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During 2015, Improv Conspiracy member Mike Brown is going to have a chat to every single member of the Conspiracy - about life, about improv, and everything in between. This is: You're Going To Meet Some People.
Today, Mike chats with his iO Theatre Summer intensive classmate Damien Vosk. Damien currently plays on Harold Night team Shake-A-Stick, performs stand-up around Melbourne, and will be teaching introductory improv class Level 1: Basic Scenework from Saturday, June 6, which is on sale now.
Mike Brown: Hey Damo.
Damien Vosk: Hello Mike.
How did you find The Improv Conspiracy, how'd you get involved?
I got involved in a roundabout way, where I went on a gap year in the middle of my degree. I did Arts/Law at Monash, and I was pretty uninspired by the law aspect, generally I just tried to subvert the law at every opportunity.
How can I get away with this?
Yeah, law wasn't the best choice for me, I was hating it basically. So I went overseas to see what I wanted to do, and I did a couple of acting courses in New York that really inspired me. A couple of people in my class dragged me along to an improv group their school had. I had a lot of fun in there, I was just sort of awestruck by it – how are these people doing this, it is amazing, there’s gotta be some sort of trick to it, it just blew my mind.
From there I went through and researched my favourite actors and it was like – I'm clearly not going to be a lawyer. I went through all my favourite actors and I found that one thing they all had in common was that they all did improv. So I did a few drop-in classes with the improv group at that university, but I knew nothing of iO or Second City or UCB or whatever.
What kind of improv were they doing? Was it short form?
They were doing a mix – they were doing some short form and some long form. It was in New York so they had both influences. So I came back to Melbourne and enrolled in Impro Melbourne. I did that for a while, that was entertaining me for a little bit. But it’s sort of short form, I see people get away with a lot, and it’s not as challenging. So when Improv Conspiracy started up, I thought I wanted more stage time, so I jumped over there. Aside from run our own indie group, which we did as well.
Tell us about your indie group.
It was Impro Chimps, and it started off with a couple of guys who rocked up to The Clyde, which is a bar in Carlton at the end of each month and we’d do free shows. Then the guy who organised it moved to Sydney, and it was April [Seymore], me, Dan [Pavatich], Tim [Quabba], Marcus [Willis], and a couple of others who aren't involved with Conspiracy. We started getting some really good crowds, it was a lot of fun, did half short from, half long form.
Then you joined the Conspiracy fairly early on, right?
Yeah. Just ended up on a Harold team and went on.
How many Harold teams have you been on now? It’s three?
What’s the experience been between the teams?
Each one’s been a step forward, I'll say that. [laughs]
Do you believe you've been getting more skilled with time?
Yeah. Definitely. It’s good to see… at the start, [Adam] Kangas was the only one who had seen any long form, and he was trying to explain it to everyone. Whereas now everyone has seen it, and knows the difference between a really good show and a really bad show, and I think we're working towards a more common goal which is nice.
To go back to the law stuff, was it just a case of you being a very strong student and it made sense for you to do law? Or was it an interest in the law?
Well here’s the thing. It’s a good story actually. In year 11 and 12 my favourite subject was media, and I used to make films. I used to love zany films. Me and my friends actually had a thing, when video stores were still a thing, where we'd try to find what looked like the worst film in the entire store. Generally it’s pretty easy to spot, there’s usually a monkey on the cover, or there’s a bong, or there’s a bong and a monkey.
Ooh, a double bill.
Yeah, and then you know it’s going to be a great film. So basically, stoner movies. We would find the weirdest ones and we'd try to watch the worst movie possible and laugh at it. So I love zany films and tried to make one. I pitched the title to my media studies teacher and he almost had a heart attack, because it was called “Retards in Space”, where I cast my two twin brothers. So it was sort of lampooning Armageddon, so an asteroid was coming towards earth, and the two astronauts through a series of unfortunate events get switched with two mildly disabled children…
… and are sent to space to try and save the world. They blew up The White House, it was intercut with footage of Independence Day, and it was a great laugh, and we had one of our maths teachers as a scientist at NASA, ah it was a hoot. I did lots of comedic films in high school, and then at the end my media teacher was also my careers counsellor. So he’s like “You've got one of the best marks in the school, so you should probably do something-“ And I was like “I want to do film.” “No no no. You should do something more stable – do arts/law!” You can do film and theatre which I did, and law in case it all goes to shit.
