I’ve been lucky enough (maxed out credit cards enough) to have been in Chicago a number of times. I first went to do the Second City Intensive in 2005, then the IO Intensive in 2008, then to hang out in 2015. Since the first time, us Maydays, have brought over loads of teachers, because they are some of the best in the world. Last week we went over as a whole company for our DIY Intensive training program.
Here is a disgusting, boiled-down version of 30+ hours of improv learning for the Buzzfeed Millennial mindset. There are SO MANY exercises, insights and philosophies from all of these teachers, but this is just a taster.
1. Let’s give each other stuff we want to play - Jorin Garguilo
We spent time in class literally asking one another what we like to do on stage and making one another aware of that. So you like playing animals, being picked up or getting pimped into difficult stuff? Great; tell your team and mess around with that.
2. Everything you need is already here - TJ Jagodowski
I lost count of the number of times TJ would stop the scene within a few seconds because we were denying our own offers. Look at how you’re standing. What was that expression about? Did you feel that underlying tension? You seem like colleagues, no? Let’s just take a second to acknowledge every micro-offer, then we hardly need to work at all.
3. Don’t just yes, add information - Adal Rifai
We’ve been learning ‘yes, and’ since day one, but actually we can be a lot more efficient. Once we get the first line, we can really go to town on detail. Take a moment to check if you are and-ing, or if you’re just yessing with a lot of words.
4. Flip-flop between things you find easy and things you find hard – Mick Napier
Mick is the king of personal feedback and I learned a lot of great stuff. As a teacher, I really loved that instead of banning us from a habit, he would have us toggle between doing that thing and doing the opposite. Play fast/slow, play high/low status, initiate/react and so forth.
5. Have the conversation about physical boundaries - Rebecca Sohn
I have written about Rebecca before and I think she’s an exceptional teacher. We did a lot of great physical and character work, but I was really pleased that she initiated the question of what we were all comfortable about on stage. It’s a great discussion to have with people you work with. Will you feel comfortable if I’m touching this/that part of your body on stage, if I’m kissing you, if we have a physical pile-on? Have this conversation with your group. I’ve been working with the Maydays for 12 years and this was still valuable as hell.
6. Kill, Marry, Fuck - Rich Sohn
Using these basic human extremes of emotion, we played out (sometimes the same) scenes, pushing in each direction. Marry is broadly ‘negotiate’ and the others are exactly what you think they are. Really, everything boils down to this.
7. Play appropriately for the show you’re doing - Bill Arnett
Bill is the Maydays’ spirit animal and we continue to learn ALL of improv from this guy. The sentiment that keeps hitting home from Bill for me is that improv is not one set of rules, it is a particular style for a particular show. Work out whether you’re playing hard premise/follow-me scenes, slow burn/relationship scenes or any particular kind of style, then put that into your rehearsals, warm-up appropriate to that show and have a director guide you as to what’s right for THAT show.
8. How to find an emotional point of view- Farrell Walsh
When you get a one word suggestion, there are lots of ways to take it into a scene. Think about how you attach to ‘strawberry’ as a word; does it make you feel summery, fruity, allergic? Attach to the context of the word; how are you at a tennis match? Bored, exhilarated, lost? Is there anywhere else you’d feel that feeling? Perhaps you’d also feel lost at a supermarket like you did when you were small. Boom; there’s a feeling and a setting for your scene.
9. Show Up
After a few years, it seems like the easiest thing to do in improv; get the hell on stage, but I found myself hesitating in my first Chicago show because I was playing in a 13-strong cast with veteran players. Hesitating doesn’t help anyone. Show the hell up, that’s the only way you can follow through on supporting your fellow improvisers. We’re always being told to make our fellow players look good, to serve the show; well, this is the best way of doing it. Get on stage. If you’re auditioning your idea or anyone else’s, you have already lost the battle and the moment for that idea will have passed.
10. Make room for others
This is the other thing I learned from playing with the cool kids; there is always a hand reached out; we are in this together, no one will be left behind. Bring someone on who hasn’t got on stage yet, leave space for them to respond and play, treat them like a genius, artist and poet.
