Feel the Flow

I’ve been using this term ‘feel the flow’ for several years now as a way to perform, to learn, and to live. At times I’m yelling “FEEL THE FLOW!” at hockey games, basketball games, and sometimes golf tournaments before I’m escorted off the course. I use it most when skateboarding, which is something I’ve continually done for the past 26 years.

There are many styles of skateboarding. There is technical skating, fast skating, big air skating, thrash skating and then there is flow skating. Flowing can invoke all of the styles of skating, but the main key is that it is smooth, relaxed, and looks effortless. With flowing you can skate a nice run and not do one trick, or it could be one solid run of tricks but the flow is so smooth that all the tricks are linked together. This is how I want my improv scenes to be; smooth, relaxed, effortless and to look like I am in complete control of the scene the entire time.

‘Feelin’ the flow’ could be compared to being ‘in the zone’, but I see ‘the flow’ as softer and less concentrated. It just happens. You might not even know it’s happening until later when you look back and reflect. But when you are feelin’ the flow and you know it, it can be relaxing and exhilarating at the same time.

When one skater at the skatepark is in ‘the flow’, it can be contagious and others will sometimes start to ‘feel the flow’. When others join this flow it leads to a fun skate session with everyone supporting each other and pushing each other to accomplish whatever goal or trick they are trying to do, and we might all be strangers but we’re in this session together. When performing improv, I try to get into that ‘feel the flow’ mode. I try to read my other scene partners and feel their energy. I try to flow with them and at the same time, to get them to flow with me. If we can get everyone on stage ‘flowing’ together, we’re going to have a good scene and a good show. But just like in skating, you can fall, and that fall can break the flow. You just have to shake it off, make sure your body parts still move like they’re supposed to, and get right back in the flow. Of course if you can just roll out of the fall, it makes it a lot easier to get back into the flow. If your scene is falling apart, recognize that, and then focus back on your scene partner and reconnect with them. Roll out of it and ‘feel the flow’.

Something that I have always loved about skateboarding and that I also find in improv at times is being on the edge of being out of control. Pushing your board just a bit more, knowing that too much could send you flying, just like taking risks on stage could send the scene into a dive. But when you make that trick, or your improv risk works and the crowd laughs, it’s an exciting rush. We have to take risks to accomplish something new. Flowing can be doing what you know and letting it feel good, but adding something new and different can lead to your next flow session being even better.

For me, the first few times dropping in on an 11′ halfpipe standing on a piece of wood and four wheels was just as scary as stepping onto the stage the first few dozen times. Now they are both just the first step to getting into the flow and having a great session/scene.

Feel the flow of the scene. Embrace it. Feel it. React to those feelings. React to the flow of the scene. Feel the flow.

“Let it flow, let yourself go….” – Beastie Boys

 

-Chadwick Smith

FAQ 247: Houston Harold Weekend Edition

TNM Houston is hosting a weekend dedicated to the enduring magic that can be the Harold and bringing in experts from all over the place to teach, learn, and play with the format.  One such expert, Matt Donnelly (Executive Monkeys- The Palms Resort Casino, The People’s Improv- NYC, Upright Citizens Brigade)  has agreed to blindly answer questions from TNM’s community of improvisers and as a result he will be remembered as a king in all of our hearts.  Houston Harold Weekend event details.

Why did you get into improv and what keeps you going?

I got into improv when I was 15 when there was a theatre sports style show, Improv Jam happening on the weekends in my hometown of Red Bank, NJ. I was hooked from the moment I saw it and I thought improv was something I could be good at.  I was wrong for year or two, before I got better.

What keeps me going in improv is that I don’t look at improv as an endeavor, I look at it as a discipline.  I am simply a better person for doing it.  It keeps me grounded, well rounded, and it allows me to meet fascinating people from all kinds of different backgrounds all over the world. I don’t think improv will make me rich or famous, rather, it’s my day to day life that is improved by being an improviser.

 

How did you get to a place of making a living off improv?

