Tag Archives: Acting

Do the Wrong Thing

In tonight’s class, a performer began a scene by establishing that he and his children were in a storm shelter during a tornado. He said that the entire shelter was safe, except for the loose, sparking wire in the corner of the room. Another performer walked over and fixed the wire. The scene continued, but it shouldn’t have.

Most improvisers are generous, caring, kind humans. Those are fantastic traits. When it comes to comedy, we need characters that embody the opposite of that.

The Three Stooges? All morons or jerks. Borat? A clueless, politically incorrect fool. David Brent? Self-centered and needy. Basil Fawlty? Condescending and cowardly. Lucy Ricardo? Unable to admit her faults. Cosmo Kramer? Behaves as if the rules of the universe don’t apply to him. Dwight Schrute? Paranoid and aggressive.

Our great comedic characters have normal, negative human traits amplified to superhuman levels. Where most of us would quit, these characters double down and make things worse. Where we would apologize, they would demand an apology from someone else. We laugh because these characters are so blind to logic or normal behavior, they do and say impossibly dumb things.

If you have a comedy scene with a deadly, sparking wire in a storm shelter, the last thing we want to see is for a responsible adult to fix it. We want to see things go wrong. One by one, the characters should ignore the clear danger and end up electrocuted. Or try to burn the wire away by setting fire to the shelter. Or try to drown the wire by dropping it in a bucket of water.

As soon as you remove the danger or the bad behavior from a scene, the scene loses its comedic punch. If anything, you should make the scene more dangerous and make your behavior worse. Never solve a problem in a comedy scene. Make it worse.

We don’t want to see Walter White give up the criminal life. We don’t want to see Bugs Bunny apologize for interfering with Elmer Fudd. We don’t want to see Regina George play nice with Cady Heron. We want to see these characters push the boundaries of behavior beyond where mere mortals would go. That’s what makes them interesting.

The audience sitting in the dark wants to see you behave in ways they cannot. They want to see you break things and poison your bosses and become cannibals. The stage is where cautionary tales and wish fulfillment come together in glorious freedom from reality.

If you’d like to learn from me directly, I’ll be teaching Under the Gun Theater’s Level One class on Monday nights beginning in March. Sign up here.

A Tale of 3 Supermen

Very often, we improvisers believe we need to outsmart the audience. This leads to all kinds of strange play.

In my class, one student started a scene by saying, “Welcome to New York. If you want a pizza, I’ll need one of your kidneys.”

The other improviser paused, then started to act like this was okay. I stopped the scene.

“That guy just said you had to cut open your body and hand him a kidney to get a pizza,” I said. “Why are you okay with that? Play the reality of the scene.”

It was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She looked at the guy offering the kidney-pizza swap and told him to get lost.

Later in that same class, one actor initiated a scene where he forced children to watch a kitten die. The children didn’t react. I stopped the scene.

“You’re five years old and you just watched a kitten die in front of you,” I said. “How would you react?” The scene resumed with the children displaying appropriate angst.

Early in my improv career, I was always looking for the clever way to enhance the scene. I figured I could make anything funny if I just said the most unusual thing. I’ve since come to realize I was an idiot.

The audience has come to your show to see comedy, yes, but they’ve also come to see you act. If you won’t (or can’t) act appropriately, the audience will lose their ability to empathize with you. When a doctor tells you that you have cancer, you should either act appropriately rattled or justify why your character is NOT shaken by this news. Acting nonchalant without any justification is a poor choice. The audience knows how you should react, but you’re choosing not to. That violates an unwritten contract between the performer and an audience.

Consider the 2006 film, “Superman Returns.” Despite a fine cast and a solid director, the film fails to follow through on the promise of Superman. When Superman encounters kryptonite, he must become weak, if not close to death. In the film, Superman somehow lifts an entire island made of kryptonite and throws it into space. When that happened in the theater, I felt the mood of the entire audience shift. He can’t do that. In fact, using his powers around kryptonite is about the only thing Superman can’t do. In the 2016 “Batman v. Superman,” Superman is able to fly while holding a spear made of kryptonite.* That, too, violates the rule.

