"You just try to get better at what you do: that's what every day is about. I just think 'How can I grow into this?'. But it's also fun. I'm really interested in the process, I've always been."
— Mark Larson
Mark Larson is a writer, interviewer, educator, and curator of many oral history projects like American Stories Continuum and Ensemble—collecting and sharing conversations about contemporary life in the United States, while exploring a wide range of themes from Education to Economy, from personal Change to theater. Former Director of Education at the Lincoln Park Zoo and manager of the School programs at The Field Museum, as an educator and professor at National-Louis University, Mark also published two books: Making Conversations, and Situations, co-authored with Betty Jane Wagner. Inspired by Studs Terkel's work, Mr. Larson's interviews are intimate portraits of subjective experiences in our communities, shining a light (one voice at a time) on our shared social experience as human beings.
Mark Larson (guest): Anybody who you know, whether it's an Artist or whatever, a Teacher, whatever it is, you're just trying to get better at what you do. I mean, that's what every day is about. I'm just thinking about, how can I grow in this? But it's also fun; it's very entertaining to do. See, that's the thing, I'm real interested in the process, I've always been.
Simone Salis (host): I am Simone Salis next up on The Hoomanist, today's guest Mark Larson. This is The Hoomanist, and I'm your host, Simone Salis. Today's guest is Mark Larson: writer, interviewer, educator and curator of many oral history projects, like American Stories Continuum and Ensemble, electing and sharing conversations about contemporary life in the United States while exploring a wide range of themes from education to economy, from personal change to theater. Former Director of Education at the Lincoln Park Zoo and Manager of the School program at The Field Museum as an educator and Professor at National Louis University. Mark also published two books: Making Conversations and Situations, co-author with Betty Jane Wagner. Inspired by Studs Terkel's work, Mr. Larson's interviews are intimate portraits of subjective experiences in our communities, shining a light one voice at a time on our shared social experience as human beings. And so Mark today, I don't have to do any work. What's your story?
M. Larson: What's my story?
S. Salis: What's your story? From when you entered the world until now sitting on this chair.
M. Larson: Wow, well let me abbreviate it.
S. Salis: Thank you.
M. Larson: For the sake of time.
S. Salis: The summary of it.
M. Larson: The summary, yeah this is the fast version. Most recently I've retired from Education, which is something I had done for a big chunk of my life. I taught High School for a number of years and then I was offered a job at The Field Museum in Chicago in which I left halfway through the year just because it seemed like a great opportunity. I knew nothing about natural history, but it just seemed like it'd be fun to do, and it in fact was. That ran its course, and then I ended up at the Lincoln Park Zoo for a while, which I really enjoyed, and then went to, kind of a return to teaching at National Louis University where I was a Professor of Education there.
S. Salis: So Professor of Education, it gets quite meta.
M. Larson: That’s true, isn't it? That's very circular.
S. Salis: Yeah. Do you do you teach about how to teach?
M. Larson: How to teach, ways of teaching.
S. Salis: So who are your students? Teachers?
M. Larson: Mostly? Yeah, because it was a Master's program and a Doctoral program. So these are people that had been in the field for a while.
S. Salis: But you started as a High school teacher in Evanston?
M. Larson: Yes, in Evanston.
S. Salis: Okay. When did you start that?
M. Larson: Oh Gosh, 80 I think 1980 till 98 so 98 is when I left.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: I was there 14 years, so whatever the subtraction is.
S. Salis: You're originally from Chicago, right?
M. Larson: Yeah, I've always lived in this area.
S. Salis: Okay, and were you born in Chicago?
M. Larson: I was born in Moline, Illinois. My parents quickly moved to Chicago.
S. Salis: Okay, and how did you realize that you wanted to be in education? Was that a realization that you had when you were in school? What did you do as a kid? What did you think you would want to do?
M. Larson: Well that's an interesting question because I was terrible in school I was a terrible student. That's partly my start while I was terribly bored for one thing. I never really wanted to do the stuff that they were doing. My interests would follow different paths. I just found it all kind of dull, incredibly dull, and so my grades were just terrible, and then I got into Valparaiso University just on a contingency basis. I had to take courses in speed reading and in composition and some others study skills because it was like remedial for me just to get into college. Yeah. I just wasn't a good student. So the idea of my becoming a teacher was just absurd, you know, it just never would have occurred to me.
S. Salis: What did you think you would do as an adult?
M. Larson: I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to work in theater. So that was what I was doing in college is what I started doing in high school.
S. Salis: But as you wrote on the website for Ensemble, which is your upcoming project and book, you say that, the Chicago theater scene and you were born the same year.
M. Larson: Yes.
S. Salis: So when you were growing up in high school, the scene was like a little bit better than, you know, than the total absolute zero tabula rasa than it was before the 50s.
