In having a chat with Stuart Moses on the London Improv Podcast a few days ago, I realised that I have recently been treating my improv like crop rotation…
Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar or different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons. It is done so that the soil of farms is not used for only one set of nutrients. It helps in reducing soil erosion and increases soil fertility and crop yield.”
This last year I have not read a single improv book, which is unheard of for me. I have not been on any intensives or taken any classes. I have been writing a book and I didn’t want to disturb the process of laying out my thoughts on different areas (or plagiarise) by introducing lots of new stuff. In contrast, last year The Maydays created our own weeklong intensive with our favourite teachers in Chicago, I did a week with Craig Cackowski, I took classes at Camp Improv Utopia East as well as numerous other workshops and being coached. It’s tempting as an improviser to keep learning with other people because it’s easy to feel and say that you are working hard on your art form, but what do you really need? At either end of the scale lie; personal atrophy where you have been doing the same kind of improv with the same people for aeons and – at the other end – hoarding, where you take every single class with every teacher you can so that you can say you are doing your best to be a good improviser.
Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row (Monoculture) disproportionately depletes the soil of certain nutrients.”
Only working in one style with one team or school (Monoculture), can feel like a strong decision, like doubling-down, but there are diminishing returns.
With rotation, a crop that leaches the soil of one kind of nutrient is followed during the next growing season by a dissimilar crop that returns that nutrient to the soil or draws a different ratio of nutrients.”
Having different ideologies and inputs allows you to grow without depleting yourself so much. Switching between one team of heady technicians and another of hippy organic improvisers keeps your artistic nutrients more balanced.
In addition, crop rotation mitigates the buildup of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one species is continuously cropped, and can also improve soil structure and fertility by increasing biomass from varied root structures.”
Break your dirty habits and go-tos; remember that improv is about being present and flexible and having fun. By rotating your styles and teachers as well as having downtime, you are more artistically fertile. ‘Varied root structures’ are the forms and styles at your fingertips.
Having a fallow period for your improv is extremely valuable. Whether you’re going on holiday, doing scripted work for a while or just enjoying rehearsing and performing with your regular teams, it’s a good idea to rest! Improv should be super exciting, never a chore or a habit. We are seasonal; there are times when we can take new information and times when we just need to stop, process and recoup to recover our creative fertility.
Jon and Chris are both taking time off from my three-person team Project2 which initially made me feel sad and like it might be the beginning of the end, but after not doing a show with Chris over the summer (because I was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) we just did a fantastic show in Bristol. We both felt self-assured and did exactly what we wanted and had a great time. In many ways, we totally fucked a lot of the guidelines of improv, but we absolutely didn’t fuck over the high level of trust we have with one another and that made all of our risky choices excellent.
I used to notice the need to do less but just ploughed on (sorry) anyway. This year I deliberately haven’t read any improv books or taken classes. I’ve been rehearsing and performing regularly, but that is the harvest.
Now I’m busting out shows I really like and I’m ready to be challenged again!
I have written an improv book called The Improviser’s Way: A Longform Workbook. It’s available on IndieGoGo for just few more hours if you’d like to pre-order a copy!
This blog came out of a conversation I had with Stuart Moses on the London Improv Podcast. Here is that podcast:
I notice in teaching longform that some students are resistant to learning things that are slightly different to what they have learned previously. For years when people used ‘impro’ rather than ‘improv’ I would flinch because I learned with Del Close graduates and they had learned from the Keith Johnstone school. I imagined that what I had learned was way better because it was about emotional choices and making the other person look good rather than competition, status and narrative. It’s weird because we’re in an art form where we literally train to be able to drop ideas, adapt and say yes, but when it comes to Bunny Bunny with different gestures, we freak out.
Bill Arnett of the Chicago Improv Studio is the spirit animal for my longform company The Maydays and he suggests that we need to focus on adapting for the style we want to play in in any particular show. If you’re playing in a fast-paced gaggy show, you’re going to be edited before you explore the subtext in a slow burn style scene. If you wheel out a pun in a realistic show, it had better be a part of that character’s personality or it will take all the air out of the scene.
Baby Duck Syndrome is a type of imprinting that happens when people have learned a particular computer operating system and they judge all successive systems based on their formative experience. We are absolutely a slave to Baby Duck Syndrome in improv, so I constantly tell my students to learn everywhere, with as many teachers as they can. I’ll recommend another school I think is good, whether they ever recommend their students to me or not.
