Is This Real Life (Or Is It Just Fantasy?)
A Conversation with Taylor Overstreet, Improviser
Location: A red velvet sofa in Austin, Texas.
Supplies: Two cups of coffee, an iPhone, two mostly Siamese cats, and one Festivus pole. I am here today with Taylor Overstreet, one of the members of There’s Waldo! – a fantastic sketch troupe out of The Institution Theater in Austin, Texas.
Roanna: Taylor, how are you?
Taylor: I’m doing great!
Roanna: Is This Real Life (Or Is It a Fantasy) will be a series of conversations between creative people, whether they’re creative in the arts or in business (or just in conversation), about inspiration and what it means to be a creative person. We tend to keep the process stuff to ourselves. We think about it, but don’t really share it, or at least not that frequently. So thank you for joining me in this! What was the first thing you can remember creating or performing where you went “Oh! I want to do this!” It can be a super early memory, or it can be something that happened last week.
Taylor: It is a super early memory for me. I danced for several years as a child, and during one of my recitals, I was doing a twirling routine to a song called “I Want to Bop with You, Baby.” I was probably 5 or 6. And the dance studio I was attending didn’t have a lot of money so one year we would order costumes and the next we just did something easy and homemade. This was a homemade year, so we were dancing in just black leotards and blue jeans rolled up to our knees. At one point during the recital, probably about a third of the way in, I completely stopped twirling, went to the center of the stage and used my baton as a microphone and belted out the words of the song for the rest of the song and…never recommenced twirling. And what I remember most about that is, when my whole family got together to watch the videotape afterwards, I could hear people laughing in the venue and then my family around me laughing. I started crying and ran out of the room because I wasn’t trying to make people laugh. I was just doing what came naturally to me, and I didn’t understand why they were amused by it. But I just, that’s what I wanted to do at the time. To me the routine was irrelevant at that point. I just thought: I need to give this to the world right now. I guess that’s my earliest performing memory.
Roanna: And in a way, it’s what I see you do whenever I see you perform. You know how to go to the center of the stage, take the light and do what you do. That is still there. To me, it’s really interesting to hear about a person’s first creative memory because I think that stays true. What was it about that moment or singing and dancing that really grabbed you and still grabs you?
Taylor: It just feels really good. That sounds really simplified. But that’s what I love so much about improv. You can take a moment that means something completely different to your scene partner and make it your own. And I think for me what grabbed me was just doing something differently. I didn’t want to be twirling with twelve other girls who looked just like me. I love that I grew up in a family that encouraged me to be myself. Following that instinct onstage when I was 5 was exciting for me. I hope I’ve retained that! I think you have.
Roanna: The one thing I’ve heard about you in the improv community is that you seem to be a natural. To a certain point I think anybody can be taught to do anything. But there are some people who just do.
Taylor: And you’ve probably gotten this question as well: aren’t you nervous? How do you get up there when you have no idea what’s going to happen? And my response is the same every time: it sounds counterintuitive, but it is so freeing to get up there and not know what’s going to happen. I still love sketch and I think we’ve written some beautiful things… Some beautifully twisted things… Yes! I love it! And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But there’s something really special about the unknown. Even within sketch, we have that. Even when we write something, we’re always trying to surprise each other on stage by finding new things to throw in, even if it’s just to try to make each other break because, let’s be honest, that’s always fun.
Roanna: My answer to that question is: but that’s every day! You never know what’s going to happen to you every day. There’s no real difference between walking out the door, getting in your car and getting on stage in improv. It is freeing. It’s also freeing to know you can’t break it.
Taylor: Try as we might.
Roanna: And I do a pretty damn good job at that, personally, of trying to break it. There’s a tremendous relief in knowing you can’t and that other people aren’t going to let you. That’s the one thing to me that attracts me to improv over stand-up.
Taylor: People that are reading this: you should know that I’m nodding enthusiastically. I forget that you can’t see that.
Roanna: Eventually these will be moving pictures, talkies, and you can totally see her nodding.
Taylor: Yeah, I’m with you. That’s what my head is saying.
