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Improv Bootcamp is different. Instead learning a plethora of different concepts, we focus on a few specific ones and use a variety of exercises to practice each skill.

For the past two years, I have offered Improv Bootcamps in Chicago. It’s a type of intensive improv training focused on developing specific skills, through concentrated practice. It’s targeted toward students who have at least a year of improv experience, and are looking for a program that will challenge them and improve the way they play right away.

In a typical improv intensive you are introduced to many different concepts and exercises, often in classes of 20 people or more. It’s not uncommon to get only one try at a particular exercise before the class moves on.

Improv Bootcamp is different. Instead learning a plethora of different concepts, we focus on a few specific ones and use a variety of exercises to practice each skill. Typically students are given multiple opportunities to practice a skill over several days. And if the class is big enough (16 or more students), we will have a second instructor, reserve multiple rooms and break the class into working groups to ensure multiple reps for exercises.

I’m hoping to add week long boot camps for New York and LA this summer as well. Check back soon for more info.

Sexual Harassment Policies Are Not Enough

The kinds of stories that have been swirling around the improv community these days can inspire outrage at the people who are victimizing others, and it should. But when seeking better outcomes, we must address more than just the bad apples in our community. We must do more than put in place policies that address harassment.

Let’s say that you were put in charge of a large comedy theater that has recently had significant issues with sexual harassment. What might you do? Well you might take a look at your policies. You probably would open up channels so that people could have a way to confidentially share their experiences. You might arrange some training for your staff. And you might have to fire some people–get rid of the “bad apples” as they say. But if you don’t address the power structure of your organization, it will never really get fixed.

Even before the recent public accusations of rape, unwanted sexual advances, and hostile environments, it should have been obvious that there was a problem. The gender imbalance at certain theaters is obvious and persistent. In a way, harassment is the ugly symptom of a disease that goes much deeper.

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My story as an improvisor

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.

Jay Leggett from Blue Velveeta
Jay Leggett from Blue Velveeta
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.

Craig Cackowski
Craig Cackowski
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.

The Swarm
The Swarm
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.

Black Box Acting Studio – Review

Yesterday I finished B4 at the Black Box Acting Studio in Chicago. It’s the fourth and final level in what is a terrific program. It’s only been around for a few years, but the curriculum is solid and the teachers are passionate and smart. I feel like I’ve learned some new tools and sharpened some old ones, but most importantly I’ve now got a process for auditions and rehearsals. I also feel like I have a new home base, so that when I do get cast in a show and I’m running into roadblocks, I have a community of people I can call on to help.

What is the program?

Like a lot of programs in Chicago and elsewhere, they start with exercises used in Meisner classes. You learn to observe your partners behavior. You do repetition. Repetition is something that I’ve done for years. I thought this part of the curriculum would be old hat for me. But I certainly did learn new things.

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Better

So I have moved back to Chicago. I’m renting a nice one bedroom condo. It’s definitely the nicest apartment I’ve ever had. It has central air and a washer/dryer in the unit. I feel almost spoiled now. I think it would be hard to go back to most of the closets I rented in Chicago and New York.

You might ask, why am I here? I’m here to get better. I feel out of shape as a performer. As an actor, I never really nailed down any particular process. I’d get a script, memorize it, go to rehearsal, try to absorb the blocking and direction, and try to figure out the best way to say my lines. It’s not a great process and it doesn’t seem to take advantage of all that early training which encouraged me to work off my partner. So the first priority was to find a studio, go back to class and figure out a process–a real process that starts with a script and ends with a full, dynamic, grounded and improvisational performance.

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New Improv Class, July in Chicago

The Details

  • Where: Theatre Momentum Studio at 1800 W. Cornelia Avenue
  • Dates: July 10, 17, 24, 31
  • When: Noon to 4pm (class is noon to 2:45 with a bonus practice hour from 3 to 4).
  • Cost: $89, $59 if you sign up and pay before July 4th.
  • For intermediate and advanced improv students. Limit 14 students.

New Apps for Your Improv Scenes

In this four week workshop, we will download some new apps that you can use in the middle of any scene to make it better. These techniques will make your so-so scenes good and your good scenes great. You’ll learn to better connect with your scene partner by noticing their emotions and behavior and by reacting from your gut. You’ll also learn a variety of tools to add texture, detail and spontaneity to your scenes.

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Where I used to live

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.

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