BIG welcomes a legend to Baltimore this Saturday night...Laura Hall, improvisational pianist of 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' fame. And we're thrilled to be performing our first ever musical improv set with her, along with her husband, improviser Rick Hall. In preparation for this epic event, BIG house journalist Clare Lochary sat down to ask her a few questions.
What will the workshop be like?
It really is a combining of music and improv. It’s good to have some background in both, but you won’t necessarily need it. We’ve done workshops where people come in and say, “I’m a singer and never done improv in my life.” If they have an open mind, they have really great success. Also happens the other way around: “I’m an improver, but music scares the crap out of me.” Even some really great improvisers, that is the case. “I’ll do long form, short form, anything, anywhere, but I won’t sing.”
It can be intimidating. This is really a way to help people feel comfortable doing it, and to use their improv skills that they already have to do the song games and stuff. We do tons of exercises and games, and it’s not really presentational. We never do anything like the Hoedown. It’s much more scenic and character driven. For improvers, it’s a real natural extension of what you already know.
My husband Rick, he’s doing the workshop with me. Rick and I met at Second City, and we were in the touring company together, and we do these workshops together. That’s part of our success -- he’s coming from the actor side and I'm coming from the music side. We each have a different perspective that we bring.
What kind of music do you use for karaoke improv?
It’s a combo of these karaoke tracks that are original tracks in different styles, and Rick and I will be calling it. It’s like an open mic -- people sign up, and we’ll call people up off the list and we bring people up in groups. It won’t be solos, which takes a lot of the pressure off. We’ll get a style of music, and a suggestion from the audience, and then they’ll go. We’ll combine it with some other song games, things like Directed song, which is like Directed Story, but a song. We’re going to intersperse those. I’ll be playing live for some games, and for some we’ll use the karaoke tracks. It’s all based on audience suggestions. It will be fun.
What came first for you -- music or comedy?
Definitely the music. I was living in Chicago, and I was going to be a musician. I was playing in bands, being a singer-songwriter. And I got a waitress job at Second City. I knew of Second City growing up, but it was never on my radar as something I’d be doing. But I got demoted from the waitress job, and hired into the touring company as a piano player.
I didn’t go, “I want to be an improv musician.” But once I started being around the world of improv, which was so accidental, I went, "This is really cool." And the guy who was the musician at Second City -- Fred Kaz -- he basically invented musical improv in the late 50's at Second City, and I was able to do an ongoing study of it. I had this great opportunity to study under the master, and I got totally hooked in.
What is your background as a musician?
I sing, and write, and produce. I play guitar, and ukelele, and accordion. But piano’s definitely my first instrument, which I started as a kid, and studied in college. I still do a wide variety of things. I have a band. I’ve done some movie scoring. I’m producing a singer-songwriter’s first CD, which is very exciting. I do a little bit of a lot of things. I do improv, I tour with my band, and I do these workshops.
How do music and comedy compliment each other?
For one thing, when music shows up in an improv show, it always raises the energy and the excitement of the audience, which is a really cool function that it has. It brings another level to it. Doing song improv in the context of a show, it really is a very natural extension of the other kinds of improv that you do. You can do song games that are really scenic. People who do long form and Harolds and stuff stick music games inside scenes. And if you do short form, it’s great to have a couple music games in there to boost the energy. Just try it! To me, it’s a completely natural extension of any kind of improv work that we do.
What is your favorite short-form musical improv game?
I love 'Three-Headed Singer.' It’s one of my favorite things of all time. What’s so great about it is you can’t think ahead. You have to really be in the moment, and listen to other people. Really, that’s the only way to screw that thing up -- to think ahead. People think it’s really tricky, and it’s actually one of the easiest song games. You just have to get out of yourself. I like that.
I really like 'Sing It.' I like it when you really play it, when the songs really are in the scene. Sometimes people stop the scene and do a song. But I love it when it’s really in the scene and really, really incorporated into what’s going on. When it’s played well, 'Sing It' is one of my favorite games of all. It’s like when you do a Harold, and put songs in there -- they’re part of the whole storytelling. On 'Whose Line,' so much of the music is so presentational. It’s the nature of that show, and I’ll be 100% honest, that’s not my very favorite. I like the games that are more scenic.
So what’s your least favorite musical improv game?
