Tag Archives: improv groups

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 IT PERSONAL

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.

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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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Energy is essential, especially when you don’t have it

 

One common refrain among peers before shows is that they find themselves in a “low-energy” state. Part of their nervousness or apprehension about an imminent show is that they suddenly find themselves lacking the high energy they would prefer to approach the show with.

Many carry their apprehensive, tentative sluggishness into the set, and it adversely affects their participation in the set. Whether or not they do jump in as needed, their choices often lack alert tenacity, and frequently fall flat.

I strike many as a high energy performer, and many wonder what my secret is. I don’t take any drugs, and at most I’ve had a cup of coffee shortly before the show.

It turns out I’m probably just as tired as they are. I’ve stepped on stage for shows often feeling like I’d rather be in bed. But I refuse to let that keep me from making the strong choices I want to make and being as present as I want to be. Once we’re on, that show and the moment are all I care about. I refuse to feel any exhaustion.

The secret is that I’m also tired during practice or rehearsal or class, and because of that I make a point there to give my best within the reality of not feeling so hot. I have spent years getting used to giving my best and pushing myself to play the way I want to play when I’m feeling far from my best, knowing that someday I’d need to perform shows in that condition.

An improv show or any theatrical performance requires a higher plane of energy. An audience will frequently turn against a show if they feel the performers are not giving their best.

On a 7-point energy scale, 7 being full speed ahead and 0 being still, most of us live anywhere between a 1 and a 3. Theatre, improv, any performance, requires at least a 4, and frequently demands you incidentally push yourself to a 5 or 6.

There are going to be a lot of days where you feel like a 2 (1 is akin to laying down and relaxing). Pretty much everyone who says they’re feeling “low-energy” is around a 2, where living at a 3 feels like an effort. There are a lot of days where I walked into a space feeling like a 2, but I gave my work a 4-6 anyway because that’s what it demanded, and what I demanded of myself. I got used to meeting those expectations, and now I can give that level of effort even when I feel “low-energy”.

It takes more than going through the motions of a warm-up to find energy when you’re “low-energy”. You need to be actively present and aware, play with purpose and a sense of urgency. A good warm-up can get you there if you as a player are focused on connecting to that state of awareness, presence and sense of urgency. Warmup scenes can get you there. Shadowboxing, a run around the block, or a great conversation can get you there if you’re seeking to connect to that state.

However, it’s easiest to reach that state when you routinely find and perform in that state during practice, on a regular basis. The more often you play with presence, awareness and a sense of urgency, the less trouble it’ll be to do a show with “low-energy”.

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Make your own opportunities to practice and perform

When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams.

While forming a group to practice and play with isn’t a slam dunk, the real barrier is fear, a lack of self confidence and a resulting unwillingness to commit by players. You don’t do it because you don’t think you’ll have the commitment and the ability to a) follow through with a regular schedule on your own as players, and b) get better and challenge yourselves.

With classes and jams, you have an instructor or a leader buggy whipping you all the way, plus an audience of peers who (usually) are cheering your efforts on. If a group of you decide to meet and practice together, there is usually no experienced mentor leading the way. You are effectively directing and leading yourselves.

Without that mentor or leader to answer to, there to push you, there’s a great temptation to either flake and not attend, or to not try as hard as you would in class or a jam. People don’t have the respect for a voluntary practice among a group of peers that they do for a class they paid $200-350 for (and in some cases get punished for not attending), or for a jam in front of mentors and peers (which they often paid to participate in).

Don’t think I didn’t run into this challenge when a bunch of us formed Wonderland in Seattle, or with myself in everything I’ve done. It takes a collective commitment, as well as a bit of personal investment, to start a group and not only keep it grow but to continue growing and improving together. It was hard to keep the group on the same page, to have the lacking commitment of some not derail or bring down the work of everyone that’s committed to getting good.

Someone has to wrangle everybody. Someone has to find rehearsal space and (usually) pay to book it. And, most of all, people not only have to agree to participate but actually show up, almost every time. And that never minds that the success of the group from there is about how seriously everyone takes the practice. Or actually booking a show, paying for the venue, and somehow finding enough friends, family and word of mouth to fill the venue for that show. It’s very hard to be a leader of something so relatively nebulous.

