The Potter’s Wheel

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Kind reader, I get so frustrated sometimes! I want to sit down with the shamans of creation and find out how to revolutionize this thing we do already! You see, I’ve done improv for a medium amount of time. I’m not a lifer yet, but I’m headed that way and the shock of surprise and awe stops after you’ve seen all the scenes there are (sorry darling, there are only so many scenes) a couple dozen times. Is this something bad to reveal to you reader? No, you are worldly-wise and filled with the delight of the universe: revelations like this neither alarm or disenchant you.

So what do we do? Well, seeing improv stay on the same worn pathways – circling and circling the track like a horse who has only just realized that running as fast as he can will not open up any new territory—makes me get an itch in the belly. Surely we can dress improv up, make it riskier, make it more specific, have shows that pop with fresh life and evolve beyond the strictures we’ve set! If anything can be done on stage, there is no excuse for a sense of stagnation.

And yet.

And yet have I, or anyone for that matter, nailed it yet?

Does anyone get up on a stage and churn out flawless scenes that always enchant and are as elegant as Russian ballet.

No.

Even the best practitioners of this art, those who have decades under their belt, simply have a higher batting average: no one is all home runs every show.

My father in law is a potter. He makes cups, bowls, and plates, and every once in a while something that isn’t one of those things. But he has hundreds and hundreds of cups. I’ve seen him work all day at cups. Trying to get one shape. He says that in China they’d teach pottery by having a student throw a cup on the potter’s wheel, let it dry to see its shape fully, and how close it came to perfection, then smash the cup, and put the dry clay of the cup back in water to make fresh clay. Over and over again the student wouldn’t bake or finish a piece of their pottery for years. Just sculpt, smash, sculpt again. Trying to make their hands know the shape of the pottery. Trying to teach their bodies & minds perfection of form.

The lesson of this has always been hard for me. I am an idea person. You say “I have an idea” and I say “let’s do it right now!” I’ve always thrown cool parties. I have adventures. But I can’t play an instrument. I can’t draw well. I can’t sew or cook a giant meal off the cuff. I didn’t learn to practice things aspiring to mastery until recently. Academia started polishing a skill set for me, but improv was the first fully creative pursuit that I was able to practice long enough to see real results – to start on the pathway to mastery.

In our society innovation is prized above mastery. It is the charming part of a youthful country and a child-like culture. There are of course, disadvantages too. Improv is such a balm to a person like me: we can fool ourselves for a long time in to thinking that we’re being spontaneous and inventive in the moment. That what is happening in a show “has never happened before & will never happened again” and yet we hold on to no part of it. Our shows, our scenes, smash themselves the moment they’re over — preventing us from making an example or idol of an imperfect vessel.

One of the secrets of life is that originality is a myth. The most innovative artists have merely pulled off an engaging synthesis or revival. Don’t let that spook you gentle reader: mastery is exciting and forever a challenge, unique work is work done proficiently enough that the potter’s hands disappear: the shamans of creation are more patient than you give them credit for. 

The Weekly Format: Your City, Your Love

NAME: Your City, Your Love
IDEAL TEAM SIZE:
6+
HISTORY:
When you think of great cities of the world, a host of magical places come to mind. An anthology film by notable directors called Paris, j’e taime captured the beautiful and ethereal nature of the City of Lights and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006. This was followed by New York, I Love You and other films in the series are currently in development. Growing up in Texas, I’ve become fascinated with the growth of our cities that seem destined to enter that pantheon, my hometown of Houston and Austin, a wondrous city. When I travel, I attempt to listen to the heartbeat of the place I’m in and understand how the people affect the backdrop and vice versa. The only way to have the time of your life in a city is to find out what makes it unique.
THE BREAKDOWN:
Explore the idiosyncrasies of your city using an Invocation opening and improvise a Harold that captures the perfect essence of what makes it unique and beautiful, elevating your city to mythical proportions.
NOTES:
I picked the Harold structure because it is the form that I feel is closest to the epics of Greek, Roman and Shakespearean theatre. The Invocation is an opening that I find is easier to work with than basic organics as it goes with a unifying purpose while still possessing overtones of ancient ritual. If you work with the form and find that you get too epic, needing a more intimate portrayal of your city, attempt performing the show as a La Ronde to focus on specific character works and relationships. Whatever you decide, the basic idea is mythmaking so don’t be afraid to go as big as you can with your choices.