11. Stage Time is Everything
It’s all very well learning a lot of theory about improv and reading books and quoting the teachers you’ve had, but it’s up to you to create your own philosophy and style. The only way to learn to be a successful performance improviser is to hit the stage regularly, watch a lot of shows and play with people that challenge you.
About the Author:
Katy is a London-based improviser who plays in Destination the improvised podcast, a whole bunch of live shows including Project2 and The Maydays and teaches improv classes.
Thanks to The Annoyance, Bughouse and IO theatres for hosting shows with us, to all the incredible teachers we had, co-stars we played with and friends we made.
And thank you for reading.
Sometimes people contact me when they are feeling down about their improv life. I wrote a long response back to one particular query and I have adapted it slightly (with a lot of names and specifics taken out) in the hope that it might be useful to other people going through one of those improv downers.
“I used to get bummed when I wasn't asked to be in stuff, but then I realised that people aren't always thinking about me! On asking, people also assume that I'm constantly busy. Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. I've done well from just sucking up my pride and asking when there's something I want to be involved in. I was sad I didn't get asked to do a particular show, but I just mailed them and said it was a great project and I'd be happy to help out if they needed me. I was surprised to discover I was on the list of people they would like to use after the pilot shows. Rather than getting bitter about it, I just said hi and told them how much I liked the idea. A chum was also sore about not being in stuff and she asked why she was never in Geekeasy (the Project2 comedy night for nerds). My response: “What? I had no idea you were interested, come play!" So, the advice is; if you like a show, just say you're excited to see it and if they ever need another player, you'd love to jump in.
I also don't get asked to do the London Improvathon. The year I wanted to do it, I asked to play. It's the same thing as above. Why should they keep 100 improvisers in their heads? People we regard as ‘names’ in improv often ask to do it. If you want to play, put a note in your diary for a few months ahead and ask to be involved next year. But also consider if this - or any show - really is your type of thing. Do you enjoy it, or do you feel like you should do it because it’s a weird kind of career move or networking opportunity? Don’t do it if it feels like you SHOULD. Do it if you think it would be fun.
Picky is good. Appreciate when you have space and downtime, because it's great to reflect and prioritise and soon you'll go through a busy time again.
Make a plan of how many nights you'd like to rehearse and do shows, then keep that time free till you find or create the right project. In acting and improv land, things often come along with no warning and it’s good to be available.
I don't think it's helpful to compare ourselves to one another. You just have to do things that excite you and push your improv in the direction that you want to go. I used to struggle to be validated in our improv community, but now I just do nerd stuff that makes me happy. Who Ya Gonna Call? (our Ghostbusters musical) had the remit of being an Edinburgh show just for fun while the cast were all doing 'real' projects up there. Of course, it turned out to be one of the most successful Edinburgh shows I've ever done. Geekeasy is just for kicks with my buds and it’s a happy bonus when it leads to other stuff. You can't reverse-engineer those things (well, perhaps you can, but it's very hard work and the opposite of following your joy).
Remember; EVERYONE has these neuroses. Different people have just created different coping mechanisms.
I read a great article recently that says when we are feeling anxious, we put more work and stress in to try and solve it. Actually, it is suggested that the best cure is to sit back, let the anxiety pass and stop trying to do things about it.
I would give you a compliment as an ego-boost, but you don't need my validation.
Relax, you're on the right path.”
About the Author:
Katy is a London-based improviser. If you want more, listen to Destination, the improvised podcast, come see a live show, or take an improv class. Thanks for reading!
Perhaps you’re new to improv and you can’t wait to be more confident on stage. Perhaps you’ve been doing it for a year or two and it’s still really fun, but you feel a bit stuck in improvising the same kind of thing. Perhaps you’ve been doing improv for 5 years or more and you’re not getting into the shows you want or being asked to join groups. Perhaps you’re a veteran; you teach and you play in a well-known team, but you want to fricking excel.
Here are a handful of ways that can really help you up your game. Some of them are pretty obvious, but putting them together will make you a superhero. Spandex, people. Spandex.
Here we go: in order of difficulty, easy to hard:
I’m assuming you’re already taking classes and probably doing shows. If you’re not, start there.
