Category Archives: Uncategorized

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!

Packing for TIR 2015 WOOOOOO!!!!!

The Improv Retreat is coming up! If you want to know what it was like last year, I summed up the workshops I took, the Q&A session, and my general experience of TIR2014 here.

I’ve agonized over and finally signed up for my workshops, found a carpool buddy, and let my workplace know that I won’t be answering my phone or email over that weekend.

Last year, I was glad I brought:

  • Bedding (pillow and sleeping bag)
  • Shoes (comfortable walking shoes, flip flops for the shower)
  • Sun protection (sunscreen and hat)
  • General toiletries
  • Notebook and pencil
  • Flashlight
  • Warm weather clothes for the day, plus a jacket for night

 

This year, because I learned my lesson last summer, I will also remember to bring:

  • Ear plugs (as there will be a snorer in every cabin)
  • Serious bug spray (because it’s the woods)
  • Protein bars (kosher, to comply with campsite rules)
  • Chocolate (for s’mores; chocolate supplies were low by the time I got to the fire pit Saturday night last year)
  • Refillable water bottle

When early registration started for camp, I didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. I might not have signed up if I’d realized. And even after I found out, there is the scary-but-statistically-probable reality that being 1 month pregnant in December did not necessarily mean I’d still be pregnant by the end of May.

By the time my doctor was 100% confident that this pregnancy was going to stick, the deadline for cancelling my camp registration had passed me by, and I decided I didn’t care. I am going anyway, regardless of physical challenges, because who knows if I’ll be able to go next year?

Also, if our camp director Tara can run the whole shindig while undergoing a stem cell trial for her heart, I sure can handle playing while tiring easily, needing a lot of snacks, and occasionally getting kicked in the ribs.

So, as I’ll be entering the third trimester of my pregnancy while at camp, I’ll also need:

  • Giant, ridiculous, but TOTALLY NECESSARY HOW ELSE ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE WITHOUT WITCHCRAFT pregnancy pillow
  • To arrive early enough to claim a bottom bunk
  • To take it easy during the more physically challenging workshops
  • To be as gracious as possible to people while still firmly defending my personal space. Improvisers are the best people in the world, but I still don’t want my torso touched by people I just met. Or by anyone, actually. Everybody stop touching my torso.

I’m so excited to get out of town and into the woods for a weekend with lots of other improvisers. Say hi, y’all!

Craig Uhler’s Scene Work Elective

I just finished up Craig Uhler‘s scene work elective at iO. I took it because I felt like I was in a rut in my scenes, and I’d been unsuccessful at working my own way out of it. And I especially wanted to take another class with Craig Uhler, who taught the awesome No Humans workshop at The Improv Retreat last year and who has more fun than anyone else in the world.

I love Craig’s teaching because he’s more interested in getting players on stage than he is in lecturing on improv theory (which he calls “some ideas we have about how to pretend”). This is awesome for me, because as much as I love improv theory, I am prone to over-thinking and learn more by jumping in and DOING.

Also, Craig is good at getting to the root of where someone is stuck, and his feedback is both no-nonsense and encouraging. Even when his feedback to someone was, “Quit being a jerk,” he managed to say that in a constructive way that helped the player immediately.

This is unrelated to Craig’s teaching, but one of my favorite things was that this class started out with a pretty even split between men and women. As the class went on, a handful of the men flaked (especially around St. Patrick’s Day, because it’s Chicago), which left a mostly-female class. I LOVED this. I have so rarely been in classes or on teams with mostly women, and I got to see and play a broader range of characters than I see/play in troupes of mostly dudes.

Here are some stray notes from the class:

  • Keep your initiations simple. We should have a pretty good idea of who/what/where by the time the scene has gone on for a minute, but we don’t need it all in the first line.
  • Bring yourself into your characters. How would you play your parent in a scene? How would you play your best friend? Most people, if they’re being themselves, act like a combination of their parent and best friend.
  • In a group scene, if you notice an odd man out, try to bring them in. Putting people down may get you ahead in life, but it hurts your improv.
  • Be at least as smart as you are in real life. Play the nice version of yourself who cares about things. If you choose to play a character who is a jerk or is perpetually confused, it can come across as fear or not supporting your partner. Jerks and stupid people aren’t off limits to play, but they shouldn’t be your default.
  • Specificity reads as confidence. Vagueness can look like panic.
  • Play with your scene partners, not next to them or in spite of them.
  • When you start a scene, assume well-meaning friendship with your scene partner. If something else develops, that’s awesome, but don’t force conflict or a complicated relationship at the top.
  • If you’re tired or half-sick but need to do a show anyway, do not sit down. Inertia will kill you if you sit. You can play calm characters that you like, but they can’t spend lots of time sitting.
  • Protect yourself by having lots of fun. If you’re having fun, you’re rarely going to ruin a show.

