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.