Badass/Part 2

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This is the second part of an essay on improv-as-badass. The first one defined our terms. This one grapples with questions posed by my friend Matt:

“In the quest for comedic excellence, most people wrestle with this badass dichotomy. Improv educators are torn between being selective in advancing people through classes or opening everything to everyone. How do you gain national recognition as the people who do badass shit if you’re letting everyone do everything regardless of talent? Some theaters build amazing communities where everyone has a place. Other theaters filter people out. The result: the super-successful improv theater built on a foundation of broken hearts. How can leaders of up and coming improv theaters for badass communities of people who are badass friends AND doing badass comedy?”

It is a false dichotomy y’all. I have read so many interviews with people talking about how the talented improvisers move to LA to get on TV or how hard Harold-team auditions are at some theaters or how advanced classes are only open to cherry-picked people. Those things get me down.

Badass Precept 1: If I teach you improv, you’ll learn improv. I think there are improv teachers, even whole improv schools out there, that have a dirty secret. They think that people are just funny or not. Just talented or not. They see their role as attracting, selecting, or rewarding the naturally funny and weeding out the rest. Those people are thieves and you shouldn’t give them your money. I believe I can teach people to have fun on stage, speak from their own perspective, and have the tools to be their funniest selves. I believe I can teach you improv, that’s why I do it. So there’s no need to worry about “weeding out” people without talent; it’s a skill not a gift.

Badass Precept 2: What I’m doing, in running an improv community, isn’t treating people as status chips. Walk into a lot of the most famous improv venues in the country and see their walls lined with headshots. Headshots of folks who’ve “made it.” What did they make? Improv into an art? A bold new voice in self expression? Sometimes, but for the most part they made it on to a television show. That they don’t write, direct, or have creative control over. If you’re greatest dream is to be on a TV show then, ok, these places may play a role in helping you achieve that. Or not. Maybe just getting a good agent and being born nice-looking would do that for you? It’s a crap shoot. In the meantime, most people who take an improv class aren’t looking for that definition of success. They’re looking to express themselves and have a place to belong.

Let’s say it’s a 20/80 split: folks who want to be famous, professional comedians, or even improv teachers / people who have another vocation but are looking for an outlet for creative expression. The improv community should take care of both of these groups. The 20% need opportunities to heighten, they need chances to find their stride and strike out. The improv community should be able to help them do bigger and bigger things. They should be prepared and guided toward extravagant success in the comedy world and their improv community should help them be able to support themselves as professional comedians. However, 80% need opportunities to be in community and play as they’re able. Parties, hangouts, friends: these things are important priorities to a real improv community. The 80% need encouragement and they need flexibility, because comedy may not be their highest priority at a given moment. One is not more valuable than the other. We shouldn’t be here to elevate the 20% above the 80%. Both of these elements are 100% needed to make a badass local improv scene.

 Badass Precept 3: Improv is non-competitive. I’ll say it again because it’s important: Improv is not competitive. That’s why all the “sports” metaphors and lingo can go awry in the world of improv. When we say “Improv Wins” we mean that the whole artform wins. The whole class wins. The whole show wins. Not that one guy is the star. Not that one troupe is high status and the others wish they were.

If your theater has a process where some people have to cry because they didn’t earn stage time by being “good enough” that group has bastardized this thing. Find another theater.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need: improv is great because we aren’t bowing to the structures and dogmas of the entertainment industry. We don’t type-cast, we don’t “run the numbers”, and we aren’t looking for someone to fit a mold. We have the luxury of treating every improviser as a unique individual with their own strengths, needs, perspective, and intentions. The artform should reflect this: improv troupes are only as engaging or unique as the voices within them. The community should reflect this: improv cultures are only as successful and inspiring as the people within them.

Not taking a Suggestion: Our Love Affair with the Audience

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“And all we need from you is a suggestion of…”
Those words start a majority of improv shows in one variation or another.

A panel at the upcoming Improv Wins conference will take on the debate over the efficacy of taking suggestions at the beginning of an improv show. In advance of that discussion I wanted to share a couple of my thoughts on this common invocation.

Above is a photograph of a performer I admire named Rush. He has been doing one comedy show for better than 20 years that centers on him eating mud. The show doesn’t change, but damn if it isn’t still popular. Mud eating is raw, stupid, powerful, & crowd pleasing. In that picture a young lady has been brought onto the mudpit stage to fulfill an audience participation role. You see, I am a big fan of audience participation. I performed at renaissance festivals growing up, so the idea of the show’s patrons having a role in the spectacle is something with which I am quite comfortable. However, I contend that most improv shows do not need audience participation and that it is actually hazardous to the art we practice.

I think of our art as occupying a tension between rock shows, performance art, theatre, and sideshow. But I also think that essential, critical, crucial to this art is the desire of an audience member to find themselves on stage and be part of the magic being created. The power of this desire is destroyed by actual participation.

Of course a lot of shortform, and the very occasional longform show, involves direct audience participation. An audience member is brought up on stage to giggle or be nervous or attempt something akin to what the improvisers are doing. The audience member might be put in the scene or asked to spur along the action. For us, as improvisers, this is a no win situation. Either the participant will look inept, making them not enjoy themselves or seem foolish to the rest of the audience, or they’ll be able to effortlessly perform the same tasks as a trained improviser. The second scenario is actually worse than the first, as then you’ve essentially proven that the performers on stage have no skill or qualification beyond simply being the people up there. Hopefully, we all have more respect for our art than that. Some shows are a gimmick and we know it: they’re not our attempt at the art of improv, they’re our other sideshow-like efforts at entertainment. But for the zenith of what we aspire to, audience participation is counterproductive.

A suggestion is essentially an outlet for audience participation.

On tour recently I saw a lot of shows with multiple suggestions: forms where after a scene or two the improvisers went back to the audience for more information. “For this next scene we need a lyric from a pop song”, “Ok, where else could we see these characters?”, or “The next suggestion from the audience’s list is ‘Berserker’!” are the kinds of statements that change longform/scenic improv from one thing to another. In my opinion that sort of thing blurs the line between shortform and longform. By taking emphasis away from a scene, or set of scenes, as a comedic work of art and instead putting the emphasis on integrating the audiences’ ideas you establish a “game”, thereby creating a kind of longer-shortform where the scene’s primary purpose is to reference, not create.

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In general, I usually say that a suggestion only has two roles in longform improv. The first is to “prove” to the audience that the work they’re seeing isn’t scripted or rehearsed.1

But why do we need the audience to understand that an improv show is in fact improvised? What do we fear about them potentially believing that what we’re doing could be comparable to other types of theater or stand up comedy? It is my belief that most improvisers are insecure about what they’re doing and often are trying to beg the audience’s indulgence. We are making them culpable by saying “I asked you to shout out something clever, and the best you could come up with was ‘Unicorn’ so don’t judge me if I can’t make up something more witty than what you’re about to see. After all, all I have to work with is your silly suggestion.”  In Zen and the Art of Improv, Jason Chin points out that improv, like home movies, is a mostly amateurish entertainment watched almost exclusively by well-wishing family and friends. Of course, we all want it to rise far above that! I believe that good improv is as good as stand up, scripted sketch or theater. Furthermore, I believe that audiences are savvy enough to understand what “improv” is, or to ask if they don’t. However, if you fear an audience member saying “For something scripted, that really blew!” and you think it would be better if they said “Sure, that show was a bit long-winded, boring, and low-brow but, hey, they made it all up just off the cuff!” I would ask you to reconsider your standards. If what we do is inferior to theater or scripted comedy unless everyone is SURE it’s just make-um’ ups, then we’re doing inferior work.

The second major defense for the suggestion is that the improvisers need a suggestion to provide them with enough information to create a scene. This argument is essentially that our brains are empty enough that scenes can only take place if a word or idea, from outside of the improvisers themselves, starts the gears turning. That idea is patently false and easy to disprove by how little most suggestions get used in the majority of improv shows. 2 Gathering information as a start to a scene or piece is a useful thing to do only if the improvisers at hand truly intend to focus all of their attention on exploding the possible interpretations and meanings of their given theme. If, on the other hand, the group improvising can admit to the truth that most improv pieces comprise their own world, mystically, as the piece goes on, they shouldn’t be tethered to the demands of a pre-established theme.

There are two kinds of shows then: one where exploring given information is the point of the piece (as in Armandos, Megaphones, Asscats, and many Harolds 3) and another kind of show where spontaneous theater is developing between the players on stage out of some sharing of their particular experience and soul. A suggestion does nothing but hinder a group, or form, whose sole aim is not exploration of information.

Again, we do many things in improv communities and there are many types of shows and experiments that we put together. But, in my opinion, when I want to represent the highest form of what improv can be or explain to someone what “improv is” the idea of an audience suggestion is not going to come up. It is not a significant part of what I believe the most challenging and inspiring improv can be. Improv is about a palpable experience of two or more people exploring each other’s minds in the moment on stage together. It is about a strange kind of co-dreaming in which we can indulge and inspire others to desperately wish to join in. It is about the tension between the stage and the moment the audience shares watching the stage. Most times, I just don’t want it to be about “Unicorn.”

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Show 3 footnotes

  1. That is why the famous opening of TJ & Dave shows has an antagonistic bent: “Trust Us This is All Made Up” is a phrase which tells the audience to just calm down. Since the audience came to see a spontaneously made up show, they’re surely seeing one, and there’s no need for a suggestion as long as they are willing to trust a little.
  2. If the suggestion “Carrot” only yields someone eating a carrot in the first scene and then in a later scene a carrot farmer is upset about his crops, I feel cheated frankly. If information is asked for the resulting information should comprise the fulcrum of the show. “Carrot” should give us a gold market (i.e. karat), a bargaining scene with a character who switches between incentives and threats erratically, a punctuation enthusiast always trying to interject something into a sentence, and Bugs Bunny at a minimum.
  3. These are improv show structures that traditionally rely heavily on information generated from audience or outside monologues or special openings that create a wealth of shared information from suggestions. Of course there are many more and they’re all legitimate and fun. I am merely pointing out that not all longform shows have this structure, even if they retain the vestigial tail of an opening suggestion.

Carnivalesque

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It is the day after Halloween, that meditative day where we ask important questions of ourselves like “Is there still candy in the bowl?” or “Why don’t they ever play The Simpson’s Halloween episode ON Halloween?” or “Is comedy about cultural critique and subversion or just random revelry and spectacle?”

I mean it’s kind of an important question, you know what I mean?

If there is candy in the bowl then I should probably eat it now before the holiday candy-amnesty wears off.

But on to this question on the purpose and nature of comedy- Look, I know a lot of comedians are in this for the “not thinking too hard” part. There is a little myth around comedy that says anything can be made fun of, that comedy isn’t difficult, and that a little plucky irreverence can make anyone “funny.” You know better. You’re a student of the absurd, and you know it’s a complicated topic; not just a matter of coming up with a good pun and putting on a hilarious wig.

On the other hand, it’s no forgone conclusion that comedy is supposed to make you think. There are plenty of popular comedians who don’t necessarily foreground our societies’ interior struggles. Comedy is generally seen as escapist.

And it is. And it should be.

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And yet…

This is what I mean about Halloween. We have a holiday that is here for the whole culture to put on a masquerade, to feast, to take a sidelong glance at fear and a jab at mortality. It is the comedian’s holiday above all others.

The Carnivalesque is serious.

From ancient, ancient times there has been an idea that society suffers irrevocably if the “rules” aren’t tossed out from time to time. Without an opportunity to revel and bask in a world turned upside down the status-quo becomes stagnant, violent, and unaccountable. So the carnivalesque aspects of culture are there to defuse the bomb. But they do more than that too… they point out that power which can be playfully challenged isn’t immutable.

Participation is magic. When a person *participates* in something (not watches or consumes, but participates) she becomes aware of her own authority.

So Halloween plants a seed. A small seed that says “your rule-breaking is celebrated; tonight your frivolity, sarcasm, sexuality, or social trespassing will be paradoxically appropriate.” Protesters do the same thing; they encourage whoever is not protesting to participate vicariously, to go beyond simple catharsis, to express their latent desires for a different social structure, a different kind of world. Comedians are called to invoke the authority of the absurd and challenge the false solemnity of cultural norms. We are called to imagine a world that is different, playful, permissive, excessive, and in so doing spread an infectious lust for participation and freedom.

