Saturday, December 29, 2007

My own worst critic

Recently, a friend told me another improviser had said some not-particularly-nice things about my stage work.

Which is no big deal. And the thought I got to (after the initial ding to my ego and ideas for a few highly immature potential responses) was: “Well, that person is never going to critique my work as harshly or as accurately as I do myself.”

I've got pointier sticks,  bigger stones and nastier names than anyone can throw at me, man. 

That’s the thing about doing this for so long…when it comes to my own work, my expectations are high and my evaluations are brutal. I teach and direct much more than I play, which means my internal editor is big, strong and loud. I recognize it when I do good work—but I can also point out exactly what I did wrong and why.

I do my best work in classes, and I think part of the reason is that there’s a bigger, stronger, louder editor in the room than I am. My favorite example: Michael Gellman yelling “Bullshit!” at a particularly disingenuous choice I made in a scene.

Also, I’m thinky, and class exercises give me a specific point of focus. Concentrating on one thing—isolating one muscle—lets me do that one thing well and everything else tends to fall into place. With enough practice, I build up muscle memory, and my brain hands me the point of focus I need to make a scene work.

For me, it’s almost never an idea for the next thing that happens in the scene. It’s typically a game or status or character’s “thing.” I can recognize a clear, shining, simple rule—and all I have to do is follow it. (See? Thinky.)

Right now, I don’t practice or play enough to have that kind of muscle memory. So when I make a good move, it feels more like an accident than intent. Before a show, I tell myself I’ll use all the gifts teachers have given me. Things like:
—Let a body part or a sound lead or pull you into the scene.
—Experiment with the level of responsibility you take for the scene’s success.
—Hold your head differently.
—Walk into a character.
—Become more of whatever emotion you start with.
—Don’t always be the rational one.
—Give yourself a gift—a posture, voice, emotion, POV, prop, etc.—at the top of the scene. 
—Check in with your partner.
—Experiment with status or body tension.

You’ll notice that most of those are physical and emotional choices—all designed to get me out of my head and into the scene. But when I get on stage, I put all the pressure on my brain. I play-write. I think about what to do next instead of listening. I figure out plot points. Plan connections between characters. I worry about what will happen three lines in.

Gah.

It’s like going to a shrink: Just because you can name the problem, doesn’t mean you can fix it. This year, I have to figure out a way to put what I know to work for me on stage. I think it’ll take a few things:

—Working with strong directors—bossy, loud ones.
—Making sure I get the kind of physical, emotional, abstract warm-up I need before shows, even if it means doing it by myself.
—Trying some of those Spolin and Napier “improv for one” exercises I’ve read about—just to get more rehearsal time in.

Huh. Maybe those are my New Year’s Resolutions. Because what I’m doing now isn’t working consistently for me. And I don't want to be the poster-child for the saying, "Those who can't do, teach." Most of all, I need to remember the immortal words of Dan Izzo: 

“If your brain drives the bus, the whole Partridge Family dies.”

State of the Scene, part 6: Everybody gets a show! Everybody gets a show!

To wrap things up…a little about why I called this "State of the Scene." Because there is one. Freakin' finally. 

In the old days, there was a fair amount of improv, but it didn’t feel like a scene. Besides the two troupes at Lighten Up, there was ComedySportz, Out On A Limb (three former ComedySportz players), Caught in the Act (the troupe between Laughing Stock and Full Frontal), Renegade Theater (from Lawrence) and At Large (a TYA-based group featuring Matt Rapport and Brian Kameoka, among others).

Every troupe except ComedySportz performed at our theater at one point or the other. Lighten Up also did a few short-run shows—a Harold show with mixed troupe members, an all-chick show, some dabbling in sketch. Still, it didn’t feel like a scene—we were just renting out space.

And with the exception of Lighten Up, everyone was playing versions of the same short-form games—the only differences were the format and whether the group did sketch or not. So seeing other troupes wasn’t the horizon-broadening experience it is in Chicago.

So what’s different now? For me, there are a few factors that make it feel like a “scene”:

The Westport Coffeehouse. If you want to play, you just call Pam, pick a night, work your butt off to get the word out and put up a show.

The mixing and matching. You can play in more than one troupe, put up a short-run show or throw down in Thunderdome and On The Spot! For the majority of players—if not all the owners—it’s not about competition anymore. It’s about trying new things with new people.