Oh my Gods, it is crazy how many students I get that have never even seen improv. They might remember Whose Line from the 90’s or they went to the Comedy Store one time, but that ain’t the same. If you really want to be good at comedy, you need to see what other people are doing, and regularly. It doesn’t even matter if the shows you see are not very good, or if they’re not the kind of style you’re into. In fact, great! Now you know what you don’t want to do on stage. That’s just as awesome as knowing what you do want to do. That’s why people go crazy for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; it’s where you’ll see the best and worst shows of your life and you can be inspired and reassured by where you are on that scale.
2. Play with Strangers
Jams are a really good way of cutting your teeth in improv. A jam has become parlance for a show where any audience members can get up and play, including total beginners. Playing with less experienced people makes you better at support and driving the scene. Playing with more experienced players gives you an ego boost and helps you to take risks and see what it can feel like to be truly supported. Both break you out of habits that you may have fallen into by playing with the same people.
Jams aren’t the only option for this. Pick some people you’d love to play with and ask them if they’d like to do a gig with you. Maybe put on a night where you do your show, they do their show and you all play in a mash-up at the end. What’s the worst that could happen? They’ll say no? Well, that’s the same outcome as you not asking, so you might as well tip the odds.
3. Geek Out
For the most part, improvisers are nerds (or at least improv nerds) so they like to talk about it in great detail. You can swap philosophies, understand people’s intentions for their work, hear about new forms and exciting shows that are going on. You might even make a new bud. Aw.
4. Learn with a Different School
Have you taken classes at an improv school? Great! Well done you for learning. Now it’s important to remember that improv is not maths. There is no one way of doing it right, no matter what people tell you. You WILL get teachers that contradict one-another because comedy is in the eye of the beholder. I say hooray for that! Superb! Try out another school. Learn a different way in. If you’ve been taught to always bring an idea or premise on to the stage, go somewhere where you are forced to be organic and build from nothing with your scene partner. If you’ve been at a very physical school, go somewhere where wordplay is the most coveted thing. That way we all get a thousand more tools to play with and we’re not judgy about whose way is better. We can choose in the moment, or be appropriate to the show we’re performing in. This totally goes for improv veterans too. If you are teaching and you haven’t been to someone else’s class in a year, you’re probably stagnating. Book a visiting coach from the States, do a week of clowning, go learn Meisner. But please, you haven’t ‘finished’ learning improv.
5. Do Two Person Improv
I can’t recommend this enough. Doing a two person show with Rachel Blackman after exclusively playing with the Maydays taught me SO MUCH. When there are just two of you on stage you have to take responsibility. You really need to tune in with that other person, really make their offers count, really listen, really commit and so forth. Basically every piece of improv guidance you’ve ever had is underlined and pushed. You’ll find out much more clearly who you are as an improviser. Half of that show is you and all of it is both of you. Don’t just stick to one partner, screw around. Play with as many partners as will take you. Each one will magnify a style that you have in you and make you a better improviser.
I’m saying this partly because I took Project2 to Sweden recently and it reminded me how useful it is not only to watch shows, but to watch shows from other countries. Things (comedy, theatre, edits, framing, character types) we take for granted in our own countries are not necessarily the norm elsewhere. To generalise horribly, Brits and Americans are much less physical in their work than most of Europe. Also, it’s really beneficial being outside of your home country when you’re watching shows, because that different environment makes you more open to new things. Most people will also be leaving their work (and their loved ones) behind so it can be more immersive.
It’s pretty difficult to learn improv from a book, but if you’re taking classes or doing shows, it’s a great way to supplement your learning. Some of my favourites are:
8. Tape Your Shows
Okay, this one is a total nightmare and really just for those of you that really want to push your level up. I’ve done it for blocks of time in the past and this year I am taping most of my shows. It’s a diagnostic tool and it’s very useful as a leveler when you realize that bad shows weren’t as bad as you imagined and good shows weren’t as good as you thought. Be kind to yourself and your team if you do do diagnostics. The best way to approach it is not to criticize the specifics of that show, but to ask yourself what can you take from it for your next show. Make sure it’s full of positives and not just what you think you fucked up. A positive note might be ‘we are really good at leaving space in dialogue, let’s keep doing that’ or a constructive note might be ‘let’s use the physical space more imaginatively next time’. I’d steer you away from critiquing one-another’s improv and keep it about the show.
