Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: KC Improv in review

It's been another great year for improv comedy in Kansas City. Our community continues to grow, bringing more troupes, stronger shows, bigger events and some really unwatchable crap. (Of course, that's just a side effect of increased content, and not what this is about.)

In no particular order, because I feel like writing them and without over-thinking things, here are my three lists of three things.

Three cool shows or events
  • ImpFest: A bunch of KC improvisers got a chance to experience the intimate space, the friendly crowds and the love of improv unique to the Roving Imp. Yes—if you're accustomed to driving no more than 15 minutes to get your fix, the location is a minus. But John's doing something very cool out there, and it's worth the trip.
  • Messing With A Friend at KCiF: If you ever get the chance to hang out in Chicago on a weeknight, you should see two shows: TJ & Dave and Messing With A Friend. The Improv-Abilities guys brought Susan Messing and her long-time friend and Annoyance co-conspirator Mark Sutton in for KCiF, and they put on the single best improvised performance KC audiences saw this year.
  • The Trip Fives: They've got a tight, well-trained, playful ensemble. They continue to grow, constantly trying out new things in rehearsal and on-stage. They're the best in KC right now (and not just because they got the most friends to vote for them).
Three things we need more of
  • Training: We've got a city full of players with not much beyond a festival workshop or two and a lot of on-the-job training (some good—some not so much). More experienced performers need to teach and more untrained performers need to study. Until that happens, we'll continue to reinforce bad habits and we won't grow. The Roving Imp's program is a start, but we need more.
  • Disciplined use of social media: Serious. Ly.
  • Audiences we aren't related to: Here's the secret to pulling big audiences for your improv show. Ready? Grow up in KC, keep your family from moving away and stay in touch with every friend you've ever made. Getting the word out isn't enough—we have to not only attract, but get repeat business from people outside of our circles of friends. ComedyCity has, so far, done the best job. (Their secret? Group sales and corporate business. Why sell four tickets at a time when you can sell 40—or 400?)
Three things to be excited about in 2010
  • More producers: Improvising is fun. Finding space to rehearse and play, promoting, managing ticket sales...that's the pain in the ass. Thanks to KC Crossroads Comedy, Roving Imp and Thunderdome, your troupe can focus on the work. (You still have to do some of the promoting, but Tom and John and Jared are doing the heavy listing.)
  • More coaches and directors: Sure, many troupes are still self-directed. But some of the city's younger improvisers are teaching college groups at William Jewell and JCCC. And experienced players are getting sucked in to coach start-ups. Something to remember on both sides: A coach doesn't have to be exponentially better than a team—objectivity and willingness to speak up about what's not working are more important than an encyclopedic knowledge of technique and exercises.
  • More arguments: On Facebook. In blog comments. And, rarely, in person. We're disagreeing with each other. We've got different groups, theories and approaches and people who feel passionately enough about them to throw down.
* * * * * *

Don't feel like shutting up yet. So, an addendum.

Three things I'm personally excited about in 2010
  • Doing an assload of shows: Spite has committed to two shows a month for the first part of the year. Tantrum is back at the Coffeehouse. Omega Directive is weirding out at the Imp. Beejay is an interesting experiment. And Team #9 is back in T-Dome. Yes, it means I'm a little busier than may be a great idea, but I love it. So.
  • Coaching in limited doses: Exit 16 is performing at the high school and the Corbin (which is making them strong in the Force), and (uncoached by me) as Some Technical Difficulties at KC Crossroads Comedy. Spite has banded together to coach T-Dome team Olive Juice, featuring Julie Robison, Nifer Honeycutt and Chanté Keller, all Imp regulars. They're all John-trained, which makes them fabulously easy to work with, and there's not an ego or an attitude in the bunch, which makes them delightful.
  • Getting serious about my health: I've started running. Yeah, it's indoors and on a treadmill. But running. (And, to quote Tim Lemke, with "no one chasing me, and nowhere to go.") I've been backsliding on the diet thing (though the exercise thing, thanks to Peggy, is non-negotiable), so it's time to refocus.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Way better than my high school reunions

Tomorrow night is our annual Exit 16 alumni show.

We're doing one this year instead of two, for a few reasons. About the only thing I'll miss about not doing two is the chance to sort some things out in the first round. But I think narrowing it to one will make it more wecial.

Can't wait to see who makes it back. Now to figure out what the hell to do with all of them. Here are my current thoughts on some games that might show up:

FIRST HALF
Beastie Rap (a gazillion)
Dating game (1 host, 1 date, 3 bachelor/ettes)
Big/Little (3 on the little side, 3 +full cast on big)
Growing/Shrinking (5)
Typewriter (1 storyteller, 4 +full cast actors)
Scene switch (6-8 on each team)
Pan Left/Pan Right (6-8)

SECOND HALF
We typically do scene-based stuff that makes it easy to rotate through a group with a specific edit—so it feels long-formy, but it's doesn't get messy. Plus, the kids know the forms are squishy, so if a group scene happens, it happens.
Musical opening (current kids)
Gauntlet (group 1)
La Ronde (group 2)
Freeze Tag (group 3)

And then...
World's Worst (everybody)

Here we go...

* * * * *

As a follow-up on the branding discussion, which I'll get back to after Christmas: Having a LOT of fun tweeting for Spite—especially when Nikki & Megan join in. We've set some pretty aggressive goals and are meeting them. It'll be interesting to see if they pay off at showtime.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Spite's homework

Nikki and Megan and I met tonight with a photo art director pal and the photographer who's going to shoot our new stuff. It seemed like a good excuse to get our brand personality work wrapped up—we wanted to be able to talk about who we are and what we needed in promo photos.

So based on the two posts about brand personality, here's what we've got (all of the definitions come from various web dictionaries, the links to which I forgot to copy down for attributions):

SPITE BRAND PERSONALITY

BALLSY
“You play like guys.” (Charley, Loaded Dice)
what it means
— Very tough and courageous, often recklessly or presumptuously so.
— sometimes vulgar : aggressively bold : gutsy, nervy
— Tough and courageous; having balls
what it looks and feels like
— No need to be modest, reserved or ladylike.
— Push boundaries, visually and verbally.

BODACIOUS

"Ted, you and I have witnessed many things, but nothing as bodacious as what just happened." (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
“Look at them bodacious set of ta-tas.” (An Officer and a Gentleman)
what it means
— a combination of bold and audacious
— impressive, awesome, brave in action, remarkable, prodigious
— sexy, voluptuous
what it looks and feels like
— Bold choices, on stage and in promotional materials.
— Confidence in who we are and what we do.

MISCHIEVOUS
“I’m going to fuck with you.” (Spite, before shows)
“It’s nothing a few extra prayers on Sunday won’t fix.” (Trish’s Dad, after a show)
what it means
— irresponsibly playful
— maliciously or playfully annoying
— roguishly or slyly teasing, as a glance
— Causing mischief; troublesome, cheeky, badly behaved
what it looks and feels like
— Playful, silly—we never take ourselves too seriously.
— Occasionally a little mean-spirited—OK with making people a little uncomfortable.

TRUE
“You guys talk about your vaginas a lot.” (Teenaged improviser)
“I’m going to need someone to hold my head down…No, from the other side.” (Nikki, at a bratwurst-eating contest)
what it means
— consistent with fact or reality; not false
— Real; genuine.
— Faithful, as to a friend, vow, or cause; loyal.
— Sincerely felt or expressed; unfeigned.
what it looks and feels like
— All of the above qualities are rooted in reality. We’re not smutty for the sake of being smutty—we’re dealing with real life. It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.
— We’re true to who we are—we don’t censor ourselves or pretend to be what we’re not (which is why we haven’t played in heels and mini-skirts again, but used what we learned in our makeovers and made it our own).

