Picture Book Improv: Blue Hat, Green Hat

This year, inspired by Bill Arnett’s post about reading Richard Scarry books as Harolds, I started kicking off improv class with a picture book. My middle school students were, in theory, too old for picture books. (I’m not sure anyone’s too old for picture books, actually.) But starting class off with a picture book helped them all focused on the same thing and gave me useful shorthand to use in my side coaching.

The Book: Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat

Improv relevance: Pattern-based games, heightening, pacing, rule of three (loosely), reincorporation

Follow up exercises: Anything pattern-based. There are eight thousand pattern games, and everyone’s version is wrong except yours, probably. That’s fine. Pick your favorite pattern warm-up, then try breaking the pattern on purpose. Incorporate building and breaking the pattern into openings, scenes, and games.

Shorthand I took: “Is this a hat or an oops?” (Did you step on stage to show us more examples of the same thing, or did you step on to change something?) “Look for the oops!” (Players on stage, heighten. Players off stage, get ready to edit.)


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Each page has four animals, each wearing the same kind of clothing in different colors. The turkey is always last, and the turkey is always wearing the clothing wrong.

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After we’ve seen this pattern three times, it speeds up. We see one animal wearing something, then the turkey’s “oops” right away.

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We the clothing pattern six times before — finally! — the turkey gets it right. He’s wearing everything we’ve seen him mis-wear throughout the book, and he’s wearing it all at once. But then we see that he’s worn this outfit to a pool, when everyone else is in a swimsuit. Oops.

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By the second page, the book has promised us that the turkey will always mess up. Establishing a pattern lets us vary, heighten, and eventually break the pattern.

I’m not sure that improv games — I mean particularly the organic, non-scenic pieces of a Harold — need to be any more complicated than that. Establish the pattern, speed up or heighten the pattern, break the pattern. As we get more adventurous, the patterns get more sophisticated and the variations get wilder, but it’s the same core idea.


As I said above, I followed this book up with pattern-based warm ups. I also led a Conducted Story inspired by the principles the students pulled from the book:

  • Establish a pattern, then break it.
  • Show something about three times, or show three versions of a thing.
  • Stories feel over when something from earlier comes back at the end.

This gave us some of the best stories I’d seen so far from any group, kids or adults. Giving the students a framework made their stories more creative, not less. The players loved this exercise so much so much that they used a version of it, minus the conductor and plus some physicality, as their Harold opening.

3 Song Hot Spot

I know Hot Spot is a performance piece in Truth in Comedy, but I use it as an energy- and team-building warm-up, an exercise taking turns in the spotlight. Nobody is in the spotlight for long, and everyone has to get into the spotlight at some point.

In the improv for teenagers class I taught this year, we battled perfectionism and a tendency to separate the kids who were fluent in pop culture from the kids who weren’t. Hot Spot highlighted these pitfalls. Players didn’t want to jump into the middle unless they had the right song to sing. A song that nobody had sung yet, or a song they were sure they remembered all the words to, or a song that would help them fit in.

While everyone spun their wheels on the side, searching their mental playlists for perfect songs, some poor soul had been stuck in the middle for what felt like forever, and he only knew half the chorus to his song.

So I gave them three options: “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” “ABC’s,” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Yeah, those all have the same melody. The point is that everyone knows them, and there’s no way to look cool singing them. The point isn’t to do the perfect thing. It’s to do something.

Suddenly, they were tagging each other out. They were singing at the tops of their voices, with commitment, expression, and silliness. They were singing back-up vocals for each other.

When I launched them straight from 3 Song Hot Spot into a Harold, they worried less about saying the perfect thing in their opening. They listened better and piled onto the game with more energy. They were more playful and less prone to freezing up from trying to be original. They showed more of themselves, and they played the way I want to play.

Free Class: Three-line Scenes

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop, Yes, And, Conducted Rant, and Conducted Story.

Group 2 (which is still lined up onstage from their Conducted Story) head over to one side of the stage; Group 1, head over to the other. We’re going to end class with some three-line scenes.

To do scenes, we need all the skills we’ve worked on so far. What things made our games easier tonight so far?

  • Eye contact
  • Being specific
  • Say yes, and …
  • Listen
  • React honestly
  • Care about something
  • Don’t worry about being funny

All of those things will make scenes easier, too. You don’t have to remember them all right now. If you get stuck, I’ll remind you.

