Tag Archives: callbacks

A Word About Walk-Ons

A scene is chugging along between two players when a third decides to enter from the sidelines. This is called a walk-on.

Ninety percent of them are awful.

I understand why they happen. Ideas often flow more freely when you’re a spectator. As you stand on the sidelines, you get an idea how to improve a scene, so you walk on and steal the spotlight. Rarely does this help the original performers.

When is a walk-on okay?

  • If the performers on stage are calling for the entry of another character. (“I think I heard Dad’s car in the driveway!” or “My sister’s getting here in five minutes,” or “I saw a monster in my closet!” or a character makes a phone call to an off-stage entity.)
  • If your walk-on can serve a functional role. (Bartenders, waiters, ushers and others can drop in, help define the location and fade to the background.)
  • If you are supplying vital information to frame the scene. (Declaring a location or a situation that helps the original performers find a comedic idea that they’re missing on their own.)
  • A late-show opportunity for a callback to a prior character who would fit perfectly in the scenario. (This is rare.)

When is a walk-on NOT okay?

  • When you’re stealing focus.
  • When your idea does not enhance the original scene.
  • When you’re bored.
  • When the scene has been going on too long.
  • When nothing in the original scene is worth saving.

Think of a walk-on like a life preserver. If the actors on stage are swimming, they don’t need one. If they’re merely struggling, they may not need one. If they’re drowning, just pull them out of the water (with an edit). The worst case scenario is throwing a huge life preserver that crushes the swimmers. A barrage of endless life preservers would be a hazard to the swimmers. One life preserver is all you need, and you must be judicious in whether to throw it.

If you feel an impulse to walk on, ask yourself…

  • Would an edit or tag-out make more sense?
  • If I wait, will they figure it out on their own?
  • Am I able to recede into the background or exit after delivering my one piece of information?
  • Am I just trying to crash a scene that’s fun because I also want to have fun?

Although walk-ons are easy to do, doing them correctly is a fairly advanced move. Watch more veteran performers and you’ll see that most almost never walk on. There’s a good reason for that.

Got questions about this or anything else in comedy? Hit me up at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com.

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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

Calm Down. Calm the F Down.

Why do so many scenes start so badly?

It’s probably because we’re filled with nervous energy.  We have a character or a scene in mind and we CAN’T WAIT to share it with the audience.  We jump up and throw down our idea real hard and then…

Usually nothing.

I’ve been improvising for a long, long time and I think I can count on one hand the number of (non-callback) opening lines that elicited a big laugh.  The audience is much more likely to respond to the second line.  The funny rarely comes from the situation.  It comes with how we respond to it.

Think of stand-up comedy for a second.  How often does the first joke slay an audience?  Almost never happens.  A comedian crafts his set, taking the audience on a ride with him.  The best jokes are staggered throughout the set, usually culminating in a big finish or callback.

That’s the real secret of comedy.  The audience needs to follow your journey to buy in.

That said, many young improvisers freak out when a scene doesn’t get laughs at the start.  If you watch masters like TJ & Dave, their first lines are usually incredibly mundane.  (“Dare to bore,” TJ says.)  They’re discovering the world together, and once they establish the world, they start to play.

Mark Sutton advocates taking a moment at the top of the scene to realize what you’ve done, then doubling down on that for the duration of the scene.  You have to throw the clay on the wheel and spin it for a while before you end up with pottery.  No one ever says, “That was an amazing lump of clay you had there.”

I recently saw a show where cast members hardly listened to the initiations.  The second person on stage seemed more interested in being a wacky character than building a world together.   Here’s an actual example.  The show’s suggestion involved a discussion of -philes (audiophiles, pedophiles, etc.):

“I’m sorry, ma’am.  We don’t offer a crustophile pizza.”
“Well what do you have?”  
“A full menu of regular pizzas.”
“I have dementia!”

What?

“Nice initiation, but isn’t my WACKY CHARACTER so much more fun?”

When someone declares themselves crazy, the scene is usually over.  (There are exceptions, of course. ) How would you react if you worked at a pizza place and a customer told you she had dementia?

That initiation implied that a woman had specifically asked for a “crustophile” pizza.  Why?  What kind of request is that?  What other weird things could she ask for?  That was the offer of the game – a game that got denied so she could play crazy.  The scene was awful.

Yes, there are different schools of improvisation.  And some advocate creating a big, strong, bulletproof character at the top.  But if your character is so invulnerable that he/she can’t change or be affected by the situation, why bother playing with another person?

