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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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.