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

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.”