Monthly Archives: July 2015

No, I Don’t Think I Have Improv Figured Out

Too often, because I tend to have a somewhat informed opinion on improv and how to do it (not to mention other subjects), it’s sometimes possible I give off the false impression that I consider myself some sort of hot shit improv know it all. Lately it’s been brought (privately) to my attention that some in Chicago may feel negatively about the ideas I’ve shared in text about doing improv. Thankfully, this is a small number of people, but involves people I have enough respect for that I feel this bears addressing.

At the risk of coming across as excessively defensive, I’ll say this for the umpteenth (and what certainly will not be the last) time, and I’ll even make it boldface for emphasis:

Don’t take anything I have ever said or written as anything other than my somewhat experienced, informed opinion. You are welcome to agree or disagree, and certainly welcome to do things your own way if you please. The only thing I insist upon is that you not construct or hold any ill will over what I say or write.

I have done a lot of improv and learned a lot about improv, and am always learning. I improvised in Seattle for a few years, even in diverse styles and formats outside of traditional improv. I have helped coach and run groups during that time, and am training extensively in Chicago with the open mindset that I can always learn and improve.

Though I came to Chicago with a lot of knowledge and skill, I’ve learned a lot of new things since I arrived here last winter, and continue to do so. I walk into every class or rehearsal with the idea that I’ve got more to learn, I’m never too good for anything, and with the goal of getting better.

Be positive and productive. Thanks for reading.

Negative Feedback can be constructive. Constructive Feedback can be negative: Improving on Negative Feedback

When it comes to coaching, directing, teaching or otherwise criticizing performance art, people broadly generalize the definition of negative feedback as variants of “you suck” or “that wasn’t good”. That sort of feedback is really just negativity, i.e. derisive feedback with no positive intentions, serving only to self-indulgently denigrate the target.

In reality, constructive feedback can both be positive and negative. Yes, not only can constructive feedback also be negative, but constructive negative feedback is more insidious. Many coaches, teachers, directors fall prey to overusing it.

Negative constructive feedback is offered with constructive intent, but often comes with a negative slant and frequently leads to negative consequences. The most obvious example: “Don’t do this” or “This was the wrong choice.” Even with an explanation as to why it was wrong, this is negative feedback because it does not state or offer a clear positive alternative. It only points out what the target did not do correctly.

Notice I did not say this feedback was invalid: Often it’s very important to correct what was pointed out. The issue is that it does not provide an alternative, corrective course of action. It mainly admonishes, indicting the decision making of the target.

Used in isolation or with corresponding instructions on what to do instead, negative feedback isn’t a terribly big deal. There’s nothing wrong when offering constructive feedback or recommendations to throw in a few “Hey, don’t do that” or “That was a bad idea” statements. Again, these are by and large valid observations.

Used excessively or exclusively, they become counterproductive, reducing the performer’s confidence. When you tell them a litany of “Don’t do this. That was the wrong move. Don’t do this. You did this wrong…”, or when the only commentary you have for that person’s work is to point out the mistakes they made, you often give the target paralysis analysis, or force the target into other negative patterns as they overcompensate to correct the growing list of negative feedback.

Virtually no one can take a continuing stream of negative feedback absent of constructive, concrete recommendations without losing their confidence to continue or exacerbating their struggles by overcompensating with more negative patterns.

If your goal is to discourage the performer from continuing, okay. And you’re, at best, a terrible person. I will presume, however, that you have no such intentions.

Now, negative feedback doesn’t necessarily require corresponding positive feedback. But it provides the most value with an inversely positive recommendation that provides a path/plan of action, e.g. “This was the wrong approach because (whatever). This approach (or this one or this one….) works better.” Or, more specifically, “Don’t do (this). Do (that) instead.”

NEGATIVE: “You aren’t listening.”
POSITIVE: “Listen and respond to what your scene partner is specifically saying.”

NEGATIVE: “You’re talking over each other.”
POSITIVE: “Wait for your scene partner to finish speaking. Make succinct statements and be sure to finish them.”

NEGATIVE: “You keep focusing your conversations about a character off stage.”
POSITIVE: “Make your scene all about your relationship with the person on stage.”

NEGATIVE: “Don’t ask questions.” or “You’re asking questions.”
POSITIVE: “Make statements. Decide what is true yourself and say it.”

NEGATIVE: “You started another fucking transaction scene.”
POSITIVE: “Make the next cafe/supermarket/etc scene about the people in the scene.”

