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Posts from the Guest Posts Category

I spent a good chunk of time in San Francisco. One night I had a choice whether to see a circus show at one venue or an improv show at another. I called the improv venue to find out more information. Convo went something like this:

Me: Hi. I’m curious about your show tonight. What kind of improv is it?

Box Office: The funny kind.

Me: Hahaha right on. I mean what style is it?

Box Office: It’s the funny kind.

Me: Cool. But is it like… short form or long form?

Box Office: It’s the funny kind.

Me: Yeah, OK. I get that part, but are they going to do, like a Harold? Or is it more like theatresportsy games?

Box Office: The funny kind.

Me: Yes. OK. Sorry. I’m just trying to figure out whether or not you’re gonna make me sit through an organic opening. Because if that’s the case-

Box Office: Have you ever seen the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Me: Yes.

Box Office: It’s like that.

Me: Oh. I see. So, it’s a bunch of short form games.

Box Office: Ya. The funny kind.

Me: Gotcha. Amazing. Thank you.

Box Office: No problem.

I hang up and purchase tickets to the circus show.

Photo © Mark Andrada

Mark Andrada is a Canadian Comedy Award winning performer/writer/director. He has also worked as a puppeteer for The Canadian Opera Company, and as a clown for Canadian Stage, Zero Gravity Circus, and (with a terrific amount of unsuccess and irony) at a comedy club called Clownz in Quezon City in the Philippines. Mark has performed sketch and improv comedy as a member of The Second City, and The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago.

Fuck the thought that improv must be funny for it to be interesting. Fuck the idea that improv must be interesting to be funny. Fuck the idea that funny is only done one way. Fuck the idea that funny is the only thing improv has to offer. Fuck the idea of “Yes, and.” Fuck the idea that there are rules you must follow or you aren’t “correctly” improvising. Fuck the idea that what you’ve been taught is the way that things have to be. Fuck the idea that I, Dave Razowsky, know the “right way to improvise.” Fuck your idea that ANY school is the ONLY school. Fuck the idea that my challenging you is one bridge too far. Fuck your idea that there’s a line that can’t be crossed. Fuck your idea that you can’t say “no.” Fuck your idea that you can’t talk about someone who’s not here. Fuck your idea that you have to get the who, what and where out at the top of the scene or you’re gonna fuck your scene up. Fuck the “Game of the Scene.” Open your mind up to the concept that improv is fluid, that improv is what works for you, that improv reflects your desire to be you. Open your mind up to the concept that improv is a reflection of how you live your life. Open your mind up to the idea that repetition is not redundancy. Open your mind up to the concept that improv is a reflection of how you live your life. Open your mind up to the idea that our experiences allow us to see improv in a way that we use to express ourselves, and that our experiences and those with whom we’ve worked is of utmost value, and though you may think that my “dropping names” is meant to impress you, what I’m actually expressing is a celebration of those fucking awesome artists who’ve taught me so much that they’re responsible for me travelling across the globe to share their awesomeness with you. Fuck your judgement and impatience and narrow-mindedness. (Should you take offense to that last sentence, please know that I’m offering you an opportunity to see your limitations. I’ve experienced that. I’ve rebelled against accepting that. I’ve tried to support that. Ultimately through frustration and the banging of my head against a wall, I learned to surrender to the truth. I learned to celebrate that change is the only constant.) Fuck your complacency. Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights. Share your light. Share your ideas/thoughts/fears/joys/fantasies/ beauty/warmth/love/mistakes. God damn it, stop sharing your fear with the world. Just fucking stop. You have a choice. Know that.

Photo © Olivia Lecomte

The first time I encountered Viewpoints, I thought it was a class about character point of view, which I’ve since discovered is many improvisers’ assumption when they first hear the name.

Viewpoints are a set of elements that are always in play, whether or not you’re paying attention to them, but that can be easily manipulated by the actor through training and awareness.

