Sunday, August 30, 2009

Team #9, bitches.

Got together with parts of my Thunderdome team this weekend. Going to bed at a reasonable hour tonight, but first:

  • ZOMG we're having fun. We're doing genre work, which I haven't done since directing Scriptease's disaster flick. Ed Doris is coaching us (our piece is his brainchild), but this week he was doing family duty, so we worked some exercises that seemed to hit on some of the games that fit our genre. Every single one of them hit.
  • So tonight we got together to watch video of the show we're basing our piece on. It opened up our idea of how to approach it, and we're even more excited than we were before.
  • Here's something that has never happened before. We usually rehearse for two hours. Saturday, after about two and a half hours of running exercises to inform the work, one of the players WHO WASN'T ME said, "hey, should we run the form?" So we rehearsed about 3 1/2 hour and it wasn't my fault. This random drawing stuff put me on the perfect team.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What actually happened.

So I rehearsed with Exit 16 for the first time last night and:
  1. I was reminded that summer vacation not only exists to reenergize, but maybe to remind you that you really dig working with high school kids. And by "you" I mean "me."
  2. I changed a bunch of crap, which is typical. And actually made up an exercise or two, which doesn't mean "made up," but "either 'invented something that already exists' or 'morphed some techniques into something only slightly different.'"
  3. I'm getting a good sense of what I've got to work with this year. I wish I had the luxury of spending an entire rehearsal figuring out what they're all about, but "MAK PRODUKT!MAK PRODUKT!"
  4. They don't follow instructions. They were supposed to tell me workshop and show availability by tonight at 6pm. Most did not.
OK. Then...THEN...I got to work with Shawnee Mission South's improv team tonight. What made it fun: One of the girls, Shara, is a Hallmarker's daughter I've worked with before, and she's awesome and it made it easy to be comfortable going in. Plus, they're a small troupe, which is easy to deal with. AND their teacher worked with my Thunderdome teammeate Erik Johnson, so Team #9 may have one more vote.

Turns out I really like teaching improv to high school kids. And I'm thinking it might be, ironically enough, for the EXACT SAME REASON I almost flunked my senior term paper. To connect THOSE dots:
  • I COULD spend a lot of time getting my shit together, but instead, I'm a horrible procrastinator and prepare just enough.
  • Real teachers know everything. I don't...and just have enough of a different perspective that I might accidentally come up with something cool.
  • I may not come up with a SINGLE original idea—but after 43 years I'm comfortable saying I kick ass at pulling a bunch of different ideas together. When I coach or teach, I have to explain that I'm not name dropping—I'm pulling a bunch of different teachers' stuff together in a way that fits the situation. On my stupid term paper, I got accused of plagiarizing because I footnoted the hell out of all the different ideas I pulled together to form one coherent theory.
  • But still, I get REALLY intimidated by teachers. Both "real" teachers at high schools and "real" improv teachers in other cities.
  • And, to be gut-wrenchingly honest, I'm intimidated by high school kids because I'm pretty sure they can smell the geek on me.
  • AND there's no bigger geek moment than going to class after P.E. in high school—you know, trying to wipe down the sweat and make your hair work before you go to class? Tonight I had to go straight from the gym to the workshop. I showed up in sweaty pigtails and no makeup.
  • So (and I recognize at this point that I'm not so much connecting the dots as free-associating)...I went in all geeky and half-ready and unsure.
BUT. And this is part of the reason I love this shit...

Turns out when I love something—and when I stop worrying and trust my instincts and existing in the moment and reacting to what's around me, it starts getting fun. And I can do it.

I watched and listened to the kids and what they needed, and came up with exercises in the moment that made things make sense to them. (Which is what usually happens with the Exit 16 kids.) And we talked after about what they could do brilliantly in their next scene or show, and they realized they're better than they thought.

And OH, MAN. To be corny...REALLY do even a little thing that helps a high school kid realize he or she is really smart and funny and powerful? Even just for a moment?

That's the crack.

Playing is fun. Playing may be the good wine at the end of the day that makes you think, "Mmmmm. Wine at the end of the day. It is good." But teaching...that's the mind-blowing thing that makes me insane and obsessive and annoying to others, but keeps me coming back.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Exit 16 rehearsal #1: The first stab

I meant to go through old notes and books and workshop plans and really carefully and strategically map out this first rehearsal.