Such moves were probably meant to show how badly Superman wanted to lift the island or fly with the spear, but doing so snaps us out of the story as we remember that Superman and kryptonite are made up and we’re watching a movie and nothing matters.

Contrast this to the superior 1978 “Superman.” In that film, Superman nearly drowns in a swimming pool because he’s been forced to wear a kryptonite necklace. He thrashes around in the water and can barely stay afloat. It makes Superman mortal. It’s our chance to empathize. We actually pity the Man of Steel! When the kryptonite is removed, he regains his power and the audience cheers. Cause and effect.

Your vulnerability is your greatest strength as an actor. If you can portray pain or frustration or rage in a way that feels genuine, you will gain the audience on your side. If you shrug off every obstacle placed before you, the audience will disconnect.

So when your scene partner threatens to murder you, please have a reaction proportional to the threat. When your scene partner dumps you, let’s see the fallout of that emotional bomb. When your scene partner tells you she’s pregnant, let’s see some kind of reaction appropriate to the big news. There will always be opportunities for humor that will present themselves naturally. You don’t need to force them into a places where they don’t belong.

Superman can always fly again. Just make sure that when your particular kryptonite appears, you fulfill your promise to the audience.

* This is even dumber because Wonder Woman or Batman could have easily carried the spear for Superman. In the comics, Superman and Doomsday beat each other to death with their fists, so the entire kryptonite issue could have been avoided.

How to Make Improv Really Hard

I’m shadow-coaching at Under the Gun Theater as I prepare to teach my own class starting next month. (What’s that? You want to sign up? Click here, amigo.) As I watch many, many beginner scenes, I’m noticing some patterns emerging. The big difference between a beginning improviser and a veteran is that the veteran wisely side-steps roadblocks that can grind a beginner’s scene to a halt. But maybe you want to make improv really hard on yourself. If so, here are four sure-fire ways to make improvisation feel like slow death.

HANDICAP 1. Take the suggestion super literally.

The reason we get an audience suggestion is to prove to the audience that we’re creating the scene on the spot. Famously, TJ & Dave skip the suggestion, assuring the audience, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Beginners hear a suggestion of “sandpaper” and start sanding the floor. Or they hear “banana” and start eating bananas. Nobody cares about a scene about sanding the floor or eating bananas. The suggestion need not be literal. Let it be metaphorical. “Sandpaper” might make you think of a gritty, tough person or someone who’s irritating. “Banana” might make you think of someone clumsy or a health nut. The suggestion is there to help you, not to trip you up. After it inspires you, toss it away.

HANDICAP 2. Talk about what you’re doing.

Last night, our students got the suggested location of a cotton candy shop. The scene struggled. I asked them why. They said they’d never worked in a cotton candy shop before. Good news, gang: No one is going to bust you on proper cotton candy shop procedure. You’re two people inside a cotton candy shop. You could be uppity parents discussing how elaborate you want your son’s birthday party to be. You could be estranged siblings, and one is trying to get free cotton candy from the other who works there. Or, yes, you could both be employees. I spent seven years working at Best Buy and my work-related conversations took up about 20 percent of my day. The rest of the time, I talked about girls and sports and college and wanting to move to Chicago to pursue comedy. The movie “Clerks” is an excellent example of two characters spending the day working and talking about millions of other topics. You do not have to talk about your activity or your environment. Please, talk about anything else. The environment/activity is there to help you if/when you need it. Usain Bolt would run much slower if he had to tell everyone he was running the whole time.

HANDICAP 3. Talk about what you wish would happen.

Many times, the performers would talk about things they wanted to do in the future. This is improvisation. Do it now!  One performer doing a scene at a beach resort said he wished he had a frozen drink. He went on and on about how nice it would be to have one. I just told him the bar was right in front of him. He ordered a drink and the scene resumed with the stuff we cared about. No one wants to watch you plan a bank heist. They want to see you carry it out. No one wants to hear about your romantic date, they want to see it. Live in the now. You’re improvisers. You can time-jump forward or backward. If you’re describing something that happened in the past or could happen in the future, you’re robbing us of the immediacy of your imagination. Create it. Be it. Do it now.

