Ted Tremper ’04 discovered his dream as a Washington State University student joining Nuthouse, WSU’s then fledgling improv group.
Now, more than a decade later, he’s an actor, a web television filmmaker, veteran of the improvisational comedy troupe The Second City, editor, director, and, in his words, “God knows how many other things.” Tremper finds that reality can be every bit as fun and funny as his dream.
Four years ago his web program Break-ups: The Series won critical acclaim for its originality. His five-minute scenes of break-up vignettes filmed around Chicago has drawn hundreds of thousands of views. He followed that up with Shrink, another web series, this time focusing on a clinical therapist who fails to land a residency but decides to see patients on his own. The series won the 2012 New York Television Festival Awards for Best Comedy Pilot. At the same time, Tremper has developed his improvisational skills in Chicago, grown as a writer, and even become a teacher for other improvisational actors.
As I write this—one week before school starts—the freshman class of 2014 is checking into their dorms. On Terrell Mall, I zigzag around clutches of young men and women dressed in t-shirts and jeans. Some might be in my introductory literature class, I think, and feel my heart race. After 25 years of teaching, the day I stand before a new class, I am still excited… and terrified.
Teaching is like improv, something I realized in June when I talked to Tremper at a coffee shop in Chicago near The Second City comedy theater where he was performing.
“Public speaking is the number one thing people list when you ask what their fears are. It’s above death,” he tells me. “So, it’s better to be in the casket than be giving the eulogy.” (He was paraphrasing a line from Seinfeld, that public speaking is second to death, but ahead of financial hardship. Clearly in the “terrifying” category.)
“The idea of being a comedian in our culture is looked down upon because you’re not trying to be an astronaut or cure cancer or change the world,” he says, “but I would argue that being any kind of an artist is just as important.”
After graduating in 2004 with a degree in English, Tremper found rapid success as a writer and filmmaker as well as an improvisational comedian. He got his master of fine arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He performed for The Second City Touring Company (whose ranks include John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Joan Cusack, and Jane Curtin) in Chicago for four years. He was also recently a part of the ensemble at the Sundance Institute’s Director’s Lab.
“Most impressive is Ted’s chameleon-like personality, his ability to write and create in a variety of genres and contexts,” says Buddy Levy, clinical associate professor of English. “He’s taken a WSU liberal arts degree and crafted, through dedication and perseverance, a vibrant career that blends writing and performance.
“Ted shows what’s possible for our graduates if they work really hard and remain committed to their vision.”
Tremper joined Nuthouse in 2001. The troupe started up two years earlier when a group of students got the idea of turning a one-act play by Benjamin Gonzalez, a clinical assistant professor of performing arts, into a full-length show.
Nuthouse, now one of the best-known improv groups in the state, had a rocky time until Tremper arrived. “Ted’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” says Gonzalez. “But he’s also got this unbelievable drive and dedication to his craft. That’s what separated him from everyone else. He was a leader. People wanted to match his stamina. He took us from a bunch of college kids getting together for an evening, to a real, semi-professional improvisational group.”
The beauty of improv is that it is interactive—based on audience feedback and the relationship created between the actors and the audience. A Nuthouse show opens with a moderator taking suggestions for scenes. An audience member may yell out “bloated whale,” which then becomes the setting. The audience names the characters, their roles, and their relationships, and then it’s show time.
Improv incorporates your intellect, your memories, your emotions, and your physicality, Tremper tells me. Like jazz music and jazz dance, it relies on spontaneity. “There’s a saying in the Chicago improv scene that you should play to the height of your intelligence,” he says. “That means using all of [your] skills with another person who is trained in the same way, building art together in the moment with the audience. So you’re flying on the trapeze with no net.”
Just like teaching.
I asked Tremper what kind of student he’d like to see take his upcoming course at WSU: People majoring in business, engineering, biology, or nursing? Or education?
“Everyone would benefit,” he says. With improv, you learn to project your voice, and plant your feet, rather than slumping or moving apologetically. That training will give you an edge in whatever you do. But what improv does at its core is make failure okay. “People are so afraid of looking stupid,” he says. “A good improv teacher encourages you to fail in the ways you’re most terrified of failing. You’re constantly being asked to confront your fears. You’re always using creativity and intelligence to find new ways to solve problems.”
Tremper is back on campus in November for a free performance and to teach a week-long, one-credit workshop that incorporates writing, performing, and some improv. The Department of English is sponsoring the event in collaboration with the Student Entertainment Board and WSU Performing Arts.
You can see Ted Tremper on Thursday, November 13, in the CUB Auditorium at 6:00 pm. (There will be a pre-show reception at 5:30.) His workshop, November 10–14, is open to students on a first-come basis. Register at the English Department, Avery 202.