Thursday, February 28, 2008

A big hole.

One thing that’s always true when the number of troupes in a city increases is that you get more range in the experience of the performers and the quality of the shows.

In bigger cities, growth is often a by-product of combo theater/training centers (Second City, iO, Annoyance, ComedySportz, etc.). People see the professional shows, catch the bug, take the classes, and want to form their own troupes and do their own shows. The theater/training center model supports this in a couple of ways:
  • There’s a place to study—so players have a chance to get feedback from a trained, completely objective source. 
  • There’s a place to play—training centers put up student shows (typically for free) on off nights. 
The KC area has a couple of theaters, but there’s no place where everybody goes to study and everybody goes to see shows. We’re missing that all-important hub.

DISCLAIMER: The following is not a slam on the KC improv scene or any troupe(s) in it. 

My thought (I don’t say opinion, because I just started working this over in my head a day or so ago) is that this lack of one (or better yet, several) improv theater/training centers slows our growth—as performers, as troupes and as a community. Here’s why:

Obvious Reason: A lot of us—most of us, probably—got up on stage for the first time without much training. I know I did.

Maybe Not-So-Obvious Reason: Without a central…wait.

First, an example. At iO in Chicago, in one week, you can choose from 15 shows on their Cabaret Stage alone. There are prime slots (8 and 10:30pm on weekends) and shitty spots (10pm on a Sunday). Admission is anywhere from free (student shows) to $14 (the best Harold teams). For the most part, you get what you pay for.*

Here—unless troupes are associated with a school—they have to pay rent for their space. And the rent at Westport Coffeehouse, for example, is the same for
CounterClockwise Comedy, Improv-Abilities, Hypothetical 7, The Trip Fives, Tantrum, Full Frontal, Scriptease and any other troupe in town.

I’m not saying troupes with years of experience alwaysalways
always put on better shows than the newer groups. Or that newer  troupes’ shows lack value. NOT SAYING THAT.

Still. Experience does count for something.

The collective inability to afford any sort of sliding scale sends a…well, an interesting message to audiences, who are used to paying different prices for high school plays, community theater, professional theater, etc., etc. Let’s say someone unfamiliar to improv sees that ticket prices for Troupe A (doing their third public show) and Troupe B (a group of vets) are $10. They probably assume they’re getting the same basic level of quality. Because training and practice matter, it is highly likely Troupe B is going to put on a stronger show. But if they see Troupe A, and the show doesn’t feel worth $10, they may assume that’s what you get for $10 in Kansas City.

Personally, I’m just not interested in paying the same amount to watch people who’ve been improvising for a couple of years as I pay to see players who have hundreds of shows under their belts.** I've seen a shload of shows, and a more experienced troupe is way more likely to surprise me with something I've never seen before, inspire me with something I want to try or entertain me with rich, character-driven scenework. Groups who are still learning and exploring tend to go through the same cycles I've been through—and seen a gazillion times. Because what I get out of the experience is likely to be different, I want my investment to reflect that. 

It’s nobody’s fault. We have to base our admission prices on our overhead, instead of the demands of the marketplace. Troupes have to charge enough to make rent without having to sell out a house. It’s just a little extra hurdle we have to get past in creating a rich, vibrant, well-attended, sustainable improv scene.

*The exception to the rule is TJ & Dave. Arguably the best improv show in Chicago, it goes up at 11pm Wednesday and costs $5.
**Though I’m not all that interested in paying to see the same thing I’ve seen over and over and could do myself in my sleep, either.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rethinking the Little Red Hen.

The festival is nomming my brain.

This fall’s
KC Improv Festival is the eighth festival I’ve coordinated. The first four—then called Spontaneous Combustion—were produced by Lighten Up, the theater I co-owned. The next two were produced by Funny Outfit, and the name changed to 5/6: The U.S. Improv Festival. Last spring, City 3 brought it back as 7: The KC Improv Festival, with a new focus on local needs.

And this fall,
Improv-Abilities takes over production duties for 8. It’s such a perfect fit I can barely stand it—and I was inCREDibly relieved when Tim and Aron came on board. 

Running a festival when you have a theater is a cinch. At Lighten Up, we had a stage—and within our building, empty offices for workshops and a downstairs space complete with a bar for parties. When the names—and the crowds—got bigger, we rented more and bigger spaces (including the Folly, Quality Hill Playhouse and the Heartland). And it got even easier when I quit Hallmark for three years and did nothing but manage the place. The festival could be a full-time job for 3-6 months out of the year.