The discussion with the photographer went great. We chatted for an hour or so about concepts—studio shots or location, costumes vs. wardrobe, scenarios vs. candid shots. The collaboration was great, and we landed on a direction we feel is a great example of "show, don't tell." With the photos we're shooting for (pun intended) we won't need words to describe some elements of our personality—the pictures will speak for us.

We're not going to say more about our direction yet. But if you follow us on Twitter, you might be able to figure it out.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some people just get it

Last night was good.

First, I got to see Clay and Drew, a couple of former Exit 16ers and two of the Scriptease guys, direct their first improv show up at William Jewell. The Cardinals Jesters are a bunch of really talented kids who've never improvised before, and together they put up a fun, fast-paced, solid show. The game that really blew me away was Audience Nightmare—playful, smart, risky and really theme-inspired. Awesome. Can't wait to see what else they do...they'll play with us at the Corbin in January, and are doing some shows at the Fishtank, I think.

Then it was out to Czar Bar to see Capybara, featuring three more former Exit 16ers. They're getting great press, strong reviews and good gigs, and seem to be having a lot of fun while they're doing it.

Every now and then, I get a chance to talk to band folks about marketing their groups. Alan Scherstuhl believes improvisers should present themselves more like rock stars and less like debate teams, and he's right.

Last night, I ended up chatting with Mark Harrison, who does most of the booking and promo for Capybara. He's got great instincts, and talked a lot about one of the most important parts of marketing—authenticity. Spend some time on Capybara's blog or Facebook page or follow them on Twitter, and you'll see that the vibe they've created is playful, witty and absolutely genuine. (This Pitch interview gives you an idea of what it's like to sit down and talk to them.)

In brand personality work—even for improv groups and bands, and whether you sit down and work though a strategy, make it up as you go along, or just go with your gut—you've got to start with who you really are. If you try to manufacture an image that doesn't ring true, it just doesn't work.

(All this got me thinking about another word we need to add for Spite. More on that later.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A quick reason not to skip 1b

Somewhere between the Red X wine tasting to giggly pizza, Nikki and Dennis and Josh and Kim and I talked about this whole personality and identity thing, and something came up.

Part of the reason Step 1b is important is this: In good advertising and marketing, one of the rules is "show, don't tell."

I worked for a client one who wanted to communicate that their mortgage company was trustworthy. Great—but we're not going to put "trustworthy" or worse, "you can trust us" anywhere in the copy, because the more you say it, the less you look it. In my current job, we struggle whenever it's time to promote humor product, because you can't just say something is funny—you have to prove it.

The biggest challenge in transforming the words that describe your brand personality into creative direction that inspires your marketing is figuring out how to show, not tell.

Sure—Spite can describe their shows as ballsy, and there's might even be a time and a place it's appropriate to use the word. Even better, though, would be to communicate it in the way we do everything—the way we dress, the way we play, the way we blog, the way we Tweet, the way we design our posters. We can say it all we want, but for an audience, it's seeing that's believing. (Which is why we'll get to brand image—your audience's perception vs. your description.)

I sat in on a pal's rehearsal in Chicago one night when they were being coached by then-Annoyance player Scot Robinson (the group included kick-ass improvisers Debra Downing-Grosz and Rob Reese, among others). The cast was doing some pretty clever, verbal stuff, but it didn't sing. After one player said "I love you" to another, Scot told him to stop just saying it and prove it to her with his behavior instead. Suddenly things got much more interesting.

Because, like Annoyance instructors tell us, how you do what you do is who you are. It turns out it works in marketing, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tangent: Knowing what works

For the most part, this little series is about the creative strategy side of marketing. Which is linked to metrics—and absolutely depends on attention to results to work—but, ideally, is developed first and measured later.

But to address some of the comments, here are some ways you can find out if your improv marketing is working:
  • The easiest: Next time you have a show, have the host ask "How many of you have seen us before?" right at the beginning. Do a quick estimate—and check in with each other at intermission. What percentage of the crowd is repeat customers? Who's new?
  • The most specific: Answer your phone. When people make reservations, ask "How did you hear about us?" Write it down, and after a few shows, do the math and see what works best. Or ask when they buy tickets at the show.
  • Checking your promotions: If you offer discounts, make them trackable. Tell Facebook invitees to print their invite to get the deal (you can do the same with e-mails)...ask Twitter followers to use a secret word...mark your coupons by location. If you pay for an ad, GOOD HEAVENS MAKE SURE YOU CAN TRACK THE RESULTS. Include a coupon or a promo code, or you're throwing away money. Whenever you offer a discount, make sure you know where people find it, so you can focus more efforts there.
  • Audience surveys: Make up a short survey and send it to your Facebook group and email lists. Ask them where they get their info, when they want to hear from you, even what they like (or don't) about your shows. Writing surveys is an art—here are some tips for writing a good one.
  • Review your reservations. After every show, get the cast to read over your reservations list and check off anyone they know. Figure out how you reached them. Compare your reservations list to your Facebook invite RSVPS. And make sure you know how many walkups you had—bonus points for finding out how they heard about your show.
  • Compare apples to oranges. Know what changes you made, and try to connect them to differences in audiences. When Spite did their makeover show the audience was huge—based on applause, we know a lot of them followed the videos.
The internet makes measuring results easier than ever. There's no excuse for not knowing what works.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Let's get back to the kids for a minute.

I've missed the kids.

Yeah, they had a show at the Corbin on Saturday (yes, the same Saturday as the Big 12 Championship—dude, I can juggle). Yes, they had a show at LHS two Tuesdays before that.

But rehearsals are different. Rehearsals are play. And even though 25% of the words out of my mouth are "can we please just have one conversation at a time" and "focus, guys!" and "shut UP," there's nothing more fulfilling than watching these smart, talented young improvisers discover how to do amazing work.

At the end of a work day like this one, I don't think I can be blamed for thinking, even kinda hoping, that maybe the winter warning would warn us off rehearsal—because at the end of a long day, sweat-pants and a big glass of wine sound really good. But the drive up and back—whether it's the regular 25-minute zip up I-35 or a 45-minute slog through big, fluffy, snow-blinding flakes—is always, always more than worth the trip.

Ed worked with the kids last week, teaching Viewpoints. So I haven't gotten to workshop with them for a few weeks in a row. I had a plan mapped out—we were going to work on starting scenes in the middle and powerful transitions. Instead, because they'd wanted to try it at the last show but weren't ready, we spent some time working on Conducted Rant (a great way to showcase smart, funny kids—once you convince them that being truthful is the funniest thing they can do).

The last part, though, was the best. Steven (an already-talented Junior who has shown unBELIEVABLE growth this year) brought his guitar and we started doing a little musical improv. Tonight, we just worked on a doo-wop opening.

The very first one they did gave me goosebumps. It brought out the best in all of them—it was just so...so...musical. Their voices blended. Each person added something totally unique. They were brave and bold and you could see in their faces that they knew it worked. We did the first one with just sounds, then made using words optional.

Here was the cool part. One of the kids missed pretty much the first two months of rehearsals because he plays soccer. I wasn't sure I could catch him up—he's missed so much of the bonding and lots of the teaching. He played his first show at the Corbin (where I'm a little easier on the rule-following) on Saturday, and totally held his own. Tonight, he showed the rest of the kids he's got something special—immediately free-form singing to the music, rhyming, making up his own lyrics.

