Every month in our newsletter Education Director Jill Bernard answers some “Ask Jill” questions. Here’s the archives so you can find your favorite answers, or spend the afternoon searching for contradictions.
Q: [ASK JILL] Doesn’t that seem like something a newsletter would have?
A: Sure! If you have any questions that you would like to “Ask Jill”, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to include them in a future newsletter.
Bryan P. in Minneapolis asks: “Dear Jill – Why does Kermit the Frog as why there are ‘so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side’ when there are really only one or two? Also, is there a way for me to find online what’s currently being served at the HUGE Bar?”
Dear Bryan – Frogs have different songs than we do. Also, an online bar menu is a good idea! We should make our amazing and dashing bar manager Matthew Pitner do that!
Anna B. in Bloomington asks: “Dear Jill, if I breed my chihuahua with my neighbors dragon, will I get a tiny adorable dragon? Or will I get an eight ton chihuahua, bent on the destruction of mankind?”
Dear Anna – A horrible Chihuadron that breathes fire from inside your purse!
Maggie C. in Lawerence, KS asks: “Dear Jill, what advice do you have for coaching enthusiastic yet very unruly improvisors?”
Dear Maggie – Run some silent tension scenes, where neither person can speak until the non-verbals of the scene are so tense that it has to be broken – at least two minutes. The audience has to be quiet too, obviously. They’ll see the payoff of silence.
Tyler M. in Minneapolis asks, “When somebody negates you onstage, how do you deal with it?”
Dear Tyler – The classic negation example is in the book “Truth in Comedy.” In a scene, Joan Rivers said she wanted a divorce. Her scene partner, Del Close, asked, “But honey, what about the children?” And Joan said, “We don’t have any children!” You can think of that as a negation or you can think of it ask a really interesting situation. The wife thinks they don’t have children and the husband thinks they do. This is interesting! Let your brain be flexible and live in a place where things can be both. Who are those kids sleeping upstairs if we don’t have children? Let’s investigate that! Let everything be true and untrue in the same moment, and don’t cling so tightly to logic, and you can live in a happy place. If you feel negated it’s sometimes because you had an idea of how things are supposed to go that you’ll just have to sacrifice because you’re an improvisor not a playwright.
Brandon B. in Minneapolis asks, “What are some brain stretching exercises you can do all by yourself?”
Dear Brandon – some of my favorites are 1) picking two letters and making up as many activities as you can. If the letters are BT, I could go baking turnips, burying turbines, briskly tickling, British truck-driving, etc. 2) telling a one word story by yourself by blinking – one word with your eyes open, the next with your eyes closed, open, closed, etc.
Christian C. in Minneapolis asks: “Where are the best snacks?”
Dear Christian – I myself enjoy Fair Trade Chocolate bars from Regla Del Oro, our friendly neighborhood gallery. We sell them in the HUGE Theater lobby so we all may enjoy!
Amy K B in Robbinsdale asks, “Have you ever met anyone who just could NOT do impov? What was the issue?”
Dear Amy – Sometimes at workshops I say, “Yell out your name.” Then I say, “Yell out a name that is not your name.” Then I say, “Congratulations, you’ve just improvised.” Everyone can at least get started. Then to the broader question, can anyone become a good improvisor? Viola Spolin, the mother of American improv believed so. When I was younger and more arrogant I scoffed at that. As I continue teaching I realize anyone could become a good improvisor given two things: will and time. Everyone has a cocoon wrapped around them of all the stuff in between them and the natural wonderful creative self they are at the core. For some people it takes a lot of work and a lot of time, and it’s all in whether they’re willing to make the investment.
Meg D in Chicago says, “It’s too hot to cook. What do you suggest I make for dinner?”
Dear Meg – Come to Australia! It’s winter! Whoo hoo! And you can have meat pies or veggie pies for dinner, they are very delicious and popular here.
Michelle B in Sommerville asks “Who is the best person to do a scene with?”
Dear Michelle – The best person to do a scene with is the person you’re in a scene with.
Eric C in Juneau and Mitch E in Princeton both asked about what’s different about improv in Australia or what’s different between impro and improv.
Backstory for those just joining us: improvisation is called impro in much of the world and improv in other parts of the world. There are two traditions of improvisation, one came from Keith Johnstone in Canada and one came from Viola Spolin in Chicago, and was further expanded upon by Del Close and Charna Halpern. The Canadian tradition cares more about narrative and the Chicago tradition cares more about finding the game-of-the-scene as opposed to a proscribed game. After that disctinction it’s just playing and it works beautifully to mix all the ideas together, that’s what I’ve discovered in my travels down under.
Q: Rachel O in Minneapolis asks, “Are there some topics that should simply remain out of improv skits or is it all fair game?”
A: Well, Rachel, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention we call them “scenes” and not “skits” – “skits” imply something amateur, like at a summer camp. But to your question – there are things I personally steer away from. I don’t think rape, child abuse, mental disabilities, and ethnic stereotypes are appropriate subject matter. Mind you, I’ve seen good scenes on all of these topics. They can be handled well, but it takes a great deal of delicacy, purpose, and maturity. A rule of thumb is I try not to hurt any class of people that has already suffered enough.
