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.

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.

Curious Monkey

Has a gif ever made you cry?

If you asked me last week if people ever cried while watching gifs, I would have said likely not. Yet, I now understand the contrary, because this silly one made me burst into tears the moment I watched it.


The shock and amazement on the monkey’s face is so genuine that it brought me to tears. Such innocent wonder is something that we see children experience, but as adults, it is rare. I guess it’s hard to truly buy into a magic trick once you understand the definition of a “trick”.

A lot of our training in improvisation is focused on undoing the behaviours that were piled onto us as we grew up. These behaviours are valuable in the outside world; they keep us safe and allow us to be accepted socially. But on stage, we want to be vulnerable, impulsive, and open to any possibility. Pretty much the opposite of how we are supposed to act day to day.

The joy of improvisation is that we can play with unapologetic curiosity. We can react hugely to any offer our partner gives us. We can be boldly gullible, insanely innocent, and so sweet its stubborn. We can be voraciously curious about where the scene will take us next. We can be dazzled by the wonder of our imagination.

Sometimes you just need to weep about a monkey gif to be reminded of this.

Living in the Moment is Ageless

Performance at Creative Age Festival, 2011.

“I’m too old for that” is a statement I wish we could cut out of everyone’s vocabulary, including mine. As someone who essentially plays for a living, when I hear anyone say those words, I try to convince them otherwise.

You think you’re too old to take an improv class? Well, I can tell you from first hand experience, some of the most fearless improvisors I have ever worked with are in their 80s.

As you’re probably aware, the arts are being talked about more frequently as a way to improve the overall quality of life of older people. Taking part in a creative pursuit can by improve mood, memory, and physical health in our senior citizens. Plus, I believe art-making may be one of the best solutions out there for bringing generations together.

I began working with seniors through improv workshops put on by Edmonton’s GeriActors, Festival of Edmonton Seniors Theatre, and The Creative Age Festival. David Barnet, who was my professor at The University of Alberta, and is involved with these organizations, was a big part of why I got involved, and I am so thankful I did. He’s said to me in the past that it takes a certain type of person to work with seniors; someone with openness and flexibility, someone who can really  to really let the performers’ voices shine through. He certainly achieves this in his work.

Leading workshops for senior citizens is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career as an artist. Sure, there are challenges, like memory or mobility, but overall, leading a workshop for older people is just like leading one for any other age group. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier. Many of the seniors I met are in the enviable position of just not giving a fuck. They have lived so much life that the panic most people feel when doing improv for the first time just isn’t there. Like kids, they can just let go and be surprised. It is thrilling to watch a 90-year old woman do something unexpected.

Inspired by these workshops, I started collaborating on projects with my grandfather (my ‘Dido’), Nick Shostak, Senior. Well, maybe less collaborating, and more coercing him to help me. Through these projects, I have experienced different sides of him that I had never seen before, and watched him take creative risks.

In 2011, we did a piece called My Dido The Orator , as part of Latitude 53’s IN/STALL/ED. We recreated my Dido’s living room in a parking stall in the McCauley neighbourhood, and passersby stopped by to chat and hear his stories. My Dido was an absolute showman, laughing and engaging folks all day. One of the most impactful parts of the project was that the more stories Dido told, the more stories the audience started telling. At one point there were 10 or 15 people, sitting cross-legged on the ground of a parking lot, exchanging stories about coming to Canada, about politics, about the neighbourhood.

Then there was The Slow Flash Mob, which I put together in 2013. The focus of the event was to enliven a lovely, but often empty, park in Edmonton with intergenerational activities. This project was also an experiment for me, to explore the challenges a citizen might face trying to put on an event, as part of my work with Make Something Edmonton

My Dido was the spokesperson for The Slow Flash Mob, and my friend Mike Robertson kindly helped us make a video to promote and raise funds for the event.

We also got to do an interview on TV. Dido seemed so excited to be at the station. He was curious about everything that was going on, talking to people who walked through the waiting area, and it was a rare moment where he seemed nervous. During our interview he seemed emotional, and made a great impression.

Slow Flash Mob SquareThe Slow Flash Mob event itself came with its challenges; attendance was lower than I had hoped, the weather was spotty, and I received some feedback that the park I chose was too inaccessible for many senior citizens. But despite these issues, the people who did attend expressed how important the event was, and how much they appreciated it.

Most significantly to me though, my Dido showed up right on time. He had a nametag that he made for himself, that proudly said NICK. I watched him walk excitedly down the many wooden steps to the park. This was his party, and he was genuinely in his element. And god, that made me happy. To see someone in his 80s trying improv, tai chi, playing board games. His attitude is certainly the one I hope to have in my golden years.

All of these projects serve as a reminder that seniors find all the same things exciting as you and I (sex jokes, physical humour, flirting, donuts), and they are eager to engage, just like us. They are vibrant, funny, fierce individuals. More importantly, these experiences helped me articulate that there is a gap between our generations that we can close through collaboration, and this benefits anyone at any age in life.

