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The Jester Interview: Livia Scott

Livia Scott has thought about comedic character acting for a long time, since she was a child, in fact. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, her first theatrical experience was a long way from comedy, though, in Euripides tragedy and with the Tyger’s Heart Shakespeare Company. She arrived in New York to study at New York University’s acting school, where she was placed in the Atlantic school, which led her to take a turn away from how she had previously conceived comedic characters. Now, she is a member of all-female sketch comedy group Meat (with Becky Poole, Biz Ellis and Reggan Holland) that has performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and in the annual Sketchfest NYC among other places. Scott also has her own solo character showcase, “Castle of Enchantment,” which takes over Mo Pitkin’s on July 6 (see 4/19/07 review), and is working both on her own stand-up comedy act (playing at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn June 25) as well as a television project with Meat. She caught Jester’s eye with her Katherine Hepburn-turned-nasty character, Cynthia Falconcrest (see 9/8/06 review), and has a stable of other funny personalities in her shows.

Jester: What is unique about the Atlantic School? Why did NYU choose to put you there?
LS: I always wanted to do characters and had done characters since I was a kid. That was the kind of acting I always wanted to do. That’s mainly what I did. But when I auditioned, they wanted to break me of that a little bit. They wanted me to go in a very different direction and challenge me in a different way. That’s what the administration does when they accept you -- they think about what would be the best training for you. I wanted to go to Stella Adler, where Robert De Niro went, which is very character-driven. The Atlantic is just completely being yourself and being in the moment and everything about the moment. It’s David Mamet’s theater company. That style of acting … is not putting anything on top of …

J: It’s dialogue driven as opposed to character driven?
LS: Yes. There’s a very specific way they break down a script to get at the subtext. Then you’re playing the subtext of what’s going on in the scene. It takes a playwright to teach people how to translate what a playwright is saying. It was cool because the kind of acting I was doing as character acting up until that point was very much in my own head. Everything was planned out ahead of time -- who this character was and what they were like, and I was never in the moment, ever. Everything was delivery of something preconceived about who this character was. Atlantic completely broke me of that and I was forced to be very present and never in my own head.

In conjunction with that, there was a teacher there, Josh Pais, who became my “friend-tor.” The class was called “Committed Impulse,” and it was creating characters and creating physical work … the point actually wasn’t to create characters but another take on being in the moment, and pushing yourself to experience the moment in an animalistic way. You never knew what was going to happen in that classroom. It was a dangerous place for me because everything came from the physical place. It’s hard to describe. We would do Grotowski work [developed by a theater director by that name] -- really stretching your face and body, and expanding what you thought you were capable of doing. That became for me and for a lot of people, creating characters, but that wasn’t the point. I changed from a very intellectual approach to creating characters, to creating them completely physically and being in the moment with that. So it could be a really powerful experience to be in a class with a bunch of people doing that. They might be people I hung out with but, in that [exercise], I would have no idea who they were right then.

J: Do any of the characters you have now date back to before you changed methods?
LS: Everything is either completely instinctual with me -- either I see this person, have a vision of it or how they sound, or I play with sound and the physicality, and the character comes out of that. As a performer, you always go into your head sometimes, especially in comedy, whether they’re laughing at it or what are they not laughing at, especially if you wrote it -- does a line need to be changed? You go in and out of being in the moment. But for the most part, when you’re in the zone and clicking, all that’s there is the moment and I’m not in my head at all.

J: Does anything you do come out of improv at all, or is it all from acting and writing material?
LS: Some things do come out of improv. We don’t ever do improv games or do exercises to help us create something. If anything comes out of improvisation, we’re all sitting around and hanging out, and someone will say something, and someone else will say something else, and it all just sort of happens in conversation. It isn’t ‘Let’s sit down and write a sketch.’ We’re just hanging out and something magical will happen, and that’s a sketch -- ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny.’ That just comes from hanging out. One of our videos, “Mr. Knickerbocker,” came from that.

