BCIF just unveiled the first in a series of videos created by Toronto’s improv community. This one features Cameron Algie, Steve Cole, Quentin Matheson and Chris Leveille, directed by Chris Besler. Click below to view.
I got into improv for the wrong reason: to be liked. I was looking for everyone to validate me, especially the audience.
“Oh, what a noble thing I am doing,” I thought, “making people laugh.” I was lying to myself. I desperately needed their love, and I would bend and twist myself into any shape they wanted as long as they would accept me. I wish I could say I lost my voice, but the truth is I never had one to lose.
Since I was performing to justify my existence, I never let audiences see the real me. Why would I show them that? If I did, they would be repulsed and reject me.
So for years, I hid on stage. I hid behind characters who made safe choices, who supported other players but didn’t make an initiation. I’ve seen tons of improvisers in the same spot. They hide by being witty, by shying away from anger on stage, by being a caricature instead of saying something truthful about themselves through their character.
This is the worst kind of juggling act — trying to express yourself and trying to please people at the same time. And you know what? It doesn’t work, not even a little.
Eventually, I did start to find my voice. When I did my one-man show, “I’m 27, I Still Live At Home and Sell Office Supplies,” I took some big risks in showing my real self – how depressed I was, my anger at my mom, my self-loathing.
If you truly want to be an artist in any field, you have to take risks, which means making people uncomfortable, and the person who’s going to feel the most uncomfortable is you.
Unfortunately, though, you can’t learn the lesson of taking risks just once. It’s a lesson you have to keep relearning over and over again, and many times, I’ve gone back to hiding on stage.
A couple of weeks ago I got married to the most beautiful and kind person, Lauren. Our wedding was on a perfect Sunday fall evening at the super elegant Chicago History Museum. At the reception, both Lauren and I gave some impromptu speeches to our guests who came to celebrate this special day with us. When I took the mic out of Lauren’s hands, I felt a little performance high, which I sometimes get, and I spoke from my heart. I started out thanking people in my wedding party and then I acknowledged the three therapists in the room who had all helped me get to this place in my life where I could actually get in married. I mentioned the age difference between Lauren and I, a source of shame for me since I am 48 and she is 34. And finally, I also acknowledged my friends from the numerous 12-step programs that I’m affiliated with.
In that three or so minutes, my voice was stronger and clearer than it has ever been, and I was no longer hiding. This was me, take it or leave it. Some people appreciated what I said, others not so much. I was uncomfortable and I had pissed some people off, but I realize that for me, it was the right thing to do, and it was important for me to show who I really am.
After almost 25 years in improv, I finally understand that I had it all backwards. Being truthful and revealing things about yourself is the best way to connect with your audience.
To really make an impact on the audience, you have to risk not being liked. You have to say things that may be unpopular or play characters whose point of view is rough or not politically correct.
When your voice get stronger and clearer you are going to piss some people off, which is a good sign that you are on the right path.
Sure, being yourself and being really honest isn’t easy, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be killing yourself and your art at the same time. I’m going to keep trying.
Jeremy Voltz is a wicked funny, crazy smaht improviser, singer, and mathlete. (Check it: He’s currently studying for his PhD in the subject.) He is a member of acapella singing group Countermeasure, and the improv singing sensation JerJosh and the SteveCams.
While you’re getting notes, how often have you heard “You guys were tentative out there,” or “You were in your heads”? It happens to all improvisers at some point, and even though we can point it out when it happens, it’s not so clear what causes it, or how to fix it. But let’s talk about it anyway!
Here’s my take on what goes on in your brain when you’re on the side of the stage, watching a scene. Of course you listen intently to what’s happening on the stage, because that’s what you’ve been trained to do. You’re listening for an idea so that when that scene ends and you find yourself on the stage, you’ve got something great to initiate. You’re listening for inspiration.
For example, you’re watching the scene and you hear one of your teammates, fed up with their crappy doctor, shout, “What, did you get your medical degree at clown school?” And instantly, you picture clown medical school, the whole thing, with doctors all dressed as clowns, administering 50cc of seltzer to the face, and you love it and want to see it and want to play with it. Oh crap, what’s happening in the scene now?
