Tag Archives: del close

“Don’t Think Twice” as Cautionary Tale and Inspiration

I just finished watching Mike Birbiglia’s excellent film, “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s the kind of brutally honest film that really nails its subject. That subject is us, the improvisation community.

What I loved most about it is that it seemed to highlight every stage of an improviser’s career. We see new students bungling their way through scenes. We see the performers with star potential, the improvisers who are quietly brilliant but unsure of themselves, the veteran who hangs on too long and a few weirdos who don’t quite fit in anywhere except the stage. It also does a wonderful job highlighting the push/pull between love and jealousy that marks this subculture so indelibly.

If you’ve been improvising for any significant amount of time, you’ll likely stare at your screen slack-jawed, wondering if that monster on the screen is you. Improvisation is a magnet for some of the most amazing minds on the planet, but it has a narcotic effect. We are seduced by the laughter and camaraderie. Suddenly, you turn around and a decade has gone by.

Improvisation is like writing on flash paper with a matchstick. No matter how brilliant or terrible your idea, it’s going up in flame as soon as the words escape. If you have a brilliant idea at the right moment, it could literally alter your career. The moments of genius that aren’t seen by the right eyes are forgotten forever.

Del Close believed improvisation could be its own legitimate art form. Second City believed it was primarily a valuable writing tool. Both views are possible, but here’s what I’m sure of: It’s far easier to sell something concrete than something ephemeral. Improvise all you like. Laugh, fail, crack open your brains and hearts and spill everything on stage. And if that alone satisfies you, keep doing it. However, if you want to get on “Weekend Live” or SNL or any other gig that pays significant cash, you have to convert that skill into something concrete. Write or make videos or record songs or do something that you can show to someone else. Yes, that requires forethought and follow-through (two traits usually lacking in most improvisers). But if you can thread that needle between inspiration and action, you can build a real career from your talent.

As long as you are aware of what you’re doing with your limited creative lifespan, you’re fine. Too often, we get caught up in doing the quick and easy improv shows while the more daunting work evades us. Don’t spend all your time laughing in base camp when you can start climbing mountains.

I recently spoke to an excellent improviser who told me she was on a team that wasn’t clicking. “Are you happy with the work you’re doing?” She shrugged. She said the team’s coach had been absent and there was one performer who was funny, but threw teammates under the bus to get laughs. For her sake, I hope she leaves the team or finds a more fulfilling outlet. You are all artists. Make sure you’re painting with the colors you like on the canvas you’ve chosen.

Oh, and if you’re an improv teacher, don’t sleep with your students. Being a decent human doesn’t mean you have to settle down with a Naperville woman and her illegitimate half-Brazilian newborn, but please avoid abusing your authority. Keep the environment emotionally healthy for everyone who comes and goes.

Want to get sucked up in the subculture yourself? Take my class at Under the Gun in Chicago! Sign up here. I’m teaching the Tuesday group that begins in January 2017.


Joan Rivers: Balls of Steel

Joan Rivers was a hell of a performer.  Envision yourself at 81.  Do you think you’re going to have a TV show and regular stage performances?  I’ll be lucky if I haven’t been dead for a decade when I’m 81.

Her work ethic was insane.  For any fan of comedy, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is mandatory.  These old comedians hoard jokes in their file cabinets, as if they may someday need to dig up an old Henry Kissinger joke and rework it for some reason.  Comedy rarely ages well.  But Joan did.

Though no one really thinks of her as an improviser, Joan Rivers performed at Second City back in 1961.  The most oft-repeated story of her time there involves the father of modern improv, Del Close.  The two were doing a scene that went something like this…

Joan: “I want a divorce!”

Del: “But honey, what about the kids?”

Joan: “We don’t have any kids!”

The audience laughed.  Del fumed.

Was she denying Del by suggesting they don’t have kids?  Possibly.  But I believe many savvy improvisers could have sustained that scene.  And you could read Del’s line as an inquiry about hypothetical kids.  No matter.  Joan went for the joke.  And she always went for the joke.

With that mentality, she was better suited for stand-up.  There, she excelled.  Joan Rivers was not everyone’s cup of tea, but she found her niche and she out Joaned any other Joans out there.  We should all be so fearless.

She left behind this advice to aspiring comedians…

First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.

Ignore aging: Comedy is the one place it doesn’t matter. It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot. But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?

If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do. It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.

What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.

