Tag Archives: audiences

Lessons from Lucy

One of the most common mistakes we can make in improvisation is inventing rather than discovering.

Your scene will fall into one of two categories: a premise scene or an organic scene. If you have a premise, you can introduce your first line with enough information that your scene partner knows to follow you. (The UCB Manual says a premise will contain a base reality and the first unusual thing.) An example might be, “Okay all you NBA All-Stars, get into my office. The government says we have to make the game more accessible to short people with bad aim.” In that scene, you know who you are, where you are and what you’re doing. And you have an unusual idea that you can play with.

Many times, however, we don’t have a full premise. We have what the UCB Manual calls a “half-idea” or “chaff.” You may enter a scene with an idea for a location or a character or an emotion. You may enter a scene with nothing in your head. If so, you’re in an organic scene and it’s time to start exploring with your scene partner.

Beginning an organic scene is often scary for improvisers. We crave laughs, so if they’re not coming in the first 30 seconds of a scene, we might say or do something totally random.

“Welcome home, son.”
“Thanks, Dad.”
(Two minutes of boring father-son talk results in internal panic.)
“I’M A ROBOT.”

Those panic moves are called invention because there’s no build-up to them. Indeed, we may have a scene about a dad who discovers he’s a robot, but there’s a huge difference between discovering that organically and blurting it out without laying the groundwork.

You are a storyteller. Your job is to help the audience follow you to absurdity. You can certainly start with absurdity, but that scene is going to be very short. A scene about three werewolves doing gymnastics routines to please a chaos demon can’t last long before the audience gets bored.

To illustrate the organic way to discovery, let’s jump back in time to 1951 and any random episode of “I Love Lucy.” Nearly every Lucy episode follows the same pattern: An innocent mistake or misunderstanding leads to an outrageous scenario. The show is brilliant at taking us along for the ride. Take this episode for example.

The episode begins with Lucy reading a murder mystery. It ends with her aiming a gun at Ricky in the club. If you started the episode with Lucy aiming the gun at Ricky, you wouldn’t empathize with Lucy. She’d be an insane, anarchic figure. If you cut directly from Lucy reading the book to the gun confrontation at the club, that would also seem very random. Instead, the episode takes us step-by-step through the reasons that Lucy felt compelled to pull a gun on her husband.

  1. Lucy nervously reads the murder mystery. Ricky startles her.
  2. Ricky jokes about how a husband might murder his wife.
  3. Lucy reads the mystery again. Once again, she’s startled as Ethel arrives.
  4. Ethel tells Lucy she learned how to tell fortunes. Ethel reads a hand of playing cards and suggests Lucy is going to die.
  5. Ricky gets a phone call about some dogs that are going to appear in his night club act. He writes the names down.
  6. During the phone call, Lucy walks in as Ricky talks about “getting rid of” a singer. Because we know Lucy is already jittery, she misreads this call as Ricky talking about killing her.
  7. During the call, Ricky also talks about the prop gun he has in his desk. Lucy believes he’s talking about an actual gun.
  8. After Ricky leaves, Lucy sees the gun and reads the list of dog names, mistaking them for women Ricky will pursue after Lucy is dead.
  9. Now in full-blown overreaction mode, Lucy hides metal household objects under her housecoat to protect herself from Ricky’s murder attempts. In a great bit of physical comedy, she explains that she’ll keep moving so Ricky has a harder time hitting her.
  10. Ricky arrives home to find his wife acting insane. She bobs and weaves around the kitchen and a pan falls out of her housecoat.
  11. Fred arrives and suggests that Ricky should sneak a sedative into a drink for Lucy so she calms down.
  12. Lucy sees Ricky putting the sedative into the drink. She’s now convinced her husband is trying to poison her.
  13. Ricky manages to get Lucy to drink from the glass. She wildly overreacts, assuming she’s dying. She briefly passes out.
  14. Ethel arrives and wakes her up. Lucy says that if she can’t have Ricky, no one can. She grabs the gun.
  15. At the club, Lucy is prepared to kill Ricky with the prop gun, but all is revealed. The women’s names are the dog’s names. The gun is a fake. Lucy was overreacting the whole time.

