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You already know the secret to transformative improv.

Sprawled on the floor of your college dorm room, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief on repeat, waiting for an electric buzz to drop you through the floor into another dimension. You travelled inward to chart unseen inner realms.

Tripping may be the best improv class you can take.

But if you can’t wait for the next Burning Man, here’s some simple tips to turn your next improv scene into a profound, spiritual and/or transformative experience.

  1. Tripping is Not About Drugs. Yes, some people use drugs recreationally with the sole intention of getting high. Similarly some improvisers use 40 minutes of uninterrupted long form to chase an adrenaline rush through a series of puns and tired jokes. But tripping, like improv, can be so much more.

Your improv, like your next trip, has the potential to become a psychonautical experience. A psychonaut is an explorer who alters their state of consciousness to better understand the human condition. An astronatu travels beyond their planet to explore space; a psychonaut journeys deep within their Self to find spiritual and/or psychological awareness.psychological awareness.

Inebriation isn’t the end goal. For a psychonaut, psychedelics are the vehicle used to explore traverse inner worlds, spiritual realms, and the human mind.

But there are many psychonauts who experience meaningful trips via non-chemical means: meditation, yoga, sensory deprivation, drama therapy, shamanism, controlled breathing, Reiki, or most commonly, psychiatry. Oh, and improvisation.

Try this: Your character is a powerful pscyhonautical tool that can transform your state consciousness. Focus on changing your perspective or emotional filter, as opposed to just playing a superficial accent or funny voice.

  1. Your Trip is 100% about You. You can only control your own experience. Release yourself from the judgment of others. Let yourself get weird. Your responsibility on this trip is to fully experience the moment and explore its potential.

Try this: Change your goals for tonight’s show. Instead of orienting your improv towards laughter or praise from a coach, aim to realize each experience for yourself. Maybe your character Angry Dad isn’t getting any laughs onstage, but did you succeed at exploring frustrated fatherhood? If the answer is Yes, you don’t need an audience or coach to validate your experience.

  1. Go Deep. Tripping isn’t purely recreational. If you want it to be meaningful, push yourself.

Try this: Create a list with two columns. In the left column, list all your favourite improv characters you do regularly. Beside each entry, in the right column jot down that character’s antithesis. Find three characters in the right column that are too challenging, scary, or inappropriate to play onstage. Play those character onstage tonight.

  1. Pack Lightly. You’re about to go on an intense one-way journey. Try not to bring unnecessary baggage. Leave behind jealousy, ambition, frustration, regret, self-doubt, or anything else that might slow you down along the way.

Try this: Forget agents and producers in the audience. Release yourself from the fight you just had with your boyfriend. Let go of your petty improv feuds. When the lights come up, start from zero.

  1. Journey with Friends. Don’t waste your trip with people you don’t trust.   There will be moments of vulnerability, confusion, and fear. These obstacles are best tackled with an intimate companion, one that will offer unconditional support. You’re going to need it.

Try this: Play with people you love. Don’t have someone like that? Cultivate those relationships.

  1. Your Trip is a Journey. Trips aren’t always easy, comfortable, or enjoyable. Remember your last road trip? The time you backpacked across Europe? Every journey is full of uncomfortable, unsettling, and sometimes downright miserable moments. Those who want constant comfort should stay home. Your next trip should be reserved for adventurers who want to overcome obstacles and experience something new, despite the danger.

Try this: Your scene just took an awkward turn? Don’t pull out of the experience in an attempt to fix it. Instead, try sitting in that moment. Experience it fully and completely. A weird moment doesn’t mean you’ve screwed up; it only means your experience is weird. But improv scenes, like life, are full of weird (but valuable) moments. Whoever told you improv should be fun all the time, lied to you.

  1. Seek Out Ego Death. Ego Death occurs when the tripper feels their Self dissolve into something greater than the individual: nature, ancestral spirits, humanity, or the cosmic universe. In improv, the term Group Mind describes the experience of an individual giving over to the collective decision-making powers of the ensemble.

Try this: Let go of trying to be different in scenes. Revel in sameness. The Group Mind will take you to places you could never get to on your own. (See: Organic group games, mirroring).

  1. Be Safe. You’re going to need support on your trip, so support those around you. By making others feel welcome, smart, and valuable, you empower them to do the same for you.Stressed out, fearful and/or distrustful trippers worried about their own shit are unable to help you on your journey when it gets rough.

Try this: All the things listed above. But remember your own journey         shouldn’t come at the expense of your improv partner. Help each other go deeper in your scenes for more satisfying scenes.

Yes, improv is a fantastic writing tool. And improv exercises can be used to facilitate corporate communication workshops. Dr. Know-It-All can be a real hoot at children’s birthday parties.

Beyond that, improv can deliver truths about the human experience, invoke forgotten deities, or transport you to hyper-corporeal realms beyond the stage you stand on. You choose the course of your improv journey every time you step onstage.

My advice? Go limp. Enjoy the ride.