I recalled this whole idea when I read Joshua Ellis’ piece this morning on empowering people to learn to code. The title and premise of his piece mirrors my point on starting a group: The trick is that there is no trick.

The barnstorming improv groups you see in Chicago, Seattle, NYC, LA, anywhere… there was no special requirement (like completing a training program) or magic formula to their success. They didn’t even necessarily have to finish their respective school curriculae (and many didn’t). Once they had a handle on what they wanted to do in improv, and once they discovered a group of people they liked practicing with… they formed a group, met and practiced regularly. Eventually, they developed the confidence in each other and their work to produce or appear in shows, and that was that.

Yes, it certainly helps to be well trained, to have a knowledgeable and strong-minded leader, to have an uncanny sense of cooperation among the group and the right people, to know people that can hook you up with space or gigs in improv shows, etc etc etc.

But so many groups came into it sort of trained, with no hookup other than a space they could afford to rent, with a rough idea of what they were doing and maybe one or two people confident enough to steward the ship.

And that’s the secret. There’s never going to be a right time, when you’re ready. You’re never ready. And yet, you’re always ready. You’re always going to be learning, and always going to feel to some degree uncomfortable.

You’re never really going to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you actually, seriously attempt to do it… much like you were never going to learn improv until you made the effort to sign up and come to classes. And often times you not only won’t have that expert assistance, but you probably don’t even need it. You can learn how to do it yourself, and can learn a lot more about being a practicing improviser from actually trying and failing and learning to do it better than to go to class and then hardly get to practice at all unless you go back to class, become addicted to jams, or somehow score off an audition.

If you take nothing else away from this post, and my audition post, it’s that you and your peers have the power to create your own opportunities. And that rather than wait and hope that someone will cast you in something, all of you should get together and just make your own opportunity. Take that $5 you’d have spent on a jam, pool it with 6-8 other people, and rent a rehearsal room for 2-3 hours a week. Find some exercises you want to practice, or just do some scenework. If you want to do a show, practice scenes for a couple months, then get in on a show or find another group to split the bill with. Just do a 20-30 minute montage if all you want to do is scenes. Just do it, see what happens and learn from it.

As with many things, 80% of the challenge is just making yourself do it.

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Talking about auditions

On a relative whim, I auditioned this past week for three groups I had an interest in working with. These were longshots and I did not expect to get called back let alone cast (sure enough, I was not). I mostly wanted to test how I handled improv auditions, and see after all this time how it felt.

I had fun for the most part. I felt like I could play and have fun with all the other players in the room. I felt that, if the process had been completely (unrealistically) objective, most of my auditions were more than good enough for at least a callback, if not serious consideration for a role. (That’s not to say I deserved anything. But the work I did felt that solid.)

I’m lucky: I not only have (and have had) opportunities to practice and perform going forward, but have the wherewithal and ability to create my own opportunities. So for me the auditions were not my only shot at a regular opportunity to perform. They were an inquiry. Either way, I’ve got things going on and places to practice.

However, I feel for many of the others who auditioned. A lot of these people were super good, and many feel they don’t have anywhere else to go. For many of them, improv is pretty much their passion and creative outlet, and if they can’t get cast in something, they won’t get any experience or chances outside of classes or jams.

So let’s talk about auditions. There’s two big issues I have with the dog and pony show that is Chicago improv auditions.

One: Auditions themselves, in a big and talented metropolis like Chicago. Every director ever says they wish there was a better way to select talent than auditions. The problem with such a statement is that there *is* a better way that better serves most shows, ensembles and directors, a way that for various reasons they simply won’t utilize: Simply hand pick and solicit the people they know and most want to work with, and not waste anyone else’s time. You know the talent, you know the risks and potential, and you can comfortably trust those people.

This is even easier if the production company in question has regular classes, workshops or drop-in jams. They’ll see a lot of talent come and go, or come and stay and study. They should have a fairly good idea of many player’s skillsets and abilities, plus have some sort of relationship with many players.