Improv has always been a supplemental source of income for me. Its never been 100% of my income.  Currently I make a living as a writer and improv made me a better writer for sure. However, writing is another art form that is filled with its own obstacles and growth points.  Improv taught me to trust my gut and how to get into other people’s voices and to write jokes for people besides myself.  Yet, there’s a catch in transitioning to writing from improv.  Improv gives you instant gratification and feedback but writing doesn’t do that at all.  There is a tremendous anxiety I get when I finish writing, because unlike improv, I have no idea when or how someone will actually receive my materiel. Its frightening.

 

What are some of your best resources for character inspiration?

My body is actually the best resource. I hope that doesn’t read as arrogant (See? Writing is frightening!).  But the best advice I ever got about characters was to make myself move differently and “yes and” your body.  Your sub conscious creativity is much more diverse, inspired, and talented the your conscious creativity.  Getting out of your own way and enjoying your movement and gestures; “yes and”ing those elements are as important if not more than the focus on dialogue which normally get so much of our attention.

 

If you could compile an improv ‘dream team’ (past or present) that you could see perform just once – who would it be and why?

This feels a bit like a trap question, I can’t possibly remember ALL the improvisers I like seeing or performing with, so the odds of offending by omission my friends or people I admire is high.  So I will choose famous people I have never seen improvise as my dream team:

Robert Downey Jr., Alec Baldwin, Audrey Meadows, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (oh wait, she taught me and I’ve seen her perform hundreds of times -who cares- she is the best I have ever seen improvise!)

Incidentally I was asked this question when I was 10 and didn’t know what improv was. The list was:

Optimus Prime, Snake Eyes, Sophia from The Golden Girls, Launchpad McQuack, Roseanne, ALF and Todd Bridges

What are some of the best traits you have observed in those you consider top improvisers?

Another tough one!  People who are naturally good at object work provide so much for a performance in a way the audience and their scene partners don’t even realize:  it’s so vital to engaging the audience’s imagination.

I also really love great opening lines.  They start in the middle so it feels like we have already been watching this for a while, there are physical staging elements, and the “who, where, and what” is there, so 5 things are accomplished in one theatrical burst.  Then the scene partner just has to simply agree and the audience explodes.  I love when I see those.

“Being Present” is the skill I admire the most.  Mic Napier once rocked my world in a workshop when he told me that my brain already knows to do the things I want to do improv-technique wise.  So, I didn’t have to “show” that I knew how to improvise. Its was a backhanded compliment that made me feel like a fraud of an improv artist. I was actually a lazy writer and not truly improvising.  I was 11 years in the game when this happened and I felt like I was starting all over again.  It was a painful time that turned into an extraordinary period of my most inspired work.  It provided a foundation that has allowed me to enjoy what I do, to this day.

 

More on Matt Donnelly:

Currently a writer for Penn & Teller’s new Discovery Channel show: Penn &Teller Tell A Lie, Matt was also recently voted BEST MALE COMEDIAN in Las Vegas in 2010 by BroadwayWorld.com.  Matt Donnelly hosted and performed in the Long Form Improv show “Executive Monkeys” at The Palms Resort Casino, and he currently hosts “SET” at The Onyx Theatre in Las Vegas.  Matt has also enjoyed a two-month run in Wayne Brady’s show, “Making **it Up,” at the Venetian.

Prior to moving to Las Vegas, Matt was an instructor at the People’s Improv Theatre in New York City for six years where he taught Level 3 – Intro to Performance Improvisation, as well as master classes in La Ronde, Deconstruction and Chapter Forms (ie: Armando/Mosaic).  He co-created the live improvised movie show “The Neutrino Video Projects,” which appeared at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival before being franchised to 11 other cities around the world.  He also taught improv in the acting program at the New York Film Academy, and continues to teach annually with the Columbia University Business School Executive Education Program with Business Improvisations.  He has directed house teams at The PIT, UCB, and Magnet Theatre in New York.  Seminal improv groups Matt has performed in include Neutrino, Possible Side Effects, Threat and The Faculty.  In Las Vegas, Matt teaches Advanced Long Form at Improv Vegas, and frequently travels across the country to teach at comedy festivals.