HANDICAP 4. Avoid confronting your feelings.

So often, I saw performers make a huge, emotional offering, only to have their scene partner jerk the scene to a non-emotional detour. If someone says they love you, it’s time to deal with that. In the real world, if someone dropped that bomb and you started talking about the curtains, you are either trying to let them down gently or you are on the autism spectrum. You don’t have to be funny all the time. It’s better if you’re not. Give me an improviser who reacts honestly and I’ll be happy. Pay close, close attention to what emotions are coming your way. If someone is staring daggers at you or giving you the silent treatment or making puppy dog eyes in your direction, you have to address it. Failure to do so is a rejection of that gift. Hey, it’s even okay to say, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” That acknowledges the other person’s behavior and shares information about your mental state.

The audience wants to watch you have fun. They want to see you be silly. They want to see characters impacting other characters. To get to that place, please remove these roadblocks! Take the suggestion metaphorically, do your activities without narrating them, take action on what you want to do and pay attention to the immediacy of your feelings. If you do that, you’ll immediately start playing like a cagey veteran.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

The Day Grandpa Ate Carpet

I’m directing a sketch show through the writing process right now and one of the performers wrote a scene with a crazy yoga teacher and a student who isn’t quite buying in. Crazy characters are fantastic for comedy, of course. The Groundlings excel at that kind of style. Consider characters from their famous alums like Melissa McCarthy, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman).

If you are confronted with a crazy person in real life, how do you behave?

Consider a scene that begins with one actor playing a grandfather who’s pulling up the carpet and eating it. How do you react?

The audience will buy one of two reactions: Call out the crazy behavior or act like it’s totally normal.

If your actual grandpa were eating carpet, you would stop him. The audience would like that scene because it’s immediately clear that one character cares for the other. Wherever the scene goes from there, we know that there’s an important relationship at stake. And, inevitably, when Grandpa starts eating the carpet again, the audience will like that. (The audience loves seeing the result of forbidden behavior.)

But let’s say your grandpa always eats carpet. In that case, you might see him ripping into the rug and say, “How’s the carpet tasting today, Grandpa? Need any salt?” That’s certainly odd, but also a scene the audience could buy. If Grandpa always does this, you wouldn’t be fazed. And by offering salt, you’re acknowledging the behavior, condoning it and helping your scene partner by heightening the scenario. Also, you still care about Grandpa in this scene.

A novice improviser would try to split the difference. Grandpa’s eating carpet, so you say, “Hey, knock it off,” but you don’t act concerned, the way you would in a real situation. Or you might try to “yes and” the situation by saying, “Grandpa, you’re eating carpet? I’m going to eat particle board.” Where does the scene go from there? There’s no relationship, just two weirdos eating weird stuff. Or, worst of all, you could ignore it entirely, leaving Grandpa to eat carpet the whole scene while you disconnect and probably rummage in the dreaded improv kitchen cabinets.

Your character has to care about something, even if it’s just themselves. If the weird behavior that starts a scene affects something your character cares about, you’re off and running. If you don’t care, the audience won’t, either.

Getting back to our Groundlings actors for a moment, consider the world of Pee-Wee Herman. Here’s a total spaz wandering around the planet and nobody calls him on being a total spaz. In fact, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he had several equally weird friends: a cowboy, a globe, a chair and a genie. Sure, Pee-Wee was weird, but his weird was normal to his friends. In “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” he ventures outside his home and into the world where literally no one stops and says, “You’re a lunatic!” That would ruin the fun.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, look at Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character. He exists solely to make real people uncomfortable. That movie was a blockbuster because everyone in the audience could relate to trying to deal with that maniac. The strained reactions to his antics were real, so we bought into the scenarios.

Think of a crazy character like a hot tub. If the opposing character is used to the heat, they’ll climb in and everything’s fine. If the opposing character is NOT used to the heat, they’ll jump out right away and they’ll be reluctant to go back in.

The success of a scene featuring a crazy character usually has less to do with the character and more to do with the actor playing opposite that person. Choose to buy in and support or call out the craziness. There’s no room for indecision.

