Warming Up To Warm-Ups

I just joined a helpful new Facebook group dedicated solely to sharing improv warm-ups.  I’m always astonished when I hear some improvisers say that they never or don’t like to warm-up before a practice or show.  I value warm-ups as a way to prepare you body, mind, and spirit as well as well a way to connect with your fellow performers.  Plus, they’re often fun!

The term warm-ups is a bit of a misnomer because many so-called warm ups are in and of themselves effective exercises that teach or reinforce specific improv craft.  Even deceptively simple games like Zip-Zap-Zop have an analog to scene work, i.e., making strong, clear offers.  Plus, did I mention they’re often fun?

 Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

Many well known warm-up games are, or are derived from, children's games (from school, camp, scouting) and drinking games.

There are many types of improv warm-ups designed for various groups sizes, from just pair to giant circle of 20 or more performers.  I think in many cases it’s important to play these games with speed and commitment vs. worrying about getting the rules right.  It’s a reminder that failure is a wonderful and important component of improv (even so far as I’ve encountered some audiences that were otherwise stone faced until the performers began making mistakes with scene work and games).

For example, consider the warm-up Zoom-Schwartz-Profigliano, a game reknowned for having an extensive, rich set of commands often differing among different improv groups (for example, while visiting ComedySportz Portland last week, I discovered they did not know the command bork, which is routine in both ComedySportz Sacramento and ComedySportz San Jose).  When I observe performers getting too caught up in the rules, I suggest a morbid mind scenario to encourage them to play faster and fail.  I tell them to imagine machine gun armed enforcers are standing around the circle.  The enforcers won’t shoot you if you get a command wrong, i.e., fail.  They will shoot you if you go too slowly and don’t commit to your choices!  Another technique is to limit the command set to a core set (maybe 5 basic commands) to encourage speed and commitment.

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My general love for warm-ups being said, I should also point out that I think that there is such a thing as warming up too much.  I’ve particularly observed this when coaching zealous high school teams who want to warm up for 45 minutes before a show.  The problem with an overly long warm-up is that it might take away from the energy and freshness available for a show.  I personally find 20 minutes is the sweet spot for warming up a group of 6-8 people.  You can adjust depending on groups size, i.e., a little shorter for a smaller group, a little longer for a larger group.  Of course, it also depends on the mix of exercises and games.

For The Love Of Games: Replay

Many improvisers enjoy improv games because the challenges of the game make play more fun and stimulating for them as well as the audience.  Those happy, game playing improvisers often have their favorite games, and I am no exception.  Today’s entry begins a new series in which I discuss some of my favorite games.

One of my all-time favorite games is Replay.  In a typical Replay, the players first create a short set up scene (really a story since it can consist of multiple scenes) about 1-2 minutes in length.  Then the players replay that scene 2-3 times in different ways.  While I enjoy all Replay variants, my favorite is classic Replay with emotions, genres/styles, voices, etc.  I like Replay for two main reasons.  First, it requires strong scene work to create an entire story in just 1-2 minutes.  Second, it provides a lot of opportunity to explore variations and ways to use existing offers in new ways.  Here’s a list of many ways to enjoy Replay.

Emotional.  For one of the replay scenes, each player performs with a different emotion or state-of-being.  I use that latter phrase because some audience think things like thirsty or constipated are emotions.

Genre/Style.  The players replay the scene in specific genre or style, e.g., horror, sci-fi, western, etc.  Possible genres sources include movie, television networks, literature, plays, etc.  I’ve observed two ways teams perform genre replays.  One approach is to use a different sub-genre for each team member or for each part of the overall scene.  For example with the genre of mystery, one person might be a Sherlock Holmes type character while two other people take on Shaggy and Scooby.  Or the first part of the scene might a CSI type crime scene while the second half of the scene might be an Agatha Christie type summation. While this approach can be fun and successful, I’ve observed that sometimes the replay scene becomes too messy or chaotic due to the different sub-genres.  The second approach is to choose a specific subgenre within the genre.  For example, for sci-fi, all of players perform as if it were a Star Trek episode, or as if it took place within the Terminator film franchise, etc.  I’ve observed that this latter approach is more likely to produce a cohesive replay scene.

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Historical - The players replay the scene as if it took place in a specific historical period, e.g., the Renaissance, the 1920s, etc.

Voices/Accents - Each player performs with an accent or the well known voice of a celebrity, cartoon character, etc.  I find this type of replay works best if the player performs as if that person were cast in the scene vs. inserting a random collection of famous lines from roles that person has played.  For example, if the endowment is James Earl Jones, perform the scene as James Earl Jones vs. randomly injecting Darth Vader lines or “This is CNN.”  Of course, I’m as guilty as the next player for slipping in the occasional reference just for fun.

Animals - The players act like animals (no talking, just animal noises).  Either the same animal for all players or a different animal for each player.

Distance - The players have to be a specific distance from another player, e.g., 6 inches, 3 feet, 7 feet, when speaking to another player.  Sometimes played as it’s own game.

Alliterative - Each player says all of her lines as if it starts with the same letter (a different letter per player).  For example, the line “I saw a ghost in the barn” would become, with the letter F, “Fi faw fa fost fin fe farn.”  It works best when players don’t over think, go fast, and screw up (just like a lot of improv games!)