This is your conscious mind doing all of this extrapolating and laughing at how funny your inspiration is. You can try to turn it off, but clown medical school is fucking funny, so don’t beat yourself up over thinking about it. Cool, we’ll come back to this whole inspiration thing.
There’s also a completely different background process in your brain, at an unconscious level, which is silently evaluating the current scene for an edit. IT IS CRAZY GOOD AT KNOWING WHEN A SCENE IS DONE. You just feel it, you know, it’s instinctual, basal. It’s just a bell that goes off when the third hilarious heightened thing happens, or the angry character shoots the other in the chest and then just stares hauntedly at the gun he’s holding. You know when that scene is over, in your gut.
Now, when your explosive desire to edit a scene lines up with that great, hilarious thing you’re compelled to initiate (clown medical school), it’s magical. But most of the time, they don’t happen at the same time. My belief is that often, hesitancy on stage is the inability to deal with the fact that these two things happen at different times. “I know the scene needs to end, but that funny thing I was inspired to do doesn’t make sense anymore, so I can’t edit!”
It’s a pickle, no doubt about it. Both of these feelings you get are compulsions. If you subscribe to the Dave Razowsky style of play, you follow your compulsions. But these two compulsions are sort of at odds with each other. Though if you subscribe to Dave Razowsky, then you also kind of subscribe to Buddhism (at least on stage). Don’t believe me? Read this interview. His improv philosophy greatly reflects the Buddhist mentality of being completely in the moment, and being completely aware of the impulses you’re feeling. Not judging them, just being aware of them.
So here’s another piece of Buddhism for you: It’s impossible to solve all of your problems. The desire to do so is in fact a problem. But instead, become aware of problems, without judgment. “See them.” I’ve outlined a problem for you, and it’s often an unconscious one. Do I know how to solve it? Nope!* But I do know how to make you aware of it, and in gaining awareness, you may lose your fear of it.
Here’s an exercise. It gets players used to:
(1) Playing from their gut and tapping into their compulsions
(2) Realizing when a scene needs to end, independent of everything else
(3) Evaluating whether or not their idea is good for the show and still relevant
Have your group do two-person scenes. During each scene, have players on the backline raise their hand when they think the scene should be edited. When a few players raise their hand at the same time, that’s probably a good spot to end the scene.
As a bonus, take note of who is raising their hands and when. (It’s an interesting insight into how you collectively play.)
Ask for a new scene, and repeat this a few times. Players will put their hands up at different times, and that’s OK. There can be a few good places to edit. Once players feel comfortable with calling for edit points, change gears.
This time, have them put up their hand during scenes when they’re inspired to do something. When a few people have their hand up and the scene reaches a good edit, pause the scene, ask a player with their hand up if their idea is still relevant or if they still want to do it, and have them come in. It might be that the time has passed, in which case, move on to the next person with their hand up. Do this for a while.
After this is comfortable, put the two together. Have players raise their left hand if they think the scene is done, right hand if they have an idea. Ask them to put their hand down if they are no longer compelled to follow the idea. The coach should call the scenes when a few people agree on an edit point, and ask somebody with their right hand up to initiate their idea.
This sounds clunky, and it is. It’s not really how an improviser should improvise, as it requires some mental juggling on the backline. Its goal is to make improvisers aware of what’s happening inside them. The purpose of the exercise is not to fix anything. It’s not to make people think more, or less, or play differently. Just to “see”, as a Buddhist might say. Just to become aware of what hesitancy is at its core. I was surprised at the results when I did this with the longform team I coach, Surprise Romance Elixir, and they were too. Give it a try, and lose your fear of being on the backline!
*OK, I said I don’t know how to deal with these two competing compulsions, but that’s not exactly true. In certain situations, I do. And the balance changes depending on the type of show I’m in.
If it’s a Harold, then it’s extremely important to edit in a timely fashion. And you don’t need a fully-formed premise to initiate a scene in a Harold, either. So I’m letting my editing compulsion dominate.