Q: Helen W in Canberra, Australia asks, “Have you ever felt uncomfortable with a character you created, because it might reveal a private truth about yourself? Does that make sense?”
A: I am not sure I can think of a clear example right now, but your question brought to mind a scene we did a few months ago in Show X, our Monday night all-star showcase. I was playing an audiologist, and as I tried to administer a hearing test I bungled the description and said something odd like, “Put your left hand on the right side of your head…” I started laughing and couldn’t stop laughing, and of course my scene partners exploited it and kept me onstage for five or ten minutes. The reason I was laughing was because I have hearing loss, and I’m a little sensitive about it. It is absolutely terrifying for an improvisor to lose hearing. When you ask the greats what the most important improv skill is, they almost always say, “listening.” For the audience, it was just a funny moment of a performer “corpsing” which we all love to watch, but for me it was a vulnerable little moment – not painful, but a little bittersweet.
Q: David L from Minneapolis asks “One tool for character building you have recommended in the past is to act with the enthusiasm of a puppy. What other animal personifications can you endorse?”
A: I did some experiments on Hideout Theatre students in Austin, TX earlier this month and discovered I enjoy the aforementioned Puppies for enthusiasm, Sharks for focus, and Jr High Kids at a Dance for crushing on your scene partner. Performing with any of those three energies is really freaking interesting.
Q: Marvin R. of Minneapolis MN writes “Is humor the goal of an improv scene?”
A: Thanks for your great question! I believe that improvisational theater can do all of the things scripted theater can do. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, it can make you angry – or, in the case of Creature Feature, our improvised horror that returns this October, it can make you genuinely scared while you’re laughing. Part of the problem is that people laugh when they’re surprised and improv is always surprising, so you might not even notice that the show you’re watching contains a bit of heartbreak along with the laughs.
Q: Dan L. in Minneapolis asks, “How many fish can you name?”
A: I can name all of the fish, Dan. I am sorry in advance if they had previous names that I am replacing. I once had a fish named Senator Awesome, that was pretty great. I also once had fish named Louis and Junior, to which my friend Brian asked, “What happened to Gossett?” Well, Gossett died the first day, poor dude. My first fish was named Sophie, and I wrote an ode when she died, even though I couldn’t read sheet music. Bless my mother for plunking out the random notes I drew on the staff to very avant garde effect. So yes, I am experienced and unafraid in the naming of fish, whatever sorrow it may bring.
Q: Anna R. from Melbourne Australia asks, “When is the best time to visit if you are from another country and want to experience the best weather and the best improv?”
A: The Twin Cities Improv Festival is always the last weekend in June and it’s a blast – a quick chance to see all the best of the Twin Cities and the country in four short days.
Debs H in Minneapolis asks: “How do you build confidence in improv or how do you assess your improv? Is that a bad thing…to assess?”
Thanks for your question, Debs. I will take your question in reverse order. It is really healthy to be able to discuss your improv separate from yourself. It may feel personal. If I say, “I did a bad job with give and take in the show tonight” it may feel like I’m saying “JILL YOU ARE TERRIBLE AT IMPROV!” I would rather it not feel like that, instead I want to be able to talk about it separately from my personal identity, in an egoless way. That takes some maturity and self-confidence, which leads to the first part of your question. How do you build confidence in improv? It comes from knowing you are good enough. “You have suffered enough.” – Dick Chudnow, founder of ComedySportz. You are good enough, unquestionably. Proceed from there. Anyone who tells you you’re not good enough is only offering their opinion. There is only one subject-matter expert on the subject matter that is you, and that is you. You are good enough.
Kathy R W in Minneapolis asks: “Whose intelligence should an improviser work to? Their own? Or the audience’s? Or their perception of the audience’s?”
Oooh, good one, Kathy. For those of you reading along at home, “Play to the top of your intelligence” is an oft-quoted guideline for improv. Ian Roberts from UCB in New York defines it very simply: “The character knows what you know.” Often a beginning improvisor will say something like, “But I don’t know how to read!” because they’re scared to make scenic choices. Yes you do know how to read, go ahead and read. Jason Chin from iO-Chicago visited to teach a workshop a few months ago and taught us to play little kids with the intelligence of adults, instead of pretending they’re dumber. It was a wonderful effect. Another interpretation is not to go for cheap jokes that sell out your character or the scene.
Side note: The audience is always smarter than you are. Always. Sometimes that thought requires recognizing that the world is filled with many kinds of intelligence. I once did a show for a group of mentally disabled adults whom IQ tests would classify as not smart. When the villain appeared, they booed the character because they were that invested in the story I was telling. No other audience has ever done that in the twenty years I’ve been improvising, it was brilliant. When you start thinking of the audience as dumb, your work gets cynical and snide and loses the heart and playfulness that made it fun in the first place.