Requiem for a Building

The iO Theater I knew and loved is now closed.  After nearly 20 years at 3541 N. Clark, Charna Halpern is stepping aside for the Cubs’ bulldozer.  I’m sure the spot will make an excellent CVS or whatever.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been an outpouring of nostalgia on social media.  It feels like we’re all remembering our ex-girlfriend who’s getting married to some other guy.  “She was great,” we’ll say, thinking back on our relationship with rose-colored glasses.  And she was great.  But there’s a reason she’s not marrying you.

For a select few, iO has been all it’s advertised to be: a community, a family, a clubhouse, a springboard to fame.

For the huge majority, it’s been a place where they spent a year taking classes, spending thousands of dollars to chase a dream.  And then they were shown the door.

For me, it falls somewhere in the middle.  I always wanted to turn the corner and feel like it was home, but iO is a very fickle lady.

Last year, I had a conversation about this with Kevin Mullaney.  He spoke about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.”  Gladwell argues that organizations start to unravel once they get bigger than 150 people.  The social bonds necessary for an efficient group start to fray as more people get added.

In some ways, iO’s success is its biggest problem.  By the time the theater dismissed me last year, there were about 30 Harold teams.  Each team had ten players.  And there were a shrinking number of performance slots for those teams.  We’d get two shows a month.  It’s impossible to improve when you perform that infrequently.

Yes, a handful of performers got lots of stage time.  And they probably deserved it.  But I wonder if the theater would have been better served by promoting and nurturing the younger performers, trusting that the most veteran folks would have no trouble finding stage time elsewhere.

I’ll be damned if that place wasn’t magical, though.  It’s a beacon for brilliant misfits around the country.  Improvisers have a shorthand.  When I’m around them, I feel like I’ve been reunited with my long-lost tribe.  Plop me down at a dinner with non-improvisers and I feel like the conversation grinds to a halt.

For six years, I got to perform on iO’s stages.  I laughed so hard, my sides hurt.  I fell in love with those people and that death trap of a building.  It was a candle of originality amid the darkness of drunken frat brother Wrigleyville conformity.

Every time I think about that phone call where I was dismissed, my heart breaks.  Was I that bad?  Did I suck?  What could I have done differently?  Should I have spent more time at the bar, making friends who could have shielded me from that decision?  Or did I trust too much that this was, as advertised, a “theater of the heart” – one that would reward my love with loyalty?

I miss improvisation every day.  Specifically, I miss being with those teams on those stages.  There is no feeling in the world that compares to having your friend jump out and save you when you feel lost.  It creates an unbreakable bond of loyalty.  You want to save them in return.  And so it goes, back and forth – a daredevil trapeze act that gets higher with each performance.

iO is not perfect.  Moving to a bigger building may alleviate the problem of limited stage time, but the sense of community will fray further as more people pour in searching for a golden ticket.  I really hope Gladwell is wrong, and that there can still be intimacy and support and camaraderie in a larger venue.

Regardless of iO’s future, I loved my time as part of its past, and I spend an exorbitant amount of time thinking how I can rekindle that old flame.

Thank you, iO.  If you weren’t so special, these memories wouldn’t sting.

For two very polarized remembrances of that theater, check out blogs from my pals Ryan Dolan and Ben Johnson.

When in Doubt, Act Like a Kid

You are born with an innate sense of play.

As the uncle to two boys under the age of three, I know this to be a fact.  The older one finds something that makes him laugh, then repeats it past the point of logical enjoyment.  But he loves it.  So he keeps doing it.

The youngest, who just turned one, has so little regard for others, he just single-mindedly runs after what interests him.  We once discovered we could kick a giant inflatable ball into him and he’d just laugh.  It makes no sense, but he loves it.

So why, when we become adults, is it so hard to have fun?  As improvisers, why do we start scenes we immediately hate?  Why do we second-guess ourselves and beat ourselves up and sulk after bad shows?

Somewhere between early childhood and adulthood, we lose track of our internal compass of fun.  That compass always points north, but as we get older, we stop trusting it.  “North” becomes a vague notion of what’s “right.”  But there is no “right.”  There is only north.

When you were a kid, you did things that were fun, but you got disciplined for it. It was fun shoving your brother to the ground.  It was fun smearing finger-paint on the wall.  It was fun eating Play-Doh.  You had the impulse to do it, so you did it without question.  After the discipline, though, you start asking yourself if your “fun” impulse is the “right” impulse.  And that began a long domino chain of screwing yourself up.

