Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to enjoy an improv festival.

I've run eight improv festivals and attended more than a dozen. Each one featured some combination of at least three of the following:
  • Working my ass off
  • Not sleeping
  • Drinking
  • Performance stress
  • Workshop exhaustion
  • Travel
  • Extreme extraversion
  • Not enjoying something as much as I might have otherwise because I was too tired, stressed or hung over
The last few years, though, I've discovered a few secrets to enjoying the whole thing—all from experience or observation. (But mostly from getting it wrong at least once.) My rules for having a blast at KCiF:

  • Plan your weekend. Know what you want out of the festival: entertainment? education? networking? fun? Know what shows you want to see and workshops you want to take, so you're not scrambling for tickets or registration at the last minute. Know what nights you need to skip the parties and get to bed early. Know what you'll wear, when and what you'll eat, and how you'll get where you're going. It all sounds so obvious...until you're trying to iron a pair of underpants dry 15 minutes before your call time.
  • Take care of your body. Have a water bottle and protein bar or some fruit with you at all times. Consume more than caffeine, beer, cigarettes and Altoids.
  • Get some sleep. Especially before classes and performances. Don't waste your workshop money because you show up on two hours of sleep. And for God's sake, make sure you're at your best for your show.
  • Listen. Listen in workshops (if you miss the instructions or argue theory or justify your performance, everyone will want to kill you). Listen when the stage managers are telling you where you should be at call and curtain time. Listen when those smart, funny people you just met are talking about something besides improv (instead of hoping they'll tell you how awesome you were or trying to draw them into a discussion about theory or your cool idea for a format).
  • Be a fame junkie. Those headliners from out of town? They're really, really nice people. Some like to network. Some don't, and just want to chill out with good friends they haven't seen in a while. Some don't come to after-parties. If they don't leave KC thinking you're the most awesome person on the planet, it is rarely personal. Rarely.
  • Ask the festival managers for favors. If the show is sold out, it's really sold out. (And they probably have all the help they need backstage, so that's not your ticket to a free show.) They've already published any discounts they can afford to offer. (The single coolest moment I ever had running a festival: I was stuck on the phones in our theater office trouble-shooting and taking reservations, and Fuzzy Gerdes came in not with a problem or a question or a request for favor, but with a box of treats from Napoleon Bakery. I almost cried.)
  • Worry about what you're missing. If you have to miss a party so you can get a good night's sleep before workshops, you'll survive. If you miss a show or a class because you have to save money for rent or medical bills, you'll live. If someone else is talking to the cool person you want to talk to and you're stuck talking to the person you don't want to talk to, see "listen," above.
Most of all, though (to quote my pal Heather, who'll be teaching "Camera Technique for Improv Actors" next week): Have fuckin' fun.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Community may be a lie. Except for the festival.

So tonight on the phone, Jonathan Pitts said these words: "KC has a scene."

And you know what? Coming from him, I'm going to accept that.

There's evidence:
  • Several troupes have regular auditions and regular shows. If you like improv, you've got choices.
  • There are now three places to take classes: Roving Imp, Improv-Abilities and ComedyCity. Again, you've got choices.
  • KC folks are making it big. Sure, there's Paul Rudd and Rob Riggle—but they didn't improvise here. Jason Sudeikis and Corey & Mo and Eric Davis and Tim Mason did, at ComedyCity and Lighten Up.
  • Every weekend, you can see long-form. And many weekends, it's very decent long-form. By different groups.
  • This may seem like a little thing, but it feels big to me: At least a couple of Exit 16 alums are staying in KC, in part play with their friends, as part of our scene. Because it seems like fun.
Before we get all cocky, though, two things:
  1. We have to get over this "if we build it, they will come" mentality. Because for the most part, our audiences are us—and there are not enough of us to fill houses or classes. We have to learn to market beyond Facebook invites and status updates. We have to be good enough performers that if strangers see a show, they're entertained enough to come back. We have to expect more people in our audiences than friends and family. If we only play for and with ourselves, it's masturbation. And that's not good for anyone but us.
  2. A "growing scene" is not a "community." This is not a love-fest. To grow, we have to get better—and that means competition. Having standards. Making choices. Putting your troupes' best players in public shows and sending some back to class. Playing and partnering and producing shows with some folks, and saying "no thanks" to others. Realizing that the students have become the masters. Having to work harder to stay on top.
There is one time, and one place, where community matters—and it starts in a week. The KC Improv Festival is about all of us. Our troupes get to perform. Our players get to learn. And after it's over, we all get to drink beer together. If we fill houses and workshops, improvisers from other cities see that we're vital and relevant.

That doesn't matter to everyone.

But to some of us, it's a matter of pride. We want the Susan Messings and TJ Jagodowskis and Jonathan Pitts of the world to see we're good enough draw a crowd. We want them to know we care enough about the craft to take classes.

If you're one of those freaks, there's some stuff you can do this week:
  • Have you got friends who seem like maybe they might be interested in classes? Because they used to do theater? Tell them about workshops. (Mike Jimerson was one of those guys—he moves to Chicago this fall.) (So, see? We're not all that.)
  • Have you thought about taking classes, but aren't sure you need it or can afford it? Sign up. Because you do, and you might be able to swing it.
  • Do you know people who like to laugh? Tell them about the shows. Drop Jason's name. Or TJ's ("that Sonic dude" works). Make them understand they're missing something if they don't go.
  • Do you have a life? Put a poster up at work. Drop some fliers at your daily coffee stop. Tweet. Update your Facebook status. Send an e-mail. (Say something new every time—give your pals something they might be interested in.)
I stopped being one of the ones who worked my butt off to make the festival happen a couple of years ago...but I still have the bruises. This year's festival committee is working hard to bring something really cool to KC. They could use our help. (And later, our thanks.)

Because it's still a growing scene. We've got a ways to go.

2 steps to improvising better in 2 weeks, part 2

So you haven't signed up for KCiF classes yet? OK. Maybe you're still trying to figure out which ones to take. Or if it's really worth it. Or if you can keep the thermostat set high enough and sacrifice enough beer to afford it. Whatever.

Some of the classes with kick-ass instructors have already sold out, but most of them are still open. What do you want?

Just getting started? Second City instructor Jonathan Pitts, Chicago favorites Damage Control and KCiF Director Tim Marks are all teaching basic classes. Get up in there.