M. Larson: Yes.
S. Salis: Did you perform, did you want to write for theater? What was your kind of involvement when you were a kid?
M. Larson: What I really wanted to do was write for the theater.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: And I found out very quickly as people do that I was just a terrible actor and, and so I kind of gathered friends together as people did in those days, put together a little theater company and then wrote things for them.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: And then Victory Gardens picked up a one act that I had written and that was, that was fun and sort of got me to meet a lot of those people and got a sense of what was going on at that time. But, then Second City picked up a little children's show that I wrote and they did it on Saturdays oh no Sundays every Sunday, and so that got me to meet a different crowd. And then I worked at, Goodman Theater for a while because I was the assistant to, an old TV star, named Burr Tillstrom, who had a show called Kukla, Fran and Ollie. In the very early pioneering days of TV, and he was trying to come back and do live TV or live shows and some TV, and so I was hired as his assistant, which I did for a while. And then during that time I was doing that, I met with a woman who would become my wife and we ended up having twins and I needed a real job.
S. Salis: You needed to become a person.
M. Larson: I needed to become an adult.
S. Salis: An adult like yeah in the conventional sense.
M. Larson: Yes, and I just need money coming in and so that I kind of stumbled into education. There's no, like, I always wanted to be a teacher.
S. Salis: How did you meet your wife?
M. Larson: It was, this was at a Steppenwolf party, we were set up her best friend from high school who was married to, is married to Tim Evans who is the Executive Director over at North light now, but have been with Steppenwolf at that time and they were having a cast party in the late 70s. They told me there was somebody, they wanted me to meet there, you have to come to this party, and they told her there was somebody, they wanted her to meet you ought to come to this party, and that's how we met.
S. Salis: And they were right, actually.
M. Larson: It turned out they were right. I posted about it because we had an anniversary oh no, it was a Jane Evans, Tim's wife. It was her birthday and on her birthday, I think it was, I posted something about it. Tim said, and I'd never heard him say this and this has been like 40 years, and he said, "I remember seeing you and Mary talking very intensely throughout the evening, and I remember saying to Jane, well, that worked out". That's the first time I heard that story.
S. Salis: You also wrote that, you mentioned that once you work through a storefront theater whose founder was the same age as you and you asked like "David is 22 and so am I, I'd like to talk to him sometime".
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: And my reasoning seems airtight to me but, apparently not to the young woman I spoke to because I never met David. But the notion that a person much less someone my age could just make a theater was mind altering.".
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: To me.
M. Larson: I had read something in the paper that he started this little scrappy theater on Howard Street and that just absolutely floored me. The idea, you know, and I was fascinated by it because in the paper it said we were the same age. It didn't say, we were the same age,.
S. Salis: Yeah.
M. Larson: But it said he was 22 and I was 22. I'm a shy person by nature, but there are things I want that I will supersede my shyness.
S. Salis: So you just decided to go in what was…
M. Larson: I just, I'm going to climb the stairs and see if I could meet David.
S. Salis: Is that a thing that you do often? Like sometimes when you, when, when there is something that you want to reach or achieve, do you just go for it and just ask?
M. Larson: To certain degree, I mean, it takes a lot of gathering my courage to do it. I don't think, you know, this book that I've just written, there's over 300 interviews in it and looking back on it, I'm surprised I was able to get them.
S. Salis: To get all those people to…
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: Yeah, that only surprises me too because sometimes there is a person that I want to talk to and most times it's just me finding a contract and go like, hi I would like to talk to you.
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: Can I talk to you?
M. Larson: They say yes.
S. Salis: And they say yes, usually people say yes.
M. Larson: And you're surprised aren't you?
S. Salis: Yeah, I am, yeah, because you never expect people to just be nice. And I don't want to sound too cynical, but you know, you see somebody and you think of them highly and you think like they're too busy, they're too good, they're too everything, and then you just gather your courage a little bit of that and go like, could I please? And most of the times they say if they're able to, they say yes.
M. Larson: That's exactly it, for you, It's, they're too busy and they're that. For me it's more like who am I?
M. Larson: No, don't worry for me even more, but yeah sure, sometimes I just go like, hi, you don't know me, but I do this. Do you want to be part of it? How did you start this you know, recording conversations and everything? I actually had a chance to meet you because you were kind enough to pay some attention to a few interviews that I shared. And I learned that actually, you do with more experience, you do what is my goal to do. You just sit and talk to people and you explain that it's just one voice at a time. One Listener, one audience member at a time. But how did it start? When is the first time that you thought, I'm going to interview this person? I am going to share what I'm saying with them. Like what is your main drive? How did it start? Did you realize it at the time that you had this drive?
S. Salis: You know that's a great question, I think I understood it in retrospect better. In retrospect I realized you had mentioned in the intro that I had been interviewed by Studs Terkel, who is really a hero of mine. And so I sat down for two interviews with him and I also watched him work. He had a show on the live show interview show on WFMT and I sat in the studio with him there and just was absorbing that and was just fascinated by it. Certainly read his books, which were all his thesis, his phenomenal interviews. So that fascinated me, but also one of the things I realized in retrospect is one of the ways I was overcoming my shyness was just to keep firing questions. You know, you hear people talk about a photographer, will say, you know, I hide behind my camera, you know?
