WELLESLEY COLLEGE ALUMS IN IMPROV - SPOTLIGHT ON ALI BARTHWELL ‘10
Ali was in Dead Serious all four years while at Wellesley. She served as VP her senior year and organized ImprovFest, a collaboration between Wellesley and two other schools in the area. She applied for and received the PUMA LOL Scholarship as well as a year of free training with Second City, which began just after her graduation in 2010.
During the past year, Ali’s written two shows. For her graduation from Second City, Ali wrote and performed in Just Add Bitter: A Writing 6 Sketch Revue and Dark Humour Presents Why the Long Facebook. Now, she is on a Genesis League Team and Viet-OM-NOM-NOM at ComedySportz. She also teaches improv and scene writing to high school students with Second City and After School Matters, a program for at-risk youth in Chicago.
In the past few months, she has performed in Un/Comfortable Silences: A Dramatic Improv Performance, which broke ticket sale records at Second City Skybox theater where it was held; Bullet Time Glitter Party: A Conservatory Level 6 Revue, her graduation show for the Conservatory program at Second City; Dark Humour Presents Why the Long Facebook?, a sketch show she helped write (and performed in as Rahm Emanuel) about how technology disconnects us from each other. A review can be found here http://gapersblock.com/ac/2012/04/09/why-the-long-facebook-sketch-comedy-stage-773/; and Second City’s Department of Outreach & Diversity Presents In Livid Color, a producer’s showcase at Second City.
She also has a podcast, entitled “We Need to Talk: An Improv & Dating Podcast” that she created and co-hosts with her writing partner, David Wolinsky. Each week, they feature guests and talk about a different relationship topic and improvise scenes on the topics. Here’s the link to it on iTunes. http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/we-need-to-talk-improv-dating/id537809042
WU got the chance to talk with this busy lady and ask her some questions about the improv scene, Wellesley, and beyond:
1. What made you decide to join Dead Serious and get into comedy in the first place?
“When I was young I always did dance and creative summer camps, and then I started doing theatre in middle school and high school…at the time I thought didn’t have the knack for dramatic acting.” In high school, she envisioned herself as a comedic performer, and when she got to Wellesley, she avoided the traditional theatre groups and joined Dead Serious. She now states that, “improvisers have all the narcissism of actors but none of the discipline because they don’t remember lines.”
2. How has your experience with Dead Serious at Wellesley shaped your current career track?
“My first couple of years in DS, I got a good understanding of technical side of improv – how things are run, being able to host a show, and a lot of the things I heard in DS, I’ve heard in other, more complex ways later.” The second two years were not as supportive as the first two, mainly due to “typical drama of a Wellesley org:” there were “moments of me questioning my abilities and my worth from people who I trusted and who had previously supported me,” experiences, which led Ali to seek improv opportunities outside of Wellesley.
“Between junior and senior year, I did a summer intensive at The Second City, which meant doing improv with different people – with men – for first time. I came back to Wellesley feeling validated. This took me into my senior year with a lot of confidence,” confidence she channeled to organize ImprovFest, which brought improv groups from many different campuses to Wellesley. “I wanted to create something to put my name on with my vision.”
Also during her senior year, Ali auditioned for and received the Puma scholarship. “I was given my big break by the Department of Outreach and Diversity at The Second City and Puma. I got a year of free training and through my relationship with Dionna Griffin-Irons, I got my teaching job.”
3. What’s the improv scene like in Chicago as opposed to NYC or elsewhere?
“I’m from Chicago. I grew up here, and it’s a city I completely love. Chicago is the improv scene in the country; improv was made here, it was perfected here, it’s done here in a way it isn’t anywhere else. In Chicago you could probably go see five different improv or sketch shows any night of the week, and that is a conservative estimate.”
“It’s a city where a lot of improv geniuses are still performing and teaching.
IE: “Susan Messing, Rachael Mason – they are doing shows every night and they’re geniuses, and you can take classes with them. I am facebook friends with these people. You can run into these people in the street. Improv is accessible and widespread here, and Chicago is not a city of snobs or of pretension. It’s a city of people trying to make it and people trying to hustle.”
4. You mentioned in your bio you wrote that you’re involved in teaching improv and scene writing to high school kids. How and why did you get involved with this?
“The Second City/After School Matters is a program that cultivates job skills and gives kids worthwhile things to do with their time while keeping them off of the street. It’s about giving kids that wouldn’t otherwise be able to express themselves, a chance to, and a lot of what they come up with is very shocking because they’re coming from neighborhoods that are shocking.”
Furthermore, Ali points out, “improv is very white and upper middle class/middle class endeavor. Usually I am the only black person in my class – for us to go to these kids and show them that they can find the spot for themselves is very empowering.”
“What it’s done for me is open my mind again to people discovering improv. You see the kids get it and figure it out. It’s an amazing feeling. It opens your eyes again to the possibilities of improve being able to go anywhere. To teach it you have to understand it in a way that you can explain it. It’s a skill not a lot of improvisers have or would think to do.” Or maybe you “have to tell a kid why you can’t say no to your partner in a scene. All they want to do is say no or ask why. Makes me on top of my game because I have to explain it to these jokers.”
