Friday, October 30, 2015

Knowledge

A good improviser knows stuff. A lot of stuff. They not only need to be book smart but they have to have a brain that is hungry for information and for knowledge. That's the kind of brain that I want to improvise with. I don't care what kind of improvisation you practice, your quest for knowledge should be never-ending. It's this quest that ultimately makes you a better and funnier performer.

Pursuing knowledge trains your brain to not only remember information but to also make connections and find patterns. I don't care where you pursue your knowledge. If your thing is reading Entertainment Weekly and People every week, fine, but just let your brain absorb that information and then share that information with me on stage.

The most immediate effect is that by putting this information in your head, it's immediately becoming part of the hive mind of your ensemble. If I'm lacking information on the latest pop phenomenon, I know that if it's in your head, then it will be easy to get it into mine.

Training your brain to need and want information also trains your brain for good scenework. A curious mind makes for a curious improviser. A curious improviser is one who will leave no stone unturned in a scene. They will see the open door or the unresolved offer. They will pursue it, ask questions and if they can't find the answer, they will answer it themselves.

Finally, the hungry brain will be stronger at making connections than the static brain. The hungry brain will find the relationships between different subject matters...it will also find the connection between multiple scenes across the ethereal plane of improvisation. A hungry brain will remember how factoid from scene A is similar to the theme of scene B which relates to the characters in scene C. Even if its not 100 percent apparent to the audience immediately, as long as the connection is in your brain, everyone will soon benefit from it.

Don't live in a bubble. Connect ideas from different fields. Train your brain to learn and want more information. This will benefit you on a personal level but also on the stage.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Listening to your Audience


It's so easy to blame a good or bad show on an audience. Audiences can be too drunk, too smart, too shy, too quiet, etc. The excuses can go on and on. Yes, it's true, some audience members can be real assholes but a majority of the time, an audience just wants to have fun. Unless you're an asshole also, audiences will generally be on your side.

Somethings to keep in mind:

Know your audience. Every audience is different. There isn't an 8pm audience or a 10pm audience or a matinee audience...there is just audience. Get to know them. When you're backstage, if you have the opportunity to check them out, you should. Ask the House Manager if there are any special events you should know about and most importantly, when you step out onto the stage, ENGAGE THEM. This could be as subtle or as grand as the show needs but take an opportunity to engage them so that you know where they are at. If an audience is low-energy, get them fired up! If they're high-energy, ride the wave!

Permission. Sometimes the collective mind of an audience is a shy one and they need to give each other permission to laugh out loud. Sometimes, for whatever reason, an audience as a unit, forgets that they already have this permission and are waiting on an alpha laugher to break the silence or set the volume threshold. This can be influenced by events, the weather, pre-show music, etc. or just by a coincidental collection of quiet audience members. Regardless, if they're not where you need them to be, take that moment to help them feel more comfortable. I've seen casts ask group Q&A's, count to 3 to have them yell, etc. Do what is appropriate to your show, space and audience.

Audience Intelligence. An audience doesn't like to be spoken down to or pandered. They like and deserve to be treated intelligently. In general, aim high. Don't over-explain or apologize for anything. If you need to take a moment to setup context, sure, go ahead and do that but then get right into your show and trust that your performance will be good enough and funny enough to bring the audience along for the ride. If you have to explain a game or form beyond 4-5 sentences, then you are overexplaining. Hit the main points and trust that the audience can fill in the gaps.

Cues. The audience will tell you what they want more of, when they've had enough of something...or when they just want to listen. Be aware of how your audience is responding to your performance. If they're smiling and laughing at something, give them a little bit more of what they're responding to; if they seem uninterested or in disagreement with content, find your way off that train of thought; if there is dead silence, learn how to tell the difference between bored and attentive, and respond accordingly. Personally, I've always found the silence of boredom to be filled with the white noise of shuffling butts and feet where as the silence of attentiveness is one that is quiet because the audience does not want to miss a thing. Train yourself to recognize the difference. The last thing an audience wants is to be taken out of a moment because someone thinks they're bored.

