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How do you make the leap from doing improv for laughs to launching a career? We asked some of the brightest lights in the improv community for their perspective. First up, Calgary native, Rebecca Northan.

Photo © Gordon Hawkins

When did you first know you wanted to do improv/comedy/acting for a living?

My brother and I used to do commercial parodies in the living room for our parents. Tensions were high, we thought if we were funny we might save their marriage. No dice…but we did both become fairly OK improvisers. So. You know. Plus side to everything.

I had a more concrete notion in Junior High. We would do “skits” (such a terrible word). People wanted me to be in their group for assignments, so I guess I was bringing something to the table.

When I was 16 years old, I discovered the Loose Moose Theatre. It was the most amazing and magical place I had ever been. I never wanted to leave. I lived for Sunday night Theatresports. I met Keith Johnstone and mistook him for the caretaker; I was baffled by this odd Englishman in a parka. He changed my entire life.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and why?

Keith Johnstone. Loose Moose was his theatre, and everything I hold dear, and believe about improv and theatre stems from my exposure to Keith. At the time I was so young I had no idea who he was in the context of the international theatre community, or how he was a pioneer in improvisation. That may have worked in my favour. Dennis Cahill, who is the Artistic Director at Loose Moose for going on 35 years, is the second most profound influence. He was always easier to understand when I was a teenager. As a mature artist, he always offered me the most support and the best clarification when I have had questions about my improv practise.

Loose Moose does an International Improv School every summer. I highly recommend it!

What was your first paid improv-related job? 

I was asked to do the All-Star Show at Loose Moose when I was 19. This was a very big deal to me. The notion that I might get paid to perform was a dream come true. Playing with improvisers 15 – 20 years my senior, players I looked up to and wanted to emulate, I felt unspeakably lucky. We were paid a cut of the door. There were many, many times when our take for the evening was better than a month of babysitting!

How much have former instructors, coaches, and team members played a part in your career?

Derek Flores, who now lives and improvises in New Zealand, started at Loose Moose within a week of me. I think of him as my Improv Brother, and one of my dearest friends. When I have ideas for shows, I’m always thinking of Derek in a key role, even though we’ve lived in different countries for years now. He’s always been a touchstone. He’s also kicked my ass when I needed it. There are few people I trust as much on stage.

Patti Styles (former Loose Mooser, now based in Australia) is another serious influence. My Big Sister in improv. We can go for YEARS without seeing each other, then reconnect, and are on the same page.

I would say freely that the people who were my contemporaries at Loose Moose are my family. Even those company members who came before, and after; we have a certain something in common. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time around Keith – they feel like cousins. Rebecca Stockley (San Fran), William Hall (San Fran), Dan O’Connor (L.A). Veena Sood (Vancouver). Cousins. Family.

Do you see improv as a means to doing other work, or an end in itself?

Improv at its best can be the most amazing live performance you might ever see.  Staggering moments of spontaneous creation. Moving drama. Gut-busting comedy. What more do you need?

Improv at its worst will make you wish you’d been born without eyes and ears.

It can be a wonderful development tool, or an excellent team-building experience.

When you hear the words “working improviser,” what comes to mind?

To be honest, I’m not a fan of the notion of “working improviser” if it implies that it’s your main point of focus. I prefer improvisers who are doing all kinds of other things, who have day jobs, or who work as actors. I believe that improv is made better when people have a rich life experience to draw from. Otherwise you risk disappearing up your own improv asshole and recycling experiences you’ve never personally had, but have seen on TV, or in the movies.

I realise this will not be a popular response.

I am interested in improvisation that explores human truths. I want to see moments of spontaneous theatre. I’m not keen on impromptu sketch comedy; certainly not as a regular diet. For variety, yes. But I challenge performers to go deeper.

If you’re a working improviser who is telling great stories, exploring narrative, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, exposing something about the human condition…and your audience is laughing not because you’re clever, but because they see themselves in something you do…then I will bow down and worship at your improv feet and bless you for being a “working improviser.”

I suppose you can also make some good money spreading the cult of “Yes, And” to corporate-type people. The philosophies behind good improv can most certainly make us all better human beings. If you can make money sharing that, I think you should go for it!

Describe a typical day in your life.

I don’t just work as an improviser. I work as a mainstream theatre actor, film and TV actor, director and producer, teacher, coach. I’ve created a few shows that I work on selling to theatres: improv/theatre hybrids that I refer to as “spontaneous theatre”: Blind Date has played off-Broadway and in London’s West End, as well touring Canada and parts of the US. Legend Has It, a fantasy adventure, is in extended development, as is An Undiscovered Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival of Canada.

So. Typical day: sleep in. Coffee. Internet. Emails. Gym. Auditions. Meals. I only improvise with a select group of people. I’m currently working to get a show off the ground in Toronto that showcases Loose Moose-trained improvisers.

A lot of folks come to improv classes and get stars in their eyes. What’s the salary range for a working improviser in your city?

There’s not a lot of glamour in improv. You’re going to make your best money doing corporate work. I believe you ought to have a minimum of 10 years experience under your belt before doing that kind of work. Corporate shows require decorum, professionalism, and an understanding of that world. Don’t quit your day job, basically.

You can expect to make $0 – $10,000 annually if you’re lucky. If you’re affiliated with a company who is already doing corporate work, and you get in there, you could stand to make much more. But my experience is that those jobs are few and far between until you are in a position to offer workshops to Senior Managers. That’s not something you’re going to have the chops for in your 20s.

Improv has been steadily infiltrating corporate and popular culture. With all of the interest in improvisation, why is it still so hard to get bums on seats at shows (or is it, in your experience)?

Honestly? Most improv shows are terrible. Gangs of improvisers, over- excited by doing a show, storming on to the stage with way too much energy, yelling, not listening, trying to out-joke each other, or worse: saying “yes” to ideas that no one is inspired by…it’s off-putting. The average ticket buyer has a multitude of options in terms of spending their money. What are you offering that’s special? If your improv show is the equivalent to sitting around at a party riffing with your hilarious friends, you’re better off hosting a party.

The best improv shows are people working to inspire each other in search of a spontaneous miracle. Those are very, very, very rare groups. I think Dan O’Connor’s group is doing that in Los Angeles with their “unscripted theatre.” They do long form, genre-based improv, and are extremely skilled actors with years of improv training. You’ll see solid work at BATS in San Francisco. The gang who produce Die-Nasty in Edmonton are fantastic.

If all you’re doing is spontaneous sketch…well, I can see that on YouTube and I don’t have to put pants on, or spend money to see it.

What’s the best, worst, or weirdest gig you’ve done as an improviser?

I showed up for an industrial that took place in a family’s living room on an acreage outside of Calgary. It was Grandpa’s 80th. We performed in our socked feet. We were also informed the sump-pump was broken and we weren’t to flush the toilet unless “necessary.”

There was also a corporate show where the audience was so drunk they threw butter at us. We called the show and walked out after our first scene.

Lessons in humility.

Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in improv?

When I started 26 years ago, improv was a real Boys’ Club. I was given opportunities early on because I showed promise and there was a shortage of women. I got better faster by playing with more experienced improvisers. I am grateful for that. I was also often told, “We just need you to play Moms, or secretaries.” I nipped that in the bud by barging into every scene and asking if anyone needed coffee, or for me to take a memo? – regardless of the scenario.

I’m not entirely sure. Depending on where you are in the world, it feels like the improv scene is 20 years behind mainstream entertainment sometimes. I always feel like the women I see are better than their male contemporaries because, as in the corporate world, they have to be.

What are the advantages or disadvantages to being a woman, period? This is a huge question, far too large for me to answer here. It can be a bonus to be a rare commodity. It can be an exhausting drawback to feel like you’re fighting to be seen in an equal light.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Ugh. God. Still performing. Teaching more and more. This amazing, life- changing training was given to me for free, in exchange for ripping tickets and slinging popcorn. I feel a responsibility to pay it forward. It gives me pause that the concepts that Keith has been teaching for 40 years are still considered “radical” in so many ways, even in the improv community. I want to continue that kind of work, to inspire improv that means something, to challenge performers to be better human beings, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be changed, to tell stories that matter.

I had my biggest light-bulb moment in a Kundalini Yoga class. The instructor approached me, aware that this was my first class, to ask what my previous experience was. I told her I had done both Ashtanga Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. She smiled slightly and said, “So you’ve never done yoga.” I was taken aback by how exclusive that seemed. Then I realised the world of improv can be just like that. People will say, “I studied with So-and-so, the way I improvise is the ‘right way,’” or “the best way.” I am so guilty of that. Now I tell people, “I come from a particular school of improv, with a specific set of values. Some of those values may seem to be in direct conflict with things you’ve learned with other improv teachers. All I can ask is that you practise cynical benevolence, and just try what I’m suggesting. Then decide for yourself. Keep what works for you, throw out what doesn’t. Follow your bliss. Work to inspire your partners. If those around you are working to inspire you, and give you what you want, in theory, we’ll all be having a good time.”

Rebecca Northan is a professional Artist who acts, directs, writes, produces, educates and improvises. Her one-woman improv show, Blind Date, has toured across Canada, the US, and London, England. Rebecca continues to pioneer her brand of Spontaneous Theatre and is currently honing her latest show, Legend Has It. She is also developing an improvised Shakespeare project at the Stratford Festival of Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccanorthan Web: http://www.northan.com

 

We’ve written about how we think in pictures. Here’s an example from the worlds of art and science.

