I experienced a rare moment of effortless clarity in improv practice yesterday. I’m on DSI’s hip-hop improv team Versus, and yesterday we were practicing infusing our scenes with emotion.
Our director, Rose Werth, instructed us to get on stage, choose an emotion, play in silence for about 15 seconds, and then speak when we were ready.
I got up on stage with Kit FitzSimons. Our suggestion was stargazing. I sat down. I chose “curious/confused” as my initial emotion. I knew, having played with and watched Kit for almost a year, that in that 15 seconds of silence he was going to commit to some very detailed object work, and I didn’t want to do my own object work that might conflict with what he was doing. So I gazed up at the stars. Looked over at him. Watched him fiddle with knobs on an invisible object. Looked back up at the stars. Looked back at him. Watched as he looked through an invisible eyepiece. Realized he was putting together and testing a telescope. Looked back up at the stars. Looked at him. Stood up. Cocked my head to the left. Took one step toward him. At which point he said,
“I’ve got it.”
And we were off. Over the course of the scene, we revealed that our characters were on a date and he was putting together this telescope as a gift for me, but I was constantly trying to help and provide advice and generally, in as polite and loving and in-a-new-relationship a way as possible, tell him he was doing it all wrong.
At one point, he said, “Well, I’m not a professional astronomer.”
And I paused, then said, “But I am.” And then proceeded to prove that assertion over the course of the rest of the scene.
When we were done, Rose and some of our other teammates said, “That was such a smart choice, for you to be a professional astronomer.” I really didn’t know how to respond, because in that pause before saying, “But I am,” I had thought, “There is only one best way to respond to what Kit just said.” So it hadn’t felt like an especially smart choice to me, but more the only one that made sense. So I just mumbled “Uh-huh” or nodded or something and then shared a look with Kit to sort of check in and see if he was thinking the same thing as me, which he seemed to be, and then practice moved on.
But after practice I continued to think about this moment, and why it had been so impressive from the audience when it felt so obvious on stage. I tried to imagine myself a year ago, in the middle of taking 401, watching more experienced improvisers. If I had seen that scene, would I have been impressed in that moment?
And I decided I would. I decided that the very act of effortlessly making that choice, of listening and recognizing and following what seemed like clearly the best path, doing that was impressive, especially because it was something that in the past I was so proud of doing consciously and with great effort. And I decided that it was a gift to have people outside the scene present to verbalize that I had done it, and it was also a gift to have a scene partner who had intentionally set it up and trusted that I would make that choice.
DSI founder, owner, and three-times-my-teacher Zach Ward often tells students (usually in 301) that to him, improv looks like all of that code from The Matrix. He sees the underlying patterns in scenes, not the details on top. And that often involves automatically recognizing the natural consequences of what has happened earlier in the scene. And, thinking more about that moment in practice, I realized: this was a Matrix moment.
I’ve struggled to create my own metaphor to describe that moment. In that moment I was on stage, all possible choices of how to respond to Kit’s offer were laid out before me like so many possible paths, like trails of light. The one I chose glowed brightly, and all the rest were so dim as to not even be noticed or considered. It was so clear and so obviously right. It was the answer.
I’ve also thought about what kind of ingredients go in to the improv cocktail that makes that moment happen. How can we manufacture effortless clarity?
Well, two years of practice doing improv certainly helps. Thinking about improv academically, reading all you can about it, reflecting on both what you do and what you see, all of that helps. It gets you to a place where you can recognize the underlying patterns that make comedy happen.
But there are other components, and I think the most important, and probably easiest (but also most time-consuming) to manufacture, is the relationship between scene partners. Get on stage with somebody that you’ve played with a lot, preferably in a variety of styles (short form, long form, weird formats); that way each of you trusts the other to knock down anything you set up. Get on stage with somebody you’ve watched a lot; when you’re in a scene with someone, no matter how hard you’re listening, you’re focusing on yourself in a way that you won’t as an audience member. As an audience member watching the same players in a variety of shows, you’ll get to know their personal patterns of play and be able to respond to them on stage. And get on stage with somebody you’ve talked to about improv and how it works, a lot.