The forums. The single most important contribution City 3 has made to KC improv is a place for us to waste time on line.

The choice…the fabulous, glorious choice. Want to see improv? What kind? Short-form or long-form? Accessible or experimental? Student group or professional? Pick a weekend—then decide. For the first time ever in Kansas City, seeing someone else play doesn’t mean watching their take on Chain Death.

The collaboration. City 3 and KCiF brought different players, different groups, different ideas and different POVs together, and they’re both stronger for it.

The socializing. We gather. We drink beer. We play The Bad Idea Game (it’s been too long since the last time, by the way). We meet up at McCoy’s after shows. We go to each other’s shows—and each other’s parties.

Call it a scene, a community, a movement…whatever. We’ve got one, and it’s only going to get stronger.

Friday, December 28, 2007

State of the Scene, part 5: The KC Improv Festival is back

After years (and years and years) of planning, we brought back the festival. Thanks to the involvement of several different troupes (and the hard work of some highly committed folks), it was more entertaining, drew bigger crowds and ran more smoothly than ever. 

And the biggest surprise? The workshops made more money than the shows.

Why is that (um, sorry, Pete) awesome? Because it means that a whole bunch of people in Kansas City—at all different experience levels, from almost every troupe in town, and many who aren’t in troupes—are interested in getting better at improv.

I don’t think there’s a better predictor of future success than that.

Audiences alone can’t sustain a community. The work gets better when there’s more competition and cross-pollination, and that doesn’t happen without new people and new troupes. Full classes are a sign of good health—or at least the potential for it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

State of the scene, part 4: Improv is big in small towns

I'm fairly certain I won't post as much after the initial enthusiasm dies down a little. Also, I have some serious house cleaning to do, so this is an easy way to procrastinate. So next:

In April, John Robison started putting up shows in his very own, dedicated improv theater in Bonner Springs.

Seriously—how much ass does that kick?

Up in Liberty, the crowds at our two monthly Corbin shows are picking up. In two years, we’ve only cancelled one show, and we’ve made rent on almost every one. (I know this because it comes out of my pocket when we don’t.)

In places like these, we've got some serious advantages over performing in the crowded midtown entertainment district. Minimal competition—from improv troupes or anyone else. Support from the locals. Easy-to-get coverage in newspapers. Easier-to-target audiences. Cheaper rent (in Liberty, anyway). And once you get the word out, your chances of developing a loyal repeat audience are better than average.

We’ve got some serious disadvantages, too. But that’s not what this is about. So there.

Oh, and another advantage: When the City 3 board decided to shutter
On the Spot! at the Westport Coffeehouse Theatre, part of the reason was that the show was having the exact opposite of its intended reaction. Instead of offering a chance to promote their troupes’ shows, players felt OTS! was cannibalizing their audiences. That’s not true in Liberty and Bonner Springs.

Look! Another one: The Roving Imp and Corbin shows aren’t safe or dumbed down. These small, out-of-the-way stages are home to solid, scenework-driven short-form and edgy, more experimental long-form.  

One more: John is an iO trained director with a theater background. 

Time for a road trip, right? 


State of the scene, part 3: City 3 turns two.

Yeah. I got a lot of writing done on the plane last night. 

City 3 has been a non-profit for two years. The forums have been in existence for two and a half. At their last meeting, the board committed to focus more on education—which is a fabulous thing, because man, do we need it.

Welcome to part 3 in a year-end review of KC improv. Today’s subject: A rant about respect for the craft. Here we go.

In bigger improv cities, it’s “pay to play.” Before you get a minute of stage time, you pay hundreds—maybe thousands—for hours and hours of classes.

Not so in Kansas City. The bigger troupes need steady supplies of players, so they audition you, train you and put you on stage. Maybe you’ll get a class in the basics—most likely, you won’t pay for it. Players are considered “experienced” after a couple of years of weekly rehearsals and monthly shows.

So we’ve created an improv community with a desire for instant gratification and a maybe not-so-healthy sense of entitlement. It’s all about stage time—love of performing is more important than appreciation of the craft. The majority of players are getting most of their training on the job. In front of paying audiences.

Which isn’t, in the long run, good for our art.

We need three things (more…but I’ll play by the rule). All based on the idea that if we love this art form and want it to be successful in KC, we have to stop making excuses and work a lot harder.

