Matching Outfits: The Secret to Improv

Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis. http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

My mom asked me the other day, “What happened to your blog?”. This confirmed two things:

  1. I haven’t written in far too long. Apologies to you, Dear Reader! It has been a busy summer for this li’l improvisor, and if I am being completely honest, a challenging one. The great news is though, as the autumn leaves fall, I’m back baby!
  2. My MOM reads my blog. Which is pretty much the best thing that has ever happened to me. If my mom wants to read my intellectual ramblings, then heck, I should write them down.

So, here goes!

It just so happened that in July, I was at a festival with a high concentration of fierce, brilliant women improvisors. We’re talking crème-de-la-crème here. And it JUST so happened, at that same festival, one of the headlining acts was detained, and couldn’t make it. And so, a time slot needed to be filled. And it just so happened, the festival directors asked six of these fierce, brilliant women I mentioned before to perform.

It’s rare, an opportunity like this, and it’s pretty much my favourite way to improvise. Find a relatively high-stakes scenario (like performing on the sold-out final night of a festival). Put together a random assemblage of performers who you admire. Decide right before the show what you will attempt to do. Do a couple circle warm ups. There’s not much more you can do to be ready. You don’t have time to worry, days leading up to your show. You don’t have the woulda-shoulda-couldas post-show.

The best part? Improv actually feels spontaneous.

Our show was electric. From the first second we were on stage I felt like I was glowing from the inside out. How could I not be? I was on stage with one of my oldest friends, and the brightest talent, Kirsten Rasmussen. Next to me was one of my creative besties, the ever-rad Ember Konopaki. Then there was Leigh Cameron, who I performed with in a VIIF ensemble, who is brilliant with characters, and a gorgeous weirdo. Oh, and as if that wasn’t mirth enough, Kristen Schier was there too! She’s an absolute beacon of positivity and inspiration. And Laura Doorneweerd from Amsterdam, who has a great mind for form, and a beautiful patience when performing. Basically, you took a bunch of my heroes and put them on stage together. We were also joined by a musician who I had just met, named Kyle, who was also pretty damn special. Oh, and did I mention, we all wore matching outfits and it looked FUCKING GREAT?!

Witches melting. Photograph by Chelsea Petrakis http://www.chelseapetrakis.com/

We had planned to do a form that Kirsten had pitched: alternating matching scenes (where improvisors join the energy of the other characters on stage) with an increasing number of improvisors (first 2, then 3, then 4, 5, 6), with more grounded two-person scenes. By the third beat of the show, which was a very funny group game about basketball players who are constantly losing the ball, we all had jumped in, and the format was OUT THE WINDOW. We were flying beat to beat, completely flowing in agreement, soaking up the whole stage, throwing in a song in the middle of a group game, making some amazing callbacks, and ending on a bookend to the beginning of the show.

When it was all over, I was shocked. The audience also seemed shocked. They stood up for an ovation. I was awash in the whole mystical experience.

How could we have done such a cohesive show? Some of the women hardly knew one another. We didn’t rehearse. We randomly asked for a musician, having no idea how we would use him. And between you and me, our outfits could have matched more… HOW WAS THIS SHOW EVEN POSSIBLE?

We had no idea what would happen. They audience understood that too. And that excitement, when combined with the power of our training, our belief in one another, our commitment to good work, and our trust in the moment gave us an amazing show.  That’s the magic of true spontaneity.

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.
r_power

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!

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).

Saying “Yes” And Owning It

Photograph by Meryl Smith Lawton. http://merylsmithlawton.com/

The following is an article that I wrote in 2013 for the professional journal alt.theatre 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.