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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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.