Oh, well. Next time. So the plan:
  • Warm-up: attacker/defender, yes/name cross circle, scream, killer bunny, zip/zap/zop w/transformation.
  • Exercises to teach technique: Character walk (incorporating stuff I've learned from Dave Razowsky, Susan Messing, Michael Gellman Rebecca Sohn and Jill Bernard).
  • Performance games and forms that reinforce skills: They've got to be ready for a show at the Corbin after two rehearsals, so...Panel of Experts, Gauntlet (starting a scene from a line and emotion) and Beastie Rap, for starters.
I'll probably change it once we get started. Plus, they're gonna want to talk about freakin' t-shirt designs for a gazillion hours.


Random thing completely unrelated to improv: I joined a CSA this summer, so every Wednesday I get enough vegetables to feed a family. Some go bad (there are some really sad peaches in the back of my crisper drawer right now). Some get eaten (tomatoes and mozzarella and basil, oh my!). And a lot gets frozen.

Which means I seriously need to rearrange my freezer, because I'm running out of space. Martini glasses may have to skootch over to make way for more blanched, scraped and frozen creamed corn. Lean Pockets may lose their spot to more frozen cooked chicken (and another carcass or two). And eventually I'm going to have to nut up and chop the three pounds of different kinds of onions (red, white and sweet) so I can make chili and fajitas later this year.

Most of this stuff will get thawed out and cooked to feed groups—maybe chili for a Tantrum gathering, definitely fried okra and creamed corn when my parents visit, and we'll see if frozen mint—steeped in simple syrup—makes a decent winter mojito. But the cooking live part is kinda fun. Because dude: I can TOTALLY poach an egg.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Exit 16 rehearsal #1: Dig mah parallel structure, yo.

It might strike some as obsessive that I'm doing two blogs in one night. (Which is not an inaccurate characterization.) But I figured I had to do this anyway, and since I've got at least a few pals who've expressed interest in working with high school improvisers, I might as well do it online.

So. Exit 16 starts up again on Tuesday. Things I know about this year:
  • It's a smaller group than we've had in a while. For a variety of reasons, we've got fewer players (just 10) than we've had in a while (11-12). It's only by one or two, but if you've been around high school kids, you understand.
  • Six of the kids have prior experience. Chris, Laura and Elizabeth started as sophomores, so they've been around three years. Kay, Steve and Garrett joined last year. Tristan, Taylor, Anna and Bailey (first two are guys, second two are girls) are newbies.
  • They've experienced the improv community beyond Liberty High School. They play monthly at the Corbin Theater, and last year's troupe played the Chicago Teen Comedy Festival, and the three elders have a Thunderdome belt under their...uh...belts.
  • My relationship with them isn't just Unyielding Authority Figure. When I started teaching them, I didn't play that often—so they knew me only as a coach. Now they see my shows (where I occasionally use bad language and there's often adult material) and I invite critiques afterwards. At the KC Improv Festival, some of them will be in classes with me. In other words, yeah, I'm the coach—but we're also fellow improvisers.
All of which means this year I have to bring my A-game. To bring out more bullet points (dude, I have been working in PowerPoint all night), I have to:
  • Inspire and motivate them. They need to have something to strive for—it's a balance between feeling confident and knowing there's still plenty to learn.
  • Hold their focus. They're easily bored, so I'll need new challenges.
  • Keep them out of their own way. Their energy, confidence, and comfort with each other can turn against them in an instant.
  • Instill discipline. Things got a little out of control last year, and I spent a lot of time asking them to be quiet and pay attention. Because they've seen me say "fuck" on stage, they think it's OK if they say it. Not so much.
  • Earn respect. Yes, we're all improvisers and face some of the same challenges. But I've been doing this since before they were born, and need to make it clear that means something.
The first month of rehearsals will be highly structured. Each one will consist of (slide #3, please):
  • Warm-up: Provide tools (transformation exercises, mirror games, space walks), build trust (physical games, emotional risks), and get them in the moment (games that require them to listen and focus).
  • Exercises to teach technique: Relationships, object work, give and take, characters, yes-and, heightening.
  • Performance games and forms that reinforce skills: For the first part of the year, every game has meaning. Forward-reverse is an exercise in creating environments and heightening emotions. Panel of Experts is a character game. Beastie Rap is about being confident and trusting your brain. Freeze Tag is about creating something from nothing more than a shape and spacial relationship (yeah, baby...Viewpoints).
Oh, plus, they have to have so much fun a three-hour workout doesn't make them cranky. And make sure I can teach basics to the n00bs without boring the crap out of Chris, Laura and Elizabeth.

Let the fun begin...

So of course I write this.

The two most important things I have to do tonight:
  1. Finish working on my part of a research project for work.
  2. Plan Exit 16's first rehearsal on Tuesday.
So I've spent a few hours working up some stuff for my Thunderdome team, and hey! Blog entry!

