The following is a true story. No names have been changed to protect the guilty.
There’s so much pressure in life to “do our best,” it’s only natural that some of that spills over into the world of make-‘em-ups we call improv. But striving for perfection is a surefire way to suck the fun out of a scene. As Joe Bill says:
“Any consideration of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ will fuck you over and put you in your head. Onstage is not real life.”
Think about that: onstage is not real life. That gives us incredible licence to do whatever the hell we want.
One time in rehearsal my teammate, Justin Kosi, was pimped into being John Travolta. He looked at our coach, Tom Vest, and said “I don’t know him.” “That’s great!” Tom told him. “Just do your John Travolta.”
Of course, Justin’s Travolta was nothing like the “real” one – and a million times funnier as a result.
If you want to take pressure off yourself, try doing something really badly. You can do it in a circle as a warm-up, as well as in scenes.
Do the worst accent, the worst dance, the worst impression, the worst anything, and see if it isn’t the best.
There’s nothing quite like the high you get coming off of a great set. But while improvisers get to bask in the spotlight, some of their funniest moments wouldn’t exist without the skill and support of a very special person: the Tech Guy (or Gal).
To the audience they’re invisible, but make no mistake: he or she can make or break your show.
“Pulling the lights on an improv scene is hard,” says Rob Norman. “You have to have a supreme confidence to know when it’s over. To find the biggest laugh of the scene. Sometimes 30 seconds in. Sometimes waiting for 17 minutes.
But also there’s an egolessness about it. It’s not about adding sound effects. Or playing ‘funny’ songs from the booth. You are highlighting success and distracting from failure.
When tech is done right, no one sees your invisible hand. But you have to be completely confident in your job. So egoless that no one knows you’re adding essential elements to what’s happening onstage.”
It’s not easy to sit in a dark, cramped booth, changing lights and cueing songs at a second’s notice. But what about when tech goes wrong? We’ve all seen shows that suffered from poor technical choices. Things like…
• playing, shall we say, idiosyncratic music before a show (emo, nu-metal), instead of stuff that will pump up the crowd
* pulling lights way too early (like, 10 minutes in to a 25-minute Harold)
• not pulling lights, long after a show has died a slow, awkward, squirm-inducing (did we mention slow?) death
Learning how to tech a show takes time, and the only way to learn is on the job.
On the flip side, there are some are very talented light and sound technicians. In Toronto we’re fortunate to have folks like Darryl Pring, Gord Oxley, and Josh Murray toiling behind the scenes to make performers look good. And perhaps no one is more respected, even revered, than Mark Andrada.
Like Robocop or Steve Austin, Mark operates on an almost other-worldly level. To find out how he does it, we asked the community. If you want to know what qualities make a great technician, read on.
“[Mark] is a very skilled clown and improviser, so he gets it. He gets the timing of a joke or blowline, he gets where a scene starts and therefore where it should end. He can anticipate what’s about to happen and lend to it with a lighting change or music or even over the microphone. And if you don’t want him involved you can ask him to stay out and he’s not offended, unless he decides to jump in and fuck with you anyway.” – Gary Rideout Jr
“He is often the best improviser in the room – and that’s behind the tech booth. I’ve seen his tech choices save scenes and make them better, and I’ve been there when his choices are the scene. He is insanely quick with improvised tech cues, and they are always on point.” – Matt Folliott
“The shows Mark techs are alive. There’s this feeling of security when he’s in the booth. I trust him immensely. But also there’s this feeling of danger which I love, because he’s good enough to fuck with you and heighten what’s going on, so again, it’s like there’s an all-seeing, omnipotent being watching over the show and pushing you to play better. Oh, and he also appreciates and respects good theatre. So he knows how to push the boundaries of what’s possible.” – Isaac Kessler
“Mark Andrada puts a huge amount of effort into making sure Mantown is the best [show] it can be every month. We throw a lot at him and he’s never complained, been frustrated or unreliable.
Just this last Mantown, we had a pre-recorded insult that was supposed to show up in our second audience interaction game. We assumed the audience was going to have a hard time reading a joke we had written down and we could play the recorded “T-T-Today junior” from Billy Madison. However, Rob Baker got a little confused while explaining a game in the first half of the show and instantly Mark Andrada played the insult and it was perfectly timed and unexpected. The audience blew up with laughter and Rob Baker blushed, as he does.” – Adam Cawley
And there you have it. A great tech person listens, watches, pushes, and plays, shaping and heightening what’s happening, and lifting the performers, the audience, and the show.
It’s a demanding and often thankless task, so let’s show them some appreciation. For all those who do it, week after week, in Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Chicago, LA, London, and beyond, this one’s for you…
“What makes The Who special is that it’s not even what’s written; it’s the bits that it don’t know are going to happen, and they come out of thin air.” – Roger Daltry
Even scripted music, plays, speeches, and other live events differ from night to night. It’s those inspired moments of improvisation that make people say “You had to be there.”
One of the reasons I started doing the podcast Improv Nerd was to show younger improvisers who are starting out that everyone faces struggles on their way to the top. What I find the most fascinating when I interview improvisers who have “made it” is how each of my guests have dealt with and overcome their struggles.
No one is simply handed a career. Everybody had to work hard, and most of my guests have experienced disappointment, rejection, doubt and fear along the way. It’s all part of the journey. Passion will always trump talent. And if you persevere, you will succeed.
If only someone had told me this when I was starting out.