Probably you’re not going to become improv BFFs with every potential scene partner. But the closer you can get, the more effortlessly you’ll be able to apply everything you’ve learned about improv in the past.
This winter, I took the Advanced Harold class at DSI Comedy Theater. DSI uses forums for class discussion, but being The Hermione Granger of Improv, I basically turned them into my personal improv blog for 6 weeks. Looking back over my notes, I found some themes being repeated over and over, so I thought I’d consolidate them thematically here. PLEASE NOTE: as thorough as my nerdy notes are, they are no substitute for taking a class with a teacher, practicing with a coach, or getting up on stage in front of an audience. So get out there and DO THOSE THINGS.
Previous posts in this series:
I’ve mentioned before, and will again, that I’m the founding producer of the Improvised Whedon Company. We draw our inspiration entirely from pre-existing work, and I love it. I love fan culture, fanworks, and fandom, and this team is one of the things I’m proudest of working on, ever.
In our practices, we spend a lot of time asking ourselves, How reference-heavy should we be? The answer depends on our audience. For an audience at a comedy theater, we strive to be reference-light. If a scene relies on a reference for its humor initially (like this one), it has to have its own game established pretty quickly. In this case, “What other sharp objects can we use to unintentionally threaten the pilot?” stands alone even if you don’t know the origin of the game. For an audience at a fan convention, we can be fairly reference-heavy.
In a Harold or other montage, references can be sprinkled in for fun. The best thing is something that is funny on its own, but extra funny if you catch the reference. I think the easiest way to make this work is to start with a reference but create a whole world around it, and the easiest way to do that is with mapping. So, for example, the DSI House Harold Team Blandly Handsome had a show replete with Star Wars references. It occurred to me that a fun idea to play with is all the normal kinds of stuff that could happen in that world. Something that would have simultaneously been a reference to both Star Wars and Clerks, but still be funny on its own, would be a scene where contractors working on the second Death Star are discussing how they can prevent the vulnerabilities that were present on the first Death Star. Even if you’ve never seen Star Wars or Clerks, the idea of contractors trying to avoid past mistakes is very grounded, creates real stakes, and yet still leaves lots of room for silliness.
THE KEY: A reference-heavy show should be like any other show, founded in good scenework where you establish relationships, explore a world, and heighten the stakes. It should be accessible for audience members who have never seen the source of the reference, and extra fun for audience members who have.
Working with scene partners who live and breathe references
You’re going to encounter this at some point, somebody who just drops references all over the place. (I actually really enjoy this in a scene partner, but not everyone does.) You should only ever not catch a reference once. Get thee to Wikipedia.
But I’m not going to go to Wikipedia in the middle of a show!
Nope, you’re sure not. So you have a few options:
1. Accept the reference as if it were any other new piece of information added to the scene by your scene partner, as though they had invented it on the spot.
2. Pick a strong emotional response to the reference, even if you have no idea what your scene partner is referencing.
Tools to help you get references:
Blog posts about this:
Know Everything (Will Hines)
Improve Your Knowledge of History (Alex Fernie)
I just finished taking the Advanced Harold class at DSI Comedy Theater. DSI uses forums for class discussion, but being The Hermione Granger of Improv, I basically turned them into my personal improv blog for 6 weeks. Looking back over my notes, I found some themes being repeated over and over, so I thought I’d consolidate them thematically here. PLEASE NOTE: as thorough as my nerdy notes are, they are no substitute for taking a class with a teacher, practicing with a coach, or getting up on stage in front of an audience. So get out there and DO THOSE THINGS.
Show me the consequences.
Playing consequences can come into play in one of two ways. It can either be the way we initiate a scene, or it can be used in a spread/tag out/time dash/callback. Regardless of which way you do it, it’s one of the most fun and rewarding things we can do, and a great way to hold an audience’s attention.
Initiate with consequences.
If the scene premise requires that one player demonstrate success or failure, instead initiate the scene about the consequences of that success or failure. The consequences are more interesting than watching the player do the thing anyway.
Leave room for consequences.
If the people in a scene have just had something big happen, don’t necessarily edit on that as a button. Give them a little room to play with the consequences of whatever just happened. Of course you don’t want to let a scene go on too long, but if it looks like the players are going to dig into consequences, give them a little time to do so.
