Steve and I did not have a chance to film a scene this week, but it will be coming soon.
When I met Steve Raines two years ago at the Improv Shop, I wouldn’t have known he had only been improvising for a year. He’s a face you see everywhere because he’s a guy that is doing so much. From independent and house teams, to SDPs, to sketch, to his own show, Steve is everywhere. And he’s also hilarious.
Two years later, well, Steve is still everywhere and somehow isn’t spreading himself too thin. He’s dedicated, determined, and talented. He isn’t afraid to make unique choices on stage, which always leads to fun, unpredictable scenes, but he also makes time to get out and experience life – fueling his inspiration and energizing his work. The only thing I’m not sure Steve has time for is sleeping.
Meet Steve Raines:
Why did you get into improv? How long have you been doing it?
I got into improv my junior year of college, so I think I’m coming up on around 3 years in March-ish. I got into it because I wanted to be a comedian, or be in funny movies or act. I just knew I wanted to entertain. I became obsessed with searching how people that I loved got started. I would dig into Chris Farley’s Wikipedia page for details and note, “Oh, he started out doing improv…” then I would see Belushi’s and say, “Oh, he did improv too in the beginning,” and Will Ferrell, “Oh he did it too!” so I saw this common thread and thought that this was the way to do it.
At that point in my life, I thought that it exclusively existed in Chicago and that I had to move there in order to “do” improv. One day during work-study my junior year, I was scouring the web for any trace of improv life in the city of St. Louis because dropping out and moving to Chicago at that point wasn’t an option. I finally stumbled over a couple improv theaters in St. Louis. I picked The Improv Shop because their website looked nicer than the others, and I signed up that day. I’m still improvising at The Improv Shop and don’t anticipate stopping.
You are a writer for STL Up Late. How has that experience affected your improvisation?
It has effected my improvisation in a couple of ways, one being sort of negative based on the fundamentals of long form improv. Its not exclusively STL Up Late that has done this, but basically any type of written sketch comedy or something created to “be funny” on purpose can have this effect I think. In long form improvisation we are taught that the comedy is sort of a bonus, or icing on the cake, not the pinnacle of the scene. Basically that the funny comes from the honest reactions and moves in the scene work, not through contrived bits. In sketch, you are trying to write to “be funny” on purpose. Obviously attaining laugher this way isn’t wrong and improv is right and vise versa, but sometimes if I am doing a lot of sketch performance and sketch writing it causes me to be less patient in my scene work and it sort of causes me to try and fish for laughs in scene work were they are not earned.
It has also had a very positive effect on my improvisation. It has definitely made me become a better character actor. By being in sketch comedy, you have to be able to perform a lot of characters and flex those muscles. When you don’t have to create a character on the fly, you can really sink in and dig up cool little character traits and fall into the character. It has made me realize that sometimes something as little as the way a character holds a cell phone when talking is as valid as what they are saying. Believability is a result and is equally as important to improvisation as it is in sketch.
Is there a principle or lesson from sketch that you regularly use in improv?
Show don’t tell, economy of words.
I was just in Chicago and saw TJ & Dave perform for the first time. They were doing a scene where a brother had to beat his younger brother’s high score in pinball. These guys play each others characters interchangeably and very seamlessly. At this point, Dave was playing the older brother who was also kind of a masculine asshole type of character and TJ was playing the younger brother’s friend.
In this scene TJ walks upstairs toward the older brother to deliver the news that his buddy is currently on a roll downstairs setting an insane score. To paraphrase:
TJ – “Hey, your brother…”
TJ – “ 948,000.”
Dave gets a serious look on his face and instantly bolts toward the basement steps where they have been entering and exiting.
He said everything in the fucking world without saying a single word. By just reacting and bolting to the basement, he showed urgency, how much he cared about beating his brother, and almost a sense of worry. Had he sat there and talked his head off about how that’s not possible or that he could beat it, he would have killed the reality of the scene and beat it to death. Not to mention the crowd erupted with laugher when he just walked off urgently without responding.
To go back to what I mentioned above about improv getting laughs by accident and through honesty, this was a perfect example. That shows the show don’t tell principle that I mentioned above. It also showed the economy of words lesson. The audience is smart enough to know what they are talking about because they just saw it all happening. So when TJ only says “948,000.” it says everything it needs to say without being too vague.
Can you share some words of wisdom with those just starting out?
If you really want to do it, if you really enjoy it and WANT to do it (which I’m assuming you do since you are reading a nerdy improv blog, which by the way is fucking rad Ben and I love that you are doing this), THEN FUCKING DO IT!
