Tag Archives: annoyance theater

23 Brain Hacks for Bulletproof Stage Presence

I’m fascinated by the effect of the spotlight on performers. Some of us shine, some of us choke. I perform terribly in auditions but really kill it in rehearsals. Why is that?

I recently read a book called Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. It talks about how your brain shuts down when you’re in a situation where you desperately want or need to succeed. It also offers solutions on how to trick your brain so it doesn’t sabotage you when you need peak performance.

Tip #1: Think of pressure moments as a challenge or opportunity/fun.

Instead of feeling like your entire performance career is hanging on this one moment, try reframing the situation. You’re here to have fun. You’re here to show off. Can you do something in this performance that no one else is doing? Give yourself the freedom to take a big running cannonball into the pool. Approach your stage time with an attitude of, “Watch this!” instead of, “Please don’t hate me.”

Tip #2: This is one of many opportunities.

This is especially true of improvisation. Everyone throws up a clunker scene now and then. The trick is not letting that derail you for the next scene. As far as auditions go, you can have as many as you want. Getting an audition slot is pretty easy if you cast a wide enough net. Your next audition will never be your last audition (unless you quit). Every single famous person on the planet has been rejected. The difference is, they keep trying. Richard Nixon lost to JFK, dusted himself off and won the presidency eight years later. Nixon was so single-minded, he courted his eventual wife for two years before she agreed to date him. During that time, Nixon chauffeured her around on dates with other men. Seriously. His greatest talent seemed to be a refusal to give up.

Tip #3: Shrink the importance of pressure moments.

Your brain plays tricks on you when you tell yourself you’re in an important moment. The book says, “track sprinters have more false starts when told their time is important and will be recorded as opposed to being discarded and used for training purposes.” Whether you’re reciting lines for a play or running a race or doing your 4,000th improv scene, you’re bound to perform better if you’re not really thinking about anything. Let your brain and your body do what you’ve practiced. I can’t imagine anyone has ever solved a problem by being told to THINK HARDER. (There’s a reason UCB sells a hoodie that says, “Don’t Think” on the front.)

Tip #4: Focus on the mission.

The book words this strangely. What they really mean is, “Focus on the immediate task.” If you’re in an improv scene, you should be focused on the things that will make that scene better: listening, reacting, adding information, providing callbacks, object work, etc. If you’re in a scene thinking about whether this audition is going well, your focus is in the wrong place and you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you’re in the moment, be present. Don’t let your mind drift to the outcome.

Tip #5: Expect the unexpected.

If you’re walking into an audition, think about the worst thing that could happen. In my experience, the worst outcome is finding yourself paired with someone who’s totally awful. Before walking into an audition, think about how you would handle that. The best defense is to take care of yourself like The Annoyance Theatre suggests: give yourself a gift at the top of a scene, so even if your partner is a flailing spaz, you can wall yourself off from that craziness and regulate the scene. (The only thing worse than a drowning man is another man drowning while trying to save him. Don’t kill yourself trying to save someone hell-bent on self-destruction.)

Tip #6: Affirm your self-worth.

Researchers tested people who affirmed their self-worth before a task versus those who did not. The group that self-affirmed made fewer mistakes. The book suggests listing your values and recounting your positive traits before a pressure moment. Those will not change, regardless of the outcome of your performance. Your family will still love you. There are always more opportunities. Even if you totally crash and burn in an audition, you still have important relationships in life and goals you want to conquer.

Tip #7: Flash back to previous successes.

Tell yourself, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again.” If you’re an improviser at nearly any level, you’ve had at least one good scene. Think about the times you made people laugh or got high-fives from your classmates. Think about how you felt invincible at that moment. You are that same person. This next moment on stage could match or surpass everything that’s come before.

Tip #8: Be positive before and during high-pressure moments.

“Studies have shown that individuals’ feelings and moods respond to their actions.” Ever show up to an improv show feeling run-down and annoyed? How did that show go? How did your shows go when you arrived feeling excited to play? Give your brain a boost by thinking of all the fun you’re about to have. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?

Tip #9: Tune into your senses.

This is similar to Tip #4, but it’s also good acting advice. If you find your mind drifting, bring yourself back to the present by focusing on your five senses. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you touch? Worry exists when you let your mind drift to the future. Snap back to the present and deal with the future when your body arrives there.

Tip #10: Focus on what you can control.

