A mainstay at The Improv Shop, Michael Barrows-Fitzgerald graduated from the inaugural class taught in stolen classrooms at Washington University. He has seen the improv community in St. Louis grow over the last five years and is nothing but supportive of newer players and older veterans alike. He is fearless, never afraid to play big, bold characters, whether that’s an evil sorceress, a singing mailman or an English schoolboy. He tackles them all with ease.
Here’s Michael and I improvising to a suggestion of FROMAGE
Meet Michael Barrows-Fitzgerald:
Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?
I was going to Emerson College in the winter of ‘94. I had decided to take a Friday afternoon workshop with visiting improviser, Jeff Wirth. I had never really done much improvising before but had completely fallen in love with a little BBC show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? and wanted to see if I could do it myself.
A blizzard had started that morning, but silly stubborn me took the T and trudged through Boston Commons in the hope that they would still be having the workshop. The theatre building was empty save for Jeff Wirth, two undergrads and the Dean’s assistant. Jeff was in town and just wanted to share his love of the craft. It was an amazing workshop! We worked for three hours and I was hooked. I wanted more!
Well, the blizzard stranded Jeff at Emerson for the next three days. Classes were cancelled. He called the four of us, and since the Dean’s assistant had a key to the building, we pretty much camped out at the building all weekend and played. I have been doing improv ever since.
You were once a member of Magic Ratio, the Improv Shop’s first graduating class. What was your experience like?
It was pretty amazing. I had taken Kevin McKernan’s workshops when he first came back to St Louis. He held classes in the Ivory Theatre until the owner went bat shit crazy and kicked us out.
Kevin came back and started what would be the very first round of classes. I wasn’t able to take the classes then, but David Imler kept saying how amazing they were. I asked Kevin if I could take Level 2 so I could be with David and some others that I knew. I doubled up and took Level 1 at the same time I took Level 2. I freaked out all of the high school kids on my first day by doing the scenes with your fingers like finger puppets. My three line finger scene was two people fucking while having a conversation. The blank stares and gaping mouths made me smile.
The 30-35 people in the initial class went down to what became Magic Ratio. We had our so-so shows and some pretty amazing shows. We were a great group of friends who liked to kill off people in our openings. We were branded Murder Patio. It was a great experience. I took it for granted and thought it would always be there. I love what I am doing now, but a part of me wishes I could have my Murder Patio family back.
As a longstanding member of the STL improv community, how have you seen it change and grow over the last five years?
The sheer number of improvisers has become the biggest change. When I first started with the Improv Trick, there were maybe twenty people who would come around to the jams and classes. We struggled to keep the program going. Kevin came in and started this amazing program, which has gathered together a collection of really talented people from all walks of life. It’s great on a lot of levels. I love the new blood and the new shows that are being put up.
You are both a coach of an Improv Shop house team as well as a member of a new house team. What have those experiences been like? What are they teaching you? Is there any overlap?
Teaching has been a big struggle for me. I am from the world of theatre and I have also been a teacher for twelve years. I am trying to find a balance between being a coach and a teacher.
They have been through the program, and I have to realize I am there to be a pair of eyes and not necessarily a teacher. I want to share what I have learned while at the same time letting them find their own way. It’s a tightrope that I keep finding myself falling off of…but every rehearsal I feel I get a little better.
Being on a new team has been a challenge as well. Every time you work with a new group of people, you need to find how to play without stepping on toes. I am falling from that tightrope as well. Fortunately, John Langen is a great coach and he is really helping us find our way.
Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?
Don’t try to be funny.
I see so many scenes in shows and rehearsals suffer because people choose to go for the laugh instead of the honest reaction; myself included. It is so much more satisfying to click on a personal level.
What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?
Improv is a visual medium. Don’t just stand there do something! People want to see something otherwise they can just listen to the radio!
What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?
Live in the moment. It’s not what has happened in the past that is important or what is going to happen in the future.
Granted, I don’t always follow this advice. I try to, but I am a very negative person. I do find myself happiest when I do follow it. I just never learn.
Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?
Little Improv Shop of Horrors, the Halloween sketch show that is running October 18, 25 and 31 at the Improv Shop.
What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?
Zack Ziaja Matt Martin and David Mar