We Are All Storytellers – Rules Of Storytelling

In an earlier article we talked about how everyone is a natural born storyteller.

This article will help outline some guidelines to follow when creating a story to help your writing.

  1. You admire a character for failing more than their successes.
  2. You should keep in mind what is interesting to the audience, and not what is fun as a writer.
  3. Theme is important. You won’t be able to find a theme until the story is almost over.
  4. Focus yourself and simplify your characters by combining them.
  5. What is your character good and comfortable with? What are they bad and challenged with?
  6. Find your ending before your middle. Think of a maze. You know where it starts and ends, you then work on the middle.
  7. Finish something. Write a complete first draft even if it’s not perfect. You will have many opportunities to improve the next story.
  8. Writers block? Make a list of things that would never happen next. This can open doors as to things that can happen next.
  9. Analyze stories you like. What about them made you enjoy them? Recognize it and use it in your stories.
  10. Get ideas out of your head and onto something. Share often and early.
  11. Don’t get stuck with the obvious. Let things surprise you.
  12. Give your characters strong point of views. Passive characters are likeable to you, but lack connection with an audience.
  13. Think “Why” you are telling this story. What passion drives you to tell this story?
  14. Put yourself in the characters shoes, how would you feel and react? Let the honesty drive the narrative.
  15. Stack the odds against your character. Set them up to fail. Why should we root for this character to prevail?
  16. Something not working? Let it go and come back to it later.
  17. Let go of perfection. Storytelling is about testing ideas, not perfecting them.
  18. Characters who happen to fall into trouble is great, however letting them off the hook without working through it is not.
  19. Think of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange it to make it enjoyable?
  20. What’s the TL;DR / moral of your story? If  you know that, you can experiment with getting from the start to end.

Finally, remember the following forumla for creating a story:

Once upton a time there was __. Every day, __. One day __. Because of that, __. Because of that, __. Until finally __. And ever since that day __.

Unteachable? Part 2 – Ego

Unteachable? Part 2: Ego

This is the second part in a series of articles focusing on people who are difficult to teach and strategies for handling them. (See Part 1 here.)

Ego

I wanted to start this section off by saying how long I’ve been doing improv. Then I realized that would be playing directly into the problem.

Ego plays a big role in holding back an improviser, regardless of performance experience: an improviser of five years may feel superior to an improviser of one; a theatre student may feel more comfortable than a business student in an improv workshop; a native English speaker may have more confidence in outshining a foreign exchange student at an English-speaking improv audition.

Personally, I…

I have a lot of strong opinions about improv in general. I have my own beliefs as to what a good scene looks like, what a great show should be, and what improvisers should strive toward. My ego is enormous and I’ve found two ways to deal with it.

Do That Which Scares You

Ego struggles to maintain itself when you jump into an activity that you have no idea how to do well. In improv, it may be a matter of playing a game, a character, or even a style that is completely outside your wheelhouse.

When I find myself over-inflating my improv self-worth, I jump into an exercise that I absolutely, positively suck at. To feel the failure, at least relative to the success that I would normally expect, is humbling.

Feed the Ego Sneakily

I recall a scene done by my mentor, Chris. A young child, completely new to improv, decided to step up for a scene.

Now, if Chris wanted to be selfish, he could easily have steered the scene completely, leading the child so that the success of the scene was totally in his hands. And it might have been a good scene, but the child would not have had the sense of accomplishment, nor would we (the audience) have thought much of the child’s contribution.

Instead, Chris decided to follow the child’s direction in the scene. When the child tentatively started to rock side-to-side, Chris followed suit. This inspired confidence in the child, who started to commit to the rocking, even smiling as he did it, which Chris mirrored.

I forget the lines themselves, but Chris’s act of completely and utterly supporting the child elevated the scene into “This is a scene that I will remember for the rest of my life” territory.

My belief, as far as improv is concerned, is that the best can play with anybody and end up making them look like geniuses. It’s a bit of a strange take on dealing with ego, but it’s a tool that can prevent an egocentric player from directing the scene themselves. To aspire to become so good that you can make anyone else look great.

On the flipside of this, when I fail to produce a good scene and I feel my ego try to tell me that it’s my scene partner’s fault, I have to reframe that into “I just wasn’t good enough to play this scene with this person…yet. Just wait, I’ll get there.”

Dealing with Students

Initially, I had a tough time addressing these issues. Players with more experience would make callous remarks (not directly attacking, but little shots that would take responsibility off of them) or try not to play with less experienced players, because they wanted to do a good scene. I did nothing and simply hoped that confrontation was unnecessary and that the situation would improve on its own.