 

Fantasy Weekend: Favorite Shows, This Week, In the World!

This feature is a subjective take on what shows are most exciting this week. If you’d like to write a Fantasy Weekend we’re open for submissions. Email info@improvwins.com!

My pics for the top three shows this weekend are in weekday order:

Friday 10:30 Claws with Fangs @ TNM Austin

This all-female group may appear soft and lovely on the outside, but don’t let that pleasant smell distract you from their razor-sharp comedic talons. With members like Danu Uribe, who recently toured the WORLD and splashed Conan (that’s her standing next to old Red), TNM Austin Conservatory Director Vanessa Gonzalez, Yamina Khouane and Christie Grace, they make average absurdity hang in the towel. Bits of brain will be left on the Rosewood Ave floor. I’ve been meaning to catch opener The Sticky Boys for months now too. Oh, and did I mention the New Orleans edition of Claws with Fangs will be the first group performing for TNM NOLA’s grand opening next weekend? Let’s hear it for the ladies.

Saturday: 8 Whirled News Tonight @ iO Chicago

When I read the newspaper, I alternate between crying into Lucky Charms and buying stock in various cattle farms in Nebraska. When the Whirled News Tonight team reads the newspaper, they spin by-lines and first sentences into the finest silk comedy carpets. Yep, kind of a welcome mat for approaching what a f’ed up world we live in. It’s like if Jon Stewart took hallucinogenics and pop rocks. Last time I saw these guys, when Padraic Connelly made a subtle Jaleel White callback 30 minutes into their set at Hell Yes Fest, I laughed myself into a urinary-tract infection.

Sunday: 8pm Improv A Go Go @ Huge Improv Theater in Minneapolis

The doors to the Huge Improv Theater in Minneapolis opened December 2010, and in the past year they’ve been producing 12 weekly shows. I want to spend a week here watching everything from dream-team Show X on Mondays to the coyly un-described Bearded Men Improv (WHAT IS IT ABOUT?!?!), but for a one-night stand I’d hit their Sunday showcase. A lottery of any and all improv (local, state, and NATIONAL!), it gives the improvisational equivalent of if Neapolitan ice cream had all 31 flavors. I can’t think of a better show to sample what the Twin Cities improv scene has been building in the past several years.  Plus I’d get a chance to wash down the longform goodness with Delerium Tremens on tap at the awesome Nomad Bar on Cedar Ave. Belgian beer and bocce ball, post-belly laughs, is my idea of a Sunday night that doesn’t involve crying into breakfast cereals!

Fantasy. Actualized.

Describing Your Improv Troupe

(Editors note: Improviser X is an unedited column written by an undercover improviser that covers whatever the mystery man/woman chooses. Maybe not always nice, but always real. Enjoy!)

You’ve been booked at an improv festival and you have to come up with a description of your improv troupe. What do you do? You do comedy on stage so do you have to be funny all the time? You’re really proud of your incredibly unique format so do you have to explain it? You’re married to your troupe mate or you’re all the same sex or you all like the same TV show, do you have to say those those things in your bio? Let’s learn from some weird examples that we found on the internets.

“This husband and wife duo are just as funny on stage as they are at home”
We’ve never been in your home so I guess we’ll just believe you? Wait, nevermind, we don’t believe you.

“They create characters and allow them to grow into a story1
Hmmm. Some people spend too much time on their show description and others just do this.

“A series of improvised scenes based after a disaster suggested by the audience. Watch the players improvise their way through a chaotic scenario…will the characters stick together or fall apart? Will this world live or die? Will you laugh or will you cry?”
Will you ever improvise or will you rehash the same stuff you do every time?2

“Our shows are completely made up on the spot. Nothing is prepared beforehand.”
Now there’s an idea. Here’s another: when applying to festivals, re-write your show description. Because the one you use for the theater that books scripted shows, burlesque, karate competitions and improv shows doesn’t apply to the one where quite literally EVERYONE knows you are doing an improv show.

