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Posts from the Long Form & Harold Category

Getting the hang of Harold takes time, and third beats tend to be trickiest. Really, it’s about mashing up characters and making connections in the world you just invented. It’s that second part – making connections – that can seem scary, leading to hesitation on the sidelines.

Here’s a way to help get past the fear. This warm-up shows how putting two things together is just plain fun, however it turns out.

Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival

Part One: Freak Tag

First, play a regular game of Freak Tag. Someone is “It” and they try to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you maintain whatever physicality you were in at the time you were tagged, until you tag someone else. Then you can resume your regular posture.

This continues until the Coach calls it.

Part Two: Zombie Tag

Again, just a regular ol’ game of Zombie Tag. One person is a Zombie, and they slowly lumber around trying to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you too are a Zombie. Unlike Freak Tag, everyone stays a Zombie until the last person is undead.

Part Three: Freaks & Zombies

Now let’s connect them.

One person is designated a Zombie to start. When they touch someone, that person stays in whatever physicality they were in (and makes any sound they were making) at the time they were tagged.

They’re now part of the Freak-Zombie Army, as it were, and must tag others in their lumbering freakish way until everyone is a brain-eating superfreak.

Variation

Take your own two favourite warm-ups and put ‘em together.

Love Big Booty? Got a fondness for Beastie Rap? Combine the two and see what happens. It’ll probably be a total headfuck, but that’s half the fun of warm-ups. Try it at your next rehearsal.

Toronto improvisers rejoice: game-based long form has a new place to play, thanks to Geoffrey Cork, Martha Stortz, and Spencer Thompson. We spoke to Geoff and Martha about their new creation, The Assembly.

Image © The Assembly

P&C: I thought I’d do a more organic type of interview…

MS: “Interview, interview, interview, interview…”

GC: Organic opening!

P&C: (laughs) Love it. OK, we’re here to talk about The Assembly. What is it, and why did you start it?

MS: Well as you know, long-form [teams] had a home at Second City for a long time, and unfortunately they had to rejig their show schedule, which means we didn’t have shows there anymore.

We decided we couldn’t let this wonderful thing die, so we created a new long-form company called The Assembly. It’s a collective of 12 teams; all the teams that were alumni teams at Second City, as well as some of the older, more recognized teams that do game-based long form in Toronto: Mantown, 2-Man No-Show, R&N Cawls. And we also have a sassy “featured” team made up of some of our favourite improvisers, coached by Matt Folliott.

P&C: And that sassy team is called…?

MS: Strike.

GC: [There were] all these up-and-coming improvisers who were showing so much potential and just needed more time to do more shows, so it’s very exciting for us to continue it in a different place.

P&C: Let’s back up for a second, and tell us about each of your backgrounds.

GC: I’m an improviser and producer in Toronto. I started doing improv about five years ago. I joined Long Form at Second City maybe a year and a half after I started, and I’ve been there ever since on various teams, just trying to grow as a long-form performer, and watching other performers. Improv is already kind of a cultish thing, but long form is like a cult within that cult.

P&C: I’m surprised to hear you say a “cult within a cult” because 10, 12 years ago there was more emphasis on short form, but I think of long form as the dominant type of improv nowadays.

GC: Mick Napier came to Second City recently and people were asking improv questions, and he would answer with a long form head about it, y’know? He was talking about long-form concepts in improv. When I say “a cult within a cult” I mean within Second City; there was a branch at Second City who were these performers who did a different type of program [than short form].

P&C: Got it.

GC: I knew nothing about improv, I came to Second City and I assumed improv is improv. Then I learned there’s this thing called long form. I started doing it and over time I started to understand why the lessons being taught in this program are informing all of my improv.

They’re making characters important, they’re making moments important… Before it was “Who can yell the loudest in 12 seconds to get the most attention?” Now we’re focusing on coming back to characters, building strong [scenes]. I think it’s one of those things that starts taking improv more seriously. I mean, people should have fun when they’re doing improv, but it’s that thing of taking fun seriously.

P&C: Totally. Martha, tell us about your improv journey?

MS: I’ve been doing improv for about five years, [taking] classes at Second City and Bad Dog. I’m currently a member of Orson Whales, which is a member of The Assembly. I’m a member of Bad Dog Featured Players, and I’m on a team at SoCap called Ins and Outs. I also had the opportunity to be a Senior Producer with Second City’s Long Form [program], which involved making a lot of really fun shows and getting to work with a bunch of producers there. We also did Haroldfest at Second City, which was a three-day festival.

P&C: Is that coming back?

MS: Yes, not this year but next year.

Jibber Jabbar at Haroldfest 2016, Photo © Geoffrey Cork

In terms of short form versus long form, I do think long form has a big place here, but we shouldn’t discount the role that short form plays. I know Bad Dog has a short form class, and I’ve [done] some short form at Bad Dog and it’s so much fun. It does emphasize different muscles. It’s like the difference between a sprint and a marathon. I know there’s some rivalry between short and long form, but I think it’s time we come together to settle this.

P&C: (laughs) It’s true. Mick Napier was speaking to long form when he was here, but he says improv is improv; he’s an equal opportunity improviser, I guess.

Getting back to The Assembly, there’s been a lot of interest from people in the community for, I think, something less tied to a particular theatre. Not that – I have to go on record here – not that the theatres we have aren’t awesome! But sometimes it can be hard to get stage time if you’re not enrolled in a specific program. What is your plan, your vision for The Assembly?