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: And that for me it's like it's the questions are my camera. And so it was a way of taking the attention off of myself and putting it on the other. And then that became very interesting to me.
M. Larson: Why?
S. Salis: It was very interesting to watch people sort of unfold themselves, you know, like Origami coming up, you know, just opening and, and hearing what they had to say. That really did interest me. And then couple that with my understanding of Studs Terkel's work, which was there's nobody walking, there's nobody on this earth or to doesn't have a story worth listening to. So that kind of came together and I was very, very interested in that. And then it came time for me to do my Doctorate in Education. This is years later and a good friend of mine in kind of a mentor and an advisor said, you know, you ought to do your Doctorate by doing interviews and put together kind of an oral history. And I did that with some prominent educators that I'd always admired and was surprised as we said before. I was surprised, they said yes.
S. Salis: Yeah.
M. Larson: Yes, come up to my home in Wisconsin, come to my office. And so I did that and then put the doctoral dissertation, really was kind of an oral history.
S. Salis: So it was about education that was your very first theme?
M. Larson: Yes, yeah.
S. Salis: And is it the same interviews that you can find an American Stories Continuum?
M. Larson: That's how that even started. I thought I like some of these, and they seem to significant to me, maybe I could put them someplace, and so I created the website for that.
S. Salis: To create a collection with those and then at that point you just kept going with other themes.
M. Larson: And then it just kept going, yes it just kept going.
S. Salis: Hello, Simone here, and this is The Hoomanist, support for this show comes from you. If you would like to keep enjoying new episodes regularly please become a supporter now visit hooman.ist/support. I am Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist, today with guest, Mark Larson, writer and interviewer. So the first one was education for you and then at some point you felt that theme was for the time being, it was exhausted for you. You wanted to move on to something else?
M. Larson: Yes, well, retiring from the University was one thing. There was something about once I was stepping out of education after all those years, the idea of returning to theater, which is where I'd left off when my kids were born. I was doing that. It almost kind of bookends my career. So I went back, but, and this is part of what prompted the book too, from that time when my show was done in this little Victory Gardens Theater across from Wrigley Field, in a little studio theater between then when there wasn't much of a scene, but it was beginning to grow and when I reentered it was astonishing. You know, the…
S. Salis: The size difference, or the community?
M. Larson: Yes.
S. Salis: It was different in itself.
M. Larson: Yes. It would just had grown exponentially. I just became re-fascinated by what was going on here in Chicago.
S. Salis: You were going full circle; you are your own arborous.
M. Larson: Yes, that's exactly right.
S. Salis: Biting the tail, these many interviews, you try to exercise the listening muscle for how possible it is. Is there something that you noticed that changed within you, throughout this whole process of just listening to people?
M. Larson: That's a wonderful question. I think one of the things I've learned is you're sort of listening for what the narrative is, because as, I've written the book, I'm trying to figure out, let's say you're an actor that I'm talking to. Where does your story fit with the larger story? And that that's sort of fun, but what it made me realize is, I'm always listening for that narrative. But I also realized that I like to sort of let it unspool as opposed to being, having very specific questions and then it's this conversation where they might go in another direction and because I can edit it.
S. Salis: Yeah.
M. Larson: I might as well follow and see where it goes and then return to where we were. I'm not answering your question.
S. Salis: That doesn't matter because you're going towards your flow, like you said.
M. Larson: That's exactly right, like I said, just talk to you.
S. Salis: Thank you.
M. Larson: The reason that I'd like to return to it is I don't know the answer to it. Ha, here is maybe part of it. The kind of conversation I like to have, especially with people who are in the public eye or not, people who are like trying to sell themselves either in terms of what they've done or trying to promote some idea of themselves. Have you ever liked met somebody at a party and they're just, you know, everything about them screams, I want you to know that I'm the life of the party or I'm a world traveler or I'm the funny guy?
S. Salis: Yeah, yeah.
M. Larson: It's just this constant selling, I just can't listen to that. But what I really like now I'm, I think I can answer your question is I like somebody who's trying to figure out for themselves in real time on tape. What we've done just now is a microcosm of that. You know, you said, what have you learned? And I really struggled with how do I articulate it? And I talked around it and I began to realize it. And it all happened on tape.
S. Salis: You are not interested in people advertising themselves or doing the networking?
M. Larson: Are you?
S. Salis: No I'm not, not at all, everybody has a story to tell. Some people are not willing to and they don't even realize it. I believe they're just stuck in the loop of self-promotion and advertising and presenting themselves more than being themselves, including me, most of the times. But yeah, so what interests you is the, you talk about how do they fit in the larger picture. What is the larger picture for you?
M. Larson: In terms of this book the larger picture is this. In 1953, there was very little going on in Chicago and something happened here, and it grew into over 250 theaters in my lifetime.
