Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I get to call it a workout!

I do not use exclamation points casually.

But tonight, after Tantrum's rehearsal, Josh gave me permission to call it a workout (this is a big deal—read the comments here).

BECAUSE WE SWEATED OUR ASSES OFF. We brought a lot of the techniques we learned from Susan Messing to rehearsal, and ended things with a Ritual.

I've wanted to try that piece with Tantrum for ages, and was—as always—surprised and pretty thrilled with the result. Every time I thought it was ending, it was moving into another phase. When we finally did end, we'd come full circle. There were phases where I felt focused, judge-y, judged, tentative but mostly playful. Once we figured things out as a group, we were silly and confident and physical and suprising...in other words, it was a Tantrum Ritual.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another year gets off to a great start.

The Exit 16 kids had their first show tonight, and I couldn't be happier with the way it went.

Hosting: We've been working on setting up scenes, and for the first time, they did the whole show without run-lists in hand. They learned from what they saw at the festival—and their hosting was smooth and professional.
Scenework: They played patient and smart. Not everything hit—but they never freaked out.
And then there was this: They opened with the Busby Berkeley we learned from Susan Messing. First up, their run through before the show—with my loud, bossy sidecoaching...


video

They knew to make it work they'd have to have higher energy and more variety in their "music," and I think they pulled it off.

video

I want to keep working with this piece—there's so much potential for different rhythm, different moves and different energy.

Anyway, I hope they're happy with the show. We'll watch it on video next week and tear things apart—because they're learning insanely high standards—but for now, I hope they're having a great post-show cup of coffee at Perkin's.

Want to check them out? They're performing at the Corbin Theater this Saturday at 8pm. It's $5. You can't lose.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ladylike? Maybe not so much.

After our third show as a group—at the 2008 Fringe Fest—a slightly awestruck friend told the ladies of Spite "you girls play like guys." We chose to take that as a compliment.

And as one audience member said after our show on Friday, "You guys talk about vaginas a lot."

This is funny to me because before the show we recognized a fair number of under-21 audience members and decided to see how far away we could stay from our usual content. Not that we intentionally play blue...it just goes there sometimes.

What we know: The bolder we start, the better the show. We try to come out of the gate fearless, with strong emotions and big physicality. Over time, we've worked on avoiding conflict (which can be tough when you're trying to play big, bad and bold), create stronger relationships, be more physical and show more range.

I think when our content goes to adult material, it does so for a few different reasons:
  • Honesty. At our best, we deal with sexual topics in a real, vulnerable, truthful way. In Friday's show, there was a long scene about a very nervous mother telling her two daughters about sex. I can honestly say I didn't play a single line for laughs. Neither did Megan and Nikki, who were scarily in sync—to the point of saying a line together, without even making eye-contact. We got more laughs in that scene than any other; a few audience members told us afterward that we'd gotten things exactly right. In the Fringe Fest shows, there was a scene about two high school girls taunting the school slut, rumored to have given a blow job. The three characters found common ground in talking about how the experience...um...wasn't exactly a romantic one.
  • Playfulness. We've done a scene that made one big euphemism out of a bratwurst-eating competition. One about a character "taking care of herself" in a Target bathroom. We've drawn the female anatomy on the stage in "chalk" and given birth with unusual helpers. (Which is funny, since none of us has been any more involved than showing up at the hospital.) Just because that's where the scene took us, and we had fun on the ride.
  • Nothing better to do. OK. So the smut doesn't always evolve from relationships or happen tastefully in support of the plot. We played an after-midnight show so dirty I wanted to shower afterward...it was fun and self-indulgent and for an audience of a half-dozen improvisers. Sometimes we go for the laugh. I'm not particularly proud of that—but I'm not particularly apologetic, either.
I think it's inevitable in an all-woman show we're going to talk about some of the things women talk about when they're alone. And yes, that means our anatomy—what it does, what gets done to it, what we feel, what we fear.

