I met my friend Yoanna Wei while taking a Level 0 (yes, they exist) improv class at the People's Improv Theater in NYC. She's been going strong and hard since the class and really quite involved at the PIT and the improv scene. She sat down over tacos to talk to me about it.
Svetlana: Yoanna, how long have you been doing improv?
Yoanna: Since September 2011. A year and a half.
S: We met through that PIT (People’s Improv Theater) class, Level 0, but you were doing improv before that, right?
Y: Before Level 0 I was doing jams at the PIT, not much formal instruction. Then I was at a jam and they were giving away a free Level 0 so I put my name in the pot and won it.
S: Awesome. And then your improv career just took off, right!?
Y: Sure. I just finished Level 3 at the PIT so I’m not there yet. There are 5 levels at the PIT and I just started taking level 1 at UCB (Upright Citizen’s Brigade).
S: What’s the difference bw UCB and the PIT? I’ve heard that UCB is more hardcore.
Y: Well, UCB classes are accredited, and it’s more like a school type environment—they are more stringent about their requirements. To move from 201 to 301 you have to get approval from a teacher. At PIT there aren’t those kinds of requirements. And yes, UCB is competitive, but it’s also like family—when I go to jams there I don’t feel like people are stepping on each other—they’re nice about it. UCB produces a lot of up and coming comedians like Kate McKinnon who is on Saturday Night Live and she’s from UCB so, if you wanna go big, you definitely want to start at UCB. But at the same time, PIT also produced good comedic actors like Kristin Shaw, she’s on Bob’s Burger, and she was on a house team at the PIT.
S: So, what made you want to try improv?
Y: I started doing improv with a student group on campus, and we were doing short form improv and I was intrigued to see what long form improve was like. I really liked improv and have always wanted to be in theater, and so improv is a form of theater in my mind.
S: Did you do drama in high school? Where did you get the acting bug?
Y: My sister is a math major in college. She enjoys it. Both my parents were originally in medical school. They don’t have any artistic things going on. I guess they watch TV…I don’t want to say they don’t have artistic pursuits…I mean a lot of it was when I was little I always preferred to read novels, and sort of gravitated towards that. When I was in high school I did theater tech and got a chance to see student actors practicing, and that is when I knew I wanted to do theater. In my last semester of undergrad, I was in a play and I just knew it was something I wanted to do. It was a student written play called Finding the Light.
S: It is so interesting to me when people say “I just knew,” when you feel so drawn to something. Another thing—when we were talking about creativity and your parents, and you know, when someone says that they write, or they sculpt, or whatever, if one does not do that, it doesn’t mean they’re not creative. There is something special about practicing creativity with other people.
Y: Mhhm. In creativity, you are literally creating something with somebody else with no preplanning.
S: Which can be pretty scary if you think about it! And it’s fun.
Y: Yes. I love the spontaneity of improv. Part of the reason for that is I am lazy and don’t like memorizing lines and also, if a director does not give you a part you have nothing to say, but in improv, you are your own director.
S: You can always have something to say. I feel like there is something vitally important about creating something of your own.
Y: Yeah, I get it. A lot about creating something is expressing your emotions and yourself and finding out about yourself.
S: Yes, like “I didn’t even know this was in me!” When I did my first play in college, I wasn’t every really drawn to it, but when I was finally on stage acting it out, I was like “I LOVE THIS.” We all have this creative impulse. Such self growth happens through creativity. Yes and it!
Y: Yes Tina Fey said that—you can apply a lot of improv rules to life. It helps in saying yes to more.
S: How did the improv team you’re with now form?
Y: That is sort of an odd situation. All three of us knew that we were the only three Asian people who hang out at the PIT so one night all three of us were sitting at the bar and Sean was like, “You guys want to start a team?” And yeah, that’s how it happened. But we aren’t racially exclusive. We want to include other people and are looking for new members.
S: How long has XOXO been a team and how did you guys get your name?
Y: Since July/August, so half a year now. We got our name while standing outside the PIT one night before a show and Sean (again) saw XOXO on a poster and said, “That should be our team name.” And that’s how it happened.
S: Ahhh. So what are the other rules of improv?
Y: “Yes and” is the huge one—then, you know, take your partner’s offers, support your partner’s moves…all other rules stem from “Yes, and.” Just go with what’s happening and add your own information…because literally you are creating something out of thin air. Also, a lot of acting rules apply to improv: be vulnerable, show your emotions, let your partner affect you, be real, be honest. All those really help what happens on stage.
S: Another thing I like about improv is that when watching it, a lot of it is fantastical and exaggerated, but a lot also humorously reflects the awkward interactions in day to day life, and that makes me feel less alone! People are laughing at it, and so am I! I’m not the only one that that’s happened to! It’s a great reminder to do that in real life. To embrace our weirdness, our quirks…
Y: Yeah, definitely. The audience usually laughs when some form of truth is arrived at in the scene.
S: Ohhh I like that!
Y: Nate Starkey taught me that. He teaches level 4 and 5 at the PIT and he’s on the Big Black Car house team. I’ve observed many shows and I’ve found that to be very true. They recognize the realness.
S: The audience recognizes themselves in that truth and so laughs—an instant community of knowing is created.
Y: Yes. Art imitates life. So if you’re being real on stage, it is organically funny.
S: Not trying too hard.
Y: Yeah, trying to be funny is another improv no no. You don’t want to be jokey. You want to really be honest.
S: Good distinction. When I was taking my class I would try to do that sometimes, and it would feel off, inauthentic. Just doing the improv is enough. Being there and responding.
S: So, have you met any famous people at the PIT?
S: That’s neat. I don’t even know who they are. Hyper links above to their bios! Yoanna, did you do any acting in college besides improve?
Y: Yes, I was in a few plays with a group of Columbia med school students called the Bard Hall Players—I was in the chorus of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in the winter production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I played Robin Starling and I was an extra in Rumors. It was fun. Theater is definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had. I wish I did more plays in college.
S: Me too.
S: One thing with theater is you can become close to the people you are doing it with. It’s like you are bringing something into the world with them. Almost like childbirth—the play is practiced, gestates, grows—until it’s ready to come out. Is that one of the things you really enjoy about it? Why do you think you enjoy acting and improve so much?
Y: A lot of it is gut feeling. When you’re doing improv on stage you just feel so liberated—like “Oh man, I am creating something right here.” And also, acting is like being as human as possible. You are living life in a way that no other profession can give you. You are creating characters. You are experiencing these emotions. It’s like you’re living simultaneously in many parallel universes. And you get to experience more of life that way.
S: I think that’s right. You’re experiencing more. I feel like it’s similar with reading, but in acting, you are actually embodying who these characters are, so it’s different—it comes alive. It is so exciting. It expands your awareness and experience so much.
S: Who are your favorite improvisers/comedians?
Y: Ashley Ward is very funny. She taught level 1 and 3 at the PIT and she’s in Big Black Car (a PIT house team). Brigid Boyle—she is on The Baldwins (another PIT improv team) and she is very funny. I really like the house team Birds too. Very good improvisers.
S: Thanks so much for your time and willingness to share your passion Yoanna!