Jill B in Minneapolis asks, “Jill, when are YOUR Improv-A-Thon teams performing?”
Thanks for your question, “Jill.” My teams are Clover Wiggle (at midnight, after the Wednesday kick-off shows) and Spaz! at 2:30AM, as well as Tarantino at 11:30AM – plus any team that wants Butch and I have the right to haul our sleepy butts up onstage as part of the 28-hour journey.
Josh D in Melbourne Australia asks, “What’s the most memorable feedback you’ve ever had?”
Good question, Josh. I can think of two that are tied in my brain. After the premiere of “Defending Your Life,” a show with WNEP in Chicago, an audience member asked me, “Who was the author on that?” Then once, after a performance of Drum Machine MySoloShowThatYouShouldComeSeeSaturdaysat9:30inJan an audience member said, “I. DIDN’T. KNOW. IMPROV. COULD. BE. THAT.” which I take as pretty high praise.
Bryan P in Minneapolis asks, “If an audience member’s cell phone goes off, is it better to work that into the scene or ignore it?”
That’s going to be situational and depend on the tone of the show. Most of the time, I would say go ahead, ignore it, but sometimes it rings at such a well-timed moment it would be a travesty to not use it. One time a phone went off during a scene in Scram where I was playing a tour guide at Walden Pond and I said, “That’s me! Sorry, that really ruined the mood of the tour. Oh, but it’s a new phone, I don’t know how to shut it off” and Joe Bill said, “Oh, it’s easy, you can just take the battery out like this,” so we had a little meta-moment clearly mocking the audience member.
Terri K in Portland OR asks, “Where did I put my hat?”
It’s under the bed.
Jason P in Lafayette LA asks, “Do you have any last-minute gift ideas?”
If you come over to HUGE Theater we have Divine Fair Trade chocolate bars from Regla De Oro(our newly relocated neighbor at 28th & Lyndale)! We also have books for sale from local improvisors: “Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv,” “Comedy of Doom” by Joseph Scrimshaw, “The Hungry Games” by Tom Reed, and “Spaghetti Head Ned” by Lauren Anderson for the little ones on your list. Plus a HUGE Theater Gift Certificate is a sweet way of saying ‘please get out of the house every once in a while.’ All of these things are for sale at the box office, where a smiling HUGE Theater volunteer will hook you up. If your friend has an iPhone or an Android, you can send them a gift card through Square!
Sarah B in Minneapolis says, “I feel like 75% of the time I am bringing my C, or best, B-grade game level to scenes. I am not sure if it is because I may have had a bad day, or tired, or not excited by the structure. Sometimes it is all three. What are some tactics I could use to improve my mindset so I can bring my A-game more often?”
I am about to ruin the anonymity of “Ask Jill” by revealing that I happen to know “Sarah B” is a yoga instructor (in fact she teaches Yoga at HUGE every Saturday at 12:30, you’ll have to drop by). I have a friend, Melissa Cathcart, an amazing Chicago improvisor, who does yoga before every show to get her brain in the right place. The great Stephen Kearin from Three For All in San Francisco clears his mind, a very brief meditative feeling. It’s funny because this means taking a little time for yourself after the big group warm-up when we’re all being crazy and bonding together, but for some improvisors it’s just the right thing to get their brain fresh and open to the unknown.
Sam A-H in the UK asks, “Have you ever improvised in another language?”
I have improvised a song in Latin, pretty much bastardizing a Requiem. I’ve also done scenes in crappy Spanish and Italian. I once tried to do a scene in German because Cosima’s parents were visiting. I pimped out Hannah Kuhlmann to do the scene with me, but it backfired and I was stuck talking about “eine kleine tannenbaum,” oh my. I am taking Spanish class right now, and I have made a promise to Lindsey Gonazales that I will do a set in Spanish in December 2013. The clock is ticking!
Vic A in Minneapolis asks, “What does improv and punk rock have in common?”
Funny you should ask, the phrase for how we describe HUGE Theater’s spirit is “Punk Rock Mischief.” They’re both loud, impolite, easier to do when you’re in your twenties, and probably your furniture’s going to get broken.
Jesse S from Austin asks “Is it OK to go for laughs that only your friends are going to get?”
Yes of course, if you only want to perform for your friends.
Josh K in Minneapolis What specific aspect of improv performance in Minneapolis do you think we do better or as well as any other city, and what as a collective group of artists do we need to improve on with our on-stage performances?
We are very joyful and playful which always makes Minneapolis improv a blast to watch. The thing I wish we would improve is our hustle. It seems like improvisors over thirty are too tired to promote their shows and improvisors under thirty think it’s enough to put up a status update on Facebook thirty minutes before the show starts because they don’t remember when that wasn’t an option. There is so much we could do to get new audiences to our performances. We get complacent or expect other people to do it for us, or somehow don’t see empty seats as failure. I know that seems like only an offstage consideration and you asked about onstage performance, but having empty seats is like part of your team didn’t show up. (If that’s a cop-out, we could stand to play the game of the scene harder.)
