Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Busy.

One rehearsal and one show down—two rehearsals and one show to go.

Nikki, Tommy, Ed and I rehearsed
Job Fair (Saturday, April 12, at 6:30pm at the Westport Coffeehouse) for the first time last night. We’re putting this show together in four rehearsals over two weeks—which sounds like a lot and a little at the same time. At our old festivals, we’d have a “featured director” (Del Close, Mick Napier, Armando Diaz, Dan O’Connor, Jeff Wirth, Rob Reese, Rebecca Sohn, Joe Bill) work with a cast assembled from the performing troupes; they had six hours to put up a show with complete strangers. Except for the fact that none of us is an improv guru, we’ve got it easier.

For Job Fair, each of us is directing two others in a duo:
  • Nikki directs Tommy and me
  • Tommy directs me and Ed
  • Ed directs Tommy and Nikki
  • I direct Ed and Nikki
We spent the majority of our time working with Ed and Nikki last night. They’re the only two in our set who have never played together, and they’re going to be really fun to watch together. We’re messing around with status—matching, playing high and low, shifting—and I’m trying to stay aware of the Viewpoints work Jill and I did with Dave Razowsky last fall, too. (That work—even just a weekend’s worth—has really influenced the way I coach.)

The other three duos did a few scenes, just to give the director an idea of what he or she is dealing with. We’ll come back Thursday and split the rehearsal four ways.

Tonight, the Exit 16 kids did their 3rd-to-last show. Spring gets busy, so it was a smaller house than usual (about 100—cue world's smallest violin). The sad thing is that their smallest crowds of the year happen when they’re doing their best work. The Fine Arts coordinator for the Liberty School District was in the booth with me tonight running lights—as always, having a proficient tech guy makes all the difference in the world. He was very impressed with the kids’ professionalism. His only note: Tell them to wear pants they don’t have to spend the whole show pulling up. Tried that—it's an ongoing battle.

This show was their tightest all year—solid hosting, great rapport with the audience, strong scenework and relationships, playfulness and professionalism. And no
unchecked violence.

Tomorrow Tantrum gets together to work on characters. Saturday, Exit 16, Mos Des Fights (aka Fakers aka Scriptease) and Holy Cow! Improv are at the Corbin.

******

Hmm. Blogging lately has been mostly about logging in activity—not so much about searching for insight or rambling about theory. That's kind of where I am right now, maybe...doing more than thinking. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Play.

This week, I got to be in really fun shows for really small audiences. (Stupid basketball. Stupid snowstorm.)

And strangely, maybe, it didn't bother me even a little bit. (OK, the part where we ended up having to pay some of the rent out of our own pockets Friday night stung a little bit.)

Clay started the Spite/Loaded Dice show by introducing everyone in the audience to each other, which was a great idea. Saturday night, everyone in the audience at the Roving Imp already knew everybody else. We didn't feel obligated to do either show—we were actually excited to play with each other. 

Which makes all the difference. 

I'd really missed Spite. I love playing with Megan and Nikki and the differences in the way we play with each other from the way we play with Tantrum. Our show format forces us to start every scene connecting to each other emotionally. This time, based on some smart feedback from Jill, we worked really hard to avoid arguing and ganging up on each other. So the set was playful and fun, with a good mix of short and longer scenes. 

The first show at the Imp was our student showcase—a chance to play games with the folks I've been taking classes with the last couple of months. The fact that I'm having a hard time remembering scenes is a good thing; it means I was completely out of my head. And it was a great warm-up for my first Omega Directive show. The snow robbed us of some cast members, so it was John, Ryan Seymour (also of Full Frontal Comedy), Nifer and me.

I love the first-half format for the same reason I like Spite's approach: Every scene starts with a song from someone's iPod, put on "shuffle" and played until we've had a chance to establish characters in silence. (They used my nano, so it was Beatles-heavy...and we liked it.) The second half is an improvised TV show, complete with commercials. 

