Tag Archives: improvisation

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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Five years of improv (… well, sort of)

So, five years ago on this day, I took my first improv class at Unexpected Productions in Seattle. It would be a slow climb to where I am today as an improviser, in part because I was also training in other disciplines (Clown, Stage Combat, auditioning for and performing in theatre projects), but in part because I practiced at a much smaller volume than I do today. I went to the one class on Tuesday and that was it. Occasionally I’d go to a jam, or occasionally I’d do a workshop.

It wasn’t until I concurrently took a class at Jet City Improv and met the guys with which I’d form the group Wonderland that I’d practice on a more regular basis. And even then that was no more than two 3-hour sessions of practice a week. But it was regular practice, even when I wasn’t in class, and it also afforded me the chance to occasionally lead an exercise or coach scenes.

Having to stay ahead of the curve with my group pushed me to study up on improv, read books about it, watch a lot of it. Seattle is largely a short form and themed long form play town. They don’t do the montages and Harolds that are done elsewhere (though U.P. has recently introduced a Harold-themed 8pm show, and Randy Dixon’s Harold is typically more free form than the typical opening-scenes-game-scenes structure).

Over time, a) I learned a lot about improv and b) I gradually became bored with seeing the same shit and the same people doing it over and over. Plus, I was getting a chance to do clown pieces, do more experimental work, and most of all I got cast in Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sideshow, which introduced me to the dance community and sent me spiraling into quite the coming of age as a theatre performer… one that led me to gradually fade improv and leave it behind during 2012.

The timing of that exit is a bit weird and unfortunate because it was at the 2012 Seattle Festival of Improv Theater that I met Joe Bill, Asaf Ronen, Marz Timms and others who more than any of us realized did a LOT to shape the improviser I’ve eventually become today. Joe Bill introduced me to the Invocation, which when done with commitment is one of the great Harold openings. Asaf Ronen showed me that directing improvisers is not so much about knowing the answers as it is being just as observational and adaptive as a player on stage. Marz Timms showed me how to break the 4th wall in improv and not only keep an unruly audience in check but see them as a companion to what you’re doing. (And yeah, they’re also terrific performers)

And then a few months later I had dove headfirst into dance, and all but left improv behind. I occasionally played or checked back in, but I was definitely into dance and would stay in until the year I moved away. To be fair, the scene and my situation had by that point stagnated a bit, and unless you earn the favor of one of the big theaters, your opportunities to play are a bit slim even if you’re creating your own. I had taken in such great lessons, but I didn’t feel there was much of a place to apply them. In fact, I probably applied more of these ideas in my experimental and dance work with Studio Current, GENDER TENDER and others than I ever did with the Seattle improv scene.

The catalyst to come back to improv was actually my 2014 summer trip to New York City. Improv by no means was the goal, but I got to see shows at PIT, UCB and Magnet, and the enthusiasm for playing showed me something more inspired than what I had experienced in Seattle. I knew there had to be something more to improv. Shortly thereafter I was asked to move to Chicago, and with my arrival I dove right back in, armed with past experience and all the lessons of the past gestating in my subconscious. I didn’t realize how good I was at this shit until I started doing it regularly again.

As of this date I have logged 230 hours of improv in 2015. Compare that to the 277 hours of improv and sketch I logged total in Seattle between 2010 and my exit. Again, that just came down to opportunity volume: In Chicago I can practice all the time whereas in Seattle I might have had two days a week to get it in. (And I logged over 1600 hours of total performing arts practice in Seattle doing mostly lots of other stuff; improv was one part of a larger puzzle). But at this point I feel like it’s making sense on a higher level, and now I’ve got ambitions beyond just Harold teams or headlining 8pm shows.

Five years down. Many more to go.

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Warm Up With Commitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Greatest Year Of Your Life (?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confronting Your Improv Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brainstorming Conversations, and the deal with Harold openings

Recently in a (non-iO) class I was told that the opening and games in an iO style Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation.

Of course, in practice a typical iO Harold opening looks and sounds like a bad children’s show version of the Invocation. I’ve had players, both highly experienced and not so experienced, tell me over time that they find most iO Harold openings lacking, because of the default to this presentationally playful but otherwise banal version of the Harold opening.

Personally, I got used to seeing these Harold openings and didn’t think much of it, figuring iO Harold teams were told to do it specifically that way. But now that people bring it up, I see that a) no, they have the option of doing it differently yet b) choose to make this detrimentally default choice.

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Why does it happen? Well, having seen quite a few Harold shows, I do vividly recall one key recurring factor: The opening music, regardless of which musician is playing, always tends toward this tinkly, childlike, Mister Rogers Neighborhood quality, which lends itself to the players on stage sliding into that child-style group game.

It would be very hard for the improvisers to do a more adventurous or otherwise divergent opening against that music. In fact, it would essentially be a denial of that musical initiation… even though the musical initiation has the problem of being pretty much the same exact initiation every time!

While I can understand the intent of playing that style of music, to avoid a darker or overtly serious opening that might take the audience out of their enjoyment or sap their energy level… the tone the current default sets also cuts off a myriad of other useful and interesting choices that could easily engage and entertain the audience.

I can also see wanting to avoid forcing a stylistic choice on the team by playing a stylistic musical riff. But the incumbent music ends up forcing a stylistic choice on the team’s opening anyway!

I realize I’m not a musician. But in Seattle, the improvised music (often on a keyboard or piano, just like iO and most Chicago theatres) sported a wider variety of musical styles and sounds. So it’s certainly possible to give Harold teams a greater variety of style and sound in opening music choices. I trust that the musicians here are capable of playing in many styles, and themselves are operating mainly out of habit.

I don’t think silence or otherwise eschewing the musician is necessarily the best alternative. Some non-iO houses do open sets without a musician, and many of these shows are great. But I do believe the musician’s input can add a lot of texture, environment and other value to the set if said musician is available. It only appears that input needs to have more variety.

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In any case, regardless of the music, the bigger issue is that Harold teams tend to do the same half-baked opening, and then use that same approach for the group games… when they have the option and opportunity to do something more contextual and creative. The music is only one factor in why teams default to the same sort of choices every time.

It’s also hard to initiate a group choice players aren’t used to making, to quickly get everyone on the same page. I can see groups doing the same thing simply because everyone will immediately know what to do, whereas trying to quickly do, say, snap monologues or improvise a talk show or something else makes it harder for everyone to quickly get on board and yes-and the opener or game.

However! The statement I opened with sheds some light. The opening and games in a Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation. A brainstorming conversation. You take the suggestion and everyone, as theatrically as truthfully possible, bounces ideas derivative of that suggestion around until everyone feels good about starting a two person scene and taking off from there.

What if the players saw it as, and made it, that sort of creative yet truthful conversation? The child’s fever dream that opens most Harolds isn’t much of a sincere conversation. Everyone’s indicating and bullshit play acting. Truth in Comedy is iO’s goal, but there’s little truth or comedy in the conventional Harold opening.

As George Lewis would tell us in clown training, the harder you try to “be funny”, the less funny you are. Original and truthful is different, and probably will not only be funny but give the team more material from which to create scenes.

What if groups tried making the opening and games more of a conversation? For example, start by flocking into a couple groups through matching, and then having a group on group conversation, giving, taking, breaking and reforming as needed to bounce the idea around? Or someone initiating an actually crazy idea, and everyone yes-ands that? Or both?

That’s just an idea. I’m not saying I have the solution to Harold openings and games. I just know what we usually get is a half-baked solution that can easily be displaced and improved upon, until someday the sort of opening we see all the time today becomes a contextually original solution to someone’s set, instead of the same shit everyone does.

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