S. Salis: Okay, that's a larger picture.
M. Larson: Yes and so how did that happen and how did everybody participate in that? One of the things I heard early on is everybody talked about this as an ecology. We make each other possible, which a lot of theater, you know, New York isn't like that LA is not like that. So that's sort of the big story.
S. Salis: And the personal narrative of the person is also what interests you, which is then trying to understand what they're doing and why they're doing it.
M. Larson: Yes.
S. Salis: Basically so sharing a little bit of that with honesty if possible.
M. Larson: Exactly, yeah, why are you doing this and how do you view this larger scene and you know, how do you see yourself fitting into this story?
S. Salis: It's very hard for me to listen. I need to constantly remind myself that I need to listen because otherwise I am all in here and not touching my head. While doing improvisation. I realized that the brain when you are having a conversation is constant. At least mine other peoples might function differently. But mine is constantly waiting for the occasion for that crack to jump in and interject with my own things, my own thoughts, my own, you know, presentational side. And so did it come natural to you to listen in that way? I know that, you know, you say that photographer's hide behind the camera. You hide behind the question and the voice, but did your approach to listening the other person change throughout all the interviews that you conducted?
M. Larson: I hope it has, I mean, things evolve or they die Michael Shannon's great actor, he does a lot of movies now and he does a lot of TV, but he started here in a little theater and he continues to work at a place called Red Orchid now. And one of the things he said was, and this sticks with me, is a lesson learned along the way. He said before success really hit, except he's very modest, he doesn't say success hit, but I think the way he says it is more like before all this stuff happened.
S. Salis: Euphemisms.
M. Larson: Before all this stuff happened, there'd be times we'd go out onto the stage at Red Orchid and there'd be 8 or 10 people in the audience. And it bothered some people, he said, but it never bothered me because to me it was like, can I really say the last time I did this was the best I could do? And that's never true. So tonight I could have another shot at being better at it. So for him it was, each time was, it was an opportunity to get better. And so that's kind of the way I feel about it too. I think you're always learning in real time. So every experience is about how does this, what can I learn from this and how can I get better? That also helps you not feel no so shitty about, you know, that went terrible. That was terrible. Yeah, it's more about, all right, what, how did that go wrong and why did it go wrong? You know, before I started the book and where I was just doing the interviews, it really was my own education. It was almost like each person was like a book you've taken off the shelf. Where does that person lead me? You know, he or she mentioned such at such, well, I had to go listen to that then are I, or go talk to that person.
S. Salis: You know, I sometimes ask people if they see any spiritual connection to what they do or simply they have any kind of interpretation of life of things that they can feel, but maybe not see, and they don't have to, some people do and some people don't. But: do you see any sort of spiritual self-growth improvement as a human being into this for yourself?
M. Larson: It's a harder question for me. If it's put in this…
S. Salis: Context.
M. Larson: Not just context so much is with that terminology.
S. Salis: And what is the terminology, you prefer? To explain it…
M. Larson: For me it's, it's just like becoming a better person or becoming a better listener or becoming a better interviewer. Anybody who, you know, whether it's an artist or whatever or teacher or whatever it is, you're just trying to get better at what you do. I mean that's what every day is about.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: How do you get better at what you do? So I think that's what I'm thinking of. Does that make sense? I'm just thinking about how can I grow in this and as I understand your question, it's have you changed because of that? Is that what you're asking me?
S. Salis: Let me, let me try to put it in this way. There is a book called The Book of Five Rings and it's by these 700 or 800 years ago, Japanese monk and fighter. And he talks about the way, and he explains that, you know, everybody has a way, it doesn't have to be the way of the monk, it doesn't have to be the way of the fighter, it doesn't have to be the way of the emperor. But it's your way. It might be the way of the wordsmith. It might be the way of that. So from what I understand, this is a little bit of your way.
M. Larson: Yes, yes, as you were saying that, I was thinking, oh, that, that does make sense. I guess this is my way.
S. Salis: Okay, so this is the way of talking and listening and sharing and editing and becoming better at that and better and better and better. Because as you said, you always get a chance to become better and improve and learn more for yourself and from the person in front of you.
M. Larson: At least that's what you're trying to do.
S. Salis: Yeah, do you think there is no ending point, right?
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: So, okay, you are having fun, you had a chance to talk to hundreds of people from the Chicago scene, and theater, and this has given you a better idea of the history of how all of these came to be from zero to 250 theaters. Every interview is nice, but what is the most memorable interviews that you had so far?