Simply put, today’s audition will not shine a beacon on some new undiscovered talent that will compel you to offer them a significant commitment like an ensemble role. You’re going to go with known quantities, whether they’re people you know or people with significant history or training from somewhere known.

Sports teams don’t just draft prospects sight unseen. They scout talent at college games, workout showcases and so on. They watch a ton of video of every potential draft pick. By the time they make their picks they have seen quite a bit of every potential prospect and have a strong idea of what they’re getting. It baffles me that in 2015 directors still think that one-off auditions are a way to discover talent or determine who to cast.

Whether or not they have shows of their own, why aren’t these auditors sitting in on advanced classes or showcases? They know they’re going to produce shows. They’re already planning to spend time to hold auditions. And they’re not *that* busy: Sitting in on a couple of shows or classes every week or two is no herculean task. Regular improv work doesn’t take more than 4-5 nights a week of your life, and that’s if you’re actively working on multiple projects and/or playing on several teams/cast with weekly shows. Many aren’t. A lot of auditions are audited by multiple people. Even if you can argue the AD is too busy to go see shows, others in the company can certainly make the time. So I don’t buy the likely excuse that a director or auditor is simply too busy.

And if in fact they are scouting shows/showcases/cabarets/classes/workshops/whatever else… then why the hell are they holding open auditions? They already know quite a few active, available players in the scene (inexperienced or experienced) they’d love to work with. Why not just ask them to come aboard, or audition a group of those known players, and not waste the time/money of the other 100+ people who otherwise have no chance in hell?

Shit, back in the day, this is how Second City and iO casted their shows. They just plucked people out of class to fill or create teams. Now, with the sheer quantity of trainees and existing teams, they’ve been spooked into going Broadway on their selection process. But even now I don’t think that’s necessary, or even productive, on the local level (maybe for the touring or cruise ship stuff shit, where regional directors obviously can’t know everyone everywhere… but local companies don’t have that excuse). Those players who aren’t in know it’s tough to get in. Auditions don’t make it easier for them.

Two: Young, inexperienced performers looking to these auditions for opportunity, instead of at each other. Let’s face it. With the big improv schools spitting out dozens of fully trained improvisers every couple months into a scene already ridiculously saturated with trained improvisers that have nowhere to go… the companies are never going to provide the best long term opportunity for a lot of these young players. They’ll be more than happy to take their money to host them for the umpteenth run of a class, because that’s understandably how they make a lot of their money. But aside from a token curated midweek showcase or a class showcase at the end of the curriculum, the opportunities for these students to play probably aren’t coming unless they win out at an audition….

… or they create their own. Know where I formed a good portion of my improv experience and working relationships? It was not in class, and it was not in an improv show I auditioned for. In fact, I never successfully got cast in a Seattle improv show from an audition. My experience came when my classmate Chris Wong asked me and a few others to start meeting and practicing as a group. We did, almost every week for a couple years, and that’s how Wonderland happened.

The groups Illuminaughty and Biblical Proportions (which splintered off Wonderland) exist because we all took that initiative to create and maintain that group. The current Seattle group Human Propaganda similarly began before that when Wilfred Padua solicited his training partners to start meeting and practicing together. Interrobang began when my friend Dave Clapper and other colleagues began meeting and practicing as a group.

All still produce regular shows today. Many of their cast members have never been part of a big theater’s ensemble, or didn’t join a main ensemble until well after they formed their indy groups.

A lot of those groups you see in improv festivals? Most are not Harold style teams formed by a theater company. Most are just groups that came together independently to practice and do their own shows. A lot of improv theaters themselves came about from independent groups that over time grew their own thing into something bigger.

I wish I could grab every talented but un-casted improviser I saw in these auditions by the lapels and tell them, “Get together and form your own groups! Pool a few bucks together each week and rent a rehearsal room for 3 hours. Throw in to do a one off show or an opening set every month or two. You can do it YOURSELVES! You don’t need these auditions to get experience!”

