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After eight years of doing improv, I’m finally comfortable on stage. Sometimes I still get butterflies before shows, but gone are the sweaty palms, the dizziness in the green room, the sudden urge to stay in the bathroom all night.

For a long time, just the act of getting on stage felt risky. Now I feel it’s time to push myself further.

This year, I want to do things I’ve never done, done only once, or never thought I could do. Things like…

Ghosting

TJ and Dave regularly incorporate ghosting in their sets. So does Toronto’s El Fantoma.

Both are masters at creating clearly defined characters whose posture, timbre, and gestures are easily identifiable. That’s important, not just for the performers, but so the audience knows what’s happening as well.

Definitely a skill I’d like to work on.

Using A Mic

Most venues have a microphone on hand, and savvy tech guys like Comedy Bar’s Mark Andrada will turn it on if they see an improviser wants to use it.

I’ve seen mics used (generally offstage) for the Voice of God, an airplane captain, a lounge lizard, and sound effects like wind, rain, a train, a gong, and beatboxing.

It looks like fun, but for some reason I’ve never dared try it. This year I will dare.

Interacting Directly With The Audience

I’ve done this once, maybe twice with my team, and never on my own. The idea of going into the crowd and mingling or talking with someone terrifies me as much as it probably does them. Which is why I have to do it.

Leaving The Stage Completely

Occasionally someone will exit the stage and never return (well, not for the rest of the set anyway). It always seems like a gutsy move, but somehow I felt if I tried it, I’d be abandoning my team.

When I think about it though, the people I’ve seen do it weren’t screwing over their scene partners. If the opportunity presents itself and it doesn’t feel forced, I’m gonna go for it.

Performing Behind The Curtain

For some reason, playing behind the curtain while staying in the scene scares the bejeezus out of me. Whenever I see people do it I think, “How do they know what’s going on? Can they really hear back there? What if the scene gets swept and they don’t know?” 

(Ahh, “What if…?” The birth – and death – of so many great things.)

Some people go one further and do their scene from the green room. This terrifies me even more, so I guess I’ve gotta try it at some point.

Making Bold Choices…And Sticking With Them

David Pasquesi sometimes plays with his back to the audience.

Anand Rajaram once stood motionless for a whole scene while saliva slowly dripped from his mouth to the floor.

Alex Tindal regularly hoists himself up to the rafters, and he’s even been known to get naked on stage.

While I’m not quite ready to get naked, I am ready to make changes. For years, I’ve struggled with “adaptive improviser” syndrome, where I come in with a strong character and then drop it when I think my scene partner’s offer is so much better.

This year I want to make brave choices and stick to them.

Taking Risks And Trusting

When S&P performed in Chicago a few years ago, Isaac Kessler played a character who died while seated. As his character stood up and slowly moved towards the light, Cameron came in behind him and slumped in the chair.

It was beautiful to watch. Not funny, but inspiring.

He told me after that he wondered for a split second if the team would know he was Isaac’s body, and not a new character, but he quickly dismissed the thought and made the move.

This year I want to make moves like that. I want to stop playing safe.

A friend on TourCo very kindly invited us to do the improv set after the show. As I feel my comfort with being on stage suddenly dissolve in a wave of nausea and sweaty palms, I’m contenting myself with the fact that I can always do it from the green room.

“The job is not to succeed, but fail more interesting than the last time – in a more subtle fashion or in a more intriguing way.” – TJ Jagodowski

1. Nobody forgot their medication. They’re always like this.

Photo © Kevin Thom

2. You don’t need to look for it. It’s right in front of you.

Photo © Kevin Thom

3. You have a surprisingly strong opinion about what your partner is doing.

Photo © Kevin Thom

4. If you really don’t want to do something, do it.

Photo © Kevin Thom

5. Yes, you should have edited there.

Photo © Kevin Thom

6. If you do it twice, you have to do it three times.

Photo © Kevin Thom

7. No house painter has ever had an amazing new house painting technique.

Reid&Jen@RevelbyKThom

8. You’re never just doing stuff. Figure out why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it.

Ken@RevelbyKThom

9. We don’t care about what you don’t care about.

M+A@RevelbyKThom

10. Why you do what you do is what you’ll do next.

Screen shot 2014-01-19 at 2.58.10 PM

All photos © Kevin Thom

Doug Sheppard is a Web developer by trade, and a writer and improviser by vocation. He lives in Toronto and considers it one of the finest places in all of Canada. You may also be amused by his twitter.

When we came across the bookshelfies tumblr, we were smitten.

Here’s our improv-related section. Like a good Harold, it’s got a bit of this and a bit of that, but somehow everything’s connected. (See below for links.) What’s on yours?

Bookshelfie

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right – Al Franken

Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists – Steven Bach

Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy – Jay Sankey

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose – Eckhart Tolle

On Writing– Stephen King

The Right to Write – Julia Cameron

The Actor’s Art and Craft – William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Comedy Writing Secrets – Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers – Mike Sacks

You’re Not Doing It Right– Michael Ian Black

American Theatre Book of Monologues for Men (Vol 1) – Stephanie Coen

Taking the Leap – Pema Chodron

The Glass Teat – Harlan Ellison

Magical Thinking – Augusten Burroughs

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Born Standing Up – Steve Martin

Truth in Comedy – Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim Johnson

The Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll

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

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

The Art And Craft Of Storytelling– Nancy Lamb

Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story – Jennifer Grisanti

The Art of Non-Conformity – Chris Guillebeau

Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out – Mick Napier

Play – Stuart Brown

Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great – William M. Akers

The Elements of Style – Strunk and White

The Office: The Scripts – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

The Zoo Story and The Sandbox – Edward Albee

Look Back in Anger – John Osborne

A Practical Handbook for the Actor – Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeline Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previtio, Scott Zigler and David Mamet

We looooove beatboxing in improv. You never know when you’ll need to add some mad flava to a soundscape, Bat opening, impromptu song, or Beastie Boys warm-up.

