INTERVIEW: Tara DeFrancisco

The Biggest Heart in Improv

Tara DeFrancisco

Courtesy of Sam Willard

Last January, as in January of 2013, I finally found a chance to sit down and chat with Miss Tara DeFrancisco — which turned into a three hour interview about life, improv and how the world goes ’round. As time has flown by, it is with my sincerest apologies that this is just now being posted for the first time. However, it is a Thursday…so we can say #TBT — LAFS’ interview with Tara DeFrancisco.

How has your family supported your career?
Oh my family is super supportive. When I first started to explore comedy, I was young, like 12, when I thought I kind of wanted to do it for a profession, but I didn’t know how. I’m from Columbus, Ohio and there is a big art scene there and a fairly good music scene, but there’s not really a ton of comedy outside of stand-up, at least at the time. My brothers are older than I am and they introduced me to Spinal Tap and SC TV and SNL and things of that nature. I really got into it and I found it very comfortable and I used it as a technique to make friends. I’m sure a lot of us do, but it felt very natural to me to have that as sort of a social thing. I knew, probably by 13, that I wanted to do comedy.

Yeah, my family remembers me saying that. Then I went to high school and I didn’t know how to package that. I was also interested in sports and other extracurricular things, so I just did theatre alongside it. I was a good student, so I think my family was a little apprehensive that I wanted to go into the arts at first, but it was just fear of stability, nothing negative. They were really supportive when I moved to Chicago, which was a true whim. I moved out of college because I heard you were supposed to. At that point, it was even more underground. In ten years, the Chicago comedy scene has doubled.

So you mentioned your brothers and coming from a strong Italian family, is there anyone else specifically that was a comedic or personal influence?
My family, in general, is very funny and very playful. I think playfulness is as important as being comedically interesting. We don’t all speak the same language as to what is funny, but as long as we can all share a level of playfulness, then I think we’ll succeed. The Italian side of my family, in a great way, is kind of like a cartoon of an Italian family. Very supportive, loving, goofy, silly, positive environment. When someone got sick, everyone rallied for them, it was a cohesive unit. I always felt very supported.

A lot of comedians say that they find humor to mask darkness or sadness in their lives. I know you experienced the loss of your father and a few other hardships. How would you say that this applies to you and your life?
Oh gosh. I think I used it as a defensive mechanism as a child just to deflect getting picked on and trying to find my footing, my voice when I was younger. I certainly became “the funny one” so no one could come after me at a very young age. As a kid, I was kind of nerdy, the “smart kid.” I was heavier, as a kid, and got picked on there. So after a while it’s like “What can I do to get these kids on my side?” That’s where comedy started to come in.

Do you think that at all lends itself to self-deprecating humor?
Yeah, definitely. Self-deprecating humor is generally good. I mean you can’t take yourself incredibly serious all the time, because what’s the point in that? What a waste of life, to be completely serious all the time. I also think that “the improviser” at large, is almost too self-scolding and it can really be detrimental to their self worth and confidence. I think you have to fight past the line between playful and chiding yourself. Don’t wreck your own self-confidence for the sake of comedy or it’s not going to be comedic, it’s going to be sad.

That’s why I ask, because I feel like people feel two ways about self-deprecating humor. Either “Yeah, that’s funny because I can relate to that” or “you’re pushing the limit and I’d really like you to stop.”
Agreed. Some discomfort is comedic, which is why people like farce. I think you have to be aware of what makes your feel uncomfortable. You just have to be careful, because sometimes self-deprecation can err on the side of “I’m a failure” and I don’t think anyone wants to feel that way.

With all that said, from talking to people in the community, there’s one thing that people tend to pick up on with you and that’s that you have this crazy amount of positive energy.
Awww, thanks that’s very flattering. I think some people I haven’t completely synced with think that energy is false.

