Challenge yourself to fail.

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, and ironically, the reason I haven’t is because I want it to be perfect. I’m disobeying the damned title of the post! So here, finally, we go.

There is something that has happened so often in my time improvising, or that I’ve heard so often, that I’ve come to think that if there is one true rule of improv, it is this: Fail big! I’ll give some examples.


1) At the most recent SFIT Dust-up on closing night, I was fortunate enough to be grouped with Mike Christensen, Kate Jaeger, and Mike Murphy of Jet City Improv (Seattle); Joel Dale of Improsia (Seattle); and Antonella Serra and Enzo Zammuto of B-Teatro Boxeattori (Turin, Italy). For the SFIT Dust-up, each group has a bit over ten minutes to decide on a format before performing. Kate said that she wanted to do a set in which we spoke in whatever language we wished, especially for the Italian performers to be allowed to perform in Italian. We wound up speaking five different languages (if dialects count as languages) over the course of 12 minutes: English, Italian, French, Klingon, and Boomhauer Mushmouth. And it was a blast.

Mike Christensen, Enzo Zammuto, and Kate Jaeger (photo by Todd Gardiner)

Mike Christensen, Enzo Zammuto, and Kate Jaeger (photo by Todd Gardiner)

By far my favorite part was the final scene. In the wings just before they went on, Enzo nudge Kate and whispered, “Me English, you Italian.” And out they went. Enzo spoke nothing but English and Kate spoke nothing but Italian. And… IT. WAS. AWESOME. I could describe the scene, but are descriptions of past improv scenes ever truly satisfying? Trust that it was incredible. I mean, just look at that picture (for more of Todd’s amazing pix, go here).


On the way out of the theater after the show, I said to Kate how happy I was that she’d suggested the format. She commented that it was the most scared she’d been doing improv in years. And we both looked each other with huge grins on our faces and asked each other something along the lines of, “How awesome is that?!”

I hope you, reading this, know Kate. But if you don’t, know this: she’s a Seattle treasure. An awesome human being, an award-winning actress, a brilliant singer, and one of the best improvisers in town. She’s not someone you would think of being afraid on stage. And yet… having had that moment doing improv made her positively giddy talking about it afterward.

2) This one’s shorter, I promise. Ian Schempp? Know him (of course you do; he’s one of the writers here)? Awesome improviser, great improv teacher. Had him for a long-form essentials class a few years back. The single thing I remember best about that class? He said (and I may be paraphrasing), “I’d rather do a terrible show than a mediocre one. Because if it was terrible, it meant I was trying something. If it was mediocre, I was just playing it safe.”

Hell, yeah.

"The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan"

“The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan”

3) A couple years back, Joe Koenen directed “The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan.” An improvised light operetta. When auditions were announced, I thought, “That sounds terrifying.” And then thought, “Well, that means I should audition.” And I did. And got cast. And made the promise to myself every rehearsal to fuck up as big as I possibly could. Sing a patter song as fast as possible. Set up really difficult rhymes. While dancing. Et cetera. And others were doing the same. Almost every rehearsal, we did a patter circle. And in almost every patter circle, at least once the chorus was “La la la la, la la la la, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.” Because we’d gone big and failed. And it was the most fun I’ve had in any improv rehearsal process. And the run was an absolute gas. AND we all gained improv levels during that process at an absurd clip.

My biggest regret about that show was when we revived it for festivals in Honolulu and Seattle. I felt like I’d gotten to a certain level, and owed it to the audience to hit that level in shows. So I played much, much safer than I did in the original run. And while I thought others in the cast did awesome work in those festival shows, I’m still angry at myself for striving for “good enough” instead of “terrifying.”


I could cite example after example of cases in which I’ve seen improvisers shoot for something bigger than they thought they could do, and it didn’t matter whether they reached it or not. One of the many beauties of improv is that failures, at least if they’re on a grand enough scale, are delightful. Failures, to use improv nomenclature, are offers. Brilliant offers. AND they teach us and make us better at our craft?! They’re like snake oil that actually works.

