Monday, March 31, 2008

Trying to remember what it was like.

It seems as if the first KC blogger common-topic posting (yeah…unwieldy…maybe we do need a name) was a success.

Nine of us (Caroline, Jared, Jessica—except go here instead of the one listed, John, Keith, Pete, Scott, Tommy and I) all answered the same question. Some of the same things came up…collaboration and cross-pollination are good, big egos and small audiences are bad.

Two of the most thought-provoking posts were by relative newcomers Caroline and Jessica. Because I’ve been so deeply obsessed with this stuff for so long, it’s easy to forget what it was like starting out.

Historical tangent ahead. Beware of rocking chair. 

OK. so parts of the experience back then were pretty different. Seeing my first show, taking my first class and being asked to join ComedySportz (now Comedy City) all happened in the same weekend—I spent zero time on the outside looking in. No one in the group had more than half a dozen years of experience, but the scene was new enough that Corey Rittmaster, Jay Lewis and Improv-Abilities founder Jim Montemayor—who’d come in from high school leagues a year or two before—seemed like old-timers. (This despite the fact that none of them could buy beer legally.)

In those days (crreeeeeaaaak), ComedySportz, Laughing Stock (a predecessor of
Full Frontal) and Out On A Limb (a trio spun off from CSz) were the only groups in town. It really didn’t occur to anyone to play with more than one troupe; CSz’s owner even put a legally questionable non-compete clause in the contracts. Everyone just played variations on the same games, so there was no sense of “hey…they’re doing something cool over there.”

And we’re back.

Now enough folks play with multiple groups that it’s become the norm—that’s new. No one group has a lock on KC audiences—also new. And everyone’s making an effort to do different forms and formats—new.

So from my point of view, it looked and felt like there are
soooooo many more opportunities than there used to be. When Caroline writes that she feels like “the last kid picked in gym class” and Jessica writes that “It is a little difficult to find your place…and at times it makes one feel unwelcomed” my first thought was “no no no no no! It’s better! Really! You young whippersnappers don't know how good you've—”


If I shut up the hell up and really listen...yeah. They're right. Of course they're right.

And man, I wish I had something helpful to say. The issues they talk about aren't easy ones to address—and would take more work and selflessness and structure than I think are possible in our little community right now.  

To continue to grow as an improviser, it feels like you need to play with people at or above your level (of quality, experience, stage time, whatever). I think that maybe (at least until you’re one of the elite in Chicago, NY or LA ) you will always want to play with the big kids; they just keep getting bigger and further away.

Unfortunately, it probably means that in your quest for improvement, you’re always running away from the people who are running after you. And right now, there’s nothing in Kansas City that enables or encourages mentoring on a large scale.

More people need to teach. And someone needs to bring back Fight Club. (Someone who's
not running a theater and/or troupe or producing Thunderdome or working on the festival want to volunteer? Who's in? All Fight Club takes is finding a space, setting a timer and reading the rules...)

SO, the only other way to get more experience is to start your own group. It doesn’t even have to be a performing troupe—it could just be a few people who get together and play.

Here, then, is how to do that. I'm serious…this is it, step by step.** Turns out there are 12 of them—appropriately enough.
  1. Decide whether you want to be in charge or you want a partner (or more than one). Recommendation: For something short term—a few months or a show or two—you’re probably fine on your own. If you want to create something that will be around for a while, having some help is good.
  2. Decide—by yourself or with your partner(s)—what kind of a troupe you want to have. Examples: Are you just getting together to work out, or to perform? How many people do you want? What kind of work will you do? How long will you exist? Recommendation: It’s probably not a bad idea to say, “Let’s do one show together, then see how we like it and go from there.”
  3. Pick people to play with. Recommendation: Start with a core group of folks with similar experience to yours. Then invite one or two people with a little bit more experience and one or two with a little bit less.
  4. Come up with name. Maybe take some pictures.
  5. Find a coach—someone with more experience than your most experienced players—to lead your rehearsals or workshops. (In other cities, you typically pay a coach by the rehearsal. Check this link for details.)
  6. Find a space to work out. It might be at your church, or your office, or the public library…or, more likely, in the home of the player with the biggest living room or basement.
  7. Schedule a show—usually, you’ll want to work at least two months in advance.
  8. Contact Pam at the Westport Coffeehouse ($200/night), Chris Gregoire at the Corbin ($100/night), or John at the Roving Imp. If you can find another troupe to split a night with—or maybe even to let you open for them or do a set after theirs, for free—it’ll be cheaper.
  9. Set a rehearsal or workshop schedule, and make some rules about attendance.
  10. About a month before the show, start sending calendar listings and press releases (there are lots of resources on line to help with this). Create events on Facebook and Myspace and City 3. Make fliers and posters and put them up at your players workplaces and at coffee shops and local businesses. E-mail your friends. Ask other improvisers if they’ll help plug your shows.
  11. Keep your first show simple—maybe it’s 45-minutes long, and you only charge $5 or so. It’s not a bad idea to pick someplace with cheap rent, so you don’t have to have more than 20 people there to make your rent.
  12. Get your coach to do notes on your first show. And videotape it, because nothing helps more than seeing your butt on tape.
That’s basically it. You'll just have to trust me when I say it's easier than it used to be. 

