George Francois is the longtime pianist at Sunday Night Improv. I first met him at an audition we were holding for piano-players, and he was one of three who tried out for the jam. Although he had done jazz improvitsations, he had never done a comedy improv show but seemed unconcerned. When he played, KI saw why. It was magic. He brought a skill and passion to the playing that moved me, and which led my father – who attended almost every one of our weekly shows during the last decade of his life – to assert that "George is terrific! The best you ever had." He – and most audience members who heard him – were immediately blown away by the ten-minute mini-concert George would offer before the show. Mixing classical music with Broadway show tunes, he would play with an intensity rarely seen at a comedy show. He was a quick study, too: at his request, I gave him audio tapes of soundtrack music (he was unfamiliar with a lot of pop culture) and he effortlessly added them to his repdetoire. He was also eager to learn about improv, and – to the great delight of my students (and of me), he attended my Monday night improv classes, playing underscore for the scenes. We all benefitted from having him there, and he said that he learned a lot, too: "You can play too much," he said to me once. "Many times, you can do more  by playing less."

What follows is a brief interview with George Francois. I hope my brief comments have helped round out the portrait of this remarkable improviser.  Tom Soter


HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN IMPROV? I always improvised, using piano, drums, guitar, xylophone etc. Improvisation is a natural part of many african musical genres. in traditional village settings, music and improvisation is always linked to story-telling, games, rituals and the like. My Uncle George (The late Justice G.R.M. Francois) introduced me to Jazz and blues at the age of 15. I went to Music College in England, and improvised all sorts of musical genres in bars and clubs to earn some extra money. When I came to the States I got involved in black gospel music, another excellent form that demands improvising skills.  Classical music also has some elements of improvisation. However, with respect to piano comedy improv and piano underscoring, I was introduced to this about 4 years ago by Tom Soter, and although I brought a wealth of experience with me, I have learned ever I know about the subtleties of this genre from him.
WHO WERE YOUR ACTING/IMPROV INFLUENCES, ROLE MODELS? Emulating good ballroom dancers actually works for me here.  On stage I am always trying to  find the right 'vibe' or musical motif for a particular moment. And yet I must not be too attached to my musical motif, but be prepared to shift its flow with the actor's impulses, because their response to the motif (if they do respond) may lead us all in a direction that I had not anticipated. So there is a natural flow of transformative energy. Yet my main role is to heighten the effect of whatever the actors are trying to convey. So there are ways in which my role is unequal to that of the actors, although it is always just as important. I think ballroom dancers understand this dynamic very well. Certainly, I have seen this sort of energy ebb and flow when I watch some of Tom Soter's best actors negotiate collaborations with different personalities on stage, and grapple with varying skill levels of improvisors as they try to effect humorous moments out of thin air. I would include on this list of excellent improvisors, names like Carole Bugge, Rosemary Hyziak, Tom Soter himself, and Tom Carrozza. There are others, but these names stand out for me.

DETAIL, CHRONOLOGICALLY, YOUR IMPROV RESUME/CAREER? I joined Tom Soter's group four years ago, and have been only with him since that time.

WHAT DO YOU GET OUT OF PERFORMING? A change of scenery (from classical concertizing and teaching), intellectual and creative stimulus, an occasional brain spasm, fun, good times, meeting creative people
WHO WERE YOUR TEACHERS? For comedy, it has been only Tom Soter. Classically I have mainly studied with Marjorie Clementi, David Renner, Heasook Rhee, Samuel Sanders.

WHAT DO YOU GET FROM DOING SUNDAY NIGHT IMPROV? IS IT FUN?    Yup, very fun. I do it because I enjoy it.
DESCRIBE YOUR MOST CHALLENGING IMPROV MOMENT? When I have to improvise a song in a style of a composer or playwright I have never heard of.
YOUR MOST REWARDING IMPROV WORK? When I pull the above off.

DONE ANY WORK IN TV? FILMS?  SCRIPTED THEATER? Occasionally, but nothing substantial.

WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO GO WITH THIS? I'd like to keep getting better at it, and to keep on learning about different musical and acting genres.

WORST IMPROV EXPERIENCE? When I am working with improvisors who have no sense of how to ballroom dance.