Monday, April 27, 2009

Parents.

Mine came with me to the Roving Imp on Saturday to watch Omega Directive and my little mini-set with Tommy.

They've seen some shows—especially my Mom, who swooped in when things were super-stressful at Lighten Up—but it felt great to have them there this weekend. I don't know that I've felt great about the work I was doing in shows they've seen for a while (I was just tiptoeing back in). So that was nice.

They brought their long-time friend Jane, who will tell her daughter Robin (one of my favorite childhood babysitters) about it. Their family lives in Leavenworth, so Bonner Springs is a pretty convenient place to see some funny.

Usually Mom and Dad know at least a couple of people in the cast, but not this time. They got to meet Dennis and Nikki and John and Denise and the Imps and Joe and Nathan, and were happy to put faces with names. (Mom reads this blog, so she can put faces with names now.)

The show didn't get too creepy—less adult content than usual—until the very end of the Poke set. I played a little girl and Tommy played a demon-worshipper who trying to get me to "renounce your mother's God." (He killed my kitty, the big meanie.)

Eep.

I was pretty happy the scene never needed me say
those exact words. I have absolutely no trouble playing a character with radically different views from mine (to make a statement or just for laughs—either one is fine)...but still. I could do it. Would do it. But...didn't have to.

Whew.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wow.

So on the phone tonight, my Mom asked how many rehearsals I have left with the kids.

None.

Show next week, Chicago trip the next, workshops/auditions/callbacks the next...and then their final show.

Wow. I didn't think of that AT ALL.

It was a good one. They've got everything they're going to get from me this year. We ran the Living Room twice. I had to shush them A LOT. (Especially the seniors. They are READY. TO. BE. DONE.) Tonight was just about asking questions ("How do you remember everything they talk about so you can use it in scenes?") and tightening the piece as much as we can (keeping the transitions fast and smooth).

The main thing I left them with was "know what you're doing." Pick one thing and be deliberate about it: volume of words, topography, energy, shape. Don't try to fix everything at once.

Hadn't realized that really, that's the last piece of advice I'll give some of them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happy.

To counter the ultra-crankiness of the last couple of posts, I present this:

Things that make being on a Thunderdome team rock:
  • Being better than anyone thought you were going to be.
  • Doing something ridiculous or audacious.
  • Swaggering.
  • Getting to come up with a silly name and not give a shit whether it's marketable.
  • Playing with people you don't usually play with.
  • Having a good reason to get your friends to come see a show.
  • Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Going balls out.
  • Doing a great set—win or lose.
  • Seeing all the improvisers in the audience.
  • Shiny belts and tiny trophies.
  • Hanging out with all the improvisers after the show.
  • Realizing that you want to keep playing together.
Reasons (besides Thunderdome) it's really fun to be a KC improviser right now:
  • At least three shows to choose from every weekend.
  • The chance to see a bunch of different styles without getting on a plane.
  • Arguing theory with people who disagree vehemently with you.
  • John's classes.
  • Improv-Abilities taking the festival to the next level.
  • Holy crap—the media knows we exist.
  • The KC Public Library digs improv.
  • Our three longest-running groups—ComedyCity, Full Frontal, ImprovAbilities—are still going strong.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Assvice.

When my pal Beth tells me things it might be good for me to hear, she always starts it with, “Not that you’ve asked me…”

So. Not that anyone’s asked me.

But here are my totally biased, probably obnoxious, very-definitely-not-meant-to-slam-any-specific-team thoughts about what I think would make for good Thunderdome teams next round.

Please note: Usually Beth’s advice turns out to be very, very wise. I make no such guarantee.

FORMAT
It seems like about half the groups in the first few seasons came up with new formats—with varying degrees of success (both in terms of doing good work and moving ahead in the competition).

When long-form started spreading outward from Chicago back in the mid-‘90s, people got tired of playing Harold and new formats turned into a big deal. In cities with lots of long-form groups, it made sense—different formats let groups express who they were, philosophically and stylistically.

Same thing with Thunderdome. So here’s the assvice (based, if you’re curious, on years of festivals, directing and playing with a bunch of different troupes, workshops with a bunch of different teachers, a week long retreat where we developed a new form to perform every night, and seeing I don’t know how many long-form shows). All of it assumes pick-up teams—groups of players getting together for Thunderdome, with little or no outside experience as a troupe.