(If people look nervous, I add:) Remember our Yes, And game? How easy it was to say yes to someone and add one small thing? That’s all a scene is. You’ll say something, someone will say “yes, and” to you, and then you’ll say “yes, and” to them. You can even say the words “yes, and” out loud if you want.

Someone from Group 1 will step onto stage and say a line, any line. You can be a character or you can be yourself, either way is fine. Someone from Group 2 will join and respond to Person 1. Then, Person 1 will respond to Person 2’s response. That’s it! Then cross to the other side so that each person gets a chance both to initiate a scene and to respond to one.

(From there, I let everyone go twice, once as the beginner and once as the responder, mostly without comment from me except “Yay!” when a scene was over. This gave me a baseline. Then, depending on the size of the group and what their biggest struggle was in the first round, I’d pick one of the following specific instructions.)

For the next round:

  • The second person should care a LOT about what the first person says. Assume that what they say to you is important and that you should care about it more than anything. (This even applies if the first line was, “Huh, it’s Tuesday.” Find a way to care a lot about it being Tuesday. Be mad/sad/glad/afrad about what Tuesday means for you.)
  • Be the same kind of character as your partner. (It’s easier to be silly if someone’s being silly with you.)
  • Be an opposite of your partner. (Just for fun, as a contrast to being the same.)
  • Feel the same way as your partner. (For some, the tendency is to want to cheer up sad people, calm down angry people, and get excited people to chill out. We do that in real life as we seek out stability, but on a stage, we want to see those bigger emotions.)
  • No questions, just for this game tonight. (Not forever! Just for this game! I only gave this instruction if players were falling back on “Where are we?” and “Who are you?” and “How’s it going?” questions, and three lines isn’t enough space to have that kind of scene. “Where are we going to cast our spell?” and “Who are you to tell me how to raise my child?” and “How’s it going with the new job?” are excellent three-line scene questions.)
  • Try making your scene the opposite of the scene that came before yours. (Was the last one loud, about two older men, and in the middle of the stage? Pick at least one of those things and do the opposite.)

(We’d do as many of these as we had time for. If the group was finding a rhythm and having fun, I let the scenes expand to five or more lines.)

(It’s possible for a scene to crash and burn — or, more often, not get off the ground at all — in only three lines. If that happened, I found a thing the players did well to praise, then told them I was so excited about seeing them onstage that I wanted to keep them there a second. The tone I was going for was, “Again! Again!” rather than “you screwed up, do it over.”

Then, I’d give them one thing to change when they tried again, and I tried to keep that thing simple, positive, and directly related to the lessons from earlier games or the game of that particular round of scenes. “Let’s see it again with the same first line, but this time, the second person is going to be sad WITH you instead of telling you not to be sad.”)

Yay! You all did it! An improv show is just scenes, like that, like you just did. If this was your first time in this class, you especially did an amazing job. The exercises we did tonight are like the improv equivalent of concentrating on breathing in yoga, or warming up your voice before singing in choir. You never get so good at yoga or choir that you don’t have to be reminded to breathe. So you’re welcome back any time. If you want to build on these beginning stretches, the classes and workshops at Westside are the most affordable in the area, and you get a chance to perform early and often. If you want to see some improv in action, we have shows every weekend, and I hope to see you there!

As you can tell, my whole approach to coaching beginners basically boils down to clapping and saying “Yay! You’re doing it!” a lot.

That’s partly because it is endlessly fascinating to me to watch improv click in someone’s head and gut. I’m genuinely excited for them. It’s worth cheering about.

It’s also because, statistically, some people in the room are likely to be scared out of their minds. People who are scared out of their minds have trouble listening, focusing, and responding honestly. I want to build their confidence by praising like crazy the things they’re doing well and mostly ignoring the things that they haven’t caught onto yet. I’ll leave those to their coaches when they sign up for a paid class. (That is, unless someone is being insulting or physically aggressive or otherwise That Guy, in which case I shut them down immediately. This didn’t happen often in this setting, but I can’t say it never happened.)

I want for beginners to come away from class excited to try again and excited to better understand what they were seeing when they watched a show. I was continually baffled and delighted at people who took the class 3, 5, 15 times. Some veteran players who were already on house teams came, just to remind themselves why they loved improv in the first place and to welcome other people in. Some players I met because they were frequent attendees of the Free Class ended up on teams with me at the theater, which is my favorite thing ever.

Free Class is no more right now, mostly due to scheduling and a sudden decline in interest. But Westside still has the lowest barriers to entry of any theater I’ve ever heard of. At lots of Chicago theaters, you don’t get to perform until you’ve spent thousands of dollars in a year’s worth of classes. At Westside, you get your first show after just 8 weeks. I don’t think that’s a thing anywhere else in the area. Stop by!