This one isn’t for everyone, but leading a session or even a warm-up for your team can really help you be a better improviser. Breaking down what exercises are for, reading the energy in the room and setting goals for your scenework can be really insightful. Teaching and coaching teaches me so much that I spend a lot of my time doing it. There’s always a balance, though. Make sure you perform if you teach and road test everything you’re telling other people to try.
10. Do Something Else
If you’re in deep, this might be the most important one. Take time to do something – anything – else. For most people the other thing might be their day job, or another hobby, but those of us that are doing it 24/7, it’s really important to have outside influences. I like to read curated Stack Magazines to get a different worldview, to watch films and scripted theatre, to hula hoop or hang out with friends. If you don’t do anything else, where will your inspiration come from? Improv will be a little in-jokey if you aren’t having other life experiences. Also, improv will seem a bit too important and you won’t have as much fun. Remember, it’s just make-‘em-ups.
Thanks for reading.
Resources for Londoners:
For schools and shows have a look at:
Hoopla, Maydays, Nursery, Free Association, Monkey Toast, Spontaneity Shop and more. Plus UCB, Second City and IO teach intensive courses or have teachers visit the UK, so keep an eye out for those.
There are lots of jams in London, the most regular and notable being Duck, Duck, Goose. There's also C3 Something once a week and the Playground once a month.
I was lucky enough to be working with Bill Arnett in January (Chicago Improv Studio, IO Chicago). Out of the many useful pieces of training and advice, this one sounded pretty great “I want to be here right now. That’s my only motive.” That’s the most essential thing to help you improvise. And easy, right?
I had a tough (read ‘bad’) show a few weeks back and we were trying to figure out what went wrong. We did a proper warm up, there was a full room…
We were doing consistently good shows and had been for a while. But then this stinker came out of nowhere.
We have a policy to just say good things after the show and be constructive with anything else in rehearsal. But we lasted until the tube before we started evaluating what made our improv slip; ‘we were on first, it was a weird room, the audience had never seen improv, the warm up took the piss out of improv’ and so forth. But if a show’s good it tends to cut through the things stacked against it, or at least you can appreciate that the show was good, even if the audience didn’t like it.
Having just had Bill, I wondered if I wanted to be there right then. I had definitely wanted to be there when I arrived, but one of my show buddies was ill and the other was disappointed by that and had been partying till 8am.
I jokingly told my scene partner that I did not have his back, but on reflection I wonder if I was joking? (Also, shit joke, Katy). Perhaps I was mad that he was disappointed in only having me to play with and that he hadn’t slept. I felt like I was going to have to ‘carry’ him, which made it seem like work and not fun.
All you have to do is want to be there.
So I was blaming him for not wanting to be there which made me not want to be there. Newsflash; neither of us wanted to be there.
What if you don’t want to be there and you have to do a show anyway? You can’t drop out of a show just because the vibe isn’t right!
In this team, we normally suggest one personal mission before the show i.e. ‘I’m going to be silly’, ‘I’m going to play emotional honesty', 'I’m going to do some ridiculous characters’, ‘I’m going to use the space well’ etc. Then we all take on the missions as a group and that often determines the style and pace of that evening’s show. We forgot to do our missions. Our missions should have been ‘I’m going to treat you like an artist, a poet and a genius’, ‘I’m going to make you laugh’, ‘I’m going to use this weird space in wonderful ways’.
Our missions should have been ‘I’m going to treat you like an artist, a poet and a genius’, ‘I’m going to make you laugh’...
So my advice to you and future me is: want to be there: or fake it till you make it and make sure you treat your scene partner like a legend. There is no carrying, there is only improv, which is your favourite thing to do.
This applies to bigger casts too. Everyone is there to play the whole show. Take note if you ever decide just to be the walk-on guy because you’re a bit tired, or ill, or hungover. It’s not okay to just be comedy walk-on guy unless that’s exactly what the show needs you to do at the time. You can’t decide beforehand. You have to be there to serve the whole show and whatever is needed in that show. What if everyone decides to be comedy walk-on guy? That’ll be a shit show.