Nail the improv down first.
No matter what the format, scenes are about creating relationships, games are about discovering connections, characters are about commitment, edits are about clear communication, and add-ons (openings, monologues, etc.) are about detail and truth and listening.* If your group can’t improvise together, no format is going to make it interesting to watch—and the audience is in for the longest 30 minutes of their lives.

Then tack on a format—if you still want one.
Once you know how you play together and what you want to accomplish, start messing around. Some of the strongest sets I’ve seen in Thunderdome have been the simplest:
  • Loaded Dice’s family dinner (inspired by the Monkey 13 & The Masked Menace roadtrip format) just cut back and forth between a dinner scene and flashbacks.
  • Trivial Prov-suit started scenes with trivia questions.
  • Babel Fish’s first season was just Joe and Nathan talking—with John interrupting every so often.
  • Fluffer Nutter was just two chicks doing improv.

The more a format is related to narrative—driving what the scene is about, as opposed to transitions or beginnings—the better the improv has to be.

When Spite played season 1, we knew we liked to play multiple characters and that we wanted strong emotional starts to scenes. So we edited by repeating the ending line of one scene in new emotion to start the new scene. It gave us time to focus more on the scenework.

Then there was Scriptease, a team I coached. Their goal was to improvise a disaster film. Segue in 3…2…1…

PREPARATION
Some Thunderdome teams rehearse for months—others get together 4-6 times and call it done. Either way…

Getting a coach is a very, very good idea.
Why? If you’re not used to working together, you might be tentative in giving feedback or saying what you really think. A coach can be the bad guy and the decider. Plus, an outside perspective is always a good idea.

Scriptease pulled off the disaster film for three reasons:
  • They’ve been playing together for more than five years, so they know what to expect from each other.
  • They simplified and templated the format so they could focus on character and relationship.
  • They had someone to keep rehearsals moving. Because we had a schedule to keep.

Map out a rehearsal plan.
It seems like there are a few phases almost every new group goes through to get show-ready:
  1. Playing: Improvising together—just to get to know each other and your styles.
  2. Exploring: Brainstorming and trying out a bunch of things to see what feels good.
  3. Experimenting: Running the show or game or format you want to do to see if it works.
  4. Polishing: Practicing the format, edits or other techniques until they’re second nature, so you can focus on the improv.
The amount of time you spend in each phase depends on the group. If Spite played another Thunderdome, we’d skip 1, spend a rehearsal in 2, and the rest of our time in 3 and 4. I imagine Team Number Nine (my pick-up team for Season 4) will spend more time in 1 and 2 before moving on to 3—getting to 4 if we’re lucky.

OUTFITS
Before our next show, Spite will take my cool friend Amy out to dinner as payback for an afternoon of playing “What Not To Wear.”

Because a few weeks ago, we were introduced as “The Bad Girls of KC Improv.” I was wearing a striped J Crew oxford and jeans. Nikki had on a very nice argyle sweater and slacks. Megan was wearing A Cute Top.

We were so not “bad.” But with Amy’s help, we’re hoping to be—ideally, without looking costume-y or ridiculous. If your group has an attitude (or just pretends to have one), dress to fit. Something as simple as “we’re playful” or “we’re slick” or “we’re sexy” or hell, “we’re employed,” works.

Several teams—my kids included—have worn uniforms consisting of a designed or labeled t-shirt and jeans. I feel bad for saying this...but I’ll confess right here to an anti-t-shirt bias for anyone over 18. T-shirts on a grown-up improv team—even a team of strong, confident, talented players—kinda make me think they’re gonna open up a can of wacky.



Wow. And now…I’m officially sick of listening to myself talk. Off to clean the bathroom.

*Not an exhaustive list of what makes stuff good, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hack.

I hesitate to even point to shit like this.

This guy is back on his wobbly little soapbox. Tony bills himself as a “writer” and his work as “a joke/humor blog,” with the warning: “Do not read this page unless you have a sense of humor and a good looking mother.” He lists his interests as “Kansas City, Movies, News, Porn, Snack Cakes.”

With that kind of ironic self-awareness, you just know he’s a funny guy.

