Ideas on “Frames” from RUMNEY

Dan Rumney sent in his ideas on “Frames” and they are given below for your reading pleasure! For your greatest reading pleasure, don’t forget the English accent.



Hey Shyla,

I just read your blog post on frames; it got me thinking and, since you solicited email responses, I thought I would respond.

While I know that no article constitutes a complete survey of a topic, I noted that there was an implied assumption that artistic endeavours have some kind of intrinsic value that should be recognizable by all. The performance of Joshua Bell was, presumably, very good, but as a person who is no great fan of violin virtuosity, I was left unmoved. In addition, I am a *great* fan of Mozart, but I know there are many music lovers who can’t abide him. Indeed, Eric put up some comments about 19th century music that ruffled a few feathers.

I guess my point is that the capacity for an individual to enjoy art is bound up with both external framing (as you covered in your post) and internal framing, built on experience and education. If the internal frame is broad enough, it may lead to ‘appreciation’, which I think differs from enjoyment. Appreciation can complement and heighten enjoyment, but it can also exist on its own.

I think this extends to long-form improv. I think it’s an art-form that can be the victim of its own success when played to a mass audience. Truly great improv can be indistinguishable from sketch comedy and an uninitiated audience may be unable to appreciate what they’re seeing and so miss out on levels of enjoyment. As you mention in your article, there is no televisual platform for long-form improv; I would submit that this is because the best improv would look just like a sitcom, with the added risk that some episodes might suck (i’m not saying that improv must look like sitcoms to be considered the best… just that flawless improv ends up looking scripted).

That said, the canon of Christopher Guest would be a counter to that. Spinal TapWaiting for GuffmanA Mighty Wind and other such, highly improvised films, do show that there is an audience for this… but i do wonder how many people appreciated quite what they were seeing.

Anyway… that’s all a bit of waffle; I hope you found it interesting/engaging/distracting/mercifully short. I really enjoyed your post and this isn’t really a point or counterpoint. But, as someone who clearly has a joy of improv and thinks about it a lot, I wanted to share my thoughts on the matter.

take care

dan x

Pythonists & Sellerists

The flowers of improv are numerous and impressive. Daffodils, dandelions, man-eating snapdragons: there are a great variety of different types of unscripted shows and projects.

Form sometimes takes over function: if you know a lot about the rules of a given form, the clockwork for scenes is pretty determined.

Here I mean knowing information like “we always do an old-timey movie wherein the guy has to get the gal” fundamentally changes the progression of a show. Anything with the tagline “an improvised …fill in the blank” is improv, but not the kind of improv in which “anything can happen”—because the performers know, going in, that certain things must happen for that show to succeed. So, setting aside genreprov, improvised musicals, ect. and going only into the territory of “anything can happen” there are two main types of shows that emerge.

But, over here with the improv tea roses and lilies (common but oh so beautiful!), the distinction in type of show does not come from the structure of the suggestion or its absence. I have seen shows with monologues, organic openings, chants, audience games, single words, and geographic locations where the ensuing shows were much the same as eachother. The suggestion is a starting place. Some groups are better at mining suggestions and creating cohesive through-lines, while some find the thread of the piece from information that emerges during the scenes instead of before them. The character of these types of shows aren’t radically different based on if you start with a game or from scratch. Therefore, I think the meaty difference in performance types/group identity is a conflict between two basic schools.

Intellect vs. Emotions. Individual Liberty vs. Societal Harmony. Line vs. Color. Tradition vs. Innovation. Poussinists vs. Rubenists.  To the great debates of the ages (where all potential answers are intricately entwined with each other like yin&yang) let us add the school of Python vs. the school of Sellers.

The School of Python: Premise. Sketch. UCB. The Mighty Boosh. Comedia del Arte. Punchlines. Payoffs. Big Reveals. The Three Stooges. Grounding the Absurd. 10 scenes/half an hour. Adam McKay.The State. The Simpsons. First teenage HJ behind the school. Sides hurt. “Girl, You Should Have Been There!”

The School of Sellers: Development. Cinema. SCRAM. The Office(American). As You Like It. Connections. Change. Character Arc. Charley Chapman. Absurding the Grounded. 1 scene/hour. Jud Appatow. Juno. Arrested Development. Wedding night love-making. Mind Reels. “I want to tell you the whole story, ‘cause I still can’t believe it wasn’t scripted. Ok, so there is this guy…”

Like any Yin & Yang topic, I feel myself pulled one way & then the other. The best Sellerist shows make you belive in improv as an art. The worst leave you bored. The best Pythonist shows make you laugh so hard you think you’ve transcended time and place. The worst make you confused. But why not have your Cake and Eat it Too?

