What Is Applied Improvisation?

Most people know improv through performance.  Perhaps they’ve been to an improv show or seen one of the various incarnations of Whose Line on TV.  But there is a large, separate field of improv called Applied Improvisation or AI for short.  In broadest terms AI refers to the application of improv in a non-performance setting.  For example, some people use improv for therapy, design, team building, negotiation, customer service, and many other uses.

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CSz Sacramento has worked with many clients to provide custom AI engagements over the last 10 years.  Here are a few examples:

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  • Improving the active listening abilities among a phone based sales representatives for a high end real estate service.

  • Exploring differences of perspective for consultants within the health care IT market.

  • Strengthening presentation skills for warehouse shift leaders.

  • Building trust, establishing cooperation, and reducing gossip among school staff members.

  • Developing effective team work within and across departments at a major consumer service provide.

  • Enhancing communication among care providers and clients during home visits.

We customize each AI engagement by learning about the client needs, then drawing from an extensive portfolio of AI exercises and games.  Similar to physical exercises, some AI exercise cover a broad set of topics while others address specific issues.  Many well planned AI sessions will also include some exercise in which the participants work in small groups and some exercise in which everyone works together.  The interactive nature of AI based training provides the opportunity for the participants to learn from the facilitator and through self exploration.  Moreover, a key advantage of AI based training is that it is effective while also being fun for the participants. Laughter is usually a key part of AI engagements.

Here’s a partial list of private clients (training and entertainment) that CSz Sacramento has worked with over the last 10 years:

CSz Sacramento Partial Client List

Please contact us at 916-243-8541 to learn how we can provide you with AI training that is both fun and effective.

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.

 

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.

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.