BWW Interview: Groundlings' Deanna Oliver Ever Poised to Referee, er, Direct GROUNDLINGS BAR FIGHT
The Groundlings' latest Friday/Saturday night show GROUNDLINGS BAR FIGHT opens Valentine's February 14, 2020. Deanna Oliver, will be oh, so lovingly corralling and directing a talented troupe of eleven Groundlings as they tickle our funny bones with their fresh and funny BAR FIGHT sketches. A Groundlings alumni of 40+ years, Deanna managed to take some time out from rehearsals and teaching at The Groundlings School to answer a few of my quizzical queries.
Thank you for taking time out for this interview, Deanna!
You're currently a Groundlings alumna, teaching at the school and directing a number of the main stage shows. When and what was your initial introduction to The Groundlings?
Back in the late 70s, I was in Groundlings alum Bill Steinkellner's improv workshop and an original member of Bill's improv group, Instaplay (improvising full length musicals at the Cast Theater). Fellow Instaplayers George McGrath and Jonathan Stark were in The Groundlings and suggested I see a show, which I did and I was blown away! In those days, it was easier to become a Groundling - I took an advanced improv class with Artistic Director Tom Maxwell, and then after a short stint in the Sunday Company (under Tracy Newman's direction), I was moved into the Main Company.
What major changes have you seen The Groundlings go through in your performing and directing tenure at The Groundlings?
The Groundlings has grown in administration, the school, and the depth and breadth of the shows done here. There have also been major advances in tech - we used to have to roll a TV out onto the stage if we wanted to show a video, whereas now it can be projected. We didn't have wireless headset microphones and we did not have stage managers - we had to move chairs and cubes around in the dark ourselves to set up the next scene! But what remains the same and true forever is the incredible talent of tThe Groundlings - improvising, acting, writing, teaching and directing.
I've seen some crazy, out there skits at The Groundlings. Any subjects taboo? Would you say the rules of comedy today have changed from that of the 1980s?
We always try to be sensitive to certain subjects, such as cancer, and are definitely more inclusive and diverse than in the old days.
After seeing a number of Groundlings shows, I realized the titles of the shows have nothing to do with the themes of the shows (except for the holiday shows). Is there a method to your madness in coming up with the show titles?
Ha, no method to that madness! We used to do opening numbers inspired by the title of the show (NIGHT OF THE LIVING GROUNDLINGS, 976- GROUNDLINGS, GROUNDLINGS DU MOULIN ROUGE), but we stopped when we realized no one really cared whether the show and the title themes matched.
What's your criteria in picking out your cast and sketches for your shows?
I don't pick the cast - the cast is whoever wants to do the show. Groundlings pitch scenes they want to do and the scenes that are funny, character driven and relatable are tried out for audiences during previews. The best scenes make it to opening night.
In the many, many Groundlings shows I've seen and laughed at some of the most hilarious moments are when the performers break character á la Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. As a director, do you encourage breaking of character? As a teacher, is how to react to breaking of character a technique that you teach?
I don't encourage or teach "breaking," but if it happens organically, coming from a place of true delight, it's okay. It's not okay when it's the only way an actor can get a laugh.
What piece of advice do you adhere to fervently to this day that someone gave you when you first embarked on your performing career?
Be real, be honest, play with joy and love.
What is the one idea that you stress in your Groundlings classes?
For improv, I stress to "do what the scene requires." In other words, not to plan, to go with the suggestion, to be real, honest and in the moment. For writing, I stress character first (a character grounded in reality) what that character wants and the beats of a scene are how the character comically tries to get what they want.
With so many Groundlings alumni on national commercials, would you concur that The Groundlings improv training is an incredible tool to have in auditioning for commercials?
Do you have a favorite Groundlings skit of all times?
I love all of them!
Do you ever miss performing on The Groundlings stage? Or are directing and writing enough outlets for your creative juices?
Directing and writing are enough for me, although six times a year we get together to perform the above-mentioned Instaplay!
What was the most outrageous audience response that you experienced?
Back in the 90s when I was directing shows, The Groundlings received a letter from a season ticket holder telling me to stop pushing the "gay agenda," and if I didn't, they would stop coming to shows. The letter cited Patrick Bristow playing "Elizabeth the Queen," a hilarious piece, and a musical we were doing at the time, a spoof of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, HMS HETERO, written by Michael Hitchcock and Jim Wise. It was about the (at that time new) "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The letter was a bit shocking, since I don't write the material and I don't push agendas - I just put up scenes that are funny. But from that day on I decided I would push hard on that gay agenda, once I figured out what it was.
Thank you again, Deanna! I look forward to laughing a lot at your BAR FIGHT!
For Friday/Saturday ticket availability through April 18, 2020; log onto www.groundlings.com