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Artwork © Jimmy Carrane

Artwork © Jimmy Carrane

Few people write as honestly (or hilariously) about improv as Jimmy Carrane, and his new book is no exception. But unlike  Improvising Better, which focuses on getting better as a performer, this is a how-to guide for overcoming the kind obstacles we all face at some point – many of which we create for ourselves.

The book is broken into five sections:

• Embrace Imperfection

• Let Go of Resentments and Expectations

• Believe You Are Worth It

• Put Yourself Out There

• Take Care of Yourself

In each one, Jimmy breaks down the things that keep us from experiencing joy and success, in rehearsals, shows, off-stage, and in our relationships. He then offers practical solutions you can put to use right now.

Improv attracts very smart, very funny, and often very fragile people. That fragility often comes from low self-esteem. But Jimmy shows how the only person who can affect your self-worth is you.

If you constantly compare yourself to others, feel like you’ve hit a plateau, or just need a kick in the pants to get off the couch, this book will help you recognize the mind games that are holding you back, and find the joy in playing again.

The Inner Game of Improv is just $3.99 (USD). Available for Kindle on Amazon, or as a PDF at jimmycarrane.com.

“How much money you make off your art has nothing to do with calling yourself an artist. I don’t care if you do improv as a hobby or you get paid to perform. If you’re an improviser, you’re an artist.” – from The Inner Game of Improv

Photo © People and Chairs

“You don’t need that much. You don’t have to try so hard. If we look at the most successful scenes, they start off very simply. They’re not overly complicated. They’re not some sort of grand premise. It’s just taking the small things that we’re doing and making them into a fun scene.

It really boils down to paying attention to what you’re doing and what your scene partner is doing, and then investing in it. And then the scene is kind of given to you.

If you take that first 30 seconds of a scene, and really are patient, and you lay the information out and do small things, and make choices each time you either talk or do things, then the other information will come from that stuff. So then you’re not having to invent things; it’s just an expansion of what’s happening.

If you just really invest in those first few seconds of a scene, it’s all there for you. And you don’t have to overthink it. Just go back to being the monkey. Just go back to patting someone on the belly. Just go back to being the exhausted dad in an airplane. Because then you’re saying ‘yes’ to the things you’ve thrown out there, rather than trying to find what the scene’s about. The scene’s about that first moment.

It could be just someone just going ‘Phhhhht…’ That’s it. That’s all you need. That person is exasperated. That’s the scene.

We try to find the ‘best thing’ that the scene can be about, by discarding all these other things, and it’s like no, the scene is about a tired kid and her mom who wants her to go to church. Let’s invest in that and not try to invent anything else. Because things will just come out of your mouths, out of thin air, but they’re not. They’re actually coming from investment in the things you’ve created.”

Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are inseparable, both onstage and off. They’re Second City alumni, founding members of the National Theatre of the World, and creators of a new sketch revue, Baram & Snieckus: You And Me Both. We asked them about their unique brand of chemistry.

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P&C: How and when did you meet?

Matt: I was just coming back from a west coast swing with the Second City Touring Company. In fact I had to leave the tour early because my mother had passed away. And at the same time, I found out that the rest of the Touring Company had been let go and replaced. And when I came back to work, I saw Naomi’s headshot on our touring manager’s desk and I was intrigued to find out who the new firecracker was. Because I knew everyone else but I didn’t know her.

Naomi: Right, because I crashed the auditions. I happened to be in town visiting friends. So you wouldn’t know me. And we ran into each other outside of Second City.

Matt: And you had told me that your-

Naomi: My grandmother passed away that morning.

Matt: And so there was an immediate um…

Naomi: Connection.

Matt: Right. And I told her I was going to get a coffee, did she want one?

Naomi: And I thought that was lovely. I don’t know why I was so moved.

Matt: Had anyone else asked you?

Naomi: Nobody else has ever asked me if I wanted coffee before that.

Matt: In your life?