Let’s be freer. We have learned to be adaptive and creative in many different ways. If your director/coach/teacher asks you to pass the line of a song when you are used to organically choosing when it is time for you to do so, drop your imprinting. It’s great to agree on stage about how to play.
Having said that, it is great when different approaches collide. In Finland and Greece I had the pleasure of watching Patti Styles and Joe Bill play together. They were trained by Keith Johnstone and Del Close respectively and their shows were phenomenal. They weren’t questioning every move the other made against an internal checklist, but rather they were reactive and engaged. They allowed the rules and guidelines of their craft to knit them together, not to check the validity of one another’s choices against their training.
I guess what I’m saying (to you and to me) is; if the warm-up or the philosophy is different than the one you’ve imprinted on, go with it. The point where we are ‘done’ in improv is the point where we atrophy.
For some people, improv is the scariest thing they can imagine. There is literally something called the ‘actor’s nightmare’ where the dream entails being shoved in front of an audience without knowing your lines or what on earth you are doing in this show. Welcome to improv.
Of course, improvisers don’t come to the stage unprepared; we have loads of skills, training and other performers to help us through, but for some, the actor’s nightmare still resonates.
I am certainly no stranger to stage fright and nerves. I first got stage fright at the age of eight when my school play won a huge national competition and we played in a massive London theatre. I was so excited to perform, but when the curtains opened I had no memory of the speech I should have been doing about Guy Fawkes. My body was frozen and I stood there for what seemed like forever. The spell eventually broke and I hobbled through my speech, finally freeing up and remembering the rest of the show.
Over the years I’ve had some heart-stoppingly scary gigs like News Revue and the Treason Show where we performed topical sketches and songs that were sometimes written on the same day. Backstage before my first News Revue we all kept rushing to the toilet and agreed that it would be better to die than go on stage. We lamented being performers and not listening to our parents’ advice about having a ‘proper’ job. Of course, the show was excellent and every other night – though not easy – was ridiculous fun. The best.
Here, then is a list of thoughts and techniques that I pass onto my students when they are about to go on stage; especially when they are new to performing, or trying out something different for the first time.
Nerves Aren’t All Bad
If you get nervous, it’s not a bad thing. Sure, it can feel horrible, but adrenaline helps you focus. You’ll be able to listen better and make decisions more quickly.
The Higher the High
You get nervous? Lucky you. That means you get a real high afterwards. It’s nice for the calm ones, but they don’t get such a big pay-off.
Rebrand ‘Nerves’ to ‘Excitement’
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Hypnosis have excellent techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety. I recently had my arachnophobia cured by Creature Courage and a lot of the tools are totally transferable. I really think I’ve managed this rebrand over the years. Not every time, but mostly I get a kick out of the scary stuff and I want to push forward into it, not run away.
By standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes, you increase the testosterone and lower the cortisol in your system so that you are more relaxed, braver and ready to take to the stage. See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.
Warm Up Properly
Remember the first ten minutes of improv classes? That’s often the most sticky bit, the bit where everyone is a little uncomfortable and still in their day-to-day mind-set. If you don’t warm up before a show, you are performing in that awkward ten-minute headspace. Get to a place where you are ready to play!
Reach Out, Not In
Improv is a collaborative team game; if you’re nervous, remember to connect with your teammates. Eye contact and physical contact with your team before the show is invaluable; it’s a reminder that the show is all about them, not you. That’s where your inspiration will come from.
You’re probably trying to run imaginary scenes in your head for every eventuality that might come up on stage. If you’re nervous, I’d recommend doing less, not more. If you’ve warmed up and connected with your team, now is the time to have a little quiet for your brain; get receptive and open.
Water is going to help you function and you’ll get a dry mouth on stage if you’re really scared.
The times when I have been super scared before shows (like the Funny Women Final or my first Knightmare Live show) I could NOT eat food and that made me light-headed and even more scared. Have a massive lunch knowing that that’s probably your last meal for the day. Don’t eat right before you go on, you’ll be all sleepy and your comedy brain will be busy digesting.
Don’t Be Gross
Brush your teeth! Wear deodorant! You don’t want to be distracted by your own nervous sweats, or scared of getting up in someone’s face on stage for fear of halitosis.