Words Per Line -  Each player has to speak a specific number of words per line, e.g., 2, 5, 10. 

Generational/Age - Each players behaves as if she was a certain age, e.g., 5, 13, 45, 78, etc.

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Highlander - During each replay scene, a player is eliminated and sits to the side.  The remaining players have to fill in for the eliminated player.  The replays continue until one remaining player has to perform the entire scene solo.  Named for the Highlander films and TV show phrase: “There can only be one.”

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Replay-At-Bernies - Named after the 1989 cult comedy Weekend At Bernie's, this variation in similar to Highlander.  However, eliminated players do not sit to the side.  Instead they remain on stage as dead bodies that the remaining players manipulate as puppets.  In a variation called Spinning Wheel Of Death the ref or emcee periodically changes which players are dead.

Replay-cement - I invented this variation a couple of years ago at CSz Sacramento, but it’s quite possible other people came up with the same idea (see my previous entry Lighten Up Francis No One Stole Your Improv Game).  In this version a key element (item, setting, character, etc.) is replaced with an alternate during each replay.  For example, a lost dog in the set up scene might become a lost dinosaur in the replay scene.  All other elements remain the same, and the replacements do not stack during each subsequent replay scene.

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Groundhog Day - Named for the titular Bill Murray fan favorite film, Groundhog Day features a main character caught in a time loop developed during the set-up scene.  Typically the first replay scene shows that character’s reaction as she experiences the loop for the first time.  The second and third replays show the character after perhaps ten, hundreds, or even thousands of loops.

Naïve - All but one player leaves the room.  The one remaining player performs the entire scene alone as if the other players were on stage with him, i.e., leave room for other lines, reacting to possible physical offers, leaving empty stage for other scenes, etc.  Then each player enters separately for each replay and gradually fills in the story.  It’s important that the established material repeat the same way each time; the players should not adjust to try to make the scenes work better.  The last player has the special job of running around trying to fill in all of the blanks.

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McFlys - Based on the Back To The Future movies, this variation is exceptionally difficult to play well.  In fact, I recall having only seen it played well once, I think by the team that demonstrated it at a ComedySportz World Championship several years ago.  During the set up scene the main character, the McFly, tries to solve a problem.  But he either fails, or the solution produces an undesired byproduct.  So during the second scene, a second McFly is send back in time into the original scene to try to fix the problem.  More problems result.  And thus a third McFly is injected into the third scene to try to straighten everything out.  Of course for the sake of the time space continuum it’s important the McFlys never meet!

I Promise It's Not A Shameful Plug: Choosing An Improv Class

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Wait, don’t run!  I promise this entry is not an advertisement about why our improv classes are better than the alternatives.  In fact, I will agree that in some cases certain students might be better off with improv classes offered elsewhere.  Instead, this article describes some of the key factors a student should consider when choosing an improv class.  The unfortunate fact is that anyone, regardless of experience and qualifications (both improv and teaching) can call herself or himself an improv instructor, rent a room, and offer so-called improv classes.  But as the Romans were fond of saying: caveat emptor (buyer beware).  So here are some of the key factors a student should consider.

Improv Experience.  How long has the instructor been performing improv?  What types and styles?  Is she active now?  When was the last time he performed?  And if an instructor lists experience with a particular theater, you might want to double check how long that person actual performed at the theater.  Some people will pad their resume by joining a group for just a few months before moving onto another project. 

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Teaching Experience.  Is this the instructor’s first time teaching, or has he been teaching for 10 years?  Doe the instructor have any other teaching experience such as leading Applied Improvisation workshops or working in schools?  There are differences between doing improv and teaching improv.

Focus.  Does the class focus on a specific style or does it cover fundamentals applicable to any form of improv?  Don’t assume that the class is geared towards the main show offered at the theater.  For example, CSz Sacramento’s main show, ComedySportz, is so-called short form or games based improv.  But our Beginner Class covers improv fundamentals and introduces several types of improv, not just short form or games.  Another consideration:  Is the class focused on a specific segment, e.g., actors, improvisers, or everyday people interested in adding a fun, useful life skill?  Some one off classes also focus on specific skills, styles, or forms.  These specialized events can be especially useful to students seeking to fill out his or her improv education.

Class Size.  Bigger classes offer the advantages of meeting more friend and playing with a diverse set of people.  Smaller classes offer the advantage of more individual attention and coaching.

Price.  Most improv classes costs between $10-$20 per hour.  Classes are typically 2 hours long and organized into 6-8 week sessions.  Ask if you’re allowed to make up missed classes during future session in case you get sick or have work conflicts.  If you’re financially challenged, ask if the theater offers any work study or scholarships for members of underserved and underrepresented communities (CSz Sacramento does, for example).  If you are really broke, consider drop-in classes or jams often offered by theaters in any given city.