It’s not okay to announce you'd rather be somewhere else, or you don’t like the show you’re doing, because that stops other people wanting to be there and play with you.
Remind yourself of why you're doing it, why you want to play with those people and what you can do to give them a good time. If you don’t feel good about those people and that show, you should probably be doing another show. Or playing golf.
For me: I definitely want to be here right now; and for the rest of my life.
On asking friends what Susan was like as a teacher they would often attempt an impression of her, including catchphrases and a lot of swearing, which was a little intimidating. When I finally met her – in a workshop weekend in London – I found her to be utterly refreshing. She immediately cut through all of the bullshit, a truth-sayer who would challenge you hard and make you feel totally secure at the same time. She focused on the self and the team as completely symbiotic creatures in improv, which now seems obvious. I met her again in Nottingham where I was performing in Project2 and she was doing Messing with a Friend. We chatted in the pub and she invited me to play in Messing with a Friend in Chicago (which it took me two years to follow up on). It was incredible and she is one of the best scene partners I have ever had.
Advice I use most from Susan Messing:
“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole”.
The Maydays invited Rich and Rebecca Sohn over from the Annoyance Theatre, Chicago. They immediately got to work on the Maydays and after a week of work, our shows were much stronger. Our intimacy and trust with one-another as performers grew and we remembered to take it seriously, but also, not at all seriously. We took more risks and noticed more what the dynamic was on stage. Rebecca struck me as a strong and hilarious woman; seeing what she is up to in her comedy life is a constant and useful kick in the ass for me professionally.
Exercise I love the most from Rebecca Sohn (Annoyance):
Touching noses and foreheads with your scene partner throughout a whole scene and not breaking eye contact.
Friends talked a lot about Jill and I was excited to do a class with her. I had heard that she was fun and playful. I booked on a solo improv workshop. I have and had no desire to do a solo improv show, but I coach a handful and I was working on a solo scripted piece. I was the asshole in the room and one of my first questions was “how do you do solo improv and not come across as smug?”. It was a genuine question as I think solo improv has a lot of fundamental flaws (ask me in the pub) and this is one of them. I had never seen Jill perform, so it wasn’t about her work, just about solo improv in general. Her answer absolutely delighted me. Rather than practical solutions on how to counter looking like you were a smart git, she brightly said “Why shouldn’t you be smug, you’re doing a SOLO IMPROV SHOW! That’s amazing”.
Favourite Jill Bernard exercise:
Loserball: throw a mime ball around the circle. No one ever manages to catch it and every miss is met with celebration.
Nancy Howland Walker
I met Nancy at Second City in 2005. Rachel Blackman and I were taking the intensive there and saw that she was running a musical improv class at the weekends. There were three weekends and we had missed the first one. Nevertheless, Nancy was completely open-hearted and shoved us right in at the deep end with solos on the first day. I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared but nor have I learned a tool that has been so life-changing and beautiful as improvising songs. Nancy is one of the warmest and most caring teachers I have ever had.
Favourite advice from Nancy Howland Walker:
On the way to sing Sondheim: “Whatever the piano is doing, do something else.”
Charna is many things to improv and kind of the mother of long form, so I was very excited to spend a week with her in London in 2013. The first two days were tough and I didn’t connect with her much at all, but after that it was like a detective novel; she had been watching and listening and working out who we all were as people. I don’t think she cared what our improv was like until she knew who were were. And then, she broke off from improv entirely, got us all to tell personal stories sitting on stage and connecting with one another. Immediately of course, our improv sky-rocketed. We dropped our bullshit of trying to impress her and one-another and just played. That’s the kind of teacher I want.
Favourite form from Charna Halpern (originally performed by the Family):
The Living Room: where you tell stories on a sofa with a beer in your hand and whenever you’re inspired you get up and do a scene.
