Posts tagged Greg Hess

“Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin'” – Nilsson

If the thought of doing a silent scene fills you with nightmare visions of Marcel Marceau, relax. You don’t need to chew the scenery, and not everyone has to be mute.

Even one silent character can steal the show.

Second City actor Jason DeRosse played a baby in a five-person scene. The other performers were hilarious, but the audience was riveted on Jason. He didn’t make a sound; just lay on his back looking wide-eyed and innocent, occasionally grasping a mobile overhead.

When I asked him about it afterwards, he told me “Strength in silence!”

If you want to strengthen your non-verbal muscles, the following exercises can help.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom


Music is a powerful emotional cue. Some of the most memorable scenes in movie history use music in place of dialogue:

• The shower scene in Psycho

The opening montage from Up    

The iconic slow-mo walk from Reservoir Dogs  

Rob Norman and Becky Johnson did a silent scene with music at Comedy Bar. The audience shouted out “colonscopy” and “Titanic.”

Mark Andrada cued the title song, and Rob and Becky played out a love story between doctor and patient that could only happen in improv.

Now it’s your turn…

Emotional Soundtrack

For this exercise, select two performers.

The Coach/Director plays a piece of music. It can be anything from Carly Rae Jepson to Jay-Z, from jazz to blues to hillbilly music.

The music sets the mood for the scene, which the players perform without words.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s eye contact and a connection between the characters. Let the musical changes inform the action and reactions.

Try it with different kinds of music, with or without chairs.

You can also try adding sound effects.

Watch how sound effects heighten the tension (and hilarity) in this scene from Boogie Nights. (Yes, there is dialogue, but the tension is in the spaces between the words and sounds.)

Inside Voices

This is similar to the Gibberish Translation exercise, except the people on stage are silent.

To begin, choose four people. Two will be in the scene, and two will be Narrators. The Narrators stand on either side of the stage or rehearsal space. The other two ask for a location, then start the scene without speaking.

They can be sitting, standing, miming an action; it doesn’t really matter. The only rule is, no talking.

Allow the performers to settle in for 20 to 30 seconds, giving them time to get comfortable with their character and make eye contact with their scene partner.

One Narrator then voices a thought inside the head of the character closest to him.

The second Narrator then voices the other character’s thoughts.

Since all the dialogue is internal, the characters can’t hear what each other is thinking. For example:

Narrator 1: Look at Brad, sitting there all smug. What a d-bag.

Narrator 2: Cathy sure is pretty. I wonder if she likes me?

So we’ve established that Player 1, voiced by Narrator 1, is repulsed by Player 2. Meanwhile Player 2, voiced by Narrator 2, has a crush on Player 1.

From here, both the Players and Narrators can have fun ratcheting up the tension between them, since all of the thoughts – however outrageous they might become – are in the characters’ heads, while their outward appearance might suggest something else.

1 to 50

This exercise demonstrates the importance of tone and body language, and the unimportance of words when we communicate.

Two people start a scene, with or without a suggestion. Instead of words, they can only say numbers. The players take turns until they reach 50. For instance:

Player 1: One.

Player 2: Two.

Player 1: (quizzical) Three, four?

Player 2: (excited) Five-six-seven!

Notice how quickly we become emotional when we don’t have words to hide behind. In order to communicate your point of view, tone and physicality become much more important.

Good Morning Fucko

This exercise is great fun to watch and play. The Coach/Director may side coach, in order to keep players focused on responding to each other, while maintaining their own point of view.

To begin, place two chairs close to each other, facing the audience. This will be the bed.

Two players lie back in the chairs with their eyes closed. They silently choose a deal, or point of view, for themselves as they “sleep.”

After 10 or 15 seconds, the Coach/Director says, “Good morning, Fucko.”

Both people wake up, in character.

The scene plays out silently, as the performers discover where they are, and who these characters are to each other.

Are they married? Roommates? Was it a one-night stand?

Remind players to check in with each other as they go about their day.

