You Can’t Make This Up, with Katie Cook

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Now, on to the hahas!

I find that there are two types of people who take improv classes – those who love hamming it up in the limelight (me) and those who want to find confidence and their own voice. Many of those in the latter camp either quit before they find what they’re looking for or leave once they do. Thankfully, Katie Cook just can’t stop.

I am fortunate enough to share the stage with Katie on my house team, Bluebeard, and she performs with the Storyteller cast weekly. For someone who claims to“ hate attention and be self-conscious” she certainly puts herself out there more often than most people I know.

On stage Katie Cook is an incredibly realistic and grounded improviser. She plays from the heart and makes every scene count. You can tell that she really believes what her characters are saying, and her scene work comes from the heart – it’s honest and it’s vulnerable. Katie Cook doesn’t think she’s brave, but I am here to tell you she’s one of the bravest players I know.

And if you need more proof of her bravery, here’s Katie and I improvising in a sketchy alleyway at 10:30 at night to a suggestion of ART.


 Meet Katie Cook:

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

I’ve been doing improv a little more than a year and half. I got into it because it scared the shit out of me. I decided some time around age 29 that I wouldn’t let fear stop me from doing things anymore. Sort of like a code to live by. A fear code! If it’s scary, I have to do it.

So, I asked out the cute shoe salesman at Nordstrom, I moved to a foreign country by myself, all kinds of random acts of bravery. And I remember going to improv shows at The Gaslight. As soon as the thought occurred to me that I would be terrified to get on stage and do that, my brain shouted, “REMEMBER THE FEAR CODE” and I was like, “ohhh nooo! I’m gonna have to do improv! Shit.”

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

My style is pretty emotional, I think. Relationship based.

I’m an idiot when it comes to figuring out what the game is and where to take it. My scene partner(s) will be figuring out what’s funny in the scene and heightening it and I’ll be saying, “hey guys, this is how I feel I have feelings blah blah.”

At Bluebeard practice once, we all impersonated each other and Rafe Williams did a pretty spot-on imitation of me, walking around in the scene saying, “I just feel like you’re not listening to me, I feel like you don’t care, etc.” It was perfect.

John Langen told us in Level 2 that to have good scenes we should focus on relationship and say how we feel and I never forgot that. It resonated with me because I have trouble talking about my feelings in real life, and I’ve always wished I could do it, so improv is where I get to play out that fantasy of being someone who communicates well and says what she wants.

I’m really drawn to scenes that feel real. I would honestly rather be a character that someone in the audience can relate to more than one that makes them laugh. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Playing grounded and relatable often leads to the best and most satisfying humor. TJ and Dave are proof of that.

As far as what shows I have the most fun doing, the two-person team is my jam. It’s SO HARD because you have no time to think, but it’s SO GREAT BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO TIME TO THINK. I love so many kinds of forms, I love the Harold, but most forms provide a lot of time to stand on the sidelines and think and plan…time to second guess yourself. Time to get nervous. Thinking is an important part of improv, but overthinking kills improv. When there’s only two of you, you remove the possibility of overthinking and what emerges is real and raw. It’s truly improvised. 

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

Once upon a time I did a show with Storyteller where I never said a single word. That was the worst probably.

The best was a Bluebeard show where I just went crazy and got in a bunch of scenes and was several different characters in the show and the characters had accents! It was madness! For Katie Cook it was madness, at least.

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)? 

I find the most inspiration for improv from observing people. Strangers, friends, my parents, everybody is hilarious if you pay attention. Especially unfunny people.

I buy cheese for a living, and the world of retail is like a comedy minefield. Is that a good analogy? Like everywhere you step, comedy explodes! This lady came up to me the other day with a product in her hands and asked, “do I want this?” I was like, “yes.”

Another time a guy asked me, “what’s the difference between gouda and smoked gouda?” I literally said, “the smoked gouda is smoked,” and he said, “oh, ok.”

I spend the rest of my time stalking my crushes on Facebook, initiating conversations with strangers, taking pictures of my houseplants, listening to podcasts, playing guitar, learning how to make classic cocktails, and trying to get Louis C.K. to tweet me back.

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

With improv, as with anything, you get out what you put in. Go to shows and meet people on other teams and offer yourself to the community. We need you. Open up to your teammates, get involved in their lives. Encourage them and tell them when you need encouragement. It will make you better and it will make your team better.

If you are nervous about a show, have two drinks and get in the first scene. It’s my magic formula. You’re welcome.

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

My biggest breakthrough came in Level 5 when we listened to Del Close talk about how everything should mean something. He said, as improvisers, we’re raving paranoids on the stage. It gave me a very simple and tangible goal: whatever scene I’m in, I need to pick something and make it meaningful to my character. Take it personally.

If your scene partner gives you a glass of milk, you could take the milk and say, “thanks” and hold it and you guys could look at each other and try to think of something to make the scene about. OR you could use the milk! You have milk! Use it! Maybe you’re lactose intolerant and super pissed that your own mother never remembers, or maybe giving you milk before bedtime is the most comforting thing another person can do for you and your roommate just moved you to tears, or maybe a glass of milk is code for sex between you and your boyfriend because you guys are super weird. I don’t know. I’m just saying you can use anything, even milk.

Make the milk meaningful. Don’t let things go unnoticed.

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

The only way to get over your fear is to go through it. You have to face it. In your life you have to step out boldly and take risks not knowing what’s going to happen to you, just exactly as you do in an improv scene. The difference is that in improv, this usually leads to fun in the moment and high fives after the show. In real life, it’s not usually fun to face your fear. Real life is fucking scary and things can get ugly. But the result is the same: after you face the fear, you’re free.

I really like the author Frederick Buechner. He writes, “whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.” He goes on to say that your tears are telling you something about the secret of who you are, where you’ve come from and where you have to go next.

The same is true of your fears. If you pay attention to what’s scaring you and really follow it, step into it, you’ll become the best version of yourself. You have to. You have to have scary conversations where you let your guard down. You have to say how you feel. You have to fight for what you need and let go of things that hold you back. You have to trust, love, forgive. You have to do the thing you really don’t think you can do.

You might get rejected. You might feel pain. You might have to work incredibly hard. But you can do it! Be brave.

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

I have a secret blog that I’m hopefully unleashing to the world before 2014 is over.

JK47!!! (me and Jake McGuire) is going to do another show soon.

Storyteller is every Saturday, and this Saturday Kevin McDonald will be playing with us!

Oh and, she doesn’t know it yet, but Sera Jennings and I are starting a two person team called Sorry Bout It Keisha!

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

Marshall Cox, Kate Cole, Jake Sellers

(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’m reading Improvise by Mick Napier right now and it’s really good! Highly recommend.

Also, there’s this amazing blog my friend writes called “I’m Making This All Up” and everyone should check it out. 😀

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