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Posts tagged long form improv

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

“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

The Whiplash

The Coach steps out and introduces the team, saying:

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re very excited to be here. Tonight we’ll be doing a brand new kind of improv, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s breathtakingly bold, hilarious, and heartbreaking. I promise you’ll never forget this astonishing set. The team’s been rehearsing it for months, so please sit back and enjoy The (Mosquito/Can Opener/Banana/ Shoelace/whatever pops in the Coach’s head).”

Coach smirks at the performers, exits.

The Get                                                                                                            

A 25-minute set where the team spends the entire time getting the suggestion.

Players start by explaining the rules of the show they’re about to perform (“This microphone is a lever that takes us to another dimension.” “When I snap my fingers, we start speaking in Russian.” etc.) Players can also riff off of each other’s suggestions, tell monologues, scene paint, or do whatever it takes to fill their allotted time.

When they finally take a suggestion, lights out.

The Deep End

Grab a Level A student and throw them in with the highest-ranking Harold team.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Short Form Long

A 25-minute set of a short-form game. If it’s “Sit, Stand, Bend,” openings and group games would incorporate all three actions, and edits would be done while bending over, or sitting in a chair and scraping it across the stage.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Three players. One puts on noise-cancelling headphones, the second blindfolds him or herself, and the third tapes their mouth shut for the entire set.

The Tweet

At the start of the show, everyone (performers and audience) logs on to twitter.

Players are seated with their smartphones on stage. They tweet to each other, line by line, never looking up from their phones.

The audience watches the show the same way.

Deuce

Create a stage at the back of the theatre and have two competing sets. Each team gives and takes focus, going scene by scene.

Halfway through the show, the audience faces their chair towards whichever show is better. One team wins when they get the other audience’s whole front row to turn their backs.

Reverse Steamroller

A strong improviser who normally drives scenes walks out on stage. Before they can utter a word, players on the side narrate all of the dialogue and action for him/her.

The Dinner Party

Two performers show up at a formal dinner party to provide the entertainment. No matter what they do, the diners ignore them and carry on their own conversations.

Time Traveller

The team gets in a time machine (for real) and goes back in time, changing a historical event to make it funnier. They come back to the present and reference it on stage.

Jokes will not land, as the audience will only know of the event in its new form.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve kissed more guys than women. And you’re straight.

Photo © Corbin Smith

Photo © Corbin Smith

You’ve had to compete with at least one of these while performing:

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © siaoyue

Photo © James Young

Photo © James Young

This was breakfast. And lunch. You don’t remember dinner.

Photo © Steve Del Balso

Photo © Steve Del Balso

You need to set your alarm for an audition at noon.

Photo © Kevin Whalen & James Gangl

Photo © Kevin Whalen

You get endowed as the President every time you hit the stage.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Deep down, you still dream of being a superhero.

Photo © People and Chairs

Photo © People and Chairs

If you read one more “Women aren’t funny” article, you’ll swear like Susan f#%$ing Messing. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

You feel cool because everyone’s a nerd.

Photo © Laura Salvas

Photo © Laura Salvas

When this guy says, “Take your crazy monkey dance back to Hitler Town,” you know exactly what he means.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

It’s not Halloween. Just a typical Thursday night.

Photo © Becky Feilders

Photo © Becky Feilders

The sign of a good rehearsal.

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

Photo © Madelyn Rideout

You’ve said things that would get you fired, disowned or arrested in real life. 

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

The answer to the question, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” is always “Yes!”

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

After eight years of doing improv, I’m finally comfortable on stage. Sometimes I still get butterflies before shows, but gone are the sweaty palms, the dizziness in the green room, the sudden urge to stay in the bathroom all night.

For a long time, just the act of getting on stage felt risky. Now I feel it’s time to push myself further.

This year, I want to do things I’ve never done, done only once, or never thought I could do. Things like…

Ghosting

TJ and Dave regularly incorporate ghosting in their sets. So does Toronto’s El Fantoma.

Both are masters at creating clearly defined characters whose posture, timbre, and gestures are easily identifiable. That’s important, not just for the performers, but so the audience knows what’s happening as well.

Definitely a skill I’d like to work on.

Using A Mic

Most venues have a microphone on hand, and savvy tech guys like Comedy Bar’s Mark Andrada will turn it on if they see an improviser wants to use it.

I’ve seen mics used (generally offstage) for the Voice of God, an airplane captain, a lounge lizard, and sound effects like wind, rain, a train, a gong, and beatboxing.

It looks like fun, but for some reason I’ve never dared try it. This year I will dare.

Interacting Directly With The Audience

I’ve done this once, maybe twice with my team, and never on my own. The idea of going into the crowd and mingling or talking with someone terrifies me as much as it probably does them. Which is why I have to do it.

Leaving The Stage Completely

Occasionally someone will exit the stage and never return (well, not for the rest of the set anyway). It always seems like a gutsy move, but somehow I felt if I tried it, I’d be abandoning my team.

When I think about it though, the people I’ve seen do it weren’t screwing over their scene partners. If the opportunity presents itself and it doesn’t feel forced, I’m gonna go for it.

Performing Behind The Curtain

For some reason, playing behind the curtain while staying in the scene scares the bejeezus out of me. Whenever I see people do it I think, “How do they know what’s going on? Can they really hear back there? What if the scene gets swept and they don’t know?” 

(Ahh, “What if…?” The birth – and death – of so many great things.)

Some people go one further and do their scene from the green room. This terrifies me even more, so I guess I’ve gotta try it at some point.

Making Bold Choices…And Sticking With Them

David Pasquesi sometimes plays with his back to the audience.

Anand Rajaram once stood motionless for a whole scene while saliva slowly dripped from his mouth to the floor.

