Riffs on improv, innovation, and what it means to be curious

CURIOUSER & CURIOUSER

Surfing the Chaord

“Last Wish”: Dave ‘climbing a rope made up his clothes’. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

This post is derived from a talk I was invited to give at Nerd Nite Vancouver on January 25, 2017. 

Improv as we know (that is, improv for improv’s sake) it is a relatively new art form. When theatrical improvisation started gaining popularity in the 1960s, it was a rather radical concept. The founding voices of modern improvisation are, to me, voices of rebellion, mischief, and innovation. Keith Johnstone (inventor of Theatresports, and Maestro) talks about his experiences watching professional wrestling, and longing to bring the wild energy of those performances back to traditional theatre spaces. Del Close (founder of Improv Olympic, father of long form improvisation) is quoted as saying, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Viola Spolin invented Theater Games that allowed people from different cultural backgrounds to express themselves freely, with little theatrical training. To me, all these voices call for more expression, more vulnerability, more curiosity, and more chaos.

Me and Nerd Nite Vancouver. Photograph by Lindsey Elliot. http://lindsaysdiet.com/home

Improvisation is inherently risky because it puts process in front of an audience, rather than a polished, rehearsed product. A scene might fall flat, an actor might freeze, the audience might be uncomfortable. Things seldom go as planned. But herein also lies the joy of improvisation; the moments of true surprise, the triumphs of unlocking a group’s impulses, and the catharsis that occurs when a whole room feels something together.

Over time though, as improv has gained popularity, it has moved further away from being process on stage. As audiences more commonly understand the concept of improvisation (thanks to media like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, and Don’t Think Twice), and as a growing number of actors perform improv, we have are constantly carving out and defining what a improv is. We have expectations about what an improv show is or should be. We practise how to successfully play games, how to teach edits, and how to use common language about improv. Most shows start with a host coming out, asking for three audience suggestions as a warm up, and then bringing out the improvisors. Many word-at-a-time stories end with “The moral of the story is…”. Many open scenes start with a person opening a cupboard and pouring a cup of water. I understand why we teach students how to succeed, but I also wonder if we should be teaching students to experiment more. If an improv show can be anything, than why does a lot of improv around the world look more or less the same?

In one of my courses at Simon Fraser University (Dialogue 701: The Practice of Engagement), we recently talked about the concept of the chaordic space.

Image source: Chaordic Commons http://www.chaordic.org/

‘Chaordic space’ is a term coined by Dee Hock; the founder and former CEO of VISA. The term identifies the intentional blending of qualities of both chaos and order in an organizational process.  In the context of my course, we were talking about how to find the chaordic space build a safe place for generative dialogue; when you are preparing to bring people together, you want to have some structure, but leave space for the unexpected without predetermined outcomes.

I think there is a clear application to improvisation here. When we step on stage to do a show, what are the expectations we put on ourselves as performers, and our audiences? Do we have predetermined outcomes? Do we have an inkling about how the show will likely feel? Order has its place, but if there is too much order in improv, shows can read as safe, boring, fearful, and controlled.

On the other hand, total chaos is… well, chaos. Ideas don’t connect, no patterns are found. It’s hard to tell a story. The reason we play set structures in improvisation is the create a container with which to improvise in. We often get suggestions from the audience to narrow our focus, to provide inspiration. Without any structure, the openness can be stifling.

To work in the chaordic space is a balancing act – it is where the unexpected happens, where the audience is as surprised as the performers. I think in the chaordic space lives improvisation at its best.

So, how can we build improv shows that challenge what is expected of improv? How can we create organizational culture that supports the inherent uncertainty of true risk taking? How can we push ourselves to be less comfortable, and more curious?

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of taking part in a show called Last Wish, directed by the amazing Maja Dekleva Lapajne. I think her theatre company, Kolektiv Narobov from Ljubljana, Slovenia, is one of the most interesting improv companies on the planet, and they are consistently doing challenging work. In thinking about the chaordic space, to me, Last Wish exemplifies a show that existed in teetering space between success and failure, organization and radical freedom.