Rachel is my twoprov partner of 11 years. We played in the Maydays together for a lot of that time too. Rachel is an incredible friend and a ridiculously talented actress and theatre-maker. While I’m off being silly, she makes a practice of her art. She knows how to do the work, how to be professional and how to make improv that matters. She is the one that encouraged me to train in Chicago, because if you’re going to learn, learn from the best. We don’t get to do our show as often as we would like, but when we do (even if months have gone by) it is still the show that I am the most proud of. It’s theatre, actual theatre. It’s funny and it’s often ridiculous, but I’ve tried to bottle the connection I have with Rachel in other teams and it’s just not possible. She is the TJ to my Dave (or the other way around).
Favourite exercise from Rachel Blackman (Meisner technique):
We sit right opposite one another, knees touching and we take turns saying “I’m watching you, watching me”.
I hope you get the chance to work with some or all of these crazy geniuses. Every minute I’ve spent with them has made my work better and my heart a little warmer.
1. Craig Cackowski is great.
His class ‘Sell It’ was the most fun I’ve had in an improv class for a while and rather than making this introvert make increasingly big and silly choices (which was my guess) he showed us all a really good time and reminded us how joy is the biggest player in a good improv show. Be prepared to play Blind-Musical-Pimp-Freeze-Tag in every single workshop I teach from now on.
2. You can have all of the things in one show.
Dasariski was probably my favourite improv show at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. It married the careful listening of slow burn improv with all the big, silly physical stuff and fuck-aroundery that I adore in groups like Baby Wants Candy. Not only that, but there was a gentle meta nature to it that didn’t throw me out of the show, but gave me a little peep at the improvisers as people. I loved every minute and that’s props to Bob Dassie, Craig Cackowski (again), Rich Talarico and guest Stephanie Weir.
3. We can all be super generous if we choose to be.
The open-heartedness of Austin, Texas is pretty amazing. I didn’t quite believe how people would just show up to give me and Chris Mead lifts around the place, how we were given accommodation (and sometimes food and booze) for free and how epically kind the community was. I resolved that I would be a bit more generous and open-hearted when we have improvisers visiting.
4. Have faith in the little guy.
I have a couple of connections in Austin, but basically it was Jon Bolden looking up over his laptop in June and remembering that he needed an international act that meant that I got to do Destination at Out of Bounds. I am not a ‘name’ over there (or here for that matter) so it was amazing to be asked to put on Project2 and play the big-guns Stool Pigeon show too courtesy of Dave Buckman. I also had people come to my workshop, which was delightful. I am the little guy to Austin and I will take more risks on players I don’t know so well in my community.
5. I’m lucky to know and work with Chris Mead.
Chris is a great player and a great friend. I bagged him for moral and technical support when Tony (my husband and podcast partner) couldn’t make it to the festival. I realized that we haven’t been on a proper road trip together beyond the UK and it deepened our stupid bond. We were both inspired and made hungry by OoB. It was partly the barbecue, but also the improv.
6. I can’t do the heat.
You’re right – I knew that anyway. Chris told me I would be gushing about Austin, then walk out the door into the sunshine and hate it.
7. Bad things are good.
Okay, I didn’t see any bad improv. But I did see some new players who were learning the basics, but watching those shows is always useful to remind you how far you’ve come. I may have a good or bad show these days, but that’s based on a very high bar that I’ve set myself. It’s great to remember how long it takes to be watchable, to be confident and to really, actually support the people on stage with you.
8. Mick Napier does magic tricks.
I mean, he does actual magic tricks. But apart from that, Trigger Happy is a super interesting show that he has directed. The intro describes a ‘special language that may look like magic’ and it really is. Watching the show was like looking into a kaleidoscope where all of the offstage players were constantly symmetrical in different kinds of patterns with scenes clicking into place all over the stage. It’s very hard to describe, but feels much more like a piece of theatre than improv. It takes itself seriously and that’s a refreshing code switch from the Labrador-like looseness I normally see in longform.
You’ve probably heard of Chekhov’s Gun, it comes up in narrative improv as much as Schrodinger’s Cat comes up in science fiction.
Let me open with the fact that I do both narrative and non-narrative/freeform improv shows. So, if this blog sounds negative, it’s not meant that way. I absolutely thrill whilst I jot my Oh Boy! The Quantum Leap Show structure on the blackboard and our new Maydays musical is as Hero’s Journey as they come.
But let’s talk about the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun and how exciting and freeing it can be.
I’m going to call it Coens' Gloves.
