It Doesn’t Work – Filming Improv

It Doesn’t Work: Filming Improv

One thing I’d like to change is the fundamental mindset of many improvisers. In an art full of “yes, and,” “make your scene partners look like geniuses,” and “jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down,” there is a surprisingly large amount of negativity and lack of commitment.

Quite often, I hear resigned voices that say “it just doesn’t work” and accept this very antithesis of the idea of improv, rather than taking the time to reflect and working on the problem at hand.

I want to change “it doesn’t work” into “I’m not good enough to make this work…yet.”

Common Excuses

I’ve heard countless reasons over the years about why improvisers refuse to put their sets on video:

“Improv doesn’t translate to video.”

Bullcrap. If you look for improv on YouTube, you can find a lot of very professional, well-produced improv shows (Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Improv-A-Ganza, UCB house teams, etc.) that are absolutely hilarious.

“It’s not the same as being there.”

I can concede this point, but it’s the same with any live performance. Whether you’re attending a concert, a broadway play, or a standup special, everything that has been designed for a live audience is better when you’re attending it in person. That’s not going to stop people from selling DVDs or providing online streaming to these works of art.

“They can cut and pick the best bits.”

This is not even a problem. Imagine being able to show your friends and family a video of your improv troupe on YouTube, and them actually loving it and wanting to come see your show live!

The main issue with filming improv lies in the limit to the resources that the improv troupe is willing to put into it. On the flip side of the professionally produced shows, you have countless improv sets that have been filmed with a single camera, from the back of the theatre, with no sound equipment, no editing, and no camera operator (among so many other issues).

How can anyone expect to compare these results with a professionally produced show?

Taking Responsibility

If your improv show is unwatchable, it’s your fault. The easiest way to determine this is to show your video to someone who’s not on your improv team, preferably someone who’s not an improviser at all and who doesn’t have a stake in your feelings.

Aside from the content itself, assess whether or not the video quality meets your bare minimum standard for watching any online content.

Common Issues:

  • Lighting
    • Faces are all washed out due to overexposure
    • Dark areas on the stage (maybe it’s even too dark to see anyone clearly)
  • Sound
    • No dedicated microphones outside of the camera’s built-in mic
    • Performers are too quiet/loud
    • Audience is too loud
    • Too much ambient noise
    • Sound quality is just low due to placement of camera or the low quality of the mic itself
  • Cameras
    • Single Camera at the Back
      • No idea where to focus in the scene
      • Can’t see key subtle movements like facial expressions
    • Multiple Cameras but No Operators
      • Improvisers may move out of proper shots, and those moments are simply lost due to improper setup
    • Inept Camera Operators
      • Shaky camera movements
      • Noises
      • Not sure what to focus on or how to capture the right shot
    • Bad Camera Quality
      • Grainy video (ask yourself if you’re okay with watching a video on YouTube that’s in 240p)
  • Editing
    • No Editing
      • Common excuse: “Capture what it’s like to watch the improv show live”
      • Usually difficult to justify this if you have more than one camera
      • End up passing along footage that hasn’t been viewed, often riddled with bugs that are potentially fatal to the video (no audio, video glitches, etc.)

The film quality should not deter your viewers; you want your material to be the reason people are tuning in or out.

Taking Action

Simply put, if you want to film your improv show for an audience, you need to put the time and effort into preparing your footage.

Even the most novice improviser takes at least one workshop or class before performing as a full-fledged player, so treat the process of filming with the respect it deserves. If your product isn’t good enough, then keep working on your skills until you can make it good enough.

New Year, New Improv

New Year, New Improv

The ball has been dropped and it’s 2018. It’s a fresh beginning to a new year. It’s time to reflect on your achievements and shortcomings over the past year.

The new year is often a wake-up call for me personally, as it often evokes in me the need to write yet another resolution list that I never follow through on. For the past five years, I’ve shied away from doing new year’s resolutions, because they tend to not help me improve as an individual. Rather, I have adopted a similar approach to Benjamin Franklin.