FAQ247: FAQ: What makes a Good Armando Monologue

 

The Armando and its variants, UCB’s ASSCAT & TNM’s The Megaphone, employ a special component in each show other formats do not, a monologist.  This is both what makes the format risky and enthralling.  If you’re not familiar, the megaphone has a special guest share stories that improvisers use as inspiration for the show.  The surprise element comes from the guest and their experiences which has the potential to be a harrowing experience (like those that attended the Del Close Marathons in 2011 where it was reported that the monologist retold a date rape incident as the perpetrator) but it can be, and most of the time it is, a magical experience of sharing and crafting that everyone in the room experiences together and becomes one like a gaseous breathable intoxicant.  There are a few elements that are key to the latter event occurring and I happen to believe this is pretty easy to achieve.

 

The Monologues are Honest.

The stories, or monologues, must be truth.  I could nerd out for days on why and how all comedy is rooted in truth, and will gladly do just that if approached with such a request, but will assume some of you are reading this for the subject matter it was presented to you.  But all comedy is rooted in truth.  Also, we are truth detectors.  We are so world champion, ninja level, freaky savants,  at telling when people are disingenuous that it hardly even registers as anything above a low lying feeling of “meh”.  Conversely, our eyes and hearts open like our first beer when we feel and see truth.  So, it’s imperative that your monologist not make up a story for the sake of comedy.  It reads as disingenuous and at the very least irks the audience and at the most leaves the performers with nothing more to play with than the idea that you’re a liar. 

The Monologist should not feel charged with being funny.

This is tied to the first key element, that the stories be rooted in truth, but more on the actual context of the story.  If you have the incredible opportunity to have someone come to your show and share their experiences for the sake of your craft and the audience’s entertainment do everyone a solid and remind the monologist it is never to be assumed that they be entertaining in any way.  Because we respond to truth in such a way (see above argument) this is an unnecessary bourdon for the monologist to carry.  As an improviser in the megaphone show you should also know that you absolutely carry it.  The monologist’s story about how their wood-glue dried is a totally acceptable story and anything above that is solid gold for your show.

Triggers

That being said, there are elements we love and those that allow us to manipulate the story into a relatable premise.  Sure, stories that contain concepts, explicit details, ideas, perspectives, philosophies, metaphors, and names all trigger flags in a megaphone players brain like the first chords of the ice cream truck but we’ve also worked diligently to make our brains work that way.

The beauty of this form is the way in which we relate to truth, interpret ideas, and most importantly the opportunity to all be in on the same joke.  Much like anything else we do, complicating this with rules retracts from the experience.

 

TV Sucks

If you’ve been to a longform improv improv class you’ve probably heard someone use a phrase like “It’s not like ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?” Great news scenic improvisers! It looks like we can soon tell people “It’s not “Trust us with Your Life. ABC has a new show coming out, with all the old shortform improisers we remember and love doing variations on The Dream and games that are inspired by celebrity guest stories.

We could have wished for a nationally aired Armando show. In our dreams every week the best premise minded, fast thinking, charming longform talents would have had us laughing, feeling, and thinking. It could have been a golden age for satire. If we had pinned our hopes on such a future, we’d now be buying that .45 that looks so appealing at the pawn shop. ABC asures us, “the show is friendly, funny and cheeky rather than scurrilous or hard hitting” and thank almighty Zeus, right?, because comedy that is “gutless” “friendly” and “cheeky” always works out great.

How to feel, how to feel? I suppose we’d better wish this thing works. Because if it doesn’t that’s only another nail in the cofin of “improv will never work for a room of more than 100 people.” Then again, I can’t stand anyone encouraging Brad Sherwood.

Heighten

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There are only two ways to heighten an improv scene. Only two ways to put it on a clear path that goes inexorably toward a conclusion of increasing importance and excitement.1

You can heighten the situation. When we use the phrase “If This, Than What?” we are usually asking what situational course logically can follow from the pattern we’ve established. If the baker made you an erotic cake for the retirement party, then what other things can he do that are similar but bigger? Boob cupcakes for the boy scout event? Naked man covered in pastries laying motionless on the adjacent table and ready to be rolled out to the Mother Superior’s birthday?