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Do you have a wiwii?

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I wanted to begin this post with a video of the song Mission 1: Avoid Job Working with Assholes. But I couldn’t find a video of that.

 

 

Ok, back on the point of why I wanted to post Mission 1: Avoid Job Working with Assholes. That song has the most gleeful refrain regarding ambition I have ever heard. The weird nasally-voiced singer croons “These are Ambitions! Goals! Goals!” and anytime I am trying to get pumped up about the things I want in life I sing that to myself. Goals are exciting and fulfilling them is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Improv is a world where it is very important to keep your goals in mind; paradoxically, few improvisers seem to have well articulated goals. While you are in classes the standard of what growth and achievement look like are pretty set for you, but as soon as you are in a troupe or have graduated the picture gets more complex. Does your group want to perform at festivals, tour, make videos, or have a run of shows at the theater? If you have been performing for a while what personal performance goals do you have? What goals do you have about your involvement in the improv community beyond performing?

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We are all very lucky to be part of an improv community that provides workshop opportunities, performance opportunities, and all kinds of other ways to heighten our personal improv game at every level, but it is also invaluable to look ahead.

So we all could use a WiWii: a written out plan of What I Want In Improv. It is your list of big picture goals. I update mine every few months and have a genuine feeling of accomplishment when things occur that I’ve long looked forward to, such as taking an improv intensive in Chicago or teaching a workshop. I also get to remind myself about ideas I’ve had that are harder to work on or that get pushed to the periphery (writing scripts). When a wonderful opportunity shows up out of the blue, I add it to my plan and then immediately cross it off! That way I keep a running tally of both accomplishments I planed for, and those that happened spontaneously.

In a collaborative atmosphere like the New Movement you will be presented with a wide array of options and requests for involvement. Without a WiWii it will be tempting to say either “yes” or “no” to things on a whim. Looking back you may wonder “Why did I say I would be in six side troupes?” or “I wish I had said that I would like to do that poetry-show in the future. I only said ‘no’ because I was busy that week.” A compass is valuable in this collaborative territory.

I really recommend writing or typing out a list of what you want. The physical act will help you feel satisfaction, and it will force you to think of this whole adventure as one that you’re leading, toward your own glorious objectives.
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Life Lessons Not to Learn from Improv

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We all know there are a lot of great parallels between the wonderful things we learn in improv and life skills that can help us be better people. Becoming a masterful and attentive listener, always looking for a collaborative opportunity to say “Yes and”, taking care of your needs first so that you’ll have the strength to support others; all these skills translate well to making us more fulfilled friends, family members, and even employees or bosses.

However, there are some other improv lessons that will lead to your death or disfigurement.

Making it Worse

In an improv scene we know that the path to heightening often leads right through the choice to subtly worsen the circumstances the characters find themselves in. In comedy it is fun to make our neat-freak girlfriend pick up our dirty underwear, then find a can of rotten beans we fed the (now sick) cat, and finally to puke right inside her brand-new shoes.

In real life, we would have to find a new place to live.

Don’t Talk About It / Calling out the Game

Communication is the key to healthy interpersonal and business relationships, but in improv we know to never mention what is really happening on a deeper level at any given moment. If we lived our lives that way we’d be so tangled in deceit and ignorance we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. In summation: in a scene never outright say that you resent your friend for showing you up and are therefore trying to get them arrested – in real life you should talk about it before it gets that far…

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Triangulation

For a group scene we often adopt two perspectives: that way things stay nice and tidy and we can heighten quickly. Having only two points of view also guarantees that any conflict will stay just as it is; if no one switches sides or goes off on a tangent, the circumstances of the scene can become more dramatic but are certain not disappear all together. So yeah, in an actual group situation try to avoid having two sides, unless you’re idea of a fun time is the cold war.

You Always…

In improv we frequently play a game that presupposes that a character acts a certain way all the time, and that he or she will never change or grow.

Try that out with a lover sometime.

Keep bandages and whiskey handy.

Emotionally Heighten

Also on the short list of ways to make a good improv scene that will also result in a black eye, is the idea of using everything someone says to get further along an emotional trajectory. Sure, getting increasingly pissed, frightened, or sad in improv is a golden ticket to fascinating-land, and yet we can all easily see how unwise it feels to do that off stage.However, going kookoo joyful can be just as bad. Think about it: it is awesome to be psyched about a cookie, but you will lose friends if you are psyched about your sister’s cancer and your mom’s abortion. So, maybe you owe someone an apology letter?

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Serving vs. Being

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I like to talk to waiters.

When you go to a restaurant a waitperson usually asks you a small portion of questions. “Would you like water? Does everything taste good? Would you like the check now?” And typically, people respond with “yes” to all three questions, and that concludes the whole relationship between that human being and the dining party. It is, as relationships go, horribly boring.

Why? I mean, the people who wait tables are often young beautiful people. They often are also artists, musicians, poets, comedians, activists or weirdos. My waiter the other day offered up, upon being asked, that she was a flamenco dancer and an opera singer. Another waitperson who served me this weekend had a wicked sense of sarcastic jubilation about being emotionally lost in her mid-twenties. Mossie at the Noodle House has a shocking picture of herself covered in dirt in a claw foot tub and performed in a Daniel Johnston musical. So why do we typically have a banal exchange of no lasting value with these folks? Because they are focused on serving us, and we are focused on getting served. “I want the food and to be left alone.” That is the script given to the restaurant patron. “I want to give you what you want and then go away without bothering you.” The waitperson’s script reads.

**Controversial Science about to be dropped in

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Trying to serve the premise of a scene is just as boring. When two improvisers get on stage and one of them, a line or two into the scene, discovers that the first improviser has a premise in mind the second improviser will often drop her shit and start to ask “How can I serve this premise?” Suddenly the “serving” improviser is characterless, reactive, has a shallowness of emotional response, and will bring nothing genuinely unexpected into the scene. She is focused on not dropping plates (ie. breaking the game), rather than on being alive in the moment or embodying a real character. In scenes we always need to sit down to the banquet as equals. Let the table set itself, people.

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I know this is a strange way of thinking. A couple years ago I remember someone trying to explain that at the beginning of a scene both improvisers should walk on stage with a clear perspective and an agenda – that the reconciliation between these things would be the scene – and at that time I remember thinking “Nuh Huh!” I was confused. Like crazy. I thought “If he thinks he is a roadrunner and that I am a coyote about to be crushed by a boulder, while I think I am a fancy lady upset at her maid, that is the recipe for wackadoo. I better ignore this advice and keep looking for what that other improviser wants me to do.”

Of course, I eventually got bored of this. It is tedious to ask yourself over and over what your scene partner wants. So I figured out how to be the restaurant patron. Come on loud and strong and your scene partner will often defer to you for the whole show. They will say “Madame, your coat” or “I hope you don’t break Aunt Beatrice’s Urn!?” or “Sir, your one thirty called to say he would be late.” But what they mean is “Here is your water, would you like desert, and can I say the blackout line – you know, for a tip?”

It is never supposed to be like this.

The idea that the beginning of a scene both improvisers should come on with a point of view, character, and/or emotion is, years later, to my mind the point of everything. To break the cycle of serving the premise, at the expense of truly being in the scene, both improvisers have a job and neither is intuitive or easy. Come on to the scene with something delightful. Something you find inspiring or moving. Always. Everyone of us has forgotten this. I have forgotten it several times in the last few days, even though the phrase is cycling through my brain like a tornado.

If you have a tendency to serve in improv remember to serve yourself first and sit down to the feast instead of standing at the ready. Talk about what you know. Give yourself gifts like mini-patterns or spacework that will fuel your perspective. It isn’t your job to guess what scene your partner wants to have. It isn’t. Don’t worry so much about that other improviser, she’ll still be here even if you focus on your character for a moment.

If you have a tendency to order around your scene partner it is harder for you. After all, like a restaurant, if you wait for the server to tell you who they are you might wait all meal. Unlike at a restaurant, you usually can’t just ask. When you get on stage resist the urge to pile on to the other person who they are, why they’re here, or what they feel. But, come from yourself. Flesh out what you feel. Be your character, instead of trying to be theirs.

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