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!

Why Improv? (why not Improv?)

“Why Improv?” Or my favorite question of any talkback after a performance “so, which part was improvised and which part was scripted .” (answer: ALL of it was improvised…)

But to the point; why improv? I will refer to the title. Why not Improv?

When I began this journey 28 years ago  – playing improv games for theater classes and then working as a character in Atlantic City Casinos (yeah, I was a clown, wanna make something of it?) –  i realized I liked jumping off cliffs. Even as I worked professionally after college and moved to Seattle in 1989, I still found myself trying and doing the thing that was a challenge.

And this is unusual since I am typically a person that tries to do the least amount possible to have a the desired effect. Really. My main motion is to a point of stasis.

But one thing about Improv that always excited me was the chance to make something not just from my brain, but from a shared experience. Shared with the audiences suggestions the other actors offers and motions and my additions to the action. Form that crazy stew of personal interactions came this wonderfully joyous and beautiful output. That is what drew me in at first.

But then the question becomes; what keeps you? Why is it STILL Improv? (again… Why not Improv?) What keeps me is the continued lesson of Improv; What it is like to accept and add to offers daily – The fun of watching character interaction in everyday life – the narrative unfolding as you get older. It all feels connected to me. The journey being a shared experience, with suggestions and offers from others and my additions to the action. To me, there is not a question of ‘why Improv?’ Since I think it is everywhere. We can’t plan our lives, but we can prepare and be ready for what comes.

Plus – I love to make people laugh. Joy. It’s a good thing.



Carnival of Improv Blogging: Why Improv?

carnival posterHello and welcome to the second Carnival of Improv Blogging here at Around the Block Improv!

This week’s topic will be: Why Improv?

Why do you do improv rather than other art forms? What is it about improvising that really does it for you? Why should other people be doing improv? Anything that could conceivably be an answer to that incredibly simple yet inclusive question is desired.

If you want to be included, just go ahead and write away wherever you can, post it somewhere that everyone can see, and leave a link to that post here in the comments below by next Sunday, September 23. Then, on the 24th, I’ll write up a summary of everyone’s posts, complete with links.

Happy writing!

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.

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.

Carnival Roundup: Getting to Know You

Here’s the results of our first ever Carnival of Improv Blogging, where we asked to get to know you a little better:

carnival posterStarting off with the pieces that our editors wrote, Elicia Wickstead tells us about that critical moment when it became clear to her that she was a theatre nerd and had found a home among improvisers; Joel Dale talks about how being late to an improv audition may have been the first big step in his improv journey; Dave Clapper writes about how his love of group-generated art brought him back to the improv folds not long ago after a long hiatus; Next, we get a quick trip through the improv life and times of Phill Arensberg, coming to a head at the thoughts he has been having most recently about improv; I’m next on the list, with a brief history of Ian, focusing on the improv-y bits; and rounding out our merry band is Andrew McMasters, who tells us a little about his love affair with the audience and how he stays so darn upbeat all the time.

Of course, the carnival is not all about the editors, and this time we got two submissions from the readers as well! First off we have Holden, who gives us a short piece on the somewhat therapeutic role improv has played in his life. Secondly, we have Douglas Willot, who tells us about young him, whose brain was altered by improv and started turning him into the well-oiled improvisational man/machine he is today.

There, that about does it for our inaugural carnival. I’m very happy to see all the responses we have gotten so far. So I command you: go, read, comment if you are inspired to, lurk if you are not. We’ll see if we can’t get another carnival up and off the ground next week. I’m optimistic.

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.

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.”