Obviously, you can’t make a festival alone. I always had help at Lighten Up. When Funny Outfit took over, it stopped being just my baby—the leaders of the troupe took it on. Last year, a core group of folks did the majority of the work. And this year, it’s shaping up the same way.

The single most important thing I know about running a festival is something I learned from my Dad, a retired Army Colonel with a reputation for being a great leader (I’m paraphrasing here):
If you don’t expect anything, you’ll appreciate everything.

To run a festival, you spend evenings and weekends for MONTHS and months and months preparing an event that puts other people (and other troupes) in the spotlight. While it’s going on, it’s easy to spot the planners. They’re the ones…
  • Pissing improvisers off by not giving them a backstage job or comping them. 
  • Pissing everyone else off because you can’t get them into the show they didn’t bother to make reservations for. 
  • Missing the show because they’re running to get more water for the players. 
  • Missing half of the workshops because they’re processing latecomers or picking up food. 
  • Showing up late for the party because they’re cleaning up the theater.
  • Spending the whole party running around to make sure the host bar is living up to their promise of free snacks and cheap drinks.
  • Leaving the party before everyone else because they have to take someone to the airport or get to the workshop space early to set up or because they’re JUST FREAKING EXHAUSTED.
That kind of thing. Makes it soooooo easy to feel like the Little Red Hen…or to go full-on martyr.

But. You. Can’t. Because you’re one of the ones who wanted do throw the damn thing in the first place. Getting irritated at the people who come to play and take a class and drink beer makes about as much sense as throwing a party and fuming when the guests don’t help you get ready or clean up.

And you won’t stay sane for very long if you get angry at people say they want to help in the beginning and don’t. If you hate everyone who doesn’t keep a promise, you’ll lose a lot of drinking buddies and scene partners.

So back to this: If you don’t expect anything, you’ll appreciate everything.

You’ll appreciate the people who show up and put on kick-ass shows. Or hand out programs at the shows. The ones who help you carry stuff between your car and the theater. Or offer to get you a bottle of water—or beer. The friends who forward your promotional e-mails. Or bring their friends to shows. And you’ll find yourself willing to throw yourself in front of a bus for those few who take on the biggest burdens.

If you don’t expect anything, it will mean the world when someone you barely know says something as simple—and as wonderful—as “I'm having the best time ever.”

Note to self: Remember this stuff in six months.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

So here's what's fun.

OK. Remembering that I do this for fun turns out to be important. And not that difficult.
  • It's fun to be in a troupe. Tantrum rehearsed last night (after Boulevard beer and D'Bronx pizza—do you need better reasons to love KC?). There were just four of us, and I think there was a little inertia (and maybe some pizza) keeping us from getting up and working through scenes. Inspired by earlier discussion of the Trip Fives' "improv in the dark" tonight, Pete turned off all the lights and we ran through a couple of Blind quasi-Harolds (the predecessor to the Bat). Blind Harold follows the same Harold structure—only it's done in the dark, so you have to create everything verbally. It's a great exercise for making clear edits and initiations, and naming specifics in the environment. And since you're just saying and not doing, you can be anywhere and do anything even more than in fully physical, stage-lit improv.  (Side note: Boy, do I feel dumb. I meant to say ysalamiri, not vornskrs, in the scene about the underage guy who used Jedi mind-tricks to buy grape Zima. Ysalamiri are the creatures with the ability to "push back" the Force—the vornskrs are Force-sensitive pack animals that hunt them. I know that caused some confusion, and I apologize.)
  • OK, so it's fun to be in more than one troupe. Playing with the chicks in Tantrum on one night and (most of) the guys in Tantrum on separate nights was interesting. Same trust, same playfulness...completely different content and vibe. 
  • Coaching is fun, too. The Scriptease guys have totally reworked their Epic Disaster piece to open it up more, and I can't wait to see it. 
  • As is directing. Exit 16 has their next show March 4th, and you should come see it.
  • And seeing shows? That's really, really fun. Especially now that there are more troupes doing more things. I can't wait to see the Trip Fives tonight (though it stinks that it means missing Hype 7's show in Bonner Springs)—it's been a long time since anyone's done improv in the dark in KC.
Turns out this is fun. And a lot of it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

49 minutes in.

