Info

Posts from the Other Cool Stuff Category

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

It started in LA and Chicago: a wave of women speaking out about sexual harassment and sexism in the improv community. But as the discussion grows, it’s clear this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon.

The “yes, and” culture of improv can be tricky, especially for beginners. When you’re encouraged to say and do anything without censoring yourself – and respond to whatever your partner throws at you by “agreeing” – how do you know when the line has been crossed?

It’s something teachers, coaches and Artistic Directors need to be especially mindful of. This isn’t about political correctness. It doesn’t mean no one can ever touch anyone again, or that men should fear women.

It’s not that women “can’t take a joke,” or “have it in” for men. We just want what everyone wants: respect, and a safe place to play. Improv is built on trust, and when that trust is broken, it can be devastating. Some women leave comedy entirely because of it.

I was 40 and in a relationship when I started improvising, so never had to deal with the same things as 20-somethings. Still, I sometimes felt uncomfortable. One guy on my Harold team had a tendency to make scenes a string of sexual innuendoes. It was probably out of fear, knowing he’d get an easy laugh, but it didn’t make doing scenes with him any easier. I’d leave the stage feeling icky and weak, like I’d sold out myself and women in general.

The other women on my team felt similarly. When I brought it up with our coach, he said “[That person] has years of bad habits I’m trying to correct,” implying it was no different than blocking offers, or being late for rehearsal. Nothing was done. And so, one full half of the team did not feel heard.

Once you’re established, it’s easier to choose who you play with (or don’t). But when you’re enrolled in a class or on a team that’s been put together by the A.D., there’s a lot more room for toxic behaviour to go unchecked.

I asked other women in the Toronto comedy community to share their thoughts and experiences. The responses may surprise you.

“Years ago I did a trust exercise where we had to take turns being lifted into the air by the entire class; kind of a ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ thing. When it was my turn, I felt a male classmate grab my ass while saying ‘Wow, you really are curvy.’ I quickly asked to be put down and was disgusted. The instructor (also the Artistic Director) saw the entire thing and did nothing, nor mentioned it even after another male classmate (and friend) told the guy off.

Shortly after, I was on an incubator Harold team with all guys, who proceeded to make me into a prostitute or touch me inappropriately every time we were on stage together. The coach didn’t care, and when I complained he would say something along the lines of ‘committing to being endowed.’ If this were now, you better believe I would have stuck up for myself, but I was 22 when all of this was happening. I wanted to get ahead and I thought playing along was the only way that would happen.

I’ve taught plenty of men who thought it was totally OK to make every scene a rape scene or an excuse to touch women in ways they shouldn’t. I was in [a drop-in] a few months ago where a guy started every scene with ‘I have a dead hooker in my trunk.’ Every. Single. One. I was the only woman in the drop-in. The instructor did speak up, but the guy continued to do it. If it were me, I would have been clear that it was unacceptable and they’d have to leave if it continued.” – Candace Meeks

“As a teacher you see a lot of young men trying to assert power and dominance in classes and it starts with making a woman a whore or a bitch in a scene. I once had a pretty well-known actor call me a whore in the first line of an improv scene – the key is to know that it comes from fear and to YES AND it into being the whore who steals the scene.

I think the culture is shifting to women not being afraid to speak out about this kind of thing. I do get a bit uncomfortable when a prominent/well-respected improviser starts dating a rookie or a student. The inherent power dynamic means the less experienced person might not be as willing to speak out if something did happen for fear of angering the person who they think has power.

I think women need to talk a lot. About anyone in and around the scene who mistreats or harasses women, so we can all be armed with more knowledge.” – Ashley Botting

“In the ten plus years I’ve been improvising, I’ve actually been really lucky. I’ve never experienced what I’d consider to be overt sexual harassment, or been in a situation I thought was dangerous. For that, I am thankful. But I have been in situations, on stage or off, where I’ve experienced or witnessed behaviour I would consider to be uncomfortable and unprofessional.

I’m so proud of the brave, resilient women who move past the bullshit and continue to perform even after experiencing some horrendous situations. [Also], there are so many awesome, thoughtful guys in this community who are huge advocates for women and stand up for us, and we probably don’t give them enough credit.