I grew up in the '70s and joined the workforce in the '80s, in the afterglow of the Women's Liberation Movement. Besides one kindergarten teacher arguing with me that little girls weren't pilots (my first, and most short-lived, dream job), they were stewardesses (I won that round mostly because I was stubborn and loud), I never saw any evidence girls couldn't do what boys did. It never occurred to me I wouldn't have a career in whatever I chose to do. I was surprised as hell when a director told me he believed men were typically and inherently funnier than women.

I've seen a few other all-girl improv troupes, but only one I'd aspire to be like: Children of a Lesser God in Chicago. They play women, but not pointedly so—there was no statement in their work in the show I saw. They just played fearlessly and seemed to be having a fabulous time.

That's the goal with Spite. And if sometimes we end up in the gutter...well, fuck it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

An ugly stereotype.

The last couple of weeks have brought a quite few discussions of content in improv shows. Some of the most interesting—or, at least, emotional—were sparked by this write-up in the Pitch (excerpted):
...a barrage of cheap, lazy gay jokes has kept me out of local comedy and improv shows for most of this year. I tried again recently and found more of the same. In show after show, area comics ridicule an exaggerated notion of how gay men walk, talk and love, which provokes reactionary laughter: that of the powerful mocking the disenfranchised.
It sparked this letter (again, a snippet):
It's about time somebody called bullshit on this boondoggle that has been passed off as entertainment. Scherstuhl was dead-on. Most improv is small-minded, stale and lame. It's bad enough to pay to watch what is really more like an acting-workshop exercise than real humor. Adding insult to injury are those cheap, lazy jokes about gays (and others) that aim for the low laughs.
And led to a back and forth on Clay Morgan's Facebook page filled with name-calling. Which was cut-and-pasted-and-sent to KC's most vitriolic blogger, sparking more smack talk.

All because a reviewer had the nerve to call a couple of local sketch and improv troupes out on doing humor that was beneath them.

I'll come clean on two points:
  1. I didn't see the shows he reviewed.
  2. But I've seen the brand of "comedy" he's talking about, and I completely agree with Alan Scherstuhl.
I like the players in the groups—and have played with quite a few of them—but I've seen this stuff on local stages before. Remember in junior high, when guys made fun of the very concept of men who liked other men? It's that. Played with limp wrists and effeminate diction, it's uncomfortable and embarrassing to watch.

Every now and then, one of the kids in my high school troupe brings it out. When it happens, they get the same talk as they do when they play racial stereotypes, and it starts with "not acceptable."

We don't play one-dimensional, unkind stereotypes. BECAUSE IT'S UNKIND. Why would you want to create something that brings out the worst in yourself and the audience?

Why would you even need another reason? There are at least a few more, of course:
  • Good improv is more than just saying something that gets a laugh. It's about creating characters who can have relationships. Playing a cardboard cut-out is a shitty thing to do to your scene partner.
  • Good scenes happen when players react emotionally, in the moment, to what just happened. Stereotypes don't have emotions—they spout one-liners and rely on expected phrases and reactions. Again: Not. Good. Improv.
  • Good improvisers bring their full brains to every character and scene they play. Why would you want to play a scene like a mean-spirited, close-minded 13-year-old?
Alan said "a barrage of cheap, lazy gay jokes has kept me out of local comedy and improv shows for most of this year." This is someone who genuinely likes improv and improvisers (including the one who said pretty horrible things about him). The letter-writer called improv "more like an acting-workshop exercise than real humor." The blogger regularly calls improvisers too lazy to write stand-up or rehearse theater.

It's hard enough building a reputation for improv in a city that doesn't understand it. Trying to defend behavior that lumps us in the same stereotype as the lamest of amateur open mic-nighters isn't helping anything.

Next post: Yes, the women of Spite do seem to talk about vaginas a lot.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the moment.

I know better than to go to plot. But every time I get on stage, the controlling, bossy, writer part of me jumps in and tries to make something happen.

The morning of the festival workshops, Susan Messing told me to just relax in Mark Sutton's class and feel, not think. And she said I'd love hers because it was all physical and gorgeous and it wouldn't hurt my brain.

DAMMIT. How come in the one show with those two in the audience, I reverted to all my bad habits?

