I’m writing this in a pretty raw state. Moments ago, I learned that my Harold team, Whiskey Rebellion, has been cut from the iO schedule.
If you join an improv team, you must also brace yourself for the end of that improv team. It’s like asking your true love to marry you, only to know that one of you will die first someday. You almost pray for a doubly fatal catastrophe in your old age so you don’t have to live without the other person.
To be fair, not every improv team is the love of your life. Most waver between one-night stands and summer romances. Every time someone forms a new improv team, two others break up somewhere.
But for me, Whiskey Rebellion was that girl you never forget – even when she gets old and only vaguely resembles the one you fell in love with.
When I graduated the iO Training Center, I had hopes of being put on a team. I felt I was a pretty good improviser, but not a great one. There were people in my class who definitely outshone me. I was always wired to support. And sometimes, supporting your really awful classmates just makes it look like you are in terrible scenes all the time.
On May 17, 2007, the first post-graduate schedule came out and a team called Free Paris* rolled off the assembly line. Many of my friends made it. I did not.
* This was at the time Paris Hilton was briefly imprisoned. Hilarious, right? Who comes up with this stuff?
I remember being psyched for them, but disappointed for me. Was improv really over? I moved to the city to pursue it. My journey through iO included a nearly one-year layoff when I was unemployed and couldn’t focus on the art. My brain was scattered. Seeing the brilliant group Four Square at the 2006 Chicago Improv Festival threw me back into action. I finished iO and waited for that call that never came.
For 12 weeks, I waited on the sidelines while Free Paris became Whiskey Rebellion. The team spent its first schedule together without a single show. They just bonded. A very cool move. I watched as pictures of their parties and group activities appeared on MySpace. (This was 2007, remember.)
I knew in my heart I wasn’t done. If I couldn’t be on a team with my classmates, I’d find another way. I e-mailed the iO Training Center, asking when the next round of auditions would be. The eventual response floored me.
Charna Halpern sent me this e-mail:
I just saw your email and looked at Noah’s evals and he gave you a great review. I will notify the Harold Commission that you are to be placed on a team asap. It might be just as a sit in as the teams are big and the schedule is made but rest assured on the next schedule you will get a normal size team and be placed in a regular position.
I exploded. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I would be on a Harold team. The work paid off. I would have a chance.
I got an e-mail from Jon Forsythe, coach of Skeleton Attack. He invited me to their next rehearsal. Talk about intimidating. You’re walking into a room with a team of veteran improvisers who have played together for years. You’re the New Guy. And you cannot blow that first rehearsal. Surprisingly, I stepped up to the plate. They laughed. And I felt like I had wind in my sails.
One week later, Jon called me to tell me the team was breaking up.
But, my sailboat became irrelevant within a few days as a screaming eagle named Whiskey Rebellion soared down and grabbed me in its talons. I was told I’d be able to rejoin my classmates. And I was flying.
I sat in the audience and watched the very first Whiskey Rebellion show on July 25, 2007. I was amazed. In a few short months, my former classmates had become an improv killing machine. Off-the-charts agreement, hilarious characters and support through the roof. I suddenly felt very, very overwhelmed.
But the team welcomed me in and after shaking off three months of rust, I was back in the game. It was such a strong team. We had a work ethic and a lack of ego. Our motto: “Do work.” It was the Whiskey way. No one was there to be a star. We were there to learn and to earn our place at that theater.
Over time, we lost some incredible players. 2009 was the killer. Jason Piazza, Nick Ehart and Nick Murawski all moved on. That year, we lost six teammates. Only four of us were on the team at the beginning and end of the year. How do you survive that?
Chemistry is so fragile. The Harold Commission did an amazing job of assembling the team initially. You had high energy players, alpha males, support players, strong women, the incredible wild card known as Jason Piazza… I sometimes found myself just watching my team, enjoying the show, forgetting that I was supposed to be involved.
I started as a full-time support guy. But during the Great Exodus of 2009, I knew I had to get more aggressive. That’s why I took classes at The Annoyance Theatre. And it paid off to some degree. I was more comfortable leading scenes and leading the team on stage.
In the end, we were undone by schedule conflicts. On a team with ten players, we frequently only had six for shows. That’s a problem with veteran teams. You become a good improviser, you get other gigs. And if you get a paying gig, it’s hard to pass that up to perform for free. I never really sought out opportunities beyond Whiskey Rebellion because I didn’t want anything to interfere with it. At one point, I told my then-girlfriend, “You’re not going to win against improv, so don’t try.” Yeah, it was that important. I put Whiskey Rebellion above virtually everything in my life. And I don’t regret it for a moment.
So what did I learn from those three magic years?
1. Initial chemistry is key. If an outside entity is assembling your team, you have no say in this. But if you’re the one putting an improv team together, you’ve got to get a balance of personalities and perspectives. A team of TJ Jagodowskis would be pretty awesome, but even TJ feeds off other people. You need a physical guy. You need an energy guy. You need the book-smart guy. You need the guy who does characters. You need someone to serve the piece and pick up what gets dropped. You need a girl (or two, or three). You need quiet voices and loud voices. And you need people who will always put the team above their individual aims. As soon as I figure out the exact formula for perfect chemistry, I’ll sell it and retire.
2. Do work. Whiskey’s motto is the best. Are you in improv to screw around? Get out. Or go perform at your grandma’s nursing home. She misses you. And she’ll clap for anything you do. You have to bust your butt to get better in this art. That means perseverance. That means rehearsing. That means pushing yourself to take classes and workshops. That means being critical of your own skill set and finding ways to improve.
3. Ego kills. Improv is not the place for ego. Ego stands in front of a brick wall at Zany’s and talks about its mother-in-law. You are here to give and receive generously. You are here to light yourself on fire if your partner douses you in gasoline. The best improvisers are the most humble. As soon as you start thinking you have all the answers, you stop listening. And when you stop listening, your teammates will stop trusting you. Your team will be in major peril very quickly. An important reason for Whiskey’s long run is the almost universal lack of ego.
4. Coaching matters. Lots of coaches are content to collect $5 every rehearsal and blow smoke after shows. Two Whiskey Rebellion coaches set the bar far beyond that. And the results showed on stage. Bill Cochran and Adal Rifai came prepared to rehearsals with specific plans. They were also canny enough to switch up if they saw something pop. Bill prepared us to improvise in almost any situation. Caught in a weird body position when your scene gets edited? Use it. Stuck in a scene alone? Talk to an imaginary character. Feel like you’re just reciting lists in your group games? Knock it off. Bill is an improv ninja. He turned us from a good team to a great one. Adal had the difficult task of putting us back together after losing more than half the team. Like any good coach, he went back to basics whenever new players were added. Your coach must do this so everyone is on the same page. Adal not only worked on the team, he would also take time from rehearsal to work on individuals. That can be scary, but the rewards are enormous. Get a good coach. If you feel like the team is stalling out, get a new one. Find someone who makes you a priority and addresses your needs.
5. Trust. When you’ve established that you have a good coach and supportive players, it’s time to go for broke. Be vulnerable to your teammates on stage and off. Give them the opportunity to catch you from greater and greater heights. My favorite moments in an improv show come when a potentially dangerous or unfunny moment becomes suddenly safe and hilarious. For that to happen, you have to have people willing to take chances and people willing to throw themselves in harm’s way to save the day. I encourage you to be both.
6. Hang out outside of rehearsals and shows. Offstage bonds show up on stage. So does offstage tension. Another great move from Coach Adal was setting up weekly dates for us to go on. Each week, we’d be assigned a team member to spend an hour with. That hour ended up becoming three or four. As we grew more comfortable offstage, the benefits were evident. God bless the person on your team who doesn’t mind hosting all the get-togethers (Nick Ehart, Karisa Bruin). That person is saving your team.
7. Whiskey Rebellion did improv right. And improv did Whiskey Rebellion right.
As for my future, I’ve learned I will be placed on another Harold team. That is a huge relief. But with that relief comes fear of the unknown. Ultimately, the journey of improv is the path of learning to trust yourself to overcome that fear. No matter what situation you face, you have the answers. Fear is your mind trying to stop those answers from coming out. You must ignore the fear. You must go forward.
But now that I take a look back, it was one hell of a ride.