Doing the Franklin

For those who may have fallen asleep in history class, Benjamin Franklin kept a daily journal every single day he was alive. These journal entries were reflections on the day based on progress toward his 13 virtues. Each entry has two main questions:

  1. What good should you do today?
  2. What good have you done today?

TL;DR: Franklin would ask himself what he hoped to accomplish that day, then at night, he would ask what he had actually been able to accomplish.

Letting Franklin Be Your Coach

Invite this method of reflection into your practices and performances. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I hope to accomplish during this practice/performance?
  2. What did I accomplish during this practice/performance?

(If you’re feeling especially bold, I invite you to try using this method even more specifically—such as on the individual scene level.)

You may think these two questions are so closely related that they’ll have the same answer if everything goes perfectly. Use it as a time to reflect on your expectations vs. reality. You may find that the nuances between the answers to these questions are often the key reflection points of improving as an improviser.

Sketch Analysis: Continental Breakfast

Sketch Analysis: Continental Breakfast

One of my favorite ways to illustrate key concepts of improv is to breakdown a player’s favorite sketch. Of course, sketches have a level of refinement to them that is difficult to achieve in improv due to the careful planning and reworking involved. Rather than this being a deterrent, it should be motivation for the improviser, providing a target to hit.

In case you have yet to watch the sketch I’m discussing, here is a link to the video:

The Setup

The scene begins fairly mundanely with Jordan Peele as the patron of a hotel and Keegan-Michael Key as the hotel clerk. This bit, in an improv scene, would simply be the initial Yes-Anding of the reality of the scene.

The Absurdity

Upon learning about the free continental breakfast, we find the absurdity of the sketch: Peele hones in on and reacts unusually to the very idea of the breakfast. A mixture of pleasure (shown in his eyes widening and a joyful “mmm”) and surprise (shown in his immediate need to confirm that it’s “continental”) set the tone for the rest of the sketch. Peele is going to overreact positively to every mundane thing he encounters, finding the silver lining and cherishing it as though it were an exotic experience of a foreign land.

Heightening

Once they established the absurdity, it’s simply time for heightening. What elements can Peele overreact to with surprised glee? How can he make everything incredible in a different way? Of course we don’t want to just hear him do the “mmm” with every single thing that he encounters, so he finds increasingly absurd ways of reacting, that are consistent with his absurdity.

  • Addresses the employee as “Garçon” (French for boy) – common means of attempting to assimilate into a foreign environment is to use a word or two in that language, heightening the exotic foreign bit of the “continental” absurdity
  • “One admission” and his proud body language solidifies the fact that Peele has put this breakfast on a pedastal
  • Reacts to the employee saying “you can help yourself” with another joyful “Mmm”, and furthers to heightening the exotic absurdity by immediately labeling it “European-style”
  • The “mmm”, the chuckling, and the knowing look he gives the other patron by the cereal dispensers are very powerful tools to maintain the character before another heightening move is made
  • In spite of it being just cereal, Peele makes another move to heighten the continental bit by using the phrase “when in Rome” to narrate the process of dispensing it and even labeling Froot Loops as “the forbidden fruit”
  • Mislabeling is one of the many ways Peele uses to make the mundane into exotic and this is immediately evident as he mislabels a common grape as “a tiny plum”
  • As he picks up the mini-muffin, he utters the phrase “la-di-da” as though it’s a particularly expensive item, which is further accentuated by “paper and everything” which seems to stress this as an expensive feature of the muffin
  • The spork moment is brilliantly executed by framing the sounds in the order of “spoon” and then “fork” which sets the expectation of “spork” that is undercut immediately by “fpoon”; the surprise of “fpoon” leaves us unprepared for the further exotic mislabeling “what will you think of next, Germany”
  • As Peele prepares himself to feast with his napkin bib, he reinforces the idea that the breakfast is continental and thus consists of all the “europine” countries; this little moment serves as a critical resting moment for the sketch, allowing us to collect ourselves and remember the game of the scene before they enter the final rapid-fire series of heightening moves
  • Rapid-fire heightening:
    • Instead of the common donut hole, it’s the “pit of the donut” that is made in Turkey
    • The Danish, clearly from Brussels – incredibly absurd statement that has been earned with all the mislabeling earlier on
    • Minor rest with lots of moaning, which is a huge heightening of the “mmm’s” from before
    • Instead of it being yogurt, it’s “like Go-gurt but to stay”
    • Instead of it being a banana, it’s a Spanish baked good that he bites into (would like to point out that this is a hugely absurd maneuver that only makes sense in the context of this sketch because of all the heightening moves beforehand)
    • The music and the reactions of Peele soar higher and higher as he mislabels incontinence, quotes When Harry Met Sally, and interacts with the patrons around him
    • The absurdity reaches its peak when Peele starts sobbing in ecstasy
  • The sketch has reached its high point and is ended with the logical choice from Peele, to stay indefinitely, and a reference to The Shining