Of course, it didn’t get better. In fact, it created this horrible feeling for the less experienced player, who felt singled out as the weak link.

To address these issues, I’d simply employ the tactics above but administer them as the instructor. As a player becomes more experienced, their weaknesses become clear. Working on weaknesses is natural, and the very act of doing something at a weaker level than their expectations of their improv in general helps instill some measure of humility in the egocentric player, especially if the less experienced players can do it better.

The challenge of “the best can play with anyone and make them look like geniuses” is fairly straightforward, and it’s a strong way to address a problematic ego one-on-one. I stress one-on-one because bringing it up in class would only serve to highlight that this player thinks they’re superior to the other player.

Improv is Acting

Improv Is Acting

I’ve failed so much with my improv studies. I’ve read improv book after improv book but neglected the critical element that elevates improv into a higher art form…

I didn’t study acting.

Just an Improviser

Having taught improv at an acting studio for a while, I’ve been asked if I’d ever be interested in pursuing acting gigs. My typical response has always been, “I’m not really an actor. I’m not good with rehearsed lines. I’m just an improviser.” But the fact of the matter is improv is acting.

My favorite improv teacher—and I’ve only been able to take a few one-off workshops from him when he’s visited Utah—Dave Razowsky starts off his workshops by telling every one of us that we’re actors.

As improvisers, we are actors.

We may not have a script in the literal sense, but we do have a script in front of us in the form of our scene partner. I’m sad that I never took this to heart before now.

My Favorite Improvisers

When you’re looking for improv in Utah, 90% of what you’ll find is short form.

Short form, on its surface, seems less conducive to good acting than long form, considering you only have the opportunity to play a character for about a minute, on average—more, if you’re lucky and can play games like Bad Advice. This sort of environment seems to eschew acting for wit. A topical one-liner can get a big laugh, so why invest so much into acting a character properly?

As I analyzed my favorite players, however, I realized that I was horribly wrong. I found that my favorite players were the ones who committed heavily to their characters. Rather than playing stereotypes, they would create believable characters that seemed like they could sustain the game forever.

Wit Versus Acting

I found myself trapped in a cycle of wit for a while. All I wanted to do was show how clever I was, which usually meant dropping witty one-liners as myself in the scene. Sure, I may have been named someone else, but I wanted everyone to know that I was the one who was making them laugh. I wanted credit.

Not every witty player is guilty of this, but those who are should be aware of this trap. It’s an unfortunate habit that took me ages to break…because it was getting laughs.

The problem with playing wittily as yourself is that it restricts the freedom you have as an improviser.

The Freedom of Acting

When you’re acting clearly as a character, you have the opportunity to explore a new angle of improvisation previously inaccessible. There are punchlines available when you’re playing a child, for instance, that would not land if you were merely labeled a child but still acting as yourself.

Acting opens up paths that allow the audience to see the magic of your craft, to invest in the reality you’re creating, and to laugh at the circumstances in which your characters find themselves.

Meta Moves

Meta Moves

Common in long form improv, meta moves are typically choices that examine the nature of the scene, the form, perhaps even improv as a whole, generally breaking the fourth wall. A lot of popular improv troupes are touted by fellow improvisers as being “so meta,” and that’s meant as a compliment.

Of course, meta moves can be clever and entertaining, but I have a very specific bone to pick with these choices: they’re difficult to relate to.

Improvisers’ Improviser

There are comedians that are referred to as “comedians’ comedian,” which has two distinct meanings, which may both be in play at once.

Good: You are a favorite of other comedians, because they love to watch you perform.

Bad: Your jokes only make other comedians laugh.

My concern with meta moves is that they appeal primarily to people who understand improvisation. They may go over well when you have fellow improvisers in the audience, but non-improvisers will be left in the dark, wondering why that weird move was considered funny.

Meta Moves = Pop Culture References

Have you ever tried to pull out a reference to a movie, only to find that no one in the crowd has seen it? Felt pretty bad, eh?

Meta moves should be treated the same way as pop culture references. If you’re playing specifically for a group full of improvisers, then by all means go meta if the scene calls for it.

If you’re playing for a crowd that’s only ever seen Whose Line Is It Anyway?, then recognize that your references to improv gimmicks and forms will likely fall on deaf ears.

Fundamentally, it’s about reading the room and respecting the audience’s sensibilities.

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.