by Nivea Serrao
“I love you! You hear me? I love you!!!”
Armando Diaz tries to ignore his scene partner, Christina Gausas, as she yells at him from across the stage. Instead he sits in his mimed car, a boyfriend eager to avoid discussing their relationship. Gausas, the stubborn girlfriend, blocks their make-believe garage door. Diaz’ response is to rev his “engine”. Undeterred, Gausas stands her ground.
“You’re not going anywhere until we talk about this!”
Diaz simply shakes his head, honking his horn instead. He hasn’t said a word the entire scene – a character pattern he appears reluctant to break.
This isn’t far from the real Diaz.
Since he first started improvising, Armando Diaz has worked with many illustrious names in the comedy world, not to mention had a style of long-form improvisation named after him. Now the co-owner of the Magnet Theatre and Training Centre in Chelsea, Diaz still chooses to remain out of the spotlight, instead focusing on doing the work he loves so much – teaching improvisation and sketch comedy.
“Armando has an understated presence which is really cool,” said Rick Andrews, a teacher and improviser at the theatre and training center. “For most people who have a name about them, you expect them to be pompous and pacing about the classroom shouting. He does none of that, because he doesn’t need to.”
A native of Chicago, Diaz was twenty when he first began improvising. At the time, long form improvisation was still an emerging form and there was no training centers or classes like there are today. The only theatre that taught improvisation was Second City in Chicago, which has since produced several famous comedians including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell and Amy Sedaris.
However the lack of training centres did nothing to hamper the art form. Fledgling schools began springing up all over the city, run out of whatever space was available at the time.
“The first class was in a bar,” says Diaz, thinking back to one of his first classes. “The teacher didn’t show up and we got a call later, ‘Oh well, class was postponed a couple of weeks at the same bar’. It wasn’t like there was this big respected institution, but the improv itself was just so amazing. In hindsight, it’s like ‘why did I go back to that place?’”
Diaz began taking classes at improv Olympic (iO) around the same time Del Close, a name synonymous with the origins of long-form improvisation, began teaching there. As someone who’d been improvising longer than anyone at the time, Close was always attempting working to develop the form further.
A pioneer of a long-form improvisation style known as the ‘Harold’, Close is mostly known for producing many students who went on to become not only Saturday Night Live alumni, but some of the leading names in comedy as well. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mike Myers all studied under him at some point in their careers.
When Diaz started taking classes at iO, there were only three levels of classes: Level 1, Level 2 and ‘Del’s Class’. Once improvisers had completed all the levels, they would keep retaking Close’s class.
“Sometimes somebody would show up who studied with him before” recounts Diaz. “I remember one class Chris Farley showed up and kept jumping into scenes. You never knew just who was going to start showing up.”
It was through iO that Diaz met Adam McKay and Dave Koechner, two of the people responsible for the creation of the show named after Diaz, ‘The Armando Diaz Experience and Hootenanny’.
“Adam came up with the title,” recalls Charna Halpern, one of the co-owners of iO and author of ‘Truth in Comedy’; a book based off of Close’s teachings and long considered one of the definitive guides to improvisation. “I asked him why we should call it that and Adam replied ‘As a social experiment. Let’s see if we can make Armando a household name.’”
The show incorporates a monologist who tells personal stories that provides the inspiration for the resulting scenes. But at the time, neither McKay nor Dave Koechner knew what the show was about. All they had was the title. Diaz had the idea to tell stories as a part of the show. He’d done something similar earlier, improvising and telling stories, a combination that seemed to work.
“I guess because my name was slapped on it, I had to be the first monologist,” reasons Diaz.
Now the longest running show at the improv Olympic (iO) theatre in Chicago, it is considered one of the benchmarks of improvisational comedy. Say the word ‘Armando’ and most improvisers will know what you’re talking about. The success of the show resulted in a popular style of long-form improvisation that is performed all over the country.
“The conceit of the show he spawned was originally that Armando doesn’t want to be the centre of attention,” said Nicholas Feitel, an improviser at the Magnet theatre. “He’s kind of a shy guy who doesn’t like a lot of attention. But because he’s humble, it just works.”
Following the success of that show, Diaz began receiving a lot of offers to coach improv teams. “I was coaching seven days a week,” said Diaz. “Eventually I quit my job and tried to live off of coaching.”
The risk paid off as Diaz’s reputation as a teacher grew. Soon, the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), a sketch and improv group Amy Poehler belonged to at the time, asked Diaz to teach a workshop in New York.