Application to Improv

The Setup

Consider how quickly we were able to figure out the context of the scene. This sketch had the luxury of precision and props. However, even without the clothing and the set, the dialog is fairly clear with regards to where the players are. “You’ll be in room 237” is a very powerful statement to establish that the other player is a guest of a place with lots of rooms (hotel, hospital, etc), and the following statements about “free wifi” and the breakfast immediately narrow down the possibilities.

The Absurdity

Identifying the First Weird Thing in a scene is crucial for game-based improv. In the sketch, the reaction to the continental breakfast was the weird thing that was latched onto. In improv, we may see a Voice of Reason that serves to shine light on this reaction as the absurdity, and thus the players can immediately launch the scene into Heightening.

Additionally, this provides a case for strong emotional responses in a scene. When a player reacts with emotional intensity, the audience can relish in the fact that this moment is a significant one.

Heightening

As Peele heightens further and further into ridiculously absurd territory, we can glean a few lessons for our improv: Gradual Increase, Resting the Game, and Surprising Variations.

Note that there’s a stark difference from his first absurd reaction to the continental breakfast and his final throes of pleasure as he becomes a sobbing mess. This gradual increase in absurdity is very powerful for getting the audience on board. When it comes to introducing absurd material, the audience is like the frog in the unfortunate frog-boiling global warming video: if you jump ahead to the super crazy stuff, the audience may be put off. But if you can – in a logical, step-by-step fashion – turn up the absurdity, then the audience can stay on board and be surprised (in a good way) by each new development.

Improvisers may be quick, but even the quickest likely can’t stand up to a well-written and carefully thought out script. So take the ability to Rest the Game as a blessing. In between bits of heightening the absurdity, don’t be afraid to chill for a second at one level. You can do this by allowing the emotion to sit at a specific level for a second (as with the “mmms” or the interactions with the patrons around him), reinforcing the premise in a different way (“all the Europine countries lay before me..”)building anticipation with logical moves that lead into more heightening (like the napkin bib as he says “where should I fly to first?”). Realize that, even though sketches have the ability to continually heighten, they still have moments of rest in between punchlines. This serves to give the audience a break in between laughter, so they can be mentally and physically prepared for your final volley(s).

Peele uses new and unpredictable ways to react to each new bit of information. If we were restricted to animalistic grunts to heighten, we could see a “mmm” develop into tears of joy fairly easily. It would be fairly predictable. The key here is that Peele reacts to everything with a different tool, verbally, while staying consistent to his character. Though we know that he’s treating everything as though it is delightful and exotic, we are surprised (and thus laugh) at his ways of steering increasingly mundane things into that territory.

The Ending

In an improv set, I could easily see the scene being ended at the high point of Peele sobbing in happiness. It’s an emotional climax, and rightfully deserves to be the ending. However, in the event that the proper edit is missed, we can look to the ending of the sketch for guidance. Peele asks to stay indefinitely at the hotel, which serves as a happy natural ending for his character arc.

