Monthly Archives: October 2015

Keys to making a big improv jam work

Chicago improv has a lot of drop-in jams. You have the CIC Blender on Sunday nights at 8pm. Annoyance has the student jam on Mondays at 9:30, and right down the street the Playground does the Mixer at 10:00. Second City apparently has a Thursday night jam I did not know about, as well as a Musical improv jam on Saturdays at 4pm. iO Chicago just started a monthly DiOversity Jam. Various shows will do rando invitational Mash Up jams.

Do enough improv, do enough jams, and you’ll run into telltale jam issues: Inexperienced players. Tag out runs happening 10 seconds into your two person scene. Aggressive players taking liberties and steamrolling. Large meandering group scenes. Having to do improv with That Guy. The fact that you only get 10-20 minutes as an unfamiliar group to improvise, and that’s it. Jams are a great place to do some improv but not typically a great place to practice great scenework or things you want to work on.

A lot of these issues can be addressed with Will Hines’ classic That Guy advice to GO TO THEM, engage the source of your issue, meet them on their level and bring them to a level you both can enjoy. When you run into an issue that takes you out of the moment, the sooner you can jump back into the moment, the better.

One major issue this doesn’t address is the subject of a big jam, where everyone wants to play but there’s only so much time to get everyone in… meaning everyone has to go up in big, separated groups. In many jams, even a group of more than 6 can be troublingly large for a 10-15 minute jam, but in many cases groups of 8-10 are common. In these situations it’s clear that it’ll be very hard to keep everyone involved, let alone ensure everyone can have fun.

These are important things to do in a jam with big groups.

– This is not the time for slow 2-3 minute two person scenes. Players on stage should just be blunt and get to the heart of whatever idea they want to bring to the scene right away. These scenes should be about a minute long, and/or should include as many players as is reasonable. Scenes with 3-6 people should be typical and encouraged.

– HOWEVER. Tag runs are often quite confusing for the younger performers you see in a jam, and a tag where anyone’s not on the same page can take multiple people out of a scene and kill its momentum. You are much better off just editing to a brand new scene with whatever idea you want to bring in, than trying to walk on or tag in and start a run, unless the game of a walk on run or tag run is very obvious.

– Matching is VERY important in group scenes. Everyone needs to match and take one or two sides in a group scene, whether everyone is collectively monologuing as a single point of view, or doing a scene as two contrasting and separate points of view. Any more points of view than that and people will absolutely get lost. Everyone playing a group scene should do their best to match energies in a group scene. It’s better improv and it’s more fun.

– Again, these scenes should be edited quickly, unless the majority of the group is on stage and everybody is clearly having a good time, or off-stage players can find some way to do a run of walk ons (again, usually not a good idea, and it might be better to just edit into a new scene).

– This may be useful for jams with prelim workshops like the Playground Mixer: If possible, try to do a basic workshop or primer on the above ideas: Quick scene establishment, quick editing, match into one or two points of view in group scenes. This way, players know of and have those tools and concepts at their disposal, better equipping them to jump in and have fun.

A jam with too many people can still be fun if you proactively take a sound approach to doing so. Hopefully, this will help improvisers do so.

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The Five Tools of Improvisation

On Reddit’s Improv subreddit there’s a discussion about what would be improv’s “five tools”.

Scouts in baseball will rate hitters on a scale of 20 to 80 (20 being a total lack of that ability, 50 being average among peers at that ability, and 80 being among the best ever at that ability) in five key aspects to playing baseball. In baseball those tools are:

  1. Running speed
  2. Arm strength
  3. Contact hitting
  4. Power hitting
  5. Fielding

While I find Reddit useful for information and ideas but generally abhorrent as a community, the post did make me think about what the five scalable tools of an improviser would be, how I’d rate players if I had to objectively rate them.

Much like how I conceived The Improv Diamond, I brainstormed ideas until I found they all revolved around five improv skills. In listing what I consider the five tools of improvisation, I also provide examples for what would be rated a 20 (rock bottom), a 50 (average for their peers) and an 80 (top level in this skill):

Cooperation. This person’s ability to yes-and stuff, and build character relationships. Also, how this person is for other players to work with. While those items seem separate, they do go together on several levels.

20 – Oblivious to what’s happening in a scene, in their head, and in their own world. A difficult person to work with.
50 – Builds well on what is introduced, with a focus on the relationship between their character and others. Invested as a player in what’s happening on stage, whether in rehearsal or in a show. No big problems working with this person.
80 – Present and aware of everything their scene partner does, treating every offer like a gift while building on it with their own gifts. People love working with this person. They have their shit on lock.

Acting. The thing actors do in theatre and film. The ability to demonstrate emotional investment in a scene and get people watching to believe that you are playing a character. The charisma to make an audience and players believe in you.

