Sunday, August 31, 2008

Half-assed attempt at Monthly Blog Topic

OK. Pete posed the question, "What do you expect to gain from the upcoming festival?" And since I'm knuckles deep in it right now, answering seems like a good excuse to take a break. 

From a purely mercenary point of view: Press and promotion
We created the first festival in 1994 for two reasons—media attention was one of them. You have to create news to get in the news, and the festival has worked to varying degrees all eight times. This time, we're getting a boost; Thunderdome, Guy's Fringe Fest shows and a hyper-active local scene have caused enough of a ruckus to merit a full story about the community in the Star's Fall Preview.  And that's good for everybody. 

But it's also a chance to plug the hell out of the groups I'm in or involved with—Tantrum, Exit 16 and Scriptease (I'm no longer their coach, but I'm still their producer). Program ads, fliers in the lobby and a chance to showcase our work in front of folks who usually don't see us...all priceless  when you're trying to build a following. 

From an improviser's point of view: Watching and learning
I'll watch other groups play and love every minute of it—and, admittedly, won't be able to help measuring what I do against what they're doing. I'll study with Jill Bernard and Ed Goodman and get a little better. I'll direct the new Exit 16 troupe's first show and be a nervous wreck all the way through it. And I'll get to play with six of my most favorite people I've ever gotten to play with in the Tantrum set, which will be over far too quickly.

And then there's: Getting my geek on
This is what I love. And I'm going to get to do it and think about it non-stop for two weekends in a row. 

But the biggest thing I'll get out of the KC Improv Festival: life back
This isn't a martyr thing. I'm just going to be relieved when it's over. 

Since our debrief a few days after the last festival, this one has occupied expanding parts of my days, my brain and my energy—because I've let it. It expands to fill whatever time I open up. The answer to the question "How's it going?" (whether asked at work, at a bar, after a show, in the ladies room) is "Well, the festival..." and rambles about the tasks, the press, the meetings, the promotion or some other tiresome thing. 

I've always been pretty single-minded. Which is handy when something needs to get done. But good gravy... even I don't want to listen to me right now. 

OH, and...
The shows last night were great. Babel Fish rocked. Tommy and I did the thing we meant to do. Nathan made me lose it in the mixed set. Fluffer Nutter blew our minds. It was as fun playing with Burnin' Sternums as I thought it would be. (How could it not? It was Pete, Rob, Keith and Nick, for criminy's sake.) Type O Positive was funny, funny, funny and won Thunderdome. John was able to keep me airborne for a whole scene in freeze tag and didn't end up in the emergency room, which for reasons you only understand if you've lost a big load of weight, makes a year of personal training sessions totally worth it, because I didn't think twice about tagging someone out and making John pick me up. Jill and Ed threw a lovely party, and I was glad I followed Pete and Rob over, despite the early-on whining that it was too late, already. 

So here's what I learned from the Sternum's set. I've known it, but I think I learned it in a way that can be helpful for me. I'm going to back up. 

The set I do with Tommy is entirely based on an exercise from Joe Bill and Mark Sutton's Power Improv workshop, where one person starts alone on stage, talking in a state of heightened emotion to someone who isn't there—yet. Another player comes in as the person who caused all the drama. 

We just do that over and over. Last night, to keep myself out of my head and in a state of high emotion, we got a bunch of emotions, wrote them down, and put them all over the stage. Then we'd edit by walking over to a spot with an emotion, reading it, then starting a new ghost scene. It really worked for me—I stayed out of my head and started from a powerful place in pretty much every scene. 

Fast forward to my entrance in the Tantrum set. The four guys were on stage first, setting up a kick ass scene. I entered with a character choice I thought would support the narrative. Seems completely logical...but I totally effed myself. I didn't regret the choice during the piece, but looking back, the majority of my choices were about the story—I was constantly wondering what to do next. 

Which is fine. 

But I'm much stronger when I start from my gut—with a physical or emotional choice instead of an intellectual one. Where I started was where I ended up. I added to the story, but never felt powerful or playful. I wondered what to say instead of knowing what to do. I played close to myself physically, emotionally and in status. (This, by the way, is very similar to how I felt in the last Tantrum show.)