Conclusion

In spite of the inherent differences between sketch and improv, we can find lessons in sketches that serve to highlight skills we wish to develop in improv. The biggest takeaway I wanted to highlight in Continental Breakfast by Key & Peele was Heightening. Specifically gradually developing an absurdity, looking for opportunities to rest the heightening, and finding creative and surprising ways to express that heightening.

Maintaining Individuality

Maintaining Individuality

Awareness of your own standards and the standards of your environment is crucial to becoming an Improv Hero. Like it or not, your environment has an enormous impact on your own standards, so setting clear goals for yourself, independent of your peers, is important to ensure you achieve your personal success and not the success of someone else.

Environment

“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Jim Rohn

If you’re deeply entrenched in an improv community, it’s likely that you have a troupe that you practice and perform with regularly. There’s nothing quite like playing with people you like—the chemistry that comes from playing with friends can elevate a regular show to a higher level.

Every player has their own set of goals in improv. One player may want to become the best improviser in the world, while another is simply looking for a creative hobby. It’s common to have different goals, but it’s important to recognize the difference in expectations that results from those distinct goals.

The issue arises when your expectations and standards differ tremendously from those of your teammates.

Communication

Oftentimes, teams are created from a group of friends. It makes sense that chemistry in day-to-day life would be conducive for good chemistry on stage. I’d much rather play with people I like than people I don’t.

However, in a group like this, it’s very important to be open and clear about what the team is striving toward and what each player wants from improv. It’s vital to have these conversations regularly between individuals and as a troupe, because people change and commitment levels fluctuate.

When we’re direct in our communications about our improv goals, we can adjust our expectations for each player.

A player who stresses a desire to improve substantially in a very short time would be more inclined to attend more practices and workshops, whereas a player who is satisfied with playing from time to time at the same level would be happy with fewer practices. Expecting those two players to perform at the same level, however, can lead to disappointment and resentment.

Compromise

Compromise is at the heart of almost any team effort. Whether it’s a case of tolerating a player you don’t like for the sake of the team, playing a game you don’t enjoy for the sake of the show, or even being a part of a show you don’t agree with for the sake of self-improvement, it’s difficult to find a team that doesn’t require some level of compromise.

The biggest problem I’ve found is when a player is willing to compromise their individual goals to an extreme. Oftentimes, one player has enormous improvement goals but puts them all aside because the majority of the team isn’t willing to put in that level of work.

I don’t want anyone to lose sight of their goals. Many talented players have lost their spark because they compromised their own standards over and over again in favor of maintaining the status quo. There’s no need to fall to mediocrity when you reach for the stars, but you also don’t have to sacrifice playing time with teams simply because your goals don’t match.

The Solution

I believe that there are three key elements that can help you maintain your sense of individualism in a group: setting clear individual goals, managing expectations, and establishing clear boundaries.

Clear Goals

I will not bore you with another grade school explanation of setting SMART goals. However, I do want to stress that you should be making a set of individual goals separate from your troupe. My reasoning is that it’s very easy to lose sight of the importance of your own wants when you’re in front of your team.

I want you to write your goals independently, so that you have a strong understanding of where you are and what you want to accomplish. Additionally, you need to continue to refresh and review your goals, in case you find your activities straying from the path you personally wanted for your improv journey.

Managing Expectations

Oftentimes, we look to others to hold the same standard that we do. Recognize that other people have different goals from yours, and you can’t expect anyone to behave as you would. Failure to adjust these expectations is a quick path to suffering.

Establishing Clear Boundaries

This is where the two elements above come together and take flight. When you’re aware of your own standards and goals, and can take into account the differences between yourself and other players, you can set clear boundaries for everything you do.

For instance, my improv community is fairly lax when it comes to punctuality. Frequently touted as “improv time,” players are excused for being 10-15 minutes late without warning. I personally do not subscribe to this at all, and thus demand timeliness from myself with plenty of forward notice in the event that I’ll be late or missing.

Establishing clear boundaries is all about setting standards and being willing to defend those standards. If you set clear standards for yourself, you can find yourself standing out from your competition, especially if they’ve lowered theirs in the face of environmental pressure.