GC: We specialise in game-based long form, but the best improvisers I know do improv everywhere around the city. The best way to become a good improviser is to do it everywhere, to do all shows. That’s something we’ll tell our teams and students. They’re already doing shows at Comedy Bar, Bad Dog, Second City…those are the types of performers we want. All these theatres work together to make better improvisers.

One of the things that was pushed on us super hard by Rob Norman was going to festivals. Orson Whales and a couple of other troupes from The Assembly went to the Detroit Improv Festival and that was an amazing experience. It’s kind of scary to do improv in a city where you’ve never done it before; like, do they even find Canadians funny? And it was an amazing show and they were so supportive and they loved it.

P&C: Chris Moody is awesome.

GC: Yeah! I think that was a good lesson for all of us, and in The Assembly that’ll be pushed hard. We’re just game-based long form, this is a great place for advanced players to improve their skills. We want to expand to include more programs, but at this time we’re improving upon the skills people already have.

Of course you should be doing courses everywhere, you should be taking classes as much as you possibly can without bankrupting yourself…that’s how you become a better improviser.

P&C: And that’s why improvisers are broke.

(laughter)

MS: In terms of our long-term goals, it’s not only about having teams and getting stage time, it’s also about bringing in new performers through workshops, through education programs. It’s also about taking the performers we have and training them to be coaches and producers, and eventually getting them to a place where they’re able to teach or coach, which is great to constantly have this movement of people coming in and achieving the goals they set for themselves.

Right now we have a monthly show at Bad Dog and bi-weekly shows at SoCap. As we have more people, we’ll also have more opportunities for stage time and eventually we’d like to be in a place where we were before, going back to having a weekly show. And Toronto Haroldfest will come back. I’m on the record!

P&C: That’s great. I was thinking, when you’re starting out – and by starting out I mean your first few years doing improv – even just getting comfortable on different stages is a skill. Anyone who’s performed at SoCap and Comedy Bar and Bad Dog and the JCB, those stages are all so different. One’s deep, one’s skinny, one’s floor level… Speaking of levels, tell us a little more about the hierarchy of The Assembly.

MS: We have three levels of teams. Our grad teams are newer teams who haven’t been together as long: Abra Cadaver, Mana del Rays, Pepperoni Pizza Cats and Chakra Khan. We also have our house teams. These are the more permanent teams: Truman Chipotle, Grim Diesel, Orson Whales and Jibber Jabbar. Jibber Jabbar has been together for two-plus years. And then we have the older teams who’ve been around for a really long time [Editor’s note: Take that, oldsters]: Mantown, RN & Cawls, 2-Man No-Show, and then there’s our featured team, Strike, who’ll play all our monthly showcase shows at Bad Dog.

P&C: That is a stellar, stellar line-up. I do have a question about 2-Man No-Show. “L.A. Isaac” I guess is going to be the no-show, who’s going to be the other of the two men?

MS: I guess we’ll have to find out. Tune in and come to our shows and follow us on Instagram!

(laughter)

GC: What’s great about The Assembly is that all of these teams are pretty autonomous. They’re doing their own stuff, they’re producing their own shows. That’s why it’s such a great group, because they’re not only learning, they want to do their own shows. They all have their own [Facebook] pages.

P&C: I think that’s something that’s happened here in the last five years. Because there was a dearth of shows and stage time for less-experienced players, unlike 10 years ago, I think teams have taken it upon themselves to be proactive, produce their own shows, find their own gigs…but what is great is that you’re giving an umbrella opportunity to all these teams.

It’s also great for audiences. As much as I applaud student shows, and God knows Cameron and I did a ton of shitty shows, the fact is that people outside the improv community don’t want to see that. So you’re giving opportunities to a range of skill sets, but you’re also curating the teams, and I think that’s great for building the elusive “non-improviser bums on seats.”

GC: Part of what our promise for these teams is, we have a board of people who will support their shows. When you’re part of The Assembly, you have people who will produce shows, who have failed, who understand what succeeds, what makes a good show, why people want to go to shows… You have access to these people who will come in and help you make the show. Being part of The Assembly is like, we have your back.

The Assembly debuts Thursday, April 13 at 8 pm, Bad Dog Theatre. Tickets are $5, available here. For more info, visit theassemblyimprov.com and follow them on twitter @TheAssemblyTO

Photo © The Assembly

Some of Toronto’s hottest improvisers strike a pose (L to R): Rob Baker, Becky Johnson, Kevin Vidal, Jan Caruana, Ashley Botting, Rob Norman, Ken Hall

You’ve trained. You’ve rehearsed. You’re ready to rock’n’roll. But where?

In the past, improvisers performed where they studied, or looked for existing shows to be part of. Now a new breed of players is getting creative in the ongoing pursuit of stage time.

Pop-Up Improv

Image © Countdown Theater

Image © Countdown Theater

Retailers have pop-up spaces, why not improvisers? The idea “popped” in my head last year. But while I was still musing, Kelly Buttermore was making it happen. Countdown Theater is a pop-up improv space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Could it be any cooler?) It opened February 1st this year, and closes April 1st. In her words, it’s “an ephemeral space for an ephemeral art form.”

Do what Kelly did: keep your eyes peeled for potential locations, then get in touch with the landlord or lease holder. Invite other teams, and maybe even collaborate with other artists in your community (musicians, dancers, painters, etc.) It’s a buzz-worthy way to showcase talent, and who knows where it could lead? To learn more about Countdown, click here.

Podcast Your Passion

There’s a podcast for practically everything nowadays, from modern love to mental health to mostly made-up movies. Most podcasts are two people and a mic in a basement, but why not do it in front of an audience? Here are three podcasts that do just that.

