Monthly Archives: August 2015

Warm Up With Commitment

I had a class with Pad Connelly, and during a class warmup he made a very good point, which probably gets to the root of the problem I have with warm ups in general.

He advised everyone during a mildly complicated pass-the-name exercise to speak and act with total conviction, even if we weren’t entirely sure we were acting correctly.

His inference: The point of a warmup is to get you into a higher-energy place for scenework, and too often people see a warmup as That Thing We Always Do Before We Get To The Real Shit… in turn missing the point of the warmup, which is to get you in a higher-energy place to maximize your time and energy doing ‘The Real Shit’. So really, the purpose of the warmup is not to effectively execute the warmup. The purpose is to get you actively ready to do what you’re about to do.

Pad made a great point. An effective warmup ultimately comes down to whether people engage those warmups with commitment. Often the reason players aren’t ready to go after a warmup isn’t necessarily because the warmup sucked, but people’s commitment to the warmup sucked, or their commitment in general sucks. That’s not necessarily going to change if you do a better warmup. Often, the warmup doesn’t need to get better. The attitude and approach needs to get better.

In general, I still stand by Elia Mrak’s POV and the SAID principle when it comes to warmups. I think the best warmups are those directly relevant to what you’re actually going to do in a scene.

That said, I’ve found there’s hardly ever any need to argue about it. I have no problem doing the warmups which classes, coaches and teams rather we do instead. If it gets everyone going and feeling good, then great. I tend to slide into go-time pretty easily, so I’m fine with doing a silly pass the whatever game with commitment.

Still, people follow their curiosity, and if a scene-based warmup gets people more into the mode of doing scenes (since after all you’re warming up by doing actual scenes), then it may be better for a group than the typical warmups… especially if the group tends to struggle out of the usual warmups.

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Me and The Second City

Let me tell you a story. Back in early 2000 my best friend and I had a plan to move to Chicago, study at Second City and become stars or something similar. We both flew an ill advised redeye flight from Vegas to Chicago, stayed at a Sleep Inn near Midway, and at some point paid Old Town and the famed Piper’s Alley theater a visit to see the e.t.c. revue du jour… possibly a Best Of revue given my memories match some classic SC material (I’ve been told).

Having not done anything other than high school theater and screw-around sketch back in Vegas, we were blown away at the cabaret seating with dinner service, and the flawless polish of the entire show combined with the living breathing performer enthusiasm for their comedy.

In that long 90 minute moment I felt… ‘to hell with SNL’. This was the living, breathing dream of comedy, everything I could ever want to feel and live on a stage… right here on this stage. I totally loved it. Despite the daunting challenge of living in hard knock Chicago, I was ready to go, where do I sign, when do I start….

But my best friend was also rattled by our rough experience Chicago, not having dealt with the street life as much as I had to date, and finding the potential costs too much to bear. I shook off the street harassment, our experience on an ill-advised-in-hindsight bus ride down Garfield Blvd, the high price of housing, the challenge of finding a job to afford such housing, the pain in the ass of getting around.

But he was suitably discouraged (after our connecting flight’s cancellation left us stranded overnight in Columbus, no less… looking back, for a trip I enjoyed, it sure was a shit sandwich of a trip). Shortly after we returned home, he called it off. Without him joining me, I couldn’t afford to make the move.

I shook it off figuring at the time I’d do it at some point. It turns out I didn’t make the move for 14 years. And for most of those 14 years I figured I wouldn’t ever do it… before I actually did it this past winter.

However, hindsight shows taking the plunge in 2000 might have been a terrible mistake. We could not have afforded the places we had viewed. The job market, even if it was kind to us, wouldn’t have given us much chance to do so. My 2015 street smarts indicated 2000 Me would have probably been mugged and/or killed due to lacking awareness. Life at best would have been a broke and miserable slog, and I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been able to afford to train at the Second City in those circumstances. And I probably would have froze to death during winter.

Most of all, the life path I ended up actually taking taught me a ton of life lessons and skills which helped me become at the least a fairly good and original performer. Armed with virtually none of those lessons and skills in 2000, I imagine my Second City experience, if I could have afforded it, wouldn’t have gone at all well. I would have been (despite my sense of humor) a hair above adequate in basic improv classes, and there was probably no way I would have gotten into Conservatory or beyond. I’d imagine I would have, at best, bounced around for a few years doing barprov and random sketch groups, and then given it up. More than likely, I probably would have done nothing for a while and then given it up. I simply was not ready for Second City, or for Chicago’s improv and sketch scene.

