“Money in the Bank.” That’s what improviser Matthew Ostrom of the Chainsaw Boys dubbed Rosemary Hyziak after she had, in his words, “saved my ass” in countless scenes. Others have had the same experience. “She’s the most reliable improviser I know,” says Tom Soter, the producer and emcee of Sunday Night Improv. “She takes her time helping to create a scene and builds on what you give her. “She is remarkable.”
Who is Rosemary Hyziak? Here, in her own words, is her story:
I was born in Buffalo, NY. I remember one of my first creative performance impulses was to insist I be a Spanish Senorita for Halloween. I wanted to do a flamenco dance in a flouncy dress. I was enrolled in dancing school, but when I went to visit the dance studio with my grandmother, I saw the teacher correcting the student’s posture with a long white stick. The teacher would tap the student’s legs. For some reason I thought the teacher would beat me with the stick, so I refused to go to my first class. A creative avenue closed.
I went to a Catholic kindergarten. My first acting experience was slated to be playing Little Bo Peep in a nursery rhyme review. Unfortunately, my family moved a few weeks before the show, so some other lucky girl went on instead of me. I had to wait a whole other year, when our public school first grade teacher did a radical dramatic interpretation of that well known children’s book “The Five Chinese Brothers.” There were several parts for boys, since there were several Chinese brothers who had special powers, like they could grow or shrink at will. I was the Chinese mother. My props were a cardboard box and a plastic tea set. I was supposed to set the table and pour the tea. My first bit of real improv happened during the show when the box fell over and my tea set fell to the ground. Instead of being horrified, or storming off crying, I told myself to be practical, I got myself up, picked up my box and tea set and went on with my few lines. I didn’t feel scared on stage, and knew early on I wanted to be a performer.
In second grade I upped the ante and asked to sing a solo at the annual Christmas pageant. I wore a special skirt my grandmother had made with jingle bells sewn on it and sang that popular favorite, “All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” I had to wait until the middle and high school drama clubs to be cast in real shows and musicals. My biggest parts for some reason didn’t involve lines. I was the mime/mute in “The Fantasticks” and Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”
My greatest wish was to get out of my hometown and move to and be a performer. I went to New York City with our high school drama club four years in a row, and saw plays and musicals. The first day I got here I saw steam coming out of a Con Edison sewer pipe near our hotel and knew this is where I wanted to be. I knew something was going on here if the street was so hot it was smoking.
I studied acting, voice and movement at the Stella Adler Studio in New York City through the New York University Drama Department. I found studying “the method” and mapping out one’s character through exercises and the words of the text felt a bit calculated. I studied proper English speech with some old English lady. I enjoyed the poetry of classical theater and once put on an evening of Shakespearian monologues at a local YMCA with wigs and costumes. People who saw me at this time might say I was well-meaning and dedicated but not too interesting, original or brought any “reality” to the life of the character (bastards). I had a burning desire to perform, but never found the right vehicle for my quirkiness. I loved Marcel Marceau and thought I might be a mime. I got involved with “alternative theater” and did my share of rolling around on the floor in Jerzy Grotowski-like exercises in east village lofts and performance spaces.
I would often go to plays and shows and once went to see Chicago City Limits (on a TDF voucher). There I saw Carole Bugge, Carl Kissin, Judith Searcy, and other improvisers perform at the top of their game. I happened to sign up for their mailing list. They were at the Jan Hus performance space at the time. One day I got a notice that a beginner class was forming. Carole Bugge was my first improv teacher. I remember I laughed and had lots of fun. Carole went on to form her own classes outside of CCL. I joined her class and stayed many years. The pressure was off to be an “actor” I began to find my own “inner performer.” I enjoyed not having lines to learn, but to have words come from the action of the scene. When I was trying to be an actor I genuinely didn’t consider myself a funny person. I knew I was quirky, but didn’t know where I fit in. Doing games and short form was very freeing for me.
People said I should start going to Sunday Night Improv. I went to the West End Gate and saw amazing performers doing brilliant things with scenes, songs and stories. I began taking Tom Soter’s classes, and delve deeper into the scene study aspect of improv. In between I took “Song Improv” classes with Noel Katz and Sam Cohen. I got up enough nerve to take Tom’s performance group Wingnuts where we had classes and performed every other week. That was our “boot camp improv.” I knew I really arrived when Tom asked me to perform at SNI. Now I’m a regular, and an assistant producer of the show. I believe improv is the perfect place for me. I have met a lot of genuinely creative people who want to learn improv, and others who were just trying it out. It’s okay to be in a learning place. Some people find it’s not for them, and some people have the courage to explore improv further.
I feel my worst improv moments are when I don’t get out of my own way and I clam up and am just a lump onstage. After I get home I want to kick myself for not letting go or connecting. My best moments have been when I can connect with other performers onstage and as Tom says, we can build something together brick by brick. I feel I am fulfilling my performance dreams by participating in improv.
I enjoy going to as many improv classes as I can. I am still learning all the time, and if I can help others not to be scared or fearful doing improv, or to make their first show a good experience, I feel I’m doing okay. There are always new things to learn, personal barriers to break through and another chance to tap into that creative stream inside ourselves.