Lighten Up, Francis. No One Stole Your Improv Game

Most improvisers I know who invent new games are happy to enter their creations into to the public domain for others to enjoy.  Yet I’ve also met improvisers who were upset and convinced others had stolen their games without giving credit.  George Carlin once quipped about how humans are prone to assume theft, even when simply losing things of questionable value like banana guacamole.  In the case of discovering others playing "your improv game," the answer likely has less to do with theft and more to do with the old saying great minds think alike (at least in the popular, truncated usage of the full saying) .

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Around the time I took my first improv class I was managing a large company’s small division of consumer products based on high tech ceramics.  We mostly operated on a business-to-business level (one notable exception was the famed magician Teller, half of famed duo Penn & Teller, who had somehow become a direct customer.  So I got to talk to famed silent magician Teller before he much later revealed his voice to the world…).  I shared some customer service reps who supported a few other product lines as well.  These reps sometimes sat in another room (the company, a Japan based multinational, placed its office workers in large areas without any dividers like walls or cubicles; was not a fan…) and typically wore headsets since they spent a lot of time on the phone.

Often I would walk into the customer rep room to speak with someone.  Noting his or her silence, I would begin talking to find out suddenly that that the rep was actually on the phone.  I often thought: it would be great if the headset had a little read or green light on the end to indicate if the user was busy or not. Today such indicator lights are readily available on headsets.  Sadly I’m not making nice royalties from a patent.  Someone else clearly had the same idea.  I’m willing to be lots of people and headset companies had the same idea.

Throughout history many inventions and discoveries emerged separately from multiple sources.  For example, evidence supports the independent development of the numerical zero among several cultures.  This concept, multiple discovery, applies to improv games as well.

Several years ago during a ComedySportz Sacramento match, I challenged the Blue Team (I know it was the Blue Team because I always play on the Red team for reasons…) to Four Square.  Then I had the idea that the players in the back would dub the lines for the players in the front.  Thus, the game of Four Square Dubbing was born.  Except that it was probably born within a few other improv groups at a few other moments as well. Given that there are only so many ways to alter a scene, that there are a finite combination of alterations, and that improvisers are mega-creative, it’s a foregone conclusion that multiple discovery of improv games happens.

So should we stop trying to invent new games?  Of course not!  It’s fun, and you might just strike upon something new.  At least new for a little while.

Yes, and No: It's not so simple...

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Every few weeks or so I see another article discussing the benefits of improv.  Some of these article summarize the overall appeal and usefulness of improv, while other articles focus on specific applications, e.g., business, therapy, creativity, and so on.  I appreciate these articles for several reasons.  First, I often learn something new.  Second, they rise awareness of improv in general.  Even in today’s super connected world, I still find myself explaining improv to the occasional guest calling to ask what exactly we do at the theater.  Finally, they help drive students to classes.  That last point includes a both a noble component, i.e., it makes me happy when more people discover and enjoy improv, and a practical component, i.e., classes serve as way to develop future performers and help keep the lights on at the theater.

I have observed, however, that some of these articles mislead the reader by stating that the fundamental rules of improv say "you always have to say yes" and "you can never say no.” Improvisers at all levels will no doubt recognize such statements as oversimplification or misinterpretation of the Yes, and principle we cherish.  But since the New Year typically brings a wave of first time improve students, some of whom might actually stumble upon this blog, I thought I’d take a few moments to address this issue.

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First, let’s look at Yes, and…  There are two parts: accepting an offer, and building upon that offer.  I sometimes use a Lego based analogy to explain improv to beginner students.  Imagine each Lego is an offer.  One improviser makes an offer, i.e., she places a Lego brick down.  Her scene partner then makes an offer that builds off the first offer, i.e., he attaches a second brick to the first one.  The two improvisers go merrily back and forth until they’ve built a simple scene, e.g., a small Lego object like a house, car, etc.

Now, when authors writing about improv say that improvisers aren’t allowed to say no, what they mean to discuss is how improvisers should avoid denial, which is not about saying no per se (more on that distinction in a bit), but about rejecting offers.  Denial is when the second improviser removes or ignores the Lego brick placed by the first improviser.  The second improviser either removes the first brick or just places a second brick separately and unattached to the first.  Consider these two examples:

EXAMPLE #1

First Improviser: I brought you a pie.

Second Improviser: That’s not a pie.

EXAMPLE #2

First Improviser: I brought you a pie.

Second Improviser: This is my pet horse, Steve!

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So again, when well meaning authors writing about improv say that improvisers always have to say yes, what they mean is that improvisers should, by default, accept offers (What?!  By default?  Not always?!  More on that later.  It gets complicated…)

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Now, here’s where it might seem a bit tricky: you can accept an offer while saying no.  I still recall one of the first explanations I ever heard about the distinction.  While attending the 2008 CSz/ComedySportz World Championship in Portland, I took my first class ever from one of my favorite improv teachers, Chicago’s Matt Elwell, who, as of writing, is now serving as President of CSz Worldwide.  Matt’s simple example:

First Improviser (sniffing): Do you smell gas?

Second Improvser: No, I don’t.

The second improviser isn’t denying the offer.  Such a denial might take forms like “There is no gas” or “No, I don’t.  And you don’t either.

Now I realize some readers, particularly beginner improv students,  might now instead be somewhere between confused and up-in-arms because the First Improviser asked a question.  But they told me in my improv class that I’m not allowed to ask questions...

