Friday, January 30, 2009


This week has been a little nutty. I headed out of town for 2 1/2 days for more focus groups so things feel a little out of whack.

The Exit 16 kids had their first show of the new year on Tuesday. We played at another school because the drama department is building a set on the stage at the high school, and the light/sound setup is always a crap-shoot. We ended up with a mic (for me) and CD capability, but no control over the lights—when meant I had to end all the scenes with music cues. It was fine, but lacked the energy and finality of a blackout.

It's funny. The Liberty School system has gorgeous facilities and incredible teacher/directors. Their Fine Arts program is top-quality—so is their Forensics/Debate program. I'm the beneficiary of the training my players have been getting for years; all I have to worry about is the improv. Kids come to auditions with confidence, presence, acting and thinking skills...because of the programs in place at the Liberty Schools, they've got almost everything they need to succeed as improvisers.

I wonder what the other teachers think of our little program? It's been going strong for 11 1/2 years now, and I honestly have no idea how many of the other teachers have seen a show. When we show up for performances, we're usually missing either light or sound hook-ups, which makes me wonder if they just think we don't need them. So many high school improv troupes play it casual—no tech, no lights, no sound—that it wouldn't be unreasonable for them to just assume we do the same thing. I think lots of people would be surprised by how professionally these kids play, and how tightly the shows are run.

The first show of the second semester (term, whatever the kids are calling it these days) is also the first one they plan—the set list, the casting and host choices are all up to them. Laura and Tim put together a nice show—great energy, good flow, reasonably even stage time and a nice mix of pushing people and playing to their strengths.

But here's the funny thing that happened: Based on the work we've been doing the last two weeks—and at their request—I gave the kids a good-sized pile of paper strips with character triggers. They could keep a few in their pockets or draw one before entering a scene. The triggers were everything from "sparrow spine" to "REALLY interested" to "don't make eye contact" to "pause for 5 seconds before saying your line."

The set list, however, really didn't have that many straight scene games. So they didn't get to use the triggers. The work they've been doing carried over in their character work and playfulness—one kid, especially, had a breakthrough night—but they didn't get to fully use what they've learned. Several of them noticed it.

And it'll affect the way they put the next show together.

Which kicks ass.

My calendar's about where I want it. It's going to feel great to have John's class on Saturdays and almost weekly rehearsals, between Tantrum and Spite/Loaded Dice. I'll have 2-3 set shows a month for the next three months, at least. John Robison, after I told him I was jonesing a little, asked me to sit in with Red Rubber Ball tomorrow night—and I can't flipping wait. In other words...I actually feel like a real improviser again.

Friday, January 23, 2009


I interviewed someone for a job today, and in talking about my time at Hallmark, pointed out that—had I not left for three years to run Lighten Up—I'd be celebrating my 20th anniversary there this fall. My high school class—if they get their shit together, which is unlikely—might have our 25th reunion this year. Just when I've gotten used to hearing myself say "I'm 42 years old," I'm about to turn 43.

I don't feel like any of those things should be true. 

Sure, I make better life choices these days—based on (1) the need to remain employed, (2) the inability to stay out past midnight on any kind of regular basis and (3) the understanding there are people with access to my Facebook profile who make important decisions regarding (1).

But in many respects, I don't think I've changed much from the day I took my first improv workshop almost 20 years ago. 

When it does hit me, I feel like I've gone to the Dark Side. I hear—or have—a cool, creative idea that I know is off strategy and doesn't have a chance of producing the financial results required to justify its existence. Or I talk to someone who is so excited about doing something—but completely unaware of the barriers they'd have to break through to do it. Or I make a decision based on my head instead of my heart. 

Because of my field, I've been a benefactor of—and a champion of—the belief that unconventional thinking is essential to innovation and growth (not to mention fun). I've fought against not-invented-here syndrome, we've-always-done-it-this-way disease and the but-we-already-tried-something-like-that disorder at least once a week my entire career. I've been called "passionate" and known it meant "relentless and annoying."

So it's a little odd to realize there are some who have moved me from "us" to "them" because I've hit the trifecta: older, experienced and possessing strong opinions. 

More and more in the last few years, I've encountered (or maybe the right word is "noticed") creative types who believe nobody over 30—but especially over 40—has the fresh perspective or imagination to come up with the next big idea. We don't take enough risks. We're not aware of how quickly things are changing around us. We can't see the obviousmuch less the unexpected. Worst of all, we just don't get it. (Multiply any of these aspersions by 100x if any part of the discussion is internet related.)

My friend John told me this when I was in my late 20s: "About the time you're 30, you figure out who you are. By the time you're 40, you're OK with it." 

In your 20s you pretty much have to be bold—sometimes courageous, sometimes arrogant—to get anything done. It's a great time for bravery, because you're typically naive, inexperienced and untested enough to believe you can do anything. And you do: For example, I quit my job at Hallmark to run an improv comedy troupe with exactly one year of improv training, swearing I would do everything differently than the 40-something guy I'd worked for. You have to believe you're right—even if it's about something stupid—because if you didn't, you wouldn't do anything. 

By the time you're 40, it turns out your chances of actually being right increase pretty dramatically. Because now you've got experience on your side—you've seen things, learned things, made mistakes, fixed them. You may be less likely to be patient with people who don't understand this. You will be annoyed with people who are clearly too willfully ignorant to see that you know what you're talking about. This will undoubtedly be mistaken for arrogance. 

But if you feel really strongly about one particular instance of this happening, you'll make one more long-winded rant to get it out of your system and think, "You go right ahead with what you're doing. Have fun with that. All of us old people all think you're being a dumbass."

(And you'll seriously consider closing comments and probably take the post down the next morning.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009


This will sound geeky and obvious. 

But this "stay in the moment" thing, when I remember to do it, is making me enjoy things more. 

This book, for as much as I want to think it's too simple or obvious, did a smart thing we never do in corporate workshops...and that I didn't do when I decided to live like I improvise at work: It focuses you on a single thing. I tend to overcomplicate things (anyone who knows me surprised by this? I thought not), and this one not only says "you might try the practices for a week to let them sink in" but also "Would being more spontaneous in certain areas of your life help?"

ABOUT "A WEEK": They say it takes 10 days...two weeks...three weeks...daily practice...three days a turn a trial run into a habit. I usually rush things. (Hey, isn't improv about instant gratification?) So a week FEELS like a long time to me. I may need to move on from this task at the end of the week, but revisit it continually for the next few. 

ABOUT "IN CERTAIN AREAS": Biggest newbie director mistake—try to fix EVERYthing in one scene. We've all seen it or done it. Players do a scene in rehearsal—and the critique lasts 10x as long as the scene. Improvisation for the Spirit breaks down the breaking down, which works great for me. If you asked me if I'm good at living in the moment, I'd say "mostly." But when you ask me where I could do it better and make me think about it, I wind up with something I can fix. 


OMG! I haz a reeder! (Sorry. Site addiction. Really sorry.)

Most improv books are way more helpful once you've done some teaching and directing, because they're written by teachers and directors who assume you know theory. That being said, here are the ones I love and don't, in the order they showed up on 

Truth In Comedy: Charna rocks. HARD. Ask me how she supported the KC improv festival over a beer sometime. This book takes you through basic iO improv theory and explains how a Harold works. Don't even try long-form until you've read it (I'm mostly serious about this), because you won't understand how far it can go. Art By Committee is a different story: Buy it for the DVD. 

Improv: Improvisation and the Theater: Keith Johnstone (the guy behind Theatresports, and therefore ComedySportz, and therefore KC ComedyCity) theory. Written for and interesting almost exclusively to directors. You may think he's a blowhard. Wait until you're teaching, then read it again. If you want improv advice, read Impro for Storytellers instead.

Improvisation for the Theatre: Spolin started this mess—and Second City is built on her theory. HOWEVER. It is almost impossible to understand what she really means until you study with someone who really gets her theory. Read it for some exercises...maybe...but don't expect it to really add to your understanding of improv without some context. 

Second City: Almanac of Improvisation: Years ago, Kevin Colby of KC ComedySportz went to Chicago to study, and came back with a stapled stack of paper with typed-up improv rules put together by Jonathan Pitts. (I edited it, which is how we met—again, ask over a beer.) That was the basis of this book—part history, part advice from the gods. Read it for both.

Group Improvisation: Peter Gwinn wrote it. I got excited. It's just a book of warmup games. But a good book of warmup games.

Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out: As close as you will get to having a beer and talking about improv with Mick Napier. Who, from everything I've heard, is not particularly interested in talking about improv while he's drinking. One of the smartest, nicest, most generous guys on the planet. Read this when you know at least a little about improv—it's even better if you've taken a class with him. 

Improv for Actors: Johnstone-based theory—tons of great stuff on status. This is a go-to book when I'm training or teaching. 

Acting on Impulse: Love this one, too. It's emotion-based improv, existing outside the Annoyance realm. Great exercises, and another go-to book. 