You may argue you’re stifling creativity or performer agency or whatever when you offer specific recommendations. However, you already run the risk stifling the individual when you cut down their current and prior actions, because you are also calling into question their decision making. Again, do it here and there, big deal. Most performers can roll with it and get the point. But do it often enough without a recommendation, and your call to question becomes an indictment of that individual or group, which will analysis-paralyze the performer and leave them frozen when it’s time to perform.

This leads to these important points:

1) The more negative feedback you give someone, the more specific you must be in recommending a course of action.

2) The more open you want a person’s subsequent decision making to be, the less specific negative criticism you should provide.

This is a difficult balance. You don’t want to give an individual who needs improvement the carte-blanche to continue doing sloppy work or following bad habits. However, you (probably) also don’t want to lock a performer into a formulaic approach that offers no room for creative license. Such is the talent of coaching, directing, teaching or otherwise mentoring.

But! If you’re going to tell performers, “Don’t do this. Don’t do this. Don’t do this,” or analyze every scene they do by telling them what they did wrong… they’re not going to have anywhere to go next time unless you tell them exactly what they should do instead. This puts YOU in a difficult position as the coach, instructor, director, etc… because you’ve painted them into a corner without giving them the tools to get out. Now, if you’re not going to provide them with those tools and instead drown them in negative feedback, you’ve now got to give them turn by turn directions out of the hole.

Conversely, if it’s important to you that the performer(s) be creative and make strong, independent decisions, it becomes very important not to cut down too many of their subsequent decisions. Open ended work is not going to be perfect, and to keep it open ended it’s important that the feedback not cut down too many of the decisions made. Yes, you need to point out things that don’t work, but again it’s important to either provide alternative directives, or to be broad and/or minimal (preferably broad) in what you criticize while providing actionable recommendations.

Do not consider this post a mandate. But don’t discard it either.

Brainstorming Conversations, and the deal with Harold openings

Recently in a (non-iO) class I was told that the opening and games in an iO style Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation.

Of course, in practice a typical iO Harold opening looks and sounds like a bad children’s show version of the Invocation. I’ve had players, both highly experienced and not so experienced, tell me over time that they find most iO Harold openings lacking, because of the default to this presentationally playful but otherwise banal version of the Harold opening.

Personally, I got used to seeing these Harold openings and didn’t think much of it, figuring iO Harold teams were told to do it specifically that way. But now that people bring it up, I see that a) no, they have the option of doing it differently yet b) choose to make this detrimentally default choice.

——

Why does it happen? Well, having seen quite a few Harold shows, I do vividly recall one key recurring factor: The opening music, regardless of which musician is playing, always tends toward this tinkly, childlike, Mister Rogers Neighborhood quality, which lends itself to the players on stage sliding into that child-style group game.

It would be very hard for the improvisers to do a more adventurous or otherwise divergent opening against that music. In fact, it would essentially be a denial of that musical initiation… even though the musical initiation has the problem of being pretty much the same exact initiation every time!

While I can understand the intent of playing that style of music, to avoid a darker or overtly serious opening that might take the audience out of their enjoyment or sap their energy level… the tone the current default sets also cuts off a myriad of other useful and interesting choices that could easily engage and entertain the audience.

I can also see wanting to avoid forcing a stylistic choice on the team by playing a stylistic musical riff. But the incumbent music ends up forcing a stylistic choice on the team’s opening anyway!

I realize I’m not a musician. But in Seattle, the improvised music (often on a keyboard or piano, just like iO and most Chicago theatres) sported a wider variety of musical styles and sounds. So it’s certainly possible to give Harold teams a greater variety of style and sound in opening music choices. I trust that the musicians here are capable of playing in many styles, and themselves are operating mainly out of habit.

I don’t think silence or otherwise eschewing the musician is necessarily the best alternative. Some non-iO houses do open sets without a musician, and many of these shows are great. But I do believe the musician’s input can add a lot of texture, environment and other value to the set if said musician is available. It only appears that input needs to have more variety.

——

In any case, regardless of the music, the bigger issue is that Harold teams tend to do the same half-baked opening, and then use that same approach for the group games… when they have the option and opportunity to do something more contextual and creative. The music is only one factor in why teams default to the same sort of choices every time.

It’s also hard to initiate a group choice players aren’t used to making, to quickly get everyone on the same page. I can see groups doing the same thing simply because everyone will immediately know what to do, whereas trying to quickly do, say, snap monologues or improvise a talk show or something else makes it harder for everyone to quickly get on board and yes-and the opener or game.