A few years ago, at the Artistic New Directions Performance Improv Retreat (which, by the way, I could not recommend more highly), I was part of a kick-ass team that rehearsed all day and put up a new long-form show every night. Before the first show, when we were talking about what we were going to do that night, my new pal Heather (who is very wise) said: "Let's have fuckin' fun."* 

That became our team's performance philosophy. Every night, with six hours of classes and two hours of rehearsal under our collective belt, we set out to have a blast. That's all. Not "let's hit these beats" or "let's make sure we play excellent characters" or "let's do awesome object work." Just "Let's have fuckin' fun." And the completely unsurprising thing is, we did. Every. Single. Time. 

Skip to today. I'm talking to another very wise woman (in a 50-minute session that just happened to be covered by CIGNA) about self-awareness, self-esteem, confidence/the lack thereof, etc., etc., etc. This wise woman is a regular pointer-outer of the obvious thing I've been staring at without seeing. 

So as I'm getting ready to walk out the door, she says this: "Hey, isn't that your play time? Don't you do improv to have fun? Because it sounds like you're taking it too seriously."  

I get the feeling maybe when I've been taking notes, I forgot something important. I'm now looking very forward to having "fuckin' fun" with Spite and Tantrum

*If you are one of my high school kids, remember what Susan said about a time and a place. This is my place. Don't swear at school.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And we're back.

Nikki, Megan and I got together for our first Spite rehearsal tonight. 

You wouldn't think it'd be so hard to get three people in the same room, but between travel, work and rehearsal schedules...well, DAMN. But we ran three different takes on our set, and landed on one that feels good. 

It's not a form—just a montage with edits. (There's no need for Jill Bernard to let loose with the falcons, because we are not calling it a form.) Since our time together is limited, we want to be able to spend our hours in rehearsal on the goodies inside instead of the package; it'll also allow our Tantrum rehearsals to feed our Spite sessions. 

This was the first rehearsal I tried the "positive self-talk" thing. Annoyingly, my brain immediately goes to "Here's why you won't be very good: You're rehearsing in a tiny room, so you can't play big. You're out of practice. You're weird. You're stuck in a rut." But now what used to feel like acute self-awareness feels like roadblocks, so I'm working on pushing past them instead of believing them. It sounds obvious, but it's a different feeling. 

OH, and by the way...I was determined when I started this thing that it was not going to be a diary. I am not the least bit interested in exposing my most personal crap to anyone with an Internet connection. So it does feel a little odd to do this processing out loud thing as I'm working through improv issues. I'm absolutely not looking for anyone to boost me up ("You're not weird! You're not rusty! Your den isn't that tiny!"). 

But I am a little curious. Surely I'm not the only improviser who has to push to get out of her own way...?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

One big problem.

So Caroline recently and hilariously wrote about the horror of unflattering digital photos and the posting thereof on Facebook.

Oh, MAN, can I relate. I go down one wardrobe choice every single time I see a photo—or worse, a video—of myself in a show. This one makes me look
schlumpy, that one…oh. Wow. I thought that was a cute top, except that it MAKES ME LOOK LIKE I HAVE A HUMP. Even if I manage to lose myself in a moment on stage, it’s all ruined if I see digital evidence afterwards.


I would loooooove to be one of those people with no issues—completely happy in my own skin, comfortable in body-conscious knits without worrying about overflow issues, able to play sexy, confident characters without any thought that the audience might be thinking, “C’mon, who is she kidding?” (Or worse, “Ew.")

I wish I could resist the compulsion to foist my discomfort on team members when we watch videos or look over photos…but there’s a thing in the back of my brain that says, “You must ACKNOWLEDGE THE BACK-FAT so people will know you’re not deluding yourself into thinking you look OK.”

I’ve been busted multiple times by several directors for my two primary defense mechanisms:
  • Portraying weird, insecure and/or gender-neutral characters.
  • Not. Touching. Anyone. Ever.
(It’s all so very, very attractive. And stupid and debilitating.)

It breaks my heart when I see kids (or anyone) I coach struggle with the same issues. I reassure them that they’re the only ones in their own way, and I put them in situation after situation to prove it’s true. And in their cases I absolutely believe it.

Yeah, I know.

It’s hypocritical. It means I’m not as versatile a player as I could be. It shows fellow players I don’t trust them. It’s whiny, needy and self-indulgent. And the fact that it’s a fairly common girl-disease isn’t much comfort.