But if I’m doing a narrative show, where the team is crafting a story around a protagonist, then I better have an idea in mind for where I’m taking the story if I initiate a scene, even if it means letting a scene go a bit longer than it should. And if I don’t have a good idea of where to take it, well then, I’m gonna hope somebody else does!
But how you personally balance these two compulsions is a tough conversation to be having unless you can actually recognize when these compulsions happen. You should be able to point to them and say “That’s when my brain thought this scene was over, and that’s when I got the idea to initiate clown medical school.” Which is precisely the point of the above exercise. Try it!
Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, writes for The Huffington Post, and improvises around Toronto, including regular shows with The Beasts and Opening Night Theatre.
On a couple of occasions recently, I have had conversations with fellow improvisers about how improv classes and workshops tend to function, and how we train in our art form in general. In my experience, a standard rehearsal/class/workshop goes like this:
Get feedback from your instructor.
Have some chuckles.
Go home, with a note or two to work on.
The value of this work is highly contingent on your instructor, how many notes you get, and how open and able you are to improve.
When you think of Olympic or professional athletes, they train on a daily basis, conditioning their bodies for long periods of time to get ready for their event/game day. As an athlete, you don’t just play your sport or practice your event; you work all the muscles in your body by cross-training in the gym, outdoors, or with a trainer. You use plyometrics to be able to move explosively on the field/court/etc. You weight train. You memorize and run plays, and watch tapes to think strategically. You circuit train.
We want to be consistently excellent on stage, but we are often afraid to do the work it takes to get to that level. I wonder what would happen if we trained for improv like athletes train for games. Thinking along this line, I would like to propose a first draft of a potential training regimen for a group of improvisers, and see if anybody would be interested in testing this out with a group (or, alternately, if there is any interest in me running some free classes to see how the damn thing would work). The caveat is: you would have to regularly go through this routine, without falling back on traditional coaching. Then, track the results on stage.
Just like any training routine, this is far from the only way to do it, but I wonder if we start thinking differently about the work we do before we are on stage, how much better our performances would get? What other routines could we add? What if we trained three times a week, with different circuits every time?
The focus here is on physical activity, memory, stagecraft, speed, trust, and elemental scene work. The circuit should be repeated over and over until the end of class, with no break. If preferred, it can be repeated for the majority of class, then a quick break, followed by scene work and an evaluation. If everybody isn’t exhausted after class, then something is being done incorrectly. Participants should have water readily available, and wear comfortable clothes.
Improv Circuit Training Routine
Ten stations, 30 seconds per station. Each station has a large sign indicating exercise (as per below).
Each player should do as many full circuits as possible. Coach is to hold timer and shout (or signal/buzz/ding) at 15-second intervals and 30-second intervals.
Half of the improvisers rotate clockwise, half counter-clockwise. All players should be partnered up, which may mean adjusting flow and number of stations. Ultimately, you are going through each station with a partner, who will switch for every exercise.
Burpees to failure for 30 seconds for both players as follows:
Push-up to plank to full standing up. Jump and slap your knees. Repeat. No rest.
Player 1 shouts proper first names at Player 2 for 15 seconds. Then switch. No pauses, must be as fast as possible.
Alternating trust falls. No pause. As fast as possible.
Two 15-second scenes. Must establish proper names, who, what, when, where, emotional state, and commit to an action in the environment as early as possible in the scene. Player 1 initiates first scene, player 2 initiates second.
Both players put both hands over the centre of their chests and stand four feet apart. Breathe in deeply and slowly three times. Slowly open your eyes. Keep breathing. Focus on breaths and maintain eye contact.
Player 1 makes faces at Player 2, as many as possible, for 15 seconds. Switch.
Both players face each other and rotate hips in a circle, keeping upper body still. Speak at the same time (i.e. “two-headed expert”). Nobody may lead. It may not make sense, that is fine. Keep rotating hips throughout.
Player 1 is given an emotion by Player 2 and must do a 15-second silent dance routine based on that emotion. Fully and seriously commit. Switch.