Not every initiation is a winner.  And really, the initiation only needs to convey some information, not the entire story.  But if you feel like hitting the panic button on a scene and throwing your partner under the bus to do a solo showcase, you should reconsider why you’re doing improv in the first place.

Slow down.  Breathe.  Explore the idea.  Build it together.  Don’t do a walk-on when an edit would suffice.  No canvas was ever perfected with the first stroke of the brush.

The audience wants to see you build together.  They want to see you agree.  They want to see exploration and discovery.  Those organic moments yield the best laughs.  Don’t force it.

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

Finding the Game

The UCB schools in New York and Los Angeles preach the importance of “finding the game” of the scene.  This can be daunting for beginning improvisers.  In this video, you’ll hear a well-played game.  Listen first, then read on.

Matt Besser begins the scene as the teacher of a shotgun class.  Without missing a beat, Ian Roberts makes the sound of a gun going off.  It’s about the shortest wait you’ll ever have for a Checkhov’s gun sitution.

Checkhov’s Gun: If a gun appears on stage in a play, someone must be shot by the final curtain.

But that’s fun, right?  Everyone in the audience would be waiting for that gun to be used.  The fact that they use it right away is a good scene move.

Immediately, everyone else fires off their guns.  And Besser gets mad.

At this point, you might be saying, “If the teacher is yelling at his students NOT to shoot the guns, isn’t shooting them a violation of the ‘yes and’ rule?”

This is where “yes and” gets messy.

“Yes” is not always a literal yes.  “Yes” is simply agreement to the facts of the scene.

In fact, if someone in a scene tells you NOT to do something, you MUST do it.

The audience is not looking for us to follow marching orders.  They want us to misbehave.  The stage is a place to explore the consequences of misbehavior.  You’ll often find that doing what another performer asks you not to is actually a great gift to the other performer.  If he was angry before, he’ll be fully enraged after you ignore his warnings.

Think of it this way: The most interesting part of any Superman movie is when he encounters kryptonite.  If another character reveals a weakness, the entire audience wants to see what happens when that weakness is exploited.

The “game” in the scene above is simply Besser freaking out every time a shotgun blast goes off.  It’s the thing that can be repeated (with variations) ad nauseum.

There’s a more subtle game going on here, too.  It’s the students behaving as if they’re smarter than the teacher.  And the teacher gets annoyed when they do.

Game scenes can be shallow if done incorrectly.  If the scene was only gunshots and Besser’s reaction, we’d grow tired of it more quickly.  But Besser confiscates the guns.  For a time, the audience forgets how fun that was.  And when it comes back, it’s even better.

That’s your challenge with a game.  If Action X results in Reaction Y, you must do it enough times to establish a pattern.  Then, walk away from the pattern and play the scene as you might normally.  And when you trigger Action X again, the audience will love it.

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

Auditions Part III: The Fresh Sting of Failure

You would think someone who’s already written 2,371 words on the subject of auditions would not fold like a house of cards in that situation.  But I did, my friends.  I did.

It was virtually the same story as my last audition.  Rampaging beast in Round One.  Flailing wallflower in Round Two.

What.  The.  Hell?

It’s funny because as I was going through the process, I was clearly thinking of my recent post about choking under pressure.  For the first round, I deliberately occupied my mind elsewhere.  I had a show the night before.  I went on a date.  I took a nap.  I woke up so late, I had to cab it to the audition.  I did this (partly) by design.  As long as I wasn’t thinking about the audition, I couldn’t overthink it.

In each scene, I was relaxed.  I listened.  I reacted in the moment.  And I murdered.

For the callback, I had far too much free time before my slot.  My brain started “performing” as soon as I woke up.  I started thinking about great scenes I could do.  I improvised both parts of a conversation: bump, set, spike.  I was having a lovely little performance in my head.

Then I jumped on the bus.  And I took the long, long ride through Cubs traffic to the theater.  My mind started racing.  What can I do to stand out?  How the hell can I replicate what I did last time?  It would be fun to audition with a friend.  But what if I’m auditioning with strangers?  What’s our suggestion going to be? I hope it’s a good one.  Don’t blow it.  Don’t blow it.  Don’t blow it…

So, of course, I blew it.

What an awful feeling.  You hear the laughs during other performances and you think, “Damn, I’d better bring my ‘A’ game.”  That’s kind of the opposite of, “I look forward to being in the moment and making discoveries with my partner.”

After my slot, I sat and watched other performers remain chill and flexible.  I watched friends nail it.  I watched a few people totally choke.  Mostly, I spent the time beating myself up.

