Are you an improviser? Do you know an improviser? Are you an improviser dating another improviser? Do you need a gift to help them on their sure-fire journey to SNL? Consider these options.
1. Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier ($15)
This is the best book I’ve ever read about improvisation. Mick is one of the founders of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre. His book is simple, direct and well-written. It also includes exercises you can do on your own to improve your skills. You’ll probably get more out of this than that $200 improv class you’re taking.
2. Trust Us, This is All Made Up DVD ($18)
“TJ & Dave” is the greatest improv show I’ve ever seen. If you’re ever in Chicago, $5 will let you see them live. If you can’t make it to Improv Mecca, this may be the next best thing. The video follows the TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi in the moments leading up to one of their performances in New York. Then you’ll see the hour-long show unfold before you. Watch as they bring back details you’d nearly forgotten. Enjoy them switching characters to populate the stage. And gawk at the post-show decompression that shows even improv gods are self-critical. (Trailer.)
3. Mehffirmations Calendar ($15)
Do you really need a daily affirmation to feel better about yourself? Consider keeping your head level with 365 anti-affirmations like, “I forgive others for being stupid,” “I stand up for myself when there is nothing at stake,” and, “I will dance as if no one is looking. And if they do look, I will stop out of respect.” Created by two Chicago improvisers, one of whom is writing this blog. (Plug.)
4. A video camera
Improvisers tend to be creative people who have nothing permanent to show to anyone. A video camera (even a cheap one) allows a performer to tape his shows and then submit them for festivals. More industrious improvisers will come up with short films. If you’re not putting your work out there, no one can see it. Without a video camera, the Lonely Island guys never make it to SNL.
5. Gift Card for a Rental Car/Gas
The best way for an improviser to bond with his teammates is on a road trip, preferably to a festival. New York’s Del Close Marathon is perhaps the most popular, though it’s become a total clusterf*** the last few years. There are festivals all over the country worth visiting. Even if you drive thousands of miles and your show sucks, at least you’ve made lasting memories with those people who will catch you on stage when you fall.
6. Nearly any Christopher Guest movie ($5-$15)
It’s likely your improviser has seen them, but if not, these films are a delight and an inspiration. Most of what you see is improvised within a predetermined framework. The very best of these are “This is Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman.” To a lesser extent, “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show” have their charms. Go ahead and skip “For Your Consideration” unless the gift recipient is a huge Catherine O’Hara fan.
Most improvisers are starving. And even the obese ones won’t turn down a meal.
8. Headshots ($200 and up)
If you plan on auditioning for anything, you need headshots. These can be pretty pricey, and most improvisers are poor. You should seek out a photographer who specializes in headshots. Don’t go to the Sears portrait studio. Look over the photographer’s portfolio and pick one who makes people look good. Most photographers work with hairstylists and/or makeup artists to get the best results. Using them often tacks even more on to the tab. But a good headshot can last an actor five years or so. I’m told you want to have one smiling headshot and one “serious” headshot. The type of role you’re trying to get determines which you submit. Reminder: You want a color headshot now. Black and white headshots only belong on the walls of rundown comedy clubs and restaurants.
9. Second to None DVD ($20, if you can find it)
This documentary traces the process of putting up one of the most heralded Second City shows in recent history. In 1997, director Mick Napier coaches future stars Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit and others as they create “Paradigm Lost.” You get to see Fey with an extra 30 pounds and a bad haircut. And you get to see the improvised scene that would give birth to “The Denise and Sully Show” on SNL.
10. Anything that advances a hobby other than improv
So often, improvisation becomes a black hole that sucks performers into a dark, incestuous place. There is life outside that theater. And the more rounded you are, the better your scenes will be. (No one wants to see that scene of roommates arguing over rent.) A good book, paint, a blowtorch or a sewing machine can open up new avenues for creativity. Get tickets to a sporting event, concert or museum. Make sure your improviser gets out and lives. The richer your life outside the theater, the better your work on the stage. Don’t become a cliche.
Do not buy a shirt that says “Yes And.” That will get you deservedly punched in the face.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com