Naomi: Nope.

Matt: There you go. And so there we were in front of Second City with our coffees. Both of us dealing with so much. Naomi having just moved to Toronto from Vancouver. Her grandmother just passed away. And there I was, all of my friends had just been let go and I was about to meet my new company, and my mother had just passed away.

Naomi: Little did we know, we were about to start this new chapter together. A partnership that would take us to where we are today. Baram and Snieckus.

P&C: When did you know you liked each other?

Matt: Well we started doing Main-stage and we discovered our chemistry together. We started to create more and more together until it became annoying to others in the company I’m sure.

Naomi: We began to build up this stockpile of relationship material. If there was a relationship scene at Second City from 2003 – 2006, chances are, we were in it. If someone else wanted to do a couple scene, we would come and say, no!

Matt: Yes, we would come and we would threaten them. Relationship premises was our turf.

Naomi: We slowly realized that we had gone through the entire evolution of a relationship together in the sketches we were developing.

Matt: That’s right. There was the First Date Couple, Couple Running Out Of Gas, Proposal Couple, Sleeping Together Couple,  Anniversary Couple, Dominatrix Couple. We even did a sketch where we played two dogs falling in love.

Naomi: And we would spend all that time creating together. And performing together on stage. And so in a way, the audience knew that we were in love before we did.

Matt: It was a complicated time beyond belief because we were both in committed relationships. We both loved our partners deeply but we also couldn’t ignore how special our relationship was becoming. It was literally the best of times and the worst of times.

P&C: Wow. So, what’s the funniest moment you’ve had onstage together?

Matt: For me, I think it’s hard to think of the funniest moment we’ve had because we are so invested in the moments and it’s hard to step back and really enjoy them. But that being said, we also record a great deal of what we improvise for the purposes of developing our ideas further. And I can remove myself enough from the moment then and really enjoy the stuff we’re doing. And the stuff Naomi has done has made me lose it on many occasions.

There’s this one sketch that’s in the current show called “Make A Wish” where Naomi’s character is attempting to stop me from wishing aloud because it won’t come true if it’s wished aloud. And she demonstrates how to wish without speaking and it makes me howl every time.

Naomi: We used to do this show called The Carnegie Hall Show and Matt had just proposed to me the night before. And we had agreed that we weren’t going to tell anyone until we got married. I think it was Matt that insisted that. And then we were doing the intro bits and Matt says, “Uh… I proposed to her last night.” So we told our audience before we told many of our friends.

Matt: It’s weird that way. You just get so used to the audience being there for you that you end up feeling comfortable sharing everything with them.

Naomi: I’m not sure you had told your brother yet.

Matt: Still haven’t.

Naomi: Anytime you have a mustache onstage, I can’t help but laugh.

Matt: You too.

P&C: You perform together a lot. How has improv helped (or hindered) your relationship?

Naomi: We get to play a lot together. And be together more often than other couples do. Because we have this company together. Also it doesn’t surprise me that I would fall in love with an improviser. Because when you are first in love you say yes to everything. You want that person to look good. You say yes to all of their ideas. You laugh at them.

Matt: It’s not until you really feel comfortable with someone when you can really filter in the “no”s and the “you’re on your own”s and the “I’m not going to go along with that”s.

Naomi: But you still make me feel like the funniest woman in the world.

Matt: We laugh at each other a lot. And Naomi is an easy laugh.

Naomi: Are you calling me a laugh slut?

Matt: I’m saying you give good laugh.

Naomi: Thanks.

P&C: What impact has improv had on your careers?

Naomi: I would say that because I’m an improviser and because my husband is one too, my comedy muscles are always limber. Which is good for auditions, hosting, gigs, and son on. I don’t have to gear up my funny bones to get ready all the time.

Matt: I agree and there are many gigs that require you to punch up scripts on the fly.

Naomi: We’re always punching each other up.

Matt: That sounds violent.