“We take a suggestion from the audience and our comedy scientists put it through a series of tests and out of the other end comes a completely improvised show that will cause you to laugh your labcoat off.”
I can’t decide if this troupe performing in actual lab coats would make them even worse or completely redeem them.

“We believe in awkwardly presenting our love of obscure pop culture references and tendency towards dark humor to a captive audience.”
This is like the time that magician explained to us how the audience volunteer is so flexible that she’s going to be able to squeeze herself into a tight ball in the first compartment of this wood box so don’t freak out as he’s sawing through the middle because she’s actually cooped up in the first compartment. Then we watch him do it and we aren’t as impressed. BECAUSE HE TOLD US EVERYTHING ALREADY.

“A cross between Seinfield, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Shakespeare.”
I couldn’t help myself. I made this one up.

“We begin with a group scene that quickly becomes a series of two person scenes through rapid fire edits. As the show moves forward we call characters and situations back as the audience loses their mind with laughter.”
I’m printing this out and taking it with me and if you don’t do exactly what this says then I demand a refund.

“…loud, full of energy, and will make you laugh so hard you’ll squirt milk. Don’t drink milk? Doesn’t matter.”
This one is actually pretty decent. It kinda describes the show, doesn’t give much away and contains one joke that isn’t so jokey it’s annoying. Well done.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. What happens if they don’t “allow” them? One day I hope the characters just take over the show and do whatever they want. That would be cool.
  2. Can we get a suggestion of a disaster? “Tornado.” Can we get another one, we got Tornado last month. “Hurricane.” Oh, we get that one all the time. Anyone else? “Earthquake.” Can we get a suggestion please?

The Weekly Format: The Salon

NAME: The Salon
IDEAL TEAM SIZE:
4-8
HISTORY:
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. It is an Italian invention of the 16th century and is heavily associated with the French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries. Salons were usually held by prominent, beautiful and educated society women who moderated debate and discussion, consciously following Horace’s philosophy on the aims of poetry, “aut delectare aut prodesse est,” or “to entertain and educate.” Many modern historians consider the salon an integral part of the Age of Enlightenment.1
THE BREAKDOWN:  The stage is set with comfortable couches or chairs in a semi-circle to mimic a comfortable drawing room or coffee shop. A host receives guests as they arrive and all are seated and begin discussion on a topic chosen by the host. As debate comes into full swing, characters will rise from their seats and have scenes to highlight their opinions or points.
NOTES: This format is one that can enjoy a high amount of adaptability depending on the team’s sensibilities. The participants of the salon can be specific characters or the team can decide to be themselves when they’re sitting. The topics can be chosen by the audience if desired, either through suggestion or through cards filled out when they enter the space. Top marks go to the team that performs this show in a corner of a real coffee shop.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Wikipedia y’all

Technically Speaking: Sketchy at Best

There’s a certain subset of people, less than the number of American Doctor Who fans, but more than the number of British King of the Hill fans, who like to do sketch shows in addition to Improv. These people are braver than I, but for the life of me they don’t leave me alone. If you become a hot-shot tech wizard, sketch people will knock on your door. If you answer, be prepared to up your game to a level that no improv show could possibly prepare you for.

Case Study: Tim and Micah

About a year ago I was asked to run tech for a visiting sketch show. It was a two-man group who toured nationally and were bringing the touring version to TNM Austin. I was told they wanted a tech rehearsal and knowing that sketch work required a large number of cues, agreed.

When they arrived they handed me an unmarked CD-R. It had 33 tracks.

33… tracks.

The average improv show has about 3-5 cues. Lights up, lights down, music on, music off. The trick to improv tech is knowing how to end the show, the trick to sketch tech is preparation.

Every sketch show MUST have a cue sheet for the tech. If you a directing a sketch show it is your responsibility to provide one to the tech or to take the time like Tim and Micah did to go over each and every cue so that the tech could write it down himself. The tech’s responsibility is to make sure that you make notes on each cue and let the performer know if you have any doubts about cues that you don’t think will work or you yourself are unable to make work in the given time. A complicated music-and-light combined cue may need to be toned down to just music so you’re not overwhelmed. Honesty and preparation during rehearsals will help come showtime.