Frames II: We Are Made of People

Kimya Dawson song sings this song about why she is a musician: Tell someone you miss them, tell someone you need them, tell someone you wish you could be with them all the time. Sounds silly but it’s not a game, making music makes me sane. I sing away my pain and everything turns out okay. I’m not talking fame and glory, ’cause that’s a different story: this story is about how truth and love can save the day.

We are a movement of humble grandeur wherein we all find, and give, what we need to make us sane.      Because, let’s be real here, creative people need art to survive.  Sometimes I think about all the brilliant comedians who really needed to make laughter happen in the world, and how they probably wouldn’t have made it through life without it.

I visited the UCB theater in New York in 2002. It was the first time I saw an improv venue. I felt like a hummingbird. I was filled up with desire and passion all at once, like a hidden place inside me had been awakened. There was a free hilarious show, and well known comedians in an intimate space, and all the other scintillating things CJ mentions in his account of his first improv experience, but I was floored by what came next. Horatio Sans came out with a bucket and he said “You know, put a buck in the bucket if you’ve got it. It’s Sunday. And for all the people here, well this is what we do on Sunday. This is our home and our place of freedom and inspiration. This is our Church.” That felt very right.

My dream for Improv isn’t that we all get on TV.

I know some of us are film makers, and I hope films are made. Some of us are MCs, and I hope their voices reach a wide audience. Some of us are skillful actors, and I pray that stages worthy of that talent and large appreciative audiences wait in their future. But for us all, I hope that we Always have a place where we thrive. I hope we create spaces where needs are met and lives are changed (corny as that may sound, it is real). We are called the New Movement for a reason.

We live in a moment where people are aching for amusement that applies to them.

People want to watch or be involved with things that are real, raw, and local.   Local means that your community is more fascinating if it has performers, musicians, artists, and comedians in it.  Local in the sense that going to see people in your town express themselves is part of an engaged life, while watching something on a screen that supports Budweisertm, Exxontm, and MickyD’stm is boring.

I hope we always grow. We’ll be a movement that catches like wildfire in the minds of the passionate and needy. We are made of people; and we are framed by how we educate people about our intentions. We aren’t here just to make you giggle, and this isn’t the chuckle shack with a two drink minimum. We are building an audience for local comedy, art, music, and dance, the same way that Starbucks taught the country to drink espresso. Comedy is addictive, delightful, powerful, and sneaky in a way other art forms only wish they could be. People get seduced by laughs. I can’t wait for creative sacred spaces to infest every city. I want everybody in the United States to have a friend in an improv troupe. A nationwide understanding of life altering concepts like Collaboration, Yes&, Heightening, Trust, and Bravery will flourish. We’ll all be the better for it.

(ps: Dan Rumney sent me some thoughts on these things & I will be including them in an upcoming post. Hey reader, there’s still time for *you* to send me your ideas, thoughts, or questions for the future of improv!)

Impact your BoJazz

I don’t currently follow any sports. In fact, I barely understand the premise of sport. However this Saturday I’ll be sitting down with Terp and determining, systematically, the sports team to which I will choose to pledge my undying devotion! Anticipating Saturday got me to reminiscing about my days competing in the NFL.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with CX Debate, it is talking fast, research, belligerence, note-taking, and trophies. CX debate is also about make believe: “if you do ___ then ___ will result.” In every debate competition the Impact a scenario will have is a major issue. Now in the weird video below I would draw your attention to one thing: the number of times the word “impact” is used.

That last moment, the guy says: “The impact to our D.A. is nuclear war which causes extinction right now. This debate’s over.” Man, it doesn’t get anymore classic than that! If there were crowds at debate tournaments, which there aren’t, the crowd would have gone wild! (side-note: if you want to do a show with me called MasterDB8r and are willing to create tubs full of research, hit me up.)

Impacts matter in improv too. We talk about heightening, but we are actually talking about two different things: heightening the game and heightening the impact of that game. In a scene, if you are irritated because your husband brought home a big-screen TV, then of course the diamond tennis bracelet makes you sick, but this new Lexus is the last straw! That is the scenario heightening path: TV, Diamond Bracelet, Lexus. However, the scene is a lot richer if there is an Impact to these offers. You are heightening the irritation but you should also be heightening the stakes behind that frustration. Has this couple been to marriage counseling to resolve bringing home fancy presents? Does someone feel a heart-crushing sense of inadequacy when confronted with any material wealth?  Spelling it out makes it real.

Last week I was talking about frames and I still am now. Frames: how much we care about something based on how it is presented. The impact of your actions in a scene, and the emotional reality that they create, are the difference between a decent two minute scene and a world which can sustain a show.

