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’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?


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.

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).

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.

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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.