*Also, I was an Army brat, so I had to audition for friends every year or two my whole life. I was always the last picked, always the outsider…and it just sucks to hear that anyone in our world feels that way, ever.
**Just so it doesn’t sound like I’m being cavalier about the difficulty of starting a troupe, I want to point out that I was very young and very stupid when I did it. (Those might actually be pre-requisites.) I was 25 and had exactly one year of experience as an improviser—also, a full-time job.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What are the best and worst things happening in KC improv?

So today is an experiment. By midnight, at least some of the KC improvisers with links to your right will be answering the question: “What are the best and worst things happening in KC improv?” We didn’t define it any more specifically than that—everyone will answer their own way.

There’s lots good. There’s some ick, too. Picking two things I feel strongly about, though, is cinchy.

THE GOOD: Improv Thunderdome

When Jared & Ed kicked things off, I figured a few things would happen:
  • Teams would throw some experimental stuff together, so the shows might be self-indulgent. 
  • It’d mostly just be exciting for the hardest of the hard-core folks in the improv community.
  • But players would talk friends into voting for them, so the houses would be decent. 
Don’t I feel dumb.

Loaded Dice raised the bar at the first Thunderdome—their show was well-rehearsed, their concept was simple but solid and their game-play rocked. If you were a future competitor in the audience that night, you got a wake-up call:
Bring your A game.

Scriptease took round 2 in a decisive but nonetheless controversial vote. Babelfish’s smart, reference-laden show may have been an improviser favorite, but Scriptease won the crowd with a familiar construct (Epic Disaster Flick) and heavy audience participation. Wake-up call #2:
Entertain the straights.

And Makeshift Militia upped the ante in round 3 by rounding up reservations from their friends and snagging 80+ seats—winning the game before the lights went up. Wake-up call #3:
That part on the poster about “there are no rules”? It’s not a joke.

The Thunderdome Championship sold out the day after round 3 was over—a full month before the show. Unless it’s a festival or other big event, that
just doesn’t happen in Kansas City.

So: A new idea. Newsworthiness (media coverage—everywhere). A bunch of reasons not to miss a single show. A sense of community. Cross-pollination. Benefit to any and every group who does a kick-ass show (seriously—it was better for Spite to do a good show in front of 80 people who’d never seen us than 80 people who already know who we are). Controversy. Buzz-factor.

Thunderdome has it all.

THE BAD: Too few teachers, too few students.

That there’s no training center in a city where improv has been around for 20+ years is a shame.

But not particularly surprising. Besides the sense of satisfaction you get from seeing students experience improv for the first time, learn new tricks or improve exponentially from week to week, there’s not much return on investment for teaching a class.

Selling yourself is hard, un-fun work. Finding a space is an expensive pain in the ass. Designing a compelling curriculum is challenging and time-consuming. And doing all that work for a class of 4-6 is…just not profitable. About the only way to up your chances of success is to have your own theater, as Roving Imp and ComedyCity do.

It’s no wonder the majority of folks in town who would make good teachers aren’t interested.

On the other hand, the majority of folks in town who should be students aren’t interested, either. At its worst, we’ve created a community of complacencey  and entitlement—you join a troupe, you get on stage. Almost no dues—literal or figurative—are paid before you get stage time.

(My soapbox. Let me show you it.)