I want to be more aware of this happening and be a stronger advocate, not just against sexual harassment, but any injustice I witness. While the light has been shining on this one particular topic, I think there’s also a huge issue when it comes to how people of colour or sexual orientation is treated in comedy.” – Mandy Sellers

“In a way I’m not the right person to ask because, fortunately, I hardly ever feel victimized for being a woman. But it has happened, and it stands out all the more for being so rare.

I experienced a firsthand, highest order case of sexual harassment. I was asked to co-host a comedy night that was a benefit for cancer research in honour of a woman who had died and left her husband and son behind. The widower produced it, it was a great evening, and afterwards we all went out for drinks. The next day I received an email from the man, telling me how attractive I was and that he’d like to take me to dinner. I was taken aback, considering we’d spent the entire evening honouring his dead wife, and replied I wasn’t interested, was in a relationship, and said I trusted this would be the last I’d hear of it. The next year, everyone was asked back to the event but me. Now, I have a feeling he was trying to avoid an awkward situation, but the outcome was that I lost a gig because of his personal feelings about me. The classic workplace scenario! I was pissed.

As far as inappropriate behaviour in a show or rehearsal, I have to confess it’s often me who is leading the innuendo, or improvising scenes with breastfeeding or crazy sex in them. So it might appear that I’m just OK with all that. Here is the main point though: I only engage in that kind of fun with people who I trust, who I’m confident can tell the difference between play and reality, and people whom I’m confident will know that I know the difference too. Sometimes I wonder though, if the trust I have with my fellow performers is invisible, and that we are unwittingly giving people the idea that sexy humour just gets a blanket pass. If someone I didn’t trust tried that with me I would shut it down pretty fast, but I almost never feel disenfranchised and have always felt free to speak. That’s not true for everyone though. It’s a fine line surrounded by a grey area.

The two most sexist people I’ve encountered professionally were women, and both were my boss. One insisted that I and my fellow female performers look pretty and sexy no matter what character we were playing, even at the expense of the scene. The other openly talked about how much she hated feminism and told me that if a male co-worker was being inappropriate, it was my job to shut it down because I was the woman and it was easier for women to control themselves. In both cases I felt powerless to protest because of (a) my contract or (b) I really wanted the job and didn’t want to be fired for expressing my political views on feminism (a real possibility in that case). Sexist attitudes can come from anywhere, even women who have internalized them. When I look back I regret not saying anything, but at the time I really felt I couldn’t without suffering for it. So I made the choice to just bitch about it behind the scenes.

What would I like to see changed? Well, perhaps the Judeo-Christian underpinnings to our society? No one ever talks about that, but when the religious foundation of a culture has the inferiority of women built into it, it’s hard to fight. On a practical level, what I’d really like to see is women losing their fear of speaking up in the moment, both figuratively and literally. I’d like all women to be as loud and authentic and daring as the dozens and dozens of fantastic women I work with in the comedy community. I’d like young girls to be rewarded for more than just being ‘nice.’ I’d like the wider world to see how the men in the Toronto comedy community have figured out how to be masculine, vulnerable, funny, strong and respectful all at the same time. The men in my life are truly awesome and I so rarely experience bullshit from them. When I hear about guys being dicks I ask who they are and make sure I don’t work with them.

I’m now, happily, in a position where I’m starting to have the power to hire people. I’m very excited to give lots of ladies the opportunity to be seen, to make people laugh, and most importantly, to bring home a paycheque for doing what they are meant to do. I’m thrilled also to make parenting possible for the Moms in the community. I think support for parenting in the workplace is the next big issue that feminism needs to tackle. We should be able to figure that out, at the very least.” – Aurora Browne

“In my experience, the sketch community in Toronto is quite different from the stand-up or improv scene. There seems to be a sense of camaraderie among sketch troupes – however it’s not without its own issues regarding sexism and harassment.

Briana and I are most often referred to as ‘the women,’ ‘the ladies,’ or even worse, ‘Those two hot girls whose name I can’t pronounce!’ We have performed on shows out of town where the first thing out of the host’s mouth when he introduced us was, ‘These girls sure don’t LOOK like comedians!’ and as much as people may think this is a form of ‘flattery,’ it’s not. When is the last time you heard a male comedian introduced as ‘This hot guy!’ or ‘Man, this guy has the greatest clothes and hair!’ before he goes on stage? Never. It’s always about how talented and accomplished he is first and foremost.