M. Larson: Oh my, well, of course the answer is they're all special in their own.
S. Salis: Sure, sure.
M. Larson: Which ones pop into mind because there's a reason they pop into mind. Right?
S. Salis: That's what I'm interested in because if they pop into your mind is like, why?
M. Larson: There's one that I found very touching and I returned to her several times is a woman whose name is Joyce Piven. Joyce, see it makes, it makes me emotional to think about this. I was going to start the book in the 70s at the time that Steppenwolf came into being, because in my naive notion of things, that's where things started here. But I went to meet with Joyce Piven and Joyce was here in 1953 when there was nothing really going on. She ended up the University of Chicago and met up with people like Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills. These were the people who were, who gathered there and they created something called Playwrights Theater Club. It was in Chicago. It's something that's been often repeated now. But Paul Sills and David Shepherd said, you know, there's no place to do theater at the University and there's no place to do theater. Why don't we create our own theater? And that's what is often repeated in Chicago now. And Joyce was there for that and only recently moved to LA. So her life spans that whole time from 53 to the present. She was an actor there and that she created a school in Evanston, which is still there, called the Piven Theater Workshop that has trained so many excellent people who have gone on to big things too. The Cusacks came on there, John, Joan, Ann Cusack came out of there, a guy named Harry Lennox, Lecy Goranson who is on Roseanne right now. It was a tremendous influence. So the idea that she has been here this whole time, I started thinking about that and I thought, you know what, the book doesn't start in the 70s it starts in 1953 and I owe that to Joyce Piven. She just has this incredible.. When I walked away from it, I saw my wife and some friends for dinner and I said, you know, you're talking to an artist, you know you're talking to a theater person here. There's a tremendous passion, tremendous commitment, and there was a tremendous perseverance that just deeply touched me. That interview was very influential for me and it changed a lot for me. And I went back to her two or three times. I went back to her at three times, at least three or four times. I recently, this one pops into my head, because I just had some connection with him yesterday. Alan Arkin was an actor that I just greatly admired since I was a kid. He's done some, some amazing movies. Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Russians are Coming and I Wait Until Dark and Catch 22 and so I had always admired him greatly and somehow I got his email. This is one of the things we were just talking..
S. Salis: Somehow.
M. Larson: \Somehow, and I shouldn't say somehow it diminishes. There was a guy I've been in contact with who knows a lot of these folks and he gave it to me and I got up the nerve to send him an email and he said, okay, let's do this. Which stunned me, but he said, but you can't ask me anything that's in my book, so you've got to read my memoir then don't ask me about anything that's in it. So that scared me. So I carefully read the book and avoided everything that was in it.
S. Salis: Memorized it.
M. Larson: Yes, yeah, near the end though. I did say something like, yeah, I know this is in your book, but may I ask you to expand on? And he said something like, yeah, yeah, that's fine. Yeah, I can tell you've done your homework. But that's stuck out because I was really nervous. His career has been so long. Think of how many times he's been interviewed. He joined the Second City cast in its first months, it began in December in 1959. He joined it early 1960. So he was there right at the beginning of that.
S. Salis: You in your book, no you, you did mention though that you know, you did like to go one hour early before the show in a theater. No you mentioned that the hour before a show was kind of mag.. Like you would see the magic.
M. Larson: You know what that's in reference to there was a place on Broadway and in Chicago called Hull House Theater where a guy named Bob Sickinger was doing some amazing stuff. He was kind of stealing off-Broadway material and doing it without paying the rights for it.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: He was drawing on people in the community. He was drawing on Chicago actors doing some phenomenal work there. At that time I was in high school and you could get in two shows free by ushering. So I'd hop an L to Chicago as a high school kid and you'd have to get there an hour early because they'd explain how the seating worked even though there's like 40 seats so it wasn't that complicated. And Bob Sickinger, you'd see him still giving directions and all the stuff and activity going on with the actors in the last minute stuff going on. I just found that absolutely enthralling, just fascinating, in fact, I can, as I just talk about it right now, I can picture being in that room.
S. Salis: You have a vivid memory…
M. Larson: Yeah, it's very vivid memory for me, and then Steppenwolf actually moved into that space. A number of theaters Bailiwick moved into that space, Famous door, a lot of theaters moved in there after about Bob Sickinger left. I just love going to the theater. My wife and I go a lot.
S. Salis: What do you like of the experience..?
M. Larson: Of going to the theater?
S. Salis: Yes.
M. Larson: Part of it is I enjoy the watching the artistry of it. I get really engaged, you know, how's this working? How do they do this? For me, it's not as much about how I want to be transported into a different time and forget all. You know what I mean?
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: I really admire the artistry of it and I love that. I find that very invigorating. I've got friends who say, how could you like that play? It was so depressing. There was nobody that you could like, or it ends so depressingly and we don't need that in our lives. And I'm like, no, but it was so well done. I felt something and it made me question the world in a different way. I like that about it.
S. Salis: So it's the craft partially?
M. Larson: Partially it's the craft.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: And admiration of the craft.
S. Salis: You observe a lot people if theater, you observe people that you interview, you observed teachers while teaching.
M. Larson: That's what I used to do yeah.
S. Salis: Yeah, so there is a lot of observation for you and witnessing. Is it important to document what do you observe and if so, what is the reason? Why is it important? Why? Why do you keep interviewing after 500 interviews?
