Monthly Archives: June 2014

Geniuses, Poets, Artists, and Unexpected Guests

geniusThis is the “do unto others” of improv. Image by David Kantrowitz. Buy a print here.

At Open Source Improv‘s June show, the host introduced True Story and invited any improviser to jump up and play with us. We do this every month, and it’s given me a chance to meet and play with new people. It’s great.

However, on a bad day, I find myself hesitating on the sidelines when I’m playing with new people. Hm, I don’t know that guy. I don’t know his style. He might be tough to play with. What if he’s way worse than I am and I can’t save the scene? Or what if he’s a zillion times better than I am and I can’t keep up? I’m going to hang back and wait to play in a scene with someone I trust. And before I know it, I’ve leaned my back against the wall, violating my own neurotic rules of sideline etiquette and basically guaranteeing I won’t take any risks. Boring.

(See also: How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun)

But this month, one of the people to jump into the True Story was a kid who looked about 8 years old. Suddenly, there was no room for that, judge-y internal monologue. It was immediately obvious that our main goal had to be to make this kid feel like a rock star.

The scenes he was in didn’t make a ton of logical sense, but they were the most entertaining scenes in the piece. He got to drive a car, he was a criminal mastermind, he was the new Batman. I don’t know that he said more than three words together in the whole piece — he was too busy giggling — but he seemed to have a lot of fun.

A friend in the audience pointed out to me later that we “Yes, and!”-ed more boldly, without any hesitation, when the boy was in the scene. We were better at supporting one another, better at giving and accepting gifts, and better at treating each other’s ideas like the best ideas in the world. For those scenes, we were all trying so hard to make this kid feel like an artist/poet/genius that we had flashes of becoming those things ourselves.

Now if I can just turn that internal monologue off in jams when there isn’t an eight year old. Maybe that kid will come back every month. He was the best.

Questions and Answers

The last night of The Improv Retreat, the counselors did a Question and Answer session. I jotted down what I could, and I looked up #TIR2014 on Twitter to fill in some of the gaps. (Thank you, strangers, for tweeting during the Q&A.)

Any misquotes are because my handwriting is the worst; PLEASE correct me if I got something wrong.

When did you realize you were good at improv?

  • A few years from now, I hope. (Jill Bernard)
  • The moment you feel like you’re better than everyone else in the room, you’ve stopped improvising. (Rene Dequesnoy)
  • It’s for others to say if you’re a good improviser. For you, it should be enough just to be an improviser. (Joe Bill)


Should I focus on playing with people better than I am so I can rise to their level, or should I put my energy into mentoring newer players?

  • Regardless of who is “farther ahead,” play with the people you love because you’ll talk about improv differently with them. (Matt Higbee)
  • The next phase of learning is teaching. We learn from the mistakes other people make. (Rance Rizzutto)


What do you do when you’ve lost your mojo?

  • Focus on listening to other players and making your scene partner’s offers more specific.
  • Watch a totally different kind of performance, like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. (Michael Tatar)


What do you wish you could tell your younger self?

  • Relax. Don’t beat yourself up for not pretending well enough with your friends. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Concentrate on loving the work and having fun, and everything else takes care of itself. Don’t stress about whether you will become next big thing. (Charna Halpern)
  • Play with people who get you. You can tell when a team doesn’t get a player because they make no sense. (Jill Bernard)


Straight white twenty-something dudes are awesome and all, but how do we get more diversity in the improv community?

  • It’s not enough to open your doors. You have to chase after different kinds of people. In the long run, a good strategy is to teach improv at a high school. Make it part of kids’ culture early. (Jill Bernard)
  • The more open you are, the more open the person next to you will be. (Rance Rizzutto)


Do you find improv therapeutic?

  • If enough awkward kids come together, they become the cool kids. (Rance Rizzutto)
  • This is our island of misfit toys. Comedy gets fun again when you stop caring what other people think and get weirder. (Tara DeFrancisco)
  • Yes, but improv isn’t therapy. My degree is in theater. Also go to a doctor. (Jill Bernard) Improv is therapeutic, but oh my gosh improv is not therapy. Thank you, Jill.


Is there anything you miss about being new to improv?