It was February 2013 and the workshop was Improvisacting I with David Razowsky. Dave had taught in Toronto the previous year and Isaac Kessler, my coach, hadn’t stopped talking about him since.

I’d never been the funniest comedian, but I’d always been a decent actor, and that was what carried me through my first four years of improv training and performance. I played committed characters, but without much direction. The majority of my games were emotional heightening, but I often let the emotion overrule the scene. The few times I tried to be witty and aloof to stretch my boundaries, I forgot everything else I knew and played for cheap laughs that even I didn’t like. It worked sometimes, but it wasn’t consistent, and the biggest compliments I usually got were that I was high energy and had good stage presence.

In hindsight, the biggest mistake I made was taking improv scenes personally. I found it very difficult to separate myself from the character. I was immersed, as any young actor thinks they should be. I was so immersed that I often couldn’t see the scene beyond my character. Was there potential for a status shift? What move got a great reaction from the audience? When should I enter a scene? What was my scene partner actually saying when their character was talking? I’d been taught all of this in classes and rehearsals, but never truly absorbed it, and found it difficult to apply onstage in front of an audience. I allowed myself to get lost in the character instead of making the character work for me.

Viewpoints was what finally pushed me to separate the actor from the character. In turn, it made me, the actor, more present in scenes and backlines versus when I’d been getting lost in characters. Finally, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I began remembering scenes I’d been in, which made giving myself notes much easier, and made the notes more objective. I finally understood what people meant by “nice move,” because instead of throwing offers at the wall to see what stuck, I started making moves. Not always great ones, but I was able to recognize when a scene needed a move to be made, and was ready to provide one. I began to see improv through the eyes of a director and a content creator.

Viewpoints is a “technique of composition” created by Mary Overlie as a method of dance improvisation, then adapted for stage acting by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, and interpreted for improvisation by David Razowsky. It breaks down time and space into nine tenets: Tempo, Duration, Kinesthetic Response, Repetition, Shape, Gesture, Architecture, Spatial Relationship, and Topography.

This may seem like a lot to pay attention to all at once, but the beauty of it is that they are already happening at all times, so even if you just want to try playing with one tenet at a time, the rest will follow.

As someone who’d always loved a practical approach, the idea of breaking down space-time seemed like a delightfully scientific method for improv. At the same time, the heightened awareness of my surroundings, the constancy of the tenets, and their malleability awakened something very spiritual in me as well.

If all I’m expected to do is define and use what’s already happening, I’ve eliminated the need to invent. I’ve eliminated the need to create funny, because the funny already exists and now I know how to simply reveal it to the audience.

One of my favourite things that Viewpoints gave me was the ability to outpace myself. With so many new things to react to, and so many new ways to react to them, I started reacting faster than I could think, and that got me into trouble. Lots of trouble. And holy shit was that fun. I no longer had to worry about “staying true” to a character or making the right move, because by the time I thought about it I was already making the move, which then further defined my character.

You know that high you get from having a great improv scene? I now had the tools to reproduce it and prolong it. Viewpoints is the science behind the state known as “flow.” It’s what’s generally known in the improv world as “having fun.” If you’ve ever been told by a teacher or coach to “have more fun” or “get out of your head,” this is exactly what they mean. Make moves before you’ve thought of them, and as long as you’re listening to yourself and reacting to everything your partner’s giving you, your character and scene will create themselves.

My newfound awareness on stage opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It made me realize the importance of taking classes. Suddenly I wasn’t taking classes to “get better,” which sounds like an exercise in humbling the ego. I was taking classes to add more tools to my tool belt. Nobody was right, nobody was wrong, everyone just had a different approach, and now I had an approach that worked for me, so I could take what I liked and forget the rest.

It also changed my approach to acting with a script. This isn’t surprising, as Viewpoints is already an established acting method. I stopped caring about finding “the character,” and started letting the words guide my choices. I started learning the words before rehearsals began, so I could spend my time in rehearsal experimenting beyond the script. “Beyond the script” meaning improvising everything else around the words, allowing myself time to try different moves and see what works best. (Believe me, your director will appreciate this as well.)

