Thursday, November 1, 2012

Well, THAT was easy.

All through the school year, I coach a high school improv troupe. They were a part of my theater's high school league when my theater company dissolved, and I inherited them from the original teacher because the high school drama teacher thought improv was for bars and rehearsals. Their original coach (and the school administration) probably thought I'd stick around for a few years...that was 12 years ago.

I was in my early 30s when I took it on. I was low on the Totem Pole of Responsibility at work and wasn't improvising anywhere, so I put everything I had into running the troupe. Over time, a few things happened:
  1. Aging. Dubya. Tee. EFF?! Other than my enhanced ability to make smart choices in a variety of situations, I feel no different than I did when I started this. But day-um...a DAY, or rowdy kids, or the drive up to Liberty can suck more out of me than I'd imagined possible. Where did this tired thing come from? 
  2. Input. Improv used to be mah life. I took classes, traveled for workshops, whored myself out to any troupe that wanted me. Now my life is my life. Job, volunteering, social life, nights off. It makes me a more well-rounded person, but I'm not constantly getting improv-related inspiration I can feed the children with. 
  3. Time. What did I teach last year? What games do they know? Am I repeating myself? 
So I made some changes: We went from 3-hour rehearsals to 2, then back up to 2 and a half. I ended up with assistant directors, which means the occasional night off. I lightened up. 

All sanity-preserving moves. 

But here's something weird that happened: Every year, my brilliant drama teacher friend Max, who heads one of the most impressive programs in the US, asks me to workshop with kids who want to be in his group. When I played with them this year, I noticed that I was giving them something I didn't give my own kids: an excitement for improv that made me bouncy, perky and hyper-enthusiastic. 

I was giving them new toys. They were digging the toys. I was in full-on aunt mode...I could spoil them, and then leave before things got hard. 

Back in Liberty, I had a hand-picked troupe of crazy-talented, dedicated, smart, charming, funny high school improvisers...and with my own kids, I'd become cranky. Bossy. Bitchy.  




This year, I'm trying to do it differently. I'm taking better notes and spending more time planning rehearsals. I'm listening to the kids...trying to watch what gets them interested and following it wherever it goes. I'm looking for ways to get the assistant directors—both former students—more involved in shaping the troupe. I'm working on shaking off my day before I get to LHS. 

But here's a simple thing: I'm trying to stand up when I teach. As one of our Annoyance teachers taught us (and Exit 1-alum Kay definitely remembered), sitting sucks the energy out of your butt. Just walking around when I teach warmups and games, watch scenes, or give notes keeps me engaged. I feel more like I'm part of what they're doing on stage. 

It's like being on a back-up line: when I'm on my toes, not my heels (thanks, Joe Bill), I'm more ready to jump in. I'm in it. Committed. Ready to play. 

And that's the thing I always remember after rehearsal: This is play. It's recess. It's the thing you push through the hard part to get to. 

As it has been for about 12 years, working with Exit 16 is the fun part. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's been a while.

After 20+ years of being a professional improviser (only 3 of those were full time), there are things I'm not interested in:
  • Staying up all night 
  • Doing prom shows
  • Letting play turn into work
  • Talking about improv at parties (mostly)
But it turns out sometimes I still have some things to say about improv—and what improv looks like in a smaller market, because I'm that kind of geek. There's some new stuff going on, so it felt like a good time to open my rambly space again. Two things, tonight. 


Yesterday, the KC Improv Festival board of directors met one more time to debrief. Armed with box office reports, troupe and workshop student surveys, comments from friends, and notes from our experiences, we got together to talk about what worked, what didn't and what we want to do next year. 

Here's something cool: We made the choice last year to go to appointed positions, and it's been great—we seek out people with specific skill sets, and they train people to take their jobs. Extra work is done by volunteers (let me right NOW shout out to my kick-ass marketing committee). Most of the board has done this together for at least a few years now. And we're hitting a groove. It's FUN. 

A discussion we'll have between now and next year is how to decide which troupes will perform. When the festival came back in 2007, it was invite-only: we knew who we wanted, and we just asked them. We moved to an application model—for local and national troupes—to make sure we didn't miss anyone cool. We invite the big names (Jill Bernard, Bassprov, Messing with a Friend, Der Monkenpickel, SuperEgo) and the rest send us tapes. 