Always good to have a backup plan.
Do you collect anything? Have you ever collected anything?
My parents tried to make me collect stamps when I was younger. I've actually got an awesome stamp collection, I don’t maintain it or anything, it’s just in a book. I used to collect Pokémon cards when I was younger, I’ve got a great Pokémon card collection, I traded up.
Were you a player of the Pokémon card game?
Yeah I was pretty good at it. I had a whole bunch of shinies back in the day.
Yeah you know holographic ones, you know, the good ones. That was the only thing I collected really.
Was Pokemon a case of everyone else playing that game and you getting involved?
Yeah, it got banned at my primary school so it went underground.
It went underground?
Yeah, people were sneaking behind bike sheds and stuff. We were the cool kids, we weren't smoking but we were dealing Pokémon cards.
Did anyone get caught?
Yeah from time to time. It got banned at my primary school because it caused too many fights. People would trade with the younger kids and do the whole sales spiel and rip them off. Then all of a sudden these kids have the energy cards and say “ I didn't realise these are the bad ones!
Were you ever tempted to do some selling or did you rely on your good play of the Pokemon card game?
I always did it on a level playing field. I always did it within one or two years of my own year.
What’s a note you've received or something you've read that has changed how you think about improv?
There’s a couple of people. [Chicago improviser] Susan Messing, some of her notes on group work scenes opened up the idea of how you should be on stage just having fun and following the fun. Also [iO instructor and improviser] Craig Uhler, this was a personal note for me, “you're clearly inspired by the comedy within humanity, so follow what’s fun for you.” I think that was the most valuable note for me, maybe not for everyone. [laughs]
We had both of those teachers in Chicago, we were in the same class [last year at iO Theatre’s summer intensive]. Do you think since then you've changed how you play as a result of those classes? Or do you think it’s something that you're still unlocking?
You're always learning with improv, like as soon as you think you've mastered it you do three bad shows in a row and you think…
I hate life!
I don't know what I'm doing anymore! But I think it’s changed the way I play in certain aspects. I think I'm allowing myself to be more invested and more inspired in things, which I like.
You're going to be executed. What would your last meal be?
Huge schnitzel. Because, the house guards are going to be cooking it, schnitzel you can’t really mess up.
Nice and simple.
Yeah, just keeping it simple.
You'd just eat the schnitzel, move on, flick the switch.
Yeah, you can mess up everything else too easily. Like a steak, you can ruin a steak.
Doesn't take long to ruin a steak.
Yeah exactly, you can't ruin a schnitzel. It’s impossible.
I don’t know. You burn it, in the pan.
Even then, it’s still good. My brother accidentally boiled a schnitzel once
He thought the water was oil. You know when you wash a pan you let the water soak? He boiled the schnitzel and we've never let him live it down.
It would be a soggy schnitzel right?
Yeah, the crumbs came off. It was a poached chicken disaster.
When was the last time you laughed hard watching an Improv Conspiracy show? What was it that happened?
Oh geez. I usually just laugh hard when people commit to something that makes absolutely no sense, and they figure it out as they go.
So when someone says something weird and catches themselves, and is able to justify why they said it?
Yeah, when the improviser makes sense of it all. The most recent one that comes to mind when I watched Play Like A Girl, and Amruta [Nargundkar] was a creepy pigeon man. That was her entire character and that was really funny. Just people being comfortable with the absurd.
So much of improv is straight/absurd. Do you find that you stick to one side or do you try to change it up?
Yeah I try to do a balance, I think. I don't like sticking to one type of scene, because then it becomes predictable and boring. That’s not what anyone who comes to see improv wants to see. They want to be surprised and delighted.
I suppose as a player you want to surprise yourself, you don't want to be always playing a straight man or someone wacky.
