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When we step on stage, we enter a world with endless possibilities for characters, setting, and story.

Why then, do so many improv scenes start like this?

Standard Set-up

The answer is: it’s safe.

On the up side, it allows you to make eye contact with your scene partner easily. On the down side, it encourages you to stay static for long periods of time.

Two chairs facing towards each other could be the cue for a restaurant, a doctor’s office, a job interview, or any one of those undefined limbos where two people just sit and talk and keep sitting and talking that we’ve all seen and done, oh, about a million times.

If you’d like to change things up, take yourself out of your comfort zone, and you’re ready to break some chairs – uh, boundaries – let’s get started!

We Think In Pictures

Look at the examples below. What mise-en-scènes do you see? What relationships do the postive and negative space suggest?

Back To Back

Near & Far

Eavesdropper

Brawl New

Simply moving the chairs further apart changes the dynamic from cosy…

Face To Face

Citizen Kane NEW

…to Citizen Kane breakfast montage chilly.

Of course, one chair can also tell a story. And the possibilities multiply when you add a third chair to the mix.

You Are The Architect

Just as you have a relationship with your scene partner, you also have a spatial relationship with the stage, the chairs, the curtains, and any mimed objects that become part of your scene.

In Viewpoints, this is called “Architecture.” Architecture also includes light, shadow, and sounds.

How you interact with your Architecture is important. Do you sit up straight, knees together? Or do you turn the chair and straddle it, legs splayed like Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train? (Actually, that’s a great tumblr to browse for body language.)

How does it feel to be in that physicality? Who is that person?

Lean on a chair with one arm and see how that affects you. Place the chair between you and your scene partner. Or pick it up and throw it (somewhere that it won’t hurt anyone).

“Your architecture is an emotional delivery system that lets you express yourself to the audience. It’s your voice. It’s an anchor.” – David Razowsky

Dean Buchanan and Don Gervasi improvised a brilliant scene for their Conservatory show about a cut-rate airline that crams in extra seats. They discovered the scene and their characters by placing their chairs close to one another at right angles.

Dean became a low-status passenger who spent the flight facing Don’s high-status business passenger. The intimacy it created and the resulting conversation were pure comedy gold. (After a particularly long, awkward silence, Dean broke it by saying “You have great hair.”)

Airline

Exercise: Walk With Chairs

My first Harold coach, Tom Vest, taught my team this exercise. It’s a great way to find a point of view and avoid pre-planning.

To begin, two people grab a chair each and walk around the space. The idea is to keep moving, not dawdle or linger too long in one area.

After a few moments, the Coach/Director says “Stop!”

The improvisers place their chairs down wherever they are. After a beat to see what the stage picture and their scene partner’s posture suggests to them, they start a scene.

You don’t have to sit; you can lean on the chair, stand beside it, put one foot up…whatever feels right in the moment.

Cameron and I did a show where we used this technique. When one of us wanted to edit a scene, we just picked up one or both chairs and placed them somewhere else on the stage.

Advanced Chair Work

As we’ve seen, just the slight repositioning of a chair can change the dynamic of a scene. Here are some ways you can use chairs to create different objects. Try them, or experiment with your own:

• as a wheelchair

• upside down on your head with the back of the chair facing forward to become Darth Vader

• place each foot on a chair and hold them as you lift your feet to walk; voila! instant stilts

• grab two chairs and flap them on either side of you for pterodactyl wings

 

Here’s a fun project for a lazy Sunday.

We have a ton of comedy ephemera we’ve collected over the years, but it’s just been sitting in a box. I decided to make this simple strip collage using programs from two of my favourite Second City revues, Live Wrong and Prosper and Dreams Really Do Come True! (And Other Lies).

I started by painting a piece of illustration board black (you can also paint cardboard or use black construction paper). I cut the two program covers into strips and glued them down with Mod Podge, or you can use any white glue. Then coat the final piece with glue to seal it.

I love the way it turned out! You can make a similar one with show flyers, posters, programs, or festival schedules. It’s a great way to showcase fond memories.

SC PhotoToaster

 

We were hoping Second City would release this one day! It’s the “Maya” sketch from their 50th anniversary, featuring Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and David Razowsky.

Now if someone would just post the full video of Pinata Full of Bees

 

 

Screen shot 2014-04-10 at 10.16.55 AM

David Razowsky has a wonderful tool that he uses to teach about energy and duration of emotions in scenes. He calls it “The Jerry Chart,” and now there’s a YouTube tutorial courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times so everyone can learn about it. Click below to view.

Oh, and happy birthday David!

 

Early on in my improv life, I did a set where I played a heroin addict. (My scene partner’s character had AIDS, so presumably we needed some comic relief.)

Doing my best Sid and Nancy impression, I mimed jamming a syringe repeatedly into my left leg.

When second beats rolled around, I decided to do a time dash. Hopping on one leg, I held my foot behind me.

The only problem was, in my haste to initiate, it appeared that my right leg had been amputated.

