Truth. If you’ve agreed to go on an online date with somebody then you know something about them* - you’ve at least seen pictures and have probably exchanged a few emails. But usually it does devolve into two people who barely know each other acting awkwardly. I think, in general, there’s safety in playing online dating scenes in this manner. That whole concept of “having a relationship” with somebody sounds hard. Meeting someone you barely know for the first time in this setting is a safe, escapable place to be.
It’s also a shorthand. It’s a super easy place to go to when you sit down in chairs cheated out towards each other about 2-3 feet apart. It’s not inspired. And it’s not going to be inspired because we’ve all done it a hundred times and it requires a massive amount of force to achieve escape velocity from that idea.
Acting crazy is an attempt to get out of there, but that too is uninspired because it’s probably an invention. This scene was fine the first 10 times you did it because it was still new then. You’re probably bored of the scene by now. Guess what - because you are, your audience is too.
I suggest doing something else, anything else. Set the chairs 10 feet apart. Have them face the same direction. Kneel on the floor. That way, even if we do end up doing an online dating scene, at least we’re in an interesting place we can react to. Chairs 10 feet apart? Maybe it’s a rich billionaire’s dining room. Facing the same direction? Maybe we’re at a diner counter. Kneeling on the floor? Japanese tea room. These are very different kinds of dates that suggest very different people going on them.
Remember, having a relationship means how you relate to somebody. Have fun with the ways you relate to your scene partner!
*Unless you’re just using online dating for hook ups, in which case that’s a whole other scene we can do.
By the time you actually go on a date with someone you met on OkCupid or Match.com you probably know them fairly well. People don’t just see photos of the other person and go on dates. So stop acting like strangers.
If you’re going to act like strangers, and one character…
I was thinking about something I see in improv a lot. Jack enters the stage, does a bit of object work. Kaitlin joins a moment later and stands there watching Jack do his thing. Jack then offers a line out, and Kaitlin’s first reaction is to have a big problem with it.
Now usually we peg Kaitlin as judging Jack’s idea, but I don’t think she is. I think instead that she is being confronted with a lot information. And there is a pressure, probably imagined, that Kaitlin needs to provide the “correct” response to Jack’s information. I believe that a natural human reaction to that much information is to protect itself.
The mind hasn’t been given time to fully process the information it’s been given and therefore hasn’t had time to judge it as “good” or “bad.”
Now the reason the mind is protecting itself is because the mind is doing nothing. In this scenario, Kaitlin has entered the stage with nothing. She is doing nothing, thinking nothing, saying nothing. She is standing there and watching Jack as Kaitlin. She must play a complete catch-up to whatever it Jack is doing. The mind simply sees information, deems that there is too much of it and, preferring its cozy current state, would rather not move.
Kaitlin should do something. It is always easier to create more motion when one is already in motion. I believe the strongest thing she can do is pick an emotion or general feeling to play around with. She can then use that general feeling as a reaction to Jack’s action. More physical players may find success with entering in some interesting character walk. Cerebral players may find success by starting a conversation on some unrelated topic. Whatever it is, it’s something. It’s something for Kaitlin to do, which is better than standing there and looking at Jack.
When an archer is shooting for nothing he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
he goes blind
or sees two targets
- he is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize
divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting
and the need to win
drains him of power.
“My job is to beat the funny out of you….people are putting way to much pressure on themselves to be funny, be clever to give the quick come back….. Go with the connection first and the dialog will flow out.”—Jimmy Carrane, original member of Annoyance Theater and Jazz Freddy, quoted on Kevin Mullaney’s Improv Resource Center. (via thethirdthought)
“Many people have the idea that to improvise you have to get up on a stage and ‘make it up.’ While it’s true that that’s the bulk of it, it could also be said that the bulk of driving is pointing the car, so let’s allow five-year-olds to do it. Bad idea. To master the art of improv can take many years, and a great understanding, not just of improv’s tenets, but those of many different disciplines. Because there are fewer parameters than any other performing art, one must be prepared for anything that comes your way. That includes forays into the worlds of writing, directing, design, dance, music, singing, mime, stage combat, and especially acting. Once you’ve got all of these down, then you can say that improv is easy.”—Jeff Catanese, Improv Review (via onlyopportunities)
“It’s marvelous when we’re surprised by coincidences. Light or sound, in our presence. That’s one of the beautiful things about hunting mushrooms — is that they grow up and are fresh at just a particular moment, and our lives are actually characterized by moments.”—John Cage, on experiencing the world as if it were art. [full interview here] (via nprfreshair)
I have never been a planner. Ever. I have always been the ‘Everything will work out, let’s just see where this takes us…’ kinda person and make the most of different opportunities that were offered to me. As a result I never really found anything that I was ever brilliant at. I was just ‘alright’ at a lot of different things.