“Last Wish”: a scene where Daniel is now a chair. Photograph by Patty Varasano. http://www.varasano.de/

The concept of the piece was simple: one microphone in a spotlight, where any of the performers could step up and share what they wished for the show. It could be a wish for a particular improv scene, or a wish for the audience, for fellow actors, or the space. In workshop, Maja helped us establish trust in our ensemble, she fed our curiosity, and trained us to be patient with our choices. The result of her excellent direction was a surprising, chaotic, and wonderful improvised show.

We didn’t take a suggestion, we just agreed to let themes emerge in the first few beats. We did scenes in the dark. We had a conga line. We did scenes in heaven. We endowed audience members as people in our lives we needed to apologize to, and apologized to them. We told a great escape story. We had silent scenes underscored by music. We climbed on each other. We made inside jokes. We cried. We looked behind the curtains. We had a dance party with the audience. Some of it was pretty bad. Some of it was the best improv I have ever done. Some people in the audience thought it was indulgent and hated it. Some others loved it. I think some people were bored. Looking back, it was one of the best creative experiences of my life.

By creating a simple container for the improvised content, we were able to take risks, while trusting we could change the trajectory of the show at any time. Our director urged us to let go of what we thought the show should be, and just let it happen. While on stage, I felt the clear pull of expectations on the show, and felt my fellow ensemble members push to abandon them. Once we got past that, it truly felt like anything could happen. When I came off stage, it felt like I had been caught up in a whimsical wave of impulse.

I want to feel this on stage more often.

What is your scene saying?

Photograph by the amazing Patty Varasano.

A couple years ago, a long-time fan came up to me after an improv show and said she noticed a pattern of behaviour in the stories we were telling. She observed that “being an orphan” was often used as a punchline in our scenes. She then, very gently, suggested that this was problematic because there were likely people with different family structures in the audience, and it was unfair to constantly use orphaned children as the brunt of jokes. I politely listened to her speak, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “I guess we do mention orphans a lot, but we are clearly talking about orphans in the archetypical Dickensian sense! We aren’t commenting on what it must like to actually be an orphan!”

RED FLAG! My emotional reaction to this legitimate observation was absolute garbage, and it exposed in me the defensive feeling that so many people in positions of power must be feeling these days. Instead of listening empathetically, acknowledging my role in the narrative I was a part of, and working to change it, my gut reaction was to pay lip service to the complaint, while actually dismissing it.

And this is a big problem. After all, there are a lot of words other than “orphan” you could substitute into this all-too-familiar story.

Given the recent events in America, and the fierce ripples being felt here in Canada, I think, as artists, we all must reflect on what our work means. Some people are saying this week’s #BoycottHamilton controversy is a distraction from the real issues happening in the States, but to me, it is a strong reminder of my crucial role as an artist.

The deeper messages of the stories we tell on stage have lasting impact, and therefore we are responsible for them. We make meaning when we improvise, when we make art, when we communicate. Improvisation is part of a dialogue about our world, about ourselves, and about each other.

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Photograph by Patty Varasano.

Improvisors Joe Bill and Mark Sutton from Chicago, talk about how the scene isn’t about fixing a bike, or painting a fence, or taming a lion. The scene is about relationships; it’s about humanity. Kevin MacDonald, from Kids in the Hall, calls this “The About About”. Scenes aren’t about scouts on a camping trip, or businesspeople out for lunch, scenes are commentary on youthful independence, or ruthless corporate culture.

At Rapid Fire Theatre, we talk about “punching up” or “punching down” in our scene work. Punching down is poking fun at a person with little or no societal power (ie. making jokes about homeless people), while punching up is satirizing a person in a position of power (skewering an ignorant dictator, satirizing a billionaire, mocking the patriarchy). Punching up opens a dialogue about an issue and questions the inherent power dynamic in our society, punching down is a cruel, privileged, lazy way to shock people. You can improvise a scene about any topic; it’s what you say about the topic that matters.

Are your scenes about the courage of a child who is silenced, the bravery of a woman protagonist, or how to embrace a different way of life other than your own? Or do your scenes lean on cultural stereotypes, shrug at rape culture, or back away from saying anything important at all?