So, what I learned was this: Instead of watching a scene for information, I need to trust my brain to track that stuff and just feel it. (It's not a stretch to believe I'll be OK with that approach—connecting dots is kinda what I do for a living, and it comes naturally. I just have to override the part of my brain that takes those pieces of information and jumps ahead to possible conclusions.) When it feels like I'm supposed to go in, I need to walk into a character, make eye contact with someone in the scene and react emotionally to whatever I see in his or her face. 

I think it'll work. Because I think what I've figured out is that I've played emotionally with Spite and Poke and intellectually with Tantrum and Burnin' Sternums. It's easy to be emotional in smaller casts—you don't have time to think. It's having time to think that gets me in trouble. 

Which is back to Dan Izzo: "If your brain drives the bus, the whole Partridge Family dies." 

I may be figuring out how to take away the keys. 

Saturday, August 23, 2008

We're &%$#!!! famous

We're famous, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Burnin' Sternums enjoy the Tantrum promo @ the library.

I liked the flier already, but as a poster in a quiet, stately place like the downtown library, it has even more impact. They've done a great job of positioning us as rowdy. 


So tonight was going to be the night I saw some other folks improvise. But after sitting down and digging into the festival program, I realized I have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS LEAVING MY SOFA until some serious work gets done. So tonight has been about the program. And some additional lists. And getting info out to the staff. 


Sounds like the Star has been busily interviewing local improvisers. Clancy, Tina, Tim, John...everyone's getting the chance to weigh in with their take on the improv community.

The coolest thing—there's a lot of news. Guy took over a stage for the KC Improv Showcase at the Fringe Fest. Improv Thunderdome continues to go strong. ComedyCity moved to Westport. And more troupes are doing more shows in more theaters. And there's the festival—which, by lucky coincidence, synched up with the release of Jason's new movie. Sweet.

The article isn't happening because of the festival—or because any one person or troupe sent a press release or poked at a contact. The Star's Fall Preview is focusing on improv comedy because exciting things are happening. As is true with all of improv, the best work isn't done by an individual—it's the result of the group mind.


Burnin' Sternums had our final all-group rehearsal today, and it felt great. Our piece is pretty ambitious for a pick-up game, and we're ready. Everything came together today. We ran it three times—and though it got progressively weirder—each set worked in its own way. One observation: We're, um, kind of a violent bunch. 


Oh, and Tantrum had a show last night. With Spite and TBA. As always, it was a blast. 

Valissa Smith couldn't have been a better pick as our guest monologist. She's a terrific storyteller, did a great job with our request for tangents and was an absolute blast to play with.

Spite's set was fun. We strayed a little from our game plan and didn't vary as much in our edits as we'd typically like to do, but we had a great time together. It'll be great to have another show on tape to review; it's hard to figure out your patterns when you're in the middle of something. Random thoughts: 

  • I am not allowed to get trapped in a shirt again. Ever. 
  • I can still do a respectable backbend, motherfucker.
  • Response varies from improvisers who watch the show: Some think it's weird if we're not all on stage all the time, and some feel we could vary the rhythm more. 
  • Two things we could do: Play more "three-for-all" scenes (we tend to stick to 2-against-1) and try two-person scenes with an "innocent bystander"—someone who's in the scene, but clearly not part of the primary relationship. 

A Star photographer shot the show. My only request to her: Please make sure we look cute. 

The Tantrum set felt OK, but there are two things I feel like we have potential to improve: 

  • Thematic exploration of monologues. This is a tough one; if audiences don't think you're being literal enough with the suggestion, they feel hosed. So we have to figure out a way to establish how stretchy the continuum can be—how do we let the audience know that every now and then, the connection to the monologue may happen in the player's mind and lead to something completely different?
  • Taking care of the players as much are the idea. I think that—because we want to start our scenes with clear, up-front initiations that let each other know how we're tying into the monologue—we sometimes hesitate to cut a scene because we don't know what to do next. 
Dan Walsh will be our monologist for the festival show. Should be perfect.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The importance of ritual

I do not mean to be immodest, but there is a reason Spite kicks ass when we get on stage together. After every matter what:

OK. Sometimes, Nikki and Megan drink Coors Light. But still.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meeting the press

First up: Did my first pre-fest interview today. Not just for the fest, but kind of a "state of the scene" chat for a larger article about improv in KC. 

