Tag Archives: improvisation

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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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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You’re Always Coming and Going From Somewhere


An easy way to create character choices in improv is to realize your character, much like yourself, is always coming from somewhere, and after this scene will be going somewhere else. This is not to say you should create in your mind a comprehensive character history for whatever character you happen to be playing. But it helps to come in with an idea of what has led your character to this place in time, with the other character(s) in your scene.

Is your character in the middle of a shitty day? Having a great day? Perhaps your character spent all day preparing for this moment, the scene you’re in right now. Perhaps your character has dreaded this moment. Perhaps your character has been enjoying the journey of the last day, week, month, year, life… or loathing it.

Perhaps your character has a long work day ahead, and isn’t looking forward to it. Perhaps your character can’t wait to get the hell out of there. Perhaps your character never wants this moment to end, or whatever happens next is nothing to this character unless they get what they want in this moment.

Imagine for a split second where this character is coming from, or where they plan to go next. From there, put yourself emotionally in that character’s shoes and imagine for a split second how you’d feel in that situation, where your head would be at.

Give it no more than a split second’s thought. You are in the middle of a scene, after all!

Take whatever sense memory you can glean from that idea into this scene, and play with that from here.

It could be the bit of information you need to help drive your improv in the scene.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.