Getting to Know You: Phill Arensberg

So long, Any Elected Office Ever.

Trust me.

Hey, nice to see you. This being the introductory post, it seems like I should lay a few facts on you; experience being the best form of credentials. I started improvising in Mr. Ellington’s drama 1 class in 1984 when I was a mere lad of fourteen. I pursued improv and comedy in general as a passion and hobby and a maybe avocation through college with the Conn College improv group, Comedaevs Interrvptvs. Ah youth. Nothing seems so muffinly fresh faced as thinking you invented a pun.

After college though, things got serious. I decided to actually do comedy, be an actor. So onto Chicago for me via the sleeper train to study first at Jo Forsberg’s Players’ Workshop and then onto the training center at Second City. Since then I’ve been with improv mainstays like Comedy Sportz and Boom Chicago as well as been part of amazing little quantum miracles – those small, incredible moments of theater that supernova briefly but are lost in all the other stars.

Wow, this went to a lyrical place quickly. In any event, I’ve been improvising for about 28 years. Unsurprisingly, I have developed a few opinions on the ‘prov in it’s forms, philosophies and expressions. Also present are a number of questions and ideas that I’ve never been able to comprehend to my liking.

Currently in my conceptual improv thinking is all about blurring the line between audience and performer and how to move improv into a more immersive experience. What I’d like to create is a theatrical equivalent to Virtual Reality as portrayed in the higher budget species of science fiction film. So much of the baggage encumbering improvisation has to do with it’s attachement to the forms and structures, literally, of traditional theater: stage, audience, proscenium, etc. And none of it gets any better when shoe-horned into a stand-up venue. The point is that I feel the potential for improvisation as kick-ass, transformative entertainment is full of bravura and spectacle barely hinted at by the great work being done now and by the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. The best is yet to come…

Getting to Know You: Ian Schempp

Hi! My name is Ian Schempp and I am an improviser.

I started improvising in 1997 in high school. As a full-fledged drama nerd, I was part of an after-school drama club. This was back in the days when Comedy Central only had about 4 shows and one of them was the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? A few like-minded friends and I decided to create and after-after-school-drama-club-improv-club where we emulated the things we saw on that show. In retrospect, it was probably some of the most toe-curlingly awful improv humans could have done. In the moment, however, we were improvisational geniuses, cracking each other up and loving every second of it.

Sisters of Sal group photo

Sisters of Sal, 2006 – photo by David Wahl

Soon after, I headed off to college to pursue a degree in mathematics. Luckily for me, the local improv group performed at our orientation and happened to mention that they were having auditions. On a whim, I tried out and made it in. In all likelihood, this will be one of the most important moments in my life, as I’m sure it changed pretty much everything from here on out. I fell absolutely in love with improv and spent as much time as possible doing it, much to the chagrin of my GPA. My sophomore year, the new director of the group (we had a new one each year) decided the gloves were going to come off. We pushed ourselves much harder than apparently the group ever had: going to shows at The Groundlings and even hiring improvisers from The Groundlings and iO West to come do workshops for us. My senior year, I ended up not only directing the group, but doing an independent study course that involved teaching a class in improv and writing a rudimentary textbook on the subject.

After college, I moved here to Seattle, naively thinking I would pursue higher education in mathematics. That lasted for almost exactly one year. After getting out of the grad school game, a friend from college took me to a Monday night improv free-for-all, co-quasi-lead by our own Joel Dale. I met a lot of great improvisers there, and ended up joining a group called Sisters of Sal. We did montage-y long form stuff, mostly at Seattle’s now-defunct Cage Match. About this time I also auditioned for and got in to Jet City Improv, which has been my improv home ever since. Sisters of Sal whittled itself down into a duo (doing some of my favorite work) and eventually stopped, but JCI continues strong. That’s where I teach, where I rehearse, and where I do 90% of my improv now.

Unspeakable Horrors poster illustration

Poster art for Unspeakable Horrors by Sean Patella-Buckley

While at Jet City, I’ve had the opportunity to create and direct several great shows: Shades of Gray, This Improvised Life, Unspeakable Horrors, Explorer’s Club, and most notably (at least for me) Funbucket. I’ve also had the opportunity to teach many classes and a couple workshops through the theater. I’ve studied a lot under a lot of great improvisers, but a lot of who I am as an improviser is due in large part to three great teachers: Jill Bernard, Joe Bill, and Asaf Ronen. Go buy their books. I hear Joe will have one eventually.

And now, here I am: writing about improv, the non-human love of my life, for this blog. I really do hope we get a chance to argue and agree loudly about things in the surprisingly-for-the-internet civil and intelligent comments section here. Thank you for reading and hopefully for writing as well.

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.

Getting to Know You: Andrew McMasters

Hi all!

Here’s my getting to know you post; My name is Andrew McMasters. I started doing improv about 25 years ago. I am one of the founders of Jet City Improv. I like theater management and nachos.

Additionally, I love pointing out that I have never had what people consider ‘formal’ improv training. I didn’t go to Second City. I didn’t work with Del Close. My life hasn’t been altered by the previous teachings of the masters. What I like is… well… providing a meaningful comedic experience for an audience.