I have mixed feelings about doing interviews. On one hand, I know I can answer any basic questions that come up—what troupes exist, where they came from, who influenced them—and point the reporter to the right people to talk to. On the other, I'm deathly afraid of offending someone. Did I leave someone or something out? Whose names should I provide when they ask for more folks to interview—and whose feelings will be hurt if they're not on the list? Can anything I say be interpreted as snarky or egomaniacal? Am I representing my troupe/event/art in a way that sounds coherent...seems at least vaguely insightful...and maybe won't make the people I play with go, "SERiously?"

Anyway, the whole thing made me think of  the very, very first article about improvisation in KC. Ward Triplett wrote it for the Star on April 24, 1992. Here's a sample: 
No one knows what the future holds for improvisational comedy in Kansas City, but at least four groups are willing to make it up as they go along. "Improv should be as big here as it is in Chicago, Minneapolis or Seattle, and that's something all four groups are going to have to work together to get," says Trish Berrong, a performer and publicist for Lighten Up! "This is a real exciting thing that could be happening in Kansas City. " ...

One of the members had his first improv experience with Laughing Stock, a 15-member group loosely based at UMKC that can count on crowds of 200 at its shows on alternating Saturdays at the Fine Arts Theatre in Mission.

A few others got started in ComedySportz, which is selling out four of its five weekly shows at the 8th Street Cafe Theatre in Lucas Place. ComedySportz is also where the three members of Out on a Limb met. That group now runs a regular Tuesday night show at Stanford's in Overland Park.

All four troupes are slowly exposing people weaned on stand-up to a form of comedy that launched the careers of most "Saturday Night Live" performers, as well as Robin Williams, George Wendt and Betty Thomas.

Brief one-person monologues and entire multiperson sketches are based on audience suggestions. If you want to see Bill Clinton learn how to smoke marijuana, or Elvis doing a culinary show, this is the place to go. Likewise to watch people jump around like Curious George or make up poems on the spot.
There was a fair amount of nastiness in the article. The Laughing Stock director accused another troupe of stealing material; we later found out he meant Lighten Up (turned out a sketch we did felt to him like it was too close to one of theirs we'd never actually seen). Clancy said he wished all of us well, but said we weren't the people he'd choose to socialize with. At the time, I think the guys in Lighten Up were some of the only improvisers in town who actually enjoyed seeing other groups...the vibe was so paranoid that lots of folks assumed you were at their shows to steal games, not watch an art form you loved. 

Fast forward to September 1997, and an article on Spontaneous Combustion:
"Kansas City hasn't been exposed to long-form that much,'' said Lighten Up co-founder Trish Berrong, who conceived of Spontaneous Combustion. ``The lights go up at the beginning and they go out 30 minutes later. Scenes morph. The laughs you get out of it may not be as quick, but they're richer. '' Berrong and other forward-looking improv performers would like to see long-form gain wider exposure on television, much the way stand-up comedy did in the 1980s.
"By the year 2000 I want this on Comedy Central or HBO,'' she said.
Yeah, whatever.

[Whiny, self-indulgent crap from original post deleted.]

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mah ride...let me showz u it

Mah ride...let me showz u it, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Coming in to work on Sunday is more fun when you ride a scooter to your desk.

My dad, who is clearly in some sort of late mid-life crisis, just bought a red corvette convertible. My early mid-life crisis purchase...OK, well it has red accents. And it IS convertible, from a certain point of view. 

Realizing that riding it around in my living room was not suitable preparation for a rush-hour commute to work, I took advantage of having some work stuff to get done today and rode the thing into the office. What I have learned: 

  • Little hills rock. Not ready for big ones yet. 
  • It's more of a workout than it looks like. With one leg pushing, the other balancing your body weight, and—well, I don't know EXACTLY why my arms started to burn a little bit, but there you go. 
  • On the list of things I have to do this week, not many things will be more fun than zipping through the empty halls of our building.
Anyway. No falls. No scrapes. No concussion. 


