Thursday, October 30, 2008

This probably isn’t completely normal

So when I realized I’d be coming to Chicago on business—with coming and going times too inconvenient, really, to make arrangements to hang out with anyone—before I made flight reservations, I checked Second City, iO and Annoyance for shows.

Messing with a Friend. Check. Who’s the friend? TJ Jagodowski? Seriously? Check plus.

I was tired when my flight landed. I was tired when I got to my hotel. But the thing about improv is…if you miss a show, it’s not like you can catch it next week. And when I have a rare chance to see performers I really like—Susan and TJ have both taught my kids, and TJ is just the nicest guy—not going isn’t an option.

And it was wonderful. A lot of variety. So much playfulness. Genuine affection. Serious effing with each other. And some Moonlighting-esque simultaneous dialogue scenes OK. Not so tired after all.

Every now and then I feel like I need to get out more. Maybe see something scripted. Read a book that isn't about improv technique. Maybe get 8 hours of sleep. But I might miss something that won't ever happen again. And I'm a first child, and we kind of hate that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oh...yeah, that

Got together with some/most of the Tantrum guys tonight to play with some Viewpoints stuff. Just to try it out and see if we like it enough to try it out some more. 

It seemed to have gone OK. I was a little nervous, just because I struggled with it enough that it felt weird to talk others through it. But (after what I'm sure was a thrilling session where I read my notes aloud) I picked exercises that were pretty easy and fail proof, and it seemed to go pretty well. 

AND (I've been teaching long enough that this shouldn't be such a big surprise) it's much easier to spot things when  you're watching than when you're in it. Even watching people walk around in Pete's basement was fun. (You know. For me.) 

Here's what I love about the Viewpoints stuff, even in the super-simplistic form we used it tonight: 
  • Good heavens, 7 people with heightened awareness of each other can be cool to watch. 
  • And you have a sense of what the relationships are just by watching how they move (or don't) around each other.
  • You can sit in a chair...and that can be enough if your partner treats it like it is. 
  • Doorknobs really do talk to you. SRSLY.
  • If you watch for it and wait for it, anything is a gift. 
It seems like we may play some more with this stuff. Yay for books. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

That's two

Exit 16 did their second show tonight. It was a good show...and another reminder that they're taking on very sophisticated stuff for high-schoolers. There are kids in the group who've only been improvising for three months, and they're doing work I didn't try 'til I'd been in it for years. 

(This is partially my fault. But they ask for it, too.) 

Their second half was an 11-person game of Pan Left/Pan Right. It's a great game—and a perfect example of scenework meets technique. On one hand, the format itself—spinning through scenes—requires quick moves and results in serious slapstick. On the other, the players have to lock into their game in 30 seconds and play it out over and over. 

The work Jill and I did with Dave in LA was really helpful in rehearsing this. (I just need to remind myself of the difficult time I had during those four days, and NOT BE SURPRISED WHEN PEOPLE WHO'VE BEEN IMPROVISING NO LONGER THAN 3 YEARS DON'T GET EVERYTHING IN ONE REHEARSAL.) A few things we worked on: 
  • The character who enters the scene takes the first line. 
  • The character who stays takes a shape to inspire the character who enters. The shape is grounded in the character created in the first scene. 
  • All they have to remember is the casting. Who did they make each other in the first line? "The helpful centaur"..."the mean dad"..."the man made of pudding" (which had a great game of explaining how he became who he was)...the sophisticated couple at casual-dining restaurants.
Tim Mason gave us the first brilliant note; essentially: "Keep it simple, stupid." It's sooooo hard to trust that simplicity. And feel the rhythm of the game. 

They're talented. And committed. And smart, and funny. All it takes is a weekend at a state Thespian conference to remind me how lucky I am to work with them.  It's always a fine line—treat them like improvisers, but acknowledge they're kids.

Want to see them? Come to the Corbin Theatre (15 N. Water in Liberty) on Saturday (at 7pm), and watch them (with Fakers/Scriptease, for just $5.).  

Monday, October 27, 2008

Well, here's your problem right here

When Alan Scherstuhl first started reviewing improv shows for the Pitch, we found out two things: 
1) He's seen a lot of bad improv. 
2) He knows what good improv looks like. 