Like a forced energy?
Yeah, something like that. I can understand how some people may think that, but I think, just personally speaking, I tend to coach in a way that makes people feel welcome and included. Keeping people included is the nicest thing you can do as a human being. Making them feel they’re invited to something. So I try to put that out so people feel safe enough to make mistakes. Speaking not to comedy, I think once you’ve lived through some painful things in real life, you just realize there’s not a lot to get upset about. People are so easily broken about a bad day. Sure, you’re allowed to be grumpy, but don’t get broken. Because when something big happens, you’re just going to crumble. It’s all about perspective. I feel like you get back what you put in, most of the time.

I also try to take some time for me everyday, just because I feel like I have more to bring back then. Whether it’s just getting a coffee or writing a little bit, I think it’s important.

Ok, so you mentioned you moved to Chicago in 2000 from Ohio to pursue comedy. Now you’ve taught at a number of the stages here, you’ve been everywhere. Is there any one of those venues that feels more like a home to you?
I’ve worked primarily at Second City, iO and ComedySportz. Those are the places that have made me feel like a professional improviser. Although, my first real improv team I ever had was at The Playground and we’re still friends and that makes me so happy. I had a great time touring with Second City and performing that show is so fun. When you understudy for e.t.c. and Mainstage, you could go in at any time. But TourCo is fun because you’re in a van and essentially with this “van family.” The first year, that felt like camp. Traveling in this weird church van across the United States of America and going to apple orchards, colleges and all these crazy places, it was a blast.

How many shows a day do you do?
You do one show a day, but then you could be routed, which means that you could have five shows in a week and have one day off in between. At one point, the busiest time of me touring, I was touring 250 days a year. It was insane.

That’s crazy.
Yeah, there’s no way to predict it, but it was really fun. That being said, I think the places I feel most at home at would be iO and ComedySportz. ComedySportz was the first thing that made me a professional, meaning they paid me to do it. But it really felt like a family that did improv. The shows were really good and we all respected one another. It was just fun with the diversity of the ensemble. You get a lot of good skillsets out of it. You learn to emcee incredibly quickly. You learn to handle an audience better than anywhere in town. You get a lot of reps. You’re never off stage so you become a better player and realize you are being watched for an hour and a half. That’s what that place taught me and I’ve made some incredible friends there.

iO currently is probably my biggest home. I love their curriculum. I love the people. I love the teams I’m on. I’m very fortunate.

You’ve done a number of shows over the years, which one has been your favorite?
There are so many reasons I love all of them, but DeFrancisCO is amazing. That’s the greatest thing I’ve done in a long time.

Why do you love that show so much?
Because I did it on a dare.

On a dare? Ok, explain.
I did it on a dare because several years ago I pitched this to Charna and she didn’t think it would work. I told her I wanted to do a two-person show and she was not on board. I said, just give me one day and let me do it and see what happens. So then there was a 5B overlap one Sunday, January about a year ago. She came to the show and my theory was that if we allowed people to rise to the challenge, they would. And people showed up, it was a packed house and it was a huge success. It’s been so fun and the community has strangely rallied around it. It’s been great.

Absolutely. It’s a great release from the potential of monotonous scenes, which is inevitable after doing hundreds of improv shows.
For sure.

I also feel like so many people live double lives in this world.
You have to. I think it’s good for your brain to have other things, to some extent. There have been times where I’ve thought to myself, “Should I get a day job?” just to have monotony so this art side of me feels more inspired each time.

I know you said DeFrancisCO has been a challenge, but have there been other “go-to’s” that you embrace when you find yourself getting into a slump or getting tired of improv? Things that remind you of why you love this?
Yeah, DeFrancisCO is a good example of that. It was this self-risk of thinking I might fail at this thing. It’s easy to fall into a pattern after so many shows. It’s good to take breaks here and there. Shake it off and come back. It’s easy to oversaturate yourself, because then you only become the art. You’re only hanging out with improvisers and then going to your improv show. You lose sight of everything else that is happening.