This is a great example of escalating the story organically. A leads to B, which leads to C. The behavior is justified by what preceded it.

To use the UCB terminology, the “base reality” is that Lucy is nervous. The episode spends 12 minutes (exactly half of the episode) making her more and more nervous until she finally acts. At the 12-minute mark, Ethel shows up to see her friend wearing kitchen supplies as armor. We’ve crossed into absurdity. Note that most normal people would simply ask their spouse to clarify if they thought a murder plot was afoot. Lucy’s blind spot opens the door for comedy.

I’m assuming the episode came about because the writers sat around and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Lucy thought Ricky was trying to kill her?” They probably pitched bits like Lucy wearing the pots and pans, the dance to switch the drinks and Lucy bringing a gun to the club. Then they had to lay down the structure. It’s crucial that we follow Lucy’s logic. Now the fun bits fit in context. (South Park’s Trey Parker explains this in this video.)

Too often, we have fun ideas but haven’t supplied the context. Or we make the jump in our heads without taking the audience along. That’s invention, and it feels artificial. Of course, Lucy’s adventures are artificial as well, but they feel more real because we’re given reasons behind her behavior. Even if we don’t agree, we empathize. And that’s why her comedy holds up more than 60 years later.

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.

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

This Will Happen To You

How will your improvisation career end?

Will you get hired on SNL?  Will you break through in Hollywood?  Will you just give up?  Or will something else demand your attention?

Fifteen years after my first improv class, I’m seeing my peers splinter in a million directions.  If you’ve just begun your journey, I welcome you into this absurd fraternity.  Here’s what life is about to become…

PHASE ONE: THE ROOKIE

You just signed up for improv classes.  You’re giddy with excitement.  You believe this is your first step to stardom.  This is when improv is probably the most fun because you don’t yet know that you totally suck.

Was that harsh?

You totally suck when you start.  We all do.  (John Lutz says we all suck at improv for at least five years.)  But that’s okay.  And it’s fine for you because you don’t know that you suck yet.  You’re just having fun.  And you’ll spend the rest of your improv career trying to get back to this carefree place.  Enjoy it!

Of my very first improv class back in 2000, I’m aware of only one other classmate still (tangentially) active in the scene.  There were about 30 students in that group.  All but four dropped out before the second level of classes.

I can’t say why people drop out this early in their training.  I suspect many are impatient.  There is a long, long line of performers more experienced than you who have the slots on stages and in touring companies.  Despite your Level One brilliance, Lorne Michaels doesn’t know you exist.

But if you love improv this early, you’re probably hooked.  Buckle up for a hell of a ride.

PHASE TWO: SUPER STUDENT

This is a crucial part of your growth.  As you take more classes, you will develop traits that will probably remain part of your game forever.  It’s an odd dilemma – You will be praised for some things that will eventually become your crutches.  Being criticized for something else may make you abandon it entirely.

But as a student, this is your time to fail.

Fail big.  Fail hard.  Fail often.  Learn to love it.

Unless your teacher is a world-class dick, s/he will encourage you to take chances here.  How else will you learn what kind of performer you want to become?  The class should be a safe environment.  There are no paying audiences here – just your friends.  Learn to let down your guard and be silly.  No one likes the cool guy trying to protect his rep by refusing to play a princess or a kitten.  Also respect your classmates.  Don’t aggressively rape them because you’re so deep in character you forget personal boundaries.

See as many improv shows as you can.  Take notes in every class.  Write down things you enjoy and take note when something feels wrong.  Ask questions.

It’s during the Super Student phase that doubt begins to creep in.  You’ll have some scenes that don’t work.  You feel like you’ll never match up to the people on stage.  You’ll begin to question yourself.  This is all normal.  Continue to push through.

By the time you graduate a training program, you will be madly in love with some of your classmates.  You will want to throw others under a bus.  You will remember most of these people the rest of your life.  And at this threshold, most of them will fall away.