Zeitgeist. Like the cues for laughter, also be aware of what's on the minds of the public. That days' News and Events can influence the audience hive mind. For every scandal that the audience wants to ridicule, there are tragedies that they want to escape from. Our role as comedians can change from window to mirror to microscope on a show by show basis. Be aware of what might be on your audience's minds that night especially in the wake of major events.

I don't want to forgive all audience members. Hecklers and critical audience members exist who seem to get a power trip off of derailing your set. In my experience, they are the exception and have never represented the voice of the entire audience. Good house management usually removes this cancer from an audience before causing too much chaos.

In the end, we're all comedians and our goal is to make the audience laugh. Sometimes, however, I feel that we miss that connection to the audience and both sides are marching to a different drum. As much as we are allowing them into our world, they are also allowing us into theirs. Sometimes that level of trust and connection is set right from the moment the curtain goes up but other times it needs to be massaged a little. Listen to your audience and they will tell you where to find the funny.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Diversity and the Pay-to-Play model

I am feeling strongly that a key to diversity in Theater and Comedy is to remove the Pay-to-Play model. I am really interested in hearing people's opinions on this.

This is not just in regards to many festivals that charge to apply but also in the practice of setting a minimum education requirement for auditions. Many times that minimum education can set a student back at least 600 dollars within a 6-month period. Being on the Director's side of the table for almost two decades, I understand that we want to set a barrier to ensure that we only see high-quality and qualified candidates but I also feel that we're limiting ourselves to a very specific segment of our population.

I've always been for open auditions but I've recently evolved in my opinion on festival applications. I used to see the application process as an income opportunity but now I feel like I would rather make that income flow up elsewhere in the season and open up application opportunity with the hopes of seeing a more diverse talent pool.

This isn't a suggestion for just increasing racial diversity but also social, gender, age, etc. Please share your thoughts on this...I'm ready to be wrong but I'm more ready to hear genuine solutions and ideas.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughts on Improv and Diversity

A friend suggested I share this with a larger audience...so I am.
In the world of theater, I don't believe in tokenism or affirmative action...but I do think that a director, producer or someone in a position of power should be able to see potential in someone while taking into account how social constructs might have hindered someone's confidence or cultural development.

I grew up in Chicago (in the city proper not the suburbs), but never went to Second City until I was in my 20's because growing up on the South Side, nothing existed north of the Sears Tower. I grew up listening to Techno and Hip Hop and knew nothing of Classic Rock, Grunge, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, etc. My Comedy heroes were Robert Townsend and the Wayans Brothers...I never even heard of Monty Python.

When I auditioned for ImprovBoston in 1997 and I thought I had no chance because I did not share the same cultural vocabulary that many of the cast members had. I did however, have a passion for the art form and for entertaining our audiences. Director Ron Jones, also a POC, cast me and the rest, I could say, was history. Because he cast me, I felt an amazing boost of confidence and invested in knowing anything and everything I can about the world I lived in, and more importantly, the world my peers lived in. I became a sponge. I even started listening to Bob Dylan and Phish (Thank you Don Schuerman).

Ron casting me changed my life. I grew as an improviser and more importantly as a person. I'm still developing and growing on both of those fronts.

Workshops and Scholarships are great but they still have built in filters. Not everyone can afford workshops, not everyone will get scholarships and sometimes you're working 2-full time jobs and barely have time to fit in a class. Accessibility and affordability to the stage is key to diversity which is why I always believed in open auditions...even if sometimes it led to awkward audition moments (sorry Amy Frizzi).

True diversity will begin when we stop looking at how many classes someone took, who they know, which books they read or what teachers they had and instead look at the skills that truly make us good comedians and improvisers. Do they have a unique perspective on the world around them? Are they taking care of themselves and of others? Are they having fun? A good director and teacher (not just an experienced director or teacher...big difference) can see past the lack of technical knowledge and see the person underneath. A good director and teacher can then guide the person to become the improviser the theater wants, the cast needs and that the improviser wants to be. 
Finally, a note for directors...I would encourage directors to not look at resumes until after auditions. To this day it's something that I do.