Part two: Rehearsal. 

Just finished rehearsing for Poke with Tommy. Tried two things: 
  1. Doing all of our scene and character changes from two stationary chairs. 
  2. Drawing a slip of paper with status (from 1-10) on it before entering a scene. 
Both worked in different ways. For me, the chair thing took the weirdness out of rehearsing in my guest room. And as Tommy pointed out, playing a status gives you instant relationship. 

I'm in a weird little phase in rehearsals. I'm spending a ton of time rehearsing, with 2-3 hours a week for Tantrum, Spite, Burnin' Sternums and Poke.  We've done a lot of workshop stuff—scenes with specific points of concentration—as well as running formats. 

It's almost like I'm too comfortable. I feel like I'm reacting, but not thinking, and for me that almost never works. I'm focusing on real emotional responses, but not doing anything particularly interesting. I'm playing characters closer to myself, but they all feel like they have the same physical, emotional and verbal rhythms. 

In other words, I need be more intentional in the work. Give myself little challenges so I can find character games instead of just coasting through scenes. 

Also, it'll be good to get on stage in front of an audience and out of random meeting rooms and living rooms. 

The other strange thing: It's been forever since I've directed or taught. I've been consciously avoiding taking charge of anything because I'm doing so much of that with the festival and putting shows together. I know it's affecting the way I play. 

Exit 16 starts up again in a little over a week. I've got a bunch of returning students—and most of them have been playing at least part of this summer. I'll plan a first rehearsal that does three things: 
  1. Starts building trust.
  2. Give me a sense of their vibe.
  3. Makes it really, really fun.
And now, I wait for the benadryl to kick in. I've learned over the last week that between the festival and being in the middle of the most stressful time of the year at my real job, I don't sleep. At least all the way through the night. So yay for diphenydramine.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Behold, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Three clear surfaces. It's like a miracle.

Every now an then I hit the wall on clutter and can NO LONGER THINK until there's a clean desk. This was one of those weeks. 

I read recently that every time you get distracted, it takes quite a while to get back on track. Work is constant distraction—emails, phone calls, Facebook, Twitter, office drop-ins, questions to answer, copy to review, copy to write, meetings to attend. So when I have big, hardcore project to tackle, it's tough—getting my brain focused isn't as easy as it used to be. 

Same with the festival work. I have to just grab the least pleasant task off the to-do list and plow through it. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Same spot, different scenery

Same spot, different scenery, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

The Olympics make excellent white noise.

Still feeling a little scattered...there's so much to do it's a little tough to focus on one task at a time. On tonight's list: 

  • A rough page plan for the program—figuring out how many ads we've got, where to put them, what that means for the number of pages of editorial, and the implications for number of signatures if we need more space for ads or editorial. 
  • A first draft of an intro to the program, because I had some preliminary ideas. 
  • Chatting with and e-mailing potential technical improvisers. Ditto for photographers.
  • Finishing up some stuff for the August shows at the Corbin.
I'm holding off on this week's round of press releases because Dan Walsh might just have some exciting news about additional players for Brother Love's Travelin' Salvation show. It's more effective to send press releases to news outlets when you have ACTUAL NEWS, so it's worth the wait. 

In non-festival news, Spite and Tantrum are getting ready for a show on the 22nd. Megan is out of town, so Spite has the week off rehearsal—which isn't too bad of a deal, since we get a bonus rehearsal every time Tantrum gets together. Tommy and I are getting ready—in our own special way—for the Poke set before Thunderdome. 

And Exit 16 starts up again in two weeks. Over the last few years, I've focused almost exclusively on directing and teaching, so every year I've started rehearsals with the kids knowing EXACTLY what to do with them. Now, I'm performing (a LOT) and I have no idea what to do. The good news: Most of the troupe is in their third year. So I'll bet if I ask them what they want, they'll tell me. 

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nicer office space

Nicer office space, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

If I'm going to work on a day like this, it's not going to be from my sofa. 

Today is a Festival Work Day. In fact, every day between now and the fest will be a Festival Work Day. 