Skip to consequences.
In addition to initiating with consequences or playing them directly within a scene, you can edit and then play with them in a later beat or scene, spread to them, or tag out/double tag out and show them. When you do this, make sure you get right to it: jump into the consequences immediately. My favorite example of this is from “Coach Feratu,” an episode of Rick and Morty.
CONSEQUENCES: They’re kind of the most interesting that happens, either on stage or in life.
I’ve only done improv at one place, DSI Comedy Theater (462 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC – come visit!). So please know that, while I think the things I’m about to talk about probably apply in other improv communities, I’ve only experienced this one directly.
Improv at DSI, and as I understand it, lots of other places, does a great job of providing you with formal mentors. You begin by taking classes, where you have teachers who not only tell you things, but sidecoach you while you’re in the thick of it. They’ll go out with you after class and talk more about what you did in class. If you’re cast on a house team, you get a coach; at DSI, if you’re a company member and you’re on an indie team, you can get a coach. So we’ve got teachers and coaches, formal mentors whose job it is to help you work through stuff and improve.
But I think it’s really beneficial to have informal mentors, too. I think there are two types of informal mentors: the kind you talk to, and the kind you watch.
A talky-talk mentor is really great when you’re having improv thoughts, and the non-improv people in your life can’t relate, and a lot of the improv people who came in at the same time as you are maybe having similar problems. A lot of times improv brings up feelings, and a lot of times your more formal mentors or your comedy friends might not be equipped to deal with how many feelings you have, so it’s really nice if you can find a talky-talk mentor to deal with THAT. When you’re excited about a new thing you can share it with them; when you are struggling you can talk to them and find out that, hey, everybody has kind of the same patterns in their feelings about improv and goes through them around the same times in their improv careers. Bianca Casusöl has generously been exactly this person for me, talking me through some really slumpy times. Go find your Bianca. It might actually be Bianca.
A watchy-watch mentor might not even know they’re mentoring you, which is totally okay. This is someone who every time you watch them you feel like you’re learning something new. Sometimes, um, you have a video of a show that you’ve watched over and over and then after 30 viewings you notice a new bit of object work they did. (No? Just me? Okay.) Sometimes you’re even on stage with them and you learn a new thing. Sometimes, you think you’re doing a thing, and then you look across the stage and see that no, you’re not really doing that thing, but they are, and damn is it impressive and don’t you wish you were doing it better and oh hey wait – maybe you should from now on make it a point to do that more the way they’re doing it, since you’re so blown away. And if you know me at all, then you know what I’m about to say: an excellent watchy-watch informal mentor is Kit FitzSimons (to whom I am also grateful for his work as a formal mentor as coach/director for the Improvised Whedon Company, and a bit of talky-talk mentoring about improv thoughts, too).
Last week I was performing in the Family Improv show at DSI with Kit. We were both on the sidelines; neither of us was in the scene that was going on. Historically speaking, I’ve always prided myself on being activated whenever I’m on stage. As a perpetual chorus girl, I’ve had plenty of stage time when I wasn’t the focus, and I like to imagine I do a pretty good job of remaining present. I try to do the same thing with improv when I’m standing on the side, but I have a habit of putting my hands behind my back against the wall and resting my head back and getting super into watching the scene, which means if a walk-on is called for and I’m the right person to do it I kind of have to peel myself off the wall first. I had to do that very thing in an IWC show in September, in fact.
But at the Family Improv show, I noticed (and why I hadn’t noticed this so pointedly in the shows I’ve seen Kit in or been in with him before I don’t know because I guarantee you he does it every time), he was not just paying close attention to what was going on in the scene, he was basically AT attention: in position – head and shoulders back a little, arms slightly pulled away from his sides, light on his feet – and ready to jump in at any time if needed, but not pulling focus. And I thought, “I’ve got to be more like that; it’ll make it easier to jump in, it’ll lend more energy to the proceedings on stage, it’ll be better for me and my teammates and the audience.” It’s going to look different on me than it does on Kit, but it’s an energy and focus that I can shift to instead of my heretofore not-unpresent wall-sticking (better than sitting down or zoning out, but could be even better).
