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.