Days and Nights at the Second City: Half history, half how-to-put-a-revue-together. Read this if you do sketch and don't want to suck. 

Something Wonderful Right Away: I heart Jeffrey Sweet. I met him at the Austin festival, learned from him at the AND workshops, and just dig him. He's generous, open and LOOOOOVES improv. Like, enough to marry it. Also, he taught me the 2 +  __ = 5 rule, which you should ask me about over beer. 

Interactive Acting: This out-of-print book (yay, book by Jeff Wirth (the Mr. Rogers of improv, and I mean that in the best way possible) teaches you how to behave when the audience is part of the show. 

The Second City: This book is worth it for the CDs of old sketches alone—but they overprinted by about a gazillion. So if you can't visit Chicago and buy it for a couple of bucks, get it on Ebay. I paid $45 for my first copy—but I have a couple more in my closet.

Small Cute Book of Improv: Jill's book! The most useful information for your dollar in the improv-book world. And, as with Mick, EVEN BETTER if you've worked with her. GO GET IT NOW, and (just like the skirt) it will change your life. Or at least how much fun you have when you play.

Does that help? It was kind of fun to write. I'm sure I'll think of more later. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I'm still trying to be conscious of being in the moment—and, hilariously, one of the main impediments is being able to instantly connect. What's up with everyone else? Huh? Who's posting on Facebook? What are my friends doing? What are my old college pals up to? Are the writers goofing off on Twitter? Huh? What? I DON'T WANT TO MISS ANYTHING!!!1!

I'm working on clearing out distractions when I'm with someone. Doing stuff like cleaning off my desk and checking through notes from previous meetings when I sit down with staff members. Following the conversation wherever it leads instead of trying to drive it. Returning calls right away instead of avoiding the phone like I usually do. Not worrying about whether I'm being boring or stupid. Just not overthinking things.

And I'm not allowed to take my Blackberry to meetings anymore. Or if I have to take it, I'm not allowed to do anything but see if I've gotten an urgent email from someone on my staff (no answering emails) or check my calendar for schedule conflicts.

It's stuff I learned in Second City boot camp from Michael Gellman—focus out instead of in. Basic stuff, like listen instead of planning, focus on your partner. It seems like this should be simple, but I'm working against lazy habits and freaky little insecurities. Half of it is just reminding myself to do it...and really, it's not that hard.

Speaking of letting go...I have never been more done with talking about something than I am with the discussion about unsolicited feedback. OK, possibly an argument with my friend Brad in 6th grade about who was more powerful, Wonder Woman (his vote) or Chewbacca (mine). But nothing since.  

Monday, January 19, 2009

Chapter one...why not?


I’m going to try out this
Improvisation for the Spirit book. As icked out as I was by the book jacket (WTF does a rubber chicken have to do with improv? Or my spirit, for that matter?), author Katie Goodman has a playful, authentic voice, and the philosophy is one I agree with but don’t do a particularly good job at living day to day.


As in
The Artists Way, this book comes with a recommendation to take on a chapter a week and try to internalize the lessons in each one. Chapter 1: The Spontaneous Life, promises to “restore your creative self-confidence, discover your potential, and have fun doing it!” (Another barrier to enjoyment: Are there going to be exclams everywhere? Because…DUDE.)
SIDE NOTE: I’ve always been skittish about the potential of a blog turning into a diary—have not been interested in processing deeply personal stuff on line at all. I started it with two goals: To write enough to rediscover the kind of authentic voice I had when I wrote all the time, and to babble about improv here instead of inflicting it on friends and family.
Anyway, each chapter contains exercises, questions and some journaling starters. I won’t be posting my results here (you’re welcome), but if something particularly helpful or surprising comes out of a chapter, I’ll probably talk about it a little. What the hell.

This week’slesson: Being in the moment.

Now as an improviser, I’m pretty sure I know what this means. But part of the work is to figure out an area of your life where you wish you were more spontaneous.

Turns out that since I can remember, I've been a worrier—to the point of getting stomach aches, even when I was in nursery school. I mostly outgrew it, but one place it sticks around is in relationships. I sometimes worry enough about what people think of me that I think more about what they might be thinking of me than I do about what’s happening in the moment.

It happens with friends, family, coworkers…when I go out, when I have people over…in classes, rehearsals and shows. Not all the time, but often enough. It’s probably connected to being 50% introvert and 100% Army brat, and that fabulous combination of being really uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations
and always being the new kid. Two-fer!

So my “practice” for this week: Live in the moment, without self-judgment, with whoever I’m with.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A little more about magic.

OK, listen. I’ve stayed home sick for three days.

