I will preface this by saying I only know what happened to me; I don’t have any insight into the minds of the casting directors at Second City. But I did something right in my audition, after all I’m scheduled to be on a boat in October. So hopefully my ideas will help you out.
A little backstory: I auditioned the first time SC rolled through NYC a few years ago. I did not make it to callback round at all that time. I think what I learned there is more useful. For one: Go to the info session. I didn’t go the first time around, and I missed out on a lot of useful information. Perhaps it goes without saying, but any amount of preparation you can get is a positive thing. Take notes.
I remember that prior to the first audition I went on a disastrous interview with a creative placement agency. A little stressed, I gave a few details about the interview—how the interviewer noted poor design choices on my resumé—during a Stretch and Share warm up. Later, during one of the brief scenes, a fellow player directly referenced my design choices. It stung weird and pulled me out of the scene. I don’t know why the other guy did what he did; in best intentions maybe he thought I could play a super truthful scene out of it, in worst intentions he was trying to fuck with me. I don’t know. But lessons learned: have as stress-free of a day as you can, share positivity in the room when you show up, and if someone references the shitty shit from your real life, roll with it as best as you can.
In my second audition, during the brief scenes I gave myself a simple mission. Play characters. I have a feeling they’re looking for range. What they’ll do is call out a name, that person will start a scene, and then somebody, anybody, must join. I think the takeaway is this: characters work well for me when I want to quickly and strongly join a scene. Whatever tactic works for you is equally valid.
I also heard that they’re watching how often and when you jump out join. Find balance. Jump out often enough, but don’t bulldoze, and don’t wait around.
A thing I recall being able to do well that day is find buttons. Buttons are those little lines that cap a scene nicely. If you can find them, good. If not, I wouldn’t worry about it. They’re cutting scenes for time, not for punchline, and plenty of other people scored boat gigs that didn’t do buttons. But if it’s a skill you have, you might as well use it.
During the longer scene, I concerned myself with fundamentals. Specifically, I did my object work. Maybe it helped distract me enough to do a more honest scene, maybe they really like environment building. But I don’t think it hurts to do something so positive to a scene, and to do something besides the dreaded two-people-in-Limbo scene. I also allowed myself to play more closely to myself and a much more grounded person than the broader characters in the short scenes.
I remember heading to the audition and overhearing some other leaving auditioner loudly complaining to her friend how the other player dragged her into a conflict scene. I recall being able to avoid that out-and-out argument scene. However, I also believe you should find whatever strong thing you can do for yourself, and find a way to like to scene partner. Even if they fight, argue, or make conflict with you, you’ve got to add something else in to elevate it dramatically.
And one last thing: I don’t think the SC aesthetic is similar to UCB, so I don’t think it is wise to play Game-style improv. The book Days and Nights at the Second City by Sahlins details some of the different kinds of scenes Second City does. I believe they dig their relationships/slice of life and satire scenes over pattern-heavy sketches. That’s my understanding.
The Second City has a long history of excellence. My first professional improv classes were with SC; I trained for a year with the long-defunct Cleveland franchise of Second City back in 2001-2002. I’m a bit of an SC nerd, I’ve read tons of books on their history and watched multiple revue shows with the budding Cleveland mainstage and TourCos. I am very proud that I get to perform for a theater that I believe in.
Break some legs, people. You should feel really good about yourself if you get to callbacks. I’m pulling for you.
There is no such thing as a denial. There are things that arguably make improv harder, but there is no such thing as a denial.
Buried somewhere deep in my possessions are the VHS tapes of the Fredonia Improv Society’s first four shows. I assume they still exist somewhere in my parent’s house on Long Island, if I or my mom didn’t throw them out in a spring cleaning fit. Even so, I like believing that they exist. When I rewatch the off-center, constantly-changing focus videos years afterwards, I see four of the worst improv shows I have ever seen. The strange trend of inserting “Whoa” a la Joey Lawrence into every other scene. The games that go by at a rapid blink-and-you-missed-it pace. The utterly disastrous outdoor Fred-fest show with microphones spaced many feet apart and a mostly vacant lawn before us. To this day the mere mention of playing as part of an outdoor music festival, or at any bill or venue not intended for theater puts me rigid with tension. I’d rather do no show than a show for a straggling crowd waiting for their band to play. These tapes keep me humble. Improvisors tend to cringe watching themselves on tape, but every improvisor should be brave enough to confront the truth and watch themselves perform as an absolute rookie.
