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Posts tagged improv comedy

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

It’s been an intense week for people in the arts. We’ve seen actors, filmmakers, comedians, and musicians called “cucks,” “crybabies,” “snowflakes” and far worse for expressing themselves, or being concerned with “feelings versus facts.”

But no one goes to see a show about facts. No one stands in front of an equation at MoMA, or dances to string theory.

How do you speak your truth and show vulnerability onstage when tensions are so high? We asked a few of our favourite improvisers for their perspective.

Anand Rajaram What we do as artists is unique because it’s the only field in which we are not only welcome to, but required to express our feelings.

Lawyers may or may not empathize with their clients, or police with their suspects, but it cannot get in the way of doing their job or they’re deemed unfit to hold their position. Artists, as a result, do what everyone else suppresses.

Naturally, that causes those who suppress themselves most to respond strongest, either in thanks for petitioning an idea on their behalf, or with vitriol for challenging their beliefs.

There is no potential worse time for democracy. That means there is great potential for intense feelings and self and societal suppression. And that means artists are well positioned, if brave enough, to emerge as strong social pillars in these turbulent times.

But it starts with recognizing one’s feelings, then having perspective, and finally, having the strength to withstand criticism for one’s viewpoint. Improvisers, like actors, need empathy to understand alternate perspectives and represent them honestly. Big ears and openness may lead to a very transformative time to come.

Christine Aziz I haven’t been doing a lot of improv in NYC, but have been feeling particularly vulnerable considering I’m in a country where I have legal status but not really. I’m living in the US, but I’m not an American, so it makes me sometimes think, well, who am I to be having opinions about this? Or my opinion or reactions to the election aren’t as heavily weighted. Of course the leader of the free world makes decisions that affect the whole world, so my reactions are as a citizen of the world, who of course is affected.

I was at a jazz show last week where the headliner talked openly about his feelings, and people appreciated not only his music, but his authenticity. I worry about being too much of a downer as people start to say “Be positive and hope for the best” and “Be the change” etc, but this is totally unprecedented and I don’t think it’s right to suppress people’s perfectly valid fears. I’m so grateful to brave artists who are speaking up, especially the cast of Hamilton, because now is the time for artists to do our work. People are looking to us to inspire them and give them hope, and to propel them towards speaking up and standing up for others in their own lives.

I’m doing a cabaret show on the weekend and it’s comedic, but I want to fully acknowledge what is happening – the feelings of sadness and disappointment – but also the fight. The energy of “We aren’t going to take any bullshit, and we are paying attention.” But still keeping it light and not letting it dominate my act. The show must go on, but the show must also be mindful of what is happening out there in the world and can’t exist in a vacuum.

Susan Messing My thoughts are obviously leaking into my work. I did a show with Scott Adsit last Thursday, and one scene began with him onstage and me in the house and I said, “Mr Gonzales, are they really going to build a wall?”

“Post-truth” means LIE. I find it infuriating how that phrase and “alt-right” are bandied about as if it isn’t hurtful. At the least, comedy is helping us that feel lost and marginalized to commiserate with each other through laughter during a time that is distinctly not funny.

Etan Muskat I think the operative word in “Fuck Your Feelings” is “Your.” One of the scariest things about the American election is how divided people seem to be. There’s real rage on both sides, and a real inability for the politically divided country to find common ground.

This thing about Trump tweeting that theatre should be a “safe and special place” is particularly interesting, because that’s an idea associated with millennials – that they are routinely attacked for – but it’s also at the heart of the current wave of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia: people saying “I want my world to feel safe and I don’t feel safe around X.”

The SNL sketch with Tom Hanks about Trump voters and black Americans having so much in common was one of my favourite bits of comedy surrounding the election cycle, because it attempted to do something I haven’t seen much of lately: show the common humanity of enemies.

I remember hearing about a study that said reading novels increases empathy, because the reader is compelled to identify with the experiences of the narrator and characters outside their own experience. It’s a more intimate relationship than with a film or TV character. And that empathy translates to real life interpersonal dynamics.

I think improv has the ability to have that same effect, because of the vulnerability of the performers. But that vulnerability cuts both ways, as we’ve seen with Second City performers in Chicago being heckled to the breaking point.

I really believe the best comedy expresses profound truth. But truth is contingent on experience, even to the point that people will deny obvious facts if they don’t fit their worldview. That’s the secret to Trump, but it’s also the secret of all art. To tell a truth that our audience can embrace. So it really just depends on how you see the world.

Paloma Nuñez Share your life, your view, your experience. Everything that comes out of you comes from the filter of your life experience. That is relatable. Someone may see themselves in you and your life, and they might not feel so alone. Art is about feelings, because that’s how we process facts.