And this is Chicago. Seattle has a relatively big scene, but it was harder than it is in Chicago to do your own show. Pocket Theater and others have made it easier for groups to play, but back in my day if it wasn’t for the generosity of Rik Deskin at Eclectic Thetare, or joints like The Rendezvous, it would have been very difficult and expensive to produce a show. And no one was looking for improv openers.

But in Chicago, there’s not only all sorts of barprov and open mic options, but serial cabaret shows are constantly soliciting for groups to do quick opening or under-card sets. Sometimes I wish I had a current group that I could submit for some of these opportunities. Many shows happening nowadays can’t find any improv groups to open or fill slots! Which is amazing, because this is Chicago! The Mecca of Improv!

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Basically, we turn auditions into gatekeepers for our improv practice, when we really can create our own opportunities. And with this much talent in this community, there’s no reason we don’t have what it takes to do our own thing.

This is not a mark on the companies holding these auditions. I’m not even saying that auditions in themselves are bad. I’m mostly saying for many there’s better ways to mine talent. And those auditioning have a better way to practice and grow outside of class.

(P.S. – Congratulations to the folks who did win roles from this week’s auditions! No joke. You clearly did a tremendous job and have considerable talent. Best of luck!)

(For everyone else… let’s form some groups, throw in a few bucks a week, and let’s do something.)

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Observed key factors to successful (and unsuccessful) improv

Like anyone, I’m no more qualified to call myself an expert at improv than the next player, especially getting back into it after a couple years away from regular practice. Personally, I feel I’m at a place where bad scenes (where I’m stuck and not sure what to do) seem fewer and farther between, and the good scenes (where my scene partner and I have comfortably connected, and those watching seem to enjoy it) occur more often. I’m once again feeling comfortable with the great improv unknown that is starting and creating a scene from scratch.

As I attend more classes/jams and get back up to speed, I’m focusing more on reinforcing basic concepts in practice, whether they’re from a new perspective or something I learned years ago. Every lesson’s an opportunity to develop positive habits, as long as I take the work seriously.

I watch scenes in class, in jams and at shows looking for what choices help a good scene work and what contributes to the struggles of a poor scene. Lately I’m starting to see the good and not so good funnel towards the same key principles. And they’re not what you think.

One school of thought tells you to establish CROW (character, relationship, objective, where you are). Another approach tells you to find the game of the scene and heighten it. Another tells you to figure out what everyone’s doing and how they’re doing it. Another tells you to slow down and ground yourselves.

All of them tell you to yes-and, to not ask questions or negate or bail or steamroll or wait too long or a thousand other things you sure as hell aren’t going to remember (hell,Mick Napier’s Improvise is famous for saying fuck all of that, but also emphasizes finding a key motivating factor to drive the scene, similar to another school of thought).

While all of these ideas can help make good scenes, there’s no way a good improviser can mentally file through a checklist that long (and at times contradictory).

A lot of top Chicago improvisers studied with several of the Chicago schools (e.g. The Second City, iO Chicago, The Annoyance), yet aren’t at all confused about how to improvise well. Yes, experience and personal charisma/talent combined with finding one’s own style plays a role in that, but watch a lot of improv between multiple productions and you’ll notice that despite thematic differences a lot of them approach scenework in largely similar fashion.

Studying at a bunch of schools alone won’t make you better if you’ve been training for a while and still don’t improvise well. If anything, going from school to school can merely confuse you and set you back further. Experienced improvisers filter all their training and experience into a more intuitively simple and universal, and most of all personal, approach.

A few weekends ago, after a very busy week, I spent an errand-filled weekend waiting for Godot in Evanston. While sitting in my car between errands, I got the impulse to grab my notepad and write down issues I consistently noticed in improv scenes that didn’t work, e.g. not listening, talking over others, bailing on a point of view, ignoring what’s been created in a scene and trying to steer it elsewhere, etc.

At the same time I also restated them as more constructive, positive ideas, e.g. listen, bring in new ideas with goal to build on what was created, never let your POV go, etc.

As I did this, I soon noticed that these notes of improvising well revolve around three central points of focus. Everything else you could possibly tell an improviser to do or no do revolves around these three important priorities.