In a 2005 review, here's what he said:
Unlike most comedy, [improv is] not about gifted showboats scoring laughs; it's all teamwork and trusting people, about actors agreeing with anything their partners propose, no matter how lame, and then running with it—even if it's not getting them anywhere. For some performers it's a calling; for others, it's a hobby. This egalitarianism means the funniest are at the mercy of the least amusing, which makes sense in a workshop (or the corporate retreats that both groups play host to) but not before a paying crowd. We come to laugh, not to watch actors build each other's confidence.
Eeep. Horrifying, because it's true. Contrast it with this, from earlier this year:
Thunderdome is a watershed moment not just in Kansas City improv but in Kansas City comedy, the moment when, at long last, daring, inventive performers + smart, open-minded audiences = a shot of True Love Always.
But that's Alan. Who holds improv to the same standards as theater, movies and stand-up. And, knowing its potential, kept going back until he found troupes and shows with higher standards.

Alan's not our problem. 

The problem is the Improv Brand. Because despite increasing talent, experience, expectations and standards within our improv community...despite bigger cities embracing smarter, funnier, more sophisticated troupes and forms...despite improvisation becoming more familiar to more people in more places...

This is what a lot of people think we are (from the Pitch Plog entry Daily Briefs: The secret to improv comedy: Always say "yes."):
I was speculating about the possibility of future Strict Constructionist Faires over the weekend while practicing with my improv comedy group, the Giggle Pants Laff Factory, Kansas City's premiere comedy troupe. Here's our cast photo:  
You can probably tell that we're a bunch of zany, free-spirited cut-ups who watch tons of television.
This should be all of our worst nightmare. Because for people who've seen one shitty show by one unprofessional troupe who puts wacky self-indulgence ahead of respect for the craft, this is who all improvisers are. The perception is that we're too lazy to write or memorize lines—so we must be sloppy, careless jerk-offs. 

My dislike of standup comedy is almost completely a result of sitting through open mic nights at Stanford's, watching lame local comedians polish the same three-minute turd week after week, accusing the audience of not getting the not funny, and pumping each other's egos up enough to make them all believe they deserved three minutes of our undivided attention. Forget that I love Steve Martin, Bill Hicks, Dennis Miller before he turned to the dark side. Because of the amateur bullshit I sat through, I take it as the worst kind of insult when someone confuses improv with standup.

As steamed as I am by this article—and as righteously outraged as I get by people who won't give intelligent, thoughtful, character- and relationship-focused troupes a chance—it's impossible to blame them.  

And it's not just about the shows. We undermine the art every time we promote ourselves with photos that look like disposable-camera snapshots of a church youth group. Every time we build a show around guessing games and gimmicks. Every time we dress for a show with no more thought than we would Saturday afternoon errands.  Every time we use a rubber chicken or Groucho glasses in a logo. Every time we neglect to consider the details—house music, service at the ticket booth, the voice on the answering machine, the quality of the technical improviser in the booth. Every time we charge for a show that isn't ready for an audience, or put performers on stage before they're ready.

I say "we" because we've all done it. Every improviser performing today has, at some point in his or her career, made at least one decision out of inexperience, thoughtlessness, ignorance or selfishness that has contributed to an audience member never wanting to see improvisation again.

And that means that, with many prospective audience members, we have more to get over than convincing them to try something new. With a reasonable chunk of the population, we've got to work harder to get them to even set foot in the door. From the first poster, postcard, e-mail or listing they see to the last light-cue and final bow, we have to be professional and polished enough to overcome their low expectations.

Yeah. It sucks. But the guy who wrote this article is clearly smart, funny and enjoys comedy. He's a perfect prospective audience member. And you get the feeling there's no way he'll see an improv show. 

That sucks worse.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More of a break than I'd intended

I'd kind of forgotten about the main reason for this blog—to get back into the habit of writing again. So I think I'll probably force myself to go back to some sort of daily posting, starting today. 

Met Scott Connerly at the Filling Station to chat about improv and corporate gigs. It was fun—to catch up and to geek out about theory with another local geek. 

