How to do a pattern game

The pattern game is an improv exercise and an opening for Harold. Use it to map out a network of words and ideas which all connect to the suggestion.

A pattern game is an improv exercise. Take a suggestion and through associations, map out a web of words, ideas, memories & thoughts which all connect back to the original word. Historically it has been used as the primary opening for Harold. The pattern game has evolved and changed over the years. Here is how it was taught to me, 25 years ago, and how I’ve taught it ever since.

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The Schnozzle isn’t what it used to be

In the beginning, there was the Schnozzle, the perfect improv thing. It was created by the great improv master Viodel Closestone.

Recently I received this submission from a long time reader of my blog. I pass this on to you without comment.

In the beginning, there was the Schnozzle, the perfect improv thing. It was created by the great improv master Viodel Closestone. If you practiced and performed the Schnozzle, you would become a great improvisor, a great comedian and a great person. I myself learned the Schozzle directly from Viodel Closestone and I know exactly how it’s supposed to be done. That is because I transcribed Viodel Closestone’s precise words perfectly, just as they flowed from Viodel Closestone’s mouth during those famous workshops when the Schnozzle became a perfect improv thing.

For many years, I’ve taught the Schnozzle and while my understanding of the Schnozzle has deepened, everything I teach is exactly the same as it was, because it was perfect when I learned it. However after many years, I recently returned to the once great theatre where I learned the Schnozzle and I am loathe to report that the Schnozzle has changed! It’s not what it used to be!

The Schnozzle has become looser and less defined, almost as if the rules that the great Viodel Closestone laid down were mere suggestions and not natural laws that applied to all art, all theatre and all comedy. This is true of all Schnozzles performed there except for the Schnozzles that have become overly rigid. These Schnozzles not only follow the original structure, but add new persnickety rules to be slavishly followed. These rigid Schnozzles have sucked all the life out of Viodel Closestone’s work, turning what was an expression of spontaneity and creativity into a paint by numbers exercise.

To top things off, I’ve realized that in different theatres in different cities, they teach different versions of the Schnozzle. And yet they all call it the Schnozzle. And they all claim that they teach it in the same way as Viodel Closestone did. But I know for a fact that when I spent 6 whole weeks studying with Viodel Closestone, he taught the Schnozzle differently. He taught it the right way and that’s the only way it should be taught.

Why don’t these different theatres call the Schnozzle different things. If they aren’t teaching and performing Schnozzles the right way, they should call them something else. Maybe it should be called the Woozle in one place and the Schnotter in another. Then at least the students would not be confused.

And that is who I truly care about, the students. I only wish that today’s students could learn the Schnozzle in the same perfected way that I learned it. But alas, that will not likely happen, if only because all the practitioners of the Schnozzle are too stubborn to simply follow the rules that Viodel Closestone established and that were written down by me, on my tumblr called “The Official Rules of the Schnozzle.” Please follow me there for daily posts about the Schnozzle.

Thank you,

– Malachai B. Farnspern

P.S. I will be teaching a 3 week intensive on the Schnozzle at The Nasalarium Theatre in Burbank California. If interested, please send me a $1500 deposit (checks only please) and I will eventually get back to you with dates and times.

Relationship in improv: What does that mean?

When I taught at the UCB in NYC, the most important word was ‘game’. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

When I taught at the UCB Theater in NYC, the most important word was ‘game‘. In Chicago, the word I hear from students is ‘relationship’.

Often students are told to focus on the relationship by teachers. It sounds like a good idea, but I think it sometimes trips students up. The reason is that students often equate it with back story. Defining it seems to mean labeling it to these students. They aren’t just a manager and an employee at a McDonalds, but they are also cousins that live next door to each other. This added detail often doesn’t help much, and it doesn’t actually say much about the relationship.

How much back story do we need? Just enough for us to understand who these characters are and how they might behave. If you want to create a compelling relationship in an improv scene, focus on behavior and not back story. For instance, when you ask someone about their romantic relationship, it matters if they are dating, engaged or married. That can tell us something about how they relate. But what matters much more is how they treat each other and how they make each other feel. That’s the relationship!