33… tracks.

With 33 cues, I had my work cut out for me. To their credit, Tim and Micah knew how crazy of a request they had for me. The show was the next day and this was the only rehearsal time we would have. Luckily I was in the middle of a three-month period of my life where I was carrying a pocket notepad around. I whipped it out and got to work.

When it comes time for the show itself the best thing you can do is sit down with the director and go over any last minute changes. There will be changes, be flexible. Scenes will get moved around, actors will come up with last minute ideas to make their scenes pop, learn to love chaos like I love pie. These days, I really love pie.

By the time Tim and Micah’s show was over, I managed to hit 32 out of the 33 cues. 96.9% isn’t bad a percentage.  After running a few sketch shows, your overall confidence about running tech will increase, and more and more people will look out for you come the next show.

Mikey DoDo Out.

The Armando: Pitchers & Catchers

Are you a Catcher or a Pitcher?

If you are doing Armando, get ready to be both. Just remember to take turns.

Have you seen the Megaphone Show on Wednesday nights at TNM Austin? The red room is warm with sexy young people packed together, ready to watch. The lights go out. The ritual begins. Throbbing dance music rocks the bodies of the players on stage, causing them to gyrate wildly like crazed baboons in a heated sexual frenzy. The lights turn on. One of the players, breathing hard and sweating, explains the way the show works:

A monologist tells the story.The players then do scenes with each other using the driving concepts and tantalizing details told to weave a show, live, on the spot.
For your pleasure.
It’s so good, afterwards people ask us if it was our first time (hearing the story) and we say “Baby, It’s ALWAYS our first time.”

What is being pitched and caught? Visualise it. Long, hard premises; boiled down scene ideas getting strongly initiated into their willing partner’s yes-and holes. I want to get all up in that scene if you ask me.

But how is it done?
First the players listen to the story. Hard. They soak up every detail like wet, sloppy sponges.
At the same time they are thinking. So hard. The funny parts of the story are being processed and whittled down into core concepts. Specific details are replaced with different details. Possible ways of conveying ideas clearly and quickly to the other players are considered.

Essentially the players are racing to think of improvised sketch comedy scenes based on the stories before the monologist can finish telling them. This is very different, and much more difficult, than drawing inspiration from a single word suggestion. It’s considered bad form to pull individual words the monologist says out of context to build a scene. Otherwise, what would be the point of hearing the whole story?
Say, for example, the story has a part where two brothers fight over a Hot Wheels toy truck. If a player initiated a scene with “Mom! I want Hot Wheels for Christmas!” this choice wouldn’t be as clever as it could be, because all the audience had to hear was “Hot Wheels” to understand the connection between the story and the scene. However if the player was to start with “Quit being a dummy and let me drive the squad car this patrol shift!” the whole concept of “the funny way brothers fight” is pulled through and put in a different situation. The police officers don’t need to be brothers, they just need to have that type of relationship.

Hopefully most of the players can think of at least one of these types of ideas for a scene by the time they step onto the stage.
This is were the Pitcher/ Catcher concept comes into play. How do the players decide whose idea to go with first?
Each player must quickly decide if they are a Catcher or the Pitcher for the scene.
The Pitcher has the job of communicating what the scene is going to be about, while
the Catcher has the job of receiving the “pitch”, latching onto it, and supporting it.

Being a Pitcher has an element of premeditation and strategy, in the sense that a lot of the mental work is being done in the seconds before the story is finished or during subsequent scenes. Pitching usually requires a strong initiation that encapsulates the core concept being put across, without “calling out the game”.
Catching, on the other hand, is about being soft and malleable; a selfless vessel for other peoples’ ideas.

I like to make it a personal rule of thumb  to never walk on stage without a pitch cocked and ready. It’s good to have a plan in ones’ back pocket.
But lets say everyone also has a pitch ready to blow?
Who goes first?