What's on your mind?

Ima just put this here and wait 500 years…

In 1990, Dr Frank Meshberger went home after a long day’s work and decided to flip through some art books to help him unwind. When he got to an image of the Sistine Chapel, he stopped in his tracks. There in front of him was what he’d been looking at all day: a dissection of a human brain.

Now, I’d always wondered why the billowing fabric behind God looked so bizarre. Not to mention the contorted bodies of the angels around Him. (The one with his butt turned toward us? What’s that about?)

But when you compare them with a cross-section of a human brain, it all makes sense.

Incredibly, The Creation of Adam has been viewed by millions of people for half a millennium. Yet it took a doctor who’d been looking at brain scans all day to connect the image with the artist’s hidden message.

The painting has always been interpreted as God bestowing life on man. But Dr Meshberger points out that Adam’s eyes are already open, suggesting he’s already alive. Perhaps what Michelangelo was suggesting is that God was bestowing intellect – the thing that separates mankind from all other creatures.

So what does all this have to do with improv? Well, when you’re in a relaxed state, you make connections that you wouldn’t otherwise. You literally see things differently. Something to think about – or not, rather – the next time you’re on stage.

Laughter’s a funny thing.

What tickles you may not amuse your neighbour, as I can attest from heated discussions about Family Guy.

We tend to laugh more in a group than when we’re alone (although Colbert could make me corpse with a raise of his eyebrow). We also laugh more easily around friends and family.

It’s defined as “a physical reaction in humans and some species of primate, consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system.” Ooooo..K.

So why do we do it?

The Laughter of Surprise

Sounds like: Shrieks, barks, sustained guffaws, often associated with cheers or applause.

When improvisers and the audience make a discovery, when a character takes a left turn into crazy, or when someone on your team brings back the suggestion everyone’s forgotten and ties things up with the perfect blow line…that’s the Laughter of Surprise.

 

giphy-4

The Laughter of Recognition

Sounds like: A rat-a-tat-tat of laughs, chuckles, or sometimes a beat of silence followed by laughter and steady applause.

This type is like an “Aha!” from the audience. It comes when they hear something they can relate to: current events, pop culture, or just good ol’ human behaviour. Louis CK uses this type of comedy to great effect in his stand-up…

ADaAq

“People can laugh hysterically at something as mundane as ‘junk drawer.’ Use your rich life experience, and bring that to the stage.” – Susan Messing

Finally, there’s…

The Laughter of Relief or Tension Broken

Sounds like: Either nervous tittering, or like a bomb just went off in the theatre.

When you’ve had a six-minute laugh-free set (intentional or not), the slightest thing can set off this kind of reaction.

It could be someone tripping on stage, slurring a word or saying it incorrectly, or any one of a million other tiny, inconsequential things. Anything that breaks the pattern that came before.

Sometimes the audience is nervous for you, in which case you’ll hear nervous laughter.

Other times, the tension can be created by drama. The scene’s not tanking, it’s just intense. The audience gets wound up, too. So the moment it tips from dramatic to deranged, it creates a laughter explosion.

All three kinds of laughs feel great. If I think back on old sets, I can still hear and feel the different reactions to scenes I’ve watched or played in. And to me, there is no sweeter sound.

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” – Oscar Wilde

 

Last year we posted Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv. Here’s some more.

1. Be willing to fail.

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

Photo © Adrianne Gagnon

When we’re learning to improvise, we fail constantly. Improv teaches us that mistakes are OK, and life becomes freeing and fun. But after a while, we can start to fall into certain patterns of behaviour.

  • You always go in to first beats with Bob
  • You start every scene by holding an imaginary beer
  • You reference Star Wars at least once every show
  • When all else fails, zere’s always your hilarious Cherman accent, ja?

We repeat these patterns because they’re safe and familiar. Chances are they got laughs in the past. But if you want to grow as an improviser, you need to step outside your comfort zone.

Jump in the deep end. Throw something out there without knowing where it’s going. Get yourself into trouble. When you give yourself permission to fail, you open up new possibilities.

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

2. Go with your gut.

There are times when performers are so in sync, their responses so lightning-fast, it almost seems supernatural. When we’re truly in the moment, improv is effortless. Like UCB’s motto, we “don’t think.” So what’s doing the thinking for us?

Your brain is designed to filter out information, or else your conscious mind would be overwhelmed. But your subconscious takes it all in.

We make moves based on the information we have. Consciously, we’re usually focused on ourselves and our scene partners. Subconsciously, we’re doing much, much more.

When your subconscious takes in what you’re doing, what your scene partner is doing, what the rest of your team is doing, what the audience is doing, what the person in the booth is doing, what song is playing at the bar, every single scene you’ve ever seen or played, and sends you an idea…you take that damn idea!