I only know secondhand what women in the stand-up or improv scene have had to deal with, which from the sounds of it is a lot worse. We are often the only women on a bill of about 10 men because they ‘needed women.’ We’ve also been bumped out of doing a tech cue run altogether because the other male troupes ‘needed more time.’ However, I think the good news is that times are a-changin’ and more often than not now, we are treated as equals with the men on the same bill. We’re lucky – the Toronto sketch scene is pretty great.” – Gwynne Phillips

“I started improv classes when I was 28 – a very late bloomer by improv standards. During my first year or so, I dated an instructor. After seeing me perform he said, ‘You’re funny for a girl!’ He rambled on about how typically girls aren’t funny, and especially not funny and pretty.

Somewhere deep down, I sort of understood what he was saying. He was speaking a comedic truth. I was funny…for a girl. Which meant I could keep up with the guys. Like, my funny on its own wasn’t enough, it was only good by comparison to a male performer. So, I got the big seal of approval from him and countless others. I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

I was in improv troupes, sketch troupes, tons of shows, performances, and comedy plays; usually the first female selected and always asked ‘Do you know any other girls who are funny?’ I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

I was hit on, touched, groped, innuendoed, leered at, lechered upon and sexified in every way, more times than I could possibly reference. I didn’t shy away from sex or anger, so I never felt victimized per se, even if I was being monumentally marginalized. In the moment though, I trusted the men I was working with and, don’t forget…I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’

Looking back, there were a ton of guys who preyed upon women, especially the new girls. Putting them in awkward sexual scenes and ignoring the trust component that we need so much in our improv work. I would warn the girls about the guys to avoid and try and give those guys a bit of their own medicine if I was ever in scenes with them. It’s 19 years later, and I don’t know if things are really any different.” – Leesa Gaspari

*     *     *     *     *     *

So what can we take from all of this?

It seems to me there are two main issues facing the community: sexual harassment off-stage, and sexist or demeaning treatment of women on-stage.

Like most fields, comedy has long been dominated by men. The explosion of interest in improv in recent years has left some theatres and instructors unprepared, both in terms of sexual harassment policies, and how they approach teaching.

Personally, I’d like us to move to a place where women don’t feel “lucky” for not being harassed or objectified. That said, this isn’t all on the guys. Women can help or hinder each other, too.

The good news is there are men and women who are showing the next generation of improvisers to be respectful, make stronger choices, empower each other, and that getting laughs by being truthful or vulnerable is way more satisfying than recycling tired old Family Guy jokes.

For tips on how to support women in comedy, we highly recommend this post by Meg Kennedy, and WomenInComedy.org’s guide. Also, this, from my long-time scene partner Maria Hajigeorgiou. 

As the comedy community grows and evolves, maybe it’s time our lexicon did too.

Toronto actor/improviser Alex Tindal recently posted on facebook:

“Hot thought for improviser friends, maybe let’s stop using the term ‘pimping’ forever and never look back?”

The response was swift and spirited. Some people suggested the word “endowing,” while others pointed out that endowing is seen as a positive move.

“I think ‘pimping,’ as we know it, has both positive and negative connotations,” said Rapid Fire Theatre’s Amy Shostak. “The mischief of setting someone up to do something difficult can be charming and fun, if that person is up for the challenge. However, in a beginner setting, it seems like a cruel offer that forces the less-confident scene partner to become uncomfortable. I always think of it as a ‘Don’t dish it, unless you can take it’ kind of a thing.”

So…what’s a new, better word for it that doesn’t connote “forced sex work”? Other suggestions were:

• setting up

• middle manager / managing

• squimping

• fratting

• fruitcake (i.e. a “gift” that nobody wants)

• The Force (like, forcing someone to do something they don’t want to)

But the favourite by far, from Bad Dog’s Julie Dumais Osborne, was “ugly sweater.”

As in “Don’t make your scene partner put on the ugly sweater you just gave them in front of everyone.”

What do you think? Would you say “Don’t ‘ug’ me,” or “Don’t make me wear that!”? Is there another word for it in your community? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Screen shot 2016-01-30 at 6.13.46 PM

#Grayson12HourDrop

Our friends at Grayson Matthews are ringing in the holidays with the #Grayson12HourDrop – 12 hours of build. 1 epic drop.