Do It Regularly
Stick with performing and do it regularly, because I promise it will get easier. If you don’t go running for a few weeks, the first run back is harder. Improv is a muscle and it will atrophy if you don’t practice.
It’s Not a Big Deal
We practice failing in improv all of the time; it’s kind of our superpower. If something does go wrong; you fall over when you walk on, you get a name wrong, you miss someone else already making your joke; it doesn’t matter. Your team will make anything you do look good; they will all fall over, they will justify both names, they will repeat the joke a third time. Failure is funny. Embrace it as your muse.
We’re All Going to Die Anyway
So you’re still scared? How long are you going to be on stage? Fifteen minutes, an hour? In the grand scheme of things, that is such a tiny part of your long life that it can’t really matter. So what if it is the worst gig you have ever done? So what if you make a tit of yourself? It’s over in the blink of an eye. Get back on the horse. Your glorious, wonderful best show ever will also be over in no time. Enjoy the shit out of both.
That pint on the other side of a scary show looks to me like Indiana Jones treasure. What is a good reward you can promise yourself?
Break a leg and I’ll see you on the beerside.
I have been with The Maydays since our founding year in 2004. We are 13 years old this month! I’m passing on the things we’ve learned as a company; what inspires us and what has kept us together for such a long time.
No matter the difference or similarity in your various improv backgrounds, there is always something you can learn from the other people in your group. Take the time to teach others your superpowers and have humility when they are teaching you theirs.
2. Research and Development
Just like skill-sharing, it’s incredibly valuable to learn from players and teachers you admire. The Maydays take the time to build our own intensive at least once a year. Last year we went to Chicago en masse to learn from different veteran teachers every day, other years we have brought US teachers to us for three to five days.
When we have new Maydays (which isn’t very often) we make sure one of the other players acts as the go-to for them, answering any questions they may have. In the past we’ve taken new players from an audition and the mentor is really their first friend in the Maydays, making sure they get integrated fast.
4. Travel Together
Playing abroad at festivals and at other theatres is a great bonding experience; especially when you’re all staying in a hostel room together! It’s like a sleepover for people over 30. Playing to new audiences is also a really great way of testing your work.
5. Social Time
It is difficult to make social time for your fellow players, especially when they’re spread all over the UK (Stroud, Nottingham, Brighton, London) like the Maydays are. If you plan far ahead enough and make it a priority, it is possible. We have a Maydays ‘Christmas’ every January where we all hang like a family at one of our houses, have a big meal, play games and stay overnight. When we are teaching at our improv festivals in March and September, we always find time to have a sauna, a beer and play a bunch of board games.
Comedy is a competitive business and it’s important to remember to be supportive of your fellow players. Go and see their other shows whatever they do outside of your group and try not to be a dick when they get an amazing job or opportunity that you would have liked. You’ll appreciate it when they do those things for you. We’re also close friends and it’s great to know that these are the people you can call when something goes wrong.
Shift and change. Improv companies that do the same things they always did in the same way will get left behind. Keep developing your established and successful shows, keep making new shows and keep taking risks. We teach people not to be afraid of failure and it’s important to live that lesson.
8. Learn from Failure
If you do receive a bad review, make a show that doesn’t work or have a hard time improvising in a different way, accept that you are learning. Projects may be abandoned and some reviews can be valuable resources for improving your shows.
9. Celebrate Successes
Sometimes I forget to celebrate the things that go well because that is what is supposed to happen! If you get a great review, a sell-out show or a reward, enjoy the shit out of it and build on it as much as you can. Awards and stars can sometimes seem arbitrary, but they are what our industry sells. Celebrate personal successes too; they benefit the company as a whole; even if they’re personal.
Yes, honestly. A family-like company that has been together for 13 years sometimes needs a professional outside moderator to hear and help with internal politics and personal struggles. We find that small problems can come out on stage, so unlike many other art forms, it is important that we regularly clear the air and have a good level of trust.
11. Play with Others
In the spirit of not putting all your eggs in one basket, it is certainly a good idea to play away a little. The skills you learn by playing with other improvisers, trying out other shows, guesting or learning with different schools of improv keeps you inspired and flexible as an improviser.
12. Art by Committee
We make art by committee on stage, but making company or directorial decisions in this manner can not only take forever, but lead to bland artistic compromise. After years of being a co-operative, we have rotating artistic and company directors, and a separate director for each show.
