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An Improvised Q&A With

José Gonzalez

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Jose Gonzalez at Ignite 6 in Mesa. Image by Chris Cameron and used under terms of a Creative Commons license.
Co-Founder Of The Torch Theatre And A Fixture In The Phoenix Metro Improvisation Scene Discusses Intricacies Of The Art And His Own Inspirations

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 22, 2013 — José Gonzalez is an actor and stage performer in Phoenix. He is a co-founder of the Torch Theatre, an improv studio located at 4721 N. Central Ave. In addition to performing solo and with several groups, José teaches some of the many improv classes open to the public at Torch. He can be seen at the theatre most nights of the week working or performing in one capacity or another.

Modern Times: What makes Torch unique or special to the Phoenix community?
José Gonzalez: Man, where do I start? Not to say that "we're so great," but…

MTM: Just what you see at its place here.
JG: I think we have a really great improv community in Phoenix. We communicate with theatres, like NCT in Mesa, The Jester’Z in Scottsdale, and Chaos Comedy in North Phoenix and then various groups that are popping up here and there around town.

I think we are unique based on the bare fact that there aren't that many improv comedy places around town. And certainly we're basically, while other groups and theatres might feature some long form improv, we're definitely the only one dedicated place in town and, as far as I know, the rest of the state, maybe even the Southwest if you don't include Texas, because there is a lot of great improv around Texas.

So I think we're unique in that the style of comedy that we, both long form improv and improv in general, is…this is one of the few places you can find it. I think we are also unique in that we actually have homegrown performers. And our performers are a mix of folks that have gone through our training centers and now our students who are starting to perform. We also have some folks who have trained elsewhere and are performing here. It is one of the few places that I know about where we are actually trying to cultivate more performances, at least in this style of improv.

MTM: What advice would you give to someone who has never done improv but would like to try?
JG: I think one of the things that takes the most getting used to is just getting comfortable in front of people, as basic as that might seem, and trusting ourselves.  I think we all improvise in a certain sense in our everyday lives, unless you are on a scripted reality show.

I actually do a show called ABC — it's actually ABCDEF all the way through Z but that takes too long to say — where I take an audience member who has never done improv and have them come up on stage and we do a 20 to 25 minute show.

I think people are better improvisers than they think that they might be. So, I think that one of the hardest steps is to just get yourself to do it once and see what happens, and I think that goes for anything. Any new thing, we probably fear a little bit and then you just have to kind of jump in. And maybe you'll dig it and maybe you won't, but I think it is that step of just pushing through and trying that is important.

MTM: What has been your scariest moment on stage?
JG: Any time I have played a challenging character who is really unlikable or a character who is a horrible, awful person, there is always a little bit of fear in that I hope the audience doesn't think that I'm actually this awful character or that that is what I'm about.

Sometimes we play either racist characters on stage, or sexist characters on stage, or whatever kind of characters that are really unsavory, and I think I am always like 'Uh, I hope nobody thinks I really think that.' But I hope that, for the most part, that pushes us to pursue those moments that we fear just to see what happens, and that is kind of improv in general.

MTM: Do you have any advice for aspiring…improvisationists?
JG: [Laughs] I use ‘improvisers.’

I think part of it is you just have to do it. You have to get up on stage — 'being on stage' being relative, because that could be either being in class or if you are out there with a group independent from any theatre — and you just have to do it. And keep doing it.

I always think that it can be helpful to take classes. I mean, we teach classes here, so I always think it can be helpful to take improv classes. But I also think that people who are interested should check out all of the various improv venues around town and see what they are really interested in and what clicks with them.

Classes can be helpful, but you're most significant lessons are going to be those that happen during a show in front of an audience, because that is really what it comes down to. Can you really play a moment truthfully and honestly and play it how it needs to be treated without regard to the audience.

Like if I made a joke on stage and it got laughs, but now we don't have anything to run off of for that scene. So, I think part of that just comes from doing it on stage in front of people, regardless of where you do it or how you do it.
MTM: What are some of the groups and must-see acts in Phoenix?
JG: I really think that, outside of the Torch Theatre, Jester’Z in Scottsdale have been doing it now — I think they are 10 or 11 years into it now. And you know, they are around because they are good and they put on really good performances up there.

NCT Phoenix has some really strong stuff going on in Mesa, and it's great that there is improv that people can see in that part of the East Valley.

Chaos Comedy has a lot of really great performers. Dave Thurston has just — well not just established — he has been in the process of establishing his group, the Outliars. They have shows all over town.

I think there is a great variety of improv people can see in town. A lot of times people think they have to go to L.A., New York, or Chicago to see good or interesting improv, but we have a lot here.

They are also good friends of ours, but Space 55 has a lot of great stuff going on theatre-wise.

And the Trunk Space. They actually host one of our improv nights on the fourth Wednesday of every month. They have mostly music performances, but they also have comedy and stuff that you might call performance art. But it is a lot more interesting than that sounds, because I think a lot people hear 'performance art' and they are thinking of someone in college who is doing all this weird dancing on stage and whatever.

MTM: You recently did a show at Space 55. How did that come about and how did it go?
JG: They actually have a show called Down Low Solo, which is kind of a solo performance showcase. So I did a solo performance there, which was fun because I usually improvise with other people.

I didn't have everything completely scripted; part of it was improvised. My solo performance was a mix of areas I knew I wanted to cover, with some improvising here and there.

MTM: So, what were those areas that you wanted to explore solo?
JG: It ended up being more personal, not that I can't be personal when we're doing improv shows, but usually it is about creating with other people. I just had some thoughts about sex, life, death, suicide, pornography, and it all kind of became one big mish mash. I was originally shooting for my performance to be five to seven minutes. I think each person was actually allotted about 10 minutes. Personally, I think I went over, I think I went at least 12 minutes. But luckily people seemed to enjoy it enough that it went by pretty quickly.

MTM: Of any artist and/or performer alive or dead, whom would you most like to improv with?
JG: Oh jeez. Wow. That is a good one.

[Laughs]

Maybe Abraham Lincoln. I feel pretty lucky with the people that I improvise with now. The group I am in now, Galapagos, is five of us and has been together for about 10 years, which is forever in improv terms. And my two-person group, Umlautilde, is invited to the Chicago Improv Festival, and I love improvising with them.

I mention Abraham Lincoln because Umlautilde does a show called "The Lincoln-Lincoln Debates" where we both portray Lincoln debating each other and sometimes that leads to improvised scenes. It would be really interesting to improvise with Abraham Lincoln.

I think the only other person who popped up in my head was Del Close. And he actually is like the father of the kind of improv that we do here. He's had a crazy amazing life. And he was also kind of a mad genius. He was a junkie, like a witch or warlock, whatever you want to consider him. He would randomly pop up in Chicago-based movies like "The Untouchables.” And he was also in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off.”

So, he was kind of on the fringe of Hollywood. But he is also one of the people who trained/discovered John Belushi, Bill Murray — and I almost called him Billy Murray, like I know him — Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. He was primarily based in Chicago and I think he would be a really interesting person to improvise with. He seems like he hated everything, and I think that would be a really interesting challenge to work with someone who has done and seen every style of improv ever.

I guess those two would be my top choices.

Post-Interview: Gonzalez also cited Lucille Ball as a major influence and someone he would love to perform with.
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