Viewpoints changed the way I play. The way I listen. The way I respond. It doesn’t replace other schools of improv, in fact it enhanced my ability to apply onstage what I’d previously learned. I already had tools, but now I was more proficient at using them. Viewpoints can work for you, and you can play with the exercises and philosophy for the next five years until it finally becomes a part of your being. Or you can forget the majority of it a month later because it’s too much to think about while you’re having fun. But if you’re lucky enough to find a class or workshop that’s accessible to you, I suggest you take it and find out. David Razowsky introduced me to a whole new religion that was, incidentally, based on science, and I’ve been living it ever since.

Oliver Georgiou is an actor, improviser, and comedian who takes himself way too seriously. He is the founder of SODA School Of Dramatic Acting where he produces SODA Theatre, SODA Underground, Hat Trick Comedy, and specialty improv classes, including an Intro to Viewpoints.

Photo © Jenna Szabo

Kyle Dunnigan is an American comedian, also known for his role as Craig in Reno 911!. Kyle just booked a supporting role in Gus Van Sant’s new film, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and his original pilot Shit Kids just premiered at Sundance Film Festival. He was a writer and performer on all four seasons of Inside Amy Schumer and he won an Emmy for writing the song Girl You Don’t Need Makeup. He continues to be a regular contributor for The Howard Stern Show. Kyle is also a recurring cast member on Tig Notaro’s Amazon series, One Mississippi. He is launching a new website soon: kyledunnigancomedy.com

Josh Bowman recently spoke with Kyle about his upcoming tour, improv comedy, work on Inside Amy Schumer, his mother’s thoughts on his Emmy, and his dog Olive.

JB: So I just thought I’d get your plugs, what dates you’re playing, stuff about your movie, Inside Amy Schumer, anything you want to talk about first.

KD: The tour dates are the most important. The thing [Shit Kids] that went to Sundance…we’re gonna start pitching it soon but that’s about it. And the Inside Amy Schumer thing is, that show’s over now, but…I miss it. So…

JB: Is it done? Why don’t…I feel like I should’ve known that.

KD: Yeah they don’t make any big announcement, they kind of just stop doing shows. It’s a little weird. Sometimes they don’t even tell you if you’re a cast member. Your manager or agent goes “don’t go in tomorrow, it’s not there anymore.”

JB: That’s…crazy.

KD: Yeah. It is crazy. Cause it’s like a family, it’s almost like a family and you go to war together and it’s just, like, it’s over. But that’s the nature of it. Yeah.

JB: And then Professor Blastoff, that ran for a while, and then I guess Tig got too busy with touring and stuff? Because that was a really great podcast, I really liked that podcast a lot.

KD: Yeah…oh thank you. I really liked doing it, you know, Tig and David are my friends and it just felt like chatting, it didn’t really feel like a job and you know we started getting a good following. Yeah, you know it was kind of bittersweet, but we were all pretty busy, and it just wasn’t practical. But I think we may do a special. We’re talking about doing a ten-episode run here and there to kind of keep it going a little bit.

JB: Cool. Yeah, and I think I read somewhere you were thinking of doing another podcast called Brainmail, does that sound right?

KD: Yeah, I feel so bad because I was going to do it, and then Earwolf was dragging their feet and a couple months went by and I was in New York working on the Schumer show and I just got too busy to do it myself. I can go and show up somewhere if someone else has a podcast but for my own I just never really got enough time and energy to throw that way.

JB: It feels like a lot of work.

KD: It really is, and work that I’m not interested in doing. You sort of get into show business because you don’t like to do clerical stuff, and there’s so much of that, and you have to get the website up and all that stuff. Like, my website’s gone, I don’t have a website anymore because that’s how terrible I am at upkeeping.