Free Class: Conducted Story

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop, Yes, And, and Conducted Rant.

Stay in this nice line onstage, just like you’ve been standing in for Conducted Rant. Now we’re going to do the same thing, where I tell you when it’s your turn to speak, but I won’t have more than one person speaking at once this time around. Last time, you each told your own stories. This time, you’re going to tell one story all together.

Tell me a brand new fairy tale. You know how sometimes a 3 year old wants to hear the same story over and over again? When my brother was little, he didn’t just want “Jack and the Beanstalk” every night; he wanted the same wording and cadence every night. Tell this story in such a way that if I said, “Do it again!” you could.

Fairy tales can be about anything — some of them are scary, some are sweet, many have magic, some don’t — but they are not complicated. I don’t a story that you’d find in Orange Is the New Black or LOST that requires keeping track of a bunch of nuanced characters and plots. Give me a simple beginning, middle, and end.

(I wanted to keep them building a continuous story instead of sort of a jokey idea salad, which is a common tendency for people who are trying to be funny. Giving a positive goal, “Tell a fairy tale,” is more helpful than “Tell an uncomplicated story.”)

One more thing — when I’m conducting you, just like before, I may cut you off mid-thought. That’s ok. The next person will pick up where you left off. That means everybody needs to listen, just in case you need to finish someone else’s sentence.

(In the beginning, I let each person get a thought out. After everyone has said one thought, I start cutting people off sooner. If I cut someone off in mid-sentence and the next person doesn’t finish the thought, I redirect them. Like this:

Person 1: And then Charles said to the fairy godmo-

Person 2: Then Charles ate –

Me: She left off at “Charles said to the fairy godmo,” so what sounds like it should come next?

Person 2: Oh! Charles said the the fairy godmother, “I’m going to eat you alive.”

Me: Thank you, yes. Keep going.

I watch for them to get bogged down in the middle of the story. Most groups, if I say “Time to look for an ending!” will reincorporate elements from earlier in the story, which is an impulse I want to encourage.)

What made this easier?

  • Not thinking too far ahead. Yes! If you think too far ahead, you’ll miss something. You might have the fairy godmother saying something, when the person before you JUST established that the fairy godmother got eaten.
  • Just saying the thing that makes sense. Absolutely! Just say what seems obvious to you, what sounds like it should probably come next. The beautiful thing about making collaborative art like this is that you’ve had a different day than I’ve had. You have different life experiences and a different brain. What’s obvious to you may seem like a revelation to me. What’s obvious to me may seem like it’s out of nowhere to you. A bunch of people being very obvious and honest will end up making something original.
  • Not trying to be funny. Yeah! Saying whatever feels like it’s supposed to come next is harder to do if you’re worried about being funny. If I say “once upon -” don’t say “platypus” just because you think the word is funny. Nobody here did that. You did a great job of serving the story instead of trying to stand out as the funniest person. That’s the kind of improviser I want to play with and watch.
  • Saying something someone said before. Yeah! Not everything has to be new every line. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Take what everyone else said already as a gift you can use. Also, repeating some element of the story helps us know when the story is over. In fairy tales, repetition is a feature, not a bug. It’s satisfying to us to hear about Jack going up the beanstalk several times and stealing something each time. If he stole something the first time, then washed the giant’s car the second time, then built a fort out of the giant’s napkins the third time, it wouldn’t seem like much of a story.
  • Being ready to change what you thought the story was going to be. Yes! Whoever says it first makes it true, because improv is magic. If you were picturing Charles as a person with brown hair, then someone says that Charles is a fish, Charles is a fish now. In fact, now Charles was always a fish. The picture in your head needs to change to match the new reality we’ve discovered.
  • Giving the characters names. Yeah, we got tripped up a little when we had two male characters who just went by “he.” We had an easier time once we had Charles and George, and an even easier time once someone made Charles a fish. The more specific, the better. Specific things are easier to remember than vague things. The story where a guy goes a place and takes a thing isn’t nearly as memorable as the story of Jack climbing a beanstalk and stealing a harp. People tend to get vague if they’re afraid of stepping on someone else’s toes or if they weren’t listening and are afraid they missed something. Listen so that you accidentally override the reality the group has already established, but don’t fret so much about messing the story up that you’re afraid to be specific. You’re not going to break the story.

