With The Groundlings‘ return to live performances and classes in full swing, I touched base with Groundlings main company member and instructor Lisa Schurga to get her thoughts on opening their doors again after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to take the laughs online. What has it been like to be back? And what has the last year-plus been like for people so used to performing in front of an audience?
Check out what Lisa had to say about the return of The Groundlings, and don’t forget to check out my previous interview with fellow main company member Leonard Robinson for more about the journey of this beloved and hilarious comedy troupe.
Brittany Frederick: Just on a personal level, how much does it mean that The Groundlings can start performing live and working with students in-person again?
Lisa Schurga: On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10. It just feels like a void [without people]. I think we’ve done a great job transitioning to online, but to not have that live audience has been a little bit soul-crushing at times. And for many of us, this is something we’ve been doing since we’ve been in junior high, doing musicals and plays. It feels like home being in front of an audience and I just can’t wait.
BF: Improv is so closely associated with live performance, so how challenging was that transition to the virtual world? Was it something that you embraced right away, or did you have to get adjusted to it?
LS: I was very against it. I don’t want to act like I’m one of The Groundlings who was like “We can do this.” I wasn’t. I would say Leonard Robinson was our biggest cheerleader for getting us online and I just couldn’t see it. And I think that’s so interesting because we are improvisers and we are so creative, so why couldn’t I open my brain up to this other way of doing it? But one of the other shows started first, which was The Crazy Uncle Joe Show, and they were having some success and they were having a lot of fun. So I was like all right, I’ll try to direct [Cookin’ With GAS], which is our Thursday night show. And the reason I was finally able to wrap my brain around it was I just started thinking about using the format.
I started thinking about all of the things that were actually happening on Zoom—family gatherings or dates or job interviews or things that naturally were occurring on your computer screen—and I started to go well, that could be actually really funny. In the beginning, the transition felt like it was a narrow window. It was like we’re going to do this, but we’re going to do it in a Zoom world. After a little bit of time passed, it was like well, we don’t treat the stage that way. We don’t say everything has to be things that would happen on a stage. You could be in a park or you could be in a coffee shop. Slowly my brain started to go oh, we could be anywhere. And the audience is believing it. They’re ready to go on the journey with us to say, this is our faces on Zoom and we’re also in a Cheesecake Factory right now. And it was amazing when that started to shift for me.
BF: After you’d done the online shows for a while, did you settle into it the way that most people seem to have with virtual meetings? It feels like everyone’s kind of relaxed and adapted to the new normal.
LS: I think there’s been a different level of connection with the audience that I didn’t expect. It’s bonded us, because I think we all felt like this is weird. What are we doing? And we had a lot of people who just came every week, and I think they just needed it. They needed that connection. I knew names of people. I’d be like oh, Carol’s here again—hich is not something you can get with an audience. You can’t see every single face with the lights. And so that was really, really cool to connect in that way.
BF: There’s also a teaching aspect to The Groundlings, too. When improv is based on being able to do just about anything, how do you distill that to teach other people?
LS: Well, there are rules. I came from a theater called the Improv Asylum in Boston, and I always was wondering why some nights would go great [and] some nights would not go great. What people would say is oh, it’s improv. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. I was like, I guess that’s what it is. When I started taking classes at The Groundlings they gave us these ground rules—”yes, and” each other, and don’t do that thing where it’s kind of a yes, but kind of your own idea that you want to push in there. Come from a character perspective. Be emotional, have an emotional choice.
These are some of the things that we teach at Groundlings that I think maybe aren’t taught at every school, but that made me change my philosophy about some improv. Sometimes you just have a bad night doing improv. [But] what happened was when I followed those ground rules—when I always said yes to my scene partner, when I chose to get emotional, when I chose a character—those scenes always work. And whenever I walk away from a scene that didn’t work, I’m like, I kind of negated that person. I kind of wanted to do my own thing. I can always now see why it didn’t go well.