  • The hunger to do it all the time. (Michael Tatar)
  • I don’t miss a thing. I still have everything I had then, plus some. (Joe Bill)


How has improv affected your life?

  • When you say yes, you have more adventures! And improv has made me more spiritually aware. Also, I get fewer parking tickets. (Charna Halpern)
  • Improv has affected single thing about my life. I play with my best friends, and they are the funniest people in the world. (Tara DeFrancisco)


Thus ends my blogging of The Improv Retreat, 2014. If you weren’t there and wish you could have been, go ahead and mark your calendar for the weekend after Memorial Day, 2015, and like The Improv Retreat on Facebook for updates. I hope I see you there.

And if you were there, did you take notes in any of your workshops? Would you be willing to share them? Leave a link in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list below.

Maria Konopken summarized her time at The Improv Retreat at National Improv Network:

“The camp experience is something I will not forget mainly because it took you out of your comfort zone. From each of my workshops they emphasized being here in this moment — this is what matters.”

Dan DeSalva wrote a review of the retreat at Life’s a Funny Scene:

Campers’ experience ranged from short-form to long-form; twenty-year vet to two-month beginner. … Everyone was so positive and open to meeting new people and learning new things while still being confident enough to share who they were with the rest of camp. It was an amazing atmosphere, void of judgment and full of weirdness.

I am a loser who is not on Twitter, but lots of people are, and they used #TIR2014 (which, if you follow it far enough back in time, becomes about the Texas Independence Relay) and #GablesUp to post about camp.

Here’s #TIR2014 on Tumblr. (Again, you will find the Texas Independence Relay if you look earlier than late May.)

No Humans

No Humans was the last of the three workshops I took at The Improv Retreat, and it’s the hardest to summarize. This is partly because we were up playing most of the time, so I didn’t write as much down. (This is a good thing. I once swore off workshops that didn’t leave me out of breath and sore.)

The other reason is that the teacher was Craig Uhler,* who communicates more with his face and physicality than he does with his words. This is so refreshing after having workshop teachers (not at TIR, but other places) who had us sitting through lectures more than they had us playing and trying new things.

“No Humans” gave us tools for organic group games,** which I LOVE playing but struggle with how to teach.

There are so many improv things that I’ve had to work on very hard, things I still struggle with. Because I am not a natural, it’s easy for me to identify with my students when I’m teaching a workshop.

Thank the Lord, different players have different strengths. Someone is awesome at snapping into a diverse array of characters, and someone else doesn’t need a mime class because she just sees what she’s touching. They can’t understand why I would need teachers for those things.

But organic games feel easy. They are my favorite part of improvising with a larger group. However, I’ve struggled with how to teach them, because it’s the one thing about improv that feels completely intuitive for me. Maybe it’s the English major in me looking for metaphor that lets me see the games.

Given that background, here’s what I loved about Craig’s “No Humans” workshop: He slowed the organic game down and broke it into several parts so that we could see how it ticked. We worked on a few categories of games, and it’s easier to explain with an example.

The suggestion is “oak tree.”

  1. Things in a thing. Each player becomes a non-human thing living in an oak tree — squirrels, birds, nests, ants, a tire swing.
  2. Lots of things, all the same. The group is a row of oak trees or of acorns.
  3. One thing, all together. Each player is a part of the same oak tree — the bark, the leaves, the roots, the trunk.

Once you’ve taken on the physicality, each player says or does something that establishes what they are, and then they interact with one another. Listen for a topic or emotion that seems pretty recognizably human. Once you’ve found that, dig into it.

For example, the row of acorns (#2) might talk about how one of them wants to be the tallest tree in the forest, another wants to be a good place for birds and squirrels to hang out, another likes being an acorn just fine and doesn’t see a need to turn into a tree, and another is excited to make lots of new little acorns someday.

It starts to sound like kids talking about what they want to be when they grow up, right? Once you notice that they sound a little like kids, make them sound MORE like kids. The acorns are a map of kids talking about what they want to be when they grow up.