Trust me on this. Want to get better? Challenge yourself to fail. Feeling like you’re in a rut? Oh my fucking god, PLEASE challenge yourself to fail. Try to speak too fast, to make up iambic pentameter, to play characters that no right-minded director would ever cast you in. Do it, do it, do it.

Fail big.

Five Do’s

A few days ago, a fellow improviser shared five improv tips in a private Facebook group that he’d seen posted elsewhere on Facebook. All of the tips made sense to me, but every single one of them was of the “Don’t” variety. Among the many things I took from Mick Napier’s excellent book, “Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out,” was that rules can really stifle improvisers, get them stuck in their heads while playing. And so, so very many of improv’s “rules” are of the “Don’t” variety: don’t ask questions, don’t do transaction scenes, don’t say no. Consequently, it’s really easy when one does do one of these things (as is inevitable, really), it’s all too easy to start being up on oneself: “Oh, shit. I shouldn’t have done that.” And then one’s head is pulled out of the scene. BAD!

Do’s, however, I think are more helpful. Because if one isn’t actually doing a “Do,” the thought doesn’t arise of having broken a rule. A do, just like a don’t, isn’t something that is happening all the time. When a don’t happens, it pulls up the negative internal critic, which tends to hang around for a while. When a do happens, it might pull up a “Woo! Kick ass!” which only makes us want to do more. So. A few do’s I posted in that group that I’ll share here (in slightly edited form):

1) Do care. It doesn’t matter if your emotion toward something is positive or negative, but it does matter that you feel something. Especially if it’s about the other character(s).

2) Do be willing to have your feelings change, if it’s honest within the context of the scene.

3) Do be specific. People talk about stuff in their lives, and they do it specifically. “I could really use a margarita” is better than “I’m thirsty.”

4) Do start from the middle of a scene. “Hell, no, I won’t give you a divorce!” is a more interesting way to start a scene than discovering over the course of three minutes that you’re married and your wife is unhappy. Jump right to it. It’s a huge gift to your scene partner(s).

5) Do look each other in the eye. You might be surprised what you find there.

I’ve seen a lot of ass cracks…

Recently, it was my great pleasure and honor to coach and play with a fairly new improv group. Their sense of play was great, and it was clear that they’d all had a fair amount of improv schoolin’ from various excellent teachers. And, at one point, I felt compelled to give a note to one member that’s awkward to give to people you know, and more awkward still to give to someone you’ve just met. But it’s a note I’ve felt would be useful to colleagues a thousand times, whether while in rehearsal, performance, or watching a show. But, y’know, if you’re not the director or coach, it’s just bad form, right? So this was the first time I ever gave the note.

“Be aware of what you’re wearing on stage.”

This sounds obvious, but in a form where a) big physicality is more engaging than standing around and talking, and b) performers tend to wear whatever they were wearing off stage (i.e., low rise jeans and/or loose-fitting tops), we occasionally show the audience more than we intended them to see. This is not meant to be a puritanical note. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that even if the audience is delighted to see our bared breasts or tuchuses (tuchi?)*, if they are seeing them, they’ve been distracted from all the scene work we’ve done up until that point. It makes, even if only for a brief second, the scene about something else. We’ve worked hard for the suspension of disbelief, yeah? So let’s not concede it to a moment of, “Did I just see that actor’s ass?”

Unless, of course, it’s on purpose.

* This issue, by the way, is a gender neutral one. In my own experience, the offenders have more often been male, in fact. So, so many hairy ass cracks.**

** Yes, I know the irony of this note coming from someone who has entered scenes in nothing but his underwear.

Use Badprov to Make Goodprov

One of my favorite warm-ups was introduced to me by Adina Gillett in her Performance Series Class at Jet City Improv. It’s not one I pull out of my bag often, because I’m worried that overuse would cause it to lose its effectiveness, but it’s given a huge boost to a couple Interrobang rehearsals over the years. I’ve found it most effective as the first or second warm-up of the night. It’s useful for starting things off at a high energy level, and also to kick off a rehearsal positively after having had a more difficult rehearsal previously. The two specific instances I can recall were the first rehearsal after a highly technical rehearsal that had been frustrating, and a rehearsal in which it appeared that folks had low energy coming in the door.

The exercise? Badprov. Put the improvisers in two lines, and tell them to do the absolute worst improv they’ve ever done. Every improviser of at least moderate experience level has strong ideas on what constitutes bad improv. This is their chance to wallow in it. One improviser from each line will step forward, and the two improvisers are to do a terrible improv scene. Director/instructor should call out “next!” fairly quickly—length-wise, these scenes are similar to scenes in Freeze Tag. Players go to the ends of the lines and the next two step forward to start another terrible scene.

There are a few things I love about this warm-up:

  1. Because the improvisers have not only been given permission to be terrible, they’ve been outright told to be terrible, they’re freed from being too much in their heads. Consequently,
  2. They commit with huge energy, and
  3. The scenes they create tend to be hilarious.

The two rehearsals I’m remembering were among my favorites we’ve had. I can still remember individual moments of brilliance from the work that followed Badprov in both rehearsals.

Strongly recommended for any time you feel like your group is getting into a rut, or feeling frustrated. I can’t thank Adina enough introducing this game to me.

Why Improv? Because Everything Matters.

Starting when I was in junior high school, and for about two decades, my life was largely defined by what show I was doing at any given time. And then I got married, had kids, got a “serious” job, and moved to the suburbs. When I got divorced, I moved back to the city, and it wasn’t long before I had to scratch the itch that was performing. At the time, there were two reasons I chose improv instead of scripted theater:

1) I had (and have) a life outside of the theater that I didn’t want to forego, and improv can accommodate as much or as little time as one wants to give it; and
2) I love improv, and except for a few drop-in sessions in the old Seattle Mime Theater in the Oddfellows building, I hadn’t done it since 1986, when I was part of Northwestern University’s signature improv/sketch group, The Mee-Ow Show.

I’m not sure I ever gave much thought to why I love(d) improvisation. I just did. Since returning to it 2009, I’ve become nerdier about the form—what works and what doesn’t, what warm-ups work best for given formats, truth in comedy, rules and when to break them, why autocorrect insists on changing improv to improve—the usual improv nerd stuff. And I’ve come to realize that, while there are many things I love about improv, at its core what I love most is that everything matters.

If you’re like me (and a multitude of other improvisers), you make your living at one of those “serious” jobs. In my “serious” job, I’m a web developer. Also, if you’re like me, not everything matters in your job. Very few things matter, and the very few things that do matter, matter an awful lot. A conversation about how beautiful the sunset is over Lake Washington as seen from our 15th floor window is a welcome distraction, but a distraction nevertheless. What really matters is finding the missing semi-colon that’s breaking the code, and enjoying the sunset is going to keep me from doing that. That semi-colon is some serious fucking business. If I don’t find it and fix it, Acme’s not going to sell as many widgets tomorrow.

And that’s fine. Cool, actually. I like my day job. But, in a Venn diagram, the circle of things that are important to getting my job done is very small.

Not so with improvisation. What’s the first rule of improv, fellow nerds? Yes, and. And what are we yes, anding first? Whatever our partner has offered us. And what is her offer? Everything she just did. Not just the words she spoke (although that’s what we notice first). Everything. Her tone. Her posture. Her accent, her characterization, her physical actions, her physical placement on (or off) the stage. Everything.

But our partner’s offer is just one of countless offers in the space. Who’s the audience? What is the layout of the stage? Of the theater as a whole? What kind of tech is there? What’s the weather outside? What’s happening in the world at the time? How are we feeling? Everything we sense, everything we know, is an offer. Nothing is a distraction, because everything matters.

Here’s a game I learned from Stan Wells that I really like to help pick up on offers that we might not typically notice.

In Godot, the first premise is that the two improvisers have about the same level of knowledge of the world as babies. Looking at a chair on a bare stage, about the only thing the improvisers can say about it with any certainty is that it’s there. Not that it’s a chair, that it’s constructed of wood, that its purpose is for humans to sit on. Just that it’s there. It’s something different than what surrounds it. If we, as improvisers, don’t come to the chair with the idea of its purpose, its possible uses become limitless.

To begin the scene, one improviser should already be on stage. The other improviser should enter and exit three times, and then the scene should begin. And the improvisers are as babies, remember, so they don’t have language. These aren’t necessarily silent scenes, but there won’t be words in them.