There are two phases in putting together an improv festival lineup: 
  1. Choosing the troupes
  2. Planning the shows
There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL TO PISS PEOPLE OFF IN BOTH. So many troupes who will feel insulted for not getting selected, or annoyed at their time-slot, or get hurt feelings for a gazillion reasons we will never be aware of. 

I took myself out of the judging this year for a few reasons (friends with too many people applying, in two applying troupes, spent too many years making tough decisions, also WIMP), but I was a voice in the room when the schedule was made. For troupes who apply for improv festivals (especially ours) and wonder why they're scheduled the way they are, I can tell you what I think about. I'll use the word "I" to the point of ridiculousness to overemphasize the point that I'm only speaking for myself: 

  • I want something reliable. Either troupe members have done A BUNCH OF SHOWS and have fabulous individual reputations, or the troupe has performed together long enough to shake the new off. If it's a Thunderdome or Throwdown troupe of performers with less than 5 years experience each and they've played three shows in four months, that will probably make me very nervous about putting them in the lineup. On other hand: Joe Bill and Jill Bernard debuted their duo SCRAM at KCIF. They'd never performed together before. But when you get the chick from Drum Machine and a dude from BASSPROV directed by the other dude from BASSPROV, there's about a 300% chance of success. 
  • I want something marketable. I'm the marketing director for the festival, so I have to be able to sell a show to people who think Kansas City improv is that place at Zona Rosa. If they say, "We do long-form," I have to explain a LOT. If they say, "we improvise a one-act play in the style of Shakespeare" or "we are brilliant at freestyle rap" or "we are two guys fishin'," suddenly I have a press release. Bonus points if they have a professionally shot, hi-res, well-lit photo that shows their faces. 
  • I want something believable: I want to see 20 minutes of well-lit, easy-to-hear, unedited video of a single show that happened sometime in the last year. I want to hear the audience laughing their asses off. I want to believe that was an average show...not the one that kicked ass by accident.
  • I want something that fits in a bigger show. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Next section.
Here's the thing: If a troupe has a reputation for consistency and a proven cast, I feel comfortable putting it almost anywhere in a festival lineup. If they're new, quirky, artsy, dark, think-y, niche or super-blue, it's harder to slot the set. Susan Messing calls it "protecting the comedy": you want to put troupes in an order that gives them all the best chance of looking amazing.   
  • It's easier if they're just plain entertaining. People who come to a comedy festival want to laugh. The KC Improv Festival is our chance to introduce our art form to hundreds of people who've never seen it before. Yes, we want to showcase variety and new forms—we also want to know a set isn't going to end with the audience going "Double-you. Tee. Eff." 
  • I have to think about how a show opens, what energy goes into the half, how one troupe leads into another, and what will bring the audience to their feet at the end. There are troupes I looooooove that are tough to schedule because they don't have the energy to open a show...or they're too dark to set the audience up for another troupe...or they're too think-y to end a show. The nice thing about this year's KCiF is that we had two venues: the Off Center Theatre and the more intimate Westport Coffeehouse Theater (Kick Comedy Theater). It gave us the chance to put troupes in venues and time slots where we could set them up for success. 
  • There's no crying in improv. Getting accepted at a festival is an honor: period. Once you're in, it stops being about you and starts being about the big picture. There are more considerations than I can list here that go into putting together festival shows, and the producers have more on their minds than the happiness and egos of the performing troupes. Various groups I've been in have headlined and performed on money nights, played on off nights and smaller stages, and been flat-out rejected in the application process. It's not personal. It's all about the festival's mission, the artistic director's vision and the audience.
*I'm one person, and speak for myself—not the KC Improv Festival.


My introduction to improv was with KC ComedySportz (which ultimately turned into ComedyCity). There, I met three guys (Corey Rittmaster, Jim Montemayor and Jay Lewis) who came in through their high school improv league, and worked with my soon-to-be business partner to re-start the league.

When my business partner and I started our own troupe, Lighten Up, ComedySportz wasn't running a high school league, so we started our own. Some of KC's best improvisers got their starts there. But for a long time, there's been no place for high school students to learn improv from professionals, play with students from other schools, and learn from their friends. 