Even without proper instruction, we learned a lot in those halcyon days. For starters, I learned that any audience greater than zero is a good audience. Nowadays, performing among the thinly spread New York improv scene amid ignored Facebook invites, it’s very easy to bemoan a lack of audience. A single improvisor only has so many friends and family willing to schlep out to a cold basement black box theater in the lower East Side, and they get less and less enthused the more shows you do. I learned quickly how to treat an audience well, and how to *not* demand response from an audience unable or unwilling to give it. We performed in the campus coffee house, then called “The Spot,” where I learned how to speak over the sound of motorized bean grinders and milk steamers. I learned how to gently let people scattered among the tables there just to read and study know that yes, indeed, in a few minutes an improv show would be starting.
Myself and my compatriots scoured every source we could find for games - any game at all. Online encyclopedias of short form structures were stripped bare in our search for show material. We lifted bits, games, and ideas wholesale from Whose Line Is It Anyway—to the point that we had four chairs for performers to sit in against the back wall and a buzzer to end scenes. (Our grimacing at bad jokes and moves during scenes we weren’t in quickly put the kibosh on that element.) Message boards were descended upon; advice and wisdom were sought out from performers in all corners of the earth. Ah, the wild days of the Internet. This part was great fun; ravenously tearing at any and every piece of improv smarts we could find out there.
And in something I would later come to realize happens everywhere all the time in every improv group everywhere, politics were forming and dissent was fomenting. Kevin, the small blonde-to-the-point-of-albino ferret, had, the previous semester, unsuccessfully auditioned for the other comedy group on campus. He started his Improv Society under the auspices of the student association. Hence the exuberant, intensive recruitment drive.
Kevin was not well-liked. Kevin is not his real name, of course. He was making a bad habit of publicly bad-mouthing the other group. There is a gulf between differentiating yourselves from an established group and talking shit. Kevin was talking shit, and he was demolishing all of our chances at friendship or partnership with the others. His intentions seemed to amount to a big middle finger to this group that didn’t accept him. An extremely active, ambitious, elongated fuck you. Half of us wanted to be in the other group! They performed nearly sold-out shows at the over 100-year-old, over 400-seater Fredonia Opera House. Us budding comedians were itching for a chance to play to crowds that large. The Improv Society was just the start—play well here, learn the ropes, hone your craft, and become a part of a fantastic and popular group ready to hit the comedy ground running. I don’t hold that attitude against anyone; hell, I wanted in on that sweet sweet Opera House action myself.
Someone, anyone, running around proclaiming our tiny crew to be the next Bigger Better Name in College Entertainment (and with the removal of 15 years, the pettiness of all of this is painfully obvious) and pissing people off did not bode well for group morale. Within a meager four weeks, an emergency measure was taken. It was pointed out that as a group in the college’s student association, we were able to have elections. And we hadn’t had those yet! A series of nominations were quickly organized for treasurer, secretary, vice president, and president. And then the thing happened that ruined me forever. I got the nomination for president. The only nomination.
"Can I nominate myself?" Kevin weakly whined.
A resounding no was returned by the group. And with that, I became the leader. Kevin disappeared from FSIS shortly thereafter and slowly faded into the background chatter and noise of college into obscurity. And with that, we stop talking about Kevin, this story isn’t about him.
This is what it’s about: As president I was now, among other things, in charge of the weekly workshops and the imparting of improv basics and fundamentals. I was in charge of casting shows, deeming who was performance-ready and who needed more work. I chose games for the shows and decided who would be in what game based on their strengths or weaknesses.