Roanna: The earnest look, the knit cap…
Taylor: You should all know I am wearing an adorable pink knit cap today.
Roanna: What is your go-to for inspiration? I know it’s a broad question but some people have pretty specific go-to’s.
Taylor: Honestly, my fellow Waldos are probably my biggest source of inspiration currently because they are just so funny, even just sitting around having conversations – I am perpetually amused and delighted. Stuff will just come out of our conversations that I’m like, “I gotta write about that. I’m turning that into something.” I was actually having a conversation with Tyler Reece Booker (look him up if you don’t know him, he’s brilliant) yesterday and he said, “Oh, c’mon, that’s just like somebody dropping a Hershey’s guilt kiss on you.” And I had to stop and ask, “Hold up. Did you just make that up on the spot right there?” And he said, “…Yeah, I did.” And I wrote it down. I can’t not use that! I think – and this is a big broad answer to your big broad question – I’m inspired by the people around me. I don’t go to a specific TV show or artist or anything like that. The people around me give me plenty of material. And silly things, like Dr. Pepper 10 or Kim Jong-il’s wardrobe. Also, my grandmother…
Roanna: Oh, Mema!
Roanna: Mema needs her own show…
Taylor: Mema does need her own show. For those who don’t know, Mema is Laurabelle Blackwell from Lafayette, Louisiana. She’s a trip…I have probably disappointed her in how little of her material – well, she doesn’t know it’s material – that I’ve actually brought to the stage because there is so much. She is a gold mine.
Roanna: Even with that inspiration, do you experience creative blocks? If so, how to you move past them?
Taylor: Oh yeah. I wanted to take a sketch writing class for almost a year. I would sit and try to write sketches before I even started the class, and I would stare at my computer screen. It’s like I couldn’t think of anything because I was thinking so damn hard. I still have a tendency to do that sometimes. Tom Booker gave us good advice in class: when you don’t know what choice to make, make the worst choice possible. And that has served me well, both on stage and when I’m writing. And I think what I do to move past it is I just get it out there. I’ve over time become less afraid of what the end product is going to be. Just get it out there. The process is about the rewriting not about the writing. I need to just vomit everything onto the page and then just work through it. It’s not going to be brilliant the first time out or even the fifth time out. Just pressing on, keep persevering. Maybe I need that little cat poster that says, “Hang in there,” when I’m writing.
Roanna: I think perfection is something that every creative person deals with – and it even speaks to that wonderful piece about the creative process by Ira Glass (NPR). Artists, or people who tend to be creative, have good taste. When you imagine this thing in your head that you want to do, and when you first start doing it, it doesn’t look anything like what you envisioned. And a lot of people stop there. I certainly have off and on. But learning how to just do it and not worry about it and do more and not less and don’t try to make it perfect – just make it.
Taylor: Perfection’s not much fun.
Roanna: It’s not fun at all! It’s incredibly inhibiting.
Roanna: It’s anti-creativity. It’s not even being creatively analytic. It’s just a road block. And I think writers suffer that – maybe musicians, but certainly writers I know suffer from that particular creative affliction. Many feel that they need to be Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling or whatever it is they think it needs to be and it doesn’t need to be any of that. It just needs to be.
Taylor: One thing I really like about the stuff that I’ve written is I think if I had just handed it to somebody and they looked at it they would never guess I wrote it. I like that. There are some elements of me in it obviously, but I have cranked out some really weird stuff that I am so amused by and I wish these people were in my life. I want to write these characters into my daily life, even if they freak me out and make me uncomfortable. I want to spend some time with that person and find out what they think about things.
Roanna: You know how you do that? You go all Blackstreet Production.
Taylor: No diggity. Get ready.
Roanna: Just pretend you’re Eddie Murphy in the 80s.
Roanna: Do you find that your experiences in improv and sketch, in particular, have changed the way you look at your surroundings?
