Monthly Archives: February 2016

Little things that tend to take the air out of improv scenes

I’ve taken a lot of notes in improv classes, shows and practices lately… not just on things I learn, but also observing and noting some moves that several current instructors have noted tend to let the air out of scenes.

– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future
– Entropy, aka silences caused by indecision and inaction
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”.
– Something I like to call “Almanacing”: An uncharacteristically itemized discussion of details in a character’s history. Examples: “I graduated law school from Harvard” or “He left home two years ago and we’ve been living all alone since.”
– An unclear relationship between the characters… not so much establishing the base relationship like “mother-daughter” or “coworkers”, but establishing the contextual heat and weight of how the two characters get along, e.g. whether they like or hate each other, how one feels about or affects the other, how they commonly interact, etc.
– Debating “fake facts”: Two characters arguing who did what or what is or isn’t true, in lieu of moving the scene forward through exploring their relationship.
– Bailing on your character’s essential action. This is not necessarily conceding an in-scene conflict, which can be done while still maintaining a character’s essential action or point of view. A bail is usually out of character and clearly a choice of the performer rather than the character.
– Bargaining and transaction scenes.
– Two people who don’t know each other at all, instead of a scene with two people who do know each other well.
– Qualitative platitudes, e.g. “I love _____” or “The best _____ ever” or “I hate _____”.
– A character’s lack of an essential action, or what some call the objective. It’s the thing motivating and driving the character in that scene. It’s an important element of acting, and important to improv too, whether or not improvisers practice it. (The essential action is also a key way to avoid “corpsing”, aka breaking into laughter during a scene)

Over the last week I have watched improv scenes and sets while, without tracking any performer names or even much about the scenes themselves… writing down any instances of the above situations occurring. I even wrote them down for my scenes afterward, and I certainly made a few of them myself.

I wrote instances down whether the scene was going great or going buh, even if they were parts of really good moves. I only noted the moves to see how often these instances occurred, not to judge any of the scenes or performers.

So far, four particular moves have risen above the others:

– Meta commentary: Talking about objects in the space, about tasks that you’re doing, about yourself i.e. “I am the type of person that ______”
– Talking about people outside of the scene
– Talking about the past
– Talking about the future

Almost all the other items in the larger list happened with some regularity (about 10-15 times in the scenes I’ve surveyed the last couple weeks). Scenes where people don’t know each other have only happened twice out of the dozens of scenes I’ve watched during this study.

However, the four items I noted above occurred 30-40 times. And the good news is they all can be addressed by focusing on one simple thing: The current relationship in the moment between the characters on stage. This has in turn helped me focus on avoiding the listed habits, and countering with more present and connected moves. This exercise also gives me a helpful point of focus in watching scenes, making the exercise of watching classmates or so-so show scenes a more interesting and fruitful one.

Rather than be paralyzed by such a laundry list (incidentally, Mick Napier has an exercise where he cuts off scenes whenever anyone does any of these things), it helps reinforce the importance of the moment, of essential actions and the character relationships on driving a fruitful and fun scene.

I’ll continue this survey over time, and see if any other trends emerge.

Should this be the last Facebook Event post I make?

Yesterday I posted a Facebook event for a show run, despite my stated reservations about posting such things. Around that time, Shithole‘s Zach Bartz made a great FB post echoing the sentiment of my hollow but somewhat compulsory move.

If that advice sounds familiar, that’s because people like Dan Goldstein have been giving that advice for two decades.


Make as many invitations personal as you can. I don’t mean use mail merge. I mean let people know, in indiviudal emails, about the show.

Yet we don’t take that advice… definitely not on Facebook, where sending invites and making posts feels productive even when it isn’t.

The Facebook invite is something most of us (myself included) feel we need to do, that no one will notice or care if there’s not some sort of Facebook datum about it. Even the Shithole themselves at least post an image on Facebook and other social media advertising their shows the day of (though as Zach attests they message people if they wish to send out invites; I’ve received many of their invites via PM myself).

What would have happened had I not posted a Facebook invite? What would have happened had I just PM’d everyone I wanted to see the show?