I’ve been doing this since 1990. I’ve rehearsed for and performed hundreds, maybe thousands, of shows. I’ve taken hundreds of hours of classes from Del Close, Charna Halpern, Mick Napier, Joe Bill, Mark Sutton, Michael Gellman, Dave Razowsky, Jill Bernard, Dan Izzo, Peter Gwinn and a whole
bunch of others. If you check my bookshelves, you’ll find just about every book on improv ever written.

And I can
still find something that makes me better in a decent beginner-level class. Even if it’s just a new exercise—or something I'd forgotten I knew.

So it blows my mind (and, clearly, pisses me off a little) that there are KC players who don’t think they can learn anything from people with more experience than they have. They don’t sign up for classes unless big names are in from out of town. They don’t bother with outside coaches or directors for their shows. They don’t see shows besides their own. They might even complain about having to rehearse to often. 

You can learn from almost anyone with a different perspective—or even an objective point of view. A bad show can teach you as much as a good one. Every minute of a rehearsal or a workshop is a chance to build muscle memory that will make your next show better.

In an interview, Susan Messing said, “I love that this is the kind of art where the day I stop growing is the day I start dying.”

We have a lot more room to grow.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Filling a prescription.

So my very wise shrink has informed me that she doesn't care if it occurs at night—even on a weekend—but any event that involves my coming up with an agenda, to-do list or tasks to delegate does not count as a social outing. 


So I was very pleased to inform her that Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I will be spending time with non-improvisers. Discussions have not involved (and will not include) the merits of short- or long-form, the difficulty of meaningful object work or the importance of creating emotional connections on stage. 

Last night, I met coworkers for beers—we talked about work. Tonight, I will join the Texas Exes for a watch party—and I'm almost certain we will talk about basketball, which I'm SUPER excited about since I know neither any one attending nor anything about basketball. Saturday, we're going to watch my coworker Julia in a roller derby. We'll probably talk more about work, as well as how surprisingly easy it is to catch on to roller derby rules and strategies. 

I will miss the improvisers. I love my coworkers—and I'm lucky enough to work with people who make me laugh as hard as improvisers do.  But I'm dreading tonight, because I have to play extrovert. 

People are usually pretty surprised to hear I'm one-half introvert—and that many improvisers are pure bloods. "But you get up on stage! In front of all those people! And you're loud!" That's not what extrovert means (A) and (2) I'm dorky and easily intimidated and insecure and unsure of myself when I'm not in my comfort zone.

But because I improvise, I can act. So I'll just look at the next four hours as a one-person show...

OK. That was really fun. I got there after the half (must pay more attention to start times) and the Exes are very nice people. Nice enough to invite me to another watch party—so I'll join them again on Sunday to cheer the 'Horns on to the Final Four. 


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On their own.

So Exit 16 hit a yearly milestone—a little late, but there it was. This is the first show of the year where they: 
  • Planned their own run list
  • Let the new-this-year players host games
  • Used what they learned in Chicago
After three months off performing, they wondered if they'd be rusty (they weren't). Spring is busy and there was a big choir event at the same time, so they worried about having a small crowd (it was smaller than they're used to—but would be impressive to any other troupe). Spring sometimes means "too much confidence and too little discipline," but neither was a problem. 

For the first show of the year, I can barely eat all day. I torture myself over the run list, make sure they're super-prepared and take off work early. Now, I just call the scenes and turn the music off and on. Usually we have five shows like this—being two short sucks, but I think it will help us avoid the sloppy stuff. 

The only big change left in the group will happen at auditions in May. They'll lead workshops for kids interested in auditioning one week, and then choose their new scene partners the next. It's amazing to watch the shift—especially in the first years, who get to stop being the newbies. 

At callbacks, the prospective players improvise with the returning members, who all of a sudden are in the aspirational roles. Something just clicks on—they do some of their best work in those three hours. 

It's funny to do this year after year—especially having no prior experience as a teacher. Every group is so radically different—even switching out 2-3 players has a huge impact—but they go through all the same things. And instead of getting boring or feeling rote, it's more fun every year. I know what to expect...and I really look forward to it all.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

One day. Three small scenes.

So I was just reading over what I wrote, and realized there's a theme. My day was a freaking long-form.

Aron, Jessica and I met for a little festival planning. Here's the rule this year: If you're not at the meeting, you live with the decision the people who came to the meeting made. 

That probably sounds harsher than necessary, but it's probably the single most important change in festival planning meetings this year. At the last fest, I swear we started over a gazillion times—every time the committee had a new member, we'd play catch-up so everyone knew what was up. The event took three years to plan. 

Now, I assume that if there are at least two other people there, we've got to enough to make smart choices. There are still people to run stuff by, but for the most part we're small, efficient and easy to maneuver.

First, a question: How the hell do you space off a rehearsal? I've been crazy, insanely busy, juggling like crazy to keep a dozen balls in the air, but I've never completely forgotten I'd committed to other people to work on a show. Maybe it's because even in the rare cases where they feel a little more like obligations than super-happy-fun-time, I'm still getting to improvise with people I like. I just can't wrap my head around it. 

Aaaaaaaand we're back. 

Scriptease was really fun to work with today. (I mean, they usually are. But still.) We did Miles Stroth's mapping exercises (which I'm loving a lot lately), and some object work exercises I learned from Mark Sutton. 

Another side note: After hearing Mark and Susan Messing talk about object work, I couldn't wait to try out the idea of actually caring about what I was doing. It sounds obvious, but I've pulled generic glasses out of so many fucking cabinets that I'm fully aware my environments have been obligatory for quite some time. In the Spite Thunderdome set, I had an absolute blast playing with stuff. I licked Margarita glasses to make the salt stick, tried on a too-small shirt at Urban Outfitters and got to poop in a giant purse (it really was relationship-driven and relevant to the scene—honest). It all felt really organic—like I was discovering instead of inventing. 

Anyway, it was nice to have a session with Scriptease where we just focused on scenework, and not on developing their Epic Disaster longform. We got off to a slow start—just two of the guys were there, and it felt a little awkward at first. Plus, it's still a little weird getting used to rehearsing in my guest room (although the French doors make a reasonably effective proscenium). But once they got into scenes, it got fun. Both guys said they felt like they flexed muscles they haven't used in a while.

Tonight, I headed out to see Improv-Abilities at the Roving Imp. I've been wanting to see their Love Smack show—plus, I haven't seen them play since they added new members. (It's been a ridiculously long time—my bad.) The house was tiny, but the I-A folks (John, Keith, Nathan, Joe, James, Magie and Caroline) didn't let it throw them. 

Playing to a small house is a bit of an art, I think. Obviously, the vibe in the room is different—so you have to generate and maintain the energy yourselves. If you come out with hyper-enthusiasm, it feels manufactured; on the other hand, you can't seem disappointed about the turnout. People sometimes feel awkward about laughing. Because the show can feel a little bit more intimate, I think it's a great opportunity to play smart, thoughtful scenes. The worst thing you can to is panic and get slapstick-y. 

Years and years ago, I was in Chicago on a week night and stopped by iO. I can't remember the show—it might have been an early incarnation of TJ and Dave—anyway, TJ Jagodowski was in it. The show was upstairs in the Del Close theater, and the house was small—less than a dozen. The cast came out to start, and TJ (as always) graciously thanked everyone for coming out and watching them improvise. Then he did a really smart thing: He said, "Now you know who we are. Since there aren't many of us here, let's meet you guys, too." Then we went down the row and introduced ourselves. 

I don't know if many people could pull it off. But I can tell you: We were completely on their side from that second on. We stopped feeling uncomfortable—instead, it felt like a private show, created just for us. Pretty cool.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Girls and boys.

OK, first, something not at all improv related: Girls who don't dress like girls. I read about on always-hilarious site of Wendy Molyneux (who may be one of the funniest women writing today). Apparently, these "Urbane Tomboys" (I know. Ew.) have...
...largely given up on mainstream women’s fashion, with its expensive, often unflattering vicissitudes, finding refuge in an eternal sporty girlhood that may or may not be tied to any real athletic bent. They borrow from men’s wear, which is more constant, comfortable and, lately, focused on well-made basics like jeans and T-shirts, and they profess ignorance of female grooming rituals, even if they have a secret love of eyeliner. Ever self-deprecating, this kind of woman is quick to tell you she “wears the same thing every day,” or that she dresses like her husband or boyfriend.
Except for the makeup thing (I'm wicked lucky to have rosacea—mild subtype 1—so if I go without I look like I've just jogged a fast mile), this is me. I've always been a little bit this way, but as I've gotten older, I've started to feel a leeeeeettle defensive about choosing layered t-shirts, jeans and sneakers over puffy-sleeved pinafores that feel juvenile or suits that just don't feel like me. Women's clothing has become stupider than ever, and finding something that doesn't make me look like I'm trying too hard—one way or the other—is near impossible.