Quick but relevant aside: When Tantrum played our festival show last year, Dan Walsh advised us to "play like you're four people." As the Spite show does, a small cast forces you to play hard and fast. John encouraged us to cut aggressively, which gave us permission to keep things moving too fast to think. The show was tight, solid and an absolute blast to play.

Anyway, it was a fun weekend. I'm continuing to feel much more confident about what I'm bringing to the stage.

The next two weeks are packed with more improv-iness, and then things ease up for a while. Coming up:
  • Rehearsals for Job Fair, the duo-based show with Ed, Nikki and Tommy, the next two Mondays and Thursdays (we go up April 11). 
  • An Exit 16 show this Tuesday and Comedy On The Square on Saturday. 
  • Tantrum rehearsals the next two Wednesdays, with shows on the 10th and 15th. 
My goal for the year was to rehearse and perform more. I'm averaging two rehearsals a week (plus working with the kids), and 3 shows a month (plus the Exit 16 and Corbin shows). I'm playing with Tantrum, Spite and Omega Directive—with Job Fair and another Thunderdome (with a great cast) coming up this fall. 

That feels about right. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Breakthrough.

First of all, the really important stuff...


That's me with my new nephew, Jason Turner. He is awesome...and I'm using that word in the way Pete might tolerate. 

And now, back to the single-mindedness...

*******

When I first started working with a trainer, I had no idea what it meant to use my abs to help me with bicep curls. Every workout was an ungraceful exercise in flinging and flailing and straining.

That’s how it’s felt to play lately. I can coach people to be purposeful about their movements or specific about their shapes, but when I get up on stage myself, I just throw myself into the scene and hope whatever habits I’ve picked up over the years will get me through.

That’s why I’m such a whore for workshops. It’s like working with a trainer—every exercise is intended to isolate a muscle, and someone is there to tell me where to focus. So the shows I play closest to class time feel the best, because I’m in control.

Not the bad kind of control. I’m not counting on momentum to get me through a scene or in my head, thinking of lines and characters and plot points. When I feel best is when, “behind the scenes” (which happens somewhere in my head), I’m able to chose the right tool and use it skillfully.

It might mean that I make a status choice at the top of a scene and know that all I have to do is find ways to raise or lower my status—using the other characters, the environment, my body, and my dialogue. Or it could be about topography and spatial relationships, and moving when the scene calls for a change or a turn.

It feels good.

And that’s how the last two rehearsals—one with Spite, the other with Roving Imp—have felt. As stressed out as I’ve made myself by over-committing to shows and classes and rehearsals, I’m getting the return on investment I was hoping for. The scenes these last two nights may not have been my funniest ever, but I’ve made choices instead of just following the scene.

Which, to me, feels like I’m finally improvising again—instead of just making shit up.

******

If you're not all that into basketball, you should come see Spite with Loaded Dice at the Westport Coffeehouse tomorrow night. 

Or check out Omega Directive at the Roving Imp on Saturday. It's my first show with this cast—I can't freakin' wait.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Us.

So this amazing writer friend, Tara Morrow, is using Facebook to create something incredible. She asks things like this in her status updates:
  • Tara likes chicken dumplings. But is still hungry and doesn't like that. And she wants to know: Why do you believe? 
  • Tara wants to know: What is your first priority?
  • Tara thought this day would never end. And she wants you to finish this sentence: "If I find nothing else in a partner, I've GOT to have ______."
Then, using the answers, she writes “status poems,” like this one:
Dear Potential Partner:

I am writing this letter to let you know what I need from you. Now, I’m not asking for the moon here. I am very open-minded. But there are just a couple things I can’t live without. A few small things I’m going to need you to deliver if you intend on sticking around. First of all, I need you to be humble--to acknowledge that there is indeed a power greater than you. (I know this is difficult for some.) If you understand this, if you have a true relationship with God, you’ll know that anything can happen.

I also need respect, communication and honesty. Someone who is brave with a beautiful mind. I need a good friend who can relax, who has an incredibly well-developed sense of humor (smart, not wacky), and is happy to just BE. You have to be patient (because I’m special) and you have GOT to be able to say you’re sorry. Because sometimes you should be.