Taylor: 100%. The biggest thing is I feel like I’m subconsciously trolling for material. There have been so many times since I joined this community, almost two years ago, where someone said something and I say to myself “I gotta write that down.” Thank goodness for smart phones. I can bust it out and write ideas down right there. People are fascinating and weird and unexpected. I feel like I was a pretty astute observer of life before but it’s even more heightened now. Another thing that’s not different but that I wish was different – I still hate getting in front of people for work stuff. I still have this moment of panic and my pulse is racing out of control. I thought it would make me be more comfortable being up in front of people but honestly, I’m not. Sometimes I have to forget that I’m in front of an audience.
Roanna: They’re not anonymous either. The anonymity of being on stage is nice.
Taylor: Yeah. Being on stage, there is an anonymity but that combined with total exposure is a really interesting juxtaposition. I like those two things together. And I like the word juxtaposition.
Roanna: To Be or Not To Be: Fame or …Not Fame: What does fame mean to you and would it equal success, in your mind?
Taylor: Fame? I never really thought about fame, but I have thought about success. For me, “success” is about two things. The first is being prolific. Prolificity? That should be a word. I just want to keep doing this. Like forever. Keep writing, keep performing, keep playing. The second thing about success for me is being inspiring. Inspiring people onstage or inspiring someone to take a class because they’ve seen how much fun I’ve had with it, how much I’ve grown, etc. Those two things may not make me famous, but they make me happy, and that’s better, right?
Roanna: For me, it would only be useful if name recognition would mean that I could get a charity established or that I could become a Goodwill Ambassador to the U.N. – if I could take Angelina Jolie’s U.N. job. I don’t care about the acting; I don’t care about that job. I care about the U.N. job she has, but you only get that if you’re at a certain stature. So I think of fame a little differently and am always curious to hear if other people equate fame with success, or how they view it.
Taylor: For me, they’re not linked. I think more about how I can keep doing this and how I can inspire other people, and that’s more to do with being successful, in my mind. I never really thought about fame. If I were “famous,” the most scandalous thing the paparazzi would find me doing is driving through Taco Bell at 2am. Angelina Jolie’s U.N. job would be sweet, though.
Roanna: It would be!
Taylor: I, too, am more interested in that job than acting.
Roanna: How can we become Goodwill Ambassadors just being regular folks? Maybe I need to write a letter. Give me a chance! I don’t have six children but I have a lot of spirit!
Taylor: We’ve got pizzazz!
Roanna: The last question is one that people don’t tend to talk about, but I think it’s interesting. And I frame it this way: I Hate You (You’re Awesome), which is about creative envy or jealousy. There are always going to be people who are doing more things than you are or who are going a certain way. Have you experienced that? How do you feel about it? Have you had to deal with it and do you find that it inspires or inhibits you? (You don’t have to name names.)
Taylor: Oh, I could name names. And yes, I have experienced that. Creative envy? Most definitely. There’s an element of both. The bigger part for me is that it inspires me and I hope that wins out. But there have been times where I’ve been part of a show and I had a blip of a thought like: I wanna do that! But somebody else did it and that’s a beautiful thing. Yeah, I experience creative envy. Creative envy makes it sound negative, but it’s not.
Roanna: I don’t think so, either.
Taylor: There are people in this community that I love every single thing they do. There are those people that I know if we’re on stage together, it doesn’t matter what I do, the scene is going to be incredible. Eric Heiberg and Jason Vines come to mind immediately. With those two guys in particular – you cannot be more supportive on stage than they are. They are just brilliant and so encouraging, and you feel so supported.
Roanna: I was watching Shakespeare In Love — as silly as it is, it is also brilliant — and found myself going “Gah! Why didn’t I write this? That sucks! It’s Awesome!” It’s not that you hate them, or the movie in this case; it’s that you wish you had done it.
Taylor: Yes! And that, to me, is high praise. I love what you did so much, that I wish I had done it myself. Why can’t we just enjoy that somebody did it? It’s human.
Roanna: It is so human. Everybody feels it. Because if you think you’re the only one who goes I Hate You (You’re Awesome) then you just think you’re a horrible person. Taylor, thank you so much for the chat today. Thank you for taking the time and hopefully I can catch up with you in the future.
Roanna: I don’t hate you – and you are awesome.