A little back story helps. But if you want interesting relationships, focus on how your partner is behaving and how it makes you feel. This may lead to discoveries about the characters back story, but what keeps an audience engaged is how characters treat each other. And unique and specific behavior leads to compelling games in your scenes.

This was originally a thread on twitter:

You can follow me on twitter at @ircmullaney.

What do I like to teach?

A tweet storm about teaching improv:

Base Reality is more than a who, what and a where

For a base reality to be useful, we must be able to ask and answer the question, “What is weird or unusual for this base reality.” If it’s too weird to begin with, it may be hard to answer that question.

When I introduce the term base reality to my students, I often begin by saying that it’s similar to having a who, a what and a where. Often, this is how improv is taught to beginners. You use agreement and yes-anding to establish who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

As far as I know, the term base reality was coined by either the UCB or one of their teachers to describe what I have often called the situation. It’s more specific than just any old who, what and where, because they need to feel like they belong together. It may be a situation that you have experienced in real life. It may be one that you’ve only seen on TV, in a film or in a book. Perhaps it’s a situation that you’ve never encountered before. But whatever the case, the base reality probably shouldn’t be funny or weird or absurd. If it is, then it’s more than a base reality.

Let’s look at some examples. Let’s say your ‘where’ is a cruise ship. Your ‘who’ is a psychiatrist and a lion tamer. And your ‘what’ is that you are playing Russian roulette. In many improv classes, this would be a fine example of a who, what and where. But it’s not a base reality. It’s too weird to be a base reality.

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Kissing Family – A Breakdown of the Game of the Scene

Recently, some friends brought this SNL sketch to my attention. It’s an excellent example of what we mean by Game of the Scene, with many moments that illustrate different features of games.

What do we mean by Game of the Scene? The game is the part of the scene that makes the scene fun, unique, interesting and probably most of all, funny. Games are usually an aspect of the scene which strikes us as inappropriate, weird or in more subtle cases, just a bit more heightened than real life.

It’s probably a good idea to watch the sketch before you read my breakdown of it:
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Taking responsibility for your scene

This year I attended the Improv Fest Ireland and one of the shows that got me thinking was Neil+1. In it Neil Curran finds an audience member who has never improvised before, preferably someone who has never even seen improv, and makes them his scene partner for a 45 minute show. It’s a daring concept, improvising with a complete newbie in front of large festival audience. And yet it works.

I’ve seen demonstrations like this a couple times before, taking someone from the audience and creating a scene or a show with them on the spot. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it always seems to work. In part, it may work because the audience lowers their expectation of what the newbie can do, so any good move by them is treated as particularly surprising, but I think something else is going on. I think it tends to work because the experienced player takes on the full responsibility of making the scene work and making their scene partner look good.

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A new start for me and the Improv Resource Center

Over the past few years, I’ve been a co-owner and the Artistic Director of Under The Gun Theater in Chicago. During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of producing many shows at our space in Wrigleyville, and being a part of an incredible ensemble of performers. On the whole, it has been a wonderful experience. I’ve learned much about producing and marketing shows. And I’ve sharpened my vision of the kinds of shows I’d like to direct and perform in.

However, after discussions with my business partner, we agreed to part ways. Our projections for the company were different. And week by week, our visions for the theater and our strategies for getting there were diverging more and more. In the end, she offered to buy me out and I agreed. As of about a month ago, I resigned as the Artistic Director of Under The Gun Theater and notified our ensemble and staff shortly after.

I also formally started a new company, one that I founded nearly 20 years ago, the Improv Resource Center. For the first time, the IRC will have a physical place in the real world to call home. From there I will be offering classes in improvisation and sketch comedy. And I will produce a number of shows in the next year, but at a much more reasonable pace. Instead of directing and producing a dozen new shows a year, I look forward to working on 2-4 shows instead.

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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.

Improv 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 studying with the me at the Improv Resource Center. We offer drop in classes and the Core Improv Program – 24 week program which teaches a specific process for improvising scenes. Find out more about it at

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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