When I get off stage, I hope that the audience better understand my joys, fears, and curiosities about the world. It’s true that some stories are hyper-political, and others are less-so, but as long as we bring self-awareness to our work, we will tell stories that are deeply important to us.

If we are complacent, safe, and choose to say that theatre is “just for entertainment”, I think we are doing a disservice to our rights and freedoms. We are silencing ourselves from doing work that matters, and we are taking away the audiences’ ability to see themselves reflected on stage.

Our world is in too much danger to perpetuate ignorance. We have to stop making excuses for scenes that punch down, and scenes that reinforce dangerous patterns of behaviour with no consequence. Artistic Directors, instructors, and fellow performers, in a time where the arts may be faced with more censorship than ever before, I urge you to use your voice for good. Inspire. Provoke. Share your passion.

Photographs of the Würzburger Improtheaterfestival by Patty Varasano. “An Artist’s Duty” video with Nina Simone released by her estate.

2 Fast 2 Curious

Improvising as a duo can be exposing, terrifying, and one of the most liberating experiences you will have as an improvisor. You have your partner, yourself, and that’s it.

Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

The year was 2006. Capri pants were in. Katie Holmes inexplicably married Tom Cruise. And I formed my first improv duo with a fellow Rapid Fire Theatre improvisor Marc Schulte. We were called Bacon n’ Eggs. Why were we called that? As with most improv troupe names, no one really knows or cares!

Me and Marc Schulte in 2007 at Rapid Fire Theatre. Photograph by Tiffany Panas.

Before my first duo sets, I’d feel sickly nervous before we’d hit the stage. I was petrified of blanking, stressed about embarrassing myself, and not knowing how we were possibly going to pull off a 30 minute set. Normally, when I played Theatresports™ , we’d play short form scenes on teams of four. I was most comfortable being the third or fourth person to enter a scene, and I had no idea how to be on stage longer than three minutes. I was good at supporting other peoples’ ideas, but not super comfortable with investing in my own.

And then Marc and I would start our show. It felt like a free fall. For the first time, I felt out of control. Marc constantly surprised me with his choices, and with the extra space on stage, I even started to surprise myself. Marc constantly had my back, and I had his. There was a true sense of discovery. I didn’t have time to judge my own ideas, or hesitate in the wings, and so, I just had to trust in my ideas.

That’s the real joy of playing in a duo. You push yourselves to places you never thought possible, because you are forced to trust each other wholeheartedly. What you create is the synthesis of your two creatives selves, and the only limit is your curiosity.

So how can you find the right person to form a duo with? First, I’d say, think of all your duo partner options, and think BIG (just because someone is more experienced than you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in pairing up with you). Who is that person that you admire, and find unpredictable? Maybe it scares you a bit to perform with them? Maybe you’ve done scenes you’ve absolutely loved with them before? There’s a good chance this duo dynamic is worth investigating.

My latest duo is with long time pal Joleen Ballendine of Rapid Fire Theatre. We’ve been performing together in ensembles for years, but never just the two of us. When we decided to form a duo, we talked about how the troupe could serve us. Your duo can create the space you need to work on a particular challenge, or to try out a new form or style. Your duo should inspire you! After all, it’s 50% YOU!

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Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

Joleen and I talked about how we both have been performing for most of improv lives with a lot of great duo partners, who happened to be men. We both identified a tendency for our role in these duos to be driving narrative, and grounding scenes. We decided that the most exciting direction for our troupe would be for us to push in the complete opposite direction. We wanted to do a non-narrative show, where we focus on following impulse, however weird, and we just generally, go a bit nuts.

And so, 10 years after my first duo, Rå Power was born. Our show encompasses all the things we love in improv: sometimes we sing, often we dance, we push each other to share truths. There is no structure, which terrifies us both. It’s a place where we get to do the things we don’t often do. And every one of our shows so far has been dark and meta and something I am proud of.
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Want to dip your toe into a duo? Instant Theatre often runs classes specifically around forming a duo and finding your unique dynamic. Plus, Instant’s monthly show Double Down explores spontaneous pairings of improvisors randomly selected to perform their first duo set. Come see for yourself!

Back to School!

Photograph by Ryan Parker for Work of Arts Magazine. Pictured with Adam Rozenhart.

