In your first few improv classes you often get very broad guidelines of how to create good improv scenes. For instance, you are taught things like “Always yes-and your scene partner!” or “Never ask questions!” or “Don’t try to be funny!” These rules are often useful, but improvisors tend to hold on to them too long. They judge their scene work against these rules when the rules don’t apply. And these rules get in the way of learning new things.
For instance when I teach people how to discover games in their scenes, I encourage them to ask questions and to disagree with the other character. We talk openly about trying to make the scene more funny, and this frustrates some improvisors. Sometimes it frustrates them so much that they reject the concept of the Game of the Scene altogether, and that is a shame.
A lot of improv dialog tends to settle into a regular rhythm, a ping pong back and forth that we encourage in new students. I say something, you listen, pause briefly to consider what I have said and respond. Then I pause briefly to consider what you’ve said and respond to you. This is one way to build a scene, but if this rhythm continues throughout the scene, it can be deadly boring—one polite line of dialog after another with a short polite pause in between each one.
Instead, try something I call No Gap Dialog. Here is a good template to try:
Two players enter and start a scene silently.
The players can take some time in the beginning of the scene to take each other in without speaking, 5 to 10 seconds of silence up top is good.
Then once one player speaks, both players must speak to each other without any pauses at all. They should almost be cutting each other off and finishing each other’s sentences.
Have someone side coaching you. They should snap their fingers if you are pausing between lines. And they should try to keep you going without gaps for about 60-90 seconds.
I have put together a package deal for coaching though my new theater company, Under the Gun Theater, which I think is a terrific deal. It’s called the Hump Night House Team Project.
Instead of us holding auditions and choosing the teams, I’d like teams to form themselves and come to us. You sign up as a team in 8 week blocks. Each person on the team pays $100 and that covers all the costs for 8 two-hour rehearsals (coaching and space). You also will get up to 4 shows at the Hump Night Pregrame show (and for each show you get a free complimentary ticket to give out to a friend).
The more I’ve dealt with team systems over the years, the more I’ve felt that teams deserve to have as much autonomy as they can. Those are the teams that are more likely to have chemistry, to get along, and on average get better over time. If you want to add someone to the team, you can. If you want to take a break and come back after a few months, you can.
This is a meant to be a learning experience, a way for you to get better and have fun. No one is watching the shows, trying to decide who to cut from your team. If your team wants to stay together and we can find time to schedule rehearsals, you won’t get cut. It doesn’t work like.
I’m hoping that this will be the kind of project where performers and students grow and get better. Check out the site and let me know what you think.
My copy of the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual arrived on Friday and I have been reading through it over the last few days. Although I have not finished it, it’s obvious that this book is now essential reading for improv students everywhere. I think it’s going to have a big affect on how people learn, teach and perform improv. It’s also going to have a big affect on how we talk about it.
Many of the terms in the book have appeared elsewhere and are probably familiar to most improvisors. For instance, many people have their own personal take on what game of the scene means. Often these explanations seek to simplify the definition in an attempt to demystify the term. This book elaborates on the term, defining game in a quite specific way and then laying out a detailed plan on how to get there.
Some terms are new to me though, for instance, the term framing. For many years, if someone in a scene does or says something unusual for the circumstances, I’ve encouraged their scene partner to pick at that, to question it, to treat it as strange, to be skeptical of it. I didn’t have a single term for this and now I do. In this book, the UCB uses the term framing to describe this.
Framing means letting your scene partner know that you feel that they have said or done something unusual within the context of the base reality. When you frame, you highlight or underline the unusual so that it stands out to your scene partner.
This is incredibly useful because sometimes your scene partner doesn’t realize that they have said or done something unusual. Also, when you frame something as unusual, you are saying, “I agree that what you did is the first unusual thing in the scene. Let’s use that to build the game.”
One terrific point they make is that because of framing, ‘finding the game’ is always about listening:
New improvisers often fail to listen because they are searching so desperately for the Game of the scene in their own head. You shouldn’t have to search hard for the Game because it lies in your scene partner. Either your scene partner will provide the unusual thing or frame what you have said, thereby identifying it as unusual.
page 81 (emphasis mine)
I’m sure going forward, not only will I use the term ‘framing’ to describe this, I will likely be able to explain it more clearly and succinctly because of the book. It will also be wonderful to simply refer students to chapter 4 if they have more questions.