So I look at my Blackberry every morning. If I have a meeting with people more than one level above me, I dress like a girl/grown-up. And I invariably get asked "why so dressed up?"

*  *  *  *  *

Topic #2: From Jared's critique of TBA's set in Improv Thunderdome, Round 3:
If there was anything critical I could say about it, it's tough to do an all-male show without there being a little gayness.
Huh, I say. 

Semi-random thought #1: There's a lot of all-male improv in KC (and a whole lot of other places), and it doesn't seem like I see a lot of guy-on-guy action in scenes. I mean some—and too often played for laughs instead of as a real relationship—but it doesn't seem pervasive. 

Semi-random thought #2: If you spend any time at all around other people, you probably have way more platonic, same-gender connections than you do romantic relationships. So why would it be tough to bring those out on stage? 

Semi-random thought #3: I'm of different minds about playing opposite genders on stage: 
  • I've heard Michael Gellman advise newer players not to play the opposite sex because the audience spends more mental energy judging your ability to pull it off than watching the scene—so it can be a barrier. 
  • Too many times, we make weak opposite-gender choices to fill in a blank in a scene—playing the shorthand of a role rather than a fully fleshed out character. 
  • But, of course, some experienced players rock the gender-bending. 
Conclusion, intended to stir shit up: In improv, gender stereotypes can play out in their full glory: Men find it harder to express emotions, men aren't as emotionally connected to others, men don't invest as much in relationships, blah, blah, blah. 

I think many guys have a harder time portraying real, honest relationships on stage than most women do. (Note carefully chosen qualifiers.) And for the ones who do, one of a few things is likely to happen: 
  • They choose more intense relationships, because it's easier to telegraph extreme emotions. Romantic relationships—gay or straight—fit that bill. 
  • They don't show—they tell. The emotion of the relationships exists in the narrative and the dialogue, and not in the acting.
  • Because the scene-and-humor-driving changes their characters experience don't result from relationships, there's more pressure to manufacture laughs with dialogue and situations. Which. Is. Hard.
As guys get more experience, become more comfortable with their troupes, and build their acting chops, their emotional range increases. Watch strong male improvisers—they're the ones most willing to be vulnerable. They're the ones making connections—allowing themselves to be excited, tortured, pleased, flustered, destroyed and otherwise affected by their scene partners.  

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hey...that was f---in' fun.

It's been a long, long time—about a year and a half, if I'm honest—since I've finished an improv set without feeling like I made at least a move or two (or a dozen) I wish I could do over.

Our Spite set in Thunderdome felt amazing. There are Viola Spolin sidecoaching lines I really strive for—"Take a ride on your own body" and "Get out of your head and into the space"—and that's what it felt like. So much so that the only time I spent in my head was a couple of points where the thought, "can we keep this up?" flashed through.

The Tantrum set was fun. Not our best work
ever—our Harold group scenes never really came together, we had some weak spots and we ran a little short. Rob was totally on, and he and Nikki had the most fun characters of the show: Suburbanites who couldn't manage to get the trash off their streets. Considering the fact that our rehearsal schedules never really came together, it could have been a train wreck. So I can't say I'm disappointed in the outcome.

So in the world where I pick everything apart, what made the Spite set feel so good? We rehearsed, but not as much as I did with Scriptease before their round.
  • We kept it simple. We played around with different ways to transition between scenes, and the idea of entrances and exits, and to do or not to do tag-outs. We knew what was in the toolbox.
  • It wasn't even really a format—we just edited each other by repeating the line that preceded the beat with a new emotional POV. That was a specific call—cut on the beat, not on a line you want. That alone kept us out of our heads—we couldn't cherry-pick a line of dialogue that felt right, and it threw us into some strange places ("it's more Mary Poopins than Mary Poppins").
  • We had a great warm-up. Two, really—the Tantrum show itself was part one. We had a good 30 minutes by ourselves, with no distractions. Time to do some character work, run scenes, goof around, and make each other promises about what we'd do in the show. 
  • We trusted. We said "let's have fun." We assured each other that nothing anyone could do would be wrong—we'd take care of everything. We swore we'd fuck with each other. 