Second-guessing is death to improvisation.  Do it all you want after a show, but in the middle of a scene, you’ve completely screwed your partner and yourself if you start over-thinking what you just did.

The best improvisers seem to switch between two gears: Initiation and Justification.

Initiation comes from your inner child.  You have a desire to have an accent or walk with a limp or scream in terror or flap your arms like a bird.  You do it.  That scratches your mental itch to do what you want to do.

If I asked my nephews why they did something that made them laugh, they can’t explain it.  They don’t understand.  That needs to be you on stage at some point. Just do something for you.  Have that fun.  Initiate something without hesitation.

But a series of initiations is just masturbatory.  Nothing wrong with it, but you can do it on your own.  Because you’re playing with a friend, you also need to justify. If you can initiate and justify, that’s… mutual masturbation, I guess.  And that’s better.  Now I regret this metaphor.

Say you want to start a scene puking.  That’s your initiation.  Your scene partner can choose to initiate his own thing (flying like a fairy, digging a ditch, singing, riding a horse, reciting poetry, whatever) or he can choose to justify what you just did.  If you puke, he could puke alongside you.  Matching action justifies an action to a degree. (We don’t know why they’re puking, but they’re both doing it, so one actor isn’t singled out for scrutiny.)  He could also say, “I told you not to eat that meat in the glove compartment.”  That verbal yes-and immediately justifies your impulse.  And the scene’s off and running.

Justification is something we learn as adults.  We do it when we lie to our bosses or traffic cops or loved ones or bums asking for change.  Sometimes we do it to save ourselves.  Sometimes we do it to save others’ feelings.  Sometimes we have legitimate justifications, so it doesn’t require any invention.  Kids don’t know how to justify.  Ask them, “Why?” and they’ll shrug their shoulders or ignore the question.

Think of initiation like jumping out of an airplane.  Justification is your parachute.  Go too long without justification and you’ll splatter.  Never jump out of the airplane and you’re just sitting there.  You need both.

Your scene will be amazing if you can switch between players justifying and initiating.  But if you ever get caught judging, you’ve taken yourself out of the scene.

Since most of us are so rooted in our adult brains, I recommend following your childhood compass.  Do fun things first.  Run north.  Then let your adult side explain why.  It’s a lot harder to do it the other way around.  (Ever cringe when one improviser turns to the other and says, “Let’s bake a cake!” and they start baking a cake for no reason?  It’s better if someone just bakes the damn cake.)

All of this is just a long way of rephrasing a classic Del quote: “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.”

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

Why Everything You’ve Learned Makes You a Worse Improviser

Adults are generally good at one thing: Repeating patterns.

We spend our whole lives learning what patterns “work.”  You learn that eating vegetables and exercising helps you lose weight.  You learn how to drive a car from Point A to Point B.  You can follow the directions of a recipe.  You can read a map.

Adults also repeat faulty patterns.  We date the same kinds of toxic people.  We develop unhealthy habits.  We fall back on things that feel good, but aren’t necessarily good for us.

To succeed in improv (whatever that means), there will be times we use that adult part of our brains.  We will follow a pattern because we’ve had success with that kind of scene before.  We will instinctively help lift a teammate trying to fly because that’s what we’re taught.  When two people sit down at a restaurant, it seems like some sort of improv law that a waiter will show up.  (Why does no restaurant scene begin in the middle or end of the meal?)

I’m convinced we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here.

Scope this article from LifeHacker about “Beginner’s Luck.”  It suggests that a novice can overtake a master because they haven’t been preconditioned to think a certain way.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.  — Badass Buddhist Monk

I know I walk into so many scenes thinking, “I’m going to play this kind of character or set up this kind of scenario.”  And so often, I walk off the stage thinking, “What the hell just happened?”  I’ve been studying improv for the better part of a decade.  Shouldn’t I be immune to that?  Or have I let myself take all the lessons too deeply to heart?  Am I now just a robot spitting back variations on clichéd scenes?

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” — Badass Yoda

Tell a kid to play.  What does he do?  Whatever he wants.  Now, tell an adult to play.  He’ll ask you why.  He’ll ask you what you want him to do.  He’ll ask you what the rules are.  That’s how we’ve been conditioned to think.  We’ve become so terrified of failure that we virtually eliminate the possibility of success.