Then I found improv.
Suddenly, the way I’d been living my life made sense. I can actually apply my approach to life to improv: say yes, take opportunities, don’t worry because everything will work out in the end, and if something doesn’t work it doesn’t matter because the next choice you make will lead to a different opportunity. So, really, why wouldn’t I want to do this?
If you ever find yourself in a buying, selling, bartering, or teaching scene, don’t be afraid to try to take it somewhere else. Ask to see the back room, invite the salesman to lunch, find a way to use whatever you’re acquiring or learning. Ask the salesperson/ trainer to help you on the big task you need this equipment or information for. Find an action or a motivation, and run as far away from bartering/buying/selling/teaching as you can with it.
With special thanks to Don Fanelli and Chris Gethard
1. There is no “correct” method (except your own)
I’ve been studying improv continuously since the Fall of 2007 when I had my 101 class with Betsy Stover at the UCB. I worked my way up through the 500 levels where, through no fault of the school’s, I started to feel stuck. Off the advice of a friend, I starting taking classes at the Magnet in January of 2010 and, off the advice of the same friend, I also took a summer intensive at the William Esper studio (where I got a crucially good dose of acting training). Then, off the advice of the SAME friend (Thanks Don!), I’ve also been taking classes with Beck Drysdale, where I’ve really come to appreciate the idea of “there is no correct method except your own.” Note: I have yet to take classes at the PIT so please forgive my current ignorance on their methods!
People wanting to get into improv often ask “What is the best school?” and the answer is ALL of them! UCB teaches game based improv which is good because knowing how to play game keeps your scenes from wandering all over the place and losing steam. The Magnet teaches a more multi-faceted approach that includes game, character and relationship based improv. This is also good because having believable characters and relationships grounds your scenes and makes them more believable and funny.
However, both approaches have their drawbacks: Just focusing on game can become problematic when scenes devolve into a clever (or more often not so clever) repartee between two talking heads who have no basis in reality. Likewise, just focusing on character and relationships without a strong game can lead to meandering and painful scenes that drag on with no purpose and no laughs. Therefore, I feel the best improv combines all of these elements: characters and relationships are strong and believable and there is a solid game or games that keep the scene interesting.
Ultimately however, a particular improv school’s curriculum will only take you so far. Each individual needs to find where their strengths on the improv spectrum lie and play to them, regardless of what a school tells you to do. If you excel at game, for example, play to that strength, but don’t neglect character or relationships (and vice versa). If you watch the best improvisers perform, you will notice that none of them play “the right way” as far as a particular school is concerned - Anthony Antamaniuk plays very differently from Louis Kornfeld, for example, but both are amazing players and neither of their styles can be defined by any one particular methodology. They both took the fundamental elements from their training and then added their own personal twist on it - a process that took many years, but more on that later. The point is to never limit yourself. If you feel stuck doing things a particular way, remember that no one approach to improv is gospel; there are many other options out there and you will always benefit from having more knowledge and more tools in your toolbelt.
2. There are no wrong moves
We all think of ourselves as the greatest and truest judge of comedy. When our scene partners make moves that seem contrary to our ideas of what we believe is correct and/or funny we may find ourselves judging them, judging the scene, and generally taking ourselves out of the picture and looking down on it/them. This is not a cool thing to do. First of all, by judging our scene partner, we are negating them - a cardinal sin in improv and something that hardly ever leads to good scenework. A good improviser never judges a move by a scene partner; they always accept it and move forward to the best of their ability, no matter how “bad” it might be.
One of my favorite scenes I’ve ever been in came about because a scene partner introduced another character as “Grandpa Business Man.” Instead of negating this offer by saying, “That’s not his name” which was my first thought, I instead responded with great gravity and seriousness with something to the effect of, “Of course, Grandpa Business Man, we meet again,” to which the audience exploded. They loved the acknowledgement of something so absurd with such a serious acknowledgement, but even more importantly, they loved the fact that I agreed with my scene partner instead of negating them - which they were probably not expecting. As one of my favorite teachers Ed Herbstman said (I’m paraphrasing), “Genuine laughter is the result of surprise, people laugh when you defy their expectations.”