Yeah, there’s a chance I could make a team.  But honestly, I don’t think I deserve it.

It’s entirely crazy that the first round brought out my best abilities, while the second brought out my weaknesses.  When I’m really bad, I get in my head, I disconnect from my scene partners, I spew run-on sentences, I’m inflexible and repetitive.  I even went blue.  And I never go blue.  (The exact phrase was “bust a nut in an underage Caucasian.”)

In one scene, I watched a woman do the same thing I was doing.  She summoned three “students” on stage and told us to take a test while she read a book.  As she was initiating this scene, I thought, “She’s disconnecting.  She just started a scene where we can’t really interact.”

And then it hit me, I’d initiated a scene with the same f***ing problem.  I started on a phone, announcing I’d forgotten my computer password.  My scene partner just paced while I spoke to tech support offstage.  I hung him out to dry.  Godawful.

One of the first hard criticisms I ever received came from Anne Libera in the Second City Conservatory in 2002.  She said I had a tendency to pre-plan scenes and try to drag everyone along with me.  Ten years later, I still have that problem.

The one thing I’m trying to work on more than anything else is being present.  It’s so, so hard for me.  I think ahead, I think back, I spend a ton of time in my head.  I need to spend time in my body.  I need to feel my feet on the ground and feel the vibe my scene partner is giving.  Since I can’t predict anything in an improv scene, the only way to survive is by being entirely present in the moment.

But I blew it, man.  I blew it.

What makes it worse is that I know I’m better than that.  And I know exactly what I did wrong.  While I was doing it, I knew it.

And I had brief flashes where I felt like I should hang it up.  These other performers clearly had something I didn’t.  It may be something I’ll never have.

Or maybe I should shut up and keep working.  I may never be great, but I can always be better.

Previously: Auditions Part I & Auditions Part II

Why You Choke

Previously, I’ve written about why you should stop caring.  But it seems that’s harder than we’d like.

Our brains – the very things that come up with all those great improv ideas – are out to sabotage us.  In this Psychology Today article, researchers tried to figure out why we choke.

Big show, big audition, important audience member, you name it.  The pressure’s on.  And it crushes some of us.  The article says when our potential reward is low, our performance is better.  Raise the reward and we start to suck.  Think of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  As the potential payday increases, people get more tentative.  Hesitancy in an improv show will kill you.

There’s a stupid part of our stupid brains – the ventral striatum.  It lights on fire when we hear about a great opportunity.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when it comes to performance time, the exact same part of our brains slows down, and we fumble.  Seems like manufacturer error.

The article says the people most likely to choke are those who have (or think they have) the most to lose.  What do you have to lose when you’re goofing around with your friends?  Nothing.  What do you have to lose in that audition in front of Lorne Michaels?  Trick question.  The answer is nothing.

To lose something, you have to have it.  An audition is a lottery ticket.  Only once you know the result is it worth something.  Let’s say you went in front of a casting agent and literally took a dump.   You dropped trou and squeezed out a giant dook.  You probably wouldn’t get that job.  But what if you knew your lines and gave the best performance of your life?  You still may not get the job.  There are a million variables you can’t control.  The pooper and the pro “lost” the same thing: Nothing.

Now, the ventral striatum is probably very useful if you have a pocket full of diamonds and you’re walking through a bad neighborhood.  It tells you to be on alert.  After all, you’ve got a pocketful of diamonds and there’s danger all around you.

But what if you had a pocketful of dirt?  You probably wouldn’t want to be in a bad neighborhood, but at least you know anyone trying to mug you is going to get a fistful of nada.

Is there a way to trick that stupid ventral striatum into thinking a high stakes scenario is the same as a low stakes situation?  I might think of all the times I’ve bombed on stage.  I might think of how hard that guy in class made my improv teacher laugh, and how that guy eventually gave up.  I might think of how the core of me cannot be destroyed or enhanced by any opportunity.

When a door opens, you may walk through or you may be prevented from doing so.  But if you prevent yourself from walking through because you feel danger, you’ve already screwed yourself.  The safety is on the other side of the doorway, one way or another.  The longer you stand around waiting to go through, the more you choke.  Just go.  Boldly.  Pick up the pieces or pop the cork once the verdict is rendered.  There are always other doors.

And the ventral striatum is just a lump of meat in your head.  Don’t get outsmarted by that.

More on the subject of “choking” from The New Yorker.

And even more: “Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little.”

