Saturday, April 18, 2009


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.

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…

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.

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.


  1. Personal opinion: Don't try to change how you look for Spite. When you asked Sassy for advice on where to get clothes, my first reaction was "why"? It's not you (or Nikki or Megan) at all. You've never sought out the "bad girls" label at all, and you play with wit, not swagger. I'm guessing that was just cross-promotion for Loaded Dice...who, by the way, look nothing like bad boys on stage.
    Just saying.

  2. I'm a strong advocate of paying attention to what you wear onstage. :-) It's good production value, part of a pleasing (or entirely jarring, if that's your choice) stage picture. Personally, I love experimenting with the more costumey side.

    T-shirts, not so bad on the guys, but H7 dropped them when the estrogen count edged out the testosterone. Baseball jerseys do not look good on boobs.

    P.S. Wit and swagger aren't mutually exclusive... what's wrong with being a Bad Girl? With respect and a smile, Josh, just because you don't see that side of the Spite girls doesn't mean it isn't there!

  3. All these notes sounds like great advise for any new group of seasoned improvisors. Chicagoans, take note!

  4. Your advice is solid and quite helpful, thank you so much! Also, I'm beyond flattered that you included Fluffer Nutter in your list of 'good'uns'. :-D

  5. All I'm saying is if you have to ask someone where to shop to find the clothes, by definition you're trying to be something you're not.

  6. Josh—totally get what you're saying. I guess I see it like hiring a costume director for a show. Because I'm not super-secure about my fashion sense, I'm not confident dressing myself to help visually project the way I I'm getting help.

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  8. So what you're saying is, you want people to walk away from a Spite show thinking, "Man, those were some awesome, well thought-out outfit combinations."

  9. I'm saying
    A. It's THEATER. By acknowledging costumes are important, I'm treating it as such.
    B. Costumes can help you get into character, create a vibe, reinforce an image. The goal is something that feels authentic to enough to the work that no one in the audience is preoccupied with it.

  10. You got a problem with that, Brustad?

  11. i feel like i might be perhaps the oldest improv fan out there (aside from those improv fans who are actually old) ANYYYWAY when I see a troupe up on stage with self labeled t-shirts I do not think smart, slick or bad ass or even... pulled together. I am more reminded of 'Look Ma I'm on the Price Is Right!!!!!!!'

  12. Sonic Nurse is correct.

    I get it for high school kids—a shirt showing you're part of a group is a statement of who you are. Plus, the shirt the kids wore in Thunderdome had funky screenprinted artwork by their coach, and two different design options, so they weren't so matchy-matchy. They gave me one—it's pretty awesome.

    If you're gonna wear t-shirts...for heaven's sake, make them cool or fun.


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