Improvise Like a Samurai

Imagine sitting down at a chessboard.  Your opponent hasn’t moved.  Neither have you.  You imagine all kinds of scenarios where you can win.  You hope he’ll leave his queen exposed so you can take her out with a knight.  You expect where you’ll sacrifice your pawns to lure a more important piece into a trap.  You think about all the ways you hope to take advantages of your opponent’s mistakes.  Then, your opponent actually makes a move.  Everything you’d been thinking of flies out the window.  You’ve got to erase your master plan and deal with the move your opponent made.  Every move you make could be drawing YOU into a trap.  Damn.

Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  That’s been me for the majority of my improv career.  I usually wait to edit until I have a great idea for a scene.  Then everything derails the moment my teammate says something other than what I want them to say.  I’m a better writer than an improviser.  I should probably stick to writing sketches inspired by improv scenes I’ve witnessed.

I’ve been improvising with varying degrees of frequency for 15 years and it’s finally dawning on me that any struggles I’ve had are my own fault.  When I was younger, it was easier to blame other performers for “bad” initiations or refusing to follow the script that only I could see in my brain.  I spent so much mental energy constructing a sand castle before I walked on stage that I was unprepared for even the smallest wave to wipe it off the beach.

Longform improvisation requires you to be okay with chaos.  When you step onto the stage, it’s just like stepping onto a battlefield (or sitting in front of a chessboard).  It’s foolish to imagine a “victory” scenario until you see where the opening presents itself.  The beginning of a scene is just a chance to survey the situation.  Who are you?  Where are you?  Who is this other character to you?  This information is important to establish so that you, your scene partner and the audience can get on the same page.  The beginning of the scene is almost always vague.  Do what you can to narrow down the world without backing up a dump truck of exposition.  It’s okay that you don’t know everything right away.  Remind yourself of that.  Be okay with it.  It will be there for you to discover when the time is right.

Just as in chess or battle, you can’t play the game empty-handed.  You need game pieces or weapons (even if it’s just your fists).  When you enter the stage, give yourself a gift.  You don’t have to initiate verbally, but give yourself a mood or a physicality.  Every person on earth carries those things with them, regardless of relationship or title.  You can be a sad, hunched mom or a sad, hunched president or a sad, hunched firefighter or a sad, hunched vampire or a sad, hunched quarterback or a sad, hunched aerobics instructor.  No matter what your scene partner says, sad-and-hunched can work.  Even, “Bob, you seem happy today!” can work.  Bob (sadly): “I just won the lottery.  I’m bursting with happiness.”

As soon as you hit the stage, listen intently to everything your partner says.  Watch everything they do.  Those are clues to your relationship.  Those are the things you should be exploring and reacting to.  In my fifteen years of improv study, I’ve never seen anyone better at this than TJ Jagodowski.  I spent years watching him and trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate his style.  That’s because I was focusing on what he was saying.  What he says is often brilliantly funny and absurdly smart.  I just thought I had to stand around saying brilliant, absurdly smart stuff.  But that’s not what makes TJ great.  It’s that what he says is comic gold in relation to what was just said.  Any chess move can be dumb or great – it all depends on how the board looks based on what you and your opponent have done.  TJ pays such close attention to his scene partners that his words and actions fit the openings provided.  He doesn’t reach or push to create an opportunity.  He takes what’s in front of him.

Check out one of my favorite scenes from The Seven Samurai.

A samurai named Kyuzo has been challenged to a duel by a loudmouthed bully.  Kyuzo accepts and stands calmly as the bully attacks wildly.  Kyuzo wins by simply waiting for the right time to strike.  He doesn’t have to move a lot or make a big show to win.  He just needs an opening.

The Seven Samurai is also famous for a performance by Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, the hot-tempered wild warrior John Belushi would copy for his Samurai character on SNL.  Belushi once said, “You attack a scene like a bull.”  Yes, you can be the bull.  But you can also be a matador, like Kyuzo.