“People really liked what I did,” said Diaz. “A year later when they were starting their own theater, they asked me if I wanted to come be their first teacher.”
When UCB received their own television show on Comedy Central, Diaz was hired to be their head writer. It was at a time when the group was not getting long.
“The first meeting, we met in the old theater space that they had and the four of them were just sitting far away from each other and not looking at each other,” Diaz recalls. “My biggest job was to settle arguments. They were smart, talented people who were also very opinionated and able to argue intensely, so I ended up being a lightning rod for things.”
By the end of the first season of the first season, Diaz was not only working on the show, but also teaching almost half the classes at the training center as well as running theater improv teams and directing shows.
“I kind of burnt out and hit a point,” recalled Diaz. “The frustrations with the theatre, the tensions we had on the show, bled right into one another. I was always the person giving them bad news. I came to the realization that I wanted to do my own thing.”
Diaz began to teach sketch and improv classes independently, all the while looking for space he could teach out of. Eventually, he did find a space and showed it to fellow UCB staff writer Ali Farahnakian.
“Around that time, Ali was feeling disgruntled by them and he started bitching about it,” said Diaz. “I ended up showing him the space and then the idea became about starting a theatre.”
Together, they started the People’s Improv Theatre (PIT) in Murray Hill. But the creation of a new theater led to rivalry between UCB and the PIT. Diaz however did not want to get in the middle of it.
“I was not in this to get into a fight,” said Diaz. “So I thought I’d just teach classes and people out there could come find me.” So almost a year after helping start the PIT, Diaz left to become an independent teacher. What followed next were a touch couple of years.
“As much as I had a really good reputation as a teacher it was hard to attract students because I didn’t have a theater,” said Diaz. He began to rent space out of the Gene Frankel Theater where he would teach classes that had end-of-class shows attached to them. But over time he kept having ideas for a new theater.
“The PIT experience was really devastating and really hard to recover from,” recalled Diaz. “But after all that, I still wanted to start a theater. It was like going into the fire. I felt more conviction in my idea.”
The Magnet Theater was born out of this conviction. But this time around, Diaz wanted to ensure everything went right. For one, he placed an emphasis on the culture of the theater.
“I wanted to make sure that the work was always respected,” said Diaz. “And I wanted it to be an open, friendly place.”
Students and performers alike seem to respond to this. As a result, the Magnet Theater recently celebrated its seventh anniversary.
“Magnet really has that sense that everything’s cool, that we’re all in this to screw around and learn,” said Feitel, a student at all three theaters. “The classes give you confidence and a sense of play. The shows are consistently of a higher quality on average than anywhere else. The community is super-supportive because Armando is.”
A lot of what Diaz has applied to the theater came out of the training he received in Close’s class.
“I was just entering Del’s class and I would play with an experienced player and they didn’t avoid me, they would just embrace me,” recalls Diaz. “I learned so much from playing with more experienced players. I wanted to have the same environment for the Magnet. That’s how I came up with the Magnet Mixer.”
In a mixer, improvisers with little to no experienced are paired up with more experienced improvisers to perform a two person scene, with both players benefiting from the experience.
“You get so much better by playing with less experienced people and making them look good,” says Diaz.
And Diaz is all about supporting his students.
“What he gives is less a specific philosophy than creating an atmosphere where it is possible for people to do their best work,” said Feitel. “It’s like a movie: if the director is calm and happy, then probably everyone on the set will be too.”
Andrews recalls a moment in a Level One improv class he co-taught with Diaz when he was training as a teacher, where Diaz dealt with a student reluctant to perform. “A woman didn’t want to step out and do anything, and he was just like ‘go ahead and do it’ and she did it. It’s such a tense moment as a teacher when someone doesn’t want to step out and participate. But that’s what makes him such a great teacher. He tries to give people an opportunity to succeed.”
Over time the training center has grown to include more teachers. The only classes Diaz still teaches at the Magnet are sketch writing Level One and Two, and a class on how to teach improv.
“I live to make myself irrelevant in this place,” admits Diaz. “If I make myself the least important person in this place then I feel like I’m doing something right.”
For now, Diaz continues to direct shows and coach improv teams at the theater. He hopes to develop a sketch writing program, and eventually, sketch teams that write and perform their own material.
“I’ve heard him say sometimes that he would love for someone to form another theater after doing something out of [the] Magnet” said Andrews. “The idea that he would inspire other people to create is something he holds dear.”