Let me say that again; providing a meaningful comedic experience for an audience. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE doing this work – but the truth is, we do it for the audience. Without them, we don’t have a reason to do this. This isn’t an art form that exists in a vacuum. It is a conversation – a DIRECT conversation with an audience, in a way that a lot of scripted theater cannot invite or explore.

That is what I love. Not just the thrill of doing it – but the desire to make contact with an entire roomful of people and create laughter that can last well beyond the evenings festivities.

A number of years ago, back when i was bar tending, I had a chef i worked with that was going through a tough time. His wife left him, he was having financial troubles, and close to being fired. He came in and asked me “how can you always be so happy?” I thought about it and replied ‘every weekend I get on stage and hear people’s laughter. I play. Others play with me. Audiences love it. It’s hard not to be happy when you do that every weekend.’

I still believe that to be true.


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.

The Tao of Improv: Better to Stop Pouring

(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)

Overfilled, the cupped hands drip.
Better to stop pouring.

One over-sharpens the well-forged blade,
and it won’t last long.

With gold and jade in the hall,
the house isn’t safer.

Wealth and pride
are the authors of error.

When the work is completed,
it’s time to retire.

That is the Tao of Heaven

Tao Te Ching; 9 Heaven

To me, this passage relates to improv in that it is all about knowing when NOT to do things.

Let us start at the beginning. In the beginning, as an improviser, most likely we find getting on stage to be terrifying. Either we have no acting background and so stage fright begins to seep into our minds, or we do have an acting background and not having the safety of lines/blocking/character is almost mind-boggling. Either way, entering (or worse, starting) a scene is something that we must be forced to do. Soon after, however, we realize that we can improvise on stage without actually dying. We look forward to spending time playing with our fellow improvisers and spending time on stage with them. This is when the lessons I see in this passage can begin to be taught because most likely, our hypothetical beginning improviser is eagerly starting scenes and finding reasons to be in each and every scene, hungry for more experience.

So now we must break it to them that more improvisers is not always better, and knowing when to stay out of a scene is at least as important as knowing when to enter one. Our beginning improviser probably already knows this. Some basic pattern recognition and analysis will reveal that the scenes that involve ALL the improvisers often line up with those scenes that, in retrospect, could charitably be called clusterfucks. No need to overfill the stage with potential main characters, better to identify the protagonist of our scene early and let the scene flow around her.

Parallel to the idea of overfilling the stage with actors is overfilling the scene with offers. In reality, they are the same problem: information glut. With too many actors, there are offers coming from each, so some will almost inevitably be dropped. But even with only two (or heck, one) actor on stage, it is important to know when to stop pouring information into the scene, lest it overflow, spilling those offers onto the desert sands, never to be seen again. Better to stop pouring and start drinking, following the offers you have and seeing where they lead you.

Jill Bernard (whose name, if you do not already know, you will quickly become familiar with by reading anything I write) made a wonderful drawing about precisely this. I do not have a photo of it at the moment, but I will post it later if I take one/find one. The gist is this: why spend your precious scene time searching for what the scene is about when you can just MAKE the scene about the first offer you get? There is no “best offer” that will make your scene amazing, your scene will be amazing by taking the first offer and making it the best, by which I mean make it affect your character and his relationships. After all, that’s what all the great offers do, isn’t it? So why not make the offer you got a great one?

I also wanted to touch on the second to last stanza, knowing when to retire. This stanza is all about endings, a very important part of improv that gets little attention. Endings are hard, especially in an art form whose very foundation is built on the idea of “Yes, and,” reminding us that there is always a next line, always a next move.

I’ve noticed as a teacher that many improvisers I teach are incredibly reluctant to leave the stage, even when that is the strongest move they could make. In fact, I’d say most of those students have their minds a little blown when they admit they had completed their objective and I ask them why they didn’t leave. When the work is done, it is time to retire, and if you have no objective, then it is time to leave the stage. Your fellow improvisers will fill the now-empty stage; that’s their job.

In the short form world, we tend to focus our endings on laugh lines. Regardless of where we are in the story arc of the scene, if you get a big laugh (or any other big emotional response, really), there is a very real possibility that the scene is about to be called. Speaking from personal experience, in short form we tend to more often run into the opposite problem: cutting scenes before they are “over.” I think this comes from how most short form shows are structured: a preference for many scenes with a focus on high-energy performance. Again from personal experience, I would say that while many scenes do get big laughs, the ones that get applause are the ones wherein everything is tied up neatly when the scene is called. So now the question becomes which is more important: striving for the completed story, or cutting early and leaving the audience wanting more. I’d say the former leads to more volatility in the overall quality of the show, while the latter is the safer, more traditional choice. I’d also say the former is my preference. Also, as a bonus, striving for the completed story will force you to realize when you are overfilling the scene with information, thus sharpening your storytelling.

When we move into the world of long form, endings become more ambiguous, but I think the goal remains the same: neatly wrapped packages of scenes with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s just that now the packages need not necessarily be the entire arc of a story, but rather a single beat in that story.