Christian U from Rosemount asks: If you were a duck, which would you enjoy more: the waterproof feathers or the inherent buoyancy?
Oh man, I don’t mind being wet but if I could just float around all the time like it was no problem that would be the bomb. Good question Christian U.
Damian J in Minneapolis says, “You said in your last email that we could stand, as a twin cities community, to play the game of the scene harder. Who are your favorite long form people (anywhere) who do that well without selling the scene out for the sake if the game?”
Here’s a funny story. One time I taught a class where my operating theory was that there are two kinds of scenes: game scenes and relationship scenes. The distinction is, in a game scene we’re very concerned about the mechanics of the scene and how that universe operates, and in relationship scenes we focus on good acting and truthful emotions. Anyway, I taught the class under the theory that these were distinct things. The next weekend I saw “Death By Roo Roo,” a New York team in their North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival performance and my jaw dropped. They were playing the game of the scene and having rich relationships at the same time all of the time. It was really lovely. I wanted to call back everyone who took my class and say “WAAAAIT!! I’VE MADE A HORRIBLE MISTAKE!!!” So yes, Death By Roo Roo. Local teams to watch: Foterson and Gay/Straight Alliance are prime examples of how game-of-the-scene and relationship can be played.
Brian B in Minneapolis asks “What’s your take, as an improviser, on stand-up comedy?”
Oh, are they different things? That’s a joke, because potential audiences often think they’re buying tickets to see stand-up because they’ve never heard of any other kind of comedy. It’s always funny when stand-up comedians say to me, “I could never do what you do” because I just say, “I could never do what YOU do” and they say, “No, I could never do what YOUUUU do” and we’re there all night. I tried stand-up once in college in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was horrible. I had a bunch of cute little jokes and songs prepared and the audience had no reaction. Then the woman after me just read a xerox — before the Internet, memes were xeroxed. Weeeeird! — of different names for types of poop and the audience went wild. So that was enough for me. Great stand-ups are such incredible artists, I’m in awe. Butch and I talk all the time about how amazing it is that Louis CK can make these incredibly well-crafted jokes seem like he’s making them up on the spot every time, hundreds of times in a row. His commentary is so important, I feel like he could change the world. I also love Eddie Izzard and Paula Poundstone because my personal taste is for when it feels more like a story than a set-up/punchline. Incidentally, Amy Seham theorized in the book Whose Improv Is It Anyway that the stand-up boom led to comedy stages being built all over the country, and as the boom skimmered down, those stages became available to improv troupes. So we actually have a lot to thank stand-up for.
Sean D asked why stages are typically small in the Twin Cities. I gave a boring answer about ADA requirements and parking spaces blah blah blah. But when I said I honestly prefer small stages, he asked “And why do you prefer small stages, Jill Bernard?”
Dunbar’s number is 150, and while that refers to how many meaningful relationships a person can maintain, I think it is helpful for the temporary relationship of fellow audience members as well. Human beings are more able to laugh if they in close proximity to each other and the stage. The closer we are together, the more shared the shared experience is. For these reasons the room should be small. The stage should be small as well, because no matter how many times you tell them and how much experience they have, improvisors will cling to the back wall. So you better put the back wall near the audience or else the performers will hide far far away from the audience in the deepest darkest reaches of the stage. For myself, as I get older I enjoy smaller and smaller stages so I don’t have to run around so much.
Anonymous in Minneapolis says, “When I was in my late 40’s I thought, wouldn’t Seniorprov be a great way to reach the boomers? Last week one of my funny daughters said Mom. There is an improv class for 55plus. Oh glory. Me and a bunch of old people. I must say there is perhaps a better word….elderprov…boomerprov is likely more palatable for those of us who can still improvise and want to play. Wouldn’t it be really cool to do Boomerprov?”
It would be SUPER cool. Go for it, anonymous! I am very much in love with the groundswell of boomer improvisors that have grown out of the Community Ed improv classes offered at the Brave New Institute. It’s wonderful.
Heather A in Minneapolis asks, ” Here’s a question. How do I stop swearing so much when I’m onstage? I seem to just naturally drop the f bomb.”
I’ve played ComedySportz for almost twenty years, which is a clean show. What I’ve found is it is easiest to play from a more innocent part of myself where those words don’t even exist. Of course, I am infamous in ComedySportz history for having dropped the F-bomb, the S-bomb and the C-word – not all in one show, mind you. One thing to evaluate is *why* you are swearing. Sometimes improvisors are desperately going for a laugh or trying to be shocking. That’s poor motivation. Go ahead and feel confident that you are compelling and very watchable no matter what language you’re using and maybe you can let that crutch go (if in fact it is a crutch in your case).
Bradley M in Minneapolis asks, “How should a group go about giving each other notes after a show? What are constructive things to talk about, and not? It probably depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your set, but is there any general strategies for doing better improv the next time?”