Let’s face it, there is a lot of shitty improv out there. So often you see shows where players negate each other and/or argue for five minutes over some banal triviality, that it is truly a delight to see a show that’s genuinely fun and enjoyable. What I’ve found across the board when I’ve seen good shows is always agreement and playfulness: When people screw up or make the “wrong” move, their scene partners roll right along with it and incorporate it into the pattern and the audience is glad to be along for the ride. When people negate, ignore, or fight their scene partners’ ideas, the audience starts checking their watches. In short, if we treat our scene partners and their ideas with respect, we will surprise and gain the respect of the audience (and our scene partners).
3. (Perfect) practice makes perfect
Becoming a good improviser takes a LONG TIME. Curtis Gwinn, one of my favorite improvisers, told me it took him seven years of doing improv before he felt like he was putting out consistent work. Kevin Hines, another improviser I greatly admire, took something like eight years to get on a house team permanently. The vast majority of excellent improvisers today have somewhere in the realm of five to ten plus years of performance experience. This should not be a discouraging statistic and, as a matter of fact, should be highly encouraging; particularly for those of us who haven’t been chosen to be on a house team yet (Oh baby this is gonna be my year or not!). The competition is indeed fierce out there but it’s really not about the competition at all. It’s about you. It’s about how much you practice - but even more importantly, it’s about HOW you practice.
I took a workshop with Ian Roberts this past summer where he stressed the idea that it’s not simply practice that makes perfect, but PERFECT practice that makes perfect. He went on to explain that just logging time on stage does not make a good improviser. You have to be aware of the work you are putting out and what you should be doing to improve it. For example, if you have a bad habit of forgetting character’s names (something I do all the time) you, and your coach, should be consciously noting your incremental progress in that regard. You and your coach should also be able to step back a month later and see how well you are improving and why. The main idea being that you are ACTIVE and conscious in your training as opposed to being PASSIVE and simply showing up.
If you are not aware of your faults or you choose not to address them, you will never progress as an improviser, no matter how much time you spend on stage. Perfect practice is the difference between people who have been around for five years and are excellent vs. people who have just been around for five years. Again, it all comes down to you and what you are willing to put into the work. You should be performing as much as you can, you should be taking classes with people you admire as much as you can (and/or asking people you admire who you should take classes with), and you should be watching shows as much as you can (both good and bad) - all with the idea of perfect practice.
One final note I want to make is that it’s very important to realize that everyone learns at their own pace. From what I’ve heard (and from my own personal experience) it takes about three years before you have your first big breakthrough. Then, according to improv lore (and I think Will Hines?), you have another big breakthrough at about the five year mark or so. Your results may vary - in fact, you might be one of these crazy prodigy freak of nature types that gets on a house team right out of the gate! If so, congrats you weirdo! If not, don’t worry. Chris Gethard, another of my favorite teachers, told me that the prodigy phenomenon is far from normal and when people do get on house teams seemingly out of nowhere they, more often than not, have several years of legit performance experience outside of the New York improv scene.
Regardless, if you truly are in this for long haul then the correct amount of time it takes for you to become excellent is just that: the amount of time that it takes. Don’t worry if youaren’t on a house team yet, don’t worry about your friends or people younger than you getting on house teams before you, don’t worry about who’s on what commercial or TV show now. Literally none of that stuff matters in the greater scheme of things and focusing on it will only cause you needless anxiety. A much better direction for your focus is on the work itself, engaging in perfect practice, and generally doing everything in your power to improve yourself. If you are doing that, then be comforted in the knowledge that it may take you five years, it may take you ten years, but you will be successful - and you will have earned it.
…improv is the underground, dirty, free-form, balls-to-the-wall style comedy and theatre that can draw anyone’s attention while watching it. To know that you’re able to make someone feel something, let it be: anger, hope, comedy, sadness, sensualness, ect. just by making something up is a feeling that one can not even describe.
So next that that you see a poster, or a post online for a friend’s improv show, or even a show that you know no one in, take the time… spend the $5.00… and experience what it is to be apart of improv. The life of the theatre will light up, the energy will explode, and you’ll never forget the time that you saw “that brilliant thing happen, out of thin air.”