Improv Nerd is a show, a podcast, and an improv master class rolled into one. Host Jimmy Carrane has interviewed and performed with the cream of comedy, including Key & Peele, Scott Adsit, Rachel Dratch, TJ & Dave, and The Improvised Shakespeare Company to name a few of his over 200 guests. If you can’t make it out to a live show, you can listen on iTunes.

Comedy Bang! Bang! The show that launched a thousand catchphrases, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! has been making fans laugh with improvised nonsense since 2009. While it started on Earwolf and later aired on TV for five seasons, the core players have also performed live. Last year they toured North America, as well as four stops Down Under. Regular cast members include Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly, Ben Schwartz, Matt Besser, and Bob Odenkirk. All joking a salad, we heart CBB. 

Illusionoid Nug Nahrgang, Paul Bates, and Lee Smart have been bringing their brand of sci-fi comedy to audiences for almost a decade. Past guests include Colin Mochrie, Sean Cullen, The Templeton Philharmonic, and Scott Thompson.

According to Nug, “The show is like Twlight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. There’s a host, and it’s this man from the future, the last surviving human, and he’s sending these stories backwards in time in hopes that we’ll prevent these horrible things from happening.” (We can think of something we’d like to prevent, Nug…)

They’ve just signed with Antica Productions, the folks behind Gord Downie’s Secret Path. If you can’t catch the show in person, subscribe here.

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If you really want to think outside The Harold, go beyond improv and appeal to a whole new audience. Abra Cadaver met in the Second City Longform Conservatory program, and have gone on to perform for packed houses across the city. We asked them about their signature show, Bunz Live.

P&C: Your show is called Bunz Live. How did you come up with it?

Molly: Cameron Algie was our coach at the time–

P&C: Terrible.

Molly: (laughs) He was really encouraging us because we’re a very theatrical group, to kind of use our bodies because we’re all really comfortable “movers,” to try and find a form that would encapsulate that. And there’s also this burgeoning community called Bunz. It’s an online platform where you can trade items for anything. Like, if I have an extra shoe, I can trade it for some ramen noodles.

Robbie: Of all of the examples, that was not the most amazingly descriptive example, but…

Antonis: Let’s say this: someone can teach you piano, but they won’t ask for money, they’ll ask for a sofa because they really need a sofa.

P&C: That’s one of the things about Bunz, no cash is allowed, is that right?

Molly: Yes, exactly. No cash, only item for item.

Robbie: Side note: it ends up being a lot of people asking for tokens and beer, and subway tokens are kinda funny because it looks like money, people treat it like money, so why don’t they just give each other money?

Antonis: Plus it has an exact monetary value.

Robbie: Maybe they haven’t heard of this thing called “money.”

Dana: Another interesting thing in coming up with the form was that Cam kind of wanted to expand us to the idea of thinking outside of just the Conservatory. Thinking like, OK, if you’re gonna take the time and you want to explore something and make a show, really think about, “What’s something that hasn’t been explored in Toronto?”

That was something we weren’t necessarily thinking of when we were making our form. It [went from], “What hasn’t been done [in long form]?” to “What’s happening right now that hasn’t really been explored, that might have an audience?” And there’s a huge Bunz community.

Molly: I feel like we got lucky. In Toronto there was this online start-up company, and we were like this online improv company (laughs) no, live improv company. It just kind of worked; we were both coming up at the same time and a lot of people we knew were also involved in that community. And it was an audience outside of the comedy audience.

P&C: That’s what’s so interesting. As you know, improvisers often end up performing for other improvisers. We’re always asking “How do we get people from outside the community to come and see a show?” Especially when the players are at a certain level, performing to a handful of people, you think, “Aaaaahhh, if only more people could see this!” Get more people into the cult. (laughs) And I find the vibe in the room can be really great when there’s new people.

Molly: Absolutely. We’re just starting out, but even connecting with the Bunz team at their headquarters was so great to say, “We’ve got an idea, we’re trying something new. You’ve got an idea, you’re trying something new.” It’s awesome.

P&C: So how did you approach Bunz?

Molly: I’ve played in bands in Toronto, and I had played with Emily who started Bunz in a new year’s show at the Silver Dollar. She played in a band called Milk Lines. I was friends with her on Facebook and then noticed that she was starting Bunz. So when we started playing with the idea, I got in touch with her and it kinda went from there.

P&C: You said you’re a theatrical group. What do you mean by that?

Antonis: We all have differing backgrounds, in theatre, in film, in dance. I personally started in music theatre, I have a lot of dance background, and I try to bring that out in my comedy. I think that’s something about Abra Cadaver and Bunz Live that is really fun, is that we all have diverse talents and we all work hard to bring those talents out.

Dana: It’s all about becoming those objects or those people, so when we all started doing it together it was so wonderful to see other people jump into the form and really do it.

P&C: You’re a very physical team compared to “stand and talk” kind of shows that are more common. As an audience member it’s very cool to watch.

Robbie: All but one person have some kind of theatre background.

Antonis: That’s Jason, and he works at a museum, so that’s equally as fascinating, so I feel like his frame of reference is huge.

Robbie: And we need that difference. Also Jason’s a physical actor.

Antonis: He’s a very, very funny guy.

Molly: He’ll be an actor when we’re finished with him. (laughs)

Catch Abra Cadaver (Kate Fenton, Molly Flood, Robbie Grant, Ross Hammond, Leanne Miller, Dana Puddicombe, Samara Stern, Jason Voulgaris, and Antonis Varkaris) at Bunz Live, SoCap Theatre, Monday, March 13. Admission: $5, or bring an item to trade and enjoy the show for free! 