The likely result: With two weeks notice, chances are people would have quickly forgotten by the nights of the show, unless I became obnoxious and sent unsolicited follow up messages. And the law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly with unsolicited PM/email invites: One is great, two comes across as borderline harassment.

The Shithole (who I feel does this just right) sends one message for special shows to known interested parties, the day of. And keep in mind the common argument against doing this: People make plans and often if you give them a morning’s notice they’ll already be booked.

But Shithole’s vast community is the same community as yours and mine. All these people have plans and busy schedules. And the guys still fill up their secret venues with spectactors. A morning’s notice has always been more than enough to bring in more than enough friends and peers.

Granted, there are other factors that separate most shows’ situations from theirs. Shithole is free (donations welcome). Shows typically charge admission. Even as little as a $5 ticket price can deter someone who would have otherwise attended had it not cost anything to enter.

Also, admittedly there’s a huge cool-factor in attending Shithole. It’s an underground show in a secret location. A free underground show run by notoriously awesome people who care about the community is a lot cooler than a $10 not so underground show hosted by people who, nice or not as nice, don’t share that same rep.

Had I waited until the day of to invite people, it’s more likely people would have not have been able to attend, or wouldn’t have wanted to… especially with it costing $10 to walk in the door.


So, there are totally contextual differences that make the approach more challenging for shows. At the same time, Zach is still completely right. Facebook invites ARE annoying and we have demonstrated history that they AREN’T effective. And messaging people directly to extend an invite has always been more effective than using a social media interface to send blanket invites to everyone you have a connection with in that social media platform.

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I didn’t like how I looked and felt, so I did something about it

At the end of 2015 I noticed some problems.

– I was overweight by about 10-20 pounds.
– I had high blood pressure that was getting dangerously high
– I felt like shit all the time
– Whether or not I got sick, I freqeuntly felt unwell
– I have always snored but recordings indicate it had gotten worse, plus my dad had developed sleep apnea and genetics indicate that’s where I’ll head if I don’t fix it.
– I didn’t like how I physically looked
– I was spending too much money on food
– Physical activity I used to do with little problem left me breathing hard
– I’m getting old, to a point where I need to be mindful that my body won’t just bounce back from neglect and that it’s only going to get more difficult
– I’ve always wanted to look better than I do.
– I have a busy lifestyle and can’t afford to get sick or slow down further

So what did I do?

– I actively started tracking everything I eat on a spreadsheet and total the calories and macros.
– I used that same workbook to plan future meals.
– I set a firm goal to lose 25 pounds by the end of the year. I weighed 185 so I want to get to 160.
– I set a soft goal to eat no more than 2300 calories a day.
– I avoided alcohol except for special occasions.
– I set a soft goal of no more than 200 grams of carbohydrates a day.
– I set a firmer goal of 120 grams or more of protein, preferably one gram per pound of lean body mass (140-145 pounds for me, so 140g).
– I set a goal of 4500mg of potassium a day. Your body needs potassium and we typically don’t get close to enough.
– I adopted Leangains style intermittent fasting, where I eat all the day’s food in a 4-10 hour window, and seek at some point to go 14-16 hours without a meal.
– I don’t drink coffee after 2pm on back to back days. If I do it one day I make sure not to do it the next.
– I shop for and eat potatoes, spinach, egg whites and chicken.
– I cook meals at home whenever it works with my schedule.
– I don’t buy/eat any food I cannot accurately log on my spreadsheet.

Since then:

– I’ve lost 9 pounds and counting.
– I feel a lot better. I have a lot more energy.
– Eating actually got easier with all the tracking, since planning meals around my schedule reduces the need for impulse decisions, and IF means I typically skip breakfast.
– I’ve cut my food and discretionary spending by 1/3, even while ordering out a bunch.

Would I specifically recommend anything to people who want to improve their diet and lose weight?

– At the very least, consider Leangains style intermittent fasting. Fasting over 12 hours fires up regenerative hormonal processes that will help rebuild your body and burn extra fat.