So it’s no-more-excuses time. From this point on, I’m not allowed to let my own butt get in my way when I’m improvising. Here’s the three-point plan:
  1. Actually take better care of myself. Get enough sleep, stay hydrated, cut down on post-show beverages, don’t eat crap, work out. That kind of thing. 
  2. Focus out in scenes—stay connected to the moment and what’s going on around me, and give the scene what it needs.
  3. No more public lamentations over the state of my own ass or how it looks in digital media. None.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Things we learned from Susan and Mark

Over the 17 years I’ve been taking improv classes, I’ve finally learned to ask myself a question before I get started: Am I taking this as a teacher, or as a student?

It’s haaaaard to do both.

As a teacher, I'm there to learn how to teach as much as to learn how to improvise. So I take notes on:
  • Exercises—instructions on what we do, in what order, for what purpose
  • Sidecoaching—what the teachers say as other students are in scenes
  • Notes—how the teacher debriefs
  • Philosophy/insights—all the quotable stuff about what the teacher knows/believes
As a student—well, these days I rarely take notes in class at all. I try to stay in the moment instead of transcribing what’s happening. When I do write stuff down, it’s simple:
  • Personal notes I get about my performance
  • Quick, after-the-fact notes about the exercises we did 
That's why it’s nice when I’m sitting in on Exit 16 workshops. I’m there purely as a teacher, and can capture every word, every nuance.

I don’t, of course, post those detailed teaching notes or give them away—because (a) that would be a really shitty thing to do to the instructors who make their living at this and (b) I paid good money to get them. Here, though, are some of the ideas I picked up from
Susan Messing and Mark Sutton’s workshops at the Annoyance (I’m paraphrasing, mostly—they were much wittier).

From Susan’s character workshop:
  1. One of the first thing that happens after you’re born is you get a name. Everybody has one. So it’s creepy if you don’t use them on stage. Have fun with names and the way you say them.
  2. Do something—then figure out why. 
  3. Losing is much more fun than winning when you’re on stage. Being the victim is fun. 
  4. If you hate to do something (object work, a particular game, etc.), you have to do it more until you like it. 
  5. “In improv, we don’t fart and run.” We immerse ourselves in it, sniff it, taste it, describe it, revel in it. 
  6. The more you play yourself, the more your rational self will want to take over and speak out. 
  7. Drink water. Stay hydrated—stay awake.
From Mark, who was all about keeping things simple:
  1. We try to make a it more than it needs to be, instead of getting mileage out of a simple idea. 
  2. We need the audience to buy in—but we tend to try to get there with information instead of emotion. (Which is backwards.)
  3. 15 seconds is the amount of time the average improviser decides the first thing he did sucks. Stick to your choice. The audience and your partner assume the first thing you do is important. 
  4. Something they say at the Second City: "The success or failure of a scene depends on what happens between here (standing in backup line) and here (walking to center stage)."
  5. Environment exists to help us tell the story. Have relationships with things. They mean something. 
  6. We spend a lot of time on the where and the what—not enough on the who.
  7. What does start in the middle mean? Be affected by the opening line. (Example from a KC Improv Festival show: Woman: Good morning, Ted. Ed Furman: What the fuck is that supposed to mean?)
  8. People get in their heads because they project results. Focus on the now and don’t worry about what happens next. Don’t play a scene—play a moment.
If you ever, ever, ever get a chance to take a workshop from either of them, DO. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Oh, there's more...

What follows: A bunch of random stuff that didn't fit into a long-winded essay. 

Another fabulous thing about Mick's feedback: Many times, it starts with "I invite you to try..."

When he noticed I tended to lead with my head, he didn't just say, "Don't do that." He invited me to try leading with my hands...or just following any body part into the scene.

When he pointed out that I tend to talk a lot and try to make sure everyone is aware of and comfortable with what's happening on stage, he didn't say, "Shut up." He suggested that I vary the amount of responsibility I took for the success of the scene. 

Oh. Hey. Constructive criticism. Not every teacher, director or coach uses the same approach—but they all have the responsibility of replacing what they tear down with something new. 

The majority of the Improv Thunderdome feedback and discussion on City 3's forums has been more about tearing down than building up. That's OK for Alan Scherstuhl—his primary obligation is to the audience, not the performers. But coming from people in your own community—honestly—how helpful is it to hear, "I didn't like that"?