Artwork © Anne Douris

Artwork © Anne Douris

Rob Norman is an award-winning actor, improviser, and merry prankster. He is the author of Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the weekly improv podcast, The Backline with Rob and Adam. For those interested in psychonauts, shamanism, and ethneogenic compounds, check out Breaking Open The Head by Daniel Pinchbeck.

Conor Bradbury is a member of Sex T-Rex, one of Canada’s foremost comedy troupes and winners of Second City’s Outstanding New Comedy Award at the Toronto Fringe. The following post is reproduced with permission. 

Well it’s the end of another Toronto Fringe Festival and I’m feeling all of the feels right now. This community is so full of lovely, talented people who produce exceptional work and are insanely fun to get drunk with. This year at the Honest Ed’s beer tent there was a coloring contest, a makeshift tarp roofed bonfire, a stolen brick and far, far too many Steamwhistles. There was also a ton of sexual assault.

I know this isn’t a new development at fringe festivals (or in the theatre/comedy community in general), but it’s one that I’ve become more and more aware of over the past few years. I guess I used to think that not actually witnessing these assaults meant that they probably weren’t happening. I mean, how could a place so full of wonderful people, a place where I had always had such an overwhelmingly positive experience, also be a place where my friends were being sexually harassed and assaulted on a regular basis? It didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t, really, but it’s happening.

Not to oversimplify things, but there are basically two categories of perpetrators: The ones you know and the ones you don’t. While there’s plenty to be said about both groups for now I’d like to focus on the ones you know.

Let me start of by saying I have absolutely no idea what the best way for a woman to react to a sexual assault is. It seems like there isn’t really a right answer and the fact thay we spend so much time focusing on the victim’s behaviour I find truly baffling and disturbing.

So that brings us to the men. It seems a lot of my male friends in the community (and I am very intentionally using the word friend when I say this) are a bit confused as to what actually constitutes sexual assault. So let me give you a few tips on how to avoid being a creep in the future.

1) Keep Your Fucking Hands to Yourself.

This covers everything between unsolicited groping to “overly long hugs.” As a general rule until you know otherwise, assume women don’t want to be touched. Because they don’t. At least not most of the time, and not by you. Physical contact is a mark of intimacy and it needs to be earned. Obviously touching can be part of flirting, but there’s a big difference between putting a hand on someone’s shoulder to gauge their reaction and grabbing their ass. A lot of what you consider harmless flirting is making women seriously uncomfortable. Which brings me to my next point…

2) Stop Assuming Every Woman Who Talks to You Wants to Have Sex With You.

They don’t. It seems like that should be obvious, but a lot of you seem to be having real trouble with this one. I don’t care who you are, how charming you think you are or how many N’s your show got. MOST people still don’t want to fuck you. If a woman laughs at your jokes, puts her hand on your arm or smiles at you when you walk by sometimes she’s just doing that because THOSE ARE THINGS THAT NORMAL HUMANS DO. Granted you’ve probably had a few too many pints and your ego is in overdrive, but you know what?…

3) Being Drunk is Not a Valid Excuse.

Everyone does dumb shit when they drink. Not everyone sexually assaults women. You are legally responsible for everything you do NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU’VE HAD TO DRINK (believe me a recent “urban exploration” of an abandoned factory taught me that much). If you truly can’t control yourself when drinking you have three options 1) Stop drinking. 2) Drink less or 3) Treat yourself like the werewolf that you are and lock yourself in a basement until you sober up.

This is obviously a huge and complicated issue that we could talk about forever, but if my male friends could just focus on those three points I think that would be a great start. I don’t even care why you do it. You can do it because you genuinely want to make yourself a better person, or you can do it just to save your own reputation. Because you know what? This is a small community and word travels fast. There are already so many whispers out there about which men in the community to avoid and the more whispers there are the louder they get.

Kaitlin Morrow and Conor Bradbury in Sex T-Rex presents WasteLand

Kaitlin Morrow and Conor Bradbury in Sex T-Rex presents WasteLand

Photo © John Roiniotis

Photo © John Roiniotis

All longform wants to be boring.

It wants a parade of two-person relationship scenes. Each one familiar to the one that came before.

It craves scenes of a similar length, content, characters, and stage picture. Many brilliant improvised scenes have fallen at the feet of an exhausted audience.

Without variety, good scenes in a long form show mean nothing.

Group Games

Our solution? Do a scene so radically different from every other scene offered, it resets the audience’s expectations of what’s possible. Think of it as an anti-scene. We call it a Group Game. Here’s how it’s different:

Two-person scene: Improvisers’ ideas are expressed through the dialogue exchanged between two (or more) characters onstage.

Group Game: Improvisers express their ideas in any way other than dialogue exchanged between characters. This scene usually involves the entire cast. Often performative and delivered directly to an audience.

You’ve seen these before: a movement piece, a cast song, or snippets of dialogue delivered to the 4th wall.

