Monthly Archives: June 2015

Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard

I signed up for Fireball Theory because Jill Bernard was teaching it, and I continue to use exercises and my notes from the workshop I took from her last year. What was Fireball Theory? No clue, but if Jill’s teaching it, I’ll give it a shot.

With the title “Fireball Theory,” Jill said she was thinking of action movies where, somehow, the hero/heroine/poppet/dog can always outrun the giant explosion. They can’t necessarily stop it, but they can somehow run so fast that they escape without even mussing their hair. We can’t just decide to make fear and doubt go away when we step on stage, but if we play fast enough, we can outrun it. The workshop was mostly tricks to get players to snap into a decision before we had time to judge ourselves for it.

The most useful/easy-to-pass-on exercise was Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d, my favorite variation of an exercise I’ve done before in other classes. One person enters the scene with a simple line (“It’s Tuesday” or “I bought milk”) and the other person responds with a huge emotional reaction.

Here is a way to to think about emotional intensity. I do not know where this image came from originally, but I found it via Rance Rizzutto.


Even though all of those reactions are open to us at any time, when I introduce variations of this exercise by saying, “I want you to react at the most intense level of any emotion,” people tend to default to anger, for some reason.

Rather than leave this open to any reaction at all, Jill narrowed it down for us into four basic possibilities; most other emotions are combinations and nuances of those four. When we had that limit, we saw a greater range of emotion from players, not a narrower one.

Another thing that was different about Mad/Sad/Glad/Afra(i)d was that Jill let the scenes breathe, which means the initiator (“It’s Tuesday”) got to interact with the emotional player. Instead of defaulting to calming the other player down, it was more fun when the first player matched or added fuel to their emotions. The only response that was off the table for them was to discount their emotional scene partner by calling them crazy or asking them about what drugs they were taking.

To the objection, “But playing this way doesn’t feel realistic,” Jill had this response, which I loved:

“Bless your charmed life and all of the calm, reasonable people you know. I modeled this exercise after a family member I used to have who really was this volatile. It’s awkward and hard at Christmas, but much more interesting on stage. Also, you’re standing on a raised platform in front of people. This is already unnatural. Why are you drawing the line here?”

Some other notes, in no special order, I wrote down after this workshop:

  • Is this a day in the life of these characters, or is this the day when everything changes? (I think I’ve also heard Susan Messing ask this.)
  • When you react with a big emotion, you give the rest of your team permission to play with big emotions, too. What are you saving your energy for? You should always be exhausted by the end of a show.
  • Having a big reaction doesn’t mean you need to sustain that reaction at that level forever. It doesn’t have to be one long scream. It can be punctuation in the scene rather than the entirety of it.
  • If your scene partner is not giving you fuel, find fuel in your environment.
  • Some people improvise like everyone has a script but them. Go off script. There is no script.
  • Why are you worried about looking cool? We’re theater kids, so we don’t have to be the cool kids.
  • Improv is not a parlor trick. It’s art, and it can do anything theater can do. The role of art has changed in the last few generations, and it’s an artist’s job to remind the audience that they are alive. When was the last time we had an opera house riot?

If you live near Minneapolis, check out Jill’s shows and workshops at HUGE Theater. She’s one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve met, and the fun she’s having on stage is contagious.


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.

The Improv Retreat 2015: “I’d rather be here.”

I’m home from The Improv Retreat! I got home a few days ago, ready for one of my last hectic work weeks of the summer, when a bad vaccine reaction knocked me off my feet for a few days and FORCED me to rest up from camp. I’m better-ish now and have camp thoughts.

Much of what I wrote last year about the general feel of The Improv Retreat holds true again, especially this part:

[Tara, founder of TIR] 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.

This year, she emphasized, “Especially be this welcoming to the non-improvisers in your life! Your accountant friend needs to be treated with this kind of love, too.”

What was the same this year:

  • Campers were friendly and outgoing. Improvisers tend to befriend one another easily.
  • The counselors were fun and wise and supportive.
  • The shows were some of the best improv I’ve seen in awhile.
  • At least 2/3 of the campers were hypnotized at some point.

What was different this year:

    • It rained most of the time, which meant fewer outdoor activities and more indoor discussion times.
    • I haven’t had camp withdrawal since coming back like I did last year, because I have a regular place to play and teach now. Westside Improv didn’t exist yet last year, and now it does, and it makes improv more accessible for people who don’t live near Lincoln Park. (A mini-highlight for me was when someone said, “Did you say you live in the suburbs? You should check out Westside. I live in Chicago so I haven’t been out there yet, but I’ve heard good things.”)
    • I carpooled with a friend from church/work instead of people I barely knew. I liked those guys I barely knew! I got to know them over the course of the trip! But it was nice to have a friend from my everyday life around camp, even if we didn’t take the same workshops.
    • There were more familiar faces. It was comforting to see campers I recognized from last year as well as players from Westside.
    • Because of the whole my-third-trimester-started-while-I-was-at-camp thing, my energy was Very Limited. I reserved it for workshops and shows and sat out most of the jams and games. This also made me the loser who left the campfire around midnight after a s’more or two. (It seemed like the rest of camp was going to bed between 2am and never.) So I missed out on some improviser bonding time. However, everyone was gracious about offering me a chair or an extra serving of food when there was one to be had, and one of the lovely camp interns who read my last blog post even saved a bottom bunk for me ahead of time. I wasn’t ever made to feel out of place.

At one point on Saturday, I ran into Tara, who has shared publicly about her ongoing, scary-sounding health battles, and asked how she was feeling. She said, “My body would feel the same way at home as it feels here. Where I am doesn’t make a difference, so I’d rather be here. This is where the awesome, positive people are.”

Exactly. I’m not at all equating pregnancy with illness, but that holds true for me, too: I was going to be exhausted and uncomfortable no matter where I was. I don’t think being away from home for two nights made it any worse. I might as well use my energy to play when I can.

I’m so glad I went. I’m also so glad I’m home.

You can read other people’s camp thoughts by searching for #TIR2015 on Twitter. (Though, just like last year, if you go back much past last week, that hashtag refers to the Texas Independence Relay.) The other official camp hashtag is #muppetarms because of reasons.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing the notes I took in my workshops. If you took different workshops or just different notes, you should share those, too! I want to see!