How can the comedy community make it easier for audience to discover their shows?

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Back in the 90′s when I first moved to Chicago, there were a limited number of ways you could reach a potential audience. People were assembling email lists and blasting everyone they could with invites to shows. You could flyer on the street which tended to work poorly. Or you could be one of the lucky few who got reviewed by the Chicago Reader, New City or even the Tribune.

If you were looking for a show back then, you would pick up a Reader from the street and peruse it’s show listings. It was the only nearly-comprehensive listing of local theater, comedy, and music. That’s how I first found out about The Annoyance for instance. They had a bunch of shows with outrageous titles like Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner, Tippi Portrait of a Virgin, and Coed Prison Sluts. They knew that they needed eye catching titles that grabbed you in order to stand out from the 100s of shows that were listed every week.

20 years later, it’s a totally different world when it comes to getting the word out about your show. Information is fragmented into hundreds of different places, none of them as comprehensive as the Chicago Reader was back then. When I look for a show to go see these days, first I might check Hottix to get a rough idea of what is happening. Then I might check Goldstar. The Reader and Time Out are both still worth a stop, but are hardly comprehensive. And finally I’ll check out the websites of some of my favorite theaters directly to see what’s playing. It’s much more complicated than trying to find a movie to go see. Wouldn’t it be great to have something like google movies for live theater or comedy? But that doesn’t exist as far as I know.

Today if you are promoting a show, you can send out press releases to dozens of publications and websites. You can blog about the show, share rehearsal pictures on Instagram, create a trailer on Youtube, tweet quotes and reviews on Twitter, create an event on Facebook, or share it on Tumblr. There’s Vine and Snapchat and Periscope and Blab and new platforms starting almost every week. There is no end to the number of different ways you can promote your show. You could devote 60-80 hours a week and not run out of things to do.

But most of us don’t have that kind of time to devote to social media. We have to work smarter and find ways to get information out there about our shows efficiently. We have to figure out how to create content about our shows that our existing fans want to share. We have to make sure our websites are social media friendly, so that when someone shares it on Facebook or Tumblr, a relevant image and description pops up on the post.

But even if we do all this social media stuff right, where can potential audience members find out about our shows? If they don’t already follow us on Instagram or Facebook, how would they know if we shared some great item about our show? I think we can do a lot more to help audiences discover us in more organic ways. That’s what the purpose of this Tumblr is, to be a cross roads for Chicago comedy. There are a few dozen stages in Chicago that are devoted solely to comedy of different types. And there are many more which often host comedy shows. How can we tie them together? With a simple hashtag:


How does that help? If a good number of us in the Comedy scene start using this hashtag whenever we are promoting our theaters, our groups or our shows, potential audience members will start to notice it and will use it as a way to discover new shows. Audience members may start using it themselves when they post selfies after a show or when they share a show that they enjoyed. It will take some time for the hashtag to do it’s job, but if we start using it regularly, it will get out there. Here is what I’ll do:

  • I’m going to be regularly checking in with the hashtag on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.
  • I will retweet stuff on Twitter and when appropriate I’ll reshare links here on this Tumblr.
  • For posts on Tumblr with the hashtag, I’ll reblog them here.
  • And for pictures on Instagram, I’ll also post them here. I may not post everything. If you post a dozen pictures from the event, I may only reblog 1 or 2 of them here, but I’ll do my best to spread the love around to as many different shows and venues that choose to use the hashtag.
  • In addition, I’ll post news articles, blog posts and direct links to shows, to juice things up. I have plenty of shows at Under The Gun Theater to promote, but I’d love this to be a rich mix of things from many different venues.

What can you do?

  • First, use the hashtag on Tumblr and Instagram.
  • Second, use the hashtag on Twitter, especially when linking to content about your show.
  • Third let others at your theater or in your group know about the hashtag and encourage them to use it.
  • Finally, check your website, when you share your show page as a link on Tumblr or Facebook, does an appropriate image and description pop up? If not, talk to the person in charge of your website and encourage them to look into it and fix it. It should be a very basic thing for most pages on a website to have a default image that shows up when you share the link on social media. If it’s not pretty when I try to share a show page, I may choose not to share it.

Let me know what you think and if you have ideas of how to improve it.


Status Exercises in Improv

Someone on reddit asked about status exercises. Here is my response.

It’s important to stress that status is much more useful in improv if you look at status as behavior, as opposed to social rank. Status is how you carry yourself, or how you treat the other characters in the scene. You can be a low status president or a high status janitor. And in fact, flipping status from what you might expect because of social rank is a lot of fun.