Conclusion

To maintain your individualism in your improv journey, there are three steps: set clear goals, manage expectations of others, and establish clear boundaries. If you can do those things, you can prevent yourself from being swept up into the crowd and losing your improv identity.

Food and Improv

Food and Improv

As an avid watcher of Kitchen Nightmares and an obsessive hunter of new restaurants, I like to think of myself as a foodie.

Now, allow me to defend myself from all the outcries of “food snob” and “pretentious douche” that the foodie label attracts. I do not look down upon any foods, unless they’re poorly made. It’s a matter of recognizing what I’m paying for. I enjoy a good Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s, because I recognize it for what it is. However, if a restaurant claims to be “authentic Italian cuisine” but cannot cook their noodles properly, then cue the snobby comments.

I’ve watched a lot of improv, across the spectrum of very bad (yes, I tape my own performances and watch them) to outstanding. As far as assessing a show, it’s very important to see each show in the proper context. If a show is billed as “the best improv show in ______,” then of course you may raise your expectations for it. But assessing an intro class show at the same level of critique as a TJ and Dave show is misguided.

There appears to be a tribalistic fracture in improv. Whether it’s long form vs. short form, game vs. relationship, or organic vs. structured, a player with a specific background tends to view other styles through a biased lens. A show that doesn’t fit in that player’s narrow idea of “good improv” tends to be judged far more harshly than a show that does. Much the same way a person who grew up in Hong Kong might be less inclined to enjoy a meal prepared in America, because the flavors and preparation are geared toward different palates.

Becoming an Improv Foodie

I want everyone to go out and sample every type of improv with an open mind. Consider it like being adventurous with food. If you’ve grown up with classic American cuisine, you wouldn’t be afraid to go sample some rustic Italian, wholesome German, or traditional Japanese, would you?

Can’t Delegate Motivation

Can’t Delegate Motivation

On occasion, you may find yourself imbued with the gift of motivation. Whether you’re riding the waves of a phenomenal show or you’re jazzed because you developed an idea to transform the improv landscape, the power of motivation seems contagious.

It’s not contagious.

But, Hitler!

A charismatic leader can motivate others to work, but there has to be some level of personal investment, compensation, or peer pressure, or mandatory orders to maintain this.

Typically, a small improv posse has none of these—at least not when it comes to this new grand idea that you want to achieve. Starting a new plan by immediately delegating duties is not the way to get the people to invest.

So how do you make your idea work?

Do It Yourself

I’m not talking about doing a one-person show. However, if you have received the beautiful impulse to act, then act!

Set up everything to make it as easy as possible for your fellow players to come take part. People don’t want to be given extra stress or work without some sort of compensation. Unless you plan on giving gifts (money is a good one) to your players, you cannot expect them to be nearly as motivated to do the work.

You’re the one with the dream, make it happen. The easier you can make it for your players, the more willing they are to buy into your idea and help.

Reevaluating Buy-in

Recognize that buy-in from your players starts at being willing to play in your show. I know, “They should be so lucky to be given this opportunity to perform in MY GENIUS SHOW!” I’ve had that thought before and it is absolutely misguided.

Recognize that the willingness to participate in your show is a willingness to risk failure in an unproven product. It’s like investing in a business idea from your friend, except instead of risking money, they’re risking humiliation and the horrible feelings that accompany a bad show.

Frankly, a player who is willing to play for free in an unproven show (whether it’s a new format or even a new location) is a godsend and should be appreciated as such. Anything beyond that—such as scouting locations, providing emcee duties, or managing people—is icing on the cake.