Naomi: It’s how we do.

Matt: You don’t talk like that.

Naomi: Word.

Matt: Also we create our own work through improvisation. So it has not only been a tool for writing and collaboration but it’s also been the main focus for us for that last several years with The National Theatre of The World. Impromptu Splendor, The Carnegie Hall Show, and The Script Tease Project are all improvised premises.

P&C: What inspired your new sketch show?

Naomi: Well, Theatre Passe Muraille asked if we wanted to be a part of their Guest Company Series. And not ones to turn things down, we jumped at the chance. To have a space offered to you like that is a real gift.

Matt: And there’s no greater gift for an artist than a deadline. We basically made ourselves find the time to write and rehearse this.

Naomi: And we spent months thinking of what kind of show we wanted to do. We came up with a half a dozen improv formats we wanted to try.

Matt: But then we also realized that over the years, we’ve created so much work that evaporates into the ether. Because it’s improvisation and unrepeatable.

Naomi: So he had the idea that we build up our sketch catalogue.

Matt: And we’re always writing based on improvisations that we do in front of audiences. Based on suggestions. And recording them. And so we decided to take those kernels and flesh then out.

Naomi: And that’s when Kurt Smeaton, our director, came on the scene. He helped us flesh some things out and helped distill our sketch list down to a cool ten or so.

Matt: I mean the type of stuff he, Scotty, and Jim have been doing with Falcon Powder has inspired us for sure.

Naomi: And we have enough material for a couple of shows.

Matt: But one at a time.

Naomi: That’s right.

Matt: We hope Baram & Snieckus: You And Me Both is the first of many.

Naomi: What are some future titles we were thinking of?

Matt: Heels over Head?

Naomi: And there was the “Reunion Tour” idea.

Matt: Right after we break up and get back together.

Naomi: They’re Still Alive!

Matt: That should be a fun one.

Naomi: I hope we’re both alive.

Matt: You and Me Both.

Paul and Christy are Second City alumni whose comedic skills cut like a knife. He’s one third of improvised sci-fi comedy podcast Illusionoid, and she’s the star of countless stage and screen productions. We asked them how they landed their favourite role, as man and wife.

Photo © Paul Bates

Photo © Paul Bates

P&C: How and when did you meet?

Paul: I’m not sure when Christy and I first met. But the first time I can remember us talking is when she was in Second City’s Touring Company and I was directing her for a corporate show. I am not above using my status for my own gain.

Christy: It was Second City (2000?), the first time I remember seeing Paul was after I got hired for the Touring Co. and snuck in to watch the Mainstage show. There was Paul Bates as Stephen Hawking and I thought to myself “Who’s that funny guy?” I don’t remember him directing me…I must have blocked that out of my memory for some reason. Bates, we need to talk about that!

P&C: When did you first know you liked the other person?

Paul: The moment I laid eyes on her, across the upstairs bar at 56 Blue Jays Way.

Christy: First of all, Paul’s answer made me melt. I actually knew I liked him that same moment I first saw him on stage. It’s a bit odd to think that a guy pretending to be Hawking is hot.

P&C: Were you ever (or are you now) on the same team? What’s it like performing together?

Paul: We’re on the same team when we discipline our child (corporal punishment) but I can’t recall being on a Theatresports team with Christy.

Christy: I love playing with Paul; it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. Especially now that he snuck a baby into our lives. Now shows are a little bit more of “divide and conquer.” It’s hard enough doing a show for free, but to pay $15/hour to do a show is even harder.

P&C: What’s the best, worst, or funniest moment you’ve had on stage – either together, or with the other person watching?

Paul: The worst: Christy tried to pretend to hit me in the nuts. But instead hit me in the nuts very, very hard. To her dismay we still conceived. (Christy: I forgot about that. It was a pretty funny moment, for me.)

The best/funniest moments I’ve had with my wife is performing The Soaps, the improvised soap opera she produced. The best one we did is the one that took place in the War of 1812.

