Thursday, July 30, 2009

Really fast.

A few things from the Disney trip:
  • Randy and Kim and Charlie are all doing great. Charlie is adorable and outgoing and silly and sweet and knows no strangers and calls Kim "Mama Manatee," which is insanely cute. It was amazingly fabulous to see them again. (I gave them all the KC improv scene gossip. And yes, you were implicated.)
  • Disney is everything people say it is. It's a verrrrrrry different experience, I imagine, tackling it alone—without family, kids or brand-new fianceĆ©. But it turns out I kind of like doing things on my own terms, so that didn't bug me a bit.
  • Though kids can, if they aren't related to me or someone I adore, make me a little bit nuts, there were times they totally made my trip. I rode Splash Mountain with Mel, approx. 10yo, who breathlessly explained everything and asked if I'd ever read the story of B'rer Rabbit and pointed out stuff I'd've missed otherwise and told me when to hold my hands up and when to hold on tight and explained pin trading and probably would have asked me to dinner with his family for the rest of the week if I'd given him the chance.
  • Some of the rides seem to be struggling against this new need we (Members of the American Audience) have for authenticity. The Kilimanjaro Safari ride at Animal Kingdom, for example, is plenty cool without a poacher subplot ("The elephants are being attacked!") the tour driver can't quite pull off with sincerity. Sometimes it's enough to have cool stuff (like, you know, a WILD ANIMAL REFUGE) without a dramatic storyline.
  • You get older, and you wonder if you're losing the sense of adventure you had as a younger person. Although I have NO DESIRE WHATSOEVER to further test what I learned at Worlds of Fun in the early '90s (I can't ride the spinny stuff any more), I was reassured to find that I still love roller coasters. The faster, higher, loopier and scarier, the better. I blame playing without a net every few weeks for this.
And there's the improv tie-back I was looking for. Now me and my swollen feet are going to bed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wrapping up.

Well, something worked on Friday. At the last Spite/Loaded Dice show, we each had to throw in $16 towards rent. At this one, we made about $40 each.

Here’s what we know:
  • A big chunk of the audience said they’d never seen Spite before.
  • Our website traffic was WAY up—mostly because of the makeover videos.
  • We were all getting comments and questions about the makeover at work and online.
  • Pete and Dennis thought there were a good number of new faces in the audience.
On the down-side, we didn’t feel great about the show. And no, it wasn’t the dresses. It was mostly because our schedules didn't let us get in as much rehearsal time as we usually like to have. We had some good moments, but we felt like a lot of our characters and storylines were really similar from scene to scene. For my part, I felt like my characters were all insecure and tentative.

I think we’re experienced enough as improvisers that even when we’re not hilarious every scene, we’re capable of being interesting. Pete, Dennis and Julie said the audience seemed engaged, even when they weren't watching. So I don’t think (the guys can weigh in to the contrary) that we ruined improv for anyone.*

What’s next:
  • Spite starts rehearsing our asses off—we’ve got two shows in September (one at the KC Improv Festival, the other another gig with Loaded Dice) and a couple in October (Impfest! YAY!).
  • We’re going shopping again, with the new rules we got from Amy and Daryl.
  • We figure out how to keep our website hits going.
  • And maybe do the same for Tantrum.

*I'm working on taking a compliment. So when some non-improv folks I work with said, "that was fun!" I resisted the urge to say, "It wasn't as good as we usually are!" That's really, really, really hard.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Borrowed interest.

In one of my first college advertising classes, they introduced the concept of "borrowed interest"—getting attention for your product, service or company by bringing something appealing or sensational but completely unrelated into its marketing.

I've inferred from a fellow improviser's comments on my facebook page that he sees Spite's makeover blitz as borrowed interest. (Or he might just be bored. Sometimes it's difficult to tell.)

Mmmmmaaaybe. But I don't think so.

A lot of things make it tough to market an improv troupe or show in KC. Let's start with:
  • Getting attention
  • Helping people understand—better still, appreciate—the difference between your group and others
  • Convincing friends to come to your show next time, instead of some time
Getting attention

The KC Improv Festival originated years and years ago not only as a way to meet other people who did what we did, but as a media hook: It was news. Thunderdome has a hook.

Besides the "they're guys, we're girls" thing, Spite's shows with Loaded Dice don't really have a hook. And not enough people know our groups do quality work to seek them out—especially since we don't have regularly scheduled performances.