The leaves are changing colour. The air is crisp. Time to buy some new sneakers, sparkly duotangs, and get back to class!

For me, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I am returning to the classroom this week to start a certificate program at Simon Fraser University in Dialogue & Civic Engagement. I have been looking for a way to marry my love of applied improv, and my experience as an engaged (possibly too-engaged) citizen.

I am hoping that this program will push me to further understand how the philosophies behind improvisation can be applied to communication, problem solving, and community leadership. Already, I am loving the readings for the course, which emphasize listening and collaboration, as the way to truly make change.

Over the next two years, I will also be doing a practicum related to community engagement. Right now, I have no idea what that will look like, but I can assure you, it will involve getting people excited about sharing ideas using improv techniques! Wish me luck!

Photograph by Ryan Parker (http://pkphotograph.smugmug.com/), for The University of Alberta’s Work of Arts Magazine. Article: “Arts Leaders in a City of Champions” by Justin Bell.

What’s in a Laugh?

Photograph by Edmonton's Billy Wong.

Photograph by Edmonton’s Billy Wong.

My improv buddies in Edmonton used to joke about LPMs: Laughs per Minute; a fictitious indicator of perceived success. For us, this was a joke, but for many improv companies, audience laughter is what defines a show as good. Without audience laughter, how can we tell if an audience is engaged in the performance?

If you have ever been on stage and received a warm response from the crowd, you probably know that audience feedback feels incredible. Making a huge crowd roar with laughter is one of the best feelings on earth, but laughter is just one of many responses we can solicit as improvisors.

Becoming addicted to laughter as the only and best response from an audience can become problematic when this goal begins to undercut the quality of scene work. An improvisor trying to make the audience laugh is very different from one playing honestly that happens to receive laughter. And, on stage, little is worse than the stanky smell of desperation.

Putting some thought into why audiences laugh can help alleviate some of the pressure to “be funny” as an improvisor, and allow us to trust that reactions will come, as long as we are in the moment.

Recently, in speaking to some students, I came up with four different types of laughter.

Laughter of Discomfort
We laugh when something shocks us. This is nervous, awkward laughter. We all know examples of this we have experienced. Being shocked can be thought provoking, but it can also be a cheap way to get a response.

Laughter of the Intellect
We laugh when something tickles us intellectually. A fun pun, a clever homonym, an impressive rhyme. These laughs often come during punchline games like 99 Blanks, World’s Worst, or Sex with Me. This laugh usually sounds like it is coming from the neck up.

Laughter of Recognition
We laugh when we hear something specific, something we relate to, or something that triggers a memory. In an improv scene, “run down, aquamarine 1986 Toyota Tercel” may get a laugh, whereas “car” may not. We laugh at specific images, and at things we relate to. This can be cathartic, deeper laughter, coming from the gut.

Laughter of Surprise
We laugh when something unexpected happens. If you are playing a scene in line at a grocery store, and you unleash a harrowing, Wilhelm-esque scream out of frustration, you may get a laugh because it is a surprising thing to do in this context. The audience is especially delighted when the improvisor is just as surprised as they are. This kind of laughter happens when improv is at its best, it is magical and involuntary.

All of these types of laughter are valid responses from an audience, but I think variety is the goal. Below is a Ted Talk from Sophie Scott, where she speaks about the difference between involuntary “helpless” laughter, and “posed” social laughter. Next time you are at an improv show, challenge yourself to listen for the laughter. What do you hear?

[ted id=2236]


Photograph by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) for Rapid Fire Theatre‘s BONFIRE Festival.

Facing Your Fears

What is the worst that could happen on stage?

There is no limit to how many awful on-stage moments we can dream up when we are standing backstage. Fear and judgement are the evil siblings to joy and trust, and we all have moments before, during or after a show where the whispers of our nagging fears take hold.

“I’ll embarrass myself.”
“People will think I’m dumb.”
“I won’t have anything to say.”
“If I follow my impulse, I will say something offensive.”
“I’ll trip and fall.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and how we can better use what scares us rather than try and stifle it. As Jan Henderson, a clown teacher at the University of Alberta says, “What you resist will persist.”

