Deliberate Practice, Not Just Reps

Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about how we approach improv training, and I think we can do much better than we do. To develop mastery in any art form takes practice, not just reps. What is the difference?

Deliberate practice means focused, challenging exercises with specific goals, led by a coach or teacher who knows how to encourage you to be better. It means nudging students to get to that sweet spot of learning where they are reaching just beyond their current capabilities. Truly effective training is hard, it should leave you mentally tired. But when you practice like this, you get better.

Summer intensive programs shouldn’t just be about filling a notebook with ideas that you might practice later. They should be about getting better now. You should be able to walk away on the last day knowing that you acquired skills that you can put into practice the next time you improvise.

If this kind of training sounds intriguing to you, think about taking my Improv Bootcamp at Under The Gun Theater. It’s 5 days of intensive training in Chicago, July 11th-July 15th. It’s the same workshop I’m teaching in New York in June and in Washington DC in August. Those bootcamps are sold out, the improv bootcamp in Chicago still has room for you.

Improv Resource Center Podcast with Amey Goerlich

Amey Goerlich talks to Kevin Mullaney about improv exercises and concepts. Amey is the host of the Indie Cagematch in at UCB East and an independent improv teacher in New York. We talk about Krompf, pummeling, improvising with your eyes closed, bad rap warmups, half ideas, button lines, teaching film to 5 year olds, e-Improv, and bonsai tree houses.

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Karen Graci

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. She is also a writer for Girlboss, a new Netflix show in production. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds.

Karen Graci is a coach and performer at iO West. We talk about about coaching Harold teams, openings, group games, short form, and Vertical Harolds. She can be seen performing with King Ten at iO West. Special thanks to Camp Improv Utopia East where this podcast was recorded.

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Do we really need a straight man to make comedy work?

I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf.

I’d like to propose a simple change in terminology for analyzing comedy and improv scenes. Often two person comedy scenes will have one character who is inappropriate, absurd, irrational, illogical or weird, and another character who’s role is to react to this strange character as we think an average person might. This other character is usually more reasonable, skeptical, logical, or rational than the strange one.

The term that most people use for this is “straight man.” I love the concept, it’s extremely useful, but I hate the term. Every time I hear it, it sounds more and more tone deaf. Instead, I think we should use the term “voice of reason” instead:

the voice of reason (definition): Often when one character in a scene is odd, weird or strange, we need another character who is the voice of reason. This character’s job is to react as an ordinary person might to the absurd character. They might be skeptical of the other character’s point of view. They might react by being annoyed, or amazed, or shocked, or nonplussed.

The voice of reason does not have to act straight, or like a man, they have to react as a person, a person usually very similar to the real life performer behind the character.

If you don’t like this idea, feel free to keep using the tone deaf term. But if you are open to it, start using “voice of reason” instead. I think you will see it’s much more accurate and leaves out all the cultural baggage that normal and ordinary equals straight and male.

Sign up now for Improv Bootcamp

Improv Bootcamp is different. Instead learning a plethora of different concepts, we focus on a few specific ones and use a variety of exercises to practice each skill.

For the past two years, Under The Gun Theater has offered Improv Bootcamps in Chicago. It’s a type of intensive improv training focused on developing specific skills, through concentrated practice. It’s targeted toward students who have at least a year of improv experience, and are looking for a program that will challenge them and improve the way they play right away.

In a typical improv intensive you are introduced to many different concepts and exercises, often in classes of 20 people or more. It’s not uncommon to get only one try at a particular exercise before the class moves on.

Improv Bootcamp is different. Instead learning a plethora of different concepts, we focus on a few specific ones and use a variety of exercises to practice each skill. Typically students are given multiple opportunities to practice a skill over several days. And if the class is big enough (16 or more students), we will have a second instructor, reserve multiple rooms and break the class into working groups to ensure multiple reps for exercises.

We have two bootcamps scheduled this summer for Chicago:

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I’m hoping to add week long boot camps for New York and LA this summer as well. Check back soon for more info.

Cross-posted from

Photograph by Tyler Bolken via flickr.

A White Guy Responds to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Performance

I had a strong response to Beyoncé’s half time Super Bowl performance. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on my television set.

As a middle aged white male, I had a strong response to Beyoncé’s half time Super Bowl performance. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on my television set, a black woman on my TV singing those lyrics and with all those dancers backing her up. More than a few words came to mind.
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Sexual Harassment Policies Are Not Enough

The kinds of stories that have been swirling around the improv community these days can inspire outrage at the people who are victimizing others, and it should. But when seeking better outcomes, we must address more than just the bad apples in our community. We must do more than put in place policies that address harassment.

Let’s say that you were put in charge of a large comedy theater that has recently had significant issues with sexual harassment. What might you do? Well you might take a look at your policies. You probably would open up channels so that people could have a way to confidentially share their experiences. You might arrange some training for your staff. And you might have to fire some people–get rid of the “bad apples” as they say. But if you don’t address the power structure of your organization, it will never really get fixed.

Even before the recent public accusations of rape, unwanted sexual advances, and hostile environments, it should have been obvious that there was a problem. The gender imbalance at certain theaters is obvious and persistent. In a way, harassment is the ugly symptom of a disease that goes much deeper.

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

Reposted from

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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