That's a question, not a statement. My answer, though, is "Not particularly."

• • • • • •

On the other hand...I haven't hit "refresh" so many times on the City 3 boards and actually had something new to read in months.

I don't hold all opinions in the same regard. But the energy and passion in the discussions is exciting to see. Turns out I love talking about this stuff—and the fact that there's a growing number of people in town who'll talk it into the ground is exciting. 

• • • • • •

It seems like at least a couple of folks were craving more feedback on their shows. I wonder two things: 
  • Is part of that desire the basic human need for affirmation—for someone to have noticed what you did and talk about it? 
  • How many troupes in town have someone dedicated to taking notes on shows and figuring out what to do with them next? 
It was killing me not to take notes on Scriptease myself, but I'd tried it in rehearsal and ended up blowing sound and light cues. That night, I was there as a crew member, not a coach.

• • • • • •

I got a few great notes out of the workshops Exit 16 took this weekend. 

From Susan Messing (and echoed by Mark Sutton): 
  • Don't just drink the coffee. Figure out why your character needs the coffee.
  • Don't try to be funny. Look for ways to have fun.

From Mark Sutton: 
  • (Quoting a note he was given) We spend too much time on stage moving objects around, instead of being moved by objects.
  • Don't worry about the success of the scene or the show. All you have to do is let the thing that's happening right now matter to you. 

Blurt, Part Two: Why I don't think unsolicited feedback is particularly helpful

The first thing: Permission
People study with Mick Napier in large part for the feedback. Intense, specific, insightful feedback on everything about the way you play.

You might think—if all you was read the
names of his theater's shows or saw a photo—that Mick’s feedback would be invective-filled, and his students serious masochists. But don’t let his punk-rock persona fool you: No teacher or director is more gracious.

In classes I’ve taken, he watches you play, then asks some version of this: “I noticed some things about the way you play. May I tell you what I saw?”

People seek out, travel to and pay for classes with Mick specifically so they can hear his feedback. And still—he asks permission before he gives it.

I agree that his is the right way to do it. (So do a lot of books on effective communication.)

When City 3 first started, a couple of the early posters decided we would only say the nice things about others’ shows. I still try my best to do the same, because I don’t believe in giving unsolicited feedback. To
quote Corey Rittmaster: “It's like someone on the street coming up to me for no reason and saying they like or don't like my shirt. Ok, great. I didn't ask. And I'm not changing.”

So…why am I so against unsolicited feedback?
  • It’s incredibly presumptuous. What qualifies you to tell someone his or her work is good or bad? 
  • It’s hard to do effectively. Giving valuable notes—the kind that help players improve the next time they get on stage—takes experience, insight and practice. 
  • It’s not your job. Are you the troupe’s coach or director? No? Then why would you expect what you say to shape the way they approach the work? Are you a reviewer? No? Then once again, you’re not among the chosen. 
Oh. And. Consider the chance that maaaaaaybe your compulsion to comment is more about you than about making the show better. It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself why you want to say something.
  • Is it because you dig talking theory? Then talk about the philosophy, not the performance.
  • Is it because you’re dying to express how you felt about the show? Then talk to your friends over a beer or by e-mail. If you do it on a public forum where the people you’re critiquing are likely to see it, it has exactly the same result as telling them in person. (And hush. This point is not up for debate.)
  • Is it to show you know what you’re talking about? Get a blog. Talk about whatever you want to. Except, maybe, unsolicited feedback on other people's shows.
If you really, really, really have something you think will help…ask permission.

The second thing: Why?
Because launching into unsolicited feedback puts many normal human beings on the defensive, which dramatically diminishes the likelihood they will be open to what you’re saying.

Because they might not care to hear it—for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t want to be brought down after what they thought was a good show. Maybe they’ve talked a bad show to death and are sick of hearing about it. Maybe their director has specific goals for the show that contradict any thing “helpful” you might have to say. Maybe your opinion just isn’t important to them.

Because you’re not just an audience member—even though you paid for your ticket and watched the show with a bunch of them. You’re an improviser, and your experience and training and relationships with other improvisers change the impact of your comments.

Because openly criticizing others’ work when you haven’t been asked for your opinion isn’t the kind of behavior that builds respect and trust. Which, in theory, are things you might want to do. Especially in a tiny, incestuous improv community.

Like this one.

[Edited a few times to nitpick word choices.]