Don’t race through activities. If your character makes the bed, don’t just flip the covers and walk away – unless that’s how that character makes a bed.

If you step in the shower, turn on the taps. Then grab the soap. Does it have a hair in it? Ewww. Find the shampoo, and so on.

Or maybe you skip the shower and find yourselves sitting across the table having cereal.

What is the vibe between you? That’s the scene.

(Thanks to Todd Stashwick, Adam Cawley, Rob Norman, Jason DeRosse, Susan Messing, Tom Vest, Greg Hess, and David Razowsky for their help with this post. Stay tuned for more exercises in Part Two.)

This warm-up is very physical and a lot of fun. It requires a good-sized floor space for maximum efficacy. It also requires an odd number of players.

Begin by walking around the room, imagining you are all ants, walking on the top of a giant graham cracker that’s floating in a glass of milk.

The object is to keep the cracker balanced at all times. In order to do this, players must try to fill the negative spaces between them evenly.

Start by walking slowly at first, then gradually get faster. The Director may coach people “There’s a space! Somebody fill it!” etc., to keep the cracker from tipping over.

When everyone is almost running across the surface of the graham cracker, the Director tells players to partner up.

One person will be left without a partner. The group is then told to move away from that person and look at them.

The Director asks the lone person how they feel. The answer may be “bad,” “lonely,” “left out,” “stupid,” or something along those lines.

The group then runs the exercise again. This time when the Director says “Grab a partner,” people will tend to do so faster, because they don’t want to be left alone.

The third time around, everything will be faster still, and people will practically claw each other to get a partner.

The Take-away:

• We begin to become more aware as the game progresses – there is no phoning it in.

• Despite silly circumstances or rules, we begin to play the game (scene) more seriously and with real emotional attachment, both to the balance of the cracker, and to not being left alone.

• Because we started to feel something real (tired, frustrated, giddy, joy, etc.) during this, we then have to trust we can do the same things on stage if we take the scene and let it affect us.

(Thanks to Greg Hess for his help with this post, and to 500 Clown for the exercise.)

Photo © Keith Huang

Photo © Keith Huang


Think of your favourite improv scene ever. (If that’s too hard, the best one you’ve seen recently.)

Whether it featured a couple of co-workers, conjoined twins, or the Ikea monkey and his Mom, I’ll bet dollars to donuts it wasn’t about a “special day.”

Many of us were taught every scene should be “Today is the day that…” Unfortunately, that can lead to forced or clichéd scenes.

“Today’s the day we’re finally going to get married!”

“Today’s the day I quit my job to become an astronaut!”

“Today’s the day I win the Nobel Peace Prize!”

Any of these scenarios could turn out to be great. And there’s nothing wrong with making a huge offer at the top of the scene. But there’s also nothing wrong with starting small and finding the “what” along the way.

And if the what turns out to be nothing more than discovering a woman has married an exact carbon copy of her shouty father (as happened in one of my favourite scenes), that’s just fine.

“Be so believable it hurts. Don’t just play the idea of the scene. Dive deep into the scene. The relationships are what’s important. Simple scenes are all you need; it doesn’t have to be ‘about’ something.” – Greg Hess

If you can get your hands on a copy, watch TJ and Dave’s show entitled Before The Party. The entire 50-minute set revolves around two guys getting ready for some kind of shindig.

We never actually find out what happens at the party. Who cares? It’s all about these two characters, from their music choices to their fear of failure with women.

The more you focus on what’s happening right now, the more we’ll lean in to learn more.

Jason Mantzoukas’s one-man Hermit show (described here) is another great example. While it did turn out to be an unusual day, he didn’t start by declaring that right off the top.

Instead, the scene built to a climax slowly and methodically. And how much more powerful was it because the audience discovered the “what” with him?

When you’re fully present and immersed in what’s happening on stage, you’ll create something people remember – because they experienced it too.