To get to the next stage, you must risk rejection.  Rejection kills the timid.  Only the brave may proceed.

PHASE THREE: BEGINNING PERFORMER

Getting to perform at a theater is usually difficult.  Auditions suck.  Sometimes a theater will pluck you from a training program and assemble you with other classmates to form a team.  Maybe you’ve created your own team.

Stage time is precious and theaters don’t want to give it up unless you can bring in a paying crowd.  This is where art runs into the buzzsaw of commerce.

I found this phase of my career to be the most terrifying.  By being added to a team, I felt I had been declared somehow “equal” to all the performers on more veteran teams.  I knew I wasn’t equal at this point, so I felt a constant need to prove myself.  What a total mind-F.

At this phase in your career, you’ve lost the bliss of ignorance.  You know when you suck.  You hear the crickets in the crowd.  You watch a veteran team go on after you and destroy the same audience that sat silent through your show.  Doubt begins to creep into your play.  At many theaters, an “every man for himself” mentality takes hold.

When you hit this stage of your development, remember to breathe.  Talk to your coach or other veteran performers about your struggles.  Most are happy to help.  You have to be brave and continue refining your skills.  Unlike your time in class, the onus is now on you to identify those weak spots and find ways to strengthen them.

This phase feels like puberty.  You’re no longer a kid and you’re trying to act like an adult, but it doesn’t come naturally.

If you can fight through the doubt and a lot of terrible, terrible shows, there is light at the end of this tunnel.

PHASE FOUR: VETERAN

Ever see one of those war movies where the rookie huddles behind a wall while the grizzled vet struts around the battlefield with bombs exploding everywhere?  If you’ve made it this far, that’s you!

You’ve become a veteran when you’ve had so many bad shows, you no longer fear failure.  You’re willing to sit in an uncomfortable scene just to experience it.  You perform with confidence.

No one is entirely bulletproof at this stage, but you will feel like it at times. Elite athletes talk about seeing the game “slow down.”  And when an improv show is clicking for a veteran, they see moves and callbacks faster than the audience can.  They make interesting connections.  They’re not afraid to derail a show because a fascinating new idea sprang forth.

I remember telling Rebecca Sohn that I struggled with being in scenes where things started going arbitrarily haywire all of a sudden.  She told me the way to cope with sudden chaos is to tell yourself, “That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen right now.”  When you’re so confident on stage that you remain cool even when totally confused, you’ve reached this most excellent level.

Reflexes take over when you’re a veteran.  You stop thinking and start doing.  It’s a great feeling.

This can also become a point in our careers where we begin coasting.  The most dangerous performer of this type is the GLGWS – Goofy-Looking Guy Who Screams.  He’s characterized by having crazy hair (facial or otherwise) and/or being extremely over/underweight.  He got to this point in his career by relying on being goofy-looking and screaming.  He reliably gets laughs by doing this.  He’s afraid not to get laughs so he does it all the time.  When you see the GLGWS, watch the faces of his fellow performers – they often seem incredibly fatigued with him.

Being a veteran doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything.  It just means you’re comfortable.  Your ability to transcend this level is dependent on your willingness to allow yourself to be uncomfortable again, to try new things and to leave some successful impulses aside, knowing you can return to them later if necessary.

PHASE FIVE: THE NEXT ADVENTURE

At some point, every performer must decide where to go once they’ve conquered the mountain in their particular city.  If you’re in a smaller city, you may pack your bags for Chicago, L.A. or New York.

Most Chicago vets also bolt for a coast, trying to turn their improv skills into a paying career.

Others decide to stay in their cities and teach, becoming an integral part of the next generation.

Some get married and have kids, leaving improv behind to become real grown-ups.

Some transition to writing or other careers where improv is an asset, but not the product.

This stage is where I find myself, and it’s pretty heartbreaking.  Friends I’ve known for years are leaving my city in search of fame and fortune.  I wish them the best, but I miss them all the time.  In our time on stage, we became family.  But the end comes suddenly and the road beckons.

