Thursday, November 1, 2012

Well, THAT was easy.

All through the school year, I coach a high school improv troupe. They were a part of my theater's high school league when my theater company dissolved, and I inherited them from the original teacher because the high school drama teacher thought improv was for bars and rehearsals. Their original coach (and the school administration) probably thought I'd stick around for a few years...that was 12 years ago.

I was in my early 30s when I took it on. I was low on the Totem Pole of Responsibility at work and wasn't improvising anywhere, so I put everything I had into running the troupe. Over time, a few things happened:
  1. Aging. Dubya. Tee. EFF?! Other than my enhanced ability to make smart choices in a variety of situations, I feel no different than I did when I started this. But day-um...a DAY, or rowdy kids, or the drive up to Liberty can suck more out of me than I'd imagined possible. Where did this tired thing come from? 
  2. Input. Improv used to be mah life. I took classes, traveled for workshops, whored myself out to any troupe that wanted me. Now my life is my life. Job, volunteering, social life, nights off. It makes me a more well-rounded person, but I'm not constantly getting improv-related inspiration I can feed the children with. 
  3. Time. What did I teach last year? What games do they know? Am I repeating myself? 
So I made some changes: We went from 3-hour rehearsals to 2, then back up to 2 and a half. I ended up with assistant directors, which means the occasional night off. I lightened up. 

All sanity-preserving moves. 

But here's something weird that happened: Every year, my brilliant drama teacher friend Max, who heads one of the most impressive programs in the US, asks me to workshop with kids who want to be in his group. When I played with them this year, I noticed that I was giving them something I didn't give my own kids: an excitement for improv that made me bouncy, perky and hyper-enthusiastic. 

I was giving them new toys. They were digging the toys. I was in full-on aunt mode...I could spoil them, and then leave before things got hard. 

Back in Liberty, I had a hand-picked troupe of crazy-talented, dedicated, smart, charming, funny high school improvisers...and with my own kids, I'd become cranky. Bossy. Bitchy.  




This year, I'm trying to do it differently. I'm taking better notes and spending more time planning rehearsals. I'm listening to the kids...trying to watch what gets them interested and following it wherever it goes. I'm looking for ways to get the assistant directors—both former students—more involved in shaping the troupe. I'm working on shaking off my day before I get to LHS. 

But here's a simple thing: I'm trying to stand up when I teach. As one of our Annoyance teachers taught us (and Exit 1-alum Kay definitely remembered), sitting sucks the energy out of your butt. Just walking around when I teach warmups and games, watch scenes, or give notes keeps me engaged. I feel more like I'm part of what they're doing on stage. 

It's like being on a back-up line: when I'm on my toes, not my heels (thanks, Joe Bill), I'm more ready to jump in. I'm in it. Committed. Ready to play. 

And that's the thing I always remember after rehearsal: This is play. It's recess. It's the thing you push through the hard part to get to. 

As it has been for about 12 years, working with Exit 16 is the fun part. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's been a while.

After 20+ years of being a professional improviser (only 3 of those were full time), there are things I'm not interested in:
  • Staying up all night 
  • Doing prom shows
  • Letting play turn into work
  • Talking about improv at parties (mostly)
But it turns out sometimes I still have some things to say about improv—and what improv looks like in a smaller market, because I'm that kind of geek. There's some new stuff going on, so it felt like a good time to open my rambly space again. Two things, tonight. 


Yesterday, the KC Improv Festival board of directors met one more time to debrief. Armed with box office reports, troupe and workshop student surveys, comments from friends, and notes from our experiences, we got together to talk about what worked, what didn't and what we want to do next year. 

Here's something cool: We made the choice last year to go to appointed positions, and it's been great—we seek out people with specific skill sets, and they train people to take their jobs. Extra work is done by volunteers (let me right NOW shout out to my kick-ass marketing committee). Most of the board has done this together for at least a few years now. And we're hitting a groove. It's FUN. 

A discussion we'll have between now and next year is how to decide which troupes will perform. When the festival came back in 2007, it was invite-only: we knew who we wanted, and we just asked them. We moved to an application model—for local and national troupes—to make sure we didn't miss anyone cool. We invite the big names (Jill Bernard, Bassprov, Messing with a Friend, Der Monkenpickel, SuperEgo) and the rest send us tapes. 

There are two phases in putting together an improv festival lineup: 
  1. Choosing the troupes
  2. Planning the shows
There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL TO PISS PEOPLE OFF IN BOTH. So many troupes who will feel insulted for not getting selected, or annoyed at their time-slot, or get hurt feelings for a gazillion reasons we will never be aware of. 