The classes were both just what I needed, and I've felt the effects in performing with my Thunderdome team (it didn't hurt that one of the other players was in Mark's class with me), teaching Exit 16 and in rehearsals over the last two nights.

The Thunderdome piece was inspired by the Twilight Zone, which made it easy to go for the weird and try to make a statement with the scene. Working on the Plus Ronde (a form John Robison adapted from La Ronde) with the high school kids, they kept trying to tell a story from one scene to the next.

In both cases, it just took focusing on the moment and trusting our brains to remember things from before when we needed them. In the Thunderdome scenes, we just grounded everything in relationships and trusted the stories to come. All the kids had to know as they tagged in to play with an existing character was the basic stuff—"he hates trespassers" or "he thinks all Asian newscasters look like his granddaughter"—and make a choice that let that character be more of that.

The biggest breakthrough—which also felt like an obvious connection to the basics—was that if my character felt a strong negative emotion about something, my ONLY choice was to do that thing. If my thing was "I'm disgusted" by the idea of squashing a bug, the only way I was going to get more disgusted was to squish it and suffer the consequences. Feeding a negative emotion feels like it should be about avoiding something; rolling around in the mess is the only way to make it bigger.

Tonight at Roving Imp, we worked on a simple show structure—timed scenes, initiated by different players, based on a theme, and wrapped up with a moral by the instigator. It was just enough structure to let me do more of what's been fun since the festival: Playing a scene by feeling the moment and speaking from the truth of that moment's emotion.

None of this is new. I'd done—or watched—many of the exercises in the festival class. But, as often happens, they hit me in a new way at just the right time. I'm really looking forward to this weekend's shows:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Inventory.

I'm gradually getting to the point where I actually believe every group I'm involved with serves a completely different need.

Tantrum: This is the one full-time group I'm fully invested in—I play, I partner with Michael on marketing, I contribute to group decisions about its future. But I think I've put too much pressure on this group in the past to meet every single want I have: ultimate improv fulfillment, social circle, experimentation and innovation. When I have the most fun, Tantrum is pure play.

Spite: Same (OK, bigger) level of commitment to producing, but with a smaller group to wrangle. Spite started as a Thunderdome team, and kicked it up one notch this year by playing more shows. We've started to talk about next year, and I'm excited about where we want to go. There will probably always be the producer-pressure here, but since there are only three of us, it's easier to agree on what we want. Coming soon, we'll wrestle with questions about branding, artistic goals and the way to commercial success...

Exit 16: Teach. Learn. Get crazy happy when I see kids love improv and like themselves. That seems like plenty.

Omega Directive: I play with some of the most fun, interesting improvisers in KC and have no responsibility for doing anything but showing up and doing my best work. So: Recess.

Duo Project 1: The idea is that Tina Morrison and I do a show next year, directed by John Robison. Three directors! One stage! Madness!

Duo Project 2: I don't know much about this one yet, other than I found someone who's interested in playing and shares a lot of my interest in work-shopping, experimenting, rehearsing a lot, discovering instead of inventing, combining theater and improv, and other arty stuff. I can't wait.

That should probably do it for now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The problem with learning...

...is that you just want to learn more.

I told the Exit 16 kids tonight that I posted their notes online. Their first response: "NO! Now we have to live up to it!"

After rehearsal, I talked for half an hour with two really fabulous girls about that, the festival, Thunderdome, shows, playing and improv in general. It's interesting talking to kids who have been doing this for three years who have some of the same feelings I do after almost 20: "I know what I should be doing. How come I can't translate knowing into doing?"

Sigh.

One of the books I have (but haven't read yet) is a Theatresports history: Something Like a Drug. No kidding. And the most potent crack on the playground is improv festivals.

You watch Susan Messing and Mark Sutton, and think, "Why the hell can't I pull that off?" Then you take their classes, and you get a glimpse of the philosophy and training that makes them that way, and you think, "OK, with enough training and dedication and direction..."

But of course, if you're honest with yourself, you acknowledge that the X-factor is talent.