We paid part of the rent out of our own pockets last time, and I don't think any of us were interested in doing that again.*

The idea of going public with the makeover we'd planned for months just kind of happened. Makeover shows are ridiculously popular—who doesn't love to see the duckling to swan transformation?—so we thought we'd make a fuss about ours.

Differentiation

Dude. There are a ton of improv groups in KC. KCiF has expanded to four nights, and even with more spots, some of the newer ones aren't playing.

Even with it comes to the older ones, people can't always name the group they just saw. They might know they saw an improv show at the Flea Market or the Coffeehouse, but names? They don't always stick.

And newspaper blurbs don't help much. Your format and your reviews are about the only helpful ways of writing a differentiated descriptions. Saying you're fast-paced, funny, topical, intelligent, character-driven...OK, let's play a game.

Guess the troupe from this snippet from the first sentence or so of their description on the KCiF site. More importantly, try to figure out why you should go see them. (I've let some go longer because they eventually get to a point. Makes me want to go back and rewrite some shit.) Click to find out who it is.
  • This group formed in March, 2007, as the house team of (a theater), and has performed nearly 100 shows all over northeast Kansas since that time. (The group) never fails to deliver with its blend of fun, memorable games as well as a series of one-act plays made up completely before your eyes.
  • This group has entertained Kansas City since 2000, and in the last four years the group has been featured in improv festivals in Chicago, Dallas, and the Twin Cities. It is the only group at KCIF to regularly perform short-form improv games as well as more artistic long-form sets, often in the same shows.
  • Ever since being established in October 2007, this group has quickly become the only longform improv group in (their city). Comprised entirely of University of Kansas students, they bring a fresh-faced enthusiasm to the grizzled Kansas City improv scene.
  • This group is Kansas City's original and longest running Improvisational Comedy show. has been producing shows every weekend for over 22 years!! That's a lot of laughs! Their...format pits two teams of "actletes" against one another in a fast paced improvised competition where every game is based on different suggestions from the audience.
  • This group is a four man improv troupe that has a history in short form games and expanded their rapid fire wit to the long form arena. Their style is fast paced, character driven and relatable.
  • This group is an experimental comedy group that works in sketch comedy, short and long form improvisation, stand-up and dance. ... (their) mission is to explore, invent and produce live comedy shows which combine a unique blend of performance styles while providing audiences with an entertaining experience.
  • This group formed in part because we wanted to compete in Improv Thunderdome and mostly because we never seemed to get enough stage time together playing with our co-ed troupe...
  • This group, an animated short-form improv comedy troupe, is bringing their HOT NEW SEXY comedy to the KC stage. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some of your favorite games... Or jump up out of your seat and join them onstage for some wild new ones!
  • Intriguing characters. Hilarious scenes. No scripts. Seven players fuse experience and wit, normalcy and absurdity, the real and the surreal. This group brings together seven of Kansas City's most experienced, critically acclaimed improvisers...
  • As the origin story goes, four improvisers were exposed to a liquid mutagen during a traffic accident. The mutagen caused the improvisers to become more human-like in intelligence and dexterity. Also exposed to the mutagen is one member of this group, an improviser once owned by a improvutsu expert named Hamato Yoshi. As a fantastically talented improviser, taught himself the art of improv by mimicking Yoshi during his practice sessions.
So...how much are we helping the audience here? Some are better than others. (I put together two of them, and am kicking myself for not getting to the point earlier. At least their [aaagh—I meant "there," obviously] are no grammar, punctuation or capitalization errors...)

Sense of urgency

Part of the reason Tantrum invites guest monologists is to give people a specific reason to see that show. Our benefit for the Feisty Devils MS 150 team with Scott Sjoberg last month not only blew his personal fundraising goal out of the water—it drew a bigger-than-average crowd of people who'd never seen our show.

Other than the fact that there's a looooong time between shows, there's no real reason you should see one Spite show over another.

Until now.

Friends who've always said, "I'd love to see you play some time" are planning to see this show to find out what Daryl & Amy and Monique , our wardrobe and hair and makeup stylists. (Of course, whether they show remains to be seen...but there's more interest than usual.)

The videos are showing up on our stylists' facebook pages, and their friends are interested to see what they've done—so we have a chance to expand our audience base.