If there's one thing cooler than watching kids grow, it's watching them learn to to trust. It's kind of...um...magical. The ride home tonight, detours and all, felt pretty short.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Branding an improv troupe: Part 1b

This is the second part of BRAND PERSONALITY, IDENTITY AND IMAGE IN IMPROV: Or, to borrow a line from Joe Bill and the Annoyance, How you do what you do is who you are.

I know I said next we'd hit
Question #2: Does your identity match your personality? But since I'm writing as I go, I reserve the right to course-correct. And before we answer that question, we need to figure out what it means to "match your personality."

Once you've clearly defined your troupe's personality—describing yourself as you would a person—what do you do with it?

The better defined your personality, the easier it is to evaluate the communication plan you create for your audience—from the way you use media (like e-mail, advertising, Facebook, Twitter, fliers, blogs, websites, etc.) to your promotion plans (events, discounts, "gimmicks") to the look and feel of your logo, publicity photos, posters, websites and other materials.

Because we're moving to brand identity after this, we'll talk about the look and feel thing here. "Look and feel," "style and voice," "design and editorial," creative strategy or direction, style guide...essentially, what we're working toward is "guidelines for creating posters, logos, websites, press releases, etc."

To get started, it's time to extrapolate. Blow out what the personality words mean to you, and you'll start articulate a clear and specific creative direction for your troupe. There are a bunch of different ways to approach this; here are two easy ones.

If...then. Starting with your personality words, describe the kind of things a person like that would do. Using an example from the Annoyance assumptions in the last post, what might you infer about people who sees themselves as "uncensored"? Think about negative and positive connotations.
  • They don't play by the rules of polite society.
  • They might be crude, inappropriate, vulgar, sexual, dangerous...or worse.
  • They don't worry about what people (especially authority figures) think.
  • They take risks—they don't hold back.
So, what look-and-feel choices might you make based on a description like this? (This next part isn't meant to be Annoyance-specific.)
  • Voice (how it sounds): Edgy. Even abrupt. And if people can't handle a little swearing, fuck 'em.
  • Design (how it looks): Colors that feel a bit off—maybe they're a little dark, or come dang close to clashing. Layouts with elements of surprise. Choices that break traditional design rules.
  • Photography: It might feel spontaneous, candid—maybe a little too candid.
See how that works?

What kind of _____ would you be? Sometimes its easier to start with established brands for creative cues—either ideas or clichés to avoid. With your personality words in mind, answer these questions (and make up more, if it helps):
  • If you were a car, what make and model would it be?
  • What band would play your theme song?
  • Who would direct the movie about your troupe's rise and fall?
  • What clothing designer would create your wardrobe?
  • What restaurant should cater your gigs?
  • What big brands share your personality traits?
(This is a great exercise to do with other members of your troupe—the discussion can help expose differences in opinion about who you are.)

Now you can talk about the brand choices the names in your answers have made. Here are some differences beween a MINI and a Ford Mustang, for example:
  • Mini speaks to consumer with a sense of friendly exclusivity ("We were small when everyone else was going big.")...Mustang dares you to drive it ("Thrill Machine, Pure and Simple.").
  • Photographs in the Mini gallery lead with studio shots designed to highlight its unique shape...the Mustang is shot in action, with lots of dust/exhaust/smoke billowing from behind.
  • Mini's web design is simple and clean; the voice is clever and familiar, with a bit of a wink. Mustang's website incorporates a sense of movement and speed; the voice is straightforward with a sense of urgency.
Now what?
All those details you've got now will help you describe what your promotional materials should look like if you really want to play up your personality. It can be helpful fill in the blanks for a basic creative strategy:
  • Personality words—and what they mean.
  • Voice (style, point of view, attitude, diction)
  • Style (layout, design elements, color palette, photography)
  • Other considerations (general ideas to explore, like "it should look more like a movie poster than a rock band flier")
You don't have to design or write anything at this stage—in fact, it's best to get the rules down first, then create. Why do it this way?
  • It pushes you further than you'd go on your own. Part of the creative process design and advertising firms go through is pushing themselves beyond the first, obvious idea. Opening your mind to the way other brands advertise—or taking your direction from the world outside of advertising—keeps you from settling for an idea just because it's convenient. Hey, we're improvisers. We can always
    come up with another idea.
  • It keeps you objective. It's easy to fall in love with a photo, a layout, a color, a font. But the goal here is to create a meaningful, differentiated identity for your troupe—and a creative strategy based on brand personality will keep you honest. It doesn't matter if your friend took a cool photo of you if it doesn't live up to the image you're trying to create. Font tricks and Photoshop filters just get in the way if they fight against your personality.
OK, really coming up next: I'll work with Nikki and Megan, over e-mail, probably, to answer some of this stuff for the case study. Then we'll go to Question #2: Does your identity match your personality? with an analysis of our current work.

Come on. Play with us.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Branding an improv troupe: Part 1

Here's an experiment: See if the techniques major brands use to differentiate themselves—even when they've become commodities or there aren't extreme differences between competitors—can work for a local improv troupe.

I started thinking about it after this exchange in the comments on a blog post this summer. As our community grows, there's less and less to tell the average audience member what to expect when they see a show. Unless you've seen some of all of the players, read a review or hear about it from a friend, what would compel you to seek out a specific improv troupe?

I'm working on an actual workshop—part "how to," part hands-on application—for this sort of thing, so I figured I'd try it out here. Play along if you want. And tell me, if you feel like it, if any of this stuff is helpful—too simple? too complicated? too irrelevant? That sort of thing. So here we go.

BRAND PERSONALITY, IDENTITY AND IMAGE IN IMPROV
Or, to borrow a line from Joe Bill and the Annoyance: How you do what you do is who you are.

First, some quick definitions:
  • To get to your brand personality, describe your troupe as if it's a person—and think of your relationship to your audience like a relationship between two people.
  • Your brand identity is the way you present your troupe—your shows, your posters, your website, your logo. It's what you put out there—the experience you create.
  • Your brand image is your audience's perception of you.
In a dream world, your brand identity would be based on your brand personality. And together, they would create your brand image—and the relationship you have with your consumers.

Question #1: What is your troupe's personality?
Think about the improv troupes you've seen that make the biggest impression—and how you'd describe them to a friend. What 3-5 words would you use to describe your group?

Choose descriptors that get at the essence of who you are as a troupe. Some examples and approaches:
  • Comedic style: Playful. Whimsical. Mean-spirited. Intellectual. Aggressive.
  • Relationship with the audience: Friendly. Approachable. Seductive. Dangerous.
  • The players and their attitudes: Irreverent. Sexy. Adorable. Goofy. Ballsy. Cocky.
  • The vibe of the shows: Fast & furious. Patient. Accessible. Innovative.
Try to make them as specific as possible—no need to waste space with words like "funny." And you can skip words like "professional" and "experienced" and "premier" unless you're The Second City. (Or unless cultivating that vibe is essential to differentiating your group, which might be true if you're a private-show company targeting primarily corporate types, for example.)