Let’s break this down. No one should be put in charge of the development of other improvisors only four weeks into their own development as an improvisor. It completely skewed me; I spent too much time thinking about other people’s improv. I was looking for analysis of others when I should have been analyzing myself. It made me look for right and wrong in improv, of looking for an adherence to The Rules. And in a group designed to be open to the general college community, it just wasn’t right to decide who got to play and who didn’t. Our values were in the wrong place; we wanted to be funnier and better-liked than the other group when we should have been focusing on being a positive, welcoming force in SUNY Fredonia. Furthermore, casting individual games at such an atomic level meant an wholly unnecessary source of stress. “Is so-and-so going to do that bit he did in practice again in the show? Was such-and-such at the practice where we learned how to even play that game?” (We discovered a better way to cast games the next semester: we would post a set list and a tally of players-per-game. We would let performers know how many games they could be in and to figure out for themselves which ones they wanted to play. It was an exercise in egalitarian self-management.) I spent my formative years of improv being in charge of other people’s improv. And in directing, casting, and structuring shows, I felt that the success of any particular show rested on me. To this day, it’s incredibly difficult for me to let go.
While I would not recommend to any improvisor that they attempt to be the teacher when they themselves have about just as much an idea as everyone else, in some situations it’s not easily avoidable. There are a lot of improv groups like Fredonia Improv Society out there. College groups, groups in the middle of nowhere, groups not part of a larger thriving community. Having a member be elevated to a leadership role is sometimes the only available option. That being said, what can we do? Let’s learn from my mistakes.
The first thing you need to do is recognize what you know, which is nothing. Sure, you may have read Truth in Comedy first, or taken one workshop at summer camp as a teen, but you know nothing. I read a lot of websites. Websites! How insane does that sound for me to presume I knew any amount more than the people I was working with? At best, I was on the edge of a proverbial canoe with a flashlight. I could only see a few feet ahead of everyone else. Approach your work with tact, make clear that we, everyone in the room including you, are learning about a particular concept or technique today. Remain open to the new possibilities and discoveries you may make as you experiment.
The Rules are seductive; they seem to imply that there is a correct way to approach every scene. This then leads to novice teachers pointing out when the Rules were broken. Instead of looking to follow the Rules look to follow what works. The Rules were established because a long time ago people noticed what was present in scenes that worked. However, we’ll also notice that scenes sometimes work when various elements of the Rules are absent. This does not mean that a wanton breaking of the Rules is the new tactic; it means we look at what we did that actually made the scene work. Often times it’s a sense of joy, playfulness, and being on board with a simple idea that made a good scene. In a way, it’s like a rebuilding and rediscovering of the same process that resulted in the Rules in the first place, though more applicable to the needs of the people at hand.
Criticism can involve praise as well. Look for strengths more than you look for weaknesses and look for dos rather than don’ts. I recall one young woman who was dedicated, showed up every week, was a joy to be around, but she often broke in scenes. Rather than seeing what a positive member of the group she was, I focused on her laughing issue, and under my tenure never got on stage. Wow, yeah, I know. Here’s an analogy: Killer Whales have no sense of the word “No.” You cannot tell a Killer Whale to not do anything. However, you can enhance its natural abilities, rewarding it until it will jump through a hoop for you. Improvisors are similar. Looking at their weaknesses only is limiting, providing them with a list of “don’ts” will make them too cerebral. Instead, praise what they do well and provide them with a list “dos.” The rest will eventually fall away.
Particularly impressive improv teachers get labeled as guru, and it is tempting to achieve that title. Accept now that you are not a guru, nor is being called a guru the ultimate goal of teaching. The ultimate goal of teaching is always to make other people better. If you enter into teaching for self-aggrandizement or to carve your own tiny little empire then you should probably not be teaching. Teachers are in it for their students, our joy comes from watching other people do good work.
Think about it this way. Either we decide upon a couple of rules of play beforehand - like choosing to baseball or basketball. This is useful for the players, because we know what kind of effect we’re going for. This is also useful for the audience, because it’s fun to go see shows that sound different on paper.
Or we can have all of the sports equipment available to us. (The metaphor is not perfect, so don’t push it too far.) We begin playing, and then notice we’re playing a particular sport, and so keep on playing that sport. Everyone just happened to pick up baseball stuff, perhaps. Or even better, we notice that a lot of people picked up baseball stuff, so it’s a good idea if we pick up baseball stuff too.