There isn’t a right map or a wrong map, as long as everyone gets on board with the same map quickly. It might turn into something you’d never expect. (In the workshop, I found myself part of a wishing well that was lobbying for constitutional monarchy, and I was the tail of a dragon debating the claws and belly-fire about the merits of settling down in the suburbs.) Let it go where it goes.

Here are some other stray notes, paraphrases of things Craig said in class:

  • If your group has 6 people, do 1/6th of the work. Do not let yourself do 2/6ths or 3/6ths of the work, but don’t do 0/6ths, either.
  • Each choice is a gift that makes more choices possible. Make a choice.
  • If your impulse is to say, “I don’t like being a tree,” switch it. Decide to like the thing you were about to say you didn’t like. It establishes the same information (that you’re a tree!) but is more fun and positive.
  • Bringing truth into your pretending makes it easier to keep track of what’s going on in the scene, and we love seeing human moments from non-human things. That tree knows everything you know.
  • If you combine something one person said or did with something another person said or did, you’ll be the best game player ever.
  • Affect one another, but at least begin by assuming that you’re all on the same team.
  • If another player is a jerk to you on stage, act like you should if a friend were a jerk to you in real life: Ask them what the matter is, and maybe let them know you’re hurt. Be honest in the scene. If someone is acting like that all the time, though, maybe find different people to play with.
  • Keep in mind that we are all playing pretend. These are just theories about how playing pretend might work.

I came away with technique to back up my intuition, which should help me be a better communicator when I teach, and should help bail me out on off days when my intuition feels uninspired.


*I’d had Craig as a workshop teacher once, several years ago. It was on the Dream, which is a big group game that mostly lives in that game-y, non-scene space. Craig stopped me at some point in the workshop, asked for my name, and said, “Alyssa, you play hip.” Because he is an encouraging person, I am sure he’s told hundreds of students that they played hip. However, I would still like to make a note for whoever ends up writing my obituary someday: “Craig Uhler, who has more fun than anyone else in the world, once said of Alyssa that she played hip.”

**“Game” is the subject of an improv semantics crisis. I’m not even sure Craig used the word “game” in the workshop, but that’s the best word I have for what we did. For now, let’s define “game” as “a thing that happens on stage that isn’t exactly a scene.” It usually involves the whole group. However, a scene can also HAVE a game, most of what we did in this workshop also applies to less game-y scenes, and we really should come up with better terms someday.

The OTHER Conflicts

I signed up for this workshop at The Improv Retreat because I have noticed, in both my current troupes, that pieces are more fun if we spend at least half — hopefully more! — of the show NOT arguing. We’re more likely to have successful not-arguing pieces in practice than we are in shows, though, and I wanted help breaking out of that. At the same time, nobody wants to watch a show about pleasant people being pleasant.

Jill Bernard performs and teaches in Minneapolis, so I had never gotten to see her before, but I knew of her through these two excellent videos she made a few years ago.

So I was SUPER excited when I found out she was teaching the Conflict workshop.

Here are some stray notes I took. (Once again, any mistakes are because I wrote something down wrong, not because Jill wasn’t so joyful and encouraging that I didn’t consider stowing away home in her suitcase.)

