Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is there such thing as an improv Band-Aid™?


The kidlings did NOT have an easy time of it tonight. Small crowd. Small cast (we were down two). Their hosting was strong, and the show structure was fine...

...but they were missing the fun. And they knew it. And, God bless 'em, they tried to bring it with them every time they went on stage, but it just wasn't there.

Because we haven't had help in The Expensive Sound and Light Booth, I've been running both from just off stage. Which means I spent the whole show trying not to wince, and to say supportive things as they went out for the next scenes. We did some high-energy scene-starts at the break, and everyone knew exactly what they needed to do.

And that's the tough part. They're new improvisers—even though, in their lives, it probably feels for the seniors like they've been doing it forever. The ones who've been doing it longer have a pretty good idea of what they were missing; the newer ones, even, have a sense of what happened.

They just don't have the tools to get themselves out.

Hell, even experienced improvisers can't always extricate themselves from a horrid show. But we have more tools. If I'm mired in a sucky scene, I have quite a few ideas for how to get out of the quicksand—by myself, by grabbing onto someone or something. And I'm on stage with experienced players who know when to throw me a branch and when to fire up the Jeep and toss in the cable.

The kids—they're just lucky to keep their heads above ground. Which they did, making me insanely proud. Everybody has a not-great show every now and then. Theirs came after just one real rehearsal in a month. In front of a smaller-than-usual crowd. Nobody's making excuses—least of all them. Next Tuesday, we'll work on what they think they need. Because they know a lot about what that is.

Monday, October 26, 2009

ImpFest 2009, part 2

Ooof. Stayed home from work AGAIN today, and slept most of it. Stupid cold—though I guess I'm lucky it's not the flu. We'll see how much of this I can get through without dozing off...

Workshops with Jill
Omega Directive, Coma Chameleon, Improv-Abilities
One, Dictionary Soup, Brownies Don't Lie

Jill taught her Fireball Theory class, which I've taken once and watched her teach the kids. It was interesting to take it again with a different—and much larger—group, and to hear their takes on the work and their improv issues. Her Fix 'Em Up session was terrific; we gave her our issues, and she put together exercises to help us work on them. Exhausting, but a great warm-up for our show.

A little thing about the make-up of the class: It was mostly John's Roving Imp students, plus a few local improvisers. One of the things John's doing is instilling a love of the craft in the folks who work out of the Imp. Every local group has a vibe—whether it's one they intentionally seek and foster or not—and theirs is full-on improv geek, in a wonderful way I love being a part of.

We finally have Ryan back in Omega Directive, which is wonderful. I love playing with those guys. It's not just that I don't have to do any of the production-side work; John has put together a fun, strong, really interesting mix in this cast.

I'm not proud to say this: Somewhere around hour 15 of the ImpFest, I hit a wall. The cold, being tired, doing shows, taking classes...it all took its toll and I missed a few sets while Jill and I walked around and cleared our heads before our show. I would have loved to have not missed a minute of the festival...but to get ready, getting out for a while was really important.

Plus...well, Jill and I have only done the show once, and hadn't had a chance to rehearse for the one we had coming up in a couple of hours. So we got some down time: wandering around the Dollar General, walking around downtown, browsing a great little Mexican convenience store I didn't know existed, and getting in a good (if really, really quiet) warm-up in the green room and out on the back deck. (From what we heard from backstage, the sets before ours rocked. I don't think anything all weekend made me much happier than hearing Julie get loud, enthusiastic, sustained, well-deserved applause.)

I would be lying if pretended I didn't spend the first scene and a half all the way up in my head. The monologue: "Holy crap. What's going on? I'm not getting it. I'm not connecting. This isn't working. I'm totally blowing a chance to play with Jill. ARRRRRGH." Then: "Fuck it. Let's play."

In our third scene, I climbed up on a box and hid in the nook at the back of the stage, and played the first third of the scene in total silence, just playing some subtle stuff and trusting that it would be plenty for Jill to mess with. It was, and after that I totally relaxed and just played. We played the kind of long scenes we did in our first show—strong relationships, multiple turns and an inside joke or two (rrrawwwrrr).

Coaching session for as-yet-unnamed duo
Making Connections class (teaching)

So Erik and I got a couple of hours with Jill to work on our show, and it made me realize just how invaluable to work with someone who's seen, performed with and directed multiple two-person shows. We started with warm-ups, and her advice that any group warm-up can be a two-person warm-up. (Aaaaah, Big Booty...)