(Somewhere in here, a new player might say, “You keep saying not to try to be funny. I thought that was the whole point of improv.”)

Dave Pasquesi said somewhere or other that every show is us shooting an arrow at a target. The tiny bulls eye in the middle is The Perfect Show, which nobody will ever achieve. Shoot for it, but know that it’s impossible. But the rings around Perfect are Fascinating, Intriguing, Enlightening, Provoking, Moving. That outer ring is Funny. If you shoot for Perfect and you miss, you’ve got a pretty good chance at hitting Interesting or Funny. But if you shoot for Funny and you miss, you’re off the target entirely, and you’ve probably sold out your scene partner.

Laughter is the byproduct, not the goal. Being honest is easier than being funny, and it still makes the audience laugh. Audiences like to hear someone else express how they’ve felt before. They’re laughing because they’re connecting with you, not because you said a witty thing. Laughter is how people release emotion in a theater like this, even if the emotion is sadness or anger or surprise.

Life is a rich tapestry and there is nothing new under the sun, so there isn’t a point in working hard to be funny. This is great news! You can relax. Relaxed people are better listeners.

Free Class: Conducted Rant

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, how to play Bippity Bippity Bop and Yes, And

(Assuming the class had at least 6 people, I split them into two groups. The bigger the class, the less I could rely on them to be able to split themselves up evenly. With more than 12 people, I had them count off.)

First group, line up on the stage. Second group, you get to take a seat; you’ll be the audience this time around.

Those of you on stage, take a step forward, away from that back wall, so that you’re in a nice line.

(Left to themselves, new players will hug that back wall.)

I’m going to give each of you a word. Let that word will make you think of a story from your life or an opinion you have. You don’t have to talk about that word the whole time, but use it as a jumping off point.

For instance, if you gave me the suggestion “Brazil,” I could give you a few facts about Brazil. I know that they speak Portuguese, and the capital is Rio de Janero, and there’s that big statue of Jesus, and then I’m out of facts about Brazil. I have nothing else to say. But if I use it as a springboard, I can tell you about an always-expanding group of friends who used to get together to watch at least part of the movie Brazil every week. I can tell you stories about Thank God It’s Brazil Friday – TGIBF – all day. After awhile, we switched movies, and it became Thank God It’s Boys From Brazil Friday, TGIBFBF. I’ll never run out of stories about those friends, and they’re all more interesting than half-remembered facts from 5th grade geography.

(I really gave some variation on this example almost every week. Sometimes I used Africa. Same core group of friends, different pop culture obsession. The point of the example was to avoid a person spending their whole rant saying, “I don’t know anything about this word” by giving them permission to talk about something else if they wanted.)

For the purpose of this exercise, you are yourself, not a character. Don’t make up stories for us. Honest memories or opinions are best.

(I intentionally used the word honest instead of true to avoid confusion. I wanted to discourage fact-checking. I’d rather someone share a strong opinion that’s incorrect than a list of true things they don’t care about, and I’d rather hear a mundane but honest story than a fantastical invention. I’ve written more about the relationship between honesty and truth in monologues here.)

You don’t have to decide when your story begins and ends. I’ll take care of that for you. I’ll conduct you, like a choir. (I wave my hand up at a person.) Say “blah blah blah.” (I wave my hand down to cut them off.) Now stop. (I wave my hand at two people at once, who both say “blah blah blah.” Then I stop them one at a time.) See how that works? You may be talking alone or at the same time as other people. Here are your suggestions!

(I gave each person a word, and I tried make sure those words were unrelated. Usually, they were all images from the Mountain Goats or Tom Waits or some such thing. If my brain was tired, I grabbed words from article titles in my Pocket. At first I took suggestions, but that sucked up too much time. If I knew I was working with a more experienced player, I sometimes gave them more outlandish or arcane words to challenge them to connect them to their lives.)

(I have each person speak on their own for about 30 seconds or one beat of their story. After that, I almost always had two people talking at once. Having more than one person speak at a time helps the shy players feel like they can blend in, and it keeps the more outgoing players from hogging the spotlight. I varied it between stopping and starting a person a lot and letting someone go for a couple of minutes straight. I especially did the latter if the person seemed like they were telling an anecdote they’d told so many times that it sounded rehearsed. I wanted to see what would happen when the mental script ran out.)

What made that easier? What tips would you give the next group?