Greg Hess is a member of the legendary Cook County Social Club and the equally-esteemed Improvised Shakespeare Company. When his Toronto workshop was announced, Susan Messing said, “Greg Hess is incredible. Anyone who misses this class is an asshole and an idiot.” With a letter of recommendation like that, how could we refuse? 

We asked him about his influences, the importance of team chemistry, and improvising in iambic pentameter.

Photo © Ryan Ward Thompson

P&C: You’re originally from Virginia. Why did y’all move to Chicago?

GH: I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and that’s actually the first time I saw improv, was in my freshman year orientation.

There was a short-form improv group there and it kinda has a unique history. It’s one of the older college groups in the country and a lot of the people from that group ended up in Chicago in the early ‘90s, studying under Del. So the group was started in 1986 and it was called IT, or Improvisational Theatre, in a really original turn of a name (laughs). So a few people each year seemed to move to Chicago. Among those were Craig Cackowski, who was on the Second City Mainstage, and Ali Davis, Brendan Dowling, Joey Bland…a lot of people that still perform in either LA or here. And I kinda just followed in their footsteps.

P&C: So when you moved to Chicago, what was your plan of attack, or did you have a specific plan in mind about what you were going to do next?

GH: I didn’t. I knew I loved improv, and I knew this was the place to do it. The really nice thing is, because I was sort of being a copycat, I had friends that were friends from college that I lived with that were also doing improv, and they told me what classes to take and where to go to see shows. So I sort of just fell in pretty easily with that.

My plan of attack was always sort of, I just loved doing it, and I didn’t know at that time what level I could be performing at. I just wanted to come find out more about it.

P&C: You studied at the School at Steppenwolf. What did you learn there that was different than some of your other training?

GH: Well, the Steppenwolf Theatre is a famous Chicago theatre known for doing great ensemble work. Their alumni [include] John Malkovich and Gary Sinise…. So the School at Steppenwolf is a summer training intensive that they do, and what I learned there was Meisner technique, Viewpoints technique, and believe it or not, some improv. Sheldon Patinkin who was a founding member of the Compass Players and Second City is a teacher there.

P&C: Is that where you studied Viewpoints with one of the originators of that technique?

GH: Yeah. My teacher that summer was a guy named Guy Adkins, who was an acolyte of Tina Landau who was considered one of the founders of Viewpoints method. And she was around, but he was sort of the mainstay. He was amazing; he ended up passing away at a very young age. He was a Chicago actor and it ended up that that was the last summer he taught. I think he died when he was 45 of cancer. That was obviously a heartbreaking time, but I consider myself to be very lucky, obviously.

P&C: What in particular, was it his teaching style, his personality, his technique…?

GH: If people are familiar with Viewpoints, in terms of improv, I really liked that Viewpoints just gave names to a lot of the things that we do in improv anyway. It’s really a director’s language to get actors to do what they want. So what I loved about his teaching was not getting lost in yourself, and realizing that your job as an actor is also to respond to what others are doing on stage. And probably at its simplest it’s that: he really gave a ton of focus to ensemble work, which was awesome.

P&C: How has all of that informed the way you perform?

GH: I was talking with somebody about this today – actually Ken, from Toronto – how I felt like at the time. I was one of the only improvisers going through that program, with a bunch of actors. I felt really out of my league at times. And it hasn’t even been until the last few years that that training has come out in ways I hadn’t expected. Being OK with text in a script and being able to attack it as an actor and an improviser at the same time has been super helpful.

P&C: We’ve had the discussion with a few people about the whole “actor vs improviser,” and is there a difference… Would you say that you feel less of a delineation now than you used to?

GH: I don’t feel a delineation for myself that much. I know actors who are horrified to improvise, and improvisers who are horrified to do anything that’s scripted. So I do think that there can be a difference, but I’m not one to lose any blood over it.

P&C: You focus on the “How” of the scene: How you enter a scene, how your scene partner reacts, how you connect with them. Did someone teach you that, or did you develop that approach of focusing on the “how” on your own?