All day long today they’re building a beat to a catastrophic drop – a drop, to end all drops. So we figured we’d invite our improviser pals to help craft the build. Send them sound ideas and they’ll add it to the freaky beat. Want to hear “a stuttering ukulele,” “a porpoise being spanked” or even a “robot farting underwater”? Whatever you can think of – fire anything their way and they’ll add it in real time.

Submit your suggestions by hashtagging #Grayson12HourDrop on Twitter or commenting on their Facebook – you can even hit up their Instagram.

Tune in live to Grayson12HourDrop.com to see them build the drop and to see your crazy contributions go live. And then tune in at 5pm for the MEGA DROP!

tumblr_me11db9WD11r3gi71o1_500

If you’re like us and still haven’t finished – or, um, started – your holiday shopping, here are some suggestions for the funny ones on your list. (No, we haven’t made a list yet, either.)

Saint Celebrity Prayer Candles

Holy crapola! How cool are these? If you don’t see something you like, you can request a custom order of your favourite Comedy Gods. Saints Odenkirk, Poehler, and Colbert, please!

Artwork © Saint Celebrity

Artwork © Saint Celebrity

Top Tomes

We’re big fans of learning from different theatres and instructors, and the same goes for improv books. While the points of view vary, each of these titles is written by authors who know their shit. For anyone looking to expand their knowledge of long form and comedy, one (or more) of these would make a great gift.

Books

Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser by Liz Allen and Jimmy Carrane

The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh

Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy: The Harold by Matt Fotis

Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book by TJ Jagodowski & David Pasquesi with Pam Victor

Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier (now updated and expanded with a foreword by Stephen Colbert)

Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv by Rob Norman

Truth in Comedy by Del Close, Charna Halpern and Kim “Howard” Johnson

Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz

The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus

And Here’s The Kicker and Poking A Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks

Also now available in paperback, check out Yes, Please by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Trust Us, This Is All Made Up DVD 

Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, TJ and Dave’s documentary is a timeless classic. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage and a fully-improvised, 50-minute performance at the Barrow Street Theatre, it’s a must-see for all improvisers. Click here to order.

Improv Tees, Clocks, Mugs & More

From spiffy new logo Tees to our Improviser’s Clock, you’ll find goodies galore in our online store. Happy hols!

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 3.43.52 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-07 at 3.50.13 PM

As the improv blogosphere expands, more awesome voices join in the chorus. Here are some of our faves.

Artwork © David Kantrowitz

Artwork © David Kantrowitz

Miles Stroth: Pack Theater

A veteran of the Chicago and LA improv scenes, Miles Stroth studied under Del Close, was a member of The Family, and helped invent The Deconstruction and The Movie…so he’s, y’know, pretty good.

Stroth’s straight-from-the-hip style is a joy to read, and reminds us a little of Mick Napier’s. (What can we say? We love swears.) The blog is only a few weeks old, but topics so far include The Myth of Stage Time, Listening vs Monkeys, and An Introduction To The Four Scene Types, part of an ongoing series.

Jay Sukow: Today Improv

Jay Sukow brings 30 years’ experience performing and teaching in Chicago to his improv worldview. He studied under Colbert, Razowsky, and Carell, and we think it shows in his compassionate, mindful writing, with posts like “How Do I Get Out Of My Head?” and “Dear Improvisors.” Like Stroth’s blog, Sukow’s is still in its infancy, but with tips for improvisers as well as business people, it’s sure to build a strong following.

Jimmy Carrane

The creator and host of the Improv Nerd podcast, Jimmy Carrane has one of the best blogs out there. It’s honest, unfiltered, and always enlightening. After three decades in the Chicago improv scene, Jimmy has performed with the best of the best, and experienced the highs and lows of doing improv for a living. Whatever you’re looking for, chances are Jimmy’s covered it, from physicality, status, and fear, to walk-ons, auditions, dealing with stage hogs, career jealousy, and much more.

Will Hines: Improv Nonsense

After all that Chicago deep dish, why not take a walk on the Will Hines side? Hines hails from UCBT, where he taught and performed in New York City before moving to LA. His tumblr is a mix of improv tips, personal reflections, photos, and a forum for improvisers to ask for advice.

Hines’ writing is conversational with just the right amount of swear-y, as in this gem:

“Caring is funny. It’s unexpected. Don’t go too nuts or it’ll feel false. Just give about 20% more of a shit than we expect you to.

‘For this year’s musical, we are producing West Side Story.’

‘Fuck yes!’