Then a series of questions: Have you said "I love you?" Have you kissed? Have you slapped each other? Are you portable? All designed to make sure when that stuff comes up on stage, it doesn't freak either or both of you out. (We may have to work on the slapping thing. I'll have to convince Erik he can hit me at least a little harder. And the stage slap won't work, because I always turn my head the wrong way—plus, the loud noise startles me more than a real slap.)

Next, more questions, this time to get at an aesthetic for the show. Stuff like favorite books, movies, TV shows...what kind of improv we like doing...what we feel like the show absolutely should have in it...what skills we have outside of improv.

Um. This is where the one-dimensional thing really sucks.

Here's the surprising thing, though—turns out we're both pretty physical, so that could be something fun to explore. That never in a million years would have occurred to me; I used to have to work really hard at making physical contact on stage. I'm not completely without issues or self-consciousness, but thanks to two-plus years of three-a-week workouts with a trainer, the physical stuff doesn't scare me anymore. Not being picked up. Not climbing on someone. I've done a few dozen push-ups on stage, know how to lift with my legs instead of my back, and have the core strength required to play a monitor lizard (see above).

As far as aesthetic, we both seem interested in the same stuff, which we knew: Rich, grounded characters in real relationships. (Pretty much the same stuff Jill and I do in Brownies Don't Lie, so that's handy—I want to do more.)

We spent the rest of the time on exercises—including one Jill had run with Tantrum in her Truth & Beauty session with us a couple of years ago. It's simple: A five-minute scene where one person talks, and one doesn't. It's great at building trust on both sides.

And then I taught a class—and Jill hung around. Um...eep. We talked beforehand about being students in situations where we were sometimes teachers, and vice versa—she did a very gracious job of jumping in with really insightful comments, but never, you know, rolling her eyes and stuff.

The class I taught was on making connections (described here). The goal: Help improvisers get more out of openings, whether they're monologues, stories, scenes, or single suggestions. The first two-thirds were mostly what we notice, why we listen and how we remember things; for the last part, we started scenes, just to explore different ways to use the stuff we remembered (from purely verbal to more character driven starts). It was a more intellectual class than I usually teach—and I had a ton I wanted to cover. So it ended up being more about giving people new ways to approach the work than it was about fixing or changing what they normally do.

Then it was off for more BBQ. And a loooooong freakin' nap.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

ImpFest 2009

The boring preamble

From the top, I've known this week would be a long, fun one. I'm enough of a grownup that I know to plan real-life stuff around festivals: Get the house ready in advance for guest artists (Jill!), make sure work is under control so I can leave on time, arrange workout schedule so I don't miss any, figure out meals and stuff so I don't go nuts with unhealthy food, plan time for sleep.

Of course, life doesn't cooperate, so Thursday I realized I was coming down with a cold. Awesome. The good news: My job is flexible enough that if you're sick, you can take your laptop and work from home so you don't infect everyone in our giant petri dish of an office. The bad: There is no telecommuting in improv.

And when you're sick, your characters all have to have one thing in common: PLAY SOMEONE WHO ISN'T SICK.

So for two shows each night, two classes (taking) on Saturday, one class (teaching) on Sunday, and a coaching session Sunday morning, that's what I got to do. Whee!

Thursday night
Anomaly Orange, Tantrum, TrivProv, Spite

Our first question: What's the rating? On one hand, we're all present and former ComedyCity/ComedySportz players, which means we can do family-friendly content in our sleep. (And honestly, if you're a professional improviser, you'd better be able to do that.) On the other, we don't do it much with those troupes. And "family friendly" means different things to different people.

John's rule: Anomaly Orange brought the most people, so they could set the rating. Happy times for Spite: They set it in our comfort zone.

Tantrum was a little shorthanded—missing Pete and Josh—but we put up a fun little short-form set. Not inspiring, ground-breaking genius improv, but we had some fun moments (and it turns out Megan didn't actually give me a black eye). Spite had our best set in a while—we felt totally on and in sync with each other. The after party would have been nice, but we're grown-ups, so we skee-daddled.

Anomaly Orange has grown tremendously since last time I saw them; Tom Kessler is a natural monologist and mixed commentary with storytelling, all with a strong, authentic emotional point of view. Triv-Prov was a blast—and included the most fun white-boy rap I've seen.