I've been emailing back and forth with Ed about an email he sent to persuade people to vote for his troupe in KMBC's A-List competition (I, of course, believe you should vote for Tantrum). The discussion includes the notion that "best" might mean doing more than just putting on great shows, but also working to support the improv community in Kansas City.

There are three troupes doing a hell of a lot of work that makes a positive difference for groups beyond their own. In alphabetical order:
  • Improv-Abilities (to whom I'm eternally grateful) took over running the KC Improv Festival this year. I still believe there wasn't another troupe who could (or would) have done as good a job. Their members (along with folks from a few other troupes) have been deeply involved in festival planning since City 3 revived it two years ago. The return of the festival was arguably the first major step in the creation of KC's improv community, and as the number of groups grows, it becomes more work and more responsibility. Limited time slots mean harder decisions—even some of the troupes whose members are on the planning committee aren't performing. They spend their weekends meeting about logistics, their weekdays setting up parties and dealing with everything from transportation to finding workshop space, and their evenings reminding troupes to live up to the promises they made when the applied for the festival (like festival plugs in shows and on websites).
  • Roving Imp is putting up their first improv festival in Bonner Springs in October. Along with that, John puts up the only regular classes in KC, and works with anyone who's interested in taking classes to find ways to make it happen, from trading labor to helping out at shows. He invites other troupes to play in his space, pulls members of different groups together to play in new shows, and does whatever else he can to instill a love of playing and respect for the craft in anyone who comes through.
  • The Trip Fives are putting up some of the most innovative shows in KC, and have taken the idea of community and run with it. Many local troupes have been invited to share the stage with the Trip Fives in shows at the Westport Coffeehouse, and Improv Thunderdome has created (and sustained) more buzz than any improv-related event outside the festival. It hinges on a brilliant marketing gimmick—because the audience votes for the winner, the troupes themselves (sometimes gleefully) bear much of the weight of drawing crowds. (Though I don't for a minute mean to minimize the work Jared does to organize and promote the show—his ass has been almost completely worked off.) Now Ed has brought back Bare TV, a multimedia experiment that brings together improvisers, writers and musicians.
And, of course, there are other groups who simply put up the best shows they can (and that isn't simple at all). Does that make them any less fabulous or worthy? To me, that seems a little silly.

The nice thing about a community is that everyone contributes in his or her own way...and those contributions change over time and vary by the role improv plays in people's lives and what they have the resources to do.

The nice thing is that, at its best, improv—whether within a community or a troupe or a single scene—is stone soup. It depends on what every single person brings. Groups may do more or less to support the community. Individuals take different roles in the day-to-day work of their troupes. Players may lead the way in one scene and make sound effects in the next.

We'll step on each others' toes a little, and piss each other off every now and then, and go head to head in competitions for audiences, best-of titles and shiny plastic belts.

But the nice thing is that, these days, we can each play the part that works best for us.*

*Note to self: Maybe embroider this somewhere.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vote improv, dawg.

KMBC is running an A-List competition.

Sure, it's a popularity contest. The winner of Best Improv Comedy Group will be the group that convinces more of their fans to register and vote. Unlike the Pitch awards, there's not an objective critic saying, "Quality-wise, here's who's doing the most interesting work."

You might argue that the group with the highest number of loyal fans really IS the winner.

What do these things mean? Not much more than a blurb in your marketing materials, in the long-run. But I gotta tell you, I'm loving reading what Tantrum's fans think of us. (Former guest monologist Jim Howard, for example, accuses us of "utter shamelessness"—you know, in the good way.) Stacey (who started writing a blog you really should read if you like writing) has not only said wonderful things, but is pimping us from her Twitter account.

Tantrum is building a group of pretty rabid fans—and the fact some of them happen to be my friends from work doesn't diminish that a bit. I work with writers and artists and smart marketing people—and if they thing improv I'm involved in is worth watching, I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

The one weird thing about this whole voting thing: I also play with Roving Imp. And love the guys in I-A and Loaded Dice. Also: Where is Spite on this list? Not splitting votes with Tantrum, maybe.

Michael and I are in charge of marketing for Tantrum, so...

Click here to tell the world you think Tantrum kicks ass.

Best news of all: We're keeping the non-improvisers out of the competition. The Improv at the Majestic? Not improv. Neither is Martin City. Neither is Stanford and Sons.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Get sucked in.