It’s so easy to get sucked into this world. Where else are you going to find funny, smart, kind, supportive, wonderful people that are always there and available to you? Of course we want that.
Of course and that’s where we get really cult-y.

It is. It’s really cult-y. I was just talking about that with someone. It’s totally a cult and it’s something that people who aren’t in it, they have no idea.
I just love that we have this little language. I have friends outside of improv and when I see them, I think I’m so lucky because they still get it, even though they’re not improvisers. Other people can do what we do, but it’s on “me” not to alienate them. And dating someone who is not an improviser is a whole other thing…

It’s tough. Because you feel like they’re already at a disadvantage and it’s not their fault. It sucks for them.

They can’t “fake it ‘til they make it,” they have to really understand. But at the same time, dating an improviser is dangerous territory.
Oh yeah, it is.

It is a small world. So, what happens if that doesn’t go well?
Unless everyone’s awesome and they’re grown ups. Which happens sometimes. It’s just like dating someone at work…

Tara, within the first 4-6 weeks of starting improv, I was in love with everyone. I just loved everyone.
Absolutely. Everyone is attractive because they understand the world you want to be in. They perceive the world the same way. You have to be a little selective, but generally speaking, just do what you want.

I mean, it’s all about being vulnerable, right?
I think so. The older I get, the better I’m getting at that. Just trying to understand that that’s ok. We all get so good at protecting ourselves with this wall of comedy, it’s ok to start to lower the wall a bit.

All right, switching topics… one thing everyone talks about in terms of comedy, especially improv, is finding your voice. How did you find your voice?
Oh, how did I find my voice?  I feel like my voice has been fairly the same my whole life and I just found a way not to be so afraid to share it. As a person, I bet most of my family friends would say I’m still very similar. I think the thing I’ve become more, is a hippie. I think that’s because I faced some tough stuff.

How about your voice as a performer?
As a performer, I’m not really big for mimicry. There’s no predetermined path for a girl like me. I’m a Midwestern, very average girl-next-door, fun sister who wants to hang out and party with the dudes. Now that voice is starting to get very trendy and that was never a thing when I was a kid. To the point that when I started auditioning for commercials or TV pilots, people were like, “We like you, but we don’t know what to do with you.” That’s been said to me consistently for years. I’m always like the “best friend” and now that has recently shifted and now the “best friend” is kind of getting their day. Lena Dunham. The cast of bridesmaids. Now these women are getting their day, so it’s a new thing. Women who are not afraid to be vulnerable and not beautiful.

So as you started pursuing comedy and improv, as you try to stay true to yourself on stage, but you’re having this conflict, what clicked or what did you do to determine who you were on stage? Figuring out how to take the confidence of knowing who you are and then channeling that voice into who it should be on stage.
That’s a good question. I feel like I really took to the idea of truth, focusing on people who were in this world that weren’t me, was exciting. I was fortunate enough to go through the classes at the time to be focused on class and not date anyone and because of that I think I took more risks because I wasn’t trying to get anyone’s approval. I was pretty happy as a person going through classes and I think that helped me develop a supportive voice on stage. I just had a fortunate process of going through classes in Chicago.

Ok, so one thing I am working on is trying to diversify my truth. I feel like my honesty is the greatest thing I have to play with, but I feel like I need to put different hats on it so that it can stretch further.
I think that honesty is much harder for people to play with than characters, so that’s a good thing. I also think another thing to keep in mind is that your truth isn’t the only truth and to just know that already diversifies what truth can be played on stage.

That’s a good point. I guess why would anyone think that a truth is different than the truth they believe?
Yeah, and then you get to wear someone else’s life and sometimes that makes it easier to act from. It gives you the opportunity to break down the complexity of what you see in yourself to very basic characteristics of the characters you’re playing on stage and alleviates some of the pressure. Just keep pushing yourself. The thing you have to remember is you are bringing yourself and your earnest feelings and reactions to the stage and then you can play whoever you want.