As a case study, I'll use the Annoyance, because they have one of the strongest personalities of any around. If I were guessing at their personality, I'd use these:
  • subversive (which feels stronger than "irreverent")
  • uncensored (more open than "inappropriate" or "dirty")
  • fearless (beyond "powerful" and implies a certain recklessness)
And as a personal example, I'll use Spite (and hope Nikki and Megan will jump in to add, correct and argue if I misrepresent anything). Some with potential:
  • ballsy (because the masculine take on "brave" applies to our unladylike behavior)
  • bodacious (a mix of bold and audacious—and there's that "bodacious ta-tas" line)
  • mischievous (because there's a twist on "playful" that implies we're going to fuck with each other and the audience—and we actually promise each other that before shows)
  • ???? (we're not a "women's issues" group, but we offer a unique point of view—unladylike ladies? ungirly girls?—and it'd be nice to incorporate that)

Coming up next:
Question #2: Does your identity match your personality?



Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Spam and Turkey and Ham and Chicken and Roast Beef!

So in the midst of some discussion about using social media to market, a broader issue came up: How do efficiently and effectively market shows featuring multiple independent improv troupes?

There are quite a few of them around, from one-shot deals to major events to ongoing efforts. With good reason: Because the audience for the improv community is still relatively small, you can increase your crowds (and thus, your chance of making rent) when more than one troupe plays. And it means sharing your regulars with other troupes—which is great incentive to step up your game.

But the more of this type of show we do, the more marketing challenges arise—some of it stuff that doesn't occur to you until it's too late. Like:
  • Marketing the show to different audiences with different interests (troupe loyalties, for example)
  • Differences in opinion on how to market (from poster aesthetics to how many times to send Facebook reminders)
  • Different response mechanisms—reservation lines, e-mails, Facebook invites—for different troupes
  • Key messages—prioritizing the event, the talent or the venue
Of course, there are many more challenges—who headlines? who opens? what's the best spot? how do you split the gate?—but this is just about marketing.

(OH, hey...if you're one of those people who doesn't believe marketing best practices apply to improv troupes, you're not going to like this post much.)

Audiences are exposed to thousands of marketing messages a day; the conventional wisdom for breaking through the clutter used to be three impressions. Now that wouldn't even make a dent in most people's subconscious. When you do deliver multiple messages, it's important for them to have enough common elements that they hang together in people's minds—consistency is the quickest way to critical mass.

For example, everything you see about Target clearly comes from Target—whether they're selling clothes, kitchen appliances, food or the whole store. Target gives you multiple reasons to come in—value, style, selection. The approach broadens the brand's appeal on a couple of fronts—to multiple consumer groups with different needs, and to individual consumers hoping to cut down on the number of stops they have to make. But even very different messages ("Expect more. Pay less." vs. "Design for everyone.") come with a similar look and feel.

Major brands have strategies and style guides to keep messages consistent across different consumer contact points—and the more complicated the brand, the more specific the style guide. I'm not suggesting we need anything that formal in the improv world, but there's value in consistency.

A few things we can do as producers and troupes can do to help make sure our marketing gets through to our audiences:

Agree to agree: Pick the most important things, and communicate them the same way everywhere—period. Some "non-negotiables": The name of the event, reservation information, pricing and discounts, short sell-copy or taglines or show descriptions. Visuals count, too: Logos, fonts, colors. Decide which communications (i.e. press releases, calendar listings, Facebook invites) will be general and handled by the producers, and which can be customized by the troupes.

Target your messages: For example, a press release to the KC Star or Pitch would lead with the biggest news (in a recent example, that would have been The Union—the group coming in from Chicago with a show directed by a Second City performer). But one sent to a local paper would feature the local troupe or individual.

Personalize your invitations: Pretty much every troupe has its own Facebook group or fan page. And, as we've chatted about recently, we talk to our fans differently. So there's nothing wrong with each troupe setting up their own invitation and sending their own reminders, if it seems necessary—as long as you keep the big stuff consistent and maintain a single point of contact for reservations. The big risk, of course, is over-delivering messages to anyone who happens to be a member of multiple groups.

Manage your media: Producers should make sure every troupe has the information they need for their personalized messages; troupes can provide producers with logos, photos (and photo credits) and group-specific information (bios, show descriptions, websites).

So...what else? What mind-blowing challenges and fabulous solutions have you run into promoting multi-troupe shows?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! Lovely Spam!

Boy, this social media thing is tricky for marketers.

I get to deal with it in my improv life and my work life, and here's the thing—everybody is equally new at this and wondering how to do it. Some of the complicating factors:
  • You have to use Facebook! You have to use Twitter! You have to blog! But only a tiny percentage of marketers actually know what they're doing!
  • It's nearly impossible to ease your way in or try it out in private. It's like trying on a new outfit while you're standing next to the rack: Everybody sees what you've got.
  • It's easy and free—and the temptation to abuse it is strooooooong.
Twitter and Facebook give every company, brand, product and improv troupe the opportunity to try permission marketing—without the need to build or maintain your own database, or the requirement to pay printing/postage costs or the upkeep on a website. It's a relationship marketer's dream come true, but can turn into a nightmare for your most loyal customers if you're not careful. Group and fan pages and Twitter, especially, force you to walk a tricky, thin line:
  • Pro: It's easy to invite/collect friends and fans and followers—and presto! Dozens, hundreds or thousands have "opted-in" to receive your information.
  • Pro: It's easy to send messages to or invite the whole group to events.
  • Pro: It's easy to engage fans in a conversation and put information (videos, photos, links, show info) where they can access it.
  • Con: It's easy for friends and fans to ditch you if your updates are too frequent or infrequent, too long or irrelevant—or for any other reason.
  • Con: It's not easy to restrain yourself—when ticket sales are slow, or you're bored, or you're putting your needs before your consumers, it's tempting to send just one more update.
  • Con: It's downright hard to know what to update and when you should update it—and even harder to make the time to do it.
Everyone's got a different idea of how to do it. One improv pal shot me a message before a show and said "don't forget to send an event reminder the Monday before the show—and hit 'em every day until Friday." Another said "quit telling me to spam my friends."

The workable answer is somewhere in the middle. To get closer to it, Tantrum/Spite actually surveyed our audience base (and some additional consumers in the right psychographic/demographic set). The survey asked everything from "where do you look for information when you're planning your weekend" to "how far in advance to you make plans" to "how often would you like to receive reminders about a specific show?"

Now we make very specific choices about where we promote our shows and how often we talk to our consumers. It's not easy—it requires advance planning, detailed calendars and self control. We keep an eye on our fan/follower lists to make sure people aren't dropping off, and try to figure out what we've done wrong when they do.

That's the easy part—the "push" marketing. We're still figuring out how to start conversations. You have to do more than just promote—if your messages do nothing but sell, you're missing the point. But we've seen some good examples: Click here (and here) or here (and here) for two very different groups who are doing Facebook and Twitter right.

Oh, and speaking of complicating factors? What happens when many of your most loyal consumers are members of a special interest group who are likely receiving similar messages from others just like you? Stuff like this.

I'm looking at you, KC Improv Community.

Here's what you're likely to get in a week:
  • Event invites and reminders for every troupe whose group/fan page you've signed up for. (Double that if they've got a group AND a fan page.)
  • E-mails from every troupe who has you on their list.
  • KC Stage reminders about those same shows, if you're on that list.
  • Tweets about the same stuff, with tiny urls that link to the website.
  • Blog updates about the same stuff.
  • Dozens of notes, status updates and wall posts from every improviser in every troupe you know.
And if you're crazy enough to let Facebook send updates to your e-mail address, double that.

Personally, I want to know what's going on. Even if it's not for me, I get questions for show info from my high school kids and sometimes from out-of-town visitors. I'm curious about what other troupes are doing and how they're marketing shows, so it goes beyond entertainment to professional curiosity.