Today, that all changed. Seriously Playful's Operation: Show kicked off its first season. Eighteen improvisers from three north Kansas City schools learned, played and laughed together. It wouldn't have happened without the Chicago Improv Festival's Executive Producer, Jonathan Pitts, who encouraged the KC improv community to do something bigger together after last year's festival. Or without Clay Morgan, who invited the league in to the ComedyCity space. But most of all, Seriously Playful happened because three KC improvisers—Clayton Ingram, Cindy Paasch and Kenzie West—but the time, energy and passion into turning an idea into a not-for-profit corporation, and then into a room full of high school kids playing. 


I would say, "I won't always be this long-winded or opinionated." But that would be a big fat lie.

It's fun to be an improviser in KC right now, so I might not shut up about that. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to enjoy an improv festival.

I've run eight improv festivals and attended more than a dozen. Each one featured some combination of at least three of the following:
  • Working my ass off
  • Not sleeping
  • Drinking
  • Performance stress
  • Workshop exhaustion
  • Travel
  • Extreme extraversion
  • Not enjoying something as much as I might have otherwise because I was too tired, stressed or hung over
The last few years, though, I've discovered a few secrets to enjoying the whole thing—all from experience or observation. (But mostly from getting it wrong at least once.) My rules for having a blast at KCiF:

  • Plan your weekend. Know what you want out of the festival: entertainment? education? networking? fun? Know what shows you want to see and workshops you want to take, so you're not scrambling for tickets or registration at the last minute. Know what nights you need to skip the parties and get to bed early. Know what you'll wear, when and what you'll eat, and how you'll get where you're going. It all sounds so obvious...until you're trying to iron a pair of underpants dry 15 minutes before your call time.
  • Take care of your body. Have a water bottle and protein bar or some fruit with you at all times. Consume more than caffeine, beer, cigarettes and Altoids.
  • Get some sleep. Especially before classes and performances. Don't waste your workshop money because you show up on two hours of sleep. And for God's sake, make sure you're at your best for your show.
  • Listen. Listen in workshops (if you miss the instructions or argue theory or justify your performance, everyone will want to kill you). Listen when the stage managers are telling you where you should be at call and curtain time. Listen when those smart, funny people you just met are talking about something besides improv (instead of hoping they'll tell you how awesome you were or trying to draw them into a discussion about theory or your cool idea for a format).
  • Be a fame junkie. Those headliners from out of town? They're really, really nice people. Some like to network. Some don't, and just want to chill out with good friends they haven't seen in a while. Some don't come to after-parties. If they don't leave KC thinking you're the most awesome person on the planet, it is rarely personal. Rarely.
  • Ask the festival managers for favors. If the show is sold out, it's really sold out. (And they probably have all the help they need backstage, so that's not your ticket to a free show.) They've already published any discounts they can afford to offer. (The single coolest moment I ever had running a festival: I was stuck on the phones in our theater office trouble-shooting and taking reservations, and Fuzzy Gerdes came in not with a problem or a question or a request for favor, but with a box of treats from Napoleon Bakery. I almost cried.)
  • Worry about what you're missing. If you have to miss a party so you can get a good night's sleep before workshops, you'll survive. If you miss a show or a class because you have to save money for rent or medical bills, you'll live. If someone else is talking to the cool person you want to talk to and you're stuck talking to the person you don't want to talk to, see "listen," above.
Most of all, though (to quote my pal Heather, who'll be teaching "Camera Technique for Improv Actors" next week): Have fuckin' fun.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Community may be a lie. Except for the festival.

So tonight on the phone, Jonathan Pitts said these words: "KC has a scene."

And you know what? Coming from him, I'm going to accept that.