For many of our performers, the improv starts with a referee’s whistle and ends the same way two-and-a-half to four minutes later. Rinse. Repeat. No wonder no one likes short form.
The fact of the matter is that we should be looking at this show as an hour-and-a-half long form piece. The captains coming onto the field between games is a touchstone for the audience and improvisers the same way that the group game is a touchstone in a Harold. Everything that’s happened in the show is fair game for further exploration. That means characters, beats, themes…all of it.
Because the dirty secret is that a short form audience is just as savvy to your callbacks - whether to that thing that happened in your game of Fairy Tale Countdown or to the hilarious exchange you had with the ref before the game started.
“All artistry, all drama, and of course all comedy is serious business indeed and, we find, controlled by two prime factors: the love you have for what you hope to accomplish and your willingness to invest the maximum effort to achieve that purpose — and in the end, only the love should show…”—Chuck Jones, in his foreword to the book Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America.
Improv folk: Please help me think of ways that people _don’t_ agree at the top of the scene without an outright denial (so no “You’re not my dad, you’re a baboon!).
I guess the reason I ask is that I have been seeing a lot of scenes where performers don’t seem to be in an…
One the subject of things that are not agreement but are also not outright denials: Occasionally performers may find themselves initiating at the same time. This usually happens with object work: Steve starts miming using a beer tap while Tess mimes planting flowers. We’ve just created a conflicting space. Why, Steve must be in a bar and Tess is in a garden!
But like with all things that might seem like Denials, we can deal with them as long as we don’t panic. There’s no need to justify straight away. Why? Because the straight away justification is usually not that interesting. Besides, the scene’s going to be about the characters in it anyway. So if we listen to those characters, we’ll find a stronger justification for our conflicting spaces.
Or we won’t. And we’ll just quietly nod and accept that we’re in a bit of a surreal world this one time and not worry about it too much.
Last night I got to do one of the most fun shows I have done in a long, long time.
I performed in a show that was the culmination of a four-week class in Shakespeare-style improv. Before the show I was a bit uneasy due to not being warmed up yet to use Shakespearean language. I know that the language is not the most important part of the improv, but it’s one of the most fun parts for me. I like the challenge, and it’s just more fun to be flowery and verbose.
But after a warm up that organically revealed itself (a Shakespeare Cypher/Rap Circle) I felt much more ready. I put my trust in my love of Shakespeare, the class, my fellow players, and my desire to have fun. I reminded myself very consciously of that last bit - add fun - and I reminded myself of the other thing I’m working on - add love.
Well it was fun. A simple story was set up in which one man has made himself a suitor to four different women. I made sure to say and do things that I thought would be fun. I trusted my own sense of skill so that my sense of fun would not override what’s already going on in the scene.
Go, everybody. Find an improv that seems like fun for to do. Do one that also seems like a challenge. And do one that taps into something you love. Do that, and you’ll find a show that you have an absolute blast playing in.
First off, I think that there’s two basic kinds of performers. There are those ruled too much by fear and doubt, and those rule too much by a superior sense of competence and bravado. Those ruled by fear and doubt are racked with insecurity and cannot make bold moves. They are paralyzed into inaction. Those whom have an inflated sense of competence become cocky and cannot listen or play well with others. These people get to be known as steamrollers.
The binary is not strict, of course. There is a continuum, and the worst issues occur at the extremes of the continuum.
I believe that we’re all secretly really good at improv. It’s just that all of us deal with these two things constantly throughout our career. They’ll take different shapes as we move on with improv. Those with fear and are advanced students have fear for a different reason than those who are in their first improv class ever. Combatting fear or bravado requires an assessment of where the student really is in their development.
I believe every poor move in improv is symptomatic of something else. For example: A person who says “no” to ideas in a scene isn’t doing it to be a jerk; it’s that they’re afraid of actually following someone else’s idea and feel that it is safer to control a scene by following only their own idea. They probably haven’t tasted the success of a scene truly built on Yes. As in medicine, attacking the symptom does nothing to attack the disease. Cold medicine only makes you feel better; it doesn’t actually make the Cold go away.
These problems exist because of ego. Our sense of self, and thus self-preservation and self-control, are so great that they get in the way of good work.
We should all strive to be the performer who is able to push past of all this. This performer is at ease with themselves, the stage, and their fellow players. They are not afraid, nor or they cocky. And a player pushes past this not by learning how to do a split screen or fine tuning their object work. Those are skills. The real heart of it is in the mind.