13. Build Community
The people that like your show or your classes are to be treasured. Thank them for their praise, give them opportunities to play, learn and grow and have a drink with them. They are the next generation and they may have something to teach you.
14. (because break the rules) Improv Comes From Living
Make sure improv isn’t the only thing you do. Leading an interesting life with people you love makes for the best work.
In jotting down this list, I am excited to remember that improvisers are family that choose one another. There are difficult times and personal disagreements sure, but every time I’m with the Maydays, I’m extremely grateful that I found them 13 years ago and that they continue to be my friends and my artistic home.
Read my friend Chris's blog about spending five years in Project2.
Coach: “You were talking a lot in that scene and could have done less work by listening to your scene partner and building on that information.”
Improviser: “Yeah, I just didn’t really know where we were, so I thought it was best to build a platform so that we were both on the same page. I don't normally do that.”
I’ve been guilty of not taking a note, but defending myself. I often see fellow players do it when we’re in a class, being coached or directed and I see it in my students too. The coach (let’s use that as a catchall for teacher/coach/director) tells you something that you did and you – however subtly - argue with them.
Our art form is built on ‘listening’, ‘yes, and’ and ‘commitment’, use those tools in your process as well as your art.
Take the note.
When I was studying at iO Chicago in 2008 I had a class with Jet Eveleth where we were playing scenes in which our emotions started at 1 and went up to 10 throughout the scene. We chose an emotion beforehand. I remember choosing fear and Jet misread it as anger. She was coaching me hard on the side to get more angry when I was confused because my choice was fear. I was torn; do I do what she says or what is true to the scene? I hated my scene. I felt awful and I was annoyed at her for not listening to me. I wasn’t taking the note. The note –intended or not - was that the portrayal of my emotional choice was not clear early on. It didn’t matter whether she chose the wrong emotion or not, I was at fault. Instead of learning, my ego was bruised and I probably wasted some class time talking about it.
I heard a nice acting note that I sadly can’t remember the origin of and it’s also true for improv. If you find yourself saying ‘my character wouldn’t do that’ FIND a reason why they would. If you normally wouldn’t play an improv scene like this, find a reason why you should.
If you really don’t agree with the coach, that is fine. However, rehearsal is not the time for that. Take the note on right now and use it hard at least until the end of your rehearsal. Try it out in shows even and if it’s not useful or not a fit for you, you can discard it later.
Sometimes in an improv show we find ourselves in a bad scene. How on earth do we deal with that?
Trust that your team will edit you.
They should know you well enough to feel when you’re uncomfortable, or when the scene isn’t working that well. They will edit the scene, just like you would do for them.
Stick With It
Okay, so no one edited you. Shit. Ah, man, now you’re up in your head. What do you do? The first thing is, don’t edit yourself. It can be very tempting, but it will look like you are bailing on the scene (which you are). By making an excuse to leave as your character, you are leaving the other actor(s) high and dry. By editing the scene itself from inside, you are not trusting your team to edit at a good time. We have other people edit because we are bad judges of the scene we are in. There’s a lot going on in our heads, so it’s best to let the rest of the crew take care of that while you stay present in the scene.
So no one’s editing you and it’s bad practice to edit yourself. It doesn’t help being up in your head, but since you’re there already, let’s use your brains to help you. Your scene partner has everything you need. Look them in the eye. What is the emotion that’s coming across? How do they feel about you? It may be that we’re both thinking ahead and forgot to connect. We can build this show together.
What You Just Said is Very Important to Me Because…
Listen to the last thing your partner said. What were the exact words? Why is that important? Forget the rest of the scene for now, what did they just say? Now decide why that’s so important to your character. Why is this thing so important to me? It works for any line. If they say “Peanuts are shitty” what they just said is very important to you because you also think peanuts are shitty and the amount you have in common suggests they would be a great life-partner.
Have an Emotional Reaction
It’s great saying that something is important to you, but the best way to telegraph it, is to have an emotional reaction. If knowing your relationship is going really well makes you feel good, show that. It also helps your scene partner react off of you.
Say What You’re Thinking
Can’t decide on an emotional reaction? Say exactly what’s happening in your head right now.
“I can’t do this”
“Why is no one helping me?”