  • Remembering something that really happened. YES. Anything that’s happened to us is fair game for us to use onstage.
  • Not worrying about being funny. Right! Because, honestly, we couldn’t follow what you were saying anyway, since more than one person was talking at once. A stand up-style joke with a set up and punch line wouldn’t work well here, since you didn’t know when you’d be cut off. Being honest is easier, and it’s more fun to watch.
  • Tuning out the background noise. We have to do that sometimes. This theater doesn’t have a bar, so we don’t get many hecklers, but there are still coughs and people who forgot to turn their phones off and shuffling around in the audience, and it helps to be able to tune that out.
  • Listening to the people around me, especially when it wasn’t my turn to talk. I saw that! You were finished with the story you first wanted to tell, so you let someone else’s story inspire you when it was your turn again.
  • Not worrying too much about if I was using my suggestion enough. Sometimes you’ll get a suggestion that you have no idea what to do with. I’ve got some pretty big cultural blind spots, especially around sports. (I’m pretty sure someone has given me something like “Peyton Manning” and I’ve said, “I knew a kid named Payton once, and one time Payton’s little brother … ” and just told you stories about this kid I knew.) All the suggestion is for in an improv show is to prove to the audience that you didn’t script the show ahead of time. Feel free to discard it when it’s not useful to you — better yet, as you just did, follow it until you find something useful.

Audience, what was most fun to watch?

  • When someone was mad/upset/excited/animated. So basically, when someone cared, whether that was a positive or a negative emotion. I could see you in the audience, and your eyes were all drawn, not necessarily to the loudest person, but the person who cared the most about what they were saying. You do not have to try to be funny or clever. If you try to be funny and fail, you’ve lost us. If you are honest and care about what you’re saying, we’ll stay with you whether you’re funny or not.

Second group, you have some pro tips now. Switch places!

I recently used this exercise in a middle school improv class I’m teaching, and I gave a kid the suggestion, “shampoo.”

He said, “Shampoo. I use shampoo to wash my hair. It’s blonde. Sometimes people ask if it’s natural, and it is. I love nature. My favorite stuff is in nature. My house is in the woods, and …”

That is exactly the kind of association I was looking for. He talked for about a beat until he found a way to tell stories about something he loves: the woods around his house. A+, kid.

Free Class: Yes, And …

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, so I’ll pick up where I left off, after Bippity Bippity Bop, still standing in a circle:

We practiced saying Yes earlier, which is a basic building block of improv. To actually build something with those blocks, “Yes” isn’t quite enough. We’re going to add “And.”

You’re going to turn to the person on your left and say a simple sentence. Say something about your day, or give an opinion you have. For this particular game, let’s stay away from questions.

The person you spoke to is going to respond with their own sentence, which they’re going to start by saying, “Yes, and …” Don’t work to make it funny, just say whatever you feel like should come next. The first honest thing that pops into your head is fine. Then the second person will to turn to their left and say a new sentence, and we’ll go all the way around the circle.

  • I mowed my lawn today.
  • Yes, and you have grass stains on your shoes.
  • I like smoothies.
  • Yes, and I can make you a smoothie!
  • Your hair looks great.
  • Yes, and I just got it cut.  (Watch for “no” or “yes, but …” responses to compliments. Some people have trouble agreeing when someone says something nice about them.)

(I pay attention for people who say “Yes, but …” or who say the words “yes, and” but then follow it up with a non sequitur or argument. The game is called Yes, And, so that’s how we’ll play it this round. If it feels a little wooden, it’s usually because someone is stalling to think of the correct thing to say. I remind them that anything honest is also correct.)

How did that feel? Easy? Y’all caught on fast and made it look easy. That’s great! Just for kicks, let’s go around again, but this time, start your responses with, “No, but …” (For the sake of comparison, I’ll use the same examples as above but with different responses.)

  • I mowed my lawn today.
  • No, but the snakes are going to die.
  • I like smoothies.
  • No, but smoothies are gross.
  • Your hair looks great.
  • No, but I hate my hair.

Great! How did that feel, compared to the first round?

Slower. Harder. It didn’t make as much sense. Kinda mean. Like it wasn’t going anywhere.

One of the theater’s owners, Jeff, likes to say that when you say or do something in an improv scene, you’re laying a brick. Let’s run with that analogy. When the next person responds by saying “Yes, and …” then they’re putting a brick on top of your brick, and now we’re building something together, even if we’re not sure yet what it is going to be.

Saying “Yes” by itself is like saying, “You’re going great work building that thing!” without pitching in and helping.