The genius of improvisation is revealed in reactions to situations, in finding the missing variable that completes an equation.  If I step on stage and say, “2+2=4.”  That’s not terribly entertaining.  If I step on stage and say, “Two,” and my scene partner says, “plus monkey,” I’d better not say, “Equals four.”  My plan for a 2+2 scene is out the window.  Two plus monkey does not equal four.  I can be pissed that my partner changed the equation, but why was I adding up an equation that didn’t even exist yet?  I’m looking to solve an equation where I only know half the numbers, so I should spend my time gathering information before pronouncing the result.

Likewise, I shouldn’t enter a scene and say, “Two plus seven divided by 18 plus the square root of 153.”  Build the equation with your scene partner patiently.  One turn at a time.  No need to overcomplicate the scene or exhaust yourself in battle with unnecessary movement.

All of this is to say that the thousands of dollars I spent on various improv schools taught me a lot about forms and object work and the idea of support, but they all did a terrible job of focusing on the only thing that will truly help you succeed: Listening.  Listen to the tone of voice your partner uses.  Listen to their body language.  Listen to where they stand and how they look at you.  And finally, listen to what they’re saying.  Only when you have listened can you respond correctly.  Otherwise, you’re just a sword-flailing idiot and a true improv samurai like Kyozu (or TJ) will cut you down with one stroke to a roar from the audience.

Got a question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

15 Steps to Building a Sketch Show

Building a sketch show is an art unto itself.  While there’s no bulletproof way to pull it together, this is how I’ve done it while directing five different shows in Chicago.

1. Find a director.

As much as you trust your own brilliance, you need another set of eyes watching the product.  Ask friends for recommendations.  If you really loved another performer’s sketch show, ask who directed that one.  Invite directors to come to your rehearsals to see if you like their style.  Pick someone you respect (and admire, if possible).  You need someone who can be honest without crushing your artistic spirit.

Protip: There are lots of terrible directors out there.  Find one who will dedicate themselves to your project.

If you’re in Chicago and need a director, I’m available. boilingpointimprov [at] gmail.com

2. Pick a deadline.

Without a deadline, you will write forever.  In my experience, it takes at least three months to knock out a decent sketch show.  Four months is better.  I’ve done it in one month, but that was an awful experience.

Secure the theater where you want to perform.  If you have to put money down to reserve a performance space, that’s even better.  Now you have to grind with a date in mind.

3. Write.  A lot.

Depending on your number of writers, you may only perform about 10 percent of the scenes you write.  Most of what you write will be derivative or simple.  That’s fine.

KC Redheart’s “Town Hall Meeting” (Directed, 2012)

The more you write, the more you’ll find yourself working in new territory.  Most of us write variations on the same scenes and themes.  Force yourself to try something new.  Don’t worry if your scenes are perfect on the first shot.  You’re looking primarily for the ideas.  You can always rewrite.

When writing, feel free to borrow/steal ideas you’ve seen elsewhere.  Of course, don’t just put up a word-for-word recreation of something you’ve seen on SNL or Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele.  Just consider why you find those sketches funny, deconstruct them and see if you can apply the same mechanisms to another situation or character.

Also be aware of time.  In screenplay format, one page of dialogue usually equates to one minute.  Most sketches feel really bloated beyond five pages.  Try to hit your premise as quickly as possible (by the end of the first page).  Don’t overstay your welcome.  If you have lots of great material, you can always do a callback with the same characters/premises later in the show.

4. Improvise.

Improvising tends to unlock the scenes your brain would never discover if left to its own devices.  One of my favorite tricks to build sketches this way is to use an exercise I learned at The Annoyance Theatre.  Gather your group and have each person write 10 adjectives (words like “big,” “hairy,” “quick,” or “blind”).  Then have them write 10 archetypes (like “fireman,” “vampire,” “car salesman,” and “priest”).  Cut or tear the paper so you have all the adjectives in one pile and all the archetypes in the other.  Select one paper from each.  That’s your character.  Now do a scene with it.  (You’re a hairy priest or a blind vampire or a big fireman.)  See what discoveries you make.

At Second City, I was taught that even a stereotype plus one interesting character trait can make something original.  A yokel, a jock and a politician are nothing new.  A philosopher yokel, a timid jock or a penny-pinching politician might be more interesting.