At Phase Five, you look around and everyone in your city seems younger than you.  They have the energy to go to class and spend the whole night watching shows and drinking.  I just want to do my show and go home to my girlfriend.  The difference is, improvisation used to be my girlfriend.

Even if you choose to soldier on, teaming up with other remaining veterans or younger players, it won’t quite feel the same.  By this point in your life, you’ve put improv in perspective.  It’s a wonderful activity, but it’s on par with hitting a great restaurant or catching a ballgame with friends.

With that in mind, I offer the following advice to anyone starting out…

1. Enjoy the ride.  However long this lasts, it will be a unique, indelible experience.  I can remember scenes I did 15 years ago.  I can remember specific things I said or did that made my castmates break on stage.  I remember seeing scenes a decade ago that still make me laugh.  This art form attracts some of the most wonderful weirdos on earth.  Count yourself blessed, even when you’re struggling.

2. Don’t give up.  You had a bad show.  You didn’t get a callback.  The audience didn’t show up.  You stopped having fun.  You have to change something up and push through those moments.  There is joy on the other side.  You can always take a break.  And if that break is more enjoyable than improv, maybe your ride is done.  But never shut that door entirely.  You may find yourself drawn to it again.

3. Be nice and keep in touch.  This is a tight-knit community and we are all just two degrees of separation away from someone really important.  Your next job (or even your spouse) could be waiting on the other end of an improv relationship you began years ago.

4. Prepare yourself to let go.  Every project ends.  Every project.  When it’s time to go, bow and leave the stage with your head held high.  The end of a team is not the end of your life.

5. Live in the moment.  The best lesson improv can teach you is presence in the present.  Whether you’re on stage or in a random life moment, take a minute to soak everything up.  Slow your thoughts.  Use your senses.  Absorb what’s happening.  Let that inform your next action.  When the moment is gone, it’s never coming back.  That is the beauty and the sadness of improv, and of life.

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

When Wrong is Right

When playing with my young nephews, I notice there is something universal about the appeal of misbehavior.  Whether it’s Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Pandora opening that box or Dorothy fleeing the Yellow Brick Road, the excitement begins when a character simply does the opposite of what they’re told.

My nephews.

With the boys, it’s as simple as telling them (playfully) not to do something.  When they do it, and I pretend to be mad, they always laugh.  Always.

In polite society, we usually do what we’re told.  There are consequences to rule-breaking.

In comedy, rule-breaking is fundamental.  The Three Stooges.  Bugs Bunny.  The Marx Brothers.  Animal House.  We love the vicarious thrill of seeing a character doing something we would never do in real life.  Importantly, there are no lasting consequences for the misbehavior and these characters always get away with it in the end.

Check out this amazing scene with Liam Neeson from Life’s Too Short.

What’s funny about that?  Neeson states his objective is comedy.  Then he fails at comedy over and over.  Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais repeatedly tell him AIDS isn’t funny.  Over and over, Neeson mentions AIDS.

When I coach, I repeatedly tell improvisers, “Don’t do that,” means, “YOU MUST do that.”  The audience desperately wants to see the consequence.  Often, the person issuing the command is in higher authority and audiences love seeing the superiors suffer.

It’s important to note that misbehavior for misbehavior’s sake is rarely funny.  Tom Green humping a dead moose reeks of desperation.  The key to humor is the explicit (or occasionally implicit) request or command from one character and the direct violation from another character.

Doing exactly what is requested of you is helpful to advance a scene, especially if it’s a low-stakes request (e.g. passing the salt, washing the dishes, providing customers with the food they ordered).  But if it’s a high-stakes request (e.g. never shake a baby, don’t feed the Gremlin after midnight, never push the History Eraser Button), the entire audience will lean forward in anticipation of the consequences.  Use that to your advantage.

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

The Last Days of Martin de Maat

I did not know Martin de Maat. To me, he was just a black and white photo on the Second City Training Center student newsletter.

Martin is best known for the quote, “You are pure potential.” It’s a lovely thought, and it encompasses all that improvisation can be.

As I was clearing out some old papers, I found all my student newsletters and I thought it would be a fitting tribute to share each of the “Notes from Martin” that graced the front of the newsletter. They are presented below exactly as they appeared.