The videos show a little of our personalities, which turns us into real people and not just another clump of comedians. And because no one else has done anything like this, it helps us stand out.

The makeover videos posted on our site have driven traffic up 1,364.71%.

Exactly how well will this work? Who knows. But it's been an interesting experiment. Not to mention a hell of a lot of fun to do.



*Another question: Is the show all of a sudden about Spite and not as much about Loaded Dice? Not at all—we get equal stage time in the show. Both of our logos are on the poster and the promotional materials. But we're producing this show, and we can't force other players to send e-mails, hang posters and invite people to facebook events. Besides, we're not about to tell the guys what to wear.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cut back...

I realized I never really got to the "mixed" part of my feelings about movie edits and scene painting.

Yes, at times, I find them incredibly frustrating. I wish I could see them as gifts no matter what, but I don't.

On the other hand, sometimes a player paints a scene and takes it from ordinary to perfect. Or confusing to brilliant.

Naming the setting or location can ground a scene and help everyone imagine exactly what it feels like to be where the characters are. Describing the set or a prop can provide the detail that takes the action to the next level.

Years ago, at the third Spontaneous Combustion (now the KC Improv Festival), Rob Reese (who sparked our tradition of having three featured directors creating shows with a member of each performing company) asked Armando Diaz, his director, for advice going into the show. He knew Rob was a powerful player and that many in the cast didn't have much long-form experience, so he told Rob "Do just enough."

That's what scene painting should be. Just enough. The scene is never about the environment, the set, the props or the costumes—so scene painting should be just enough to ground, elevate or clarify.

Until you get good at it.

Then you can play with it. And if you're playing with a bunch of other improvisers who know what they're doing and you all trust each other completely, you can SERiously fuck with it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cut to...

This post reminded me I have mixed feelings about the movie edit and scene painting.

Quick definitions (as I know them—improvisers do and describe this stuff a million ways, so my understanding might not match yours):
  • In a "movie edit," a player ends a scene by stepping on stage and describing the scene transition as you might see it described on a storyboard. Example: "Cut to a park bench on a secluded stretch of path" or, fancier, "Freeze: The shot tightens on his outstretched hand, and we match-cut to the outstretched hand of ..."
  • Scene painting is part of the movie edit—in it, a player describes the physical aspects of a scene, creating a "set" for the players to walk on to or providing wardrobe or special effects.
The movie edit might influence the narrative of a piece—it can return players to a scene or initiate an action. Scene painting should heighten or clarify the scene‚ but it's a description of the environment, not the action or the story.

A few years ago, my kids saw scene-painting in a show in Chicago. Talk about crack on a playground...they could NOT. STOP. DOING. IT.

The main reason: For new improvisers, time off stage is time wasted. High school improvisers, (more than any others, I think) fight their craving for attention (not to mention their almost non-existent attention spans) every time they're "stuck" on the backup line.

Given the chance to scene paint, they're all in. Before we were three lines into a scene, they'd turned its characters into robots or historical figures or stereotypes, filled the environment with bizarre props, and hinted strongly what would happen next.*

On the plus side, they were working important improv muscles. When you're on the backup line, you should be active (Joe Bill says "toes, not heels"), alert, ready to add when needed.

In the minus column, n00bs** have very little sense of what "when needed" means. What it feels like is "when I have an idea." Which, when you're thinking really hard about ways you could "help" is ALL THE FREAKING TIME.

Del Close, the guy who invented the Harold and developed the Movie, said this:
1. You are all supporting actors.
2. Always check your impulses.
3. Never enter a scene unless you are needed.
One of the hardest things about improvising long-form is knowing the difference between "having an idea" (the impulse you're checking) and "heightening the scene" (what you're supporting, not creating). This is the key, I think (from one of Del's student's notes):
NOTICE HOW YOU ARE A PART OF A HAROLD. HOW YOU FIT. THEN SIMPLY ENTER—JOIN.
"Notice." Not "think." Not "try to figure out." Notice. It sounds a little passive. But think about the best scenes you've ever been in: the ones where it feels like your next line or move is handed to you on a silver platter. You weren't thinking or trying or worrying or wondering. You just had to notice that you were needed, and do the thing the scene required.