20 – Is always themselves on stage. Doesn’t react to things that happen in the scene. No real charisma. Audiences wonder what the hell this person is doing on a stage.
50 – Can buy into a scene and react accordingly to things that should affect that character. May be able to play some characters outside of their usual quality. Audiences don’t feel this person is out of place on stage, though they probably blend in with other such improvisers and only stand out if they’re in a group with weaker players.
80 – Can become a wide variety of colorful, amazing characters at will. Audiences are hooked by this person, and many pay/attend to specifically see them.

Risk. The courage and will to take initiative and make moves on stage. The lack of fear of making moves.

20 – Stage fright. You have to make that person go out and do a scene.
50 – Will readily initiate scenes and has little problem carrying a scene. May brush off offers to do riskier moves, but will readily provide what is needed.
80 – Will do or play just about anything.

Specificity. The attention to detail in a player’s dialogue, action, character choices, object work, etc.

20 – Vague, not at all clear, to the point where it seems like they’re waiting for the other person to establish details for them. No intent effort to provide any information about the scene, setting, characters or relationship.
50 – Consistently, clearly establishes who, what, where early in scene, and their offers establish or acknowledge details in the scene. Rarely do they give more than what is needed to make the scene work.
80 – Establishes things so clearly you and scene partners can see and feel where they are, what they mean, and they recall these details throughout the piece. TJ and Dave level attention to detail.

Intelligence. A player’s level of observation and knowledge about improvising. Seeing or knowing what to add or heighten in a scene to best serve a show, the sense of when and how to edit, etc.

20 – No real vision of what’s happened or is happening. At best they see and respond to what’s immediately offered to them. If queried about a show, probably has no idea or opinion beyond whether or not they liked it. They either lock up or make moves that clearly came from in their head rather than building on what was established.
50 – Can add needed moves or characters to a show. Choices add to the theme of the show rather than come out of nowhere. Can match or change energy of show as needed. Knows when to edit. Readily does all these things as needed. Can effectively observe, analyze and discuss moves made in a show, though they’ll leave any higher concept stuff to a coach or director.
80 – Easily, readily identifies the show’s arc and effectively collaborates with cast to build upon it. Always seems to make a great show-building move at the right time. Has such a high level grasp on improv that they should teach or coach others.

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Those are my five tools of a successful improviser. Your mileage may vary! But I believe a successful improviser should carry effective ability with cooperation, acting, willingness to risk, specificity and improvise with intelligence.

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You Look Like You’re In Your Twenties

Today I turn 37 years old. Thirty seven. I was born today in 1978 in Las Vegas, NV to a casino bartender and a casino cage cashier. I eventually grew up with seven siblings in adventurously shady and scorching hot East Las Vegas and after a childhood of creativity, writing, sports, video games and frequent dabbling in theatre and comedy I got to college and realized shortly thereafter that I was kidding myself if I didn’t pursue the performing arts except after dropping out in 1999 I kidded myself for about a decade, during which I moved to Seattle… and I’m getting off track

I’ve always had the blessed dilemma of looking younger than I actually am. From 18 until some point in my mid 20’s I’d get the dreaded “Is this a fucking fake ID you little shit” stare after a bouncer or bartender would check my driver’s license. As I passed through my 30’s the only sign of my aging is a little extra weight, the need to pace myself more, and two points on my front hairline that if you look at past photos of me you can tell have receded a bit. My face is maybe a touch weathered, but again not that much. As of now, I have no bald spot. Every now and then (and I mean once or twice a year) I get a weird crinkly gray hair that I pluck out (I actually found one yesterday!), but otherwise my hair is as dark brown as it was when I was a kid.

I practice and study improv with a bunch of twentysomethings, and I can run all over the stage, so everyone just assumes I’m their age. Most people are quite surprised when they find out my actual age. The title of this post comes from what they subsequently tell me.

Yeah, that’s a compliment. Yes, for the most part it does feel good knowing I look and act way younger than I actually am. Still, it’s a compliment I have as hard a time taking as a very attractive woman has taking, “You’re beautiful.” Yes, I appreciate the compliments as well as the benefits, but (as bad as this sounds) not only am I a bit tired of hearing it, but there’s some problematic side effects that do concern me and affect my quality of life.

– When you look young, older directors and performers look down upon and disrespect you more easily, figuring you’re a kid who has a lot to learn. This is more of a problem at work than in performance, partially because I create my own opportunities, so my artistic career isn’t at the mercy of casting directors. But it is an ongoing problem being in the performing arts as someone who has already burned through a lot of his youth. As a Chicago newcomer, curators, directors and such figure I’m in my 20’s, that “I’m not ready” for opportunities, and that I’ll “be ready” in 5-10 years, e.g. once I’m in my 30’s. Except not only am I already in my 30’s… I’m getting close to my 40’s. By the time someone might “be ready” to “take me seriously”, I may be “too old to keep doing this all the time”.