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Graham Meyers & Kirsten Rasmussen at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

A few years ago, when I had to opportunity to direct the ensemble at the Vancouver Improv Festival, I took a gamble on a format. I had the whole ensemble write down their on-stage fears. We didn’t workshop it. Half the ensemble would do this mystery format, the other half would do one we spent a whole day working on.

We had huge sheets of paper, with the fears written on them. I reworded all the fears to be active challenges, that could be played.

“I am controlling.”
“I am too loud.”
“I am blank.”
“I ask only questions.”
“I am furniture.”

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In this photo, Ben is playing “I am furniture.” Kareem Badr & Ben Gorodetsky at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

I wrote out about 20 different fears; all of them very different. Performers would step forward, read the fear off their paper, and hold it up so that the audience could read it too. Each person knew their own challenge, but not their scene partner’s. The chances of getting your own fear were low, but not impossible. Then two performers would do a scene together, playing out their challenge. The combinations of fears (“I am too angry” with “I’m annoying”, or “I can’t stop laughing” with “I am robotic”) lead to really bizarre and delightful scenework.

I think this show was successful because:
-It could have utterly failed. The show in itself was scary, and committing to it was a risk.
-The audience was let in; they saw both challenges, and watched the players discover each other’s  in the moment
-The improvisors committed 100%; the scenes did not look like the improv scenes we often watch. Each scene had a completely unique dynamic.

Once a fear is no longer something you are working against, or resisting, it becomes fun to play. Tripping a lot, or mumbling a lot, are great choices, as long as they are choices. The audience knows when we are nervous, or trying to hide something, but if we embrace it and do it more, we can harness our fears for good. And, once we stop resisting something, that feeling will pass, and we can move on to something new.

The gang at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, recently performed this format, directed by the lovely Roy Janik, at their 47-hour improv marathon. It reminded me how much I loved this experience!  You can read all the great fears that the Austin improvisors wrote down here.

Photographs of the 2013 Vancouver International Improv Festival by Liam Robert Photography.

Finding Fun in Others (aka. Happy Birthday, Kory!)

Kory improvising with an audience member at Rapid Fire’s BONFIRE Festival. Photograph by Billy Wong.

My friend Kory Mathewson made a simple request for this 29th birthday; reflections on “finding fun in others”.

I would like to start this birthday message by telling you about Kory. He is a top tier improvisor with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, where he tours with a rad show called TedxRFT. He is one of my favourite people in the world to be on stage with because no idea is too ‘out there’, no game is too experimental. His response to my ideas is always, “Let’s do it, Amer!”. Whether it’s an improvised parliamentary-style debate, a musical, or a show full of challenging pulse-edits, Kory is always up for taking a risk on stage.

Kory is a truly gifted improvisor, I think in part because of his broad experience of the world.  He’s not the type of performer who exists in a echo chamber, spending 6 days a week workshopping in a theatre; he’s constantly trying new things, traveling, and learning. He studies computing science, and biomedical engineering. He builds websites, and software, and ROBOTS(!!). He likes rock climbing, cycling, “schvitzing”, making up nasty slang words, and seeking out the best food in the city. He chases weird experiences, and it makes you want to do the same.

Once he invited me to the university for a CT Scan, and a researcher complimented me the symmetry of my brain!
Once we were bike riding and we quietly watched a family of beavers screeching on the riverbank!
Once, in Austin, we stopped at every bar on the way to a party and did 98 whiskey shots!

So, how does this all relate to “Finding Fun in Others”?

Kory and I having a laugh riot at BONFIRE 2014. Photograph by Billy Wong.

Kory is a master at making you feel like a million bucks. When you’re in a conversation with Kory, he immediately digs deeper than “How are you?” or “What’s new?”.  He makes the whole conversation about you by asking so many questions. He says “yeah!” and “absolutely!” non-stop. He wants to talk about you rather than himself. He takes any kernel of information and expands upon it. He can talk to anyone about anything for EVER.