Monday, February 11, 2008

Blurt, Part One

Good grief, it's great to be back at my own full-sized keyboard. After an entire weekend spent refreshing the Improv Thunderdome discussion on City 3, I've been dying to do something long-winded. 

Who knew Scriptease's first foray into genre work would be so controversial?

Their winning piece has been called formulaic, "filled with Mad Libs," recycled and rigid, too sign-posted, somewhere between a fine line and a gray area, and made one improviser "very suspicious" of the troupe's originality. 

A lot of nice things were said, too. 

But it seems to me that at least a few folks were bothered either by the piece or our approach to it. I say that because the number of posts about The Dreaded Formula outnumber critical reviews of Babelfish 6-2 and Antiprov 6-1. If posters are, as they say, there to offer constructive criticism to help performers improve their shows, where's the thoughtful commentary about the other acts? Where's the analysis of why they didn't draw more votes? 

Just sayin'.
So it makes me wonder...
  • Is it because we're a bunch of purists who dislike anything that feels like hack work or bits?
  • Do other performers think it was too easy, and therefore unfair? 
  • Did they believe Scriptease cheated...or just didn't deserve the win? 

I'm not going to change anyone's mind. But I thought I'd walk through the process of developing this show, because...well, it's 12: 20am and what else would I be doing? I'll sleep when I'm dead.

How it started:
Scriptease wasn't even scheduled to play Thunderdome. But Guy and Martha bowed out, Megan (of Spite) got booked for a work trip in February and suddenly a spot opened up. Assuming we'd do some kind of long-form, we squeezed what felt like an appropriate number of rehearsals onto our calendars. 

The idea:
Drew got in touch and said, "We have an idea. We want to improvise a disaster movie." My response: "You'll get too plotty. Don't do it." 

The first rehearsal:
Rene got scheduled to work, so Drew and Clay (with pal Lauren) came over and talked through the idea. Their enthusiasm was contagious—we all got excited about the potential for game moves in stock scenes and characters. They headed home to watch half a dozen disaster movies. 

They're watching movies and reading online articles. I'm downloading music and sound effects. 

The second rehearsal: 
Rene has to work again. Crap. So Drew, Clay and Lauren name all the archetypal scenes and characters they discovered during their research. There's a game for every one—and the rules are essentially the same, no matter what the subject matter. 

And here's where we make a decision. It's Wednesday night. We have Saturday afternoon to rehearse (with Rene, for the first time), then perform the piece for the first time at the Fakers show that night. After that, we've got a mandatory Thunderdome run-through and one more rehearsal before the competition. 

I'm acting in a hybrid director/coach role. And I believe we have really specific responsibilities to more than one group: 
  • I owe the performers help in successfully executing their vision.
  • We owe our audiences (both of them) a polished, professional, entertaining show.
  • We owe the producers a show that lives up to the hype. 
  • And (I agree with Josh Steinmetz here), we owe the KC improv community a performance that makes a good impression. 
So we look at a wall covered with a grid of scenes and characters on sticky notes and decide to simplify. We don't have time for a leisurely process of exploration, so we're going to create a formula (I like definitions 2 and 6) and decide who will play which characters. The hope: We'll make the structure a no-brainer so we can focus on characters and relationships. We can take off the training wheels later, after we've got the basics down.

Saturday afternoon:
After we get Rene up to speed, we do a talk-through with music. (I'm just throwing random stuff in at this point.) We discover the outline works (whew), so we run it over and over, discovering something new every time. Some of the things we figured out that day: 
  • If we ask for a local news human interest story, we'll get a good disaster to work with (like a squirrel on waterskis, the birth of a panda or first graders putting on a Christmas pageant). 
  • A town hall or PTA meeting is a great place to brainstorm—it can work like a Harold opening.
  • There's an unprotected wi-fi account within range of the Corbin (which came in handy for downloading "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" and the ABC news theme).
  • On-stage attacks by anything invisible look incredibly stupid. All gory deaths will occur off stage until further notice (although we're not opposed to any character dragging his mangled body back into the scene to die gloriously).
By the end of the day, we have the template baked—10 scenes, each with a specific purpose for the plot, the characters and the improv (e.g. "Town Hall" can be a chance to explore what we know about the topic, establish the Good Authority Figure as the stable influence, make everyone hate the Evil Authority Figure, and provide context for the disaster). 