It's very easy to judge someone by the length of their resume, the quality of their headshot...heck, even the font they use. Look at the person onstage...that will tell 99 percent of what you need to know. Be impressed by their training (or lack of training) after the fact.

Good directors can make up for any knowledge gap. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A place to collect my improv thoughts

{EAV:8c9f48541e674e8a}

I've been improvising professionally since 1997 and have been an Artistic Director since 1998; first with Blue Screen Productions and then with ImprovBoston. Since I started, I have been keeping an ongoing journal of my thoughts and revelations about improvisation. Some have helped in the unique development of ImprovBoston, others have fallen by the wayside but all of them have been crucial in my development.

I didn't start improvising until I went to Boston College even though I grew up in Chicago, the mecca of modern American Improv. In a way, I am grateful for this. This allowed my ideas to develop outside of the tunnel vision and bubble of the Chicago Improv experience. While I am jealous of everyone who has had a chance to commit years to the iO, Second City, Annoyance models, I am happy that I had to seek out knowledge on my own in Boston. It's allowed to discover nontraditional concepts and to take different roads to the same goal. This has allowed me to develop a more universal appreciation of improvisation as art, theater and philosophy.

Many of my thoughts have been collecting digital dust on my hard drive; some have even met the unfortunate fate of crashing computers and unsaved documents. To save them from being lost to the digital ether, I figured it would be best to put them online. Not only would they be saved forever but this would also allow me to share them with other like minded individuals. I assume that's why you're here.

I hope you enjoy what I'll posting here and please add your thoughts. Improvisation is an organic, personal and evolutionary art-form and I look forward to hearing other people's ideas.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Beginners

Remember your first Improv class? We've all been there...

I've had the pleasure of working with many beginners. Many of them have become performers at my theater; many have gone on to use improvisation in their professional or personal lives; and many were happy with their one class and left satisfied that they tried something new. Regardless of what they got out of the class, it is our job as instructors to make sure that each student feels successful regardless of how long their experience in improv is meant to be.

With this in mind, sometimes working with Beginners can be intimidating. I challenge instructors that instead of being daunted by this responsibility, we should see this as an opportunity to share our joy with a new person. All of your students are coming with tons of potential and it's your job as an instructor to provide them with the right tools for them to take their first steps down the road you've come to know so well. Whether their goal is to be a professional comedian or a better speaker, it's an instructors job to create a safe space and to provide them with some easy tools and supportive feedback.

Below are points I try to make to my Beginner students. I know many are inspired from classes I've taken; podcasts I've listened to; or books I've read. I put them all here as reminders and tools for you to use and to share with your students.

Enjoy!
  • I will never be as good as you because only you are you. Your improvisation will be born from the experiences and knowledge that only you have.
  • Give all exercises a try. And then try them again. And them try them a third time.
  • There is no "I can't"
  • Making mistakes is an important part of the process. Most of the time, you won't feel successful the first time through these exercises. All I ask is that you take risks and then together we will learn how to take the next step.
  • It's much better to fail in a workshop than in in front of an audience. Take risks!
  • No one is going to die if you make a mistake. The sun will still rise tomorrow.
  • Listen
  • Act and React
  • If you're thinking ahead in order to feel more secure, you're going to miss what's happening NOW.
  • It's okay for a character to say "No" to an idea...but when the actor says "No", it stops the action and the flow of ideas.
  • Be as excited about accepting an offer as you are about making an offer
  • An offer can be any physical or verbal action. Literally, anything.
  • Don't deny the reality of the scene.
  • Don't give orders in a scene.
  • Don't just repeat what other people are saying.
  • Don't ask questions that don't add information.
  • Don't talk too much!