Forever and a couple days passed before I approached the comedy summit again. I didn’t take a single improv class until 2010, and over the years had an on again off again relationship with sketch. Once in it took years of practice and lessons to get passably decent at either. I got back into theatre, and took up clown/dance/solo-theatre/experimenting/storytelling/etc over the next four years. It all turned me into an uncanny jack of many performance trades. Once I finally took the leap to Chicago at the end of last year, I had the tools to hit the ground running and make the strides I have since.

In the interim I discovered iO and Annoyance and other Chicago options. Mick Napier’s Improvise remains to this day the single biggest influence on my improvisation. By the time I arrived in Chicago, Second City, once my dream destination, became the farthest thing from my mind. Somewhat ironically, my friend and roommate moved here to study at the Second City Conservatory. But I had learned the other schools offered the improv education and opportunity I was looking for, and have been pretty happy with what I’ve experienced since.

A grease fire in the downstairs Adobo Grill spread into the Second City offices onto the roof, and caused serious damage.

A grease fire in the downstairs Adobo Grill spread into the Second City offices onto the roof, and caused serious damage.

Still, I retain my respect for Second City, still enjoy the theater’s work, and the point of all this is to say, on top of what’s been a shit sandwich of a day for me personally, it made me sad to learn a downstairs fire caused extensive damage to their Piper’s Alley office, lobby and facilities.

Thankfully, the stage spaces were mostly undamaged, and no one at the theater was hurt. I’ve passed the point of putting a theater on a pedestal of dreams, though I hope to find the chance to work with Second City someday. I don’t want to see this happen to any decent theater, I do have friends who work in and with the theater, and I hope this little disaster is an opportunity for them to rebuild new and improved facilities.

A Monthly Repertory of Shows works for NYC improv, and could work for your theater too

Check out the schedule for NYC’s Peoples Improv Theater and UCB Chelsea. First of all, yes, there’s a sizable volume of programming and that has a lot to do with NYC’s teeming volume of audience and talent. This sort of loaded schedule is the only way to get a lot of them in.

When I visited these theaters, the midweek shows sold well, and not just because NYC is big and full of improv fans. I saw a monthly Harry Potter themed show turn away people at the door, as well as several other monthly themed shows.

Most theatres with nightly programming tend to run the same shows each week, or multi week runs of the same show on one or more nights. Several of these runs tend to sell fewer tickets, while some runs sell very well. Many lament the difficulty of promoting the show and getting butts in seats, but the NYC Improv model illustrated in the above calendars speaks to a key difference: Most theatres run the same shows over and over again, while the NYC theaters spread many monthly shows throughout the calendar.

Yes, the NYC theaters still have weekly flagship shows (Magnet Theater runs a more Chicago-like schedule of weekly shows and weekly headliners with guest groups). I also recall that the Magnet off-night shows were more lightly attended, despite being a popular NYC improv theater on par with UCB and the PIT as well as having a smaller venue.

I suspect that UCB and PIT’s monthly repertory had as much to do with their lucrative off-night houses as the vast NYC audience and improv community.

Show demand for a monthly show doesn’t get stale from repeated runs. If you miss a weekly show or a show in mid-run, you know there’s several more performances coming soon. You can go tomorrow night or next week. If you miss a show that only runs on the 2nd Tuesday of the month, you can’t see the show again until at least next month. If you’re a fan of the show, there’s incentive to save the date on your calendar and make sure you’re able to see it that night.

This also means you don’t have to cultivate nearly as much of an audience as you do for a multi-week show. You’re only filling one date a month instead of several. You only have to worry about getting enough asses in seats for that one show each month, instead of having to find enough asses in the seats for a show… multiplied by the number of shows in a month. There’s less of a likelihood of playing several empty houses.

You probably sell more seats for several differently monthly shows on, say, a Thursday, than you do for one show playing every Thursday night in a month. Each of those shows has its own individual demand, fills its own niche, and each cast has its own potential audience to draw from. But if you do a weekly Thursday show, that single show’s people now have the pressure of finding people to fill their seats for ALL those nights. Few will come back to see the show again, and many will easily skip shows knowing there will be other shows the following weeks.

The NYC theaters have developed many, many groups and themed shows they can run monthly. It also allows its players more freedom. Instead of being tied down to a show that’s running once or many times a week for a while, they only need to perform that show once in a month, and now have the time to explore and perform in other projects (and while yes they ought to rehearse for that show between performances, they are also free to, say, take a couple weeks off and then come back to rehearse 2-3 times before the next show). Performers can now actively explore working on multiple shows without overwhelming their schedules.

You can give a single production a 3-6 month run of shows on a given day of the month, e.g. the 1st Tuesday night, the 4th Wednesday night, the 3rd Sunday at 7pm, whatever. If they love it and it’s doing well, you extend it, and if it’s not you can sunset the show with a final performance and then replace it next month with a new monthly show.