Saying “Yes, but …” is like saying, “Hey, great thing you’re building there,” and then starting your own different building a few feet away. You’re supposed to be building something together, but instead you’re just going to get in each other’s way.

Saying “No, but …” is like kicking someone’s brick over. You’ve undone their work. We call that denial.

“Yes, and …” can build a house, a cathedral, a strip mall, anything. Denial just gives us a pile of rubble.

(Here, someone with a performance background might bring up that we need conflict to have drama.)

You’re right! I’m not saying there can never be conflict. But that conflict shouldn’t be between the actors. We don’t have the safety net of a script to tell us what our world looks like and where our story is going. Our safety net is each other. You can be characters who disagree or fight or are at cross purposes, but as players, you’re still on the same team.

Starting out by saying “yes, and …” will help us figure out who we are and what world we’re building so that we don’t get trapped bickering about whether we’re in a cave or in a gym, or about whether we’re married or siblings. Bickering is boring and hard to stop once you start.

The times when players had unscripted interactions with each other in my Free Class were pretty brief, so this didn’t often come up, but watch for a player who says something cruel or disrespectful and expects to be supported because of “yes, and.” My assumption was that if someone said something sexist, racist, or violent, it was because they had a sexist, racist, or violent streak. To give them a chance to course-correct, I’d say, “Oh! Sorry, I should have said; for this game, you’re not a character. You’re just you. When we do scenes later, you are totally free to try being the bad guy if you want.”

If it happened a second time from the same player, I’d stop the game immediately and say, “Hey, you are each other’s safety net, so be respectful.” Then I let the theater owners know to watch out for That Guy in future classes.

“Yes, and” is a tool for building something, not controlling someone. As the Chicago comedy scene has been talking about lately, some people use the “yes, and” concept to manipulate people. Michael Yichao has a great post about this problem on his blog, in which he suggests moving away from that language.

The dichotomy and challenge is we want to create a safe space where we CAN explore sensitive subjects (and make mistakes, discover WHY things are offensive, and explore what things reinforce damaging paradigms vs what things are funny and upset established power dynamics). However, we MUST also have a space where if lines are crossed we can point it out without fear of breaking a rule or being told we’re “just not getting the joke” or “not saying yes.”

I know for myself and many of my peers, part of the draw of improv is its empowerment and inclusivity. It’s a core part of the concept of “Yes, And” – we are all “correct,” whatever we say, and we have the power to create new things from that. Yet I imagine we can do a stronger job in shifting our approach just slightly to avoid some of the inherent, subtle problems of demanding agreement.

I agree. There are other, better ways to teach and reinforce listening and collaboration. But I don’t know what I’d replace “yes, and” with in a short beginners’ drop-in class without getting clunky or abstract. Thoughts?


Free Class: Bippity Bippity Bop

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, so I’ll pick up where I left off, standing in a circle:

While we’re in this circle, here’s a game called Bippity Bippity Bop.

(I jump into the middle of the circle.)

When I point to someone, I’m going to say “Bippity, Bippity, Bop!” If I’m pointing to you, your job is to say “bop” before I have time to say “bop.” If you beat me, you stay where you are, and I try someone else. But if I beat you, you take my place in the middle of the circle.

(Seldom does anyone have trouble with this, though people who haven’t played before tend to tense up visibly, usually locking their knees or jaw. It’s unlikely anyone will get out this round, but I cheer whenever it happens eventually and every time afterward. The rest of the players follow suit.)

Good! You are awesome at this, so I’m going to add something. This time, I could say “bippity, bippity, bop!” or I could say “truck driver.” If I point to you and say “truck driver,” you grab a steering wheel and honk a horn. The person to each side of you is going to come and be the wheels of your truck. It looks like this.

(I try to find a clump of two or three people I recognize to demonstrate.)

If all three of you aren’t in place by the time I count to ten, the person I pointed to is now in the middle of the circle. This is true even if it was the left wheel in their own world. The person I point to is still It.

(I mix “truck driver” up with “bippity bippity bop” and hopefully get someone out after a couple of tries. People are forced to unlock their knees to get quickly from one side to the other.)

(I add “Charlie’s Angels,” which makes only a moderate amount of sense to me since I’ve never seen that show, but that is the move I inherited. Three people go back to back, pantomiming weapons of some sort, and say “Thank you, Charlie!” After the group gets the hang of it, I add “Little Mermaid,” which is a person singing on tiptoes with people on either side hold their hands. When I teach this elsewhere to middle school kids, I pick fewer dated pop culture-y things, like “elephant” or “fighter pilot,” anything that three people can do symmetrically.)