I have used cards when teaching status for a long time. I don’t have people put them on their foreheads. Instead, I have people pick a card and then instruct them that the card rank corresponds to how they carry themselves and expect to be treated. Or I tell them that the card corresponds to how they should treat the other person. In some cases I give people two cards, one for how they see themselves and one for how they see the other person. This combination can be enlightening. Someone who sees themselves as a 3 and their scene partner as a Jack, is very different than someone who sees themself as a King or Queen and someone else as a Jack.

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IRC Podcast with Jack Newell

Jack C Newell is director of the films Close Quarters, How to Build a School in Haiti and Open Tables. He is head of TV, Film & Digital at the Second City Training Center and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago in film/video. We talk about using improv to make movies, the job of the director and his latest feature which seamlessly weaves improv into the fabric of the film.



Diversity Works Best From The Top Down

Last week I wrote a post urging improv theaters to rethink their casting. In a nutshell, I think most people take a bottom up approach to diversity. If they care about diversity at all, they concentrate on getting more diversity in their classes, and think that over time things will even out. Outreach programs are great. I fully endorse diversity scholarships and other attempts to attract a diverse student base and a diverse audience. But I think there is something really special about having a diverse cast on stage for your shows.

For prospective students, it lets them know that they are welcome and that when they are ready, they will have a fair shot at becoming an ensemble member. Sure you can make them feel welcome by being nice and being encouraging, but actually seeing people like themselves on stage speaks volumes.

Last year, when we held our first auditions for the Under The Gun Ensemble, I remember wanting to have a diverse cast. I hoped we would get people from a lot of different backgrounds. I especially hoped that we would have lots of great women in the ensemble. I think it’s common for ensembles to be 20-30% female. And I wanted to do better. And I figured it would be the easiest part of the problem to fix.

I hope that if I had been doing the casting on my own, I would have cast an ensemble that was about half women and half men. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have fallen short and cast 2/3rd male like most theaters seem to do. The reason I didn’t? Because I wasn’t doing it alone. My business partner, Angela McMahon ran the auditions with me. I think this had four effects:

  1. I think people who auditioned for us knew that the company was co-owned by a woman. And I think that may have nudged many women (consciously or unconsciously) to audition.
  2. I think Angie probably reached out to some women to audition, particularly women she had taught or directed at Second City or whom she had known from other projects.
  3. When we were making decisions, I think Angie’s sensibilities may have nudged me to value the talent of some people more than I would have if I were judging them on my own.
  4. And most importantly, Angie walked into that audition assuming we would cast an equal number of men and women. And when she pointed that out to me, I knew she was right.

It wouldn’t be enough to do better than most. I wanted a cast that was just as likely to have more women on stage as more men. And the best way to do that would be to just cast an equal number of men and women. So that’s what we did. We’ve had two auditions and at the end of each audition, we’ve had an equal number of men and women in our ensemble.

Despite my desire to see more women in comedy and improv, it just would not have happened if it was only me making the decision, or if my business partner were another man. So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.

One other thing, these posts are not just meant to nudge people in other theaters to do better, but also to nudge my future self to do better as well. I can already see areas in our own business where we need to better. And if I keep talking about this in public, it will be that much harder to overlook this at our own theater.

I’ve heard of so many good ideas from the conversations spawned by my first post, and I’m eager to try them. So I’d love to hear your stories about this. What are your theaters doing to address this? What is your experience in improv been like? Has your journey been harder because of your gender, your culture, your age, your sexual identity? What kept you going?

Photo by Aimee Custis on flickr

Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?

Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.

These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.

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Photo by ephotion on flickr:

RE: Repent or Die

Originally posted on my tumblr.



Got a really great email today from my old company (!) on the topic of “problematic” material in scenes. There’s a lot to digest, and it isn’t really my place to share it all here, but something that stuck out for me is that if a character in your scene is racist or sexist or homophobic or just gross, then there are two possible outcomes for that character: either they change and repent, or they stick to their ugly guns and suffer real consequences (a literal or metaphorical death). This is a choice that character must make, but those are the only two options that can leave your scene in a good place.

Really simple concept, but super useful. I’ll definitely hang onto it for later.

I would like to highlight the ‘if’ here. ’If a character in your scene is racist’. You really, honestly, don’t need these characters in your show. But if they come up, this is a good start to practicing dealing with them, for the sake of the audience and of your fellow players.

It’s hard to weigh in on something, when I don’t know fully what the original argument in the email was, but I’d like to respond to this.

As an improv teacher and the artistic director of a theater, I understand the desire to deal with racist, sexist or homophobic characters in these ways: make them repent, make them suffer consequences or simply erase them from your stage. But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Ric Walker

Ric Walker, Second City instructor and member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company is our guest. We talk about reacting emotionally, clown work, developing shows and more.


IRC Podcast with Mick Napier!

Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre is our guest for the IRC Podcast. We talk about nudging students to get better, breaking out of your habits, playing without making sense, presenting long form, improv auditions and Martin de Maat.

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