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

Click here for Parts One and Two of this series.

You hear a lot about “getting reps” in improv. And for most people, reps = stage time. But before you start making a Facebook event for your show, we’d like to focus on a different kind of rep.

What Are We Talking About?

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Once you’ve got a team together, you need to rehearse on a regular basis. Why? Because it’s a helluva lot easier to develop group mind when you know each other, understand your fellow players’ moves, and share a common language. And the only way to do that is to practice.

Finding a good coach is key. Choose someone who shares your group’s goals and needs, or whose approach you want to model. Ask yourselves what you want to achieve as a team. Is improv a hobby? Or do you want to make a dent in the universe? If that sounds too lofty, here are two stories to inspire you.

Jazz Freddy

Chicago’s Jazz Freddy is legendary, and with good reason. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of Comedy, including Pete Gardner, Brian Stack, Dave Koechner, Rachel Dratch, Noah Gregoropoulos, Kevin Dorff, Jimmy Carrane, Miriam Tolan, Pat Finn, Chris Reed, Stephanie Howard, Susan McLaughlin and Meredith Zinner.

Photo © ? (If you know, please let me us know so we can credit them)

Photo © ? (If you know, please let us know so we can credit them)

When Jazz Freddy debuted at the Live Bait Theater, they broke the mould with their innovative, patient style of improv and attention to acting skills. It was one of the first long-form shows to be done in a theatre, as opposed to a comedy club or bar. It was also one of the first ensembles to feature almost as many women as men – unheard of in 1992.

As Craig Cackowski recalls, “Everything about it exuded class, from the Ray Charles music that played as the house lights faded to the fact that they were playing on actual sets of regular Live Bait productions,” (a tactic later employed by Stolen House).

Director and cast member Pete Gardner said, “There was a feeling of bringing your A-game, which established a lot of trust. People let go and experimented with forms and structures. Everyone understood that they were playing it straight – truth in comedy – like Del taught. They weren’t playing for jokes.”

The form itself involved a “two back, one forward” concept with two-person scenes, as well as scenes involving large groups of players. Jazz Freddy is credited with the first use of tag-outs in long form, and was among the first to use cross-fade edits.

There were callbacks, relationships, time dashes, and a modified three-scene structure similar to Harold. But as Matt Fotis notes in his book, Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy, Jazz Freddy was “less about format and more focused on content, style, and dedication to craft.”

“Members made the group their top priority, turning down other jobs and rearranging schedules around Jazz Freddy rehearsals, something that has rarely occurred in a form that for 99 percent of improvisers doesn’t pay any money.”

In an interview with Pam Victor, Brian Stack recalled, “One of my favourite memories of Jazz Freddy involved a recurring scene in which two old men were playing chess in a park, and another unrelated recurring scene that took place in a mediaeval castle. At some point late in the show, a reference was made during the ‘castle’ scene to the ‘strange, checkered landscape’ outside. It became clear that the action in the castle was taking place in the rook on the old men’s chessboard. It was one of those totally organic on-stage discoveries that I’ll never forget, and it still reminds me of why I love improv so much.”

Big In Japan

That same dedication to craft was shared by Toronto long-form legends, Big In Japan. Like Jazz Freddy, their line-up boasted future comedy royalty: Alex Tindal, Sarah Hillier, Julie Dumais Osborne, Bob Banks, Sean Tabares, Sean Magee, Kevin Thom, Adam Cawley, James Gangl, and later Ken Hall, Jess Grant, Alexandra Wylie, Paloma Nunez and Molly Davis.

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

While different from Jazz Freddy‘s slow comedy style, Big In Japan carved a name for themselves with memorable, experimental ensemble work that was fluid and highly thematic. It was astounding to see so many hilarious and highly intelligent people on stage at once, all pushing boundaries while supporting one another.

Kevin Thom recalls, “I can’t remember how long we rehearsed before we actually played on stage, but it was a few months anyway. We were rehearsing in the ITC studio on Wellington Street. I remember that we did break down the Harold and work on individual pieces of it for very long stretches. We worked on organic openings for months, different kinds of organic edits for more months, etc.

Sometimes we were forbidden from doing things KPR (Kevin Patrick Robbins, Impatient Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and BIJ’s coach) thought we did too often. Specifically, Sarah was forbidden from doing scenes about cats. We were collectively forbidden from shitting on stage. Whenever KPR wasn’t there, we would do all those things as much as possible.”

Adam Cawley said, “I just remember really wanting to be on BIJ. I wasn’t on the original. I joined when I was prob 20, 21? But I remember looking up to them as a team. Once I joined I felt like I’d joined an all star team. At that time there were amazing improvisers around, but not all of them were interested in the Harold. But BIJ felt like some of the best longform players in the city.”

Two sets that will forever be remembered by those who saw them were for the suggestions “Anarchy” and “Misogyny.” According to Kevin Thom, “I remember the Anarchy set really well. That was at the Diesel Playhouse. We were up in the tech booth messing with the lights and sound, pulling props from backstage, breaking chairs, running through the audience. I think the ITC had to pay for the damages we did that night.”

Sarah Hillier recalls, “I had that moment while playing with Big In Japan, the ‘Oh, this is what improv is’ moment. Where it all connected for me and I will never forget that moment on stage. We broke the organic Harold open with Anarchy and the Misogyny set. We let it take us wherever it was gonna take us and didn’t necessarily do a traditional Harold. I feel like we decided to be a part of the improv and not just play it.”

