BWW Interview: Director Karen Maruyama Shares Her Secrets in Guiding GROUNDLINGS SKIS HAUS
The Groundlings' latest Friday/Saturday show GROUNDLINGS SKIS HAUS (opening December 6, 2019) will be helmed by Groundlings alumnae Karen Maruyama, who joined The Groundlings sometime in the 20th century. The ageless Karen had performed in innumerable sketches before earning her alumnae status. Aside from directing countless Groundlings shows (and its spin-off THE BLACK VERSION), Karen teaches all levels of The Groundlings Theatre & School, and at workshops in various Los Angeles venues. Karen most graciously managed to squeeze in some time to answer some of my grounded questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Karen!
GROUNDLINGS SKIS HAUS will be the next Groundlings show you've directing. How many have you directed? Or have you lost count?
I have literally lost count! I've directed main shows in the double digits and just as many Sunday shows. I have also been directing the acclaimed improv show, THE BLACK VERSION for almost ten years now!
In a scripted play, the director usually sees the script before casting. Since The Groundlings troupe also write their own sketches, you must choose which sketches to include after your show is cast, right?
Yes. We meet and the cast pitch all their scene ideas to me. Notes are given, and I then I must choose which sketches are in the show.
From all the hilarious Groundlings shows I've seen, I've noticed the show's title usually doesn't describe or relate to the theme of the show (except your holiday shows). What criteria helps you whittle down all the creative ideas from your cast?
My criteria is interesting, unique characters. Ideas that highlight the performer's point of view, while making sure there aren't scenes that are similar in idea like elves in a mall. Obviously, the holiday theme is the through line, but the characters and situations will be different. Ultimately and hopefully, the funniest sketches are in the show.
In your unscripted improv sections, do you, as the director, come up with the topics in real time as you read the audience there? Or are the improv topics set before the show?
There is always an idea of an improv in place, but that can always change in real time to cater to an audience.
I've seen quite a number of the improvs that I wished would continue on. Is there a standard time limit for these improv sets? Or do you like to end them with the notion "always make the audience wanting more"?
There isn't a set time requirement, although we are cognizant of length as we do two shows a night. I go by feel - if we address the suggestion and have some funny moments or the scene naturally comes full circle, I'll call blackout. And yes, always leave the audience wanting more!
I can still remember laughing hysterically at a sketch of a modern-day Jesus and Mary in bed from the 2017 HOLIDAY SHOW. Do you ever reprise skits?
Yes, depending on cast. If that particular Groundling was doing the show this year, yes.
Do you have a favorite skit in your Groundlings performing history?
Yes, there were a few. "Night Before Trial," where I am a Chinese woman driving her attorney crazy trying to prep her for trial. And "Serious Actor," where I play Jackie Chan wanting to do serious drama, but want to put fighting scenes in it.
In this age of PC policing, is there any topics taboo to parody?
I think we have to be very mindful of not offending anyone. I know comedy is satire and everything is fair game, but that can sometimes be used as an excuse. If there is even a remote chance of offending any group, I steer clear. As a woman of color, I am sensitive to sexual situations being demeaning, or stereotypes based solely on race.
You've been on both the American and British versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway? How would you delineate American humor from British humor?
Interesting question - I love both. Both were fun to do. The British vernacular may be different, but truly both are about making strong character choices and being earnest with your reactions.
You've also done a few game shows, I see. I, myself, was on Wheel of Fortune and The Dating Game decades ago. Do you remember how much you won on The New $25,000 Pyramid and Body Language?
Argh, how did you find that?!!! I know I won a round, but don't think I won the Pyramid. I won a round, but lost on Body Language. Brutal at the time.
Bring us back to your first audition for The Groundlings? What year was that? Who'd you audition for? Did you have an audition piece prepped? Or did you have to improvise on the spot?
The audition was all improv, just like they are now; so no prep needed. I was auditioned by Mindy Sterling and Hilary Stern. I honestly don't remember the year - plus why give you the opportunity to "do the math"? (Insert wink emoji here.)
At what point did you want to direct?
After I started teaching the upper writing levels in the school, I really wanted to direct. I really loved it. The process is so rewarding and fun. You get to work to make things better and when you see your contributions get laughs, it's the best.
Along with performing and directing, you also teach at The Groundlings, American Film Institute and a number of theme parks. How would you compare and contrast your approach to teaching and directing? More similar than disparate? Would you use the same mind set to teach as you do directing?
I would say more similar in some ways. My mindset is always to help the actor, help the material, help the production. The focus is different in a class rather than a set, but improv has helped me be a better actor, writer, director, and communicator.
What is your advice to anxious newbies wanting to try out for The Groundlings?
I would say to do it with an open mind and willingness to learn. Take your notes and feedback in the spirit that they are given - to be constructive. Don't be result-driven, and trust the objective eyes that are watching you. Put your ego aside.
What the craziest audience response you've experienced in a Groundlings show?
I never tire of the resounding, unanimous standing ovation.
What's next on the plate of Karen Maruyama?
Like any actor/director in this town, to continue working. I am currently recurring on Tacoma FD on truTV, guested on Bosch, going to the SF Sketchfest and Kennedy Center with THE BLACK VERSION.
Thank you again, Karen! I look forward to laughing a lot at GROUNDLINGS SKIS HAUS.
For ticket availability for GROUNDLINGS SKIS HAUS Fridays and Saturdays through December 21, 2019; log onto www.groundlings.com