Kiff Vanden Heuvel is an alumnus of The Second City Detroit and Cleveland stages, as well as a teacher and director in Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago, where he directed writing class shows, The Outreach and Diversity show Superbad Delegates and The National Touring Company among many other things. Kiff is also an accomplished actor outside of the Second City, having performed at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago and at The Pittsburgh City Theatre in the world premiere of Adam Rapp's play Gompers. Kiff has appears in hundreds of national and regional commercials, most notably as the spokesman for Denny's, and as the voice of US Cellular, Advance Auto Parts, and performing in the eagerly anticipated "Star Wars: The Old Republic" video game. Kiff is an avid movie collector, video game player, and when he's not at Second City, he's updating his website at http://www.kiffvh.com/. Kiff can be seen in The Best of Second City, which plays Sunday nights at 8pm at The Second City Hollywood.
Please tell us about your experience with Second City. Were there any favorite teachers or directors you particularly learned from?
I started at Second City in 1998 as an understudy to the touring company in Second City Detroit. One of the guys who hired me was Rich Goteri. He was one of my first directors at Second City. He was very instrumental in a lot of my style of play. It's funny, when Marc Warzecha was in the touring company, I was his understudy, or one of them. When he was on the main stage, I understudied him as well. I directed the touring company at Second City Detroit, I directed the TourCo in Chicago, I performed with the main stage cast of Second City in Detroit and wrote three revues there, two revues for the Second City in Cleveland. So I've been working for the company since, yeah, that long. Some of the guys who have been instrumental, or great leaders or directors... Ron West was a terrific director. I worked with him on a couple of occasions, both in Detroit and in Cleveland. I assitant directed for Dave Razowsky. Working with him was a thrill. I learned a lot from him. Martin de Maat was really instrumental. He came and taught a couple workshops in Detroit, and when I went to teach in Cleveland, he was a really positive influence, and I learned a lot from Martin, too. And, truthfully, I learn daily from my students. I really do. We make discoveries together, and they've been a substantial part of my Second City work life.
What do you find you can learn from teaching improv that you can't learn from doing it onstage?
You make discoveries that are hard to make otherwise. You get up and play Freeze with a bunch of folks, and you might make some moves that are silly in the moment, or crazy or whatever, but when you're in the moment, you're not thinking a lot. I find, myself, when I'm in the moment, to be kind of living and existing. When you're working in a class setting, you have the freedom to take the time to analyze and to explore, and say, not so much "what would happen if we did it differently," but "what motivated that choice" or "what did you learn from that choice?" A lot of times you come off the back line, you make a choice, and then you let it go, which is how it should be, but you don't carry anything, necessarily, from it. I feel like every time I coach or direct or teach a class, I feel like we get the opportunity to try to understand it better, and that understanding leads to more dynamic improvisation.
Tell us a little bit about your first improv show. How did you feel about it?
I was an undergrad at Calvin College. We started a group after we graduated. We did one show that year, and we had practiced a bunch of times. We did a bunch of short-form games. It was a real, straight-up, game set. We played Freeze, and we played Foreign Dubbing and all that other kind of stuff, and just getting the response from the audience based on what we were making up was intoxicating, and I've kind of never looked back. Most of my college career I spent pursuing improv.
How have your improv skills improved since you first started?
After playing for a long time, not really understanding that there were rules, learning the rules of improvisation. Kind of like with marriage, a good marriage is freedom. That might seem like it's a statement that's in contrast with itself, but I've really discovered that strong boundaries give you freedom to explore within that world. I feel like the rules of improvisation provide you that same freedom, to kind of go wherever. I was talking to a student today, actually, about past improvisation experiences, and some of my favorites were actually... there was this little club that we played in, in Cleveland after Second City Cleveland closed called Bassa Vita. The four of us were on the main stage together in Cleveland, and then we stayed together, the four guys, we stayed together and played. We found a form together, and just having a complete and total trust in each other, complete and total freedom to not worry about a brand, and just kind of jack around and see what would come out, was really thrilling. I wouldn't say it was all great, but it was really a wonderful exploratory process. I think for every improvisor, you get to a point where you have to work within a restriction and then remove that restriction and explore, and see where you develop as an artist. And that's what that period was. I think coming back to Second City after that time was really invigorating. I learned a lot from that sort of time in the wilderness, if that makes any sense.
How has your Second City training helped you in other acting jobs, and in life in general?
It's made me a better listener. It's made me more prepared. It's taken away a lot of anxiety. Doing eight shows a week, getting in front of two or three thousand people a week, whatever stage fright you have goes away. Also, corporate events, where you may have to perform for one giant ballroom filled with people who are uptight and have to listen to speakers all day, who are so grateful for your little sketch, it's a really strange sort of place to be. I feel like I've learned a lot of empathy for an audience, and being a director, helping me see, when I get self-indulgent as an actor, I have to think of myself as a director and an audience member. Because as a director, I'm an audience member first, and I'm sitting out there in the dark, watching and then reacting to it, and figuring out how we can craft things, and how we can keep the audience, or whether we lose them, and that kind of stuff. It's really made me aware of a lot of stuff. It's ruined a lot of movies for me. But on the whole, it's helped me become a better communicator, a better husband, and a better father. You know, I'm forty-two years old and I play. With a five-year-old daughter, that's the world. So, yeah, it's pretty awesome.