GH: I sort of developed that on my own after I went to the School at Steppenwolf and learned some of the skills of just identifying human behaviour in your scene partner, and that’s actually kind of a Meisner technique.

The actual language that we use for it, I think maybe other people have used. I don’t wanna say that I’m the first one to ever say that. But I actually developed that with my friend Mark Raterman who is in Cook County Social Club, and we ended up building essentially a three-level training program with that being one of the foundations.

P&C: You’ve been with Cook County Social Club for, is it ten years?

GH: Seven years.

P&C: What do you enjoy about performing with them, and how have you and the team evolved or changed over the years, or have you?

GH: (laughs) We have changed over the years. When we first started, we were really serious about trying to do something new.

Well, at first we were really serious about trying to copy 4 Square, which was a really great group in Chicago that was John Lutz, Dan Bakkedahl and Peter Grosz and Rob Janas. And they were sort of the great, four-person, small ensemble playing at iO at the time. And all those guys have gone on to do great things: John Lutz is on 30 Rock, Bakkedahl was on The Daily Show, Peter Grosz was a writer for Colbert, and Rob Janas was at Second City and just sold a movie.

So they were sort of our heroes and I think we wanted to do something like they did in terms of, they brought their own style, and we really wanted to kind of create our own style.

We rehearsed for, I think like six months with Jeff Griggs, who has been at iO for years and years and wrote Del’s book actually, Guru: My Days with Del Close. And I think when we first started we really just wanted to try to bring our own style and our own way of navigating a long form, and that started really by doing four-person scenes where we would all be on the stage at the same time and we wouldn’t do any sweep edits. (laughs)

Over the years we’ve experimented in all sorts of different ways, ranging from lazy to really adventurous. And I think the nice thing about that group and to answer your question, the thing I enjoy most is, the one kind of unifying thing is, the shows are always fun, and those guys are my best friends. So even when we feel like maybe we’re not at the top of our game, it’s pretty rare that we don’t find something really fun or funny to play in a show.

I think of any group that I’ve ever played with, “play” is the operative word among those guys. It’s just all-out play.

P&C: It’s interesting to hear you say that. Someone asked [P&C] a couple of months ago about “How do you make things work with a Harold team?” So we started thinking about all the great teams that have longevity, and the big thing seems to be – whether you wanna call it chemistry or friendship – genuinely liking each other and respect for each other seems to be huge in having trust and being playful on a team.

GH: I totally agree. And I think it’s always hard when you are assembled by an outside force. For example in Chicago it happens a lot that you’ll be chosen for a Harold team that isn’t by your own design. And you can look at the statistics: I mean, really one out of every, probably ten or twelve teams that gets made has any longevity. And I think that’s because you have to first choose who you play with and love that, or if you don’t love it, find a new group.

I think it’s always hard when there’s no chemistry because you have to first, I think, enjoy each other and find each other funny. Find each other fun to play with.

P&C: Who are your improv mentors or heroes, and why?

GH: I think, for me, those guys that I mentioned in 4 Square I think were the first time I had that epiphany. They were just those people who… there wasn’t a week that I wasn’t there. That was probably my first real fanboy experience.

And then… my wife. (laughs) Holly was, I think I mentioned this, one of my first teachers when I moved to Chicago. And the thing that I really always loved about her – and her group, The Reckoning, was probably the other big influence on me – was how they just weren’t afraid to really trust things going in an odd direction, and really letting it be an adventure of improvisation. It just never seemed like they were afraid to take it wherever it needed to go. And that’s what I really loved about them, and still do.

Maybe as an individual performer…um…gosh, there’s a whole litany of Second City alums that I always really loved. But probably actually after working at Second City, it’s Stephen Colbert. I love watching old tapes of him.

After I got to have fingers in the archives of those guys, I mean… Actually I was watching Pinata Full of Bees, which is a show at Second City that was really famous with Rachel Dratch and John Glaser.

P&C: I’ve heard of it, but you’re saying they have it on tape?

