Tag Archives: fear

The Show Must Go On

The day after September 11, 2001, I had class at the Second City Conservatory. I sat in Donny’s Skybox with my classmates and we all talked about what the hell had just happened. We were too stunned to function.

After a tragedy, it’s difficult to think about comedy. Performers, just like everyone else, need time to grieve and process the unthinkable. I am thankful that our teacher, Michael Gellman, allowed us to blow off the lesson plan to talk about our shared grief and pain and anger and feelings of helplessness.

As our class time neared an end, we realized we were facing a monumental task. That weekend, we were set to perform an improv show. How could we be funny after we’d all had the wind knocked out of us? Should we cancel the show?

Silence fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes for the answer.

“Fuck it,” Gellman said, “We’re satirists.”

The show must go on.

This week, America elected a president whose values run contrary to what many of us hold dear. Comedians are there to champion the little guy, to “punch up” and speak truth to power. Donald Trump’s victory feels like watching the end of “Karate Kid,” except with the climactic crane kick going wide right. Then Johnny punches Daniel-san in the dick, grabs Elisabeth Shue by the pussy and deports Mr. Miyagi. The rich asshole won.

After the shock came the fear. Our gay and black and Jewish friends were terrified. Latinos and Muslims worried about deportation or worse. In the year 2016, actual Americans spray-painted racial slurs, shouted misogyny and wrote homophobic letters to their neighbors. In schools and on playgrounds, hate speech drove minority children to tears. To be fair, some anti-Trump protesters have also behaved horribly. It was like when they turned off the containment grid at the end of “Ghostbusters” and all the cooped-up demons flew out. Every pent-up awful thought was suddenly set free by the election of a man who captured the White House by being an unapologetic hate goblin. “If he can do it and become the president, I can do it and claim power, too!”

The sketch team I’m directing expressed wariness about performing their show less than 48 hours after we’d all taken the greatest political gut-punch of our lives.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

So they performed and people laughed. For 55 minutes, the warm darkness embraced the audience and the team stood bravely under the lights and shared their art. An ad-libbed Trump reference didn’t land. Still too soon, I suppose.

Being funny is incredibly hard. It’s even harder when your heart is breaking. All across this country, comedians are fighting through fear and carving a path through anger to find that nugget of humor that will make everything feel better again. It will happen in time.

Mark Twain once said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” That’s our job: to load up our quiver with razor-tipped arrows and to take direct aim at oppression and hate and bigotry. When evil is on the march, mockery scatters the parade. So take those feelings and pour them out into videos and scripts and sketches and improvised scenes. Help your fellow Americans find a way to laugh at the thing that scares them. Comedy heals and there is a great sickness in the land.

There has never been an easier target. He’s old and white and rich. His hair looks like wheat-flavored cotton candy. He uses Tang as a facial scrub. He thinks dangling his neckties eight inches below his belt line will somehow compensate for his micropenis. His male heirs look like sentient JC Penney catalogs from 1987. His wife, God bless her, has to fuck this monstrosity until the CIA can decipher her Morse code blinks for help. His hands are so tiny, he’ll need an assist from Mike Pence just to get enough leverage to fully depress the buttons on his phone. We get to tee off on this asshole for four years while he drives the country off a cliff.

The time for mourning has passed. The time for comedy has arrived. Lend your voice to the crusade. Make fun of what you fear. Help your fellow Americans heal. And for the love of God, VOTE, even when the presidency isn’t up for grabs.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

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.”

Advertisements

23 Brain Hacks for Bulletproof Stage Presence

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

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

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

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

Tip #2: This is one of many opportunities.

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

Tip #3: Shrink the importance of pressure moments.

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

Tip #4: Focus on the mission.

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

Tip #5: Expect the unexpected.

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

Tip #6: Affirm your self-worth.

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

Tip #7: Flash back to previous successes.

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

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

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

Tip #9: Tune into your senses.

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

Tip #10: Focus on what you can control.

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #13: Practice experiencing pressure.

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

Tip #14: Squeeze a ball.

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

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

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

Tip #16: Put away self-consciousness.

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

Tip #17: Meditate.

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #19: Slow down your response.

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

Tip #20: Regulate your breathing.

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

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

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

Tip #21: Go first.

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

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

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

Final tip: Strike a power pose.

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

Never Enough

At the 2016 Golden Globes, Jim Carrey stepped forward to present an award.  In his remarks, he joked that although he already has two Golden Globes, he dreams of a third because then he would be “enough.”

Funny thing about this artistic life, though.  It’s never enough.

When I was a college student, living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I dreamed of living in Chicago and performing improv.  Now I live in Chicago and perform improv.  My dream has come true.  So why do I want more?

I’ve spent years hacking away through a forest of anonymity and only now am I starting to get some recognition on one of my projects.  Are three rave reviews from critics enough?  No.  Are 14,000 podcast downloads enough?  No.  Nearly two million people have seen my various online videos.  Enough?  No.  Right now, I have an Emmy statue sitting on my shelf.  Success, right?  Nope.  It’s for TV news, not for comedy.  Not enough.  (I’ve actually won two, but you need to pay for the statues.  Two Emmys: Also, not enough.)