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
—E. M. Forster

In part, it's fun because sometimes it's answering questions about your opinion that tells you what you think. 

If I were about to embark on a career teaching corporate improv workshops, I'd go about it very differently than I did when I was actually trying to make a career of it. Back then, I created custom workshops based on the general skill clients said they needed to work on, typically either teamwork/bonding or collaboration/creativity. I had a decent grasp of basic improv and experience in a creative corporate environment—and because one of the things I'm reasonably good at is connecting dots, I was able to pull off workshops in a competent way. So I made it over the low bar. 

Now, I'd work on creating and marketing a differentiated approach to corporate improv. Because it has become so popular, it's not enough anymore to just be competent. (OK. To be really honest, it is. But who's happy with that?) I'd do it this way: 
  1. Articulate a point of view. Besides improvisation, what situations call for teamwork, collaboration, leadership or presentation skills? Is there an existing approach or paradigm that works or translates easily? What could I smash improv up against to come up with a fresh approach (e.g. coaching sports, high school life, cooking)? 
  2. Create a set curriculum for each workshop. Customizing every workshop just isn't profitable. That was my biggest lesson from teaching Improv Toolbox, which I customized for every class. If you're spending 3 hours teaching plus at least three developing class content every week, it's not worth teaching for fewer than 10 people. Part of making things work as a teacher is maximizing your return on investment. 
  3. Market at least versions of each topic. Starting with a 15-60 minute lecture/master class (for large groups) and a 90 minute-3 hour workshop. 
I'd do the same with improv workshops. 

When I taught my Improv Toolbox class—like most basic improv classes in small- to mid-size improv communities—I took a pretty generic approach. I drew from a bunch of different schools of thought to give students different paths into the work. Nothing wrong with that, but what made it mine wasn't the material (theory or exercises). It was how I diagnosed the work students were doing, my teaching style and the way I put exercises together. That's fairly useful in a town with no training center, but wouldn't fly on the festival circuit or in a bigger city.

think about the teachers you're most interested in working with: Typically, they're selling an approach, not just a basic skills class. Look at Jill Bernard's VAPAPO or  Fireball Theory or Dan Izzo's Fire It Up! (created for Improv Inferno)...or any classes at a specific school: Second City, Annoyance, Theatresports, iO! or UCB, for example. All express their strong, unique points of view about improvisation. That's the gold standard, really—a class or workshop with your stamp on it. Something no one else could conceive of or teach. 


Coming this week: 
  • Tuesday: Exit 16 has their second school show of the year tomorrow (so tomorrow's entry will most likely be something about putting together a run list for a  mixed experience-level, 12-person, 90-minute, short-form/long-form hybrid show).
  • Wednesday: Tantrum will get together to play a little with Viewpoints. Must read book before then. 
  • Saturday: Comedy on the Square at the Corbin. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back in the swing of things...finally

What has happened since getting back: 
  1. Did the ritual with Exit 16. This is a cohesive, happy group, and it showed. 
  2. Did the second Tantrum show at the library. New folks for the library and for us. Meeting objective. 
  3. Did the show with Spite, Babel Fish and Jill. Had a blast. Spite was a little...spiteful. We still fight a lot—because we're most comfortable with 2-on-1 scenes—but it was, as usual, lots of fun to play with/eff with the girls. Babel Fish was incredibly fun, and Jill made the perfect poop joke at the end. Why? Because as Megan set up what to expect from their set, Nathan yelled "and poop jokes!" from back stage. But there were none. So when Jill arrived late, she said she'd been pooping. Because that happened. I had a blast doing Brownies Don't Lie, because: 
a. I don't know that it's possible to do a bad show with Jill. 
b. We got to play with Viewpoints, which is, as it turns out, fun. 
c. The experienced improvisers in the crowd noticed what we were trying to do. 
d. The crowd was friendly and patient. 
e. I decided to revel in playing with someone with tons more education and experience
than I have instead of beating myself up for not retaining as much from Dave's direction. 