Getting myself to that state—where I'm discovering rather than inventing—is the reason I keep studying. Because it sure as hell doesn't come naturally.



*I have painted more people into tube tops than I care to confess. Mostly, to my eternal shame, because the word "tube top" gets a laugh.

**I should point out that, as much as my posts may come across as blow-hardy and mean-spirited sometimes, I do love the improv n00bs—and envy them. This stuff is really, really fun when it's new and you're not super-opinionated.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Question 1: The suck

From a reader: Are you taking questions? Would you answer them in blog form?
  • What do you do when your scene partner gives you nothing, and takes everything you give and puts it essentially in a void?
  • In relation to that, what techniques can you use when your scene partner throws so much random crap at you that there is NO possible way that you can rationalize it all?

Dude. It is not easy to improvise with a black hole—or a supernova.

But eventually we all find ourselves there…in jams, in workshops, in classes, in our own troupes on a bad night…hell, in meetings at work.

And here is what I believe, at least after 12 oz. of a waaaay-better-than-expected Missouri wine from Cellar Rat: This is no time to play a slavish game of “yes, and.” This is a time to play hard-core Annoyance style and take care of yourself. I’ll quote an interview with Mick Napier about his approach:
If I want to help my partner onstage then I need to take care of myself first and take care of my own power first, otherwise all I’m supporting my own insecurity and my own fear, which is not very supportive.
You'll notice that Mick never says, "Be an asshole." This isn't about screwing your scene partner back to avenge your perceived screwing-over. It's about making the decision to take care of slash control what you can—which, as Susan Messing says, is your own body—nothing more.

Here's what I think that looks like.

The Black Hole

You're getting nothing. No. Thing. Fine. Take the Steve Martin approach: "I don't need you. I can do this scene alone. I often do."

Make sure you have a strong character—whether it's built from something physical, intellectual, emotional, whatever. Knowing who you are is going to be critical, because you're going to let everything that happens make you more of who you are. (Thanks to Joe Bill and Mark Sutton for practice doing this.)


The person you're sharing the stage with, in this case, isn't really performing as your partner—but s/he can be your muse. Dave Razowsky says everything you need to know is in your scene partner's face. When your character is strong enough, even a blank stare is enough to set you off—and, to squeeze some of Bill Arnett's workshop into it, you can react even to the most ridiculous thing by just saying what your character would say. Do the next logical thing.

Here's the deal: You're the grownup, in this case. Playing the martyr is bullshit. You may have to initiate, or you may find it more fun to react and respond, but you have the power to make a choice that will make the scene better.

To paraphrase Joe Gideon: "You can't make it a great scene. I don't even know if you can make it a good scene. But, if you keep trying and don't quit, I know you can make it a better scene."

The Supernova

This (thank you, Wikipedia) is what happens: "The explosion expels much or all of a star's material[2] at a velocity of up to a tenth the speed of light (30,000 km/s), driving a shock wave[3] into the surrounding interstellar medium."

So it could be even worse than the black hole.

It might be a character who talks in paragraphs instead of sentences and WON'T SHUT THE HELL UP. Or someone who starts scene-painting before your first line of dialogue because they have an IDEA! AN IDEA AND IT'S SO VERY EXCITING TO HAVE AN IDEA!!!!* Or someone who doesn't realize that you don't have to FORCE INTERESTING THINGS TO HAPPEN ALL THE TIME and insists on turning you into things like bugs or robots or on making you seven years old or notices that SUDDENLY SOMETHING WEIRD IS HAPPENING. Or someone who just denies the fuck out of everything you say or won't let you, under any circumstances, have what you want.

The supernova improviser could destroy everything in its path. EXCEPT YOU. Because you are powerful. (See above.) There are a bunch of different fun ways to play this. My favorites:
  • Revel in being the low status character/victim. Everything your scene partner does is wise and right and good, and your character clearly doesn't understand/is a moron/is unworthy.
  • Focus on the relationship. Everything is innuendo or a metaphor. Handy lines: "I know what you're really saying." "When you get like this, it makes me ______." "But that's not really what this is about/why you called me here, is it?" "I love you."
  • Make the weird shit normal, and focus on the relationship. If it's turning into some bizarro world, let the world be normal so you can ground it in a relationship. ("OMG! You're a bee!" "Obviously. But this bee wants your body.")
Here's the cool thing about improv: If you know the chords and are comfortable with your instrument, you can join in the jam. And even if you're not all that good, the people who are better than you have the power to take care of things.

