We’ve all been there.
Venues where the bar fridge is louder than the performers. Shows where no one shows up. Sets so bad that no amount of alcohol can blot out the shameful memory.
For me, it’s any number of shows that took place at the Savannah Room. It was, to put not too fine a point on it, a shithole.
“You’re crazy if you think I’m touching this filthy stage.”
More than once the place had to be evacuated due to flooding. I remember seeing Matt Folliott doing tech, his sneakers submerged in cables and rainwater, and wondering if this was the night we would all die.
Then there was the stage.
It wasn’t large, but this thing had holes that surely led to Middle Earth.
One time Charna Halpern taught a workshop there. Forty or so people signed up. Half of us watched as the other half got on their hands and knees to do an organic opening.
They started pounding the stage with their hands, getting faster and more intense.
We watched in horror as a dust cloud rose from the ancient carpet. Prehistoric molecules, no doubt redolent of polio and semen, stood out in stark relief under the lights.
Oblivious, the players kept pounding. When the dust cloud was finally higher than Charna, everyone started coughing uncontrollably.
But my special and favourite Savannah story involved my first Harold team, Leroy. Rob Ariss Hills, Gene Abella and I were on stage when a cat brushed past my leg.
I was momentarily caught off guard, but went back to killing it with my patented Shaft character. That’s when I saw it again.
It wasn’t a cat. It was a rat. And it was coming back toward us.
I shrieked and jumped into the first row of chairs (empty, of course) as the rat swept the scene. Gene said later he wished he’d tagged it out.
Shortly after, the Savannah Room closed its doors for the last time.
That’s my worst show. What’s yours?
This game uses physicality to find a character, heighten and explore it. Our thanks to Todd Stashwick for teaching us.
To begin, players walk around the room in a neutral gait. As you walk, become aware of what part of your body you normally lead with. It may be your nose, forehead, chest, shoulders, hips, knees… Whatever it is, heighten it.
Stay in this exaggerated walk for a minute or so, then be the complement to that walk. For example, if you were walking with your shoulders slumped and stomach protruding, throw your shoulders back and suck your stomach in.
Walk in your new character for a while, then be the complement to that walk. After 30 seconds or so, become the complement to that walk.
Staying in this last physicality, stop and find something in your environment. Reach out and shape the space in front of you. Feel space push back as you work with the object.
What have you found?
Is it heavy or light, large or small, rounded or angular? Feeling the weight and shape of the object, think about your name, age and occupation.
Remember your physicality and newfound characteristics as everyone takes a seat. At the front of the room are two chairs, angled towards each other. The Coach/Director sits in one. He or she will play the Interviewer, whose task is to hire a super spy.
The qualified applicant must know twelve languages, be a mixed martial arts expert, have excellent sniper skills, be able to crack codes and hack into enemy computers, etc. etc. Think James Bond meets S.H.I.E.L.D. on steroids.
The Interviewer buzzes an off-stage assistant to bring in the next job applicant. He or she then interviews as many unqualified applicants as there are players.
Each person’s unsuitability for the job will be revealed as the Interviewer questions them about their experience (or lack of), physical (dis)abilities, personality and other quirks or tics.
When the Interviewer can take no more, he buzzes in the next applicant.
As you can see from the photos, it’s more fun than a season of The Americans. Try it at your next rehearsal.
“It’s so much easier if it’s about your scene partner – not someone else that’s not in the scene, or a premise, or an invented object.” – Greg Hess
Can’t wait for Mick Napier’s new book? Well, great news: he now has a blog!
As you’d expect it’s thoughtful, smart, and brimming with helpful advice. His latest post dissects the advantages and limitations of studying and performing at Second City, Annoyance and iO, and the dangers of claiming responsibility for others’ success.
Read more and sign up for future posts at mickjnapier.tumblr.com.
All artists are improvisers. And all improvisers are artists.
That’s why we love this TED Talk by Shea Hembrey. It’s hard to fathom the sheer quantity AND quality of his creative output.
Like an improv set, he started out on his artistic journey without much more than a strong point of view. Where it led him will astonish you.