Improve your scenework? Two-person scenes are the chewy nougat of any improv show—short form, long form, whatever. Even solo shows require two-person scenes. And there are plenty of chances to make yours better:

  • Whole Body Listening with Jonathan Pitts: Working with two-person scenes, discover that true listening is a holistic activity requiring constant engagement in your body, brain, heart, and spirit of play. (Be there for your partner. Really, really be there.)
  • Major League Improv I & II with Damage Control: Scenic games and playful exercises to strengthen the improvisers' practical skills like listening, memory, and awareness to help players heighten, explore and enjoy scenes. (Even better: It's two sessions in a row. That counts as an intensive, and means you'll come out of it with a deeper understanding of what they taught.)
  • Two's Company with Jokyr and Jesster: Learn how to commit to a scene when no one's there to bail you out. Trust in yourself and be your own back line with character switches, pivots, solo starts, and monologues. (Contemplating a duo show? This is your class.)

Improve your ensemble work? If you've got more than two people in your troupe and perform on a stage bigger than 4'x4', you're probably not taking advantage of the space or your troupe. Group Pretty with Susan Messing will rock your world and change the way you think about movement in an improv show.

Improve your youtube videos? Want to enter a 24-hour film fest? Or put funny stuff online in hopes of going viral? Or make video promos for your group? Camera Technique for the Improv Actor with Chris and Heather Lutkin is your chance to learn how to think like a filmmaker. Learn some basic techniques that will make you look like you know what you're doing.

Go here now to register.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two steps to being a better improviser in just two weeks.

Specifically, these two weeks. At the KC Improv Festival. Here's how:
  1. Take classes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. They cost money...but there's not a good improviser on the planet who hasn't given up a few nights of beer (or a utility bill) (hey, I never said I have a lifetime of responsible choices behind me) to take classes.
  2. See shows. As many as you can. If you're performing in the fest, you even get a discount (thanks, I-A). See different troupes, different approaches to scenes, different formats. Think about what works and what doesn't.
There. It's that easy. And yet, I'm not shutting up.

I have Strong Feelings about festival workshops. Here are some, from a while back:

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.

(That, by the way, is why I'm signed up to study with Susan Messing and TJ Jagodowski.)

See y'all there.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

One message. ONE.

Here's a conversation my team at work—and every group of advertising creatives on the planet, probably—has at least once a week:
You're asking for a lot of information to go into this ad/mailer/e-mail/etc.
What's the most important message?

All of them.
No. No, no, no. The answer to "what's the single most important thing" cannot be plural.

Why? The other thing I hear at least once a week is "nobody reads the copy" (yeah, thanks for that validation of my career choice). We have very, very little time to get people's attention—we have to hook 'em right from the start.

Same thing when we promote improv shows, theaters, workshops, etc. We rely on free-to-cheap marketing tools—Facebook invites, show posters, e-mails, press releases, etc.—but that doesn't mean the rules for big-money marketing don't apply. In any marketing tool, you get one main message, and everything else is there to support that one message.

That message might be:
  • Your troupe name, if you're talking to people who want to know specifically when your next show is.
  • Improv comedy show/festival/event, or some version of that, if you're talking to a general audience of people who want to see comedy.
  • Something that makes you sound good, like a review blurb ("Brilliantly funny!"), kudos ("Best Comedy Group 2010") or a super-short description of what you do ("improvised musical").
  • The famous person (or even the well-known-to-the-target-audience person) in the show.
  • The other specific thing that makes this show cool, if it's not one of those four things. It might be that you're family friendly or supporting a cause or playing in a certain location for one night only. But it is the thing that makes this show worth seeing.
If you don't have much space, the rest of your copy should let your audience know when and where the show is and how to make reservations. If you have a little bit more space, you can provide more detail—but it should be more support for what makes the show cool.

Here's what doesn't work:
  • Confusing names of things—shows, formats, etc.—that don't make immediate sense to the audience.
  • Information-free witty or catchy phrases or taglines that don't provide a reason to come see the show (besides, of course, our extreme cleverness/adorableness/quirkiness/geekiness).
  • Complex messages that require them to think too hard or make a decision more complicated than "that's interesting."
  • Layers of show names, producer names, troupe names and taglines.
We might even have to tweak the message slightly for different audiences—general audiences vs. troupe fans, for example—which means keeping the primary message even simpler. Fleeting individual impressions can work together to create the burning desire to attend an event...but only if you can remember what the event is.

Who's on top?

Friday night, I was lucky enough to be part of an extremely fun show: a KCXRC production featuring Spite, The Trip Fives, I-A and Babel Fish.

The best things about it? Four confident, experienced, talented, mutually respectful groups were excited to be in the same show—and had absolutely no ego about running order.

As more shows (Thunderdome, KCXRC, Roving Imp, KCiF, Comedy on the Square) throw two or more troupes up on stage in the same night, the same question keeps coming up: What's the running order?

And suddenly there's talk of hierarchy. Who's the best? The most popular? The most experienced? And in whose eyes—the audiences', the producer's or the improvisers'?

If you see enough local improv, you know who the reliable groups are—and the kind of shows you can count on them to do. You know who kills nearly every time...puts up solid scenes even on an off-night...has at least one player good enough to make even a weak set worth watching...features up-and-comers doing increasingly strong stuff...can experiment and still entertain. And with a few exceptions, local improvisers have a pretty good idea of how they compare to other players and groups.

One thing we all have in common? I haven't met a single improviser who enjoys being told where they are in the pecking order—whether it's low or high—particularly by anyone else in the improv community. It's one thing to hear, "You're up first." It's another to be told, "You're opening for _______."

Yeah, there's some ego there. But it's also about the source and the motivation. Just like getting a face full of unsolicited feedback, being "rated" by another improviser just seems to rub us the wrong way. Every troupe in a show has an equally important part to play, and the implication that you're less because you're first...not helpful.

Because here's the thing: Creating a strong running order for a show has zero to do with putting the "weakest" troupe first and the "strongest" troupe last. What really matters:
  • What time the show starts
  • What time the show ends
  • How many troupes and breaks there will be
  • How the energy of the show builds
  • What each troupe's approach, content and format will be
  • How the forms complement each other and flow from one to the next
  • How the audience's patience, energy level and understanding of the work will change as the show goes on
  • Who the audience is coming to see—if it's anyone in particular
  • And every now and then some random stuff, like "this troupe has another gig across town later that night" or "a member of this troupe is pregnant/sick/elderly and won't survive a late set"
So before every show, producers should know:
  • How many will be in the cast
  • If we're intimately familiar with the players and their styles, who is in the cast
  • Exactly what the form will be
  • And maybe how they'll be promoting the show
It's this stuff that should help us, as producers, feel less self-conscious about telling groups what the running order is going to be.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Square One

It never hurts to go back to where you started.

In April, Spite performed at the Chicago Improv Festival with coaching from Nick Johne. Just two weeks later, Exit 16 workshopped with Tim Mason at Second City.

In both, the teachers focused on saying "yes."

Which is the first thing you learn to do as an improviser. The thing that makes collaboration possible. And the thing that attracted me to this art form and the people in it in the first place.

And something I'd almost completely forgotten how to do.