I think I’ve beaten it back—I decide to go the “isolate, rest and drink plenty of fluids” route instead of the usual “push myself, infect others and make sure the stupid cold sticks around for days” path I usually take. So it’s down to some sniffles. Haven’t even taken cold medicine today, and I can breathe through both nostrils.

I say this because I’ve probably written more in the last two days than I have all month. Maybe the last two months. It’s just that I’ve exiled myself and haven’t had a meaningful conversation of more than 20 with another human being for three days AND I AM BORED OUT OF MY SKULL. And so I'm an even more long-winded way than usual. I may go back next week and delete all of it. 

Getting back to the whole magic thing.

How it is that when we’re young improvisers and in new troupes we manage to achieve those moments of magic? If technique is really so important, how do relative n00bs make it work—if not consistently, at least enough to keep them going on and their audiences coming back? How does a bunch of high school improvisers achieve near-brilliance? Or players with a little bit of training get more laughs than troupes who’ve been together for years?

What is magic—and where the hell do you get it?

Here’s what I think, until I have a beer with someone who convinces me otherwise.

Talent: Del believed that anyone who could put a sentence together could be taught to improvise. But that not everyone who can improvise is worth watching. This is where magic trumps technique—you either have it, you have enough of it, or you just don’t. 

Vulnerability: Keith Johnstone said, “If you’re not willing to be changed, you might as well be working alone.” If you aren’t open to being affected by your partners, you close yourself off to magic.

But I think the most important thing is the simplest: Play. You have to put yourself in a place where you can just play.

It might be because because your audience is made up of your family members and 150 classmates who think you kick ass. Or because you’re on stage with people you trust completely—or friends you’ve known for years. But the easiest way to get to that place on a regular basis, as it turns out, takes the most work: You’re comfortable with technique. You’ve committed the games, forms and tools to muscle memory—you’ve stopped worrying about doing things wrong.

If you’re there to play, you might be a combination of relaxed and excited, filled with nervous energy and supremely confident. You feel it in the warmup…backstage…and the second the lights come up. You know it’ll be a good show, and it is.

Because of, you know, the magic.

Self-critiques and book previews

OK. So now that I have a working firewire, I've been able to pull some stuff off miniDVs and onto my computer. 

I've mentioned before (and Josh has mocked me frequently since) that I'll watch videos over and over and pick them apart. So here's what that looks like...

A while back, I was lucky enough to get to do a show with Jill Bernard. We worked with Dave Razowsky for a few days in LA, focusing on using Viewpoints work in improv. This is a scene from our show, and a run-down of what I think when I watch it. My understanding of Viewpoints theory is based on those four days in LA last fall, so I may be a little off on some stuff, but here goes. 

To set up every scene, one of us started with Shape—focusing on the shape we formed sitting or standing on stage. The other entered and started the scene in response to the first one's shape. We're pretty deliberate in our physical exploration of the space—Jill calls it "new-toy-disease stiffness."

Here's the video. 

Scene 1, Act 1

Jill starts in shape, with repetition (typing) in duration (how long she does it).

I enter and take my own shape, establishing the spatial relationship between the two of us. Each of us also has a relationship with architecture (the chairs).

NOTE: As I watched the videos for this show, it was impossible not to notice how many times I start a scene with a negative. But I'm happy with the shape I started in—I've really limited myself physically lately for some reason, so it's good to see I have it in me to play more open, high status characters. 

As she overreacts to no Coke in the machine, Jill makes a dramatic change in shape—another gorgeous detail for her character. Plus, she messes with repetition (yelling several times) and duration (how long she holds the scream and the pauses in between). So now she has her original behavior
and her highly emotional choices to alternate between.

NOTE: One of the biggest differences between Jill and me is how thoroughly she internalized the different viewpoints. I mostly play with topography and spatial relationship—she played with a lot more of the toys in the toy-box. This is one of the biggest reasons I want to rehearse, workshop and play more; right now, the stretches between shows (and rehearsals, even) are so long it feels like I'm starting over every time. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm even hitting the basics. The more I get to play around with different techniques, the more likely I am to retain them. And honestly, when I spend money to study, I want to hang on to what I learn.

I hold my shape, duration while Jill has her meltdown.

NOTE: I’m not sure about this next choice I make—“I’m just joking.” Did that undermine or negate Jill’s dramatic reaction? Another fabulous thing about Jill: More than anyone I’ve ever seen, she takes everything as a gift. So even when I do something questionable or ham-fisted, she makes it seem like absolutely the right thing to have done.