Of course, there are tons of different formats for Group Games but here’s three that are easy to execute and fun to watch:

1. BOARDROOM IDIOTS

A boss is launching a new initiative and is looking for ideas. His employees want to help but are dumb and get all the details wrong, infuriating the boss.

Why it Works: Great way to use the suggestion. Both verbal heightening (questions from the ensemble) and emotional heightening (the boss). Simple dynamic to play: 8 (ensemble) vs. 1 (boss).

Tips: Try to make every employee dumb in the same way, so you are heightening offers, as opposed to just general jokes about a topic. Try substituting boss/employee for mayor/constituents or mom/children. Anything can work!

Player 1 (Boss): Get in here! We’ve had complaints from some of the campers’ parents that kids are having sex in the tents…

Player 2: That’s terrible. The kids should have sex in the open so the nerdy kids are included!

Boss: Did you say–?

Player 3: Maybe we make it a rule: cool kids have to have sex with one nerd, before having sex with each other?

Boss: No kids should be having sex!

Player 4: I told them third base only. But everyone seemed more interested in the orgy than anything I was saying.

2. JOURNEY OF AN OBJECT 

Using scene painting, each player takes an object on one part of a journey.

Why it Works: Great way to transition between scenes. Easy to understand for a non-longform savvy audience.

Tips: Try to reinforce the energy already present, as opposed to introducing a new one. Scary? Make it scarier. A joke that undercuts tension will always get a laugh, but it compromises the energy of the game for the next offer.

Player 7: The boy runs to catch the bus for summer camp.

Player 1: As he does, the ball falls out of his pocket…

Player 2: …rolling into a nearby sewer.

Player 3: Rapids of excrement push the ball through aqueducts…

Player 4: …through rivers of syringes and band-aids…

Player 5: …into the creek of flushed diapers.

Player 6: The ball is coated in bile and refuse.

Player 7: Heavy, it sinks to the bottom of a black abyss.

Player 1: The ball screams out to his best friend, the boy…

Player 2: …but he can’t hear.

Player 3: The boy is busy at summer camp…

Player 4: …having sex for the first time.

3. LINE-UPS

One at a time, improvisers walk onstage and each deliver one snippet of dialogue to the audience either as unseen character or to the universe. They remain onstage until the last player has entered.

Why it Works: Small lines of dialogue allow players to bring a verbal idea to the stage without getting bogged down by context or narrative. Quick heightening of an idea and then the scene ends.

Tips: Try to heighten in small steps, so you leave room for other players. Also, minimize your interactions with other players onstage. If you end up in an exchange with another player, now you’re improvising a scene instead of group game.

Player 1: I’m disappointed.

Player 2: Carl, you let your mother and I down!

Player 3: We trusted you Terrence. And now that trust is gone.

Player 4: I don’t want to say we’ll never forgive you, but right now it feels that way.

Player 5: We’ve never had to disown one of our own children before.

Player 6: Your father and I hired a witch doctor to curse you.

Player 7: We just want you to learn from your mistakes. So we mortgaged the house and took out a bounty on your head.

Player 1: If you survive, you can say goodbye to going to summer camp!

If you aren’t already doing Group Games, now you have three easy structures to try. (Tip: Try one group game for every three scenes). You can even try to connect your Group Games via theme (like I did in the examples above).

But the real fun is making up structures as you go. Group Games have led me to crowd surf across an audience. Chant on behalf of an imaginary Giant Hotdog. Lock an audience in the theatre to hold them prisoner. Invoke dark gods.

There are no rules. You can do whatever you want in a Group Game, as long as the rest of the troupe wants to do with it you.

The Group Game is my favourite tool to cut through the miasmatic cloud that usually accompanies 30 minutes of interrupted improv. Something I have to remind myself before I step onstage. It’s not easy taking a risk and initiating with something that is “un-scene-like.” But your show needs it.

Longform wants to be boring.

Rob Norman is an award-winning actor (Sunnyside), and improviser (MANTOWN, RN and Cawls). He is the author of the player-friendly longform manual, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the improv podcast The Backline with Rob and Adam. He currently serves as the Department Head of the Longform program at Second City Toronto.

Sharilyn Colbert Photo

Stephen Colbert asked me a simple question.

“Are you an improviser?”

I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was: yes, and it’s entirely because of you.

Instead, I stammered and hedged and spit out “um, sort of, like… on and off?”

Nerves weren’t to blame for my awkward reply, though anyone who knows how big of a fan I am of Colbert would be hard-pressed to believe it. After all, I flew to New York 13 times just to see tapings of The Colbert Report, and co-authored a full-length fan guide to the show. Students at Stanford university studied me as part of a course on fandom. That’s hardcore.

When he appeared before me as I waited in line outside the UCB Theatre last November, my friends concluded, “you manifested him!”

No argument here.

But I couldn’t give him my perfect answer because I wasn’t confident in the “yes” part. (The “it’s entirely because of you,” however, was entirely accurate.)

The story goes like this: I first saw Colbert in person 10 years ago, on a Daily Show discussion panel at the Just for Laughs Festival. His obvious joy for connecting with the audience was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt invigorated just watching him, and marvelled at whatever this thing was that made his presence so electric.