Other stuff happened, too: getting caught up at work, reestablishing my routine, doing lots of laundry, cleaning house, watching the 'Horns beat up on Mizzou, realizing Viewpoints is now affecting the way I teach games like Sitting/Standing/Bending, also realizing I still yell too much at the kids, wishing I could make work always easy and fun for everyone on my staff, realizing that every six months my dermatologist is going to hack something else off but at least this time it gets me out of jogging, and getting really cool family news that I can't be specific about yet but SQUEEEEEEE!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Day 4: Pre-vision

Today: Another short session, but just enough. We spent the first part talking about what we’d done and what we want to do, then went to scene starts and let them play out.

Jill and I are getting more confident in our moves and getting a better sense of each other on stage. We haven’t had a problem granting trust—that’s just assumed. I’ve seen her play a dozen times; she’s seen me in workshops. So it was kinda cool that in a couple of our scenes today, we knew exactly—in one case, down to the line of dialogue—what we wanted from each other.

It’s also going to be interesting as we get to the more tactical part of the process—figuring out what we’re going to do at the show—to see how Jill, Dave and I work differently to get to product. We’re all confident in our ability to reach it (handy).

I’m not worried about form. For a 30-minute set, I think it’s enough to just fill it with something entertaining that makes sense to the audience without worrying about whether there’s a beginning, middle or end. (And since I know what Spite and Babel Fish will be doing, I know we’re working towards something different.) (If we were planning a 60- or 90-minute show—not just a set—I’d definitely be more concerned with there being a form. We’d need to worry more about pulling the audience through an experience. In this case, changing troupes will do that for us.)

So my brain has already started going to staging and transitions. I’ve got a couple of thoughts, which I’ve just mentioned or written down, because I don’t want them to get in the way of what we’re working on.

Our show isn’t taking shape yet, but it’s starting to…well, like a bunch of little blobs coming together to form a big blob. Sometime after dinner tomorrow, the big blob will look like something.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day 3: The hard part

OK. First:


I was able to at least catch the first half of the game before our workout with Dave. We worked on scenes today for 90 minutes—Jill and I decided afterwards that it’s OK to have a workshop end when we’re failing, because it gives us something to think about.

Yeah. Not pretty, today.

It started off great—a short, elegant exercise where one person enters, reacts with a single line to the other person’s shape, and then you each name what you were cast as. (Harder than it looks—you want an adjective, not a verb, not exposition. So “sad,” not “ignored.”) Because you were isolating a moment, you could pay attention to everything. 

Then we moved to longer scenes. I got caught up in heightening—or trying to heighten—and getting really frustrated, but learning something new with every scene. I either wasn't doing enough...or bailed on the thing I started with...or I went too far. I got caught up in this manufactured emotion and let the Viewpoints tools fall out of my head. 

So I lost the deliberate approach to scenes I started to hit yesterday, where I could operate as a character and an improviser at the same time. I wasn’t improvising—I was making stuff up. 

For this to work, I've got to replace judgment and ego with knowledge and understanding. Instead of just relying on "intensity" or "cleverness," I've got to learn to listen for what the scene needs and choose what to add from different tools.

It's exactly what I’ve needed, but I feel soooo clumsy with it. 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Day 2: That happened

In my quest to become a better—or at least better informed—actor (and to get Jill’s Meisner jokes), I grabbed a few books on technique.

One was
Viewpoints, which I’d heard about from Rob Reese a long time ago. Turns out it’s hard to really understand theories of movement from a book. So I was pretty excited to find out that Dave had studied it and is heavily influenced by the “technique of improvisation that provides a vocabulary for thinking about and acting upon movement and gesture.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

The first thing he talked about when we got started was how wrapped up he’d been in the news, and with all the crazy going on, he wanted to “put goodness out there.” Yay. Sounds good so far.

Then we spent the day working on using Viewpoints to discover relationships on stage. With each other, the space, a chair. At one point, as he and Jill were talking very intently and very seriously about feeling compelled to move by something like the feeling of the air moving in the room, I thought “Man, this is such  bullshit.”

Which is when I realized this is
exactly what I need.