“I can’t wait till this is over”
“What’s wrong with me, I could do this yesterday”
These are all really great offers for your co-pilot. Don’t break the fourth wall by commentating on the scene: “This scene is shit”. Say how you feel as if it was happening to this character in this moment. “I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do this”. It helps you be authentic while also giving your fellow improviser something to play with.
Build a Platform
If you’re feeling lost, see if there’s anything that hasn’t been defined. Knowing what your relationship is to the other player(s), where you are and what’s going on is really helpful. You don’t always have to do these things in the first few lines, but if you’re unsure, setting up the pieces will help you play the scene.
Some shows can get very information heavy with full and complicated plots and/or lots of characters. Sometimes I will fall behind. If you don’t quite know what’s going on in the show or in the scene you’re in, take a second. Some people’s coping mechanism with a fast paced, complicated show is to add more information. If you’re talking over one another, trying to solve a story by putting more facts in there or adding something different because you don’t want to contradict what’s already happened, just breathe. You don’t have to be talking all the time.
So, Let me Just Get This Straight…
If you’re not sure what’s going on, there’s a good chance that at least some of your fellow players and the audience will be lost too. Try saying ‘so, let me just get this straight’ and outline what’s going on as best you can. You will clarify what it is for yourself, your team and the audience. If you’ve massively misunderstood something, great; you’ll probably get a laugh and someone will fill you in with the ‘correct’ information or justify your mistake.
Use Your Environment
What if the problem is that nothing is happening? What if you’re just a rabbit staring into the headlights of the audience? What if no one joined you on stage yet? Discover your environment. Perhaps you know where you are and perhaps you don’t. If you don’t, make a decision. It doesn’t matter where you decide to be; make that decision and stick to it. Now reach out and touch something that would likely be in that environment and use it.
How You Do What You Do is Who You Are
The way you use objects and environment gives you clues about your character and emotional state. You picked up an apple. Did you peel it with a knife, did you break it in half with your bare hands (my Mum used to do that) or did you bite into it? What are the clues you get from these decisions? Are you aggressive, are you smug, are you considered? Whatever it is, use it to form your character and emotional choice for this scene.
Don’t Drop Your Shit
Great. You know what’s going on, you have made a connection with your partner, you’ve made a character and emotional choice. Now stick with it. You don’t have to keep thinking about whether or not they were good choices, you just have to double down on them. Escalate the shit out of them.
But… if your scene partner offers you something that might change your outlook or your emotional state, use it. It’s a great gift. Allow your peanut-loving old man to fall in love, despite his reservations and his penchant for carrying an apple knife.
Now They Edit You
And you feel pretty good about it.
Thanks for reading!
Katy Schutte 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.
I have written an improv workbook that will be coming out later this year. Join my mailing list for updates!
It’s nice to have a round-up, we’ve all done so much more than we think we have! It’s also interesting to notice that some of the big things, the super-highlights are sometimes just things that come along easily and some of the work that is hard-won perhaps isn’t. Next year will be something else; but let’s just enjoy the good stuff from 2016 real quick…
2016 is the first year I’ve been brave enough to be solely an improviser/actor.
I performed over 150 shows and taught improv to about 2040 people.
Thanks to all my students, friends, loved ones and everyone! And also a big thanks to all my teachers this year:
Bill Arnett, Joe Bill, Michael J Gellman, Jorin Garguilo, Rich Sohn, Mick Napier, Adal Rifai, Farrell Walsh, Bill Arnett, Tj Jagodowski, Rebecca Sohn, Brian Jim O'Connell, Kristen Schier, Mike Descoteaux, Mark Johnson, Kevin Scott, Tim Sniffen, Bina Martin, Shenoah Allen & Craig Cackowski.
Earlier this year, a friend asked me where my blog on alcohol and improv was. I hadn’t yet written one. He felt like it was an essential question to cover as some of his troupe were ‘boozing before shows’ and ‘coming to rehearsal with a four pack’. So - many months too late, but maybe a little more timely because of the festive period - here are my thoughts on drinking and improv.