Last summer I took a great workshop from the legendary Patti Stiles of Impro Melbourne on how to give notes. She said notes are just one person’s point of view, it’s essentially “Here’s what I saw,” which should be accepted without ego. You have to have a healthy note-taking culture, where it’s okay to say honest things to each other. If there’s any conflict between the players the notes will go through the filter of personality issues instead of the filter of useful information. If you approach it egolessly, you can be curious. There is no need to defend yourself or qualify when you take a note, in fact there should not be discussion, just the notes of what the note-taker saw. She emphasized that playing is a privilege, not a right, and any sense of entitlement on the part of the improvisors makes notes impossible. She said you can discuss: 1) the pre-show and the tech 2) the shape of the show 3) the technique of the scenes 4) the technique of the performers.
In addition to Patti’s thoughts, be on the lookout for “choicecoaching.” That’s when you say what you would’ve done in the performer’s place, instead of helping them identify problematic moments and letting them make their own decisions on what to do. Discuss any moments that were “ishy” so we can figure out how to be clearer in our moves and stronger in our choices. Look for broader trends. Other guidelines: actively listen, probe for the whole note, say thank you, be direct and sincere, and focus on behaviors. You have to be able to laugh at the hiccups we encounter while creating in the moment. The notes should definitely take less time than the improv set itself.
May 2013 – Ask Butch special edition!
Matt P writes “Do you ever get “improviser’s block”? and if so, how do you get through it?”
All the time – I depend on my scene partners and focus on the basics and try to remember that even though being blocked isn’t fun and sets off our instincts to panic and think too much, that relaxing and remembering that nothing is REALLY going to go wrong and trying to still have fun will get me through it much faster.
Alex C writes “What is something you feel like you need to work on as an improvisor still, even with all your experience?”
Experience itself is something that you have to work on working against – it’s one thing to say “say something new every single time” for even a year or two, it’s something you have to work hard at after 15 years. Keeping things fresh and surprising can be more difficult, fighting off that feeling that you’ve done this scene before or just keeping in mind that your crutches are always there waiting for you and you don’t want to fall back on them even when you’re having a hard time pulling something new and surprising out of the universe. Mostly I work on the same things everyone else does and then try to capitalize on things that I’ve grown better at (like listening and catching odd details) by being aware of what my strong areas are so I can have even more fun and think about it less when I’m on stage.
Joe R writes “What role do you like to see the tech take in a show?”
Support. Always. That doesn’t mean tech should only act when called upon, however. The improvisers on stage often have no idea what tech is capable of to even know what they could call on, or how to call for it. Techs have the advantage of seeing the show and knowing what we have at our fingertips, so we can paint some texture on the world the improvisers are creating to make it more of whatever they say it is – be that more real or more unreal. Things that work properly in improv should give you back more than you’re putting into them, the same goes for tech – you give me a scene in a world, I’ll give you back a real place for your scene without you having to think about it. If everything goes as it should, nobody should know the tech is in the room and the improvisers will have an even harder time convincing people that the whole thing wasn’t planned ahead of time.
Amy Z writes “Brownies or cookies?”
Jeremiah Z writes “Why open a non-profit comedy theater instead of following a for-profit model?”
There are lots of boring, practical reasons that get into the tedium of the rules of incorporation but we knew we were going to be dependent on donations and grants to fund some of our efforts – but also because it fit our mindset better. When a company is for profit, it has to serve the best interests of the company. When you’re non-profit you have to serve the best interests of your Mission. Our Mission is to support the improv community and we wanted people to know that they were a part of this place and not just people we were selling classes to. So many things we create were made to be given away, not sold, to the people we support.
Michelle D writes “Has having a family hindered your creativity or given you more material?”
I have pretty much always had a family (my oldest son was born when I was 16) so that’s hard to say since I don’t really have a good idea of what it’s like to be an adult without a family – but I will say that family and creativity should never be exclusive of one another, even though I know how hard it can be to find the time for creativity as a working parent but you HAVE TO. When you have kids, there’s always a struggle of where to spend your time and time with them is very fleeting but it’s too easy to weigh things on the scale of “is this more important than spending time with my kids” and you can’t operate that way, because everything in the world will lose in that scenario – and you have to keep feeding your creativity. If we gave up or put off our creative pursuits when we had kids that would make us such boring parents – And life experience of all kinds makes us richer improvisers – so they really work well together, if you can find the time and do without sleep.
Jennifer D asks, “What are you most asked about improv, and how do you usually answer? What’s a new answer you’ve never given to the same question?
The question I get asked a lot is “Why aren’t there more women in improv?” My latest answer is “There are the correct number of women in improv. There are too many men.” A new new answer would be, “Every human being is a combination of their mother and father and therefore half woman and half man. Therefore at any moment, half the team you see is comprised of women.” I don’t know that’s a true answer but it would be confusing enough to make people leave me alone about it.
Alex C asks “Can you get ‘too good’ at improv? There’s a certain glow and allure that new improvisors have. How do you keep yourself from losing that?”
Babies are cute. Teenagers are gross. Adults are amazing. New improvisors have a magic and appeal the same as a baby’s. Advanced improvisors are beautiful to watch. The difficulty is getting through those awkward middle years. The key is the same way we do it in real life, spend your ‘teenage’ years figuring out who you are and who you want to become when you come out the other side. Work hard, stay humble, seek new experiences.
Blake W asks “How do you help an improvisor break a bad improv habit that they are fully aware of and wanting to change, but seemingly unable to stop doing?”
It happens very slowly. Psychological change takes six months, so really it matters how long they’ve been aware of the habit. I have the fortune of being a traveling improv teacher, so sometimes there are years-long gaps between when I see students again. “Oh, you learned how to say ‘yes and’ sometime In the past three years!” I sometimes get to say, in my head for courtesy’s sake. As to how to help them, I recommend Asaf Ronen’s book “Directing Improv”. He speaks about ‘challenges’ you can give improvisors to try. It’s no use saying “Don’t do that thing anymore!” – it’s more useful to give them something else to focus on instead that has the side-effect of fixing their problem.
Cicely L asks, “If you are going to audition for your very first improv group/show. What should you expect? How should you prepare?
How timely! Creature Feature auditions are coming up. Here’s an old blog post we wrote on that topic that you may find interesting: http://www.hugetheater.com/2012/what-directors-want-you-to-know-about-auditioning-for-improv/
Amy Z asks: “What’s the fastest way to get into an Improv State of Mind?”
It varies by imp, but some popular methods: a favorite song, headstands, different shoes, a quick game of Crambo, a run around the block, or meditation.
Sean D asks, “What is the biggest lesson about improv you’ve learned from teaching improv?”
I’ve learned so many things in teaching improv, but the most important one came very early. I gave a student note that was too harsh and thoughtless and I saw the spark go out in his eyes. We were only halfway through the session, he kept coming for the last four weeks, but it never rekindled. I murdered his love for improv. The exact significance of what happened was clarified for me later, it’s something Mark Sutton and Dick Chudnow helped me think about. No teacher has the right to tell anyone they shouldn’t improvise. No one has the right to make you feel bad about your work. I even began to think more about it last weekend, students at the Improv Festival Oklahoma challenged me to ponder. If I’m teaching you, my real job is not to tell you what you did was wrong or right, but to point out to you that other choices are available and to give you all the options, so you’re not stuck with choices that may be driven by habit or fear. I want to help you become the best improvisor you can be, not the one I think you should be. And of course anyone can be a great improvisor — given time and will.
Cynthia F asks, “How do you feel about the return of “Whose Line is it Anyway” and Michael M asks, “How do you feel about the return of “Wild N’ Out”?”
For those of you who don’t know, those are two television shows with improv games. I’m really excited about them both because more people get to see improv, get interested and start down the rabbit hole that leads them here to HUGE. I am also excited because it’s more work for our friends and colleagues. The amazing Nyima Funk is on both of those shows! Ka-ching!! I love Wild N Out, even if I don’t love all the games they play. I love them because diversity is a constant struggle in improv, and it’s something you can’t force. How can you give African-American kids a style of improv they naturally enjoy so that they can grow up to be professional improvisors? Wild N Out is super-appealing in that regard.
Jolene B asks, “How do you get back into improv after not doing it for a year?”
Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.
Daniel J asks “I’ve heard people use the term “Improv Adolescence” to refer to different aspects of a performers growth after the first couple years. I’d love to hear more about that period and other periods and what characterizes them, how to overcome the pitfalls, etc…”
I don’t know that I’ve heard that phrase! It seems handy. In my book I refer to an “Asshole Phase”. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but there’s a point at which many improvisors think they’ve got this on lockdown and they know how it works, and all the old-os are helplessly outmoded. In my own asshole phase I distinctly recall storming out of a rehearsal by yelling, “You’re all stupid, you’re all just stupid!” I don’t even remember what prompted it. Occasionally good things can come from this, anytime the status quo is challenged we can re-evaluate why we do things the way we do, and that’s nice. But mostly, yeah, you’re a jerk.
I see other improvisors at that two-year mark who are very judgmental. Instead of celebrating their scene partner, they’re questioning their moves. They still care very deeply about whether things are “right” instead of just letting what is happening be what is happening. This is also when people start to forget everything they learned in their first improv class about Yes And and agreement. It’s weird.
Stay open-hearted and flexible, assume the best in people, be nice to everyone; this is how you come out the other side.
Maxwell M asked: “Robert Frost once said: “You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.” Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” What does freedom have to do with improv?”
Oh my gosh, what a great question. Friends from an improv theater in Tel Aviv once told me a story that they were in the middle of a scene about a bus station bombing, and suddenly there was a loud explosion down the street. Everyone laughed. The audience stayed and they finished the show because it would’ve been dangerous to leave, and everyone had a good time. Sure enough, a discotech down the road had been bombed. Improv grants us the freedom to laugh at the most painful things, and work through the hardest times. Augusto Boal used improv by way of “Theatre of the Oppressed” – a theater form that lets impoverished people have a chance to express themselves. The stage is this space where anything can happen, we can change the ends of stories that seemed set in stone. This is always been one of the appeals of improv to me.