– (I realize the above, absent of a lack of ability or other accordant fit for a group or show, are just director excuses, that if someone’s looking for reasons to exclude you rather than reasons to include you, then they don’t really want to work with you anyway and maybe those pursuits aren’t worth your time. That said, there’s admittedly a lot of stuff I’d like to do and objectively would otherwise get to do but I may never get to do because I slip through the cracks of being too “young” for consideration yet too old to have the time to eventually get there.)

– I would love to perform forever but realize it’s possible I won’t be able to. In fact, several improvisers and comedians have dropped dead around this age and older (e.g. local comedian Horacio Ramirez recently did, and everyone knows that Jason Chin passed in January). You don’t see many improv performers practice regularly into their 40’s and 50’s; if they haven’t quit by that age, they mostly teach or direct. Fortysomething is usually the back wall on most players’ improv and comedy careers. I could try and be like baseball’s Julio Franco or Jamie Moyer, guys who played well after the age most players retired. But even they got to a point where the toll on their bodies wouldn’t allow them to do it anymore. The time I put into the performing arts now is valuable time not to be wasted, a challenge when people feel you’re young enough that wasting your time is okay.

– Dating is a problem. Women my age either settle down or want to settle down, get married, land a lucrative career, buy a house, get a dog and 2-3 children, and live the domestic life. That never minds singles my age either thinking I’m too young for them, or making the unfortunate mistake of finding me immature due to what I do with my life at this age. Their loss, sure, but it’s a hurdle. A bigger issue is that a lot of single women attracted to me are those same early/mid twentysomethings, who discover my age and (even if they don’t see those same issues I noted above) determine I am way too old for them. The challenge of meeting someone well adjusted and not-flaky that you’re attracted to, who is also clearly attracted to you, is compounded with a dilemma like this.

– While I take semi-reasonable care of myself, my body does feel every bit of those 37 years. Spoiler alert for the kids: Everything older people tell you about random things hurting, about getting used to feeling generally tired all the time, having to be more measured with your exertion and drinking, about valuing sleep and naps more, is all true.

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I realize a birthday is merely a calendar benchmark, there’s a lot to be grateful for, and there isn’t anything I mentioned that wasn’t true yesterday at 36 years 364 days of age.

And none of this is to say I look at today’s birthday with worry or anxiety. Overall, I feel pretty good about life, and I enjoy getting older way more than I loathe or fear it. I hope I can still do at 40 or 50 or 60 and beyond most of what I can do today.

My birthday is a welcome chance to bring all this up, since it changes the number in the age column and it turns out we all still take that number very seriously as a culture. It still significantly affects how we treat ourselves and how we treat others.

What To Do If Your Improv Team Has Little Practice Time

This is a continuation of the thread began here.

What To Do If You Have Little Practice Time

1. Regardless of your coaching level, if you teach, coach or direct improv, you will be short on time.
2. Physical ability improves play, so get your players in shape. Use motion and moving exercises where players improvise while moving.
3. Spend most of your time on individual skills (character, observation, object work, adding to what is established, edits, matching), where second for second you get the most improvement.
4. Squeeze in team skills before shows, e.g. the intro/get, striking chairs, group games, the curtain call.
5. Give homework. Do exercises in practice that players can repeat at home.
6. Make sure every player practices multiple two person scenes.
7. Don’t talk your players to death. Get them going and doing. Never leave any one person sitting for more than half an hour.
8. Plan practice and then time each exercise with your phone or (if available) a stopwatch.
9. If possible, have an assistant coach or instructor help out.
10. Use the time before a show to actually practice. If available, use intermission as well.
11. You don’t always need a stage or a meeting room to practice.

Counterproductive Beliefs

1. Being concerned with the show or audience will help us entertain them. No. Worrying about the audience isn’t going to make the show good, but using your abilities to create great scenes will. It only takes 5 minutes to figure out and adjust to a given audience’s expectations if players use their attention to detail to note how their audience is reacting.

2. To win an audience over I have to be clever and play to their tastes. Doing this without giving them a good show of your own is pandering! Referencing what the audience knows without skillfully building characters, relationships and scenes for them to care about is worthless, even detrimental. Committed attention to detail in establishing character + environment, and building strong relationships, makes for effective scenes and an effective show.

3. Running the set we’re going to do in the show is the best way to spend our time, because players will learn everything they need for the show itself. No, players will then just make the same mistakes in practice as they will make in shows. Without building their individual scenework skills, players can not be effective team players once under the lights before an audience.

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Sidney Goldstein, Basketball and Improv

Years ago I landed a copy of basketball coaching guru Sidney Goldstein‘s book The Basketball Coach’s Bible. Obviously, I’m not a basketball coach, though I was working on my hardwood skills at the time and found the drills informative.