For me personally, I don’t drink before I improvise. But unlike me, the majority of people aren’t doing improv as a career choice. For me, every show I play is a showcase (often to students) and can lead to teaching, coaching, directing or corporate sessions. I want to do my best work every time. I need my brain and to drink anything will take my skill level down. It might lower my inhibitions, but I’m in a place where I’m confident enough on stage that my inhibitions are pretty darn low anyways. Some people drink to help with the nerves. The thing is, if you always drink to deal with your nerves, your sober nerves aren’t going to get any better, you’re just going to build a dependency for drinking alcohol before every show. That might even increase over time when the gigs get bigger and scarier. Also, if you get rid of the nerves before a gig, you are probably putting a damper on the high you will get afterwards.
For the majority of improvisers, improv is one of their chosen activities for downtime with their friends, where alcohol (in Britain anyways) is traditionally part of our culture. I’ll have a few beers when I’m playing board games or D&D (Nerd), so I can see why it seems to fit with a night of rehearsals or a low-pressure show. However, neither me or my friends care whether I’m good at board games and no one is paying to watch me play.
You’re an adult (probably), so you can make your own decisions, but know that your choices around alcohol will affect the people you play with on stage and your relationships with them off stage. If you’re slower and less physically aware, you make the other players work harder to support you and it stops being an even ensemble. If you’re a solo improviser, I guess it’s truly your decision. The audience is the other player for you. As a group player, there’s also the simple fact that it’s gross playing with someone who reeks of booze.
This all sounds a little preachy so far, so sorry about that. I confess that there are a couple of occasions where I do drink before (and sometimes during) improv. The first is New Years Eve. For the last few years, I’ve joined the Hoopla NYE party at the Miller in London Bridge. Lots of improvisers get really drunk and do a bunch of shows. It is ticketed for the public, but only nerdy improvisers go (and a few suffering partners). Because everyone is drunk, most of the improv is pretty self-indulgent. I find that when I’m plastered, the first thing to go is my spatial awareness; I crash into people when I’m editing or edited and I miss a lot of offers that aren’t happening directly in front of me. Also, I slur, so that means any verbal offers I make are hard for other people to understand. I believe at the time that I’m the funniest person in the room, even though I can’t hang onto a character or stop clowning around and breaking the believability of the scene. Once in a while and to an in-crowd, I think self-indulgent nonsense is pretty fun, especially when everyone is so pissed that we’re all in the same boat.
The other instance in which I drink is in the Living Room format. I do it because it was taught to me as a bunch of mates on their sofa drinking beers, jumping up and doing improv whenever they are inspired. Beers are for me a part of the form. It might lead us to play around a little more casually, to pretend like we are literally at home and enjoying one another honestly as we would do off stage. Even though I’m drinking beer, I don’t drink before the show and the Corona that I’ll take on with me won’t really hit until towards the end. So really, I’m cheating. I’m having it there as a prop and it won’t hamper what I’m saying or doing. Hopefully it makes our guests relax and know that it’s a casual (often late-night) show.
There are other formats where drinking is a part of the entertainment factor of the show. Where one character is drinking throughout and the others are taking care of them, or there are ‘live’ drinks on stage for a genre show, or there are challenges or bits where alcohol is built into the show. I’m fine with those as long as it’s mutually agreed and the audience knows that that is part of the gig. If someone is paying to see improv, they want to see the best show they can. If alcohol adds to the gimmick of the show and all of the performers are in agreement and enjoy that; cool. I’d be happy in the drinking role if I knew people had my back and I’d be happy to babysit if I knew that we got to swap around sometimes.
There are veteran improvisers that I’ve seen drink a lot before a show and maybe even get plastered all the way through a 30-50 hour Improvathon and it doesn’t seem to make them bad improvisers. Though I imagine they’d be better if they weren’t hammered. Also, how they hell do they get through an Improvathon whilst drinking? I would be asleep instantly if I drank beer in a 34-hour show.
There is no one I regularly work with that gets drunk before performing improv. I have a couple of chums that will have a pint before they go on stage and I’m okay with that. I suggest that a sensible limit is the same as it is for driving. If you can drive a car, you can probably drive yourself and others through an improv show. In jam nights, I would apply the driving limit rules and make that clear to potential performers. People new to improv can be a bit of a liability in terms of boundaries and trust anyway. If it’s a fun night out and we live in a drinking culture, it’s hard to ask people to be totally sober in an unpaid show.
If you really want a couple of drinks before a show or rehearsal, it’s good to check in with your group. If it worries anyone that people are drinking beforehand, come to a reasonable compromise so that everyone is happy. As for other substances, I think the above is probably true for those too. Experiment with anything you want if it’s part of the agreed show (depending where you stand on the legality and safety of that substance) and don’t give your fellow improvisers a bunch of work because you’re selfishly indulging.