(Sidebar: This election wasn’t won with facts, it was won with feelings. People felt unheard and underrepresented, Trump capitalized on that. I mean did he even say any facts? Don’t fact check me on that…)

Fear is the enemy of creation, so you can’t worry about what others think; instead just make them feel. It’s the unifying factor. We all love people, we all want our loved ones to be safe, healthy, and happy. Show people who they are, without the filter of ridicule or judgement, and they might just see themselves in the mirror you place in front of them.

Julie Osborne Against this sort of socio-political backdrop, it’s easy to become mired in cynicism or hopelessness. Unscripted theatre affords us the opportunity to combat that with humanity in a very immediate and responsive way – inviting both the audience and performers to reflect, provoke, transpose and challenge our feelings in a setting that is very deliberately not constricted by fact, but that fails and feels hollow when there isn’t some sort of emotional truth present.

We go to the theatre to see exactly that: people being affected – experiencing things that resonate personally. We go to the theatre to feel something. In the company of others. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking comedy or tragedy (or a bit of both). It’s kind of the whole mandate, then, to speak personal truth and show vulnerability.

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The arts have always been a place for personal expression and social commentary, from Waiting For Godot, to the music of Bob Dylan, to Second City and beyond. Art can open hearts *and* minds, while breaking down barriers. On that note, enjoy this video of Christine Aziz, who bonded with a stranger on a train over their mutual love of Celine Dion. 

Keebler

Knifey

Mr Doctor

Li’l Dumpy

Rémy Martin

Turtleporridge Vacuum the Fifth

Janet

Chair-Arms

Bacon Smith

Maskie, Capey and Captain Spandex

Geode

Greg, I mean Chris, I mean, Chris-Greg

Shhhhhhhhhhhhombeedoodlee

Potato Jones

Jenkins “Get in here!” Johnson

Clorox Bleachman

The last thing you bought at Ikea

Photo © Cameron Wyllie

Photo © @cameronwyllie

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Photo © Kevin Thom

Improvisers aren’t just creative on stage. They’re also artists, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, writers, podcast hosts and more.

Some of these things turn into new careers, but for most, they’re a chance to shift gears, experiment, and try something completely different.

Like Austin Kleon says, “Side projects and hobbies are important.” So we thought we’d showcase some of our favourite improvisers’ talents, starting with Second City alum Kirsten Rasmussen’s hilarious doodles.

You can follow Kirsten on Instagram and Twitter.

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All artwork © Kirsten Rasmussen

All artwork © Kirsten Rasmussen

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.

A friend and highly respected comedian shared this recently, with the plea, “Dear Comedians, Don’t do this. Dear Marketers, Pay your talent.”

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Now, maybe you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of my time in return for a Domino’s Deluxe and some sweet, sweet Pabst Blue Ribbon.”

To advertisers, you’re just naturally funny people, and if you’re going to have funny ideas anyway, send them their way and they’ll actually make them happen.

What they don’t see is that it takes years of training and thousands of dollars to get to the point where your brain is worth picking. Just like they spent years of training and thousands of dollars learning about advertising.

Students pay around $300 in Canada, and $400-$475 in the US for classes. And as every comedy student knows, there’s a lot of classes. Acting, improv, stand-up, sketch, clown…it’s a field where you never stop learning.

It’s not that you can’t do favours. It’s just that you might be forgetting you’ve earned the right to ask for money. You went to school for what you do. You put in the time and money and now you can reap the rewards. Not just have others reap the rewards.

And by rewards I mean that sweet, sweet $35,000 a year the average comedian makes (with many earning far less). No wonder we’re willing to work for food.

In this age of Fivvr and crowdsourcing and Kickstarter potato salad, the line between an investment in your career and being taken advantage of can get blurry.

But stay strong, young Grasshopper. Because the real lesson here, buried in that ad, is Dollar Shave Club.

Two weeks ago, Unilever bought the company for $1 Billion.

The commercial that made DSC famous (23 million views and counting) wasn’t created by an ad agency. It was the brainchild of CEO, Michael Dubin.

Dubin studied and performed comedy for eight years at UCBT. He made the video, which he wrote and stars in, for just $4,500.

Michael Jones was an early investor. In a piece for CNBC, he said he wasn’t totally sold on Dubin’s business pitch. What convinced him was a rough cut of the video. After viewing it, he said, “I knew that Science Inc. needed to come on board…”

Comedy. It’s powerful stuff.

Research shows people rarely make rational purchases; they make emotional ones. Simply put, we buy brands we like. Dubin’s idea for a shaving company was worth something. But his comedic idea was worth billions. The value of Dollar Shave Club was made clear in that creative expression.

Sure, he could’ve given it away for some pizza and free razors. He’s a funny guy with plenty more ideas. But he didn’t. And now he never has to.

Neither do you.