In the quest to, as Tami & Chris say, “make the scene buy you a drink” it is important to stretch out your scene, while heightening it. We do this through establishing the impact of an action: this is reacting, but it is reacting smartly. As you react, take that emotional information and translate it into scene information.

Tami encourages people to be careful about wrenching their scenes too far into absurd territory by remarking that no one better kill her baby in a scene because I’m not a good enough actor to know how you are really supposed to react to that. I will just sit there and cry for the rest of the scene.” Of course, Tami Nelson is the best actor in improv comedy. (personal belief: I haven’t seen better) But her point here is well taken: when you are in a scene and you are about to make a big heightening move how often do you ask yourself “what would a real reasonable person do in this situation if confronted with the information I am about to create?”

We might be more careful about taking off our pants, bunting people’s cats, or cheating on Dad with a tiger-woman if we thought our scene partner might react as drastically to those things as a real person would; we too often take for granted that our offers, no matter how drastic or absurd, won’t have real impacts in our scenes. We expect that kicking some one’s cat will get us, one way or another, invited inside to pet the dog (so we can put a gun to it’s head)– however, if kicking cats was likely to get the cops called, then we could probably trust ourselves to simply pet the cat the wrong way so that the final absurd move of kicking the cat could come much later.

As Aaron & Danhave both mentioned recently the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon: I was thinking about these things all day yesterday, then I went to a rehearsal and did a couple scenes where I anxiously rushed to get information out (talking fast doesn’t belong in improv, though it does belong in debate) and blundered through the heightening path like a child swinging from one monkey bar to the next. It is so hard sometimes, ya know? So, by way of practicality, I would like to mention that if you find yourself rushing through scenes that don’t seem to have high stakes to them, scenes where the impact of any offer seems negligible, you can always take a deep breath look into the eyes of your scene partner and say “I just really care about this.”

Take a sec to tap those breaks, make that connection, and affirm that what is happening matters— you can find out why and how in a minute.


The Washington Post and violinist Joshua Bell conducted this experiment where they had a young man of incomparable talent play his heart out in a Metro station. He was ignored.

Maybe the fact that a crowd didn’t form to watch him play suggests that Mr. Bell has no business getting paid $1,000 a minute in concert halls. Perhaps the observation by a curator (quoted in this article) that no one would be impressed with a five million dollar Ellsworth Kelly if it wasn’t hanging in a museum, should prove that his art really is worthless.

I mean, if the art is incapable of affecting people unless some cultural arbiter of taste is standing there telling them it is worth money, then isn’t that the same thing as cheap wine in a fancy bottle? Let the people decide! Whatever moves, titillates, delights, inspires people will be rewarded with their attention; and if something is too “conceptual” or complicated to speak to someone without a specialized knowledge –that sounds like the emperor’s new clothes, right?

No. Clearly, I am baiting you.

The point of that article, and of most effective art criticism throughout all time, is that the value of human expression exists outside of its commercial appeal. However, the more pragmatic point is that frames do matter. Structures matter. Context matters.

In comedy we are experts at experimenting with expectations: diminish them, build them up, or foil them for a laugh. What we wear on stage matters. How our show is introduced matters. Dress in spandex or robes if you want to be seen as avant-garde. Wear a tux and carry a bottle of champagne if you need to impress! We are pros at performativity on stage. But we don’t often consider all the things we take for granted in how improv in general is presented, regarded, and received.

What we do rarely happens in large historic theaters. There are no improv groups playing arena shows, though plenty of comedy acts do. We still explain what we are doing by saying “It’s notWhose Line is it Anyway?” –because that is the only form of improv that has ever been a TV show. Even Comedy Central doesn’t have a showcase for improv groups: say all you want about how well respected our best conservatories are but they better churn out stand-ups or sketch actors, because this art does not have a public sphere. Put down your TJ & Dave DVD and face facts.

We are the lo-fi movement of the 1990s before Beck broke out. We are punk, underground, subculture. It feels pretty badass knowing that improv has about as big of a following as the Fluxus in 1964 and less of a following than Death Metal. However, it doesn’t bode well for our ability to influence the public dialogue.

So dudes and dudettes: Let’s all focus on getting our own Stradivarius and playing it. Let’s sharpen up our skills so that we know incontrovertibly what we do is moving, valuable, and meaningful. But also, we must not fail to dream of how we want this art to look in 20 years. Right now we are a guy in a T-shirt playing in a Metro station.

I have my own dream  and I will be posting it here in a few days. In the meantime consider this an open call for your vision of what improv-as-art should look like in the future. I would love to have several to post at the same time: jot me a paragraph and I’ll compile them<shylahuray at gmail>. How do we frame this debate, how do we ensure someone is listening?