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—”

Damn.* 

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.  

THING ONE
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...)

THING TWO
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.

4 comments:

  1. I am also a new improver as of this last year. I am a little awkward still, but I am learning and growing in my improv skills. I was the fat kid with no friends in school, and the fact is that I do not feel like that now at all! Not just because my brother owns the theater either. While I don't know how many of the experienced improvers that I have played with or watched are my 'friends', I do know that they have been polite and have answered any questions that I may have had. What I know is that you do not improve (haha looks like improv) without trying and putting yourself forward. Yes, there will be those assholes that push you back, but from my experience in the arena of KC improv, they are few and far between. I have more to say about that but I feel I've been long winded enough as it is.

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  2. Thank you for listening, and even more so, for giving awesome advice.

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  3. Yes, indeedy, thanks for the advice. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this isn't necessarily a KC improv problem. It's just how things are. You have to get out there and prove yourself, learn, and meet new people. I think that as new players enter the scene, we find our places along the way. It just takes time and not everyone wants to do a show with you when they have plans to do shows with people they have known for many years. I see things working out in time, for sure.

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  4. Y'all are nice...what I'm spewing probably counts more as "brain dump" than "advice." I know I come across as bossy and opinionated (I won't deny either one), but I just hope every now and then I can hit something that might be helpful to somebody...

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New rule: I'm not approving anonymous comments. If you want to sit at the grownup table, you have to sign your name.

Now c'mon. Pick a fight.