Tag Archives: I made this

“Should I quit improv?” Part 1: Are you having fun?

In the past few weeks, I’ve run into some practices and shows that made me wonder why one or more players in the room were doing improv at all.

While teaching a workshop with a team I didn’t know well, I asked them what about improv is most exciting to them, or what they most want to work on. I got dead-eyed stares in response. Maybe that was just shyness, but it made me want to ask, “If you don’t love this, why are you here? Why aren’t you picking up a part time job, or working on your grades, or going on dates? Why are you choosing to spend your time in this way if you’re not excited about it?”

And at an indie show I attended recently, a player (as themselves, not as a character) opened the performance with, “I really hate doing this kind of show.” Really? Then why are you asking us to watch you do this thing you hate? Why are you on stage if you don’t love it? If you’re not having fun, how dare you expect us to have fun watching you?

So I have created this quiz, a helpful flow chart entitled, “Should you quit improv?”

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.32.17 AM

(For a related quiz, see also: How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun. Also, if you have stopped enjoying things you usually enjoy, that’s a different thing; see: Depression and the Discipline of Just Showing Up.)

Most audiences will forgive anything as long as the players are having an enormous amount of fun on stage. If you don’t enjoy playing, why would they enjoy watching?

One of my favorite teachers and performers, TJ Jagadowski, answered the question, “When should a player quit improv?” for Whether the Weather:

“If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not into it, you’re not feeling some degree of passion for it, you’re not helping anybody. Not just you, you’re not helping the people you’re going to be playing with. If you don’t want to be here more than any other place in the world right now, then you should go to the place where you want to be more. Not only will it not be helpful, but it could be hurtful. …”

Jen Dziura would say, “If it isn’t extremely productive or extremely pleasurable, just stop.” I think that applies here.

(For more about the “Are you getting better?” box of the chart, stay tuned for part 2.)

In the beginning …

… my sketch idea was more boring than it was in the end.

My church is moving into a new building, and they asked me to make a video to promote one of our Consecration events: We’re going to read the whole Bible aloud in a week, which should take roughly 24 hours each day. This means we need the whole church to take turns reading so nobody gets worn out.

I recruited my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, to act in the video. My husband Blade helped with some of the technical aspects.* I wrote the basic outline for the sketch and edited the footage.

I had three ideas for the sketch, and they came to me in this order:

  1. Brendon signs up for all the reading slots, and I spend the video talking him out of it. I explain how the Consecration event actually works.
  2. Brendon signs up for all the slots and I coach him through it. He messes up a lot — reads the verse numbers and all the footnotes aloud, for instance — and I have to keep him on track.
  3. Brendon practices reading the whole Bible, and I just let him go.

The third thought ended up being the strongest. Del Close said** that an improviser’s first and second thoughts tend to be knee-jerk reactions. It’s usually a player’s third idea that has life.

The first thought was boring, because why would I spend 3 minutes trying to talk Brendon out of doing something? It’s always better to do something than it is to debate about doing something.

The second thought was based off the idea that we needed a straight man to ground the scene and set the record straight. Maybe we would need to explain more with some audiences, but our audience is biblically literate folks who like Rez on Facebook.

The third thought was the most energetic. It felt like Brendon and I were on the same team instead of him being on the Team of Fun and me being on the Team of Boring Reasonableness. Being on the same team is more joyful.

Also, my own role shrunk from actor/director/editor to director/editor, which felt better. Three hats is too many hats.

*Technical aspects include: Setting a camera up on a tripod, letting me know when we were out of battery, and teaching me how to use iMovie. 

**I can’t find a citation for this, but I can find a lot of people writing, “Oh, yeah, a teacher told me that Del told her that …”

Plateau: a criminal oversimplification

This summer, I’ve been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.

This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:

You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.

A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.

B is the middle several practices. Let’s call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It’s following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren’t bombing; we just weren’t getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.

C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don’t know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.

D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I’ve played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables — a different space, an audience, logistics — that can throw you. I thought they wouldn’t throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we’d anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.

We have another show in a few weeks, so I’m excited to see what E looks like.

This post was inspired by Bill Arnett’s classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I’ve found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett might say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it’s hard to notice while you’re on it.

That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.

– Bill Arnett

*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to “two-man show,” even though I’m half the troupe and also a girl. 

**No it is not. 

How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun.

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.

I’ve created a handy quiz, like in a magazine, to help you figure out if you are the jerk.

Click the picture to see full size.

If improv isn’t fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You’re judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd.

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you’re making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody’s having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up — physically and emotionally — and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it’s easy if you’re having fun?

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about you being a jerk. It really is everybody else’s fault.

It does. not. matter. Have fun.

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you’re having fun, your shortcomings won’t matter as much, and you’ll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you’re not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if your coach is asking you to exercise muscles you didn’t even know you had, have fun. Be sore later, but have fun now.

Even if you think your director is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own maniacal ego, have fun. And maybe consider firing him later, but don’t think about that during practice.

I know that middle column of the chart well because I’ve spent some time in all those white boxes leading to JERK. I know that 90% of that was my own fault. The other 10% was the fault of my coaches for not calling me out.

As for that lower left hand quadrant, I’ve written here about playing with depression and here about finding a troupe with a common goal. Do whatever it takes to have fun anyway until it’s time to walk away.

And there is a time to walk away. The good folks over at People and Chairs have an excellent post called On Coaches, Chemistry, and Finding Your Dream Team that talks about this. I recommend reading the full post, but the ending especially is gold (emphasis mine):

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Yes, there is time to walk away. Figure that out with your coaches, your teammates, and your journal outside of practice. During practice, have fun anyway.

Aw, Miracle Cat …

Back in November, Stradivarius and the Other Kinds* recorded a Bat as a Christmas present for our friend Duke, whom we miss. The only advertising we did was through a Facebook event, which told us to expect 12 people including the performers. By the time the show started, we had 70 or 80 people in the audience. Maybe more. Such a fun surprise.

The recording arrived in Laos via Thailand last week. Now that Duke’s had first dibs, I can post the show online. Download it here: Daylight Savings Bat (aka “Miracle Cat”) — 11/6/2010

I listened to a piece of it for the first time the other day. It’s always awkward to watch or listen to shows you performed. Besides the “does my voice really sound like that?” feeling, my main reaction is to be overwhelmed that people seem to enjoy when my friends and I sit around for half an hour and say strange things into the dark.

My favorite element of the show is how many of the later scenes grew out of a mistake in the beginning. In the third scene of the first beat, Marty asks Meredith why he would even bring up the cat — now that I hear it, he clearly intended to convey that the cat had died. However, Kevin and I didn’t pick up on that nuance at the moment, and we mewed as though the cat were on the porch.

At this point, Marty and Meredith had several options for dealing with our mistake:

1. Ignore us and move on like they never heard the mewing.
2. Call us out as a new cat or a stray.
3. Acknowledge us as the same cat and
a) ignore/deny Marty’s earlier implication about the cat being dead.
b) kill the evil zombie cat.
c) treat cat resurrection as a normal occurance.
d) get excited about a miracle.

I am so pleased they chose to be excited rather than force everything into making real-world sense or killing off what didn’t fit into their preconception. Miracle Cat mistakes are my favorite kind of mistakes.

*Stradivarius and the Other Kinds is**: Josh Blaney, Skizz Cheney, Meredith Malony, Kevin McLenithan, Marty Jones, and me, with generous assistance from Brendon Culhane and Blade Barringer.

**Or at least, it was for that show. We may grow and rearrange soon.