Hey, that’s pretty funny! So yeah, do that. Give just a bit more of a shit than we expect.”

The House That Del Built

Labelled “The intellectual musings of an improv wonk,” THTDB is thoughtful, wordy, and – dare we say it? – deep. With topics like Talent vs Skill, The Economy of Comedy, and Joking, Lying and The Truth, this is the place to go when you want a mind sandwich – a really good one.

Pam Victor: My Nephew Is A Poodle

You probably know Pam Victor from the most eagerly-anticipated improv book in yonks, Improvisation At The Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book, which she co-wrote.

Pam’s blog blends her day-to-day life as an improviser and instructor with her “Geeking Out With…” series of interviews, featuring every improv rock star you can think of except for Del (and even then, she’s probably planning a seance). Definitely worth poring over.

National Improv Network

NIN’s mission is to “bring every venue, troupe and improviser access to the tools and resources they need to create excellent improv and run excellent venues.” It’s this distinction that makes it invaluable for anyone who owns a own theatre, runs a festival, or produces and directs shows, in addition to being improvisers. Posts cover a wide range of topics, including spotlights on different cities’ improv festivals.

Montreal Improv

Since 2009, Vinny Francois and crew have been writing and reposting cool stuff on improv, comedy, acting, and more. Always smart and insightful, they’ve also reviewed a whack of improv books, and guest posters include David Pasquesi, Jill Bernard, and Will Luera.

Nat Tsolak: The School of Laughter

This quintessentially British blog is a charming alternative to our slightly-less-eloquent North American fare. (To paraphrase Rene Zellweger, “You had me at ‘whilst.'”)

Nat Tsolak’s posts include personal stories and improv games, with a special focus on improv, comedy, and psychology.

Ben Noble: I’m Making All This Up

St Louis native and copywriter Ben Noble started doing make ’em ups three years ago, and now he writes a blog about improv and creativity. He also wrote Improv ABC, which is more advanced than it sounds.

David Kantrowitz: Improv Artvice

This tumblr features quotes from some of improv’s brightest lights, and you can even buy them as prints and other goodies. How about an “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” canvas print for your bedroom?

Artwork © David Kantrowitz

Artwork © David Kantrowitz

Camp Improv Utopia is an annual three-night retreat where improvisers from around the world come to learn in a magnificent and unique setting. We spoke to actor/improviser and founder, Nick Armstrong, about improv as nature intended.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

P&C: For readers who don’t know, what is Camp Improv Utopia?

NA: It’s an adult summer camp basically, so you have to be 18 and over to go. It’s kind of like boy scout/girl scout camp meets improv.

You’re doing workshops with great teachers from all over, but then we really also emphasize that we want you to be part of nature. So you have free time to do archery and swim in the lake and kayak, and that’s the boy scout/girl scout part of the adventure. So it’s kind of a mix of that.

P&C: Why improv and camping?

NA: I was an Eagle Scout growing up in California, and it’s very beautiful…there’s a lot of mountains, and Yosemite, and things like that. And I was really passionate about improv – I teach, I’ve performed for years – and I grew up being a boy scout and I was like, “Improvisers are so cool, I think they’d enjoy something like this.”

And so me and my friends from the Improv Olympic, I kinda threw them this idea, and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool, let’s try it.” So we found a summer camp. We asked “Can you rent a summer camp?” And yeah, you can rent a summer camp! They’d never really kind of heard of it back then when we started, but we found the perfect place, we rented it, and we hoped people would show up.

P&C: How many years have you been doing the camp?

NA: The first one was 2011. This’ll be our sixth camp. The idea started a long time ago; we just never pulled the trigger till 2011. (laughs)

P&C: I’m gonna backtrack a little. How did you get into improv?

NA: I went and saw a show in 2000, 2001 at iO West. iO was very new out here; we had only had The Groundlings, that was the big theatre out here. My friend [said], “My friend’s doing a show in LA,” and I was just out of college so I said “Let’s go see it.”

I’d never seen a Harold before. It was a group called The Youth Group, and it was amazing. I never knew what I wanted in improv, but I saw that and it was like, “Hey, I wanna do that. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna do that.” And it just clicked.

I took classes right away and then I eventually started teaching there, and then I started [at] The Groundlings, and now I teach at The Groundlings. And then I started the camp, and National Improv Network, and started touring because all these festivals started blowing up. When I started going to festivals in 2004 maybe, there was like, maybe five in the country. Now there’s like 110 listed on our site…

P&C: Holy crap! I didn’t know it was that many.