There's evidence:
  • Several troupes have regular auditions and regular shows. If you like improv, you've got choices.
  • There are now three places to take classes: Roving Imp, Improv-Abilities and ComedyCity. Again, you've got choices.
  • KC folks are making it big. Sure, there's Paul Rudd and Rob Riggle—but they didn't improvise here. Jason Sudeikis and Corey & Mo and Eric Davis and Tim Mason did, at ComedyCity and Lighten Up.
  • Every weekend, you can see long-form. And many weekends, it's very decent long-form. By different groups.
  • This may seem like a little thing, but it feels big to me: At least a couple of Exit 16 alums are staying in KC, in part play with their friends, as part of our scene. Because it seems like fun.
Before we get all cocky, though, two things:
  1. We have to get over this "if we build it, they will come" mentality. Because for the most part, our audiences are us—and there are not enough of us to fill houses or classes. We have to learn to market beyond Facebook invites and status updates. We have to be good enough performers that if strangers see a show, they're entertained enough to come back. We have to expect more people in our audiences than friends and family. If we only play for and with ourselves, it's masturbation. And that's not good for anyone but us.
  2. A "growing scene" is not a "community." This is not a love-fest. To grow, we have to get better—and that means competition. Having standards. Making choices. Putting your troupes' best players in public shows and sending some back to class. Playing and partnering and producing shows with some folks, and saying "no thanks" to others. Realizing that the students have become the masters. Having to work harder to stay on top.
There is one time, and one place, where community matters—and it starts in a week. The KC Improv Festival is about all of us. Our troupes get to perform. Our players get to learn. And after it's over, we all get to drink beer together. If we fill houses and workshops, improvisers from other cities see that we're vital and relevant.

That doesn't matter to everyone.

But to some of us, it's a matter of pride. We want the Susan Messings and TJ Jagodowskis and Jonathan Pitts of the world to see we're good enough draw a crowd. We want them to know we care enough about the craft to take classes.

If you're one of those freaks, there's some stuff you can do this week:
  • Have you got friends who seem like maybe they might be interested in classes? Because they used to do theater? Tell them about workshops. (Mike Jimerson was one of those guys—he moves to Chicago this fall.) (So, see? We're not all that.)
  • Have you thought about taking classes, but aren't sure you need it or can afford it? Sign up. Because you do, and you might be able to swing it.
  • Do you know people who like to laugh? Tell them about the shows. Drop Jason's name. Or TJ's ("that Sonic dude" works). Make them understand they're missing something if they don't go.
  • Do you have a life? Put a poster up at work. Drop some fliers at your daily coffee stop. Tweet. Update your Facebook status. Send an e-mail. (Say something new every time—give your pals something they might be interested in.)
I stopped being one of the ones who worked my butt off to make the festival happen a couple of years ago...but I still have the bruises. This year's festival committee is working hard to bring something really cool to KC. They could use our help. (And later, our thanks.)

Because it's still a growing scene. We've got a ways to go.

2 steps to improvising better in 2 weeks, part 2

So you haven't signed up for KCiF classes yet? OK. Maybe you're still trying to figure out which ones to take. Or if it's really worth it. Or if you can keep the thermostat set high enough and sacrifice enough beer to afford it. Whatever.

Some of the classes with kick-ass instructors have already sold out, but most of them are still open. What do you want?

Just getting started? Second City instructor Jonathan Pitts, Chicago favorites Damage Control and KCiF Director Tim Marks are all teaching basic classes. Get up in there.

Improve your scenework? Two-person scenes are the chewy nougat of any improv show—short form, long form, whatever. Even solo shows require two-person scenes. And there are plenty of chances to make yours better:

  • Whole Body Listening with Jonathan Pitts: Working with two-person scenes, discover that true listening is a holistic activity requiring constant engagement in your body, brain, heart, and spirit of play. (Be there for your partner. Really, really be there.)
  • Major League Improv I & II with Damage Control: Scenic games and playful exercises to strengthen the improvisers' practical skills like listening, memory, and awareness to help players heighten, explore and enjoy scenes. (Even better: It's two sessions in a row. That counts as an intensive, and means you'll come out of it with a deeper understanding of what they taught.)
  • Two's Company with Jokyr and Jesster: Learn how to commit to a scene when no one's there to bail you out. Trust in yourself and be your own back line with character switches, pivots, solo starts, and monologues. (Contemplating a duo show? This is your class.)

Improve your ensemble work? If you've got more than two people in your troupe and perform on a stage bigger than 4'x4', you're probably not taking advantage of the space or your troupe. Group Pretty with Susan Messing will rock your world and change the way you think about movement in an improv show.