Christy: I think some of the best moments were when I filled in for Aurora on the Second City Mainstage show for a week. It was really that week that gave us more time together and made us realize there was more to the attraction than just crushes. To be able to play with someone on stage and having them make you laugh really ups the connection factor.

Honestly, Paul makes me laugh every time I watch him and perform with him. It reminds me of why I fell in love with in the first place (not a hilarious answer, but true). When Paul is in the audience watching, I get a little nervous, but I also know he always has my back. Which is the best.

P&C: Has improv helped your relationship?

Paul: We listen. We say yes. We support each other. Counselling has helped too.

Christy: The skills of Improv are definitely tools for a good relationship. Also knowing what the other person is going through when they have a bad show is a huge help. We come from different ‘schools’ of improv. I’m Keith Johnstone based, he’s….I actually haven’t figured that out yet. Let’s just say, I’ve taught him a lot.

P&C: What impact has improvisation had on your careers?

Paul: Second City gave me my start and continues to give me new and exciting opportunities. I am forever grateful.

Christy: Improv is such an important and overlooked skill in the acting world. My background in improv has booked me commercials, a gig on Broadway, a show in the West End, and has given me a confidence on stage when the wheels fall off during a ‘proper play’…so much so that I kind of live for the wheels to fall off. It’s also shown me that the best warm-up for a show is a drink or two. In a way, Improv is my career.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook. He was talking about Canada, but it could just as easily have been America, or Ireland, or Micronesia:

“How do we fix the Canadian entertainment system? How do we get funding to more people? How do we do this without stifling creativity? How do we get audiences to take note? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

Replies poured in:

  • Canadians tend not to appreciate talent till they move to the States and become successful
  • Canadian film/TV should stop trying to emulate America
  • Canadian film/TV should stop worrying about creating “Canadian” stories, and just let Canadians tell stories
  • Government-funded content is usually an “art wank,” as opposed to something with broad appeal
  • Canadian funding is too risk averse, leading to watered-down end product

All valid points. In fact, I’ve heard them from actors, writers, producers and directors for the past 25 years. And in all that time, not much has changed. If anything, in some ways it’s worse.

So what then? “Can’t win, don’t try?”

Heeeeeeeeell no. I’m saying “Can win, do try;” you just may need to change the way you do it. Here are some things I’ve learned in the last quarter century that can help.

Show, don’t tell.

You’ve written a screenplay. It’s box office gold. You just need someone to read it, and soon you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Seth Rogen.

In that case you should check out I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson. It explains, in no uncertain terms, why you probably should spend some more time on it before unleashing it on innocent victims.

On the other hand, maybe your script really is brilliant. Maybe you’re the next Aronofsky, or Apatow, or (please God, not the later stuff) Adam Sandler.

You’ve still gotta put in some work – OK, probably a lot of work – to convince others of your genius.

The Office wouldn’t exist if Stephen Merchant hadn’t filmed Ricky Gervais for a corporate training video. They cleverly used it to pitch Ricky’s David Brent character to the BBC.

“If we’d just handed in a script, it would still be sitting there on someone’s desk,” says Gervais. “You’ve got to see the performance in context.”

 

While part of me weeps for the English language with every emoji, people think in pictures, and your 100-page script is a long slog for anyone to attempt. Make it easy for people. Film a teaser or demo to bring it to life.

New ideas are scary. 

The BBC weren’t just sitting around waiting for the next When The Whistle Blows to walk through their door. Or maybe they were, and that’s the problem.

It’s a sad fact of life that it’s easier to like the familiar. Most innovation is only embraced after the fact.

Remember Dove Evolution?

It won two Cannes Grand Prix, logged millions of views, and spawned countless parodies. With an idea that brilliant, it was an obvious slam dunk from the start, right?