March 6-May 14, 2000

Although the purpose of the Training Center includes preparing talent for Second City’s stages, we do not want to forget that the program has two other equally important goals – the exploration and advancement of the art form and the training of actors and writers. All three are in place to support you in your objective, be that Second City employee, improvisational artist, actor, writer, or conscious courageous human being. I write to suggest that the ends other than Mainstage are as valid as getting hired by us.

Yeah, yeah, easy for me to say. I’ve already got a job. The fact is that you do too. (I admit the pay could be better.) It is your job to be a student of this work. It is a powerful position. By definition it is “one who has yet to know.” It means that the moment you declare yourself a student you clear your slate, need not prove anything, and become pure potential. A position of authority contains limitation. Student leaves you wide open to make it up your way. You can improvise your future and the future of the art form. In being its student you are its future.

You can use your experience as student here to move closer to your dreams, or you can put too many of your hopes in one outcome and limit your investment potential. I suggest diversification. Imagine other employment and pastimes to which this work applies and invest energy into those as well. Recognize how it can impact your current job. Research other improvisational groups and consider involvement. Collaborate with your peers to create a group with its own unique vision.

Actors cull a living in their art. A little income here, a little there, it adds up to a career. Think about participating in other theaters and schools. Involvement in more than one organization helps you become a more rounded artist. It also promotes feeling that you are part of the community. For many improvisers, being part of the tribe is payment enough. Ultimately what you are looking for is for a fulfilling experience offering your art and ideas. That canvas may well be Second City, but it can just as likely be elsewhere. Elsewhere is not less valuable, it is just different.

I do not mean to discourage you or to suggest that it is impossible to make it to “Mainstage”. Actually being hired in one of the positions we have for actors is highly possible, be it Business Theater or touring company. It is worth the shot if it interests you. What I do want to discourage is your being in “Level A” wishing you were in “C” or being in “C” in a hurry to be in “1”. This “where I am is not good enough” pattern is difficult to break. It goes on and on. You can imagine it as being in a touring company wishing you were in “etc.” or “etc.” wishing for “Mainstage,” or “Mainstage” wishing for “Saturday Night Live.” Everyone could be busy not doing his or her job. They would be missing much of the present experience while auditioning for the future. (Luckily, we do not have much of that going on.)

Be all right where you are. Commit to the process rather than worrying about the product of your investment. It is the same as improvising. The only way for the next moment to realize its full potential is if 100% of your energy is in this one.

Bless you and keep growing.

Martin de Maat,
Artistic Director


May 15-July 30, 2000

Contemplate this. What purpose does art serve? There is, after all, no harmless art. Each image, word or brush stroke creates an effect. All art has an influence. It can challenge the status quo and often begin rumblings that can, and sometimes do, transform social paradigms.

Stimulation of ideas through free expression is the basis for our strength. The artists’ insights are what define a Second City revue. Maintaining high reference levels acknowledges the audience’s intelligence and engages them in thought. Humor is simply the lubricant that makes our points of view palatable. It is necessary and honorable but not the entire entertainment. Don’t sacrifice a scene’s effect or ideas just to get an easy laugh.

Second City revues are a late twentieth century manifestation of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas about the purpose of theatre. He believed that the importance of theatrical offerings lies in stimulating thought and delivering the author’s message. He also believed that theater exists to improve the mass’s life condition. I add that theatre is responsible for providing the audience with some relief from their lives and considerations. Laughter focuses them in the moment. Humor softens the blow. Acceptably presented ideas stimulate, and the total experience provides them with satisfaction and excitement. We are responsible for what we say and how we say it to make sure that this happens.

A performer’s influence is defined by how individual audience members comprehend the presentation. Audience members orient their perception from their individual frames of reference. What they perceive is dependent on their experience and morals. This framework defines their interpretation. It is our responsibility to make offerings that are general enough to reach the widest audience while not losing the artist’s point of view. Herein lies our integrity.

Please remember that the expression “our” includes you.