If you’re looking for someone to jam on an idea, or are looking for volunteers or instructors to work with seniors, please get in touch! Improvisation for senior citizens is something I think every community should explore.

The Improvisor is Present

Improvisors Tom Hill & Devin Mackenize of Hip.Bang! Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois.

Eye contact. It’s scary with loved ones. It’s impossibly scary with strangers. It’s imperative for improvisors.

I remember the first day I was introduced to the work of Marina Abramović. I was a university student taking a survey course of 20th century art. As a woman of Slavic decent, with a flair for the dramatic, who also loved walking for long periods of time, I felt we had a lot in common. I was shocked by the brutality and gore of her Rhythm series, and moved by the romantic qualities of her work with her lover-collaborator Ulay.

Abramović’s art is definitely not for everyone. She’s violent, and inward-gazing, and what some people say is the problem with the contemporary art world. But for me, she is a woman who lives in a world defined by her personal mythology, and values being in the moment above all else. I think my favourite work is 1977’s, Breathing In Breathing Out, when her Ulay, shoved tampons up their noses, locked mouths and breathed in each other’s air until one of them asphyxiated.



So what does this wild stuff have to do with improv? Besides the fact that some of her performances are pretty funny, there are plenty of other parallels. Abramović speaks about the importance of risk taking, failure, and process over product, but more than anything Abramović, to me, embodies to me what it means to be in the moment.

You’re probably familiar with her 2010 work The Artist is Present. Clips of it were circulating around Facebook, and it ran at the MoMA for 3 months. In this work, we see the transformational affect that eye contact can have.

When we relax, let go of our social masks (smiling, cracking jokes, aka. the ticks we have that keep us safe), and breathe, there is so much there.

I recently had students start scenes this way. With only eye contact, breath and physical proximity as a starting point, once students really connected through the gaze, they started to feel genuine emotion, and connect feelings to implied relationships with their scene partner.

“I felt like we were going to fight.”
“I know I disappointed him.”
“With every breath the relationship changed.”

All this information, from just seeing and being seen. By the time class was over, everyone in the room had glassy, shiny eyes. We were all more emotionally engaged than when we’d arrived.

When in doubt, breathe, and look at your partner. Trust that the rest is already there. So much of improv is about building up structure, but there is value in simplifying too, in stripping away.

As Abramović says, “In the gaze… everything happens.”

Photograph of Hip.Bang! by Marc-Julien Objois.

Leading like an Improvisor

Photograph by the super-awesome Mat Simpson.

One of my favourite improv exercises is Dolphin Training. I learned it years ago in a workshop led by Patti Stiles, who is with Impro Melbourne. It’s a partnered exercise that I use in almost all of the workshops I lead. It really allows me to get a sense of a group, and assess their ability to take risks.

It’s simple to play. Everyone pairs up. Partner A looks around the room and decides something that they would like Partner B to do. At first it should be simple: sit in a chair, flick the light switch off, close the curtains. Partner B moves silently around the space and tries to figure it out. The only way they know they are on the right track is that Partner A gives them a bell sound, a “ding”. When Partner B does the precise action that Partner A thought of, then they have succeeded, and the partners switch. It’s like a game of “Warmer or Cooler” you may have played as a child, except without the cool.

I love the game for many reasons:
-It trains the feeling of failure. The whole time you are guessing in silence, you feel the panic of not getting it right. You might feel lost or frustrated. Once you sit in this feeling for long enough, you start to get used to it, and slowly you learn to stay calm and keep playing.
-It forces participants to physicalize their ideas. They aren’t able to say “Do you want me to sit in the chair?”, they need to physicalize it. This becomes really important in scene work – showing not telling.
-It reminds us that we aren’t mind readers. Improv is about a give and take, about reactions. There isn’t a road map we’re following, and there are no wrong choices.
-PLUS! – it’s how they actually train dolphins, through positive reinforcement.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking about positive reinforcement, and how to approach my teaching from this perspective. I felt something was broken about how I was leading my students, when I saw many of them obsessed about the “rules” of improv, stressed about doing it “right”, and so in their heads.

When I first started learning improv, we’d do exercises around “blocking”, to demonstrate the difference between accepting an offer and shutting one down. I think that was, frankly, a waste of time. Blocking will happen, why practise bad habits? Nowadays I don’t even talk about blocking in a class, unless a student brings it up. I also don’t talk about “pimping”, or “shelving”.

(Sidenote: Sally Smallwood from People & Chairs wrote a great post about the term “pimping” and how it might be time for a new term.)

I’ve started trying to make a change in the way I lead workshops. I’ve been rewarding improvisors who make bold, risky choices even when they fall flat. The freedom to take risks is what I hope to foster in them. When we debrief about the best moments of a performance, I’ve been focused on not only pointing out big successes, but congratulating people for choosing difficult games, hosting for the first time, or trying on an accent.

I’ve tried to stop saying “never” or “always”, and I’ve been saying “I don’t know” and “Let’s try it!” more.

My goal is to approach my workshops with the same curiosity I bring to a round of Dolphin Training. Sometimes the only way to figure something out is by doing it.

Photograph by Mat Simpson.

