Interview: Actress Lauren Lapkus

Lauren Lapkus is an incredibly talented, skilled and quirky performer capable of bringing audiences to uncontrollable fits of laughter. Her characters are fascinating and weird. I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform on several occasions at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles, and I’ve always admired her ability to commit wholeheartedly to her characters and to capture the audience’s attention with a single sound, mannerism or wack-a-doodle facial expression. She’s a genuine comedic master, a born performer, and like all great actors she recognizes the importance of infusing even the zaniest of choices with heart and honesty. Lauren was kind enough to let me interview her.

You’ve worked with iO and Second City in Chicago. How did the Chicago schools of improv and sketch comedy shape your humor?

I am originally from Evanston, IL and mainly trained and performed at iO Chicago. I also trained a bit at The Annoyance and did a few shows there, as well as at The Playground Theater, and I put up a few shows at Donny’s Skybox at Second City. At iO (and the Chicago improv scene in general) there is a big focus on character and relationship-based improv, which I love. It was great for me to be able to start at iO because I’m naturally inclined to play characters, and I was able to hone that skill over the five years I was there. I started taking classes there when I was a senior in high school. At first I was really nervous to talk to anyone in class and I felt that because everyone was a bit older than me that they wouldn’t want to hang out. Of course, over the year of classes I got really close with many of those people. Improv really helped me gain confidence in many ways. So that’s cool.

Speaking of Chicago improv, were you a fan of the TJ & Dave show? Did you ever work with Susan Messing at all?

Who isn’t a fan of TJ & Dave? They are two of the most revered improvisers in Chicago. Susan Messing was my level 2 teacher at iO, and she is awesome and hilarious as well.

How does the Chicago comedy and improv scene compare to the Los Angeles live comedy scene?

In 2008, I moved from Chicago to NYC for a little over a year. In January of 2010 I made my way to LA. All three places have fun improv communities… I trained at UCB in NY and it was a great experience. I met so many funny, awesome people. And the same is happening for me in LA. I think all three cities have somewhat similar comedy scenes, but different theaters have different goals and styles. In each place you will find tons of indie teams doing their own thing and performing, which is really cool to me. On any given night in all three towns, you can find improv groups in bars or small theaters trying new forms and just having fun. UCB thrives in both NYC and LA and I feel very lucky to perform with a couple groups at the LA space. For me, the Chicago improv community will always be home, but I have been able to find glimpses of that feeling in each city, which says a lot about the people doing this art form. From Chicago to NYC to LA, you’ll find wonderful, nice people, many of whom happen to be funny as hell. It’s inspiring– it is pretty special when you step back and look at this community of artists coming together with a common goal.

How would you characterize your sense of humor? What drives your comedy?

I love creating weird characters and just being silly. I find true joy in not thinking too hard and just having as much fun as I can. I’d have to say my comedy is really driven by having a good time and bringing the audience to a place where they may not even know why they are laughing. I’m constantly amazed when I watch or perform with more cerebral players… It’s not my natural tendency to be very analytical, but I think it adds a great element to this style of performance.

Do the people you portray in scenes- because they all did seem like real people- are they based on real people at all?

I am definitely inspired by real people. I’m constantly amazed by how ridiculous people are. Especially at Target and Marshalls. I’m sure that a lot of the crazies I encounter live in my head and come out in my improv.

You’re able to play dumb without resorting to stereotypes. Are you developing these characters on the fly or coming in with a strong choice and sticking to it?

Thanks! I think I tend to just start talking as a character and see where it takes me. I don’t typically walk on stage with a fully fleshed-out character. But I try to make a strong choice right off the bat and let that lead me in the scene. So I guess the answer to that question is yes. Haha.

How much truth is inherent in your comedy and performance?

Even though many of my characters can be pretty exaggerated, I still think there’s gotta be truth to it because it’s how I see the world. I also think real emotions and commitment to the scene keep things grounded and allow people to relate. When an improv scene gets too wacky and uncommitted, that’s when things feel untruthful, and often unfunny.

It says on your resume that you do puppeteering and mask work. How have these skills come into being and aided your performance?

Ooh, you do your research! One of my regular shows at iO Chicago was Felt, an improvised puppet show. I also did an improv show with puppets in NYC that had a different format. Puppetry is a fun challenge, not only because the act of physically moving a puppet is difficult, but also because the audience can’t see your face. You really have to have control over your voice and be very clear when you’re using the same puppet as multiple characters. I also took a mask workshop for fun while I was in Chicago. Working with masks is similar in that the slightest change of angle on a mask (or puppet head) can change the emotion the audience reads. Masks also require a certain physicality to help define your character. I think both of those skills have helped me be a more effective performer. Facial expressions are huge in my improv, so being forced to play without that tool has been good for me.

What were the names and personalities of some of the puppets you played?

The main puppet I used in Chicago is an orange monster named Carrot. He was already named when I joined Felt, so I adopted him like a child. Not really. I think the personalities I use when doing improv with puppets are as varied and unplanned as in regular improv, though other performers may create a personality for their puppet and improvise with that added layer.

Over the years, who are some of the comedians or performers that have truly inspired you and informed your sense of humor?

When I was in elementary school, I loved Chris Farley and Adam Sandler. SNL was so huge for me at that point. Maya Rudolph, Amy Sedaris, and Diane Keaton are big influences for me as well. Diane Keaton is adorable! I love her. I also think Lisa Kudrow is hilarious and wonderful to watch.

Our mutual friend Sarah has known you since grade school and she says you’ve been as funny as long as she can remember. What’s your earliest memory of making someone laugh?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think I was always funny with my friends, but I think I started to hone it a little bit in middle school. Lots of impressions to make my teachers laugh. I was big on throwing out sarcastic remarks in class. I could be a reaaal cut up. I was always given funny roles in the children’s theater plays I participated in, and getting laughs was a great feeling to me right from the start.

Some of my friends from college are in Story Pirates. Tell me a little bit more about what you guys do and why it’s so special.

The Story Pirates is such a great organization. We teach creative writing workshops in schools and adapt the kids’ stories into sketches and songs. I joined the company right when I moved to NYC in 2008 and when I moved here in early 2010, the LA branch was just starting up. The cast is full of extremely talented people from coast to coast, including lots of improvisers. It has been great to be able to continue performing with Story Pirates out here and getting some LA friends involved. Our show is not your typical children’s theater show. The style and format we use really seem to grab and hold the attention of kids and adults, which is rare– I am really proud of the work we do.

Visit Lauren’s website for info on her upcoming shows, and be sure to check out Lauren on Chelsea Handler’s new show, “Are You There Vodka, It’s Me, Chelsea”.