On one trip to Chicago with my improv kids, my friend Tim Mason, who plays with Second City, invited me to join their improv jam. I hadn't played regularly in years. I felt rusty and stupid. But (in addition to taking some serious shit from my kids about pushing against my comfort zones), Tim said, "We'll take care of you." They did. I relaxed, and didn't completely suck.

At one point or another, you'll be the improviser who has to take care of someone. When you do, remember to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.

So, KC Improv Person Who Asked The Question, I hope this answered it. But I'd love to hear how others deal...


*Real conversation between me and an improv pal:
HIM: I had to hold myself back from saying, "There's a dead hooker on the table in the kitchen."
ME: Um. Thank you.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stuff.

President Obama is not about to make a phone call.



And Howard Dean, as bonkers as he might otherwise have seemed in this photo, is
not holding a gun.
It's fair to say I'm a little snotty about improv training. But you will never, ever, ever convince me that understanding basic object work is anything but a cost of entry for improvisers.

So it blows my mind a little when I see a kick-ass improviser in the middle of an excellent show make a cell-phone call by sticking out his thumb and pinkie and holding his hand to his ear. Or points in a threatening way with a fingergun. Or when in the middle of a transaction scene (always such a wonderful idea to begin with) a player hands over real money.

And it's not just the principle of the thing.

If you're talking to your actual hand, how do you leave the phone in the pocket of your space-substance cargo pants at the end of the call? If my character wrestles with you for control of your fingergun, am I supposed to literally disarm you to take your weapon? If you pay for my services with actual currency, how are you supposed to leave it on my space-substance bedside table at the end of our session?

With thoughtful, detailed object work, you can make an audience forget you're sitting on folding chairs instead of in a '55 T-bird. You can go without elaborate sets and expensive special effects. You can forge a 90-minute agreement that if you name it or use it on stage, the audience will believe it.

But that agreement is fragile.

The second we think getting into a car is as simple as swinging an arm out, sitting on a chair, and swinging that arm back...or that it's OK to scribble nonsense on one's palm with a disappearing-reaapearing, impossibly thin pencil/pen pinched between fingers...every time we open a door differently than the person who entered the scene before us...or even when we jump in to play the corpse in an autopsy to get a laugh, blocking our scene partners from cutting off body parts or doing anything interesting with the innards...

We've stopped improvising. We're just indicating with lame, half-assed shorthand. And then we're not holding up our end of the agreement with the audience. We're just winking and slacking and saying, "You get this, right? We cool?"

Maybe even worse, we've cheated ourselves out of discovery. We haven't thought about what kind of phone we might be using, or what our characters' handwriting looks like when we write, or whether the door has a sticky doorknob, or what kind of car we're sitting in.

As Tim Kazurinsky says in The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, "To improvise, you need a bare stage, actors, and chairs. Everything else is pretend."


Friday, July 10, 2009

Blue.

I started my improv career playing ComedySportz, and learned an important lesson: You don't have to play dirty to be funny.

I teach high school kids, who entered Improv Thunderdome specifically so they'd be allowed to say dirty words. (I didn't coach them for that show, and wouldn't let them use the name they use when they play at school.)

But still...over the 19 years since I started, I've spewed some pretty smutty stuff on stage (including what I thought was an excellent rhyme with "Carolina" in a blues song about douching). So I was surprised when, after a show, Hilarious Improv Chick Tina said, "I've never heard you say fuck before!" (Somewhere in Monroe, GA, my parents were laughing their asses off.) (OK, my mom was. My dad was muttering and using my full name.)

So tonight.

I dropped an f-bomb in the first scene of the first game (a tag-out exercise we use as our opening). Mostly because I started it with an exercise I learned at TCiF, and it felt right for the emotional level of the character I was playing.

Our audience was pretty much all there to see our guest monologist and raise money to support the MS Bike team he and his wife participate in. Even before he got on stage, the audience let us know they were feeling rowdy with...uh...suggestive suggestions. (In Advice Panel, Josh answering in rap challenged my ability, as the host, to keep a straight face.) Our guest did a great job—he was completely authentic and hilarious, ending with the suggestion of "laptop" (heh heh) and getting busted by his wife for browsing adult sites.