If you've never tried to nail down something like that in a day, give it a shot sometime. Not as easy as it looks. 

Saturday evening: 
We run it for Ryan Seymour and a friend after we have to cancel On The Spot! and, of course, in the Fakers show. Besides banging up Clay's knee and nearly killing a few audience volunteers in the crowded backstage area, it goes OK. Still more about action than people, but OK.

Pete is kind enough to do notes—and in addition to confirming that the scenes did what they were supposed to (he had his notes labeled almost exactly the same way ours were), gave us some terrific feedback—particularly on presentation. 

Sunday—bonus rehearsal:
Rene and Clay come over to talk through the structure again. Now that we've got the formula down, we talk about what it would take to make it work (and keep it fresh). It has to be about the relationships between the characters, and not the plot. We make a few tweaks (including cutting the first planning session to the essentials: "come up with the simplest solution possible"), and I work on narrowing a 70-song playlist down to a more manageable score. 

Monday—Thunderdome run-through:
We finally get a chance to run it on the coffeehouse stage. It's still a little rough, but it gets reactions in all the right places. Rene and Clay have a fun exchange during the scene where the Good Authority Figure and the Young Hotshot meet the Lone Wolf:
RENE: This is a private conversation.
CLAY: Then maybe you shouldn't have it in a bar.

Wednesday—last rehearsal:
A few more tweaks to the structure (our last three scenes have been getting compressed into one—so no need to fight that) and we're ready to talk through it a couple of times. (Because improvising an action-heavy piece in my loft seems like a recipe for disaster.) 

We focus on three things: Listening to your scene partners, listening to the music and letting everything mean something to you. 

Friday—the competition:
It works. It's still a little rough, but there's no denying it works. In another scene in a bar, Rene and Clay bring out the dialogue from the run-through. Do I wince a little? Yep. Do I blame them? Not even a little bit. 

The audience laughs, cheers and plays along. Scriptease wins. And I'm so freaky proud of how much they've managed in such a short amount of time I can barely stand it. 

After the show, I talk to a few folks—Rob, Pete and a couple of others—about what they thought. I get some great feedback. Yes, the show was rough. But there's plenty there to work with. I can't wait to get back to rehearsal.

Saturday—the aftermath:
So. The critiques begin (Coming tomorrow: Why I Don't Think Unsolicited Feedback Is Particularly Helpful). My first instinct is to try to diffuse any angst by explaining why we did what we did...but it keeps coming. 

The prevailing opinion of those who saw the run-through: The piece didn't change that much. 

F---ing seriously? I'm not defensive (because I'd make the same choices again in a heartbeat), but I'm pretty freakin' annoyed (more on that tomorrow). Here, then, is what they didn't notice (among other things): 

  • Interplay with the audience was much more patient—and the guys reacted in the moment to what happened with the volunteers, especially in the rescue scene. ("No, no...bring your drink.")
  • There was more attention to the music—it had more influence on the mood of the scene and the dialogue. 
  • There were stronger connections between the characters—more listening, more playfulness. 
  • There were more specifics and attention to detail. (Rene shelled and ate peanuts in the bar scene. It was a little thing, but a nice detail.) 
Is there still room for improvement in all of those areas—and more? Hell to the yes. But did it make the piece stronger on Friday than it was on Monday? Without a doubt. 

And honestly, if you think even slight improvements in characters, relationships and environment work aren't a big deal, think about the other scenes you saw that night. How many were built on relationships—and not just funny lines? I'll wait.

Hmmm. So. This is what blogs are for. 

Sunday, February 10, 2008

After the break...

So Scriptease won.


And then we went for beer. And I went home, washed the smoke smell out of my jeans, packed, got 3 hours of sleep and headed out to meet the Exit 16 kids at the Southwest ticket counter.

They had an amazing workshop with Susan Messing and saw the two Second City shows. Tim Mason, who is one of the kindest people I know, invited me to play the improv set after the etc show.

Which I can't say was the culmination of a lifelong dream, because it never occured to me that I'd have the chance to do it.

It felt great.

More on the trip later, from a full-sized keyboard.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Rehearsal for Thunderdome's second match was last night. I had a blast watching the other teams...and am excited about the range of styles audiences will see on Friday. It's really going to come down to who brings the most people. 