Michael K asked: “What do you do to prep for your show in the green room? Any pre-show traditions?”
[NOTE: in theater, the ‘green room’ is the room where the performers wait to go onstage, whether it’s actually green or not.] I have different traditions depending on what show we’re performing. At Show X on Mondays we have a few warm-ups we really love and do every time. At ComedySportz we feel out what warm-up games we need from a long list of possibilties. When I prepare for Scram with Joe Bill we each listen to our own MP3 players and switch headphones to find the juxtaposition between our states of mind. I also like to make sure I’ve stretched out so that my body is ready to go. In an ideal world, I also have a decaf soy latte. As far as superstitions, I think it’s really lucky if I find a rubber band on my way to the theater. I know. Weird.
Danny asks “What type of meal is best before a show?”
Dear Danny – Oh man, this is one of those charming ways in which improvisors seek control, because they cannot control what happens onstage. They can be really particular about what they eat or how much they eat, it’s very individual. One time Mikey Heinrich and I went to do a show in Raleigh North Carolina and got food poisoning from a place that seemed reticent to sell us barbeque at all. We were sick as dogs, just green as can be. I am sure the Raleigh audience was curious about our playing style.
Trevor asks “What is the capacity for an audience watching an improv show? Meaning how many people can you cram into a theater before there are too many?”
Dear Trevor – Ask your local Fire Marshall! In our case, it is 100 people. Barring that, Dunbar’s_number is 150 to feel like you’re having a shared social experience, but I have done shows for two thousand people that went well. The shape of the space really matters. Everyone has to be close to each other, and there should not be a part of the room where you feel disconnected from what’s happening onstage because you can’t see or hear.
Adam asked “What is the role of a performer watching another show (maybe the same night as their own, maybe not) when it comes to shouting suggestions? Should they wait to see if the “regular” audience members step-up? Should they try to challenge the cast on-stage by giving a far-out-there suggestion? Should they clam-the-hell-up?”
Dear Adam – Well, this is just me, but I don’t yell anything unless the room has been silent for a good long time and the performers could genuinely use my help. This is because I know how cool it is and how special it feels when your suggestion becomes the inspiration for something onstage. I have already had that experience in my life, I would rather let that magic happen for someone else. To satisfy my ham-bone I often turn and whisper a ‘hilarious’ suggestion to my seatmate. People who yell out ‘challenging’ suggestions are “just trying to fuck up your show.” I didn’t say that, Keith Johnstone did, and don’t think our jaws didn’t drop when an eighty-year old British man dropped the F-bomb.
Lauren asks “What are some tips if you are scheduled to perform, but don’t feel great about what you look like, or who you are as a person that day?”
Dear Lauren – If this happened to me, I guess I would try to stop and think about what a miracle it is to be alive and to have this opportunity at all. What I look like and whether or not I’m a perfect person is small potatoes compared to that.
Sean D asks: Any advice on improvising with people whose talent intimidates you?
Dear Sean – The best advice I got was from Keith Johnstone. He said, “Be efficient.” I find that useful for any intimidating improv situation. Aiming to do the best improv or perfect improv would only make me miserable, I aim instead to just be efficient, and make clear moves. Also? The most famous improvisors in the entire world always turn out to be really nice people who are fun and easy to relate to, and they’re more than happy to play with you. They don’t want you to be nervous, they want to have a good time with you. At least that’s my findings. Here’s a picture of Greg Proops humping me that I think proves my point.
Blake W writes: What are the magic words to get people to come to improv shows and take improv classes?
Dear Blake – OH MAN! IF I KNEW THOSE WORDS!! But I don’t. It turns out it just takes a lot of work and perpetual hustle. Constant communication and the forging of relationships. It’s another one of those no-shortcut moments in life, sorry buddy.
Jane W writes: I often find books that aren’t specifically written about improv but are a great help to understanding and applying its concepts. Do you have any such books you’d recommend? Or what extra-disciplinary sources do you draw from?
Dear Jane – Everyone says “The Inner Game of Tennis” although I’ve still never read it. I really like “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos.com, it seems very improvisationally-minded. I always try to make people read “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino to see how context can shift, but that feels selfish, just forcing everyone to read my favorite book. I also think watching improvisational jazz is a nice way to see improv concepts applied via a different medium.
Bradley M asked – How has running an improv theater changed your relationship to improv?
Dear Bradley – I’m more careful with the chairs.
David L asks, ‘You just participated in the Improv-a-thon, and have the upcoming Jillvitational. What are some tips to keep from getting burned out performing multiple times a night, or for long periods of time? How do you stay energized, and fresh?”