Ahem.

After our first couple of shows, Tantrum made a concerted effort to play more physically. I've worked really hard over the last few years to get more comfortable with the giant game of grab-ass improv turns into when we play together. Tonight, I:
  • Played Hammer pants (kinda without realizing it—I thought I was a baby elephant)
  • Gave birth to two players, who started with their heads INSIDE MY SHIRT
  • Played one guy's banana hammock
  • Had my boobs portrayed by two guys, using their hands and elbows in close proximity to my ACTUAL BOOBS
  • Acted out an adult video with two players, including one playing a cat
There was probably more, but those were the...highlights.

On one hand, I'm pretty pleased with myself for losing myself in the scenes enough to play them out without getting self-conscious. On another, I'm happy with the fact that in the adult video scene, my training kicked in and said, "You could do something dirty and expected, or fun and interesting" and I picked fun and interesting. (Next-clarification: Not saying the scene didn't start off dirty. But once the cat entered, I played it more tastefully than you'd imagine.)

On hand number three, I'm amazed that after a show that involved so much smutty content, I really feel like we played it smart.

It's easy to say the eff word to get a laugh. But it's just as easy to play a character who would say it. And the laughs are bigger, better and come with a lot less shame.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Characters.

So a few weeks ago, Nikki & I went to the Twin Cities Improv Festival and, along with seeing some kick-ass shows, took two classes from Bill Arnett.

(If I was better at tagging, I'd remember if I'd talked about this first part before.)

How I Take Festival Classes: An Approach Developed Over 19 Years: I'm long past the days of instructor/theory collecting. When I started, I was shooting for variety: I signed up for workshops with as many instructors from as many schools and cities as possible to see what techniques clicked. Three-hour samplers are great for exposing you to the main principles of a school of thought. Now I want maximum feedback, so I tend to either take multiple classes with single instructor or repeat classes with someone I've worked with before. The benefits:
  • You get more information about that instructor's theory, because their classes usually give you different pieces of the same puzzle.
  • You get better feedback, either because the instructors watch you longer and gets a sense of your fall-backs and patterns, or because they get more comfortable with you and can be more direct.
  • There's no way you're going to get good at a technique by doing it one time in one workshop—that's why improv classes are usually 6-8 weeks long. Ever do yoga? You do the same poses over and over, going deeper, feeling stronger, becoming more aware of how different muscles move. Same with improv exercises.
It's that last point I'm particularly excited about. Over the last couple of weeks, I got to:
  • Take Bill's classes about creating characters with point of view and playing it real.
  • Working with Nikki, try the exercises out on Tantrum.
  • Do the same/similar exercises in tonight's class at the Roving Imp (John studied with Bill in Chicago).
When people ask (as a Hallmark intern did today) how you rehearse improv, one of the answers is "You work on new ways to create characters." So far, roughly, I've learned about characters from the following (with dramatically oversimplified explanations):
  • Annoyance: How you do what you do is who you are. Characters are created physically, emotionally and verbally.
  • Jill Bernard: VAPAPO (Voice/ Attitude/ Posture/ Animal/ Prop/ Obsession).
  • iO: Different takes on playing real people in real situations and playing truthfully and close to yourself.
  • Michael Gellman/Second City: Spolin-based, reality-driven work.
  • Dave Razowsky/Viewpoints: Movement-based work.
  • Various work on status influenced by Keith Johnstone, body tension work with Hilary Chaplain, and stuff I've picked up from books.
Some of the theories at least seem contradict each other. Annoyance says take care of yourself first; Second City says make your partner look good. (For how it all looks different, read this blog entry by Bill Arnett.) In Viewpoints work, you make physical choices; in status work, you decide where you are on the ladder compared to your scene partner. Some schools encourage you to be weird and playful, others teach you how to play characters not much different from yourself.

And the great thing is, they're all right.

The reason I'm a workshop junkie is that it's impossible for me to commit an approach to memory if I don't do it more than once. I want to be the mechanic in the garage who can find a wrench in the toolbox without looking—I just reach out, and the right tool is there.

Which is why beginning and multi-level classes rock. Chances are good that I've done an exercise before, so I can layer something else on—thinking about Viewpoints topography (the map you create as you move through the space) when we're doing a character walk (physicalizing a character), or working on playing close to myself as we practice a long-form.