I recognize that I am not your typical improv consumer.

Based on what I've seen, and in my opinion as a consumer, an improviser and a relationship marketing geek (I ghostwrote a book, even), here's what I think we're doing right—and wrong. And no, I'm not naming names—but I think we know who we are (I include myself and my troupes in the list).
  • Yay: Post photos of your troupe (with proper photo credits, please, because photographers deserve props, too). Thoughtfully edited (short, funny, easy-to-understand) video, too.
  • Yay: Timely event invites, based on your consumer base's needs (which might mean setting it up a month or a week in advance).
  • Yay: Meaty, interesting and/or funny blog updates and Tweets and status updates that express your voice and your brand.
  • Yay: Status updates that attach individual players to events and troupes in an informative, charming and personal way.
  • Yay: Q&As, responses to wall posts and other real-time conversations with audience members. (If someone compliments you on your wall, say "thank you.")
  • Yay: Consolidated messages—about multiple events from one troupe, or one show from multiple troupes. Plan ahead so we don't hate you.
  • Boo: More-than-weekly event reminders. Once we accept, it SHOWS UP ON OUR WALLS. It's ON OUR EVENT LISTS. We may need a nudge, but constant poking annoys the crap out of us. You don't need to tell us a show sold out. A thank-you is nice, but if you've already sent us a bunch of messages that week, we're probably going to find it disingenuous.
  • Boo: More than daily status updates demanding that we see your show. Especially bossy, bitchy ones in all caps. ESPECIALLY if that's all you ever update about.
  • Boo: The same message everywhere—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, press releases. Yes, repeat the basics. But we come to your blog for more in-depth, insider info than we expect on a release.
  • Boo: Keeping quiet until you have something to sell us. Talk to us when you're not doing a show—and keep it engaging, charming and consumer-focused. Otherwise, you're like that semi-hot guy who only comes around when he needs money or sex.
  • And a great BIG boo: Using other troupes' events or groups or walls to promote your own stuff. "I won't be attending because my group has a show that night at the coffeehouse. It's at 8pm and only $5!"
This stuff isn't easy—but it's not that hard, either. The biggest thing to remember is that, at least on Facebook, we call each other "friends." If we're not self-centered, self-promoting asshats, this social media thing can really make a difference in our audiences.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Technique vs. creativity

I can't watch American Idol and have no interest in dancing celebrities. Watching real-life families struggle or people compete in races or survival contests? Meh.

Give me a show where people cook or design something: Chopped. Top Chef. Project Runway. The Next Food Network Star.

And The Next Iron Chef. (For which there will be serious SPOILERS in this post.) I was bitterly disappointed that my chef-crush John Besh lost to Michael Symon in the first competition, but Symon has won me over (it's mostly the giggle). Then there's this, from his evaluation of the competitors in last night's show:
"If you're creative and you fail, are you creative? Or are you a failure?"
It was all part of a bigger conversation—OK, argument: The show's regular judges dinged the guy they thought executed beautifully but played it too safe. The Iron Chefs dinged the one who took more risks but failed more often.

Because the chefs couldn't respect the guy who may have all the imagination in the world, but screwed up french fries.

I won't gas on about obvious links to improv—or any other art.
Creativity and imagination are vital. But you don't get far without knowledge.

****

Speaking of technique, my fabulously talented writer friend Bryn Donovan has a great post up on creating characters for novels that has lots of fodder for improv exercises.





Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lunch hour brain dump.

So Hallmark brings in terrific outside thinkers—marketing folks, artists, branding experts, writers, even improvisers—to tell us what inspires them and share what’s new in the outside world.

Today, it was Jason Rohrer. From an article in Esquire:

A naked kid and a freakishly tall man walk in a meadow. The meadow is their front yard. It pokes up from among the sheared lawns of upstate New York's Route 11B like a Mohawk, purposeful and defiant. The kid's hair is long and blond and, on first glance, feminine. He wears orange rain boots, his uncircumcised penis free in the breeze. The tall man wears military-style cargo pants and a red T-shirt that says MONTREAL INTERNATIONAL GAME SUMMIT. He's barefoot. His dirty-blond hair is spiky from not showering.

(I assume he showered before coming here, but was far enough back in the crowd that I can’t be absolutely certain.)

He’s a video game programmer whose most famous game, Passage, presents a lesson in mortality in five minutes. I downloaded it for my iPhone while he was talking and played it at my desk—and though it didn’t make me cry, a lot of what he said got me thinking.

To sum up: There’s a lot of discussion in the video game world about whether it can be art. They’re compared to movies as if that’s the standard—if a video game seems almost like a movie, that must be good, right?

His definition of “art” is tight enough to mean something but “weak” (his word) enough to open up the discussion (paraphrasing, here): Art explores the human condition, leads you to insights about your life and the world around you, and makes you think about it after you’ve experienced it.

He wonders why video games should want to be movies when they grow up—why they can’t be their own thing. Why would you want to invent a movie? They already exist.

Talking to my friend Amy on the way back from his chat, we both admitted that Hallmark’s creative resources are often just as inspiring to us in our outside worlds as they are at work. In our day jobs, we’re cogs in a much bigger machine, so our contributions can keep things moving—even influence the direction they go in—but we’re not big or strong enough to affect holistic change.

But in my improv life (and in her jewelry-making world, Applescraps), I can change things. Whether it’s bringing an idea to a group or adjusting the way I communicate or deciding what kind of projects I want to be involved in, I can use new information immediately.

And I want to do something with this idea of not trying to be something that already exists.

For our show, Erik and I have talked a little bit about more theatrical work—something beyond toilet-paper, something worth writing down. OK, hang on…

A quick aside to say I’m past the days of any interest in self-indulgent experiments with art-for-art’s sake. Improvisation, as I use it, is about entertainment—that means it should offer SOMETHING to an audience. And if it’s advertised as a “comedy” performance, that something should be laughter. But I think there’s a middle ground between trying to put on a show that makes a statement and playing Spelling Bee.

…and we’re back. Now I’m interested in pushing in a different direction. There are folks who take “that scene was so good it seemed like it was scripted” as the best improv compliment you can give or get.   

But if what we’re doing is improvised, that means it can be affected—from moment to moment, scene to scene—by everything. The audience. The environment. The mood. We talk about that a lot in terms of work within the scene, but not the form or the show itself.

The closest we get here (there’s more organic work going on in other cities) is suggestion-heavy, audience-participation driven shows. But is there something else? Something that taps into the energy of the room and the space and the crowd?

How do you create work that truly exists only on that night, for those people?  

OK. Lunch hour’s over. Time to get back to work. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Be careful what you wish for.

I set this as my goal on 11/23/08: At least one rehearsal a week, and at least two shows a month.

Uh...done. Up to three or four a few times this year, even. So now, just like last year, I'm looking at my schedule for the first quarter or so of 2010, and it goes something like:

Shows:
Rehearsals:
  • Sundays with Erik
  • Tuesdays with Exit 16 (shows monthly, too)
  • Monthly with Omega Directive
  • Pre-show with Tantrum and Spite
  • A few before Thunderdome with Team #9
  • And coaching Nifer, Julie and Chante's Thunderdome team with the ladies of Spite
Sustainable? Who knows? At some point, I'll probably want to have a weekend that doesn't involve improv at all (or, say, lets me see improv in another city). (If you listen, you can hear Josh giggling.) December will give me enough of a break that I'll miss it, though, so I'm not too worried about the first three months.