Jared and Ed did a terrific job running things. They learned a lot from the first round, and you can see them putting it to work not just in the show structure and voting, but in the way they ran rehearsal. I continue to be impressed by this thing they've created—it's an incredible success. (For the record, I think some of the complaining I've heard about round one is...well, let's just say I disagree that it's warranted or deserved.)

The ritual

One of my favorite exercises is a Del Close technique I learned first from Rob Reese, then from Del himself.

Just for context, here’s the way I was taught to do the Ritual (I'm sure there are a gazillion ways to do it): 
Setting: Clear the room enough for the improvisers to make a large circle with plenty of space around them. Dim the lights—so they can see each other, but the focus is on bodies, not features.

Warm-up: Some helpful warm-up games include Zip, Zap, Zop (with transformations), Who started the motion?, partner mirrors, group mirrors (physical and verbal) and transformations. Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, Close/Halpern/Johnson’s Truth in Comedy, and Del’s early Harold development notes have all the exercises. 

The Ritual: Players stand (or sit) in a circle—bodies relaxed and neutral—mirroring each other. They wait, and watch each other until a change occurs. Typically a deep breath, sigh, shift from one foot to another, neck stretch—or something else that happens as a result of sitting or standing still. The group picks up the movement or sound, and repeats it, letting it become a pattern. As a group, they let the movements and sounds grow and change until the piece finds a natural close, usually 30-45 minutes later.

Hints (side coaching is avoided except as a last resort):
  • Be patient. Don’t force a beginning. 
  • Don’t let things drop—once a pattern starts, let it grow and evolve. 
  • Take care of your circle—if someone is backed into a corner or about to be pushed off the stage, adjust. If someone can’t physically keep up, you can slow down or adjust to bring them in, or let them participate as best they can. 
  • If you find yourself initiating or leading, stop—follow instead.
  • Don’t focus on the same person the whole time—watch everyone. 
  • Watch “rebooting”—the “OK, that’s done—what happens next” feeling that happens if you let something slow to a stop. (It also happens almost any time you let giggling interrupt the pattern.)
  • Most of the action will take place in a full mirror; sometimes, though, you’ll find yourself in an environment, pattern or action that inspires individual contributions. Always go back to the mirror. 
  • Keep things abstract—use sounds and gibberish instead of real words. 
  • Know that even if you can’t see people, you can still mirror. 
  • If you have a huge group (16 or more)—you can split into two circles and start at the same time. They may merge; they may not.
OK. So that’s the Ritual.

Rob brought it to Lighten Up when we had a collective fear of “exploding.” (Imagine a countdown to blast off—where, instead of taking off, the crew pulled back at “ONE” found an excuse to stay on the ground or start over.) One thing the Ritual forces you to do is find “what’s next”—if no one will let you stop, you have to go higher, louder, faster. You may shy away the first few times, but when you realize it’s holding you back, you eventually let go.

I like it so much because it’s a terrific diagnostic tool for directors, troupes and individuals. After the exercise, you talk—about what worked, what didn’t, what (as Jill Bernard puts it) “broke your heart a little.”

Stuff I’ve seen, and what we decided it meant:
  • An all-male group who would find themselves doing sounds and movements that felt tender—then immediately turned aggressive. They had a hard time being vulnerable or gentle in scenes with each other. 
  • The college kids at a festival who joked and gagged their way through it. Del taught that one, and came right out and said it was a sign of immaturity. 
  • The high school kids who reboot every few minutes because they can’t stop giggling. It’s a discipline thing. 
  • The one guy who doesn’t participate—and doesn’t understand why it’s important. (He doesn't connect with the troupe in other ways, either.)
What I’ve learned about me (among a gazillion other things):
  • When I’m in it: I find myself getting irritated when someone is “doing it wrong.” Which means I may be trying too hard to control things. Which is typical.
  • When I’m directing it: I have to accept that the Ritual belongs to the troupe. There’s no right way to do it. 
Exit 16 did their second one tonight, because they recently requested “more stuff to help us bond.” The one they performed earlier this year left them incredibly frustrated—but with an understanding that they needed to work on discipline and trust. They’ve been asking to do it again since. This one felt much better to them—and you could tell they were having fun.

We leave for Chicago Saturday morning. (Yes. Chicago. In February. We’re certifiable.) That’s the ultimate bonding experience. Three days of workshops (Susan Messing and Mark Sutton) and shows (Second City and iO) and staying up too late (them, not me). There’s nothing in the world quite like sharing this stuff with kids.