Friday night
Anomaly Orange, Biblioclast, Spite
Improv-Abilities, Coma Chameleon, Tantrum

Whaaaat? Spite in a 7pm show? OK. We came close. And didn't feel as great as Thursday, but were really happy with our set. Tantrum was—well, Tantrum was Spite plus Michael with special guest, Jill Bernard. Being four-sevenths of a group makes you play differently—so there was a fun energy there—and you can't go wrong with Jill as a monologist. But to say we didn't miss Pete and Josh (and Rob, on Friday) would be a big fat lie. Tantrum is the seven of us, and we're missing part of our brain when they're gone.

Another night groups bringin' it. I got to see Coma Chameleon's super-fun format for the first time (a town of sentient animals—whee!). I-A, with a much-smaller-than-usual cast, did some really fun stuff—and they've got girls now, which gives them new dimension. And Biblioclast, with John and Nifer, was wonderful; their trust in and patience with each other made their piece a joy to watch.

Jill and I got lost three times on the way to the after party, because I stupidly trusted google instead of Keith.

Workshops with Jill
Omega Directive, Coma Chameleon, Improv-Abilities
One, Dictionary Soup, Brownies Don't Lie

And...hey. My cold has sensed weakness. And I've still got work to do. So more tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Focusing on emotional reactions.

After Mark Sutton's class at KCiF, and in an effort to get ready for the show with Jill on Saturday, I've been thinking a lot about staying in the moment and reacting to what just happened.

Which means that's what my kids got to work on tonight.

There are a couple of challenges to working on this stuff with teenagers:
  • The teenage brain isn't completely wired for emotional response. From an interesting article: "The area of the brain associated with higher-level thinking, empathy, and guilt is underused by teenagers, reports a new study."
  • Life experience is helpful in playing scenes that let you showcase a range of emotional reactions.
  • Kids are giggly.
So I went in with my usual general idea of what to do: a goal, some key exercises, and a flexible attitude. We're down two kids for this show, and there were only eight at rehearsal, so it was a calmer, more focused group—at least by a little—than usual. Here's what we ended up doing:
  • Warmup: Big Booty, Killer Bunny (to build energy and get focused)
  • Pass an emotion
  • Ping Pong (from the Physical Comedy Handbook)
  • Character walk with animal spine and status—add Ping Pong
  • Timed scenes with setup (no eye contact, start with shape) and physical/emotional check-in before dialogue
  • Ditto, but with numbers instead of dialogue* (scene ends when they hit 50)
  • Full Plus Ronde with numbers instead of dialogue
  • Busby Berkeley
The Plus Ronde was fascinating to watch. Creating characters and scenes without dialogue forced them to focus on the physicality and emotional games their characters played. It showed them that any character can be in a scene with any other character and it can be interesting to watch if they're affected by each other. It brought out some really nice acting in players who tend to be either over-the-top or primarily verbal.

Now I'm looking very forward to trying the same thing with Erik when we rehearse tomorrow.

*Yes, we could use gibberish instead. If you're good at gibberish, awesome—if you're not, or have never done it before, it's easy to let working hard to create varied gibberish become a distraction. Numbers make it easy to say something without that something mattering.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

First official rehearsal for as-yet-unnamed show.

Ultimately, Erik and I will work with a few different coaches on our show, but in these first rehearsals, we're just kinda figuring out what we're interested in doing. So after last week, when we just talked about direction, we were ready to start playing.

We don't have a show date, a venue, a format or anything like that, so for now, we're just rehearsing at my place. I've done that before—both with bigger groups and the show with Tommy—and it's great in some ways and weird in others. Rather than treating it like a stage, we just decided to use it for the space, editing into other rooms, or even playing scenes in two separate spaces.

(I think my walls are pretty stout. If I'm overestimating their soundproofedness, neighbors on both sides are likely to think I'm involved in a bizarre relationship or three.)

Our first scene, using a Ping Pong exercise from The Physical Comedy Handbook that Jill recommended in a forum somewhere, best reflected how it feels to do the first exercise in a situation like this: a simple encounter between two people who feel kinda silly.

After that, though, it was easy to just focus on the scene.

