Tag Archives: Craig Uhler

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!

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.