JB: Yeah I saw that, it was like a spam site…

KD: Yeah it will just destroy your computer, my website just destroys people’s computers now.

JB: Thanks. Yeah.

KD: But I got a new website –  kyledunnigancomedy.com, and that will not destroy your computer and I should have dates up there, tour dates.

JB: Great! So you won an Emmy which is amazing.

KD: Yeah!

JB: Did you bring your mom? Was your mom there with you?

KD: I did. Yeah. I brought my mother to the Emmys. She’s very into award shows. It’s almost like I couldn’t not invite her, like whenever there’s an awards show she tells me who should win, even though I don’t even ask her or care she just likes to tell me.

JB: Sure.

KD: Whenever she sees a movie she goes “So-and-so I predict will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.” She just lets me know that, and I think she gets dressed up to watch the Oscars and the Emmys, that’s just my hunch. She gets dressed up at home.

JB: So what’s her take on the Oscars thing, on the La La Land thing? Does she have like…I’d love to hear her opinion on that.

KD: Well, I didn’t talk to her too much about it. She didn’t love the movie. Which, I was surprised. It seems right up her alley. She thought it was OK, but didn’t love the dancing and the singing all that much, but when I won the Emmy, the first thing she said to me was “Can they take that away from you?” Those were the first words out of her mouth.

JB: …can they take that away…?

KD: Yeah, I mean…you can just talk to a therapist forever about that.

JB: Yeah…thanks mom.

KD: Yeah it’s always hedging…you know they mean well, they’re afraid of being disappointed so they hedge it, they just try to figure out…you know, what’s the worst thing that can happen and just shoot for that?

JB: I feel like there’s a certain level, there’s a base level where they’re like…OK, it’s OK. They have a roof over their head, you know?

KD: Yeah, and I can imagine, you know, you have a kid, you don’t want them ever to feel pain, but…if your kid doesn’t feel pain they’re gonna grow up to be a useless person.

JB: Yeah. Do you feel like that’s kind of the premise behind Shit Kids at all?

KD: Yeah, actually…yeah. Yeah, it’s almost like, coal without pressure on it, you don’t get the diamond. People who are just gorgeous and life is easy… I think they have it really tough later in life because inherently life isn’t easy. And so you get the message early on that you can just coast through on your looks or your…whatever, and you’re gonna have a rough moment somewhere. Everyone has to feel disappointment and heartbreak, it’s too bad but we all do or else, I don’t know you just come out weird.

JB: Yeah…so on that note, I thought Professor Blastoff was awesome, and part of the reason was because you were all very philosophical and very open. Do you find there’s like a balance in your stand up between going to those places in terms of pulling stuff out that you can use, and then like just doing dumb, funny bits that are just…goofy?

KD: Yeah I kinda drift back and forth. I think I like the silly stuff better to be honest. I think right now the flavour is people being really open, and I think that’s cool and interesting, but I like to be goofy, which isn’t really in right now. But I’m gonna keep doing it.

JB: It’ll come back around, right?

KD: It always does.

JB: So…what is your relationship with music, cause you’ll play the keyboard and you’ll beatbox but you also do it in a way that’s sort of jokey, like that character you did on the Schumer show [Rapper Boyfriend], but then you wrote a song that won an Emmy so you obviously play.

KD: I always played music, kind of like a hobby, therapy type of thing. I never thought that I would win an Emmy for it, it was sort of just for myself. This opportunity came up where Amy said do you want to write the music and I was like “yeah!”

JB: But it’s not just that…like you’ll have a keyboard in your set or you’ll have a loop pedal in your set…

KD: Yeah…I had a very musical uncle and I think I got some of his interest in music. I’m probably trying to live out a rock star life. Without a lot of people noticing.

JB: Secret rock star!

KD: Yeah, in my head like I’m playing for a huge crowd that thinks I’m cool.

JB: Yeah. I mean, aren’t comics like rock stars now?