If you’re stuck:

  • Say what you want. You will never hurt a scene by saying what your character wants and going after it.
  • Start sentences with “you” or “I” statements. (“You know … ” and “I think … ” don’t count.) That way, we learn about the characters.
  • Mirror your scene partner’s emotions. Care about what they care about.
  • Touch your scene partner. (But don’t be creepy or violent, or nobody will want to play with you.)
  • Repeat something your scene partner said.
  • Change up the stage picture.
  • Say something small talk-y you would say in real life or give a mini-monologue from your life. Just a line or two. A good scene partner will treat that as important.

Again, none of this came out in lectures, but as notes immediately after or during an exercise. Everyone got lots of stage time.

Craig is already planning to offer the class again. Here’s a link to the iO electives page for details. If you want to get out of a scene rut, you should definitely take it!

Why your kids (and you!) should learn improv

I wrote a letter to parents of kids who would enjoy taking my improv class later this winter. Most families just know me as a Latin teacher, and they may or may not know what improv is or how it could benefit their kids.

Here’s what I wrote to them.

Improvisation — creating unscripted theater on the spot — helps students develop their performance and leadership skills. It’s also a laboratory for learning to love their neighbor in the moment, and it’s an enormous amount of fun!

Your student might want to take improv if:
  • They love creative writing once they’ve thought of something to write about, but they wish coming up with new ideas didn’t feel so hard.
  • Their biggest complaint about the annual school play is that their character is in only a portion of it, and they want to be in the whole thing. They would live onstage if they could.
  • They would have auditioned for a bigger part in the play if it weren’t for all that memorizing.
  • They want a chance to perform at an actual improv theater at the end of the semester.
As a parent, you might want your kids to take improv if:
  • You want them to listen well rather than just waiting for their turn to talk.
  • You want them to grow in confidence and learn to take the lead sometimes.
  • You want them to share focus with others rather than always needing the spotlight on themselves.
  • You want them to understand that they can be a leader without being the sole person in charge.
  • You want them to cultivate awareness and generosity in their daily lives and have a lot of fun doing it.

If you or someone you know home schools a kid age 12-18 who might like this class, there is more information here.
If you’re thinking, “Never mind about home school kids ages 12-18 — I am an adult and I want to get good at that stuff, too!” then check out the free class I teach at Westside Improv.

Westside’s Soft Open

Westside Improv had a soft open this weekend, and my team, Circus Police, got to be the first group ever to perform on the new shiny* stage.

10846092_799348783348_3476982600532288752_n

The view from the tech booth: Dignan’s first Westside show! Click the picture to see when they’re scheduled to play again.

In college, my teams played for Extremely Full houses, because we were the only show in town for a student body that mostly doesn’t have cars or money. And it was an absolute blast! The venue, however, was a science lecture hall. It seated around 200, and while it was lovely that we regularly packed it out, I know the people in the back couldn’t see our faces. Subtlety didn’t carry to the back of the house, so we couldn’t play subtly.

Too big.

Since college, my team Circus Police has played in — well, in some odd places. We’ve done plenty of shows for audiences made mostly of our spouses and other groups of improvisers waiting for their turn on stage. We’ve also played for lots of empty chairs. And that’s totally fine; every time we play, we get a little tighter or a little braver. It was time well spent, but it can be disheartening to see 40 chairs and 5 audience members.

Too small.

But playing for a full house was a totally different experience. Westside seats around 60, and this weekend, it was full of the friends and family who had supported the launch of the theater in some way. The room itself isn’t huge, so that the back row and the players can see one another.

My husband said, “I hate to use this word, because it’s vague and I don’t know what it means, but the room had so much energy!” That’s the energy from the venue being small enough that the audience can see, and a big enough audience that the performers feel like all the practice is worth it.

Just right.

10675592_799348753408_500413489986831795_n

The view from the tech booth of our Goldilocks venue and beautiful audience.

I’m looking forward to many more shows at Westside in the coming months. At the moment, Circus Police is scheduled for Friday evenings. We open to the public this Friday (12/12), and we’d love to see you there!

 

*It is not in the least bit shiny. It shows every footprint. I think this is awesome.

“Should I quit improv?” Part 2: Are you getting better?