Elements That Are Your Responsibility

You’re motivated to make this idea happen, right? Use that to make sure these elements are taken care of:

 

  • Scheduling

 

      • Players: Make sure the players involved are available and committed to the performance. Recognize that there may be a dropout or two and plan accordingly.
      • Location: The location also needs to be committed to the performance. If you’re communicating with a manager or an owner who isn’t going to be at the location on the day/night of the performance, make sure to check in with the staff or manager on duty. I prefer to arrive at the venue early to get acquainted with the people working that evening, and to help set up if necessary.
      • Practices: Practices should be adjusted to accommodate as many of the players as possible. Even if the performance is fairly straightforward, chemistry between players can elevate it beyond a showcase of individual talents.
    • Tech/Props: Make sure all tech needs are taken care of and handled properly. If you’re borrowing any equipment, you’re in charge of making sure that it stays in good condition and returns to its owner.

 

  • Understanding the Venue

 

    • Acoustics: If you don’t have the proper equipment, recognize that you’ll have to project more to reach the entire audience. If you’re not heard, you’re not going to get the laughs/cries/gasps you want.
    • Audience: Checking in with the owner/manager/staff can help you know if your show is suitable for the general audience of that venue. You don’t want to be stripping naked and shouting obscenities in front of children, nor would you want to be making extremely esoteric and complicated statements in front of a crowd of people drinking and looking for a good time.
    • Theme of the Venue: The theme ties in closely with the audience. If you’re doing improv amidst an entire show of musical acts, recognize that and try to adjust your show to adapt to the atmosphere (if playing short-form, throw in a few musical games to defer to the theme of the evening).
  • Responsibility: You take responsibility for the show. Good or bad, it’s on you.

Conclusion

If you have motivation, honor it and take action.

Why So Serious?

Why So Serious?

Seriously… This is one of my favorite quotes from The Dark Knight trilogy. I find that it has much more meaning than is portrayed in the movies.

In improv, there are many different types of people putting their all out there on the stage striving for the same outcome: to make other people laugh and have fun.

If you don’t know my personality already, I’m quite a serious person. I take everything I do pretty seriously, as if it will impact my future.

I had a very bad case of tunnel vision with respect to my goals in improv; I wanted to become better every time I practiced. However, I started to notice people surpass me with ease. I found that I was doing less and less improv each week. I then found myself more disconnected than ever.

Ultimately I found that I took improv too seriously—the amount of practicing, the amount of dedication, the amount of caring.

Why Am I So Serious?

I needed time to deeply reflect on why I’m this way. I took a couple months after my honeymoon for a small improv hiatus to reflect on what I have accomplished compared to where I wanted to be.

I started to think about what my end goals are with improv: Is it something that I’m truly passionate about? Is it something that I do just to pass the time? Is it something I want to succeed in?

In trying to answer each of these questions, I ultimately ended up myself, “Why are you so serious about improv?”

Not Giving a Fuck

I read a very important book that transformed how I looked at these things: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” by Mark Manson.

I found that I was “giving a fuck” about a lot of trivial things that didn’t have much of an impact on my improv goals. These were small decisions regarding how our comedy club was structured, decisions on casting, etc. I noticed that these were all “It would be more beneficial to me if…” type statements.

Next, I started to realize that I had fallen into a feedback loop from hell. I kept thinking about everything that could go wrong with each idea. I was stuck in my head weighing the pros and cons of everything that I would now consider trivial.

My desire for a positive experience was ultimately a negative experience because of how much stress I put myself through. If I had just accepted my negative experiences in the first place, it would’ve been a positive experience. Acceptance was key here.

It then came down to the pain that it caused me. It was one of the hot topics that I would talk about all the time. It’s often said that the best things in life come from pain. However, I had to ask myself, “What am I willing to struggle for?”

Am I going to allow something that I do not do professionally, but rather recreationally, to cause pain in my life? Am I going to allow it to cause me suffering when I cannot control the outcome?

I put my foot down and told myself that I am ultimately in control.

This thought prompted me to reflect on how I typically take action.

How I used to take action: I would usually get inspired by something, which would motivate me to make it better, and then I would finally take action.

How I take action now: If I had just reversed this cycle, I would be taking much more action with more motivation behind those decisions, which would lead to inspiration to make things better.

Summary

Don’t be like me. Don’t take things too seriously. In fact, I challenge you to identify the things in improv that are causing you pain. Ask yourself, “Is this pain worth the reward?”