For someone who hates improv, he seems to read Keith’s blog pretty religiously. So, to borrow the vernacular of his people, what’s the deal? My guess: He’s either a stand-up wannabe, a failed stand-up, or a mediocre local stand-up with appearances in places that would make the Comedy Pouch sound good.

Because no one hates improv like stand-ups.

We chatted with Darron Story about it before his gig with us last Friday; after he’d booked Tantrum and Full Frontal on his show, a comedian friend asked why he’d do such a thing. (Because, as we know, improv blows.) Darron couldn’t figure out where the animus came from.

Maybe it’s because all they’ve seen is hacks. There are plenty of improv groups who pun their way through 185, play Freeze Tag as a one-liner game and always make sure they can close out Da Doo Run Run with the name Chuck. They take a class, see a show or watch Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and they're ready to put on a show. Often, they wear wacky ties and Chuck Taylors.

But there are hacks in every field—so surely that’s not the only reason for all this anger.*

My guess it’s because some of the most important tenets of stand-up and improv are diametrically opposed:

Improv is about collaboration.
Stand-up is about self-promotion.

Improv training focuses on listening and agreeing.
Stand-up training focuses on…wait, training? Don’t stand-ups know everything already?

Improvisation is about creating new material every rehearsal and every show.
Stand-up is about practicing and polishing the same material over and over and over.

Improv is about heightening relationships, building on ideas and “yes-anding.”
Stand-up is usually about tearing people, ideas and things down.

Improvisers respect their audiences—they're the spark.
Stand-ups condescend to their audiences—they're the enemy.

Improvisers practice like sports teams—we run drills, improve skills and learn new techniques.
Stand-ups rehearse like they masturbate—alone, in front of a mirror.

Something Darron said the other night: “It seems like improvisers might make good stand-ups—but not the other way around.”

In my experience, that’s true. I’ve seen improvisers win open mic night competitions because they go in with a story to tell—and then listen to the audience to know where to slow down and where to fast-forward. But you put a stand-up comedian in an improv class—or God help us, on stage in a scene—and one of three things happens:
  • He concentrates on coming up with something funny to say instead of listening to the scene, so when he finally enters, he’s missed everything the other players have been building.
  • He steam-rolls his scene partners and shoehorns in recycled bits.
  • He ignores the most basic rule: The harder you try to be funny, the less funny you'll be. Successful improv is about being real, human and vulnerable.
Oh, and when the scene sucks, he will blame the audience.

I’m not against stand-up comedy or comedians. I’d never say all stand-up is “horrible, doesn't take any talent and it's all about attitude," as Tony does about improv. Steve Martin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Andy Griffith, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart…all brilliant, innovative comedians, each with a clear, creative point of view.

But if Bad Improv is marked by hack bits, repeated jokes, sloppy stage work, and undisciplined performers…then Bad Stand-up is its much-more-arrogant evil twin.


Oh, and. AND. In answer to Tony's challenge:
Prove me wrong: Here are five random phrases I'm suggesting for local improv aficionados to play with (ew):
- waste of time

- 2 drink minimum

- ego

- Women aren't funny

- Insurance salesmen

It's improv, dumbass. You want to see someone "play with it," pay for a ticket and shout something out as a suggestion. (You'll also probably amuse yourself by yelling "dildo" every time we ask for an object and "proctologist" every time we asked for an occupation. That will be hilarious. Because no one has ever thought to do that before.)




*
At least a bad improv show is usually no more than 90 minutes long. I’d rather suffer through that than sit through five hours at a local open mic night, watching amateur stand-ups slog through overwrought material and drinking overpriced beer.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Random.

Crosby Kemper III will be our monologist Wednesday night at the library, which should mean our biggest crowd to date—ever, in any show since Tantrum got started. We’ll have 2/1 coupons there, in hopes of pulling some of our library crowd to our shows at the coffeehouse.

It’s going to feel good to play for a bunch of people. Tantrum is more playful and more consistent than we’ve ever been. We’ve worked hard for it, as individuals and as a troupe, and it feels like we’re playing at our full potential. The most exciting thing about that? It means we can start building—exploring, evolving, developing a signature style.