All creatives – comedians, copywriters, art directors, designers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and yes, even comedy students – deserve to be compensated fairly.

Because now more than ever, ideas are our greatest currency.

*We initially quoted $30K as the average comedian salary. A Workopolis survey pegs the average wage for arts, entertainment and recreation at $30,186. Stats Canada reports an average of $40,300 for actors, comedians and drama teachers combined. (That figure seems high – to us and people we’ve spoken with – given that many seasoned performers live with roommates and scrape by working as film extras, servers, baristas, or real estate agents to supplement their comedy pay. Also, some stats are for Quebec; francophones book bilingual, as well as French-only acting roles, far more often than bilingual anglophones.) Still, according to StatsCan, one third earn $10,000 annually or less. 

Drumpfprov

A small black box theatre. The stage is bare except for two folding chairs, and an ornate gold Louis XIV knock-off, stage right. A dozen or so mostly Caucasian students sit facing the stage. They each have name tags in gold Sharpie.

Dry ice fills the house as DRUMPF enters to the strains of “Born This Way.”

Drumpf:          Welcome to Drumpfprov. You made a great decision by coming here today.

I have the best class. I have the best rules. Believe me. You’re very fortunate. Until now, you could only learn Drumpfprov at one of my resort theatres, or from The Sharper Image.

(scans the audience) I see we have a lot of minorities. Minorities love me. Bigly. I’m tremendous with minorities. We’re going to build a wall. OK, let’s do a warm-up. Who knows one?

JANET, a slender woman in her early 20s, speaks.

Janet:             I like Big Booty.

Drumpf:          Disgusting. That’s disgusting. I don’t like a lotta junk in the trunk. (squints) Janice–

Janet:             Janet.

Drumpf:          You wouldn’t be able to play anyway, Janice. You’ve got a great piece of ass.

Besides, we don’t need warm-ups. I have the best exercises. Believe me. Let’s do some scenes.

Drumpf sits in the gold chair. CLAIRE and ZOE start a scene.

Claire:            Hi boss, I typed up those forms you wanted.

Drumpf:          Excuse me…excuse me!

They stop.

Drumpf:          Can anyone tell me why this scene is a disaster?

JORDAN, a 30-something black man, raises his hand.

Jordan:          There was no emotion?

Drumpf:          Wrong. The boss should be a man, and the secretary is like a 5 at best. Next!

MOLLY and DUSTIN start a scene.

Molly:             Dad, I’m going to school now.

Dustin:           Have a good day, honey.

Drumpf:          Excuse me…excuse me! You need to show her more affection. A lot more. Remember, she’s your daughter. OK, next.

DANA and JAKE sit centre stage. TOM enters, miming a tray.

Dana:             I’m really enjoying this first date.

Jake:              Me too.

Tom:              Here’s your mojitos. Are you ready to order?

Drumpf:         (turns to audience) Who has status here?

Janet:             Is it Dana?

(Drumpf rolls his eyes)

Dustin:           Tom does.

Drumpf:          Are any of you paying attention? I have status. I have the highest status. Always. Believe me.

Now I’m gonna teach you how to raise the stakes, Drumpf-style. I call it Drumpf Stakes.

Drumpf walks centre stage.

Drumpf:          Janice, get up here.

Reluctantly, Janet joins him.

Drumpf:          I love cats.

Janet:             Here, I brought you a kitten.

Drumpf:          I don’t like cats. I think I’ve made that very clear. I’ve never liked cats.

(to audience) See what I did there? OK, now everyone pair up. I want you to look at each other and tell me who you are to each other. Go.

Sara:               I’m a Harvard professor, and Matias is my student.

Drumpf:          Is that a joke? Did you even look at him? You’re obviously a receptionist, and Matias is a drug lord.

Drumpf turns to MATIAS.

Drumpf:          Where are you from?

Matias:           Buffalo.

Drumpf:          Yeah. But where are you from?

Matias:           You mean my parents? They’re from upstate New York.

Drumpf:          (sighs) Fine, Lyin’ Matias. If that’s the way you want it. I’m just saying play the scene a little more real. They don’t all have to be rape scenes, but a lot of them will be.

All right, we’ve got time for one group scene.

Zoe walks on stage. She clearly mimes being a scientist, using test tubes in a lab. DANNY enters.

Danny:           Hey babe, when’s dinner?

Zoe:                Uhhh…soon. I’m just mixing the salad dressing.

Matias enters. He starts to speak but is cut off by Danny, who throws himself in front of Zoe.

Danny:          Don’t rape her!

Jordan enters.

Jordan:           Whoa, what’s with all the screaming?

Danny points at him with rage.

Danny:            You’re the worst President!

SFX:               (slow clap)

Drumpf:           Great.

(Lights out)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.