Think back about that chair and its limitless possibilities. And now think of the other object on the stage that’s different from its surroundings: the other improviser. Ooh, that’s something really interesting. It moves! It makes sounds!

Play. Discover. With the stage stripped to its barest elements, those elements that are there, no matter how small, become hugely important.

My favorite instance of watching this game featured Dusty Lee and Diana Dotter. The space where the class was taught wasn’t a stage, but rather a large room. There was one window in the room. Prior to this game, I’m not sure any of us had given it much thought. But as Dusty and Diana moved in the space, they noticed their shadows on the floor. And they became entranced with watching the shadows and in learning how they affected the shadows. The truly brilliant moment was when the shadows of their hands—not their actual hands, just their shadows—touched. And they both leapt back, astonished. And then started moving back toward one another again, the shock lessening each time their shadows touched, until finally their actual hands touched.

Sounds really artsy-fartsy, and it probably is. But watching it was emotional and wonderful. And it was as simple as finding offers in things we often don’t even notice.

I’ve already written close to a thousand words here, which is stupid long for a blog post, but I could easily write another 5,000. But I won’t, because… TL;DR.

I’ll just say this: the more we open ourselves up to offers in every form, the more opportunities there are to open ourselves up to the joy in improv. An audience member coughs? It’s the beginning of the plague. A light goes on unexpectedly? A new angel has been born. Your partner accidentally says “locker ship” instead of “rocket ship?” Astronauts are nerds stuffed into lockers (which reminds me—mistakes are our biggest gifts, but that’s another post altogether).

Go. Play. With everything. It all matters.

Give A Damn

Like many improvisers, my first introduction to performance was doing short form. And like many improvisers for whom this was the case, I became short-form-weary after a while and started to find long form much more satisfying. The ability to construct a sustained narrative, more time for character development, more meaningful relationships, playing with genres – all due to having more time to take things a little slower, very much appeal to me. There are many schools of improv thought that stress the importance of slow comedy and taking your time and these are very good things to learn. However, sometimes the by-product of this emphasis on taking things slow can result in improvisers taking too much time and producing improv that lacks energy & strong focus.  In these cases, the pursuit of “meaningful” work has resulted in energy, fun and connection with the audience being left in the dust in favor of treating every precious offer as though it were made of spontaneous gold. Instead of merely slowing down to give weight to important moments while still maintaining the energy of the show, sometimes the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and leads to lethargic, self-indulgent improv that tends to forget the most important part of performance – the audience.

Why do I say the audience is the most importance part of a show? Because they are. We need to remember that, always. An audience is what makes a show, a show. Otherwise, you might as well be  playing make-believe in your living room. I’m not talking about pandering to an audience, going for lowest-common-denominator humor (lots of butt jokes scene after scene) or letting an unruly audience component (drunk bachelorette party) take over what you chose to do in a show. I’m talking about extending the energy beyond the stage and pushing it out to the back wall of the theatre. When I see players on the sidelines on the balls of their feet, intently focused on the scene and ready to jump in – I am engaged as an audience member. When I see the energy of the players as more relaxed, less present and find the scene work to be slow and laborious, I check out and start making to-do lists in my head. To me, this is not so much an issue of a particular style of long form being boring or not my cup of tea. I think this energy and commitment is crucial to improv in general, long or short.  But for some reason that lack of energy combined with misguided self-importance (or “Sadprov” as some people refer to it) tends to manifest more often in long form. I think perhaps subconsciously it’s the feeling on the part of the performers of “Ok, we’re doing our important art now and so the audience will of course be all about that and if they don’t like it, it’s because they just don’t get it blah blah blah.” Shut up. Shut up, that improviser. No matter what kind of show you’re doing you still have a responsibility to pull the audience in, whether making them laugh, getting them to root for your character or tugging at their heartstrings and you have to earn those moments – the audience isn’t going to respond to you just because you’re on the stage and they paid to see you and geez they should appreciate what you’re trying to do because improv is hard. Good improv is hard. Bad improv is easy. Unless you’re a student and haven’t been doing this very long, you don’t get points simply getting up there. Good improv is hard work and when I’m in the audience, I want to see you work.

I think there is a lot of value in improvisers building strong connections with each other by taking their time but what is also great is when the energy between performers can establish that connection very quickly and sometimes take it to a more interesting emotional level. To use a romantic analogy – it’s the difference between politely asking if you can kiss someone, being granted permission and then kissing them lightly & respectfully VS sprinting across a room, sweeping them up in your arms, kissing them passionately and then ripping their clothes off. Both are very nice – and both have their problems (polite can be boring, passion fades) but the former implies a level of tentativeness that to the performers & audience members is less vibrant and exciting if that’s all there is. Starting with a polite kiss is nice, but I want to see it build to a fiery passion.

Now you could argue that the kind of connection and trust it takes to play quickly & with intensity with someone is something that takes time & trust to develop and in some ways I think you’re right, fictional improviser that is suddenly a part of this conversation. But you can start with evaluating how you’re playing and make different choices. For example, hyper-focusing on a scene, supporting the story and not being afraid to edit if the narrative calls for it or the energy starts to lag is a great place to start.

I often think of strong improvisers as like air-traffic controllers – tracking several different pieces of a story and deftly lining up all the different elements simultaneously while the show is in motion, all while utilizing intense concentration so that nothing falls through the cracks. That takes a lot of focus to build and a lot of energy to sustain. What I love to see is improv shows that thrum with energy.  Not energy that’s flying off in all directions – I’m talking about a single beam that shoots off from the stage, runs through the audience like a current and lights up the back wall of the house. We can’t hit that back wall every time. There are nights when the energy is off, shows drag, listening skills fail and the audience and players are left feeling underwhelmed. Those shows happen but I strongly believe that if your focus is on keeping your own energy up and engaging your audience you will experience less and less of those nights.

Overall –  Invest. Care. Love. Hate. Be ridiculous. Be brave. Be mean. Break hearts. Be heartbroken. Find your audience and hold them in the palm of your hand. Make them laugh, or cry or gasp or sigh. Make them care and the best way to do that is by caring yourself.


I recently had a chance to perform for another theater – which creates great cross promotion, pollination and continues to solidify the community – all things that I support and do everything I can to foster.

As each new show/ opportunity/ company arrives on the scene i begin to see something else wain. It’s the yin and yang of community. As people find a home, they get settled. They settle. They stop. Where there once was a bunch of smaller groups scrapping their way around town and starting shows everywhere they could, have now gotten…. lost.

A wise man told me a while ago, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

So that leads to the menu of items needed to foster a healthy and vibrant community that can be self supporting:

  1. space: there HAS to be a performance venue to be in front of people. If you don’t have opportunity to perform, and readily available space, then the dream starts to fade. That can be anything – a bar, a black box, a street corner.
  2. leadership: someone must take the reigns and say ‘hey, let’s do this!!!’ We all need a push now and again, and a support system to help make that idea a reality.
  3. resources: you have to have the ability to be financially solvent. You have to have affordable housing, and a job that can afford your performing habits. Something to get things rolling till you can create new revenue streams on just your performances. you have to have a starting place that makes it possible to launch yourself into the abyss.
  4. staying power / vision: you have to KNOW what you want. You don’t have to know how you will get it, you just have to know that it is possible. And be willing to do what you must to get there.

I am sure there are 900 other items. Read Daniel Pink’s book on the Rise of the Creative Class and I am sure there can be a million more things I have forgotten. But for my corner of the world, this is the list I have.

So far. Of course, I will never stop refining it.

Improv is Agile Theatre

I’ve been improvising for about 17 years now. The last 3 or so have also seen me take on a position as a software developer. In this position, I’ve been working with a team that has been utilizing an Agile method of software development. For the past few days, I’ve been rolling the idea around in my head that the reason that Agile development clicks so well with me is that it is actually quite similar to improvisational theatre.

I think the analogy works particularly well when you compare improvisational theatre to traditional scripted theatre (much as you would compare Agile development to traditional Waterfall development), so let’s do that. In all these cases, I’m letting the actors play the role of the developers, while the audience and/or the production crew play the role of the business folks.

First off, let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Waterfall development, just like there’s nothing wrong with scripted theatre. Agile and improv are simply a different way at looking at how the goal should be accomplished. Improv does not make every theatre experience better, just as there are projects wherein Waterfall development is absolutely the correct choice. Also, whenever I talk about improv here, know that I am really referring to some platonic ideal of improv. In practice, some of these things fall by the wayside or are forgotten entirely, usually to the detriment of the show. That being said, remember that I am heavily biased towards improv, so keep that in mind as we look at the differences. Continue reading

Breaking the rules

I had a nice improv moment with my son the other day and thought I should share.

I had gotten an email earlier in the day from my wife about him making up a new song. Apropos of nothing, he had just started singing

I don’t know a bear, but
You sure know a bear, but
I don’t know a bear who eats popcorn

My wife offered a second verse, in which the bear ate some other food. The kiddo loved it and requested more and more verses.

Later in the day, they came to pick me up at work and I got the full version of the song (including the ridiculously catchy tune) from my wife. We drove along a ways and I realized the song was firmly planted in my brain with no hopes of coming out except for actually singing it. So we took turns singing verses where the bear ate all of the kid’s favorite foods.

Break the RulesFinally, I sang a verse that had the bear eat an airplane. At the mention of this ridiculousness, my son had some sort of a-ha moment and he immediately asked what else the bear ate. We made up a few more verses where the bear ate trains and boats and all sorts of things. Then, he started singing verses, something he hadn’t done since the original verse when he had made up the song. The rest of the car ride home was packed full of him singing verses about the bear eating street lights, houses, other bears, the moon; you name it and that bear ate it at least once.

It was the realization that the game could be more than just played that made him want to play the game again. I think that is probably a great lesson to keep in mind as we continue to improvise.

In short-form, we have these games that we play: rules we impose on our scenes to make them more interesting, to up the stakes for the audience watching us, to occupy our thinky brains so our dumb brains can play. There’s a lot of merit in finding out how to break the rules of these games to surprise both the audience and ourselves. Breaking the rules of the game can give us a new game, one that  we are even more excited to play.

The same thing happens in both short and long form with the idea of the game of the scene. Once you find the game of the scene you are excited to play that game to see where it takes you. Some scenes are in fact nothing but the game. But once you have played the game of the scene and you are getting those diminishing returns, you can just break the rules of that game and start all over again, assuming you found a variation of the game  that interests you.

So the next time you find yourself playing a game you aren’t excited by, I challenge you to find a way to break the rules of that game and mutate it into something that you can’t help but love.


Red Beans and Rice

I am making up a pot of red beans and rice, which I am want to do on occaision. One of the main parts of Red Beans and Rice is the ‘holy trinity’ of foods; Onion, celery and green pepper.

It makes me think ‘what is the holy trinity of improv?’ In my mind it is a few things:

1. Confidence. Do something. Whatever it is. Just do it. Stop thinking about why you should or shouldn’t. Just do it. That moment where you considered it – that was your downfall – you should have done it. Stop considering and start moving. Your body doesn’t lie – if it felt like you needed to enter / exit / do something, then you probably did. Listen to your body. It knows more than you do.

2. Care. Care about the characters you are with. The fact that you are onstage with them means that you must care something about them, right? Otherwise, why would you be in this scene with them? (And, if you don’t like them – then leave. It’s not hard, just walk away. Really.) So care about them. Know them. Even if you don’t – it just means you know them in some other way.

3. Reality. People say really crazy things in life – so amazingly crazy that it seems unreal. But put those people in in an improv scene and they get timid, or blah. Or they got HOG SHIT CRAZY. It seems like it is one or the other. But they don’t reflect the reality of life. The joy in the lady talking to her toy bear on the bus. The guy who is buying ten cans of cat food and a frozen pizza in line in front of you at the store . The couple having the most undramatic breakup over coffee at the coffee shop. It’s all really amazing. If you just open your eyes and see it, it becomes the new reality for your life on stage. See it and reflect it.

I am sure there are fifteen other ingredients that I can come up with as well (like bay leaves, very very important the bay leaf is…), but for now, you get these three.