Since not everyone grew up listening to Biz Markie or Jam Master Jay, we were thrilled to find this beatbox tutorial from Dub FX. It’s fun, easy, and fast. If you can say “bouncing cats,” you’re ready to spit like a pro. Click below to watch.

“When the rational mind is shut off, we have the possibility of intuition.” – Viola Spolin 

Group mind, in my opinion, is one of the coolest things in improv.

When group mind is present, you don’t steer scenes: you’re compelled to move, together. It’s about letting go of consciously thinking and being in a state of flow.

If that all sounds a little “woo-woo” for you, here’s a true story:

When Cameron worked in advertising, he was part of a small creative department. They worked together, ate lunch together, and generally hung out together.

One day Carla, an art director, looked up from her layout and asked,

“Who’s that painter guy?”

Without hesitating, Cameron’s partner Matias blurted “Ansel Adams!”

Carla smiled and said, “Right. Yes, thank you.” Then she went back to her layout.

Cameron spun around, speechless. He kicked his chair over to Matias and said, “I was gonna say Ansel Adams!”

Now, if you asked me, or, oh, probably a million other people to name a “painter guy,” they’d probably say “Da Vinci” or “Warhol” or pretty much anyone other than Ansel fucking Adams.

Cameron and Matias knew Adams was a photographer, but they didn’t give their brains a chance to override their response with “That guy’s not a painter!”

Is that an example of group mind? I think so. (And if not, then what the hell is it?)

I’ve seen and experienced group mind many times, on stage and in rehearsals.

Devon Hyland and Matt Folliott did a show where Devon stepped out to initiate a new character. He’d barely gestured when Matt stepped in, and – knowing the move that was in Devon’s head – fleshed out the scene in just a few words.

To those of us in the audience, it was stupefying. We could see from Devon’s reaction that Matt had articulated what Devon intended, but how?

When I asked Cameron about that scene, he said, “I don’t remember. We were all so in the moment.”

That, for me, is the essence of group mind.

It’s like a school of fish, or a flock of birds. They’re so connected, so seamlessly entwined, it’s impossible to know who moved first. They could only be moving together.

In fact, scientists have built computer models that prove birds in flight are not merely watching and responding to one another. Their moves are so flawlessly synchronized, they could only be coming from some deeper, intangible level within.

So how do you cultivate group mind?

There really is no substitute for spending time together. Not just rehearsing and performing, but hanging out socially as well.

Go bowling instead of rehearsal one night. Take a road trip together. Host a potluck. Or just get drunk and play board games. The more experiences you accrue as a team, the more you’ll bond.

On the other hand, if you don’t like, trust, and respect each other, you’ll never achieve group mind; at least not on a consistent basis.

“Good chemistry is worth 100 practices.” – Will Hines

When you’re starting out in improv, chances are you’ll be thrown on a team with a bunch of random people. Some you’ll click with. Others you won’t.

When that team is dissolved (as most teams are), don’t let those relationships die. If you need to, form your own team with the people you clicked with, and keep playing together.

Chemistry lets you shorthand things. It makes things effortless. It’s why Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and Judd Apatow keep doing projects together. The same goes for the cast of Anchorman, the UCB four, and countless other ensembles.

Like twins or couples who finish each other’s sentences, you can develop an almost psychic rapport with your…giraffe. (Turns out Sally was gonna say “teammates.”)

Del Close described group mind as “One mind, many bodies.” The Caligula exercise can be sweaty and exhausting, but it’s great for connecting non-verbally.

Count To 20 is a good warm-up for quieting the brain and feeling the next move. (If you really want to swing for the fence, try counting to 50 or more.)

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

When you tap into group mind, you step into the unknown and enjoy the act of falling, together.

What’s your view on group mind? Have you had any interesting experiences? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear them.

Photo © Keith Huang

Photo © Keith Huang

This is a great tool for getting people comfortable with each other (we mean really comfortable), and for connecting non-verbally.

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

To start, everyone stands and touches some part of someone else, using both hands. You don’t have to use your whole hand, it can be as little as the tip of one finger.

When the coach/director says go, everyone starts moving in any direction, as one entity. You can move wherever you want, but you must be in contact with other players at all times. If you find yourself losing the ability to use both hands, you can use a foot.

“Slow things down to make them more important, like the baby carriage scene from The Untouchables. When you slow it down and move or speak deliberately, it’s more fun than making fast, ambiguous motions.

Don’t left brain it. Don’t make pussy moves just to ‘go there’ already. Make everything, every movement or word, mean something.” – Susan Messing

If you find yourself phoning in movements, or hurrying from Point A to Point B, fully extend your body as you commit to the movement you’re already doing.

Caligula can get physically tiring very quickly, but it’s fascinating to watch the group meld and take on a life of its own. At some point you may find members being lifted, encircled, or even upside down. If that’s the case, take your time and lend physical support where it’s needed.

Photo © Crista Floquist

Photo © Crista Floquist