I am rapidly losing my focus and this post is getting much longer than I thought it would. Perhaps another post on this topic will happen, but right now I need to stop typing and hit the Publish button. I’ll say that this got very Tao/Zen very fast, speaking to the importance of that which does not happen. I’m happy about that.

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.

The Tao of Improv: an introduction

(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)

I recently read the ridiculously wonderful and still-just-as-relevant-as-it-was-in-2000 article A Dao of Web Design on A List Apart. It is the thoughts of a designer living at a time when the expectation for a website was to be “pixel-perfect” on each browser, a feat that was difficult to accomplish to say the least. He uses passages from the Tao Te Ching to highlight why he thinks this approach must be set aside.

Long story short, in reading the article, I realized that many of the passages could equally pertain to improv. Not a new idea, as he points out that everything from Winnie the Pooh to Physics has gotten the Tao treatment, but that was the 90’s, 20+ years ago, so now it will be delightfully retro chic to apply it to my particular set of interests.

So I picked up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and have started reading it with one eye always on improv and how these passages can contain lessons on our favorite performance art form. Already I have made some copious notes, so I wanted to start a semi-regular series on the passages and the thoughts I had on them. Hopefully opening them up for further discussion.

Note that I am in no way a Taoist or real student of the Tao. These posts will be mostly based on a very brief reading of one translation of the Tao Te Ching, with little time given for true introspection and analysis. Mostly just gut reactions to the work and the things that pop to mind when I read them. Perhaps later there will be time to truly study it and make deeper connections, but that isn’t the point right now. The point is to write, and the Tao Te Ching will act as one of my inspiration engines.

Art vs. Craft

(NOTE: Originally posted at Seattle Comedy Nerd)

“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana

Tony Beeman recently posted a list of quotes from non-improvisers that could be applied to improv. The quote above sparked a comment on a Facebook post from my friend Adina:

makes me wonder…it is so important for us for the audience to constantly be reminded and appreciating that HEY, [WE] ARE MAKING THIS UP RIGHT NOW, AREN’T WE AMAZING. So my topic/question would be, is Improv a weak art form, as so much of it is about showing off our skills and being funny, vs. having something interesting to say/a message?”

And that brings me to the title of this post. I think that the argument above is analogous to the question of art versus craft.

To me, the desire for the performer to make sure the audience understands that we are indeed making this stuff up as we go is very much the performer as craftsman talking. The craftsman wants to show off his technical skills. The knitter and the blacksmith do not purl and forge to express themselves, but rather to show off his or her skills. The improviser who reassures the audience member that this is all made up, or the one who worries about the rules of the short-form game is doing the same thing: concerning themselves with the craft.

Now of course, this is not to say that knitting and blacksmithing are not artistic. Certainly art can be created using the skills of knitting and blacksmithing; there are obvious examples of both in the real world. The difference lies in that the artist who knits concerns herself not with the skill with which her knits, but rather the feeling or whatnot that she wishes to express.

The years of craftsmanship I would argue are paramount to becoming an artist who smiths or knits. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the person, that is when the art can flow without the interruptions of limitations of skill. Can the art happen without the craft? Certainly, but the quality of work from an artist with intense passion but little skill will pale before the work of one with years of craftsmanship under her belt and equal passion.

I would say the same applies to improv. The years of craftsmanship are important: doing the short-form scenes where you sweat the rules, reminding the audience that we are indeed making this up (whether by actually saying those words, or by frequently coaxing suggestions from the audience and implementing them as the show progresses), concerning yourself with the reaction the audience gives you. Once the craft becomes ingrained within the performer though, I think that is when the performer may begin to yearn for something more than the showing of craft. That’s when the performer wants to say something to the audience and creates a method for himself to do just that, whether it is solo performance, creating a show that speaks to your sensibilities as an artist, or whatever other way she can think of to connect with others.

I think I am at this point in my improv career, as are many of my fellow improvisers in Seattle. We have completed our apprenticeships and are full-fledged journeymen, though perhaps not yet masters. I think that is why we strive to find ways to break games in our short-form shows, and why the tone of the scenes swing wildly from one to another. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and much more fun. My only concern is that we may be throwing those fellow improvisers who are still focusing on their craft headlong into our experimentation. Whether this is detrimental to their apprenticeships is up for debate.

Carnival of Improv: Getting to Know You

It’s our first Carnival of Improv Blogging! Here’s how these things are going to work:

  1. One of our fine editors will post a topic that they would like everyone to write about.
  2. Head to your little corner of the internet and write something about that topic.
  3. Publish that thing so anyone can see it.
  4. Leave a link to that thing here in the comments before the due date.
  5. The editor in charge will read all the entries, and write up a nice post summarizing and linking to as many of them as possible.
  6. Read what your fellow improvisers have written and start commenting! If you can’t comment on their blog, go ahead and comment on ours.

Our first topic will be “Getting to Know You.” All we need is a post that lets us know a little more about you, both as an improviser and just as a person. We’d love to know where and how you got your start in improv, and all the things that have lead you to where you are today. Again, post a link to your writings in the comments below before Sunday, September 2, and on September 3, I will post the round-up.