I retrace my topography while Jill holds shape and duration. One of the things Dave had us work on is
holding while the other performer is talking or moving—an extreme version of taking-turns. We play with that a lot in the first part of this scene. It's amazing how doing something that simple it keeps you in the moment. And it's much easier if you have a shape you're committed to—you don't ever feel like you're just standing around.

NOTE: Now the shape I took on when I hit the chair has had an impact on my character—I walk differently than I did when I was just entering the scene, and I know what my voice does now. This is me in gender-neutral land: lower voice, looser body tension, higher status. In this show, I went there three times. It bothers me that I'm not making a specific choice about the gender of my character—I'm playing an attitude, rather than a person. 

As I walk back, our spatial relationship changes. Jill is back to her normal shape and voice.

NOTE: AND. I. SCREW. UP. This time, I say “coffee” instead of Coke. Dammitdammitdammitdammit. How the hell does that happen? I JUST SAID COKE. By the end of this video, though, you’ll appreciate how freakin’ brilliant Jill is.

I go back to my architecture and shape. Jill holds…holds…then goes back to her meltdown shape. When I make a behavioral gesture—picking something up and holding it out towards her—she reacts immediately to the change with a change in shape back to her rational character.

Then she makes big changes—moving away from her architecture for the first time, and even kicking it. That's a huge, aggressive move. I hold my shape—which, at least for the first part of the scene, I did when she was having a breakdown.

NOTE: Here’s another questionable choice. When she responds as if I’m holding a gun, is it again diminishing her reaction to make it a camera phone instead of a weapon? By-the-book improv rules would call it a denial; others would say she didn't specifically call it a gun, so I was OK. I wasn’t doing it for laughs—I honestly picked up the camera phone. And I like where it ended up—the idea of posting videos of her going nuts on YouTube fit with the sadistic asshole character I’d turned into. And I like the little micro-discoveries in “What’s that blinking part?!?! What the hell is that blinking part?!?!” “I got a message.” Little details like that are so much fun to play with. 

Jill makes another dramatic change in spatial relationship, tempo and topography when she tries to kick the camera phone out of my hand. I love how boldly she plays—the contrast between reasonable Jill and meltdown Jill is hilarious, and incredibly fun to be on stage with. 

NOTE: Normally, I might spend a lot of time in my head: "Jill just did something brilliant. What's the right choice? WHAT THE HELL DO I DO?!?" That's where I was pretty often during our work with Dave. The nice thing about Viewpoints is you get yourself, as Spolin would say, "out of your head and into the space."

After kicking, Jill goes back to whatever the hell that beverage is—topography, architecture, gesture—and we get a real sense of her attachment to the architecture of the mystery beverage. So far, our topography has been pretty straightforward and purposeful.

Scene 1, Act 2

About now, it felt like time for a turn—when she went for the beverage, Jill ended Act 1 of Scene 1. I wasn’t sure what to do—I just knew I had to do something—so I made a change in spatial relationship. When she asked me what I wanted to talk to her about, I wasn’t sure, so I just answered truthfully. (Another thing we learned in LA.)

NOTE: Again, was that undermining? In some schools of thought, calling Jill out on the weird instead of continuing to feed it would be (again) diminishing her choice. But since it was time to make a 90° turn, it felt right. And I was happy with the new piece of information—that we worked for the CIA. It helped establish the stakes and gave us some detail about our relationship.

Jill goes back into crazy-land—and I love how she brings elements of her sitting-down shape into her standing-up shape. She really plays with duration and repetition again with the yelling. As before, the repetition gets a huge laugh, because it's unexpected and perfect at the same time. It was fun to have the different spatial relationship this time—though holding character in shape in duration while she’s doing that is
not easy, people.

After a brief hold, Jill snaps back to normal—and we move back to her original relationship with the chair (architecture). YouTube comes back into play—and a blog entry Pete made about
a guy with an insane roommate who tracks the crazy in a blog pops into my head.

We hold the same spatial relationship for a bit, then I go back to my original architecture —and, when I make fun of her again (the line about the Three Musketeers bar), my original shape. But I sit back up when I apologize—the leaning back, legs-crossed shape doesn’t work with sincerity.

We stay in the same basic shape while we talk more seriously.

NOTE: “You’ve turned me into something I didn’t know I could be.” "Oh no, man, don't." Gaaaaaaaaah. Nice acting, Keanu Reeves. Sometimes when I get too serious in a scene, it feels wooden or melodramatic—one of two extremes. I really should take a regular acting class.

Scene 1, Act 3ish

Then Jill makes a really bold change in shape and tempo. Is this Act 3 of Scene 1? Maybe. It felt like a pretty big turn.