If you’re concerned about the lack of freedom to allow emerging or experimental groups/productions the chance to perform a show, you can have them open for a given show. In fact, if you want to give a group a multi week run, you can have them do a brief opening set for, say, *every* Tuesday show that month, or for several different midweek shows during the month. Even if the group’s not good, you still have the quality monthly show headlining. If they ARE good, then you can explore sunsetting one of the lesser monthly shows and moving the new group into headlining the monthly slot. This also gives them the freedom to perform as a group elsewhere in-between shows.

Now, if you have a lucrative weekend show that always fills the house, you can still run that weekly at 8pm or 10pm on Friday or Saturday. That shouldn’t change. This is about finding off-night programming that will actually, consistently fill seats.

Chicago’s improv community has enough of a demand and market to fill a house seven nights a week. Many theaters who do 7-night programming struggle to fill the house on off-nights. A NYC style monthly repertory of shows could help them do so.

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Not pet peeves, but things I don’t care for as a performer/director

At the risk of sounding like an existentialist hipster, I think I’ve gotten past having pet peeves. The things I found annoying now fall into two buckets:

1) It’s annoying but not a big deal at all, so no big deal.
2) It’s stupid and I need to do something about it now.

Nonetheless, here are five big things I don’t care for, as a performer, peer, director, teacher, whatever. To be fair, a lot of other respected performers and directors don’t care for these either, and will probably give you a harder time about it than I will. But as Will Hines said about his pet peeves, these are personal things for me and by no means a comprehensive list of absolute behaviors.

– People who show up late to class, rehearsal or practice.
– People who don’t take rehearsal/practice seriously.
– People who aren’t good yet don’t push themselves at all in class.
– People who ask too many questions instead of just doing it and seeing what happens.
– The phrase “break legs”.

Caveats

– “Break a leg” is similarly silly but okay. “Break Legs” is not only superstitiously dumb but it’s lazy. You’re saying “I don’t have time or energy to wish each of you individually well”. Fuck off and get out of our dressing room, then.

Seriously though, I prefer “Have fun!” because if this isn’t fun then why the fuck are we doing it? Then again, I also don’t freak out when people say “Good luck” or “Macbeth” because I’m not superstitious.

– In fact: People get hurt more during productions of Macbeth because there are more fighting and death scenes in that play than any other Shakespearean play, not because of some mythical curse that activates when you say the play’s name. More fight scenes and usage of knives? More risks of injury.

– Asking questions isn’t bad in general. If you don’t understand an exercise and need clarification, yes, ask.

– It’s when you’re wasting valuable class/rehearsal time asking five detailed, honestly unnecessary follow up or discussion questions that you’re missing the point of doing the exercise. Learning, especially in performance art, is about doing instead of being told how to do it. If you’re knee deep in an exercise, aren’t embarrassing yourself, and you’re not comfortably sure about things, that probably means you’re experiencing something new. Keep doing it and your questions usually get answered.

– I don’t have a problem sharing class, workshop or whatever space with people who aren’t especially skilled or charismatic. I was a beginner once, and we all were. We all have potential, and I’ve seen some dreadfully dull and lifeless beginners become great performers with practice.

– BUT. If you’re just walking on stage and being your usual self, and not challenging yourself to play outside of your comfort zone for even a minute, you’re wasting your time, your scene partner’s time, your instructor/coach’s time and the time of everyone watching. Don’t let Malcolm Gladwell fool you: Growth is not going to just magically happen if you just go through the motions of doing it. It takes deliberate practice playing at levels greater or otherwise different than you currently are. Our comfort zones feel good and pushing out of them feels scary, sometimes shitty. But you’re not going to change unless you push through them.

– It’s one thing if you’re shoveling food in your mouth at the start of rehearsal because you had no time before getting here and it’s the only thing keeping you from hangrily killing us all. It’s also one thing for us to have a spontaneously funny moment during class or rehearsal. This isn’t to say ‘no fun ever’ or ‘do not deviate’. This is to say that when you walk in, you’re treating the work we’re gonna do and our time here like it matters. Nothing sinks morale quite like the clear vibe that people aren’t really into what we’re doing.

– Obviously, being late now and again should not be a big deal. Having an arrangement to come in late should be fine as long as there’s an agreement and it doesn’t interfere with the work. But doing it all the time is not only disrespectful, it undermines the work of the director and people who did show up on time. It also delves into ‘I do not take this seriously’ territory.

The Greatest Year Of Your Life (?)