I never thought "yes" was unnecessary...but the number of ways I've discovered over the last 20 years of saying "no" is staggering. From outright conflict to the subtlest of "buts," I can work a "no" like nobody's business.

And until Nick and Tim pointed it out, I hadn't really noticed.

Nick told Spite to "have yes in your bones." But my favorite way he put it was in his charge for us to be "complicit" find the mischievousness in our scenes with each get away with things play.

Though I have the summer off from Exit 16, I've been doing a lot of coaching. I'm working with The Trip Fives, who are so very easy because they got used to me directing a dozen years ago when they were young and malleable. And Men of Unfounded Arrogance, even easier because it's a bunch of Exit 16 Exes who are only months, in some cases, beyond the days I wielded actual authority, and in front of whom I can swear freely now, which makes them even more fun.

These troupes give me a shot at redemption: a chance to teach "yes" again, with more focus and discipline. It's interesting to watch them play with it like a new toy—and that tells me I've strayed too far from improv's roots.

I'm also coaching an Improv Thunderdome team. I've known one of its members since he was in high school, coached another in a trio, and barely worked with other two. I'm not their director. I'm not forming or shaping them—I'm nudging. So I'm saying "yes" to what they do as much as I'm pushing them to say "yes" to each other.

Then there's work. Where more often than not the thing I feel in my bones is resistance. Holding my ground, managing expectations, disaster-proofing, waving caution flags. So much of what I think and do is about deflection.

So I want to start another experiment. To say yes. At the very least, to the idea of something. To acknowledge, agree, accept. Wholeheartedly. On stage and off.

In improv, the next part is "and." Which I'll get to. Once "yes" is in my bones.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Update and world-crossing thoughts.

First, the update: I run my first 5K, with the ladies of Spite and our pal, Daryl, on Saturday. I'll be pretty surprised if I can run the whole thing, and totally OK with it if I walk part. Peggy has convinced me I'll recover enough to do an hour of strength training later that afternoon and a Spite show at the Fishtank and an Omega Directive show at the Imp that night. The next day? Usher at church, followed by a 1 hour swimming lesson.

And a long fucking nap.

Anyway, two improv-related thoughts for this week.
  1. Kickball is an awesome warmup. I'm feeling all athletic and fit and energetic lately, so the idea of wasting a few hours of glorious, sunny daylight Tuesday night was unthinkable. I am ready, at any moment, to play kickball—so I whipped out the ball and bases and forced the kids to play 30 minutes before rehearsal. I pitched, leaving them 5 people to cover the outfield. It was a muddy, goofy blast.
  2. Writing is not improv. As much as I'm tempted to apply improv rules to everything in my life (I'd look up the link from last year when I tried to actually do that, but I don't feel like it), every now and then it's nice to get a reminder that it just doesn't work. Especially when it comes to the two things I do more than anything else. This post (a memo from David Mamet to writers of The Unit) has been circulating in the last couple of days (funny, 'cause the memo's old). Some stuff works for improv (i.e. "ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT."). But the point he makes over and over doesn't: "*FIGURE IT OUT*." Improv rules (hints, guidelines, teachings, whatever we call them) have been developed over time to compensate for the things improvisers can't do in creating entertainment. As writers, we have endless do-overs—first drafts should never see the light of day. As improvisers, we're creating our first and final drafts at once. The standards are lowerbecause the work only exists in the moment. (Which is part of the reason improv doesn't always translate well to video. Not only do you lose the energy of creating on the spot, capturing it means holding it to the same standards as any other writing or performing.)
So. Yeah, well, that's it. Have to go to bed so I can wake up and work out. Which is what's taking over my life, kinda, in a good way. In a few weeks, I start incorporating strength, yoga, cycling, running and swimming into a weekly schedule. I have a feeling I'll miss what rehearsing feels like. A lot.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Explaining the quiet.

I have social media ADD.

Part of my real-world job is paying attention to different ways people market, and it totally works with my "let's-try-this-let's-try-this-let's-try-this" attention span.

So I was tweeting a lot for Spite for a while. I'm maintaining that, but have switched to a weight-loss blog, because my ass has been stuck at the same basic size for way too long.

Also, I'm kinda sick of hearing myself talk. So I'm just taking a little break. Maybe a week, maybe a month...maybe just until I have something to say.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Week in review.

I can't wait for Sunday. Seriously. The part of me that craves my own company (well, you know, and the cats) and control over my schedule is so very, very ready for a completely unscheduled day.

It's not that I haven't had fun this week. I have. Or I wouldn't do this stuff. But I also feel like I've turned into the big bionic version of me, in a way, and I'm doing the things that feed me but send me into self-parody at the same time. The play by play:
  • The thing that makes coaching the Trip Fives so freaking delightful is that I've known (and taught) 4/5ths of them since they were babies, and the 5th is Megan, who is pure fun. So watching them and coming up with new toys for them to play with feels easy and natural. And, because they're sofaking good, it pushes my teacher/director buttons, challenging me to come up with something—anything!—to do that will challenge them and help them grow. They're some of the strongest players in KC, and completely open to the idea that they could be even better. Which is why they're so great.
  • Exit 16 rehearsal was mostly just the boys Tuesday night. And they...tested me. I had a small hissy fit because they were taking things so NOT seriously, but eventually they came around, and it was a decent rehearsal. Spring is different. Spring is burnout. Spring is "just play and keep them entertained" time.
  • Tantrum rehearsed with KMBC's Johnny Rowlands on Wednesday, and he's Fun storyteller, fun person, fun energy, fun fun fun. He's a little afraid of improv, which is nuts—because as someone points out, he FLIES A HELICOPTER AND REPORTS NEWS AT THE SAME TIME.
  • Exit 16 and the Cardinals Jesters played their monthly show at the Corbin tonight. It was...fine. Right now, some members of Exit 16 play 3 shows a month—which, unless you're at ComedyCity, is a lot. I wonder what it's like for them. Is every show still a rush? Are they bored? Has it become an obligation? I should ask.
Tomorrow, Tantrum improvises with Johnny. Saturday, Timmy has his last show. Sunday, I don't want to fucking think about improv.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A little random blah-de-blah.