3. Slow down.

“If it’s done well, I’ll watch somebody tie their shoe.” – David Pasquesi

Photo © Crista Flodquist

Photo © Crista Flodquist

When the lights go up in Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, TJ and Dave stand silently on stage. No one says anything for a full 14 seconds. Most improvisers would be chewing their hand off by that point, but taking the time to read each other is par for the course for this duo.

Here’s an exercise they teach, which is great for connecting with your scene partner:

Two players stand across from each other. One is the sender, the other is the receiver. The sender tries to communicate their character, their relationship to their scene partner, their want or situation – all without miming or speaking. The receiver then says what they got from the other person’s energy and body language.

The first time Cameron and I did this exercise, TJ asked what I got from Cameron’s character.

“Well, he’s my husband, and he’s about to tell me that he told his boss to stick it, and now he’s been fired.”

Cameron’s eyes widened. “I was her husband, I’d just told my boss to go fuck himself, and I quit!”

(For the record, this was waaaaaaay before he basically did that in real life.)

The next time you walk onstage, take a moment to pause, breathe, and fully check in with your scene partner. You don’t need to rush to be funny.

4. Be here now.

We spend a lot of time in our heads, and not just when we’re improvising. If you’re feeling guilt and shame, you’re thinking about the past. When you feel fear and anxiety, you’re thinking about the future.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re worrying about tonight’s show, stressing about what character to bring next, or feeling bad about that stupid thing you did in fourth grade: now is all that exists.

Know that you have everything you need in this moment. When you bring your focus to what’s in front of you – whether it’s your scene partner or a plate of lasagna – then you’re truly living. (And who cares if you forgot your swim trunks in Grade 4? Underoos are the coolest!)

Of course, like all things, it takes practice. For further reading, we recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, and Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.

5a. Reach out and touch someone.

Have you seen that show, Two People Standing And Talking in a Void? It’s the one where no one touches anyone, physically or emotionally.

If you’re in a scene professing your love to someone, and you’re both standing still two feet apart, move closer. Couples touch. Touch his cheek. Caress her arm. Boop his nose. Hold hands.

Touching is a great way to show you’re humans with emotions. Patting your scene partner on the head, or putting them on your shoulders says a lot about your characters.

5b. Reach out and touch something.

Before a scene starts, the only things that exist on stage are people and chairs (ohhh, that’s where they got the name). After the scene starts, everything exists. Like The Matrix, we just need to declare it.

We learn about ourselves by exploring the world around us. So grab some chairs and make a hot tub, a ferris wheel, or a TARDIS. Reach out and find an object, then use it to define your character. You don’t have to know what you’re reaching for. The joy is in the discovery.

6. Study the masters.

Read Napier and Norman and UCB. Read interviews and e-books and blogs. Subscribe to podcasts and listen on your way to work.

Most of all, go see live shows. If you live in a big city like New York, Toronto or London, you can see top improvisers almost any night of the week. If you live in a small town, festivals like the Del Close Marathon, Vancouver International Improv Festival, or NC Comedy Arts are a great way to see these people all in one place.

And for a mere ten dollars, you can see TJ and Dave perform at their brand new theater in Chicago. That’s like seeing Simon and Garfunkel in concert at 1965 prices. Heck, if you have to jump on a Greyhound to get there, it’s worth it.

7. Play with people who are better than you. Play with people less experienced than you.

There’s a tendency to stick with the same group of people throughout our career. It might be your Con class, your first Harold team, or any number of other cliques.

Ensembles are great for building trust, but if you feel like you’re in a rut, mix it up a little. (See “Be willing to fail.”)

There are great young performers who are still students. And great veteran performers who are still playful. Don’t be scared to ask one of your heroes if they’d like to perform with you. And if you’re an old pro, do a show with your students. It’s a great reminder to take care of your scene partners, and they might surprise you by how much funnier they are.

8. Have other interests.

We said it before, but it bears repeating. Improv is an incredible gift, but there’s no surer way to suck the well dry than to drain it constantly.

If you’re taking five classes, doing three shows a night, and spending all your free time with other improvisers, it’s time to reassess before you burn out.

The pros know this. In between directing the Second City Mainstage, opening a new theater, and writing a new book, Mick Napier practises card tricks, shoots pool, plays guitar, and builds stuff with erector sets. David Razowsky travels the globe teaching improv, but he also spends time discovering each city, trying new foods, and honing his photography skills.

Enjoy all that improv has to offer, but be sure to make time for other things.

“The more art you bring to your life, the more life you bring to your art.” – David Razowsky

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Editor’s Note: Regarding #3, David Knoell prefers the word “patient” to “slow,” to avoid confusion between having awareness and bringing low energy. David Razowsky prefers “mindful.” These are both great descriptors, so use whatever resonates with you.