While you may choose to record your improvisation, the chances you would transcribe an improvised scene and use it verbatim are very slim.  You’re looking for the essence of the scene.  Boil it down to the fun idea and build a sketch around that.  Look for the kernel of truth or the interesting spin you can extrapolate.

5.  Do a sketch inventory.

After a few weeks (or months) of writing, you’ll have a stockpile of scenes.  Do you have multiple versions of the same kind of scene?  If so, stop writing those and consider selecting the best of the category for inclusion in your show.

SNL writers often say there are two kinds of sketches: Crazy World and Crazy Character.  In Crazy World, you usually have one sane character interacting in a world populated with goofballs.  (My favorite of these scenes is the Chorus of Fools, described in a previous post.)  In Crazy Character, it’s reversed; one crazy person interacting with a sane world.  (Matt Foley, Belushi’s Samurai, The Falconer and every character from former Groundlings Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Molly Shannon and Kristen Wiig.)  They say writers prefer Crazy World sketches, while the performers prefer Crazy Character.  A good sketch show features some of each.

Taco Tuesdays’ “5 Girls, 1 Cup of Cheer” (Directed, 2014)

Do you have scenes of varying length?  Do you have any physical scenes?  Do you have any silent scenes?  Are you using music, video or other media in your show?  How can you add more variety?  Do you have full group scenes?  Monologues?  Are there moments built-in for improvisation?  Do you have blackouts?  Do you want to do a song?  A dance?  Callbacks are the easiest laughs you’ll ever get.  Are those in your show?

Be honest in your inventory.  It’s really easy to throw up a show of ten scenes with two people simply talking to one another.  Challenge yourself to go beyond that.  Ask yourself what moments the audience will remember a year later.  Ninety percent of the time, they won’t remember what you said.  They will remember physical scenes (often silent, but underscored by music).  They will remember unusual costume or props.  They will remember almost anything new or unique.  The words, unfortunately, will fade quickly in their memories.

I like to write the names of the sketches on index cards.  Include the cast size and time it takes to perform each scene.  Put them in groups accordingly.  Variety will help you and the crowd from getting restless during the show.

6. Write what you don’t have.

You may need to force yourself to do this, but it’s vital.  I guarantee there is some sort of hole in your show.  Often, we forget to include any scenes with genuine emotion.  Sometimes, we avoid sad scenes.  Maybe we’re too flippant on a topic that deserves some heft.  Not every scene has to be funny.  Remember, an audience can still love what you’re doing, even if they’re not laughing.

Consult that inventory and make sure you’ve got killer scenes representing lots of different experiences.  If the variety isn’t there, go back to your computer and write.

7. Set up a rough running order.

After Step 6, you’ll probably find you’ve just written some of your best material.  Look at your sketches and pick the best version of each type of scene.  Have six scenes of people standing and talking?  Pick one or two.  Find a balance between Crazy World and Crazy Character scenes.  Do you have some moments of pure weirdness and play?  Smart humor?  Dumb humor?  Varying cast sizes?

When I direct, I give each cast member five votes for the scenes they want.

Geek Show (Directed, 2012)

I’ll have them close their eyes and raise the number of fingers (votes) they wish to give to each scene as I read the titles.  If someone wants to allocate all five votes to one scene, that’s fine.  Most performers spread their votes over several scenes.  If a scene gets two votes or fewer, you can probably kick it aside.  You want the cast to be excited about their choices.

Once you’ve narrowed down your favorites, take the index cards and start putting them in order.  Consider cast balance and time for costume changes.  You don’t want one person in the first five scenes, then backstage for the rest of the show.  Each person should have a moment to shine every 3-4 scenes.  Work in short blackouts or energy bursts to keep the audience engaged.  Have a fun opener and closer.  (I usually direct my teams to wait until the end to create the first and last scenes.)

Now comes the tough part…

8. Kill your babies.

Now that your focus is on a smaller group of scenes, it’s time to get nasty.  How much can you cut out of each script?  What can you clarify?  Can you make something funnier, faster and smarter?  Look over each script and sharpen it until you can’t think of any other way to improve it.