Submit yourself to it all – the tenets of how to do it and how to do it right, why it is relevant in life, how to get better, talk about it, think about it, read about it, don’t judge it, DO IT! Be honest with yourself and others, what are you good at, what do you need to work on. Also DON’T BE A FUCKING DICK, avoid every bit of entitlement. It doesn’t belong in this world. Improv is honesty, listening, support, pouring gas on other peoples fires before your own, supporting an idea even if it doesn’t seem like the right one, avoiding preplanning, going with the flow. SO WHY DOES IT SEEM LIKE THE PLACE OR MEDIUM TO BE A DICK, to feel that you should be on this team, or your team should be doing this, or you should be doing this or that in class, or why does he talk so much, or why wasn’t I picked to do this, or man he or she sucks why are they on our team. That’s all external garbage that doesn’t help you in improv at all, so if you really wanna do it, if you really enjoy it, worry about what you’re doing, not what everyone else is doing. That’s all shit that might get you ahead in the shitty business world but not here. I promise it will only make you worse at improv.
Most people don’t do this and the evidence is the awesome community that we have. The evidence is The Improv Shop. I’m warning against what I feel is the worst snare to fall into, and it’s easy to. I have, I still do, and will continue doing it and I hate it.
What is the best improv advice or note you have ever received?
There are so many that I will just go off of what I am currently obsessed with. John Langen was sub-coaching for Galaxander (my house team) and he said, “just because they aren’t laughing doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged.” I have a tendency to panic when it gets silent, which usually results in a shitty joke cop-out. This really made me realize that silence is as valid as a roaring audience, so its really allowing me to be ok with it and just to sit in it when it happens. It usually just means they are listening really fucking hard, which is really what you want out of an audience anyway.
What is the best lesson you’ve learned from improv that translates to your real life?
Kevin McKernan’s level one. He sits there and (so much better than I can) shows and tells how and why it matters. Why it’s bigger, why it’s important, why it’s healthy, why it should be loved, why it should grow, why its pure. He’s living proof of it.
There are a couple things that he’s said over the years that always comes back to me:
One night we were sitting in a shitty sports bar with a bunch of improvisers doing horrible karaoke. I’m sitting at the bar and we start talking about women, (he’s gonna read this and make fun of me) but I was talking about dating women, through the whiskey haze I remember him saying:
“What’s the difference? You weren’t dating her before? What’s the worst-case scenario? You don’t end up dating her? (Laughs) Then why does it matter? That’s when life is like a video game in a lot of ways. You just start over. It doesn’t matter that much because you are right where you were before so you might as well take the risk in the first place because at the ABSOLUTE WORST you are right where you were.”
Now dating girls isn’t directly related to improv, but this showed me a real life example of taking a risk. When we say “take more risks” or “don’t be afraid to take risks,” we don’t mean free scale a fucking building, but rather, do what’s sort of scary in scene work and everyday life more often. The possible rewards are far worth the petty repercussions.
I’m gonna keep going cause I have never been interviewed and this feels cool.
Another time I can recall a great life lesson from Kevin was in Level 1. Every once in a while he would pause a scene to make a point. I can’t remember what the scene or character was, but it was something like a grown man who had a total phobia of pie. Something really dumb. He paused the scene and started speaking to the class and those in the scene. “, are a guy who’s afraid of pie! A grown man afraid of pie, like he thinks this pie is going to fucking kill him?! When have you ever gotten to be this guy?! I’m jealous, I wanna be up there and be that guy. It looks so fun. But I’m not!! You’re lucky you get to play this guy right now for some reason. Odds are you will never be able to play this guy again! So play it! Play it as hard as you fucking can cause this is your chance to do it justice!
Kurt Vonnegut is often mentioned at The Improv Shop. He has a quote, “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
I will never forget that lesson because he’s right. Even though it’s a guy afraid of pie, its true, it’s life. If only we could pause in life and have Kevin remind us this. Instead of “grown man afraid of pie,” plug in a life event, anything, (Pause) Wait you’re sharing a laugh with your grandpa at a guy who was fishing and fell into a pond on Youtube?! What!? Play! PLAY! THIS MIGHT NOT HAPPEN AGAIN HOW LUCKY ARE WE TO BE IN THIS MOMENT!!
I hope that made sense.
Do you have anything going on that you’d like to plug?
John Langen’s new sketch show Little Improv Shop of Horrors running this Saturday and Next Friday at The Improv Shop.
(Stand-up, Improv, and more)
What St. Louis improviser(s) would you like to see answer these questions?
Jake Sellers, Colin Dowd, Guy Stephens
(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?
And while you’re here, be sure to sign up for our email list. Because even though I was slacking before, come the end of the month, it’s gonna rock your socks off. I promise.