Right. All this talk of beer makes me want a beer.
I’m off to get a beer.
I’m really writing this because I’m terrible at watching improv. This is a blog written for me. You can read it if you want, but this is advice from a good me to a bad me. I’m at an improv festival (do I keep saying that?) and I’m watching 4 hours of improv a night. Sometimes I’m a horrible person and I’m just waiting until it’s my show, sometimes, I’m spellbound, sometimes I go into teacher or director head. So how should I watch an improv show? They’re not necessarily my team, but I should still have their backs. Here are some tips for getting better at watching improv.
When you are playing at a show, please watch the other acts. Yes, you may need to warm up, yes, you may be tired and you’re on first, but think how much you appreciate it when the other groups stay to see you. If you are aware the other groups are very new or not so great, see it as your good deed for the day. If you’ve never heard of them, you should definitely watch them and see what they are up to. If you’ve seen them loads, great, stay and see what’s happening with their show now; improv is different every time, right? Also, you don’t have to awkwardly pretend in the pub that you did see them, or say thank you with no returned compliment.
Don’t just sit in the shadows at the back because you’re a performer, there’s no reason you should broadcast that by segregating yourself. Don’t sit in the centre of the front row because that can be intimidating. You shouldn’t be taking up paid punter seats, but you can make a theatre (or a pub room) look more full by filling up the empty seats once everyone else has arrived. Some nights don’t always have enough staff to run the door smoothly (in London anyways) so if people need help finding seats, locating the bathroom or knowing if they have time to get a drink, try and help out.
There are sometimes nights in London when technicians, front of house staff and the host haven’t turned up. If you’re comfortable filling a role at the last minute, you should do that. If the night is better, your show will be better.
2.See a Broad Spectrum of Shows
Don’t just watch the same group over and over again. It’s all very well me watching Baby Wants Candy every day for several Edinburgh Festivals, but you need to see more than one thing. There are infinite ways of playing and there are a lot of shows and performers out there who can really inspire you. For a few years I thought that I’d seen all of short form, then I took a punt on an American group in Edinburgh and had a really great night. They were slick, funny and I learned a lot of new games. Now I like short form again. You might live nearer to one theatre or another, or have trained at one school. Push yourself to go and see work in other schools and theatres. You never know; their style might be your new favourite.
3.Go See Your Mates Perform
I can’t tell you how pleased I am when friends come to see my improv shows. I burned through all my favours in my first two years of stand up, but sometimes muggle chums and improvisers will come to my shows. When I see them there I expect that they’re playing and if they say ‘nah, I just fancied it’ I glow. So give that feeling back. You love improv, remember? So go see your friends in their other shows, see how your fellow students are doing in their new team and be a nice person. A nice person who gets entertained and maybe has a lovely beer. When I watch my co-improvisers perform in other shows, I feel so lucky to play with them. Just last night I watched lots of the Maydays perform in other shows at the BIG IF and I was so thrilled with how excellent they were. What a treat to get to play with those people, I thought. We can take our team buddies for granted, but they’re probably awesome and we’re lucky to have them.
4.Don’t Sit There Looking Like a C**t
If you don’t like a show, you really don’t need to broadcast the fact. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all you. You will come across as arrogant or mean or judgy.
You don’t have to pretend to laugh, or give a standing ovation just to yes-and the crowd, but it doesn’t help the act for you to sit there with your arms crossed, looking moody. At least look open and encouraging. I’ve certainly been in shows, where I’ve caught the eye of a person who looks like they hate it and it’s made me feel bad. That might even be in a sea of smiles and laughs. I’ve also seen fellow teachers in the audience do ‘edit’ gestures, wince when a performer denies something, point out a reality error like ‘she was a tree, not a human, right?’ (that last one was me). You’re not really checking, you’re showing off that you knew what they missed. Really, you just look like a c**t.
Remember that the audience gets 100% of the information that is happening on stage and sometimes performers only get 50% because of where we’re standing and looking. It’s much easier to think of funny bits and clever plots from your comfortable seat in the crowd.