KD:
Yeah…some of them are, some of them have this swagger, like they walk around and they point and squat. It does feel like some of them are doing rock shows. And a lot of rock stars wanna be comedians. It’s a weird thing. Like I know some successful musicians and they kinda wanna be comedians and all comedians kind of wanna be, you know, cool…

JB: Right.

KD: We don’t wanna be so black and white – “you can’t pigeonhole me!” So we wanna do something else…

JB: Yeah…I think you’re right, or I think maybe like that part of your brain that’s creative, there can be some parallels with musicians and with comics, right? Like maybe there’s a similarity like you’re kind of weird in high school or you always wanted to perform or you wanted to face your fear…

KD: Yeah, you’re right. There’s also a lifestyle similarity of being on the road, there’s some similar things, and I relate to people who are musicians and their life is sort of similar.

JB: Yeah. So I know that in one of your interviews you said, and I don’t know if this was tongue in cheek, but you said you might be further along if you had just focussed on stand up, but that you like working on different projects and you find that exciting.

KD: It depends on what you want. Like the lifestyle I wanted…I wanted to do different things. This is right for me to jump around, but if you wanna be like the best stand-up comedian for example, you really need to focus on it. That’s just how it is. I feel like people want you to be one thing, and I understand that. Like Dudley Moore, he was a funny actor and he actually was a really good piano player, and one time I saw him on TV playing the piano and in my head I was like, I want him to stop it! Cause I was like, you’re Dudley Moore, not a good piano player. I was confused.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I kind of jump around. I mean, like right now I’m doing a lot of home improvement stuff on my house. I think I wanna be a contractor for buildings. Like every month I wanna do something different. So I might go into that. Building homes.

JB: Yeah, so this interview is kinda pointless…have fun…

KD: Well, I don’t know, a homebuilders magazine might be interested in this interview.

JB: Yeah you’re right.

KD: Like I refinished my floors last month. There’s a lot of fun stuff here.

JB: So you did improv with Groundlings and then improv in New York? Is that right?

KD: I was in a couple of improv groups in New York, yeah. One was called “Some Assembly Required”, we’d do corporate gigs, we weren’t all that great. I was in another group when I first got to New York but they were charging me, it was just kind of a scam.

JB: Right. So the Groundlings was kind of where it took off for you would you say?

KD: No…I was in New York and I sort of realized there’s no money in improv or sketch, there’s really no money unless you get on Saturday Night Live. So I had done stand up once in high school and I thought, let me do that. Once I started doing that I got some attention and then I got on Conan O’Brien. I got a few things off that, like a manager and agent in L.A., and that’s how it sort of took off for me, and then I did the Groundlings once I came out here kind of just for fun.

JB: Oh OK…interesting. So you wouldn’t say that the improv stuff was foundational for your stand up or for your career?

KD: Not really, to be honest. The Groundlings was…I met a lot of great people there and I’m really glad I did it but it was so crowded. We had 21 people, and I was in the Sunday Company, you’d have like one sketch. They’ve since pared it down, they don’t do that anymore. They keep their classes small.

JB: Interesting, OK. Yeah. So the reason I was asking about that was it feels like a lot of people who do comedy now that is their background.

KD: Oh yeah, yeah.

JB: And it’s interesting for you to say “I did it, it was fine, but it wasn’t really my…”

KD: Yeah it didn’t really help me career wise at all, like I did a sketch show before I did The Groundlings, it was called Cedric the Entertainer, it was on Fox, and that was the only real sketch, you know, thing I made money doing and that was before the Groundlings.

JB: So a lot of your characters, you choose weird-looking people that you do impressions of. Is that physicality a big part of the comedy for you?

KD: I guess…yeah that Craig character on Reno I’ve been doing since I was very young. I have pictures of myself like at 9 years old doing that character. I don’t know, I just deform my face and that character kind of came out of that, making that face.

