Michael J. Astrauskas is an improviser based in the San Francisco Bay area. He will make his Countdown Improv Festival debut this year on Wednesday, October 20, on Twitch, alongside Geraldine Carolan and Alex Lee as the trio Leaves of Three. In this spotlight interview, Astrauskas discusses the optimal balance between headiness and silliness in an improv scene, the glories of Camp Improv Utopia, and some other famous people named “Michael J.”
We’re overjoyed to have Leaves of Three with us this year! Can you tell us a little bit about your show? What can audiences expect to see on Wednesday night?
Michael J. Astrauskas: Leaves of Three explores a world that’s like ours, with a single difference inspired by combining multiple suggestions from the audience. You’ll see the everyday lives and unusual days of people in this world, as we explore deeper and deeper how it would be the same and different. This format developed organically after the team already existing, from working with multiple coaches, particularly Michael Haycock and Craig Gaspian, and we’re fond of it. It honours the audience suggestions in a unique way, and leads to a lot of fun for us to play with.
The three of you are all very intelligent players, but your shows also have this great, playful spirit to them. Is there an optimal balance to you between headiness and silliness? How do you keep your shows smart while also keeping them loose?
MJA: In short, if we’re having fun the audience is (hopefully) having fun. I think all three of us started improv coming from a very heady place, and are constantly working on being more impulsive and tapping into our true emotions, without disconnecting from the “smart.” I don’t know if this makes sense, but the optimal balance is the crossover of top of your intelligence and impulse.
You, Geraldine, and Alex are all veterans of Camp Improv Utopia. (We are too! Camp is great!) How has camp affected and influenced your work and your chemistry together? What keeps you coming back to camp year after year?
MJA: Some of us met outside Camp, but we got to know each other through our love of Camp, and one day in our 3-way group chat Geraldine suggested we create a team. Camp has definitely helped our chemistry because we’ve taken some of the same classes, and love many of the same teachers, like Brian James O’Connell and Carla & Craig Cackowski. It’s a whole weekend of playing with other adults who want to have fun, as well. Camp is definitely my happy place where the truest me comes out, and I think it is for Geraldine and Alex as well. It’s nice to bring this feeling back to non-Camp life.
What are some things that you personally like and find gratifying about online performance? Are there ways in which you’ve found it to be even more fulfilling than in-person improv?
MJA: There’s a lot to like about online performances. I don’t need to travel and find parking in San Francisco — or cross the Bay Bridge to Oakland! — and can be ready shortly before call time. I love that my audience, or even my team, can be in different cities and countries. I’ve found that literal last-second promotion actually helps get an audience (or players for a jam). I’ve also gotten used to not hearing an audience when online, which means I’m better at trusting myself that things are going well.
You’re based in the San Francisco area, which is one place where the two of us have never taught or performed. (Someday!) Is there a particular improv style or philosophy that predominates among Bay Area performers? How would you characterize the SF improv scene?
MJA: Like a lot of places, there’s an emphasis on improv being comedy, but the shows any of us remember are the ones that touch us, change us, or make us think. Some schools put more emphasis on the full spectrum of emotions than others, but I’ve noticed that characters are most believable — and therefore most engaging — as well as easiest to play, when the performance is coming from some real place, which may or may not lead to laughter.
All theatres I’ve been to are welcoming in classes and at shows. After all, the performers and staff want you to have fun and want to have fun themselves.
If you even want to teach here, let me know and I’ll see what I can do!
Finally, please rank, in order of preference, the following famous “Michael Js”: Michael J. Fox, Michael J. Pollard, Michael J. Nelson (of MST3K), Michael Jai White, and Michael J. Dupey (founder of the craft store “Michaels”).
MJA: Michael J. Fox, Michael J. Dupey, Michael J. Nelson, Michael Jai White, Michael J. Pollard.