Pure Play

I’ve experienced what I would call Ultimate Back Having exactly one time in my life.  Now mind you, countless individuals have had my back.   What I’m talking about is UBH on a massive scale.  Over time.
UBH is a fairly simple concept.    The concept is essentially, “Let’s play & have each other’s backs.”   When UBH is around, the benefits are obvious.   It’s fun.   It makes you feel good & it makes others feel good.   You give and take from each other in a communal fashion because playing is its own reward.

Take Fun Fun Fun Fest for instance.   My buddies started crowd games that numbered in the tens, perhaps hundreds.   By creating the UBH environment we confirmed what I always believed to be true:   people are dying to abdandon social convention and just play.

Play for the sake of play.



When you hear tale of Improv Everywhere pranks or when you see the result of UBH efforts–  you can take it for granted.  You can try to manipulate and manufacture the phenomenon.

But I’m here to tell you there are conditions that must be present.  UBH is an elusive beast.

Nobody knew this more than the grandmother of improv, Viola Spolin.    You know the warm-ups you and I play on a daily basis?   These are the hand-me-downs from this amazing woman.     She knew that play was its own reward and that talking about a student’s hangups would only serve to reinforce the negative.   They serve to put the student further into his head.   So when a new hangup presented itself Viola did something better– she invented a game on the spot.

The student would play the game.   Boom.   The student would challenge himself and then feel rewarded for taking the leap.

Play is its own reward.  Encourage people to play.

Where did Spolin get this revolutionary idea?   It had actually been around since 1915 or so.    A social worker in Chicago had devised an entire thesis, the “Theory of Play”.

This woman did more for improv than hundreds of improv gurus that followed in her footsteps.   But do you know her name?    Does anybody?

No, she didn’t write any books. No, she did not come up with the concept of “Yes, And.”   No, she did not call the idea “improv.”

Improv is an imaginary concept to get adults to act as free and carefree as children.    Improv is simply the repackaged idea of play.    None of us learned how to improvise.    We simply unlearned the tedious process of being serious.   Of being an adult.

The woman’s name was Neva Boyd.

She researched games for years with a vast number of clients.   She taught the games to others including Viola Spolin.   Let’s consider Boyd’s relationship with her student Spolin.   Improvisation as we know it was passed down from this single point in history.

Had Spolin not brought Boyd’s “theory of play” from social work to theater, we would have no improv.  We would have no UBH at the New Movement.

Originally it had nothing to do with theater.   It had nothing to do with acting or “Whose Line Is It” games.    The goal was simply spontaneity and getting a person out of his head.

There were guidelines for true play, things to avoid that would tangle up folks in their heads:

“While the values in play are many and play activities and the experiences therein are essential in the growth and development of children, play does not always bring good results. There is a kind of play that separates, sets us in conflict with each other in contrast to play that draws us together.

An overemphasis on winning defeats other possible values in play. Stress put upon the structure and technique of a play activity by the play leader or teacher tends to prevent the release of organic elements essential to creativity and expression of any kind.

Fun is the essence of the spirit of play but when the pretense of fun is “played up”, it tends to kill the natural vitality of play. Pretense of fun kills real play.”

1.  No competition or emphasis on winning.
2.  No faking it.  Everyone has to be genuine or it will die.
3.  No stressing the structure or the rules.
Breaking these rules murders the idea of play.   They are the ultimate no-no.   You’ll notice Improv Everywhere breaks one rule, as Paul F. Thomkins recently pointed out.   The games are usually not inclusive and create “victims” for on-camera pranks.

So whether we call it improv, UBH, or play– I’d encourage us to remember where Neva Boyd was coming from. She took every day people, sometimes suffering people, and challenged them to have each others’ backs no matter what silly thing they would do.

Sometimes people try to convince us that improv is about winning, playing it up,  or the rules of games.   These are simply not inclusive to everyday people.   We all get hung up on the details or on the spirit of the activity.    We look at those around us to make sure we aren’t being duped.

Be genuine and spontaneous, and for God’s sake stick by the people you have the most fun with.

