Tag Archives: Second City

“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.

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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.

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.

The Last Days of Martin de Maat

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

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

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

March 6-May 14, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless you and keep growing.

Martin de Maat,
Artistic Director


May 15-July 30, 2000

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

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

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

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

Please remember that the expression “our” includes you.

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

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

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

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

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


July 31-October 8, 2000

About what we do at Second City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GLOSSARY:

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

Martin de Maat, Ph.D.
Artistic Director


Autumn 2000

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

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

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

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

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

Martin de Maat
Artistic Director, The Second City Training Centers


February 13, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

Martin de Maat, Artistic Director


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

What the CEO of Twitter learned from improv

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently delivered a commencement address to the University of Michigan.  He speaks about the importance of making daring choices, being in the moment, the futility of planning and how he bombed a scene with Steve Carell.  (Start watching at 2:54)

It’s important to note that Costolo had the same dream many (most?) improvisers have.  Come to Chicago, study improv, get on “Saturday Night Live,” get rich and die happy.  But sadly, Costolo didn’t get his dream.  He just had to end up as the CEO of Twitter.

If you end up on SNL, God bless.  Most of you won’t.  But you can carry the lessons of improvisation through the rest of your life.  And they will make you a success.

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

The Laugh Track

I graduated the Second City Conservatory in July, 2002.  Just three months later, the Conservatory’s graduating class would be followed by a documentary crew.  This is the result…

One of the stars of “The Laugh Track” is Jay Olson.  In 2007, he and I would end up being placed together on Whiskey Rebellion at the iO Theater.  Shortly after we met, I felt I’d known him from… something.  I pulled out my VHS archives and rediscovered this.  He and fellow “Laugh Track” star Melissa Cathcart later married and now have a son.

Re-watching this, I’m reminded of how very important the Conservatory seemed at the time.  It was my very first taste of improvisation.  And at the time, I was sure I’d end up on Second City’s Mainstage.  “Only a matter of time,” I thought.

When I was taking classes in the Conservatory, I videotaped each session.  I lived in Michigan back then, so I’d use the headphone jack on the camcorder to play back our rehearsal through my car stereo as I drove 150 miles home every week.

I remember obsessing over our shows and tinkering with all my lines to make sure each one was a perfectly crafted comedy missile.  I remember feeling jealousy and fear and self-loathing.  I remember standing on the corner of North and Wells, smelling the air and telling myself that I had to move to Chicago at any cost.  I remember the hours after our final show, wondering if I would ever have anything so special again.

For those of you just starting out in improvisation, the work may feel like a life-or-death matter.  You’ll watch shows with veteran performers and dream of standing on stage with them one day.  You’ll tell yourself that fame is just around the corner.

While all of that is fine for a beginner, the only truth I’ve learned in my comedy career is that persistence matters above all.  I’ve played with hundreds of people in classes and teams over the last decade-plus.  Nearly everyone gave up.

Getting in is easy.  Chicago is full of theaters willing to take your money in exchange for a pat on the back and a little stage time.

Quitting is easy.  A failed audition, a small audience, a string of weak shows or criticism from a teacher can reduce your dreams to dust.

The hard part is simply continuing.  Jay and Melissa still perform because they found a way to move past roadblocks.  Hell yes, they are talented.  But talent alone doesn’t keep you in this game.

The Improv King is not going to magically appear, touch you with his scepter and add you to an untouchable list of geniuses.  Hell, even if you get cast on SNL, you’re not assured of anything.  Ask Paul Brittain.

The happiest performers aren’t always the ones with the most “success.”  The happiest improvisers are the ones who simply love the process.  I improvise to improvise.  If critical acclaim or praise or stardom follow, so be it.  But I’m just as prepared for critical hatred, disappointment and obscurity.

Wherever you are in your improv career, have fun.  You get to play make-believe with adults.  And sometimes, other adults will come and watch you.  Sometimes, it’s art.  Sometimes, it’s dumb.  But it’s just pretend.  Remember to place greater importance on reality.

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

The Ultimate Improviser Gift Guide

 

Are you an improviser?  Do you know an improviser?  Are you an improviser dating another improviser?  Do you need a gift to help them on their sure-fire journey to SNL?  Consider these options.

1. Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier ($15)

This is the best book I’ve ever read about improvisation.  Mick is one of the founders of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre.  His book is simple, direct and well-written.  It also includes exercises you can do on your own to improve your skills.  You’ll probably get more out of this than that $200 improv class you’re taking.

2. Trust Us, This is All Made Up DVD ($18)

“TJ & Dave” is the greatest improv show I’ve ever seen.  If you’re ever in Chicago, $5 will let you see them live.  If you can’t make it to Improv Mecca, this may be the next best thing.  The video follows the TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi in the moments leading up to one of their performances in New York.  Then you’ll see the hour-long show unfold before you.  Watch as they bring back details you’d nearly forgotten.  Enjoy them switching characters to populate the stage.  And gawk at the post-show decompression that shows even improv gods are self-critical.  (Trailer.)

3. Mehffirmations Calendar ($15)

Do you really need a daily affirmation to feel better about yourself?  Consider keeping your head level with 365 anti-affirmations like, “I forgive others for being stupid,” “I stand up for myself when there is nothing at stake,” and, “I will dance as if no one is looking. And if they do look, I will stop out of respect.”  Created by two Chicago improvisers, one of whom is writing this blog.  (Plug.)
4. A video camera

Improvisers tend to be creative people who have nothing permanent to show to anyone.  A video camera (even a cheap one) allows a performer to tape his shows and then submit them for festivals.  More industrious improvisers will come up with short films.  If you’re not putting your work out there, no one can see it.  Without a video camera, the Lonely Island guys never make it to SNL.

5. Gift Card for a Rental Car/Gas

The best way for an improviser to bond with his teammates is on a road trip, preferably to a festival.  New York’s Del Close Marathon is perhaps the most popular, though it’s become a total clusterf*** the last few years.  There are festivals all over the country worth visiting.  Even if you drive thousands of miles and your show sucks, at least you’ve made lasting memories with those people who will catch you on stage when you fall.

6. Nearly any Christopher Guest movie ($5-$15)

It’s likely your improviser has seen them, but if not, these films are a delight and an inspiration.  Most of what you see is improvised within a predetermined framework.  The very best of these are “This is Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman.”  To a lesser extent, “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show” have their charms.  Go ahead and skip “For Your Consideration” unless the gift recipient is a huge Catherine O’Hara fan.

7. Food

Most improvisers are starving.  And even the obese ones won’t turn down a meal.

8. Headshots  ($200 and up)

If you plan on auditioning for anything, you need headshots.  These can be pretty pricey, and most improvisers are poor.  You should seek out a photographer who specializes in headshots.  Don’t go to the Sears portrait studio.  Look over the photographer’s portfolio and pick one who makes people look good.  Most photographers work with hairstylists and/or makeup artists to get the best results.  Using them often tacks even more on to the tab.  But a good headshot can last an actor five years or so.  I’m told you want to have one smiling headshot and one “serious” headshot.  The type of role you’re trying to get determines which you submit.  Reminder: You want a color headshot now.  Black and white headshots only belong on the walls of rundown comedy clubs and restaurants.

9. Second to None DVD ($20, if you can find it)

This documentary traces the process of putting up one of the most heralded Second City shows in recent history.  In 1997, director Mick Napier coaches future stars Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Scott Adsit and others as they create “Paradigm Lost.”  You get to see Fey with an extra 30 pounds and a bad haircut.  And you get to see the improvised scene that would give birth to “The Denise and Sully Show” on SNL.

10. Anything that advances a hobby other than improv

So often, improvisation becomes a black hole that sucks performers into a dark, incestuous place.  There is life outside that theater.  And the more rounded you are, the better your scenes will be.  (No one wants to see that scene of roommates arguing over rent.)  A good book, paint, a blowtorch or a sewing machine can open up new avenues for creativity.  Get tickets to a sporting event, concert or museum.  Make sure your improviser gets out and lives.  The richer your life outside the theater, the better your work on the stage.  Don’t become a cliche.

Do not buy a shirt that says “Yes And.”  That will get you deservedly punched in the face.

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