Recently at “Craptacular,” the finale of Sketchfest, we were all hanging out in the dressing room, Becky and I were in the dressing room, rubbing our butts against each other, asking “Is this gay sex?” Reggan came in a little later, and we have a sketch/characters called Four Groovy Douchebags, and we thought wouldn’t it be funny if it was them experimenting with what gay sex is. Becky and I were saying “I can’t feel anything! Can you?” and then someone said there should be an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we present, ‘Gay sex.’” -- a reveal of this is what they think sex is … but there’s this long scene of them not feeling anything. That just came out of improvised conversation without a particular goal in mind. We’ll definitely write down the beats and do it again.

J: How do you choose what ideas you keep for yourself and what goes to Meat?
LS: We all write separately. As to performing outside of Meat, I do a lot and Becky does quite a bit, and Biz and I are working on a side project together. I can’t speak for them in how they choose what will be Meat or not, from ideas they get. But for me it’s just a feeling, that something needs to be done by four people, or I could see Reggan doing this really well. Or a sketch might be better told as a story and I do it in stand-up. You try different things out and get a sense of what will work well.

J: How did you come up with Castle of Enchantment?
LS: I started it this April. ... I was offered a spot at the PIT to do whatever I wanted. I’ve really been trying to work on my stand-up, so I thought of calling it “Livia Scott & Friends,” and I would do stand-up and invite other people to do things. Kevin Allison [The PIT artistic director] asked me to create a concept. After talking to every single friend whose comedic opinion I respect, and I had to come up with it quickly, because the spot was going to open up in a week, I had to figure something out fast. I asked myself how I could do characters in a show. The idea of dead celebrities came about. I was going to have it be a lifestyle show -- like Babe Ruth would come back and show you how to make a sandwich, and interview the people. But then I thought that was kind of limiting. One of the people I talk to a lot about ideas and collaboration is Todd Hanson, who writes for the Onion. He’s a really good friend and we have a good collaborative rhythm in talking about things. It was very much from my conversation with him that the Castle of Enchantment idea came about, with the people brought back to life by the power of magic. The word enchantment came from me. How I fit it into the concept -- he came up with ‘castle.’ There were a lot of conversations but that was the one that really solidified it. … It was kind of stressful but it was fun -- being able to do anything in that space.

J: Of everything you think of, how do you know what to keep and what to throw away?
LS: You may think something is hilarious and no one else thinks it’s funny at all. And sometimes you have to stick to your guns and make whatever was hilarious to you work. Too often, I’ve seen it happen, people throw something away because they didn’t get a good response one night -- ‘I’m never doing that again.’ [I think], ‘Are you crazy? You were so excited about that.’ But sometimes you have to let go and move on. Some of it has to do with … I try stuff out on people a lot before I go on stage. I’m really lucky, I have a lot of people in my life who are fun and funny. Some of them are not even performers. My first boyfriend lives in Seattle and does research at the University of Washington; he’s a scientist, not a comedy person at all. I’ll call him and ask if he thinks something is funny. He’ll give me a contribution.

If the resources are there and you don’t have to wait to be in front of an audience -- it’s like rehearsal -- it’s a good idea to grab hold of that and embrace it. It’s like my test group. And then other times you just don’t know and have to try it.

J: Why did you go the route of inventing characters, rather than doing your solo material about family, friends or growing up, like many other solo performers do?
LS: I never thought about that before. Maybe it’s because people in my family aren’t really that jazzy. I can do an impression of my mom, but she’s not really that high energy a character. My dad is pretty interesting. They’re all academics, so…

J: Or solo performers use their personal stuff.
LS: I don’t know why I don’t gravitate toward that. I know why I gravitate to what I do, but don’t know why I don’t gravitate toward the more personal. I’ve always been interested in psychology and what makes people tick. I find people fascinating. I could sit on a park bench and watch people for hours and be so totally interested. I do that a lot. I’ll go to the park and people watch. When I have writer’s block, I’ll do that.

There’s a lot of ‘fist-shaking’ that goes on in our family about politics and society, I guess as a result of all being academics. So I’ve always been interested in social commentary and a certain sense of justice and wanting to make fun of people who need to be made fun of, or people in a position of power or the establishment. In comedy that interests me more than ‘oh, my dad is like so crazy.’ Everyone’s dad is a little crazy, so what else?




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