Last week a friend of mine called. He was someone I used to coach in Chicago. He now lives in Minneapolis and wanted some advice about coaching a group who wanted to learn the Invocation. It’s an improv exercise that is sometimes used as an opening for improv forms like Harold. We talked for an hour about the Invocation, about Del Close (the guy who came up with the exercise) and about other similar exercises.
I thought it might make a good journal entry to write down a lot of the things that we went over in the conversation. But before I got too far into the entry, I decided to look it up on the IRC Improv Wiki to see if anyone had written anything about it. It turns out I had already written a pretty comprehensive explanation of the exercise there.
So instead of rewriting that, go over to the IRC Improv Wiki and read about the Invocation there.
The Chris Gethard Show is a talk show featuring some of my friends in New York. It runs once a month, Saturday at midnight at the UCB Theatre. I don’t know much about it, but it penetrated my brain this week when I noticed a link that Chris posted on facebook.
I next heard a little bit about it on the January 4th UCBTNY Podcast featuring John Frusciante and Will Hines. Anyway, I thought I would just post something to plug the show and share the video. It’s quite fun. Enjoy.
I recently read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie for the first time. It’s the kind of book that I’ve avoided most of my life. Self help books, especially ones with a strong slant towards the business world, usually don’t excite me. However, it had been recommended to me by a couple of people, and I realized that it might be of some use for me.
As I read the book, I wondered about how it might apply to the life of improvisation. On one level, it’s pretty straight forward. The way you build relationships in the worlds of theater and comedy are not that different from the business world. The advice translates pretty directly to how you should treat your fellow improvisors off stage. The advice seems especially well suited for sales, and while many of us in the theatre world loath selling ourselves, it is something that definitely helps us be successful.
The best stories and songs and memories all have something unusual about them. Sometimes it’s slightly out of the ordinary, sometimes it’s absurd.
A common concept in improvised scene work is that at the top of the scene, we should be trying to discover the first unusual thing about the situation or relationship and then use that to create a game for the scene. A few questions were recently posed on my message board about the first unusual thing and here was my response:
The first unusual thing has a lot to do with how our brain works. We remember and are delighted by novelty in general. Lets say you shook hands with 20 people today, and 19 of them shook your hand in a way you expect. If the 20th person shook your hand and then pulled you in close and whispered into your ear, “You are the one, the only one who can save us.” You would remember that handshake long after you forgot the other 19 people.
The best stories and songs and memories all have something unique and unusual about them. Some of these unusual things are just slightly out of the ordinary, some are absurd or ridiculous. I would go so far to say that all great theatre is about unusual things. Plays are not about the days where everything mirrors ordinary life exactly and everything happens just as we would expect. It’s about the days when things go wrong or unravel in unexpected ways or about characters whose ordinary days seem strange to us.
When I was in college, I spent a year abroad in London. It was an amazing experience. It was there that I first fell in love with the theatre. In part, it was because I had access to some of the finest productions in the world. There were always great shows to go see somewhere in London. And the student discounts made it relatively cheap to see them too. My love affair was also stoked by some of the classes I had, one class specialized in Shakespeare and to this day I still remember some of the lectures, at least in broad strokes. But the main reason I fell in love was it was the first chance I got to do some theatre.
In that year, I acted in several plays, I directed one (a Pinter play no less), built sets, did lighting design and produced a play that went to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was such a great experience that, after I graduated from college, I returned for another six months, hooked up with many of the same people I had worked with before and helped produce a few more shows. When I left London, I wasn’t ready to go. I was sad, but I didn’t know at the time how to go about becoming a permanent resident there. I returned home and headed to Chicago, determined to make it in the theatre there.
About five years later, I had the opportunity to return to London. I was once again producing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe. This time it was an improv show. I arranged to stay in London a few days after the festival. I anticipated it being a great experience, but it was somehow hollow. It was great seeing some of my friends again, but walking the streets where I had once lived put me in a distinctly melancholy mood. It was like visiting a memory. It was a place I used to live and when I returned to the places I used to hang out, they were devoid of the people that made it special to me.
Wiki’s and improvisation go together like peanut butter and jelly. When wikis work, it is the definition of “yes and” on a huge scale. It’s time we have a large, comprehensive wiki for the improv world.
Last Saturday I got a chance to visit my friend Lillian Frances. Lillie and I were on a team called Frank Booth at ImprovOlympic in the 90s. I was on that team for about 4 years during which we probably performed over 200 Harolds together, mostly at iO, but we also performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a few other places along the way. We created a show with our friend Tara Davis called the Frank Booth in the Blue Velvet Lounge where we combined torch songs and long form improv, setting scenes in the same lounge where Tara sang. Our swan song was a show called Therapy directed by Miles Stroth where we vented our real life foibles in front of an audience and then poked fun at ourselves through improv.
It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, but we still have a very strong connection. Lillie and I had similar sensibilities and even more similar ambitions. We both wanted to run our own theatres, we both loved improv and we were both frustrated by ImprovOlympic. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful place to learn and grow as performers. It was the kind of frustration you feel when you love something and feel it could be even better if only you were in charge. A feeling that many, many performers have felt over the years as they passed through iO.
After a few weeks of sipping sugar water and drinking olive oil, I spent a week in New York for the Del Close Marathon. I was explaining it to a friend and he responded, “Oh you mean the Shangri-la Diet.”
I’m at a curious point in my life. Up until a couple of years ago, my life seemed to be on a particular path. I moved to Chicago to become an actor, discovered a passion for improvisational theatre and began a lifelong pursuit of teaching, directing and performing in the theatre. Then life started throwing me some curve balls.
I realized that I was unhappy in my administration job at the theatre where I worked, so I quit (although I kept teaching). I started winning at poker and began to think about pursuing it professionally. I found another new source of income when a hobby became a business. I left New York to spend some time with my father in Arizona, and finally I moved back to my hometown to take care of my mother. My old life has been completely interrupted.
This is not all bad. I’m very glad that I’ve been able to spend time with my family and being a caregiver for a parent does have many rewards. It’s hard not to feel a little lost at times though. Eventually, I will leave again, pick up my life and start over. And I’ll have many options in front of me.
Do I return to the theatre? If so, do I go back to Chicago, return to New York or join many of my friends in Los Angeles? Maybe I should go back to Arizona where the weather is amazing and theatre culture is still young, or perhaps I should reconnect with some of my oldest and best friends in Seattle. Do I teach for someone else like I have before or do I teach my own classes or even start my own theatre?