  • Man vs. Man — Most people’s default conflict. It isn’t wrong, but argument comfortable to get into and hard to pull out of, and shows are boring if all the scenes are like this. Man vs. Man conflicts resolve when someone admits they’re wrong, when they agree to table the issue, or someone just decides, “I can’t stay mad at you!”
  • Man vs. Himself — Let your character talk herself into something or out of something. Let her completely change her position. If you take the audience along with her as she changes her mind, it won’t seem like you’re dropping out of character. Real people grow and change, so your characters can, too.
  • Man vs. Technology — This can be as simple as a jammed copier or as complex as a malfunctioning space shuttle. The important thing is that the technology is the adversary, not your scene partner.
  • Man vs. Nature — This can be as dangerous as an earthquake or as innocuous as weeds in the yard, as long as Nature is causing the problems. (This and Technology reminded me of People Take Warning, a compilation of Depression era disaster songs my brother used to play all the time, because ours was a cheerful house.)
  • Man vs. Society — More complex to pull off in an improvised scene, but worth a shot. Some people might have to stand in for Society, but Society is still the antagonist, not the person representing it.
  • Man vs. Supernatural — An entirely different genre we didn’t have time to get into, but now I am intrigued.
  • In those Man Vs. Something-Besides-Man scenes, it’s helpful to remember what other kinds of relationships characters can have to the protagonist. These can include (with examples from Lord of the Rings characters’ relationships):
    • Magical/mystical — Usually a walk-on who has a prophecy or inscrutable saying the hero needs to hear. Gandalf and Galadriel to Frodo.
    • Shared — Both are protagonists, like Lewis and Clark. Merry and Pippin to one another, once they’re on their own journey.
    • Sidekick — Believes in the hero and often serves as moral compass. (A villain’s sidekick is a minion.) Like Samwise to Frodo.
    • Cheerleader — A sidekick who stays home instead of going on the journey. Arwen (in the movies) to both Aragorn and Frodo.
    • Helpless — Doesn’t want to be in the way but can’t help it. Pippin to Gandalf and basically everyone.
    • Doubter — Voices fears or skepticism about the hero, but doesn’t oppose him. Hearing these doubts springboards the hero into action. Like Boromir to both Frodo and Aragorn (except Boromir does oppose Frodo for a little while) The more I think about it, though, the more I think the conflicts with Boromir weren’t JUST because he doubted, but because he couldn’t stand the thought of not being the hero himself.

All of that sounds kind of academic, but it wasn’t. The workshop was pretty active. (I left this workshop with bruises from being more enthusiastic than I am physically aware.) We practiced doing scenes with other kinds of conflict. For example, our suggestion might be blizzard, we had to pick different relationships to play besides vying for the protagonist spot. If it looked like the characters were starting to fight or like one character was minimizing the problem, Jill graciously side coached us back on track.

Since the workshop, I’ve been thinking about how to layer these archetypes onto common relationships to make them more interesting. Back in this post, I quoted T.J. Jagadowski:

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.

So someone may have named me as the main character’s mom in the scene, and my gut response is to feel a little boxed in. But I get a choice about what kind of mom to be. I could be the Doubter mom or the Cheerleader mom or any other kind of mom I want.

Here’s one more Jill Bernard video:

“So you wanna teach improv in the business world, huh?”

Before The Improv Retreat, campers had the opportunity to register for three workshops. The first one I took was “Improv in the Business World,” taught by Deanna Moffitt.

Deanna makes part of her living teaching corporate improv with Business Improvisations. The participants are there not to become performers but to become better leaders and employees. She has taught improv skills to MBA students, salespeople, managers, all kinds.  (Here is an amazing list of articles on the subject from Business Improvisations. Second City also teaches corporate improv;  here is a WBEZ piece about what one of these classes (taught by Andy Eninger of Second City) is like for a group of librarians.)

None of the exercises we learned were new to me, but the spin Deanna put on them made it obvious how relevant they were for life off stage.

Here are some of my notes. Any inaccuracies are because I can’t read my handwriting, not because Deanna wasn’t full of wisdom.

  • Make the corporate workshop as safe a place as possible. Get a verbal agreement from all participants that they are releasing judgment of themselves, others, and the exercises.
  • In a corporate context, saying “yes” doesn’t mean, “I agree with you.” It means, “I hear you.”  (This! This is so helpful. I was once on a committee of improvisers, and the guy in charge would force his half-baked ideas to happen by telling anyone who questioned him that we “really needed to have a spirit of yes, and, guys …” None of us knew how to argue with that, which meant awesome group mind turned into horrible groupthink.)
  • Choose exercises that don’t keep the spotlight on one person. If we’re all doing this together, nobody looks silly.
  • Learn to ask good questions, and get comfortable with silence. The participants will eventually break the silence with answers that fit their workplace better than anything you could suggest.
  • Improvisers are so indoctrinated with “yes, and” that we forget how revolutionary it was when we first learned it. It changes lives.

My favorite moment was after we played Red Ball — y’all know that I like Red Ball, right? — and Deanna asked us for how this might apply to our work lives. Right away, people saw it as an exercise in delegating, multitasking, letting go of anxiety, and lots of other things I hadn’t thought about in connection with Red Ball. I had thought of this game as having straightforward applications for church ministry, but I hadn’t thought about how it could work in any office.