M. Larson: But, it's also fun, it's very entertaining to do. You know, I can't imagine that snap part of it for you too. Yeah, of course. You know, you've, you've bought this equipment and you've committed yourself to this and you've got your, and you've devoted a lot to it.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: Part of that is just fun.
S. Salis: Okay. So it's doing,.
M. Larson: It's the doing of it.
S. Salis: It's the doing of it.
M. Larson: Yeah, I told my wife at one point, you know, if this book never happens or if I'm in an accident before it even happens, don't be sad that it didn't happen because I've had a blast just doing the process. See, that's the thing, I'm real interested in the process, I've always been. How does this work? How do you put this together? And as soon as this is done, I'll move onto something else because I want to be involved in the process. It's almost more about you do something like this to engage in the process and you are to have a finished product.
S. Salis: Hello Simone here, this is The Hoomanist an independent resource of creative and ethical inspiration for digital humanists. Get new episodes as soon as they are released on hooman.ist and on your favorite podcast apps. I am your host Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist with today's guest, Mark Larson. Mr. Larson is a Writer, an Interviewer, Educator and Curator of many oral history projects like American Stories Continuum and Ensemble. And Mark is the fact that you're never going to be done, part of the fun?
M. Larson: Its part of the fun, but it's also just like you said; the doing and I know you knew what that meant. You know what I mean? It really is the doing that and then you can start to make stuff up about why it's important to capture it, you know what I mean?
S. Salis: Have you always been like that? Like knowing that doing is part of..
M. Larson: I've always been that way but I didn't always know it.
S. Salis: Okay, do you have a specific moment when you realized that you were like, ah, this is part of the process is doing, is being involved and focused on the doing?
M. Larson: I don't know if this is the moment, but this is a moment, I was at some event and a guy I knew was conducting the event and they were doing Q&A and he looked at me in the audience and said, Mark, you're a process monkey. What do you think of this? And I thought, well, I guess I am, you know what I mean. I hadn't thought about it, but yeah I guess I am. All of a sudden somebody clarifies the obvious for you.
S. Salis: It is an art to understand the process and optimize the process or try to do that. Do people rely, as a teacher or as an interviewer or as a father? I don't know….
M. Larson: I've always enjoyed working with students on their writing and what I will, you know, this goes back to your earlier question actually, I always was trying to teach them about the process rather than say a formulaic essay. I couldn't, they, at the high school, they had us teaching these formulaic essays, which made no sense to me that I wasn't quite sure why, but I think we were robbing them of learning the process and learning what their own process is. If I can teach you to tune into what your own process is, maybe we'll get somewhere because that you can carry with you.
S. Salis: Yeah. It's not, it's not just so it's not a set of instructions, it's understanding your own process.
M. Larson: Precisely, right yes, that's exactly right. And that's what I hope I was doing as a teacher. It was what I was trying to do. You know, I can't say that people, if people rely on me for that, I don't know the answer to that but I've tried to serve that purpose. But yeah, the doing of it really is what you first asked about that. It was interesting because you said, why is it important to capture these voices and so forth, and I realized I was coming up with sort of a grand,.
S. Salis: A grander objective like.
M. Larson: In my head, which I was kind of inventing or say, yes, it's important to document history.
S. Salis: Yeah. Yeah. That's what you wanted to hear, to be honest, because that's what I expected to hear,.
M. Larson: But that's part of it.
S. Salis: Yeah, that's a component of it and it looks almost secondary to me. Now that you tell me what did you enjoy the most out of it?
M. Larson: It's really the doing it and putting it, when I first started, I had no idea what I was going to do with all this material.
S. Salis: You just collected it?
M. Larson: I just collected and I had all these interviews and I do remember a moment where I said to myself, oh crap, I need to start, I need to start this, and then how do I do that? How do I go through like a 35 page transcript? What do I do with that? And how do I make that fit with the others? And you know what I mean?
S. Salis: So, it becomes a puzzle?
M. Larson: It becomes a puzzle, but it also becomes figuring out how to do this. You know what I mean? That's what I kind of like is figuring out how to do it and learning, so you read a lot of other books that are like that. Figure out, what's your spin on this going to be, but just the mechanics of, I remember at one point I was like underlining stuff and then I'm like, well what am I going to do with that? You don't, you're just inventing a process for yourself.
S. Salis: Yeah, and eventually.
M. Larson: And that's fun.
S. Salis: Yeah, the best things that actually happened to me. Like the, the ones that gave me the most satisfaction or the one that I just, I prepare a lot and I'm one of the people that tends to get lost into the process and preparation and then all of a sudden thank God I snap out of it and I just make whatever it is and something will come out. Then I adjust it, but it will.
M. Larson: You have clearly prepared for our conversation. You were drawing on things that I had written, you know what I mean? You had thought about all right what do I want to do with this piece of information? So you were, and you were quoting me and so you would prepare it in that way, but that paper you were holding has long since dropped into your lap. You know what I mean?
S. Salis: Yeah, because it comes a point where you know, the paper feels, I don't know, for you, the paper feels like a little bit of an anchor to me, and then at some point, if I stick too much to it, like everything becomes stale and..