The book talks about former MLB pitcher Greg Maddux. When asked to assess his performance after a game, he said, “73 out of 78.” That simply meant 73 of the 78 balls he pitched left his fingers as he wanted them to. Everything after that (including whether the batters made contact) was academic. You can’t control if your auditors are bored or cranky. You can’t control your scene partner. In fact, most of an audition is completely out of your control. So just do what you can do and let the results be what they will be.

Tip #11: Listen to (or sing) a favorite song.

This tip is more for people performing a muscle-memory task. The music distracts our brains well enough to let our bodies take over. This tip is not recommended for people trying to learn a new task. Think about how playing video games is easier when there’s music playing in the background. Tetris would probably be much harder without that iconic theme.

Tip #12: Use a holistic word/image “cue” to guide performance.

The book says golfers perform better when focusing on a word like “smooth” or “balanced.” What word might encompass how a good improv scene feels? “Playful?” “Joyful?” “Agree?” The book says a Chinese psychologist worked with two groups of women shooting basketballs. The group that was told to “shoot as if you’re trying to put a cookie into a cookie jar on a high shelf” made more shots after two weeks of practice. What unrelated activity does a good improv scene look like in your mind? Playing catch? Handing out Valentine’s Day cards?

Tip #13: Practice experiencing pressure.

This is perhaps more difficult for actors, since it’s hard to replicate performance pressure. The book suggests taking practice tests in less time than you’d normally be allowed. Other artificial handicaps can make performance easier when they’re removed. For an actor, this probably just means you should audition and perform a lot!

Tip #14: Squeeze a ball.

What? The book says athletes are less likely to choke when they squeezed a ball or clenched their left hand before competition. Apparently, the left hand squeeze primes the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with fluent, automatic and largely unconscious neural pathways controlling the skill. I’m not sure how this would apply in an improvisation situation, since it seems like you’d need both halves of the brain to be logical and process what’s coming your way. Somebody squeeze their left hand before an audition and get back to me on this one.

Tip #15: Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing.

“Writing out your specific concerns before a high-pressure situation helps you to minimize distractive thinking, which eats up your working memory capacity.” You need a clear head to improvise well. Put those worries on the shelf by literally writing them down and leaving them off the stage.

Tip #16: Put away self-consciousness.

That alone is fantastic advice for performers. Being self-aware is key, being self-conscious is crippling. The book suggests videotaping yourself and being highly critical of your performance before you have to deliver it for real. The idea is that getting that criticism out of the way early leaves you less self-critical in the moment. That method seems more appropriate for people rehearsing a set task, rather than a fluid, improvisational scenario.

Tip #17: Meditate.

“Meditation training altered for the better the white matter that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. In other words, after meditation training, your ACC is able to regulate your thoughts, behaviors and emotions more effectively and thus help you respond more effectively in pressure moments.”

Tip #18: Create and practice a pre-routine.

Much like NBA players with their pre-free throw routines, the book suggests having something you always do before a pressure moment to signal to your body that it’s time to go to work.  The authors suggest the following…

  • The routine should be relatively short (3-5 minutes).
  • It should be done immediately prior to the high-pressure situation.
  • It should include a mental component – reviewing some positive thoughts.
  • It should include a physical component – deep breathing, stretching, striking a power pose, etc.
  • Part of the routine should deal with kinesthetic imagery – visualize yourself performing at your best.
  • Upon completion, say a mantra or use an anchor word or phrase that signals that you’re ready for showtime.

That seems like a lot to do right before a scene, but you could do that before a show or an audition. I remember seeing TJ & Dave doing the same physical warm-ups before each show at the old iO Theater on Clark Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ran through the rest of the list, whether consciously or not. Before shows with Whiskey Rebellion, I used to approach every member of the team individually, grab their shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “Spirit of the eagle, way of the hunter.” I have no idea if that made a difference, but I had a hell of a lot of fun in those shows.

Tip #19: Slow down your response.

Here’s where you’d encounter Jimmy Carrane’s “Art of Slow Comedy.” The idea is that slowing down reduces your arousal, which allows you to think more flexibly, creatively and attentively. Del Close used to advocate responding with your third idea, never your first. Remember that an improv scene is not a race. There are some performers like Craig Uhlir who have cultivated a high-energy, rapid-fire playing style. That’s not for everyone, and very difficult for beginners. Give yourself the space to think before responding. Time moves faster in your head than it does to the audience.

Tip #20: Regulate your breathing.

If you’re breathing weird, your body will start to freak out. If you watch beginning improvisers, some seem to forget to breathe on stage. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman devised a breathing tactic he teaches to soldiers and police officers to use in intense combat situations.

