Tag Archives: directing

Holy Cow!

Until very recently, Chicago’s iO Theater stood in the shadow of Wrigley Field. If you had a show on a game night, it was awful getting to the theater. When you arrived, you’d stand outside to warm up while wave after wave of homeless guys would stumble through your circle and beg you for change. It was less than ideal. Now, the site where iO stood is just a dirt lot being prepped to become a huge Walgreens or some other dumb chain. It’s probably for the best. Winning teams attract even bigger crowds, making it even harder to focus on object work or word association before a show.

Today, the Cubs are world champions. They lost for 108 years before finally sealing the deal. It is true in improvisation as well as baseball, you may suck for a minor eternity before you finally get a win. You keep learning and trying new things and experiencing setbacks, but you can’t give up. I do believe Second City will hire me in about 106 more auditions.

On the night the Cubs finally won, I had to direct a tech rehearsal for a sketch show. I was pissed. My baseball-loving wife of 31 days was pissed I would not be with her. Did we really have to do our tech on that night of all nights? As the game bounced back and forth between the Cubs and Indians, I was literally supervising someone pressing a button to make a fart noise at the proper time. It was the last place I wanted to be. But the show was going up in 24 hours. It was my duty to direct, so I did. As theater folk, we give up a lot to entertain audiences. People may come and see a show and laugh, but they don’t know about all the work that went into it. A grand total of zero people will approach me after this sketch show and say, “Excuse me, are you the director? I very much enjoyed the direction of this show and I would like to thank you for sacrificing Game 7 of the motherfucking World Series when the motherfucking Cubs won for the first time in 108 motherfucking years so you could make sure that motherfucking fart cue came in at the right time tonight. Cheers.”

Anyway, the rehearsal was less than a half-mile from Wrigley Field. As I walked home, I stopped to grab video of the mobs of people peering through windows at televisions, the crowds of crying, laughing and hugging people, the weirdos who just wanted to scream and the people who just turned out to party. You can watch it below.

Chicago is my favorite city for a lot of reasons. It’s a town of underdogs. Lots of people come here to make a name for themselves because they don’t want to do what their fathers did in small towns across the Midwest. The people who come here to study improvisation are almost universally kind and smart and eager to learn. Ego and backstabbery are advanced courses taught only in New York or Los Angeles. Here, it’s about the work. And sometimes the work means missing out on sharing what may be the happiest day in your city’s history because of fart noises. Such is the bargain we have made.

I spent two hours walking 1.5 miles through Wrigleyville on the night the Cubs won and it reminded me of the prime directive of improvisation: Yes And. The “Yes” was evident. All the people in the neighborhood had agreed that the Cubs finally won and this was a good thing. The “And” took many forms: a guy in a horse mask, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, two cute girls making out. I shot it all and marveled at how everyone was getting along. There was no judgment about how someone chose to celebrate, there was acceptance, smiles and participation. You couldn’t have planned the crazy menagerie of costumes and styles of celebration. It just was. People were eager to join in with whatever they had to contribute. Every person brought a brick and together, they built a cathedral. I just wanted to document it all.

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”

And if you’d like to hear that fart noise in all its glory, the all-female sketch revue, Lip Cervix, is running Nov. 3-Dec. 15 at the Public House Theater, just a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field.

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

Help Another Improviser. Blaze a Trail.

I love hiking.  Once a year, I grab my backpack, my water bottle and my camera and I traverse a new patch of wilderness.  Some hiking trails are well marked and well trodden.  Others are much more difficult to follow.  When the sun is going down and you’re a little bit lost, nothing lifts your spirit more than a cairn.  That’s a stack of rocks left by other hikers to let you know that you’re still on the path.  If you’ve been hiking for a while and you don’t see one, that’s a red flag.

As you go along your improv journey, are you leaving things behind to help the next generation?

When I began taking improv classes back in 2000, I couldn’t get enough of it.  I ordered every book I could find.  I read every blog post.  Since I didn’t live in an improv mecca, the websites and books sustained me until I could move.

I’m thankful to those who took the time to write about something they learned.  It helped me on my way.  It’s also helpful to read about other improvisers’ struggles.  We all blow auditions real hard.  We all find shows/teams we love and have to cope when they die.  We all are pretty sure we’re better than that one dude on SNL.

When you pursue show business, you spend a lot of time feeling alone.  Truth is, all of us are feeling alone.  We just feel alone surrounded by other people who feel alone.  No one likes talking about that.

Navigating the improv wilderness is no different from navigating the actual wilderness.  You can pay a guide/teacher, but they’ll only take you so far.  You can look for trail markers and try to follow another person’s path (as Farley followed Belushi).  At some point, though, you end up in a part of the forest that is unique to you.  Yes, you can turn back by taking more classes or auditioning for another team at that old theater.  But that’s like going back and forth on the same trail.  It’s fine for a while, but you’re not learning or seeing anything new.  The true test is to go beyond the well-worn path to forge one of your own.

That’s your obligation to yourself: To follow the established path until you feel confident enough to try to blaze a new one.