However! The statement I opened with sheds some light. The opening and games in a Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation. A brainstorming conversation. You take the suggestion and everyone, as theatrically as truthfully possible, bounces ideas derivative of that suggestion around until everyone feels good about starting a two person scene and taking off from there.

What if the players saw it as, and made it, that sort of creative yet truthful conversation? The child’s fever dream that opens most Harolds isn’t much of a sincere conversation. Everyone’s indicating and bullshit play acting. Truth in Comedy is iO’s goal, but there’s little truth or comedy in the conventional Harold opening.

As George Lewis would tell us in clown training, the harder you try to “be funny”, the less funny you are. Original and truthful is different, and probably will not only be funny but give the team more material from which to create scenes.

What if groups tried making the opening and games more of a conversation? For example, start by flocking into a couple groups through matching, and then having a group on group conversation, giving, taking, breaking and reforming as needed to bounce the idea around? Or someone initiating an actually crazy idea, and everyone yes-ands that? Or both?

That’s just an idea. I’m not saying I have the solution to Harold openings and games. I just know what we usually get is a half-baked solution that can easily be displaced and improved upon, until someday the sort of opening we see all the time today becomes a contextually original solution to someone’s set, instead of the same shit everyone does.

Tagged

How much work have I done in the performing arts?

Since coming to Chicago, I’ve kept on a spreadsheet for my reference a log of the number of hours I’ve practiced improv, as well as storytelling. My meticulously kept Google calendar allows me to do this: I not only keep a detailed schedule but go back and log how much time I actually spent on things, delete things that never happoened, add things that came up, etc.

This not only allows me to see how many active hours I’ve put into improv since getting here, but can also compare my time invested month over month.

As of today I’ve logged 168 hours of improv practice since moving to Chicago, as well as 33 hours of practice in storytelling. This only includes time spent practicing in class, workshops, practice, rehearsals and shows.

Time is logged under the following conditions:

  • Time logged does not include time seeing shows (though watching shows is valuable).
  • No duplication of hours. If a 2 hour practice mixes theatre and dance, I don’t count 2 hours for both. I split the bill and count each discipline as one hour.
  • For show performances, I only include the time I actually spent performing, e.g. if I did a jam and was only part of a 10 minute set, I only count 10 minutes, i.e. 1/6 of an hour (0.17 hours).
  • For tech rehearsals (which are more for designers and crew than for performers), I only count performance work I recall us doing. For most of these sessions, we maybe performed a few minutes outside of a cursory run through, though for some I recall having a full rehearsal before or after tech.
  • I also adjust time if I know part of a given session was not spent actively practicing, e.g. if I have a 2.5 hour class on the calendar but we started late, left early, or spent time addressing unrelated business, I don’t count the entire session. Thankfully, with older entries, I had already adjusted the time.

So, in a nutshell, the above totals are after these adjustments. I suppose I could have counted more time, but for the sake of authenticity, I err on the low side with any estimates. If there’s a session where we may have practiced 2 hours but I only remember practicing for one hour, I only count one hour.

In light of this, I recently went all the way back to 2010, when I returned to theatre after a long hiatus, and not only counted up those improv hours, but all the hours I spent practicing other theatrical disciplines.

This includes my experience in:

  • Conventional stage theatre (the thread through which I discovered improv!)
  • Clown Theatre
  • Stage Combat (I separated this out from theatre since the training involved specialized skill and choreography)
  • Dance
  • Storytelling

I went week by week through my entire Google calendar, which I’ve kept with airtight detail since mid 2010 (incidentally right before I returned to theatre).

——-

I logged a total of 1607 hours of performance art practice between September 7, 2010 (the day of my first improv class, the first performance anything I had done since Vegas)… and December 31, 2014 (the day after my arrival in Chicago).

540 of those 1607 hours (1/3 of total hours) came in 2011 alone. Over half of my theatre hours happened that year (217 of 426), as did the bulk of my stage combat training (72 of 98).

I engaged in practice with at least one performing art activity during 633 days (out of 1577 total between 9/7/10 and 12/31/14). That’s about 40% of the days of my life. Plus, that 60% of idle time includes several trips out of town (with no opportunity to practice), as well as large swaths of 2014 where I did no artistic anything while working hardcore to save up for my summer NYC trip and, later, my move to Chicago. When applicable, performance art was a part of the vast majority of my available Seattle life.