Honestly, when I got this book, I expected to find it useful, but it’s easily exceeding my expectations and I’m not even halfway done. They lay their ideas out very clearly, using lots of examples and little graphics. It’s a patient book, one that improvisors at every level, even complete beginners, will find useful. It’s also going to take a lot of time to digest. At nearly 400 pages, it’s much heftier than many of the other popular books on improv. As far as I can tell, there is no fluff in the book either. It doesn’t waste time telling stories or arguing why their way is best. They don’t bother to argue, “This is the right way to improvise.” Instead the point of view seems like, “This is how we improvise, and how we teach other people to improvise, and we think it works quite well.”
I moved to Chicago in the spring of 1991 with the hope of becoming a professional actor. Although I had little training at the time, I had performed in a few plays in college and I had done a little improv too. My plan was to study acting, do some shows and apply to MFA programs. That’s not what happened.
I studied acting at a place called Center Theater up on Devon Avenue. They taught a method that was Meisner based. Some of my favorite teachers from that time are still around, teaching for the Artistic Home. It was an exciting and visceral approach to acting, and I learned a lot. Sadly, the actual plays that I was involved with were not as interesting and raw as the training. I had trouble applying what I learned to regular acting. It did seem to help me with my improv though. For almost two decades I’ve tried to figure out ways to take what I learned there and apply it to improv.
I started, like many people at the time, going through the Players Workshop of Second City, a group that was very thinly associated with Second City (the final show at the end of the year was on the Second City mainstage). At the time, Second City didn’t have the A-E program that it does now. So Players Workshop was frequently the program that people did before auditioning for the Second City Conservatory.
I remember very little of what I learned at Players Workshop, but I met a lot of great people. Some of us created a group and enlisted Jay Leggett to teach us. Jay was from the legendary Harold team Blue Velveeta. They were the house Harold team at ImprovOlympic in the late 80’s. Eventually they broke off and started doing shows independently. Jay was an awesome teacher. He taught me to be patient and realistic in my scenes. He taught us the Harold. He taught us about the game of the scene and how to make connections. It was an excellent introduction to long form.
Jay talked a lot about Del Close in class. He credited Del with most of the ideas we were learning. One night after class, Jay was talking about moving to LA and how perhaps we should start studying at iO. This was probably the spring of 1993. He had heard that Del was sick and that if we wanted to study from him, we better get our ass over there for classes soon. So I went to a few shows and signed up.
This was the era of the Family at Improv Olympic. They had been the house team for at least a few months (maybe closer to a year) when I started taking classes. I had Charna for level 1, like everyone did back then. Then I took a class taught by Miles Stroth and Adam McKay. I think I was in Matt Besser’s first ever class next. And finally I studied with Del for about 6 months.
It was a tremendous experience being a part of Improv Olympic back then. There were some independent long form groups around, but if you were going to do long form improv back then, you did it at iO. I got on a team pretty quickly after level 1. And after a couple of terrible shows with one team I was moved to Frank Booth and stayed with them for four years.
Frank Booth was one of those very rare iO teams that just gelled. We were a bunch of nice people and we worked well together. After a year or so we found ourselves to be one of the top teams. We played every Saturday night. We created a show called Frank Booth in the Blue Velvet Lounge which combined improv and jazz standards sung by our friend Tara Davis. Eventually we broke up in early 1997. Paul Grondy was on that team. He still teaches at iO. Lilly Frances, the owner of LOL Theater was on it too. So was Liz Allen who co-wrote that book with Jimmy Carrane. She won the coach of the year award so many times at iO that it was named after her. We had one, and only one coach the whole time, Craig Cackowski. It was a great bunch. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so supported on stage before or since.
It was while I was on this team that I started coaching and eventually teaching. I talked Charna into letting me establish a touring group called the iO Road Show which I directed and produced. I ran what I think were the first improv auditions at iO for that group. I ran it for a couple more years until I left for New York.