Ask yourself:

Am I obsessing over details or rules?  
Am I playing it up or exaggerating?  
Am I just buttering people up?
Am I worried about winning, or benefitting at someone else’s expense? 

These are sure signs that you are leaving UBH behind.   Just take a pause and collect yourself.  Take as much time as you need.  Then join the others when you are ready.    It’s OK.  We are all trying to find it together.  It’s damn tough.    Come back to the group when you are ready to have fun and include others.   Play for the sake of play.

I’m not telling you anything new.   The theory of play has been around for a hundred years.  Hiding.  Waiting.  And three years ago, almost a full century after Neva Boyd, something remarkable happened.   Chris Trew & Tami Nelson came along and handpicked theories from the collective social consciousness.   From their teachers and various improv environments.    And they did something quite spectacular.     They unwittingly rediscovered Neva Boyd’s philosophy, the theory of play.  They plucked it right out of the ether and they custom crafted it for you and me. They named their teachings The New Movement.  And indeed it was new.   Improv may have evolved over the last hundred years.   Ideas added, subtracted, tweaked, adopted, evolved.   And men idolized.

But two women knew the formula for good improvisation before any of that.   And it was simple.  It was ultimate back-having at its simplest.   At its finest.   Improvisation started offstage and now we’re bringing it back home.  So here’s a toast you can use:

“The New Movement is the Original Movement.     Onstage and off.   UBH.

The Weekly Format: Book of the Month Club

NAME: Book of the Month Club
When I was a kid, I hated to read. It felt like an unnecessary chore that adults were putting on me to shut me up or keep me from playing outside when I was sick. That all changed the day I set foot in my grandfather’s library and he showed me 1,001 Nights. After that, I was hooked. When I was a kid, it was all about the Hardy Boys and Mythology. When I got older, I switched to comic books and graphic novels. When I hit adulthood, I swung back around to dense literature and philosophy. Every page shaped my perception of reality and was more than a little responsible for the things that interest me, improv included.
The audience gains free entry to the show by bringing a book of their choice and setting it down in front of the stage. When the show begins, the troupe approaches the pile of books and begins rifling through each one, flipping to random pages and reading passages. When they are satisfied with the information gathered, they perform a set based on the books.
NOTES: Not every book has to be used if there are a lot of books in the pile. It is also wise to have books on standby if no audience member brings one. Other fun style choices are to use certain books as props or revisit more of the books periodically for more information.

Badass 1/2



I use the word badass almost excessively. I am not entirely sure when this happened but I know that someone around me must have picked up this word, which not unlike “rad” or “killer” had been mostly confined in my brain to the eighties, dusted it off and started using it to describe improv. That’s where its application recently became more and more convenient and expressive. This is my first of two articles on what “Badass” means to me when applied to improv and comedy.

Let’s start with a simple need I often have, the need to describe what my improv show is going to be like and thus why you should consider attending it. I personally want to promise you two things: a) Risks will be taken, authentic real risks with what I and my fellow improvisers will do to stretch ourselves and be open with eatch other, that evidence bravery. b) The presented product, though experimental, will be of a sufficient quality to earn your patronage because the players are proficient in their art. “Come see a risky yet proficient show! BYOB” I could say that I suppose, somehow “Badass” is the more zingy and colloquial way of saying the same thing. This poster of Mad Max gets across those ideas too, and how they’re related to being a badass. In a post apocalyptic world these characters are proficient survivors and confident about taking risks; they are badasses. Also well dressed.

A second situation where this word comes in handy is when trying to describe my community. Sometimes I want to get across the idea that my community is “awake” in the way the great wisdom traditions understand that word: that we have a communal consciousness and conscience that is striving for something beyond ourselves and yet is in a joyful state beyond striving. Verbose right?! When you look at these protesters you see all of that, you see courage that is beyond admirable and you see people alive to the needs of the universe in their own time. You see badasses. I feel that way about my improv community. I believe that is what we are.