Silly Putty was a mistake.  Potato chips were created as an act of revenge.  Post-It Notes were the result of a failure.  More than likely, our greatest inventions came from someone thinking, “What if…?”  But your bosses are more likely to stick you in a room and say, “Come up with a solution to this problem.”  Chances are, they’re not looking for an idea with no track record of success.  They’re ignoring that such an original idea also has no track record for failure.

Most businesses, despite being founded on a creative idea, are absolutely frightened of creativity.  It represents the possibility of loss.  It’s also the only way to survive, but that gets overlooked.

This article from “Psychology Today” talks about the childlike nature of genius, specifically Picasso.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” — Badass Pablo Picasso

Spend enough time around kids and you’ll hear the same question repeated over and over: “Why?”  Spend enough time around those kids’ parents and you’ll see them become exhausted with the question.  Eventually the answer becomes “Because.”  (In Spanish, the words for “why” and “because” are virtually the same – “Por qué” and “porque.”)

“Because” is not an answer to anything.  It’s a dead-end to thinking.  Ask a child why the sky is blue and no two children will answer the same way.  Ask an adult and they’ll either shrug their shoulders or toss off a scientific explanation.  Which is more fun to listen to?

I don’t argue about the necessity for classes in improv.  One should be well-versed in its history and forms and heroes.  But we don’t really take the next step until we strike out on our own path, think our own way and start behaving like children.

Hell, Del Close started teaching long-form improv on the notion that people would enjoy watching creation as much as a polished sketch show created using the same process.  What’s the next evolution of this artform?  Probably some kid who’s seen everything up until now and sees something the rest of us can’t.  Let’s hope he can ignore his training long enough to follow his heart.

The Harold

Chicago’s iO Theater is the home of the Harold.  It is perhaps the best-known longform improv piece.  And it occurs to me that most people reading this blog may not have the time, money or proximity to learn the way I did – from the best iO has to offer.  This blog post will be my attempt to distill the form so you, in Topeka, Kansas, can perform this on stage.

Del Close invented the Harold.  You can read some of his notes on the form here.  Unfortunately, those notes are extremely broad.  So let’s try to narrow it down.

The traditional Harold involves a team of roughly seven players.  (You can have more or less, but seven works very, very well.)  It lasts about 25-30 minutes.  The Harold follows a roadmap that looks like this: Opening, Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3, Group Game, 2nd Beat 1, 2nd Beat 2, 2nd Beat 3, Group Game, 3rd Beat 1, 3rd Beat 2, 3rd Beat 3, End.

What the hell does that mean?

Let’s start with the opening.  The opening is intended to get your group on the same page.  All of you should be on stage, trying to explore the idea of the suggestion.  If your suggestion is “pony,” you could all form one giant pony and describe it.  You could each have your own ponies and describe them.  You could have a group scene set in a store that sells Pony shoes.  You could sing a song about ponies.  You could tell a story about one particular pony.  You could describe the life of the average American pony.  The only point of an opening is that you want to plug in to what’s called the “group mind.”

The individuals of your team have a wealth of knowledge.  Your goal in the Harold (but especially in the opening) is to find common ground.  For example, not everyone knows the man in charge of carving Mount Rushmore, so trying to get your team together on that bit of trivia may not work so well.  But you can come to some kind of consensus about what Mount Rushmore means.  When the team locks in to that group mind, it will make your Harold run more smoothly.  If we decide Mount Rushmore is evil, the subsequent scenes may take other patriotic symbols and explore their dark sides. If we decide Mount Rushmore makes the other 40 presidents jealous, we might see a show about jealousy.  The clearer you connect on a theme or an idea in your opening, the easier it will be to generate ideas later.

To recap: There are no real rules to an opening, but all of you should be on stage and you should be trying to come to a team consensus through agreement and support.  When you’ve explored that theme and you feel like the whole team is locked together, it’s time to edit out of the opening to begin your scenes.

After the opening, you’ll perform three scenes.  Three scenes comprise a “beat.” The first beat scenes should be influenced by some component of the opening.  Here’s where you can use a phrase, an idea, a sound, a movement or anything else that intrigued you in the opening.  Going back to the “pony” suggestion, if someone in the opening said, “Ponies are so pretty,” in a singsong voice, you could bring that back in one of these three scenes.  Be a mom who says everything in that voice.  Be a pre-teen girl infatuated with getting a pony.  Be a gangster who insinuates threats by talking about how nice their possessions are.  You can attack these scenes with any ammo you gain from the opening.

If you blank, that’s okay, too.  By participating in the opening, your subconscious may pull in a reference to the opening.  Trust that the opening affected you and jump into one of those three scenes.