The great thing about watchy-watch mentors is you can find them anywhere people are doing improv, and you can have an unlimited number of them, and it costs them literally nothing to mentor you, as they were going to perform anyway.
All this to say, as soon as you feel comfortable enough in an improv community to do so, I would strongly recommend finding yourself some informal mentors to supplement your awesome teachers and coaches.
…because you’re not broken. YOU ARE WHOLE AND YOU ARE ENOUGH.
I’ve been having a challenging few weeks. I suffer from clinical depression and social anxiety, and they’re usually in remission, but in times of transition (like, say, leaving a job and starting a doctoral program) they sneak their way back into my life and right around October or November they get their big reveal. So I’ve been feeling weepy and weird, guilty and self-judging. I spent most of the day yesterday working on a statistics midterm, and I had a good cry, and I had a bit more of a cry in the car on the way to improv class mostly just remembering the cry I’d had earlier. I had really been looking forward to class, thinking, “This is going to save my day. I have had a hard, lonely day, and this will fix it, and me.” (You know where this is going, don’t you?)
I got to the theater. I talked to some friends. They also were having rough days. We hugged. I went downstairs. I decided to engage in some generous mischief, the results of which I believe have not come to fruition. I let another friend know about the generous mischief, and she played at (?) being jealous because she herself wasn’t the target of such mischief. I did my best to make it up to her. I had emotionally papier-mached these layers of fun and play over my extremely raw heart.
Class started. We did warm-ups. They were fun. But I was feeling twitchy. And then we got to the meat of class, which involved doing AN EXERCISE.
The thing about exercises is that they are meant to give you specific skills. To achieve this end, they are rigidly structured and intensely focused, and the scenes that come out of them do not and are not designed to resemble what you would want to see on stage, necessarily. So all of the things I’ve been thinking about lately, which are techniques for building strong scenes, actually got in my way here.
Add to that, I got psyched out by the suggestion. The suggestion was “opera singer,” and I was keenly aware of myself as a singer and of the three people in the room who know I’m a singer, of their knowing I’m a singer and making the connection with the suggestion. I got thoroughly stuck in my head, working so hard to THINK through the ramifications of the suggestion with respect to this particular exercise and my own knowledge of opera singers.
My scene partner and I did two scenes. I’m not going to go into detail, but both scenes felt like a struggle. I felt so strongly that I had hung my partner out to dry because of being so up in my head. I felt that, not only had I struggled with the whole point of the exercise, but I had failed to do the two things I think are the foundation of the best scenes: trust and love my partner, even if I didn’t know him that well.
We got notes. It was hard.
I spent other people’s scenes running through all the things I could have done, what I should have done, and more generally beating myself up over those two scenes. I probably would have learned a lot more by paying attention to other people’s scenes.
We got up in larger groups to do the exercise again. I ended up with the same scene partner. I told myself this time I was going to go out. I was going to have a strong, positive initiation. I was going to fix the night. (You still know where this is going, don’t you?)
I succeeded at coming out with a strong, positive initiation and maintaining a positive scene. We did a fun scene that met the requirements of the exercise. I got in it with my scene partner. I didn’t abandon him. That scene felt a lot better than the other two had.
We went out after class, and that was fun. I got home. I was still beating myself up over those two tough scenes. That one good scene hadn’t fixed the night. The night hadn’t fixed me. It was more than an hour before I could get to sleep.
This morning, I realized that when I notice myself start to get psyched out, probably it’s time to treat whatever exercise or scene I’m in like a game of Freeze. Get out there, do something, something big and strong and fun, and THEN FIGURE IT OUT. Not stand on the sidelines mulling over everything.
The best thing to come out of this for me is the realization that just because I had a hard time with this exercise this one time, just because I had a bad night, that doesn’t mean that I am a bad person, a bad scene partner, or bad at improv. I had one bad night. Everybody has them. I’ll have a good one soon.
Improv can’t fix me, and I shouldn’t ask it to, and I don’t need it to, because I, myself, am whole and enough. But it can give me tools that expand beyond the theater. Next time I have a bad day, a rough time, a tough conversation, I can remember: having a hard time doesn’t make me bad, and I’ll be having a good time soon.