Yeah exactly. Sometimes it’s more fun to follow an absurd idea with agreement, and then see what the entire world of that insanity would entail.
I guess that rule of “if this is true, what else is true”
Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?
Jennifer Love Hewitt. She’s in every great teen film.
She was in Party of Five right?
I forget all of the films, but I had a lot of pictures on my computer. We'll leave it at that.
[laughs]. Ok, if you had to live in a sharehouse with three other Conspiracy members, who do you pick and why do you pick them?
Who would I live with. Kangas because he’s extremely organised, and would make sure everything is on the grocery list.
Tim Quabba, because he’s just Tim. He'd bring a lot of entertainment to the house, it’s good vibes. Who else. Del-Daddy [Delwyn Johns], because he’s balanced and chilled. I wouldn't want… girls shouldn’t live anywhere near me.
[laughs] Why’s that?
Like, I'm a slob, and I'm comfortable being a slob. I don’t need any extra judgement. I think like Kangas would kick me into gear, “you need to clean this shit up!”
"You need to throw out these spaghetti cans!"
So is Del. Everyone is just balanced and chill. So I think that’s good.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
[long pause] I think it would be invisibility, where you could switch it on and off. I think that would be cool because you could get the truth out of people by being in the rooms and then not seeing you.
Are you the kind of person where you have to know what people are saying about you?
Yeah, I'm super paranoid about them all the time so I'm like "I'll just walk around and follow this son of a bitch and see what he’s actually thinking!"
He’s bound to say it out loud, even if he’s by himself!
Yeah he'll talk to himself. This birdie’s gonna squawk. Yeah just being a fly on the wall, that would be interesting.
Ohhh no no! Animorph! I'm changing it. Animorph, the ability to change into any animal.
Being able to change into any animal you want? Awesome. Think about it. I could be virtually invisible – a fly on the wall. Then I could be any other animal I wanted. Like a dog who gets to sleep and gets its belly scratched.
But animals kill other animals.
Oh I'd be careful which animal I was.
No lions, no tigers, no elephants getting shot in Africa?
Yeah, yeah. I'm not going to fall victim of falling at the lower end of the food chain. I’ll be wise in when I turn into that animal.
Do you have someone who inspires the way you improvise? Is it another improviser, is it someone creative outside of your life, or is it someone else who is doing something else?
I think out of Conspiracy the person who interests me the most is Marcus because the way he plays is very specific to him. Very object related, his thing’s specificity, and I think that’s a great thing to have in a scene. The more you know, the more you can bring. I think that really helps a scene along. I like the way he colours a scene.
Is that something you have been trying to do in how you play?
Yeah I've been a bit lazy, I should do it a bit more. I should do a lot of things more. I've been all over the place lately, so I have to sit down and change, and set goals.
Are you the kind of person who sets goals with your improv?
Yeah, you gotta always be setting goals for everything.
I guess in that regard you're always learning in improv. When you're setting goals and you have achieved them, do you think that the goals go away?
Yeah. I think it’s all about your development, in how you find your style. You don't want to be forcing your agenda in a scene, throwing everything away to achieve this arbitrary goal you've set yourself. It’s sorta just to inspire you, to be a more well-rounded performer. If I'm doing one style of scene and realise, I want to work on doing this style, or being a stronger character, or just supporting, or having a very interesting character who is very physical. Setting challenges for yourself. But if a scene goes in another direction, you have to be prepared to just throw that away. [laughs]
I have a question from the Improv Conspiracy Student Group. Andrew S asks: When was your last wow moment in improv?
Probably back in Chicago with Susan Messing’s class. Just the group work stuff, here we're probably not at that stage yet here but just the simplicity of it. Just paint the environment, interact with it, have fun.
Is there something that opened you up in particular? A scene you painted that was like “oh it’s that easy”?
I think it was a group game we did in Craig Uhler’s class, where he got us to do an exercise we're we we're a spatula. You were in it, you remember.
Yeah, I was in it.
We physically became a spatula and we were doing the exercise "Yes, Because", and we were all interacting physically in the space. It was a really cool sort of opening or group game where everything connected, and we found a way off the stage. It was great how simple it was, just to have fun as a spatula.