We’re breaking choices down into little bitty pieces—looking at scenes under a microscope, as Jill put it. Here’s Jill’s example:
“Ok, you readers have all been to the Toy & Miniature Museum in Kansas City unless you are asshats. In one exhibit is a pin, it just looks like an ordinary pin until you look through the microscope—then you can see an incredibly elaborate and detailed portrait of a family all on the head of the pin.”
(That was actually Jill typing that. Thank you, Jill.)

And the abstract stuff is uncomfortable. We didn’t use dialogue until the end of the day—then it was five lines:
How are you?
I’m fine, thanks.
Glad to hear it.

Everything we did slowed us down. Our choices became small and simple and ultimately much more meaningful, because everything was a response to something that had happened.

Which is what Dave said is the important thing to know about a scene: That
happened. Everything means something. Everything matters.

One of the things I love about really, really good improvisers is how economical they are—they use the whole buffalo. Nothing gets wasted. My attempts at using everything have been mostly about memorization. You know the exercise where there’s a lot of stuff on a table, and you look at it for 30 seconds then try to list everything you saw? That’s how I look at a scene.

With the Viewpoints work, the information sinks in, because it means more.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Day 1: The trip out

It felt stupid to have read Process: An Improviser’s Journey without having read its inspiration, An Actor Prepares.

Plus, though I know improv is acting, my improv training is far more extensive than my training as an actor—which was pretty much limited to what I learned in high school and through a couple of CommUniversity classes.

So, as STUPID and CLICHÉD as it feels to read Stanislavski on a flight to LA, I’ve had a couple of Miller Lites (with Bloody Mary mix, because it makes it like having a salad) and read.

As background: One of my more frustrating moments in an improv troupe has been waiting while a director stumbled around in the dark waiting to bump into something helpful.

I like books. And if there’s a book on something that will help me do it better faster, I will read it…fill the pages with sticky notes…underline the living shit out of it. When I read novels, I’m reading for the essence—so I skim. But if it’s supposed to be useful, then I’m going to treat it like a textbook. I may never open it again, but if I do, I’m sure as hell going to be able to find the important parts.

But at one rehearsal, we spent THREE HOURS while the director fumbled around with exercises before coming up with a GENIUS INSIGHT that probably showed up in the first 20-pages of Johnstone’s Impro.

Maybe it feels more like you own a piece of information if you come up with it yourself. Maybe I’m being overly critical. (This would not be new.) But it just seems like if you could read one of the 3-5 most important books about the work you’re charging audiences to watch you do AND GET BETTER AT IT ALMOST IMMEDIATELY, you might want to do that.

Am I little ashamed to have taken so long to have started reading this? Yep. You betcha.

Anyway, two things:

1. I’ve already run across at least a few insights that explain why I get frustrated with my work or feel authentic when I try to hit specific emotions. I don’t know if I would have been as excited by this without the Miller Lites, but there has been a lot of underlining in the last couple of hours. Like:
On the “art of representation” (or why I technically perfect work doesn’t always do it):
This type of art is less profound than beautiful, it is more immediately effective than truly powerful, in it the form is more interesting than its content. … Consequently, it is more likely to delight than to move you. … Your astonishment rather than your faith is aroused.
On why inauthenticity or selfishness in improv is so troubling:
Unfortunately, our art is frequently exploited for personal ends. You do it to show your beauty. Others do it to gain popularity or external success or to make a career. … you must make up your mind, once and for all, did you come here to serve art, and to make sacrifices for its sake, or to exploit your own personal ends.
2. My copy of An Actor Prepares came from Half-Price Books, so at least one person read it before me. There’s one line highlighted in the whole book. Here it is:
Every person who is really an artist desires to create inside of himself another, deeper, more interesting life than the one that actually surrounds him. 
I don’t know why, but the fact that this sentence—and not its context—is highlighted…um…creeps me way out.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tomorrow it starts

Lots of workshops, shows and rehearsals have affected the way I approach the work. When I'm doing it right, I grow at least a little every time I get to be in a scene. But I've had a few experiences with improv that have really shaped the way I play, the way I coach and the way I look at the work: 

—A 12-hours-in-one-weekend Annoyance Intensive
—A week-long Second City boot camp with Michael Gellman
—A week-long Performance Improv Retreat with Artistic New Directions. 

