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Posts tagged improv comedy

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are some fascinating and important discussions going on on the internets right now. One that’s very close to our hearts is that of artists getting paid what they’re worth.

A few years ago, I was talking with someone in the improv community who expressed shock, even disdain for how much Second City paid its teachers. Not because it paid them too little, mind you, but because it paid them well.

I tried to process what I’d just heard. “Why the fuck wouldn’t they pay their instructors a decent wage?” I thought.

Was improv really held in such low regard – even by improvisers - that it wasn’t worth paying for?

After all, we’re talking about something that makes people feel good, helps them both professionally and personally, and dramatically changes lives. If improv were a pill, Big Pharma would be making billions off of it.

(I should point out this person is the only one who’s expressed such a view to me. It was their stature and tenure in the community that gave me pause.)

The line between art and commerce can be a murky one, as this open letter to Oprah reveals. In it, the author (a hula hoop performer named Revolva) talks about this whole notion of working for free, or very little.

I’m a big fan of “do what you love, and the money will follow.” And if you write or act or sing or dance or paint because it gives you joy, great. It’s when others profit from what you’re doing and don’t give something back that things can turn sour.

There’s a big difference between inviting friends to perform in your show at The Bishop & Belcher (now with hot and cold buffet!), and asking total strangers to do what they do professionally, for free.

A couple of years ago Standards & Practices did a St Patrick’s Day show. They wanted some Irish step dancers to open for them, so they called up a dance school, who suggested two of their students. Like most improvisers, S&P don’t have deep pockets, but they pooled together and offered the dancers $100 for five minutes.

The night of the show, the girls danced their hearts out. One of them played the fiddle at the same time, like something out of Riverdance. It was electrifying, the audience was thrilled, the dancers were happy, and S&P felt it was money well spent.

And that’s something I’ve noticed: it’s often struggling artists who make sure other artists get paid – perhaps because they’ve done so many “freebies” themselves.

They’re the ones who put $20 in the Pay What You Can jar. Or who donate to festivals and fundraisers, even if they get nothing in return. Not because they’re rich, but because they know that art makes us all richer.

Need a nice poster for your show? Throw your improviser buddy who does graphic design a few bucks.

Want to mix things up by hiring a stand-up to host? Ask them what their rate is; don’t just assume they’ll do it for beer.

It’s about respect for each other, and each other’s skills.

That’s why I’m hoping Revolva’s post won’t just get shared, but will shake things up, and help give more talented artists their due.

In the meantime – aside from teaching – doing improv will probably never pay a king’s ransom. And as long as no one’s taking advantage of performers, that’s fine. We do it because we love it, because it’s a privilege, and because it’s one of the few places you can fail in public, and laugh about it.

That, to me, is priceless.

“For many things, your attitudes came from actions that led to observations that led to explanations that led to beliefs. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience from day to day. It doesn’t feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels as if you were the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants performed actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.” - Benjamin Franklin

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

FSF Chrome

Image © Sally Smallwood / People and Chairs

Cameron recently gave his students the instruction, “Find something fun, then do it more.”

As someone who struggled with game of the scene for years, I loved the simplicity of this phrase. What’s more, “fun” could be the tiniest, simplest, stupidest thing (maybe all three).

Last week Cameron and I did a scene where I initiated as a mafia don. I started with my back to him, inhaled a mimed cigarette and said,

“I hear you’re the best.”

I turned to see Cameron falling backwards awkwardly off his chair.

He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m the best.”

Great. In less than five seconds, we’d already found something fun.

The rest of scene played out with me grilling him to make sure he was up for the job. We learned that his character was named Johnny Paycheque, and his tone and physicality continued to communicate he was of course, anything but the best.

It ended with Johnny getting the contract and shooting himself in the face…causing him to fall backwards off his chair.

(Cameron later said when he felt himself falling at the top of the scene, he thought for a split second of “correcting” it, then just went with. The comedy gods are always right.)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Like most improv truths, “Find something fun. Do it more.” applies to the rest of life, too.

Like drawing? Do it more.

Like blogging? Do it more.

Like reading or dancing or swimming or baking or making dioramas or doing musical improv…?

You get the picture.

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.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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.”

You’ve kissed more guys than women. And you’re straight.

Photo © Corbin Smith

Photo © Corbin Smith

You’ve had to compete with at least one of these while performing:

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © James Young

Photo © James Young

This was breakfast. And lunch. You don’t remember dinner.

Photo © Steve Del Balso

Photo © Steve Del Balso

You need to set your alarm for an audition at noon.

Photo © Kevin Whalen & James Gangl

Photo © Kevin Whalen

You get endowed as the President every time you hit the stage.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Deep down, you still dream of being a superhero.

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

If you read one more “Women aren’t funny” article, you’ll swear like Susan f#%$ing Messing. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You feel cool because everyone’s a nerd.

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

When this guy says, “Take your crazy monkey dance back to Hitler Town,” you know exactly what he means.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

It isn’t Halloween. Just a typical Thursday night.

Photo © Becky Feilders

Photo © Becky Feilders

The sign of a good rehearsal.

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

You’ve said things that would get you fired, disowned or arrested in real life. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

The answer to the question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” is always “Yes!”

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Channel your inner Django with this fast and fun ice breaker. Like Knife Throw, it’s great for a group of people who don’t know each other, and helps sharpen awareness and reaction times.

To begin, everyone stands in a circle with one person in the centre.

That person points at someone else in the circle and yells “Draw!”

The person being pointed at must duck down as quickly as possible to avoid being shot. At the same time, the person directly on either side of him has to shoot him while yelling “Bang!”

If the person doesn’t duck in time, he (or she) dies. If they duck down before they are shot, they’re safe.

If the players on either side shoot each other simultaneously, they’re both safe. But if one says “Bang!” after the other, he or she is dead.

If you think you’ve been shot, own the shit out of it and die a dramatic death. It’s not about being Superman, it’s about the fun of accepting whatever happens.*

When only two players remain, they stand back-to-back for a duel to the death. The Coach/Director yells “Draw!” and both players turn and shoot. The quickest on the draw wins.

Oh and by the way: this is one time when it’s OK to mime a “finger gun.”

*(Thanks to Jet Eveleth for this tip.)

Hickock_Tutt_Duel_1867_Harpers_Monthly_Magazine

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