I am looking for someone with good home training and good credit. If you also have a trust fund, or a few million, I won’t complain. (Not a requirement.) I am looking for compatibility, a healthy balance, and reciprocity. Don’t make me do all the work. I’ll get tired and you’ll be wondering where I went. “Where’d she go?” Yes. That will be you. And you won’t like it. (This is me trying to help you out.)

It also helps if you have reasonably good spelling and grammar skills.* I’m particular about those things. I will correct you. I won’t mean to, but I can’t help myself.

Now, like I said, these are just a few things I’m going to need you to bring to the table if you want this here. If it’s too much, that’s fine. I understand.

I still have my favorite blanket to keep me warm at night. I have faith in myself and the knowledge that God will deliver. I am infinitely connected to humanity. And I have love. I still have love. Will always have love.

By Wandra, Reginald, Ingrid, Quita, Angela, Brian, Trish, Dan, Cory, David, Langston, Teresa, Dawnyale, Jennifer, Mary, and Tara
And this one:
Sometimes
I think no one needs me,
but that I’m nice to have around.
Other times
I’m surprised by those who do.*

My parents need me.
My patients.
My unbelievably talented staff.
My friends need me
to be fun and sensitive and available,
especially Laura,
whose father died before she got to say goodbye.

My dog who is recovering from surgery needs me.
My cat, who may not say it in words,
but says it.
My boo needs me.
And children in Africa
who have no water to drink.

My own children need me.
For food, comfort, shelter.
To build a bridge
from girlhood to womanhood,
boyhood to manhood.
To help them figure out the world
and how to relate to it, exist in it,
and show it love and respect.
I never have to ask if they need me.
I know they do.

My body needs me to exercise.
My mind needs me to use it.
My faith needs me,
because my soul needs something to believe in.

I need me.
To put up and keep up
boundaries around my sanity.
To be focused.
To be a rock for my spouse,
a role model for others.
To keep “getting after it” for the good of all.
I need me and you
to cast off these hard-to-crack ego shells
so we can make the world better.

So many people need me.
So many things.
So often.

It’s a good thing I need to be needed.

By Mark, Wandra, Trish, Ericka, Mary, Laura, Erin, Malea, Carla, Quita, Cat, Kerry, Brian, Jennifer, Rachel, Ann, David, Nicole, Zack, and Tara
I love them because her writing is beautiful. And the people who add to the work are vulnerable and wonderful. I think most of all, though, I love the idea. (And yes, both of the poems above were ones I contributed to. Because it’s cool to be included, and I’m not above being the audience member who claps like a seal when you use my suggestion.)

It’s
stone soup

It might feel like too much work to create art by yourself. Who has time? But if all you have to contribute is a line…then, OK. I'm in.

Improv audiences say things like “how do you think so fast?” and “you’re so quick-witted” and “you’re just so funny.” If you walked on stage expecting to be those things, your head would explode. Me? I’d end up in the fetal position, slightly off stage, rocking back and forth.

But like the travelers in the Grimm Brothers’ Stone Soup, improvisers know the trick—you bring an empty pot, and rely on others to fill it up. You throw out a line, and trust your scene partner to add another. Line by line, you create the funny.

Tara does more than go a line at a time. She does a lot of the heavy lifting.

But the coolness comes from the same place. We are greater than the sum of our parts. Together, we are smarter than we are by ourselves. There is something meaningful and moving and magical about adding our ideas to others’ ideas to get to a place we’d never find on our own.

Sometimes, Wikipedia gets it right: 
This fable can be thought of as "The Emperor's New Clothes" in reverse, where nothing is revealed to be something, after all. The original stone was only a pretext to start the villagers sharing in a way that they would not have considered without the catalyst of the "stone soup" that they thought they were improving.

*Yeah, that's mine. Bark! Bark! 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Stories.

So far, Tantrum has worked with some pretty amazing monologists. And we’ve learned something from every single one of them.