I think when most of us envision heightening this is the pathway we imagine: playing the pattern to its zenith. However, the stakes can also be raised in another way. The situation can stay essentially the same if the reaction to the situation increases.

Emotional heightening is a second pathway to heightening and it caries the advantage that you can essentially decide on it before anything else is established. For this reason I recommend it to my students who have difficulty heightening through pattern: you can get on a stage and decide “everything my scene partner does will make me hornier” and the scene will heighten. You can choose “more upset” or “more delighted” or “more suspicious” and with your reactions in hand the scene will be on a non-stop heightening track regardless of what the situational embellishments or additions are. If the baker has made an erotic cake for the retirement party and you are appreciative, then he explains that the icing is buttermilk and you are thrilled, then he tells you that he has to go on break and smoke behind the cake shop and you are elated, and he says you can’t go back there and that rule makes you ECSTATIC: you’ve had a scene with no premise or situational pattern that heightened none the less. It was controlled completely through reaction.

Reaction is the greater part of improv.

The most inventive, wildest, or cleverest choices can be made in an improv scene by one improviser but if their scene partner refuses to be affected by them the scene will feel hollow and flat. However, innocuous or small choices can be exalted by a strong reaction and can lead to a delightful scene. Therefore, never forget what power there is in simply reacting to what is happening.    

Heightening creates clear scenes that feel good and work. It doesn’t have to be a complicated equation: go for the next link in the pattern or, if that somehow eludes you in a given scene, simply respond with the same emotion to every new revelation and increase the intensity of that emotion. 

Show 1 footnote

  1. Not all improv seeks to heighten of course. Joe Bill speaks about improv either “heightening or changing” with the changing being status shifts, new discoveries in relationship, or other engaging, though lateral, moves.

Apply to Big Little Comedy Fest Now

There’s an up-and-coming improv festival in the Midwest that we at Improv Wins are all about. We’ve got an interview in the works with the people behind the Big Little Comedy Fest but in the meantime we wanted to make sure that your troupe was aware this jem of a festival is approaching their application deadline.

They’ve extended it to JULY 5th. So pounce on this chance to be a part of a fun scene and apply to one of the most charmingly curated festivals out there.

 

The Weekly Format: The Tree

NAME: The Tree, or the Modified Montage
IDEAL TEAM SIZE:
2+
THE BREAKDOWN:
In montage format, each scene provides the information for the scene following it.
NOTES: This form is ideal for the beginning improviser to get them in the mindset of connected shows with intricate pattern callback and mirrored gameplay. Good instructors say that every show should feel like a freeform Harold where an entire universe is created and called back whenever necessary. The connections should never be forced or done for the sake of doing them, but should grow organically out of the trunk of the tree that is an improv show. With this format, every scene is directly inspired by the scene before. Patterns and themes occur naturally in an automatic fashion as a result of each scene inspiring the next; its just the kind of practice that improvisers need to make that way of thinking permanent.

YES

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There is such a power in affirmation.

There is a revolution in the word yes.

To deny is to tear down. To ignore is to diffuse. To contradict is to spend energy moving nowhere. To oppose is to prevent movement.

“Yes” is the heart of every collaboration. Ever.

 

One of my favorite “yes” stories is Yoko and John. One moment at an art show is usually mentioned as being the moment John Lennon knew he loved Yoko. If you’re a Yoko Ono hater, to the back, this is beautiful:

I thought it was fantastic – I got the humor in her work immediately. I didn’t have to have much knowledge about avant-garde or underground art, the humor got me straightaway. There was a fresh apple on a stand – this was before Apple – and it was two hundred quid to watch the apple decompose. But there was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes’. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes’.1

The moment of knowing you are accepted. Affirmed. Agreed with. It is a moment very much like love.

Let’s Get Intense

In a few short weeks, my improv game is headed for another level as I make the pilgrimage to Chicago for the iO Summer Intensive.

When I came to improv in 2010, I had no idea that it would grow to consume a large portion of my life. My original purpose was to dip my foot in, adding a little improv to my acting toolbox. Almost two years later, I find myself playing weekly shows in Houston, regularly traveling to perform in Austin and New Orleans, touring the country and expanding my success in every aspect of my performance career and personal life. Improv has taken me to places I could never have dreamed and, more importantly, I love it.