I also need this word to describe how what we do is cool. It’s neat. It’s engaging and inventive and surprising and not clichéd. Like the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven (who called herself that whole name; eat it Prince) everything we do is cool because everything we do is weird and has full commitment behind it. The Baroness debuted in a Man Ray film, back in the silent era, called “America” where she just shaved her vagina and her head and everything else. This was the early 20th century when leg shaving was still quite risqué. She showed up to parties wearing cages, with birds in them, and tin cans even though she actually was a Baroness. She Badass.

If you aren’t doing improv that has that spirit behind it, you aren’t doing my kind of improv.

Ok, and one more detail/iteration of that same idea. Why is Badass such a better descriptor than cool? Well, sometimes you can do things that look very un-cool and yet they can be totally badass. It is a paradox. Take these kids who showed up to the Renaissance Festival last year. They do not work there. They paid to get in. They have spent clearly lots of hours making these really elaborate nerd-suits. They would be ridiculed by the Tosh.0s of the world. But the ridiculers would miss the whole fucking point. Look at how much *fun* these guys are having! More than that, look at how inspiring and freeing their willingness to just do the dumb thing to the hilt is! They were mobbed, completely mobbed, by fans all day long. People took pictures. People asked questions. People were envious. Why? Because these guys were going to go have cocktails with Kanye at The W after their trip to the Renaissance Festival? No.1 The knights of cardboardlandia had a following because what they did was badass. That makes them badasses.

Improv is a sphere where it is important to let people know that you are not afraid and that your choices will come from a place of raw courage and power. This is not the power of the social structure we’re all so sick of, but the power of fearless individuals to behave wildly and authentically with each other. We are the Eternal Badass. We are the force of creation.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Though that is now my all time favorite mental image; supplanting a giant sea turtle flying through a sunset with lots of laughing diverse babies on its back

Times: news for improvisers

Here is a gathering of news bits that may be of interest to you as an improviser:

This article from the Huffinton Post is about a comedy group that had their image stolen to advertise vodka. Apropriation and copywrite law are fasinating and complex things (all the rights to the header image for this feature, for example, probably belong to The Walters Museum) but I think we can all agree that nobody wants their comedy “transformed” into a molestery add.


Hard news or tough issues are always a bit odd to combine with comedy. Thinking about whether or not they should be combined is an important avenue of thought. Is what we do related to social justice and activism or not? Below is an article about a Trayvon Martin related protest. For me that sparks a brainstorm on what comedy-as-protest could look like and where it might fit in what we already do.


Extant groups of people living apart from our current global culture are so incredibly fascinating that it can’t help but start up my ‘prov-brain. Uncontacted = cooool!

Weird Al is suing Sony; probably just as a way to promote his new webshow.


First Come

At the Improv Wins Conference last January, there was a panel concerning the use of suggestions in improv shows. They discussed whether to take one or not? Do you need one just because you’re doing a Harold? Is it against the law to not take a suggestion if you’re name isn’t TJ or Dave?

I’m not here to argue suggestions vs. no suggestions (you should of gone to the conference for that doozy). I’m actually here defending suggestions (kinda) though I’m one of those guys who’s like “you don’t need to take suggestions, geez, get off my back”. Let me clarify what this post is doing here.

If you’re going to take a suggestion, take the first one that comes.

Because if you ask the audience for “anything” but they say something you don’t want, then you appear silly because the look on your face is “I wish I hadn’t asked for anything”. So then you ask for something else but the audience is crestfallen and just sits there.

Then the next time you’re like “I’ll ask for something specific like a location or a song lyric, that’ll show ‘em” but you still don’t get what you want so you have to ask for more.

Then you blame a show or two on the dumb-dumb suggestion.

Then you get in an argument with a troupemate over what to ask for or how to ask for it.

Then your troupe falls apart and you’re all alone.

I have a suggestion, take the first suggestion you hear or don’t take suggestions at all.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Six

The final night of the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival was a relaxed evening of performances that was a simple thesis of all that had been celebrated over the week of improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy presented at the Dallas Comedy House.