The greatest thing you can do for an audience is give them a compass for which to watch the show. They don’t know what they’re looking at. We’re in a black box theatre with no props. Do your best to help them see what you see.

Are there areas of improvement you’re working on right now? Any challenges you’re addressing?
Yeah, I hope I’m never “done.” I’m always hunting for something to be better at. There is the question of “Can I feel confident in the way I’m performing and still search for something to improve on?” I’m trying to be really emotionally present. That’s something I’ve been bad at, knowing what will work after years of improv. I think people know what the audience wants and sometimes give into that. You have to be very aware if you’re hunting for a connection with the audience or a response to your “hilarious” bit. I’m just trying to be aware of that more and more.

You mentioned you’ve been type-casted as the fun, girl next door? Do you feel you’ve been stereotyped and, if so, how do you embrace it or defy it?
I don’t feel it as much now. I felt it more as an actor over an improviser. I don’t feel like I’ve been stereotyped as a performer. I’ll tell you what I do feel I’ve been stereotyped as: a woman. A ballsy female. Not even within the show I’m in, I feel like if my name is mentioned in certain circles, people will just assume I’ll do whatever. It’s a great typecast to receive, but it also makes me feel like, I wish more people were seen that way. Women hesitate to be fearless, because we are taught that behaving well and being pretty is our currency and when you are able to put those things aside and be more vulnerable and more brash, then people (in comedy) see that as a new currency. They want that. So when you are a female who can do those things, you get swept up very quickly. Don’t be afraid to look silly, ugly, smart…any of those things that could be seen as negative or unusual, just do it. Let’s all just take care of each other and be gentle.

Do you feel the dialogue between men and women in comedy is starting to equalize?
I think so. I don’t understand why people can’t be a feminist and have a million great guy friends you consider family. If you surround yourself with men, please have them be feminist men who want you to have the same rights and liberty as they do. That’s what feminist means. It makes me furious when people say, “I’m not a feminist, it’s too loaded.” It’s like, “Do you even know what that means? It means you want equal rights.” I think through that, the language is changing. I also think the “bad guys” go away and a few years later, everyone will get it. The douchebags fade. They can’t sustain in an art form full of heart.

It’s really such a beautiful thing. I get so excited and I want to tell everyone about it, but as we said, it’s cult-like and for those who haven’t already made the decision that they want to be in it, they don’t get it. I just wish upon you that you would get this, because it’s amazing.
Think about how much more secure human beings would be if they were forced to take an improv class.

Oh, the whole world would be better. Just one improv class.
I agree. There was a point where, I think it was Charna, wrote a proposal to the Senate to allow them to teach an improv class. Nothing came of it, but it’s the greatest idea. What if we put heads of policy from all over the world or government or political decision makers in a weird room of Zip Zap Zop where we’re essentially telling them the fundamentals of why we think this is important. It was be an amazing feat. I think it could really change things. It was distress people. They’d listen better.

If people just listened better.
If they just realized people are just people. That’s the biggest problem this world has, is that everyone just thinks everyone is so incredibly different and really we’re not. It’s not so black and white.

When you started teaching improv, did you start to see it differently at all?
When you help devise a curriculum for a program, I think you look at it from a very left-brain angle where you’re clinical from what needs to be accomplished. But then you also look at it from a right-brain perspective and the best thing I did was to remember how I received things as a student and take those into account. I kept my student notebook and I referenced that when I started teaching, so that was really helpful.

I feel that a lot of people look at comedy as an art form; there is still the business aspect to it. I know you sit on a number of improv commissions and boards. Would you be able to tell us a bit about these boards and commissions? Which ones are you a part of and what are their functions?
I guess I’ve been to a lot of auditions around town and I wrote an article about how to audition because I’ve seen so many people get in their heads about it. I think that’s how people know I’m on these boards. I’m on the Comedy Sportz audition panel and the Harold Commission, iO’s team of people who create Harold teams. Those are the ones I’m probably the most involved with.