NA: Yeah 110, but I’m sure everyone’s not listed on our site, so I’m assuming there’s probably a little bit more than that. We’re starting to get worldwide.

P&C: Some people get into improv and then say, “OK this is fun, but what am I really gonna do?” (Cameron’s laughing.)

NA: It’s a career for me. I’m able to call improv a career, in acting, so it’s very nice to do that. I still perform two or three times a week, every week since I started. I love it. It’s not like, “Oh God, I’ve gotta do my show this week.” I’m on the longest-running Harold team in LA called King Ten, and they’ve been together for 13 years. So it’s a fun experiment, because how many times does that happen?

P&C: Ooh, I’m gonna have to interview you guys. Long-running teams are not that common.

NA: They get broken up…

P&C: People move on to other things…

NA: It’s interesting because you keep trying to do things new, trying to push the envelope of a Harold. We don’t even do a traditional Harold anymore, it’s something that’s evolved into something different. The people on that team are just masters, so it’s really fun.

P&C: That’s great. Getting back to Camp Improv Utopia, it’s a non-profit. Why was that important to you?

NA: I was just talking about this yesterday. It was really important to me that it be non-profit, just like a boy scout/girl scout organization, because my philosophy is the spirit of improv should be how you run your business.

I’m not saying “Don’t be a for-profit,” but for us it was nature, improv, giving back more than we’ve been given.

So the idea was to bring all these people and do a two-part thing: we’re going to educate them in improv and give them a slice of nature. But then the money we raise there goes back out into the improv world.

When it first started, it funded the National Improv Network…endeavours like that. We help the Detroit Creativity Project, which helps kids that don’t have access to arts; that’s one of our main people we sponsor.

And then we help people build their theatres in the States. If they’re non-profits we help them a lot more; we do help for-profits that are starting out too. So [if] they’re like, “We need a stage,” we have a budget for who we help.

Now that we have even more camps – we have two in California now and one in Pennsylvania – we can allot the money. The money from the Pennsylvania camp goes to that region of the country.

We give out scholarships, and if someone has a diversity program at their theatre, we’ve donated to that, to specifically go to diverse talent coming in to their theatre. We’ll see someone’s Indiegogo or Kickstarter [saying] “We’re trying to open the doors to our theatre,” and we’ll donate to those.

Sometimes people come to us and ask for help, and we do that as well. It’s just kind of a feel-good thing, but growing up that was always kind of my thing, just the motto of, “Give back more than you’ve been given.” And improv’s given me a ton, so this is kind of the best way to do it.

P&C: That’s amazing. I don’t know if you’ve read Matt Fotis’s book about the history of the Harold. It’s fantastic. I’m reading about the struggles of Charna and Mick and the early days of Second City to find a space, and that can be such a huge obstacle to getting something off the ground, so the fact that you’re doing this is amazing.

NA: Our thing is, the ships rise with the tide; we want everybody to be successful. We know improv because we live and breathe it all the time, but not a lot of people do, you know, still.

I was telling you about the festivals, there’s 110. There’s over 100 theatres listed now too. So we’ve gone from 10 improv theatres in the United States to over 100. There’s one pretty much in every state. Maybe not Wyoming…

P&C: (laughs)

NA: But like, every state has either one or two festivals, or two or three theatres now. In big cities like LA, of course Chicago, but also smaller cities like Cedar City, Utah, which is a population of maybe 20,000 people, and they all have great theatres and festivals happening.

P&C: I honestly had no idea it had spread that much. I know there’s Austin, Detroit, Boston…

NA: It’s kind of like The Secret of improv right now. The big markets everybody knows about, but nobody knows about these successful theatres that are happening in smaller markets. I just got invited to the Omaha Improv Festival which is in Nebraska, and it’s their third year doing it.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

P&C: Your mission statement advocates improv as an art form. Are you a strong proponent of Del’s views?

NA: I believe in Del’s philosophy; I grew up in the iO philosophy. Craig Cackowski is kinda my mentor; I’ve grown with him, he’s now my friend, and he’s helped me with these camps too. And he definitely sees it that way and that definitely rubbed off on me. It’s an art form and it can be funny, it can be both, and that’s what we try to do, but I love when there’s serious moments when you make the audience not laugh, and you make them gasp, and that’s really magical.

