We had the good fortune of connecting with Rob Watzke and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rob, is your business focused on helping the community? If so, how?
Yes, that’s definitely a focus for us. Turbine Arts Collective is a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to the exploration of creativity, through workshops, performances/gatherings, and educational outreach. We’re built on the idea that everyone can benefit from creative study, and that participation in the arts as a practitioner or audience member has a direct connection to our growth as a community.
We grew out of my improvisation workshops as I noticed a lot of students were attending who didn’t identify as actors — they just wanted a place to be creative. And I wondered, what about someone who doesn’t want to get up on a stage? Research tells us that everyone… from every background, every economic level, every personality type… feels better when they are being creative. That doesn’t mean you have to do it in front of an audience. For some, it’s enough to draw quietly, or write in a journal. However, the same research shows that many people don’t feel they have permission or a place to do that. And some people need to show up and watch for a while, kind of check out the community first, before jumping into a creative practice. I saw an opportunity to create a place in Los Angeles where artists can go to perform, share, collaborate and draw inspiration, and where non-artists can find a place to start or continue their own creative practice without the high tuition prices often associated with classes. So, in the long term, that’s our goal.
Even without our own full time space, we’ve hosted hundreds of artists sharing what they do, and have had hundreds more pass through our workshops and attend our gatherings. All of our performances are donate-what-you-want at the door, except one fundraiser per year (and our streaming shows are free). Our workshops are among the lowest-priced in Los Angeles. We’re run entirely by volunteers, including me. We are growing slowly – and like every arts organization, we’ve hit a setback in our growth with the COVID-19 restrictions. We would love to add more online workshops during this time,. We have continued our performances through streaming our MONTAGE evenings, which showcase working Los Angeles artists, and since the death of George Floyd, we’ve provided a forum for #BLM performances and discussion. We also do shows that are improvisation and theatre-based. I teach online workshops, we are promoting Joshua Silverstein’s writing workshops, and others-to-come. Ultimately our goal is to have our own physical space, a cross-disciplinary arts center where all Los Angeles can meet to play and learn in a supportive atmosphere that reflects the beautiful and diverse culture of our city.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’ve made my living as a creative professional since graduating from college, in three related areas: Film, Improvisational Theatre, and recently, Creativity Training for Businesses. I moved to Los Angeles from the Midwest shortly after my college graduation (degrees in Communication/Theatre Arts and Journalism). No close friends here, no contacts, with enough money saved to live for a few months. I found day-by-day work as a production assistant, which led to a short apprentice job at a post-production company, where I learned how to be a freelance assistant editor. At the same time, I auditioned for small theaters, did plays at night, and got my SAG card and an agent doing a commercial. I tried a lot of things… I joined Gary Austin’s improvisation workshop, I did standup comedy, I wrote and directed short films, and eventually started getting work editing national commercials. I always felt like if I could keep doing a lot of creative things, each would feed the other and I could build an interesting career.
The editing allowed me to make a living, and I got to meet and work with some amazing people, like Spike Lee, Ridley Scott, and many others. While I was building that career, I also co-founded The Bubalaires (an absurdist improvisational theatre troupe), did the occasional acting/voiceover gig, had a writing/directing agent for a while, and started teaching my own improvisation workshops.
Like a lot of people in Los Angeles, I’ve continued to cobble together a career in these various areas. I’ve always been gig-to-gig and have never had a steady salary. Sound familiar? My advice and encouragement to people who work this way is to stay inspired by keeping your own creative practice going, and try to apply your creative impulses to everything you do – even if you feel like your current job is mundane or uninspiring. You’re often going to feel pulled in different directions. As an artist, when you’re doing work-for-hire you sometimes want to get away and do something that’s all your own. I’ve struggled to find a balance between making a living and doing things that feed my creative needs. On the best days, it all blends together in a nice creative burst. On the worst, it feels like you’re jumping from one moving bus onto another. I try to stay humble and grateful for the things I get to do, and especially grateful for the people I’ve met in Los Angeles. The city continues to inspire me every single day.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
My favorite thing about Los Angeles is that you can go 15 minutes in any direction and learn something about someone different from yourself, through food, music, art and performances. I tend to see a lot of things I’m invited to by a friend or artist, to check out what they’re doing. Let’s pretend we’re beyond COVID shutdowns, here are some of my favorites – and for every one of these, there are five more I could add!
Art: Stroll the galleries of the Arts District in DTLA. Leimert Park Arts Walk – last Sunday of the month, check out their facebook page. Exposition Park – Make a day out of it – Visit the Science Center, African American Museum, Natural History Museum. And I’m looking forward to the opening of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Movies: I love catching something old or new that the American Cinematheque is running at the Egyptian Theatre. The Vista Theatre in Los Feliz was the first place I ever saw a movie in L.A. And any time you get a chance to see Michael Mortilla accompany a silent movie on the piano, do it!
Take a bike ride or bring a picnic to Griffith Park and you feel lucky to live in Los Angeles. Visit Travel Town or the train ride with your kids. Or hang out on one of the lawns at Brand Park with a picnic and a book. Go to Echo Park – stroll the shops on Sunset, especially the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. Browse on the weekend at the Melrose Trading Post.
Live Theatre – we are blessed with some of the best small theatres in the country. Try the NoHo Arts District. Check out a live show at Largo, especially The Black Version – Jordan Black and his colleagues are the some of the best improvisers working in any genre. Or find a concert by Las Cafeteras, my favorite live band right now!
Food! Just a few places I like: Tony’s Mexican Grill on Magnolia Blvd. Everything is fresh and amazing. Rahel Ethiopian Vegan on Fairfax. Sunday brunch at the Golden Dragon in Chinatown. And of course, end your evening by coming to a Turbine Arts Collective event, like our Montage show – throw a couple bucks in the bucket (or don’t) and see some of the most creative artists in Los Angeles. We often gather at Thymele Arts, a wonderful arts space, check them out!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Well, my parents, who encouraged me to be independent and didn’t balk when I said I wanted to drive from Iowa to Los Angeles to live after college. My wife and daughter, who inspire me and make me want to be a better person every day. And Gary Austin, who was my teacher and mentor in improvisational theatre. Gary created the Groundlings, but by the time I met him he had left there and was teaching his own workshops. I met him entirely by accident, didn’t know anything about improvising, but it has become a basis for everything creative that I do. Unlike current practices, back then Gary wasn’t focused on performing in front of an audience. The workshop was the whole thing, a place to learn and practice, and what I took away from it was trusting the intuitive mind and letting go of the intellectual. Gary created a space where you could try and fail and it was ok. I also developed my own opinions and approach to how to teach actors and non-actors to improvise, and he was very supportive when I began my own workshops.
Rob Watzke photo: Mural by artists at offthewallgraffiti.org, courtesy of Rick Shaw, Secret Rose Theatre. THIS IS NOW poster, TURBINE MONTAGE poster, Teenagers From Outer Space poster, Cast of Turbine Arts Collective’s 2019 Halloween Fundraiser, and Rob Watzke with Helen Hunt and Jordan Black in streaming Improvised Small Claims Court, all courtesy Turbine Arts Collective.