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

Auditions Part II: Tales from Behind the Desk

Last year, I wrote about improv auditions from a performer standpoint.  Earlier this month, I went through the audition process on the other side of the table. As the director of an upcoming show, I had to select a cast.  It was not easy.

When you audition, it’s really no different from any other performance.  The only differences are that A) You’re performing with people you don’t know, and B) The audience consists of 3-4 people.

Let’s deal with “B” first.  Is it weird performing for such a small audience?  Yes.  But the same things that work in a regular performance work in an audition.  Are you smart?  Are you funny?  Are you a good actor?  Are you listening to your fellow actors?  Are you making conscious, varied choices?  Are you being proactive?  Do you look comfortable despite any nerves you’re fighting?

Those things earn you points.

Similarly, things that turn off a regular audience will turn off your auditors.  Failure to listen, steamrolling or hogging the stage, making repetitive choices and being passive will work against you.  I eliminated one woman because she contradicted the location previously established in the scene.

Now let’s deal with the fact that you’re playing with strangers.  That sucks.  Especially in the first round, you may be dealing with people who have no business on a stage.  Like the Russian guy who seemed to make his performance debut during these auditions.  It was easy to eliminate him… but what about his scene partners?  I just focused on how they handled the human roadblock.  You can only control yourself.  Don’t lose control just because you’re with someone out of his depth.

Performers broke down pretty clearly into three groups…

1) Definite callbacks.  These were performers who sparkled.  They offered something unique or different.  Some were funny.  Some were good actors.  Some brought an energy I wanted to see again.

2) The “maybe” pile.  These were people that had some good moments, but they didn’t grab me as much.  Sometimes people have an off day.  Perhaps you sense potential, but you’re not sure.

3) Get these people away from me.  Guy checking his watch throughout the audition, you’re excused.  Russian guy?  Hit the door.  Woman who never made eye contact with her scene partner, vaya con dios.

Out of 70 performers, I had 16 in the definite callback pile.  Nine women, seven men.  We looked in the maybe pile.  Just two men, and a bunch of women.  We decided to call back nine men and nine women.  The goal was to build a cast of six.  (One woman was a holdover from an older version of this show, so that slot was already filled.)

Callbacks

This is where things got tougher.  A few people eliminated themselves by virtue of being in the presence of better performers.  While you may look great opposite someone losing their cool, you’ll look lead-footed if you can’t keep up with someone really sharp.

Some people just didn’t bring the same energy they’d displayed on day one.  (That was my fatal flaw mentioned in my previous audition blog.)

Some people actually performed better in the second round.  They were a pleasant surprise.

Of the five people I cast, three of them were front-runners from day one.  Two people showed dramatic improvement from their first round.

Final Selections

When we set out the headshots of our favorite performers, I once again noticed we had more women than men.  And though it was my intention to cast a gender-balanced show, I felt better about skewing that balance for a more talented cast.  So when you come to see Lady Parts at ComedySportz in 2012, you’ll see a cast of four women and two men.

I should also mention that we wanted an understudy.  And one woman proved herself so versatile, I felt she could handle any of the parts… male or female.  That’s a huge compliment to her.  But it’s an understudy spot, which, you know, kinda sucks for her.

When assembling my cast, I could have just gone for the funniest people.  But you need diversity on stage.  I picked one guy because I believed he could be an excellent straight man.  The other man I selected had a huge variety of characters.  That covered my bases for men.

For women, I chose one woman who played a lot of self-assured, strong characters.  I chose one woman whose characters showed great specificity, but more “stereotypically” feminine/light energy.  And I chose a woman who may have been the best actor of anyone in the auditions.  (She reacted to everything in an honest, believable way.)  You have to have good actors in your ensemble.

Chemistry is impossible to predict, but I tried to come up with a cast whose strengths don’t entirely overlap.  Yes, casting a straight man means losing some of the funnier or more energetic performers who auditioned.  But it will work better in the show.

(You can’t have six Chris Farleys on SNL and expect the show to work, dig?)

Overall, I was impressed by the talent level.  And the decision to cut down was extremely difficult.  I had to go with my gut.  And I know I had to cut a lot of very talented performers.  I’m sure karma will boomerang on me the next time I audition for something.

I’m looking forward to working with this cast.  And I believe I selected the five people who will give us the best show.  (Plus, the understudy wild card is someone I think we can make great use of.)

In the end, if the cast fails me, it was my choice.  And if they succeed, I can take a little credit.  But they’ll be the ones collecting laughs and applause.  After what I put them through, they’ve earned it.

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