Goldstein has a solid fundamental philosophy on developing basketball skills, one a lot of coaches don’t share. Most coaches recruit and play the best talent available, treat drills as a warm up and think that drawing up plays and running their players in scrimmages will make them better. Goldstein believes any player of any shape or size can learn and develop the skill to do anything with regular, proper practice. Goldstein for example says a 7 footer could learn to crossover dribble and hit a jump shot with practice, and the reason most can’t is because most coaches focus on having them stand near the hoop, rebound, block shots and dunk on people… and thus never teach them those other skills.

Most typecast the tall guy and then have him use the same small rudimentary set of skills, as well as typecasting the short guy to be the dribbling point guard who drives the lane, plays super low on the perimeter, etc. I bet a coach who would bother teaching players the way Goldstein does could create a great group or professional basketb- oh wait there’s a whole league full of people who do.

But I digress. I read through Goldstein’s topics, specifically his Advice to New Coaches, and couldn’t help notice parallels to learning and teaching effective improv. Both basketball and improv are active skill based endeavors that for any preparation has to be done in the moment on the fly, where a combination of execution and creativity determines success.

Seven Ideas That Will Make Your Class, Show or Group More Successful

1. Don’t let your players practice bad habits in practice. Remember: if your players practice negative habits, then they become experts at those negative habits. If you must, keep scenes and exercises simple and build upon simple improv to keep players practicing with positive habits. Institute restrictive rules during individual sessions if needed e.g. you must move when speaking, only say one sentence at a time… or use a short form game like New Choice as an in-scene coaching tactic.

2. Don’t try to do it all! Focus on fundamentals, on how they perform and develop 2-person/group scenes, how they edit, how they make moves and how they improvise from source material. If they can’t do the simple things effectively, the bigger picture is going to cave in anyway. You don’t need to synthesize skills. A player will learn more involved skills in only minutes after properly executing individual ones. Often, with a fundamentally sound and practiced team, practicing the overall form is the easy part.

3. Don’t focus too much on doing full runs in a session. Learning not only follows repetition, it follows rapid or consecutive repetition. In a full run of a form or show, you do not achieve this type of practice because a player may only get to make a given move once or twice in a set, or may only get 1-2 solid scenes. In a scene or exercise, a coach can watch each individual’s work closely. A coach watching 6-10 players in a game probably won’t have opportunity to correct or even detect most mistakes.

4. Build from the bottom up. Stick to having players respond to what has just been said or done in the moment, building on existing information in lieu of inventing new information. More complex stuff like callbacks, deconstruction and expansion are a bigger picture extension of this skill, and if they don’t do the first thing well, they’re not going to nail the other stuff. Always start with and focus on building upon the moment.

5. Condition your players. Conditioning makes a difference, and man are a lot of improvisers not in shape.  In the last few minutes of a set, conditioned teams miss fewer opportunities and do more cool shit faster than poorly conditioned teams. Conditioned players are better performers. All conditioning should involve improv skills. Want to have players run around the room? Okay whatever, but have them pass a phrase or do a two person scene this way or something.

6. Write down your practice plan. Yes, a lot of good teachers and coaches already do this. Yes, Mick Napier famously is amazing at his job without doing it. But generally, you can get 5-10 times more from your players if you plan. Plan for the day, week, month, and season. All but daily planning involves deciding when to introduce particular skills. It’s okay if you don’t stay exactly on schedule. Some skills, like edits, two person scenes and adding to the moment, need to be practiced every session. Others can be practiced every other session. Many team skills, especially full sets, can be postponed. Make sure your plan keeps players involved all the time, not sitting and waiting for other scenes and players to finish.

7. Give homework. Players can and should practice skills at home, even if another player is not available. Consult Mick Napier’s Improvise for solo exercise ideas. Have your players see shows and report back. Assigning homework yields remarkable results. Homework assignments should follow what you do in practice, not involve new material.

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That’s one example. There will be others I share later.

As always, you’re totally free to take this with a grain of salt. It’s food for thought.

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An Improv Idea: The Scene Portal

The Scene Portal is a variation of the Swinging Door, i.e. a dual-scene mechanic where a player in the middle stands or otherwise ends up between two players, then alternates between both of those outside players in playing different scenes.

The one twist with a scene portal is that any of the middle person’s lines can be relevant to *both* scenes. If the middle person says a line to one player, the outside player can respond to that line as if it were said to him/her, and the line becomes relevant to their scene. This of course can get quite fun the more out of context the line is to the outside scene.

This doesn’t mean that *every* line the middle person says in one scene is relevant to the other player’s scene. A line only becomes relevant to the other scene if the player outside of the scene responds to it and swings the middle person around.

In effect, the Scene Portal is a swinging door scene where any given line can provide a portal for the central character between the two scenes. The portal definitely spans space, and can also span time.

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