Categories: ART 'SEEN', Kristen Schweizer

ART SEEN: Olivia Espinosa and Steve Hohman. ‘Serious Play’ at the Haus of Improv

Article by Kristen Schweizer

July 21, 2022

While the terms ‘actor’ and ‘storyteller’ may be used interchangeably, many prefer ‘storyteller’ because it encapsulates the mission of theatre: to share truth through narrative. The magical on-the-fly skill set of improvisational storytellers can also be wielded off-stage – and for noble purposes – as proven by the co-founders of Haus of Improv, Olivia Espinosa and Steve Hohman.

    “[Arists] hustle to survive.” Hohman explained, “Before the pandemic, I was driving up to Orange County, to San Bernardino—always performing and teaching all over San Diego; sometimes traveling all over the country. Then we had our first child a week before the [2020] lockdown, and, for maybe the first time, we had time to think. We never had that kind of time as working artists – and we had an idea.”

    Haus of Improv, founded in 2015 by the married Espinosa and Hohman, is now geared to translating improvisational acting techniques to professionals and students. Their expert teaching artists have worked on large and small stages and within the classroom, but now the bulk of their work is with attorneys. The shift occurred as they began combining their twenty years of performing experience with several years of cross-examination training alongside some of the world’s most prominent lawyers.

In 2014, Hohman took a one-day gig playing a witness for Roger Dodd’s Trial Skills Clinic. Roger Dodd is a legend in teaching cross-examination to trial lawyers and he hires professional improvisational actors to help his students hone their skills. 

“As I listened to [Dodd] explain his tenets of cross-examination, I thought, “why do these feel familiar?” Then it clicked; he was teaching the rules of improv!”

Hohman holds a BA in Theatre Arts and Communications (Media Management) from San Diego University and is the former Managing Director of the National Comedy Theatre; but also spent five years as an insurance claims adjuster. His unique resume made him well-cast for a witness role and he continued working with Dodd for more than seven years. Over this time, Hohman saw the many parallels between presenting on-stage and in the courtroom.

Hohman explained the parallels practically, “It isn’t goofy in the courtroom like it is on the improv stage, but it becomes a truly constructive mindset when you understand that even disagreements can become part of a productive conversation if you handle them well. Even a hostile witness can provide a useful exchange of information. Sometimes it means accepting that witnesses say what they say because they have to live with themselves, so yes [to that witnesses’ statement] being their truth and… how do you effectively handle that real person [in the witness chair]?

Building a narrative is powerful; it grabs the hearts and sways the mind. “As actors, we are primed to teach people – be it to a lawyer or foster youth – how to control their story,” said Haus of Improv co-founder Olivia Espinosa. In addition to her work at Haus of Improv, Espinosa is a local director, playwright, actor, and teaching artist. In 2017, she received the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s most prestigious award, the Phil Killian Directing Fellowship. Currently, she is preparing to direct Extreme Home Makeover at Scripps Ranch Theatre in October 2022.

Espinosa is passionate about helping others share honest stories, especially underdogs. “[I’ve worked with] foster youth and in juvenile halls. Our [Haus of Improv] trainings are with a lot of private practices and small [law] firms, and I realized that we [actors and lawyers] are both doing the same thing in different ways; passionately advocating for someone else.”

    “Many of our clients have the same hustle that artists have—curious minds that like doing what they do and are willing to work hard for it,” Hohman added. “They’re tenured but not afraid to learn a new skill set, they’re lifelong learners.”

*Sometimes people forget that even improv actors must practice outside of performances and that all professions need to hone their skills outside billable hours.” Espinosa agreed and continued, “[Our clients] learn to recognize and become comfortable with their own voice; with the levels of their tone; to have the awareness and confidence to amplify what they have to offer – and not try to be someone else.”

Hohman continued, “Exactly! What works for one [successful lawyer] doesn’t work for everyone, so we help our clients find their strengths so they can be authentically—and effectively—themselves.”

Episonsa and Hohman practice what they preach regarding strengths and collaboration. They smoothly turned the ‘mic’ over to each other throughout our conversation, instinctively knowing who was best suited to answer questions. Through our short Zoom interview, they finished each other’s sentences, taught me a lot about jury management, and showed off one of their sleeping children on the baby monitor – all while making me laugh. This well-oiled teamwork, easy levity, and efficiency are in part due to hours of practice with online conversations. As the pandemic has pivoted court proceedings, legal meetings, sales calls, and conferences to take place online, Haus of Improv hold a bulk of its training and workshops on Zoom.

“Online meetings are cheaper and more convenient, so I expect more meetings to take place online, especially depositions,” Espinosa predicted. 

Online training allows Hohman and Espinosa to teach classes and lead one-on-one training all over the country, preparing professionals for the new age of meetings without the commute. It also means more time with their two children and each other. While theaters are open again, Hohman and Espinosa’s life looks much different than it did in 2019.

“Our kids will grow up watching us do what we love, and we get to watch them grow up. We’re grateful.” Hohman said. “They will get to see us play and also see how these skills are seriously useful.”

It is indeed a skill to fearlessly accept the unknown and drive a story toward a positive outcome. Steve Hohman and Olivia Esponisa have skillfully ‘yes and’d their incredible talent, artistry, and work ethic into something better for everyone.

Learn more about Haus of Improv at www.hausimprov.com or by checking out their guest appearance on The Jury is Out, a podcast for trial attorneys. 


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