The Importance of High Fives



Do you remember when you first started attending improv shows? I suppose all kinds of people react differently, but I always had a few things going on. One is that I am totally in awe of comedic talent. I’ve spent several nights a week watching, teaching, or performing comedy for the last few years: I’m still floored and surprised by improvisers really nailing it. It’s thrilling. It’s scintillating.

It’s intimidating.

Many of my most awkward moments have been after comedy or improv shows. Once, in college, I fawned so hard over Jon Benjamin at UCB NY that he had to reassure me that it was okay to talk to him. In Edinburgh, Scotland I blushed whenever I saw the student improv team members in the library and was unable to get a good participation grade in my honors course because Humphrey, the funniest of “The Improverts”, was in my class.

When I first started taking improv classes in Austin about four years ago, this whole situation was ameliorated somewhat by the fact that I could say “Hi” to my really cool teacher or occasionally have the (totally dumb, am I right guys?) conversation with other students about what level we’re all in. But I came to shows with my husband, who like most partners of improvisers, doesn’t do improv and the culture of the place I first started taking classes at had a cold edge to it. So we came and went from many shows without anyone at all acknowledging our presence. But there was this one performer dude, one of the owners/major performers of the theater, who always warmly greeted me and my husband.


He high fived us every time he saw us! I’d never had this guy with the funky handlebar ‘stash as a teacher or coach or anything, he just noticed us and made a point to be super friendly. To thank us for coming out to shows. To ask if we were in classes. To ask my husband how his day was. Simple stuff. No-brainer stuff. Except that practically no one else did those things. By winter time I’d been in classes for months, I had an internship, and (to be totally immodest) some people knew I was funny. I should have felt totally at home in that theater. However, Christmas party time rolled around and it was hideous.

The party was cliquey like crazy! It was as if someone had declared a taboo against speaking to people you weren’t in an improv troupe with. The conversations we could get into were uncomfortable because they felt like the other performers, the ones I was so in awe of when I watched them, were either trying to irrationally one-up me in conversation (as if your place on a house team or your role in some festival matters to me) or force me to prove my worthiness to be spoken to by entertaining them with bon mots and declarations of my own status. My husband is an extrovert, such an extrovert that his actual job is almost professional extrovert. However, no one would speak to Bear Bear since he didn’t do improv, and of course improvisers can’t talk about anything else! It’s not like they’re well-rounded people with lots of interests who are trained in listening. So, I clutched my secret santa gift to my chest and we started for the exit. On the way out, that one guy with the high fives asked us how we were and offered us a piece of his sushi. It was the highlight of the night.

The importance of what eventually happened with the high five guy and my favorite teacher 1, and how it ended up impacting my whole life is a different story. But this one is just about high fives. Can we all remind each other about how important it is to welcome people when they come to improv shows? To make them feel like they’re honored guests at our party and not interlopers at a terrifying middle school dance?

Anytime anyone walks into an improv venue it would be killer if they felt at home. Like they belonged there and were appreciated for what they’re doing; being patrons, fans, supporters! They’re the whole reason we get to do this amazing thing that feeds us. Improv is fun to do and fun to watch, but nothing is as fun as having someone reach out to you. I try to continually remind myself that as nervous, busy, or occupied as I may be I am also in a place of comfort at improv shows and that I owe it to the universe to make sure that what we do is fervently inclusive and full of love. Every improv class I teach is ended with high fives: this is an homage to those early greetings that meant so much to me, a reminder to myself about what welcome feels like, and a hope that high fives are contagious and we’ll all always be forever inviting people into a fun-as-shit community.


Show 1 footnote

  1. Ok, secret identities are Chris Trew & Tami Nelson — no need to be too clandestine!

Part 2: Is the iO Summer Intensive Worth $1100?