M. Larson: Exactly right.
S. Salis: And I just wanted to know if this is true for you? This is an improvisation, some people, some instructors, some places teach you that every character has a want and it's nothing new. You know, it's the archetypical story of the protagonist, a hero, the goal, the want, can't get it. Then he'll get, they'll get it eventually or that. But that is my version of the "narrative" that you see in a person. Like I usually go like "what does this person… what is their main drive?". That kind of thing. What is your main drive?
M. Larson: Before I go to that can I?
S. Salis: Yes.
M. Larson: I think when I think of what I have learned this actually begins to answer several of your questions that I left hanging. Okay. So I'm coming to an understanding. I've learned a lot about, learned a lot from talking about people who are in Improv or use improv in theater. That idea that you're just there and you're responding to that moment as opposed to planning something. You know what I mean? It's, you know, you said you're waiting for that moment where I could get something in. But really you talked to Pasquesi, you've talked to people like that. They're, they're just responding to what's right there and that's what makes it work. That's something that I learned from the Improv people that I was able to apply to my interviewing. Dave, and does this thing with Tj, Tj and Dave where they improvise and they sort of look at each other for like whatever it is, 15 seconds. And he says that in that 15 seconds he's learning from Tj who he is. You see what I mean? So if I go into an, you know that this makes it sound like I don't plan for an interview. I get all this background, even what I mean, I know this stuff and then some of the people, there isn't a lot of background either.
S. Salis: Yeah that's true.
M. Larson: It's one thing to interview Tracy Letts and there's all this stuff and there's another to interview somebody who's just getting started.
S. Salis: Yeah.
M. Larson: And so there's not a lot you can dig up on them, but I love that idea of you going with what's there, you know, working with what they're giving you because they tend then to be very giving about that too. They see that you're actually responding to what you've just said, at least that's the way it feels. I can't say for certainty on that.
S. Salis: I think I see that. But I believe it's very, it's a very hard place to get to.
M. Larson: I think they would admit that.
S. Salis: Probably.
M. Larson: That it's, you know, it takes training and practice and it takes thinking about it. Susan Messing, her take on Improv is fascinating to talk about. Cause I think there, you know, you talked to some of these folks and you, I got an a real appreciation for what it's all about. It's not just you get up there and be funny.
S. Salis: No, not at all.
M. Larson: You know, or how can I, how can it be witty or, or do a character? That's so not it.
S. Salis: That's the brain part, that i was talking about, like that's the thing that I would say that's my brain. My brain when I'm there like "Oh how do I do to be funny?". And their brain is like vroom the emptiness.
M. Larson: It's responding.
S. Salis: It's responding to things and my brain is like "How do you show them that you're a genius?".
M. Larson: Right?
S. Salis: Yeah. It's just fascinating to find out sometimes improvisation, again, most people come because they need to do it for I don't know work. And they do that and as a kid and personally that you go like, oh yeah, I want to be on stage here and there I want to go here and there on TV and those kinds of things. And then eventually you start to see that this very much not what it's all about.
M. Larson: Yeah; yeah.
S. Salis: And that's the beauty of Chicago for me that has been the beauty of the Chicago Theater and Chicago scene. This is a little gift that they gave me in life, is the ability at least to see that if not to embody that.
M. Larson: You said that's not what it's about. What's it about? Instead?
S. Salis: It's about they call it childish fun, you know, the mind of a child. And that kind of thing to me it's also about freedom from worry. It's about the freedom from being worried and expectations of a result and in knowing that you cannot do right purpose. There is freedom because eventually you have to come to terms with the acceptance of failure. And that's the rare occasions that that happens. You know, I don't know if it actually happened so recently, whatever it is, but whenever it does, that's the beauty of it. And the moment they realize that is the moment that I came to peace with the fact that I don't need this. I mean I don't, it's not that I, it's a beautiful thing for some people it would be a beautiful thing for me in some occasions, but it doesn't matter because what I needed to get from improvisation, I got it.
M. Larson: That's it. Yeah. It's in the doing of it. You get it, you get it in real time.
S. Salis: The things that you said you are getting from these Improv people are very much the ones that I care about and that I try to apply in the interviews and from what I understand, they also influenced your approach to a few things like exploring this theater part of the Chicago scene and whatever it was born here. And, yeah, that's just why I admire someone like I'm happy to, you admire David Pasquesi or Susan Messing those kind of people are gems.
M. Larson: They really are, they really are, and I do think a general audience doesn't really get what goes into it and, but that's part of the art too, is you don't want it to show how hard this is.
S. Salis: Hello everybody. Welcome to the show. This is the hard part of my job tonight is trying to be an in the moment. Now I'm going to show to you the moment.
