(Also the best time to listen, feel, add information, keep the scene about, support what’s happening on stage, audition, jam, take a class, stop taking classes, put together your improv dream team, ask someone you admire to mentor or coach you, create a show, or pursue anything that’s been gathering dust in your soul.)
Director/artist/enfant terrible Tony Kaye once enraged a roomful of ad people who’d come to hear him speak at the Clio Awards. He walked to the podium, leaned in to the microphone, and said…
Then he walked off, to booing and hissing.
Now Tony’s a weirdo, no doubt about it, but he did have a point.
On Saturday, my team and I did a set based on the show Roseanne.
We all loved having such clear-cut characters from the outset. I played Roseanne, and it made me realise the importance of having a point of view or “deal.” It freed me up to respond in the moment the whole show.
At one point, I was in a scene that got swept. Everyone moved off stage right except me; I walked stage left and stopped, because I’d forgotten this particular stage had no “off stage” on that side. All it had was a wall, a chair, and more stage.
Instead of panicking (a fave go-to of mine historically), I sat in the chair with my back to the wall. Even though I was clearly visible to the audience, I decided just to stay quiet and observe the players who’d taken centre stage.
DJ (played by my teammate Chris Besler) and Darlene (Maria Hajigeorgiou) discussed their sister Becky’s departure in the previous scene. Then I watched as “DJ” mimed opening his bedroom window, and exited the scene.
Now Maria was alone onstage. A beat went by and I heard myself say, “Looks like it’s just you and me, Darlene.”
She spun around and looked at me. “Mom! Have you been here the whole time?!”
I wouldn’t have made that move a year ago, and it felt amazing to have the courage to stay put, shut up, and when the time called for it, take focus. Most of all, it felt great to be supported by my team.
Trust yourself. Trust your teammates. Trust in the unknown.
P.S. After the show Maria told me that in one episode, Roseanne actually hid in Darlene’s closet. How cool is that?
We’ve written before about commitment to character, and how great acting really ramps up the comedy in a scene.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Hitler “Downfall” meme.
The juxtaposition of topical, satirical dialogue with the original film’s superb performances and direction creates guaranteed hilarity every time another version is created.
And while not every improv scene can reach these heights, honing your acting skills is something you can always work on at rehearsals and shows.
In the meantime, enjoy this latest iteration at Rob Ford’s (or should we say, the City of Toronto’s?) expense.
Recently I saw an inspiring TED Talk (is there any other kind?) that really spoke to the improviser in me.
Listen to what Kim Young-ha has to say, especially when he talks about silencing “the devils” that seek to suppress our art. It’s the same thing Jill Bernard refers to, when she tells us to “improvise faster than you can think.”
Click below to watch.
“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien
Christian Capozzoli is an actor/improviser/instructor, member of the fiercely funny 4Track, and author of Aerodynamics of Yes: The Improviser’s Manual. We asked him a bunch of stuff, and he was nice enough to answer.
P&C: Why did you decide to write Aerodynamics of Yes? Is there a specific audience you wanted to reach?
CC: I’ve been touring and teaching for about five years now, and often I’ll come into town and have three hours to squeeze in an entire methodology. It’s a pretty big undertaking.
I know that my workshop is all about moving and reacting, but that leaves very little time for the students to take notes. It’s hard to read a billboard on a bullet train, and I’m asking them to play Where’s Waldo? So I wrote the book primarily to supplement my teaching – go back and unpack each lesson with time and care.
I suppose I did it because I also like to write. By no means do I think I’m saying anything new. I’m saying the same old stuff, just I’m saying it my way.
As a Master of Ed and Lit, I try to take into account all types of learners. Some need to move on their feet, others need to hear it explained, or tether it to a metaphor; some just need to see it written down pickled in prose.
P&C: Your book covers a wide range of topics, from improv fundamentals to scene work to formats. How long do you think it takes to truly master these things?
CC: You don’t. It’s forever. The more you do, the more you realize how much more there is. Or how choices can be made in minutiae: from sentences, to words, to syllables, and the gaps between when we speak, the heat and weight of what we say, every second, gesture, eyebrow lift can be filled with choice, colouring our scene.
And just when we learn to react in the now, moment-to-moment or second-to-second, then there will always be nano-seconds.
Improvising with Peter Grosz, I was amazed at how fast he was. How quick and textured. Speed is relative of course, but I don’t know that we ever master it. I think we just get comfortable with that speed, more familiar with these synapses, and we get more comfortable being present and making choices. So comfortable or Zen that it looks like mastery to others.
The less hippy dippy answer: 10 years of time, discipline, performance, rehearsal, and failure would be a good foundation to feeling competent.
P&C: Who were/are your mentors or heroes in the improv scene?
CC: Susan Messing – she uses all of her brain to be funny.
Heroes, in this order: Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Brian Huskey, Zack Woods, Jason Mantzoukas, TJ and Dave, John Lutz, Peter Grosz, Dan Backedahl, and Scott Adsit.
P&C: What’s the one thing you see being taught today – or not being taught – that irks you most?
CC: Anytime improv comedy forgets it is on stage, it irks me. Live theatre should be theatrical.