– Start cooking with coconut oil instead of butter or any other oils. The MCT fats and anti-fungal properties are super good for your digestive system and heart health. One tablespoon is usually all you need on the stovetop.

– If you’ve got to use any other oil, I’d recommend pressed sesame oil. Good taste and devoid of a lot of the bad shit in other oils. You can even pour a raw tablespoon into dishes and eat it as is.

– Honestly, if you can log your food, you should. Start a log. Take a week to figure out how much you eat, and then do a diet with 500 fewer calories a day than usual.

– Generally drink nothing except water, coffee and tea. Save alcohol for one night a week at most.

– If nothing else, eat a lot of protein. Protein is a key rebuilding block for our bodies and we often don’t get enough of it. Beef (lean cuts), chicken thighs/breasts, pork loin.

– If you’re a vegan, learn to love lentils, spinach, rice and beans. They are the four richest animal-free protein sources. Nuts are okay, but many people’s bodies don’t react well to them (mine doesn’t), and they’re more fat than protein anyway.

– Don’t eliminate carbs, but certainly eat less of them. I set a range of 100-200 grams a day. Most people eat several hundred grams a day. Unused carbs get stored as fat. At the same time, your body’s organs need carbs to function well. Don’t eliminate them, but set a bar of about 100-200 grams a day and stick to it.

– Don’t worry so much about how much dietary fat you’re taking in. A lot of ‘fatty’ foods are bad because they contain excess carbs or an excessive number of calories in general, and seem bad because people who eat them tend not to eat other healthy foods that your body needs, hence the health problems. If you’re eating a balanced diet and not too many calories, you can eat a lot of dietary fat and be just fine.

– If you’re not already walking at least 30 minutes a day, you should start.

– If you already walk 30+ minutes a day, I’d make a point to walk an extra 20-30 minutes, or take up a basic exercise program.

I could recommend a lot else, but that’s probably more than enough.

Marketing and Show Promotion

Like most performance arts, improv suffers from an excess of interested performers and producers, but a relative dearth of available interested audience. And like most performance arts, improvisers and producers of improv tend towards a one sided view towards the challenge of finding an audience for their improv. They see it as ‘how do we sell tickets and get butts in seats?’ rather than ‘how do we form relationships with a community that will want to support us?’, not realizing that answering the 2nd question is the most effective way of answering the 1st question.

Improv theaters with training programs grow an easy audience by giving students free passes to shows. But they’re not making money at the door when those students attend. Comps fill your seats but don’t pay off your expenses. And their word of mouth doesn’t go far, since nearly all their peers are also improvisers, and in our post-modern self-absorbed society almost none will pay the word of mouth any real mind.

Big Chicago improv theaters like iO and Second City have a long-standing built in audience for its main shows. However many of their lesser shows, and most shows elsewhere, struggle to fill seats even during prime time slots. Most shows seem like a case of a show in need of an audience, or shows made primarily for the sake of those making them, rather than made for an audience in need of a show.

Some inconvenient truths about producing improv shows:

– Unfortunately, when producing a show, your goal typically is to make money, at least enough to pay off your expenses to produce the show. No one’s into making improv shows to get rich, but anyone who makes a show happen at least wants to pay back the $200-400 or so to rent the venue, plus the cost of any rehearsal space, or a board op if they needed to pay one. And of course it’s nice if they can ever pay performers a little for their trouble. Turning a profit isn’t even on the radar. It’s just about making the show worth your while.

– The bulk of most improv shows’ audiences consists of other improvisers. These peers don’t have a lot of free time or disposable income. Rarely will they pay full price to see a show. But, like theater and dance, improv doesn’t do much to engage or cultivate an audience outside of its own peers.

– Marketing efforts often amount to the same ham fisted and too often annoying methods: Flyering + postering, Facebook invites, disposable-quality YouTube videos, email lists, begging for press from publications and websites, etc.

– Unsolicited word of mouth also comes up empty. I hear a couple dozen times a week about some really awesome show someone saw or otherwise knows about. When I hear about a show, I’m respectful about the input but I’m likely not going to see it. Whether or not I have the time and money… hell, even if I am interested, I have far too much else going on. So does pretty much every other improviser, let alone anyone who is not into improv or your improv group.