Neither is better, neither is worse. It’s just two different ways of achieving the same thing: playing a sport.
Keep in mind, I like knowing I’m seeing a particular form, and I like knowing I’m playing a particular form. It helps structure thinking. Ialso like knowing it’s possible to break the form and not have everyone go into paroxysms of panic. Thought experiments of how things could work is more fun than thought experiments of how things don’t work.
Every improvisor has a how I got into improv story. Whether it’s a class they signed up for on a whim, an actor who took an agent’s suggestion to “learn some improv, it’ll help,” or a quiet client services manager who wants to be better at public speaking, everyone discovers improv. Everyone comes to it from somewhere with small expectations. They want to be quicker on their feet. They want more confidence speaking to others. They want to be “spontaneous.”
Valid reasons all. But that’s not how they got into improv. What every person who is into improv has is a moment; a moment where it all clicked. A moment where they were funny and surprised themselves. And that moment became a drug. A beautiful, clean drug, but a drug. One you would spend nights and weekends in strange basement theaters and back-of-the-bar stages to score a hit of.
My moment came early. It’s 1998, sometime in the fall. I’m a student in my junior year at SUNY Fredonia. Yes, hail, hail, Fredonia, a small liberal arts school with just over 5000 students located in Western New York. The school’s appearance is a strange mix of standard brick academic buildings among newer, modern concrete constructions by I.M Pei. It is an insular space, surrounded by the immediate town and then beyond that, the interstate, vineyards, cow pastures. There’s not much to do in Fredonia except to get a fake ID and drink Labatt Blue from Canada and drink some more. But I was an RA for a year and half at this point, so I didn’t have any friends willing to make me a fake ID.
The campus center, the Williams Center or “Willy C” for short, held among other things a small coffee bar. At one end of the coffee bar, a stage. Here, singer-songwriters often performed, punctuated by the occasional open mic night. And while open mic nights usually attracted the more artsy, folky musicians of the middle-of-nowhere late 90s aesthetic, it also attracted the budding college student stand-up comedian who had nowhere else to go to ply his craft. I was one of the wretched creatures.
I had written a few ideas that could be, in some universe, construed of as jokes. Mostly they were just “wouldn’t it be funny if…” pitches sans punchline, as if describing a possible comedy sketch or joke idea to the audience and hoping they would see the potential funny thing too. My delivery had the pausing quality of an eager kid going “well…? Approve of me!” I wanted to make comedy so bad, I wanted to be on stage, but I had no idea how best to go about it. This night in fall of 1998 was a particularly disastrous brief set, and I started to think that I just didn’t have any chops at all. Because of course, after your third try at doing something, if you’re no good, you should stop. No, of course not. I digress.
Now keep in mind, I wasn’t greeted with a cacophony of boos or pained cries of “get of the stage!” I was greeted with something even worse: silence. The kind of silence that tells you no one got what you did, no one understands it, and the only response they can muster is complete detachment and inaction. It’s hell, I tell ya. When I die, my hell will be me behind a microphone forever, cracking “jokes” to an indifferent unappreciative crowd. The demons’ tortures will not be flames, pitchforks, and spikes, but rather grim, stone faces.
I got off the stage and was greeted by Kevin. Kevin was a strange little pudgy weasel of a man about half my height.
"You were really funny," he says.
"No I wasn’t." Please, don’t humor me.
"I’m starting an improv group. Wanna be in it?"
There is an important moment right here. I had no idea what improv was. I had heard the term a few times, but I had never encountered actual improv before. There was a comedy group on campus that billed parts of their show as improv, but they were really more of a sketch and variety act. (And if you’re wondering how a campus of 5000 supported two comedy groups and graced this new one with regular attendance, hint, it barely did.) What was this thing you were inviting me to?
"Do I get to be on stage?" I inquire.
"Sign me up." That, my dear friends, is how I attended my first improv meet. No great fanfare. No shaking mouse clicks of a class registration and online transmittal of funds, wondering if this was right for me. No bold "finally, I’m doing it," as I walked into a theater in a major city somewhere. Nope, like most things in my life, just a simple nod and a promise that I would be there and do it, whatever it was.