5. What are the hurdles like as a woman in the field?
“A lot of the hurdles are not institutional at this point, every professional show at Second City is three women and three men, and a lot of the producers and people in charge of casting are women and women of color. Unfortunately, a lot of the directors are still men, and there are some teachers who started doing improv back in the 70’s when women weren’t doing this, but thankfully that’s changing. I know a lot of girls in my classes who are waiting for the old teachers to retire so they can stop hearing that they only can play the wife, the girlfriend, or the mother. I had a male teacher tell me once that I should play a ‘Welfare queen big mama character’ because I’m so rational and intelligent.”
“A lot of the hurdles that women and minorities encounter are how others perceive you, your work, and your success. If I get cast in something, the first reaction from someone might be ‘well you got it because they needed a black person or a woman, etc.” Or, “they may ask well why isn’t there WhiteCo? Where’s my audition for BrownCo? Why can’t I audition for BrownCo?’ I shouldn’t have to explain to someone why there isn’t a WhiteCo! It’s about finding a support network about finding who is going to take care of you and understand you.”
“Also, I think that improv now is not very accessible to women by its very nature.” Ali gave me a scenario – “two white guys with their hands in their pockets, one pretending to be the other’s girlfriend and calling each other ‘cunts’. There’s no place for women there. I don’t want to sit somewhere and watch two guys call each other cunts. What a lot of women think is that in order to hang, you have to play like that. It’s the “Bridesmaids” mentality – thinking you have to play dirty and you have to play mean.”
But it doesn’t have to be like that – when onstage, Ali is honest to her characters. She recalls one scene, in which two girls are sharing secrets. Ali’s character admits that once, when she didn’t have enough money to pay a cab driver, she gave him a hand job. Ali says this moment wasn’t about being mean or dirty – it was about being honest to her character.
How people perceive her on stage is another thing, however. “After that show, a girl came up to me and said ‘Oh, you play so dirty! You play so mean! I love it. I love you girl.’ I’m not trying to play dirty. I’m being honest to that character. Someone that would pay for a cab with handjobs would brag about it. I never say things onstage to shock or cause controversy. Everything I do onstage, I would say offstage or in real life in some way. No, I wasn’t mean or dirty – I was being honest to my character.”
“When you’re writing scenes you may get put in scenes that don’t represent you, but people think they can get away with that. People think, if you have a black person in the group, you can suddenly do something about race. They’re trying to be edgy. However, they are telling me what to say instead of coming to me and ask what do you want to do? What do you want to say about being a black person?” Instead of that they say things like “now we can do a scene and we can say ghetto because we have a black person.”
“Usually the things that I am asked to do as a black character when it’s pitched or written by my white cast-mates are things that I would never do as a black person in real life, or things that I have never seen any other black person I know do. The things I’m asked to do are what white people think black people are like, and I can’t be in a scene without my blackness being called out or referenced. Sometimes, I just want to be a doctor in a scene and not your black doctor that speaks only in rap lyrics.”
“I’m being used as a prop for white people to explore something in their world that they don’t understand, rather than being asked to explore something in my world that I understand intimately and emotionally.”
6. How have you used the W network since graduating, if at all?
“To get people to come see my shows. Shows I know I have a good audience with people to support me are the ones I do the best in.”
Ali mentions that sometimes there are certain parts of a show sometimes where she knows a Wellesley audience will appreciate it, more possibly than others.
7. What would you recommend to current Wellesley students who want to pursue improv?
Ali’s message to those interested in pursuing improv as a career is that “they already have a lot of the tools to come and do this. People who succeed in this field have a lot of the same tools as Wellelsey women – they’re charismatic, they know who they are and what they want to do. People generally flail a little less with these characteristics.”
Importantly, she says, “you’ve gotta just do it. I have a lot of friends here who quit jobs because they knew they wanted to do this. You have got to take it that seriously. It’s easy to do this just on the weekend, but if you want to be serious about this, it has to be THE thing you do.”
“As many classes, shows, and so forth you do, there’s always someone doing more. Don’t feel bad or worry about anyone else’s success. If someone is doing well and gets cast somewhere, that can open a spot for you where they were before or if they need an understudy, they might call you because you’re their friend. And don’t worry about someone else’s success because they might be doing something you would never want to do so why worry about it? There’s enough room in improv for everyone to carve out their own niche. Just know that what you put into it, you will get out of it.”
“Go see shows; go see sketch shows.” One of the best things about this art form it that our masters are still doing this and there are masters emerging. This is such a unique and interesting place to be. Go see shows and connect with people. Go out for a beer with the class afterward and get to know them. Don’t forget anyone. You don’t have to like everyone, but you should remember everyone because you don’t know when you’re going to be doing a show and need someone who can play piano or choreograph stage fights. The people in classes with you and going on auditions with you could give you a big break or you could give them a big break, then they’d really remember you. Especially for women and people of color, we’re a small part of this big community and we have to lift each other up.”
“What many people take for granted, because this is a performance art, is that it’s important to be reliable – when you’re going to be some where, be there. Be ready to work – a lot of times you get people who just show up and dick around. I would rather have people think, ‘She’s good to work with and a good performer,’ instead of ‘She’s brilliant but she is hard to work with.’ If you’re a genius but you don’t show up or don’t have their scenes ready, that won’t last. People get sick of their shit – even if you’re brilliant – people don’t want to put up with it. I treat this as my job: I go to class, I go to rehearsals. Every audition I go on is a job interview. Some people don’t treat it that way – if someone remembers me as reliable, that’s what I aim for.”
-Hannah Allen ’12 talking to Ali Barthwell ‘10