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.


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?


  1. Allie Brown. She kicks some pretty serious butt. She played with Updog's Special Friends along with Exit 16—super dedicated, super talented.

  2. I have to say, I was not at all proud of my hosting. It was an all around poor effort on my part. From being distracted by the reflecting light off my clipboard to not being able to get the correct words to come out of my mouth at times, I felt as if it was a poor effort on my part.

    Plus, I hated, HATED, having to read stuff off of that clipboard. But that is no excuse. I should have done a better job.

  3. I'd be curious to hear & discuss more about this douche-y behavior the kids noted.

  4. I'm pretty sure it was about my hosting. It was not my finest 2 hours. I wouldn't have called it "douche-y", but hey, that's the popular slang of the kids these days.

  5. They threw out the D-word on some things I had found either inoffensive or charming, but I see where they're coming from. I think I can sum it up this way: They didn't dig anything that felt too much like an emcee or salesman, and they didn't like bits—they wanted the funny to come in the improv sets. Their favorite stuff was energetic, confident and friendly—times they felt like the hosts had good rapport with the audience without getting too chatty. They were neither for nor against clipboards as a concept.

  6. Also, they were very complimentary of Dennis' pants.

  7. OK. I wasn't in the festival. I couldn't even go this year. Both of these facts are great reasons for me to STFU.

    If I had been in the festival, I would be very upset reading the critical opinions of professional improvisors made by high school students. Critiques are important, but getting called out on fundamental items by high school kids in a blog anyone can access within two clicks of Googling "Kansas City Improv Festival" would majorly shame me. And, I think it makes us look pretty bad. The good and bad lists contain items that are definitely important to discuss, just maybe not here.

    But, then again, I'm sensitive and should probably not pick a fight over something that I was not involved in this year.

  8. Well said, Caroline.

    It makes me think of this.

  9. Hmmm. I posted these because this blog tends to be a lot about what it's like to work with a high school group, and "what they get out of a festival" is part of that. But I can see y'all's point.

    Here's the difference, though, between this and the unsolicited feedback that makes my blood boil. I'm not criticizing any specific group's format. Or giving notes on a specific player's performance. I did not—and would NEVER—attach any group or person's name to any of the comments. These aren't reviews or even critiques—they're lists of improv dos and don'ts the kids noticed over the course of four shows and a day of workshops. And most of the comments in both were true of more than one group.

    As far as the comment about "opinions of professional improvisors made by high school students," I'll say this: These kids have better training and more performance experience than some of the improvisers they watched this week. I don't treat them any differently than I have any professional troupe I've coached over the last close-to-two-decades. They study twice a year with instructors like Susan Messing, Mark Sutton and Jill Bernard. They rehearse weekly during the school year and usually play two shows a month.

    Does it always translate into the work they do? No. They're students and they're kids. But do they know what makes a good show? Bet your ass they do.

  10. So your views of unsolicited feedback are allowed to change depending on the situation. Got it.


  11. Let's call this the Doogie Houser Paradox. Regardless of experience and training, it's hard to take a advice, criticism or even knowledge from a teenager and have it come off the right way and taken seriously. Add teenagers to unsolicited critique (which re-reading the post Jared linked to, this msotly qualifies) and it gets worse. Justsayinisall.

  12. So they're high school students. So what? Look at the list again and try to imagine someone you respect wrote it. They're all good observations. As long as "the kids" aren't calling specific people out, I don't care how young they are.

    Except for the Drunk Chick from the Der Monkenpickle set. They can call her out as much as they like.

  13. Brustad: My views of a lot of things change based on the situation.

    Caroline: I appreciate your POV, and I'm sorry this came across as, in the vernacular of the Millenials, a douché move.

    Two things I'll stand behind without apology:
    —There's a great big fat difference in naming and criticizing a specific group/player for specific actions and putting up a general list of notes on good/bad improv.
    —Anybody who would argue anything on list 1 because kids said it is not allowed to accept the compliments in list 2.

  14. Yeah, a lot of the comments were pretty generic. Except for the one about the douchey hosting. That is pretty much limited to 5 people. We all know Dennis and Pete were excellent hosts. And I seriously doubt that Aron and Tim could ever come off as douchey. So that leaves me.

    So no harm done, I guess.

  15. I'll broaden things, then: "Hosting" wasn't just about the evening's emcee. It was about setting up games and scenes in general, as well. The kids are lousy at hosting shows and setting up games—they were specifically watching to see what kind of styles appealed to them.

  16. Actually Jared, I was thinking all of Dennis' "I'm a legend" crap would've marked him as the D.

    A wife's love, I guess.

  17. Well then, you should have made that more clear in the beginning. Sheesh.

    Nikki, well, they liked his pants. That's good!

  18. Sorry for playing the black girl card so much in the Der Monkenpickle show.

  19. I wasn't going to say anything. But if you're going to fess up...seriously, dude. That crap sent ALONE the kids off on a 17 minute rant.

  20. Duh, Ed. Weren't you the drunk chick?


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Now c'mon. Pick a fight.