5.Have a Cheeky Workout
You can always get more reps in by watching improvisation. It’s another gym trip for your brain. Ideally it would be such a great show that you can just sit there and enjoy the shit out of it without even thinking. Often though we can be exposed to a lot of mediocre work, or in a workshop where we are sitting and watching two person scenes forever but there are necessarily times when we have to sit and watch.
Make your watching active. In the audience, learn all the character names like you would on stage, look for when you might edit, think about the themes, get ideas for follow-me scenes or work out the subtext between the characters. Log where objects and scenery are placed, think of how you’d wrap up the story. I’m not saying you should be this in-your-head when you’re playing on stage, but it’s a great way of practising when you’re the audience in class or you’re watching a show.
6.Decide What You Love
It was the worst show you’ve ever seen. But what did you love about it? There must have been something? One of the initiations was amazing, that guy was great at object work, the pianist was really good. It’s a given that we dislike improv where people listen poorly to one another and treat each other badly, so let’s get over that and find things we love.
Also – did other people like it? Just because you didn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s shit.
7.Pick Something You Can Use
A person, a form, a style, an edit; anything you like. Here are some things that inspired me from the shows I watched last night:
8.Only Offer Advice If You’re Asked
I’ve had people come up to me immediately after a show and give me notes. Not my director, not a teacher, sometimes a friend (who doesn’t do improv) and sometimes a student of mine. It’s weird, guys. First of all, I don’t want my tiny little high ruined by this person being objective (and objectively negative) about the performance I’ve just given. I’m a pretty destructive critic of myself, so I really don’t need a third person adding to the poo poo party.
If you are asked for advice, check if that’s really what they want; do they just need an ego boost or is this really a demand for creative notes? If they want notes, make them general things they can apply to their next show, not things they should have done this time. Also, you’re not obliged to offer free advice.
9.Take Action for Your Show
So we’ve learned how not to be neg about everything. But what triggered you because you do it? I think it bugs me when people do a lot of love stories, awkward rom coms and play ditzy American characters because I do too much of that. I’m just retroactively watching myself and saying ‘enough’! So rather than deciding you don’t like that show, see if there’s anything you can change about your work, or the group you work with.
What is character? Someone asked me this in class and as I went to say the simple answer, I realised I didn’t really have one to hand. Instead, I thought about how different students and performers find their way in to being somebody else. Some of us are outside-in and some of us are inside-out and the audience may not even know the difference,
I have taken and given a lot of classes where people are asked to walk around the room imagining that they have a rope pulling them forward from different places on their body. What happens is that it changes your body shape, your rhythm and your way of walking. In IO Chicago they call it Stacking when you move your spine into a different position to alter your stance. None of this is character yet, it is more like a chicken wire mesh that we can build a character on. So you start with a position, then you try speaking with the voice that would ‘suit’ this person. Often, you end up with stooped lower class characters and eyebrow-raised, tall upper class characters. I always found this creation of characters easy and sort of archetypal. An accent or way of speaking will inevitably follow your stance and walk and you will ‘know’ who you are playing even if you can’t articulate it yet. When you’re asked questions like ‘what is your name?’, ‘what do you have in your pocket?’ or ‘what pet do you have?’ you know the answers pretty quickly.
Start with discovering your point of view and the character follows.
I learned some great point of view stuff from Rich Talarico at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas. After a decade of learning character exercises, this was the only one that really changed and varied my character creation.
We played objects in a room. We were just sitting on chairs, so there was no staging or much physicality. By talking to the other objects, we found out what our point of view was in relation to every other object. I was surprised and delighted to discover that this came out organically. It was clunky at first, but soon, I found that it was clear how much the old clock envied the new side table or the fireplace fancied the lamp.
Now the BEST PART was handing someone else your role in the scene. We passed them a card that said ‘lamp’ or whatever we were playing, but explained to them who the character was as if they were our understudy. The clearest character explanation ever. It’s not about the text of the scene, you wouldn’t be telling that to your swing in a theatre show, it’s not about the accent or physicality because that’s up to the actor herself. It’s a clear point of view. “You are this lamp that has just been introduced to a room full of older objects; you are really trying to please them and be one of the gang.” It’s not that different than having a secret want or motivation or goal.
Now add the above on to this for free; the characterisation bit. Make it like a Pixar character. How would Pixar personify a side table? What voice would this one have? How would it stand or move?
So whether you start with the body (outside-in) or in your head with a point of view (inside-out), we get to create a whole character, one piece at a time.
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