarely somebody starts performing improv drama. And the audience is as well. 99% of them was first exposed to improv comedy, because there’s not a lot of dramatic improv out there. I like an improv that has a balance between drama and comedy in a single performance. But there are a few shows that are improvised dramas. They follow the same rules of improv, listening and reacting, but the audience for that has to know what they are getting into. The same is when you go to see a single person standing in a front of a microphone, telling stories — you probably would expect that would be a stand-up comedian. If that person would tell dramatic stories, you would not enjoy it, because it wouldn’t match your expectations. But if you went knowing you would hear dramatic monologues, then you could enjoy that more. If we improvisers want to do drama, we have to prepare our audience to receive it. And one of the changes we are doing for our group is we are changing our branding from “improvised comedy” to “improvised theatre and comedy,” to let the audience know upfront that you’ll see a balance of theatre and comedy.

When you see European improv, what are the differences when compared to American improv?

In Europe there are different styles and approaches to improv, they vary by country. It gives you great view on possibilities in improv. You see improv group from Spain, Great Britain and France, three countries that are close to each other geographically, but their approach to improv is completely different. It’s fantastic. I don’t know if you can get the same wide difference in approach in improvisers from Boston, Chicago and New York.

Have you seen some Polish improv? What can you say about it?

I saw Polish show in Wrocław and an English language show in Finland several years ago. I also performed on couple of mixer teams there. But I haven’t seen enough to say anything definitive about it. The only full show I saw in English was few years ago.

I think about the language barrier in European improv. When you see so many shows in many languages, do you fully enjoy them?

I think language is essential to enjoy 100% of an improv show. But I watch shows in foreign languages and I enjoy it. It also depends if the show is performed for international audience or native audience. I noticed British teams coming to Barcelona, when they perform for the British audience, they’ll use more references and subtleties and jargon in their language. But BIG, where we have had improvisers from US, England, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Venezuela, and the Netherlands, we learned very early on that we cannot use so many cultural references if we want to be understood on stage by others. And the same is with our clarity of language. When we’re doing character voices, we have to make sure that non-native English speakers, which are around two-thirds of our audience, can understand us.

So this is a way to make an international career in improv — do it in English without many cultural references.

Absolutely. There is plenty that is common to many humans, that you can explore, that don’t require that you all saw the same movie from 1990s.

It all seems to be quite easy — but in fact being a good improviser is quite a difficult task. How do you think — why is it so? And are there any ways to make it easier?

Improv is about one thing: Listen and React. That’s the secret that we’re all trying to unlock. Be a better listener, be a better actor. There’s no perfect, so we just need to have the drive to improve. To make this show, this scene, this moment the best it can be by listening wholly to your partner, your team, and the audience, and by reacting with your full body, mind, and spirit. Don’t try to be the best. Try to be your best.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. You work at this as much as you want. There’s no shortcut, though. If you have the drive to be a better improviser, then you’re going to work through the difficulties. Work through the self-doubt, work through the pain, work through the embarrassment. There’s no way around it, but you can take comfort in the truth that the hard work pays off with every minute you spend improvising and pushing yourself to improve.

Thank you very much.