[pullquote_left] The Sunday atmosphere lent a sense of camaraderie to the audience, comprised mostly of people who performed and regularly attended the previous festival days. Many were tired but content, dropping all pretension to have a fun time on the stage.[/pullquote_left]

The evening got off to an early start with a live Q&A panel with the festival’s headliners, Los Angeles groups FrankenMatt and Dasariski. The five veterans espoused on playing philosophy, their goals in the workshops that they taught during the festival and personal reasons for doing improv.

The night then moved to improv with two short sets with FrankenMatt and Dasariski and then a jam of the two playing together. Sitting in the audience, I learned tricks that I can’t wait to try out in my own play.[pullquote_right] Once again, as with the Dasariski set on Saturday and the FrankenMatt sketch show on Friday, it played out like an improv clinic. Choices that younger improvisers wouldn’t dream of making were the norm on stage, effortlessly executing their artform to the highest of its fun and sense of play.  [/pullquote_right]

In all, it was a great end to an overall solid festival. Stay tuned to this website for a recap article and interviews with performers coming later this week. Follow @ImprovWins on Twitter for live updates from around the improv world and always remember that Improv Wins.

Dallas Comedy Festival 2012: Day Five

Saturday night’s lineup at the 2012 Dallas Comedy Festival packed a variety of sketch and improv troupes from Dallas, New Orleans, Phoenix and Chicago into the Dallas Comedy House for dynamic shows that kept the 75 seat theater in Deep Ellum buzzing with energy.

Due to technical difficulties, the planned screening of Bryan Hickey’s winning submission in the festival’s short film contest was canceled. He received special recognition before the final show and his film is currently available for viewing on the Dallas Comedy House YouTube page.

The night kicked off with Kyle Austin and Andrew Hamer’s two man show Kyle and Drew, a Dallas Comedy House mainstay. They came out playing with hula hoops to set the tone for a playful show that was high on physical comedy, with Austin precariously balanced on Hamer’s back to simulate skydiving at one point. As amazing as this was, however, their character choices were unremarkable and they did not seem to be pushing themselves to the height of their potential.

Phoenix based two man troupe Galapagos appeared next with a show that suffered from some improv pitfalls. It was a series of strangely strung together 80’s pop culture references that, while some were wonderfully inventive, failed to adequately ground the show.

[pullquote_right]The first timeslot closed with touring Chicago sketch show The Union. The husband and wife duo put together a playful and punchy experience centered on relationships. It was a tongue and cheek sitcom brought to life on stage.[/pullquote_right]

The night finally saw the festival debut of founder and organizer Amanda Austin, who was the latest victim in a flu epidemic that kept her absent all week. Her three woman group, Local Honey, opened the second timeslot of the evening with solid, balanced character pieces that were quite enjoyable to watch.

Apollo 12, the second group from Phoenix, received laughs from their amazing physicality but ultimately failed to captivate due to a lack of strong choices.

The second show was headed up by Stupid Time Machine from The New Movement New Orleans. Their set was consistent, relaxed and heavy on play, a showing that has come to be expected from the four person powerhouse of the NOLA comedy scene.

The third slot of the night opened with an energetic performance from Dallas Comedy House staple Victory Point. It was a bittersweet show for the group as it marked the final performance of Dallas Comedy House co-founder Clay Barton, who is moving to California. They made sure his send-off was an appropriately strong appearance, having fun like they have for years and keeping the packed house enthralled.

The final show of the evening was three man Chicago powerhouse Dasariski, who proceeded to run what sports fans would call a clinic in masterful improvisation. There were a few times in their hour long set that I thought there could be no way for them to continue raising the stakes, but they blasted through my perceptions to create avenues I couldn’t believe existed. I walked away from that show having learned something about this amazing craft and how to make myself better at it.[pullquote_left] After the show ended, the scene degenerated into a raucous flip cup tournament that proved to be some of the most fun I’ve had since joining the improv world. As an even more fitting end, the team with Clay Barton on it took home the trophy. [/pullquote_left]

Saturday night contained a few sour notes in the lineup, but maintained the overall level of fun and play that I’ve come to associate with this festival at this point. Tonight starts off with a panel discussion, followed by FrankenMatt and Dasariski playing in an all-star show. For more info, visit www.dallascomedyfestival.com and follow @ImprovWins for updates from the floor.