Thing #1: New improvisers—earn your place on the stage.

Hundreds of people move to the big improv cities, work temp jobs and wait tables, live in crappy, crowded apartments and put every cent they have into their education.
Nobody’s asking you to do that here.

But if you want to be a decent improviser, you’re going to have to invest money, time and effort. And a lot more of it than you feel like you have. You may have to stretch your financial resources—or give up beer and cigarettes—to pay tuition. You might have to completely rearrange your schedule to accommodate one of the rare workshops you’ll find locally. Because we’ve got no local gurus, your instructors may be learning how to teach as you’re learning how to play.

Every single chance you have to be on stage and hear feedback will make you better. And you owe that to your fellow players, your director and your audience.

(As a side note, quit being so damn snotty about short form. Use it to learn scenework, character work and stage presence, as Spolin intended.)

Thing #2: Directors—we have to raise our freaking standards.

(Yes, I'm including myself in this.)

We have to stop putting players in shows before they’re ready. We must raise our expectations of new performers—insist that they’re trained, confident players before we charge audiences to see them. (If high turnover is the reason for the plug-and-play approach to casting, you’ve got a better shot at retaining experienced performers if you don’t force them carry newbies through shows.)

And we have to stop giving it away. The best directors have invested hundreds of hours in learning their craft and spent maybe a bunch of money on classes and books. Teaching a teaser class or one free class is one thing; not placing a value on your expertise is another. Teach workshops, and cast from your students. Charge for coaching—$5 per person for a three-hour rehearsal is standard.

(Another side note: We have to stop putting up shows after three or four rehearsals. We’ve got to respect the craft enough that we don’t charge an audience to see it until it’s baked. And I’d argue there’s not one of us in town good enough to pull a quality show together in nine hours.

Thing #3: Experienced improvisers—nut up and teach a class.

I never thought I’d say this. But we don’t need instructors to be perfect right now—we just need them to be committed.

A visionary along the lines of Del Close or Mick Napier hasn’t emerged in KC, but we have plenty of people who could help newbies get better. And there are ways to make yourself a better teacher. Read books. Read online interviews with improvisers. Analyze your own work and figure out your personal philosophies. Start with a three-hour, single-subject class in something you’re good at—characters, scenework, object work, mime, whatever.

It’s hard. It takes work. It’s not always as fun as performing. But the community needs you. Please, please, please do it. 

End of rant. For today. Now I have to get in touch with Tommy and schedule a rehearsal...

State of the Scene, part 2: A high school improv group turns 10.

Part 2 in a completely subjective year-end review of KC improv. And if writing about the 10th anniversary of Liberty High School’s Exit 16 doesn’t have signs of bias all over it, I don’t know what does.

Here’s why it’s important.

Exit 16 performs once a month to no less than 150 people. Do they show up because their friends are on stage? Absolutely. Is any else to compete against on Tuesday nights in Liberty, MO? Outside of school activities, not really. Does the $3-at-lunch/$5-at-the-show ticket price help? Without a doubt. 

My point is not that student troupes draw crowds—that’s a given. High school and college troupes play to sell-out crowds all over the country. (I am very, very tired of hearing "My troupe in Insert-small-rural-college-town-here had 400 people in the audience every week." Awesome. It was that or drinking grain alcohol in your dorm room.) It matters because for the KC improv community to thrive, we have to figure out what to do with these players and audience members.

The players love improv. At our annual alumni show, a half-dozen grads said some version of, “I miss this. I’d love to get into it again.” There are improv troupes at schools all over the city, turning out players of various talent and skill levels. How do we get them into the community early? Where do we send them when they’re ready for the next step? How do we make high school teams the farm system for our troupes and shows?

Their audiences like it, too. And you’d think they might be likely to seek out the professional version of what they see at school. (You’d think.) How do we attract them to our shows? How do we create loyalty to local troupes? And why wait ‘til they graduate—how do we reach them and interest them in what’s going on?

Hell, yes, this sounds opportunistic: High schools are probably the single richest resource for troupes in Kansas City. But that doesn’t matter unless we talk to them—and have something to offer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

State of the Scene: What are KC's top improv stories?

In no particular order, the next few posts will be about my picks for our little community's top stories. (Disclaimer: I make no claims of objectivity.) So here we go...