First of all...wanna help out at the festival? Here's a note from Joe Henley:
9:KCiF is almost upon us, and now is the time we call for volunteers to help work the show. Positions are available for every night of the show. From 9/9 till 9/12, we have four nights of improv helping goodness. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, send an email to, along with the nights you are available to work. Everyone will be notified by next Friday 8/21 of their positions. Sending in an email is not a guarantee of a position. We are looking forward to working with you.
You should do it. It's fun. You'll work a little, talk to a bunch of improvisers, maybe meet some cool famous people and get some new beer-drinking buddies.

Like you need more bad influences in your life.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fixed. HAH.

Funny how sometimes finally being aware of something wrong makes the solution that much more obvious when it comes.

Without going into specifics, I've been feeling judgey and mean-spirited and snobby about the improv world lately. It's not a place I like to be. When my sister pointed out that I'm ruining it for myself, I wanted to justify my way out of her argument...but yeah. As usually happens when she makes some bold, audacious comment about my mental state, she's right.

So here are the four things that happened this week:
  1. Mother-@#$*ing midyear reviews: 13 of them—which is more than I've ever had to write, and I procrastinated like a pro. My place of employment used to see managers disappear for a week or more to work on writing reviews, so they've come up with ways to simplify the process, like pointing out that if you talk to people all the time, you won't have lots of saved-up points to make. The cool thing, not related to improv in any way: I realized that even when I'm specifically placed in a role of having to judge a performance, there's an opportunity to learn more than I pass on. Even when I had to do some coaching, the results were rich, illuminating two-way conversations that reminded me how much I sincerely adore the people I work with.
  2. Roving Imp classes: I get to take one more next week, then have to trade being in class for teaching Exit 16. And just to make that even harder, Monday's class was the best yet. John has really gotten to know all of the students well, and that's allowing him to push us harder. He does it with a terrific sense of humor ("I'm going to stop you here. A piece of my mind is trying to commit suicide.") that, strangely, doesn't soften the criticism—just makes it more fun to hear.
  3. Green Day concert: In a quick check for a review of their tour, a KC review came up first—and happens to be written by a guy who sits about 20 feet from me. (It captures the energy of the show a lot better than the Star's take.) The energy, attitude and love for the audience made me wonder—how the hell can we use it as inspiration for a little show in the coffeehouse?
  4. Thunderdome rehearsal for Team Number 9: Steve Jones and I grew up together in Lighten Up. Nick Rigoli and I have played at ComedyCity and on the Thunderdome team Burnin' Sternums. Erik Johnson kicks ass in CounterClockwise Comedy; I don't know that we've ever even officially been introduced. Ed Doris is our coach, and is one of maybe five improvisers in KC who is completely comfortable (and probably too happy about) telling me to shut the hell up and do what he says.
Rehearsal—especially for our first time in the same room together—rocked. We got warmed up on our own (yeah, I was bossy). Some fellow improvisers are putting together a Thunderdome documentary, so they interviewed the team while we waited for Ed; he walked in right before they asked, "So what's your format—and how did you come up with it?" Which was handy, since he was the only one who knew.

Ed's take on rehearsing a piece is very different from mine. I tend to start with exercises and exploration, discovering the show from what we create together. Based on what he's seen of us and a few conversations, he laid out a (typically Dorisian long-winded) description of what he envisioned, and immediately (well, after the inanely verbose description) threw us into it.

And it worked. He's coached at least a couple of teams, and recognized that if you're working with people who haven't played together, you have to leave plenty of room for the weird. Now we've got three more sessions to make the form (a mix of in-character set-ups and scenes that I'm not going to get any more specific about) work for us—and figure out how far we can push it.

Then we went for beer. Because that's what troupes do.

Sure, I can ruin my own fun. But I can un-ruin it, too.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Possible? Maybe.

Scoring a point for Josh's side, my sister Lori said today, "Maybe you've ruined improv for yourself."

I was testing a theory on her. Last week, some pals and I were talking about reasons we see improv shows. Some of the reasons I go:
  1. Because you know it'll kick ass.
  2. Because you're supporting friends in the cast.
  3. Because you're curious.
  4. Because you're supporting the KC improv community.
  5. Because you can learn something, even from a bad show.
Like just about every one we know, I've done all five. Used to be, you had to head out of state for a solid #1; now, as troupes get more experience and higher standards, there are more and more safe bets in KC. Number 2 takes some effort on the troupe's part to generate reviews, recommendations or rumors. And as the community gets bigger and broader and looser, I feel less compelled to do #4 than I used to, unless it's combined with #2 or #3.

It's #5 I was asking Lori about.