For the Misogyny set, the male members of Big In Japan wouldn’t let the women on stage. Sarah remembers “being in the audience and yelling at everyone so much and somehow it was still improv, because we all completely gave in to it.”

Sean Tabares: “I wasn’t an original member, but I was close. I do remember spending a lot of time on specific concepts, but I feel that was partly because we were sort of figuring it out all together as we went along. The feeling at the time for me was that these ideas were all pretty new to our community, and any visitor or any time we visited someplace was a wealth of new inspiration.

I remember the early days as a time of learning by watching other out-of-town troupes and trying to figure it out on our feet. That’s why we rehearsed so much. A bit like teaching yourself an instrument but with access to a radio once a month or so. Guest instructors and classes abroad were so huge. The Anarchy show period was the first time I felt we were really doing it. The elusive Harold that only shows itself if the players are in the right mindset. Going beyond the rigid structure that started to seem like a cruel joke. That only after mastering this ‘form’ do you get to do the real Harold which is whatever it wants to be. Oh man, I do love this art form.

I forget the suggestion, but I’m also remembering one where the first scene involved a pig mayor, and each scene that followed took place in the stomach of someone in the scene prior. Russian doll stomachs!

I do know that I’ve never rehearsed with an improv troupe as I have with BIJ. Not just in terms of longevity. Density of rehearsals. Over my time with BIJ, I’ve been blessed to play with the best in the business, and the dedication to rehearsal has to be a factor. No coincidence there.”

Kevin Thom added, “We also did a set on the suggestion of ‘Palindrome’ where we started with one thing, did half a set and then started reversing everything until we ended up at the beginning again.

In general, I remember how much I loved playing with BIJ because of how everyone approached and studied improv as a serious art, giving it the respect it deserves, while still leaving room for the chaos and fun that makes it feel so good.”

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Photo © Kevin Patrick Robbins

In conclusion, both of these teams were stacked with talent, but they didn’t just focus on how many shows they had booked. Instead, they put in months of rehearsals, sometimes multiple times a week. When they finally did set foot on stage, they were unscripted but incredibly prepared.

We think Del would have been proud.

For further reading on Jazz Freddy, we highly recommend Matt Fotis’s book and Pam Victor’s blog, My Nephew Is A Poodle.

In Part Three, we’ll explore more ways to think outside the black box in terms of format and show location.

If you stay in the improv community long enough, change will come. Sometimes it’s good (a new theatre opening, more shows featuring women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community). And sometimes it’s not so good (a theatre closing, a beloved performer leaving, your favourite burrito place shutting down).

Last week Toronto was shaken by the news that Second City’s Longform Conservatory program is ending. That means fewer Longform classes, no more stage time for grad teams, and the loss of a home for a strong and growing improv community.

There’s no way to sugar coat it: this is tough for a city with few outlets for long form, especially compared to Chicago, New York, or L.A.

When stuff like this happens, it’s common to feel the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, finding a new burrito place. But having been through upheaval ourselves a few times, here’s what we’ve learned. 

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History Repeats

Whatever is happening in your community has already happened before. Institutions from Second City to iO to Annoyance to UCB have been threatened with eviction, lost their lease, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, or worse.

Artistic Directors come and go, curriculums morph, and shows evolve. But as long as there’s a passionate group of people willing to play for the sheer joy of it, there will always be long-form nights.

“But how?” you might be asking if you’re in this situation. “Where do I start?”

Let’s begin with the basics: education. There are so many different approaches to long-form, you could spend years just learning them all. Ask your network for recommendations. Chances are there are some great long-form teachers who want to share their knowledge as much as you want to learn. (And could use the work!)

Don’t be afraid to look outside your home town for specialty classes. iO, Annoyance, UCB, Magnet and others have intensives year round from one to five weeks long. If you can’t get away, see if you can bring an instructor to you.

Isaac Kessler, Rob Chodos, and Mark Cotoia brought many A-listers to Toronto, exposing the community to a wealth of technique, forms, and viewpoints that enriched not only the students, but everyone they’ve since gone on to teach. Some of Cameron’s favourite exercises came from workshops he took with Jet Eveleth, Todd Stashwick, TJ and Dave, and David Razowsky.

If you don’t have an improv impresario in your town, maybe you’re that person. Ask your community who they’d like to learn from. Once you have a short list, contact them to discuss availability and rates. You’ll need to cover the instructor’s fee, plus transportation and accommodation. (Fortunately Airb’n’b has made the latter much easier.) And don’t forget to factor in renting a space for the class.

Calculate how many students you’ll need at what price to break even, and be sure to get payment in full up front. You don’t want to be left holding the bag because 20 people were interested and only four people showed up.

Finally, don’t limit yourself to improv. Acting, singing, clown, and mask are great ways to round out your theatre skills, so stretch yourself by trying something new.

Next, we’ll look at rehearsals and stage time, because you’ll need a place to perform. Before you book your parents’ basement, stay tuned for Part Two.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are many different, passionate schools of thought on plot in improv. If you’re doing a narrative form like The Quest, or a musical format that requires you to hit certain plot points, it can lead to great shows. But for “regular” long form, it’s always been a stumbling block for me. So when this appeared in my newsfeed via David Razowsky, I had to share:

Hey, improvisers. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and he has a great paragraph on the need for plot. As many of you might remember, I’ve said “Fuck plot.” He, of course, said it in a more elegant way. (At the final sentence, please replace “writer” with “improviser.”):

“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can –– I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

Improviser Dave Clapper added:

Both as a writer and as an improviser, I couldn’t agree with this more. Here’s another favorite quote that applies to both:
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.” – Ray Bradbury

Thanks, guys!