*****

Got to play with Erik again tonight.* We're getting to know each other better and better, and pushing each other out of our comfort zones more and more. Random notes:
  • My characters all have had the same diction (sentence length, word choices) and reactions to things; tonight, I tried higher status, more confident and more...um...well, less asexual characters. Not necessarily all at once.
  • As we get more comfortable with each other, we're willing to make our characters more vulnerable and more interesting things are happening.
  • We're having fun goofing around with forms (french braid/stripped-down Harold, La Ronde) and different ways into scenes. We're tending to play longer scenes, but it's hard to know if we're finding the turns or missing the beats.
  • So yeah, we're ready for a coach. We'll have one more session without one, then bring in the fabulous Nikki DuPont, who we're confident will call us on our bullshit. (And, we're hopeful, not have to find a way to explain that we're only funny to ourselves.
  • Playing at home continues to force us to play some level of appropriateness. We can get weird, but not loud weird. So characters are typically grounded enough that no one calls the police.



*BTW, if you haven't seen a CounterClockwise Roast, go when they come back next year. I giggled all the way through their take on The Bodyguard last night. Erik is surprising and smart and goofy; Ashley is highly observant and absolultely adorable; and Bess is hilarious when she revels and rolls around in the pop-culture muck.)






Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Two down, one to go.

This week started with Erik, and a rehearsal for our as-yet-unnamed duo.

Jill had given us an assignment—a positive-fixation exercise—which worked incredibly well to help us get at characters who actually like each other. Along with some mirror-your-partner's-character scenes, we used it to continue working on grounded characters. As we work together more, we're starting to see some patterns/bits/habits/outs to work around; my take is that they mostly tend to be defense mechanisms. When characters get to the point where something interesting might happen—you know, they might have to reveal something or be vulnerable—we have our go-to devices to lower the stakes.

So it's time to bring in a coach. We're 95% comfortable with each other (if we were 100% there, there'd be no stake-lowering) and we know the basics of what we want to do with our show. Now it's time to start crafting it into something performance-ready. I'll admit, I'm going to kind of miss the pure exploration; without a show scheduled or a director involved or any kind of results-orientation, we've been able to just play. Which, not surprisingly, is kinda fun.

Rehearsal #2: Exit 16. After a lackluster show and a great rehearsal (thanks again to Jill), four of the 10 kids played a ridiculously solid show at the Corbin last Saturday. A 90-minute show by four kids could be a scary thing, but they were fired up and ready and playing in front of a friendly crowd. They used everything we worked in rehearsal, hit the stage with huge energy and sustained it for the whole show.

Tonight we worked on some new games: Character swap and Evil Twin. We played three versions of Character Swap:
  1. Girls in one line, boys in another—everyone takes turns continuing the scene in the same character
  2. Two teams of four, swapping out all at once to continue the same thing
  3. Same as #2, but with a Talk In Turn adjustment (they could only talk in a pre-determined order) to help focus
Notes from the session:
  • Make your character distinct enough that someone else can take it on
  • Add new information with every switch
  • Heighten the emotional connections/interactions/reactions with every switch
  • Watch details—environment, character traits, dialogue
Evil Twin was interesting because I've never seen, coached or played it. It's always interesting to try to figure out the games within a game in rehearsal—and learning to coach it while the kids played it adds a twist. They count on me to know what to say, so I have to adjust their expectations when I'm figuring it out with them.

Rehearsal #3: I'll be taking Tantrum through the same stuff we did with Exit 16 last week. As much as it'll suck to (mostly) not play, it should be a whole lot of fun. Every now and then, I'm just fine with stepping out of player mode and just being the coach.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The answer is "yes."

At the end of last week's Exit 16 show, I just wished I could make them feel better.

And that's where being a workshop whore gives me power. Yeah, taking workshops every chance I get makes me a better improviser. But even more than that, it gives me toys to pass on to the kids.

Two weeks ago, I had a refresher course in Jill's Fireball Theory—which turned out to be just the thing they needed. I told them her theory about Boomer and outrunning the voice that says "you suck." And we did some of her exercises, some of Dave Razowsky's, some Annoyance stuff....and we talked about exactly what the voice was saying. And I asked them questions and let them talk even more than usual, because Jill reminded me that's how people learn.

Sometimes this stuff is so obvious I look right past it.

When I've been new or haven't been comfortable in troupes, I've either felt like the giant gas-guzzling steamroller that crushes everything in its path or the idiot newbie who really should just sit down and shut up and maybe learn something, moron.

And, as it turns out, those feelings are the ones getting in the way of the kids making strong choices. The experienced ones are afraid of being stage hogs. The new ones are worried about staying in their places. So they're being incredibly polite.

All the trust falls in the world are no substitute for telling each other everything they do is right. We forget to tell our partners...

I need you to be confident.
I love it when you're fearless.
I want you to be big and loud and powerful.
I won't judge you when you try something different.
It's OK when you grab me, push me, poke me, climb on me, and do all that stuff we wouldn't do to each other in real life.
If you edit my scene, I won't resent you.
If you change my idea, I'll have another one.
If you don't get what I mean, it's no big deal.
If we step on each other every now and then, it's just because we're going somewhere.
I've got your back. I'm going to play like you've got mine.

Tonight, I think the kids found out all this stuff. It's more than a toy or a tool—it's truth. I can't wait to see them play this Saturday.

Comedy On The Square
Featuring Exit 16
The Corbin Theatre, 15 N. Water on the Historic Square in Liberty, MO
8pm $5

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is there such thing as an improv Band-Aid™?

Dude.

The kidlings did NOT have an easy time of it tonight. Small crowd. Small cast (we were down two). Their hosting was strong, and the show structure was fine...

...but they were missing the fun. And they knew it. And, God bless 'em, they tried to bring it with them every time they went on stage, but it just wasn't there.

Because we haven't had help in The Expensive Sound and Light Booth, I've been running both from just off stage. Which means I spent the whole show trying not to wince, and to say supportive things as they went out for the next scenes. We did some high-energy scene-starts at the break, and everyone knew exactly what they needed to do.

And that's the tough part. They're new improvisers—even though, in their lives, it probably feels for the seniors like they've been doing it forever. The ones who've been doing it longer have a pretty good idea of what they were missing; the newer ones, even, have a sense of what happened.

They just don't have the tools to get themselves out.

Hell, even experienced improvisers can't always extricate themselves from a horrid show. But we have more tools. If I'm mired in a sucky scene, I have quite a few ideas for how to get out of the quicksand—by myself, by grabbing onto someone or something. And I'm on stage with experienced players who know when to throw me a branch and when to fire up the Jeep and toss in the cable.

The kids—they're just lucky to keep their heads above ground. Which they did, making me insanely proud. Everybody has a not-great show every now and then. Theirs came after just one real rehearsal in a month. In front of a smaller-than-usual crowd. Nobody's making excuses—least of all them. Next Tuesday, we'll work on what they think they need. Because they know a lot about what that is.

Monday, October 26, 2009

ImpFest 2009, part 2

Ooof. Stayed home from work AGAIN today, and slept most of it. Stupid cold—though I guess I'm lucky it's not the flu. We'll see how much of this I can get through without dozing off...

Saturday
Workshops with Jill
Omega Directive, Coma Chameleon, Improv-Abilities
One, Dictionary Soup, Brownies Don't Lie

Jill taught her Fireball Theory class, which I've taken once and watched her teach the kids. It was interesting to take it again with a different—and much larger—group, and to hear their takes on the work and their improv issues. Her Fix 'Em Up session was terrific; we gave her our issues, and she put together exercises to help us work on them. Exhausting, but a great warm-up for our show.