I don't want to put too much pressure on this weekend, but I'm ready for the next step. I've played with a lot of troupes and hit a lot of workshops lately to get ready for it. The reason Jill and I want to work with Dave is that we know he'll push us. I love his relationship-focused way of approaching scenes—"Everything you need to know is in your partner's face." He preaches patience and courage, and forces you to slow down and notice details. 

OK. And now I really should pack.  

Monday, October 6, 2008

Three more days

These next few weeks will be a little nuts.

Original plan for tonight was to hit a Margolis movement workshop. But the to-do list got the better of me, so instead, I sent out releases for the upcoming Tantrum and Spite/Babel Fish/Brownies Don't Lie shows. I should be sending out a mass email, but my mass email list is on my NON-FUNCTIONING LAPTOP,* which is currently in the hands of a Hallmark tech guy who can work miracles. 

Tomorrow night the Exit 16 kids will watch a video of their show—oh, hey, an email to them about rehearsal is the other thing I'm supposed to do—and see what they look like on stage. Since they won't need me for the first hour, I'll go to a belly dancing class (since I'll be gone on Thursday) before heading out to Liberty. 

Wednesday Tantrum rehearses, and Thursday morning I leave for LA. Jill and I have tickets for Jane Austen Unscripted on Friday; I've seen this group do Shakespeare, and they're absolutely unbelievable. I know two of the cast—Dan O'Connor Lisa Fredrickson—from the old festival days. Thursday, we'll see Dasariski, and Saturday, I'll drag my college roommate to Beer Shark Mice. (I'm fairly certain I'll get her addicted.)

I keep telling myself I'll do something non-improv related out there, but there are just so many good shows to see. And as good as KC troupes are getting, nobody can match the guys who are doing this for a living in LA, Chicago and New York. There's nothing like seeing really good work to get inspired about performing. 

But the big inspiration will come in the workouts with Dave and Jill. I think I've mentioned that we haven't talked at all about our show or what we want to do. I think we're both looking to be challenged, and I don't doubt that Dave will push us. 

Crap. My battery is redlining. 

*Before there's any dissing of MacBooks, I want to point out that I treat my laptop like a legal pad—I'm not particular gentle with it. So a piece of the hard-drive is broken. The Hallmark guy is seeing if any info can be rescued** before I take it to the Apple store to take advantage of the almost-up warranty. 

**No, I don't back up as often as I should.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comedy on the Square makes a comeback

OK. So we've finally got something that works up in Liberty. 

As much as I would have loved for On The Spot! to fly, it was too much work (promoting, staffing, creating run lists) generating too little interest (improv isn't a big enough deal yet that "see the best players from the best troupes!" is a draw) for too little payoff (players made less than they spent on gas—and I sometimes paid players and rent out of my own pocket). 

But the Fakers (aka Scriptease) were drawing decent crowds. And when we added Exit 16 to the bill—bingo. 

Last night, we had 33 people in the crowd. Which doesn't sound like much, until you factor in that the show wasn't promoted super-heavily AND it was homecoming. In a 90-seat theater, 33 feels pretty full. A family of five with a teenager showed up, laughed and I'm hoping will be back—I wish I'd been able to get to them fast enough to see if they had fun. 

I typically work the box and tech, which isn't ideal—especially because I cross the mom/coach line too often. The format and the set-ups aren't polished. Because the crowd is mostly friends and locals, the relationship with the audience is casual.

But the vibe is good and the improv Is it genius, groundbreaking work? Not always—though every now and then there's a glimmer, and I think the potential is there. Nobody's playing to the lowest common denominator or trying for a laugh a minute. And I watched the audience, and they laughed—a lot—at the funny, smart, weird, political and playful stuff. It's a young show, but I saw the Mom and the teenager in that family of five laughing their heads off. 

