Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Not a whole lot of talking in this one.

Our third rehearsal was about group work and bonding. Even though we all play in the same troupe, ComedyCity's cast is huge—which means some players barely know each other.

And that calls for super-physical and emotional stuff. YAY. What we did:

1. Group choice warmup. I kind of like letting groups warm themselves up (One of my favorite teachers does this by saying, "I'm shitty at warmups. You guys get yourselves ready.") It's a great way for them to get to know each other, play with leadership, and get warmed up the way they want to. So I asked for three volunteers and told them to go.

2. Viewpoints work. I want this Harold to be big and physical and brave—no danger of people standing like an 11 talking about things instead of doing them. So the first part of the rehearsal was just choosing different ways of moving through the space, and letting them affect each other.
  • Topography: Players moved on grids and in circles, playing with size (tiny grids, big loops), tempo, and spacial relationships to each other. 
  • Architecture: Players decided a physical or emotional relationship to the tangible pieces of the room—walls, tables, floors, etc.—and explored the characters that resulted. 
  • Shape: Players shaped their bodies differently and moved through the space...
  • Repetition: ...and then found a gesture to repeat...
  • Tempo: ...and then played with increasing and decreasing the speed...
  • Duration: ...and how long they repeated or held the gesture.
  • Spacial relationships: Then we basically played Attacker-Defender, experimenting with the distance between players.
Maggie was distressed when Sebass got in the way of her relationship with the stools.
This was mostly about building a toybox...getting them to think of different ways of relating to the space and each other. It's also about making physical choices, which can lead to more surprising emotional and verbal moves.

3. Caligula. I love this exercise created by Susan Messing. It seems simple—move around the stage, making sure you stay in physical contact with the rest of the group. And at first, the movements and connections were pretty basic.

Basic hand-holding. Nothing to worry about here.

This is where the cast starts to get comfortable with each other. 

4. Music and Emotion. Because we're doing a movie genre based piece, I added a soundtrack. A lot of my side-coaching came from work Rance Rizzutto taught at The Improv Retreat. The Caligula exercise continued, but players allowed the music to affect their emotions and movements and relationships.

I believe the extended theme from The Walking Dead was playing.

And the love theme from Titanic.
Jimmy learns to trust everyone.

Before we open, we'll work on lifts and falls and carrying other players, so they know how to cue each other, and the person being lifted can feel in control.

In this whole rehearsal, there were no words exchanged on stage or during the exercises—just in the debriefs. But here's what the players said at the end:
  • It felt like we had real relationships. 
  • It broke down any awkwardness between us. 
  • I knew no one would drop me. 
  • I felt supported. 
  • I had a responsibility to take care of everyone. 
  • Different ways of touching led to different emotions.  
  • The emotions were stronger—when you can't use words, you can't bullshit.
I love that last one. I want us to create a piece about intense relationships, and the combination of trust, physicality and music got us there fast. I'm not sure yet how this work will show up in DIFFERENT, but I can see it being pervasive. We'll look at ways for it to influence edits and group games, as well as making our stage pictures interesting and helping us with strong focal points.

Other stuff: 
We discussed wardrobe for different. Basically, I want them to wear all black—but beyond that, the only restriction is "cover your knees." They have to be able to move without worrying about things riding up or falling out as they leap, crawl, roll, and get thrown around the stage. We'll also look at some way to differentiate roles—buffs, scarves, temporary tattoos, something like that.

Love this cast. So much.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Last night we worked our opening, String/Rope of Pearls (an exercise I learned from Dave Razowsky), and building characters using La Ronde.

Here’s a description of String of Pearls from Fast Co Create:
For "String of Pearls," the group forms a line. The person at one end is given the first sentence of a story. The person at the end of the line is given the last sentence. Each person in between takes a turn improvising a line of dialogue aimed at making the story progress logically to its pre-set end point.

In Rope of Pearls, players add multiple lines, moving around and changing places until the story is complete.

You guys, we’re born storytellers. It’s super-hard to avoid plot…and learning not to force the narrative is a key to successful genre work. Our brains want so hard to connect dots, but if we don’t enrich the story with strong emotions and surprising details , we’ll find ourselves on a straight, boring, empty path.

Our biggest challenge for this game will be adding specifics and creating relationships…fleshing out the characters and making the environment come alive instead of driving hard to the ending. Next time, we’ll do some “color and advance” work to slow us down.

La Ronde was next. We played it the way I learned it from the old iO group The Neighbors, focusing on heightening characters with each new scene. The job of the character entering is to give the existing character a new, completely different opportunity to be more of who they are.

Which meant a break to work on the characters’ “thing” or “deal”—some hard-core Annoyance stuff.

One of the things that’s most fun about this piece is blending influences from different schools of thought into a pretty traditional Harold format. Annoyance, Viewpoints, Second City, Spolin…they’ll all find their way in.

But ultimately, I’m guided by this note I got from Del Close after performing our take on a structure he’d created that was super-fun to play: “You played all the games very well. I just wish I’d given a shit about any of the characters’ relationships.”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Harold + genre, from scratch

This will be a long one, with some back story.

The first time I directed a Harold, I'd never seen one. A stand-up and improv comedian named Joey Novick who studied with Del Close in San Francisco happened upon our company, Lighten Up, and gave us these notes.

We taught straight from those. Later, I visited Chicago and saw ImprovOlympic perform (this was before they had their own theater) and fell in love. But teaching Harold work to a group that had never seen it was like giving a group a pile of parts and a picture of a car and saying "do that."

This next one will be much easier. Half my troupe has long-form experience, I have a hell of a lot more than I did when I started, and there's good longform work all over KC.

Annnnnnnd it's one I've wanted to direct forever: a Harold-based dystopian YA fiction piece, like Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent, etc., etc.

I remember watching Silverado with my pal (and teacher) Rob Reese, and talking about how beautifully it hit the games/tropes of the Western genre. As the Harold was becoming more popular outside of Chicago, improvisers described it to their friends as being like Pulp Fiction (and the Deconstruction was Reservoir Dogs).

This will be my third go at directing a genre piece. The first was with the "younger troupe" (muuuuuch younger Jared included) in Lighten Up, and followed the structure of Reservoir dogs (down to a table in the middle of the audience where the cast would sit and talk). The second was an insanely controversial Thunderdome piece; Scriptease wanted to do an action-adventure movie, and I coached.

And now we're here. What's happened so far:
  • I started digging post-apocalyptic dystopian YA fiction after reading the Hunger Games trilogy. After reading a few more series, I wanted to improvise it. 
  • Jared and I made the case for ComedyCity to add long-form to our show schedule and troupe repertoire.
  • We held a couple of workshop/audition type things to figure out which cast got which troupe members. 
  • I've taken SO MANY NOTES and rewatched a bunch of stuff and read a lot of YA writers' blogs.
  • After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at a group watch party (stupid fighting cats and tornado watches), we finally met for the first time to talk through characters, themes, tropes, and games. And it was excellent. 
NEXT UP: Rehearsal calendar
Scribbles and notes and blurts.

I want the poster to be super-cheese-tastic. I sent this mockup to the cast so they'd know why I was asking them to send me full-body photos to turn into silhouettes. The name is set; the tagline is a work in progress.

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. 

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.