Well, maybe they did.  What they should have suggested instead was for beginner students to avoid or limit questions.  The fact is, questions are part of human speech and thus part of improv as well.  That being said, there are reasons to encourage beginner students, or even more experienced improvisers, to favor statements over questions.  But I’ll discuss that topic in a future entry.

Here’s another non-question based example that’s a bit trickier and closer to the border of denial-ville:

First Improviser:  We should break in through the roof.

Second Improviser:  No, there are security cameras up there.  We should tunnel from below.

One might immediately sound the denial alarm since the Second Improviser has not accepted the First Improviser’s offer.  And certainly if these two improvisers keep arguing ad nauseam about the better break in plan, it will likely result in a weak, unappealing scene.

But suppose the scene continues along these lines:

First Improviser:  You’re right about the cameras.  That’s why I’m bringing in Wobbler.  He says he can hack in to make the cameras loop on nothing.

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Second Improviser:  Really?  I love Wobbler and his goofy little accent.  OK, roof it is.  I hate tunneling anyway.  Too many rats.  Creep me right out.

The scene still moves forward, and we’ve got some new little offers that might pan out later, e.g., meeting Wobbler, having the Second Improviser encounter a nasty rat on the roof, etc.  Some critics might argue that the conflict slows down the scene, particularly if the improvisers are performing a time limited format or game.  Supporters will counter that a little conflict an enliven a scene or make it more authentic.

Your mileage will vary.

 

Collaboration Beyond The Norm

One of the four core CSz and ComedySportz values is Collaboration.  It’s relative easy to think of collaboration in terms of working with fellow CSz performers, with our audiences, and with our clients for Applied Improvisation.  It’s a little more challenging to think about collaboration with performers from rival theaters.  On the one hand, all of the improv theaters in a given area share a common goal to enjoy and foster improv as and art form and life skill.  On another more practical hand, there are the realities of competitions, particularly for what is often a limited pool of improvisers.

Because improvisers often favor one home theater, often the one where they first took classes or performed, developing an improv group with players from different theaters can be very challenging.  It even worse when some theaters, via methods ranging from subtle to overt, pressure their performers not to play elsewhere (for the record, CSz Sacramento has always had an open play policy, i.e., performers can play any where as long as they are also contributing to our theater).

 THE TRAVELING WILBURYS

THE TRAVELING WILBURYS

Despite these challenges I am very happy that over the last two years I was able to develop an improv group with the specific goal of combining performers from different theaters.  My inspiration was The Traveling Wilburys, the late 80s, early 90s rock super group that included legendary talents Bob Dylan, George Garrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty.  All of these artists had already developed successful careers with other bands or as solo artist.

When I set about forming this group, which came to be named Shower Thoughts, I specifically recruited performers based primary at rival theaters.  And as the group has lost performers, I’ve strived to keep at least 50% of the group non-CSz performers.  It hasn’t been easy; as mentioned about there are miscellaneous forces that often pull performers back towards their home theaters. It has also been an interesting experience because Shower Thoughts is the first improv group I’ve directed without also performing in as part of the group (more of that difference in a future entry).

Tonight is show #25.  Given the monthly performance schedule, that means my little experiment in inter-theater collaboration has now been running for just over two years.  I’m delighted with the collaboration within Shower Thoughts, and grateful for all the fun, laughter, learning and camaraderie has provided me the theater. 

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De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

My high school had a robust foreign languages program, and I was lucky enough to study Spanish, German, and Latin.  Unfortunately, I’ve mostly lost the German and Latin.  I only took one year of German.  Also, despite three years of Latin under the robust learning processes of the yardstick wielding Mrs. Murphy, I just haven’t found many Romans to practice with over the years.  Still, I really enjoyed Latin class, especially the history and watching the conservative Mrs. Murphy trying to make sense of the growing curiosity between two of my female classmates.  On a more practical basis, Latin helped me in many other subject during high school and college.  And I still admittedly derive some intellectual self pleasure from using a Latin phrase from time to time.

 NOUN DECLENSION IS AN ESPECIALLY CHALLENGING ELEMENT OF LEARNING LATIN

NOUN DECLENSION IS AN ESPECIALLY CHALLENGING ELEMENT OF LEARNING LATIN

One of my favorite phrases is de gustibus non est disputandum.  Literally, it means “about tastes, it should not be disputed.”  In modern usage it means “there’s no accounting for taste.”  State another way, subjective opinions cannot be right or wrong, and people probably shouldn’t waste a lot of time and energy arguing for their opinions.

I’ve seen two examples of such opinions this week.  First I’ve observed some very strong feelings about the new Star Wars movie The Last Jedi.  But more close to home, I had the displeasure of reading this ridiculous attack on improv comedy from a stand-up comedian:

Why improv is neither funny nor entertaining

I used to hear and read more attacks on improv from the stand-up community many years ago when I was still early into my improv experience.  But those attacks seemed to die out as improv became more popular, as more performers spanned both worlds, and as more hybrid and crossover formats emerged.