Right now I am in the middle of what some instructors have told me is “the greatest year of your life.” Like every experienced improv newcomer to Chicago, I’m knee deep in the year or so of classes at one or more of the big schools. I’m halfway through the iO and Annoyance programs, and currently on a team at One Group Mind. Together with a handful of closer classmates I’ve tested the waters on doing some off-night improv sets at many theaters and bars. Right now I’m practicing improv anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week.

One big recurring thought, realization, I keep having, especially as I take the long view on my forthcoming schedule, is that this hyper-active improv experience will probably end. My iO 5B session, should I stay on track, will conclude in late February, followed by a 7 week Sunday night run with my class. Should I get the fortunate chance to study with Mick Napier at Annoyance on my first try (his class is a difficult one to get in), that too will conclude in February.

As great as it would be to continue with one of the post-grad programs, i.e. the Chicago Improv Den, CIC, Second City Conservatory, the likely answer is I not only will probably take a break from classes, but I’ll probably want to take a break.

– They’re not cheap. Each class is $225-300, payable every couple months. Personally, money wise, I’m treading water. This is WITH the cost of classes and dues, so losing that expense may be good for my budget.

– As good as making such a large commitment has been, I also risk burnout if I don’t scale back. I don’t want to totally break from improv: I enjoy it and still want to practice. But I also want to make time for other things in life. Vacations are hard to take when you’ve got weekly classes you don’t want to miss.

– I’ve always believed and still believe that you shouldn’t train for too long an uninterrupted period. It’s good to train, then take some time away and practice on your own. Too many students become class addicted and never break away, never develop on their own and eventually cease to progress. I think a year and change is a good uninterrupted time to intensively study and develop before breaking off.

The practice has been great for me. I’ve not only learned a lot from the classes I’ve taken, but it’s compelled from me a commitment to a practice and a community that I enjoy.

Obviously, presuming I remain with One Group Mind, I won’t completely break away. Being in an ensemble is an important ambition of mine and Sosa Mimosa allows me to retain a weekly practice commitment.

But not only is the end of “The Best Year of My Life” not such a bad thing, I would hope the years to come are better than this, that I continue finding and creating opportunities to perform. I realize people in 5B will feel some pressure, but I don’t plan to worry much about the long odds of making a Harold team. Whatever happens will happen and I still plan to have a future in improv one way or another.

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Confronting Your Improv Problems

I like to think of myself as someone who can improvise well with anybody, and to my relative delight I’ve gotten compliments throughout my time in Chicago for my ability to have great scenes in class/jams/sets/etc with players who (will remain nameless and) are difficult for others to work with.

I didn’t decide on this recently. It’s one of the first improv goals I set for myself, dating back to my time improvising in Seattle. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a class, group or show where we didn’t have one or more people that people didn’t like performing with due to inabilities, character issues or other bad habits.

Will Hines did a fabulous job describing and addressing the most common dilemma my classes and groups ran into: That one difficult performer that dragged everyone down, aka That Guy.

I always lent an ear to my peers’ concerns and complaints about That Guy (or That Woman). But I always approached scenes with That Person as a challenge to myself, doing my best to make a decent scene with this person.

One of my heroes growing up was the wrestler Ricky Steamboat, not just because he was a talented and charismatic wrestler who wrestled legendary matches, but because I learned after he retired that whenever he was paired in throwaway non-televised matches with poor wrestlers, he would personally challenge himself to have the best match possible with that guy. And despite no expectation or reward other than doing his best for everyone, Steamboat and those guys would tear the house down in a terrific match, often the best match his opponents ever worked.

This in turn inspired in me the mindset that, whenever I had to do work with weak or limited performers, I would play the best scenes I could with those performers and make us all look as good as possible. I figured it would make me better, and whether or not it made those troublesome scene partners better, at least they could hopefully enjoy playing in a great scene.

I didn’t always succeed at first, mostly because when I started actively doing this I was still a newcomer learning improv.

When I got back into practice in Chicago, I surprisingly found myself having more fun in scenes and feeling less self conscious with these ‘difficult’ players than I did with better players I enjoyed watching and performing with.

It reflects how I approach a lot of serious issues and problems in my life. Usually, when I’ve got something that needs to get addressed, I confront it, whether it involves another person or it involves myself. This approach (while not one I ALWAYS use; some circumstances make it a bad idea) has solved a lot of problems for me, and it’s an approach that I recommend when people share issues or concerns with me.

It’s also an approach people don’t like, for the same reasons kids don’t like getting shots: The idea of confronting your fear seems painful. Sometimes confronting the source of your issue is as painful as suspected, but often it not only isn’t painful, it’s quite a relief once you do it because it wasn’t as bad as you made it out to be.

In any case, I appreciate Will Hines’ putting into words the approach I’ve tried to follow as much as reasonably possible.

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