P&C: You say “Improvisers would rather be right than foolish.” How can improvisers get over that need to control?
CC: They have to be willing to fail. Unfortunately, we hold stage time and scenes so precious that we put too much pressure on ourselves.
Repetition is key. Let yourself be wrong. Scenes are a sine wave; they don’t have to start a specific way, they need only begin and invest in information and it will work.
P&C: You cover 4Track form in the book. How did it come about, how did you develop it?
CC: I was in a master class with Kevin Dorff. We hit on the idea of making scenes grow, [of] protecting energy.
I was also really into The Eventé, so I suggested we do a high energy-matching scene, followed by a character extraction to a series of tag-outs. It worked and evolved from there.
P&C: Many teams come and go, but a handful stay around long enough to become almost legendary. What makes a great team?
CC: Confidence, connectivity, trust, exposure to new things, agreeing to play a piece the same way!
Aerodynamics of Yes is available for download on your iPad or iBooks.
Here’s a show we can all relate to.
Toronto improviser Steve Baerwald bares it all in a new show called Honest Anxiety at the Black Swan Tavern.
The normally soft-spoken Baerwald came up with the idea of performing with people who intimidate him as a way of dealing with his social anxiety disorder.
The third Wednesday of each month, he’ll take the stage with some scary good improvisers. Tomorrow’s line-up includes The Beasts, POMP!, and “anxiety inducer” Matt Folliott, who’ll (presumably) share the spotlight with Steve.
The show starts at 8 pm, May 15, and it’s Pay What You Can, with all proceeds going to Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Click below to join the facebook page for updates and full details.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau
Cameron got let go (“restructured” in advertising parlance) a couple of weeks ago. And while we never could have predicted it when 2013 began, it’s quite possibly the greatest gift he’s ever been given.
When we met 15 years ago, Cameron was a bright young intern and I was a disillusioned senior writer.
“Don’t waste your time in this stupid fucking industry,” I said helpfully.
Not long after that, I was unsurprisingly fired (sorry, “restructured”), and Cameron was still unemployed. But I was totally smitten by this incredibly smart, incredibly funny person who, it turned out, was also incredibly anxious.
Slowly, I learned that Cameron had a deep-seated fear of crowds, strangers, going out in public, and pretty much anything that involved the unfamiliar.
For seven years he sank deeper into anxiety and depression. And yet through it all, his sense of humour shone like the sun through a summer storm.
Whether he was imitating a cheesy boy band video*, or re-enacting some bizarre thing that happened at work, I’d be doubled over with laughter.
“You should be a comedian!” I blurted. But almost immediately, I dismissed it. It was too far fetched, given Cameron’s fragile physical and emotional state.
Finally in desperation we saw a psychiatrist, who suggested Cameron learn improv.
I balked. Cameron couldn’t walk to the subway without having a panic attack. How the hell was he supposed to get up in front of strangers and be funny? But Cameron surprised me by finding the courage to enrol at Second City, and I went with him.
One day in Level A, we were learning “Make A Story” when the teacher pointed to Cameron. He looked down, shook his head, then threw up his hands in defeat and mumbled “Squirrel?”
Everyone laughed, and the teacher said, “See? The comedy gods gave Cam the word ‘squirrel.’ And it’s perfect!”
That was eight years ago.
The support and encouragement we received from instructors, the friends we’ve made, and the things we’ve learned have changed our lives completely.
I was going through some old files last night, and found a performance review from Cameron’s old workplace. It was during the dark days, just weeks after he signed up for Second City.
His boss commented on Cameron’s shyness and poor presentation skills, then made some notes for improvement, ending with the words, “Improvise. Take chances.”
Sometimes the universe is telling us something, but we don’t listen because we’re afraid.
One more thing:
A week before he was let go, Cameron put together a workshop. The theme?
We may not know what the future holds, but we’re letting go of needing to control it. And trusting that it’s in the benevolent hands of the comedy gods.
*(“Tonight” by Soul Decision)
Toronto comics are some of the best on the planet. But unless you’re already part of the scene, you might never know the comedy goldmine in our midst.
StreamFest aims to put an end to that.
In partnership with the Canadian Comedy Awards, StreamFest live-streams the city’s top comedians to the world, Sunday evenings at Comedy Bar.
As fans of live comedy ourselves, there’s nothing quite like being there. But for those who can’t (or don’t want to) visit our chilly part of the globe, StreamFest brings Toronto’s best to a whole new audience of fans
The carefully-curated mix of stand-up, sketch, and improv adds up to a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes of laughs. Established acts like Colin Mochrie, Ron Sparks, and National Theatre of the World share the stage with newer names like fab sketch duo British Teeth, stand-up Rhiannon Archer, and improv favourites RN and Cawls.
The show is produced by Brian Smith and Kyra Williams. Smith, who co-created the freakishly funny Live From The CenTre, knows how to build an online following. And judging from the live audience’s reaction this past Sunday evening, that shouldn’t be difficult.
StreamFest runs every Sunday at 7 pm till May 19 at Comedy Bar. This week’s line-up includes Lady Business, Jordan Foisy, and Clifford Myers.