Practically speaking, Meghan Wolff coached me before the 43-Hour Marathon in Austin to not have any sugar or caffeine, and that was really helpful. Lots of fruit, lots of water, a lot of changes of outfits for morale. Wash your face, brush your teeth. Coddle yourself, too, between sets, whatever it is that you need, you can treat yourself to. The truth is I get kind of a heroic feeling that is very energizing when I’m doing long stretches of improv. I don’t get to do honestly brave things very often, like save lives or stand up to dictators, so this is the closest I can come.
Sean D asks, “You bomb a show, and have non-improv friends in the audience, who are seeing you perform for the first time. You don’t want to apologize for the show, but you do want them to know it isn’t representative. What, if anything, do you do?”
First of all, it’s highly likely your friends enjoyed it. They won’t know it was bad until you tell them, so don’t tell them. Honestly. Additionally, sometimes a performer is a bad judge – if you had a bad time, it doesn’t mean the show was bad overall, you’re biased. If your friends have questions and want to probe deeper, this is when you can get into an analytic discussion, but otherwise just say thanks for coming.
Kelvin H asks, “How do you get better at editing? I always feel like a dick when I edit. I think people are working towards something, then I let the scene go too long.”
For the non improvisor readers, “Editing” is simply the way we get from scene to scene in a scenic improv set. When someone edits, we’re suddenly in a different scene with different characters in a new location. I always say follow your feet and your gut. Your brain doesn’t know when to edit, your brain is an asshole. Your brain is saying, “Don’t edit, you don’t have anything funny to say for the next scene” or “Don’t edit, there must be some point to this scene.” But if you look down at the bottom of an improvisor, their feet are always moving to go edit a scene before their brains are ready. If we liked a scene we can always revisit it later, there is nothing to fear in editing early.
Michael K asked, “How do you sleep at night?” and Nicola K asked, “When do you sleep at night?”
Wait, what? You’re supposed to sleep at night?
Brandon B asks, “What advice do you have for negotiating rental space or settling on ticketing for a venue?”
Great question! If it’s a regular venue, like the Bryant Lake Bowl or Intermedia Arts, they have a set contract. If you’re inventing a venue, for example you’ve found a cool bar or a school theater with off-nights, your main goal should be to make them comfortable that you know what you’re doing and you’ll do what you say. I recommend preparing a really nice one-page document explaining what your show is, successes you’ve had in other venues in terms of drawing audiences, your marketing and publicity plans, and projections for the show’s income. If you’re thinking “Holy cats, how do I do that?” the Bearded Men have a workshop on that and other pro-topics THIS SATURDAY, register here.
Adam I asks, “Is there a point where an improvisor should take a break from and/or stop classes in the interest of absorbing the information from previous classes? At what point did you stop taking classes? Is there a time when an improvisor should invest time, energy, and money into coaching rather than formal classes? I understand that everyone is different, but are there general guidelines you can identify?”
Do what you’re doing until you’d rather do something else. That you’re asking this question might mean it’s time to switch gears. Personally, I have never stopped taking classes. Whenever I go to an improv festival I take as many classes as I can in the time slots when I am not personally teaching. I learn something great every time. Coaching doesn’t have to wait until you’re done with classes, it’s a similar and related discipline. A teacher is covering overarching concepts, a coach is working with a team to tweak the specific work they’re interested in. This is completely a pick-a-path situation.
Jeremiah B asks a coaching question too, “Our group is at a stage where we would like to begin inviting a coach to our rehearsals. What’s that process like?”
Think of someone who you think would be a good fit, and a timeframe that makes sense – four rehearsals is a good starter length. It shouldn’t be open-ended, there should be a predetermined date when the team or the coach gets to say, “Hey this isn’t working out.” You ask that person to coach you, they say yes. The team is still responsible for setting up rehearsal times and spaces, that’s not part of the coach’s job. In terms of how much to pay, some coaches will do it for free because they’ve never coached and want to try. More likely it will be $10 a head or $20 a head per person. That could be per rehearsal or per hour depending on the experience level of the coach. There are coaches who charge more or less than that, but that’s pretty standard. I personally charge ONE MILLION DOLLARS AN HOUR because I am too lazy to get off my couch.
Daniel J asks “Are there any particular religious/spiritual/life philosophies that you have found interesting/helpful in making improvs? How so?”
A lot of the writings of Deepak Chopra have influenced my improv. I bring up his thoughts in class often, particularly from “The Book of Secrets” where he talks about how there is no right or wrong, the universe aligns after we make a decision so you might as well go for it. There are zen ideas that make your improv better, such as wu-wei which means “effortless effort” – a nice way of saying don’t try so hard and go with the flow. “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz have influenced my improv. These two: “Be impeccable with your word” and “Always do your best” are great improv advice. “Don’t make assumptions” and “Don’t take anything personally” are bad advice as improv choices, but helpful in troupe management offstage. Lastly, the ideals of non-judgement and love that are part of many religious philosophies make your improv so much more effective. Thanks for asking, that’s a neat thing to think about.