I can train all I want. I can have the highest standards and the loftiest ideals, but at some point, my level of dedication (I'm a professional—but it's a hobby), training (intensives, at best) and talent (solid, but serviceable at best...I'm an adaptor, not an innovator) dictate how far I'll go.

I could choose to be more dedicated, but get more out of my corporate whore job than I ever did from running a theater (or festival, or high school league). I'm beyond-average obsessive about training—but not enough to quit my job, move to another city or use up all the vacation time and money on classes that I could use to hang out with my tiny, adorable nephews. And I've seen enough genuine, raw improv talent—and you can spot it when they're 16—to know where I stand.

At a festival in Austin a long time ago, I got to listen to Del Close, David Koechner, Adam McKay and Mick Napier talk about their work—and hearing about what it was like to write or play at SNL made me think, "Hmm. Corporate writing jobs—deep down—aren't that different." A few weeks ago, I hung out with Mo of the Union and she talked about what it takes to make it in Chicago.

Uh...not for me. So now the ongoing challenge is...how can I be the best improviser I can be within the constraints I've set for myself...and make sure it never stops being fun?

And then Keith throws out questions like this and gets me thinking about it in a whole different way.

I have a feeling that—even though my constraints and definition of "fun" are different from others—I'm not the only improviser in KC who wrestles with this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time for some resolutions?

The KC Improv Festival is like Christmas for KC improvisers. And after spending way more time than usual with our extended family, eating and drinking too much, getting some great gifts (for me, in the form of getting to work with Mark Sutton and Susan Messing again), this week has provided a much-needed chance to detox.

Over the last couple of weeks, I was rehearsing or doing shows almost every night. This week, I had the kids last night and don't dive back in until my Thunderdome team plays on Saturday.

Then I caught myself telling some folks on my staff that I never wanted our department to have the cutthroat vibe of an advertising agency. And for a work-related thing about how I approach things, I wrote:
I believe collaboration gets better results than competition.
I care more about effectiveness than awards.
And I think if I'm doing my job right, I'll never be the one
who gets the credit for the brilliant idea.
Um. Can you believe something deep in your heart...but forget it enough sometimes that you act like you believe the complete opposite?




Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What the kids thought.

So my kids had an assignment—to take notes on all the festival shows and report back. We talked about the festival for the first 45 minutes of rehearsal tonight; though it's usually hard to keep them focused that long, they had a lot to say.

What didn't work for them
  • Short-form that fell apart without gimmicks
  • Playing the black/girl-card
  • Being able to see players thinking
  • Lack of focus
  • Laughing at ourselves onstage
  • Going sexual or blue or weird as a crutch or too often
  • Fighting for the spotlight
  • Taking too long to cut
  • Sauntering from the backup line to the scene
  • Setting up the lines in blind line ("My father used to say...")
  • Using clothes for props
  • Using real names in scenes
  • Scenes and games without relationships
  • The drunk chick who wouldn't shut up in the Der Monkenpickel set
  • "Douchéy" hosting (variety of meanings—self-indulgent, jokey, more-about-the-host-than-the-show) (they didn't think anyone was entirely douchéy, but said there were some moments) (also, please note that "hosting" was not limited to the gentlemen who hosted the shows—they were asked to watch everyone who set up games, as well, because we're working on that at rehearsal)
What did work for them
  • Strong stage presence
  • High-energy short form
  • Strong characters with clear points of view
  • Teamwork
  • Listening
  • Focus
  • Variety in choices (characters, scenes)
  • Using the whole space
  • Strong object work
  • Fearlessness
  • Smart callbacks
  • Physical play
  • Noticing everything
  • Interesting formats
  • Taking turns cutting scenes
  • Tight beats and edits
  • Playfulness
  • Strong emotions
  • Confident, energetic, friendly hosting
(None of these comments were pulled, pushed or prompted out of them, by the way—in fact, I got most of them verbatim from the comprehensive, very neatly written notes one of the players let me bring home with me.)

They liked something about every set in every show they saw. When they didn't like stuff, they could explain exactly why, and they were usually dead-on. They came out of the festival with exactly what I hoped they would—inspiration, excitement and a little attitude.

