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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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 classes.improvresourcecenter.com.

Status Exercises in Improv

Someone on reddit asked about status exercises. Here is my response.

It’s important to stress that status is much more useful in improv if you look at status as behavior, as opposed to social rank. Status is how you carry yourself, or how you treat the other characters in the scene. You can be a low status president or a high status janitor. And in fact, flipping status from what you might expect because of social rank is a lot of fun.

I have used cards when teaching status for a long time. I don’t have people put them on their foreheads. Instead, I have people pick a card and then instruct them that the card rank corresponds to how they carry themselves and expect to be treated. Or I tell them that the card corresponds to how they should treat the other person. In some cases I give people two cards, one for how they see themselves and one for how they see the other person. This combination can be enlightening. Someone who sees themselves as a 3 and their scene partner as a Jack, is very different than someone who sees themself as a King or Queen and someone else as a Jack.

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IRC Podcast with Jack Newell

Jack C Newell is director of the films Close Quarters, How to Build a School in Haiti and Open Tables. He is head of TV, Film & Digital at the Second City Training Center and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago in film/video. We talk about using improv to make movies, the job of the director and his latest feature which seamlessly weaves improv into the fabric of the film.

Read more at http://ircpodcast.com/irc-podcast-2015-09-016-jack-newell#1LeEQIEk0v6KhFkT.99

Diversity Works Best From The Top Down

Last week I wrote a post urging improv theaters to rethink their casting. In a nutshell, I think most people take a bottom up approach to diversity. If they care about diversity at all, they concentrate on getting more diversity in their classes, and think that over time things will even out. Outreach programs are great. I fully endorse diversity scholarships and other attempts to attract a diverse student base and a diverse audience. But I think there is something really special about having a diverse cast on stage for your shows.

For prospective students, it lets them know that they are welcome and that when they are ready, they will have a fair shot at becoming an ensemble member. Sure you can make them feel welcome by being nice and being encouraging, but actually seeing people like themselves on stage speaks volumes.

Last year, when we held our first auditions for our ensemble, I remember wanting to have a diverse cast. I hoped we would get people from a lot of different backgrounds. I especially hoped that we would have lots of great women in the ensemble. I think it’s common for ensembles to be 20-30% female. And I wanted to do better. And I figured it would be the easiest part of the problem to fix.

I hope that if I had been doing the casting on my own, I would have cast an ensemble that was about half women and half men. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have fallen short and cast 2/3rd male like most theaters seem to do. The reason I didn’t? Because I wasn’t doing it alone. My business partner ran the auditions with me. I think this had four effects:

  1. I think people who auditioned for us knew that the company was co-owned by a woman. And I think that may have nudged many women (consciously or unconsciously) to audition.
  2. I think she probably reached out to some women to audition, particularly women she had taught or directed at Second City or whom she had known from other projects.
  3. When we were making decisions, I think her sensibilities may have nudged me to value the talent of some people more than I would have if I were judging them on my own.
  4. And most importantly, she walked into that audition assuming we would cast an equal number of men and women. And when she pointed that out to me, I knew she was right.

It wouldn’t be enough to do better than most. I wanted a cast that was just as likely to have more women on stage as more men. And the best way to do that would be to just cast an equal number of men and women. So that’s what we did. We’ve had two auditions and at the end of each audition, we’ve had an equal number of men and women in our ensemble.

Despite my desire to see more women in comedy and improv, it just would not have happened if it was only me making the decision, or if my business partner were another man. So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.

One other thing, these posts are not just meant to nudge people in other theaters to do better, but also to nudge my future self to do better as well. I can already see areas in our own business where we need to better. And if I keep talking about this in public, it will be that much harder to overlook this at our own theater.

I’ve heard of so many good ideas from the conversations spawned by my first post, and I’m eager to try them. So I’d love to hear your stories about this. What are your theaters doing to address this? What is your experience in improv been like? Has your journey been harder because of your gender, your culture, your age, your sexual identity? What kept you going?

Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?

Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.

These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.

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RE: Repent or Die

But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.

Originally posted on my tumblr.

letstalkimprov:

improbserver:

Got a really great email today from my old company (!) on the topic of “problematic” material in scenes. There’s a lot to digest, and it isn’t really my place to share it all here, but something that stuck out for me is that if a character in your scene is racist or sexist or homophobic or just gross, then there are two possible outcomes for that character: either they change and repent, or they stick to their ugly guns and suffer real consequences (a literal or metaphorical death). This is a choice that character must make, but those are the only two options that can leave your scene in a good place.

Really simple concept, but super useful. I’ll definitely hang onto it for later.

I would like to highlight the ‘if’ here. ’If a character in your scene is racist’. You really, honestly, don’t need these characters in your show. But if they come up, this is a good start to practicing dealing with them, for the sake of the audience and of your fellow players.

It’s hard to weigh in on something, when I don’t know fully what the original argument in the email was, but I’d like to respond to this.

As an improv teacher and the artistic director of a theater, I understand the desire to deal with racist, sexist or homophobic characters in these ways: make them repent, make them suffer consequences or simply erase them from your stage. But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.

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