His new series became a hit, and he made global headlines when he roasted President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But it was a much less scandalous speech a few months later that made my jaw drop for the second time: his commencement address at Knox College.

He implored the graduating class of 2006 to “say yes.” He explained how to create an improv scene — accept offers, be open, make agreements — and told them they were about to embark on the biggest improvisation of all.

“Will saying yes get you in trouble sometimes? Will saying yes cause you to do some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool,” he said. “You cannot be both young and wise.”

I saw the connection between the freedom he seemed to have in his performance, and the openness in the philosophy he shared with those students.

His words caught me at a critical time. I’d always been passionate about comedy, but knew I wasn’t meant to be on stage. I worked as a comedy journalist as I tried to claw my way into the business side of “the” business, where I could be where I was most at home: behind a desk.

But it clicked: I’d actually been saying “no.” I tried so hard, but was only pursuing opportunities that I knew I could succeed at if given the chance. Saying “yes” would mean removing these parameters. I had to channel my passion in every direction, no matter how much discomfort, risk, or even failure it brought with it.

I took a page from Colbert’s book, and signed up for an improv class.

Improv? Had I lost my damn mind?

Between my paralyzing stage fright and control issues and only-child syndrome, this would surely be a disaster. This experiment was so doomed that I travelled 1,600 miles away to study in New York, reducing the chance of any gory details reaching my hometown.

It wasn’t easy, but it was great. Aside from bonding with wonderful classmates and teachers, it immediately changed the way I operated in life, in all the ways we know it does. I didn’t dwell on difficulties, I became a better problem-solver, and was super proud because holy crap you guys I did improv.

I upped the ante. I moved halfway across the country. I dove head-first into comedy writing classes that were way too advanced for me. I wrote and performed a one-woman show, somehow spending an entire hour on stage by myself. And I kept taking improv classes.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say that I found my calling on stage, got overpriced headshots, and never looked back.

But no. All of those creative pursuits were exceptionally hard, and I still didn’t crave the spotlight.

So a few years in, when I started getting busy with other stuff, it was easy for me to take a break from improv. It was easy to let months pass. And easy to then let the months pass in packs of 12. After four years away, it became too hard to go back.

I didn’t realize how big a mistake I was making, because I was still using what I learned in those first improv experiences to say “yes” to things. I mean, I wrote a book for crying out loud – and accomplished in eight months what most writers have 18 to do.

It was a huge challenge. But a challenge I knew I could do as long as I sacrificed enough sleep. Big workload, low risk.

I was accomplishing, but not growing. That’s not what improv — and by extension, Colbert — taught me to do.

When Colbert and I spoke that night, standing just feet from the first stage I ever improvised on, the end of The Colbert Report was four weeks away. It would be nine whole months before he returned to television. I dreaded it, wondering what I’d do with myself in his absence.

The answer was in his question. I would make up for lost time, and “yes” the fuck outta 2015.

In January, I went to my first improv jam, and (predictably) sucked in front of Colin Mochrie. “Get in trouble,” Colbert once said in an interview. “You’ll never get good unless you fail.” I chose to chalk this up as a win.

I took some refresher classes at Bad Dog Theatre, where a whole new generation was discovering improv while I re-discovered it.

I did a three-day intensive Second City Chicago (Colbert’s old stomping grounds), where Jay Steigmann made me prove that I don’t suck at sketch writing after all, and Rachael Mason made me wish I wasn’t too old to be adopted by her.

I wrote a pilot, a daunting and painful process, often with little to show for in the end. I did it anyway.

I studied theatrical clown, a difficult and vulnerable artform for anyone, but thick with layers of anxiety for me. Can I handle looking like an idiot? Can I handle people knowing that I want to look like an idiot? AM I an idiot for worrying? I pushed through my nerves to develop a solo piece, and was invited to perform it on the biggest stage I’ll likely ever step on.

It was hard. All of it. Performing will never be in my DNA, and I’ll always feel like I’ve had to work harder than those who are hungry for it. But it’s because it’s hard that I’m a better person for pushing myself towards it. Each and every one of these creative challenges has made me stronger and my life richer.

I learned this year that just saying “yes” over and over again, in itself, doesn’t cause growth. I need to say “yes” louder, and say it in agreement to bigger and scarier things. Otherwise, all I’m doing is repeating a scene I already know the ending to.

I’ll be in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre when Colbert tapes his Late Show premiere on Sept. 8, officially marking the end of my fandom vacation.

But as excited as I am to watch Colbert’s next chapter take shape, I’m even more excited about my own. I have pilot script rewrites to finish, a clown character to develop, and fall improv classes to get into the groove of.

And then?

Like in any good improv scene, I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know “yes” will take me there, as long as I say it loud enough.

Sharilyn Johnson is the author of Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. She has been an entertainment reporter since 1995, focusing on comedy since 1998. Her blog, Third Beat.com, is required reading for comedy nerds. Follow her on twitter @thirdbeat.

