Jim Zarling is a stand-up comic and improviser at Richmond's Coalition Theater. He will be performing his solo improv show "Rough Draft" at the inaugural 321 Improv Festival. In this spotlight interview, Zarling discusses his personal approach to improv, the weirdest place he's ever performed, and the merits of stretching before a show.
What’s your favorite thing about the improv scene in your city?
The best thing about the Coalition Theater in Richmond is that we have a lot of different improv perspectives. Instead of saying "this is the one way to do improv," we have an approach where all these things can exist and have room to breathe. So you can come to our theater one night and see a super-strong Harold set, and then come by another night and see a fully improvised sitcom or documentary or reality show.
How would you describe your approach to improv?
My approach has always been that you do anything you want. Yeah, there are rules to follow to make it easy, but people forget: improv isn't that old. I'm not a huge fan of searching for new formats and trying to do them. Make up your own! If you can think it up and get a group that is willing to work together you can do anything. In the past year and a half I've produced a improvised sitcom and an improvised documentary series. You can make any rules, and as long as everybody agrees to play by those rules, you can do it!
What do you think makes small group improv unique?
I think it takes that "you can do anything you want" attitude to the next level. If you only have 2-3 people on stage it is easier to get people on the same page. If your small group has been doing improv together for a while you won't even have to talk about it: you'll just find yourself on the same page. If this 20 minute set is just going to be a mono scene, it just becomes that. You just feel that that's where the show is going.
What’s your favorite memory from a trio, duo, or solo show?
At Coalition's inaugural 2nd Best Fest the show I do with Aaron Grant -- MEGAPOWER -- closed out the first night with what other people have told me was the best set they've ever seen. We're known for a lot of high-energy improv and we were going pedal to the metal this night. About 10 minutes in we were each sitting in a chair; we made eye contact and we both knew that we were totally winded. We sat for about 5 seconds and went right back to the insane energy of the show. It was just one of those shows where you found the groove early and it was like running downhill for the entire set.
Where’s the most peculiar/unusual place you’ve ever performed?
Just recently the duo I'm in with Heather Hodges -- Robot Heart -- did a set at a house show. There were about 20 people in a basement and the show included a comic, a music act, and a storyteller. It was a fun crowd and most of the people in attendance had no experience with improv.
Several years ago, when a hurricane knocked out the power in most of Richmond, the Coalition Theater was part of a "Last Richmonder Without Power" contest, and we performed in the basement of the "winner" once they finally got their electricity back. We were out in the country performing in a basement and afterwards we took a group picture with a deer that was hanging out in one of the shelters outside.
What do you typically do to get yourself ready for a show? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I need to stretch! I spend too much time in the car and before I get on stage i need to stretch everything out. If I'm performing solo I'll probably listen to some of that nice 80's hardcore music. If it is a small group or duo I like to just invent warmups on the spot and just get our brains connected.
What sort of compliment do you like to get or give after a show?
Get from the audience:
"How much of that did you plan backstage?"
"You're so smart!"
"I've seen you several times and you always blow my mind."
Give to fellow performers:
"You made that so easy."
"You picked up on everything I was thinking as fast as I was thinking it."
Why is Terminator 2 the best Terminator movie?
Because when I first saw this question I thought "What a stupid question. What other Terminator movie would be in the running?"