So two weeks of revisiting the same exercises and theory has been super-fun. In Bill's classes, we messed around with the idea of how a real person deals with an absurd character—he gave us permission to call out the crazy, change the subject, leave the room, fire the nut-job.

That was a new toy for me. I've always struggled with playing close to myself, because I've heard different versions of "why would someone pay to watch someone be normal" since I started doing this. But something finally clicked in this workshop. Playing close to myself isn't the same as playing me. What I got out of Bill's class:
  • I can react like a normal person would act if s/he is telling the truth—but better. No compulsion to be polite or passive-aggressive.
  • It keeps me in the moment—being real with an absurd character means letting everything s/he says affect me.
  • I really don't have to think about making anything interesting happen—all I have to do is notice how what they're doing makes me feel.
I've heard different versions of all of this stuff before, but Bill's exercises and feedback and his teaching style really hit home for me. The first class introduced the idea; the second sold me on the theory.

It's not something I'll use in every scene or even every show or with every troupe. But it's another tool in the box, and a chance to work it repeatedly for a couple of weeks means it's a little more likely that when I reach for it, it'll be right there.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Quiet.

A while back, Jill tweeted about a conversation she started on the Minneapolis forums. I checked it out, and couldn't help but notice how active theirs are compared to ours, which have sputtered almost to silence over the last year or so. Part of the reason, probably, is that we have a small enough community that spends enough time together that we don't really need them like we used to.

But I have another theory: Collectively, we don't have a whole lot of intellectual curiosity about improv. We've grown quite a bit over the last three years, and we've gotten a little complacent.

Some evidence:
  • The last time someone posted an improv site/resource was slightly more than two years ago. Joe tried to get a conversation about narrative structure going back in February—the only ones with serious contributions were Jill and Tommy.
  • Even if you go off the boards, the KC improv blogosphere is awfully quiet about theory and technique, unless you count me and Josh getting into it in my comments section every now and then.
  • A remarkably low percentage of KC improvisers charging audiences to watch them perform have ever taken a real improv class...or even a festival workshop...or worked with a director/coach besides their own. And of those who haven't, many assume they couldn't learn anything new from a local class or a beginner session. Or that it's not worth taking the same festival instructor twice.
  • We don't seem to devote much time to experimentation. I'm not talking about learning edits and techniques and forms that already exist. I'm talking about spending chunks of time spent not preparing for a specific show, but working to discover your troupe's voice and vibe.
At the Twin Cities Improv Fest last week, it was hard to miss the unmistakable Minneapolis style of improv. It's balls-out, physical and full of energy. You can spot some influences—Jill, ComedySportz, iO, Brave New Workshop, Annoyance—but there's a common playfulness and consistency in quality that seems all their own.*

Mostly, I was struck by how far ahead of us they are.

Their best groups made moves that probably wouldn't occur to our best groups. They didn't miss anything. Their patterns were more complex, their listening was more advanced, and their characters were richer. They played with a level of sophistication that's just out of our reach.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not saying we suck. We've grown a lot over the last three years. More groups are more likely to put on funnier shows for bigger audiences. We're putting some pretty hilarious stuff out there.
ADDED: And from the average audience POV, lots of us are doing good stuff. Of course, I'm not talking to audience members...
But answer this honestly (especially you long-timers): How often are you blown out of your chair by a character choice or game move that can only be described as brilliant? When was the last time you saw a show that made you think "WOW. That's beyond what I imagined improv could be"? How many shows make you feel like you're watching someone run across a tightrope, blindfolded, without a net?
ADDED: Again, from an audience perspective, these things happen in a lot of shows. I'm asking the world-weary improvisers who have seen and/or been in thousands of shows.
Eh. Maybe it's fine. Maybe putting up good, solid shows is enough of a goal. Maybe this is as good as it gets.

Obviously, I don't believe that's true. At one point or another, we've all seen what truly great improv looks like. We're just going to have to dig a hell of a lot deeper to get there. New improvisers will have to study harder, and experienced improvisers will have to push themselves further.

Or we can just wait, and hope it happens eventually.


*Of course, what they have that we don't is an established school teaching its own take on improv theory in regular, multi-level classes. (Help us, Roving Imp—you're our only hope.) If I was any sort of blogger, I'd be able to find previous rants about this.