ComedyCity is up for sale...or is it?
On-again, off-again rumors of ComedyCity's demise should be big news for the rest of us.

After 20 years, KC's most enduring troupe is a mixed bag of successes and surprises. Their mailing list is the envy of every troupe in town. They play more private shows and teach more corporate classes than anyone. They can sell out their black box and their big basement theater. On the other hand, they regularly cancel shows. Their matches have gone from two teams of four to two teams of two with a swing player. And there's no "training center"—just workshops with changing schedules, instructors, formats and pricing. The players on stage are some of the best in the city—and some newbies who barely know the basics.

So what's up? After 20 years, why aren't they selling out every show? Why is it that the Westport Coffeehouse, and not ComedyCity, is the go-to stage for the majority of troupes in town? Why don't they fill their off-nights with multiple improv classes at every level? Why isn't ComedyCity the place to learn improv in KC? 

There are dozens of theories and strongly held opinions about what keeps ComedyCity—or any troupe—from consistently reaching its potential. ComedyCity has done a lot right over the years, but some of their problems are easy traps for any troupe to fall into. A few of my personal theories...with an eye toward universal relevance:

Theory #1: 
The success of groups like Annoyance and iO in Chicago makes it clear that you need two things to make an improv company* work: A compelling vision and a lot of business savvy. Vision allows you to put on shows audiences won't see anywhere else, and to teach classes from a specific point of view. Business savvy ensures everything from casting to production decisions are made with an eye on the bottom line—and the books, paperwork, licenses and receipts are all in line. Without one, the other doesn't matter. (My old company, Lighten Up, had plenty of vision but almost no business savvy.)

Theory #2:
You can't beat 'em—so join 'em. When there were only one or two troupes in town, protecting your turf might have been an OK idea. Years ago—20, 10, even five—improvisers and audiences didn't have many options. If you wanted to see a show any weekend, you went to ComedyCity. Same deal if you wanted stage time.  Now audiences and performers have options. And being at the top of your game may not be enough to keep them. 

So if you've got an empty stage, why not let another troupe bring their audiences into your space—to see your promotional material and buy your beer? If you've got dark nights, why not actively rent it out as rehearsal and class space? If your performers have a chance to learn new tricks and get in rehearsal time by playing with other groups, why not encourage it?

Theory #3: 
The work matters. Complacency is death—especially as the competition get stronger. Audiences are harder to impress. The best players want to grow and be challenged. And the best way to keep audiences and players happy is to focus on the quality of the product. A format won't take care of the laughs. Gimmicks, likable players, comic characters and good timing alone won't always sustain scenes. You have to do good improv. 

Why we should all be a little freaked out:
In KC, ComedyCity is the reason many audiences don't have to have "improv" explained to them. It's why they know the difference between real improv and stand-up. ComedyCity is our single best source of word of mouth marketing for improv. 

And if ComedyCity—with its own space, deep roster, enviable mailing list and long history—doesn't make it, what will the rest of us learn from that?  

COMING UP: 
—KC Improv Festival returns—and the workshops make more than the shows.
—Improv is getting big in small towns.
—Everyone gets a show! Everyone gets a show!
—A high school improv group turns 10.
—City 3 turns two.



*I use "company" and not "troupe" intentionally. A company exists to make money. A troupe exists to do shows.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Holy crap. 10 years.

First, some exposition.

10 years ago, we started the KC High School Theatresports League at the Lighten Up Improv Co. It only lasted a year—just as things were ramping up, my business partner and I split, and I moved the last few matches of the season to the Quality Hill Playhouse. Rockhurst (featuring local actors Henry Vick and Jake Walker) and Liberty (with local improv ho Tommy Todd, among others) played for the championship, with Liberty's Exit 16 squeaking by in a game of 185. 

A couple of years later, Exit 16 founder Rich Brown (who'd started playing with Lighten Up) headed to Portland for grad school and asked if I'd be willing to take over—I'd gotten to know most of the kids, so it seemed like a good back-up plan. With permission from the administration, I started leading weekly rehearsals, planning shows and chaperoning trips to Chicago.

That's the condensed version. 

The question of "how do you work with high school kids" comes up a lot on improv forums. Sometimes it's about the tactics of running a troupe or league; often, though, it's more about how to treat them. I'm guessing a lot of the improvisers who ask are in the same situation I was—no background in education, minimal experience working with kids, and no kids of their own.