Improv: 277.5 hours

I’ve already logged 168 hours between January 2015 and today (and will probably log another 30 before month’s end), while the scope of my improv practice in Seattle over the previous five years (including sketch comedy work) only adds up to 277.

It was a lot harder to find opportunities to practice in Seattle; in fact, friends and I created Wonderland in part to give us a chance to practice. But at the same time, once I began working on dance and other fringe material, I did admittedly leave improv by the wayside. While I did see shows during this time, I logged zero improv hours in 2013, and a refresher course at Comedysportz Seattle was the only direct taste of improv action I had in 2014.

As of today, I have practiced improv a total of 445.5 hours. And counting! I realize for someone highly active in improv, that’s probably nothing: A player practicing improv 10 hours a week can amass over 500 hours a year.

Theatre: 426 hours

Over half of my theatre hours (216 to be exact) all came during 2011. I had the good fortune of working on several shows during this time, as well as extensive training in Meyerhold Biomechanics under George Lewis. This doesn’t include my clown and stage combat training during this year. 2011 was super busy!

Even though I left stage acting behind for more interesting stuff around 2012… I couldn’t really stop practicing theatre. My solo show was, once written, a theatre piece. Any sketch work I did required stage and acting work. Some of my Studio Current experiments during the Flower Season involved theatrical performances. These weren’t huge chunks, but I did amass 76 hours total after May 2012.

Also, this doesn’t include my undergraduate theatre work at UNLV from way back in the day, or anything I did in high school.

Clown Theatre: 186.3 hours

Most of this is the extensive training I experienced with George Lewis at Freehold Studio during 2010-2011, plus a handful of workshops. The piece that Ear to the Ground gave me the chance to do at Not All Clowns Are Bozos IV padded that total a bit, as did my work with Xan Scott on her fringe festival show Apocalypse Clown.

Stage Combat: 98.5 hours

Literally all of this was during Freehold’s year long Stage Combat program during 2010-2011, which culminated with SAFD certification in unarmed, broadsword and rapier/dagger staged combat. I’ve never had use for the certification itself and let it lapse in 2013. I still use bits and pieces of the training today, and the general discipline that Fight Master Geof Alm taught us is still a big part of all the work I do today.

Dance: 552.7 hours (!!!)

Bear in mind, with those dance hours:
– I had never so much as taken a modern/ballet/etc dance class in my life until 2012.
– I’m not counting ballroom dance, any dancing done in my free time for fun, or choreography done in theatre shows.
– This only counts clearly defined practice and performance of compositional or trained improvisational dance.
– I haven’t formally practiced dance anything since mid-2014.

For someone who isn’t a classically trained dancer and certainly does not look the part, that is a lot of dance practice.

I trained in modern, ballet, improvisational and jazz dance. At my best I could do intermediate level dance work. I was part of several experimental productions. I consider Danielle Agami and the Gaga approach to be among my biggest influences. I made a few dance pieces of my own. It taught me a lot about spatial awareness, presence and physical communication.

I may never do dance again, or I could make tons of dance pieces someday. As of now I’m focused on storytelling and improv, but you never know.

Storytelling: 66.4 hours

Only recently have I made a point to practice storytelling. I’ve done it over the years, but usually with minimal preparation. I also counted some of my Drawn Dead work in this, as I used storytelling to develop the show. I do think practice is underrated and important. Martin Dockery’s exceptional solo storytelling work is mostly practice, with little actual writing.

——

Some projects and practices didn’t fit neatly into either bucket, so consulting my relatively vivid memory of those experiences I approximated a split between the categories above. For example:

  • My work on my solo show Drawn Dead was at times an even split between storytelling and theatre work, but once I began rehearsing the practice was pretty much all theatre.
  • With Studio Current lab sessions, I usually counted half the time as dance, and omitted the other half since experiments and discussions were often so variable I couldn’t clearly count them as practice in any discipline. Occasionally, with some Plumages and events, I’d count a small portion of the time as storytelling or theatre, as some of my work dabbled in that.
  • Though they dabbled in many genres, I counted all of my practice and work with GENDER TENDER as dance, since that’s mainly what we did.
  • Sketch comedy is a weird mix of improv and theatre. I didn’t make a sketch category since my work with it wasn’t as frequent. For most of my sketch practice, I counted development/writing time as 50/50 improv and theatre, and all rehearsal and performance time as theatre (since once sketch is written, it is basically a stage play).
  • My Banana Obscura sessions with Ectal Greenhaw frequently devolved into delightfully weird (and occasionally very drunk) discussions, so I didn’t count most of that time. But I did count a quarter hour of improv and anywhere from that to an hour of theatre for the work we did do during our meetings.