Some stuff I remember: 
—In the two-group montage, Laura came out with her hands together over her head in kind of a goddess pose. A few of the guys genuflected, talking about her they'd follow her she seemed to be sent down from the heavens. Then Drew: "We will follow you, Sarah Palin." Laura started with a strong edit when the scene needed it and initiated with a big physical move, the guys followed and heightened—and ka-blam. 
—The Fakers/Scriptease guys did a scene around a grandmother's deathbed—all she wanted was her old sofa. When they patronized her and wondered if she knew when and where she was, the grandmother (Drew, again) said: "It's 2008. I'm not senile—I'M DEPRESSED."
—Tim initiated a scene about the suggestion "robot," with "Let me show you my creation." Chris, who'd clearly come out as a robot, immediately responded, "You're...replacing me?" It was a little thing, but the start of a really nice relationship scene.

It's going to be fun to watch this show take shape over the next few months. Fakers/Scriptease has committed to more regular rehearsals (with Rob as their coach) and Exit 16 will be the regular opener. (The kids have always wanted to do more than one show a month, and I think this will be the way to make it work.) I need to either get better at teching or (preferably) find someone else to do it so I can focus on the house and relationships with the audience. 

Better still, it's finally doing what the Corbin hoped—getting a younger crowd into the theater. Next step—figure out how to get them excited about everything else going on there. 

Friday, October 3, 2008

They got it right

For the first time, two categories in the Pitch’s Best Of issue went to improvisers.

And, maybe more significantly, neither was an improv-specific award. Jared, Ed and Thunderdome won for Best Comedy Show and Rob Grabowski won for Best Funny Performer. I’m almost positive—based on Alan’s past reviews and articles—that the distinction is intentional.

Improv is (at least in the Best Of edition) making the jump from inside joke to entertainment. These guys aren’t just standing out in our little community. They’re doing work worthy of notice in the larger theater and comedy worlds.

Improv Thunderdome works on so many different levels: great promotional hook, smart ticket sales strategy, a brand that gets stronger with every show and terrific, playful energy.

Since Jared was too young to legally enjoy post-show beers, he’s been full of ideas for shows, sketches, characters, approaches…and with Thunderdome, he’s created a full experience that makes it as much fun for players as for the audience. Jared has only hosted one show, and he seems to have turned teching mostly over to the over-the-top-in-a-great-way Guy Maggio, but his personality comes through in every aspect of the production. And Ed is relaxing into the Master Blaster role. He’s able to swing his on-stage personality back and forth between bombastic announcer and earnest improv geek (hmmmm…that may not just be his on-stage personality) and it suits the format perfectly.

I think it’s the improv fan-boy in both of them that makes it work. They’ve been aware of the innovative shows going on in Chicago and other bigger improv cities for more than a decade. (They started really young.) When Lighten Up and Funny Outfit were around, they were always the first to sign on to try something new. Their energy and dedication made the KC High School Improv League as much fun as it was. They like playing. They like watching. They dig improv and improvisers. And what's cool is they're putting up fun shows and inviting the rest of us to play along.

Improv requires a certain generosity of spirit, and Jared and Ed have built it into Improv Thunderdome. Rob’s got it, too—which is part of what makes it so easy to be happy for him for being named Best Funny Performer.

Interesting/bizarre physical descriptions aside, the Pitch blurb nailed a lot of what makes Rob so much fun to watch and to play with—particularly the contrast of his ability to get laughs “without seeming to try” and his “rare patience, discipline and intelligence.”

What audiences don’t see is how freakin' hard he works. It’s not just about the number of troupes he’s involved with and the hours he puts in (though there’s that—at last count, he’s performing with three and coaching one). In rehearsals, he seems to use every scene as a chance to push himself to try something new. On stage, he will do anything and support everything. On stage and off, he can lead or support—whatever is needed. All this means he gets better with every performance. And playing with him can make you better; in my case, it’s made me more patient and forced me to realize I really should push further outside my comfort zones.

It used to be you could fairly easily guarantee a Best Of award by grabbing as many copies of the Pitch as you could and stuffing the ballot boxes. So you could get a blurb for your posters and press releases, but it was pretty hollow. Then they took away the vote. Alan (the first reviewer to pay any attention to improv) gave a well-deserved Best Improv Troupe to the Trip Fives two years ago—back at the very start of the KC improv renaissance—and skipped last year.

In those couple of years, we’ve all raised our games. Every troupe and every player is demonstrably working to get better. So now, more than ever, those Best Of titles really mean something.