(Part 2 of a Series. Part 1 is Here)

I took my first improv class1 in Fall 2004 and immediately fell in love with the art form and the people. Since I was in New Orleans at the time and there wasn’t much of a scene in place, I took my future to an internet search. There I learned the general consensus that if you’re serious about improv you should probably move to Chicago.

After digging around, clicking and turning over web rocks I discovered that the famous Improv Olympic (iO) was resurrecting their “Summer Intensive” special. I don’t have to move to Chicago to get a Chicago-quality education? I’m in. I don’t have any money to pay for this? I’ll sell my car2. I can’t keep my job if I leave for a month on such short notice? Okay, bye!

With a meager amount of cash, no car and no job, I was gone. I had to leave a lot behind to take this journey but I never thought twice. My best friend from junior high school was going to let me stay at his house so I didn’t have to worry about rent3.

The first day of class about 45 students sat in the Del Close Theater and awaited our assignments. We’d be separated into 3 groups and each group would stick together for the entire 5 weeks. Of the 15 people in my group, 5 of us had some previous improv experience and were pretty serious about getting better. A couple people were actors and the rest were looking for something fun to do in the Summer. We quickly bonded and began developing a ground mind.

Our tuition also got us mostly free shows4 so we watched everything. The students who opted to go out instead of watching shows were definitely more than a few steps behind the ones who were front row for every show. I estimate I saw about $500 worth of shows for free that summer.

The instructors were mostly high quality. Nobody shared teachers that summer so if Class #1 had Jason Chin for Level 3, Class #2 and #3 didn’t get to work with Mr. Chin. Every teacher did their best to provide a “camp” feel to their classes, including joining us for lunch and chatting post shows.

At the end of the Summer we had a graduation performance to a packed house. Charna5 was there, our teachers were all there and our fellow intensive students were there as well. Although there was no formal ceremony, it was a good ending to a fun summer.

Was the iO Summer Intensive worth it? As a relatively new improviser without a creative homebase and a desire to taste “big city” improv, yes it was. Because of iO I know what’s it like to do, watch and think about this artform in a theater every day for 5 weeks straight. With the amount of improv blossoming all over the country, I’m not sure you need Chicago to do that nowadays. The success of the iO Summer Intensive probably has a lot to do with that.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. I’m not counting the “Improv Class” I took in college theater because it was uncomfortably hot in the classroom all semester long and everything we did was completely forgettable. I’m surprised I ever gave it another shot.
  2. 1998 White Ford Mustang with a 5 year old Sportsman-brand Honey Bun in the glove compartment
  3. Turns out he lives about an hour away from the theater and he also had 11 cats. I ended up sleeping in parks, rooftops, family members of other friends and sometimes not at all to make sure I was on time for class
  4. Still had to pay to see TJ and Dave on Wednesdays
  5. The owner, co-founder and leader of iO

Is the iO Summer Intensive Worth $1100?

(Part 1 of a Series)

Each summer, iO Chicago offers the chance to take (almost1) their entire program in one month for the sum of $1100. Of course you’ll also have to find a place to sleep. And you need to eat. And you’ll probably want to check out other shows in the Chicago area while you’re there. So, depending on your tastes, you might be looking at around $2,000 for your month of improv.

The program as explained by the iO website:

The Summer Intensive condenses the entire iO Theater school of thought into five incredible weeks. The class meets every Monday through Thursday from 11am to 5pm for five weeks. Each week, a different iO teacher instructs the class in a particular level of curriculum. All of our teachers for the Summer Intensive are currently teachers in our Training Center. Best of all, the class culminates in a performance here in our theater!

So, is it worth it? How soon should you sign up? What can you expect? This 2005 iO Summer Intensive Alumni has some answers for you, coming in Part 2!

And, Beans! 2

Show 2 footnotes

  1. The intensive covers levels 1-4B, whereas their actual curriculum goes up to 5 and 5B
  2. True story: One time an instructor from the Annoyance Theater insisted on ending every scene with "Beans!" because she was desperately trying to be unique.”