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with what form your opening should take, how long it should be, and what (if anything) to take from it.

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They’re instantly identifiable by:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make a move

• one player making a move while everyone else watches

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices are known for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, characters and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. The opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or the more imaginative “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” as Jet Eveleth aptly calls them).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:

Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.

Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!

Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.

Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.

Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here here.

For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss.

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

When Ted Flicker saw the Chicago Compass Players in 1955, he said, “I knew improvisation had great potential, but I saw that they were doing it wrong.”

He went on to open the St Louis Compass Theatre, ushering in a louder, faster, funnier style of improv. But when Chicago founder David Shepherd saw it, he said, “You’ve turned it into entertainment. You’ve ruined my dream.”

Now, few improvisers would say they’re against entertainment. But the debate persists. Is improvisation art? Comedy? Unscripted theatre? Is there a right or wrong way to do it?

It’s like religion. Some people worship Del Close, others revere Keith Johnstone, while others are staunch followers of iO, UCB, Annoyance, or The Groundlings. Which is cool. The problem is when you try to convince someone their religion is wrong.

And it’s not just theatres that have differences of opinion. Even tight-knit teams or instructors at the same school sometimes disagree.

My friend Alanna Cavanagh says “Creative people are brats.” When you tell them “No,” they rebel.

Image © Bansky

Image © Bansky

These days you can see fast, game-focused improv, slow comedy, musical improv, improvised Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mamet, ComedySportz, and even a mix of short and long form in the same show. Different theatres use different techniques, but the end result is the same: laughter and satisfied audiences.

But isn’t there “good” and “bad” improv? Sure. You can see a crappy improv set any night, even with seasoned performers on stage. Most likely it’s because the players weren’t committed or connected, not because they weren’t following rules.

TJ and Dave are at the pinnacle of this art form, and they’ve said that you don’t “master” improv. Great improvisers – great artists – are constantly learning. How then, can there be one right way to improvise?

We asked some people who consistently knock it out of the park to weigh in with their thoughts.

TJ Jagodowski

If I try to think of people who thrill me, I can’t think of one who I would describe as always having done something correctly. “Oh boy, were they right!” doesn’t even sound good.

But I have been thrilled by both improvisers and other types of performers who I would describe as unique, unafraid, generous, interesting, fun, truly themselves, or free. All of those states are very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, if there is a chunk of your mind in some deliberation over whether you’re doing it right. What is right is what your partner needs, your scene needs, your show needs. Do it right that way.

Jimmy Carrane

Since improv is an art form, that means it’s subjective, like music or theater or comedy. Some people love Will Ferrell and think he’s the funniest thing ever, while other people can’t stand him. It doesn’t mean Will Ferrell’s style of comedy is right or wrong, it’s simply just that: a style, a matter of taste. And in a way, the fact that there are so many differing opinions about how to do improv actually proves that it is an art form.

We said in Improvising Better that there is only one way to improvise: yours. And I still stand by that statement. Your job is to find what works for YOU. It’s a personal art form, so what works for one person may not work for another. If finding the game in the scene works for you, by all means keep using it. If it gets in your way, throw it out. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong way to improvise, unless you are not having any fun, then you have a problem.

Susan Messing

Rachael Mason and I did a four-parter for Second City called I’Mprovising RIGHT, which totally sends up those who insist that there is a right way to get there – which is so ridiculous. To me that’s like having sex right. Isn’t the job to get off?

Are there suggestions that I could offer as a teacher to support you in getting off sooner, and your partner as well? Sure, but the ultimate responsibility is to have more fun than anyone else, and if your partner’s having fun that’s even more of a turn-on in terms of this work.

And then you win and the audience was in the moment with you, so they got off, too.

The audience, guaranteed, will never look at your show and say, “Hmmm. They are doing correct improv.”

However, they will see the insecure, overlooked, overbearing, condescending, judgemental players and immediately disconnect from the scene because they are either worried about the performer, or hate them for their in-scene judgement.

The Improv Police needs a hobby: like getting off more onstage, and stop worrying about the “rightness” of it all.

I’ve heard all the rules. I play major nice with my friends. Our assumption is we are respectful to each other in terms of basic agreement, et al. That said, I’m going to get off and it is contagious, and I don’t overthink it, because ultimately it’s simply getting to play like kids but with grown-up sensibilities, and if we’re lucky, maybe a piano player. The end.

We turned this shit into rocket science/brain surgery/physics/chess because we wanted to give it so much integrity to match the joy we felt when we did it. But this does not need to be as complicated as many have made it.

As a matter of fact, I am quite sure that if I can be a fucking improviser, anyone can, because I just didn’t give up.

There are so many schools of thought and all of them I have worked for or with, and they’re all only opinions.

And they’re all great.

And it might infuriate you because one day you’ll be given a note, and the next day you will receive the equal and opposite note from someone else, and that will drive you crazy.

But you’re an improviser and are malleable, and ultimately you’ll be the kind of improviser you want to be, doing the kind of work you want to do with who you want to be doing it with. But you will be able to do everything, and hopefully evolve and not be a tiresome, closed, right-minded little shit.

Isaac Kessler

A quote from my Dad:

“If someone says their way is the only way…run the other way.”

You can’t do improv wrong.

You also can’t do improv right.

You can, however, improvise.