– Most people’s natural introverted aversion to sales and marketing (people generally don’t like directly trying to persuade someone to do something they probably don’t want to do), combined with the comfort zone of one’s social circle, leads people to lean on Facebook and other passive marketing methods that feel productive but often don’t bring much of anyone to the theater.

– We forget that other people are just as low on disposable income as we are, and are as strapped for time as we are. Most share our same schedules. If you don’t have the time and money to see a show costing that much, at that time… they probably don’t either.

– We forget that, if we aren’t interested or willing to pay to see a show at that time, for that price, with that content, etc… others in our demographic probably aren’t either. We forget that, if the investment and effort to see a show seems like too much of a bother for us, the driven working improviser… it’s probably too much for other driven working improvisers, let alone the not-as-driven casual audience that you want to pay full price to see your show.

– The more roadblocks you place to seeing your show (like ticket prices $10 and higher, a late start time on a work night, an unfavorable venue, an uninspiring lineup of groups, spammy and annoying marketing), the easier it is for anyone, let alone an improviser, to say no-thanks. Most non-improvisers also don’t have much money, and choosing to buy a ticket to a show, even a $5-10 ticket, is often for them an important one. You face a steep uphill battle to convince them to come.

– Simply put, it takes far more interest in and empathy for a target audience, and a committed interest in that audience’s needs and lifestyles, than we want to admit. The work to engage your community is just as important, if not more important, than scheduling and staging the actual show. If you don’t cultivate an outside audience, then you may as well have never produced the show.

No one in performing arts likes confronting the reality of show marketing. We generally don’t do it well, and we rely on methods that were outdated a decade ago to reach a changed culture that doesn’t respond to those methods. Effective marketing needs to be more personal and direct, and more about building relationships with a larger community that will in turn take interest and initiative in seeing your work with minimal or no solicitation.


While I think we can do better, and find a better way to cultivate an audience community, there is also one final inconvenient truth: There are currently far more improv performers and far more shows than our culture wants or needs.

Let’s never mind that improv is still a strange unknown topic to many people, and that if people were aware they may be more interested. Jai Alai is a strange and unknown sport to people in the U.S. You think there’s a huge untapped market for that? You think all they’re missing is mere informative marketing? Highly doubtful. While improv is more applicable, sure, the ceiling for its reach may be lower than people want to believe.

I recognize that the unfortunate best answer, for both improvisers and potential audiences, may either be for the community as a whole to do fewer shows, as well as eliminate shows produced in unfriendly time slots (unless overwhelming audience demand presents itself)… or to create a more affordable and attractive way for improvisers to stage free and otherwise easily accessible shows (i.e. more shows like Shithole).


In the interim, we ought to stay optimistic and open minded, to grow our audience for paid shows while we can, and find a better way to do it.

I’m not saying I have answers. But I do see what is not working, and I do have at least a general idea of how to do things better.


It’s important that we engage an audience that may want and be more easily able to see such a show. I have some ideas in mind to find that audience, in early stages, but it’s definitely more than posters, a Metromix listing and a Facebook invite.

I’d love to talk it over with an artists or producers who also want to change the paradigm on show marketing, and help find and grow a new audience for our work.

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Everything you do on stage matters. A lot.

All of your actions on stage read. I learned this as a theatre and clown performer, and it’s totally true for improv.

We don’t realize how much we are communicating in every moment of a scene with every little detail of our actions, the tone of our voice, the timing of our actions and speech, etc.

Most inexperienced (and even highly experienced) improvisers only notice a small portion of the context behind their words and actions on stage. Many often throw too many ideas and moves into a scene to make it go, not realizing how much information they are already adding with minimal action and dialogue… if they would only think to notice.

Much like in life, a lot of actions on stage are performed unconsciously. We miss a lot of the weight behind the words we say. Many players ramble or invent information, not realizing that the first five or six words said or the first thing they did said a lot: The content present in their tone, their delivery, their body language.