Improv principles apply everywhere in some form, and you can trust that most people will see how improv fits into their own lives and workplaces.

I signed up for this class because I’m teaching “Improv Skills for Life” at The Greenhouse this fall, and I wanted some perspective on how to approach planning curriculum for a class that does not have performance as its goal. I came away with practical ways to break my goals for the class into smaller steps, and I can’t wait to start teaching it.

If you took this workshop, too, did you take different notes? What did you take away from the class?

Improv camp vs. church camp

Remember a few months ago when I got SO EXCITED about improv camp and asked everyone I knew to come with me? Nobody did. I went anyway. I’m caught up on sleep, the bruises from over-enthusiastic warm ups are fading a little, and I don’t even know where to start writing about it. So I’ll just start with the big picture of where I’m coming from and the spirit of the camp as a whole.

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 8.15.40 PM

Growing up, I went to summer camps or retreats between 15 and 20 times spread out over 9 years. They were all church camps. Different kinds of church camps — some were woodsy, others were on a beach, some were for student leaders, some were for anyone who wanted to be there. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all evangelical. I’ve wondered what non-evangelical people even DO at camp.

All weekend, I was looking for differences between camps I knew and this camp. And there were plenty. For instance, there were the rules.

Typical evangelical summer camp rules:

  • No hugging the opposite sex.
  • Shorts must reach at least your finger tips. (I am a tall person. There are no such shorts. I always ended up playing kickball in jeans in 102 degree weather.)
  • 8 million other ridiculous things that mostly have to do with clothes and not touching the opposite sex.

The only hard rules at The Improv Retreat:

  • Be cool.
  • Don’t go near the lake after dark.

So obviously, no legalism at improv camp. Awesome. I got to wear shorts and everything. But keeping-control-of-teenagers rules aside, I noticed more similarities than differences.

For instance, the last night there, I heard several iterations of these comments around the campfire:

  • “This has been such a high. But now how do I take all the joy and energy and skills I learned this weekend back to my troupe? What if they don’t get it? And how do I stay this confident when I have my next audition?”
  • “I need to do this with my life. I am going to go home and figure out what I need to do to quit my job and pursue comedy full time. It will be hard, but my whole heart’s in this. It’s what I’ve got to do.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about it, and I am keeping my day job. It pays the bills, and I’m good at it. Also, I think doing improv means I have something to offer my job that not everyone has. I can spread it around at work. And keeping one foot in the corporate world keeps my improv grounded.”

To me, these sound like the conversations people always had the last night of church camp.

  • “How do I take what I learned and apply it at school? My other friends are going to think I’m nuts. Even some of the kids at church won’t get it. How do I find people to keep me accountable once camp is over?”
  • “I think I’m being called to be a pastor or missionary full time. I know I won’t make much money, but I think it’s what God’s asking me to do.”
  • “The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t NEED to go into full time ministry to be a Christian. I can be good at my job and still be a witness in my office; I’ll go to church, but I won’t live in a Christian bubble.” (This last genre of camp-decision especially makes me think of this recent sermon from Fr. Kevin Miller on calling, which I highly recommend. He tackles balancing passion, finances, and service.)

The biggest similarity was the attitude that the counselors were preaching and living out. The camp’s founder Tara DeFrancisco especially talked a lot about inclusiveness, then put it into practice by drawing names from a hat to jump on stage instead of keeping it safe by only playing with her best friends. (You can see her do this every week at iO.) She reminded us improv has the capacity to welcome everybody, no matter how long they’ve practiced it, where they live, or what theater they call home. There doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. If improv welcomes everyone, we should, too.

Which sounds exactly like how church is supposed to be.

And campers took Tara’s exhortations to heart. I drove to that camp barely acquainted with a couple of people, and I came home with lots of new friends. I went with an inferiority complex about being an improviser in the suburbs when all the REAL improvisers are in the city, and I was reminded that the suburbs need improv, too, and encouraged to keep cultivating the community here. Chicago is the capital of the improv world, but it does not have a monopoly on improv joy.

Expect more detailed camp notes in the next few days, as soon as I decipher my own handwriting.