I think that is so great to have a blueprint. Then once you have the blueprint, you start to know when the rules can be broken. When you get better at improvising within those confines, you start to really learn this is a place where I can say something different or I can choose an unemotional character, because you start to intuitively know when that is. And then getting to teach that is really great. Getting to show a student that felt so good because you chose to be really emotional about it and it was so engaging…it’s fun to see people make the connection.
BF: So much of comedy, when it does go well, looks effortless and so people assume that it’s easier than it looks. Is there anything that you wish audiences knew about performing?
LS: I wish people understood that when it goes well, you have to be in a brain space to jump off a cliff with your friends and trust that you’re going to be caught at the bottom. And I think you don’t always feel that way. Sometimes you end up improvising something you don’t know very well. But I know at The Groundlings, when I’m improvising with my friends, it is much easier for me to get in that place. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m just ready to really be open to anything that my scene partners say [or] that comes up. And when you can get in that place of just pure openness to anything, I think that’s the most fun improv.
But it’s not easy to get in that place because all of us have that little bit of, I’d like to control it a little bit. I’d like to make sure it goes well. If you can shut that part of your brain down and go no, I’m coming into this and I’m just going to jump off the cliff, then it’s so much more fun and freeing and then it looks effortless.
BF: Do you have favorite moments from your tenure with The Groundlings that stand out to you in that way?
LS: I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot because I’m soon to be an alumni at the theater. I’ve been a Groundling since 2007. It’s been a long time and that’s a long haul to be a Groundling. I have one newer one that happened recently where I had a sketch with Matt Cook…He’s a fantastic actor and we played a really bizarre brother and sister, and it was such a fun sketch.
At the end of it we would exit the scene, and he had this bit where he couldn’t step up one step. I had to help him up the steps, and he would hold me hostage. Meaning he would play around not being able to get on that step for sometimes three minutes. And this is in front of the audience. I would be trying to hold it together, but I’d be laughing so hard because he just would keep not being able to do it and I would keep pulling him and trying to get him up. And he had the control. It was up to him. Him getting on that step ended the sketch, and he just loved messing with me.
He would just take so long. He’d almost get up and he’d fall off. I’d be like oh my God, let’s get off the stage. Let me go back to the dressing room. And I could just see the glimmer in his eye. It was so fun for him. And it was so fun for me. Any time one of my fellow actors is messing with me on stage or puts you in that place where you’re desperately trying not to laugh is always my favorite.
BF: In the scripted world, you played the fan-favorite character of Peggy on Leverage, which that show has just been revived as Leverage: Redemption. So have you thought recently about what Peggy might be doing now? Would she be hanging out with Parker again?
LS: I was in the first season, which was so great, and I had a little small part. Then they brought me back [in] season three or four, and I got to do two more episodes and be involved in a heist with her, which was like a dream. I was like, this is what I want Peggy to do. (laughs) You know what’s really funny is I’ve done a decent amount of television, but people always know me from Leverage. I’ve been on the street like, “Peggy.” It’s so funny to me. I love it. It’s just one of those shows where it has built this amazing viewership over the years in reruns, which is why it’s back.
When there was the announcement that it was coming back, I started to get to some DMs like will Peggy be back? Not a ton, but I just thought it was so funny. And I was like God, I hope so. I know that this season they have a lot to reintroduce us to this group and Noah Wyle [as new team member Harry]. Now that the gang’s all back, I hope she shows up next season. I hope she can help them fight some crime or steal something or do something.
And I also like to imagine, because she was paired up with a guy who was like Peggy’s version of a guy friend. He was a little nerdy, a little off, and the two of them ended the final episode I was in by going off on a date. I like to imagine that they’re married and they have kids. And they need to help the Leverage crew at some point. That would be really fun.
For more on The Groundlings, including a full schedule of upcoming in-person and virtual classes and shows, visit their website.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.