However, most importantly, the audience sees and hears EVERYTHING you do on stage. You may not have realized your random gestures and tics, or all the words you said, mattered a lot. But the audience sees them, and therefore it does.

For example, I start a scene by walking out with a limp of my left leg. My character and another character begin a conversation. During this conversation we walk around, and I not only don’t acknowledge the limp in the scene, but the limp eventually disappears as the scene progresses.

Even if you can argue the limp didn’t fit the character and scene I ended up playing… the audience saw me limp, and subsequently saw me a) apparently not notice I was limping and b) give up doing the limp, as if it wasn’t relevant.

I have now sent the message to the audience that not everything I do on stage is important, or relevant. I have given them permission to tune out not only my choices, but my scene partner’s choices. I have advertised to them that I’m not fully invested in the scene. ALL of this is regardless of how I personally feel about the work I believe I have presented.

Any action or words that happens before an audience’s eyes is reality in the show, let alone the scene. If I treat any given movement or decision like it doesn’t matter, now I’ve sent the message that what the audience is watching doesn’t totally matter. Even if they choose to stay on my side and remain invested in the drama of the show, now I’ve put more of the burden of suspending disbelief on them because I did an insufficient effort on my part to aid them in doing so.

Sounds like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, right? Well, not if I don’t just simplify my choices, and instead of trying to do a lot, I just treat with importance every move or word I do add to a scene.

Whether or not any of this lack of awareness and attention to detail does break my show, such negligence certainly does not help my improv, and it is certainly avoidable. Most of us aren’t amazing performers that consistently kill it on stage. We need all the help we can give ourselves.

Most of all, once we get used to giving our work this attention to detail, it becomes second nature and a lot easier. And I won’t offer any guarantees, but I bet the scenework becomes consistently better… more fun, even.

I’ll offer a class or rehearsal exercise that can help illustrate the idea:


Have a single player come out and initiate a scene by themselves. Freeze after a few seconds. As a group, instructor/coach/director and ensemble, point out and briefly discuss all the things you noticed about what the player did, how they carried themselves, how their voice sounded, etc… along with what each of those things indicate. After a brief but satisfactory discussion the player may sit down. (If the instructor/coach/director has a solid handle on noticing details, they may even start this process on their own to helpfully illustrate to students the level of detail they have permission to explore.)

What the player on stage will almost always discover is that they did and presented far, far more actions and traits than they may have initially noticed. They might have been conscious of a quarter of the details their peers noticed. Obviously, having a bunch of peers dissect the moment means more will be noticed. But it will show how much we communicate within a bare minimum of action or words.

Once everyone has done this individual exercise once or twice, have two people initiate a scene. After a few seconds, freeze them, and have the seated viewers (like before) point out all the traits they noticed in one player’s actions. Then do the same for the other. From there, you may unfreeze the scene and have the players continue playing for about a minute or two.

To really hammer the point home, you may add the wrinkle of instructing those players to move as little as possible, or set a limit on how much they can say at one time… or both!

Once every action and word has finite and significant economy, players will quickly recognize the importance their every little move has on the scene. They might even have fun with it, given the limited need to make choices saves them the trouble of inventing information or doing any more than just being present in the moment of the scene within their individual established contexts.

What seems like a stressful exercise at first can be freeing to players, once they realize they need not make so many specific choices at the top of a scene to build a great scene.


The more actions and words a player does with specific intention, the richer their character work, and the more the audience will buy into the scene. If you do something on stage and don’t notice you did or said it, the audience sees you drop the ball, which saps more of their confidence in the show then most players care to admit, leaving you the task of regaining that lost confidence, on top of creating a compelling scene.

Engaging improv is not just your words, your choices, your characters and relationships… but also how invested and in the moment you are with the scene, and with every choice you make in the moment. The audience can read every choice you make, even if you can’t.