Saturday, August 9, 2008

View from the way home

View from the way home, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

One of these days I'll have to go INside. I love driving by this place at night—and this time, I couldn't resist slowing down. This is from the driveway in front of the main museum, with the Bloch building reflected in the pool. I can't believe we have stuff like this in Kansas City. 

Anyway. This was a nice li'l juxtaposition to this afternoon's rehearsal, which was—by design—anything but tranquil. 

Burnin' Sternums have bitten off a pretty big improv chunk for Thunderdome. Last week, we worked on character stuff; this week, we played around with the number of people on stage, and what we're doing while we're there. Exercise 1: Growing Shrinking, but not the game. One player starts, the rest join one by one and then leave—but not in the same order, and not changing scenes. Then we used a Jilly Bee exercise—two people start a scene, and the third enters to fuck it up. (The point: No one can fuck up a scene.)

What we lacked in focus, we made up in play. It was a little bit of what my friend Amy would call a "clusterspank" (she has kids, and likes that it still sounds dirty but is harmless), but good grief, it was fun. We learned how far out we can push it's just a matter of grounding the scene in relationships.

Most important: We were shushed. In the library. WHICH IS AWESOME. (And makes me really happy Rob's name is on the Burnin' Sternum's reservation instead of mine.)

(On the other hand, I can't help wondering when we'll get kicked out of our fabulous free rehearsal space. We work really hard to get in rooms where we won't be disruptive to library patrons...but today, we got stuck in the worst possible room for a rehearsal. 8x8, right off the main floor. A little hard to relax...)

Friday, August 8, 2008

If there is a pan involved, it's cooking

It's not that I'm a bad cook. I'm actually pretty good.

But here's tonight's schedule: Eat. Nap. Work on festival. 

The nap is essential—this has been a long freakin' week. Fight Club Monday. Spite rehearsal Tuesday. Tantrum rehearsal Wednesday. Trip to Chicago Thursday. Plus a work week that has included half a dozen projects and issues that felt like fairly big deals—all good things, but exhausting. 

Yay, naps.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The exciting world of business travel

The meetings I had with our ad agency in Chicago went great. I met some really fabulous, relatively new folks on the Planning team and looked at new stuff with two of my favorite people on the
creative side.

And now I'm on my way back to KC.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

...and then we went outside

and then we went outside, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

On the roof, however, worked.
When people are surprised at how much work I put into improv stuff, I feel it's only fair to explain that mostly, it's like one big recess.

Rehearsing in a fishbowl

Rehearsing in a fishbowl, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

The KC Public Library is, in many ways, the perfect rehearsal space. If you get the right room. 
Room 312, however, isn't necessarily conducive to a free-spirited session. This photo, as evidence, was taken from in front of the elevators.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

We do more than drink

We do more than drink, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Seriously. We rehearse hard.

This, however, was taken at John's, where we debrief. 

We ("we" being "Spite," being "Nikki, me and Megan," from left to right) were trying to figure out the roller coaster of our shows' success. From our POV (and that of improvisers we trust), we're 2 and 2—2 we're incredibly proud of, 2 we know weren't our best work. Without a coach to pick things apart, we're on our own to figure out what's working, what's not and how to fix what's broken. 

What we know: 

  • We trust each other—we've said it, we know it, we've internalized it. 
  • We have fun f-ing with each other—at our best, we're surprising each other with what we come up with. 
  • We're equals—we feel like we're evenly matched, and each bring something equally cool to the group.
I'll take risks on stage with Nikki and Megan I don't think I would take with other players. It's not that I consciously hold back with other troupes I play with—I try to push myself in all of them. But with Spite, I'm not self-conscious. I don't have to pretend to feel confident. I don't feel judged for any choice I make.

And for me, it's that we know what we know. We've said it out loud. To each other. (Hey, we're girls. We talk things out.) So there's never a nagging doubt that your scene partner doesn't think you're all that good. I never wonder if they're not telling me something they wish I'd do or not do—because we're getting pretty good about telling each other stuff. We don't do critiques, really—but we put ourselves and each other in situations where we can figure things out and talk it through. 

Anyway, it's fun. 

Also...MAN, I need a haircut.

Monday, August 4, 2008

What photo?

