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When you’re starting out as an improviser, being put on a Harold team is about as exciting as it gets. We’re talking The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX with a bagful of weed exciting.

At this stage, thoughts like “Who else is on my team?” or “Who’s our Coach?” (Director, for our American readers) are usually far behind thoughts like, “What if I suck?” “How do you do a tangent scene again?” and “I feel the sudden urge to take a crap.”

But once you’ve rehearsed for a couple of months and have some shows under your belt, you’ll find your focus turning to your fellow team members, your Coach, and your relationship with all of them.

After being on numerous teams and watching the development of dozens more, I’ve come to some conclusions about why certain teams shine while others struggle.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” – Susan Messing

You’ve probably heard this quote at some point, and if you haven’t, you will. While it’s pretty self-explanatory, I asked Susan to elaborate. She said, “You determine your joy ride. If you’re not getting off on this work, it’s not your teammate’s fault.”

As the Bible says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”

(Thanks for translating, Susan.)

So before you go around trashing others for being shitty improvisers, try working on yourself first.

Everyone on your team has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are natural editors. Others are great with physicality and spacework. Still others are geniuses at remembering offers and tying everything together.

That’s the beauty of being on a team. Very few people are great at everything, especially when you’re starting out. So go on easy on yourself, and your teammates.

But what if you feel disrespected? If you find yourself consistently getting tagged out, swept early when scenes are going well, or endowed as the “stupid ho” every show, maybe it’s time for a frank and honest talk with your team members or Coach. It could be they’re unaware of these behavioural patterns.

On the other hand, if you’re constantly tagged out or swept, it may be a sign that you need to step up your game.

Back when Standards & Practices had about 37 members, a few of them called Cameron out in rehearsal. He’d been hanging back in shows, and not contributing much to scenes. Kevin Whalen put it bluntly: get better, or get off the team. It was a tough-love moment from someone Cameron looked up to. Happily, he used it as the impetus to start bringing it every show.

That being said…

Chemistry Isn’t Everything, But It’s Pretty Damn Important

You can “yes and” your scene partner all you want, but at some point personalities come into play. And just as you may not love everyone at your day job, you may not be gellin’ like Magellan with everyone on your Harold team.

When you look at the top improvisers, there’s clearly a connection between great performances and great chemistry.

TJ and Dave, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Razowsky and Clifford, the UCB Four, Susan Messing and Blaine Swen…all of these people found kindred spirits with whom they enjoyed performing, and made a decision to pursue playing with them.

But when you’re put on a Harold team, you’re not The Decider.

Different Artistic Directors have different reasons for assembling teams. Chances are, whoever assembled yours wasn’t thinking purely of player chemistry.

Maybe they wanted an all-girl team. Maybe they needed a tall guy to balance out the short one. Maybe they wanted someone fat, thin, bespectacled, or heavily pierced.

It’s a bit like The Monkees.

Photo © Wikimedia Commons

The group was the brainchild of corporate executives who wanted to emulate the success of The Beatles. Instead of finding an existing band, they auditioned four guys and threw them together, leading to the moniker The Pre-fab Four.

Compare that to Nirvana. Never in a million years would a Casting Director have looked at Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and said, “These guys are gonna be huge! They’re gonna change popular music and ignite a generation of kids!”

Nirvana may have looked a ragtag trio of oddballs, but they had chemistry and talent in spades.

When your team has chemistry, it’s a whole lot easier to form group mind. Yes, you can get there with exercises, focus and commitment, but when it comes naturally, it’s like Boom!

Chemistry is the reason why some Harold teams last years, while others implode in five minutes.

Most teams have a lifespan of anywhere from six months to three years. People come and go. Some quit, some are voted out by team members, and some asked to leave by the Coach.

It’s all part of the process.

But even if your team doesn’t have amazing chemistry, there’s a way that you can create it for yourself…

Broaden Your Mind – And Your Network

Attend shows. Lots of shows. Not just improv, either. Sketch shows, solo shows, plays and concerts are all great inspiration. So are art shows, movies, and all kinds of festivals. Anything that enriches your life offstage will automatically enrich your work onstage.

One way to meet new people and make new friends is to take workshops. Master Classes are not only good for learning skills, they’re also a way to connect with people who may be more seasoned than you.

Whether it’s a five-week intensive in Chicago, a weekend workshop to learn musical improv, or a two-hour drop-in class, push yourself to get out and try new things.

Duo nights are another option, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. Forming a duo is an awesome way to do something different with someone you don’t normally perform with.

The same goes for improv jams and cage matches. They may seem terrifying at first, but you’re all there to have fun, so accept the offer if the opportunity arises.

A Word On Coaches

Your Coach is a guide, mentor, and cheerleader, rolled into one. They are not a teacher, but they may teach you new skills or forms.

I’ve been blessed with a diverse range of Coaches: some were focused on acting and scenework, some were big on structure and theme, while others were all about play and being in the moment. I learned from each and every one of them.