So, with that underwhelming list of qualifications, here are my random answers to the question: 
  • Treat students like improvisers first, kids second. Hold them to the same standards for performance and professionalism as any adult troupe. They can handle it. (And when they graduate and they are fellow improvisers, you'll be really glad you did.)
  • Recognize that even if it doesn't always seem like it, they probably actually care what you think. And it may actually matter to them that you care. So...you know...tell them. 
  • Be the grown up. Be reliable. Be there when you say you will be. Do what you say you'll do. Always, always, always.
  • Make rules, and stick to them. If you say "miss a rehearsal, miss the show," mean it. Even if it means the funniest, most talented, most popular kid sits out. 
  • Over-communicate. Forget e-mail—learn to text and use facebook.
  • Put them in charge of things like promoting shows: making fliers, sending facebook invites, filming promos for their school's TV station, selling tickets at lunch, that sort of thing. 
  • Teach them to fish. In Exit 16, I do the run lists and casting for the first semester, then turn it over to the seniors for the second. The experienced kids emcee shows during the first semester, and newbies cut in the second.
  • Keep the group small—for us, that means 12 or less. Smaller groups forge stronger bonds and get more stage time. 
  • Play often enough to improve with each show, but not so often the shows aren't events. (For Exit 16, that's once a month.)
  • Get used to shorter attention spans. Show up for rehearsal with a lot of shiny things.
  • Don't be afraid to be the fun, goofy aunt instead of the strict, scary one. If you know your stuff and teach things that help make them successful in shows, they'll listen when it counts.
  • Realize that your most important job is to get them out of their own way. In the first few rehearsals, see what they laugh at. If your talented, funny kids are entertained, their audiences probably will be, too. Instead of forcing your own agenda on them, provide tools that help them be more of who they are. (The Annoyance philosophy works great with kids.) 
Those are all tactics. The most important thing I can say about working with high school improvisers is: Be ready to learn. Because you'll get more out of it than you ever put in.  

We have an annual alumni show. It started in the second year, when graduates back in town for holiday break were invited up on stage for a few games. Now it's an event—two shows, packed houses and hilarious scenes by former players who'd been wondering if they've still got it. 

Last night, there were 29 kids on stage—18 were alumni. Half a dozen perform regularly in KC. When the current group comes back in January, they'll be a little sharper...just because they've been on stage with all those confident, relaxed performers. 

A little later this year—probably in March and April—I'll chop 30 minutes off rehearsal because spring gets busy and we're all a little fatigued. After the last show of the year, I'll be happy to have the summer off. 

But right now, I can't believe I'm lucky enough to still be doing this after 10 years. 

Thursday, October 18, 2007

This post is mostly just for me.

You know those people who feel better about themselves because at least they admit to being racists? That's the closest thing I can think of to describing the way I feel about signing up for this page. 

There are blogs I feel good about reading. I found amalah.com when I googled an awful-sounding medical procedure a family member was about to go through (without giving too much away, the word "scraping" was involved). A year and a half later, I still read every post, because...well, DAMN, she's a good writer. Conversational style. Tons of heart. Clear awareness that she's writing for other people. The best use of all-caps since Dave Barry's early stuff. Not to mention the most effective swearing anywhere online.

There are blogs I don't read as often as I should—the marketing and writing stuff that would make me better at what I do if I weren't so busy refreshing icanhascheezburger.com.

There are blogs I read purely to find out about friends: what they're thinking, what they're doing, what their kids look like....plus a little good gossip.

Then there are the train wrecks. I know they'll be badly written and self-involved. They're based in a need for public self-expression and a belief that others give a crap what they think. They're filled with the things we used to write in diaries and keep in secret hiding places. The writers don't know your from you're or they're from there from their. They believe that because they can post, they must post. 

I still read them, but it makes me feel dirty. At least I admit it, though...right?

I've always written for a living, so I'm shooting for the first and second kinds. Substantive, funny, insightful, that sort of thing. 

But that takes work. You have to write about things others care about (which takes listening and maybe some research)...say something that might actually mean something (which takes thought)...edit out the crap (which takes standards)...find a compelling voice (which takes time). And do something besides just dump your opinions in a text box without so much as a spell check.

So we'll see. Maybe starting by saying what I'm for and against will keep me honest. Or maybe it'll just make me feel better.