Doing something right or wrong denotes a failure at achieving a final goal, and there’s no final goal in improv. There’s no princess to be saved or sunset to ride off into if we get to third beats in a Harold or defeat The Hepatitis B-Boys (last week’s shortform champs).

Improv is a process. It’s about the current moment, and this moment now, and oops-ya-just-missed-it-but-don’t-worry-it-was-behind-your-ear-the-whole-time moment right here.

So my question is thus: What fuels you through each moment? What’s pushing you off the back line? What’s truly driving you into the unknown?

What would happen if you tried Joy on for size? Not the kind of joy you get when meeting a puppy, but the Joy and excitement of tapping into your true potential. To be driven by the pleasure of exposing your love and your pain. Show us your laughter and show us your tears.

Don’t be right and don’t be wrong. Just be You.

Anyways, that’s the only way to improvise.

(please don’t run away)

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” ― Walt Whitman (not my Dad)

David Razowsky

Whatever works for me, works for me. Whatever works for you, works for you. I will be vocal in expressing what works for me. Please remember that my expression of what works for me has absolutely nothing to do with how much you should enjoy your approach to improv.

If asked what reaction I’d like you to have when you hear my enthusiastic rantings of what works for me, I’d tell you: “However you want to react, react that way. It’s how you feel. Knock yourself out.” If you’d like to argue how what works for you is the correct way, well, go right ahead. Please express your well-thought out opinion. The more you talk about it, the more you voice it, the more you understand what works for you and how best you can express that. Please don’t expect any reaction from me outside of, “Cool. Go knock yourself out.”

I get onto the stage, I look at my partner, I react in that moment. That works for me. Should I play with you and you don’t play the way that I play and I don’t care much about how our show went, please know that it’s very likely we’ll not play together anytime soon for I didn’t have fun, rather I had work. I’m not here to work. I’m here to play. Your play is your play and my play is my play. I’ll express my joy at having had the chance to play with you for I am grateful for that. I’m grateful for all chance to play.

Most likely I’ll walk off that stage and think, “How cool. We both have our own style. That’s what art’s all about.” I’ll then move on and knock myself out.

Joe Bill

If we’re going to use religion as a metaphor, then I guess I would be a Unitarian/Universalist. I think the consideration of right or wrong within improvisation depends on the context in which you’re doing it.

I taught Harold for the first time in a couple of years at summer intensive last year at iO, and coming back to it after not teaching Harold for probably three or four years was really interesting, because of the perception that the kids in their 20s have now. Which is more rigid, which is more rooted in this proposition of what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t believe in my heart, in my artistic heart, that it does the players any good while they’re doing Harold to think about what’s right or what’s wrong.

I don’t remember Del talking about a right Harold or a wrong Harold. He just spoke of Harold and not knowing what Harold was going to be until Harold’s here. He DID say things like “Play to the top of your intelligence” (for my money, the most overrated note in improvisation) and “Wear your character like a veil,” which could lead people in the direction of assessing the rightness or wrongness of a move, in that moment.

I think what’s right or what’s wrong really is rooted in an objective point of view to what you’re subjectively engaged in. And if you’re being objective to what you’re subjectively engaged in, then you can’t engage fully to experience what the magic of the piece can be, because you’re in primary conversation with yourself, and you’re in secondary conversation with your cast mates and the piece that’s unfolding.

When I see UCB Harolds, like strict Harolds, it’s like watching nine or twelve analysts on stage, analysing their way through a living writing process, as opposed to, once you advance your way through UCB, you get to what Del claimed Harold was anyway, which is, “Eventually if you give a group of people a suggestion which they theatrically brainstorm on for five minutes, and then that group of people improvises based on that exploration for 20 to 30 minutes, you come to some type of conclusion You’ve done Harold.”

I’ve been with Charna where a perfect, textbook Harold happens on stage at iO, and they hit all the things and connections were made, and you look at it and structurally, that was a Harold. But it was like a zombie Harold because there’s no soul, there’s no heart; the acting within that – that is, the theatrical proposition that we are here to affect each other, and we are going on an emotional journey, or one or more characters in this piece are going on an emotional journey as much as they’re going on an intellectual journey – if that magic doesn’t take place and we don’t see a transformation of spirit within the piece, we don’t really care.

If you’re improvising with people that have gotten to a point where you know that improvisation is just a state of being, and it’s a state of mind, and it’s a state that you’re in, that there’s nothing that can be wrong. There’s nothing that can throw you off. There’s nothing that can violate anything.

There’s the academic exploration of improv, and then there’s the practice of it. And I think in the practice of it, right or wrong are built into some contexts [like short form], that serve the audience. And in the academic pursuit of it, there’s right or wrong that can keep us drinking beer or coffee together.

There’s a fork in the road when you’re improvising that quickly comes up, and it is, ‘Are you pursuing comedy, or are you pursuing truth?’ And the pursuit of comedy, psychologically, is a masculine proposition. The pursuit of truth is a feminine proposition, if masculine equals goal and feminine equals process. And regardless of what you’ve got between your legs, we all have both in us.

But we’re wired, we have synaptic channels in our brain that tend to wire us towards one as our alpha personality and one as our secondary personality. And comedy is goal; the goal is laughter. Truth is a string of moments. And comedy doesn’t exclude truth, and truth doesn’t exclude comedy, but they may come up in different ways.

A big cornerstone of my teaching is, “What’s organic?” And it’s just, “Discoveries are instantaneous decisions we make that are unencumbered by the day-to-day self-judgemental bullshit that we walk around with in life.”