Sometimes there will be differences of opinion. Whether you agree with every note, exercise or idea your Coach has to offer, try to at least accept it with an open mind.

But when rehearsals turn into debating sessions, it may be time to look for a Coach who shares the team’s vision.

Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em…You Know What? Just Know When To Walk Away

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Photo © Joseph Ste Marie

Deepak Chopra says “Run towards your fears.” It’s great advice (although I still haven’t figured out how to do it with my fear of traffic).

Deepak would no doubt give a big thumbs up to Todd Charron for his Follow Your Fear Day.

Todd started the project after taking a class on how to do a solo improv show. He was totally pscyhed and determined to do one…but somehow never did.

A couple of years passed, then one day he sat down and had a little talk with himself.

Note: The following conversation is a reconstruction. None of these things may have actually occurred, except in the writer’s head.

Todd’s Brain: I’m bored.

Todd’s Heart: Me too. You know what’d be fun? To do a solo improv show. Remember that cours–

Todd’s Brain: Let’s see what’s on OLN.

(clicks converter)

Todd’s Heart: Did you hear me? I said I wanna do a s–

Todd’s Brain: Shut yer pie hole! I’m trying to watch this Grey Power commercial.

Todd’s Heart: (mutters) You mean you’re afraid.

Todd’s Brain: WHAT did you say?

Todd’s Heart: Nothin’

Todd’s Brain: No, no. You said something, Heart. Mister Passionate. Mister “I wanna follow my dreams!” Mister All Talk And No Action.


Todd’s Brain: HUH?


Todd’s Brain: Thought so.

(clicks converter)

Todd’s Brain: Fuck! Not Diners, Drive-ins And Dives again…

Todd’s Stomach: What’s wrong with Diners, Drive-ins And Dives?

Todd’s Brain: Shuddup!

Todd’s Heart: (quietly) Fuck you.

Todd’s Brain: What did you s–

Todd’s Heart: I said FUCK YOU. Fuck you, fear! Fuck you, Mister “What if I take a chance and fail?” Mister “I might not be a superstar the first time I do something, so I’m not even gonna try.” Mister I’m Afraid, So I’ll Act Like I Just Don’t Care.


Todd’s Heart: Truth hurts, huh? Well you know what hurts more? Burying your dreams under a pile of safe. I’m gonna do a solo improv show, I don’t care how terrified I get. No one ever died of being scared. Later, Brain.

(walks away)

Todd’s Brain: Kid’s got balls. (sighs) Wish I had balls.

Todd’s Stomach: (growl)

On June 15th, Todd will face his fears and perform an improvised one-man show at Unit 102 Theatre, directed by the amazing Carmine Lucarelli. Come watch, but even if you can’t, commit to facing a fear of your own.

Photo © Keith Huang

The Raaaaaaaandy mockumentary is our favourite thing about the Funny People DVD (although Yo, Teach! is a close second).

Looking at this photo of his Level 2 grad show from UCB, it’s hard to believe Aziz Ansari would be a comedy superstar in just a few short years. For more photos in the series, check out Keith Huang’s wonderful blog, improvisgoodforyou.

A lot of crazy stuff happens on stage. But what happens when improvisers go home?

That’s the premise Chris Besler, one of my teammates on Corgi In The Forest, threw out in rehearsal one day. “I’ve always wanted to make a video about bad object work,” he said. My eyes lit up. “We are gonna shoot that video!”

And we did. All in one day, with the help of a crazy-talented bunch of friends. Stay tuned for the sequel. And to learn more about Mime/Object Work in improv, click here.

Update: When Chris posted the video Wednesday morning, we had no idea it’d be on Jimmy Fallon’s tumblr by that evening. Woot! Thanks to everyone who watched, Liked, shared and tweeted.

Image © Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

“Did you ever give her an orgasm?” “Well, not in the same room.” Ron Pederson and Matt Baram in Why, Julia?

In a city filled with stellar comedic talent, Toronto’s Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus and Ron Pederson (aka The National Theatre of the World) are something special.

Last night they performed Why, Julia?, an improvised play inspired by playwright and “drag queen extraordinaire,” Sky Gilbert. As part of this year’s Script Tease Project, the show was a sold-out success.

The players began by getting suggestions from the audience, including Bill C-32, a student’s rejection from Ryerson University, and body parts being mailed to Parliament Hill.

You know, the usual.

The performers then read two pages of “teaser” script, and were off (book) and running.

The play opened with Snieckus as Julia, apparently bringing herself to orgasm with a colander. Pederson played her oddball ex, Roland, while Baram took the role of anal-retentive boyfriend Barry.

With Gilbert’s bawdy intro and the audience suggestions, the threesome wove a tale of love, sex and kitchen utensils, the like of which has never been seen onstage. Or probably will again.

Besides being top-notch improvisers, Baram, Snieckus and Pederson are skilful actors. It truly was improvised theatre: a blend of comedy and drama, as good in parts as any Mamet play.

The Script Tease Project runs till Sunday, with shows based on scripts by six more playwrights.

Illustration © Kurt Firla