Lately I’ve been listening to some improv podcasts from New York and enjoying them quite a bit. I’ve sampled two so far, the UCB Theatre Podcast and Improvised New York. Both are available through iTunes.
The UCB Theatre Podcast is the official podcast promoting the Upright Citizens Brigade’s New York theater. The hosts are John Frusciante and Will Hines, who are teachers at the school, performers and work on the administrative side as well. Their weekly show follows a straightforward format in three parts. The first part is a discussion of some of the shows that will be playing that week at the at theater. The second part is an interview of a performer whose show is up that week. And the third part is a discussion between John and Will about some facet of improvisation.
I’m enjoying this podcast a lot, but then I’m biased. I worked for the UCBT in New York, so I know John and Will well. They are both terrific guys who are very fun to talk with, so hearing the two of them discuss current shows and improv is a delight for me. The discussions about the shows so far have been fun. It’s interesting to hear what is going on at the theater and many of the guests so far are also friends. I hope they keep this podcast up, because I think it provides me with a great way to keep abreast of what is going on back there. For anyone involved at UCBT, it should be required weekly listening.
The last third of the show where they talk about improv has been especially interesting for me. John and Will take a up subject, sometimes at the suggestion of a listener and then talk about it until they have examined every angle, often arguing every viewpoint they can think of. I’m finding little interesting nuggets in each discussion, but this one from November 23rd, 2009, stood out when I heard it [it’s about 38 minutes in]. Will and John were talking about notes and how helpful they are to learning improv. This is Will speaking:
My intent a lot of times (when I’m teaching) is that I’m just trying to get people to success. Like if you just experience a good scene on stage, that does more I think than a lot of analysis after the fact. A lot of students want individual notes, and there’s an insatiable demand for individual notes. “Be harder on us.” Or, “Be harder on these other people. They need someone to tell them the truth.” And I get that, and to some degree that’s true. I don’t see that ultimately making people better. What makes people better… winning begets winning. Be in a good scene. We try to design exercises that just make you know what it feels like to do a funny scene. I feel like having that in your muscle memory is what is going to make you better later.
It’s a good point about teaching, one I learned years ago and one I talked about in a similar way in my recent post about avoiding criticism. I like to create exercises that students can succeed at. They learn by doing the right thing and feeling the reward of doing good work.
Performers have a tricky relationship with notes. Notes from peers sometimes can have a terrible souring effect, a bit like giving someone criticism in the middle of sex. But sometimes we crave notes, the more critical the better, as if being told negative things will somehow teach us to not do those things, instead of robbing us of our confidence. Many of Del Close’s former students like me, speak reverently of him, even though he had a knack for giving notes that could make a student wither under it’s harshness. He was not above kicking a student out of his class and it was a right he exercised frequently over the years. He was brilliant, and yet I think perhaps I learned much of what he had to teach me from other teachers who learned from him but had a softer touch.
Anyway, this tangent of thinking is just the kind of thing that I’m experiencing from listening to these podcasts. Hearing these discussions are tickling a part of my brain that hasn’t had enough stimulation in the last few years.
The other one I listened to was called Improvised New York. The format of this show is perhaps a little looser. Most, but not all, of the episodes are long, unedited interviews with improvisors. The hosts are Elizabeth Quinn and Justin Zell who are both performers at the The Peoples Improv Theater. I’ve listened to three so far and I’m eager to listen to more.
The first one I tackled was a two hour interview with Gary Austin, founder of The Groundlings. I feel like there is a ton to say about this one, probably far more than will fit in this blog post. In the beginning of the interview I found myself having some negative reactions to what Austin what saying. He has spent many years working on improvisation in a way that sounds significantly different than I have, and he has certain ideas will sometimes produce a defensive reflex in me. For instance, at the beginning he talked about the difference between improv and improvisation which irritated my sensibility.
I kept listening and I’m very glad I did. Austin had a lot of interesting things to say in those two hours. His stories about Del Close during his days with the Committee were illuminating and his discussion of his methods of working and the kinds of shows he does definitely tickled my brain and got me eager to get back in a workshop/rehearsal mode. At some point I will listen to that episode again, and given the opportunity, I’d love to take some workshops with Austin, since he seems to be interested in the same bridge between improvisation and scripted theatre that I am. I’d also like to see his new company perform, Austin’s Dog Bread.
The other two episodes I listened to were interviews with friends of mine, Matt Donnelly and Ptolemy Slocum. I loved both episodes quite a bit. Ptolemy’s interview was preoccupied with the fact that they had done an hour of interviewing before discovering that the equipment was not recording. It became an extended metaphor for what makes improvisation maddening to some, and what makes it particular moving to me, that it happens once and disappears except for those who there to witness and participate. In Matt’s interview, he shared some stories about the Neutrino Video Project and how that has spread throughout the country and beyond. He talked about traveling to Columbia teaching a group via interpreters. It was good stuff.
If you know of other improv related podcasts, especially ones from places other than New York, please let me know. I’d love to hear them.