Adam Levine came to Washington a decade ago to pursue social justice work with the organization Avodah. Improvisational comedy wasn’t on his radar until he watched a TV comedy special one night and realized that he wanted to do that, too. Levine moved to New York City for two years to take up comedy writing and then returned here to take improvisational comedy classes.
At 31, Levine works full time at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, but his heart is at the Washington Improv Theater on 14th Street where he performs and where he improvised some answers to our
Why can’t you make up your mind when it comes to a career?
When I was in college, I was studying music pretty seriously, and then I realized I wouldn’t be able to make money out of it. So I switched my focus to psychology, and was thinking of doing social service work. I think I got into comedy because D.C.’s such a buttoned-up town. People work 9 to 5 and I kind of forgot that adults are allowed to have fun. And I didn’t like working any job that I had, so I started writing.
How did you decide on improv?
I took an improv class at the suggestion of a friend. So I took it, and that’s when I was like, “This is what I’ve been looking for.”
How did you feel before that first class?
It was snowing out. I went in boots. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no theater background and I was a nervous public speaker. I wasn’t shaky nervous in class, but I was nervous. And the instructor was a really nice guy, and it was pretty much all people who had never done improv before. We immediately started doing improv
What is a scene that really worked?
A year ago, I didn’t think my audition to be [on a team at the Improv Theater] went well. But my now-coach for the team I’m on said what really stood out for him was my scene with this guy. The guy was a complete stranger in the audition. I was his son, and I didn’t want to go away to college. I played it completely seriously and was just like, “Dad, I am not ready to leave home. Please don’t make me leave home.” And I think it worked because I didn’t try to be funny. I said, “I know this person and I’m just gonna explain to my dad the emotions I’m going through.”
So you tapped in to your own emotions?
Yeah. We can all relate to being freaked out about doing something. I took a workshop once where the instructor said the difference between comedy and drama is tiny. You can play it completely straight and not be dramatic, but you’ll naturally have a lot of comedy in that scene. My coach said, ‘You were so real in that scene, I just could not take my eyes off you,’ essentially.
I hear the rule with improv is always say yes. Can you explain that?
Essentially everything that happens with you and your scene partners is about agreement, and moving things forward. So if you’re talking to me in an improv scene and you keep throwing out suggestions, and I keep saying, “No that’s dumb,” the scene isn’t really going to go anywhere. But if I say yes to everything, the more we are on the same page about everything, the more material there is to continue the scene. Then you see people who have been doing it for a decade and you realize they’re breaking all the rules, and it’s still working.
Do you practice for improv?
My brother always makes fun of me because he says, “Why do you need to practice improv?” But there’s so much practice involved.
How do you practice?
It’s so similar to jazz. The best jazz musicians are masters of their instruments. They know scales, and the phrasing and the skeletal structure of a song, and they improvise within those confines. Improv is really similar. There’s rules and tricks and repetition, and you’re using what you’ve learned to then improvise. Where I feel like I’m at is that I know a lot of the rules, but I’m still not a great actor. You’re learning how to have props, without actually having props. You’re learning how to drive a car with a scene partner, and to talk to them without stopping driving the car. Things like that.
Has improv changed you?
I have minor social anxiety. If I went with a friend to a party and my friend went to the bathroom, I’d be like “ahhh.” I haven’t had to speak publicly a ton recently, but I’m a more relaxed person in general. You just realize, what’s the worst that can happen if this doesn’t go well?
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