(By this time, fake grudges have formed, and most people have relaxed their jaws enough to laugh. I add a twist.)

Since you seem to have all four of those moves down, I’m adding one last one. If I point to you and say “Bop!” without saying “Bippity, Bippity” first, you say nothing. If you say “Bop,” start singing on your tiptoes, reach for your steering wheel or your gun, you’re in the middle.

(We play until several people have gone. Ideally, people are swapping into the middle frequently, and everyone is still cheering every time there’s a swap.)

What made that game easier or more fun?

Eye contact made it easier. Just like earlier! It’s still true. It will always be true.

Staying loose made it easier. Yes! You have to be ready to do one of several things, not just be a robot who says “bop.”

Listening made it easier. Especially near the end when we had so many possibilities! You don’t want to get caught saying “bop” when you’re supposed to be driving a truck. You can’t assume you know what someone is going to say before they say it, so listen!

Who were you relying on? The people around me. Who was relying on you? The people around me. 

What was the worst that could happen if you messed up? I ended up in the middle. And when did we get most excited? When someone got in the middle. The worst thing that can happen on this stage is you say something dumb and maybe people will laugh at you. Look around. You’re in an improv theater. People come down here to laugh. That’s a pretty good worst-case scenario.

Confession: Of all the games we played, this is the only one that felt tedious to me at times. Every week, I tried to think of another game that rewarded being alert, focused, responsive, supportive, silly, and energetic all at once. I never came up with one. Most beginner exercises I know work two or three of those skills at a time. Bippity Bippity Bop is an efficient game.

The downside of Bippity Bippity Bop is that it takes for. freaking. ever. to teach to a new group, and the nature of this class is that every group was a new group. If there was one person who had never played before and nine who had, I still considered it a new group.

Free Class: Welcome and Saying Yes

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. Here’s how I’d start class every week:

Hey! Welcome to Westside! If you have performed at Second City or iO or somewhere for years and years, you’re in the right place. If you have never been on a stage in your life, you are also in the right place! Go around and say your name and if you have any improv or performance experience.

My name is Alyssa, and I’ve been doing various kinds of improv for about 14 years, which is half of my life.

(Someone has performed for years, though they recently took a bit of a break and are trying to shake the rust off. Someone else maybe saw an episode of Whose Line once. Someone’s new to me, and someone else has been coming for a dozen weeks straight. I try and usually fail to memorize everyone’s names right away.)

When you think of improv, what do you think of?

(People say funny, smart, witty, fast. Someone says guessing games. Someone says TJ and Dave.)

So I just heard about a lot of different kinds of improv — short form like Whose Line Is It Anyway, long form like many Chicago theaters — even different long form theaters have different approaches. But all those kinds of improv have at least one thing in common at their foundation, which is the idea of saying YES.

Depending on what you do up at street level, you probably say no a lot. I’m a teacher for little kids, so I say no a lot, because little kids sometimes want ridiculous or impossible things. Saying no can be healthy and necessary to protect ourselves and others. But down here, you can assume that everyone here is on your side, so you can afford to say yes. Making that switch takes practice, so now we’re going to practice.

Point to someone, wait for them to say yes, then move to take their spot in the circle. Once you’ve said yes to someone, point to someone else, wait for a yes, then move. Your feet are glued to the ground until someone has said yes to you.

(We play this game for several minutes until we find and enjoy a rhythm. If the group was bigger and caught on quickly, I’d have two or three people pointing and moving at a time instead of just one person.)

What made that easier?

Eye contact made it easier! Let’s remember that. Look people in the eyes.

Pointing specifically instead of vaguely made it easier! Specificity is awesome. Let’s remember that, too.

Not worrying about WHO you are going to point to next also made it easier! There’s no wrong person to point to. Nobody here said no to anybody. Let’s remember that: the people in this room are going to say yes to you for the next hour and a half.

Finding a rhythm made it easier! Sometimes you’ll see a group that looks like they’re reading each other’s minds. They’re not. We haven’t figured out telepathy yet. They’re just saying yes in a particular rhythm, which, to an audience, looks like magic.

Free Class by the numbers

From December 2014 until a couple of months ago, I taught a weekly free introductory improv class at Westside. I thought of it as recess for grown ups, and I loved it. It was a low-risk way for people who had never been on a stage before to try it out, and it was a way for people who have improvised for years to play with new people and remind themselves why they started doing improv in the first place.