I’m not going to waste my time address the many flaws with Mr. piece, which also does touch upon some important truths.  Instead, you can look in the comments and find a very good reply here:

Not So Fast...A Response To Peter-john Byrnes

The fact is I accepted a long time ago that some people just don’t like improv.  De gustibus non est disputandum!

Be Our Guest

We love hosting guest improv performers.  Guests are not only fun, but also provide excellent learning opportunities.  It is valuable to see how other people perform improv in terms of Art – their unique style for creating and expressing ideas – and in terms of Craft – how do they utilize specific skills like space work, character voices, etc.

There are many sources for guests.  If your part of CSz, you can start by inviting players from other cities.  Many cities are now making it easy by hosting special events throughout the years, e.g., invitationals that mix players from different cities onto special teams.  Invite performers from other improv groups within your city and other cities, particularly if you’re having a special event (please be sure to give them good time slots!).  There are plenty of ways through social media and podcasts to make contact with other groups and performers.

 OUR GUEST DAVID MAGIDOFF

OUR GUEST DAVID MAGIDOFF

Sometimes you get lucky, and a guest performer contacts you.  This Saturday we’re happy to welcome back David Magidoff, an LA based actor, improviser, and comedian.  David contacted us out of the blue last year, and we had a great time (he was hilarious and very gracious).  So I was happy to hear from him again this Holiday Season.  If you’re a Marshmallow, i.e., dedicated fan of Veronica Mars, you’ll recognize David from his fun portrayal of would be Veronica foil Jeff Ratner.  David has also been a regular on two MTV shows, Joking Off and the Broke A$$ Game Show, as well as a guest actor on CSI, NCIS, and other TV shows. He performs improv all around the world including UCB, iOWest & the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.  David founded Monkey Butler - an international comedy school that has taught free improv classes to over 3,000 people in the US, England and New Zealand.

So if you’re reading this entry and want to guest perform at CSz Sacramento in the coming year, let us know!

Feast Or Famine

Attendance can sometimes slow at the theater during the Holidays.  And it probably doesn’t help when some plucky film makers decide to release the latest offering in a beloved franchise.  Therefore it’s quite possible during the time of the year that we find ourselves entertaining a rather modest crowd some nights.

The largest show in which I’ve ever performed was for over 1,400 (and included two large HD screens to show the stage action) while the smallest show I ever did was for 4.  But having now by conservative count been lucky enough to perform in over 2,000 improv shows, I have observed that having a large audience is no guarantee of success, whether you opt to measure in laughter or artistic satisfaction.  Many of the best or most shows were for smaller audiences.

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One private show (in the very early days of CSz Sacramento) that is particularly memorable was for a small wedding reception of 10 people.  The bride hired us but kept it a secret from everyone else, including the groom.  Pretending to be a wandering improv group, we showed up at the B&B to offer a show in exchange for food.  The bride had provided inside information that we slowly worked into the scenes to the astonishment of the crowd.  It was a lot of fun to watch people catch-on at various points.  And afterwards we were also invited to share a very lavish array of catered gourmet food (still the only time I've eaten lobster on a private show...)

Anyway, I sometimes wonder if the players worry less about the audiences and perform more freely when there is less audience to worry about.  Perhaps there is some threshold below which the performers are doing it more for themselves and each other.  Some people would argue that’s how art should always be, i.e., do it for yourself, not for the audience, payment, etc.

A Little About Your Blogger (Especially Pre-CSz)

A savvy blogger writes a few entries in advance in case one day he doesn't have time or inspiration to create a fresh entry.  Today is one of those days.  Instead of any insights of debatable value, you get to learn a little about me, also information of debatable value...

How long have you been performing improv?  Where did you perform before CSz and ComedySportz?

 EXTEMPORARY INSANITY SANS ALISON LEINBACH THE PHOTOGRAPHER

EXTEMPORARY INSANITY SANS ALISON LEINBACH THE PHOTOGRAPHER

I’ve been performing improv since 1995.  I started taking improv classes on a whim while living in San Diego.  My co-worker Cheryl suggested I might enjoy an improv class.  She reasoned that since I was similar in personality to her then husband Billy, and Billy had enjoyed the class, I would as well.  She was right (though perhaps Billy might have enjoyed it more.  He and Cheryl eventually divorced mutually, and Billy ended up happily married to my fellow student Cindy).  My instructor was the wonderful Jacquie Lowell, and my first group was called Extemporary Insanity.  We did exactly one show.  I still have the t-shirt somewhere in the mad labyrinth of old possessions known as the garage.  

A little over a year into improv I joined San Diego TheatreSports.  While there were a few decent folks there, and I had the opportunity to learn a lot, the group was horribly mismanaged.  After one especially egregious (yes, that bad I’m skirting with verbal redundancy) misstep, I and some other members left to form our own group, the Subatomic Jenkins Clan.  We had a lot of fun performing shows with special themes, e.g., physics, a television schedule, interpretations of the word flat, and more.