NOTE: Again with the second guessing. We were CIA—was the thing Jill put to her head a gun? In my mind, since the gun had been a camera phone earlier, it made sense for the weapon to be a camera phone again. And it was kind of fun to map gun language over it.

The walking around the chair thing was fun—repetition, tempo, duration and a great big swirly topographical move, with that architecture in the middle. And it was the first time we really played with curves instead of angles. 

And then Jill wraps it with “It’s this Coke Blak—what kind of product combines Coke and coffee? It’s just wrong.”

Effing. Genius. One of the big lessons of our work with Dave was “That happened.” Nothing is a mistake—it just happens. But when it does, you have to use it. I don’t know that it ever hit me in the scene that I’d mixed up Coke and coffee, but the audience knew it…and more important, Jill noticed it. Her brain is one great big room full of sticky notes.

So here’s what was so fun about doing the work this way: Using Viewpoints, we focused on making physical choices and changes, and the verbal stuff came pretty naturally. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about what to say. Whenever I got stuck, or felt like it was time for a scene to turn, I made a physical change—usually, spatial relationship.

One of the things Rob noticed about this show is that our scenes continued when there was a change instead of getting cut—he said he's not used to seeing that in KC improv. I think it's because we don't always know what to do, which might have something to do with the fact that pretty much everyone here got their start in shortform and only recently started doing—or even seeing—longform. 

My approach has always been to keep playing the same character and relationship games we've established; Dave showed us that Act 2 of Scene 1 gets its own set of rules. That lets you continue, using what has happened without strip-mining it, and following the turns for a longer trip. 

Ultimately, this work felt a lot more like riding a scene than playing one—distracting myself with physical choices keeps me out of plot and in the moment. 

Want. To. Do. More.

Coming soon...improv book reviews

As a result of an unfortunate combination of 1) always having One-click ordering turned on in my Amazon account and 2) having an extra beverage, I got a small stack of improv books in the mail this week. With first impressions, they are: 

Interesting approach—a how-to improvise, perform in public and make money, plus interviews with big names—written by two British improvisers. It acknowledges different theories and seems to be school-agnostic. Wonder if it's as comprehensive as it seems?

OH, FOR...OK. I'm going to have to get past the rubber chicken on the front cover. I hatehatehate comedy icons—rubber chickens, groucho glasses—being connected to improv. Why? We're not prop comics. Also have to get past the fact that it's referred to as "comedy improv" instead of "improv comedy," though that particular pet peeve is based more on the awkwardness than the rectitude of the description. The book's goal is to change behavior, and it seems to be an improvisational version of The Artist's Way, with a recommendation that you try a chapter a week and plenty of space for journaling. Hmmm. Fine. Why not?

This tiny, tiny hardcover book is an actual textbook—its price-tag made me flash back to the first week of college and the sticker-shock that came with it. (Reminder: I was drinking when I bought it.) Which explains sentences like this one, chosen at random: "Within the rubric, fluid and segmented forms do not mix." Whooo boy.

I've got a ridiculous shelf full of books like this—and I haven't read or finished reading about a third of them. So my goal for this year will be to get through—and write mini-reviews of—every single one. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

What it seems like we’re working towards.

I just finished transferring videos of work I did last year—some with Spite, some with Jill Bernard. In both, I see things I’m proud of, choices that makes me cringe, scenes that make me yell at the screen…and stuff that completely surprises me. The moments of genius that make me think, “Wow—where the hell did that come from?”

Everything I could say about whether a show works or doesn’t seems to fall into one of two categories: Technique or Magic.

(Pardon me while I pontificate for a while. I had to balance the rant with the Kool-aid drinking.)

Technique is…
  • A compelling hook or format 
  • Setting up the show in a way that makes people want to watch it
  • Smooth operations from the box office to the tech booth
  • The right preshow and cut music
  • The right pacing or run list
  • Playing games without gimmicks
  • Taking advantage of all the layers in a longform
  • Being loud enough
  • Getting accents right
  • Not walking through the table your scene partner just set up
  • Focus 
  • Give and take
  • Listening
  • Strong edits from the host, the stage or the booth
  • Anything you might get a note on where the issue is black or white

Technique is the stuff you learn with experience and training. It’s essential to a commercially viable show. It’s the high jump over the low bar—what you have to do to get respect and play the game.

It’s the thing that makes it tough to figure out why a show that checked most of the boxes leave you feeling vaguely unsatisfied. The thing that might be there, but when someone asks you “how’d you like the show,” all you can say is “it was fine.”