If you’ve just joined us recently, welcome! Below you’ll find some of our most-read topics to date, so pull up a bentwood chair and enjoy.

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

How-To Posts

Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv

Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv

How To Succeed At Anything by Being Yourself

Audition Tips From The Other Side Of The Table

How To Write A Kickass Performer Bio

Performance Anxiety: How To Dissolve Pre-show Nerves

How Cameron Got Over His Anxiety (And So Can You!)

Harold/Long Form & Scene Work

Openings: The Good, The Bad & The Funny

Somebody Edit This, Please

John Lutz on Keeping It Simple

Enjoy The Silence: Improvising Without Dialogue Part One and Part Two

On Coaches, Chemistry, And Finding Your Dream Team

Specificity: Why Pabst Blue Ribbon Beats Whatever You’re Drinking

All By Myself: Solo Improv

How I Lost Interest In Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun

Great Guest Posts

12 Tips For Festival Organizers by Amy Shostak

12 Tips For Improvisers Attending Comedy Festivals by Matt Folliott

7 Tips For Surviving An Improv Jam by Laura Bailey

Now’s The Time To Know The New by David Razowsky

How Not To Get Sued (A Guide for Canadian Comedians) by Rob Norman

Never Give Up by Jimmy Carrane

How To Avoid Being A Creep by Conor Bradbury

Improv Community & Insight

For The Love of Art, Pay People

Why Improv Is Good For Business

The Art of Comedy

When “Yes, And” Becomes No

Comedians, Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Random Fun Stuff

Improv Explained In Venn Diagrams

What’s Your Improv Persona?

It’s An Improv Thing

When Improvisers Date

An Illustrated Guide To Improvisers

Improv Forms That Don’t Exist (But Should)

When Ralph Met Becky

Web Series: Inside The Master Class

Stick This In Your Ear: The Improv Podcast Round-up

Video: How To Spot An Improviser

 

This is hands-down the best description of organic openings we’ve ever found. It was originally published in 2011 on USSRocknRoll and is reprinted with permission. You can follow Erik at vossprov.tumbr.com

In the time I’ve been doing long-form improv in Los Angeles, I’ve picked up on a apprehension to Harold openings that ranges from closeted mistrust to outright hate. Many view them as a burden, like some imposing obstacle we must clear before we get to the good stuff. Saying you enjoy openings is like confessing a creepy fetish, like the guy who gets off on dental work: “You can enjoy it all you want, man, but I can barely tolerate it.”

Maybe it’s a symptom of doing artsy Harold work in a laugh-driven town like LA, where big characters and quick cleverness reign supreme over patient, thematic-centered improv. I remember hearing about debates among teachers at iO West over whether Harolds even needed openings. At UCB, organic openings are taught as a more unwieldy alternative to the much more practical Pattern Game or Documentary-style opening. No one has time for any openings whatsoever in the indie community – why waste a third of your 15-minute set on an opening?

“I think we forget that people are coming to watch us do comedy,” someone on my first Harold team declared at our first rehearsal. “We don’t want to turn them off.”

One of the big problems I have, and that I suspect many other LA performers have, is that we don’t have a very clear picture of what a good Harold opening should look like. Yes, at some point when we were students we saw King Ten or Bangarang do a great opening, but we could never figure out how to make it work for ourselves. Every coach and teacher offered a different metaphor. Time after time, we leapt into the abyss, fell on our faces, and watched our numbers decline and our teams get cut. The occasional good opening? Surely a fluke. Eventually, we started avoiding “organic openings” – now a misunderstood pejorative term – and simply gave up, settling for a much more practical Pattern Game, Documentary, Scene Paint, Living Room, etc. … something we decide beforehand.

While at the movies recently I stumbled across a new way of looking at Harold openings that has helped me, at least, give a face to this ambiguous beast. I am probably not the first person to have this idea. And yes, it’s just another metaphor. But if it made sense to me, it might make sense to someone else.

Consider, if you will, the opening title sequence of David Fincher’s film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This sequence is the work of Tim Miller, a talented filmmaker and visual effects artist at Blur Studio. It’s an awesome moment to watch unfold on a film screen. There are also a number of elements to this sequence that I think make it an excellent analogy for a great Harold opening:

It’s a full sensory experience. It begins with close-up shots of inky black textures – water, scales, leather, tar, skin, metal, fire. Then we start to see flashes of faces, hands, insects, birds, plants, wire, rope. It all builds up to a cacophony of violence: a woman’s face exploding as she’s struck by a man’s fist, wires snaking up to a person and strangling him, a drowning man, a mouth coughing up wasps and metal objects, a jagged needle poking through skin, a fiery head melting down to a skull, men’s fingers burying a woman’s face and peeling it off. The music – Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on vocals – surrounds us and complements the violent imagery. You have an emotional and physiological response to experiencing this. It makes your flesh crawl.