*

Roving Imp celebrated its second anniversary this past weekend. I had show commitments—Tantrum, Job Fair and helping out with Thunderdome—so I missed this weekend (last one, too).

I would have loved to be there just to support a local troupe on its anniversary. But it’s becoming much more than just another group to me. Thanks to the really, truly amazing and generous folks at the Imp, I’m really feeling like a member of a troupe—not just a person in a cast. That’s a hard thing to explain to folks who haven’t improvised with more than one group.

* *

As one of Tantrum’s Designated Marketers, I’m feeling more pressure than ever to get folks to the Tantrum shows. So I spent some time today putting a few things in order that should make it easier to consistently promote shows:
  • A promo calendar, with jobs and deadlines
  • Tighter mailing lists
  • Online promo documents troupe members can access whenever they need to
  • Monologist chart, with bio info, show dates, audience numbers and notes (how they helped promote, press coverage, etc.)
Ideally, all of this will shave a few hours off the PR efforts every month. (And keep me from wondering, “Have I done that yet?” when I’m promoting 2-5 shows.)

* * *

A while back, I had some thoughts on things that make a Thunderdome team work or not—from the POV of an improviser, a director and an audience member. I can’t figure out a way to write it without teams feeling like I’m picking on them.


* * * *

I still love playing and rehearsing this much. But it’s kind of nice to look at the next few weeks and see non-improv related stuff on the calendar.

My 43rd birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. And as I get further into my forties, I’m realizing how much bigger a deal it is to take care of myself than it was a decade or so ago. I have to leave bars at midnight or I’m dead meat the next day. Being on a diet means scheduling meals and snacks carefully enough that I don’t get dizzy in scenes—that means always having back-up protein bars and water nearby.

And it requires that I remember my Myers-Briggs type is just barely Extrovert. I need serious recharge time—by myself, doing nothing, with no obligation to talk to or interact with anybody.

Without those things…man, I get pissy.

* * * * *

On a related note, I missed Easter services today.

I set the alarm, woke up, wanted to get up…and couldn’t. I didn’t go out last night. Didn’t drink. Didn’t stay up all that late. But I slept through all three services. And it feels…awful.

I go through waves with church-going. I love the pastor, the people, the traditional trappings combined with the liberal outlook of Second Presbyterian. When I was most involved (even ordained as a Deacon) I was doing very little improvisation.

So from one angle, it seems like improv is a bad influence. I look at all the “mandatories” in my life—work, working out, Exit 16, rehearsals and shows—and as someone raised by people who don’t miss a Sunday, I feel guilty that going to church can feel so…optional.

Really guilty.

* * * * * * *

When I finally did manage to drag my ass out of bed, I went to an Easter potluck in the Crossroads with some Hallmark pals. About half of them have seen shows—and Tantrum has converted them to improv fans.

Which is really flattering, considering the talent in that room. Besides their creative work at Hallmark, one of them writes extraordinary poetry. One cooks with local food and takes beautiful pictures. Several others are musicians. The host was in the middle of mastering a CD for a friend visiting from Amsterdam—we got a little preview, and it was gorgeous.

It reminded me how important it is to have a creative outlet. And made me remember that there are always rewards for getting out of the house. And, like I said to my friend Stacey, that people are just cool.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ready.

One more Job Fair rehearsal until show-time.

And I don’t know how the others feel, but I’m really liking the four players/four directors thing. Here’s why:
  • You get feedback from two different people (in my case, Nikki and Tommy)—so two different perspectives. 
  • When you’re not directing or playing, you get to watch—and notice what’s working and not, which is helpful when you do get up there. 
  • As a director, you have one other set of eyes on the work, and if you’re having a hard time explaining things, there’s help. 
  • Because everyone is both director and player, there’s no hesitation about giving notes. 
We’re all feeling good about the show—all four duos are coming together well. The differences are subtle:
  • Nikki and Tommy are using monologues to start scenes. 
  • Ed and I are doing a deconstruction that starts with a phone call. 
  • Nikki and Ed are playing with status. 
  • Tommy and I do ghost edits and poke at each other. 
Beyond that, it’s just scenes. No format. Though, if we ever do this again, I think there’s a lot to play with: callbacks, entrances and exits, a second act that brings us all together. Fun, fun.