Magic is…
  • The character you didn’t know you had in you
  • The glimpse into a player’s heart and soul
  • The conflicting ideas pulled together at the end 
  • The mistakes that turn into what the scene’s about
  • The killer line that pops into your head just when you need it
  • The connection between you and your scene partner
  • The unspoken but completely mutual decisions between you and your group
  • The moment when you realize you know exactly what you’re doing—without having any idea where you’re going
  • The understanding that the only way to hang on when your scene is moving like a speedboat is to let go

The magic is in all the lines, characters, relationships, games and scenes that happen because you’re in the moment with your troupe, playing at the top of your intelligence, relying on all your improv knowledge and life experience.

(By the way, want to know why some improvisers prefer longform to games? Shortform magic is pulling a rabbit out of a hat—longform magic is pulling an elephant out of thin air.)

Until you get the technique down, magic is pretty much a happy accident—but it’s the thing that gets you hooked. It’s what makes new improvisers work through all the crappy shows and tough rehearsals. It’s fleeting moments of magic that keep an audience from walking out on a slow night.

So magic feels easy—especially at the beginning. Crack on a playground.

Magic isn’t some abstract thing you luck into because you have a sense of humor or the ability to do a funny voice. You can’t summon it in a warmup. Your audience can’t bring it—no matter how many of them show up. You can’t rehearse magic, but you can’t expect magic if you don’t rehearse. Technique can be taught—magic has to be earned. And the harder you work, the more you get.

Someone asked me what I thought of a show recently. It was fine—I couldn't really find anything specifically wrong with it. But it didn't hold my attention—it didn't make me glad I blew something else off to be there. I laughed, but I didn't remember anything. It didn't make me more likely to recommend the troupe or even make sure to find out when their next show was so I could be sure to go back. 

The technique was there—mostly. But there wasn't much surprising, compelling or even all that interesting. I never felt like the players were doing something extraordinary. 

No magic. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Yeah, whatever.

Thunderdome has started up again, and with involvement by new people has come the same thing that reared its head in the first round—online critiques of the shows by participants.

I have very
specific theories about the wisdom of doing this. It’s based on years of training in communication and relationship building, mostly on the corporate side. (People, I used to write greeting cards. This desire to enhance relationships didn't come out of thin air.)

But why does it bother me personally? Why does it irritate the living shit out of me (and it really, really does—like sputtering, eye-rolling, saying ugly things irritated) when I see improvisers using forums or blogs or comments to slam other troupes?* 

Time to put myself on the sofa.
  • Maybe because my first thought after reading the critical comments is almost always, “Yep. That comment right there is the first thing they hit in notes. But there, they had to take a step further and actually talk about how to fix it. Congrats. You noticed the obvious.”
  • And maybe it's because the most experienced improvisers in town—the ones who’ve studied, watched and performed the type of work being critiqued for years and years and might have a clear, beautifully expressed, helpful insight if they chose to write about it—are never, ever the ones who pipe up. (They know better.) (And they probably play more because they haven’t torpedoed their relationships with other improvisers.)
  • So maybe it’s because my second thought is “Dude. Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” I'm not saying they're bad improvisers or bad people, but really...until you kick serious ass all the time, do you want to go there?
  • Maybe because the criticism is rarely constructive. Most of it strikes me as coming from the need to self-express, process out loud, make yourself feel better about yourself or your knowledge as an improviser, or the desire to pull others down. None of which is evil in itself…
  • But maybe it’s because now something crappy about a group is out in the blogosphere. And it may not be legit criticism, but civilians who happen across it when they’re looking for info don’t know that.
  • Maybe it’s because sometimes they're slamming improvisers I know—and even if it’s dead on, I don’t like thoughtlessness. (And because if they had a crappy show, I know they know it, and rubbing salt in the would is just bonus thoughtlessness.)
  • Or maaaaaybe it’s because I have, several times, made a big stink about Why Unsolicited Criticism Is Evil, so no matter how much I would looooooooove so much to write long, detailed, sometimes extreeeeeemly snarky critiques of every show I see and have considered creating an anonymous blog to do just that, now I can’t. So I'm forced to only talk about it over beers after a show.
Of course, it’s probably almost completely because of my deep and abiding belief that I am always right and that if I feel something strongly you are an idiot to disagree with me. An idiot, I tell you.