And it’s that thing where a spatula is not a human, it doesn't have the same feelings that a human does. But you can apply those human feelings to an object and it still works, it’s interesting and funny.
Yeah it partially that, and partially, that exercise forces everyone to listen and response exactly how the last person did, and advance it. When everyone is listening and advancing, that’s when you're connected as a group at the most, where no-one is dropping anything because they know they could be up next. That’s when you're creating something that’s interesting and compelling, because everyone is on the same page.
There was another group game from the [iO Harold] team Revolver over there, where everyone came on as a band and were playing instruments and you're like “they've set the environment, what’s going to happen now”. The final member comes on and he’s playing a guitar but he’s struggling with feedback, and starts yelling at the guy at the sound desk. It was staged so well, everyone is interacting and it’s funny, and it’s that whole thing of no-one panicking on stage.
Everyone trusting each other.
If everyone trusts everyone, everything works.
We have a question from the last person interviewed, Nadine Sparks.
Nadine asks: When did you first know you were in love with improv?
Love is a harsh word. I think I have a love/hate relationship with everything. I think I loved how much it’s freeing, and you can do whatever you want with a group of like-minded people. I think at its best it’s free-form performance art that we make funny, because we are inspired by our friends. At its worst we put all these restrictions on ourselves and feel we are not good enough, which is all self-inflicted. So it’s constantly one or the other. [laughs]. No happy-medium. I don't know if that answers the question.
It sorta does.
It doesn’t answer the question at all! I think I had that relationship with it from the start.
When you were in the States in college.
Yeah back then it was more that I was just amazed at it. It’s like seeing a microwave, and being “this thing’s amazing. It can heat up all my food. How does it work it’s just a box with heat in it.” I don't know how microwaves work. But if you actually study it, it still heats a meal that’s delicious but if you know the mechanics behind it, find out how it works, it takes away some of the wonder behind it. This marvel of technology.
What’s the next question you'd like to ask to the next person being interviewed, improv or otherwise?
I’m going to make it a really deep one.
Has there ever been a moment in your life when you've felt that something is right, whatever it might be, and it was wholly in accordance with your personality and everything that your being is?
Wow. That’s a deep question.
Yeah so good luck to the next person!
How it works is that you always have to answer that question before we move it on.
That’s not how it works...
Yeah that’s how it works.
That’s not a thing!
It’s been a thing since week one. [laughs]
I think the first time I did any comedy, I thought this is right, this feels right to me.
What comedy was it? Was it improv?
It was… it was just a university play. It was a play I did in university that was…
A comedic role?
Yeah, comedic in nature. It was one of the ones where you play several roles, kind of a sketch show. I played several characters and sort of moulded them into my own. You read on script and was like “This isn't funny!” So I just made the physicality and character attributes fit what I wanted to do, and I was thinking of ways to add little jokes, and as soon as the director got a hint of it he was like “Yeah, let Damien do whatever he wants!” [laughs].
Yeah, I think I always wanted to perform subconsciously. In grade six I used to do sports reports in a rap.
In a rap?
In a rap. I was inspired by Freestyler by Bomfunk MCs, which isn't even a rap song. It’s a terrible song.
It’s a weird song!
It’s a super weird song.
A lot of Sony product placement in the video I think.
I have the jacket that was in the video, the same jacket as the guy wears, so I was like “I'm a rapper now".
Of course you are. From Germany (ed note: Finland).
Yeah, so I used to just get up and do the school sports reports in raps. I used to have a hype man as well, who would get the crowd pumped up.
How would that work?
It was just rhyming the results of the sports teams.
“And the Blues kicked sixty-seven points..”
“We versed Bentley West just the other day, and shit went down I just have to say!” Obviously there were no swear words in it, we were ten year olds and below. Whatever age kids are in school these days. “The score was twelve to forty-three, and that’s pretty great if you ask me.” So it was stuff like that.
Yeah, it was super lame but really entertaining. That was my first performance I guess.
And you've kept doing that ever since.
Yeah. Pretty much.
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