Kory consistently strikes up conversations with strangers in elevators. When I first met him, I wondered, “Why? Why would he do this?” At first, I assumed it wasn’t genuine; he was just teasing the person he was talking to, or he had some other agenda. But I now know that Kory is just that curious. He is legitimately interested in what a random teen is eating for lunch, or where a bartender first tasted a certain liqueur, or why you like the dress you are wearing.

There are so many days in our lives where we feel insignificant, like the little things we do are inconsequential or routine. Kory is a great example of someone who shines a spotlight on little details, and makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the room.

Kory has taught me to find the fun in others by helping them find the fun in themselves.

Happy birthday, Kor!

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Kory and I wearing matching “BUTT” shirts. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Photographs by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) and Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

The Improv Kiss

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Cathrine Frost Andersen & Mats Eldøen of Det Andre Teatret (Oslo, Norway). Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Physical intimacy is one of our storytelling tools as improvisors. How we touch, or don’t touch, and our proximity to our fellow performers gives the audience cues about the relationship. Indeed, a simple pat on the shoulder, or holding hands with a scene partner, can go a long way in terms of giving texture to the scene. So can a kiss, or a full body hug, or a well-timed, comedy stage-kick to the groin.

Recently, Steve Fisher of NOW in Toronto, wrote The Ins and Outs of On Stage Intimacy, in which he profiles the work of intimacy coach Tonia Sina. She offers that, “Intimacy must be treated as choreography and should never be improvised.” I think she has a point. The article got me thinking… As improvisors, we often make assumptions around safety when it comes to physicality (for example, I would never use fight choreography in an improvised scene, unless the whole cast had the same understanding of the physical vocabulary), so why don’t we do the same when it comes to physical intimacy?

For me, a kiss has often signalled the end of the scene. My scene partner and I embrace, lips touching, and often the lights fade. End of story. For better or worse, this is how I see most kissing in improv used: as a resolution to a scene about some aspect of romantic love. With ensembles I work with regularly, and even experienced improvisors who I don’t work with regularly, I am fine with a quick closed mouth kiss to end a scene, but I acknowledge that not everyone shares my opinion, nor should they.

However, a few months ago, I was in a mono-scene where I was seducing a fellow performer. We were half way through our 40-minute set – it was not the end of the show – and I could feel that we were building to a intimate moment. This choice was in context of the characters and the narrative we were exploring; two married people having a tryst while their spouses were out of the room. The spouses were gone, and it was time to finally show what we had set up.

Now, I trust this performer, on stage and off – we perform together a lot, they’re a dear friend, and a professional actor. But when the moment came to make a move, I was paralyzed. I had cornered myself into a game of chicken, and it was fun for a while, but now I was stuck there. I knew the lights wouldn’t come down if we kissed, because of the constraints of the show (lights were to stay on our whole set), so we’d have to kiss again. And then what? AND THEN WHAT?! My heart was racing, and my gut said no. I pulled away, changed the subject, and when we got off stage, I felt crummy for wimping so hard on his offers and my own.

Working up to this particular performance, which we knew would explore the dark parts of relationships as realistically as possible, we hadn’t made on stage intimacy part of the discussion. I think now if we had a mutual, previously-discussed understanding about physical connection, I think I would have felt more comfortable in the moment. Or maybe not. Either way, I made the right choice for myself in that instant. Even if my choice was because of my own insecurities with my partner or the audience, and it weakened our story overall, it doesn’t matter. We need to start defining behaviours, and our permissions around them, in order for them to be part of our repertoire as an ensemble, regardless of whether these behaviours become part of our shows or not.

Personally, I am guilty of having doled out some kisses on stage without knowing if my scene partner was comfortable with them. Often times, as an afterthought, I have asked, “was that ok?”. The countless instances of sexual harassment that have come to light in recent months in comedy communities across North America have affirmed that my previous approach was less than ideal. It is imperative to start addressing this topic in our performance groups, as well as workshops, proactively, rather than as an afterthought. It all comes down to respecting your fellow performer, and their boundaries, as well as your own. Consent is required.

When I visited the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, RI, one of the young performers approached me before a Maestro show. “Is there anything that is off limits for you, physically?”, he asked. He did so in a way that was gentle, friendly, and not a big deal. It was a learning moment for me. Before a show, as performers, we are backstage for half an hour or more. It only takes two minutes to ask everyone. Maybe someone isn’t comfortable kissing, maybe someone has a back injury, maybe everyone is cool with writhing in a ball. It’s that simple, and it’s worth it. No explanations necessary.