The first three scenes do not need to be directly related to one another.  It works better if they’re not.  Just show us three solid scenes with good characters.  They work best with two characters per scene – things get shaky when you add more than three.  You want these scenes to be memorable.  It will help later on.

After your “first beat” concludes, it’s time for a group game.  Frustratingly, a group game can be anything.  But that’s a positive, too.  The idea of the group game is to take everything you’ve established so far (your opening and your three scenes) and plug them back into the group mind.  Want to do a song?  Cool.  Want to do some sort of weird dance?  Fine.  Want to do a group scene?  Go for it.  Want to re-enact World War II?  Do it.  The group game should be a jolt of energy to your show.  Really play and enjoy your teammates.  All the members may not carry equal weight in a group game.  Often, just a few members drive it while the rest support.  But the important thing is that you all chip in.  Be present and be affected.  Examine what your show’s got going for it so far.  Because things are about to get really interesting.

The second beat is much like the first.  Another three scenes.  And these scenes should be inspired by what has come before.  The second beat should have some correlation to the first.  If you had a couple falling in love in the first beat, we might do a “time dash” so we can see that couple at their wedding in the second beat.  You might take the idea of falling in love and apply it to something else – finding a car or a pet you fall madly for.  We could do the opposite of the first scene and see a couple divorcing.

A more advanced move is to do something called “mapping.”  That’s where you take something from the first scene and apply it to a different situation.  For example, if the infatuated lovers stood close to each other, you could simply take that physical proximity and apply it to any other scene.  If the first scene had a pond, maybe the second beat callback of that scene also takes place at a pond, but has no other reference to its predecessor.

Your second beat has three scenes, just like the first beat.  Unlike the first beat, the three second beat scenes should have some sort of inspiration from the preceding scenes.  Yes, you can carry characters forward (or backward) in time if you want to make it clear which scene you’re echoing.  But I encourage you to go wider.  Take inspiration from the large pool of ideas you’ve already created.  Explore a theme or a phrase or one line of dialogue.  Make it echo the first beat somehow and you’ve done your job.  Remember, the audience doesn’t want to see those first three scenes over again.  But they would like to see siblings and children and distant cousins of the first scenes.

After the three second beat scenes, we’re back to another group game.  Same rules apply here as to the first group game.  Try to get everyone involved and figure out some way to explore what’s already happened in your show.  You’re lining up for the final push of your show, so now is not the time to add some crazy new idea.  Think of this as your opportunity to focus what’s come before.  Take all those little beams of light and turn them into a mighty laser.  If your show has been about death, acknowledge that somehow.  If it’s been about wanting to belong, make sure your game reflects that.  If your show has a recurring theme of celebrations, see how you can amplify and focus that idea with your entire team.

After the second group game, it’s time for the elusive third beat.    Here’s where you want to bring things together.  Let’s see the worlds you’ve created collide.  You can do this with three average-length scenes… or a tag-out run if you choose.  The length of the third beat varies, but usually, you want to make it last as long as it takes to make connections between and among as many scenes as you can.

Is the mom from the first beat the same person as the little girl in the second beat?  Do the people from the prior six scenes know each other?  Are they related?    The best teams have a way of wrapping these individual strands together so they make sense.  When the lights fall, hopefully you’ve had a thematically coherent group exploration of an idea or two.

In reality, a good Harold is very hard to pull off.  Openings go too long.  First beat scenes are unmemorable, so the second beat scenes stall out for lack of inspiration.  People hesitate to start group games.  Scenes have nothing in common with one another.  Too many new ideas are introduced too late in the piece.  When those things happen, the Harold looks very, very messy.

Your audience craves connections.  The human mind is wired to seek them out, even when they don’t exist.  So that actually works in your favor.  The audience will do its best to connect the dots.  But it’s cool if you can connect them, too.  You’ve created this world.  What does it say about your theme?  Use the third beat to drive home the ideas you’ve explored.  The cleaner and tidier your ending, the better the crowd will react.  Don’t go crazy and construct an elaborate scheme to connect everything as elements of a guy’s dream or something.  But where you find connections, connect.  Where you don’t or can’t, leave them alone.  It’s okay to have a few spare parts left over when the lights fall.  But if you can make some puzzle pieces fit, do it!