A few show updates:
  • Spite played around with a different format—the improvisers' fave Living Room—just to switch things up on Friday night at the Imp. It was fun to do something different—and nice to have the conversations to pull themes from.
  • I swung by the Fishtank to catch the first set at KC Crossroads Comedy: Some Technical Difficulties doing their take on the Living Room. They had some really nice scenes in their set—a few really sophisticated set-ups, especially considering their ages. It's interesting to watch the Exit 16 kids playing in front of adult crowds (and audiences made up of folks who don't know them). Taking any improv troupe outside their home theater/audience pushes them in new directions.
  • Monday night, Jared has invited me to the Trip Fives rehearsal to take them through some Viewpointsy stuff I learned from David Razowsky. It's Tim Lemke's last rehearsal, prior to his final show, so I'm looking forward to one last chance to tell him what to do.
  • Exit 16 and the Cardinals Jesters play together this Thursday at the Corbin. That's turning out to be a fun little show—two sets by two student improv troupes. They complement each other nicely, and it's great to see what Clay and Drew (two former Exit 16ers) are doing as directors of the William Jewell troupe.
  • Tantrum gets to play with KMBC's Johnny Rowlands this coming Friday, and I can't wait. Tantrum's last show together was a blast—and Johnny's stories should be fun to play with. We've got a bunch of new monologists coming up, including Hallmark pals Sergio and Emily and Stacey.
So...ummmm...busy week.

The other thing I'm trying to cram in is working out. I've been giving myself one day off a week, which I probably shouldn't be—I have, thus far, been unwilling to give up fun stuff (good food, good beer, decent wine). I've got a few major incentives to get into better shape:
  • March: Running in the Rock the Parkway 5K with the Spite girls.
  • April: The Chicago Improv Festival, where Spite will be an apprentice team.
  • May: Josh & Kim's wedding. In Mexico. Where a swimsuit in front of people I know is bound to happen.
  • June: A family beach trip. Where, again: Swimsuit. Ack.
I don't just feel better when I'm in good shape—I play better. I'm more physical, more confident—and not tugging at my clothes or worrying about back fat.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oh, the badness...

And I'm not talkin' about Sarah Palin on Leno.

Though that was bad. From the clips I saw. On the Daily Show.


I'm talkin' about the bad that has been me on stage. I'm going through that phase in my Growth As An Improviser. The one that hits every now and then, when you are capable of doing NOTHING RIGHT. When the badness sucks any potential goodness from a scene, because you are so powerfully bad that no good can exist around you. You (and by you, I mean I) become the Black Hole Of Suck, pulling anything that has even the SPARK OF POTENTIAL to be good like light into the ultimate darkness.

I'm not being self-deprecating here. I'm not looking for pity or compliments or assurance that I'm not that bad. I don't need those things. Because I've got 20 years of improv experience, have seen hundreds of brilliant and good and bad and fucking wretched shows, and have spent hours training with some of the best teachers in the country. So I know two things are true:

1. I recognize bad when I see it and when I play it, and when I call what I've been doing bad, you will not argue me out of it.
2. It's a phase, and I'll get over it. Probably before my next show.

So we're cool.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Do we really care who's making us laugh?

Improv is still, for the most part, full of dudes.

Want evidence? Based on the photos of ensembles for the Chicago Improv Festival, there are 6 all-female groups and 22 all-male groups. Of the coed troupes with photos, 22 had more guys, 11 had even numbers, and 3 had more chicks—pictured, anyway.

Saturday at the Fishtank, the first two troupes—Not A Great Gorilla and Babel Fish—were all dudes. Spite is all chicks.

I'm not on a soapbox about this anymore—I've even gotten to the point where I find the "are women as funny as men?" debate tiresome. (The answer is "yes." Next.) You see more girls in the improv world these days. Hell, Exit 16 had more girls than guys last year, and usually runs even. Girls today don't seem to have the funny socialized out of them like we tended to (unless some asshole is sneaking advice like "laugh at his jokes—even if they're not funny" to them, too).

What I find interesting now is the way we sell it. Spite and Olive Juice (featuring funny improvisers who happen to have boobs from Roving Imp) are getting ready to do a show together, and we're marketing it as a "girlie show." Spite calls ourselves "an all-chick improv à trois."

What I'm wondering: Is that a gimmick? Is it passè? The comedy equivalent of luring people in to see a bearded lady? Are we limiting ourselves to being compared only to other female groups, taking ourselves out of the running of just being a good, funny troupe?

About the kick-ass improvisers in Children of a Lesser God, the Chicago Reader said, "Despite competition from Sirens, Children of a Lesser God is the best all-female improv group in Chicago."

Somehow, I doubt Sirens are this troupe's only competition—or that the women of Sirens compare themselves only to Children of a Lesser God.

Guys don't (usually) refer to themselves as "all male troupes." And I know that when we watched Babel Fish on stage Saturday, none of us thought, "They're not like us."

We saw other improvisers, kicking ass, and it made us want to kick ass, too.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A terrific end to a long week.

Ever have one of those weeks where you're bone tired and grouchy and don't feel like doing anything but you have to?

Yeah. That.

But some good stuff has happened, too—mainly in the realm of Spite.
  1. We worked out with Keith Curtis for the first time as our coach/director, and we heart him hard.
  2. We had a terrific photo shoot with the absolutely wonderful Ben Pieper, along with my pal Jeff Shumway, who's a crazy talented creative director, and our makeover stylist, Daryl Forkell, who made us feel confident and pretty. And Dennis, who fetched us things.
  3. We got a great writeup on KC Free Press, thanks in part to Nikki's kick-ass press release (a version of this one) and partly to Ben's kick-ass photo.
  4. We hit the 300 mark on Twitter. Sure, some are spambots. But a good number of them are happy, funny people we're having a great time chatting with.
  5. We got the official word that we'll be performing at the Chicago Improv Festival. We applied as an apprentice team—which means 9 hours with an acclaimed teacher/director who will direct our festival show, networking opportunities, parties and a ridiculous amount of support and nurturing. It's exactly the boost we've been craving as we try to take our work to the next level.
So, yeah. It feels really, really good. Kinda because we've been working really hard, and it's starting to pay off. But a lot because I feel incredibly blessed to get to play with people I dig as much as I do Nikki and Megan.

The bare minimum: Promoting your improv show

Getting press is hard. On any given weekend, you're up against hundreds of other arts events—many with more compelling stories, bigger stars, better budgets, more urgency, or something else that bumps them up to the top of a reporter's hit list.

But there are some basic places you're practically guaranteed to appear in, if you make minimal effort and fill in the blanks with the right stuff. The lowest of the low-hanging fruit:
  • Calendar listings
  • Facebook invites
Calendar listings
  • Find all the places you want to appear. KC has a gazillion online entertainment calendars—you can decide how many actually matter to you, and where you hit the point of diminishing returns because you're spending hours entering listings into sites that your target audience doesn't read. For improv, here's a good start: the Star, Ink, the Pitch, KCFreePress, PresentMagazine and KC Stage.
  • Name your event. If your name doesn't say "this is improv comedy," you might want to fluff it up a little. Even by just adding "improv" to the name.
  • Write a short blurb. If you're extra lucky, the publication will give you room to describe your event. But they won't give you much. Here's what the Pitch uses for Tantrum:
    Improv comedy group Tantrum invites a different local personality to every show to tell true stories based on audience suggestions. Then the seven- member troupe spins them into a series of spontaneous scenes. It's not super-exciting, but it says what we do.
  • Pay attention to deadlines. Most publications want your info at least two weeks in advance.
  • Submit your stuff. Some have forms, others ask you to e-mail. Go do it.
NOTE: If you're playing in a multi-troupe show, the producers will typically submit calendar listings for the whole show—so you don't have to, and maybe shouldn't. It's confusing to have more than one entry for a comedy show in calendar listings. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't promote your troupe; see "press releases," below.

