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