*After my last rant, one of the parties implied wrote this: I read this and thought, "Hmm. I understand but don't really agree." Then I thought "Boy, Trish Berrong really hates me. That's too bad." I don't hate anybody. My irritation isn't at the person—it's at the behavior. It's kinda like the way I feel when I see an otherwise brilliant improviser playing blind line and prefacing the audience-provided sentence with something like "My father always said..." THUS STRIPPING IT OF ANY CHANCE IT HAD OF INFLUENCING THE SCENE AND, IN THAT SECOND, SINGLE-HANDEDLY UNDERMINING THE POINT OF THE WHOLE GAME AND BREAKING IMPROV AND MAKING ME WANT TO RUSH THE STAGE AND COLLECT ALL THE LINES UNTIL THE PLAYERS PROMISE TO JUST PICK UP THE LINE, READ IT AND SHUT THE EFF UP.**

**Lots of troupes do this. So this isn't a masked criticism of a single troupe.***

***Yeah. I know I take this shit way too seriously.****

****But I just critiqued critiquing. Is that totally meta, or what?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

That's two

Deciding what to focus on with Exit 16 can be tough. At the start of the year, it's a mix of basic skills and performance formats—I work on games that build specific skills (e.g. Good/Bad/Worst Advice = character).

November/December, if the snow and holidays don't get in the way, we finesse the shows—learn more games, practice hosting skills, work on long form. Spring is tough. Schedules get busy, the kids get antsy and, after the Alumni Show, they might be getting the teensiest bit cocky. (And I might be starting to feel the teensiest bit burned out.)

It's been a busy year: They started with a private workshop with Jill Bernard, saw the KC Improv Festival, took classes at KCiF and added a monthly show at the Corbin to their monthly school show. They've been accepted to the Chicago Teen Comedy Festival in May; to tide them over, we'll bring Second City performer/KC native Tim Mason in for a workshop in the next couple of months. 

(Yes. They're a little spoiled. Most professional improv troupes I've been in would kill for these resources—and their crowds.)

So it's been cool to really feel like I've gotten through and taught them something new in the last two weeks. Last Tuesday, we focused almost entirely on physical work—a space walk (pure Spolin), character work (Annoyance/Bernard/Viewpoints) and Freeze Tag as a shape exercise (Viewpoints). In the space walk, the kids pulled out some incredibly creative, off-the-wall, unexpected stuff. When we talked about why that didn't happen in scenes, they said fear—fear the audience wouldn't get it, fear their scene partners wouldn't track with them. They felt obligated to make everything make sense—which was making things incredibly uninteresting.

For the last part of the rehearsal, we didn't worry about making sense—to anybody. I pushed them to make bold, organic choices. In freeze tag, they let the shapes they found themselves in inspire character and emotion—and did killer scene work. One of the kids said it was the best rehearsal she'd ever been to—and all of them felt like they learned a lot.

Hey! Top that!

So this week, I pulled out something I learned from Dan Izzo and adapted for my Improv Toolbox class. At the end of an intensive, Dan had us each play a scene with everyone in the class, one by one—he set each scene to force us to do something we didn't usually do. In Improv Toolbox, I came up with seven categories of endowments and used them to push players out of their comfort zones in the last class. 

We got through four of the 12 kids tonight—doing a total of 28 scenes. I worried that the other kids would feel cheated, but once they saw the personal attention (and I reiterated that we'd do this every week until we covered everyone), they were fine. Given just one point of concentration and taking away the responsibility of worrying about making sense or even doing good improv, they did hilarious scene after scene. They broke rules, but they committed 100% to physical quirks, archetypes, emotions, verbal restrictions and outside influences.  

A different kid said this one was the best rehearsal ever. 

We've got two upcoming shows: Jan. 27 at South Valley Middle School and Feb. 7 at the Corbin. And two rehearsals—one before each show. We should have time to get through all the kids by the 7th. I'm not worried about running games or a long-form between now and then, but I do have to figure out a way to remind the kids what they know so they can use it in scenes. Some things I've done before or am considering now: 
  • Have slips of paper with character endowments backstage for them to pull right before they enter a scene. 
  • Create the run list myself (I usually hand it off to the kids in January) and choose games conducive to this kind of work (actually, I can give them a limited list of games to choose from, and that should work). 
  • Tape pieces of paper to the stage that say things like "lead with a body part" and "be more of what you are" and "start with shape."
  • Give everyone a short list of character-driven "assignments" to focus on in each game they play—something to keep in their pockets and look at right before the scenes start.
There's nothing like seeing them surprise each doing something new or brilliant, making a completely unexpected choice, taking a huge leap in skills. As much as I'd like to smack them for NOT SHUTTING UP, EVER, they're an incredibly supportive bunch. It's fun watching them have fun watching each other.