Humor remains our primary delivery conduit. It is our promise to the audience, but shock, style, and cleverness can also be used to wake them as well. Enrolling the audience through emotional identification is also a substantial means of embroiling them in our notions. Brecht dislikes humankind’s propensity to identify emotionally, but we do not. It has been depended on from the ancients. If empathy and pathos are worthy enough for Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Stanislavsky, they are a good enough method for Second City.

Anything is possible if properly handled. And it is your job to see how close to the line you can walk. Here are several simple lessons to move you into a successful creative experience. Avoid an abundance of easy choices that exist simply to shock. Easy, repeated sexual references confuse a scene’s point of view. Discard language and subject matter that serve no purpose or threaten the audience’s willingness to receive a message. Remember our audience is made up of family and friends. Understand that the audience will hear what they want, and be certain that you are saying what you mean.

I invite you to ruminate on what you really want to say. I suggest a series of societal, political, and interpersonal reflections that demonstrate the ludicrousness that exists in our lives. That is what satire is, and satire is what we do.

If you have questions about this newsletter article, feel free to contact me.

Play well,
Martin de Maat, Ph.D.
Artistic Director


July 31-October 8, 2000

About what we do at Second City.

We teach improvisational techniques and train actors through improvisation, mindful that the bulk of our stage work is the creation of a fixed revue developed through means of ensemble improvisation. This revue includes satirical sketches, scenes of various length and subject matter, music and other theatrical stylings ordered to become an entertainment. The material is developed in rehearsal and tested out at night during the improvised set that follows a show. Eventually, new material is filtered into the first two acts (we call these preview performances) until two new acts have emerged. We have an opening night, label it a different, hopefully relevant, title and continue the process. We proceed to experiment with new scenic ideas. They are stimulated either from the actors’ conceptions or audience suggestions. Any of these new ideas could develop into part of whatever the next offering will be.

A scene’s content and message is sometimes thought out prior to the first time it is improvised. The actors improvise to establish beats or with a goal. They improvise it two or three times and “keep” the beats they like. These beats are ordered in a sequence which makes sense, locked, and rehearsed as set material. Sometimes the actors improvise a scene and then figure out what it is all about. Sometimes they go home and write something. It does not much matter where the material comes from. What does matter is that it stays in some process of exploration and discovery for a while and that the actors know what they are saying in that scene.

The simple goal is to satirize that which we find ludicrous in our society and make it funny. The audience gets to laugh at the silly stuff and perhaps challenge their own belief structures and societal paradigms. It lightens their load and may cause reflection.

We also use improvisation as entertainment unto itself. We present sets and jams that are completely improvised. The seeds of new material are often discovered during these sessions. We also include games and spot improvisations in our sets and sometimes within our revues.

Our primary purpose for teaching improvisation is to prepare students to use it as a tool to create new material. This is the focus of the Conservatory Program of The Training Center. Yet we also teach improvisation to enhance acting techniques and to expand social skills. This is the focus of the Beginning, IFA and High School Programs. These are equally important endeavors.

Whatever drives you to study this work, enjoy the process of exploration, discovery, and growth. The performance (product) is important, but it wants to come second to the learning that can be culled from both the product and the process.

GLOSSARY:

BEAT – an ordered sequence of events or lines that maintain its own beginning, middle, and end, yet becomes part of and serves the whole scene.
CONSERVATORY – the upper levels of The Training Center. These students create material, perform on Sunday nights and eventually run a show on Monday nights.
SET – an act of improvised material or works in progress. The third act of our regular show.
SPOT – a totally spontaneous scene generally based on a suggestion from the audience.

Martin de Maat, Ph.D.
Artistic Director


Autumn 2000

I am privileged to have been included in the “we” of Second City since early childhood. I attended Second City’s shows in its first year of existence. But my first real exposure was through my aunt, Josephine Forsberg, who was studying improvisation there – and would eventually become Second City’s Director of Workshops. She called one day and wanted me to come to class. Josephine felt that the study of improvisation would benefit me, even though I was just a kid. “There is this woman,” she said, “teaching.”