It’s exciting. Despite how uncomfortable and disturbing the images become, you can’t look away. It says to the audience – “Hey! Look at me! This is going to be very interesting!” It opens the piece.

It’s abstract, and comfortable with being abstract. It knows that the following two hours will be nothing but scenes, so it embraces the opportunity to be something completely different and weird for a moment. In fact, we barely see any human forms at all – just a variety of textures and close-ups of body parts. This isn’t two minutes of logic – it’s raw emotion. Fincher called it “primordial sort of tar and ooze of the subconscious… sort of her [Lisbeth’s] nightmare.” In a way, this sequence tells us exactly the kind of person Lisbeth Salander is.

Unlike the rest of the show, but specific to the show. Aesthetically speaking, the sequence looks and sounds nothing like the rest of the movie. As a movie, Dragon Tattoo is slow, muted, and icy. There’s a lot of people sitting in frozen cabins and flipping through old pictures. Led Zeppelin permitted the use of “Immigrant Song” only for the trailer and the opening titles – the most memorable song in the movie itself is Enya’s “Sail Away.” Yet the opening sequence’s images and music complement the film’s story, characters, and subject matter perfectly. Only this story could have followed that opening sequence. (Interesting note: like the prototypical Harold structure, Dragon Tattoo has three major storylines that cohere thematically and converge by the end.)

Never abandons its pattern. Despite the variety in texture and imagery, it all feels part of the same pattern. The music doesn’t suddenly switch to a Beach Boys song and the imagery to a warm sunset because Fincher worried the audience would tire of two minutes of the same stuff. Instead, he doubled down, dug deeper, and made his first choice rich with detail. Eventually, we make some interesting connections as a result.

Does not explicitly say a thesis statement; merely suggests a subject matter. The objective here is not to lecture us on human nature, or how the world should be. That won’t be clear until we meet the characters and see how their actions affect the world around them. For now, this title sequence merely sets the tone: we know this film will explore subjects of violence, violence against women, sex, female empowerment, the power of technology, etc. We know everything will have a dark, sexy, S&M kind of vibe to it. It makes that promise to the audience, and the following two hours deliver spectacularly.

***

Now, obviously films and Harolds are two completely different art forms that are judged by very different criteria. Not all films require thematic opening title sequences. And sometimes, thematic opening title sequences are a little off-putting. (Many Bond films come to mind – if the title of the movie isn’t self-explanatory enough, here’s Tina Turner or Sheryl Crowe with a theme song that hits us over the head with it.)

But really good opening title sequences, like the one for Dragon Tattoo, at the very least give us a tactile model of something to strive for. It’s an example of something artsy, abstract, and uncomfortable, but also something we can all agree is fucking awesome. So why are we so afraid of it? Is your Pattern Game that much more interesting to watch?

If we don’t shy away from attempting to improvise Oscar-worthy scenes with Pulitzer-worthy dialogue, we ought to set the bar high for Harold openings as well.

***

You can read more about different types of Harold openings here.

Photo © Steve Hobbs

Photo © Steve Hobbs

One of Toronto’s most loved performers posted a message recently about his struggles as an actor. Anyone who’s played with, watched, or been taught by Kris Siddiqi will tell you that he is hilarious, talented, kind, and generous.

We’ve written before about rejection, and the need to refocus your efforts. While that’s true, it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for change. Kris spoke in more detail about his decision with The Backline Podcast. Click here to listen.

Photo © Marcel St. Pierre

Photo © Neil Muscott

Here’s a rant for ya

There’s this feeling I get when I go to pick up my son from school – it’s a feeling of being unwanted, of not being good enough, of never having the right amount of…something. There are times when I stand at the school doors to pick up my son, and upon the very first glance of me, he begins to cry. He cries because I’m not mom. He was expecting his mom. It’s a feeling that hits me so hard in the gut and the heart – to know that I’m so undesired that the sight of me causes my son to burst out in tears. It make me want to burst out in tears.

This feeling is the exact same feeling I get when dealing with the world that I work in. And after feeling this not only from my son, but from the business that I’ve tried so hard to navigate, I’ve decided that I’m done.

After a long time of trying to be part of this machine one calls the Entertainment Industry, I’m finished, I’m done. I’m hanging up my hat and walking away from years of frustration, stress, anxiety, depression and complete and utter hopelessness. I’m done with having to know that I’m not white enough, or I’m not dark enough, or that my complexion is too confusing. I’m done losing sleep over auditioning when I know a role will go to someone who is full white, or full brown, or full black. I’m done questioning my talent level and my ability. I’m done with trying my best and my hardest only to have this ongoing silent rejection rule my life.

And why am I done? Well, I’m done because of you – because you who work in casting, in production, at networks – because you don’t know what you’re doing even though you like to make it seem like you do. You are the decision makers and the gate keepers and you would rather stick to the same old than take a chance. I’m done because you are only tools of a bigger entity that also thinks they know everything: “the client”. I’m done because “the client” rules everything and because they don’t have any interest in me. I’m done because even though I think I could work on your project, you don’t think so because of the complexion of my skin or because I’m just not talented enough. I’m done because all of you make me wish I didn’t have this skin colour – I wish I was all white or all brown, so at the very least you would consider me for your roles as cabbie, or tech help, or delivery man, or whatever other shallow role you’d like me to audition for.