(Even if they don't always seem to listen to me—and even though they don't always translate what they know into what they do—stuff like this really makes me feel like I'm getting through and sending good improvisers into the world.)

The best thing: They had strict instructions to come to workshops on Saturday in clothes that stayed put and shoes that stayed on. When they saw others in short shirts, flip-flops and (in some cases) a complete lack of foundation garments, they were judge-y and appalled. And Susan Messing made a huge point of saying show up in clothes you can play in without playing with.

Score.

OK, and here's some news. One of the kids who graduated last year called this weekend—she's the only person from auditions and the only freshman to make it into NYU's improv troupe, Dangerbox. How freakin' cool is THAT?

Well, THAT was fun...

Annoyingly, the internet has eaten the long-winded, effusive thank you I wrote to the folks who produced the KC Improv Festival. So let's try that again.

Thank you to Tim, Aron, Joe, Pete, Scott, Jen, Keith, Nathan, Jess, Tom, Susan and all the hosts, tech folks, volunteers, teachers, class members and performers who made the festival so much damn fun.

Your time, thoughtfulness, preparation, brains, care, ideas, dedication and general fabulousness came together in one great weekend to everyone who got a chance to be a part of it. I'm insanely grateful to have had the chance to take classes, do shows...and not much else. Seriously. You have NO IDEA how much that rocked.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It IS important.

Tantrum and Spite have shows this week at a festival I did not produce.

This will be a first for me. Have I mentioned that I have done exactly dick for the KC Improv Festival this year? If not, it's only because to say so is extreeeeemely unladylike.

Here's the extent of my duties (heh. heh.):
  • Laying out the program (OK, and some editing, because I. CANNOT. LET. REALLY. BAD. WRITING. HAPPEN.). (Unless wine is involved, and let's be honest—this blog doesn't get written without the Cellar Rat.)
  • Showing up Wednesday and Friday to "help." Joe Henley has told me my position is officially "person who has run festivals before." Usually, I overstaff the hell of things, making me completely unnecessary. It will be interesting to see if this is true this time.
Oh, and I'll play some shows on Thursday and Friday. Which means focusing on the really important thing: What to wear. And makeup. And where we're going after the show.


Monday, September 7, 2009

A big week.

So the last couple of weeks have been filled with rehearsal and general pre-festival preparation, like shopping for Spite's wardrobe for the show. (I found the perfect hoodie and cargo pants. But they are made of pure awesome, so I think even Daryl and Amy would approve.)

Here's why I'm excited about the festival:
  1. It's an easy way to see lots of other local improvisers play.
  2. I get to play with Spite and Tantrum, and what could be more fun than that?
  3. Susan Messing and Mark Sutton. They're two of my favorite performers and teachers—and they'll do both this weekend.
  4. I'm not in charge. The nice people at Improv-Abilities have taken that role—with help from lots of others, including Pete.
My goal this week: Take good care of myself. Eight hours of sleep, healthy food, lots of water, consistent workouts.

*******

OK, and a little bit of venting:
  1. Audience voting for a "Best of" award should not turn us into assholes. You can be for your team without belittling others.
  2. And dude: QUIT PLUGGING YOUR OWN SHOWS ON OTHER TROUPE'S FACEBOOK EVENTS. It's one thing to go into playful throwdown mode on the wall for a competition—but if I invite you to an event and you use that event's wall to promote your show over it, I will nuke your post so fast it'll make your head spin.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Exit 16 rehearsal #2: Lunch planning

Not planning for lunch, but planning over lunch. Here's what tonight looks like: 

Warm-up:
Killer Bunny
Kitty Wants a Corner
Falling

Exercises:
Doors (open door, establish scene, 2 lines)
Gauntlet

Performance games:
Big/Little
He Said/She Said
Emotion Replay
Funny/Smelly/Sexy
Beastie Rap

Games they know so far:
Gauntlet
Panel of Experts

Games to do later:
Oracle
Growing/Shrinking

The majority of them will be in KCiF workshops next week, so I'm just laying the foundation.