You Can’t Make This Up, With John Langen

There’s a poster in The Improv Shop green room, a quote from Mick Napier, that simply says “Fuck your fear.” It’s motivational and inspiring, but I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t skip a few beats as the lights dim before a show.

Maybe John Langen shares this nervous energy, but you’d never know. He has capitalized on the Improv Shop’s new space and is constantly innovating and producing great, new work, from the incredibly popular Storyteller, to Mindflayer with Andy Sloey, to an upcoming Halloween sketch show. And in addition to his performance work, he coaches house teams, he teaches Levels 3 and 5, and he also writes about improv. John doesn’t think about what might happen. He lives in the moment, and if he wants something, he goes after it. He commits hard and he fucks his fear.

On a personal level, John takes the lessons he’s learned from the art form and applies them to his life. He is kind and caring. He makes everyone else look good. He gives freely. He truly listens.

Go visit him at the Improv Shop bar, sometime. Ask him for a story, and just listen. You’ll probably learn something.

So without futher ado,

Meet John Langen: 

Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?

First off, this is an awesome blog, Ben. Thank you for inviting me to participate in it.

I started improvising in 2001 in my first year at Ball State University. I was having trouble meeting people because I was a bit of an introvert. Still am to a degree. I answered an audition notice in the school paper for a short form troupe. My only frame of reference for improvisation was Whose Line Is It Anyway? of which I was a huge fan. I had no concept of longform or even that other groups existed outside this troupe at my school and the one on T.V. I auditioned, and by either blind luck or the divine intelligence of the universe, I got in.

I think the more interesting question for me is why I’ve kept doing it. The answer here is spirituality. I grew up in a very by-the-book Catholic household. I had an adverse reaction to religion and lost my spiritual side. Through improvisation, I found a spiritual fulfillment that my mind, body, and soul could understand.

How would you describe your style of play? In other words, what sort of scenes/shows do you have the most fun doing? 

Great question and one that I don’t really feel reliable to answer. I think it’s hard to be both creative and objective at the same time. I know that my style changes depending on my mood, the show, and the other people I’m playing with. Also, my improv philosophy is constantly changing and evolving. It’s easier for me to answer what type of improvisation I like to watch. I find that I tune out shows that aren’t invested in character commitment. I like watching improvisers bite down hard into a role and explore how that character intersects with the world around him or her. I’m not a fan of comedy-focused work where the funny bits lead the show. For me, the best place for that material is sketch. Of course, if you’ve watched me play, I sometimes improvise the exact opposite way of what I prefer to watch. That’s why I’m still growing and trying to get better.

Can you regale us with a tale about the best or worst scene/show you have ever done?

Hmmm. The show that haunts me, in a good way, happened the last week I was living in Chicago. I went to see the Armando Diaz Experience at the iO Theater. I was in a bad place that day. My mother was dying of cancer, and I was bankrupt and leaving Chicago because I was out of money. I was embarrassed, depressed, and riddled with guilt, so I thought I would take in the Armando show one last time to get my mind off things. Just before the show, Noah Gregoropoulos, a longtime teacher at iO, asked if I would like to be the monologist for the evening. I don’t think he knew what state I was in. I reluctantly said yes because that’s what I had been told to always do.

I brought all of myself to my monologues. I talked about my mother’s prognosis, less than a couple months to live. I talked about how I was too broke and too self absorbed to get back home in time to say goodbye. I talked about my fears and anxiety of my future. I cried on stage. They were really dark monologues. I was out of body the whole time. It was like I was watching myself from the light rafters hanging above. This show was the first time I truly understood what my teachers were saying about vulnerability in improvisation. I’ll never forget it. I remember laying awake that night, freaked out about what I had just done and thinking, “is there truly any better therapy than improvisation?”

What do you do to find inspiration for improv? In other words, do you have a life? If so, how do you spend it (besides pretending you are someone else on stage in front of large groups of people)? 

Ha! Well, to be honest, most of my life centers around improvisation, but it’s a life I love and choose. I’m currently finding inspiration through newly found sobriety. I gave up the drinking and drugging and am finding that I’m a much more prolific artist this way. I spend my free time trying to be mindful and trying to be the best version of myself that I can each day.  I’m starting to challenge myself by putting up shows that were gathering cobwebs in my mind for years. I never acted on them out of fear of failing or fear of hard work. I’m facing those fears now and finding inspiration in a personal strength I didn’t think I had.

Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out? 

Here are two:

First, you’re never going to be as good at improvisation as you want to be. That’s because being “good ” is a dangling carrot on a stick. Remember, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be right now.

Second. Once a year, take a trip away from home with the primary purpose to see improvisation in other places. There’s great stuff out there and it will likely reignite your passion and inspiration for the work.

What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?

It actually came from my sketch and sitcom writing teacher Michael McCarthy at iO Chicago. His advice: “Cut the cute stuff.” In addition to writing, I apply this note to improvisation.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?

You gotta be kind and humble. Neither of these things come easily to me. I have to mediate on them daily. But I will tell you, on days when I’m winning at being kind and humble, those are the best days I have.

Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug? 

Thanks for the opportunity. I have co-created an improvised show called Storyteller that performs every Saturday at The Improv Shop in St. Louis. Each week a new guest storyteller provides the inspiration for improvisation. The cast members of this show are some of the finest and most talented people I know. I’m very proud of this show and everyone involved.

I’m also developing a Halloween sketch show. Keep an eye out for it in October.

You can keep up with this stuff on my website: www.johnlangenimprovises.com.

What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?

I would be curious to see a student answer the same questions at Level 1, 3, and 5 in a trilogy format. It would be cool to chart their answers at different points in their training.

(Optional…well, more optional than the others). Is there a video, podcast episode, blog post etc about improv that you find particularly inspirational or inspiring?

I recommend two books, but they are not strictly improv focused. They are about creativity in general. Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon. I reference both books on a near-daily basis.

I would also recommend seeing Meowsers perform at the Friday Soiree at The Improv Shop. These four gentleman are doing inspired work.

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