JB: Right. So then when you do Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump…

KD: It’s kind of funny, like Caitlyn Jenner talks like that…she’s kind of like “Oh yeah!” Her voice goes right up high, she has kind of a lisp on her ‘s’s and stuff.

JB: Yeah…

KD: You know what I mean, like… “yeah baby!” It’s her catchphrase…yeah baby.

JB: Right. Is that her catchphrase?

KD: Yeah kind of…doesn’t it feel like it? I don’t know if she’s ever said it, but it kind of feels like it.

JB: It feels like she says it in like her, in just the way she is.

KD: Yeah. And Trump is like “terrific,” “believe me,” that’s his phrase. “Believe me.”

JB: Yeah yeah…oh God he’s…yeah. This is a weird time.

KD: I know it’s…it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted.

JB: It’s exhausting, right?

KD: When I do the impression in my stand up now, I can feel people just like…they don’t even want to hear the impression, they’re just so mad. Sometimes it’s hard to lampoon him because he’s such a cartoon of himself. You usually go a little bit further than what the person does and that’s what’s funny, but he goes there for you, and there’s almost nothing to say other than what he actually says.

JB: Like Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin but it’s somehow different now.

KD: Yeah. But we’ll get through it, we’ll live.

JB: I mean I’ll be fine. I’m doing great.

KD: You’ll be fine. You’re in Canada.

JB: I’m in Canada, I’m white, I’m male. I’m really….

KD: Yeah, you’re all set.

JB: Do you find writing partners like Tig, or Amy Schumer…is it like if that dynamic clicks you say I wanna work with you, I wanna write with you…is that kind of how it happens?

KD: Different ways…I mean with Tig, I just…you know I just loved her right away, we just immediately clicked, we had the same sense of humour pretty much. You know it was obvious, we just had so much fun together.

JB: Yeah.

KD: I’m writing with somebody now, and that happened a little differently. He’s a funny comic and he just had an idea for a movie and I thought it was a good idea, so that’s how we started writing together.

JB: Do you think you could write with anyone?

KD: Pretty much…some people will be more helpful than other people. I think I couldn’t write with somebody who was very strong-headed and had a different sense of humour, that would be impossible. If you didn’t agree that something was funny and weren’t willing to compromise, like…that won’t work.

JB: Let’s suppose there’s a big network comedy that stinks but pays good money. Do you feel like you could write for it but it wouldn’t be great, or have fun with it…?

KD: I would like to think I would have fun, but I wouldn’t do it unless I needed some money. There was something I turned down recently that was good money but just not something I wanted to be involved in.

JB: Right.

KD: I liked writing on Amy’s show because it’s nice being with a group. In stand up a lot of what I write is alone. And having a schedule’s nice.

JB: Yeah yeah…it’s not just you in a room in your pajamas like at 3 a.m., right?

KD: Yeah, like a crazy person.

JB: …collecting your fingernails…

KD: Like a raving lunatic.

JB: Yeah…yeah, I feel like there’s a fine line between successful comedian and raving lunatic.

KD: There’s no line. Same thing.

JB: The only other thing I wanted to say, because it seems to keep coming up that you like Billy Joel.

KD: Oh yeah, I love Billy Joel!

JB: So there’s a soca song called Go Down Low and Wine, and it’s like a parody I guess, or like a version of For The Longest Time?

KD: Oh OK.

JB: And I just really think you should listen to it because it’s really weird.

KD: I would love to.

JB: Yeah, it’s pretty great. Anything you wanted to add?

KD: No…I’d love people to come to my shows, because I do these little rock clubs now, and they’re fun shows and I used to get like a lot of Professor Blastoff people, those are the best fans…they just bring me things. This is my first tour without Professor Blastoff, but I hope they still come because I would get like little gifts and stuff. It’s nice.
Catch Kyle on tour in the following cities:

March 24-25th – Arlington, VA

March 28th – St. Paul, MN

March 30th– April1st – Madison, WI

April 2nd – Iowa City

April 3rd – Kansas City

April 4th – Omaha

May 11-14th – New York Cit

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, writes for The Huffington Post, sings and improvises

Photo © NPS

Parks and Recreation on NBC had a first season that was kind of rocky, but one that was utilized skillfully in the end (spoilers ahead).