In 1999 I joined the original team for what was then ComedySportz San Diego, now the National Comedy Theater.  It was an awesome experience but I’m sad that NCT left the CSz/ComedySportz family for good in 2000 (a story for another day).  In January 2001 I moved to the Bay Area and joined CSz San Jose, where I performed for over seven years.  NCT and CSz San Jose are actually run by brothers, Gary and Jeff Kramer, respectively.  Both brothers treated me exceptionally well, taught me a lot, and provided  friendship (in a weird coincidence we had actually all grown up about 20 minute apart in the northeast); I will always be in gratitude.

What types of improv do you perform?  What are some of your favorite improv types or games?  What are some of your least favorite?

I enjoy performing all types of improv.  I’ve probably performed an 90-10 mix of short form to long form, but that’s been more out of opportunity than design.  Over the years I’ve come to really enjoy playing certain audience volunteer games, especially Four Square.  I definitely miss musical improv a lot; we haven’t had a regular keyboard player in some time.  I especially like creating new exercises, short form games, and long form formats.  And I am very interested in Applied Improv, i.e., using improv for training, team building, skills development, design thinking, etc.  I’ll be posting more about Applied Improv soon.

On the flip side, close friends and team members know I personally have no particularly fondness for the Harold (ironically I watched three yesterday).  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it per se.  I just think there are so many more interesting and entertaining formats.  I actually enjoy both playing and watching pattern based improv.  But I prefer it through other long form formats.

Some Takeaways From The ARC Improv Final

 WHAT SOVIET ERA HORRORS LIE BEHIND THE MODERN FACADE OF THE PRAGUE AIRPORT?

WHAT SOVIET ERA HORRORS LIE BEHIND THE MODERN FACADE OF THE PRAGUE AIRPORT?

I don’t have a lot of time today to blog for two reasons.  First, I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to navigate the health care system in search of a doctor who takes my new insurance.  It is one of two times I felt I had a glimpse into what life might have been like under the old Soviet bureaucracy (the other was when I went to the Prague airport to recover a suitcase that had arrived late after being lost at the Amsterdam airport.  After leaving the snazzy, modern area used by actual passengers and going through an employee only door, I found myself in large cavernous, dusty room where a 100 year old man keeps a handwritten log of every bag in what was clearly 1,000 page giant book that predated human flight by as many year.  I wrote keeps because I bet he’s still there…)

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The second reason is that I spent a couple of hours watching the Improv Class final at ARC (American River College), a popular community college here in Sacramento.  Quite a number of wonderful CSz Sacramento players started at ARC, and the improv instructor often asks me to help judge the final.  So I thought I’d list some quick takeaways based on today’s final, which consisted of some each team playing two short form games before performing a Harold. 

But first, good job to all the students and supporting alumni who played.  There were many wonderful moments, and I liked that everyone seemed to be having a good time.  It was also nice to see that improv is accessible to everyone regardless to gender, age, culture, and physical ability.  And now, some takeways.

  • Delight In The Absurd.  At one point the emcee (CSz Sacramento player extraordinaire and ARC alum Kameron Schmid) asked for an unusual activity to go with the location of freeway.  I offered Easter Egg hunt.  The crowd reacted with a mixture of shock and concern, as if the players would struggle with such an absurd combination.  Later when I offered hydroelectric dam as an object for Dating Game, a concerned audience member tried to over ride my suggestion by yelling How about a wig instead?  Now, keep in mind that I was not trying to give these performers tough suggestions.  I was trying to give them fun suggestions (and also keep in mind that I waited for otherwise dead audience times to yell out my choices).  And in both cases, the scenes and games turned out to be a lot of fun.  As some one once suggested: You can do improv about whatever you want.  But it’s probably going to be more fun for you and the audience when you do improv about things that happen seldom or never in a lifetime.
     
  • Obvious Can Be Funny.  Creating a fun character or delivering a line a certain way can transform an otherwise simple or confirming offer into gold.  Yes, the ski lift does go to the top…
     
  • Watch The So’sSo is an overused, infectious, and often unneeded word that can become annoying repetitive when over injected into story based monologues.  Explore different ways to starts and advance stories.
     
  • Inspiration vs. Reenactment.  Again, performers are free to choose their Art, e.g., what a scene is about.  But I believe that monologue based long form is more fun for everyone when the performers utilize monologues for inspiration rather than merely reenacting the stories told by the monologists.  For one, the audience has already heard the story; seeing it acted out doesn’t add much.  But applying elements of the stories to new and different situations often delights the audience and challenges the performers.

Anyway, thanks to Pam Downs, ARC, and today’s performers for a fun time.

What's The Difference Between Short Form And Long Form Improv?

You might have heard the terms short form and long form improv at some point.  Some people think these terms refer to the relative scene lengths, i.e., short form features relatively shorter scenes (3-5 minutes) while long form features relatively longer scenes (10-30+ minutes).  These definitions don’t make sense to me because many so-called long form shows consist of a series of short, 1-3 minute scenes.  Instead, the key difference to me is whether or not the improv include performance games (note: not the game of a scene; more on that concept below).  My working definitions: if improv includes performance games, it’s short form.  If improv doesn’t include performance games, it’s long form.