M. Larson: That's exactly right. This is me in the moment. Comedian Albert Brooks had a thing; way back when Johnny Carson was on the air, but Johnny Carson introduced him as this great, he's been studying mime with Marcel Marceau. He's going to bring his own twist to it and he comes out and he does sort of the cliché stuff and then all of a sudden he starts describing what he's doing. You know, it's exactly what you're talking about. I'm walking upstairs, that's my dog.
S. Salis: You're killing the mystery, with many knives.
M. Larson: Exactly right, by making it at all the obvious.
S. Salis: There was the interview with Tina Fey and David Letterman in his new show, My Guest's Needs, no Intro, whatever the deal is. Really play, like I liked the show, but Tina Fey goes there at some point and David Letterman goes. So this Improv thing, how does it work? And you could see Tina Fey go like ugh and then Letterman says, let's improvise now you and I, and Tina Fey was like, ah, she can't say, this is not how it works Dave.
M. Larson: It’s exactly right.
S. Salis: There was suffering for her. So when are you going to try improvising on stage?
M. Larson: That would be so terrible at it.
S. Salis: Why?
M. Larson: I would be, I wanted to sit in on somebody's workshop, I won't name the person and watch it because I wanted to be an observer and he said, well, sure, but, you need to do some stuff with us. And so I didn't go, I'm just too, I way too shy. I just couldn't, I love being the observer. I went to an event last night it was a book launch for a book and they did it at Theater on the Lake and they had some group there that was doing some, it wasn't Improv would, they were doing some scenes and it became clear that they were going to draw somebody out of the audience. And I did a whole little pantomime, I go oh, my phone, and then I spent the rest of the time in the back of the, that's, that's me.
S. Salis: Okay.
M. Larson: It's like, please don't call on me, please don't.
S. Salis: Terrified by a performer, it's like the person sitting in the audience don't call me, don't call me.
M. Larson: Yeah.
S. Salis: In that situation…
M. Larson: I read reviews to find out if they are going to make the audience do anything.
S. Salis: What is so scary about it?
M. Larson: Oh, I just don't, I don't like the.
S. Salis: Spotlight.
M. Larson: Yeah. I don't, I don't know what it is, I just become really tear.. I mean, last night, literally, I'm not a praying kind of person. I'm not a, you know, that kind of person. But I literally last night sitting there in the second row, which I don't like to sit in for this reason.
S. Salis: It's dangerous.
M. Larson: And then all of a sudden it was becoming clear, something was… I closed my eyes and "Please don't call me, please don't call me"…
S. Salis: They didn't call you though?
M. Larson: Well, I was in the back I’d left.
S. Salis: Yeah, because with the phone?
M. Larson: I left.
S. Salis: What is the worst thing that kind of happened?
M. Larson: Well, that's, I'd look like an idiot, I guess. You know what?
S. Salis: That's Improv, you look like an idiot.
M. Larson: I think the worst thing that could happen is that they call on me. That's as far as my thinking takes me. You know what I mean? It's not like I'm fantasizing some catastrophic thing that would happen once I got up, although I do trace it as if, okay, this is like you're a therapist. But I do know that when I was a kid, my folks took us in Nebraska or some godforsaken place to an Old West show for kids, and I had to sit down front and I don't know why, but, I hate to sit down front. And they were up on the stage and they were saying, you don't all right, everybody sing along, which is my least favorite thing. And I was just sitting there, I'm not going to sing along. And this guy on the stage is dressed like a cowboy. Took a gun out of his holster and put it to my head and said, I said, sing along. I was horrified. I mean I can still see it. So obviously been imprinted on me.
S. Salis: I can share some of those experiences because I mean, it happened to me once that there were no available seats anymore but, they positioned a couch to the side of the stage and so it was me and two other friends sitting on this couch watching the show from the side apart from the rest of the audience. And the when the two comedians constantly glanced at us and made like shame signs pointing at us and I'm like, oh, I don't know why when I believe it, it's very easy to pick a member of the audience and make fun out of them. Right. That's a very easy process to do. Everybody can do that. You don't need to prepare material you don't need to be good. You don't need to plan it. You just need to bully.
M. Larson: That's right and make fun.
S. Salis: Yeah, and the good thing is at The Second City they always try and to… they always try to put the audience members up to make them look good. No, seriously. Anyways. Yeah. Like you say, it's no therapy session, but well Mark Larson, interviewer, writer, soon out with Ensemble. When is it going to be out?
M. Larson: June 18th.
S. Salis: June 18th, 2019 and the website right now is ensemble-chicago.com and also your other website is americanstoriescontinuum.com, and you can find all the interviews divided by theme for education. Our inheritance, I think it's the.
M. Larson: Yes, about money people in their relationship to money.
S. Salis: And then change is the other theme. Four stories of personal change and people are going through personal changes.
M. Larson: And that's all I got to before. And then I started working on this book. So, I had to abandon it.
S. Salis: So your fourth theme is theater.
M. Larson: That exactly right, now I'll edit it.
S. Salis: From Mr. Larson today on The Hoomanist. Thank you Mark for sharing the conversation today.
M. Larson: It was great fun. Thank you.