RELATIONSHIPS

The vast majority of bad scenes focus on whatever activity or environment the performers are set in, with no attention paid to who the characters are or how they relate to one other. The vast majority of good and great scenes I’ve seen were built, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, around the relationship between the characters on the stage. (I say vast majority because I’m certain you and I have seen possible exceptions to this. But given the larger sample of data, they are indeed merely exceptions… and in many of those cases, I’m sure we still could point out some sort of built relationship underlying it all.)

It can’t be your sole focus, but when it comes to your character work, establishing your environment, etc, your strongest and most grounded choices are going to come back to how your character interacts with the other characters in the scene.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

This actually has two parts that go hand in hand.

The first is obvious: Attention to Detail in Action. Good specific offers add character to a scene and give your scene partners something to work with and build on. Vague offers don’t, and on top of it they make it harder for your fellow players to build a scene with you.

However, there is also Attention to Detail in Observation. You also need to *listen and observe* with an attention to detail. Seeing that your scene partner’s character is sad, or has said “I don’t want to go out today” in itself isn’t going to give you much. However, noticing *how* your partner physically carries themselves could give you insight in how to endow them with an offer. Noticing specific things this character says and implies gives you additional material to respond to and build upon, as well as to use to further endow your own character (with specifics, of course!).

It is not enough to listen and pay attention. It is not enough to make a choice. It’s important that you do all these things with an attention to detail.

People harp on TJ and Dave‘s object work as the prime example of their great work, but that’s a subset of their great attention to detail in everything they do, and in observing everything they establish.

COMMITMENT

It’s not only important that you make or observe a choice, or that you yes-and it in the moment. It’s also important that you, as Mick Napier always says, hold on to what you did.

I’ve noticed that the most deflating moment of most disappointing improv scenes is the moment the player makes a choice to drop or give up on whatever POV they established, e.g. “Okay fine, I’ll give you what you want.”… or in responding to new information, they contradict and otherwise completely forget what details they established for their own character. You’ve just taken this reality you and others have worked to create, and just rendered it all moot. That’s not what any of us wanted to see.

To paraphrase Mark Sutton, no one really wants the bike shop workers in a scene to actually fix the fucking bike. Furthering that point, we’re way more interested in the relationship the scenario has shown us, and if the scenario is shoved aside then what we’re watching has lost its value quicker than the stock options of a bought out startup.

Once you’ve established a tension between characters, you’ve got to resist that trained human instinct to look for a way out of that tense situation. Improv’s greatest moments are what we find when we explore what it’s like to live in and work through that tension. And once we break it, we tell the audience and each other that what’s happening isn’t really worth giving a shit about at all. And everyone tunes out, which is not the point of an improv scene.

Commitment goes beyond what you do in scenework. Commitment is itself a practice. When you do an exercise in class or practice, do a scene, run a long form set, or even do a stupid warm up exercise to start a session… doing it with commitment is going to give you and everyone more than just doing what you have to do.

It’s not enough to show up (though showing up every day you can is a big part of success). You’ve got to show up and, for the time you’re in that space, do the work like you mean it, to grow from it. A half assed effort will produce half assed results in a practice full of great performers who are working hard and pushing themselves as much as possible every chance they get. Why bother if you’re going to eliminate yourself from contention by not giving as much an effort as many others who succeed?

The majority of those who don’t succeed at improv quit. They drop out. They don’t put in the effort. The more of a point you make not to do the best you can, the easier it’s going to become to weed you(rself) out.

The habit of approaching your every improv task with commitment will strengthen your ability to commit to bigger moments when they matter. I can’t expect a person who hasn’t practiced running more than a couple blocks to run a 5K well. And one can’t expect an improviser who doesn’t do much of anything with commitment to solidly commit to a scene, a set, or working long term with a group.

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Now, don’t take this as me calling myself some sort of improv expert. Not even close. I have just noticed that these are the common denominator factors I’m noticing in every great scene, every poor scene, and all scenes in-between. I’m not even saying that I do all these things well all the time. If anything, I see that these are things I need to focus on addressing well if my scenework is going to… well, work.

Relationships. Attention to detail (in action and observation). And commitment. Key points of focus.

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