Earlier, I wrote about how quitting improv might be the right choice if you’re not having any fun.

You can read part 1 here, but here’s the quiz I wrote:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.32.17 AM

You’ll notice that a “no” to “Are you having fun?” doesn’t automatically lead to “Maybe find something else to do.” Because sometimes, if you’re working hard on getting better, you’ll go through a not-fun phase, and that is the exact wrong time to quit improv.

Riding a bike with training wheels is easy, but taking the training wheels off is hard. It feels like you’ll never be able to really ride a bike. How does anyone balance? And brake? And turn? And shifting gears while pedaling sounds like witchcraft.

Now riding my bike around the park is so effortless I don’t think about the mechanics of it anymore. I needed the training wheels for a little while when I first started, but now they would get in my way as I maneuver around traffic.*

Sometimes getting better at improv isn’t the most fun thing, but doing hard work now is an investment in the enormous amount of fun you are going to have down the road. Improv will get more fun as you get better at it.

I found this very true when I went through iO’s training center. Levels 1 and 2 were the most fun ever. Levels 3 and 4 made me feel worthless, like I was never going to be good at this, and maybe I should stop trying. Something shifted in Level 5, though, and improv was once again a magical thing I would love forever.

At the time, I thought this was just because I liked some teachers more than others — my Levels 1 and 2 teacher was Jet Eveleth, and my Level 5 teacher was TJ, and they are both just the best. While I do think clicking with my teachers was part of it, it was mostly because, after the Levels 3 and 4 teachers started taking away my training wheels, it took me awhile to find my balance again.

Jimmy Carrane, who creates the excellent Improv Nerd podcast, recently posted about the impulse to quit improv. He’s a good writer, and you should read the whole post, but here’s my pull quote:

There is this incredible hokey saying, “Don’t quit before the miracle,” which really applies to everything, especially improv. In improv you never know the day, time, or year when you’re going to get good at it.

It happens slowly. And you’ll never know where it will lead you.

In a classic blog post, which you should also read, Bill Arnett created this chart:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.54.04 AM

“For young improvisors: relax. You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope.”

I find this graph encouraging when getting better feels too hard. (A couple of years ago, it inspired me to create my own chart about how Flash Fiction came together.) It’s not really a plateau, it’s a gentle slope, as long as you keep going forward instead of sitting down and camping out.

So don’t quit improv because it’s hard. Fun is on the other side of hard. Quit because you don’t care enough about the fun to put in the hard work in practice.

 

*Where I ride my bike, “traffic” means “scary geese.”

“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.)

Westside Improv!

There’s a new improv venue opening up in Wheaton, and I couldn’t be more excited. Jeff Ash and Brendon Culhane have leased a space for Westside Improv.

The biggest challenges I’ve encountered doing improv in the Chicago suburbs have been:

  • finding a physical space. I know all you need is people and chairs, but lights sure help, too. So does a neutral wall to play in front of, as well as a location that’s easy for your audience to find. Out of necessity, Open Source has held shows completely in the dark, on the set of Sweeney Todd, under garish fluorescent lights, and in places that are so hard to get to that I’ve gotten texts after the show from audience members who gave up looking and went home.
  • keeping up energy from one show to the next. It was only practical for Open Source to hold shows once a month, but that’s too far apart to use the momentum from one show to feed into coordinating and promoting the next.
  • connecting with new improvisers. Going to The Improv Retreat helped me with that this year, but as a whole, I mostly ended up performing with, coaching, getting coached by, and recruiting the same people I played with in college. I want to broaden my circle.

Westside is solving all of these problems. 123 Front Street is easy to find — it’s walking distance from the Wheaton Metra station and the parking garage. The space itself is something between a black box and a cabaret, seating 60ish people. It’s designed for long form, but the layout is flexible enough that short form, sketch, and plays with minimal sets could work, too.

There will be shows every weekend. Shows every weekend! In the suburbs!

Classes and workshops will be a good entry point for new and new-to-me improvisers.

My team, Circus Police, will expand and become a Westside House team. That means we’ll get an outside coach and have regular performance opportunities we haven’t had before. I’ll also be teaching beginner improv classes — the Tuesday night class will be free! — and helping out around the theater.

In related news, I’ve stepped down from leadership at Open Source Improv. Open Source and Westside look like they’ll have a great relationship, and Open Source getting to use that beautiful new space means it won’t need the same kind of constant administration it needed when it was mobile.

You should click here to get on the Westside Improv mailing list. It is going to be the best.

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.