The last part, I think, is what meant the most to me. I worry sometimes that I play too aggressively, steamroll and do other stupid stuff that I'm afraid makes my fellow players roll their eyes. I knew that all three of us were there because we really wanted to play with each other. And we know each other's styles well enough to not only accept, but appreciate what each of us brings to the work.  

I'd love to work with Spite again. (I think that's going to end up being true of a lot of Thunderdome-driven match-ups.) And I'm excited about what's ahead for Tantrum. 

And I can't believe I don't have a rehearsal or a show scheduled—to perform in, anyway—for the next few months. Probably need to fix that. 

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's showtime. (Almost.)

Five and a half hours 'til call time.

My routine got screwy this week—down with the flu for a couple of days—so I've spent more time sleeping than trying solo exercises. With errands to run today, that means lots of character work in the car.

I've been playing reeeeaaaaaaaaally close to myself lately. Which means I'm already roaming around in my own head, giving advice, making judgments. The further I get away from my own body, the more likely I am to think as someone else—or at least someone else's filter—so it becomes a matter of strengthening the muscles and honing the tools that let me step outside.

Because I have pretty much a 50/50 left-brain/right-brain split (something reinforced in every evaluation I've had for years), it's hard to avoid a little thinky stuff edging into the creative part. The way I usually get around that is by putting myself in a place where I evaluate the scene by character rules instead of improv rules. Status works well...but playing with words (limiting them, cutting myself off, ranting, starting with a noise) and physicality (leading with a body part, physical quirks or habits) work too.

It'll be nice to be up on stage with some of my favorite folks to play with. And even though Spite is a subset of Tantrum, there are completely different vibes with each.

Five hours and 25 minutes until call time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No respect, I tell you.

We've officially reached—OK, passed—the part of the year where the Exit 16 kids stop treating me as an authority figure.

Which is fine. I stop feeling like one at this point, too. The Chicago trip is over. Basic training is done. Show planning is turned over to them. I basically show up, run rehearsals and tech the shows. Not a bad gig.

Tonight, we worked the Miles Stroth want and mapping exercises I'd alluded to in their previous rehearsal. One of the amazing things about Miles was that he played the games with the kids as he taught them all those years ago. Having the flu and no precedent for participating in rehearsal exercises, I just explained and side-coached (and worried a little that the exercises wouldn't work).

Good exercises are good exercises. For the mapping games, we pretty much lifted the set-ups referenced above—with a little toning down for the high school audience. I was amazed at the emotional depth of the scenes. I. and E. mapped "breaking up" to "returning a shirt," for an incredibly angsty little scene—climaxing in E., who'd been accused of giving up on torn shirts without even attempting to repair them, saying, "I have fixed shirts before," and a very wounded I. responding, "The hell you have!"

Yeah, you had to be there. Trust me, though.

Now it's time to let the Robitussin PM do its job. I stayed home from work today—mostly because if anyone else comes in as germ ridden as I may be right now, I try my best to convince them to go home. Tonight, I stayed a good 10 feet way from the youngsters and hand-sanitized like a mofo; I couldn't exactly tell them, "Hey, we're skipping another week" or they'd explode. I've seen people knocked on their asses for two weeks with what I may be coming down with, and I really can't afford to get sick right now. Too much going on.

Monday, March 10, 2008


We rehearsed tonight. And because this is all about me, I'm just going to talk about Spite. (But best of luck to the other two teams, who will rock it. Just not as hard. As Spite will.)

I don't think I'm betraying the trust of my fellow Spiters to say we were lukewarm about our set tonight. Of course, what you want to do is go in to the pre-show rehearsal and blow the other troupes off the stage...put the fear of Del into them...PWN them. You know?

We agreed we weren't as playful as we could have been. And maybe we could stand to cut the scenes shorter. (Of course, "aggressive cutting" is to me what butter is to Paula Dean. Makes 'most anything better.) But those are two easily fixed, we'll be in a good rhythm after playing with our pals in
Tantrum at 7.

Honestly, the only thing that scares me is the slight feeling that I may be starting to come down with something.