What are performance games?  They are restrictions and challenges places on the players intended to make improv more fun for the audience and the players.  You see performance games in shows like ComedySportz and Whose Line Is It, Anyway?  Examples:

  • Advice Panel – Players give advice as object, animals, famous people, etc. suggested by the audience.
  • Replay – Players show the same scene in different genres, time periods, emotions, etc. suggested by the audience.
  • Five Things – Using mime and gibberish only, clue givers try to get a guesser to do and guess different activities with substitutions, e.g., vacuuming, the vacuum is powered by a cactus, and the dust is a whale.
 FIVE THINGS EXAMPLE ACTIVITY WITH SUBSTITUTIONS; DO NOT TRY AT HOME!

FIVE THINGS EXAMPLE ACTIVITY WITH SUBSTITUTIONS; DO NOT TRY AT HOME!

So how did I arrive at these definitions?  Let’s take a step back. Over the years I’ve encountered some people who I will call, for lack of a better word, long form snobs.  They think that short form is just about playing performance games.  What they don’t understand is that most short form performers are just as, or even more concerned, with doing good scene work as they are in playing the game well.  The extension of that reality is that scene work is at the heart of all performance improv regardless of format.

Once improvisers can build scenes, there are several things they can do with those scenes:

  • Tell a story.  I call this narrative improv.
  • Play a performance game.  I call this elemental improv.  I chose the term elemental because the games focus on different elements of the scene  Forward – Reverse focuses on the element of time.  Blind Line focuses on the element of justification (incorporating random information added to a scene).  And so on.
  • Explore a pattern.  I call this thematic improv.  I chose the term thematic because the scenes focus on a theme or pattern instead of a story per se.  These type of exploration is also known as playing with the game of a scene.
 IMPROV ECOSYSTEM

IMPROV ECOSYSTEM

Combining these three types of improv yields what is generally considered short form and long form:

  • Telling stories + playing performance games = short form improv (ComedySportz, Whose Line)
  • Telling stories + exploring patterns = long form improv (CSz’s Shower Thoughts, IO, UCB).  Some long form leans more toward story telling while other long form leans more toward patterns.

You might be wondering about the third possible combination:

  • Playing performance games + exploring patterns = ?

I’ve rarely seen this combination though on a handful of occasions I’ve seen a few brilliant performers weave pattern play into a short form scene.  I think there are two reasons.  First, this combination is extremely challenging to a performer.  Second, I think the story component is a near essential foundation that holds together the other components.

Anyway, that’s my view of what I call the Improv Ecosystem.

Costumes In Improv: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

 COMEDYSPORTZ PLAYER GARY WESTON AS A DRAGON DURING DATING GAME

COMEDYSPORTZ PLAYER GARY WESTON AS A DRAGON DURING DATING GAME

Since weekends tend to be very busy for me with shows and workshops, I often try to make Monday a day off.  With that in mind I’m going to be a bit lazy for today’s entry.  Instead of writing something wholly original, I’m going to dust off an old piece I wrote about the use of costumes in improv.  My inspiration to post this piece was not actually laziness, it was player Gary Weston’s awesome portrayal of a dragon during Saturday’s ComedySportz match.  And now...off to the past!
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During a recent show I saw a very inventive use of costumes during Dance Party.  In this game players make up dances based on random words suggested by the audience.  Two players showed a ketchup dance.  One player used a trench coat and other items to portray a bottle while the other player used a large red scarf under a coat to show spreading ketchup.  The resulting effect was clever and fun.

So I thought I'd talk a little about costume use within improv.  It's a subject that sometimes evokes strong opinions.  Some performers decry any use of costumes while others believe that costumes are near essential for certain games.

My feeling is that costumes, while not needed per se for improv, can at times add nice accents.  That being said, I think it's also very important that performers never rely on costumes.  Any given improv scene or game should be able to stand on its own with or without costumes.  For example, during that same Dance Party, a third also dazzled the crowd with a costume-less owl dance. 

Over the years I've seen two main problems resulting from performers relying on costumes.  First, they sometimes put less effort into the other key components of character creation, e.g., voice, emotion, posture, etc.  Second, I've seen players delay entry into a scene because they wanted to put on a costume.  Such delays have caused awkward pauses or worse, bare stage moments.

But with careful use, costumes can be a fun, extra component though which the performers can express their ideas and delight the audience.  Character centric games like Advice Panel and Dating Game are particularly costume friendly.  I've been amazed at clever uses of simple costumes to simulate historical outfits, animals, objects, cartoon characters, and more.  Costumes can also be helpful for scenes featuring a specific genre or historical period.  And certainly some genres and/or games like Shakespeare or Gibberish Opera are natural fits for costumes.

Costumes also seem to make many audience volunteers less nervous in games like Foreign Movie and Gibberish Opera.  I don't know the psychological explanation.  But for some reason most audience members relax more when outfitted with a fun costume if they have to perform in an actual scene.

Finally, a few thoughts onchoosing costumes.  I've found that generic pieces are often more useful than specific items.   For example, I've seen our very large silver poncho become armor, a cape, the outside of an anthropomorphic appliance, and much more.  Likewise, a tan trench coat has doubled as a book, camel, bottle, dirt road, etc.  By contrast, a loud plaid jacket would have relatively limited use.  Generic pieces are also good because available space for costumes is often limited.