That woman was Viola Spolin and those workshops changed my life, saved it, really. Valuable life lessons and a call to consciousness were the reward for an early morning train and bus ride and a walk along Lincoln Park to attend Saturday classes. Viola was in Chicago to complete work on her book “Improvisation for the Theater.” She used the class to settle on methods for speaking about the games. One of the great acknowledgements of my life is Viola telling me that a scene I had improvised helped her finally settle her thinking on the game “Explore and Heighten.” There I was, a child of nine and ten, improvising with adults and playing parents and bosses. I never missed a class.

Viola was gentle and kind, patient and accepting. She heard every word I spoke. I never felt in appropriate or disrespected. Viola loved children. She created her “Theater Games” for them. The games and exercises were then and are now a type of social work. They were meant to rescue us from the inconsistencies of childhood. They were designed to simulate self-esteem, self-confidence and courage. They taught communication skills that allowed me and others to know we are not alone. I am honored to be one of the children under her influence.

Viola died in 1992. There was a collection of funds for a memorial or such being carried out for her. My secretary opened the letter requesting donations. She said “They’re collecting money for Viola. How much do you want to send?” “Everything,” I replied.

It seems there is nothing I am that has not been influenced by her touch.

Martin de Maat
Artistic Director, The Second City Training Centers


February 13, 2001

I’m dictating this from my hospital bed, so forgive the informality of my newsletter entry this semester.

Recently my days are filled with doctors. Last Wednesday one of the young interns came in and said, “I have never seen this before.” When someone asked what he meant, he said, “I see hundreds of patients, but the people in this room never end, this kind of attention and respect, these visitors, flowers.” He paused. “I don’t have anything to do with your case, but I feel left out. So if I can answer any questions or help, let me know.”

In the last few weeks the outpouring of support has been wonderful. It is a comfort that cannot be described. I am unimaginably blessed by each of you.

My primary doctor and close friend returned from a trip to India this week. Imagine him walking into Cabrini’s Manhattan Hospital trying to find me. He asked the desk clerk downstairs to find my room number. It is a big place and I have moved. Without pausing, the person behind the desk said, “1124.” “Are you sure?” my friend said, “You didn’t even look it up.” The desk manager raised her head and replied with a heavy New York accent, “I’m sure. I’m very, very sure. All I say, all day long is 1124.”

This room is filled with endless messages, phone calls, stacks of mail and visitors. Please accept this note as thanks. It is important to me that you know that I know how you feel. You mean so much to me. I love each of you and I’m very, very proud of you.

Martin de Maat, Artistic Director


Martin de Maat passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends on February 15, 2001 at Cabrini Medical Center in New York.

Your Suggestion Makes a Dinosaur

Most improv shows begin with the solicitation of a suggestion.

Depending on your audience, you might get something great or, more likely, you’ll get an item of food or a body part normally covered by a bathing suit.

I’ve seen some teams try to steer the audience away from that by asking a different question.  “Name something that’s important to you,” or, “What’s your favorite song?” or, “What’s a favorite gift you’ve received?”

Regardless of how you get it, the suggestion is simply a jumping-off point.  If your show sucks, you can’t blame it on the suggestion.  After all, you don’t credit your suggestion for a good show, do you?

Think of your suggestion like the mosquito trapped in amber in “Jurassic Park.”  It’s your team’s job to suck out the dino DNA and build a bad-ass human-chomping dinosaur with it.

If the audience shouts, “Cow!” you could easily begin a scene with a cow.  That’s fine.  But what does “cow” mean to you?  Part of the food chain?  A hurtful slur toward a fat person?  A word we teach babies?  There’s more to “cow” than just “cow.”

If you were a painter or a novelist using a cow in your art, many viewers would try to surmise why you chose the cow.  It must be a symbol.  It must mean something.  Right?  It wasn’t selected at random.

Similarly, the suggestion from the audience should send you on an exploration on a theme.  They want to see you take the suggestion’s DNA and turn it into a dinosaur.  Harness your group’s unique, dynamic mind and build something ferocious.

Previously on the topic of suggestions…

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