So this week is training week. The plan:
  • No crappy food. Fruits. Veggies. Protein. Every day. Maybe vitamin supplements.
  • Workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. 
  • Solitary rehearsals. There are exercises I've been meaning to try in a Spolin book and Mick's book. So I'm going to make myself do them. 
One of the shows I've felt best about in recent years was a 2 Much Duck show with Pete, Josh and Linda. Knowing it was potentially just going to be Pete, Josh and me–and knowing not everyone needs or wants as much warmup as I like—I prepped myself in the car on the way to the show. Easy stuff...just put the radio on "scan" and changed characters every time the station changed. The music informed the character, and the seat and steering wheel made it easy to change the physicality of each one. I did it for about 15 minutes. Other drivers thought I was nuts, but I was toasty when I got to the theater. 

I'm really looking forward to this weekend.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I forgot to add a title.

Can I just say how much I hate losing an hour? How is it 4:15 already? What the hell? (The answer, btw: Equally as much as I love Tide To-Go’s talking stain commercial. Exactly the same amount, but you know, different emotions.)

Spent a lot of time with improvisers this weekend. (Turns out, I like them.) 

Keith put on Improv Get-Together #4 on Friday. Our first one was two years ago (wow…that long)—started because we thought maybe it would be good if troupes cross-pollinated a little. (Another answer: Yes. It is.)
We had shows up in Liberty this weekend. Small crowd for On The Spot, again, but a fun little show with Bob and Dan, Tommy hosting and Guy in the booth. Scriptease had a decent-sized house and played their Epic Disaster again—with really nice results. Differences from the Thunderdome set: A few moved-around scenes, character-switching, more audience participation and Tommy Todd.
  • The added scenes the guys came up with really throw the focus to character exploration. 
  • Switching the characters around was fun—especially seeing their different takes on the different archetypes.
  • There’s more built-in participation—which I won’t spoil by revealing it—but the most fun part was the completely unexpected result of the set-up. They said, “We may come to you for help, so be ready.” In the middle of a non-planned-participation scene, a guy piped up from the front row. They immediately dubbed him Abe, and continued to consult him for the rest of the show. He played along beautifully.
  • Tommy’s take on the love scene in rehearsal reduced Clay to tears. It was hot. Really.
After rehearsal and the show, I have no doubt the tweaks they came up with—and whatever evolutions the show takes in the future—will keep it fresh. Years ago, Lighten Up hit a turning point when we started doing our improvised musical. I can really see the Epic Disaster becoming something people seek out. 

Something I’m thinking about, up Liberty way. We’ll do our regular run through June (so three more weekends), then take a break between July and September. When it comes back, it may be time to do something different with the shows…maybe putting the home-grown Fakers in as the headliners.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008



The Makeshift Militia guys have just played the hell out of Improv Thunderdome strategy and completely loaded the house. 

So it's sold out—a week and a half before the show. Unheard of!

And that's the genius—and the rub—of Thunderdome. If it works the way it should, the producers don't do the marketing—the troupes do. The winner is the one who brings the crowd. Honestly, you could sit up on stage in a chair and talk to a sock-puppet for 30 minutes, and if your friends make up the majority of the house, you're going to the finals. 

Not saying that's what Makeshift will do—they'll bring their A-game. And they'll have a blast, because the crowd is on their side. 

But...but! Here's the really exciting thing. Their crowd will also see two other groups (or, to be more accurate in this particular case, one). Tantrum (split in twain minus one for Thunderdome) will play for dozens of people who've never seen us before. And if we bring our A-games, we'll win some fans. They won't vote for us, but they may come see us play some time. 

That is the Glory and Wonder of Thunderdome. Bring your crowd, and you win. But the community wins, too—because though your crowd is in love with you, they might just get a big crush on improv. 

It's a beautiful thang.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pent-up funny.

The Exit 16 kids are going nuts.

Their last show was the
alumni show in December—and in that one, they shared stage-time with a dozen and a half other players. We called the show in January because of snow, cancelled February because we’d just gotten back from Chicago and weren’t able to reschedule…so their next show isn’t until March 25. Three months with no shows.

And since the trip to
Chicago, they’ve been dying to get on stage.

