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.

Murder Your Darlings

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

Criminal Improv Unit: SeattleIn the few instances that I’ve been in literary situations (interviews, readings) since getting back into improv again, a question I’ve been asked in each case is, “How does improv impact your writing?” I’m not sure I can answer that question well, because I haven’t done much writing at all since jumping back on stage. I can, however, speak to one huge way in which a “rule” of writing has carried over into my improv. It comes from a passage about writing (often misattributed) by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

When I started this blog (a whopping five days ago), there were certain topics that I knew I wanted to tackle, and this was at the top of the list. But I’ve been pretty good about following this advice myself recently, and I didn’t want to call out other improvisers whom I’ve seen forcing their darlings onstage. Fortunately, last night’s performance of “CIU” was a) our best show yet, and b) one in which I murdered a lot of darlings. So I’ll come at this from an angle of something done well, rather than something fucked up (and it is, if not the most common fuck-up I see (and do) in improv, right up there at the top).

So what is the application to improv? When one is out of scene, whether in short-form or long-form, one is still highly engaged with the action onstage. It’s a keen state of observation, of listening, of finding what support a game or more narrative show needs. And when one picks up on a piece of support that would advance the scene in a particularly great way… that is a darling. If the scene allows for it right at that moment, a darling can do amazing things. If, however, something in the scene changes before the darling can be introduced—changes in a way that makes the darling a distraction—murder that darling post-haste. And forget about it. Realize that one of an improviser’s strengths is the capacity to generate new darlings almost constantly.

In the past, when referring to my writing, I often said that 90% of what I wrote was shit. But the 10% that was good couldn’t have existed without having generated the much larger shit pile. That equally applies to improv ideas. To get to the best ideas—or at least best for the specific scene—there has to be a pretty huge shit pile of ideas discarded. For whatever reason, that didn’t occur to me at all when I first jumped back in. As soon as I had an idea, I felt the need to put it into action. And I had a lot of shitty ideas. Or rather, a lot of them probably weren’t bad on first thought, but by the time they were brought into the scenes, they were already obsolete, and took the scenes sideways (if I was lucky) or (more likely) backwards.

So, last night’s show. The cast did stellar work last night, across the board. Dan, as the lead detective, and Tony, as the renegade import cop from Texas, had a great antagonistic relationship. Stephanie and Joel, as the married detectives Dr. Phillips and Dr. Phillips, were awesome. Christina was so amazing in two roles: one as the lab tech Beverly (or was it Everly?), and one as a medical marijuana smoking club manager. Tamara was freaking hilarious as the lab tech Everly (or was it Beverly?) who used yoga techniques to examine corpses in the morgue. Jay… holy crap, Jay… stood our usual format on its head from the very beginning of the show when he deviated from opening the show with a victim scene and instead played a serial killer who was flushing a victim’s body parts down a toilet until he was interrupted by Tiffany, whom he then killed. Stakes? Damn’ straight, stakes. His serial killer, who didn’t speak until he was caught, was brilliantly played, creepy, and funny as hell. Tiffany (who is HILARIOUS) and I were swing players. As it turned out, Tiffany barely spoke at all through the course of the show, instead turning up in various bathrooms as yet more victims for Jay to kill. Which, while not highlighting her own brilliance, were exactly the supports to scenes needed in each instance.

For myself, I played one character, a homeless guy who found Jay’s bloody shirt and tie in a dumpster and started wearing them, and then wound up in the back seat of Dan’s and Tony’s cruiser (offstage) for the rest of the show. My darling murders took place offstage all night. A couple examples: I was in costume as a postal worker, ready to go onstage to be questioned as one of the patrons of the bar where the first murder took place. While in that costume, Jay ditched the bloody shirt and tie. Well, that’s evidence that’s probably more important to follow than someone in a bar who probably didn’t see anything, so darling poster worker got murdered before seeing the stage. The two Dr. Phillipses talked about the profile of the killer, and how he had mommy issues. So I donned a muumuu, glasses, and a wig to play a crazy, old woman. Shortly after, it was revealed that the killer had been abandoned by his mother at an early age. Off went the muumuu, wig, and glasses, as another darling got murdered.

Had I forced the old lady onstage (and I was really enamored with the idea of the character), at best, it would have been a briefly humorous distraction. At worst, it would have forced all the actors onstage to do a lot of justifying of the denial of something already established: that the killer’s mother was not in the picture. And where they went instead—into the drooling madness of Jay alternately withholding and offering the detectives information on the whereabouts of his latest victim—was amazing. And probably couldn’t have happened if I’d forced my darling onstage.

The show was awesome, due almost entirely to everyone else in the cast. They were so, so good last night. And while every actor would like to be part of that creation, sometimes the best way to help the creation be great is to step back and let it happen, to leave a pile of darling corpses in the wings.

Take Risks, Support Each Other, Tell the Story

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

From the 2005 production of Lookingglass Alice

These were the three underlying principles of Lookingglass Theatre that Andrew White cited in his acceptance speech for Lookingglass’s Tony Award for Best Regional Theater (video of the speech here. Now, that may seem like boilerplate stuff, but what doesn’t necessarily come through in those words is the level of commitment Lookingglass gives to those words, and has done for about 25 years now. What I don’t think Andy mentioned in that speech is that the early production to which he refers happened while they were all students at Northwestern University. While I don’t think I saw the production of “Alice” that he cites, I did see others of their productions, “The Serpent” (which I think was the impetus to moving forward as a company), “Still Life with Woodpecker,” and “West.” What struck me in each of these productions were a few things:

1) Holy crap did they take risks. I still have vivid memories of scenes from “The Serpent.”. From a very visual representation of the “begats” section of Genesis (seriously, is there a duller part of the Bible? Until you see actors writhing on stage begetting, that is) to disjointed representations of assassinations to a stylized violence of Cain and Abel unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, I continually found myself with my mouth agape. That I still can visualize those scenes 25+ years later… in editing SmokeLong Quarterly, I’ve often talked about the stories I love being the ones that I can’t stop thinking about months later… I can’t stop thinking about “The Serpent” a quarter of a century later, and most of those thoughts come not so much from the text, but from the level of risk (and reward!) in that particular production.

2) Those risks so obviously wouldn’t have been possible without tremendous support and trust among the actors (and director). Some of the movement literally could have caused tremendous injuries if the partners in those movements hadn’t been absolutely committed to supporting them.

3) They worked their asses off. In truth, I misremembered the third point Andy made as “Work hard,” rather than “Tell the story.” I remember hearing (second-hand) that when Lookingglass played the Edinburgh Fringe in ’87 (as did Mee-Ow) that LG members were discouraged from hanging out with members of Mee-Ow while there. They were all friends, but LG was there to work. Similarly, it often seemed, while they were in rehearsals for shows at NU, they virtually disappeared from the social scene. They still had lives, yes, but their focus was absolutely on the work. While I never got to attend one of their rehearsals, in my imagination, they were focused and intense (in other NU shows, I worked with most of the members of LG, and even individually, their focus was clear).

The Regional Tony, to me, wasn’t so much an accomplishment in and of itself (or something they ever specifically aspired to) as it was the outside world recognizing a quarter century’s worth of very talented people committed to one another and to those three goals.

As we’re getting ready to go into our first auditions for Interrobang, Lookingglass has been much on my mind. When Randy and I first met at Feierabend to discuss our goals in starting an improv group, one of the things I said was that I wanted to commit to working hard, and that this specific goal was counter to much of my early acting history (one director said as much about his experience with a show I did at New Mercury in ’93). I’ve always deeply loved ensemble work in general (and ensemble improv in particular). And, since getting back into improv, I’ve been dying to find a group with which I could grow and make a high level of commitment to supporting and pushing one another to become better individually and as a group.

I think Interrobang is getting there more and more with each rehearsal. The understanding among each of us that we’re not going to play it safe and that we’re going to be right there for each other… that’s awesome. And, somehow, almost instinctively, even in our crazy-ass experimental free-form, we never let the story drop.

So… while I can’t speak for every single member of Interrobang as to what we’re looking for in the auditions, I don’t have to look much beyond Chicago’s “theatre without a net” to voice what I’m hoping to see: take risks, support each other, and (in a slight deviation from Lookingglass’s credo) trust that the story will find itself if you do those things.

One last line from Stephen Colbert’s recent commencement address at NU: “In improv, you are not the most important person in the scene; everyone else is the most important person in the scene.”

Getting to Know You: Dave Clapper

Hello! My name is Dave Clapper, and I’m honored to be part of this collective of improvisers.

I’m finding it surprisingly difficult to write this post. It’s not a bio, per se—that can be found on the About Us page. And I don’t think it’s exactly a mission statement, either. Or maybe it’s partially that? Maybe it’s a bit of both. And some other stuff, too.

The 1996 Mee-Ow Show

flier from Edinburgh Fringe Festival production of the 1986 Mee-Ow Show, “Oedipuss ‘N’ Boots”

So, a little bit of bio from the top: my first introduction to doing improv came early, thanks to a wonderful junior high school teacher named Mrs. Dewyze. I loved improv from the moment I knew it, but didn’t always pursue it, usually due to pursuit of other forms of theater. The early pinnacle of my improv experience would have been my sophomore year at Northwestern University, when I was cast in its 1986 Mee-Ow Show, under the direction of grad student Dan Patterson, who went on to create “Whose Line Is It Anyway” for BBC Radio, BBC TV, and ABC. That show was the first Chicago-based improv show to play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and was also the last improv (aside from exercises to generate material for scripted shows) that I did until 2009.

But there’s probably a better indicator from my time at NU of the philosophy I bring to improv: I initially started as a Theater major, but graduated with a degree in Interdepartmental Studies in Speech, which is another way of saying that my academic pursuits were unfocused. While at NU, I was also a member of a dance company for three years, did a great deal of “traditional” theater, a little bit of performance art, and a ton of adaptive work (much in the same vein as what Book-It does). I also wrote a fair amount (something I’ve loved since early, early, early in life).

One of the things I loved especially about the adaptive work was that it was almost always a highly generative and ensemble-based process. The sizes of the roles rarely mattered to the part one had in the process—in almost every case, ensemble members brought in a great deal of source material themselves beyond the text itself. And although the work was far more structured than even a traditional scripted work (because of the style’s insistence on keeping the narrative voice of the author intact), the creative process was closer in its way to improv’s rehearsal structures than to rehearsals for more “traditional” theater.

SmokeLong Quarterly Issue 36

SmokeLong Quarterly Issue 36, cover art by Tuyen Tran

I think, because of how much I learned to love the group-based generation of art (and a host of psychological reasons as well), my passion for the arts in adulthood has been an entrepreneurial one. I was a founding member of Northwest Passage Theater in 1990 (which is what moved me, along with seven classmates, to Seattle). And within a year was on the boards of both the League of Fringe Theaters and the Seattle Fringe Festival (and I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the Festival’s return). I also worked as a stringer for two different start-up Seattle theater publications, Northwest On Stage and Intermission. And when I was parenting two young children and consequently away from the stage, my fiction was published in dozens of literary magazines, which in turn led to my founding my own literary magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly. Since returning to the stage, I’ve been a founding member of two different improv groups in town: the long-form group Interrobang Improv and the Seattle franchise of ComedySportz. And the only scripted work I’ve done has been the uber-generative ensemble pressure cooker that is 14/48.

I kind of hate everything that I’ve written above, because it sounds to my ear like a litany of “Look at me.” Ugh. In laying out some of the things I’ve done (and hopefully why I did them), I’m hoping to get across some idea of the foundations of my improv philosophy, and why I want to be part of the grand experiment of Around the Block. For me, improv is open to every possibility, and we’ve only just begun to nurture its potential. I see it as the cauldron inside of which any of the arts can be mixed, steeped, cooked, and from which the audience can directly be served, even as the mixing, steeping, and cooking is occurring. Jesus, what a terrible metaphor. But does it make sense? Does it?

Show me improv that incorporates commedia dell’arte and modern dance; poetry and aerialism; punk rock and graffiti. Better still, join me in figuring out how to make that improv, and then let’s make it.

Don’t Kill Yourself

(NOTE: Originally posted at An Hour of Play)

One of the things that I adore about Interrobang is that we regularly issue challenges, both to ourselves and to others in the group, in an effort to expand all of our tool kits. For example, in one of our “Last Call” performances at Wing-It, Shira played almost exclusively low-status characters. In her next performance, her challenge to herself was to play only high-status characters. Where, in one performance, a typical character had been a very submissive Mrs. Noah, in the next performance, in a scene between two cheesy music addicts, she was the one who beat up the other character and stole his Barry Manilow collection.

The example I’ll give for myself is to stop committing suicide in scenes (at least for a little while). While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a character killing himself in a scene (if it’s justified and advances the scene), the fact that characters I played in both of those “Last Call” performances killed themselves suggests to me that it’s become too much of a go-to. (And even after noticing that, and putting in my mind that my next self-challenge at “Last Call” would be to not kill myself, I wound up doing exactly that in a performance of “Criminal Improv Unit.”)

So… here were the three scenes:

1) Noah (played in the style of Robert Shaw in “Jaws”) has taken two of each creature onto his ark, as God has commanded. In one scene, he walks in to find his wife flirting with another man. He walks offstage to get a rifle, comes back on, and levels the rifle at the interloper, saying, “Smile, you son of a bitch.” In the time that he’s been offstage, another man has come on. Faced with two men taking his place with his wife, he screams up to God that while he’d agreed to two of everything, he hadn’t realized that God had meant two adulterers as well, curses God, and turns the rifle on himself. Justifiable, and a great reaction from the audience (getting an audience to audibly express sadness reacting to an improv scene, for me, is in some ways, even more satisfying than getting them to laugh).

2) Low-status cheesy music nerd changes the locks on his own house to keep high-status cheesy music bully from stealing any more of his stuff. He breaks into his own place and sets the needle down on a newly purchased, rare Manilow LP. Bully comes in and takes it from him, and also reminds him that she killed his cat (cats were a big part of the overarching theme of the show). Sobbing, he goes to his closet, pulls out his taxidermied cat, retracts its claws, and rakes them across his jugular. Again, totally justified, and it led to the rest of the cast coming on as cats, trying to nudge him back to life, then labeling an audience member in the front row (whom we had been singling out throughout the show) as inheriting his soul. As they purr all over her, corpse starts singing “Mandy,” and the cats all join in. End of show (and a great pull by Steven in the booth to bring “Mandy” up for our bows).

3) Lawyer, who is a prime suspect in a murder, is cornered in interrogation. It’s clear he’s going to jail for a long time, based on the fact that he’s smuggled heroin in his clients who are being deported to Ireland (a gang of Seattle Irish, whose names are all Johnny Walker). He pulls a gun (ah, police procedurals!) that the detectives didn’t think to search him for prior to bringing them in. The detectives pull their guns–Mexican stand-off.  They try to get the information from him as to who actually killed the victim, and he tells them that they’ll have to figure out for themselves and turns the gun on himself. Possibly the least justifiable of the three scenes (especially after telling myself, in a different context, to NOT do this), although totally fitting the trope of characters in shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” ending their own lives rather than facing justice. Also fit into the format of the show of introducing red herrings and dismissing them before the detectives find the actual perp.

None of those, in isolation, are necessarily “bad improv.” They all worked in the context of the shows in which they appeared. But I think that one of the surest ways to stop improving as an improviser is to return too often to something “because it worked.” Where would any of those scenes gone, for example, if the characters hadn’t killed themselves? Might Noah have had to cede some of the status in the relationship with his wife? Maybe the music nerd finally has enough and turns the tables on his tormentor? Could the lawyer have revealed more information about the actual perp, leading the detectives in a different direction? No way to know now.

In general, I believe that if you have any fear about where a scene is going in improv, that needs to be explored. It might not make for the best performance in that specific case, but whatever’s learned from pursuing the more difficult direction is something that’s going to make future performances better. While the specific example I used here is about characters killing themselves, my larger point is that it’s important to challenge ourselves to continue pushing in other directions. I’ve found a bit that kills the audience every time? Great, that’s one of my tools. But if I stop there, if that’s the only tool I pull out, I’m limiting myself. That’s as good as I’m going to get. Time to challenge myself to do something besides what I know works.