This is tricky. First of all, eye contact is incredibly important. The look on a players face when they have something they are dying to pitch is very different than when they are looking around hoping someone else has a good idea.
One way to think about it is: the first person to start talking is the Pitcher and the person who listens and responds is the Catcher.
There can only be one Pitcher, but many Catchers in any given scene. This is to fight chaos, the enemy of improvisation.

First everyone should decide how much they like their idea. Is it the most baddass move ever? If so, maybe you should just blurt out your strong initiation. Communicate it as clearly and simply as possible without calling out the game.
Do you feel like the idea could be lame or mediocre? Walk on stage and lock eyes with the other players. Now, you have one second to decide if you are going to initiate the back-pocket safety idea or convert to a catcher.
There should be one pitch per scene! Even if you manage to insert a second premise idea without fucking everything up you are still using up elements that are likely needed for scenes later.

This is what I personally do:
I listen to the story and wrack my brain for premise ideas while soaking in as many details as possible.  Usually I can come up with, on average, one good pitch and one kinda half baked premise.1
I stay on the sidelines for the first scene. This is because someone on the team will come up with at least one really good pitch right away and I like to give the most eager players some space. So that’s covered.
Then I step on stage in the second scene and make the pitch/catch decision. Hopefully someone else has something for me so I can practice my catching and save my good pitch for later. It is a long game and deferring early on is both strategic and polite.

When the audience and players hear the story for the first time, together, it’s like they are in on the same joke. Everyone is privy to the same intimate knowledge about the monologist, bringing everyone in the room closer together, whether they know it or not. The Armando is about taking full advantage of that special dynamic.

Remember, if you see me at the megaphone show, I have a hot load with your name on it.

-Milo Harkness-Smith

 

Show 1 footnote

  1.  In case one of my ideas is EVERYBODY’S idea I try to rack up as many as possible.

What Improvisers Do

We aren’t totally sure who made the above image1 but we are totally sure that it’s mostly funny. Yeah, people who don’t watch improv sometimes think that doing improv is doing standup and yeah, most of our parents don’t get it either. The weird part of the image is that improvisers are sad alcoholics2. The best part of this image is obviously that weird spaceman riding that horse in a unicorn costume.

By the way Improv Wins readers, if you see an image like the one above send it our way!

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Our investigating team seems to think that a friend of Jon Vaughn‘s named Alan made it. We also don’t know Jon Vaughn. Okay, you got us, our investigating team has the day off today.
  2. Or maybe the creator is crying for help. If only our investigating team were in the office!

Houston Harold Weekend is coming!

TNM Houston is bringing in big Harold dudes from all over the country to focus exclusively on this magical format. Workshops, discussions, and shows will all be dedicated to expanding your collective knowledge and sharpen skills.

It’s a weekend dedicated to everything Harold! Improvisers from all levels of experience can spend a weekend immersing themselves in this format of wonderment! It’s all going down Saturday March 10th and Sunday March 11th

Deets:

Intensives will be taught by veterans of the Harold including Matt Donnelly (Las Vegas, The PIT, UCB NY) , Eric Muller (iO Chicago), Julia Morales (The PIT–NYC) and many more.

Houston Harold Weekend workshops and shows will be held at Avant Garden in the center of the Montrose area Houston.  (directions)

Is your team interested in individual coaching from one of these badasses?  Email us directly to get that set up!

 

 

 

Email: abirkheadtx@gmail.com

Register and Prices

Schedule 

ABOUT THE HAROLD

The Harold is a format created by Del Close and developed in association with Charna Halpern. It is the signature form of Chicago’s iO and New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade. In the Harold, a suggestion is taken from the audience which performers use to create an improvised, interconnected universe. Characters are invented and then cross over between scenes, interacting with one another to create a continuous narrative. Beats move the story of the Harold forward and organic games inspired by major themes are played to mine information and heighten the narrative, resulting in a one-of-a-kind experience that has never been done before and will never be done again.