It feels like we’ve focused on scenework almost exclusively for a while, so we’ve spent the last couple of rehearsals hitting games again. It’s fun to watch them use their new know-how on stuff we’ve been doing almost all year. Sometimes, you can almost hear the click as they figure out how to apply a new skill to the scene. If it doesn’t happen on it’s own, it’s easy to poke at them by reminding them something Susan or Mark said.

Some particularly fun moments:
  • They played Audience Nightmare, using the day our faculty sponsor's wife had their baby. When it was time to have the baby, A. put her feet up like they were in stirrups; M. pushed her feet together, saying, “Honey, it’s a C-section.” And repeated it when C. came in as a doctor and pulled her feet apart again. They noticed patterns—at the hospital, they moved them from one room to another, including two hours of doing nothing in the "room where you get ready to get ready." They heightened like crazy, finding smart details—like an epidural needle the size of a machine gun—and you could tell they learned something from the iO Harold show we saw.
  • In Blind Dubbing, we were having trouble finding the counterpoint between the physical work on stage and verbal work off stage—so I asked the on-stage kids to make bold, goofy choices. L. and I. were rock climbing—L. pulled a banana out of her pack and ate it. Susan had talked to us about finding something fun, so I sidecoached, “Maybe you’re someone who eats when she’s nervous.” She pulled out an apple…then a jar, a knife and bread to make a sandwich…then opened an oven in the side of the mountain, and pulled out cookie sheet…just kept finding more to entertain herself. We could have watched it all day.
  • They also played a hilarious scene about washing a car, during which we used Miles Stroth's technique (from an Exit 16 workshop years ago) of mapping a conversation about one thing to the activity of another. It was was starting to take a turn for the inappropriate, so I switched them from the direct conversation to something more metaphorical. It still wasn’t a scene I’d want them to put in one of their shows at the school, but knowing that it’s funnier to be smart and coy than dirty and blatant was a good lesson.
We’ve hit the part of the year where they’re equals. The new kids aren’t new anymore…they’ve studied with three amazing instructors (Jill Bernard, Susan Messing and Mark Sutton)…and they’ve done some serious bonding. Getting them focused can be a nightmare (“LOOK! SHINY! SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE! SHUT UP!”), but when they play, they’re pros.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

On being nice.

I worked pretty hard on that last post to make it about marketing decisions—how much troupes charge for shows—and not whether a troupe is worth seeing or not. Still, since I put it up, a question has poked at me: “What if someone who’s been improvising a couple of years happens to read it and gets pissed off because I said I don’t want to pay $10 to see their show?”

Being opinionated and vocal
and hating it when people are mad at me…not always a great personality combo meal. But after ranting about unsolicited feedback, it gets me to question two: “Who the hell do I think I am to say stuff like this?” (Also: I am conflicted about blogging in general.)

Jill Bernard, who is wise, has added a couple of thought-provoking pieces (here and here) to her collection of smart essays. Though she’s talking to the people on the receiving end of opinions, it got me thinking these things:
  • I’m just a person with opinions—I’m not responsible for how people react to them. 
  • On the other hand, I’m going to stick with my online rule of trying to talk only about principles and philosophies and not about people or personal stuff.
So that’s online. What about in person? Within troupes—or between friends? (First of all, I’m not about to lie and claim to never say mean things.) 

I’m thinking lately that in my little corner of the improv world, there's often a freaky politeness thing happening. Kindness is good but over-politeness can be destructive—and do horrible things to the accuracy level of one's self-awareness. For the sake of this ramble, I’m defining them this way:
  • Kindness is being thoughtful of people’s feelings—actually being nice.
  • Over-politeness is protecting people’s feelings—so pretending to be nice. 
Kindness is generous and empathetic. Over-politeness can be selfish and fearful. Kindness is discreetly telling someone her skirt is tucked into the back of her pantyhose; over-politeness is keeping your mouth shut so she won’t be embarrassed. (My friend Cassie calls these "food-in-your-teeth conversations.")

One of my favorite parts in the growth of a troupe is getting to the point that you no longer have to be overly polite. You can say what you think without worrying your team won’t like you. You can do anything on stage without fear you’ll be rejected. You can express ideas without wondering if people are only agreeing to be nice. It’s the sign you really trust each other, and it feels really, really good. 

(Tantrum is most of the way there, I think. Unless they really hated my chili.)