I teach the idea that “Obligation and inspiration are inversely proportional.” And I think people want to see inspiration in theatre, so the fixation on right or wrong puts you into a state of obligation, and you don’t want to be obliged…unless you’re doing short form, where obligation is a color of mindset and behavior paint on the improvisation palette to help you deliver laughter.

But the other piece is, would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

When you’re starting out as an improviser, being put on a Harold team is about as exciting as it gets. We’re talking X-Men: Apocalypse in IMAX with a bagful of weed exciting.

At this stage, thoughts like “Who else is on my team?” or “Who’s our Coach?” (Director, for our American readers) are usually far behind thoughts like, “What if I suck?” “How do you do a tangent scene again?” and “I feel the sudden urge to take a crap.”

But once you’ve rehearsed for a couple of months and have some shows under your belt, you’ll find your focus turning to your fellow team members, your Coach, and your relationship with all of them.

After being on numerous teams and watching the development of dozens more, I’ve come to some conclusions about why certain teams shine while others struggle.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” – Susan Messing

You’ve probably heard this quote at some point, and if you haven’t, you will. While it’s pretty self-explanatory, I asked Susan to elaborate. She said, “You determine your joy ride. If you’re not getting off on this work, it’s not your teammate’s fault.”

As the Bible says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”

(Thanks for translating, Susan.)

So before you go around trashing others for being shitty improvisers, try working on yourself first.

Everyone on your team has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are natural editors. Others are great with physicality and spacework. Still others are geniuses at remembering offers and tying everything together.

That’s the beauty of being on a team. Very few people are great at everything, especially when you’re starting out. So go on easy on yourself, and your teammates.

But what if you feel disrespected? If you find yourself consistently getting tagged out, swept early when scenes are going well, or endowed as the “stupid ho” every show, maybe it’s time for a frank and honest talk with your team members or Coach. It could be they’re unaware of these behavioural patterns.

On the other hand, if you’re constantly tagged out or swept, it may be a sign that you need to step up your game.

Back when Standards & Practices had about 37 members, a few of them called Cameron out in rehearsal. He’d been hanging back in shows, and not contributing much to scenes. Kevin Whalen put it bluntly: get better, or get off the team. It was a tough-love moment from someone Cameron looked up to. Happily, he used it as the impetus to start bringing it every show.

That being said…

Chemistry Isn’t Everything, But It’s Pretty Damn Important

You can “yes and” your scene partner all you want, but at some point personalities come into play. And just as you may not love everyone at your day job, you may not be gellin’ like Magellan with everyone on your Harold team.

When you look at the top improvisers, there’s clearly a connection between great performances and great chemistry.

TJ and Dave, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Razowsky and Clifford, the UCB Four, Susan Messing and Blaine Swen…all of these people found kindred spirits with whom they enjoyed performing, and made a decision to pursue playing with them.

But when you’re put on a Harold team, you’re not The Decider.

Different Artistic Directors have different reasons for assembling teams. Chances are, whoever assembled yours wasn’t thinking purely of player chemistry.

Maybe they wanted an all-girl team. Maybe they needed a tall guy to balance out the short one. Maybe they wanted someone fat, thin, bespectacled, or heavily pierced.

It’s a bit like The Monkees.

Photo © Wikimedia Commons

The group was the brainchild of corporate executives who wanted to emulate the success of The Beatles. Instead of finding an existing band, they auditioned four guys and threw them together, leading to the moniker The Pre-fab Four.

Compare that to Nirvana. Never in a million years would a Casting Director have looked at Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and said, “These guys are gonna be huge! They’re gonna change popular music and ignite a generation of kids!”

Nirvana may have looked a ragtag trio of oddballs, but they had chemistry and talent in spades.

When your team has chemistry, it’s a whole lot easier to form group mind. Yes, you can get there with exercises, focus and commitment, but when it comes naturally, it’s like Boom!

Chemistry is the reason why some Harold teams last years, while others implode in five minutes.

Most teams have a lifespan of anywhere from six months to three years. People come and go. Some quit, some are voted out by team members, and some asked to leave by the Coach.

It’s all part of the process.

But even if your team doesn’t have amazing chemistry, there’s a way that you can create it for yourself…

Broaden Your Mind – And Your Network

Attend shows. Lots of shows. Not just improv, either. Sketch shows, solo shows, plays and concerts are all great inspiration. So are art shows, movies, and all kinds of festivals. Anything that enriches your life offstage will automatically enrich your work onstage.

One way to meet new people and make new friends is to take workshops. Master Classes are not only good for learning skills, they’re also a way to connect with people who may be more seasoned than you.

Whether it’s a five-week intensive in Chicago, a weekend workshop to learn musical improv, or a two-hour drop-in class, push yourself to get out and try new things.

Duo nights are another option, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. Forming a duo is an awesome way to do something different with someone you don’t normally perform with.

The same goes for improv jams and cage matches. They may seem terrifying at first, but you’re all there to have fun, so accept the offer if the opportunity arises.

A Word On Coaches

Your Coach is a guide, mentor, and cheerleader, rolled into one. They are not a teacher, but they may teach you new skills or forms.

I’ve been blessed with a diverse range of Coaches: some were focused on acting and scenework, some were big on structure and theme, while others were all about play and being in the moment. I learned from each and every one of them.

Sometimes there will be differences of opinion. Whether you agree with every note, exercise or idea your Coach has to offer, try to at least accept it with an open mind.

But when rehearsals turn into debating sessions, it may be time to look for a Coach who shares the team’s vision.

Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em…You Know What? Just Know When To Walk Away

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Photo © Joseph Ste Marie

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.