Josh Steinmetz: It’s fun to play scenes based on a troupe member’s stories. Josh was traveling a bunch while we were prepping for a show, so he did monologues, and we did scenes. Not only did he know exactly what and how and when to feed us—we learned some really great stuff about his formative years. (OCD dad. AWESOME.) Josh told the stories back when we were first playing the ASSSSCAT/Armando format; the funny thing about watching those shows is how little we seemed to be in our heads. We hit fun themes and pounced on some goofy details. I wonder if we’d play the same things from the same stories today.

Dan Walsh: Being vulnerable is fun—at least for the audience. Prompted by a suggestion from the audience about looking fat in a dress, Dan confessed to being a fat kid (but assured our festival audience it was OK—he’d gotten over it) and brought out our collective soft underbelly. Storytellers can bring everyone together by showing they’re willing to be genuine.

Valissa Smith: She was our first “outside” monologist, and showed us complete trust from the very first rehearsal. From Valissa, we learned the value of fresh perspectives. She talked about where and show she grew up…and opened up a whole new playground. After her first show, she said, “Oh! I wish I’d said…” and made us realize the value of the second time around. Since then, we’ve invited monologists back for an encore—which has been a blast for us, them and the audience.

Tom Farnan: There’s such a thing in our circle of friend as going “too Far-nan”—to that uncomfortable place where you maybe reveal a liiiiiiiittle (or a lot) too much. Been there, did that, got the t-shirt. We’re usually the confident ones—with Tom, we were on edge. What would he say? What would happen? It’s not a bad thing to get nervous.

Jim Howard: He’s one hell of a storyteller. I’ve known Jim for 20 years—he was present at Lighten Up’s very first show—and couldn’t wait for my Tantrum friends to meet him. His first question was something like, “What do have to have to be good at this—no sense of shame?” Absolutely true—and a great reminder about what makes this stuff work. Jim’s writing ability shone through in beautifully constructed stories with glorious details. And he was willing to be touching and melancholy. That’s a place I’d love to see us explore further—what happens when everything doesn’t have to be funny?

Kevin Dilmore: Kevin was the first monologist to throw his hat in the ring, after seeing one of our shows with Jim. More nervousness on my part: Kevin’s not just a friend—he’s a coworker. And, as it turns out, a natural. I think Kevin had more fun than any other monologist so far—and honestly, would make a pretty damn good improviser. Because he enjoyed it so much (and maybe because of the coworker thing), Kevin felt like a member of the troupe—who just happened to have a slightly different job.

We’ve got two more coming up:
Sassy B Yatch: She rehearses with us for the first time this week. She’s a derby girl—so she’s used to things hitting her from all sides. She can take whatever we bring.

Cindy Weiner Schloss: She worked out with us last week. Cindy came to us through a friend of a friend, and we had no idea what to expect. What we got was hilarious—she’s got a built-in sense of timing, natural ability to follow what the audience is responding to and a lifetime of ammunition.

Bringing in monologists is one of the best things we could have done. They inspire us, teach us and help us draw audiences who might never hear about us. They remind us what warm-ups are really about: Shaking off the day, building trust and bringing us together.

The most surprising thing, though, is that they remind us that not everyone can do what we do. Every single one of our guests has told us—in one way or another—that they feel lke they’ve been let in on a secret. That our rehearsals feel like “VIP Shows.”

Because we’re professional improvisers, we (some of us more than others, as Pete reminds me) judge our own work, sometimes pretty harshly.

There’s a style of improv called Playback Theatre. The Chicago troupe attended a few festivals years ago, and we were always struck by how moved audiences were by seeing their own stories brought to life on stage. Their goal is to honor “the dignity, drama and universality of their stories.”

Without getting all mushy, it’s not bad to have a reminder that sharing stories is a pretty big deal.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reminders.

For when I have two spare seconds to rub together. Write about: 
  • The freedom of only having to bring one piece to the story—and the results, not just in improv. A woman at Hallmark is asking questions in her facebook status and turning the answers into some of the coolest poetry. 
  • The difference between the way kids and adults respond to new toys. 
  • What makes a great monologist. 
  • What I think Thunderdome teams should consider doing and not doing.