Recently, I saw the move, Chef, written, directed, produced and staring Jon Favreau. I loved it. It had so much heart, and he did a great job with the entire film. Jon and I started out roughly the same time that I did at IO-Chicago, which was then called the Improv Olympic in Chicago, back in the late ’80s.
If improv was high school, Jon was not one of the cool kids. He desperately wanted to get hired by Second City, which didn’t happen, he couldn’t break in at The Annoyance, and his team at the IO was pretty much overshadowed. He was by no means embraced by the improv community.
Which makes his success that much sweeter. Even though Chicago didn’t pay much attention to him, Hollywood did. While still in Chicago, he was cast in the film Rudy as Sean Astin’s best friend. Jon’s big break was a huge part in a popular movie. Shortly after that, he moved to LA, and several years later, he wrote and stared in the independent film Swingers. He wrote himself onto the map. From there, he acted and directed in such films as Made, Elf, and Iron Man. The guy is a great film maker.
What inspires me about his story is that even though he did not have easy time here in Chicago, he preserved and succeeded on a whole other level. He was never improv royalty, never made it to the top of the improv ladder. He had modest success, but he did not let that define him or get in his way. He had a bigger vision for himself, something I aspire to do.
Improv can be both a stating off place and destination. It can be whatever you want it to be. It is a fluid art form.
Sometimes, some of us get stuck in this art form, and improv becomes too important and the center of the universe. I have seen improv creatively ruin people’s lives because they did not get on a team or they got cut from a team or did not fit in at one of the big improv schools. And when that happened, they thought their creative life was over. I don’t know what kept Jon going, but I am glad he did. He found his place, and more importantly, he has inspired people like me to realize that it’s up to me to make my own path.
Jimmy Carrane is host of the Improv Nerd podcast (http://jimmycarrane.com/improv-nerd-podcast/), and he writes an improv blog at http://jimmycarrane.com/blog/. He also teaches the Art of Slow Comedy in Chicago.
There’s an old joke that analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies of it. But for students of improv (and we’re all students, really), there’s nothing more fascinating than discussing this art form we all love.
The Backline with Rob Norman and Adam Cawley is part class room, part personal POV, and part witty banter-slash-sparring match. Like Lennon and McCartney, Rob and Adam perform brilliantly together, but they also spur each other on to greater heights. (Adam just won Best Male Improviser at the Canadian Comedy Awards, while Rob is currently shooting a new TV show. Check, and mate.)
Both are long-time fixtures of the Toronto improv scene, Second City alumni and long-form instructors at the Second City Training Centre. They’re also working actors who’ve studied with some of the greats (Napier, Messing, Cackowski, Joe Bill, to name a few) and have performed in festivals across North America. In other words, they know their shit.
Though it’s only been around for a few months, The Backline has already covered a wide range of topics, and each episode is filled with anecdotes and great advice. Themes include Getting Started, Fear, Competition, Ethics, and Cities, History and Comedy Scenes.
You’ve kissed more guys than women. And you’re straight.
You’ve had to compete with at least one of these while performing:
This was breakfast. And lunch. You don’t remember dinner.
You need to set your alarm for an audition at noon.
You get endowed as the President every time you hit the stage.
Deep down, you still dream of being a superhero.
If you read one more “Women aren’t funny” article, you’ll swear like Susan f#%$ing Messing.
You feel cool because everyone’s a nerd.
When this guy says, “Take your crazy monkey dance back to Hitler Town,” you know exactly what he means.
It isn’t Halloween. Just a typical Thursday night.
The sign of a good rehearsal.
You’ve said things that would get you fired, disowned or arrested in real life.
The answer to the question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” is always “Yes!”
Matt Besser has said that the only good warm-up is One-Word Pattern Game. Matt Walsh insists it’s Eights. Wherever you stand on warm-ups, you’re going to do a lot of them in your improv life.
If the thought of doing Big Booty again makes you look for the nearest exit, why not skip a structured warm-up and just talk with your team instead? Not in clusters of two or three, but as a group. This is really important.
Almost all teams have sub-cliques, which are obvious once the team hits the stage and the same two or three go into scenes together who always do.
If you missed rehearsal or don’t see other team members very often, it’s important to stay connected with each other’s lives.
You can stand in a circle outside the theatre or sit in the green room, then take turns saying one thing that happened to you that day or week. It can be good, bad, sad, exciting, or boring. Even the most mundane things can suddenly float to the surface, turning up later in a scene or group game.
It can simply be something you observed. I snapped the photos below from the streetcar. “To-ne Sushi” made me think of “Tony Sushi,” and together with “Cameron House,” struck me as funny names for characters…but your inspiration could be anything. Maybe you went to Queen Video, and that inspires a scene about a store that only sells videos of the rock group Queen.
Sharing anecdotes about your job, your family, your life is one way to get to group mind faster. The most important thing about any warm-up is to loosen you up and get you ready to have fun together.
The National Theatre of The World did a long scene recently where Matt Baram and Ron Pederson never referred to each other by name.
Naomi Snieckus then mischievously pimped them, herself and Chris Gibbs into doing a scene that only contained names.
The result was hilarious but also fascinating, as they used only first names (e.g. “Edgar?” “Daphne…” “Timothy!”) to emote and define their relationships to each other.
It’s a fun alternative to the “Fifty” exercise, where two people do a scene using only numbers from 1 to 50 in place of dialogue.
Try it at your next rehearsal!