Someone like Keith Curtis is rare. He’s been performing and coaching for almost two decades, and yet, even with all that experience and knowledge, he is the type of guy who will check out a Level 1 improv class for fresh perspective (which he is currently doing at ISKC). He’s shared the stage with legends like Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis, but also will do sets with students currently on their first round of classes. From his early short form days, to his years hosting Underground Throwdown, to his current gig as the host of our monthly Cagematch, Keith has always cared about the community more than himself, helping facilitate growth and development.
Bobby was fortunate enough to have a conversation with him to hear his thoughts on the current KC improv scene, his pre-show musical choices, as well as some lessons he’s learned from his past, and his hopes for the future. So, without any further adieu, here is our interview with Keith Curtis!
What is a skill you have that a lot of your friends would be surprised to learn about?
I’m really good at roller-skating, which makes me think of the movie Airborne. Seth Green is in it with some of the best/worst long red hair ever. It’s a horrible movie – and here’s the plot: California surfer kid has to go to cold Cincinnati, the hockey players don’t like him until they learn he can skate. He helps them win a race down the Devil’s Backbone and he earns their trust and friendship. Ok, I change my skill to random movie knowledge.
Is there any event of person that made you fall in love with improv? Not just what got you into improv, but what made it a passion for you?
2005 Dallas Comedy Festival. I saw The Reckoning perform the best Harold I have ever seen still to this day. Michael Patrick O’Brien’s moves were brilliant. He played a woman without any stereotypes or sexism. His object work helped me see not only the space but also helped his partners know what to do in the space. It made me realize that improv was an art form and not just fun games.
You do a great job of playing realistic female characters, but without ever coming across as a stereotype or negative. Do you have any tips on how to play feminine and not cross that line from character to caricature?
Not long ago, the wonderful Trish Berrong gave me a note that she was tired of seeing men play women. Now, I may be taking that out of context and not repeating it perfectly, but it stuck with me. I didn’t take it to mean that I should never play a female character again, but it made me want to stop playing an idea of what a female character should be. Instead, I challenge myself to imitate the women I interact with on a daily basis. I immediately stopped playing stereotypes and found myself playing strong, grounded female characters. It’s easy to play something just to get a joke. But, it’s more rewarding to me to play someone grounded in reality.
Over the years, is there anything that made you hate improv? Or just need a break from it?
I’ve never hated improv, just Jen Roser. I definitely feel like I get in ruts or keep doing the same thing in my improv scenes and when that happens, I try to take a break for a month or two or challenge myself to try something I’ve never really tapped into to make scenes fun again.
Without any sort of self-criticism, what do you think defines you as an improviser? If someone saw you at a show, and loved your performance, what about it would you think stood out to them?
One of my personal challenges is to be able to play with anyone (from someone that has more experience in improv to someone who has taken one class). I never want to think that I have to gel with or know someone just to improvise. I think any two people can find a scene as long as they are doing one of the most important things to me in improv, which is listening – but not just to the words that someone is saying. Instead, focusing on everything that person is showing or telling onstage.
Can you think of a time that you were tripped up in a show and didn’t know how to handle it? Or a time when something surprised you in a way you could never expect?
In the last Thunderdome, there was a draft for teams, which is very exciting for me because I do love playing with different people. That night I got the chance to play with two newer improvisers, and one thought it would be funny to keep saying a funny word in every scene. I think it was teenie-tini in reference to a small martini. It got a laugh from the audience in the first scene and maybe even the second. But by the fourth or fifth scene I think I broke character onstage, turned into an internal scene director and said out loud “You have to drop this!” I felt bad about it right away. It didn’t hurt our show at all but I definitely felt like I could’ve handled it better.
As much as we are all very entrenched in the improv world, and as big as improv is in a lot of cities, it still feels like an art form that a lot of people don’t know much about. Why do you think this is?
Improv has come a long way since I started. I think that more people are searching it out as a way to help them be more outgoing. I think more people also see it as a way to find their career path. All you have to do is see how fast the classes sell out in major cities to see how popular it is. But live improv will never be mainstream popular the way we would like as performers. I don’t think we ostracize the audiences like we used to a long time ago. Almost anyone could get onstage with any level of experience and they weren’t always the best shows. It seems that most producers in KC always try to put up the best groups or individuals in town, which is definitely drawing audience. I think you get in return what you put out in your performance/shows.
Who is an improviser in the KC community that you haven’t gotten the chance to work with much, but would love to play with more?
John Adams. I was lucky to teach John in a level 1 class I think maybe 5 years ago. It’s amazing to see him play now because he is such a well-rounded performer. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is on outstanding teams! But, I don’t think I have had the pleasure of doing even one scene with him. I think it would be a true joy to play with John.
What’s your pre-show ritual?
I love listening to music in the car that puts me in a good mood. Backstage I love sitting and talking with the people. Always helps me bond with someone right before we play.
What are some of your go to songs before an improv show?
Oh boy! There are so many different songs depending on my day, but one that I go to a lot is a song by Bloc Party called The Prayer. I am not a religious person at all, but I guess this song is like a prayer to some improv God up there. Some of the lyrics skew more toward someone who wants to be the best and outshine others but I clearly don’t follow that mode of thinking in my improv shows. The music is uplifting to me but the lyric that I love and is almost my mantra is this:
Tonight make me unstoppable
I will charm, I will slice,
I will dazzle them with my wit.
I don’t want to get to deep into this, but I know for a fact, that I got into improv because it was the one thing that made me feel cool. Cool among my peers, cool with the paying audience, and cool with friends and family. This may come as a shock to many people but I am a nerd. So deep down, what I really want is to shine and be cool. Now I have rambled about music Bobby… is this what you wanted? IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED!?!?
I feel like when we’re first learning improv, we tend to lean into our strengths, but as we keep going, we start to work on the things that are more challenging to us. Is there something you find yourself working on more nowadays that you used to not focus on as much? How has it helped or hindered your play?
I’ve been focusing on my duo skills for over 6 years and even though I have played multiple characters in scenes, I still find it challenging – especially trying to continue the story and not just playing the characters for a gimmick. It has definitely helped with my focus and listening skills. The audience may enjoy it but I don’t like when I miss a physical character trait or even which way the door opens.
If you had a Kirby-like ability to suck someone up, and absorb their skill set, what improviser’s powers would you absorb (KC or globally)?
I was incredibly lucky to play with Lauren Pritchard during the festival. Her energy never took focus away from the show. She has an amazing ability to play in the moment and bring everything back, but not so much that it gets dull. I wish I could suck up her energy, experience, and her ability to store and recall every tiny detail in the show.
For improvisers who are in that 1-2 year part of their journey, where they have taken a good amount of classes, but are wondering, “what’s next?”, what advice would you give to them?
Keep following like-minded people in your classes or in shows that you watch. Write down names of people you want to play with. Get to know them. Become friends with them. Create your own group. Get a coach. Rehearse as much as possible. Book shows after your coach says it’s time. Perform in town. Perform out of town. Perform! Don’t be afraid to ask someone to leave a group or leave on your own if it isn’t fun. Make sure to do other interests besides improv. Continue to learn and grow. Challenge yourself. Become an improv teacher. Help someone else start the Lion King circle of improv life.
What do you want to see more of in the Kansas City improv community in 2019?
Diversity on stage and in leadership/management roles. Also, monthly or bi-monthly improv hangouts outside of venues/bars.