As being part of The Harold Commission, people are curious as to what that means. How do they pick students to be on teams? Are there certain qualities or skillsets that are sought after to make up a good team?
Sure. You know there are varying opinions on that. There was a theory that some people follow that put people together like “we need two physical players, two really intelligent people, two people to act as the ‘glue’” and that was a real thing back in the day. But today, we’re looking at a team of people who can do anything. I’d say, right now, the hardest thing we’re facing is that it’s so saturated right now. It’s so trendy and popular. It’s a great time to be an improviser. It’s also a really hard time to be an improviser and get stage time at a revered theatre. There are so many great places that are allowing people to get up with an independent team and experiment for a bit. It’s awesome to get on a team, but it’s also not necessary anymore. There are so many other outlets.

 But in terms of putting together teams, it’s really a numbers game. People are doing so much better than the room we have. It’s a great problem to have, but it sucks. Just try to not take it personal. I’ve seen so many notes on students saying things like, “I wish there were more spots, this person is so good.” It’s true. If you didn’t get placed on a team, just hug yourself, it means very little. You can do so much more with the training.

For sure. Going through iO gives you gold. What would you say has been your most rewarding experiences thus far in your career?
I think I’ve become a better human being. That’s my real answer. I don’t want to do anything else. Nothing else speaks to me the way this art does. I feel pretentious even calling it art, but I’m going to stick up for that. It’s more than comedy. I think I’m a better person for feeling more. Being unafraid to feel more, which is terrifying but good.

So you’ve been flirting with the idea of LA a bit, but I know your heart is here. So tell me a bit more about that internal conflict.

I’m in a fortunate position where I feel more in demand than I ever have been and it’s teetering with this commercial world and the idea of being ok with it. I’m trying to marry the idea of comedic art and commercials. The idea about just making things now is kind of what’s changing things for me. Not needing a gatekeeper to make things happen, but making them happen yourself. I was in LA talking to a producer and he told me to just shoot something in Chicago now and send it back to him. And it was the “ah ha” moment and I’m like, “Oh right, that’s a thing. People do that.”

Sometimes it just takes someone actually saying that remember that it’s possible.
Yeah, and I should do that. Because my fear is that, if I ever move, I’d be moving away from this place I feel is a creative hub with the funniest people in it. Some of those people trickle to LA to try something. Commercial stuff isn’t where my heart is, but if I knew that ten of my friends were doing a project with me, I don’t care where we live.

You kind of felt like you were selling out a bit?
Yeah, kind of. But it’s also that I was afraid I’d miss live theatre too much. A lot of people have a fame quest and I don’t have it. People find that hard to believe in performers and I think a lot of performers don’t have it.

I have no desire to become famous. I love doing this, but I don’t want to get famous. I’d be happy to help other people get famous and it’d be fun to play with them until that point happens, but I don’t want paparazzi at my door.
That’s how I feel. I forget the other part of it, but I think fame equates to love. I think people have a false identity of thinking if everyone knows them, they’ll love them. Popularity is not love.

In that situation, it’s 50/50. People either love you or they hate you. Look at Anne Hathaway. There are so many people who, for some reason, hate Anne Hathaway. It’s like, “Why do you even have an opinion? You don’t know her.”
You love her or hate her and that’s it. There’s no middle. But yeah, it blows my mind when people have such snap judgments on people.