I decided recently that the only way to be happy with my life was to stay hungry.  I’ve been reading a lot of Kerouac recently and I was especially struck by what he described as the “mad ones,” those who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” All of my best work and greatest moments of success have come from that madness to live, express and create. People are at their best when they have no choice but to excel.

To that end, my graduation from The New Movement’s improv conservatory last January came with the unique challenge of hunting down the next steps in my training and evolution. For many, the answer to that question lies in travel.

“I remember we’d talked about it, I’m glad you pulled the trigger,” said Eric Muller, a friend who graduated from iO in 2008. He started in Houston in 2005 and currently lives in Chicago, performing at iO with Thank You, Dr. Science! and the independent troupe Stripper’s Picnic. “It’s the best of the three, I think. Plus, you’ll be able to see so many shows for free.”

Chicago has three theaters that currently offer intensives: Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theatre. Each one offers its own brand and philosophy on the subject of improv. iO’s is by far the longest and most ambitious intensive, taking students through the first five levels of their curriculum in five weeks. The Annoyance offers a one-week intensive that focuses on the basics of scenic improvisation and is based around the teachings of Mick Napier and his book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. Second City offers what they call “immersions,” week-long classes in improv, writing and specialized areas of performance in addition to three day intensives.

“I was considering a move to Chicago back in 2004 and during my research I discovered that iO was bringing back their intensive program,” says Chris Trew, co-founder of The New Movement Theater in Austin, TX. “I thought it was a good way to get a jump start on my education as well as familiarize myself with the theater and the city.” From there, Trew went on to take the Annoyance intensive, a one day Second City intensive and a special Toronto intensive with teachers from Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York. He said that he preferred the iO intensive to the others but credits them all for how comfortable he feels with improv today.

“They helped me figure out what kind of improv I like faster,” Trew said. “I got in an amazing amount of reps on stage. I clocked 100-plus hours of watching shows in a short amount of time. I really feel like I gained two years of improv experience in that five weeks, but that’s also because I did nothing but watch shows at iO, read improv books between class and shows and go home to write about improv. That’s all I did.”

Not to be left out of a good game, Upright Citizen’s Brigade in both New York and Los Angeles offers intensive alternatives to each of its class levels. These intensives are each one week long and actually include more class time than the regular levels, clocking in at 35 hours in a week’s training as opposed to 24 hours in the eight-week class structure.

“I was going to be in New York for the time of the intensive, anyway,” says Muller, who took the Level 2 intensive last year. “It was interesting hearing the UCB philosophy and how they approach ‘the game of the scene,’ but it’s not material that you won’t encounter elsewhere.”

He had a largely negative review of the intensive, mostly to do with his opinion that UCB’s Level 2 curriculum is poorly designed, encompassing too much for newer improvisers.

“I felt that the level tried to cover way too much for the allotted time,” Muller said. “I was fine, since I’ve been improvising for years, but people who were taking it as only their second improv class ever after Level 1 were clearly frustrated and confused. Considering we actually spent the full amount of time in class as we would have for a regular class, I probably consumed the curriculum just as it normally would have been. That having been said, we felt rushed even though we were going at what I assume is the regular pace.”

On the other end of the spectrum, my friend from Austin and fellow improviser James Patrick Robinson is headed to New York specifically for the philosophy that UCB offers.

“My main motivation is to go through UCB’s program,” Robinson said. “That it goes level by level as opposed to being a huge chunk of time like iO’s Summer Intensive allows me to be able to go at my own pace.” Robinson went through The New Movement curriculum in 2009 and performs in Austin regularly with sketch/improv troupe Spirit Desire.

“I’ve heard UCB gets pretty cutthroat the higher you get level-wise,” Robinson said. “Honestly, I’m looking forward to being picked apart, as masochistic as that may sound.”

Robinson says he hopes to broaden his improv knowledge and skills at UCB, gaining an understanding of the Harold and becoming able to perform it well. He’s also excited to play with people that he doesn’t know and who don’t know him and wants to focus on functioning more effectively as a straight man in scene work.

“I’m sure teaching-wise I’ll hear a lot of stuff that I’ve already heard going through TNM,” Robinson said, “but it’s a convenient way to either go through a program or get a crash course on a program in a consolidated amount of time.”

The main conservatories in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles aren’t the only theaters that are getting into the intensive game. This summer, The New Movement is offering week-long “training camps” to coincide with its annual Megaphone Marathons, running three weeks in July in Houston, Austin, and New Orleans.