——

So this invites a question: Did doing all this burn me out?

In itself, I don’t totally think so. It was an insane workload, especially during 2010-2011, as well as when you factor in all the shows I went to see during that span (I cut way down on seeing shows after 2011), as well as the fact that I was also running + doing yoga and Pilates during stretches.

But the thing that got me was that I got tired of working against the traditions and habits of these communities. While I had outlets that were receptive to my work, there wasn’t much of a venue or much support for what I wanted to do. While I also think I had a few connected enemies in the Seattle arts community, I don’t think they were nearly as big a factor as the overall attitude of the respective communities.

Seattle, despite its mainstream reputation, is not a particularly open minded or emotionally mature place, and those attitudes spill over into the arts community. Seattle artists, for all their talk and efforts about experimenting, simply won’t venture out of their comfort zones and many aren’t fond of anyone who challenges them. That’s a long story for another time, but rest assured it was a constant high pressure zone that I was spinning my wheels trying to work against. And this has chased a lot of other talented artists out of Seattle, not to mention many of my peers and colleagues.

But to sum it up, working in the performing arts is a labor of love that to some degree is always going to require a consistently busy schedule. It’s only worth the trouble if the effort gets rewarded, and what gradually happened is that across the board working in that community ceased for me to be sufficiently rewarding. Burnout for anyone is merely the overall realization and sense that what you’re doing is not rewarding anymore. I may have been satisfied had I lowered my expectations, but I wasn’t about to do that.

This may all be for naught, since the rapidly rising cost of living in tech-rich Seattle may be pricing much of the arts scene out of the city anyway. The clock’s been ticking on the fringe arts in Seattle for the last couple years.

But now I’m in Chicago, and now I’m once again working hard. And even now I hit a busy stretch and wonder, even when I’m having fun, if the strife and associated stresses are worth it.

An exercise like this took me back years and gave me brief flashbacks of all the painful moments, as well as the great ones. It led me to look at today and realize that, no matter how concerned I am for the future, today’s looking great.

And it’s a sheer raw-data look at how much work I have put in over the last five years, in so many disciplines. All of it has made me who I am today. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all totally been worth it and I have no regrets.

Why reinvent the wheel?

After a few days of rewriting a couple of Drawn Dead scenes from scratch, I re-opened the original script from 2013. Yes, I hadn’t looked at the original script since I closed the show in 2013. While I’m glad I rewrote the scenes I did, I came to a quick realization: Um, the show I wrote two years ago is actually pretty good. I don’t need to rewrite it much at all.

I have slowly parsed through this new version of the script, cleanup-editing parts here and there. I’m also cleaning up the language a bit: While it is an adult show, the likely core audience in Elgin this fall will likely be a bit older and conservative, so maybe dropping a bunch of four-letter bombs isn’t the best idea when other language will do the trick just fine.

I still see parts where a rewritten, more active scene works better than the quick-run storytelling I used in version one. Plus, the ending absolutely needs to be re-done. 2013’s ending worked just fine, but with a different audience I need to re-do it. So I still have some writing to do.

Still, it’s a relief to see most of the show needs no major changes, that I can invest most of my work in getting the show performance ready, re-doing the audio (which was a bit slapdash in the 2013 version), and marketing the show.

On intermittent fasting

So after about a week of intermittent fasting, I find that this is a good diet approach… IF you have a consistent schedule. The eat-within-an-8-hour-window schedule is harder for me to keep once evening shows/events and weekend classes came along. Preparing enough food for big meals the following day wasn’t possible. And you’ve got to eat sufficiently big meals: Eating whatever’s incidentally available doesn’t always nourish you enough to sustain you, especially if in theory it’s supposed to be your last meal for 16 hours. Intermittent fasting only works if you can eat big, satisfying and nutritious meals during the 8 hour feeding window.

The verdict: I still like intermittent fasting, and want to utilize that eating pattern wherever possible. If I can eat a big early dinner and not eat again until mid/late morning the next day, that’s a fat-burning win. It can certainly be done on the weekends. But, overall, it’s better to just eat a solid, sound diet overall and let good diet composition combined with regular workouts.