As you start rehearsing, you’ll probably learn that you have too many scenes.  It’s time to dismiss a few.  There’s likely a scene you love, but it’s just not whole.  Your director may have to break the bad news: That scene is stillborn.

Get really vicious with your material.  Don’t put up anything you wouldn’t send out on an audition tape to represent you.

9. One last inventory.

At this point, you should have worked out an opener and closer.  Consider everything in your show.  Is there some way you can set up the audience to notice any recurring themes?  The first and last scenes are great places to highlight those.

Look at all your rewritten and edited material.  Is it still fun?  Do you hate it?  Is there something that’s still too long or unclear?  Now’s the time to finalize the running order and lock things in place.  It’s almost showtime.

10. Rehearse it hard.

So many teams breeze past this step and it results in a sloppy show.  Don’t do it.  Know your lines.  Know your blocking.  Practice with costumes and props!  (Who brings what where?  Who strikes it?  Can you make that costume change in time?  Which door provides your entrance/exit?  Are you just going to leave all those chairs on the stage from the last scene?)

You should have enough rehearsal time that by the time you perform, the physical business of props, costumes, entrances and exits are second nature.

Lady Parts (Directed, 2012)

Work on your acting.  Are you being truthful in your performance?  Lazy?  You must be able to perform this material as freshly as if you were living as that character the very first time they encountered the scene.

Tech rehearsals are almost always the weak link in the sketch show process.  Don’t make that mistake.  Have your director in the booth to go over the lighting and sound cues.  Tech guys are wonderful, but they’re juggling a lot in the booth, so it helps to have another set of eyes and ears.  It really sucks when the lights don’t go on or off when they’re supposed to.  You’ve got months of work at stake, so make sure it’s not derailed by sloppy tech rehearsal.

11. Find the fun.

By now, you are so far removed from the fun part of your creation, it may look like you’re going through the motions.  Remember, the audience has never seen this.  There’s a good chance they will never see you again.  Your reputation rides on every single show.  Do you want to be the kind of show they recommend to their friends?  You’ve got to bring the fun.

Specifically, you must find the music of the scene.  Every scene has a rhythm and energy that is more important than the words.  If you’re riding the rhythm and energy, the crowd will be with you.  If you forget them, it doesn’t matter how great your dialogue is.

In a perfect world, each sketch is now like a trail in the forest.  They’re well trod and you know where they go.  You can put your feet in the footprints left before.  But also allow yourself the chance to take a quick jump off the path if you want to chase a butterfly that appears during a live performance.  If you know your scenes well enough, you can play off something unusual you notice about your partner, then circle back with them to the path without losing the momentum of the scene.  Remain open to discovery at all times.

12.  Promote your show.

In 2015, why the hell do I know performers who aren’t on Twitter?  Social media is a godsend for performers.  Use it.  Instagram.  Facebook.  All of it.  Ring the dinner bell and make sure your friends know it’s important that they come.

It’s actually easy to promote these days.  When I put up my Second City Conservatory show in 2002, I had to create a Geocities website by hand-typing HTML code.  Its URL was about 200 characters long.  I even tried writing on sidewalks in chalk to bring people in.

Before he went on to Saturday Night Live, I remember Mike O’Brien wrote up individual emails to all the people he knew, asking them to come to a play he’d written.  It wasn’t a blast email to a ton of people.  He wrote one specifically with my name in it.  It worked.  I’ll respond to a friend’s email.  I’m less likely to pay attention to a Facebook event invitation.

Taco Tuesdays’ “To Infinity and Beyonce” (Directed, 2015)

Have a cool show title.  Get some eye-catching artwork.  Put up posters.  Post on message boards.  Leverage any media connections you have.  Make some promotional videos.  You can do that simply with your phone.

Promotion sucks and it’s a ton of busywork.  Your show will also fail without it.  What’s the last time you randomly stumbled into a theater and paid money to see something you’ve never heard of?

13.  Perform.

You’ve got a show you’re proud of.  You’ve got it memorized backward and forward.  You let everyone know about it.  Now, get up there and do it.

This is actually the easy part.  By now, you’ve done so much heavy lifting, you can just play with a clear mind.