This is the first time ever that I’ve felt like I’ve wasted my life. I’ve wasted time and energy and mental stability on you. I don’t want to feel like that anymore, so I’m moving on.

I apologize for placing such a pompous, arrogant, shameful, cry-baby, feel sorry for me rant on the one place I hate posting stuff like this. I apologize for coming across as ungrateful, or snide, or egotistical…I don’t mean to.

Why then am I posting this? I honestly don’t know.

Maybe I think someone will take sympathy on how pathetic I am and give me a job. Perhaps somebody will read this and think “oh, what a privileged jerk! There are bigger things in this world than your inability to book a show/commercial/anything.” Maybe deep down I am looking for sympathy and want to collect a huge amount of likes and comments on this, but in the end I think really all I’m looking for is to feel wanted, like the days when I go to pick up my son and his face is beaming with smiles because I’m there, no one else, no mom, just me. Maybe that’s the feeling I’m looking for from this industry, but will never find, because the decision makers and gate keepers are not a 5 year old child.

Sorry for the pity party
Krinky Ding-Dong

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

One of the great reasons to love improv is its fleeting nature. There’s no record of it. It comes, it goes. We’re left with our memories of it. Our memories. It’s a nice gift we let ourselves have. It helps if you like you.

One of the great things about performing improv is that we aren’t able to watch ourselves improvise. We have a vision in our skull of what we look like when we’re in the act of unfolding a character. It helps us unfold and evolve that character, for there’s no evidence as to whether we’re “doing it right” or “doing it wrong.” Because we don’t see it, we give ourselves the opportunity to just create without self-judgment.

That is, until someone does something that puts our process smack dab into our eyes.

When I was the Artistic Director at Second City Los Angeles we had a very small space that was our theatre. Just a black box, a small riser of a stage, and flat black walls. One day our stage manager, all on his own, decided it would be a good idea to put mirrors up on the walls. All the walls. Covered ’em. Now every interaction was brilliantly reflected, every action apparent, every movement mirrored.

I hated it. I’m long gone from that event and I still cringe. When I was on stage living a character that was a beautiful woman, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage being a young boy character, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me…a man. When I was on stage acting all suave Daniel Craig-y, now I could see that I wasn’t. I was me, Jewish David Razowsky.

That mirror invited my ego in, my “self” in. It trumped my imagination, it heavily challenged my suspension of disbelief, it brought “me” in, when I didn’t need “me” to appear, nor to be an arbiter of how I was doing.

Over the years I’ve learned to be mindful, to be in the moment, to give focus to what serves my joy and my scene partner. I’ve learned to stop looking into a mirror, realizing that so often that mirror isn’t literally a mirror, rather it’s a mental reflection where we artists sacrifice the joy of the process for the “thrill” of falling down the rabbit hole of doubt, dancing with judgment and second-guessing. I’ve learned to see the mirror, but not to look into it.

David Razowsky is a master improv instructor. He’s the former Artistic Director of the Second City Training Centre, a co-founder of the Annoyance Theatre, and the host and creative force of ADD Podcast with Dave Razowsky and Ian Foley. He has a long list of celebrity friends, and an equally impressive collection of Bloody Mary photos.

HEADSHOT1

Photo © Pierre Gautreau

Teaching new students the art of improvisation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students are so vulnerable and so terrified, and the courage it takes them to simply show up for class deserves recognition.

It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

I believe in creative endeavours we must let our squirrel out to play, and that the door isn’t actually protecting us, it is only an illusion. When we feel fear, our brain kicks in to analyze our situation and find a way to keep us safe. This is great, but only when you are literally trying to survive, like a lion is chasing you or something. When it comes to be art, “being in your head” will kill you. The more you do improv, the more you become aware of the “being in your head” phenomenon.

Most new students tell me that they want to get out of their head, they want to build confidence and feel more relaxed talking to people. Their Squirrel is dying to get out of the Garage.

Think about when you feel the most at home, where you can really just be yourself. Maybe with friends or family, when you’ve had a drink or two, or are in a really good mood. You say what you want, you may act silly, you may make people around you laugh. This is your squirrel running around outside the garage! What a fun free feeling (and now you know you have a Squirrel).

The number one enemy of this squirrel is judgement, aka the garage door: the antithesis of creativity. It is fear incarnate. But “No judgement” is much easier said than done, especially the judgement of oneself.

Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.

When my squirrel is out, there is no thinking, it is just being. I slow down and lock in on my partner/ensemble and everything seems to just come to me. The connections, the ideas, the offers, THE TRUTH. It feels like magic, the audience can’t believe that what you just created wasn’t written and rehearsed, and my cheeks are flushed with fun.

