Q&A: Sarah Houghton and Improv Around the World
When Sarah Houghton started the WIT curriculum in 2015, she had already been doing improv on stages around the world. A cast member of Fran and Citizens’ Watch, Sarah talked to WIT about Harold Night, the challenges involved with performing dramatic improv, and her favorite improv moments in DC, Europe, and beyond.
What originally brought you to improv?
I was a theater kid. I grew up doing community theatre, high school musicals, college drama and voice performance. I have a BA in Theatre from York College of Pennsylvania. Our department would put on short-form improv games and sketch comedy shows under the guise of ‘Student One Act Plays’. Those performances taught us a lot about being present and listening within a scene. They were also a fun break from Chekhov and Shakespeare. Actually, my cohort was notorious for changing the lines or scene blocking of plays during live performances just to mess with other actors; we loved the rush of ‘anything could happen right now’ on stage. Or we were jerks. Probably both.
And then I found improv. Not sketch. Not lazy line memorization. Not short-form games. But longform improvisation. The first time I saw a UCB show in New York, I couldn’t sleep.
What is one way that improv has changed your life?
Improv has a way of making all the stuff you don’t like about yourself rise to the surface. I’m stubborn. I’m controlling. I’m anxious. I’m competitive. I’m jealous. I’m cynical. And then after it’s done holding up a mirror to all of your flaws, it teaches you to be kind to yourself and love yourself, warts and all.
Unlike writing or stand up or acting, improv has to be communal. It requires you to be around other people, rely on other people, trust other people. For many years, these other people were often complete strangers whose language I didn’t speak. Doing improv has been an outlet for me to laugh at myself, to be vulnerable in groups, to be inspired by someone else’s idea, and to believe in my choices. I’m really thankful for that.
You’ve done improv all over the world — from Washington DC to Poland, and even Korea. How did you get involved with exploring improv on a global level?
In addition to theatre, I studied linguistics and education, so I worked as a language coach and learning consultant for various agencies and international companies in East Asia and Central Europe. A lot of international cities have thriving expat communities full of performers, so I stayed connected to these local communities by performing in community theater, acting in student films, doing voiceovers, and doing stand-up and bar-prov whenever I could find it.
It wasn’t until I got to Poland that I was welcomed into an established longform improv community; Klub Komediowy Szkoła Impro in Warsaw houses talented Polish improvisers who regularly visit the states for training and festivals in Chicago and New York. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to show me the ropes. It was through those friendships that I felt confident enough to apply for the Finland International Improv Festival (FiiF), where I then got to learn from and play with improvisers from Finland, Estonia, UK, Italy, Greece, and France, among others. What a dream come true. Quick shout out to plug my friends’ festivals: @WarsawImprovFestival, @FinlandImprovFestival, @BarcelonaImprovFestival, @MountOlymprov
How does performing improv in other countries compare to performing in the US? Did you ever find yourself having to change your comedic style?
When everyone on stage speaks English as a foreign language, it can naturally elicit more physicality in your characters and more clarity with your gifts. Moves tend to become more focused and intentional. The world slows down a little bit. All of this sets you up for great scenes.
When I came back to America and took my first class at WIT, I remember being in a scene and looking out at my L2 teacher, Jonathan Murphy, with panic on my face. Everyone was talking so much and so fast; It was like conversational ping pong, and I couldn’t keep up. I had some reallllll improv culture-shock goin’ on. I thought that if I couldn’t be as fast as everyone around me or fully understand the pop culture reference within a scene, then that meant I couldn’t be a good improviser. Of course this isn’t true.
Everyone has a unique comedic style and you don’t have to change that when you perform in new locations, but I think this does relate to some of our conversations about diversity in improv. No matter our differences, whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, language, disability, religion, socioeconomic status, or sports team allegiance, we’re all human. And as humans we tend to connect through empathy and body language; emotions and physicality can be universally understood. This is really helpful to keep in mind when you are playing for an international crowd. Having more diversity on our stages can push improvisers to rely more on those skills and less on topical references or easy puns. Creating a balance makes a performance relatable to everyone in the room rather than just those who are ‘similar’ to you.
As a cast member of both Fran and Citizens’ Watch, how do you adapt your approach to improv when performing in casts that utilize such different formats?
Fran gets on stage every week in a mad attempt to slay the beast known as Harold. We haven’t mounted his head on a wall yet, but he knows to get his armor out on Tuesday nights for a crazy throwdown. We’re like brothers-in-arms making our way through battle with three deadly weapons we get sharpened by blacksmith John Carroll: game, pattern, and connection. Fran’s a smart and gutsy bunch. Beware.
Because the Harold can be so mathematical, doing a narrative format for Citizens’ Watch is a nice break. Living in one world as one character for one hour is easy-breezy playtime. Just kidding. There is a lot of hard work put into this format as it also requires strong character choices, disciplined patience, and careful listening. Every detail in every scene slowly reveals more and more about your world, so you have to maintain a strong character POV while still staying flexible as the story unfolds.
Citizens’ Watch was a unique show in that it was largely dramatic. What was the most challenging part of the show
Killing someone. When you are chosen as the killer for this show, you have no idea how the murder will happen or what it will feel like to carry it out. It’s very different than a death scene that has been scripted, rehearsed, and discussed with a director. In an improvised murder you are relying on your own judgement and problem solving as an improviser before it can then be filtered through the lens of your character. All of that can really shake you up after a show because you just spent an hour empathizing with the rationale of a killer who murdered someone close to them.
And if you’re not the killer or the victim on show night, you have the burden of watching someone die. Everyone is at the edge of their seats during each flashback because we know the victim’s fate. The death scene each night is sad. And terrifying. And, as our audience has pointed out, sometimes hilarious. Nothing brings on laughter like sadness, tension, fear, surprise, and relief shared in a communal space.
Sending out kudos to Michael Hendrix, Dan Miller, and Mark Chalfant for putting together such a unique show. And sending out a bag of burned mice and dead pigeons for the cast and crew. You’re welcome.
Do you have any favorite moments in class or onstage?
I met my indie duo [Dreamspooners] partner Erin Murray when we were in L2, and we would religiously attend Harold night and jams. When you’re a student, every scene and opportunity to perform feels so precious. There was one scene during a Tuesday night jam that stuck with us for a long time. Erin and I were on stage and she unintentionally pronounced the word ‘vermin’ as ‘varmint’. This was apparently hilarious at the time, and was followed by a string of tag-runs by Adam Koussari-Amin, Katie Ozog, Dan Milliken, and Sam Bonar, which then came back full circle to Erin’s character. We laughed about it for weeks. We learned that it doesn’t matter how many classes you take, until you feel what it’s like for your mistake to turn into a gift, you’ll never really get it.
Interview by Julia Capizzi.