Not quite. While the ad agency knew they had something powerful, the clients weren’t convinced. Instead, they approved another, tamer ad:

The underlying message is similar, but the execution isn’t nearly as strong. It quickly disappeared from view.

But the agency didn’t give up. Writer and co-director Tim Piper pulled favours from suppliers and begged the client to piggyback Evolution on the other film’s shoot.

When other clients saw the millions of YouTube hits, not to mention free press from Ellen, Oprah, and countless news outlets, they wanted an Evolution, too. Ask any creative who worked in 2007: suddenly every brief was for a “viral video like Dove.” (Of course, very few clients had the balls to pursue brave ideas, so most of the work stayed in boardrooms. Like we said, new ideas are scary.)

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. – Milton Berle

Canadians of a certain age will remember Speakers Corner. For a buck, anybody could enter the booth and talk to the camera about any subject. The best (and worst) clips were aired weekly on City TV.

Albert Howell and Andrew Currie hijacked the show with improvised mayhem. Calling themselves The Devil’s Advocates, they built a cult following that led to their own TV show.

Today there’s a much bigger Speakers Corner, called YouTube. And while jillions of videos vie for attention, you can still stand out from the crowd.

How about taking some of the worst fanfic ever written and filming it?

That’s what the creators of the My Immortal web series did, racking up tens of thousands of views and winning die-hard fans.

The real value of “free.”

There’s a difference between someone expecting you to work gratis, and doing stuff for free because you can’t get it made any other way (yet).

Create your own web series, short film, or stage play, and someone may like it enough to pay you. If not for that, then for something else.

The My Immortal crew shot the first two seasons on their own dime. Then, thanks to their loyal fan base, they were able to fund a new series through Kickstarter called No Boys Dorm.

Those crafty Devil’s Advocates made numerous appearances on Speakers Corner before being offered their own show, Improv Heaven & Hell. Albert Howell went on to write for Comedy Inc, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and most recently, a little thing called The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Evolution‘s Tim Piper has his own film and television studio, where he directs long-form content for clients.

And after scoring the lowest rating of any BBC program ever, The Office went on to win BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody, spawning a US version that lasted for nine seasons.

Of course, there are no guarantees. You may not find big investors for your one-man show about your sex life, or your hilarious podcast about periods. That’s OK. You’re probably just ahead of the curve. Keep believing in yourself, and eventually others will too.

“Our lives are our biggest projects.” – Ayse Birsel

Sometimes we think, “If I could just (direct an award-winning film/write a groundbreaking comedy/host a late-night talk show/get a date) I’d be happy!”

In that case Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed the Oscar®-winning Little Miss Sunshine, should be retired. Instead, they shoot commercials for State Farm and Sprint to help finance their passion projects.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross changed the face of comedy. But they struggled for years after Mr Show ended, before finding new fame with Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, and coming soon to Netflix, With Bob & David.

And who could forget Conan O’Brien? After years of being groomed to take over The Tonight Show, he was put in an untenable position. Forced to choose between walking away or moving The Tonight Show till after midnight (essentially becoming The Tomorrow Show), Conan resigned.

It was a low point not just in Conan’s career, but in late-night history. But Team Coco followed him to TBS, where he and Andy Richter continue to make their own brand of funny.

To go back to my friend’s original post, “How do we fix the [your country here] entertainment system? Is there anything we can do? Anybody?”

The answer, as always, lies with you.

There is no finish line. There is no free lunch. But there is such a thing as artistic freedom when you take responsibility for it yourself.

You can rail against the system, or you can say fuck the system. Create your own content. Involve your friends. Learn the skills you need to make it happen. Most importantly, as Mick Napier would say, just do something. Anything. It doesn’t have to perfect.

Share your work, build your own tribe, and others will join you. Before you know it, you won’t care about fixing the system, because the system will be chasing you.

For further reading, we recommend:

http://endcrawl.com/blog/7-ways-make-your-own-luck-film-industry/

http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/15/mark-duplass-south-by-southwest-sxsw