  • Inhale through your nose, deeply, expanding your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely, contracting your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold the empty breath for a count of four.

The book recommends practicing this two minutes a night for a week.

Tip #21: Go first.

“Studies of World Cup soccer and the National Hockey League show that when shoot-outs determine the winner, the team (or player) that goes first has a strong statistical advantage.” This correlates with Susan Messing’s priceless advice: “The longer you wait, the more the jump rope becomes a big steel cable.” Jump in that first scene and it slays any jitters.

Tip #22: Communicate your feelings of being under pressure.

Not sure how this would apply in an audition situation, but maybe that’s where Facebook can come in handy. Posting something like, “Headed for an audition,” might result in some supportive comments from your friends. Of course, actors audition so much, that could get annoying. Remind yourself that every performer deals with jitters or nerves. Some even take drugs (legal, prescription or illegal) to cope. Being nervous is normal and you’re not alone if you feel shaky before an audition.

Final tip: Strike a power pose.

I’ve read about this in other books on the topic of pressure performance and choking. If you expand your body and raise your arms wide, your brain and body increase testosterone levels 20-25% and reduce cortisol 20-25%. (Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.) In job interviews, applicants who took a power pose beforehand were rated higher in confidence and presence. You only need to do it for two minutes to feel the effect.


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

Video: Chicago Improv Summit

Years ago (probably 2007?), I recorded a conversation among some of Chicago’s major improv leaders.  Kick back and listen to Charna Halpern, Jimmy Carrane, Matt Elwell, Susan Messing and Mick Napier discuss the state of the art.

Be sure to listen to the responses to the question at 10:00 – “If you could say anything to a beginning improviser, what would it be?”

Also, enjoy Mick’s candid, invaluable advice at 32:28.

Funny that nothing’s really changed in six years…

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

The Ultimate Improviser Gift Guide


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.

7. Food

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

So You Wanna Improvise. Now What?

A coworker approached me and said he was thinking about getting into improv.  “Where should I start?” he asked.

There’s no perfect answer to that question, but I recommend the following…

1) See shows.

If you’re in Chicago, you can throw a rock and hit a good improv show in progress.  Other cities aren’t so lucky.  But chances are, there’s a theater in your town that does some form of improvisation.  Go to the various theaters and take in as much as you can.  In Chicago, the style of play and the form may be wildly different from night to night at any given theater.

The idea is to find something that speaks to you.  Maybe you want to play slow, like “TJ & Dave.”  Maybe the up-tempo game style of ComedySportz appeals to you.  Maybe you like the polish of a Second City show.  Or maybe you love the unhinged, uncensored madness you’ll see at The Annoyance.  Chances are, the theater you enjoy most has a training program that will lead you down the right road.

For the most part, improvisers are incredibly friendly.  If you see a show you love, ask your favorite performer how he/she got started.  Ask for a recommendation of a training center.  You’ll discover more of the scene when you get involved.

2) Take classes.

In my experience, each theater in Chicago has its pros and cons.  Start with the one that addresses your greatest love or greatest weakness.

Second City I started here.  Most people do.  Second City has tons of classes, all taught by very reputable performers.  The program is very polished.  If your interest runs toward writing, performing or directing, Second City has a program for you.

Second City treats improv as a writing tool.  I went through the beginning program and the Conservatory.  Doing so allows periodic opportunities to put on shows for an audience.  The Conservatory program essentially teaches you how the theater comes up with its polished shows.  By the end of your time there, you’ll get a multi-week run, so you have an opportunity to try scenes over and over.  It’s an interesting challenge.

Second City also offers a very comprehensive curriculum.  I remember spending entire classes on topics like energy, entrances and exits, music and blackouts.  Another benefit of the Conservatory program is that you usually stick with the same group for a year or more.

The biggest downside of my Second City experience came immediately after graduation.  Now what?  You’re cut loose.  Sure, you can audition or propose shows at their smaller theaters.  But no one will mentor you unless you pay them.  It can feel a bit like a diploma mill.

iO This theater believes improvisation can be an artform unto itself.  As you go through the program, there’s a big focus on support.  Make your partner look good and you’ll look good.

The teachers here are usually less tenured than Second City, but all are current performers.  It’s nice to be able to see your teacher take the stage.

At the end of your iO experience, you also get a run of shows.  In the final level, your class creates two unique improv forms.  During your shows, you perform those original forms.  Again, everything here is completely improvised.