What would you say are the attributes of a strong improvisor?
Honesty. Listening. Fearlessness. Someone who's selfless. Someone whose primary focus is to support and build rather than get laughs. And joy. Someone who's just got an explosive, energetic, wonderful, excited personality. Not to say people who are downers aren't funny or great improvisors, either, but at the same time I feel like there's force and energy that emerges from that sort of place. It's infectious, and when the audience connects to that, it's magic.
Is there a certain performer or group that you admire, and why?
A couple. I got to see TJ and Dave in Chicago a couple of times. They're wonderful, because they really take their time, and they really listen to each other, and they're just really intuitive improvisors. They're really fun to watch. And they're nice cats, too, which is helpful. There was an ensemble at Second City in Detroit that I was involved in. Our touring company was really, really strong. Marc [Warzecha]'s cast for the show "19th Nervous Breakdown" that Dave Razowsky directed was marvelous. They were really inspiring to watch. That was Antoine McKay, Keegan-Michael Key, Cheri Lynne, Kirk Hanley, Marc Warzecha, and Maribeth Monroe. They were wonderful. It was a great, great show. Really, really fun. I love "Promisekeepers, Losers Weepers." It was a Chicago show, a main stage show that I really, really dig. There's a lot of fantastic groups. I feel more like, now, I don't hold as many groups up so much. I like the freedom to create it to be whatever it is. It's funny, I've got heroes in different arts, but particularly in improv, I've kind of backed away from that and been more, "Let's see what we can do. Let's be our own heroes."
What do you do to keep your skills sharp?
I formed a group called "Detroit Sandwich". We play once a month with the LA Comedy Festival 365, and the discipline with that is, there's a core group of us, Keith Reay, Diona Reasonover, myself, and Cheri, my wife, but I'm trying to bring in guests to play with different people with different styles, and play, going into the batting cage, putting a couple tokens in, and saying, "Throw me fastballs and curveballs." And learning how to "Yes, And" people with different backgrounds and different experience, and that part of it has been really exciting. It's made me feel much stronger and a lot more confident. It certainly helps my commercial work as well as my voice-over work. Making choices, I feel like that's really, at the end of the day, the most important part of improv, in terms of taking it to another place. And if you give yourself the same stuff every time, you start to make the same kind of choices, and you get stale. So I think it's important to just keep playing, and mixing it up. Keep stirring the pot, and see what comes out.
What advice can you give to people who may be new to improvisation?
Improvise. Just do it. Find opportunities, and create opportunities. Stay busy. The more hours you log doing it, the better you're going to get. Don't expect anything to be handed to you. Look for how you can apply improv. Improvisation is a wonderful art form for itself, but I feel like The Second City has prepared me for life beyond it. It's like college. If you love college, you want to stay in college, and you'll wither and die in college. It's the same thing with Second City. You've got to go through it and do it, and then move on. I've stayed around the company, but I've been able to do so many different things within it, and I have a life outside it. The amount of time I spend here is primarily teaching, because I love to pass on my knowledge and my passion for the art form. I feel like for young improvisors, get a group of friends together, find a space, and just play. Do it whether you have an audience or not. Who gives a shit if they're watching? Make mistakes, break the rules, find out why the rules work. Discover why "Yes, And" is a necessity. That would be my advice.
What's your favorite memory of being around The Second City?
It's completely unrelated to doing sketch. There was an *NSYNC concert. It was either *NSYNC or Britney Spears, taking place at Comerica Park, which is right across the street from where Second City was on Woodward and Montcalm in Detroit. Jeff Fritz had a character that he had made that was a very effeminate boy, and I had a retarded character. And the bit was that I put on a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and a dress shirt and tie, and a pair of Bermuda shorts and black shoes, and a ball mitt. Fritz had a Britney Spears backpack, and he tied his shirt in a knot around his waist. Before our show, we went out into the street as people were flooding past to go to the park, and Fritz was trying to buy two scalped tickets for us to go to the Britney Spears concert, and I'm playing this character who's clearly lied to about going to see the Tigers game. It was a really elaborate sketch that we had set up. The best part about the whole thing was standing in the middle of fuckin' Woodward in Detroit, asking, "Where is the Tigers game?" to my friend who is trying to buy Britney Spears tickets, looking over at the theater and seeing the rest of our ensemble, screaming, just hollering, like it was the most absurd, horrifying thing. We really took it to the street, and it was a really crazy moment. And it had such a full life to it. That was what made it really fun. The other was at Second City Cleveland. The Dixie Chicks had a concert at Gund Arena and they cancelled for some reason. But everyone was there, so they were all pouring into the street. Well, I had a Chevy S10 pickup. So this was literally fifteen minutes before the show started. We grabbed a bullhorn, Cody and Randall, both performers, jumped in the back of the pickup, and I jumped in the front and drove down Prospect, yelling to the audience that was leaving the Dixie Chicks concert, that if they brought their Dixie Chicks ticket stub in, they'd get half off at The Second City. And we made it back with three minutes before curtain. But we got seventeen people. And it was kind of the most guerrilla thing. Oddly enough, neither of those things were really performances onstage, but to me, it was about the people I worked with, and the connection we made through the art form that blossomed and redefined performance, in a way. So those are the two things that stick out. And falling in love with my wife, getting married, and doing sketch comedy together, because we met at The Second City in Detroit in the touring company.