Monitor that first show closely.  If something’s not working for you or the audience, consider killing it or fixing it.  Not all crowds respond the same, so you may get huge reactions to a sketch one night and tomb-like silence the next.  If two nights go by without any sort of reaction, you might want to consider making a course-correction.

14.  Thank people.

Another overlooked step, but it’s one that matters more than you know.  We get so wrapped up in celebrating our show with the friends in the audience who came, we neglect the people who really deserve the love.

Thank your director.  Thank your tech guy.  Thank each other.

On opening night of the last sketch show I directed, I gave each performer a white rose and a handwritten note, thanking them for all their hard work.

Remember that your shows will fade much faster than the impressions you leave on your colleagues.  Be kind, courteous, professional and gracious and you will find more opportunities awaiting you.

15.  Repeat.

The process of putting up a sketch show is so time-consuming, most teams never do it again.  Some teams “take a break” that never really ends.  It’s a shame.  You’ll only get better by doing this multiple times.

By all means, take a month or so to let your brains cool, do some traveling and reconnect with everyone you shunned while creating your old masterpiece.

Just know that your team will remain stagnant until you reboot the process.  Select a deadline and prepare for your next adventure, be it sketch, improv or something else.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to get back in the groove.

Got a question about building a sketch show?  Need a director?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

Find the Music of the Scene

A gym filled with bored-looking teenagers.  An alienated 3-man rock band screaming about the desire for entertainment.  It sounds like this.

A man trying to spook his date with a scary story.  Dancing zombies.  It sounds like this.

A strong woman declaring her worth and rallying others to do the same.  It sounds like this.

Why do these music videos work so well?  Why do we get scared by those shrieking Psycho violins or the Jaws bass?  Why does that Benny Hill music suit a goofy sped-up chase sequence?  In each case, we have an excellent marriage of image and music.  The combination lifts both to a higher level.

Whether you know it or not, every scene you’re in also has music.  Your voice is the instrument.  Its tone, its volume and its pace communicate an enormous amount of information.

Don’t believe me?  Watch a really bad actor.  His words, his voice and his body are all saying different things.  Not to pick on Hayden Christensen, but this is brutal.

This fails on nearly every level.  He’s supposed to be seducing Natalie Portman.  This scene has all the sexual tension of, well, sand.  What he says isn’t sexy and the way he says it isn’t sexy.  He doesn’t look at her.  He flicks a rock (or something) in a really weird way.  His cadence is off.

Contrast that to this.

Holy smokes.  It doesn’t even matter what these two are saying to each other.  Just ignore the words and listen to the cadence and the tone.  You can hear Jennifer Lopez is playful, but Clooney is calm and steady.  Eventually, J Lo matches his calm and steady tone.  They’re ready to bone.

The Out of Sight scene will work if you close your eyes and listen.  It would even work if you didn’t speak the language.  It would also work if you turned down the sound.  Note the falling snow, the soft lighting and the fact that Clooney almost never blinks.  This is straight-up seduction.  And when you marry the sound and the image, it works perfectly.

If you purposely choose to make your words incongruous to your tone and cadence, you can easily create comedy.  The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team was expert at this.  Many of their characters said absurd things straight.  The incongruity results in a big laugh.

While directing a rehearsal of a sketch show, I noticed my performers had lost the music of their scene.  While they stood in the right places and said the lines correctly, they’d done the scenes so many times, all the energy had fallen out of them.

To fix this energy lapse, I had them run the entire show, replacing their normal lines with gibberish words.  They had to get me to believe their scenes without the crutch of funny lines.  Suddenly, they relied much more heavily on their body language, as well as their volume, tone and cadence to convey the comedy.  The characters and the scenes came alive again.  I told them that as long as they played the “song” of each scene, the words were merely an added bonus.

Ask yourself if your scene would be funny if muted.  Ask yourself if it would be funny in the dark.  You don’t have to have both, but it sure helps.  Why tie a hand behind your back?

When performing a scene, make sure to use your physicality, your voice and your words efficiently.  Be sure to switch up which gets more attention from scene to scene.  If you’re going to be incongruous, be so deliberately.

If you perform the song of your scene well enough, the audience will go home humming your tune.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com