When I first saw a show, I want to give that feeling to someone else, because my thing was like, this is funny, but there’s something magical about it [too] that I didn’t know when I was seeing it for the first time. I wouldn’t have maybe come back to that show because, “Oh, that was really funny,” y’know? But it was that extra “sauce,” whatever that was, that got me to come back, and that was the art form that was pulling me towards it. That’s really how I love it, and that’s why I’ve done for so many years, and that’s how I teach it, too.

P&C: Is there a common thread among the teachers you’ve chosen?

NA: We’re very careful about how we choose our teachers.

We choose teachers that are great in the community. Not only are great teachers and well established – that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a Second City teacher or an iO teacher or something like that – but it’s also someone who gives back to improv more.

We recognize someone like a Jill Bernard, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. We like to honour those folks and bring them in because they really mesh with that community well, and it really works.

So that’s kinda what we look for: Are they great teachers? Do they go above and beyond in improv? Are they helping, are they going to festivals, are they trying to build this community?

P&C: That’s awesome. I see there are three camps now…

NA: We haven’t opened the third one yet; that happens next year.

P&C: OK, two-part question: Do you have plans to expand to other parts of the country eventually? And do you have students who’ve come more than once?

NA: We’ve had people come all five years. And when we opened East they started coming to the East Camp, and some East Camp folks are now coming to the West Camp, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination. And kinda the idea behind it was, “How can we connect the East Coast improvisers with the West Coast improvisers and really get that community talking?”

That was kinda the goal, to circle the US, and do that, and that’s working! (laughs) Now these festivals over on the East Coast, there’s people from the West Coast coming to them and vice versa, and that cross-pollination is totally happening, and I’m so excited about that.

And then we came up with Yosemite I was like, wait, we have one of the most beautiful places in the world at our fingertips. Why don’t we do a summer camp by it? But we’re also doing a different curriculum with that one, so that one filled up really fast – and we only promoted that to our previous campers, we didn’t even put it out to the public.

But that mission of that camp is, you take one teacher the entire the weekend and you learn one form, like the J.T.S. Brown, the Deconstruction…

P&C: Oh, great idea!

NA: … and these are taught by people that created those forms. And then the idea is to hopefully take those back to your community, experiment with them more. Maybe do the form itself, but then maybe be inspired to make the next great form.

So…we’ll do another camp if it’s necessary, and right now we have the Yosemite one, and if we see an opportunity to do another we will, but it’s not, we don’t wanna be a burger chain.

P&C: (laughs)

NA: We wanna do it right, and it has to be associated with our mission statement, and it has to help a community.

P&C: You talked about the one-instructor, one-form curriculum at Yosemite. Can you tell us about the curriculum at the other camps?

NA: Our East and West kind of share a similar curriculum. There’s five teachers, and you can pick four, so there are more skill sets.

So if you wanna learn character, or you wanna learn slow play… I always try to tell the teacher, teach what you’re passionate about in improv. I don’t care what that workshop is, but I’m hiring you because I want you to bring what you think people should know in improv.

And for Yosemite we’ll just be teaching a form, so for instance Craig Cackowski will be teaching the J.T.S. Brown, which he was the original director of in Chicago. So that’s kind of how we separated it to be different, and that was kind of the purpose of that whole new camp.

Again, it’s not all education; we perform. We have little cabins, there’s like 10, 20 different cabins, and that becomes their troupe that weekend. So then they perform a show at the end of the weekend, too.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

P&C: And I was reading you have axe throwing?

NA: We have axe throwing, archery…

P&C: Sounds dangerous!

NA: (laughs) They’re little axes. They’re, I would say, hatchets. We have professionals handling that, we don’t handle the axe throwing, we let the camp run those. No one’s been hurt in the six years we’ve run them!

P&C: Safety first. OK, who are some of the instructors you’ve had?

NA: Craig Cackowski, Dave Razowsky, Susan Messing, those are some of the bigger names we’ve had out.

P&C: Isaac Kessler…

NA: Isaac’s gonna be teaching. Rick Andrews out of New York. There’s so many… Paul Vaillancourt, who’s on a team called Beer Shark Mice, and he started the iO West. We have James Grace, the Artistic Director of iO teaching at our West Camp this year…

P&C: After six years, do you have any favourite memory that stands out for you?