Hoedown. It’s such a restricted form. People come to the workshop and say, “I want to do a Hoedown,” and it’s really hard and it’s so joke-based. That’s one of the things we talk about a lot with people -- musical improv isn’t about rhyming. It’s about telling a story. A good song is the same thing. If we care what happens to your character next, that’s what counts. Rhyming is like the last thing in the world, and people get so hung up on rhyming, they can’t think about story.
Hoedown is really hard, and you have to be really good at jokes. The guys on 'Whose Line' are very good at jokes. Wayne Brady and Chip Esten -- they have these little computer brains. I’ve talked to them about their process. When a suggestion comes up, their little brains go “Tick, tick, tick” and they’ve got six rhymes immediately. Most mortals, that’s not how our brains work. If we try to work that way, we’ll get snagged on the rhymes. But people can sing in a show, and do a really good job without doing that.
Who are musicians who inspire you?
I’m a huge fan of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. When I look at my list of favorites, it tends to be strong women who are singer-songwriters. Big Emmylou Harris fan, and I’m totally enamored of this new singer Lissie. One of my students told me about her, and I’ve become enamored of her, and I’m on a bit of a Lissie bender. I tend towards country acoustic. I like the Avett Brothers. Another one I really listen to is Dusty Springfield. So I’m all over the map.
Who are comedians who inspire you?
Certainly there have been other improv musicians that I’ve learned a lot from, because we’re a rare breed. We’re a niche within the niche. Fred Kaz, Faith Soloway, and Michael Pollock. Lisa McQueen. It’s like we have to learn from each other because there’s no other real way to learn it other than listen to other people do it. I’m a Colin Mochrie and a Greg Proops fan. I adore them, and Greg does stand up too, and he’s so smart and brilliant. And there’s a show here (in Los Angeles) that I love and admire, which is called Opening Night. Fully improvised musical. It’s an hour-long musical based on a single suggestion. I think they’re just brilliant. And in Austin, Girls Girls Girls, which is the same thing but all girls. I’ve gotten to play with both groups. I’m so impressed with their ability to unpack a long story and follow the arc of the story. Long form stuff just floats my boat.
Who’s a musician that you’d like to try doing musical improv with?
Al Stewart, a Scottish musician best known for “Year of the Cat.” I met him and hung out with him. (My friend is in his band.) He writes these really complex and interesting lyrics. He has an interesting vocabulary. All of his songs have an interesting take on the subject, and that’s half the battle of musical improv – having a point of view. Everything else unfolds naturally. I would pick him.
Who’s a comedian that you’d like to try doing musical improv with?
I had the chance, one time, to improvise with Robin Williams on stage. It was an awards show, but he knew I was from 'Whose Line.' So we were doing this awards show, and he turned around and said, “Hey let’s do a gospel thing!” They didn’t have his microphone in my monitor, so I couldn’t hear him at all once he turned around. I was trying to follow him by watching his back, and how he was moving and breathing, because I couldn’t hear him -- which was the scariest thing ever. But apparently it went well, because we got applause, and he said, “That was so fun.” He’s someone I’d like to work with again, and really be able to hear him. His sensibility would be really fun.
Tell me about the reboot of 'Whose Line' that’s coming out soon.
We just got picked up by the CW. We start taping in April, and we’ll be airing in June. We’ve got some new people, and a new host, Aisha Tyler. Trying to ‘young’ it up for the CW. The fourth chair (i.e., the guest who improvises with the three regular players) will be someone new, and they’re really trying to bring in some young new improvisers which I think is great. It’s giving some new people an opportunity. It also changes the playing field. Linda Taylor and I will be doing the music.
We’re filming in Los Angeles. It’s the world’s cheapest show to shoot. During our first run, we were at the world’s cheapest studio, where they also do cheap Mexican game shows and Mexican soap operas. Doing a sitcom, you work all week, and get one episode at the end. We work a three-day weekend, and get six episodes. It’s a no-brainer. We’re the best deal in town. The CW is hoping to draw some new people to the network, and I think it will. I think the young audiences will like it, and other people will follow the show to the network.
See Laura and Rick perform with BIG: Saturday, March 23rd, 8pm - $20 general, $15 CA members and students
The Creative Alliance - 3134 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD.