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.

The Tao of Improv: Favor and Disgrace

Favor and disgrace are alarming
Honor and distresses visit the self.

Why are favors and disgraces alarming?
Seeking favor is degrading,
alarming when it’s gotten,
alarming when it’s lost.

Tao Te Ching, 13 Breath

Over the course of the last year, I feel like my personal approach to improv has changed drastically. I am moving towards being much more selfish in my improv. I can point to two things that I think are the root causes: the 2012 Seattle Festival of Improvisation, and having a second child.

The having a second child cause is super obvious: I have less time to give to improvisation, so I have to be selfish with that time. I can’t do all the improv that I might want to do, because there is not enough time for that. So I have found myself having to be very picky indeed with what shows/jams/classes I can participate in. An upside to this is that it has forced me to start thinking more about what improv is really important to me, and I think I am coming away with a clearer picture of who I am as an improviser. Downside of course is less improv.

rubber stamp of Loki

Picture from DeviantArt user AliceInAutumn

The 2012 SFIT was slightly more complicated. I took some delightful workshops that year, and one of the things I really took home with me was the idea of improvising selfishly: to do the things that you want to be doing/that make you happy on stage. It really comes down to improvising from a place of inspiration rather than one of obligation. Improv, for the most part, is a team game, and so obligation will probably be present in some form, but it makes sense to me that inspiration will lead you to your best work. And if the things you want to be doing are disruptive to the show/group you are in? Guess what? You are in the wrong show/group. Get out. They probably aren’t paying you enough to do improv you don’t want to be doing.

So what does all this have to do with the Tao? Well, I’m going with the notion that “seeking favor” in this case refers to improvising with the intent of making an audience react. This can be anything from that line you thought of that you really want to work in to get a laugh all the way to trying to make Elicia cry. Seeking favor is degrading, as you are (I would bet) not doing the improv you want to do, but rather doing the improv you think the audience wants to see. You degrade your own work in order to keep banging on that Skinnerian treat bar, expecting another delicious yet fleeting pellet of audience reaction.

Let’s say you do get the reaction you were looking for: then what happens? You (the actor) have accomplished your objective (to get the reaction), so there are three big options for you:

  1. Search for a new objective. This will take a little bit of time, and it will probably be noticeable by the audience.
  2. Leave. Could be awkward, especially if you character has no motivation to do so.
  3. Call the scene. Only really an option in short form.

In any case, the favor of the audience was alarming to the scene.

Let’s say you didn’t get the reaction you were looking for. Then you will probably be up in your analytic brain trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Again, alarming to the scene.

Rather, if you improvise selfishly, with no regard to seeking the audience’s favor, then you are better prepared to be in the moment of the scene and be ready to jump on any inspiration that scene brings. I would definitely argue that the audience will enjoy that scene more than the one that happens to end on a big laugh line, and certainly more than the one that should have ended on that laugh line, continued anyway, and fizzled for lack of actor connection.

So I would encourage more people to improvise selfishly. If nothing else, I think it will make you think about yourself as an improviser and what you like about improv. And that’s a great first step to creating the improv show you want to be doing.

The Tao of Improv: Useful in its Emptiness

(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)

Thirty spokes converge at the hub,
but emptiness completes the wheel

Clay is shaped to make a pot
and what’s useful is its emptiness.

Carve fine doors and windows,
but the room is useful in its emptiness.

What is
is beneficial, while what is not
also proves useful.

Tao Te Ching, 11 Breath

For the purposes of this post, the emptiness referred to in the above passage is referring to audience interpretation. I think that the power and intelligence of the audience can be a contentious subject from one school of thought to another. This of course is not limited to improv, but really can be extended to any art (or entertainment) form.

The question is: how much do you leave up to the audience and how much do you spell out for them?

Traditionally, beginning improvisers are very much taught to spell it out. Literally. C-R-O-W: Character, Relationship, Objective, Where. We even have exercises wherein we attempt to fit all four into a three-line scene. Now, in reality, this is for the student improviser much more than for the audience; walk before you run and all that. Actually saying out loud that your scene partner is your grandmother helps put her into a state of mind to support that offer directly.

After you get the hang of falling into the role that is needed for the scene, then we start venturing into the realm of “show, don’t tell” which actually forces the improviser to *gasp* act. Soon, you fall into the habit of “show emotion, tell reality,” where you do not say “Hello Grandmother, I am angry at you,” but rather just say “Hello Grandmother” in an angry tone. More and more communication becomes nonverbal. Soon you realize that these physical relationships (mother/daughter, roommates, etc) are fine, but what is truly important is the emotional relationship (hating your mother, lusting after your roommate, etc).

A quick aside to talk about my personal preferences. I love not being told everything, regardless of medium. Books, films, video games, I’d rather be thrown into a world and be forced to fill in the blanks of what I don’t know. A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite examples. In the book, you are thrown into a story full of meaningless jargon, and you are forced to make sense of it as the story goes. There is no handy glossary to flip to when you first encounter the protagonist’s droogs, nor is there any explanation as to the prevalence of milk bars. You come to have your own definitions and backstories for each of these things, and I love that. Of course, it has to be executed well. Undoubtedly, Anthony Burgess had a concrete definition for each bit of jargon and each unexplained item, he just chose not to include those things in the novel itself. My personal preferences will be coloring pretty much the rest of the post, so I thought it would be good to get them out there.

So we have seen the communication techniques of the beginning improviser move from concrete towards abstraction, and now I’d like to talk about the audience suggestion. Specifically, how I like to see the same movement towards abstraction when dealing with the suggestion. Double-specifically in short form improv.

I am most definitely of the opinion that suggestions need not be taken literally and in fact that most scenes are improved when they are not. Now, what do I mean by “taken literally?” For the most part, I mean when you get the suggestion “hamster” and you begin your scene either as a hamster or holding a cage with a hamster in it. Instead, I love to see improvisers take the suggestion as a metaphor (perhaps playing a character who is desperately running away from something, but getting nowhere), or maybe take a single (hopefully logical) step away from the suggestion and see where that leads them.

There are definitely conflicting viewpoints on this, and I have argued the points with some of my dearest friends and most respected colleagues. Their argument usually being along the lines of “the audience said hamster and they want to see that hamster, as it provides them with co-ownership of the scene, which is really a selling point of improv in general.” I get that, and I totally agree with them. Again, we are talking my personal preference, and I think it leads into the discussion of “who is the show for? Is it for the audience or the improvisers?” My wonderfully hedging answer to that being “both.”

I think that audiences appreciate being challenged to find the connections that the improvisers have made, and that a deeper appreciation for the scene can be had using the suggestion-as-metaphor angle. If you do this, expect there to be at least one audience member per show ready to yell out “where was the hamster?” I don’t really have a good answer for this, but I tend to go with the “never apologize” route. You made the choices you made, and those choices were correct, so there is no need to apologize for them.

Letting the audience interpret your choices can lead to scenes that I think are far more rewarding, both for the improviser (getting the freedom to play as you want, rather than feeling tied down to the audience) and for the audience member (filling in the blanks with your own ideas, and the feeling that you get when you get to the same place as an improviser at the same time). You carve fine doors and windows using your words at the top of a scene, but the room inside allows you space to fill with emotion. The emptiness you leave between the suggestion you receive and the inspiration that moves you to act completes the wheel.