Instead of taking this gift from the comedy gods, I “corrected” myself and switched legs, thus destroying the reality that had already been established – and that everyone had seen.

Things deteriorated from there (if that’s possible), and by third beats…well…to quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

It took me a while to understand that so-called mistakes are a gift.

If I hadn’t been hell-bent on doing the “right” thing, my teammates and I could have played with the fact that my good leg got amputated.

Maybe the doctor was also an addict, and he operated while he was high. Maybe the hospital realised their error, and in the third beat I’d be legless. Who knows?

Not my brain.

The second you find yourself judging what’s already happened, put your focus on what’s here now.

It’s all that ever matters.

“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

 

In 2012, Sam Willard began photographing performers as part of an ongoing series called The Improvisors Project. Born out of his fascination with the talent and expressiveness of improv actors, we asked Sam about the project as he prepares to photograph the Chicago Improv Festival.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

P&C: You’ve been a professional photographer for 10 years, specializing in portraits. What is it about portraiture specifically that appeals to you?

SAM WILLARD: I started making photographs as an amateur long ago, and I was interested in a variety of subjects. But my eye always went toward people more than anything else. Faces are just so varied and interesting. I have always been a people-watcher, and am curious about what expression, posture, etc say about a person. Portrait photography is, in part, an excuse to look longer and more deeply at a person, to uncover more about what makes them tick. The work of accessing, understanding and capturing someone’s inner self through a portrait session is never boring or repetitive, and is always full of discovery. Kind of like improv.

P&C: You started taking improv classes in 2009. Has it influenced your photography, and if so, how?

SAM WILLARD: When I took my first improv class, I immediately recognized how the act of creating a portrait (and the skills involved in doing it well) are very similar to the act of creating a good improv scene. In both situations, you start with nothing, and have to find a relationship and a reason to connect. The skills I had developed as a photographer–support, engagement, listening–were incredibly useful to my improv scene work. And skills I picked up in improv have definitely helped my portrait work.

More than anything else, improv teaches you that you can find ways to connect with someone, no matter what the situation. In my regular client work, I often get portrait subjects who are distracted, or scared, or at least very self-conscious. Improv has given me tools to cut through their armor, build trust, focus, and create a portrait together that is honest and compelling.

P&C: You have to work quickly, typically spending about five minutes with each person. How do you connect with them in such a short time?

SAM WILLARD: Five minutes is indeed a short time to form a connection. But this is a perfect example of how improv has helped my photography. I performed improv for a long time, and every scene in every show was different; and I didn’t have 5 minutes to figure out an angle and go with it, at best I had 5 seconds! Any improvisor can relate to this.

One of the great things about photographing improvisors is that they are so receptive to a suggestion, and so willing to commit to an emotion, that it really isn’t difficult to make that quick connection, because they are used to doing it on stage. For example, if someone walks on to my set standing tall, chin up, with a slow, confident stride, I might initiate a mini-scene in which they are a general surveying the battlefield after a victory. If confidence and bravado are the emotion, I might play the role of an adoring corporal, eager to celebrate the general’s win and heighten his esteem.

The process of going from an initial hit–bravado–to a moment of peak emotion (and back to baseline again) can be quite fast. With energetic and open improvisors, I can sometimes go through this process of “hit, heighten & reset” several times in a short five minute session.

P&C: Improv attracts a very diverse range of people. After photographing so many different performers, are there any similarities that you see?

SAM WILLARD: As I mentioned earlier, I am attracted to portraiture because every person is different, never repetitive. This holds true with improvisors. However, the common thread is their openness. The average person out in the world has walls and defenses up. Social norms to evaluate. Rules to play by. Much of what we do in life is informed by what we cannot do. The amazing thing about improv is that those rules from out in the world are flipped. On stage, all things are possible, and everything you do and commit to will be embraced and supported by your fellow players. That incredible and precious trait of openness and supportiveness is what I see wherever I go to photograph improvisors.

P&C: You photographed members of The Committee at their 50th anniversary reunion. What was that like?

SAM WILLARD: Attending that event was a special privilege. There was so much talent in the room, many of whom I photographed. The best thing about the experience was seeing the strong bond between those artists. Many of them had not seen each other in years or even decades. But the love in the room was palpable. It reminded me of the great bond that improv creates between performers who play together.

P&C: You’ve got a busy schedule ahead of you. This year you’ll be attending CIF and the Detroit Improv Festival. Is there a difference in energy between shooting people at a festival versus in your studio?

SAM WILLARD: Yes, 2014 is going to be a busy year! I will be at the Chicago Improv Festival April 4-6, and the Detroit Improv Festival August 8-10. And some other photo shoots are in the works, as well.

Festivals are a great venue for making portraits for The Improvisors Project because energy is high and many talented people are gathered in one place. For simple logistical reasons, there are limits to who I can gather to my studio in Oakland, California. Festivals are also an excuse for me to get out and see more of what the wider improv world has to offer. This project has allowed me to meet and photograph so many great people who I would never have had the opportunity to know otherwise. I look forward to starting this year off in Chicago!