A fringe-level sketch comedy production that I would want to create or work on:

– Develops and follows an organized process for production
– Knows and has concretely identified exactly everything the show needs to happen
– Budgets honestly for exactly everything the show needs to happen
– Casts a diverse and representative range of performers who have fun, positive attitudes towards the process
– Pays its talent no less than a significant stipend
– Is developed and ultimately written by the people who will perform it
– Creates material on its feet rather than at keyboards and laptop screens
– Does not work with people who object to and are not completely on board with such a creative process
– Meets for material generation and rehearsal at least twice a week, for about 8 weeks.
– Rehearses at a reasonable day and time during the week
– Keeps alcohol and drugs out of the creative and rehearsal process. (Obviously, drinks after meetings and shows is okay.)
– Seeks to create material that genuinely makes one another laugh
– Creates material the performers enjoy performing
– Builds and organizes its creative material around a theme
– Uses thematic material to inspire and create additional material
– Offers ample time and space to create material
– Offers an organized process through which to create material
– Offers an organized process to rehearse and polish show-ready material
– Has the creative process gradually give way to the rehearsal process
– Produces the show at a friendly, accessible performance venue
– Avoids performing at venues that are inconvenient to access.
– Charges enough for tickets to make revenue and indicate credibility.
– Doesn’t charge enough for tickets to actively turn audiences away.
– Never charges a price the performers and director themselves wouldn’t pay to see a show performed by people they don’t know.
– Does not work with venues that force the show to charge prohibitive ticket prices.
– Treats the tech process and the tech staff with the same focused respect as the creative process.
– Presumes a reachable goal of selling half the seats at full price.
– Offers discounted tickets to students and performers
– Provides each performer with one comp for each week of the show, which they can use however they wish.
– Markets the show consciously and mindfully, rather than spraying invites and promotion wherever they can.
– Focuses most show promotion on a new, outside audience
– Seeks out and markets to a new potential audience for each and every show.
– Is performed with a joyous lucidity by performers who believe in the show and don’t take a single moment on stage for granted.
– Takes any revenue beyond the budget and either invests it into subsequent shows, or pays it to performers as a bonus.


Drawn Dead’s Chicago run has concluded. Thanks, everyone.

I consider everyone who voluntarily walked through the door to enjoy the show a blessing. They chose to come see this show, and that’s awesome. I have no problem with anyone who didn’t. People are busy: Even when they don’t have conflicting commitments, even when they have the time and resources to make it… they face all sorts of worthwhile competing demands for their time. Sometimes they even just need a night off.

It took a while in my life for me to learn to not take it personal and not make it personal if someone didn’t attend a show of mine. The conversely abundant mindset, that whoever does come see the show is welcomed and enough, feels so much better. I definitely encourage that point of view over others.

Drawn Dead was produced mainly to give Chicago friends who wanted to see the show the opportunity to see it. I’m glad for everyone who came to see it. And if you didn’t see it, no problem.

If you’re in Chicago and ever want to see it, you got options:

– Come follow me to a festival whenever I produce it there.
– If you or someone in Chicago is willing to pay for a performance space and a board op, I’ll be happy to do it then and there.

In the meantime, thanks so much to The Crowd Theater for hosting the show and helping provide an audience.


Amidst my busy schedule, I am slowly writing a new show that I hope will be ready to produce this Fall. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m putting out applications where applicable for Drawn Dead to play at festivals in the region. There is a chance it could go live at some point this summer or fall somewhere in the Midwest, but I admit this is not an aggressive marketing effort. I wouldn’t mind shelving it for 2016, but I will bring it back for the right circumstances.

The Sketch Improv Project was postponed indefinitely in light of the sexual harassment situation in Chicago comedy. While it was a circumstantial product of current events, it was also a bit of a relief.

Right now, I’m studying improv on a quite regular basis at a few schools, performing and assisting with a couple of regular shows, and currently have my Monday nights, Thursday nights and weekend afternoons spoken for, plus most of my Friday nights. If things shake out, my Thursday nights could be a doubleheader for all of March. Monday nights already are a doubleheader through early March.

There just wasn’t a ton of available time. Needless to say, I’m in no hurry to book anything else for now. I anticipate this will change substantially after March, at which point I’ll look to expand on projects. For now, I will keep working on my current commitments, and savor what free time I can get.