NA: I always tell this story actually… Me and my buddy Johnny, who helped me start the camp, we rented the place, we put all our own money down on it and just said, “We’re gonna do this, so hopefully people come.”

So people signed up, and we were at the camp, and we got there Friday at like six in the morning, going, like, “We’ve gotta get there so early. What if someone comes?!” And we put out a table and we were ready to register. And my friends, now who are my board members, are all there, and we’re sitting there.

And seven o’clock comes…and eight o’clock comes…and nine o’clock comes, and ten… And we’re like, “Nobody’s coming.”

But now I think about it, it’s ludicrous, because no one’s gonna be there Friday morning at six! But we didn’t know, because we’d never done it before. And so at like, one o’clock a car rolls in, and it was a camp cook.

I remember 1:30, our first camper ever rolled in. He pops out his car, his name is Bob, he’s from Chicago and Arizona, and he goes, “Is, uh, this an improv camp?”

We just all started cheering and he probably thought we were crazy. And we’ve now made that a tradition that we always cheer when someone comes to camp.

There’s been so many memories after that, but that’s the one that sticks in my head just because it was so cool.

P&C: Last question: what do you hope people take away from their experience?

NA: That they have an experience. That it’s different than being at an improv theatre. It’s not all about improv out there. It’s about looking in yourself, it’s about being out in nature.

When I started the camp, I said I don’t want it to be like a festival. I want it to be an experience where people do get quality instruction that they can’t get in their communities, and that they really immerse themselves in nature. And just being out there without technology – because cell phones don’t work at our West Camp really, so that’s a good thing.

But also just meeting people. The fun thing after camp is you get a hundred new Facebook requests. We have our own private group pages; I see afterwards, “Hey, I’m going to Baltimore. Can I crash on someone’s couch?” And it’s like, “Yeah, come crash on my couch!” “Hey, also I just got us a show. We’re doing a show!”

And at festivals there’s enough campers that go to festivals that sometimes festivals have allotted us a Camp Show, a Camp Jam. And we’re doing it in Ireland, we’re doing a Camp Jam. So that stuff to me is the coolest part. It’s not just at camp, it’s what happens after camp, and that’s what you want, you want them to be, “Hey, you’re coming to California? Crash at my place.” “Hey, I got a show at iO, let’s do it.” And that’s how the National Improv Network grew out of it.

P&C: That’s fantastic, just spreading the joy of improv on a global scale. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Enrolment for Camp Improv Utopia East is now open. Click here to register.

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Photo © Camp Improv Utopia

Camp Improv Utopia: Community, Camaraderie in Nature

Featured Instructors for 2016 include:

West – Celeste Pechous, James Grace, Bill Binder, Eric Hunicutt, plus more to come!

East – Jaime Moyer, Elana Fishbein, Isaac Kessler, plus more to come!

Yosemite – Paul Vaillancourt, Craig Cackowski, Brian O’Connell, Karen Graci

Artwork © Jimmy Carrane

Artwork © Jimmy Carrane

Few people write as honestly (or hilariously) about improv as Jimmy Carrane, and his new book is no exception. But unlike  Improvising Better, which focuses on getting better as a performer, this is a how-to guide for overcoming the kind obstacles we all face at some point – many of which we create for ourselves.

The book is broken into five sections:

• Embrace Imperfection

• Let Go of Resentments and Expectations

• Believe You Are Worth It

• Put Yourself Out There

• Take Care of Yourself

In each one, Jimmy breaks down the things that keep us from experiencing joy and success, in rehearsals, shows, off-stage, and in our relationships. He then offers practical solutions you can put to use right now.

Improv attracts very smart, very funny, and often very fragile people. That fragility often comes from low self-esteem. But Jimmy shows how the only person who can affect your self-worth is you.

If you constantly compare yourself to others, feel like you’ve hit a plateau, or just need a kick in the pants to get off the couch, this book will help you recognize the mind games that are holding you back, and find the joy in playing again.

The Inner Game of Improv is just $3.99 (USD). Available for Kindle on Amazon, or as a PDF at jimmycarrane.com.

“How much money you make off your art has nothing to do with calling yourself an artist. I don’t care if you do improv as a hobby or you get paid to perform. If you’re an improviser, you’re an artist.” – from The Inner Game of Improv

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 279 other followers