The Eventual Plateau

There are months, and even years, in my improv career where I have felt completely stuck. I’ve felt like I was doing everything “right”, and yet, I just couldn’t seem to break out of the same old habits. I was playing the same British lady in every show, gravitating toward the same games, and getting the same notes over and over again. I just couldn’t seem to take genuine risks because they didn’t even occur to me. True risks were not even on my radar. I asked myself the dreaded question, “Am I actually getting worse?”.

Over the years, I started thinking of this feeling as plateau; a flat-line in my development, after a previous period of progress. If you’re an improvisor, artist, or creative, you probably know the feeling.

When you first start improvising, every class feels like you’re learning something new. There are so many milestones! Completing your very first class, the first character you play in a scene, your first class show in front of an audience! It seems like at every turn, there is a new concept for you to wrap your head around, and new risks for you to take!

But eventually, you plateau.  I mean, everyone is different; sometimes you’ll plateau after you reach a goal (ie. “I auditioned and made it into a company!”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from fatigue (ie. “I don’t have energy to workshop every week”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from hubris (ie.  “I took Level 3, I have nothing left to learn.”). Regardless, there will be a moment where you feel suddenly self-conscious, your director is frustrated with you, and you want to quit improvising.

I’ve seen so many young improvisors quit at their first big plateau. It’s the first time they’ve felt frustrated in an otherwise extremely positive experience, and they feel like there’s something flawed within themselves. It’s tragic, really, because once you’ve been improvising for a while, you start to notice this pattern of growth / plateau / growth / plateau. You get used to it. Once you can identify what’s going on, you can more easily tackle it head on.

Some ideas on how to break out of your plateau:

Talk to someone you look up to
If you’re feeling this way, articulate it. Sometimes even being aware of it is enough.

Read a book about improv or creativity.
My improv brother from another mother, Kory Mathewson, has a great list here. Montreal Improv has cool mini-reviews for a lot of books here.

Reinvest in improv workshops
When’s the last time you took a class? Take another one. Travel for an intensive, seek out an instructor you’ve always wanted to learn from, or revisit an instructor you loved before.

Watch an improv show at another theatre
How often do you seek out improv at a different theatre? What are they doing differently? What do they do well?

Watch an improv show at your theatre
If you’re not in a show, do you usually watch it? Ask yourself, what is this show missing? Look for patterns and gaps in the show.

Improvisation is 100% process. In any process, there are peaks, valleys and plateaus. In any process, there is frustration, whether we like to admit it or not. In every process, it’s possible you are getting worse, but in the end, if you stick with it, it will make you better.

Saying “Yes” And Owning It

Photograph by Meryl Smith Lawton.

The following is an article that I wrote in 2013 for the professional journal for an edition called Gender & Theatre at The Margins. Special thanks to Nikki Shaffeullah, who is a rad improvisor, and the Editor-in-Chief for the magazine. She encouraged me to start writing about my experiences in improv, and she also inspired me to dress better.

Read it below or download the PDF directly.

Getting Some Inputs

Blog 1 - Getting Some Inputs (1)

I’ve often wondered why so many improv scenes start with:

  1. silently digging a hole
  2. silently burshing your teeth
  3. silently opening a cupboard

I call these scene starts “the classics”. Don’t get me wrong, I rock “the classics” all the time, and so do many improvisors around the world. There are awesome scenes that come out of “The Classics”, and we all understand these as patient, universal, environment-focused scene starts.

But no matter where you go, be it Milan, or Bogota, or a high school in northeast Edmonton, “The Classics” prevail as ways to start a scene. How can this be? Certainly in people who live in different places have different experiences? In fact, as improvisors we all have diverse and rich histories? So why are we all starting scenes the same way?

For six years, I was the Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre, and it ruled. During this time, each week I was performing in multiple shows, teaching several classes, doing corporate events, working on show programming, meeting with fellow artists to discuss how they were feeling in the company, attending board meetings, and generally giving most of my time, and pretty much 100% of my creative brain-space to improv, and improv-related pursuits.

If you all you do is dream, scheme and breathe improv, your scene work might begin to feel a bit repetitive. I noticed that I started to have a constant feeling of déjà vu. I’d lived this scene before, either by seeing it in a class, or talking about it in notes, or doing something similar on stage. Everything felt recycled.

In other words, the only input to my inspiration was improv, so my only output were things that looked like “improv”, like “The Classics”.

So if you’re stuck in this improv feedback-loop, what’s the fix? How can we start having more varied inspiration? How can we move beyond what the audience has begun to expect? The answer is pretty simple, but it can be challenging to make time for it.

Do ANYTHING else. Let yourself live some more life. Take a risk; join a softball team, shadow someone who has a weird job, go parasailing, buy a paint set, go on a blind date, ask a grandparent a deep question. You will return to the stage richer, more knowledgable, with a deeper understanding of the one thing you practiced. Curiosity makes you stronger.

The designer, Stefan Sagmeister talks about the importance of giving yourself time to gather inputs, in my favourite Ted Talk.

Sometimes taking a week off of improvising can be the best thing for your improv.