GH: I have a tape of it, and I actually popped it in two nights ago and I was just like, “Oh my God… “ Scott Adsit was in that cast, Adam McKay, and Jenna Jolovitz. I was like, man, this show was just so awesome. I love watching those guys. So definitely some Second City people in there too. Colbert, Adsit, Rachel Dratch.

P&C: I’ve not seen The Improvised Shakespeare Company, but I’ve heard from anyone who has how amazing they are. Can you please tell our readers, for people like me, a little about it?

GH: Sure. Improvised Shakespeare Company is a company, I think we’re about 16 strong now, and we improvise a two-act Shakespeare play that’s never been performed before. So the audience gives a suggestion of a title, and then we do a two-act play in Elizabethan language, rhyming couplets and all, and try to navigate a Shakespearean improvised story.

P&C: And do you do it in American accents, or faux British accents?

GH: We do it in all sorts of accents. (laughs) Probably the best description somebody has given is, it’s Shakespeare and at times meets Monty Python. So there’s definite absurdity to it. But the cool thing is that everybody that’s in the company has either performed Shakespeare before or has a genuine love of Shakespeare, so there’s some real nerdy nerds up in there.

P&C: So which one of those camps is you?

GH: I’ve performed some Shakespeare and also love reading Shakespeare. And probably didn’t love reading Shakespeare until I joined this group, which is kind of funny. We try to read a play, and we meet with a college professor at Loyola University and we have honest-to-God, like, sit-down discussions about the plays.

P&C: Wow.

GH: Which is probably the nerdiest thing any improv group has done for a while.

P&C: I love that. So how long have you been involved; have you been involved since the beginning?

GH: I have been involved for a long time. Not the very beginning, but I think I was the first wave of people that started doing it after the initial audition. So I think the show ran for about a year, and I joined in the second year, and I’ve been with them for probably six or seven years.

P&C: That’s two very long-running [teams], for improv. You’re also in Baby Wants Candy, which is another long-running Chicago success story. You must like singing.

GH: I do, I love singing. I was a very middling musical theatre guy in college and in high school, so, I tried my best to really do musicals. (laughs)

P&C: When you say middling, you mean you think your talent was middling, or you just weren’t as involved in it as you wanted to be?

GH: I think I straddled the line for a long time of wanting to be not only an actor, but also a soccer player. (laughs) And so I’d do a couple of plays and then I would say I didn’t like them and go back to playing soccer. So I guess middling may not be the right word, maybe just closeted. (laughs)

P&C: Do you still perform with Baby Wants Candy?

GH: I haven’t performed with them in a while, and it’s only because it conflicts with Improvised Shakespeare. I’ll do a road show every once in a while with Baby, but actually Baby was my kinda first, to me, my big dream come true in Chicago, because all these people that I knew and loved and loved watching played on Baby Wants Candy and I remember being asked to be in that show was kind of an epiphany.

P&C: Is there an audition process, similar to Second City, or…

GH: They do have auditions, but I actually just got asked because one of the founding members was a teacher of mine at iO, Al Samuels, and I think after taking his class and kind of performing around Chicago for a year or two I just got the invite to sit in, and then that became more of a regular thing as I performed.

P&C: [In Canada] in the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of interest in musical improv. Is it becoming more popular in Chicago as well?

GH: It’s always kind of been around Chicago. I feel like Baby had the crown for a long time of the only people doing it, but everybody sort of knew about it. And now you do see there are other improvised musicals here in town. A friend of mine from Improvised Shakespeare hosts an improvised rap battle, there’ve been other rap battle shows, and so, sort of the skill set is the same of being able to improvise songs on the fly.

P&C: That would terrify me, rapping.

GH: It terrifies me too. I’m going to try and do it next week. I’ll make sure to send you some video footage of me getting booed off the stage.

P&C: (laughs) We’ll post a link.

In Part Two, we discuss acting skills in improv, making a living as an improviser, and Greg’s most memorable moment on stage.