About a year ago, I heard a podcast (listen at 12:30) with the makers of FX's Fargo TV series. I loved the show and was so happy to hear this story told in one of the episodes:
(to paraphrase) A man gets on a train, as the train starts to move, he realises that he only has one glove in his hand. He looks out of the window and sees the other one on the platform. There is no one near it and he doesn’t have time to get off the train and retrieve it. What does he do? He throws his other glove out of the window. That way, at least one person will have a pair.
I loved this parable in the show. Lots of people debated what it meant and why the character told the story. The writer - actually Noah Hawley and not the Coen bros - talked about how the Coens used various stories and moments in their films which pertained to nothing. Life is full of irrelevances, of strange and incongruent moments. The writer fought for this story staying in his script and won, despite that fact that it was not part of the plot (or even character development, necessarily). He was emulating the style of the Coen brothers and therefore emulating the randomness of human existence.
""Once you take away that Joseph Campbell Journey bullshit... then you're doing something that people can't predict as well... but it has to be satisfying".
Not everything you do in improv has to serve the story. That doesn’t mean you can drop information or pay less attention, it means that you can choose what is important to the story and what is important to the feel of the story.
Let’s not follow the road well-travelled. I would rather watch (or play in) a show where I’m surprised and delighted at what is happening than honour a plot that is predictable and cliché. One of the most fun things about improv is how it differs from writing; that we discover something more organic than perfectly driven narrative and something that can only be produced by a group mind in this moment. This one. Freeform improv is a discipline. It doesn’t mean going straight to wacky land or adding too much information. It’s just as hard (harder?) as telling a neat story and when you’re good at that neat story, you can decide to get off the path.
It’s Fargo’s truth, or the feeling of truth that I love the most about improv and if truth means leaving Chekhov’s gun on the wall for the whole show, I’m down with it. Perhaps that unfired gun will hang there as a metaphor for the emotional impotence of one of our characters, perhaps it will portend a darker future, or perhaps it will prompt the audience to think about their own guns (their potential, their rage, their secrets). One thing that narrative and freeform agree on however, is that whatever that gun is there for; it's important.
Just: fuck firing it by the end of Act II.
Well, there are no two ways about it; I had a terrible gig. For me it’s not a hobby, it’s my career and it cuts me to the quick to be bad at improv. At the same time, it’s nice to be able to diagnose what I did wrong and re-learn the lessons that have got me through this stuff before.
I forgot the Bene Gesserit litany against fear:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
I got all up in my head about me and how good or bad I was being and going to be. I didn’t support my scene partners and I forgot to trust that they were looking out for me.
My team have discussed in the past that it’s not enough to have a chat or a burger, but that we need to play a handful of games to get on the same page. We even have a cache of games ready to go as ‘our’ warm up, that serve the style and the philosophy of our work and we just plain didn’t do any of them.
I saw another team and thought they were good. I worried that they were better than me. So they were.
A few people told me they really enjoyed the set and that it was super fun. I needed to take the compliment, not invent reasons why they might have been lying to me, or just being polite. They enjoyed it. They were right to have enjoyed it.
I have a whole blog on perception right here.
If I were my student, here is the advice I would give myself:
Katy: I had a terrible gig.
Katy: Really? Why was that?
Katy: I just got up in my head and I fucked it.
Katy: Well, we all have bad gigs. Happily, the more experienced you get, the less they come up. You get a better hit-rate of good gigs the more you do.
Katy: But it totally sucked and I want to die.
Katy: I often find that when I have a rough time in improv, it’s because I have moved my own bar. A gig that I felt good about 10 years ago might feel really poop today. I often perceive that I have bad gigs for short periods when I am learning new things and trying to apply them. It’s a good thing; it means I am learning. There’s a whole blog about that here.
Katy: I feel really awful about it. It makes me depressed.
Katy: I love the idea that you should never feel bad about a gig for longer than the gig took. I came across that in the Pam Victor article The Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Game.
Katy: I’ve already thought about it for way longer than it lasted.
Katy: Bad gigs mean that there is stuff to work on and that’s what rehearsals are for. Make sure that you get together with your team right after a show and only share what you enjoyed about it. Later, in rehearsals, you can actively work on things to make the show better. Good shows are super fun, but bad shows give you lots of great stuff to work on.