What photo?, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Honestly, I have no idea what you're talking about.

This seems startlingly lifelike.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Yeah, well

Yeah, well, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

The Notebook Full Of Everything (leather-bound, $30) was a charming idea. But for festival business, nothing beats the MacBook.

The goal was to capture meetings, dates, events, tasks, deadlines—everything!—all in one convenient, easy-to-pass-along-to-the-next-artistic-director place. 

Maybe I'll just hand over the computer instead. 

The festival is now fewer than five weeks away. It sounds like a looooong time to some folks—and like minutes to me, because there's so much in between. The second I sit down at the computer, I'm learning to open three Stickies—one for festival stuff, one for Tantrum stuff and one for everything else (work, Corbin Board, personal life). That way I can type stuff in as it occurs to me, and it makes it at least a little less likely nothing falls off. 


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Josh has some skillz

Josh has some skillz, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

Yes, we all know Josh can improvise. But I was one of the few, apparently, who had NO IDEA how high he can get his voice to go. SERiously. It's like he has a tiny, 6-year-old girl inside him (well, that didn't come out right). 
Also, Nikki is definitely, as I have long suspected, the single most fearless improviser in Kansas City. And her two-shots-from-total-strangers-winning karaoke performance should prove that. 

Friday, August 1, 2008

Sorted and ready to foist

Sorted and ready to foist, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

A stack of these is yours

A stack of these is yours, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

The posters and postcards are ready.

If you are a local improviser (and if you read this blog and did not give birth to me, you are) (hi, Mom! I'm fine), you're going to get a big stack of something sometime this week. 

Last year, we seriously fell down on poster distribution (if you want a limited edition collector's print, let me know). This year, we're giving a reasonable number of postcards and posters to every troupe to pass on to their members. 

Whether fliers work is up for debate. I've spent too many Saturday afternoons going into local hangouts to put up fliers and never seen real evidence of results. What does work? Hanging posters where you work. We'll have more than 60 improvisers performing at the festival. If each one hangs a poster at work, and couple of people see it, and those people each bring a date or a couple of friends, we're getting somewhere. 

The other thing up for debate? Whether your troupe should put any effort into promoting a show with other troupes in it. I've been a theater director and a member of big and small troupes, and I get why people are worried: 

  • Why would I share my audience?
  • What if my audience likes someone else's show better?
  • Is there really enough audience to go around?

Sigh. I've had the discussion too many times to want to rehash it (especially at 1am after working on promotion for the last four hours). But here's what happens at the festival: 

  • People who've never seen improv before will come—maybe just to see Jason Sudeikis, or because a friend dragged them—and they'll dig it and want to see more. 
  • KC Improv will come off looking gooooooood. Professional venue, professional shows, great energy. 
  • Everyone leaves with a program with contact info for every troupe in town. (Buy a program ad at a discount if you want to show off a little more.) 
  • Your players will see the "competition"—and either feel great ("Hey! We're better!") or inspired ("Wow! We could kick ass like they do!").
  • Your players will meet the "competition" and like them, and realize they've got a few dozen more drinking buddies. (Except for the Exit 16 kids. They are not allowed.)
When City 3 got the KC Improv Community ball rolling, they brought folks together who had never met—much less built a festival together. Someone brought Bess Wallerstein to a meeting at a bar one night; 30 minutes into it, she had changed the way I thought about producing the festival, and this year, she's gotten more done in her spare time than some people get done in a whole work week. Linda Williams brought Pete Calderone to a meeting at the Filling Station even later in the game, and he quickly took responsibility for wrangling the troupes—and if you've ever tried to get an improviser to commit to something, you have an idea of how tough his job is. 

What I'm saying, in a rambly, incoherent way, is that last year's Showcase and Festival did more than promote the community—it helped create it. Thunderdome has strengthened it by another gazillion degrees, giving people who worked together a chance to play together. There's more cross-pollination in KC improv than there ever has been—and more groups. Four of the groups performing this year were just getting started when last year's fest went up. 

It seems like when we get around each other, we make each other better—or, at the very least, have a whole lot of fun. And that's good for everyone. 

It's kinda cool.