For me, iO’s biggest selling point is also its biggest weakness.  At the end of your training, there is a chance you can be put on a team that performs regularly on iO’s stages.  Stage time is crucial for you to become a better performer.  iO offers more of it than most other theaters.

The problem is, as you near the end of your training, people start freaking out about whether they’re going to make a team or not.  That turns them into awful performers.  Gossip spreads.  Scrutiny seems to lurk every time you step on stage.

But hey, if you make a team, that’s awesome!  I love playing at iO and consider it my home theater.

On a personal level, I came out of the iO training center hyper-focused on support.  I was so focused on my scene partner, I often brought nothing to the stage.  Blind support is great, but you need to bring a dish to the improv potluck. That’s where our next theater comes in.

The Annoyance This theater’s mission is to create scripted material.  Though the focus of the training is on improvisation, the Annoyance tends to choose scripted shows to put on the stage.

On the whole, this theater has the best teachers I’ve met.  The Annoyance is a little like the Wild West.  Students in these classes tend to be really weird, even for improvisers.

But the amazing saving grace of the Annoyance program is that it will turn you into a bulletproof performing machine.  What you may be doing may be absolute crap, but you’ll be happy with it.  The Annoyance preaches performer empowerment.  If your scene sucks, you should look at yourself first.  Did you have fun?  Did you make a choice?  Were you powerful?  That’s what the Annoyance wants for you.

I feel like I did my best improvisation after training with them.  It should be noted, however, that I was nine years into my improv career when I wrapped up classes at the Annoyance.  Had I done them first, I don’t know that I would have felt that way.

Performing at the Annoyance is not guaranteed at the end of your training.  The theater tends to be a tight-knit community, so getting on stage usually comes by virtue of knowing someone already on the inside.

ComedySportz Read Ian’s comment below since he’s actually taken classes here.

I speak largely out of ignorance, since I haven’t taken ComedySportz classes.  My understanding is that the curriculum focuses on short form improv games – the kinds of things you’d see on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”  You do have the opportunity to audition to join their ensemble and… (drumroll please)… they pay you if you perform there.

The ComedySportz style focuses on speed and wit.  It’s rare you’re going to see a grounded scene here, though it’s not impossible.

So far as I know, those are the only training centers in Chicago.  Seeing a show at any of these theaters will give you an idea of what you’ll learn in those classes.

Nearly all of these theaters also offer “electives” – a class you’ll take for one or two days, focusing on one particular discipline.

3.) Perform!

This is the most important part of becoming an improviser.  You must perform.  Take every opportunity to do so.

If you’re just beginning, check out improv “jams” at theaters throughout the city.  They’re usually cheap/free and you’ll get a chance to play with more established performers.  In Chicago, The Mixer at The Playground is a great way to get your feet wet.

Once you’ve taken a few classes, consider starting up an independent team.  Many perform at bars and smaller venues around the city.  Look at this as much-needed batting practice.  If you have an idea for a show, consider hitting up the Upstairs Gallery.  It’s an awesome performance venue where Chicago performers swing for the fences.  (All the shows are free, but you should donate to keep the flame alive.)

4.) Audition.

As you continue to perform, it’s time to get involved.  Look for audition opportunities and get out there.  Expect to suck at first.  I still suck at auditions.  But eventually, you can break in with a group and get some “legit” performances under your belt.

Some theaters that don’t have training centers do have resident performing groups (pH, The Playground and CiC come to mind).  You only get better by improvising, so do it a lot.

See shows, take classes, perform, audition.  Do that over and over again.  And don’t stop.

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

Improv Myth #4: You Must Come Out Empty

For a long time, I believed improvisers had to hit the stage with a totally blank mind.  This led to scenes where I stared desperately at my fellow actor, hoping he’d have an idea, any idea to get us started.  The alternative was making a panicky choice I usually hated.

The best improvisers I’ve seen make a choice at the top of the scene.  One choice.  Maybe they’ve been thinking of it for ten minutes, maybe it occurs to them as they’re editing the previous scene, but they bring something to the stage.

I once watched TJ Jagodowski bring down the house because he came on stage carving an apple with the knife toward his thumb, eating one slice at a time.  Such a specific character choice!  What kind of person carries a knife, carves up an apple and eats the pieces off the blade?  I could have watched that for hours.