Facebook invites
  • Figure out where to send it from. Three main options: A group page, a fan page or a personal account. A group page lets you invite everyone in the group by e-mail with one click; a fan page only lets you send updates; your personal account requires that you click names one by one.
  • Grab the reader. You've got three main tools to get people's attention
    —Title: Something straightforward—your name, and maybe the location, will probably do it. Or use the event title, if you've got one.
    —Tagline: A few words to describe the event in more detail.
    —Photo: Something attention-grabbing that adds information to your title and tagline.
  • Close the deal. Use the description to tell your potential audience something they don't know—specifically, why they should come see your show. Who's in it? Why will it be cool? What can they expect? How much is it? Assume the invite will travel outside the group you send it to—what would you say to a stranger to make him buy a ticket?
  • Invite everyone. This is why I prefer group events: You can click "invite members" and Facebook does—then lets you follow up whenever you'd like to.
NOTE: If you're playing in a multi-troupe show, find out what your producer wants before you set up an event. Some are happy if you send out your own invites; others prefer you to use theirs. At the VERY LEAST, use the producer's basic information and get the reservation line right.

ANOTHER NOTE: If you are a high school or college troupe, these rules don't apply. Everyone you're inviting knows you, and you can be as wacky or freaky or whimsical and vague as you'd like. As long as people know it's you, they'll come.


OK. So now the public at least has a chance of finding out you've got a show. Want to make headlines? You'll need three things—and sometimes, it just takes one of them:
  • A great hook. What's the story? And not just the one you, or two other people in improv land find interesting. Even better, what's the thing that makes you worth covering not just for any show, but RIGHT NOW?
  • A compelling press release. The KC Star's press release site has great tips for writing one. This isn't the time to be artsy—it's the time to be informative. Give reporters what they want, and they might just write about you.
  • A killer photo. Improv groups, as a rule, have crappy promotional photos. Sorry...I've seen and sent out dozens of them, and it's just true. Tantrum and Spite have worked with photographers who got us great, highly usable stuff. Clint Sears' shots have appeared in every local paper. And I'm guessing Ben Pieper's new shots of Spite (above) bumped us from a simple preview to the lead spot on the site home page and a capsule on the Arts top page. (What the photos that get picked up the most have in common? Interesting composition, tight shots of faces and a story or emotion.)
Of course, a lot more goes into getting covered...or not. But doing the basics allows you to sleep soundly at night, knowing you've done everything within your power to get the word out.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We have to follow WHAT?!?

Tantrum is back at the Westport Coffeehouse Friday night at 8pm. Our monologist is the fabulous Kim Carrington, aka fianceé of Josh, aka Kimmi Tassel of Massive Tassel, an amazing belly dance troupe.

Not only will Kim be telling stories for Tantrum—and those of you who know her know she's slyly funny and hilariously honest and incredibly charming and generally awesome—but she'll be performing with the the other Tassels.

You know how chicks dig guys with a sense of humor? Guys dig chicks who can do this.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Google Superbowl ad = your awesome longform show.

Google's Superbowl ad was GORGEOUS. From the simple, blinking cursor at the the graceful combination of product demo and the smart, engaging storytelling...

Really, really nice work. My vote for the only truly compelling commercial of the night. And as Advertising Age put it, "During and after the game, the spot was widely discussed, tweeted, blogged-about and re-posted on all manner of digital water coolers from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn."

But in the same article, they pointed out that consumers didn't notice or love it. What they loved? Betty White getting tackled. A guy in a shock collar.

Marketing geeks can love the beautiful work Google does all day long...but unless consumers notice it, it doesn't work.


Improv geeks can love amazing long form all night long...but unless consumers get it, it doesn't matter.

Industry insiders fall in love with the stuff that challenges us and makes us happy.

The Google ad incorporates the stuff we copywriters love (simple storytelling and a copy-only ad BWA HA HA) with the stuff the budget guys love (seriously...screen captures?) with the stuff marketing strategists love (product demos and benefits).

Longform incorporates the stuff improvisers love: scenes, relationships and characters in their purest form.

But the audience goes for the gimmick. In marketing, it's slapstick. In improv, it's Da Doo Run Run or any mime and gibberish guessing game.

So we're left shooting for the middle ground. The place where we keep our self-respect and feel like we're doing our best work—but where the audience will meet us and laugh (or cry) with us.

In other words, let's face it...we're all shooting for the Budweiser Clydesdales commercial.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Well, THIS is new.

It would be dishonest to say I enjoy running.

The dread of knowing I have to go to the gym...the claustrophobic, can't-catch-a-breath feeling...the discomfort of shoes bought without knowing how my feet work...the soreness between my shoulder blades from pumping my arms...the sweat...

Nope. Can't say I love it.



I could stare at the "see all runs" view on the Nike+ site all night. I love being able to show Peggy I've done cardio, like she's been bugging me to do for two years. And that moment where my feet go numb and I get goosebumps that start at my shins?

OK. I'm starting to get it.

But this whole cardio thing didn't make sense until I signed up for the Rock the Parkway 5K. And then the WIN for KC Triathlon. Now, all of a sudden, I'm working towards something. And all of a sudden, the regret attached to missing a workout (like I did tonight, to do taxes) isn't because I feel guilty about 'fessing up to my trainer. It's more because I missed a chance to help make sure I'll survive March 27 and July 31.

Which is kind of why I rehearse and take classes.

It's not that I want to connect working out to improvising (much)—in fact, part of what I'm trying to do is finding something completely different to spend my time doing. And it's too early to say I've found a new thing to throw myself into—I've got a ridiculously short attention span and a tendency to feel like I've discovered something no one else has ever felt in the history of feeling any time I try something new. (Though they don't say anything, I have a feeling my family finds this a particularly insufferable part of my personality.)

I don't run very far. And I've been pretty wimpy when it comes to kicking up the incline so far. Now I have cycling to add to it—and my first 30 minutes on a stationary bike was unimpressive, to say the least. Swimming? Ahhh...we'll get to that in a month or so.

It just feels really good to have so much room to grow stretching out ahead of me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surviving in a small improv community.

There's a little book I like: Return to Civility. Its description:

This simple little book has a simple little theme, “Act the way you want the world to be.”