We've decided to start off just playing long, patient scenes about real people, which is a challenge for a bunch of different reasons:
  • Trusting the scene to unfold—focusing on moment-to-moment reactions instead of forcing something to happen. Erik takes more risks that I do here; I tend to get locked in stasis instead of making turns. I wasn't using my Viewpoints work, which can make a big difference. We're getting together again Wednesday night, so I can give myself that as an assignment (which will be especially helpful since I'll need it Saturday night).
  • The whole acting thing. I struggle to differentiate between characters without feeling cartoon-y. How much change is enough to become a different character? It felt like everything I played tonight was some version of me—no changes in diction or POV, and physical changes based more on body language than structure. I may be trying to reign things in too hard.
  • Damn comfort zones. Nothing brings out your crutches like playing long scenes with just one other person. I'm pretty happy with the fact that I had real emotional reactions in scenes. But. They were pretty similar emotional reactions from character to character, and those reactions were awfully close to...oh, hell. They were mine.
On the plus side, we've gotten our first rehearsal out of the way, and it was fun and comfortable and left us both wanting to play more. So I've got my assignments for Wednesday: Viewpoints work and emotional range.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brownies Don't Lie

From the debut performance of Brownies Don't Lie, featuring Jill Bernard and Trish Berrong, in October 2008.

(Videos contain adult material.)


Not What You Think

Brownies Don't Lie returns to the metro area Saturday, October 24, at 9pm at the ImpFest, hosted by the Roving Imp. Click here for more information.

Work in progress.

At work, they have these things called WIP meetings. Pronounced "whip." I was a little alarmed when I got invited for the first time.

But it's just a status check—a chance to discuss works in progress with other team members and keep projects moving forward. One of the toughest things about doing business stuff without a team isn't having those regular check ins, and I'm not as good with to-do lists as I am at work.

What would be on that list for tonight and this weekend:
  • Press release written and calendar listings out for The Union/Spite/Loaded Dice show.
  • Press release and calendar listings created for the November Tantrum show.
  • Self- and Tantrum- and Spite-driven promotion for ImpFest.
  • Prep for workshop at the ImpFest next week.
For press releases, when things are on schedule, everything goes by by Nikki. She's got an editor's eye and a writer's brain, and they always end up better when she sees them first. Sometimes it's catching typos or missed words; often, though, she can take half an idea and spin the words to make it sing. It's the closest I get to a WIP meeting, the result is always better.

(If you're wondering why everything isn't run by everybody, um...easy: diminishing returns. Waiting for feedback, getting people to take time out of their schedule to look at stuff, tracking feedback...it all takes time and effort. For this kind of stuff, if you've got one person you can trust to give you solid feedback you can act on, it's usually plenty.)

Idea for upcoming blog: Getting a new audience—can it be done? Thoughts based on a discussion we had after our show the other night.

OK. So about this workshop. I think I gave John a few options back when he first asked. I've been chatting with him about teaching every so often at the Imp, and this was a good chance to jump back in. I love teaching/coaching/directing, but took some time off because for so long I'd convinced myself I preferred it to playing.

Which may or may not be true.

Anyway, it's City 3 Revival Week, so I'd written up some notes about what I have planned for the Imp in the forums. Blown out a little, here it is.

The class is "Making Connections." The inspiration—long-form improv. More specifically, long-form improv that falls flat because the scenes are built too close together. Or long-form improv that feels like a tree with decent roots (opening ideas), but only a branch or two above ground.

Any of this sound familiar?
—You're playing every scene literally from something in the opening?
—You've got a topic that feels like a shitty one, and you don't know where to go with it?
—You feel like everything you're doing is a game, and you don't know how to pull a relationship out of things?
—You feel like you've drained the well? Bled the turnip? Beaten the dead horse?
—Your only ideas for scene starters are too plot-driven?
—You can't remember anything from the opening, or from the other scenes, or from your round of scenes, and you don't know how to start the next one?
—You're starting stuff your scene partners just aren't getting?

We'll work on stuff like this:
—Getting the most out of openings and monologues
—Talking your time dashes further
—Ways to keep ideas in your head (and the most helpful kinds of ideas to put there)
—Mining themes and patterns
—Finding the most interesting elements of the scene to explore

Should be fun.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another project begins.

So after Thunderdome, Erik (who plays with CounterClockwise Comedy) and I decided it would be fun to do a show together.

We weren't inspired to do anything in particular. We just noticed, in talking after rehearsals, that we enjoy a fairly similar process, i.e. we're both willing to rehearse a lot, fuck around without a specific goal in mind, do dorky improv/acting exercises, etc., etc.