Player 1 gives 15-second monologue to Player 2. Player 2 consistently gives notes on posture and facial expression to ensure Player 1 looks as actorly and kingly/queenly as possible. Switch.
30 seconds of Shakespearean dialogue with accents (accents may be whatever). All while doing squats to the best of your ability. For squats, keep arms straight out in front of you. Tighten abs and core, chest out, head up. Bend knees and lower until you are at least at a 90-degree angle. Should dip straight down, and feel it in your quads and butt.
Back to Station 1
He lives vicariously through himself.
He is left-handed and right-handed.
When he drives a new car off the lot, it increases in value.
In museums, he is allowed to touch the art.
He is fluent in all languages, including three that only he speaks.
His business card simply says “I’ll call you.”
He is The Most Interesting Man In The World, aka actor Jonathon Goldsmith.
The hugely successful ad campaign for Dos Equis is built around a larger-than-life character. So it stands to reason the casting process was unconventional, too.
Unlike most commercial auditions, which leave little or no room for ad libbing, Dos Equis actually required actors to improvise. Goldsmith’s make-’em-ups scored him the role, and the rest is hilarious faux history. Click here to read the full story.
In just one month, Big City Improv Festival will blast off at Toronto’s Comedy Bar. Check out the stellar line-up headlined by Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain. For more information, click below.
Politeness is important.
Politeness evolved so we don’t tear each other’s heads off. It’s part of the culture in cities like London, where queueing is almost a religion. (Legend has it British men were too polite to fight for seats on Titanic’s lifeboats.)
Saying “please” and “thank you” and holding the door for others are all things we should all strive for.
But politeness in improv? Not so much.
The next time you find yourself holding back while you politely wait for the scene you’re watching to die, remember these words:
That doesn’t mean you should stomp on stage and grab focus like Gary Busey on…whatever he’s on.
It means stepping out and doing something when you know the time is right. It means offering support in the form of a character, scene painting, sound effects, or simply an edit. It means fully committing, on stage and in rehearsal, instead of just pussyfooting around.
So go ahead, fuck polite. I guarantee your team – and the audience – will thank you.
When we saw this photo of Steve Carell, Scott Allman, Stephen Colbert and David Razowsky as the Fab Four, we had to ask for the story behind it. Here’s what David said…
“[Beatles] was the scene’s name. We tried to get that thing up a number of times. Well, obviously we finally did.
Here was the conceit: It was The Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they were just returning from the set. They entered the scene to the screams of the fans, each time the door opened and one of us entered the crowd screams filled the stage. They were exhausted. They talked about how the set went, and they came up with a song idea from it. They sang it, roughly, but “Beatle-y:”
“Squiddy, squiddy, squiddy,
Love my little squiddy
Squiddy, squiddy, squiddy,
Then Paul (Steve) realized he felt weird. Like something happened that he couldn’t quite remember, couldn’t quite identify.
Then John (Stephen) realized that he felt the same way, that something happened that he was unable to pinpoint.
Then George (Scott) noticed that he was going through the same feeling of incompleteness.
Ringo (me), well I felt nothing like that.
The boys (sans Ringo) realized what it was: they were repressing a horrible memory. That memory was that Ed Sullivan had fondled each one of them before the show.
The scene went on in some such manner, and toward the end Ringo realized he was intentionally untouched. He was disappointed. “I wish Mr. Sullivan fondled me.”
It was, if nothing else, a blast to do. Steve and Stephen’s Liverpudlian dialects were wonderful. I tried one, but it sure didn’t feel right. Scott didn’t even try. It was wonderful.”
Guidance is one of the funniest, freshest web series out there. Davey Racine, Steve Barnes and Bruce Templeton are three inept guidance counsellors who struggle to connect with their students because their own needs constantly get in the way. We asked creators and stars Adam Cawley, Rob Baker and Pat Smith to school us.
P&C: How did you come up with the idea for the series?
