New Class: Improv for Black Boxers

Please help me spread the word. I’ll be teaching a special class for Black Box Acting Studio:

This is for students who have completed three levels over at Black Box. We will be using versions of exercises from the acting program and applying them to improvised scenes, as well as pulling in exercises from my years of experience teaching Improvising from the Gut workshops.

This should be a fun playful experience which should make you a better improvisor and perhaps a better actor too: Perfect for the black box actor who wants to try improv or the improvisor who wants to apply their black box skills to improv.

The class will be held on Tuesday nights Nov 6 – Dec 11, 6-9pm at the Den Theater at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. No class week of Thanksgiving.

NaSkeWriMo Chicago

If you are in Chicago and you are participating in National Sketch Writing Month, you are invited to come to an open mic/sketch reading party on October 7th. Bring copies of your favorite sketches you wrote for this year’s NaSkeWriMo and we will read it together. 

NaSkeWriMo Chicago Afterword
@Upstairs Gallery
Sunday, October 7th, 7:30pm
FREE (suggested donation $5)
BYOB & BYO(S)ketches 

Follow NaSkeWriMo on Tumblr

Emotional Yo-yo

Emotional Yo-yo**

Last week I wrote about reacting strongly to innocuous lines from your scene partner to immediately create interesting moments. It’s quite easy. Just listen to your scene partner, take what they say personally, and respond in way that is specific, strong and believable. That’s a great way to create a single moment, but to make a great scene you need to learn how to play with it.

Here is an exercise called Emotional Yo-yo:

  • Start a simple scene: like two people involved in an everyday activity. Don’t prethink it too much. Just start talking.*
  • One player should choose to react strongly to something from the other player. Once someone reacts in this way, they are the yo-yo and the other player is the hand.
  • If you are the hand, you should play with the yo-yo. Your job is to do and say things that either provoke the yo-yo or placate the yo-yo.
  • If you are the yo-yo, your job is to be affected. Every reaction doesn’t have to be super strong, but often it is. Sometimes the hand will push you away, sometimes the hand will pull you back, sometimes the hand will spin you around. You should be flexible and let yourself be played with.

Some hints and notes

Continue reading

IRC Podcast with Rachael Mason

I’ve posted a new episode of the IRC Podcast. Rachael Mason, Second City teacher, talks about giving gifts, emotional responses vs. clever lines, 10 minute scenes, playing against type, deconstructions, invocations, bad habits and stage combat.

Specific, strong and believable

About a year ago, Ric Walker introduced me to an exercise. I liked it and tweaked it and started using it myself. It has become one of my favorites.

  1. Player A starts a scene doing something. The activity should be simple and the actor should do it in a neutral way without making a choice for their mood or emotional state.
  2. Player B enters and says the first line of dialog. This first line should be simple and innocuous and should be delivered in a neutral way.
  3. Player A then should react impulsively and emotionally to that line of dialog. They shouldn’t think about it, the reaction should be quick and decisive.
  4. They should then play out the scene.

This exercise can lead to some surprising and very fun opening moments to scenes. When someone reacts in a specific emotional way to a neutral initiation the results are almost always funny. Often, we get an immediate sense of who these characters are and what’s going on. And most importantly, we have a game ready to play: what player B does and says can provoke player A, over and over again.

The key to this working well is in the reaction. It needs to be specific, strong and believable. Sometimes the reaction is so overacted that it’s no longer believable. Sometimes the reaction is too weak and muted and doesn’t feel fun. Sometimes it’s not specific enough and has nothing to do with Player B’s initiation. It feels random and unearned. If Player A treats whatever Player B says as important and lets it affect them personally, their reaction will often be just right.

Some notes

If a player is having trouble making strong reactions, encourage them to react with their whole body, not just their words. Tell them to move first and speak once they are in motion. Have them relax their jaw and breath in and out through their mouth while they are doing their activity, waiting for the first line. Or maybe, just give them permission to overact. By overacting for a while, they may feel more comfortable making choices that aren’t so amped, but stronger than what they’re used to.

What are examples of innocuous first lines? Anything simple like, “The mail is here,” “I turned down the AC,” “I’m all packed,” or “I have that book you wanted.” They should be neutral so that Player A has the freedom to react in a variety of ways. “I killed your dog,” is not neutral. Nor is, “You got the promotion!” Reacting in a predictable way to a loaded first line does not produce the same fun and surprising results. At least that’s what I suspect.

One nice variation on this is to restart the scene several times using the same activity and first line and instructing Player A to react in different ways each time.

Surprise Yourself

Every once in a while when you are improvising, you should do something on stage that surprises you. Start telling a story in the middle of a scene without knowing why. Just start speaking. Make it about something that hasn’t come up yet. The first few sentences should feel like a non-sequitur. You should have no idea how it connects to the scene so far. Before you finish the story, you will figure out why you are telling it. And if you don’t, your scene partner most likely will make a connection for you.

The key is to make your subconscious brain do some work. Your mind is terrific at making up little stories to justify your actions in the real world. For every conscious decision you make, your subconscious mind is probably making dozens of choices, maybe hundreds. Harness that power in your scenes and you will find it almost always improves them.

There is a place for carefully considering your scene partner’s moves and providing thoughtful responses. There is also a place for impulsive moves, gut reactions and non-sequiturs. Real life conversations are filled with surprising twists and turns when viewed from the outside. Your scenes should have them too.

New Fall Performance Class @ Upstairs Gallery

Kevin Mullaney

Kevin Mullaney

This is an eight week class for intermediate and advanced improv students with some long form improv experience. You will learn how to create fun, interesting, two-person scenes; explore different ways to create second beats from those scenes; and try connecting different threads at the end of your piece. There will be a special focus on game of the scene and developing characters with interesting points of view.

Best of all, the class includes four performances at Upstairs Gallery in Andersonville. Each show will be hosted by your teacher and you will receive notes after the show. The following week, in class, will feature exercises to work on the specific areas of potential improvement identified from the last show. And it only costs $199!

Who is Kevin Mullaney?

Kevin Mullaney was the original Artistic Director for the UCB Theatre in New York. He was also the first director of their training program. Before that he taught at iO Theatre and directed their touring company, the iO Road Show. He is the host of the Improv Resource Center Podcast and most recently one of the Co-Artistic Directors at the Chicago Improv Festival. Find out more about Kevin Mullaney here.

When is the class?

  • Class meets Saturdays 12-3pm, September 8, 15, 22; October 6, 13, 20, & 27 & November 3 (No class September 29)
  • Performances are Sundays at 7:30pm, October 14, 21, 28 & November 4

Where is the class?

Upstairs Gallery
5219 N Clark Ave
3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60640

How much will it cost?


How many students will be in the class?

Maximum number of students will be 16

How do I apply?

Students can apply to be in this class by filling out this form before midnight on Monday August 20th. Students will be chosen from the pool of applicants. If you are chosen for the class, you’ll be notified by Friday, August 24th.

Click to Apply

Using Kickstarter to Fund Your Theater Project

Dear friend,

If you are producing a show and using Kickstarter to fund that show, please have at least one funding option that is a deal. If your show tickets are going to be $20, offer a $15 gift level where I get a ticket. Better yet, offer a $25 level where I get 2 tickets. Give me a bargain and I’ll jump on it.

Instead what I’m seeing is a lot of Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects that look more like plain fundraisers where you are soliciting donations and giving token gifts in return. This is ok, I’m sure some of them will get funded, especially in cases where the company has a track record and lots of loyal fans (or friends and family). You can still have gift levels which are essentially donations: $5 for a thank you or $300 for opening night tickets and an afterparty. $1000 to get a producing credit. But if you really want to exceed your expectations, offer a deal too.

Thank you,
Someone who wants to give you money

P.S. This is not about your project in particular.

Show names, group names and form names

Let’s say there is an improv group named Master Blaster and they decide to do a show called Inside the Thunderdome and for that show that create a new improv form that features stage combat that they call The Gibson.

Is it ok for you to do another impov show using stage combat? Yes, of course. It’s an idea. You can’t patent or copyright an idea. So of course it’s acceptable. It’s even better if you do three things:

  1. Add something to the form or transform it to make it your own,
  2. Give credit to the original group as the inspiration in the program and elsewhere,
  3. Name the show something unique so that there is no confusion with the original. Don’t call the show The Gibson, or Thunderdome or Master Blaster. 

For instance, the Family did a form called The Movie in a show called Three Mad Rituals and also in Dynamite Fun Nest. When Besser taught the movie in NYC with a new cast, it became Feature Feature, and the next generation after that became Instant Cinema. He didn’t call the show Three Mad Rituals or even The Movie, they gave it a brand new name.

I’m not trying to call out anyone in particular. People do this over and over again, all over the place. And there are reasonable exceptions. This is more like a challenge to people to come up with their own titles for shows. 

But that’s just my old, crotchety opinion. And by the way, I’m keeping the ball that landed in my yard.