The brand new improv student will experience this a few times maybe, in the early weeks of their classes, but the confidence it builds is astounding. It’s a drug and the students are hooked on the freedom: the feeling that it wasn’t any work at all.

How could it be that easy? And how do I make it happen again? How do I entice the squirrel to come out? Well if that isn’t the age-old question, the problem that plagues improvisers of all ages and experiences.

Here is what I try to encourage in the early days of improvisation, and these points are a reminder for those who’ve been at it for years:

Failure

There is so much freedom in failure. Many of us are programmed to fear it, and

to strive for perfection. But perfection has no place in art. In comedy the goal is entertaining the audience. If that means playing an improv game terribly but with gusto, then you have succeeded. When we can earnestly put ourselves out there and try to do something whilst failing, we will delight others. When new students try and fail in front of each other, it inspires everyone to stick their neck out. This shared experience creates a bond and trust is born.

Trust

Trust to be oneself, and trusting our ensemble. Then the garage door opens. For new

Students, I ask them not to think about being interesting/funny/clever but just to do exercises to the best of their ability. Most of the laughs that come from the early days are because of a moment of truth or failure. When those laughs happen, it’s amazing how much a student learns to trust themselves, and that they don’t have to live up to an expectation of funny: just of true in-the-moment reaction.

Why am I sharing the Squirrel in the Garage with all of you? I know everyone has this beautiful self inside them. If you are finding this timid creature for the first time it can change your life no matter what stage you’re in. Improv isn’t just for people who want to be funny or make a career of performing. It’s for people who say “Fuck* fear, this is my voice!”

*(The word “fuck” does not scare the squirrel.)

If you find yourself in an in-your-head rut, remember those early days of learning and what really drew you to this art form: fun. It’s easy to take a billion classes and to get mucked up with all the things you should be doing, but how is your squirrel going to get out of the garage with all those rules in the way?

There is no perfect improviser, and no right way to do this art form, so go back to what makes you giggle and go from there. As the lovely Susan Messing always says, “If you’re not having fun, then you are the asshole.”

Paloma Nuñez is an actress/improviser/comedian living in Toronto. She has had the joy of performing improv for over 10 years and has performed in many festivals, including NYC, Chicago, the Carolinas, Vancouver and Edmonton. She performs with the Bad Dog Theatre Co’s Theatresports, and with the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated Bad Dog Repertory Players. She co-produced Throne of Games, also nominated for a CCA. Catch her in the feature film, Spotlight, coming out in 2015. She likes hugs. 

Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 9.32.02 AM

One of the reasons I started doing the podcast Improv Nerd was to show younger improvisers who are starting out that everyone faces struggles on their way to the top. What I find the most fascinating when I interview improvisers who have “made it” is how each of my guests have dealt with and overcome their struggles.

No one is simply handed a career. Everybody had to work hard, and most of my guests have experienced disappointment, rejection, doubt and fear along the way. It’s all part of the journey. Passion will always trump talent. And if you persevere, you will succeed.

If only someone had told me this when I was starting out.

Recently, I saw the move, Chef, written, directed, produced and staring Jon Favreau. I loved it. It had so much heart, and he did a great job with the entire film. Jon and I started out roughly the same time that I did at IO-Chicago, which was then called the Improv Olympic in Chicago, back in the late ’80s.

If improv was high school, Jon was not one of the cool kids. He desperately wanted to get hired by Second City, which didn’t happen, he couldn’t break in at The Annoyance, and his team at the IO was pretty much overshadowed. He was by no means embraced by the improv community.

Which makes his success that much sweeter. Even though Chicago didn’t pay much attention to him, Hollywood did. While still in Chicago, he was cast in the film Rudy as Sean Astin’s best friend. Jon’s big break was a huge part in a popular movie. Shortly after that, he moved to LA, and several years later, he wrote and stared in the independent film Swingers. He wrote himself onto the map. From there, he acted and directed in such films as Made, Elf, and Iron Man. The guy is a great film maker.

What inspires me about his story is that even though he did not have easy time here in Chicago, he preserved and succeeded on a whole other level. He was never improv royalty, never made it to the top of the improv ladder. He had modest success, but he did not let that define him or get in his way. He had a bigger vision for himself, something I aspire to do.

Improv can be both a stating off place and destination. It can be whatever you want it to be. It is a fluid art form.

Sometimes, some of us get stuck in this art form, and improv becomes too important and the center of the universe. I have seen improv creatively ruin people’s lives because they did not get on a team or they got cut from a team or did not fit in at one of the big improv schools. And when that happened, they thought their creative life was over. I don’t know what kept Jon going, but I am glad he did. He found his place, and more importantly, he has inspired people like me to realize that it’s up to me to make my own path.

Photo © Sam Willard

Photo © Sam Willard

Jimmy Carrane is host of the Improv Nerd podcast (http://jimmycarrane.com/improv-nerd-podcast/), and he writes an improv blog at http://jimmycarrane.com/blog/. He also teaches the Art of Slow Comedy in Chicago.

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