A little thing about the make-up of the class: It was mostly John's Roving Imp students, plus a few local improvisers. One of the things John's doing is instilling a love of the craft in the folks who work out of the Imp. Every local group has a vibe—whether it's one they intentionally seek and foster or not—and theirs is full-on improv geek, in a wonderful way I love being a part of.

We finally have Ryan back in Omega Directive, which is wonderful. I love playing with those guys. It's not just that I don't have to do any of the production-side work; John has put together a fun, strong, really interesting mix in this cast.

I'm not proud to say this: Somewhere around hour 15 of the ImpFest, I hit a wall. The cold, being tired, doing shows, taking classes...it all took its toll and I missed a few sets while Jill and I walked around and cleared our heads before our show. I would have loved to have not missed a minute of the festival...but to get ready, getting out for a while was really important.

Plus...well, Jill and I have only done the show once, and hadn't had a chance to rehearse for the one we had coming up in a couple of hours. So we got some down time: wandering around the Dollar General, walking around downtown, browsing a great little Mexican convenience store I didn't know existed, and getting in a good (if really, really quiet) warm-up in the green room and out on the back deck. (From what we heard from backstage, the sets before ours rocked. I don't think anything all weekend made me much happier than hearing Julie get loud, enthusiastic, sustained, well-deserved applause.)

I would be lying if pretended I didn't spend the first scene and a half all the way up in my head. The monologue: "Holy crap. What's going on? I'm not getting it. I'm not connecting. This isn't working. I'm totally blowing a chance to play with Jill. ARRRRRGH." Then: "Fuck it. Let's play."

In our third scene, I climbed up on a box and hid in the nook at the back of the stage, and played the first third of the scene in total silence, just playing some subtle stuff and trusting that it would be plenty for Jill to mess with. It was, and after that I totally relaxed and just played. We played the kind of long scenes we did in our first show—strong relationships, multiple turns and an inside joke or two (rrrawwwrrr).

Sunday
Coaching session for as-yet-unnamed duo
Making Connections class (teaching)

So Erik and I got a couple of hours with Jill to work on our show, and it made me realize just how invaluable to work with someone who's seen, performed with and directed multiple two-person shows. We started with warm-ups, and her advice that any group warm-up can be a two-person warm-up. (Aaaaah, Big Booty...)

Then a series of questions: Have you said "I love you?" Have you kissed? Have you slapped each other? Are you portable? All designed to make sure when that stuff comes up on stage, it doesn't freak either or both of you out. (We may have to work on the slapping thing. I'll have to convince Erik he can hit me at least a little harder. And the stage slap won't work, because I always turn my head the wrong way—plus, the loud noise startles me more than a real slap.)

Next, more questions, this time to get at an aesthetic for the show. Stuff like favorite books, movies, TV shows...what kind of improv we like doing...what we feel like the show absolutely should have in it...what skills we have outside of improv.

Um. This is where the one-dimensional thing really sucks.

Here's the surprising thing, though—turns out we're both pretty physical, so that could be something fun to explore. That never in a million years would have occurred to me; I used to have to work really hard at making physical contact on stage. I'm not completely without issues or self-consciousness, but thanks to two-plus years of three-a-week workouts with a trainer, the physical stuff doesn't scare me anymore. Not being picked up. Not climbing on someone. I've done a few dozen push-ups on stage, know how to lift with my legs instead of my back, and have the core strength required to play a monitor lizard (see above).

As far as aesthetic, we both seem interested in the same stuff, which we knew: Rich, grounded characters in real relationships. (Pretty much the same stuff Jill and I do in Brownies Don't Lie, so that's handy—I want to do more.)

We spent the rest of the time on exercises—including one Jill had run with Tantrum in her Truth & Beauty session with us a couple of years ago. It's simple: A five-minute scene where one person talks, and one doesn't. It's great at building trust on both sides.

And then I taught a class—and Jill hung around. Um...eep. We talked beforehand about being students in situations where we were sometimes teachers, and vice versa—she did a very gracious job of jumping in with really insightful comments, but never, you know, rolling her eyes and stuff.

The class I taught was on making connections (described here). The goal: Help improvisers get more out of openings, whether they're monologues, stories, scenes, or single suggestions. The first two-thirds were mostly what we notice, why we listen and how we remember things; for the last part, we started scenes, just to explore different ways to use the stuff we remembered (from purely verbal to more character driven starts). It was a more intellectual class than I usually teach—and I had a ton I wanted to cover. So it ended up being more about giving people new ways to approach the work than it was about fixing or changing what they normally do.

Then it was off for more BBQ. And a loooooong freakin' nap.



Sunday, October 25, 2009

ImpFest 2009

The boring preamble

From the top, I've known this week would be a long, fun one. I'm enough of a grownup that I know to plan real-life stuff around festivals: Get the house ready in advance for guest artists (Jill!), make sure work is under control so I can leave on time, arrange workout schedule so I don't miss any, figure out meals and stuff so I don't go nuts with unhealthy food, plan time for sleep.

Of course, life doesn't cooperate, so Thursday I realized I was coming down with a cold. Awesome. The good news: My job is flexible enough that if you're sick, you can take your laptop and work from home so you don't infect everyone in our giant petri dish of an office. The bad: There is no telecommuting in improv.

And when you're sick, your characters all have to have one thing in common: PLAY SOMEONE WHO ISN'T SICK.

So for two shows each night, two classes (taking) on Saturday, one class (teaching) on Sunday, and a coaching session Sunday morning, that's what I got to do. Whee!

Thursday night
Anomaly Orange, Tantrum, TrivProv, Spite

Our first question: What's the rating? On one hand, we're all present and former ComedyCity/ComedySportz players, which means we can do family-friendly content in our sleep. (And honestly, if you're a professional improviser, you'd better be able to do that.) On the other, we don't do it much with those troupes. And "family friendly" means different things to different people.

John's rule: Anomaly Orange brought the most people, so they could set the rating. Happy times for Spite: They set it in our comfort zone.

Tantrum was a little shorthanded—missing Pete and Josh—but we put up a fun little short-form set. Not inspiring, ground-breaking genius improv, but we had some fun moments (and it turns out Megan didn't actually give me a black eye). Spite had our best set in a while—we felt totally on and in sync with each other. The after party would have been nice, but we're grown-ups, so we skee-daddled.

Anomaly Orange has grown tremendously since last time I saw them; Tom Kessler is a natural monologist and mixed commentary with storytelling, all with a strong, authentic emotional point of view. Triv-Prov was a blast—and included the most fun white-boy rap I've seen.

Friday night
Anomaly Orange, Biblioclast, Spite
Improv-Abilities, Coma Chameleon, Tantrum

Whaaaat? Spite in a 7pm show? OK. We came close. And didn't feel as great as Thursday, but were really happy with our set. Tantrum was—well, Tantrum was Spite plus Michael with special guest, Jill Bernard. Being four-sevenths of a group makes you play differently—so there was a fun energy there—and you can't go wrong with Jill as a monologist. But to say we didn't miss Pete and Josh (and Rob, on Friday) would be a big fat lie. Tantrum is the seven of us, and we're missing part of our brain when they're gone.

Another night groups bringin' it. I got to see Coma Chameleon's super-fun format for the first time (a town of sentient animals—whee!). I-A, with a much-smaller-than-usual cast, did some really fun stuff—and they've got girls now, which gives them new dimension. And Biblioclast, with John and Nifer, was wonderful; their trust in and patience with each other made their piece a joy to watch.