I had a few thoughts coming in:
  • Our Thunderdome set was Twilight Zone-ish, and we had a lot of fun playing "period" scenes. Maybe something early-'60s era? Inspired by Nichols & May, maybe fueled by the trendiness of Mad Men?
  • I play (and watch) a lot of improv with broad characters doing silly things—it might be fun to do something that feels more real and substantive, and not force it to be comedy. (Plus, he's a professional actor, and I want to learn from him.)
  • It'd be fun to play with non-traditional performance spaces—either in promoting the show or for the shows themselves. (I'm kicking myself, because I'd planned to see Bess Wallerstein's production of Arts and Crafts tonight. She's the queen of environmental theater in KC—Erik was in her last production—but my real job got in the way.)
We listened to some favorite Nichols and May sketches, and watched an episode of Mad Men and a podcast of one of TJ & Dave's shows. And ultimately decided just to play next week and see what happens.

We've got a chance to work with Jill a little at the ImpFest. My instinct, as usual, is to button something up by then. Instead, we're just going to trust that something will come out of it.

Which, believe it or not, feels even better.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thunderdome score card.

Of course, some of you might not feel like two or three improv shows in a weekend. If that's the case, I recommend prioritizing Tantrum on Friday night above all others. We'll even cut you a deal if you visit our website.

On Saturday, I'm playing Red Rubber Ball at the Imp in Bonner Springs, then heading back in town for Thunderdome. Jared's got some facebook talk going about who's voting for which teams.

Hmm. I can't do any handicapping—I missed round 2. It's going to be really, really fun to vote on pure merit. I like people on every team, so it comes down to quality. Here's what will win my vote:
  • Relationship scenes: Oh, sure...find games...do tagouts...pimp gimmicks. NOT ENOUGH. A good, solid relationship scene, with characters who really affect each other, is the sign a player can really improvise.
  • Strong characters: Improv isn't about standing there and saying funny things. I can't wait to see people make big, powerful physical and emotional choices. We'll see enough of these guys being their fabulous selves at McCoy's.
  • Solid teamwork: Jared drew from two bags at the draft, if I heard right—so each team has a mix of experienced players and even more experienced players. The winning team should make that invisible—we should see the trust between them and shouldn't feel like anyone's carrying or being carried.
  • Play: It's been a long week. I want to escape. I don't want to see people thinking, working too hard, fighting for focus, arguing about what the scene is about. I can't wait to see these guys have fun.
In a nutshell: I'm voting for the team that I think is worthy of wearing that belt instead of Team Number Nine. Temporary Sanity won our round, but I'm pretty sure had we been scored as above, we would have beat them out in at least a couple of categories.

What about you guys? Who gets your vote?

It's been a weird week.

Hallmark, the 99-year-old company where I've worked except (for three years) since 1989, is suffering from the same economic realities as so many other businesses. Add to that the struggle to stay relevant when there are so many new ways to communicate—and a million other challenges specific to the greeting card industry—and here we are. After about a 10% "workforce reduction" earlier this year, we found out last week there would be up to 250 more layoffs—80-90 of them in creative.

No one is being let go because they aren't good at what they do. There just aren't enough people buying our product. Which means there's not enough work to go around.

Meetings to let people in editorial happened today. Design folks will find out tomorrow. By the end of the week, the carnage will be over—for now. Everyone is shaky. So many folks losing their jobs. So many more nervous, sad and scared. So many leaders having the worst conversations you can imagine as a manager.

In a place where people are hired in large part because of their ability to empathize, it's a special kind of awful.

Still, in the middle of everything, we're hopeful. The layoffs come with the most aggressive reorganization our company has ever experienced—one that just has to be big enough to destroy our self-imposed barriers and release our potential and creativity. Which there's plenty of.

At times like this, it's a little weird to go straight from Corporate Monolith to Tiny Company. Tantrum rehearsed tonight, two days after we held our annual business meeting and celebrated our second year as a troupe. We're a professional group, and it's work to do what we do—not just the rehearsals, but in promoting and producing shows—but the "stakes" in our success are almost non-existent.

Like in most troupes who play in other people's spaces, if you don't make a profit for long enough, you just stop doing it.

This month has been an interesting one. As most troupes are, we're working to build an audience beyond our family and friends. We've started to feel real momentum, thanks to some savvy decisions and lots of effort. But economic realities kick in for us, too. The improv festival, which raises awareness of what we do and (we hope) exposes us to more people, may have cut too wide a swath in our core audiences' wallets and over-exposed improv for a little while. The coming holidays are making people think twice about what they spend on weekends—any time and any where, really.

Which is why Tantrum has a special deal on our website. If half-price tickets make it easier for folks to get out and laugh, count us in.

My intent is not to use this blog as therapy, but I'm realizing this post probably comes off as a little melancholy. It's times like this I'm extraordinarily grateful that the thing I spend most of my free time doing feels—most of the time, anyway—a lot like recess from the real world.