It’s funny because so many people make up these rumors or have these feelings about people in Hollywood, but this is our Hollywood. This is as big as it gets, so unfortunately people are subjected to these rumors…but you sometimes forget they’re still real people and it’s sad sometimes.
I’ve heard everything about everyone and I think as a female, you’re going to get it doubly. This is something that gave me a ton of comfort. A while ago I had this conversation with Jet [Eveleth], just driving around in a car, and she said, “You know what? Everyone we know that’s good has been rumored and it’s usually girls who do it. You’re always going to get called one of three things: a bitch, a slut or crazy. You and I and everyone we know aren’t bitches, because we’re nice to everyone. We’re not slutty because we’ve been in long-term relationships and we’re old enough not to be categorized as that. But we can always be crazy because all it takes for someone to think you’re crazy is someone saying they’re crazy.” That’s all people do to put that little tick in your ear and that’s it. It’s all jealousy, anger and fear. I just feel like if you’re good in this town, you might face a little bit of that.

Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
I think I’d like to work with foreign improvisers. My friend, Rance Rizutto, and his wife did a ship and did a show with improvisers from Istanbul and they said it was one of their most fun shows ever because they had to communicate on a very base level.

Alright, a couple last questions here. If you could say one thing to Del Close, what would it be?
I’m tempted to say something funny, but I think what I would really say would be, “Thank you for being wise enough for knowing that this is a credited art form and pursuing it the way you did.” I wish I’d had him as a teacher. I just missed Del. I’ve talked to Charna about this a few times and I’ve always wondered if he would have liked me or not and she thinks he would have, so that’s good. But I got here in a time when people were mourning Del. It was a very dark time when I got here. Martin de Maat, who was a giant inspiration to me, died two or three years later, so it was just a lot of loss for Chicago at the time.

Do you have a life motto that you live by?
[Raises her left wrist and reveals a tattoo.] “Do Good Work.” I got this tattoo about a year or so ago and I kept thinking “What is something I really believe that I will never not believe.” It helps me a bit. There’s a reason we do everything and there’s always something more. But the other side of me walks the thin line of thinking this might be it, so do what you can with what you have. Sometimes I look back down on this on stage or after a long day of teaching, it helps to keep present and me focused.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
I don’t know. Boy, you’re asking that at a time. Kiley, I feel like I’m in a “choose your own adventure book” right now. I could be very happy staying in Chicago and becoming a professor of sorts and continue performing. The same stuff I’m doing now. I feel like I could do that indefinitely.

So you’re happy with the balance you have right now.
I am. I’m also open. That’s what I’m struggling with.

Well, you have to be. You never know what’s going to come up.
That’s what I’m saying. “Where do I see myself?” I don’t, because I’m trying not to. I’m just trying to be fine with whatever is coming my way.

What is the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
That comedy is one of the greatest tools for human connection because it provides levity to things that are difficult, painful and hard to define. If we can use it for a connection rather than deflection, it’s the most powerful muscle we could have.

Any my last question is just do you have any final comments?
No, thank you for doing this.

Thank you!
I really love talking to people, so this is not a drag for me; this is fun. I’m just really excited about Chicago’s scene and the other cities that are coming up. I feel we’re so lucky to be here. It’s hard to grow a community and we’re in a really cool world where we are finally starting to appreciate what every school does for the performer rather than the school. Appreciating how each muscle makes you better. I just excited about it.

And I’m so thankful you had me! I would do this everyday if I could. It’s fun to do this, because it feels like you’re talking to everyone.

Tara DeFrancisco is a stand-up comedian, improviser and actor from Columbus, Ohio. After receiving her BFA/BS from Ohio University, Tara moved to Chicago where she quickly fell in love with  the comedy community. Over the years, she has brought her infectious positive energy to The Playground Theater, ComedySportz, iO and The Second City.  Currently, Tara plays with The Deltones, hosts DeFrancisCO (her own weekly show at iO) and recently led the first ever Improv Retreat. Tara teaches improv and sketch-writing classes at all of the theatres around Chicago and coaches as well. Most recently, Tara announced that she will also be working as at counselor at iO once it opens doors at its new location

Interview conducted on January 22, 2013.


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posted on by Kiley Peters posted in Chatter, Interviews

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