I do feel like you can learn something from watching bad shows—to a point. (And have babbled about it before—all the way at the bottom of the post.) When I take the Exit 16 to Chicago, it never bothers me to see one lousy set at an iO Harold show. Sometimes it just proves that even people with solid training have off nights. Lots of times, though, it validates what the kids have been learning about vulnerability, truthfulness and commitment; they see that detached ironic self-awareness doesn't work out well for anyone, no matter how clever they might be.

Seeing great troupes fail can still teach something, even if it's just from a purely academic point of view. You feel a little like a forensic scientist, picking through the rubble of lost opportunities and missed connections to see what went so horribly wrong.

But what I asked Lori was whether—in any of the things she's interested in—you can get as much out of watching something bad as something good. The closest example she came up with was a pro tennis player who says he learns more about his game when he loses than when he wins.

That wasn't really what I was getting at. And I was explaining that to her when she said, "Maybe you've ruined improv for yourself."

I immediately denied it, obviously.

As my mom, dad and sister often do—she has a point. I haven't stopped enjoyed doing it, but I don't have as much fun watching it. I've become more snobby and less gracious. Which I think is more about my competitive nature than it is about the shows. When I'm improvising, I want to kick the most ass. When I'm in a troupe, I want it to be the best. When I'm promoting a show, I want more people to come to it than any others.

You can see how some of these things would be unhelpful.

I'm letting a bunch of stuff that's not about the work get in the way.
My little sister is right. Do you have any idea how annoying that is?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Out there.

Next Friday, Tantrum welcomes Jim Howard back as guest monologist.

The great thing about Jim—OK, one of the great things about Jim—is that he doesn't filter his stories. He's not afraid to say difficult things, or talk about taboo topics or reveal deep shame. It's challenging, in a good way, to work with him because his monologues take emotional detours. He starts off funny, loops around something poignant, and might stop at melancholy.

So when we rehearsed, we focused on a couple of things: patterns/themes and playing it real (which we talked about here.).

The more sophisticated a troupe gets, the more they can pull out of a simple story. Newer troupes tend to play the monologues pretty literally; experienced groups play the themes and metaphors. Tantrum is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes our scenes are a sidestep away from the monologist's stories. Other times, we peel away a few layers. And every now and then, we hit a metaphor. In our last show with Jim, we brought back scenes about semen swimming upstream (seriously, why would you miss this show?) in a later monologue about his wife swimming with dolphins.

The trick is being smart, but not too obscure for your audience—or worse, your fellow players.

Which is why I think part of being good at long form is practicing pattern games—over and over, rehearsal after rehearsal. Partly because it's thinky work—just try a clover leaf without getting in your head ("Pattern game where word association is used to generate ideas, often referred to as a clover leaf because the pattern arcs out with associated words and returns to the suggestion, and is repeated two additional times." —Wikipedia). Eventually, you not only find new ways to jump from one word or thought to another; you also start to understand how your fellow troupe members' brains work.

(One disadvantage of not being in town that teaches Harold work: You can't see people do pattern games as openings over and over and over—that's part of figuring out how they work. You can do it without seeing it—it just takes longer. After I saw my first Harold team—the Plum Dumplings—at iO before they even had their own theater, I tried to help teach Lighten Up pattern work from that show, Del's notes and a friend's description. It was like handing someone a pile of scrap metal and some tires, describing what a car looks like, and saying, "Go!")

Anyway. It takes practice plus time. Tantrum celebrates birthday number two in September (note to self: cake to the festival?). The cool thing is, I think we're just scratching the surface of what we can do.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Going through notes.

Exit 16 played the Corbin this weekend and put up a pretty fun show—especially for young performers who haven't played together in two months or rehearsed since last May.

They start up rehearsal again in a few weeks. I'll have three kids in their third year, three in their second, and four total newbies. I didn't submit them to the KC Improv Festival again because of the new/experienced percentage—with only three rehearsals, there's no way they'd be ready to take the stage in a confident way. I feel like it's my job to put them in situations where they can feel really good about what they do.

So I'll spend between now and August 25 figuring out how to approach training this year. We always start with the basics—grounding the new guys and reminding the experienced ones where they came from. The good news: Some exercises, including a Spolin-influenced space walk and Del's Ritual, have become traditions, and if I go too long without bringing them in, the demands start.

What comes next:
  1. Figure out what I'm working with—strengths, challenges, holes.
  2. Decide whether I can create a run list for the first show and work towards it—or want to see what they bring at the first rehearsal and then do the planning.
  3. Lesson-plan the rehearsals between now and the first show. Pick games, exercises and approaches.
And all that means figuring out where my notes from 20ish years of workshops are, and deciding which instructors' work best fits this group.

Almost time to get back to work...