I took myself out of the judging this year for a few reasons (friends with too many people applying, in two applying troupes, spent too many years making tough decisions, also WIMP), but I was a voice in the room when the schedule was made. For troupes who apply for improv festivals (especially ours) and wonder why they're scheduled the way they are, I can tell you what I think about. I'll use the word "I" to the point of ridiculousness to overemphasize the point that I'm only speaking for myself: 

  • I want something reliable. Either troupe members have done A BUNCH OF SHOWS and have fabulous individual reputations, or the troupe has performed together long enough to shake the new off. If it's a Thunderdome or Throwdown troupe of performers with less than 5 years experience each and they've played three shows in four months, that will probably make me very nervous about putting them in the lineup. On other hand: Joe Bill and Jill Bernard debuted their duo SCRAM at KCIF. They'd never performed together before. But when you get the chick from Drum Machine and a dude from BASSPROV directed by the other dude from BASSPROV, there's about a 300% chance of success. 
  • I want something marketable. I'm the marketing director for the festival, so I have to be able to sell a show to people who think Kansas City improv is that place at Zona Rosa. If they say, "We do long-form," I have to explain a LOT. If they say, "we improvise a one-act play in the style of Shakespeare" or "we are brilliant at freestyle rap" or "we are two guys fishin'," suddenly I have a press release. Bonus points if they have a professionally shot, hi-res, well-lit photo that shows their faces. 
  • I want something believable: I want to see 20 minutes of well-lit, easy-to-hear, unedited video of a single show that happened sometime in the last year. I want to hear the audience laughing their asses off. I want to believe that was an average show...not the one that kicked ass by accident.
  • I want something that fits in a bigger show. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Next section.
Here's the thing: If a troupe has a reputation for consistency and a proven cast, I feel comfortable putting it almost anywhere in a festival lineup. If they're new, quirky, artsy, dark, think-y, niche or super-blue, it's harder to slot the set. Susan Messing calls it "protecting the comedy": you want to put troupes in an order that gives them all the best chance of looking amazing.   
  • It's easier if they're just plain entertaining. People who come to a comedy festival want to laugh. The KC Improv Festival is our chance to introduce our art form to hundreds of people who've never seen it before. Yes, we want to showcase variety and new forms—we also want to know a set isn't going to end with the audience going "Double-you. Tee. Eff." 
  • I have to think about how a show opens, what energy goes into the half, how one troupe leads into another, and what will bring the audience to their feet at the end. There are troupes I looooooove that are tough to schedule because they don't have the energy to open a show...or they're too dark to set the audience up for another troupe...or they're too think-y to end a show. The nice thing about this year's KCiF is that we had two venues: the Off Center Theatre and the more intimate Westport Coffeehouse Theater (Kick Comedy Theater). It gave us the chance to put troupes in venues and time slots where we could set them up for success. 
  • There's no crying in improv. Getting accepted at a festival is an honor: period. Once you're in, it stops being about you and starts being about the big picture. There are more considerations than I can list here that go into putting together festival shows, and the producers have more on their minds than the happiness and egos of the performing troupes. Various groups I've been in have headlined and performed on money nights, played on off nights and smaller stages, and been flat-out rejected in the application process. It's not personal. It's all about the festival's mission, the artistic director's vision and the audience.
*I'm one person, and speak for myself—not the KC Improv Festival.


My introduction to improv was with KC ComedySportz (which ultimately turned into ComedyCity). There, I met three guys (Corey Rittmaster, Jim Montemayor and Jay Lewis) who came in through their high school improv league, and worked with my soon-to-be business partner to re-start the league.

When my business partner and I started our own troupe, Lighten Up, ComedySportz wasn't running a high school league, so we started our own. Some of KC's best improvisers got their starts there. But for a long time, there's been no place for high school students to learn improv from professionals, play with students from other schools, and learn from their friends. 

Today, that all changed. Seriously Playful's Operation: Show kicked off its first season. Eighteen improvisers from three north Kansas City schools learned, played and laughed together. It wouldn't have happened without the Chicago Improv Festival's Executive Producer, Jonathan Pitts, who encouraged the KC improv community to do something bigger together after last year's festival. Or without Clay Morgan, who invited the league in to the ComedyCity space. But most of all, Seriously Playful happened because three KC improvisers—Clayton Ingram, Cindy Paasch and Kenzie West—but the time, energy and passion into turning an idea into a not-for-profit corporation, and then into a room full of high school kids playing. 


I would say, "I won't always be this long-winded or opinionated." But that would be a big fat lie.

It's fun to be an improviser in KC right now, so I might not shut up about that.