I can’t remember exactly when I started the Improv Resource Center. I think it was in 1995. At first it was a few pages of html and an attached message board. It was through that site that some of the UCB’s students started finding my essays on improv. The UCB contacted me and asked if I would come out and teach a workshop in 1998, which I did. It was my Weird Harold workshop, where I had people do specific kinds of Harolds like musical Harolds, dream Harolds, etc. I loved New York and I began thinking how great it would be to perform and teach there, but I returned to the grind in Chicago at iO.
The next Spring after Del passed away and after the UCB had finished their first season of their Comedy Central show, they contacted me out of the blue. I had just moved in with some friends on Ashland Ave. We were sitting around playing poker. I went to check my email and there was a message from Amy Poehler saying that they’d like me to come out and teach for them. I was so excited. This was exactly what I wanted to do next.
I quit my jobs and my teams in Chicago and headed for New York. It was an amazing time to join the UCB Theater. The only ones teaching for them then were the UCB 4, Armando Diaz and me. They had just opened their first theater on 22nd street. There were probably a core of about 50-100 performers. And the rush of new students was already beginning. I think there were only five or six teams at the start, but things were growing like crazy. I stayed with the UCB for 7 years and taught something like 100 classes for them at every level. I served as their Artistic Director and after that, I ran the training center, hiring teachers, overseeing the curriculum, and scheduling classes.
In 2006, family issues took me away from New York and for the next four years I’d be helping to take care of my parents, first accompanying my father to Arizona and then returning to my home town in Illinois to help take care of my mom. She passed away in 2010, and it was a strange moment in my life. I had not been doing much theater or improv and I wanted very much to return to New York or go to LA.
But I also had this idea that maybe I should go back to Chicago. I wanted very much to start a theater, to build something for myself instead of spending so much energy over the years building other people’s theaters. I felt like Chicago was a better place to start something than New York, and LA just isn’t theater town, so I returned to Chicago and started plugging away. I felt a bit rusty, so I took writing classes at Second City, improv classes at the Annoyance and went through the acting program at Black Box Acting Studio and eventually studied clown and physical theater with Paola Coletta. It was great to be a student again. I learned a lot of new stuff. Most importantly, I remembered what it was like to be a student. It reminded me how important it was to keep your students on their feet working and how crucial it was to not waste time in class. It was good to feel that antsy energy of wanting to do an exercise many times instead of just once, like so often happens in classes.
2012 was a busy year for me. I performed in three plays and a sketch show. In 2013, I’ve refocused on improv and comedy. I’ve been running a variety show called Hump Night. I wanted very much to be teaching improv again, and so I started offering performance classes last year. I’ve done four of them so far.
Looking over this, I feel like there is so much I’ve left out, so many highlights, like creating the show Cage Match which ran at iO for years and runs at both UCBT NY and UCBT LA and later starting the 3 on 3 tournament in New York, an event that has become an annual tradition at Thanksgiving. There was the year I produced a run of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for Frank Booth. As far as I know, we performed the first Harolds ever in Scotland.
When I was in New York, I directed a bunch of shows at the UCB Theater. One of the highlights was directing the Swarm in their breakout show: Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain. That’s where we first coined the term monoscene to describe a form with only one scene, but which could be broken down into many smaller scenes via entrances and exits.
Since I’ve been back in Chicago, I’ve enjoyed performing in Mullaney Chain, a show where I invite someone to play and they invite someone else (and so on). Through that show I’ve had the privilege to perform with so many amazing Chicago improvisors. Many of them started long after I left for New York years ago.
So, that’s a little introduction to who I am as an improvisor and a teacher. If you are interested in improv and live in Chicago, I hope you will consider taking a class with me, or joining the improv meetup group I run, or at least dropping by some Wednesday in the fall to see Mullaney Chain at Hump Night. If you don’t live in Chicago, I hope to see you at a festival or maybe I can coach you via Skype.
Also, please invite me to play sometime in your show. If I can do it, I usually say yes.
A few weeks ago, I started trying this exercise with the teams I coach: Whoever speaks second in the scene may only repeat words that the first person says. For instance:
I had a terrible day.
Yeah, I got laid off again.
Exactly! They just hired me back a couple weeks ago.
A couple weeks ago?
Nobody does that. Hires you back, gives you one paycheck and then gives you a pink slip the next day.
Nobody does that.
I think the boss there must be a sadist.