P&C: What’s more fun for you: watching the shows, or photographing the performers?

SAM WILLARD: When I am photographing improvisors, I am participating in an improv performance with them. As an improv performer myself, I would always choose to do improv over just watching; so I would have to choose photographing performers as my answer. The photo shoot is a unique experience, different than being on stage. But it is really great. I love it. And the 200+ people I have photographed so far all seem to love the experience too. It is a win-win.

P&C: You’re also attending Camp Improv Utopia. Can you tell us a little about the camp, and your involvement in it?

SAM WILLARD: I attended the first Camp Improv Utopia, a few years ago. The founder, Nick Armstrong, conceived of an improvisor’s paradise, with an old-school summer camp vibe. The camp attracts a diverse group, features great instructors and workshops, and the venue itself (on California’s Central Coast) is beautiful. This year will be my third trip to Camp, and my second year making portraits of improvisors there. It is the best possible environment for making good portraits–positive and creative energy, and people from all over the country.

P&C: You’re on twitter, instagram and facebook, and people can also follow your blog. What’s next on the agenda for the project?

SAM WILLARD: The best way to stay up-to-date on The Improvisors Project is to follow it on Facebook and Twitter. I post new images regularly, and announce details of upcoming photo shoots. I encourage anyone who is interested in participating to follow on social media, and reach out to me with an email if they want to be photographed. Everywhere I have traveled, I have met nothing but great people in the improv community, and I can’t wait to meet and photograph many more this year. And look for more photo shoots and a book in 2015!

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

There’s a scene in 500 Days of Summer where we see a split screen of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character’s expectations, versus reality.

That’s how I felt the first year I produced The October 21st Greater Toronto Improv Festival.

For those who don’t know, the O21GTIF is a one-day festival. In other words, a show. A regular show. Except in my mind.

You wanna talk expectations?

I shit you not, I pictured (and believed) I’d need a velvet rope to control the crowds in the alley fighting to get in. I emailed the teams involved to warn them that they probably wouldn’t get seats to see the other teams perform. AND, and this is true, I fought with people at the venue because I wanted to knock down a wall to make more room for seating. I was, as they say, batshit crazy.

The show was stacked with amazing performers and more than anything I wanted the world to see them. I wanted the whole goddamn world to be there and experience the joy and love of improv and spread that love around the world.

The night of the event about 25 people showed up.

I was devastated. Where were the crowds? Where were the news cameras? Where were the ghosts of my grandparents proudly doing a slow clap? Where was the whole world?

To make matters worse, my team was the opening act. I struggled through the set with a broken heart and mind, handed over hosting duties to my teammate Isaac, and collapsed onto one of the many empty seats in the audience. Defeated.

Two things I learned that night:

1) It’s much worse in your mind than it actually is.

I remember going to the bar after, and the other performers were laughing and having a good time and talking about how fun the show was. Outside my devastated mind, a great show had happened. Wish I’d been there (mentally) to see it.

2) Know the difference between expectations and reality.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming, and dreaming big. Just know that desperately wanting something to happen doesn’t guarantee it’ll happen. 500 “going” on facebook doesn’t quite translate to 500 actually showing up. Or 50.

This last year I took my own advice and went in with no expectations, and fucking loved it. So much fun. I was more relaxed and open to whatever, and enjoyed the shit out of it. And not surprisingly, when you’re not smacking of desperation for people to show up, more people show up.

I recommend everyone try and produce their own show at least once. You’ll grow as a performer, and as a person. And I guarantee you’ll appreciate producers a hell of a lot more.

 

There’s a theory in personal finance that says, “Your income is the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

It’s enough to strike fear in the hearts of actors everywhere.

If you’re not earning big bucks, the thinking goes, you need to seek out people who do and start spending time with them. (What they don’t say, is what to do if those five people are douchebags.)

Before you quit improv to become a commodities trader, there’s another concept that’s far more valuable in my opinion: the idea of “psychic income.” It involves all those things that you don’t get paid for, but which give something back to the world – and in so doing, fill your cup as well.

For most of us, improv pays little (if anything), but it’s off the charts in terms of psychic income.

Few things compare to the high you feel when you’ve finished a great set. The same goes for coaching or teaching. You may not be earning six figures, but where else can you experience the joy of watching grown men and women play “Big Booty”?

Citibank’s slogan used to be “Live richly.” (That was before the whole subprime mortgage meltdown. Then they changed it to “Citi never sleeps” – presumably because no one was sleeping after the subprime meltdown thing.)

If you want a rich life, it’s simple:

Surround yourself with people who enrich you.

People you admire or aspire to be like. People who are smarter than you, who broaden your understanding of the world. People who go out and make things happen, as opposed to just sitting around criticizing. People who make you laugh.

When I look at my favourite improv teams, they’re made up of friends who respect and support each other. They share what they have unreservedly, and celebrate each other’s successes.

That’s living richly.

Bonspiel! Theatre’s Ashley Botting, Alastair Forbes, Rob Baker & James Gangl spin comedy gold

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