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.

Ours is not to reason why…but that’s totally what this post is about.

I haven’t done completely scripted theatre in a long time, although I know many other improvisers do both. Every once in a while I think about auditioning but I have so many different improv projects on my calendar that I don’t think about it much. I’ve had some really fun experiences in scripted plays but I did often feel constrained by them. Even when a scripted role allows for some room to play around, you still generally need to maintain consistency for the sake of the overall direction & so that you don’t screw up your fellow performers by say, blowing a cue line. I greatly admire actors that are able to maintain a consistent scripted performance night after night while still keeping things fresh & breathing new life into every show. I never felt like I was too good at that.

There are many intangible things that I like about improv and I could wax on about them forever. For example, I’ve mentioned the collaborative aspect which I love. These things speak more to feelings & theory as opposed to concrete differences you see on a stage as an audience member and as a group of bloggers I imagine theory is something we’ll delve into often (especially me because I ramble A LOT). So instead, here is a list of relatively specific things that I like about improv in practice.


1. gives you a chance to play a variety of different characters all the time, often in the same show. If you usually get cast in scripted shows as the funny side-kick or doting mother, improv provides the opportunity to play the action hero, the evil queen, the precocious child and on & on. The stage is your playground.

2. always has the chance to be “current” in that we can incorporate events of the day into a show the same night. Very satisfying at times.

3. travels well & helps you play with others. Dust-ups, Mash-ups, Duos – there are a number of different ways to throw improvisers into a show together who have never played with each other before & in many cases (festivals) haven’t even met prior to the show. Even though styles of play are different all over the world, most improvisers have a common language which allows them to jump right into doing a show together.

4. can incorporate anything happening in the space. From a cell phone ringing to the lights going out by accident, improv shows can not only comment on things going wrong in the space but can make those flukes an integral part of the scene, to the extent that it looks like the performers knew it was going to happen all along.

5. is shaped by the audience. If the crowd that night is responding to broader characters & poop humor – you can tailor the show thusly. If they seem to be intruged by witty dialogue, styles work, etc… then the show can go that way. While I’m not a huge poop fan myself, I really like that the style of theatre we do allows for the show to swing any direction we want.

6. gives the audience a voice. This is one of the more obvious ones but I’ll end with it because sometimes as a performer I forget how cool it is for the audience to participate. When an audience member gives a suggestion and then they get to watch a scene unfold that is so good it shoots the lights out – that’s a wonderful feeling. Even when the scene is simple or silly & goofy it’s really fun for them. Improvisers grouse sometimes about drunk or obnoxious audience members trying to mess with them and that does happen. However, for the most part I think audience members, even when they give poop suggestions, are trying to be helpful and want the show to succeed.

So there you go. Six reason and I’m sure there are many many more. Long live the  ‘prov!

Stop Trying To Make Me Cry

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard improvisers will sometimes work to make their scenes “meaningful” while completely missing the potential meaning in everything that’s happening around them. When players shoe-horn drama into scenes in a specific effort to try and be profound it generally reeks of the effort and loses the point of improv entirely.

The same is true of forcing a joke. If you’ve been improvising for awhile, I’m sure you’ve experienced that empty feeling when you threw a gag into a scene at an ill-timed moment and had it go over like a lead balloon. However, I think we tend to  talk openly about a comedic move not working when we’re chatting post-show whereas we applaud the effort when a dramatic move bombs because we want to reward improvisers working to expand beyond the funny even when that effort stinks to high heaven.

This sort of thing does happen in short form but comes up more frequently in long form. A common trap when improvisers move from short form to long form is that they start to over-think that hell out of everything because they are determined to be profound.  As a result, rather than being open to the story and their fellow improvisers they get distracted by goals they’ve set for themselves to try “dramatic” or “meaningful” things and end up doing banal & sometimes flat-out masturbatory scenes.

I greatly prefer not forcing anything in scene work. There is amazing potential in every scene for the story to go a thousand different ways but you have to be open to it. If you’re forcing a scene in a certain direction, whether it be comedy or drama , it’s going to come across as just that – forced.  You have to earn it.

How do you earn it? Moments where emotions are running high & the subject matter is intense have to come out of the scene organically & you have to respond to them honestly (in character).  Above all – you have to be willing to be VULNERABLE (in character). Why do I put VULNERABLE in all caps? Because I think that emotional vulnerability (in character) is really really important to good scene work and I don’t see it nearly enough on the improv stage. Allow your characters to have something to lose and then, allow them to lose it now & then. Too often improvisers interpret arguing as drama which is just about the most boring thing to watch ever for longer than a couple of minutes. Two people fighting onstage without either of them being affected or being willing to lose is not interesting or compelling, it’s annoying. At some point one of them has to change and allow their character to be surprised, hurt or perhaps concede a point and find a connection.

Why do I keep writing (in character)? Because I’m talking about acting – not catharsis. All of your life experiences give you a wealth of information from which to draw onstage but you have to keep it relevant to the story & the character you’re playing in a particular scene. I know this is pretty basic stuff for most folks but I think it bears repeating once in awhile.

Why is all of this important to me? Because I’ve been in some really wonderful, connected and meaningful scenes over the years. When you stop forcing and just let the scene play out using what’s right in front of you, it’s so satisfying for the players and the audience. I want all improvisers to experience that feeling. Those moments can happen in short form scenes as well as long form plays and when they do happen it’s like a jolt of electricity that courses not only through the players but also out into the house. You can feel it when you have an audience on the edge of their seats.  It’s one of my favorite things about what we do. But I submit that the harder you try to force it – the less likely you are to ever experience it.

Be open. Listen. Play. Respond. Use what’s already in the scene. Those “meaningful” moments will find you when you least expect them.

Getting To Know You: Elicia Wickstead

I’ve been improvising for half my life. It’s become second-nature. Most of my friends are improvisers. My husband is an improviser. It’s a rare day that the improv world is not in my face in some way.

I was a really shy kid without much direction until high school. At the encouragement of my father, I got into choir which I enjoyed very much because I love to sing. At the encouragement of my choir director, I decided to try drama as well and the rest is history. There is a special thrill & a sort of homecoming when you finally find your brand of nerd. It was my drama buddies that took me to see my first improv show at UP in Seattle.

Whenever anyone asks why I got into improvisational theatre specifically, I always tell the same story. The first time I ever went to a show, my friends had to convince me that it was improvised. Not because it was spectacularly funny (it was) or because it was totally seamless (it wasn’t) but because the performers were so well connected, displayed so much trust & such good listening skills that I was sure there was some sort of secret language I was missing.

That connection between performers is what keeps me invested above all else. I love getting a great laugh from an audience, surprising them and of course the occasional awww moment, but above all trust & support are my favorite things about a great improv scene.  In order to build that trust & support, you have to be trustful & supportive and that’s what I try to be. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I suppose my improv philosophy in a nutshell is – be the kind of player with whom you would like to play. When it works, it’s a wonderful thing.

I’m happy to be a part of this group of wonderful Seattle improv bloggers – geeking out about a subject dear to our hearts.  Thank you all for reading.

A Touchy Subject (originally posted on

Have you ever noticed that when you watch improv (and I’m primarily talking about comedic improv), physical contact between performers is often the exception and not the rule? I think this happens for many reasons and probably for many more reasons that I can’t think of. Here are some random and somewhat rambly thoughts about some of my own personal experiences & preferences, for what it’s worth. This post may be more relevant to those that haven’t been improvising for too long and additionally may be more applicable to short-form work within large ensembles or when playing with people you haven’t worked with before.

Some people come straight to improv without any traditional theatrical training and some improv schools don’t spend a lot of time working on basic stagecraft. I have only the slightest of scripted theatre backgrounds but I did learn early on that in scripted theatre, fight scenes and love scenes were best approached with respect for personal boundaries, safety, caution and above all that it was important to take time to establish a level of comfort and trust between performers. If you’re doing a long-form improv show that’s had a rehearsal process there is more time to delve into these issues but in short-form it often comes down to evaluating all of these things in the moment. If an improviser doesn’t immediately know whether physical contact with their scene partner will be outside of their comfort zone, the impulse is often abandoned. Generally speaking I think we sometimes favor caution out of respect which is not a bad thing. The more people work together the stronger the communication and then you don’t have to second-guess those moments.

Offstage, I’m a hugger but I try to be sensitive to people who may not be so keen on hugging. The same is true onstage. If I’m in a scene that turns romantic and I’m with someone I haven’t improvised with very much, I tend to hang back and let them initiate physical contact if they want to. Once in a great while I’ve been known to plant one on somebody but usually it’s only if I have a sense, based on past experience, that they’ll be cool with it and then only if it’s appropriate for that particular scene.

Occasionally there is a concern that if an improviser is in a romantic scene involving a kiss or other physical contact onstage it may not sit well with a significant other. As someone’s wife I can understand that even though I don’t feel the same way (but then again we are both improvisers). As a performer, I have been kissed onstage by plenty of people that I’m not attracted to and to me it’s no different than say, shaking someone’s hand onstage or playing their arms. It’s acting which is not the same as dating. But I respect that for someone in the audience (especially if they’re not a performer) it might feel a little weird to them to watch their girlfriend, husband, etc… kiss someone else onstage. For performers who know that their significant other isn’t cool with it (whether they’re in the audience that night or not) sometimes this causes them to refrain from physical contact onstage and that’s their choice which is valid.

The creepy factor. Ok let’s face it – if you’ve been improvising for a while you’ve probably had it happen at least once that you’ve played with someone who seems to always find a way to make a scene sexual even though it’s not necessarily relevant to the narrative. That is straight-up Creeproviser behavior and not cool. If you feel like someone is frequently touchy-feely onstage in a way that makes you uncomfortable, see if you can talk to them about it. I think some people are just physical in general and would be mortified if they thought they were making others uncomfortable because it’s not their intention. I’m talking about improvisers who are making a character choice and don’t realize you’re not on the same page… which I think is very different from what is basically the stage version of continually making unwelcome passes at people. Give people the benefit of the doubt but again, improvising is not dating. If it’s an ongoing issue with a specific person then the leader/Artistic Director of your group should be made aware of it and handle it. Also and most important, remember that you can always side-step physical contact onstage & justify your move in character if you prefer.

Also a thought about stage-combat. Never hit, slap, kick, throttle, pull the hair of or in anyway jump on another performer in an improvised scene onstage without some prior communication ever. Ever ever ever. If you see an actual open-handed slap (for example) onstage in a scripted show, unless it was an accident, it is likely to be something the performers worked out in advance so that no one was hurt because it was choreographed in a very specific way. If someone hurts you onstage, talk to them. If it’s an ongoing issue with a specific person then the leader/Artistic Director of your group should be made aware of it and handle it. Even if you are a very physical performer it is important to be careful of moving erratically and avoid putting yourself in a position where the audience or your fellow performers might worry that you could do harm to yourself or others. Above all – being out of control physically & straight-up physical violence are never ok.

So, you’ve decided to try kissing! Well, kiss or don’t kiss. This is just a personal preference. The put-your-hand-over-the-other-improviser’s-mouth thing has always bothered me. My preference is that if you don’t feel comfortable actually kissing someone onstage or you think they wouldn’t feel comfortable being kissed or you’re just not sure – don’t go for it. Perhaps the lack of a kiss will propel the scene in another direction emotionally which could be equally interesting? Putting your hand over somebody’s mouth is just weird for the person who is under your hand and also is totally obvious to the audience so it’s kind of funky all around.

What I mean by a “kiss”: I mean a “stage kiss” which is lips closed, no tongue, no slobbering and no coping-a-feel. If you’ve been improvising with someone for years and you are both totally cool with being a little over the top or playing it up for the sake of comedy I say go for it. It can also be equally fun/funny to do some cheesy-makeout-mime where you sort of simulate making out but have some obvious physical distance (as opposed to dry-humping). But again all of those things depend on the level of comfort between performers.

I personally love it when I see improvisers who are comfortable with each other get physical onstage. I mean this both romantically and otherwise. I’ve had fellow performers stick a hand or head up my shirt to simulate childbirth or alien impregnation (you know, like you do). This is the sort of thing you can only do when you’re REALLY COMFORTABLE WITH SOMEONE so for the love of all that’s holy please don’t go out and try that tonight in a show for the first time. If this subject is something that you’ve thought about in regard to your own group I think it’s nice to bring in up in a workshop setting. I’ve done long-form shows in which, given the style of show, it was likely that romantic scenes were going to happen and in rehearsal we’ve had a show of hands to indicate who was cool with kissing and who was not and those boundaries were respected. It’s just as valid to say “I’m not really comfortable being kissed onstage” as it is to say “Go for it! In fact, breath mints all around!” As with anything else in improv, I think good communication always helps.