There’s an old joke that analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies of it. But for students of improv (and we’re all students, really), there’s nothing more fascinating than discussing this art form we all love.
The Backline with Rob Norman and Adam Cawley is part class room, part personal POV, and part witty banter-slash-sparring match. Like Lennon and McCartney, Rob and Adam perform brilliantly together, but they also spur each other on to greater heights. (Adam just won Best Male Improviser at the Canadian Comedy Awards, while Rob is currently shooting a new TV show. Check, and mate.)
Both are long-time fixtures of the Toronto improv scene, Second City alumni and long-form instructors at the Second City Training Centre. They’re also working actors who’ve studied with some of the greats (Napier, Messing, Cackowski, Joe Bill, to name a few) and have performed in festivals across North America. In other words, they know their shit.
Though it’s only been around for a few months, The Backline has already covered a wide range of topics, and each episode is filled with anecdotes and great advice. Themes include Getting Started, Fear, Competition, Ethics, and Cities, History and Comedy Scenes.
You’ve kissed more guys than women. And you’re straight.
You’ve had to compete with at least one of these while performing:
This was breakfast. And lunch. You don’t remember dinner.
You need to set your alarm for an audition at noon.
You get endowed as the President every time you hit the stage.
Deep down, you still dream of being a superhero.
If you read one more “Women aren’t funny” article, you’ll swear like Susan f#%$ing Messing.
You feel cool because everyone’s a nerd.
When this guy says, “Take your crazy monkey dance back to Hitler Town,” you know exactly what he means.
It’s not Halloween. Just a typical Thursday night.
The sign of a good rehearsal.
You’ve said things that would get you fired, disowned or arrested in real life.
The answer to the question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” is always “Yes!”
Matt Besser has said that the only good warm-up is One-Word Pattern Game. Matt Walsh insists it’s Eights. Wherever you stand on warm-ups, you’re going to do a lot of them in your improv life.
If the thought of doing Big Booty again makes you look for the nearest exit, why not skip a structured warm-up and just talk with your team instead? Not in clusters of two or three, but as a group. This is really important.
Almost all teams have sub-cliques, which are obvious once the team hits the stage and the same two or three go into scenes together who always do.
If you missed rehearsal or don’t see other team members very often, it’s important to stay connected with each other’s lives.
You can stand in a circle outside the theatre or sit in the green room, then take turns saying one thing that happened to you that day or week. It can be good, bad, sad, exciting, or boring. Even the most mundane things can suddenly float to the surface, turning up later in a scene or group game.
It can simply be something you observed. I snapped the photos below from the streetcar. “To-ne Sushi” made me think of “Tony Sushi,” and together with “Cameron House,” struck me as funny names for characters…but your inspiration could be anything. Maybe you went to Queen Video, and that inspires a scene about a store that only sells videos of the rock group Queen.
Sharing anecdotes about your job, your family, your life is one way to get to group mind faster. The most important thing about any warm-up is to loosen you up and get you ready to have fun together.
The National Theatre of The World did a long scene recently where Matt Baram and Ron Pederson never referred to each other by name.
Naomi Snieckus then mischievously pimped them, herself and Chris Gibbs into doing a scene that only contained names.
The result was hilarious but also fascinating, as they used only first names (e.g. “Edgar?” “Daphne…” “Timothy!”) to emote and define their relationships to each other.
It’s a fun alternative to the “Fifty” exercise, where two people do a scene using only numbers from 1 to 50 in place of dialogue.
Try it at your next rehearsal!