Based on the observation that perhaps the world could be a bit more polite, a bit kinder and a bit friendlier, John Sweeney and the folks at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre have written Return to Civility, A Speed of Laughter Project. Containing 365 suggestions to help create a more civilized world, Return to Civility seeks to reclaim the appreciation once displayed for our fellow human beings, our selves, and our planet.

I like it enough to have given it as a Christmas gift this year—hoping people would leave it in bathrooms and on coffee tables so others would pick it up and read it. It features ideas like, "Park wisely and courteously" and "Wear clothing that respects and honors the situation."

It got me thinking there might be some equivalent thoughts for surviving in a small improv community. We're around each other a lot—and along with the mindblowingly creative rehearsals and ridiculously fun after-show gatherings, there's serious drama. The bigger we get, the more entwined the groups become, and the more some people succeed and others fail, the more likely it is we'll piss each other off.

So some thoughts, inspired by Return to Civility. I've screwed most of these up over and over in the last couple of decades. Still do.

Find at least one true, nice thing to say.
Sometimes, saying something nice comes easily; many times, it doesn't. But look a little harder, and you'll find something real to compliment: energy, enthusiasm, a character choice, even just the tenacity to hang on in a tough show.

Stack the chairs. If you're going out to drink beer with a group after a show, take a few minutes to help them reset the theater. Everyone will make it to the bar faster, and together.

Watch other groups. Show up early or stick around after your set to watch the other troupes play. See a new troupe every so often. Revisit a new group after they've had a chance to grow.

Pass along what you've learned. Teach a class. Offer to lead a rehearsal for a group of newer improvisers. Share insights from a workshop over a beer.

Give someone a second chance. Players improve. Troupes grow. One or two sucky shows don't make players lost causes. Be open to the happy discovery that, really, they kick a little ass. (Audiences don't have to do this—so it's gracious when we do.)

Take a freakin' compliment. If someone says you did a great show, don't insult his taste by telling him it wasn't or doubt her integrity by assuming she's lying. Say thank you.

Keep your drama off the interwebs. Cryptic status updates after rehearsal...vague pronouns in your blog post about your last show...angry tweets about your scene partners...they might make you feel better in the moment. But in the long-run, they damage your fellow players and your relationships with them. And force your friends to take sides, which makes you the a-hole.

Know when it's about you.
Not getting to do the projects or play with the people you want to? Ask someone smart—and objective—why he or she thinks it might be. There's a good chance you're getting in your own way.

And know when it's not about you. What we do is ensemble work. Pleas for attention and demands for credit rarely go over well. It's just as cool—cooler, even—to realize that you're standing on the shoulders of giants, and they're in your own troupe.

Buy a beer for a newbie (21 and over only). You might be a guru in someone's eyes. How great is that? If someone who's just discovering how much they love this wants to talk to you about it, hang out for a bit. It might remind you why you like it.

Ask for permission before you offer a critique. You're not necessarily doing people a favor by pointing out what they did wrong. Make sure they're in the right frame of mind or even interested in your point of view—and if they're not, hush.

* * * * *

I've tried to put these in a gracious, positive form, but just can't. Again, these are all things I continue to screw up over and over. So these are the don'ts...and we do them more than we mean to. Sometimes even revel in them. Yeah, it feels great in the moment...but these the things that make us assholes.

Don't blab things about a troupe you wouldn't feel comfortable saying to their director to his or her face. Sober. And in the same words.

Don't badmouth another player to make yourself look good. It is always, always, ALWAYS transparent, and will have the opposite of the effect you're shooting for.

Don't undermine your director. Not to other players, not to outside improvisers. If you don't agree with your troupe's leader, here are your choices:
—Shut up.
—Offer your opinion, then shut up.
—Leave the group.

Don't forget that everyone knows everyone. There's a damn good chance the player you're gossiping about is good friends with the person you're gossiping to. Or will be, someday. Plus, in a tiny community like this one, the chance you'll work together on a project is really good.

Don't drive home drunk from McCoy's or the Foundry. 1. The fact that you were drunk may mean you blurted something incredibly inappropriate. 2. There are improvisers close by. Someone will give you a ride or let you crash on the couch.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Last week and this one.

Rambling about last week...

Spite stuff
After a fun rehearsal/planning session, we were really excited to get back on stage together again. The Roving Imp—as we knew it would—has the most welcoming vibe in the world. The One cast put on an amazing show; they're ensemble is seriously playful and smart, and they didn't miss anything. Our set felt a Odd. Whatever. We didn't feel as connected as we like to.

Nikki figured it out—we didn't make our standard pre-show promise/threat. So at the Fishtank for KCXRC, we made sure to cover that—and tried a short, Spolin-inspired warm-up that felt really, really good. The set was a fun one.

Also, at the Fishtank
Erik Johnson and I book-ended the January KCXRC schedule with beejay. The Saturday night show, once again, felt great. Our improv backgrounds are pretty different, but we agree that they complement each other. Not sure what's next for beejay—but these two shows have been a blast.

And we got to bring our Thunderdome gang, Team Number 9, back for one last show. Keith Curtis filled in for Steve, and we played another round of Freeze Tag. It was a fun, fluffy little set.

And out in Bonner Springs
Wednesday night was one of our last few rehearsals with Olive Juice before they compete in Thunderdome. We waited until this week to come up with a format, just to get a sense of the way Nifer, Julie and Chanté play with each other; the result mixes some iO, some Viewpoints and some Jill Bernard. They played around with some of the techniques we've worked in the Imp early show on Friday, and there was gleeful clapping. The girls are eff you en to work with—I'm really looking forward to the Olive Juice/Spite chick shows coming in March and April.

Omega Directive rehearsed Thursday for the first time in months. We're really simplifying our show structure; now it's just two different frameworks for scenes, and I love it. The only down-side: I screwed up my calendar, so I missed playing with them on Saturday. Next month, dammit.

Oh, and...
After two years of Peggy begging and pleading with me to do cardio, I finally started running. I missed a couple of days last week and took today off because my arms are so freaking sore I can barely lift them. Yes: My. ARMS. Apparently moving them back and forth when you run is part of what makes it such a good workout. Running 5K on Friday and 2 miles on Saturday—then throwing in some pretty hard-core upper body stuff in our small group on Saturday—did me in.

But it's back on the treadmill tomorrow—because Spite is running a 5K in March. WTF.

Coming this week
Exit 16 on Tuesday. Olive Juice on Wednesday. And a benefit for Haiti by KC Crossroads Comedy on Saturday. I'll be in the tech booth. The kids will be on stage with their alter-egos, Some Technical Difficulties.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There's no "I" in "improv"

Some of the best improvisers I know have the tiniest egos.

In his Second City boot camp classes, Michael Gellman teaches you first to focus out. iO theory teaches you to treat others like geniuses and artists. Even Annoyance theory, which insists that you take care of yourself first, isn't encouraging ego—it encourages confidence, and making sure you contribute to the scene.

This was all reinforced recently, when I saw TJ & Dave in their new documentary "Trust Us, This Is All Made Up." (Which, I can tell you, you will get more out of every time you watch it.) They heap praise on each other, and can't believe their good fortune in performing with someone as talented as their scene partner.

Talk to anyone who's studied in Chicago, and they'll tell you it's the students and the improvisers clawing their way to the top who are the snotty assholes who won't talk to newbies. The experienced players—the ones you go there to watch or study with—are the kindest, most gracious ones.

It's kind of funny to watch improvisers thrown into Hollywood. Watch Tina Fey or Steve Carell or Jack McBrayer on an awards or talk show. The only time they show any ego is when they're in character.

Look at the leaders in our own community and you'll see the same thing. They're holding themselves to the highest standard—and they're their own harshest and most vocal critics when they don't reach it. They're modest to a fault—getting them to promote their own shows is like pulling teeth, because they hate the idea of bugging people to come watch them. Civilians are surprised to hear that the funniest improvisers are typically introverts—in both the usual understanding of the word (shy and self-conscious) and by the Myers-Briggs definition (being around others, especially as the center of attention, exhausts them).

Why do I find this so crazily appealing, or feel the need to write about it?

Maybe it's realizing the folks I have the most fun with are the ones who still, after all these years, are the most excited about learning new things. Or because I was lucky enough to spend the night hanging out with the ladies of Olive Juice at the Roving Imp—where generosity of spirit oozes out of the walls. Maybe it's because of my Christian upbringing (pride is one of the big sins). Or coming of age in the modest, self-deprecating Midwest.

Or maybe it's because I struggle with ego. You have to be confident enough to get on stage—but not so confident you irritate the fuck out of everyone around you. Bold enough to ask people to come see you—but not cocky enough that you take it for granted. Self-aware enough to know you have some talent—and to be realistic about how much (or how little).

It's a fine line, and not an easy one to walk.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Taking a ride

Quickly, and briefly, before I forget it all:

At Spite rehearsal, after our usual malicious gossip and 1.5 bottles of wine, I imagine I wasn't the only one wondering how to make a graceful transition into doing scenes. We'd been talking about funky theater shit we loved doing, and it occurred to me I had a CD of Viola Spolin narrating a space walk.

So we did it.

What we learned:
  • In true soft focus, you can practically see behind yourself.
  • If you touch and allow yourself to be touched, or see and allow yourself to be seen, your awareness expands exponentially.
  • The chair on the left, though practically identical to the chair on the right, is much goofier.
  • You can see without really seeing, and we do it way too often.
As I've mentioned, part of the joy of playing with multiple troupes is discovering what I get out of each one. And I think maybe I'm realizing that it really is about discovering, not deciding. If I go into a project with expectations, they're rarely met; but if I just play, I'm likely to find something wonderful.

The Spite girls want to push ourselves to try new things (in fact, we came up with a list to inspire this year's promotions, and it may just involve a painful, well-documented trip to an esthetician). I think we realized tonight that we're all pretty cool with geeky, hard-core, abstract theater and improv exercises.

Can't wait to play this weekend. Two shows—one Friday at the Imp, and one Saturday at the Fishtank. Small, intimate spaces with friendly crowds. Should be just right for us.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I love Freeze Tag

Team #9 decided to play our full set as a game of Freeze Tag at the most recent Thunderdome. We've gotten mixed reviews—from "I loved it" to "I can't believe you played Freeze Tag for 30 effing minutes" to "I wish you'd opened it up more so you could pursue some of the scenes further."

Playing Freeze Tag was a 180 from our set in the last round of Thunderdome—a stylized Twilight Zone-inspired piece. Steve set it up in hard-core ComedyCity mode—establishing that we'd play it as a rapid-fire one-liner game (they call it Body Freeze). We did a few rounds of one-liners, justifying the position and moving on, then kicked into longer, relationship-driven scenes.

Improvisers I have known give me relentless shit about my love of Freeze Tag. It kills me to see it played as a one-liner game—Freeze! Say something funny to justify the position! Barely move at all and freeze again! Repeat!—because if you play it right, it can get you completely out of your head and inspire great scenes with rich characters, emotional relationships and detailed object and environment work.

Here's how: Read up on Viewpoints.
  • The distance between you and your scene partner is your spacial relationship. It tells you your status...who you are to each other...what kind of tension exists in your relationship.
  • Your partner's position is her shape. It can tell you her emotion and her status and so much more. We usually name the activity—which is the least important piece of information of all. (Annoyance theory: How you do what you do is who you are.)
  • Your own shape can also inspire your gesture—and the start of what you're doing. Instead of naming your own activity right at the start, begin it. Figure out why you're doing it.
Ages ago, I saw a list of hack Freeze moves online. I can't find it now, but it included:
  • Dancing, martial arts and exercise
  • Teaching anyone to do anything
  • Super-gluing anything to anything
  • Quotes from TV, movies or other pop-culture references
In each of those, the scene is about what you're doing, not how or why you're doing it. Fine for a quick laugh—maaaabye—but not to build a scene.

Freeze Tag is a microcosm of all improv teaching. Freeze Tag can be used for good or evil. Freeze Tag can save your soul.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Aaaand we're back, with Michael Byars.

Tantrum is back, We've been off since EARLY NOVEMBER, people.

Friday's show should be fun.

Michael Byars, KCUR Morning Edition host (if you listen to KCUR, you know the time and temperature in his voice) and music dude, joined us at rehearsal tonight to prep for the show (This Friday! At the Westport Coffeehouse! At 8pm!).

We get varying reactions to warmups by our guest monologists. Some find them even tougher than doing the show—others dive right in. Michael was a diver. He passed the Ball of Emotion. He sang backup in Musical Hot Spot. He got weird in the game Jill taught us.

We love him already.

We zipped through our piece, with him telling stories and us doing scenes. We were definitely playful—which is what I love best about Tantrum—even though in the run-through we didn't really hit any meaty scenes. So Pete ran us through some more focused scenework exercises at the end.

Every group I play with means something different to me. Tantrum was the first troupe I really felt like part of after Lighten Up/Funny Outfit. I love the group's energy and how such different people play off each other. I love that we can have radically different views about improv and life and the ways that makes us stronger. I love the close-to-even girl/guy ratio and the range of experiences we bring to the stage.

And right now, I love the fact that we get to play again this weekend.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

P.S. Interesting thoughts from the creator of long form

If you haven't already, download these notes from Del's classes and read them. Joey Novick—the guy who typed them up because his originals were faded—originally gave them to Marc and me. When we invited Del to a festival, Joey came, too...bringing things nicely full circle. In his intro, Joey talks about the piece they did. Joey has the Bible they used in the show; I have the one Del stole from his own room.