Also remember that you are not the only person in the wilderness.  Take time to leave markers for those coming behind you.  That’s the purpose of this blog.  I hope upcoming improvisers can use it to gain some clarity or wisdom or hope as they learn the ropes.  If you’d prefer, you can also pass on your wisdom by coaching, teaching classes or even just giving a word of encouragement to a younger player.  We all hear, “Nice job,” and, “Good show.”  Be specific with your compliments.  Approach someone and tell them you loved their editing or you really liked their Crocodile Mayor character.  With a little bit of goodwill, you can help transform the wilderness into more of an established trail, and that furthers the art form and all those who will pursue it for years to come.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

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

Fired!

When a man who lives 2,000 miles away asks you to direct his project, you should decline.

I just learned that lesson the hard way.

In early September, I was approached to direct a show.  I agreed.  While the show would retain the name of an earlier show, this version would be comprised of a new cast with new scripts.  It’s similar to how Second City or “Saturday Night Live” retains the brand name, but the material and actors can be 100% different.

In November, we held auditions.  And because of everyone’s crazy holiday schedules, we had just five rehearsals to pull together a one-hour live show to debut the first week of January.  Five rehearsals.  One hour of material.  Do the math.

Against all odds, we put together a successful first show.  And each week, we dedicated ourselves to adding at least three new sketches.  That’s a ridiculous workload, considering we only had one rehearsal between shows.  Somehow, we pulled it off.  The shows got better and better and better.

And today, I got fired.

What happened?

Apparently, some of the cast had problems with the way the production was being run.  This baffles me.

Throughout the process, I solicited ideas and scripts from the cast.  I constantly asked for their contributions.  And when they didn’t chip in, I wrote like crazy to fill the gaps.  We created scenes through improvisation.  We incorporated songs.  Anything the cast wanted to try, I let it fly in rehearsal.  And the cast voted for whatever scenes they wanted to put in the show.

In short, I created the kind of environment I would want to work in if I were a cast member.  And yet, the cast voiced displeasure.

I am vexed.

It would be one thing if the show didn’t get laughs.  Or if the cast fought.  Or if I were some sort of tyrant.  Then, I could understand the mini-mutiny.  All I did was write scripts, give a few notes and let the cast choose the scenes they wanted to perform.

Now, the man who asked me to direct had constant issues with the material.  He felt it wasn’t up to par.  He called the shows “weak.” After viewing cell phone video of our second-ever rehearsal, he fired off an e-mail with 2,366 words, telling us how to improve.  He wanted to make adjustments to every single script, and never contributed any of his own.  I shielded the cast from that.  Without me in the mix, I worry how this will manifest itself going forward.

But it’s not my problem.  I did the best I could.  And my run with the team is over.

So I sit here the morning after a successful show, shaking my head and wondering where I went wrong.  Apparently, the wrong step was in September, when I agreed to run the project in the first place.

But if anybody’s looking for a director who lets you create your own material and vote on what you get to perform, I’m available.

Directorial Etiquette 101

 

I haven’t been directing improv and sketch all that long in the grand scheme of things.  But over the last few months, I’ve witnessed some pretty awful behavior from my fellow directors.  (Hell, I’m sure I’m guilty of some of this, too.)

But for the love of God, if you get to direct, please heed the following rules.

1) Focus on your own team.
You have enough on your plate with that team.  Seriously.

2) Focus on your own team.
Dude, look at your team.  It’s your job to make them better.  Are you doing that?  Every team can improve.  Yes.  Yours, too.  Just because your team is stocked with veterans or playing a lame slot in a bar somewhere or low on numbers, you don’t get to stop coaching.

3) If you must bring up an issue with another team/player, take it to that team’s director.
You are not the boss of them.  They have a coach.  Talk to the coach.  Throwing your weight around with another team makes you an asshat.  You don’t get to parent another man’s kids.  Don’t try to coach another man’s team.

4) Watch the show.
Some directors don’t watch their team’s show.  They play solitaire on the computer or text their girlfriends or hit on chicks at the bar.  (Yes, I’ve seen established coaches doing this.)  Are you watching your team’s show?  That’s why they’re paying you.  How would a movie director make his film if he didn’t watch what’s coming into the camera?

5) Don’t blame the audience.
A show’s quality is sometimes reflected by the audience’s reaction, but not always.  If your players get rattled by a “bad” audience, you must make them stronger.  And if your actors feel bad after a show, there’s always a non-audience reason.

6) Give notes.
You are there to make the team better.  Give overall team notes and give individual notes.  If you are afraid to give notes, stop coaching.  Also, make sure your notes are helpful.  If your notes are not helpful, stop coaching.

7) Know when to lay off.
A jockey who continually beats his horse ends up beating the horse to death.

8) Know when to quit.
At some point, the team stops listening to you.  Or you stop caring.  You want to bail before that happens.

9) Check in.
Look your actors in the eyes.  Do they still care?  Do they need something from you?  Are they acting weird offstage?  In some ways, you are a father or mother figure.  Monitor your kids and encourage them always.

10) Play the hand you’re dealt.
During the Civil War, an overmatched Confederate force stopped a Union attack by simply marching past a clearing in a circle.  The Union force failed to notice the exact same people filing past them over and over.  Thinking it was a large group, the superior Union force held off.

Sometimes you get to pick your team.  Sometimes you don’t.  It’s your job to get the most out of each player.  Discarding someone should be a last resort.

11) For the love of God, focus on your team.
Focus.  On.  Your.  Team.

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