Katy: Thanks Katy, you’re ace.
Katy: No worries Katy. You’re ace too. Stop being so hard on yourself.
[Katy gives Katy a hug]
I was teaching long form at Hoopla last night and was reminded of a tiny movement that I often see out of the corner of my eye. It means someone at the side of the stage has an idea. It happens in almost all long form classes (and a lot of shows). It’s not even a whole step. It’s often an intake of breath, a tensed calf or a list forward. Students are sometimes surprised when I say ‘you have an idea, go do it’, as if their bodies hadn’t betrayed their thoughts.
Months ago, I was in a tiny village near Shrewsbury where I had no phone signal or Wi-Fi. I spent a few hours looking at paper maps and walking up beautiful hills in the rain. But when the light was gone, there wasn’t much else to do but watch the Jurassic Park trilogy. I was struck by this quote:
"Dr. Grant: I have a theory that there are two kinds of boys. There are those that want to be astronomers, and those that want to be astronauts. The astronomer, or the paleontologist, gets to study these amazing things from a place of complete safety.
When those students are on the side of the stage, they are astronomers and paleontologists; they get to see the history of the universe in the scenes of the other players. It’s hypnotic and it’s beautiful. It’s a discovery. It can feel active because you’re making deductions; finding out how, who and why. But if you don’t follow your feet, then you never get to go into space. So when you do have that idea, or you just need to fill the space and support someone; go.
Become an astronaut.
"Dr. Grant: And that's... that's all that Billy wanted.
Do you remember the day you found out about Santa? For me it’s the same as the day I found out that improv isn’t maths. I had a teacher who totally contradicted what another teacher said. I really didn’t know what to do with that for a while. I imagined there must be some grand unified theory, but really, it’s a case of finding out what works for you, without letting fear keep you in too safe a place.
There are a couple of reasons for these contradictions, apart from the fact that there are different styles of shows, different schools and different philosophies. As a student at any level, there’s only so much stuff you can work on at one time. If you were just told all the wisdom that experienced improvisers have right at the beginning, you’d go back to Zumba. Good teachers can sit there with 20 notes in their head and only give you two because you can work on that many. The other thing is that some of the guidelines we give new improvisers are just training wheels. You can’t ride the bike just yet, but it’s great for you to experience what it feels like without your dad holding the back of it the whole time or you falling off. Here are a couple of the lies we tell you when you’re starting out.
Don’t ask questions.
We tell you this because it gets you to a solid scene more quickly. Just coming on and asking ‘where are we?’, ‘what’s in that bag?’ or ‘who are you again?’ means that the other improviser has to do all the work. They have to decide where you are, what’s in the bag and who they are. Changing to statements makes you answer your own questions and we can find out what’s going on more quickly. We’re in a football stadium, there’s a mascot costume in the bag and ta da! you’re the guy that has to wear it.
But do ask questions.
Because people do in real life and one of the things we want on stage is a feeling of authenticity. The difference with more experienced improvisers is twofold. Firstly, questions aren’t being asked out of fear. Secondly, questions can be really valuable when they contain information; ‘Are you putting me in the mascot suit because I broke up with you?’
We tell you that everything must be met with a ‘yes, and’ because we want you to accept and build on what your scene partner is giving you. We give you exercises where we make ‘yes, and’ a bit of text that you have to use at the beginning of every line. ‘Put the mascot costume on’. ‘Yes, and.’
Later on, we start to get the subtleties of what is actually blocking and what makes for a better scene. We ask our scene partner to put on the mascot costume. A more experienced improviser remembers that they’re the ex-boyfriend and there was some subtext suggesting that they don’t want to wear it – it’s humiliating. So they say ‘no’, but they are saying yes to the dynamic that is happening in the scene. Also, they will definitely end up in that mascot costume at some point. It’s either now, in a really begrudging way (while verbally saying ‘no’) or later on in the show. You know that bit in sit-coms where someone refuses to do something and then they cut to them doing it? That.
So, sorry about Santa, but now we get to dress as Santa and lie to our own children.
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