Improve your youtube videos? Want to enter a 24-hour film fest? Or put funny stuff online in hopes of going viral? Or make video promos for your group? Camera Technique for the Improv Actor with Chris and Heather Lutkin is your chance to learn how to think like a filmmaker. Learn some basic techniques that will make you look like you know what you're doing.

Go here now to register.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two steps to being a better improviser in just two weeks.

Specifically, these two weeks. At the KC Improv Festival. Here's how:
  1. Take classes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. They cost money...but there's not a good improviser on the planet who hasn't given up a few nights of beer (or a utility bill) (hey, I never said I have a lifetime of responsible choices behind me) to take classes.
  2. See shows. As many as you can. If you're performing in the fest, you even get a discount (thanks, I-A). See different troupes, different approaches to scenes, different formats. Think about what works and what doesn't.
There. It's that easy. And yet, I'm not shutting up.

I have Strong Feelings about festival workshops. Here are some, from a while back:

How I Take Festival Classes: An Approach Developed Over 19 Years: I'm long past the days of instructor/theory collecting. When I started, I was shooting for variety: I signed up for workshops with as many instructors from as many schools and cities as possible to see what techniques clicked. Three-hour samplers are great for exposing you to the main principles of a school of thought. Now I want maximum feedback, so I tend to either take multiple classes with single instructor or repeat classes with someone I've worked with before. The benefits:
  • You get more information about that instructor's theory, because their classes usually give you different pieces of the same puzzle.
  • You get better feedback, either because the instructors watch you longer and gets a sense of your fall-backs and patterns, or because they get more comfortable with you and can be more direct.
  • There's no way you're going to get good at a technique by doing it one time in one workshop—that's why improv classes are usually 6-8 weeks long. Ever do yoga? You do the same poses over and over, going deeper, feeling stronger, becoming more aware of how different muscles move. Same with improv exercises.

(That, by the way, is why I'm signed up to study with Susan Messing and TJ Jagodowski.)

See y'all there.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

One message. ONE.

Here's a conversation my team at work—and every group of advertising creatives on the planet, probably—has at least once a week:
You're asking for a lot of information to go into this ad/mailer/e-mail/etc.
What's the most important message?

All of them.
No. No, no, no. The answer to "what's the single most important thing" cannot be plural.

Why? The other thing I hear at least once a week is "nobody reads the copy" (yeah, thanks for that validation of my career choice). We have very, very little time to get people's attention—we have to hook 'em right from the start.

Same thing when we promote improv shows, theaters, workshops, etc. We rely on free-to-cheap marketing tools—Facebook invites, show posters, e-mails, press releases, etc.—but that doesn't mean the rules for big-money marketing don't apply. In any marketing tool, you get one main message, and everything else is there to support that one message.

That message might be:
  • Your troupe name, if you're talking to people who want to know specifically when your next show is.
  • Improv comedy show/festival/event, or some version of that, if you're talking to a general audience of people who want to see comedy.
  • Something that makes you sound good, like a review blurb ("Brilliantly funny!"), kudos ("Best Comedy Group 2010") or a super-short description of what you do ("improvised musical").
  • The famous person (or even the well-known-to-the-target-audience person) in the show.
  • The other specific thing that makes this show cool, if it's not one of those four things. It might be that you're family friendly or supporting a cause or playing in a certain location for one night only. But it is the thing that makes this show worth seeing.
If you don't have much space, the rest of your copy should let your audience know when and where the show is and how to make reservations. If you have a little bit more space, you can provide more detail—but it should be more support for what makes the show cool.

Here's what doesn't work:
  • Confusing names of things—shows, formats, etc.—that don't make immediate sense to the audience.
  • Information-free witty or catchy phrases or taglines that don't provide a reason to come see the show (besides, of course, our extreme cleverness/adorableness/quirkiness/geekiness).
  • Complex messages that require them to think too hard or make a decision more complicated than "that's interesting."
  • Layers of show names, producer names, troupe names and taglines.
We might even have to tweak the message slightly for different audiences—general audiences vs. troupe fans, for example—which means keeping the primary message even simpler. Fleeting individual impressions can work together to create the burning desire to attend an event...but only if you can remember what the event is.