When I met James Quesada, we were both aspiring artists pursuing our education in support of our crafts at Eastern Michigan University, and we were both working at the hipster, liberal artist’s dream job; we were baristas at Borders in Ann Arbor. Now, four years later, we are no longer at EMU. We are no longer baristas. And, Borders no longer exists. But, we’re both still living the liberal artist’s dream in many ways. James is now a House Manager at Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale, Michigan. Go Comedy! is the 2014 Metrotimes Best of Detroit Readers’ Choice for Best Comedy Club. I recently caught up with James and asked him the following questions. Enjoy! –K.M. Zahrt
Part 1: The Beginning
Michiganders Post: Do you remember your first public performance? How did it go?
James Quesada: One of the first performances I gave with an improv troupe was in August of 2010 at a bar in Ypsilanti. My friends, Alex Marr and Darnell Anderson, and I approached the bar about doing a weekly comedy night featuring improv and stand-up. I was living in Ypsi at the time, and the only venue around that had regular improv shows was Go Comedy! As much as we loved going there, it was a hassle driving an hour each way to get to Ferndale and back. So, we threw together this weekly show with a stage made out of cafeteria tables and lighting made for a sleazy dance floor. Alex and I had been rehearsing a two man-show called No Reason for a few months, and we had a show slot coming up at Go Comedy!, so we figured we should get one show under our belt to see how we played in front of an actual audience. It was awful. Twenty minutes of pure discomfort for both us and the audience. Alex and I talked for a good hour or so about how bad it was and why it was so bad and what went wrong and blah blah blah. The next night we had our show at Go Comedy! and to this day it’s one of the most fun shows I’ve been part of. That’s how I discovered that failure is more educational than success. I also learned that a main difference between a good show and a bad show is the amount of fun the performers are having. We were too terrified in our first show to have fun.
MP: How would you describe what you do?
JQ: When people ask me what I do, I generally refer to myself as an improviser or an improv comedian. And then I answer a series of questions about what that means. Describing improv is more challenging than doing improv. It might be easier at this point to start calling improv “unscripted interactive group stand-up with characters.”
MP: Who are some of your influences?
JQ: Jim Carrey is definitely a major influence to me. I’m a tall, lanky guy, and no one plays tall, lanky characters better than Jim Carrey. He inspired me even further as his career started to expand into more dramatic roles. It’s impressive to see him play characters with real depth. Some of the most engaging and richly humorous shows I’ve seen have had a strong emotional core. Keegan Michael Key is also highly influential to me. I first saw Keegan play with an improv troupe called The 313 during the Detroit Improv Festival. The whole troupe is full of incredible performers from the Detroit area who are now based out of L.A. The way Keegan plays into that ensemble is mesmerizing to me.
Part 2: Go Comedy!
MP: How would you describe your role at Go Comedy!?
JQ: I wear a lot of hats at Go Comedy! My main position is House Manager. Most of what I do on a nightly basis is seating the audience and making sure I’m on hand for the bar and box office staff and any customer service issues. I also perform regularly throughout the weeks with different troupes and teach classes for the Go U! Improv Academy. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to start directing and producing shows. I feel lucky to be part of the theater in so many ways. I look back frequently on the first few months I was coming to the theater just to be in the audience. I imagine if back then I got a glimpse of what I’m doing now my face would explode from smiling.
MP: For first-timers, when should they go? Is there a regular schedule of events?
JQ: We’re generally open Wednesdays through Sundays for shows. The Go Comedy! All-Star Showdown is the best show to see for first-timers. It’s an improvised game show similar to Whose Line is it Anyway?. It’s a great for its accessibility and rapid fire pacing. It’s also the best show for seeing featured players at the theater. Our talent is all local which some people find hard to believe. I’ve had people ask regularly if the cast members are from Chicago or New York or L.A.. It’s a compliment, but it’s also a bummer that people assume any talented performer must be from out of town.
Part 3: Performing
MP: Can you briefly describe your performance style?
JQ: I like to play physically. I think I was a mime or a court jester in a previous life. I take any chance I get to play characters that move in strange ways or to explore outlandish imaginary spaces. Most of the troupes I play with will have moments of dog piling, group contortion, and generally just moving around in absurd ways on stage.
MP: Has there been a performance you were particularly proud of?
JQ: About a year [after we started No Reason], we were fortunate enough to open for the UCB touring company when they came to Eastern Michigan University. We got to play on a stage big enough for a full orchestra recital and in front of a crowd of about 250 people. We had our own green room with a sign on the door that read: “This Room is Reserved for No Reason.” I still chuckle about that. And our show went well, which made the whole experience that much more thrilling.
Part 4: Resources and Advice
MP: Do you have any advice for young performers, actors, comedians?
JQ: Don’t wait around for some big break or to be discovered. It’s easier than you may think to create your own opportunities for growth. If there’s something you want to accomplish, but the medium or venue for doing it doesn’t exist, try creating it. Start small and build from there. I don’t think I’d have the job I have today if I didn’t start a troupe and put in the effort to organize a weekly show in a dank bar five years ago. And, make sure you’re having fun along the way. There’s a difference between working to get better at what you do and working to be successful. The latter usually sucks the fun out of things. Comedians thrive on laughter and fun. If you take away the fun, then your art will become a chore. At that point, you might as well do some other chore that’s more likely to pay well.
MP: How can someone get involved with improv at Go Comedy!?
JQ: Getting involved with improv is easy at Go Comedy! We have classes for beginner, intermediate, and advanced performers as well as a writing program and specialty courses that run regularly throughout the year in eight-week terms. For people who are interested in improv, but are not sure they’re ready to commit to a full class, we also offer drop-in workshops on the last Saturday of each month. We host a weekly Improv Jam called “Fresh Sauce” every Sunday at 7 p.m. It’s open to anyone who wants to sign up and play. Classes are a great way to meet new people, build confidence, and exercise your imagination. Improv can change your life whether it becomes a daily mindset, a new passion or, like it was for me, both.
MP: Do you feel like there are great opportunities in Michigan to develop important improv skills?
JQ: There’s a ton of resources in Michigan and Metro Detroit. Ferndale is full of all kinds of locally owned businesses and some pretty rockin’ theaters (Go Comedy!). Northville also has a great theater district. Hammtramck is full of art and music culture. I remember looking for jobs a few years ago and thinking it would be a dead end to look for jobs related to the arts. I searched anyway and was surprised by the number and variety of postings. There weren’t so many that I could immediately get a well-paying dream job, but knowing specifically what I wanted was certainly helpful. I’ve since used that mentality when searching for any resource related to accomplishing a goal. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll know whether or not you’ve found it, and you’ll have a better idea of paths that will take you closer.