Tag Archives: Improv Nerd

Group Work and Getting Playful with Lyndsay Hailey

Of the three workshops I took this year at The Improv Retreat, Lyndsay Hailey‘s “Group Work and Getting Playful” is the hardest to capture in words. Like a lot of physical workshops, it was definitely a you-had-to-be-there thing.

Lyndsay’s focus was finding a nonverbal game (the kind you would see opening a Harold) and taking that game as far as it could possibly go. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s easy to heighten to a 7 or 8, but the game isn’t really over until you push through to 10. Editing before then feels unsatisfying and muddy.

As a class, I think we successfully heightened to 10 maybe 1/4 of the time. It’s something you develop an instinct for by trial and (lots of) error. Lyndsay was great at helping us see how to heighten what was already there instead of imposing new ideas of how the game should go.

A couple of stray notes:

  • We talk about improvisers being geniuses, artists, and poets. That does not mean that you need to put your energy into getting people to see you as a genius/artist/poet yourself; it means you should see those qualities in other people and treat them accordingly. This takes the focus and responsibility off you and makes you a more fun, supportive player.
  • In a group game, if you find yourself looking for something better to do, instead look for something deeper or more heightened. The trick is to deepen/heighten the game without letting any elements go.
  • The tighter the group mind, the more a single theme will emerge from a game. If you ask, “What was that game about?” and get four different answers, then the game was probably not heightened like it could have been.

I didn’t get to take Lyndsay’s yoga/Meisner class this year, mostly because it seemed like it might be a little more physically intense than my 3rd trimester self could handle right now. But rumor has it that that workshop was wonderful as well. If you took it, care to share your thoughts?

If you find yourself in LA, you should definitely look up Lyndsay’s shows and classes. You should also check out her interview with Jimmy Carrane on Improv Nerd from a year ago, right before she moved away from Chicago.

Who and Who and Who and Who

There’s an exercise I’ll call “Heat and Weight. I am stealing it from T.J. Jagadowski:

Stand facing a partner, and think of an impossibly specific relationship and situation. Not, “We’re sisters,” but, “We’re sisters, and I’m 15 and you’re 18, and I need your advice because I might be in trouble, but I’m also afraid you’re going to tell mom and dad and get me in MORE trouble.” Then, for about one minute, stare at your partner and try to communicate this information with your eyes. Don’t talk or pantomime. Just stare. Then ask your partner if she got it.

Your partner probably won’t get it verbatim. But she might get, “We’re coworkers, and you’ve messed something up on a report, and you need me to cover for you, but you’re also afraid I might rat her out to our boss.” But can you see how that’s basically the same relationship (heat) and the same stakes (weight)?

Switch partners and try again. Then try it where both of you are giving and receiving at the same time. Then try it again, but go straight into a scene after the minute of silence. Shrink that minute to thirty seconds, and do it again. Shrink that thirty seconds to fifteen, and do it again. Shrink that moment of silence, but don’t skip it.

Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s barely even an exercise. It’s just how you start scenes. The what and where and why will come if it needs to, but eye contact will help you establish who you are to each other without all of that expository nonsense in the first few lines.

If you’ve seen T.J. and Dave, a moment of quiet eye contact is how they begin their shows. In Jimmy Carrane’s interview with T.J., T.J. says:

You can’t really talk yourself to clarity, you usually have to quiet yourself to clarity. When you try to talk yourself to the next thing you know about each other, it sounds like you’re searching for that thing.

They talk about who, what, where … Give me who, give me a little more who, start to solidify your who some more, give me some more who on this. Maybe we’ll find out where where is, I don’t know what a what is. I still don’t know what the what is, so. Now you’re there. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

[The who] is how those two people are in that moment, in that time with each other. … Fathers and sons behave like colonels and sergeants, and fathers and sons behave like best friends, and fathers and sons behave like sons and fathers reversed, so the title does not suffice.”

Listen to that episode of Improv Nerd here. The whole hour is interesting, but the last 10 minutes or so are gold.

We’re improvisers, not journalists. Let’s get back to who and who and who and who and who.

Students scaring teachers

Last night, I played again with my friend Brendon at Open Source Improv. It was our second show. We were all warmed up, the logistics were taken care of, I was feeling relaxed and ready …

Until 3 of my students walked in the door.

Then I got anxious.  

Every week or two, Jimmy Carrane posts a talk show podcast called Improv Nerd, which I highly recommend. His guests are talented improvisers who have some connection to Chicago’s improv scene. In the dozen or so episodes I’ve listened to I’ve noticed a trend:

It doesn’t matter how many Second City Mainstage shows they’ve done, how many i.O. classes they’ve taught, even how many seasons they performed on Saturday Night Live. They say that they’re afraid of being found out as frauds.

This seems especially true of improv teachers. When I took classes at i.O, a few of my teachers would encourage students to come to their shows, then quickly admit that having students in the audience freaked them out. If they just taught a 3-hour class on environment, then their show better have a rich environment. If it doesn’t, their students might call them on it. Or worse, their students might lose respect for them.

I think that’s where my anxiety was coming from last night. It helped that I’d heard so many players I admire come on Improv Nerd and name that feeling. Naming the fear drained some of its power. That gave me enough distance harness that fear as energy instead of letting anxiety win the day.

I felt better about this show than about the last show, partly because the students were there to scare me.* I think I play better when I’m scared but don’t let the fear win.

*I do not think they were there for the purpose of scaring me. That was just a side effect.