“The idea for Training Camp arose out of a simple question: If you were to design a boot camp for improvisers, what would it look like?” said CJ Hunt, organizer of the intensives. Hunt, along with his troupe Stupid Time Machine, started with The New Movement New Orleans in 2010. “The New Movement’s summer intensive will feel less like a course and more like a week-long improv workout designed to kick the shit out of you and re-program your basic stage habits. Simply put, Training Camp is improvisers training like athletes. ”

In designing their intensive, Hunt said The New Movement was inspired by Camp ImprovUtopia, a four-day intensive in California that is more like summer camp for improvisers.

“Their approach, having intensive students learn, eat, sleep, and have camp fires in the same remote location, seemed to push the boundaries of what an intensive can be,” Hunt said. “In my opinion, if you are going to offer an intensive, you should bring something new to the table If students want to learn from an improv luminary at a theater with a prestigious history, they already have some great options in Chicago. However, if students want to attack a skill that they are weak at and be forced to do this hundreds of times, they will come to Training Camp.”

Whatever the philosophy behind an intensive is, it is agreed upon that they are a great way to further an improviser’s training without the commitment that comes with relocation.

“It’s a really cool concept,” said Aaron Walther, a friend of mine who is taking the iO intensive with me this summer. “It’s a great tool for people who want to travel or can’t take classes because they’re not in the same city as the theater or can’t dedicate themselves to an eight-week session.”

Walther said the idea to take the intensive appealed to his specific learning sensibilities.

“I’m a big advocate Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours to Mastery idea, at lease in principle,” Walther said. “You’re only going to get better at something by doing it a lot, and this gives me that opportunity. I don’t think any other intensive is this long.”

He also wants to focus on getting better at relationships in scenes, something that iO is famous for concentrating on. “While these scenes aren’t necessarily the funniest all the time,” Walther said, “they have the power to move me in a way that character based or more heady scenes just can’t.”

Intensive options exist in all shapes and sizes across the country. Whatever the young improviser’s goals are, they are catered to in one form or another. When making a decision on which intensive to take, it is wise to look at what you need in order to grow as a performer and assess the best way to fulfill that need. As I prepare to embark on this crazy journey across America, I’m struck by a quote I heard when I first came to improv: “Don’t let them make you buy the lie that what you’re doing is for the laughter.” When researching for this article, I discovered that the quote came from the only place that it really could have: Del Close.

Of course, as always, Del is right. Improv is never about the laughter, it’s about the performer. Choosing the best intensive is no different.

In a few short weeks, I am headed to Chicago. While I am there, I expect to be kicked around, broken down and built back up stronger than before and I expect to have the time of my life doing it. I’m surfing the couches of all my friends from theatre school, eating a Wiener Circle chardog, catching a few Cub’s games and redefining art a couple of times over. All the while, the mantra at the top of every page in my notebook will be, “Stay Hungry.”

There are mad ones about. Let’s get intense.

To follow Cris’ adventures through Chicago and the iO Summer Intensive, look up letsgetintense.tumblr.com starting July 5th for daily thoughts and writings on his experience. He will also do a weekly recap right here on Improv Wins. Follow him on Twitter @sideshowcris

Video Round Up: June Stank

The Scent of Summer

Do you smell that? That’s the smell of June. Seriously, it’s not me. It’s June. Stop looking at me like that!

As the temperature increases so does the stank. Let’s face it. It’s time to musk up. This month’s video round-up features a wide array of olfactory treasures to pick from.

Your first option comes from SNL. “Compulsion,” designer fragrance or harmful cleaning agent? In that moment of passion…does it really matter?

 

TNM Founder Chris Trew offers his own signature smell, “Terp: Cologne for Women.” Sorry fellas, this scent is on a one way train to lady-nostril town.

Looking for something a little more sophisticated…more refined…snootier? Then try “Pretention” from Fry and Laurie, or as most Americans know them “Sherlock Holmes’ brother from the sequel” and “House.”

 

Is there any smell more sensuous than stale garbage and the lingering odor of regret (or maybe urine…yeah, thats urine) following a night of debauchery? TNM NOLA certainly doesn’t think so. And if you do…well, you’re wrong.

 Sex Panther, just…Sex Panther

 

-Roger Anderson