I’ve been fortunate enough to make some money from my creative endeavors.  It’s not nearly enough to live on, but it’s something.  I have used my talent and my passion to make a couple hundred bucks in my lifetime.  Younger me would be over the moon.  The me of today wants to figure out how to make this a viable career.

Whether you’re just starting out in your hometown or starring in movies, there will always be a bigger fish in your pond.  There will always be bigger mountains to climb.  There will always be goals that taunt you, just out of reach.

What the hell is wrong with me?  Shouldn’t I be satisfied with these enormous achievements?  Can’t I take a moment to revel in what I have?  Or should I fling the door open for the Jealousy Monster to stomp in and plop himself on my couch?

Why is my brain wired to focus on what I don’t have instead of celebrating the abundance right in front of me?

My friend and accomplished actress/improviser/producer Karisa Bruin once loaned me a book by Eckhart Tolle.  It extolled the virtue of living in the present.  He argued that anxiety comes from putting your focus on the future and the things you can’t control.  Sadness comes from living in the past, focusing on the things you’ve lost or regrets you have.

When I think about my artistic journey, I do get anxious about the future.  Will I ever direct a feature film and claim that Oscar I covet?  I also get sad about the past, remembering how I got cut from iO three years ago or how I really crashed and burned in some auditions.

How does any of that help me right now?  It doesn’t.  Right now, I have some incredible things to be proud of.  If I look back at my artistic career, there’s a general upward trend, even if there have been gulfs of failure.  Today, right now, I have the ability to act.  I can write.  I can focus on my craft.  Under the Gun Theater has given me a place to perform as much as I want.  I’m producing a show that’s gotten attention beyond what I could have dreamed.

But the Improvised Shakespeare Company got a gushing review in the New York Times!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But two of my old ButchMAX teammates are on the Second City Touring Company!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But I have a friend who’s crushing it on the Second City etc stage!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But the Katydids have their own TV show on TV Land, and it’s getting great reviews!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But some of my old improv peers are on Saturday Night Live or writing for Late Night!

That doesn’t affect what I can do right now.

But!

Shut up.

But!

Shut up.

But!

What are you doing right now?  Are you working?  Are you improving?  That is all there is.

I guarantee you that all the incredible artists I just mentioned are thinking the same thing.  We all want more.  It’s never enough.  So stop wanting.  Start doing.  Your action is your salvation.  Rumination is ruination.  Get to work.

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

This Will Happen To You

How will your improvisation career end?

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

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

PHASE ONE: THE ROOKIE

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

Was that harsh?

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

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

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

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

PHASE TWO: SUPER STUDENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHASE THREE: BEGINNING PERFORMER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHASE FOUR: VETERAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHASE FIVE: THE NEXT ADVENTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this awful scene can teach us about improv

According to this video’s description, the woman was told to say, “I want a divorce,” as her first line. Nothing else was planned.

Holy crap, this is terrible.

It’s not hard to explain why.  The acting is stiff and unnatural.  The actors don’t bother making eye contact until more than six minutes into the scene.  The guy rambles on in monologue mode, oblivious to his partner.  You’d be hard pressed to find two lines of dialogue that even correlate to one another.  Rather than playing it real, the man thinks laughing at his wife will make the scene funny.  He’s very wrong.

But if you asked two competent improvisers to try reenacting this exact same scene, I’m sure it would be side-splittingly funny.  It’s not hard to mimic total failure.

One of the most beloved improv exercises is to play badly deliberately .  I recently coached my team to play a scene as though they were an improviser they loathe.  The results were fantastic.  Then I asked them to play a scene as an improviser they admire.  The results were not as enjoyable.  The players explained that they felt pressure when playing as their heroes, but felt free to be awful.

This falls into the entire psychology of performance.  When we fully commit to a character, we feel freedom.  Committing to mimicking a terrible actor is easy.  There are no wrong moves.  But when attempting to commit to doing a good scene or emulating your hero, you’re plagued with doubt.  Doubt erodes commitment.  The scene unravels.

When watching the scene above, you see the actors grasping to commit.  Even they don’t believe the words they’re saying.  Have you ever acted that way on stage?  Have you ever said something halfheartedly/flippantly/winking to the audience?  It may feel fun in the moment, but you’re selling out the scene.  You’re basically the guys in this video.

So no matter what you do on stage, commit the hell out of it.  If you’re gonna be sad, be sad.  If you’re gonna be angry, unleash the rage.  And if you’re gonna act poorly on purpose, have fun and play as hard as you can.  Commit to something concrete and the scene will be easy.  Try committing to a moving target like “a good scene” and you’re in trouble.  Just play the character and the scene will come to you.

And if you’re one of the two actors in this video, abandon improvisation immediately.

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