Modeled after The Office, the show starts with an enthusiastically awkward Leslie Knope balancing the challenges of local government bureaucracy and a romantic entanglement with the much less enthusiastic Mark. They both work at City Hall in Pawnee, Indiana, which is decorated with embarrassing murals about its gruesome history.

After a retooling of the show to drop what felt like imitations of The Office and focus instead on what was working and unique to Parks and Rec, Leslie changed a bit, and Mark disappeared to be eventually replaced in the love interest department by Ben, who is similarly well-versed in all the negatives of the work they do.

We continued to see more of those murals, which the writers easily could’ve dropped or even literally painted over, but they kept using them. Before long, we see Leslie and Ben in love in front of the only beautiful mural in the building, of a field of wildflowers.

That good mural is so impactful because of all the bad ones. That good love interest is so impactful because of the bad one. The Leslie we see in the last episode is so impactful because of the Leslie we see in the first episode.

They weren’t planned out that way in advance; they were discovered by using what had already been laid down. Those first choices really can’t disappear; they’re always going to be part of the story, wherever it goes.

Improv is like that, we create something, and it’s good or not. We then have an impulse to reject our stumbles, but it’s to everybody’s benefit if we embrace them instead.

If you hate what you just did, chances are that your partners and the audience did as well, but you can make it seem “on purpose” by accepting it, engaging with it, and finding a way to make it work. If you don’t do anything with it, it just becomes something to remember and say “oh yeah, what was that?” about.

Beginner improvisers seem to think they need choices that are different from what they just did, smarter or funnier or better or edgier or more emotional. Really, they just need to make something out of the choices that everyone in the room just invested in.

If you’re writing a story alone, it’s easy to trash what you don’t like and start erasing, but we don’t have that option. We’re writing in ink, and that’s the story; it’s already been delivered to its recipients. You can’t go back. You have to make it work as is, somehow.

If you’re weaving a rug, and you put a blue square where a red one should be, make that same mistake on purpose when you get to the opposite side.

If you play an F-flat instead of a C, decide that later on you’re also going to play a D-flat instead of a B.

“Why did I just do that?” pops into our heads in improv, and it’s not a rhetorical question; give us all an answer. Why did you? Find the reason.

We say “Yes, and” to whatever we receive, but we can also accept and deal with the things we give ourselves.

Another example from TV is from the show WKRP. In the first episode, we meet broad caricatures, only to see them get fleshed out into realistic people throughout the show. You could look back at that first episode and think they didn’t have it right, call it a mistake.

But in one of the final episodes, The Creation of Venus, everything that had been established is reinforced and replayed, only now with prequel scenes. What you saw is still what you saw, but with new details.

They embraced what could not be erased.

In the first episode of That 70s Show, we meet Mrs. Forman through a POV shot from her teenage son. Actress Debra Jo Rupp says she played an exaggeration, more shrill and embarrassing than she might have if not for that directorial choice, but then she had to embrace it and deal with it for a decade.

From these and other choices that could’ve been seen as missteps and then dropped, some great stuff came, but you’ll never get to that genius connection, that inspired idea, if you spend your time wishing you had an eraser or a time machine.

Don’t wish for a different scene. Be in the scene you’re in and find what’s going to make it great. There’s something great at the end of the path you just started; you just have to find it.

Find what’ll make the audience go “oh, now I get it!” Find what’ll make you happy you made that “mistake” to challenge you. Find your wildflowers.

Matt Holmes has been performing, teaching, and directing improv since 1998, including “best new house team” Hey Rube at Philly Improv Theater, and “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced,” Rare Bird Show. He performs improv with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (mattandimprov.com). 

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