Remember, you are ultimately in control of how much you care about something. If the pain is worth the reward, take action instead of just thinking about it. Don’t get stuck in an endless feedback loop that just adds more stress to your life.

How We Learned vs How We Teach

How We Learned vs How We Teach

I’ve noticed that exercises, lessons, and auditions tend to stay the same, in spite of how much time has passed since their creation. Minor variations come about, but it seems that we follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality when it comes to making changes to existing systems.

Existing Culture

I can only speak for the area in which I reside, because I haven’t immersed myself in improv culture anywhere else. About 90% of the improv troupes in my area consist primarily of gregarious, outgoing, confident people who stand out. It makes sense, since the class, workshop, and audition process is aimed at finding players who showcase the most individual talent in a short amount of time.

The Problem

This process is problematic because it focuses on talented individuals competing with each other, but we’re asked to play and perform as a group. Rather than developing a set of players with good chemistry, we’re creating “super teams” (for those sports fans out there) of people who perform well individually. This may produce a show that’s good, generally, but it doesn’t allow for the magic that comes about when your team has a honed dynamic.

With respect to the old exercises and lessons, they do a good job of pushing people and finding streaks of brilliance in the naturally talented, but they could use a tune-up to adjust to individual cases that struggle with the concepts. They seem more like instructions for tests, tests that require examples to understand the key concepts and mistakes to be made in the process.

I consider this to be a problem of passing teachings down from generation to generation, because a lot is lost without proper documentation. Much like an ancient martial art, it seems that there are bits and pieces that have seeped through the cracks, and we’re left with an incomplete curriculum.

The Solution

As far as auditions go, I’m inclined to choose a group of people who gel together first, before considering their individual talents. People who enjoy each other’s company tend to make choices that work better for each other.

With regards to exercises and lessons, a focus should be made on lifting everyone higher. “You’ll see as we go along” is the biggest cop out to a proper explanation and only reinforces the concept of embracing the naturally talented while discarding those who don’t innately understand the exercise or lesson.

Recognize that the exercises you learned as a student are not set in stone and can therefore be adjusted when you find that students are having difficulty with the concepts. We’re improvisers, we should be willing to adapt and adjust on the fly when we find that the existing method isn’t working.

Answering the Questions

Answering the Questions

Improvisers are taught to embrace the ideas of the collective, to build together without hesitation. This mentality works from the viewpoint of the performers, but how does it look from the audience? That depends on whether or not the audience is satisfied with the answers to their questions.

Breaking the Immersion

We don’t need to hit the audience over the head with every idea we’re trying to put across. But unanswered questions should be intentional — perhaps there’s a mystery that the characters need to solve, and the audience is along for the ride.

A problem arises when the audience starts asking questions because we, as performers, haven’t provided logical connections from moment to moment. These questions may result from inconsistencies in a character, unjustified absurdity, unjustified acceptance of absurdity, ignoring offers from players, etc.

If the audience is holding too many unanswered questions in their heads, they aren’t living in the moment with us.

Absurd vs Voice of Reason

The simplest comedic scene that can avoid this trap is Absurd vs Voice of Reason. Simply put, one character has adopted an absurd point-of-view and the other character is the voice of reason who reacts as a normal (albeit usually more blunt) human being. The absurd character’s goal is to advance his or her unusual perspective, while the voice of reason character reacts to that perspective in an honest way.

This scene avoids the trap if the voice of reason continues to do the job of audience stand-in questioning the absurdity, and the absurd character continues to provide “logical” reasons for the behavior. The absurd character is effectively the personification of a standup comic’s lens: though the belief may be absurd, the argument is logical enough to make an audience think “Hey, that makes a little sense…”

Application to Other Scenes

The idea of answering audience questions as we go is a strong way to keep them engaged. But we don’t need to do Absurd vs Voice of Reason scenes every time. So without an audience stand-in in the scene itself, how do we keep them satisfied?