We’ll flash forward now. After winter break, to January of 1999. In the self-same Willy C, now on the second floor in a small all-purpose room, myself and about a dozen or so other wanna-be funny people were gathered. The large, slightly curved room (following the contours of the circular Willy C building) was flanked with grayish battleship blue walls. The room was bisected by a runner track for the accordion temporary wall push up against one side, and populated by large pieces of conference room furniture; flat slate grey tables and those dormitory chairs covered in carpet. It was not a room that suggested creativity; it suggested college administration diversity workshops. Kevin was de facto leader of the group, it was his brainchild, his baby, and he was ready to ride this improv group train to minor on-campus stardom. We were just charter members, planetoids in his supernova.
Now here’s where I got into improv.
We’re playing a bunch of short form games. Lined up next to each other like a talk show panel in those carpet chairs, three of us played a game called “Good Advice, Bad Advice, Worst Advice.” The title is somewhat self explanatory. A fourth person took questions from the room and posed them to our advice-givers. I was the player embodying worst advice. And in my head, I made a choice. It was a ridiculous choice, and a sophomoric choice, and an unenlightened choice. I decided to be some sort of effete type who viewed everything through the lens of sodomy and perverse sexual advances. Truly, his advice would be the worst.
It was! And somehow (perhaps in spite of more refined sensibilities now) it was funny. Somehow the audience responded to it. They were not silent. They laughed. They got the joke as it was. They saw what I was going for. Yes, yes, yes. Something I just said off the top of my dumb head was funnier than anything I had ever written down and delivered later. Who was this bastard stand-up comedy? Begone from my sight, foul creature, I do improv now. I. Was. Hooked. This worked for me. The answer to my question I had asked all my life, how would I get on stage, was now here. Improv. I knew in that moment I would follow this where ever it took me.
It sounds as if the earth trembled and the firmament parted and hordes of impossibly multi-winged angels with trumpets emerged from a glowing crack in the sky and shone the Holy Spirit down upon me. I wish it was that dramatic. It was imply a rush, the rush from finally doing something that felt right and true to who I was, and the confidence that comes with wanting to do more of it.
Every improvisor has that moment. Every single one has that point where they realize that they are being rewarded with being who they are. That the uncensored words from your mouth are not only welcome, but celebrated. Some people get lucky. Like me, some people may experience it within moments of doing it. Some people quietly, solidly plug through classes, not experiencing that feeling until some levels and hundreds of dollars in. But it happens. And when it does…
There’s no going back.
Next time you’re worried about how your improv scene is going, think of this heart. No one is living or dying because you can’t find Game. Improv is the least important thing you’ll ever do, so just go out there and have fun.
I’ve seen this photograph very frequently on tumblr and Facebook, always with the simple caption, “Ghost Heart”. What exactly is a ghost heart?
More than 3,200 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant in the United States. Some won’t survive the wait. Last year, 340 died before a new heart was found.
The solution: Take a pig heart, soak it in an ingredient commonly found in shampoo and wash away the cells until you’re left with a protein scaffold that is to a heart what two-by-four framing is to a house.
Then inject that ghost heart, as it’s called, with hundreds of millions of blood or bone-marrow stem cells from a person who needs a heart transplant, place it in a bioreactor - a box with artificial lungs and tubes that pump oxygen and blood into it - and wait as the ghost heart begins to mature into a new, beating human heart.
Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, has been working on this— first using rat hearts, then pig hearts and human hearts - for years.
The process is called decellularization and it is a tissue engineering technique designed to strip out the cells from a donor organ, leaving nothing but connective tissue that used to hold the cells in place.
This scaffold of connective tissue - called a “ghost organ” for its pale and almost translucent appearance - can then be reseeded with a patient’s own cells, with the goal of regenerating an organ that can be transplanted into the patient without fear of tissue rejection.
This ghost heart is ready to be injected with a transplant recipient’s stem cells so a new heart - one that won’t be rejected - can be grown.