Jill and I got lost three times on the way to the after party, because I stupidly trusted google instead of Keith.

Saturday
Workshops with Jill
Omega Directive, Coma Chameleon, Improv-Abilities
One, Dictionary Soup, Brownies Don't Lie

And...hey. My cold has sensed weakness. And I've still got work to do. So more tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Focusing on emotional reactions.

After Mark Sutton's class at KCiF, and in an effort to get ready for the show with Jill on Saturday, I've been thinking a lot about staying in the moment and reacting to what just happened.

Which means that's what my kids got to work on tonight.

There are a couple of challenges to working on this stuff with teenagers:
  • The teenage brain isn't completely wired for emotional response. From an interesting article: "The area of the brain associated with higher-level thinking, empathy, and guilt is underused by teenagers, reports a new study."
  • Life experience is helpful in playing scenes that let you showcase a range of emotional reactions.
  • Kids are giggly.
So I went in with my usual general idea of what to do: a goal, some key exercises, and a flexible attitude. We're down two kids for this show, and there were only eight at rehearsal, so it was a calmer, more focused group—at least by a little—than usual. Here's what we ended up doing:
  • Warmup: Big Booty, Killer Bunny (to build energy and get focused)
  • Pass an emotion
  • Ping Pong (from the Physical Comedy Handbook)
  • Character walk with animal spine and status—add Ping Pong
  • Timed scenes with setup (no eye contact, start with shape) and physical/emotional check-in before dialogue
  • Ditto, but with numbers instead of dialogue* (scene ends when they hit 50)
  • Full Plus Ronde with numbers instead of dialogue
  • Busby Berkeley
The Plus Ronde was fascinating to watch. Creating characters and scenes without dialogue forced them to focus on the physicality and emotional games their characters played. It showed them that any character can be in a scene with any other character and it can be interesting to watch if they're affected by each other. It brought out some really nice acting in players who tend to be either over-the-top or primarily verbal.

Now I'm looking very forward to trying the same thing with Erik when we rehearse tomorrow.


*Yes, we could use gibberish instead. If you're good at gibberish, awesome—if you're not, or have never done it before, it's easy to let working hard to create varied gibberish become a distraction. Numbers make it easy to say something without that something mattering.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

First official rehearsal for as-yet-unnamed show.

Ultimately, Erik and I will work with a few different coaches on our show, but in these first rehearsals, we're just kinda figuring out what we're interested in doing. So after last week, when we just talked about direction, we were ready to start playing.

We don't have a show date, a venue, a format or anything like that, so for now, we're just rehearsing at my place. I've done that before—both with bigger groups and the show with Tommy—and it's great in some ways and weird in others. Rather than treating it like a stage, we just decided to use it for the space, editing into other rooms, or even playing scenes in two separate spaces.

(I think my walls are pretty stout. If I'm overestimating their soundproofedness, neighbors on both sides are likely to think I'm involved in a bizarre relationship or three.)

Our first scene, using a Ping Pong exercise from The Physical Comedy Handbook that Jill recommended in a forum somewhere, best reflected how it feels to do the first exercise in a situation like this: a simple encounter between two people who feel kinda silly.

After that, though, it was easy to just focus on the scene.

We've decided to start off just playing long, patient scenes about real people, which is a challenge for a bunch of different reasons:
  • Trusting the scene to unfold—focusing on moment-to-moment reactions instead of forcing something to happen. Erik takes more risks that I do here; I tend to get locked in stasis instead of making turns. I wasn't using my Viewpoints work, which can make a big difference. We're getting together again Wednesday night, so I can give myself that as an assignment (which will be especially helpful since I'll need it Saturday night).
  • The whole acting thing. I struggle to differentiate between characters without feeling cartoon-y. How much change is enough to become a different character? It felt like everything I played tonight was some version of me—no changes in diction or POV, and physical changes based more on body language than structure. I may be trying to reign things in too hard.
  • Damn comfort zones. Nothing brings out your crutches like playing long scenes with just one other person. I'm pretty happy with the fact that I had real emotional reactions in scenes. But. They were pretty similar emotional reactions from character to character, and those reactions were awfully close to...oh, hell. They were mine.
On the plus side, we've gotten our first rehearsal out of the way, and it was fun and comfortable and left us both wanting to play more. So I've got my assignments for Wednesday: Viewpoints work and emotional range.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brownies Don't Lie

From the debut performance of Brownies Don't Lie, featuring Jill Bernard and Trish Berrong, in October 2008.

(Videos contain adult material.)


Service


Not What You Think

Brownies Don't Lie returns to the metro area Saturday, October 24, at 9pm at the ImpFest, hosted by the Roving Imp. Click here for more information.

Work in progress.

At work, they have these things called WIP meetings. Pronounced "whip." I was a little alarmed when I got invited for the first time.

But it's just a status check—a chance to discuss works in progress with other team members and keep projects moving forward. One of the toughest things about doing business stuff without a team isn't having those regular check ins, and I'm not as good with to-do lists as I am at work.

What would be on that list for tonight and this weekend:
  • Press release written and calendar listings out for The Union/Spite/Loaded Dice show.
  • Press release and calendar listings created for the November Tantrum show.
  • Self- and Tantrum- and Spite-driven promotion for ImpFest.
  • Prep for workshop at the ImpFest next week.
For press releases, when things are on schedule, everything goes by by Nikki. She's got an editor's eye and a writer's brain, and they always end up better when she sees them first. Sometimes it's catching typos or missed words; often, though, she can take half an idea and spin the words to make it sing. It's the closest I get to a WIP meeting, the result is always better.

(If you're wondering why everything isn't run by everybody, um...easy: diminishing returns. Waiting for feedback, getting people to take time out of their schedule to look at stuff, tracking feedback...it all takes time and effort. For this kind of stuff, if you've got one person you can trust to give you solid feedback you can act on, it's usually plenty.)

Idea for upcoming blog: Getting a new audience—can it be done? Thoughts based on a discussion we had after our show the other night.

OK. So about this workshop. I think I gave John a few options back when he first asked. I've been chatting with him about teaching every so often at the Imp, and this was a good chance to jump back in. I love teaching/coaching/directing, but took some time off because for so long I'd convinced myself I preferred it to playing.

Which may or may not be true.

Anyway, it's City 3 Revival Week, so I'd written up some notes about what I have planned for the Imp in the forums. Blown out a little, here it is.

The class is "Making Connections." The inspiration—long-form improv. More specifically, long-form improv that falls flat because the scenes are built too close together. Or long-form improv that feels like a tree with decent roots (opening ideas), but only a branch or two above ground.

Any of this sound familiar?
—You're playing every scene literally from something in the opening?
—You've got a topic that feels like a shitty one, and you don't know where to go with it?
—You feel like everything you're doing is a game, and you don't know how to pull a relationship out of things?
—You feel like you've drained the well? Bled the turnip? Beaten the dead horse?
—Your only ideas for scene starters are too plot-driven?
—You can't remember anything from the opening, or from the other scenes, or from your round of scenes, and you don't know how to start the next one?
—You're starting stuff your scene partners just aren't getting?

We'll work on stuff like this:
—Getting the most out of openings and monologues
—Talking your time dashes further
—Ways to keep ideas in your head (and the most helpful kinds of ideas to put there)
—Mining themes and patterns
—Finding the most interesting elements of the scene to explore

Should be fun.