If I had to guess, TJ probably thought of that at least a few seconds before he hit the stage.  (Maybe milliseconds, because that dude is amazing.)  In my previous profile of him, I wrote about his “Seven Hooks for a Scene.”  Nearly all of them require forethought.

In my last audition, I frequently jumped out to be a scene partner when someone else had initiated.  I didn’t feel great about those scenes.  So when I was waiting for my turn, I just thought about a kind of person – a cocky pilot.  I even had a line to initiate.  When I walked out, I said, “So this is a cockpit.”  I got my biggest laugh of the audition.  I knew who I was and where we were, so all that was left to explore was my relationship with my scene partner.

The key to bringing something on stage is to pick something completely flexible.  An emotion, attitude or point of view is best.  If you come out sad, whatever your scene partner does can make you sadder.  Or cheer you up.  That’s your choice.  But that attitude can appear for any reason in any situation with any character.  (Want to blow someone’s mind?  Have a huge emotional reaction to a benign line.  Figure out why that seemingly inconsequential thing is very consequential to your character.)

In rehearsal last night, I brought out an exercise I learned from Rich Sohn at The Annoyance Theatre.  In one hat, you have slips of paper, each with an adjective written on it.  In the other hat, each slip of paper has a character archetype.  Performers choose an adjective and an archetype at random and that’s their character.

So last night, we got to see a scene between a gassy sports fan and a perky meteorologist.  We saw a smelly poet, a lazy alien and a famous lumberjack.  Sound like fun?  It was.  Each actor had their character before they stepped on stage.  And we gave them a suggestion of a location for each scene.

If you do that exercise, it will probably make improv feel very easy.  You hit the stage with a physicality, an attitude and a little backstory (your occupation/archetype).  With that decided, you can literally be anywhere at any time with a sloppy skateboarder, a forgetful radio DJ or a flamboyant terrorist.  You do not have to mention your occupation!  In fact, it’s better if you don’t.

When dentists stand in line for their kids to see Santa, they’re probably not talking about teeth all the freaking time.  But the dentist might have a very specific reaction to Santa handing out a candy cane.   Likewise, mechanics aren’t always in proximity to cars, salesmen can have conversations that don’t involve selling and prostitutes can babysit kids without blowing them.

Tim O’Malley once said that stereotypes get you nowhere, but “stereotype plus” can be enough for a character.  That’s what I’m talking about here.  Would you rather see a scene with an auctioneer or a goth auctioneer?  A bodybuilder or a religious bodybuilder?  A game show host or a horny game show host?  Simply adding one word conjures a completely different image.  And it’s vastly more interesting.

I’ve used the “random adjective, random noun” exercise when directing sketch groups and it has a surprisingly high success rate.  People play great characters that seem to have fallen from the sky into their laps.

Why, then, would you come on stage empty?  Walk out with something.  An attitude or belief is best.  If not that, just pick an adjective.  If you want to get fancy, add physicality, a voice or an occupation.  Just remember you do not have to mention any of these choices explicitly.  But they should affect your performance.

You cannot control an improvised scene.  You cannot control your scene partner.  You can definitely control yourself.  Hit the stage with a declarative choice about yourself and you’ll probably find it’s much easier to respond to any location/situation/scene partner.

Yes, even if the first words spoken to you are, “My God!  You’re a hideous vampire!” you can still be a feeble hideous vampire ballerina… if you want.

You are allowed to bring ideas to the stage.  You should be encouraged to do so.  No one in the audience is going to bust you for it.  It’s not like crowds boo a jazz quartet for bringing predetermined instruments on stage.  It’s what you do with them that counts.

Improv Myth #1 – Improv Myth #2 – Improv Myth #3 

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

Lessons from the Masters, Volume 4: Mark Sutton

I’ve had dozens of teachers and coaches in my improv career.  None was better than Mark Sutton.

Mark had a way of making improvisation simple.  And he made his points stick.  When I play by his rules, I succeed.  When I forget them, I fail.  His class was the Rosetta Stone of improvisation as far as I was concerned.

Mark’s most lasting gift was this simple note: Realize what you’ve done at the top of the scene.

You walked on stage a certain way.  Your face was conveying something.  Everything you do from the moment you walked on stage is noticed.  You can either make a choice to enter a certain way or simply let your body make the choice and focus on intensifying that.  Your scene becomes immediately easier.

In many ways, the beginning of a scene is a contract with the audience.
When you see Wile E. Coyote salivating, you know he’s going to do whatever he can to eat that Road Runner.  If he began the cartoon looking satisfied, what do we anticipate?  Probably nothing.