Alex Tindal regularly hoists himself up to the rafters, and he’s even been known to get naked on stage.

While I’m not quite ready to get naked, I am ready to make changes. For years, I’ve struggled with “adaptive improviser” syndrome, where I come in with a strong character and then drop it when I think my scene partner’s offer is so much better.

This year I want to make brave choices and stick to them.

Taking Risks And Trusting

When S&P performed in Chicago a few years ago, Isaac Kessler played a character who died while seated. As his character stood up and slowly moved towards the light, Cameron came in behind him and slumped in the chair.

It was beautiful to watch. Not funny, but inspiring.

He told me after that he wondered for a split second if the team would know he was Isaac’s body, and not a new character, but he quickly dismissed the thought and made the move.

This year I want to make moves like that. I want to stop playing safe.

A friend on TourCo very kindly invited us to do the improv set after the show. As I feel my comfort with being on stage suddenly dissolve in a wave of nausea and sweaty palms, I’m contenting myself with the fact that I can always do it from the green room.

“The job is not to succeed, but fail more interesting than the last time – in a more subtle fashion or in a more intriguing way.” – TJ Jagodowski

“When the rational mind is shut off, we have the possibility of intuition.” – Viola Spolin 

Group mind, in my opinion, is one of the coolest things in improv.

When group mind is present, you don’t steer scenes: you’re compelled to move, together. It’s about letting go of consciously thinking and being in a state of flow.

If that all sounds a little “woo-woo” for you, here’s a true story:

When Cameron worked in advertising, he was part of a small creative department. They worked together, ate lunch together, and generally hung out together.

One day Carla, an art director, looked up from her layout and asked,

“Who’s that painter guy?”

Without hesitating, Cameron’s partner Matias blurted “Ansel Adams.”

Carla smiled and said, “Right. Yes, thank you.” Then she went back to her layout.

Cameron spun around, speechless. He kicked his chair over to Matias and said, “I was gonna say Ansel Adams!”

Now, if you asked me, or, oh, probably a million other people to name a “painter guy,” they’d probably say “Da Vinci” or “Warhol” or pretty much anyone other than Ansel fucking Adams.

Cameron and Matias knew Adams was a photographer, but they didn’t give their brains a chance to override their response with “That guy’s not a painter!”

Is that an example of group mind? I think so. (And if not, then what the hell is it?)

I’ve seen and experienced group mind many times, on stage and in rehearsals.

Devon Hyland and Matt Folliott did a show where Devon stepped out to initiate a new character. He’d barely gestured when Matt stepped in, and – knowing the move that was in Devon’s head – fleshed out the scene in just a few words.

To those of us in the audience, it was stupefying. We could see from Devon’s reaction that Matt had articulated what Devon intended, but how?

When I asked Cameron about that scene, he said, “I don’t remember. We were all so in the moment.”

That, for me, is the essence of group mind.

It’s like a school of fish, or a flock of birds. They’re so connected, so seamlessly entwined, it’s impossible to know who moved first. They could only be moving together.

In fact, scientists have built computer models that prove birds in flight are not merely watching and responding to one another. Their moves are so flawlessly synchronized, they could only be coming from some deeper, intangible level within.

So how do you cultivate group mind?

There really is no substitute for spending time together. Not just rehearsing and performing, but hanging out socially as well.

Go bowling instead of rehearsal one night. Take a road trip together. Host a potluck. Or just get drunk and play board games. The more experiences you accrue as a team, the more you’ll bond.

On the other hand, if you don’t like, trust, and respect each other, you’ll never achieve group mind; at least not on a consistent basis.

“Good chemistry is worth 100 practices.” – Will Hines

When you’re starting out in improv, chances are you’ll be thrown on a team with a bunch of random people. Some you’ll click with. Others you won’t.

When that team is dissolved (as most teams are), don’t let those relationships die. If you need to, form your own team with the people you clicked with, and keep playing together.

Chemistry lets you shorthand things. It makes things effortless. It’s why Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and Judd Apatow keep doing projects together. The same goes for the cast of Anchorman, the UCB four, and countless other ensembles.

Like twins or couples who finish each other’s sentences, you can develop an almost psychic rapport with your…giraffe. (Turns out Sally was gonna say “teammates.”)

Del Close described group mind as “One mind, many bodies.” The Caligula exercise can be sweaty and exhausting, but it’s great for connecting non-verbally.

Count To 20 is a good warm-up for quieting the brain and feeling the next move. (If you really want to swing for the fence, try counting to 50 or more.)

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

When you tap into group mind, you step into the unknown and enjoy the act of falling, together.

What’s your view on group mind? Have you had any interesting experiences? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear them.

Photo © Keith Huang

Photo © Keith Huang

This is a great form for improvisers of all disciplines to drop in on and play with ease.

Director’s Cut takes five improvisers and turns them into movie directors. Before the show, each “director” chooses a film genre (Sci-Fi, Horror, Teen Romance, etc.) and is responsible for casting and directing their fellow improvisers for their portion of the show.

Before the first scene, each director gets an ask-for to help inspire their improvised film.

Directors stand stage left or right, and set up the narrative aspects of their film. For example, they might set up the Horror movie scene with, “We see three young men pull up to an abandoned cabin in the woods. They get out of their car, excited to spend a few nights in the wild. But one has an uneasy feeling about the cabin…”

The improvisers then start playing the scene. The director can chime in or side-coach to help explore relationships, the narrative, or anything else he or she finds interesting about the unfolding story.

The director can also set up character archetypes and names; anything really, as long as they leave room for the performers to play.

After we see the five movie styles or genres, the audience votes off one movie, and we see the continuation of the four remaining improvised films until one movie and director remain.

So much fun! It’s an easy form to grasp, and a real audience pleaser.

(Thanks to actor/improviser Matt Folliott for this post.)