Modified from a note I published on Facebook…
First, YOUR TASTE GROWS FASTER THAN YOUR SKILL. (There’s a great Ira Glass quote on this here: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/30…) So you’re going to know what really good improv looks like, not be able to make it happen yourself, and get frustrated. It’s okay. It’s okay. Don’t stop. DON’T STOP. (Unless you need to stop for reasons other than your frustration. It’s always okay to stop if you need to for reasons – but not because you’re starting to doubt yourself.)
Second, IMPROV GROWTH IS A SPIRAL. You’re moving up on the spiral, but you’re also moving around. So you feel like you are in the same place or even behind where you were months and months ago, but you’re actually on your way up. You’re maybe even right at the point where you are moving solidly up to the next level, and in the next week or two something amazing is going to happen. Trust. Trust. Trust yourself. Trust your teammates. Love yourself. Love your teammates. Trust and love. (Don’t forget to love people who aren’t yourself and your teammates, but don’t forget to love yourself and your teammates.)
LASTLY: Get up on stage with people who you think are better than you. Make sure they’re people you trust and love, who trust and love you right back. Fill the audience with people you trust and love, who trust and love you right back and are going to be blown away by what you do no matter what. Get on that stage and have a great time and worry about nothing except saying yes and going big. And then do it again and again and again.
Lately, I’ve been feeling rutty/restless in my improv. I had a run of shows that didn’t feel great, AND they were my last shows for the next few weeks so I had of course wanted them to be amazing. What’s that saying? Expectation goeth before a disappointment?
I had a conversation with Bianca
Casusöl a few weeks ago where she said that when you feel that way, it’s right before you’re about to grow. I knew she was right, so when I started feeling this way about a week and a half ago, I tried to keep that foremost in my mind: this dissatisfaction with my own performance meant that I was about to take a leap, to jump up higher on the improv learning spiral.
I started the jump yesterday, but I hope it’s not done yet.
The Improvised Whedon Company is preparing for a show inspired by the movie The Cabin in the Woods. Last night, we were working a scene where Sean Williams and I were two workers in The Facility. The scene went something like this:
Sean: Uh, I’ve got 300 crates of waste here, where do you want me to dump them?
Me: *flipping through pages on imaginary clipboard* Hold on a sec… There’s so much paperwork in this job. *flip flip flip* Uh, looks like those should go to Level 7.
Sean: Level 7? They just sent me down here! It’s always like this. I had to drive through all of these levels, and past all the monsters and the werewolves and through these ghosts just floating around, and I’m really getting tired of it. Well, I guess I’ll go back to Level 7.
Me: Uh, wait – go back a bit. Did you just say there are ghosts just OUT, floating around?
Sean: Yeah, they’re just floating in the hallway.
Me: That isn’t supposed to happen! *goes over to pick up imaginary phone and call someone to fix this*
Now, let me explain why I’m proud of this.
One of the most basic things we learn is to listen to our scene partner, but it’s also one of the easiest things to forget. Obviously with only a year and a half of experience under my belt I’m still working on it, but I’ve seen it be a struggle for improvisers much more experienced than myself. And the key symptom of not listening is failing to latch on to a thing your partner says in the first few lines that is a gift that can be the foundation of your whole scene. A new improviser will sometimes be so eager to get to the AND, they forget the YES.
It’s a classic piece of UCB-style play to be grounded in the real world and then latch on to that first weird thing that pops up. It’s not a super-advanced move, but it’s one that requires sharp attention, clarity, and quick thinking to actually do on stage. In the world of Cabin in the Woods (SPOILER ALERT!), monsters belong in boxes. Ghosts should be carefully contained. Ghosts in a box are mundane; ghosts in the hallways are A PROBLEM. I was immensely pleased with myself for accepting Sean’s offer. Was my move to get on the phone with someone the best thing to do next? I’m not sure – but I’m proud as hell that I recognized that offer and grabbed it and didn’t let go.
It feels weird and a little wrong to admit this, but my favorite part of performing isn’t the performance itself.
Now, obviously, that’s key to the experience. And I love doing it.