Anyway, I've skipped around some. You'll find this idea starting seven pages in:
If the mind is in the way, all we are going to get is ideas. ... So, if you use your insular, private wig to invent, concoct brand new solutions and responses, what's likely to happen? ... Thought, too much thought, is a ruiner.
Yeah, I over-think things off stage. But my goal is always to not over-think in scenes. Another thing I liked, from an article by a guy in Del's Committee workshops:
"I tell Close he has taught me much. He replied that I've still got so much to learn it's ridiculous to look back yet."
Specific exercises and techniques start on page 41.

Part II: Form following function...or, you know, not.

Explanations, continued from this post about why I think troupes waste a lot of energy "creating" "new" "forms":

The audience doesn't care.

People who do things every day get bored way before the people who watch the things we do.

Want an example? Watch how quickly some companies switch advertising campaigns. You won't, of course, remember the companies that do it because their campaigns never sink in. Marketing departments get bored and agencies change teams or creative directors (or get bored) and they change out campaigns just as they're building awareness and maybe starting to work. Brands with patience and commitment—Nike, All State, McDonald's—actually create something memorable.

iO is known for the Harold. They play with other forms, of course—Del encouraged it—but their training still starts with Harold and you can see different teams perform it every week.

Same thing with Theatresports. And ComedySportz. They're all sought out for their signature forms.

They're not really new.

The first Harold was performed in 1967. A troupe could spend years simply exploring the forms that already exist.

But that's not exciting enough, so we rework an opening (or just leave it off), change out some edits, apply a genre and call it a new form.

There's nothing wrong with doing that, of course. But we're customizing—not inventing.

They're not really "forms."

I've heard Jill talk about this, and I agree. "Form" implies structure—some sort of organization or arrangement of elements or system created to serve a purpose. Tacking an an opening on a montage of scenes creates no more of a "structure" than putting a door frame in front of a pile of bricks creates a "house."

Last night during intermission at KC Crossroads Comedy's premiere, Erik asked Aron how Improv-Abilities came up with the approach to their set. Aron said they consider two things: what they're interested in doing as improvisers and what they want to accomplish with the piece.

That second thing is just as important as the first—but we don't always act like that's true.

We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.

At iO, students know the Harold inside out. They learn it, get frustrated with it, play around with it and understand it before they start fucking with it.

Do we spend enough time exploring different ways to pull themes and patterns out of stories and monologues or openings? If we don't, we've wasted content and time doing them in the first place.

Do we understand the pitfalls of narrative to avoid playwriting, different ways to initiate time dashes, varying approaches to the game of the scene?

Do we play enough as a team, exploring the different ways you can take advantage of a 2- or 3- or 7- or 12-person troupe?

Do we work on basic scenework...relationships, walk-ons/throughs, game moves, characters, emotions?

Or do we burn time and energy in rehearsals serving the development of a "form" that doesn't serve the improvisers or the audience?

********* does all this matter? To me, there are a few reasons: Respect for the craft. Knowledge = power. And, you know, why reinvent the wheel? To invent something new, it helps to know what already exists.

I warned at the beginning that some of this might sound judge-y. As I wrap it up, I want to reiterate that, though some of it is, it's aimed as much at me as anyone. I play regularly in four groups and coach one—along with some new and short-term projects—so I have lots of opportunities to either be a total hypocrite or try to make things better. Or to just decide "it is what it is" and enjoy whatever it is we've decided to do with our shows.

Part I: Form following function...or, you know, not.

These next couple of entries, because they're observations filtered through opinion and experience, may come across as judge-y. They probably are. But it's not a mean-spirited judge-y. So a little context...

When Marc and I started Lighten Up in 1992, I had one year of experience with KC ComedySportz (now ComedyCity). I learned basic improv from the very talented Barry Schreier and by playing with folks like Corey Rittmaster and Rob Lawrence. I learned showmanship from Clancy Hathaway. We wanted more, and hooked into a relatively new Chicago improv scene to get it.

In 1993, Lighten Up was one of the few places outside of Chicago where anyone had heard of long-form—much less performed it. We took workshops from Del Close and Charna Halpern, and brought them and their students to our festivals to teach us more. They were about to publish Truth In Comedy, documenting their signature Harold, and iO—still under Del's artistic direction—was playing with Harold variations and new forms. (See here for early notes from Del's exploration of long-form—they're about all we had to work from until we saw a live performance.)


For short-form players, it's games. You join or start a troupe, play a standard set list, and start craving something new or you go to festivals, read books and search online for new games. Or you come up with different ones, invariably assuming you've created something brand new when, in fact, you've just "created" blind dubbing.

A couple of decades ago (Yep—writing that did make me feel old. Just checking.) most long-form players started with Harold. It was the long-form equivalent of Freeze (Freeze Tag, Body Freeze, whatever) or Conducted Story (Story, Story—DIE) just kind of assumed that anyone who knew improv knew Harold. In its most basic form, it's a pretty comprehensive training tool, too (this is a really good description):
  • Various openings (stop and go, invocation, pattern games) teach players to listen for and heighten patterns and themes.
  • Beats (sets of scenes) teach time jumps—you learn to uncover the narrative without forcing the story.
  • Games (group scenes) teach you how to support, heighten and discover as a group.
  • The Harold itself is a lesson in creating forms—each element serves a purpose in support of the whole.
But Harold isn't easy. Unless you've seen it, teaching it (as I found out with Lighten Up, and later with Exit 16) can be like handing someone a pile of car parts and a description of what a car does and saying "go."

So we're just as likely to start with montages—separate scenes or time jumps, held together by different edits. They're easy, they're fun...and they're not particularly challenging. Because of that, I think, we tend to pump a lot of energy into "creating" new "forms" to keep us from getting bored and in hopes of differentiating our work from other groups.

You know way back at the beginning where I said I might sound judge-y?

Here's why I think, for the most part, that most of the energy we put into new forms is wasted:
  • The audience doesn't care.
  • They're not really new.
  • They're not really "forms."
  • We don't fully use all those techniques we're shuffling around.
Further explanations next post, because this is, as usual, pushing TLDR limits.


I think I've finally hit on why I sometimes get impatient with the state of long-form in KC—and it's not just that "back in my day things were different." It's thrilling to see the community growing and developing, and I love playing with Tantrum, Spite, Omega Directive and beejay...but I just had a little wave of nostalgia for the "older group" in Lighten Up I learned all this with (in particular, Bob, Dan, Tim, Steve, Tracy, Julie, Paul, Carla, Guy and Jeff).

Between the Usenet group (alt.comedy.improvisation) and early, discussions at early festivals (Big Stinkin' in Austin, ImprovStock in Athens and our own Spontaneous Combustion), and exploration with the folks in Lighten Up, I feel like I've already been through what KC is going through now. Like everyone else, I want something new and different.