Adam: We we’re trying to come up with the premise for a film and I just started thinking… “Who are people that everyone has some experience with who are really relied upon?” Guidance counsellors seemed to have the most comic potential.
Pat: Then we got aligned with Jared, and our concept went from being a potential film, to being a web series.
Rob: I’m pretty sure it was my idea.
P&C: You’re all seasoned improvisers. How much of the show is scripted, and how much is improvised?
Adam: My portion was improvised off of beats. I told Sam, “This one is about me crashing a party,” or “This one is about you hooking up with girls.” And we’d just go. Sam was amazing. A great straight man with amazing reactions.
Pat: My scenes with Kayla were scripted, but we improvised within them. Our process on set was unlike anything I’ve ever worked on, in that we each were watching each other’s scenes and finding new moments and honing existing moments as we shot, from take to take.
As a result of having all of the writers on the floor, we were really able to explore and try and find what was best. Our scenes with Karen Parker on the other hand, were almost entirely improvised… we might have had some verrrry loose beats. All we really knew was, someone was getting fired.
Rob: I was working opposite the incomparable Ely Henry, which meant that I had to script every single word.
P&C: Do you look back fondly on your high school days, or is that something you’d sooner forget?
Adam: I loved high school. Except that time where I used a text book to cover my boner. Now I can afford to use cooler things to hide my boners.
Pat: High school for me got more fun as it went along. When I showed up I was super insecure about who I was and how I fit into this weird new place… but once I hit puberty and stopped hiding my boners things started looking up. By OAC, I found my groove. #LHS4LYFE
Rob: I miss all the boner jokes.
P&C: What did your friends say about you in your high school yearbook?
Adam: “You know this isn’t a yearbook, just a collection of stapled-together foolscap.”
Pat: “Good luck in the Majors, because you’re a major league baseball player to all of us! Sweet Chin Strap!” – Can’t rock boners without a chinstrap!
Rob: You guys had friends?
P&C: Kids these days have a lot to deal with: cyber bullying, friends with benefits, internet porn, drug use… As people who grew up in a different era, how do you relate to what students are going through?
Adam: I don’t relate. I’m stuck in my high school experience. ICQ saved me from many awkward phone calls with girls. I could tell them I liked them, if they didn’t like me, I’d say “Sorry, my stupid brother wrote that, I don’t really like you”
Pat: I’m with Adam. ICQ was a saviour to me. I had so much more confidence on my computer after a 40 of O.E… I can’t imagine what kids have to go through today.
Remember those nights when you were 15 and went to the closest park with your buddies and drank malt liquor until you puked? Kids these days wake up the next morning to that posted on Facebook for all of the other kids to laugh at and tease. And then they have to face it at school. The self-awareness that kids must experience these days has to be tremendous. No thank you!
Rob: I’m going through all those things now!
P&C: Steve is powerfully sexual, Davey is eternally youthful, and Mr T is just so gosh darn positive. How much of a stretch are these characters for each of you to play?
Adam: Baker is a sexual deviant, Pat is a naive idiot, and I’m just a really good actor playing a character.
Pat: Baker rocks a constant up-tuck, Adam wanted to pitch Guidance as a reality series, I’m a naïve idiot who gets really great people to do scenes with him.
Rob: No stretch at all. (wink wink)
P&C: Looking back, if you could change one thing about your high school experience, what would it be?
Adam: Not be in the double co-hort.
Pat: Should have done steroids.
Rob: I’d graduate.
P&C: Do you remember your own Guidance counselor giving you any advice?
Adam: “Go into computers, please do something with computers!”
Pat: “You should take OAC Parenting. It will help boost your average.”
Rob: She said I should find a new school. (True!)
P&C: What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to be an actor?
Adam: …. Fine….
Pat: “Give it 5 years”… It’s been 6.
Rob: They didn’t believe me. Still don’t.
P&C: Any advice for students going back to school?
Adam: Master all the forms of social media. That way when you become so feared with your ability to ruin someone’s reputation, all the girls will want to give you an HJ.
Pat: Don’t be a dick.
Rob: Watch Guidance at guidance.bitedaily.com