How Do You Practice Improv?

We get this question a lot.  Usually in the form If it’s made up each time, how can you practice? Since it’s Sunday, and our ComedySportz teams (both Main Stage and Minor League) practice on Sunday, I thought it would be appropriate for today’s entry. 

The reality is that you can practice, or even rehearse (Google dictionary claims they’re synonyms) without wanting the outcome to be the same each time.  Perhaps because people often associate the word rehearsal with scripted theater (where you typically want the outcome consistent), they don’t get how an improv comedy group could rehearse or practice.  But many jazz bands rehearse even though they might improvise some of the music differently each time.  And plenty of sports teams practice without the outcome being the same each time.

I think it can also help to consider an artistic endeavor in terms of two main components, Art and Craft.  I first heard this concept when many years ago I went to see the popular author Barry Eisler read from his latest John Rain novel (a very enjoyable series for readers who enjoy somewhat more realistic, but still exciting espionage fiction.  It was also, memorably, the first time he was allowed to publicly confirm his experience as an actual CIA field agent).  Eisler explained that Art is inherent to the creator – one’s imagination, one’s view of the world, how one wants to represent the world, and so on.  For example, famous painters Monet, Picasso, and Mondrian, all considered great and groundbreaking artist, chose to represent the world in very different ways.  Art cannot and should not be taught.  Craft, however, refers to teachable skills and knowledge.  For painters, it might involve how to mix paints, how to represent three dimensions on a flat surface, and so on.

 Monet

Monet

 Picasso

Picasso

 Mondrian

Mondrian

Art within improv is basically what the performer wants to create or express.  Craft refers to skills and techniques she uses to express her Art.  Craft might include how to use one’s body or voice to develop unique characters.  Or how to incorporate random information injected into an existing scene, i.e., justification.  It might be how to play a specific improv game like Forward – Reverse or how to use heightening in a pattern based long form scene.

So when we meet to practice ComedySportz, for example, we practice specific skills, games, techniques.  But the content or output still changes every time.  Sometime we use special exercises to hone our craft.  Sometime we just do what we do in a show, just not in front of an audience.  We practice because we want to be good at our craft so we can express our art.

Oh, and another reason we practice?  It’s fun.  We get to laugh.  A lot.

Dr. Goofy Will See You Now

Yesterday I began the arduous process of trying to find a new doctor who accepts my new insurance.  As most of us know too well, trying to navigate the health care system can be an aggravating process often culminating in the Catch-22 of the insurance companies instructing “ask the medical provider” and the doctor’s office instructing “ask the insurance provider.”

The experience made me think of a sketch I wrote for The Set well over a year ago called a Mouse of Prevention (a riff on the saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure).  The premise was that under President Trump Disney has taken over health care (keep in mind I wrote this sketch just after he began to run for office.  Sorry for being so prescient.  BTW, I also wrote a Game of Scones sketch with the Hodor character holding open the door way before that reveal.  Weird…)

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 Disney AlADdin Pharmaceutical Rep

Disney AlADdin Pharmaceutical Rep

So why am I talking about this stuff in a blog about improv?  Well, because that sketch was a good example of one of my favorite improv concepts: if this is true, what else might be true?  It’s a great way to build new, absurd situations, settings, and worlds.  If Disney did run health care, what else might be true?  In my sketch Lumiere sings Be Out Patient to people in the waiting room, pharmaceutical reps sing You Ain’t Never Had A Drug Like Me, and operating rooms play It’s A Small World repetitively in lieu of anesthesia. Note that this concept of what else might be true is often combined with the improv concept of heightening, i.e., moving an idea towards increasing levels of extremeness and absurdity.  Heightening is especially important in pattern based long form improv in which performers play with “the game” of the scene (meaning a key pattern or theme, not a performance game like you find in short form improv).

You can learn more about core improv concepts in our Level 1 Beginner Improv class.  We’ve got new sessions starting in January.  Our class is great for anyone who wants to learn an amazing life skill, start the journey towards performing improv, make great new friends, or just have a comfortable place to laugh each week.  Our class are very popular after New Year’s, so you can reserve your place with a $50 deposit.

Anyway, thanks for reading.  Doctor Goofy will see you now.

The New Web Site Is Here! The New Web Site Is Here!

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We're somebody now!  We're in print!  Don't get the reference?  It's from the early Steve Martin movie The Jerk.  Not my one of my favorites of his work (I much prefer Roxanne), but I always enjoy that scene.

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Anyway, we have a new web site.  Or an update web site.  I completed the makeover in just about two full days.  And by full days I did little else, got less than optimal sleep, and spent way too much time in my office chair.  And to paraphrase Airplane, I picked the wrong week to give up Diet Coke (my caffeine delivery system of choice.  Its was Coke Zero, but the folks at the Coca Cola went and New Coke'd that all up @#%$*)

I hope you like the results.  The new site is much easier to navigate and is mobile friendly.  If you have any ideas or suggestions, please let us know.  We've already got plans to add player and audience volunteer pics over the next week.  And I've got this crazy plan to update this blog daily.  Hopefully most of my entries will be coherent, relate to improv, or at least be more interesting than this one.