I left for a few weeks to recover from childbirth, and by the time I came back, most of the improvisers who had been coming regularly had joined teams, enrolled in more advanced workshops, or had otherwise moved on. The weekly Free Class is no more.

(If this makes you sad, you should know that Westside’s Jam is still free, and their improv classes are about half the price of other suburban training centers. Here’s some info!)

Over the next few days/weeks/whenever I have a break, I’m going to write out more of what we did during a normal week of Free Class. For now, here are some Free Class stats:

  • 33total number of classes I taught
  • 48number of classes there were total from December 2, 2014 through October 27, 2015.
  • 448number of people who took the class, if you don’t take into account that many players came more than once
  • 113number of people who actually came through the class
  • 11.2average number of players each week
  • 3.14average number of new players each week (and also π). I only had one week with no new faces.
  • 22number of players in the largest class
  • 1number of players in the smallest class. Yep, I taught a one-on-one improv class to someone who had never performed before, and she rocked it.
  • 10approximate age of the youngest player I taught.
  • 60-somethingapproximate age of the oldest player I taught, though my guess could be far off in either direction
  • 2number of weeks between the last full class I taught and the day my kid was born

Extracurricular Reading

I took a break from most improv things for the past 6 weeks because first I was too pregnant to move, and now I have a 1 month old baby who doesn’t like to be set down for very long at a time. Luckily for my sanity, Circus Police practices at my house, so I’ve been able to play a little bit (and have some grown-up human interaction) most weeks. While I was in the hospital, they left all of this at my house, because they are the best.


A banner for our kid!


And snacks and flowers for us!

While I haven’t had the mobility or energy to teach classes or see shows lately, I have been stuck in one spot holding a kid who will get very upset if I move even a little. And I’ve been stuck in that spot with a phone, so I’ve been catching up on articles that have been sitting in Pocket for awhile. (I really like Pocket. They are not sponsoring this post, but if they WANTED to sponsor an irregularly updated improv blog, they would be welcome.) Here are the improv-related articles that have stuck out to me, in case you need some extracurricular reading:


Why People Get Obsessed: The Religion of Improv

The most popular improv advice sounds like spiritual challenges. “Follow the fear” — without even considering if that’s actually practical advice for an improvised comedy scene, you want to believe that. You’ve been hungry to have someone tell you to follow the fear. You find a way to make that advice true.

You may come to improv because you like comedy, but if you stay, it’s because all this advice challenges you in a way that you’ve been hungry for. You want this to be a more interesting world, and you want to be a braver person, and then in a dingy improv classroom someone is saying it to you.

Going Clear: Improv and the Prison of Yes And-ing (parody! Improv is great!)

6 Ways to Be the Most Annoying Person in Your Improv Class

Another great way to alienate yourself from your improv class is to be the person who is too cool to do improv. Roll your eyes during the warm games and mutter “This is stupid” under your breath. … Make it clear you don’t want to be there and that you are obviously above all of this. This will give your classmates plenty to talk about at the bar after class.

We Asked an Improv Coach to Rate the Republicans’ Debate Performances

Gethard … quickly realized that the debate had two broad things in common with improv: “Way too many white dudes, and sycophantic cheering.” But, more important, he deduced that each of the men fell into a specific archetype of improv performer and was even able to determine which candidates would be good at improv, and which would be terrible.

Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?

If you are a white male, you might be getting defensive right now. I know I have in the past when confronting this issue. We think that all we have to do is be fair. We think if we have open auditions and cast “the best people” then eventually our ensembles will get more diverse. We think if we recruit people of color to be in our classes that eventually they will become a part of shows. And maybe they will. But it’s not enough. If your performers are mostly young, white, straight men, I bet that in 10 years, they will still mostly be white, straight men, only the median age will have changed.

If you really want change, you have to do more.

Improvising a Better World (Tedx Napa Valley talk by Dan O’Connor)

Not about improv, but relevant anyway: “Hamilton” and the End of Irony

It is unabashedly dorky. It’s not a “nerd” in quotes. In fact, it never wears air-quotes at all. …

This is new.

If the success of “Hamilton” signals anything, it is that irony is dead. We have exhausted its creative potential. Making things with quotation marks around them is exhausting. Standing at one remove is over. Put your air-quotes away. You won’t need them anymore.

This Friday, I’ll shake off the rust and jump back onto the stage at Westside. I’ve never performed or taught at Westside without also being pregnant. Next week, I’ll resume teaching the Free Class. (Man, I love the Free Class. You should drop by.)