Emcee and Show Introduction

If you’ve got an emcee — in a short form set, for instance — that person provides a bridge between the audience and the performers. If a player makes a very abstract joke that bombs with the audience, the emcee may be able to step in and save that joke with the required background information.

In a long form set, the audience may be unfamiliar with a large number of elements. Openings, group games, the form as a whole, etc., can all be very confusing to the uninitiated. Unlike short form, we can’t provide explanations as we go. We can, however, provide a preface explaining what the audience should expect from the show.

I like to provide a little introduction particularly when there are unusual elements mixed in — openings and group games, for instance — and relate the show and those abstract ideas to other media that the audience may have seen. Nothing too in-depth, just a little spiel that preemptively answers some questions that the audience might have as the show goes on.

Relationships and People

Peas in a Pod is a scene dynamic in which all players in the scene share similar points-of-view. If that perspective happens to be absurd, we run the risk of focusing too much on heightening an absurdity without providing any logic to aid the audience. In that case, we simply need to focus on elements that the audience can relate to: relationships and honest reactions.

A character may hold an absurd point-of-view, but that shouldn’t preclude that character from reacting honestly as a human being in other areas. Though we find the shared point-of-view strange, we may find solace in empathizing with the relationship between the two characters.

We must recognize that certain behaviors are absurd in the context of the scene, in spite of their normalcy in a vacuum. Breaking up is a fairly normal and common act in general, but breaking up after showing care and affection toward your scene partner’s character (typically done in an attempt to “make something happen”) is strange and must be addressed. A reason must be provided for the break-up as well as for the sudden change of heart, or else the audience will question their emotional investment in your show.

Conclusion

Improv may be the land of “do whatever you want,” but don’t forget to answer the questions in the audience’s minds, or you may find yourself losing them.

Unteachable? Part 1 – Taking It Personally

Unteachable? Part 1 – Taking It Personally

This is the first part of a series of articles focusing on people who are difficult to teach and strategies to handle them.

Taking It Personally

This is a big topic for me, because I do this all the time. From my first step in the improv workshop world all the way to now, I tend to take any level of criticism as an attack against me as a human being. I become resentful of the critic, regardless of how it was delivered.

I’ve consciously worked on this, but I still find it difficult when I’m not in a good mood. I would like to discuss how I’ve handled this and ways to approach students who deal with critiques personally.

Personally, I…

First off, if I’m aware that I’m receiving a critique via electronic means (email, text, Facebook messenger, etc.), I will hold off on reading it until I’m in the right sort of place physically and mentally to handle it. If I’m already stressed out by the day, I won’t read it yet, because it’ll simply compound my bad mood and I am unlikely to take the criticism properly. As a matter of fact, if I’m in a bad mood, I’m likely to do the opposite to spite my critic.

Once I’m in a good place to receive the critique, I make sure to separate it from the person giving it as much as possible. Any judgments against the person will only serve to harm my ability to receive the information. I try to parse the criticism into little chunks so that I can figure out exactly what I need to work on for the future. Some people give criticisms in roundabout ways, so it’s good to be able to figure out how to focus in on the necessary elements.

If I am receiving a critique in person, it’s a bit harder to control my emotional state. In this scenario, I simply listen and immediately write it all down. Writing it down gives me the ability to let go of it in my short-term memory, because I know I have something to remember it for me. Holding it in without writing it down tends to compound it in my head, pushing me downwards into a spiral of negativity.

Dealing with Students

If you are aware that the student is like me, then tread lightly with critiques. I like to focus on the positives of their work instead of the flaws (unless those flaws are major ones, in which case it’s simply a gentle nudge in the right direction), because it’s much easier to relish in good choices for a second and move on with the mentality of risk-taking, than to spend the entire workshop focusing on not making the same bad choices (classic ironic process theory).

It’s tempting to simply deliver blunt tough love all the time, but improvisers who take critiques personally are less apt to listen to your critiques overall, because they begin to resent you. A focus on the positive allows them to slowly and steadily figure out what little things to weed out, while they continue to develop the behaviors that produce good results.