Holly Laurent and others have described the Harold like this…

Think of a long hallway where there’s a party going on.  Off the hallway are rooms, but only a few people are allowed in the rooms.  The hallway party continues to rage.  The hallway is your opening and group games.  It’s where you come to celebrate and vibe off each other.  And when you want to change the mood, you step into a room.  The room is your scene.  It’s connected to the big hallway party, but it’s more intimate and nuanced.  When you’ve had your moment in the room, you head back into the hallway.

Using that analogy, the Harold structure would be: hallway, room, room, room, hallway, room, room, room, hallway, room, room, room.

The Harold is demanding because it depends on your ability to remember what’s come before and make progress in the moment.  It’s like one of those memory card games where you’ll need to remember that at the start of a game, Jenny flipped over a banana card.  Your goal is to find the corresponding banana card later in the game, then remember where the first banana card was and flip that, too.  Make a match and you score points.

The best Harold I’ve ever been a part of came as the result of the suggestion “dirty laundry.” At the time, we were doing a two-person scene before the opening.  (Yes, you can bend the structure of the Harold if your team agrees.)

I had a scene with a teammate about secrets – the metaphorical “dirty laundry.”  It evolved into a McCarthy-era communist witch-hunt.

When the scene ended, my team began its official opening.  All of us made the Sputnik beeping noise.  Then we talked about other aspects of the 1950s and how everything was perfect back in the “good ol’ days.”

It was clear from our opening that we were taking a sarcastic, high-gloss look at the 50s.  And over the next half-hour, we had several more scenes that fractured the facade of nostalgia.  Throughout the show, we’d occasionally hear Sputnik beeping overhead, reminding us of the threats, real and imagined, that surrounded the 1950s United States.

That show was a clear case of the team finding its tone and theme early, then following it through to completion.  Most Harold are nowhere near that clean.

The teams I admire are those who don’t leave loose threads at the end of a show.  They start with a clear, unified opening, and then they cast the net really wide in their scenes.  They trust that they will remember and reincorporate the big elements of the show later on.  When the group games hit, it’s obvious they enjoy playing together.  And in the third beat, they show connections you couldn’t imagine.

I invite you to try the Harold yourself.  Surround yourself with a team of caring, funny, talented, big-hearted people and focus your individual strengths into a group mind.  Enjoy the challenge.  And most importantly, have fun.

If you have questions about the Harold, feel free to ask in a comment below.

You had to be there.

Recently, my hometown newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, interviewed me for a story about the upcoming Kalamazoo Improv Festival.  Here’s the article.

Improv is hard enough to deconstruct when you’re talking to someone who knows the game.  When you’re describing it to a reporter, who tries to make sense of it and repackage it for an article, things are bound to get mangled.

Think of the greatest improvised moments you’ve ever seen.  Try to tell me that story so I’ll laugh just as hard as you did when you saw it.  Can’t happen.

Del Close believed improv was its own art form.  It happens and it’s gone.  It will never happen again.  Second City believes improv is a great writing tool.  And that’s true, too.  But I’m willing to wager there are moments of joyous creation during the Second City creative process that they can never recapture.

In 2001, Joey Bland and I were assigned to do a scene together in a Second City Conservatory show.  We discussed the scenario beforehand.  I would play a superhero, interviewing a prospective sidekick.  That’s all we knew.  (And yes, that’s more than you’ll have to begin most scenes, but this was an exercise.)

That scene was perhaps the best I’ve ever improvised.  My superhero was cocky and had no real powers to back it up.  Joey’s sidekick was infinitely more powerful.  And as this dawned on the audience, they ate it up.  By the end of the scene, my character was revealed as an illiterate, powerless, pompous fraud.  I remember the lights falling on that scene and feeling a huge smile break across my face.

After the show, I wrote down as many lines as I could remember.  But I couldn’t recapture all of them.  Months later, we’d try to recreate that scene in a show.  It was a disaster.

Re-improvising is one of the hardest things you’ll attempt in an improv career.  It almost never works.  Where the first scene had discovery and unexpected turns, the second attempt was merely an exercise in trying to recreate funny lines and the established outline of the scene.  It didn’t work.  And it put a very sour taste in my mouth.

Since I left the Conservatory, I haven’t tried to recapture a past glory.  Every scene is different, and I owe it to my scene partner to treat every moment as a new one.  You can’t fully recreate an improv moment any more than you can relive your first kiss.

And you can’t tell stories about scenes you loved without falling very, very flat.  Go to the theater.  See it all happen in person.  Because once it’s gone, it’s never coming back.