Saying “yes” and accepting offers is one of the key tenets of improvisation, but when it comes to onstage intimacy, you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. We need to make onstage intimacy part of the discussion before we hit the stage. Never say “yes” at the expense of your gut.

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Joe Bill & Lee White. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

A huge thanks to Paul Blinov, a writer and improvisor from Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, for editing this post for me. Photographs by the rad Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

7 Theatresports Habit-breakers

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Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

When I was in my second year at Rapid Fire Theatre, I was convinced that the reason I was struggling on stage was because I was playing short form Theatresports™ (the format created by Calgary’s Keith Johnstone). I was positive that once I was doing long form improv, a lot of my troubles would go away. I blamed the format for my inability to commit to scenes, and thought playing games pandered to the lowest common denominator. Not only was an improv snob, I was wrong.

I later learned it’s never the format’s fault.

Looking back, I now know that short form and long form improv are the same. Sure, there are different structures to explore, but in the end, a good scene is a good scene, whether it stands alone or is sandwiched between other scenes. As a student in Red Deer recently put it, “It’s just the size of the canvas”. If you can do a great short form scene, you can probably do a solid long form, and vice versa.

This is all to say, I believe that Theatresports™ is a worthwhile structure to invest in. I’ve heard a lot of players who are newer to the form say they’re sick of it, they want to try something new. My message to them is: then try something new! The format is just the vessel for whatever you want to explore creatively. Any skill you want to explore can be explored through Theatresports™. You can create a longer story by tying your scenes together narratively. You can explore all the edits in the world (tap, sweep, pulse, flock). You can share personal stories in a mini-Armando. Don’t get caught up in the structure: it’s there to shape the show, not to be the show.

Here are some ways to shake up Theatresports™ if you are finding shows repetitive:

1. Make the Strangest Team You Can
Look around your ensemble and create the weirdest, most unbalanced team you can. Make a team of the people you never play with (maybe they’re from a different generation, maybe they are socially awkward, maybe you don’t get along). Make a team of people who seem to all have the same skill (a team of drivers, a team of monkeywrenchers). Ask an alumni you don’t know to sit in with you. Guaranteed there will be surprises in this show.

2. Mash Up Games
Ever played an Alphabet-backwards scene? Or a Moving Bodies Dubbing scene? Or Stage Directions using an exercise manual as the directions? Many handles are flexible and can be jammed together in wild and interesting ways. Can these games absolutely tank? Yes! But you know what they say: no risk, no reward!

3. Give All the Power to the Captain
Tell the captain of your team that they should decide all of the games for the whole match, and that you would love it if they kept them a secret from you. Tell them you want to be thrown into scenes, directed, and made to do things you don’t normally do.

4. Change up the Judges
If you have player judges, try audience judges, or do a Danish match, where the audience yells which team they prefer each round.

5. Find a Meta-Narrative
You can’t force this one, but it’s a great way to change things up. Keep your eyes open for patterns that emerge outside of scenes. How can what you do in scenes play into, or contrast, what you are doing out of scenes? If these meta-narratives take over the show, you have failed, but if they are spontaneous, they can add an electric energy to the show.

6. Mix Up Team Size
If you always do 3 on 3 matches, or 4 on 4, see what happens when you create teams of 2 or 5 or 1 performer. First off, the dynamics of the whole show will shift in terms of what you games you can play (He Said She Said is a great game for 2 people, but impossible for 1). Secondly, a meta-narrative may emerge (in the case of 5 vs. 1, it’s almost certain the solo performer will win the match. The audience loves an underdog).

7. Adjust the Tools
Ask the judges to get rid of their number 3s. Try a couple weeks in a row where your judges (or host) are very strict with the Basket/Ring of Shame/Paper Bag. Try a match with time restrictions on each scene of varying length. Challenge teams to do a scene with no suggestion. Try a week with or without a musical accompanist.

Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by the amazing Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Improv Break Ups

I’m inspired to write this post after reading a discussion that took place on the Improv Theatre & Festival Management forum on Facebook. I have personally experienced what it’s like to separate from collaborators, ask cast members to leave a company, and request that public workshop attendees to stop signing up for workshops. I admit that I have made many mistakes along the way, but I hope this post can help shape the process for anyone who is unsure.

creative break-ups

Things just aren’t working out. The relationship isn’t functioning. Things have turned negative. Mutual respect has been lost. It’s time to break up. Whatever the reason, in your heart of hearts you know, you are faced with the difficult task of asking a member or your improv group to leave.

I’ve seen it happen many times. Often it’s clear who the troupe is having difficulty with. During post-show drinks, no one wants to sit next to this person. During rehearsal, people start dismissing their ideas. On stage, no one jumps in when they initiate a scene. Eventually, this person isn’t having fun anymore, and they slowly stop showing up. The rest of the cast secretly breathes a sigh of relief. This is the worst possible way to get someone to leave a group: through social ostracization. Think about how awful it would feel to be broken up with this way in any other relationship, and make a commitment to do better.

Face the person head on. It’s not easy, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Here are some ideas on how to ask someone in your troupe to step back:

Start Strong
Set up clear expectations for all cast members. It is most proactive way to deal with difficult decisions. Articulate what you, as a group, expect of each other.

-What is the purpose of your group? Is it to have a professional-level performing ensemble? Or is it to be a community drop in workshop? This will make a big difference in how you make decisions on who should be in the cast.

-Is it ok to be late for call time? How many times? What about absences?

-What happens if the quality of someone’s work is in decline? Is there any process for development opportunities to help them get better?

-Do you have a clear policy around harassment?

-Who decides if people are asked to step back? Is there a director, or is it done by a group vote?

Assess Regulary
See each other face to face to revisit your expectations at least once a year, and let group members know when they have not been meeting your shared expectations.

Meet in Person
If you are the director of the troupe, or if you have been elected by your peers to speak to the person, try your best to do so in person. It will be tempting to do it over email. Use this as a last resort only.

Meet somewhere that is quiet, and private, but a neutral space. (Think: somewhere you might break up with a romantic partner. A home is a bad idea). Be early, so you are there when they arrive. Be sure to speak first, and try to avoid open-ended questions like, “How do you think it’s going ?”. That will just lead them in a false direction. Take a deep breath…

Be Honest
When you are heading into the meeting, you need to be honest with the person about why you are asking them to leave. Start with your shared expectations, how this person has not met expectations, and that you are asking them to leave the troupe. Often times, if expectations are clear enough, the person might already know why they are being asked to leave, and might surprise you by being very understanding. This is a great testament to the planning you did as a troupe.

Above all, do not lie. If the reason is because of their conduct off stage, do not use being late for shows as a scapegoat. Be specific, and site examples. “It’s not a good fit” is too vague on its own, and will leave the person with a lot of questions. If the person has done something reprehensible, you need to bring that tone to the conversation; it’s not about creative differences if it’s about a breach of your harassment policy. They will never learn if they don’t know why they are being asked to leave.

Show Compassion
It is very hard to handle rejection, especially in an improv environment where so much of our training is on positivity and support. If appropriate, you can let the person know how much you appreciate the time and effort they have put in to your group, suggest other outlets for improv in the city, or extend the option to re-audition in the future. If you are friends, you can explain that this is not personal, but a professional decision. But, if you don’t sincerely believe these things, do not say them as a courtesy.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:
Hold your ground. Occasionally the person might argue with you, or try to convince you to let them back in. Be prepared to reiterate your decision, and keep the meeting short. You can remind them that art is subjective.

Don’t do it if you are angry. If you are emotionally fragile, it will be hard to be professional and level-headed. Ask someone else from your troupe, or call in some back up to do most of the talking.

Remember it happens all the time. Many relationships, be they romantic, professional or creative come to an end. It’s not the end of the world, even though it might seem like it. Both parties will heal, and come out stronger on the other side.

I think when you can separate the professional and personal, making these kind of choices becomes much easier. Trust your gut, and measure it against the expectations you have in place, and you can’t go wrong.