But my heart flutters most before a show and after a practice or, in the case of improv, show. (In the non-improv theater, you stop getting notes after previews are done. In the improv theater, you may or may not get notes after a show. But I’m always happy when we do.)
I have a problem with presence, i.e., the being in the moment kind. (And now, we can begin a run of presence/present/presents puns! I’ll let you do that. Come back when you’re done.) I’ve got a bit of a Janus complex, always looking back and looking forward (at this very moment, I’m frustrated with myself for not focusing harder in statistics class today, and excited about having my team over for a movie night), and struggling to be in the moment. So, it makes sense that my favorite part of performing isn’t the actual moment when I’m most in it (though I’m proud to say I am present-as-all-get-out on an improv stage, saving analysis for after the show’s over).
I think one of the reasons I like the getting-ready and the getting-notes is because they are small, shared experiences. When you’re on the stage, yo’ure having a big shared experience: you, your fellow performers, and the audience are all in on something together, and it is MAGIC. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. BUT. When you’re in a dressing room or green room or backstage, or when the house is empty and it’s just you and your fellow performers and the director and crew on the stage, that’s it’s very own brand of magic, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world, either.
In my very first community theater production, I would arrive at the theater an hour before call, just to have some extra quiet time in the space. I was 13. It actually ended up causing a problem for the company; they got charged for the extra time I spent in the dressing room. Oops!
At the improv theater now, sometimes I get called down for notes for a show I didn’t even perform in – I’ll have crewed it, or I’ll just be around, or it’ll be a show with a format similar to the shows I’m on even though technically I’m not on the team – and every time – EVERY TIME – I get a warm feeling of contentment. I think it’s because GIVING & GETTING NOTES, as an activity, is targeted toward continuous improvement, and continuous improvement is pretty much my favorite thing. One of the reasons I’m skeptical that I’ll ever “outgrow” doing improv is that there’s no ceiling on it. You can always keep getting better. There’s always the risk of a bad show, and as devastated as I am when I perceive I’ve had a bad show (I’m usually wrong and at worst have had a mediocre show), I find it oddly exhilarating at the same time to know that 20 years from now, I’ll still be having bad shows and still be finding new ways to be better.
Improv is crack for productivity hobbyists, I guess, is what I’m saying.
Sometimes, you get a note in practice that on the surface looks like it applies really specifically to that practice, but after a little while you realize it applies to your whole style of play.
Last night, we had the last Improvised Whedon Company practice before our upcoming show. On at least two occasions, our director/coach Kit FitzSimons (I’ve mentioned him before) paused the scene and said, very pointedly and directly to me, “Don’t run away from it.” At both of these points, I very clearly had something I was ready to articulate in the scene, and I was choosing not to, or stopping short. And I guarantee you that in both cases, Kit knew exactly the thing I wanted to say, could see on my face and in my body that I wanted to say it, and could pinpoint the exact moment when I decided not to.
(This is the point at which I could go off on a tangent about why this might be the case, and whether it’s because Kit is extra smart, really good and experienced at improv, or the secret improv best friend I’ve been waiting for my whole life and just gets me. The first two are definitely true. The third is an intriguing possibility that I probably shouldn’t be exploring in such a public forum. Hey, I said I could go off on a tangent, and now I have!)
Back to the matter at hand: In more than one show recently, I’ve found myself hanging back and running away from an idea. I wonder if it’s an overcorrection, if it comes from trying to curb the impulse to stay so attached to my idea that I fail to listen to my scene partner. I wonder if it is giving me the illusion of that generosity I’ve been pursuing. I guess it doesn’t really matter what the source of it is.
What matters is how to move forward. It helps me to think about what I want from a scene partner. I don’t want a scene partner to get out of my way. I want her* to get in it with me (”it” being wherever the scene is going). I’m not inherently an obstacle on stage; I don’t need to move out of my scene partner’s way to let her shine. I need to get in there with her and we need to move together. We need to co-vary.
And now that I’ve used a concept from statistics to explain improv, my work here is done.
(But my work on stage isn’t, and I will be prioritizing “Don’t run away from it” in shows and practices for the foreseeable future.)
*I default to the feminine pronoun, because it’s mine.