Much of comedy has to do with reaffirming or flaunting patterns.  A train of thought is carried to its absurd (but logical) conclusion.  Or characters experience a status shift.  You can toy with the audience’s anticipation, but only if you set it up.  And you set it up in the beginning.

Seems like I’m putting a ton of weight on the first line, right?  Feeling paralyzed about making the right move or saying the right thing up top?  Don’t sweat it.

In Mark’s class, we began our scenes then literally paused after five seconds.  We stopped everything.  We noticed what we’d already done, choices we’d already made – conscious and unconscious.  And when the scene resumed, it was merely a matter of amplifying those choices.

The problem is that many of us don’t make a choice at the beginning.  Or we ignore the choices we made.  That means the scene is constantly shifting and the audience has a harder time latching on.

Mark and Joe Bill perform the very popular Bassprov form.  It’s just two guys sitting in a boat, drinking beer and having conversation.  They play the same characters every time they perform.  We immediately understand the scenario.  Two friends having conversation during an absent-minded activity.  Genius.  Any lull in the conversation and they can ask for a beer or talk about their bait.  They’re not reinventing the wheel.  They’re letting you eavesdrop.  And that’s often the most entertaining theater.

I took extensive notes during Mark’s class.  Here are some of the highlights…

When we go on stage, we have three tools.
1. What we say.
2. What we do.
3. How we feel.
A good scene employs all three.

Try limiting the words you say.  That forces you to employ other tools like physicality and emotion.

If your choice is dependent on someone else, it weakens your position.  Make the choice about you.  (I’m awesome, I’m dumb, I’m sexy.)  That’s more portable.

“Fifteen seconds is about how long it takes for the average improviser to hate their choice.”

Don’t play what you want to have happen.  Play what is happening.

One of the things that separates those who live and those who die in the woods… those who die keep plodding toward a cabin on the map even if they’re lost, cold, wet and everything’s going to hell.  Those who live deal with what’s happening in the moment.

Talking invites more talking.  Action invites action.  Silence invites silence.

We think we have to talk to each other to establish our relationship.  Not true.

Your relationship is two people in the same space at the same time.  Everything else is gravy.

From the moment you step on stage, the audience wants to feel like there’s something going on.

The more decisive we are, the quicker the audience gets on board.  Get them to care.

“I’d rather see two interesting characters stand around than two boring characters in an elaborate environment.”

Improvisers spend a lot of time moving things around and not letting the things move them.

Convey your character through space and it takes the pressure off your words.  (Example: Eat the way you feel.)

Referential humor or standing back and being pithy puts you at risk of whether the audience finds your opinion funny.

Being real, being simple makes it easier to connect.

If we invest in how we’re affecting each other, everything else takes care of itself.

You have to respond to anything anyone says, so why not make it a powerful response?

A scene has nothing to do with the first line and everything to do with how that line is received.

When a third person enters, it must affect the scene.

Establish a pattern and play it!

If someone refuses to do something, you can either try to force him to do it or show how that choice affects you.

Don’t gravitate toward the external problem.  Gravitate toward the people.  Your scene is not about the thing.  It’s about us – how we’re affected.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the other guy’s attitude toward the money.  Don’t solve the problem, just view it.  That scene has legs.

Get information out incrementally.  Allow for reactions.

Just talk.  You don’t have to make something happen.  It will evolve.

You can be vital and purposeful up top without changing the world with your initiation.

Changing your posture changes your choices.

When you start quiet physically, you tend to make quiet choices.

Open your body to open your mind.

Too often, we play the circumstance instead of the dynamic.  (Dealing with a car out of gas instead of the relationship of people inside the car.)

Get past the surface to play the essence of the scene.  We’re feeling each other out emotionally, then discovering why that emotion exists.  Discovery requires patience.  The details matter less than the emotion we assign.  Buy in; commit to the emotion; mine it.

Resist the urge to get story out too quickly.  It’s the response character’s job to make that first thing important.  Do that and you don’t have to worry about the next “thing.”

Get over your worry about vulnerability.  Believe it and the audience will believe it.

Play your character’s humanity.  Don’t let a gimmick get in the way.

Start with energy and you can adjust.  Start with specifics and you might be screwed.

If you have a chance to study with Mark, you should absolutely jump at it.  I guarantee you’ll walk away from the class with a new understanding of improv.

Lessons from the Masters: Michael GellmanTJ Jagodowski 1TJ Jagodowski 2Mick Napier

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