And so on. Notice how easy this is. It’s easy for the player repeating, all they have to do is repeat a few words that the first speaker says. And it’s easy for the speaker too, they just keep elaborating on what they just said.
Are all the questions ok?
Well, there are a lot of questions, and we all know from improv 101 that we don’t ask questions. But the truth is many kinds of questions are useful, not wrong. You probably know that already. In this case, the questions are helping because they focus the players on precisely the part that is most interesting.
Take the following statement, “My only daughter left for college today to study English.” If you were the repeater, your options might be:
“Your only daughter?
“To study English?”
In each case, you would focus the scene in a particular direction. If you were the speaker, you would naturally elaborate on whatever point that the repeater asks you about. So while it may look like the repeater isn’t doing much, they are actually being extremely useful. They are guiding the speaker to the part of the statement which seems most interesting and could turn into something fun.
How you ask the question is important too. The repeater should be doing more than just repeating the words, they should be repeating them in a way that reveals their point of view. For instance, if they are surprised when they say “Today?”, that might make the speaker realize that the daughter left for school three months early and that she must really want to get away from home. If the repeater says “To study English?” with disdain, the speaker might realize that he had hoped his daughter would study something different.
So just ask questions?
No, the repeater doesn’t always have to ask questions. Sometimes, you should just repeat the part that you agree with. For instance, “Yeah… English” instead of “To study English?” You can also add a word or two like “right”, “yeah”, or “huh?” You don’t need to be super strict about repeating the exact words, as long as you are reflecting back to your scene partner the part that you most want to hear more about.
What should I do if I’m the speaker?
If you are the speaker in this exercise, let the repeater guide you. Respond directly to whatever they repeat back to you. In a way, the repeater is in charge, coaching you to elaborate on the most interesting details. With that in mind, if you are the repeater, and the speaker hasn’t said anything new or interesting in their last statement, just wait. Stay silent for a little bit and let them say another line or two until they say something you really want to hear more about.
Why do this?
Because it’s a lot easier than typical yes-anding. That’s the other improv 101 rule you are breaking by doing this. Technically you are just yesing. You are not adding information. Sometimes the beginning of improv scenes can be so laborious with all the mental gymnastics behind the diligent yes-anding. One person establishes the location, the other yes-ands with a relationship, the first person makes the relationship more specific (and so on). Sometimes that works, sometimes you can see how hard the improvisors are working to agree correctly and it’s just frustrating because each person in turn establishes new details which don’t work very well with what the other person has established.
Another reason to practice repeating, is that it’s a tool you can use anywhere in any scene, even if your scene partner doesn’t know what you are doing. Try it in your next rehearsal, show or class. When you are doing a scene, use this repeating technique for just your first 2 or 3 lines. See what happens. I bet the top of your scene will go very smoothly.
For a variation on this exercise, try this. After a minute or two of one person repeating, the players should flip roles. In the middle of the scene, the repeater should start responding with their own point of view about the topic or situation. When that happens, the speaker flips into repeater mode. A third variation is to have a longer scene and to flip roles several times in the scene. I was amazed how good the scenes were when people flipped back and forth. The players should simply follow these two rules:
Repeat something your scene partner said.
Or elaborate on whatever your scene partner just reflected back at you.
Finally, this is just an exercise. I’m not saying this is how you should improvise all the time. I’m saying this is a tool that you should add to your tool belt. Sometimes, at the beginning of the scene it’s better to just listen to your scene partner and repeat something. Do it because they said something interesting and you want to hear more about it. Do it because you didn’t quite understand what they just said and you want it clarified. Do it because they just said something a little crazy, and you want to make sure that they own it. But definitely do it.
I’ll be performing in Mullaney Chain at the Del Close Marathon this weekend. I am super excited about the lineup. These are some of the best improvisors and funniest guys I know. I invited Andy Secunda. He invited Gavin Speiller. Gavin invited John Gemberling, and John invited Andy Rocco. The show is at 5:45pm at the Hudson. Skip the line at UCB Chelsea and start your DCM15 with us. Bassprov is directly after!
I’ll also be in the 7pm show at UCB Chelsea with most (if not all) of the former and current UCBT Artistic Directors in ADeez Nutz.