Click below to watch.
After years of being told to “work on my weaknesses,” at home, in school, and at work, I stumbled across this startling piece of advice:
Instead of focusing all your energy on things you don’t like or aren’t good at, focus on your strengths and get better at those.
Think about it. If you constantly focus on weaknesses, you’re effectively spending your time preoccupied with a negative. What if, instead, you spent your time getting great at things you enjoy?
Last year I got an email from my childhood best friend. When I read this, I laughed out loud:
“I remember we were going to be famous writers and those crazy plays we put on in grade three for the wonderful and patient Miss Van der Woude, and one in particular in which I was wearing Francis Walch’s glasses and you diverted from the script and went rogue chasing someone around the set for 10 minutes until Miss VW said ‘Enough is enough!’ and calmed everybody down with a good old maths equation.”
Four decades years later, all of those things (writing, comedy, improvisation) have taken centre stage in my life.
“But I already know I love improv,” you say. “How do I get better at that?”
Be creative as only you can.
If you’ve ever watched Chopped, you know that even world class chefs don’t excel at everything. Faced with the same ingredients, one chef will make flavours sing. Another will demonstrate a flair for presentation, while another might surprise with their out-of-the-box thinking.
The same goes for improv.
Cameron has natural acting ability. He’s also very comfortable with silent scenes. I, on the other hand, can count on that hand the number of silent scenes I’ve done. But I’m really good at initiating, editing, and giving context.
Find the things that make you excited, and become a master at those.
If you watch any long-running team perform, you can see the different personalities at play. Certain members do certain things more often, and that’s OK. Maybe one has training in clown, while another has a background in singing. They both bring something fun to the party.
The New York Times ran a piece last week on TJ and Dave. Even those guys have their own particular style, things they each do exceedingly well. TJ doesn’t try to be Dave, and Dave doesn’t try to be TJ.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take classes, workshops, or try to improve your skills. But if you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being brilliant at every part of improv, it’s time to give your inner critic a big cup of shutthehellup.
What makes improv so magical is the collaboration and diversity of skills and talent. When you allow yours to shine, the universe will applaud.
(For more on this, see How To Succeed At Anything By Being Yourself.)
If you’re me and you like to write, you’ll rewrite something over and over again. In improv we don’t have this option. We are writing in the moment with no editor and sometimes no forethought whatsoever.
When we start off as improvisers doing this crazy thing like writing in the moment with others on stage, we often dislike or forget to honour and explore the first few things we offer up. I mean, why would we? We are just dumping our mind garbage, to quote my friend Freddie Rivas, all over the stage and hoping that within that heap of waste there is something worth taking a deeper look at.
We often run past or own brilliance at the top of a scene with blinding speed and agility. We think it can’t be that easy. That look, that line of dialogue, your body language. No it can’t be that simple. Let’s find something else to explore! We are complicated begins and when we make stuff up we often bring our own complexities on stage and forget to listen to the precious, brilliant and simple things we offer each other.
Everything we say and do on stage is precious.
Every look, every line, every movement or gesture can be the key to unlocking the greatest scene you’ve ever played. Stop running past the top of your scene and start being precious with every moment.
In improv you’re right. It’s not like the outside world, where we are constantly told we aren’t right, and that we aren’t good enough and that we have to be better. In improv we are always right.
The choices you make and the choices I make are right and they were never wrong, we just have to stop and recognize how beautiful, how simplistic and how precious these moments really are.
Only you can give yourself an improv scene, start trusting that your offers are good enough, start being precious with the things you say and do on stage, but remember: they are precious only in the moment. When that scene is over it will never be done again and there is no going back. That is when we no longer need to be precious. We celebrate the moment and move on, hopefully taking a lesson learned with us to the next.
This is The Precious Nature of Things, and I’m David Suzuki.
Kidding. I’m Matt Folliott.
Matt Folliott is an actor/improviser/comedian, and member of Standards & Practices. He’s performed in festivals across North America, including DCM, CIF, VIIF, Out Of Bounds, Improvaganza, and Mprov.