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Ken Hall by Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You didn’t get on a Harold team.

You didn’t make it to Mainstage.

You didn’t get a callback.

Your pilot wasn’t picked up.

Your show got cancelled.

When shit happens, it’s easy to think maybe you’re not cut out for this. Especially when you see your friends and peers doing so much better (at least in your mind).

But the truth is, not everyone who becomes successful in comedy does so because they’re the funniest or most talented. Some people just want it more, work harder, and refuse to quit. They do it because they love it; because they have no choice but to pursue it.

Even when you achieve a goal, there are no guarantees.

Steve Carell was fired from Second City.

Action, Stella, and The Ben Stiller Show were all cancelled after one season.

And Dan Harmon, creator of Community, was fired from his own show.

But perhaps most astonishing is Bob Odenkirk. Though he’d proven himself as an actor and writer with SNLThe Larry Sanders Show, and Mr. Show with Bob and David, he and David Cross were far from wealthy. (Sadly, they don’t earn a penny from Mr. Show.) Until fairly recently the pair couch surfed at friends’ places when travelling or touring, so they could use their money to fund passion projects.

Then Vince Gilligan cast Odenkirk in Breaking Bad, and the rest is history.

When you hit a roadblock, think of it as a redirect.

If you’re just starting out, maybe you need more stage time, more classes, or more life experience. If you’re further along the career curve, maybe your talents would be better utilized writing your own web series, putting together a Fringe play, or even teaching.

Whatever you do, don’t stop.

Just remember that every experience is valuable, because it’s part of your unique story. Even the sucky bits. Especially the sucky bits. And keep going.

“Be the person who wants to do it the most.” – Steve Carell

When you’re learning The Harold, it can be difficult sometimes to grapple with the structure.

Here’s one way to visualise beats and group games, and how they work together over the course of a show. In this context, “blobs” can be a word, a gesture, a character, a setting, or any other element that becomes part of the set.

LavaLampHarold

When we step on stage, we enter a world with endless possibilities for characters, setting, and story.

Why then, do so many improv scenes start like this?

Standard Set-up

The answer is: it’s safe.

On the up side, it allows you to make eye contact with your scene partner easily. On the down side, it encourages you to stay static for long periods of time.

Two chairs facing towards each other could be the cue for a restaurant, a doctor’s office, a job interview, or any one of those undefined limbos where two people just sit and talk and keep sitting and talking that we’ve all seen and done, oh, about a million times.

If you’d like to change things up, take yourself out of your comfort zone, and you’re ready to break some chairs – uh, boundaries – let’s get started!

We Think In Pictures

Look at the examples below. What mise-en-scènes do you see? What relationships do the postive and negative space suggest?

Back To Back

Near & Far

Eavesdropper

Brawl New

Simply moving the chairs further apart changes the dynamic from cosy…

Face To Face

Citizen Kane NEW

…to Citizen Kane breakfast montage chilly.

Of course, one chair can also tell a story. And the possibilities multiply when you add a third chair to the mix.

You Are The Architect

Just as you have a relationship with your scene partner, you also have a spatial relationship with the stage, the chairs, the curtains, and any mimed objects that become part of your scene.

In Viewpoints, this is called “Architecture.” Architecture also includes light, shadow, and sounds.

How you interact with your Architecture is important. Do you sit up straight, knees together? Or do you turn the chair and straddle it, legs splayed like Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train? (Actually, that’s a great tumblr to browse for body language.)

How does it feel to be in that physicality? Who is that person?

Lean on a chair with one arm and see how that affects you. Place the chair between you and your scene partner. Or pick it up and throw it (somewhere that it won’t hurt anyone).

“Your architecture is an emotional delivery system that lets you express yourself to the audience. It’s your voice. It’s an anchor.” – David Razowsky

Dean Buchanan and Don Gervasi improvised a brilliant scene for their Conservatory show about a cut-rate airline that crams in extra seats. They discovered the scene and their characters by placing their chairs close to one another at right angles.

Dean became a low-status passenger who spent the flight facing Don’s high-status business passenger. The intimacy it created and the resulting conversation were pure comedy gold. (After a particularly long, awkward silence, Dean broke it by saying “You have great hair.”)

Airline

Exercise: Walk With Chairs

My first Harold coach, Tom Vest, taught my team this exercise. It’s a great way to find a point of view and avoid pre-planning.

To begin, two people grab a chair each and walk around the space. The idea is to keep moving, not dawdle or linger too long in one area.

After a few moments, the Coach/Director says “Stop!”

The improvisers place their chairs down wherever they are. After a beat to see what the stage picture and their scene partner’s posture suggests to them, they start a scene.

You don’t have to sit; you can lean on the chair, stand beside it, put one foot up…whatever feels right in the moment.

Cameron and I did a show where we used this technique. When one of us wanted to edit a scene, we just picked up one or both chairs and placed them somewhere else on the stage.

Advanced Chair Work

As we’ve seen, just the slight repositioning of a chair can change the dynamic of a scene. Here are some ways you can use chairs to create different objects. Try them, or experiment with your own:

• as a wheelchair

• upside down on your head with the back of the chair facing forward to become Darth Vader

• place each foot on a chair and hold them as you lift your feet to walk; voila! instant stilts

• grab two chairs and flap them on either side of you for pterodactyl wings

Here’s a fun project for a lazy Sunday.

We have a ton of comedy ephemera we’ve collected over the years, but it’s just been sitting in a box. I decided to make this simple strip collage using programs from two of my favourite Second City revues, Live Wrong and Prosper and Dreams Really Do Come True! (And Other Lies).

I started by painting a piece of illustration board black (you can also paint cardboard or use black construction paper). I cut the two program covers into strips and glued them down with Mod Podge, or you can use any white glue. Then coat the final piece with glue to seal it.

I love the way it turned out! You can make a similar one with show flyers, posters, programs, or festival schedules. It’s a great way to showcase fond memories.

SC PhotoToaster

We were hoping Second City would release this one day! It’s the “Maya” sketch from their 50th anniversary, featuring Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and David Razowsky.

Now if someone would just post the full video of Pinata Full of Bees

Screen shot 2014-04-10 at 10.16.55 AM

David Razowsky has a wonderful tool that he uses to teach about energy and duration of emotions in scenes. He calls it “The Jerry Chart,” and now there’s a YouTube tutorial courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times so everyone can learn about it. Click below to view.

Oh, and happy birthday David!

Early on in my improv life, I did a set where I played a heroin addict. (My scene partner’s character had AIDS, so presumably we needed some comic relief.)

Doing my best Sid and Nancy impression, I mimed jamming a syringe repeatedly into my left leg.

When second beats rolled around, I decided to do a time dash. Hopping on one leg, I held my foot behind me.

The only problem was, in my haste to initiate, it appeared that my right leg had been amputated.

Instead of taking this gift from the comedy gods, I “corrected” myself and switched legs, thus destroying the reality that had already been established – and that everyone had seen.

Things deteriorated from there (if that’s possible), and by third beats…well…to quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

It took me a while to understand that so-called mistakes are a gift.

If I hadn’t been hell-bent on doing the “right” thing, my teammates and I could have played with the fact that my good leg got amputated.

Maybe the doctor was also an addict, and he operated while he was high. Maybe the hospital realised their error, and in the third beat I’d be legless. Who knows?

Not my brain.

The second you find yourself judging what’s already happened, put your focus on what’s here now.

It’s all that ever matters.

“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

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom