Posts

We Go to Improv Shows to Be Inspired

When I was studying improv back in the ’80s in Chicago, things where simpler. In those days, most people would study at one place at time, and when they finished one program, they would sanely move onto the next.

Stage time was much harder to come by, which gave us hungry improvisers plenty of time to go see improv shows and the free improv sets at Second City.

Today, a lot has changed. There are so many more improv programs and people are studying at multiple theaters at time. We now have as many places to perform improv in the city as there are Starbucks. This means hungry improvisers starting out don’t go out and see improv shows.

The reason is simple: Given the choice, most improvisers would rather be in a show than see one. You can’t compete with this. But going to shows is an important part of learning, and something everyone should take the time to do once in a while.

The other night, I found myself at an improv show in the back of a really cool coffee house on the city’s north side. The show was outside on a cement patio. The audience sat on wooden picnic tables. They created a stage area by rigging up two lights and directing them towards the back of a brick wall of the apartment building next store. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.

I was there because I was coaching the group Improv Bus, and I wanted to watch their set and give them notes. They went up and did a great job. They had really accomplished everything we had been working on in the last couple of rehearsals. I was proud of them. Really proud.

Then the group that hosted the night, Moonsharks, hit the stage. I had never heard of them, shame on me. They blew me away. What impressed me was their scene work. They played grounded and emotionally react to each other in the scene. They edited the scenes with seamless transformations. When they needed to be silly, or to vary the energy, they did it with abandon and everyone jumped in. They had incredible chemistry — the type you get only by enjoying playing with each other for a long time.

After the show, the cast of the Improv Bus and myself crowded around a picnic table to talk about our set. As I finished giving notes, I could tell by the sound in their voices that they had all been inspired by Moonsharks, including me. We spent more time talking about Moonsharks’ set then our own.

This quickly reminded me why I encourage my students to go to improv shows. Sure, there’s the obvious, the technical side — you go and watch great players make great moves that you want to emulate and you get ideas for new forms. But what I forgot was the real reason we went to see improv shows in those early days was to get inspired. Today’s improvisers, whose over-committed-life includes taking three classes at the same time while performing with six teams at 14 different venues through the city — have left no room for inspiration.

As artists, inspiration is what drives us. Keep us going. Gives us something to aspire to be. Great artists get inspired by other great artists. Improv is no different.

You may find yourself in a show that has inspired other people. That is the highest honor.

I can think of two improv shows I was a part of way back in the day, Jazz Freddy and Naked, that people said to me years later were shows that had inspired them. They got the chance to be inspired because they took a night off of bar-prov and went to see those shows.

I get it. Not all improv shows will inspire. Some will leave you angry because they are so fucking bad. So be picky, but go, because if improv is what you want to do, you will never be inspired by it unless you go to improv shows.

It’s important to always be looking to be inspired in your chosen art form by people in your chosen art form, because that is where the next big thing will come from and god willing it could be you.

And, please don’t be like me and take inspiration for granted, because it’s like putting gas in your car — it keeps it going and you don’t want to run out of it during your millionth improv show of the week because you didn’t check the light.

What shows have inspired you over the years? And by seeing them perform, what did they inspire you to create? I’d love to hear.

5 Mistakes to Avoid at the Top of an Improv Scene

The first couple of seconds at the top of any improv scene is crucial, and if you don’t panic you will be able to increase your chances of doing some great improvisation. Here are the top five most common mistakes:

1. Starting with a Problem
Nothing will stop a scene faster than starting with a problem. Usually it looks like this: Two improvisers hit the stage and the first thing that comes out of one of their mouths is a problem like: “We are out of gas.” As an audience we don’t care, and worse, we know where this scene is going. Problems at the top a scene do not connect us to our partner. We think they do, but they are as frustrating to watch as they are to be in them.

SOLUTION 1: If the first line you think of is “We are out of gas,” before you say it out loud, change it into a positive statement: “We’ve got a full tank of gas.” Okay, it might not be the most brilliant initiation you have come up with, but it’s 100 times better than a problem.

SOLUTION 2: If your partner starts with a problem, react to what they’ve said and make it personal. So you could respond to “We are out of gas” with “Good, we really haven’t spent much time together since you went off to college.” Remember, the audience doesn’t give a shit about the gas and whether you get or it not. What we care about is the relationship.

2. Playing Strangers
This is such a common mistake that I keep seeing over and over again: Two improvisers come out on stage and play complete strangers. Ninety-five percent of the time these scenes go nowhere. The only thing they seem to accomplish is to test our patience.

SOLUTION: Do yourself a favor and assume you know the person in your scene. You could have known them for a couple of hours or 10 years, it doesn’t matter. But we don’t want to see the first time you two meet. We have better things to do with our time.

3. Hitting the Suggestion Over the Head
Easily the most annoying one. If the suggestion is pineapple, your first line does not need to be “Mmm, I love Pineapple” as you frantically eat a pineapple. This will turn an audience off, and it should, because you are treating them like a bunch dopes. The one thing I have learned from my guests on Improv Nerd is there is no one way to use a suggestion. You can use it to inspire you with a character, emotions, attitude, environment or objects. Some improvisers don’t use it all.

SOLUTION: If the suggestion is tripping you up and putting you in your head, don’t use it for now. It’s better not to use the suggestion than to jump on stage and say “Mmm, I love pineapple” like it’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said on stage. What I’ve found helpful is to use the suggestion to discover an environment: Pineapple makes me think of beach, or hotel, or cabana, or pool, or airplane, or airport. I have six locations, and I don’t ever have to say the fucking word pineapple.

4. Not Looking at Your Partner
Listening can be done in silence. If you don’t take a couple of seconds to look at your partner’s face, you’re not listening, and you sure as hell are not connecting to him or her. I don’t care what brand or method of improv you prefer, the best improvisers are the ones who are connected to their partners.

There is a reason we say “your partner is the most important person on stage.” It’s not for them, it’s for us, so we can get out of own way. I cannot tell you how many improvisers don’t check in with their partner on stage. It only take a couple of seconds, and you can still come in with that big character that you love playing or say that killer opening line. In improv, we are trained to do multiple things at a time, but let us not forget the most important one of them all: connecting with our partner. Without them, we have nothing to react to.

SOLUTION: This is an exercise you can use in class or rehearsal. Go out on stage and don’t plan anything. Look at your partner’s face to get the initiation for the scene. So if you go out there and she looks sad, you may say: “I know break ups are never easy.” If you go out there and she looks happy, you could say: “We are going to be great parents.”

5. Not Starting in the Middle
Sometimes, improvisers establish a relationship, but they don’t start the scene in the middle of the action. Instead, they talk about absolutely nothing. It goes something like this. “Hey, wanna go to the movies? “Yeah, great. How about Anchor Man 2?” “Sure, it’s playing at 8:15.” This goes on for a couple of minutes, but it feels like an eternity because there is no meat to the scene. They haven’t started in the middle.

SOLUTION: I got this from Jack Bronis, a wonderful teacher at Second City: Start a scene with a secret that you’ve been holding onto for six months that you have to tell the other person about. Reveal it in the first couple of lines. The higher the stakes of your secret, the more mileage you will get out of it. For example: “I know we’re only on our third date, but I want to marry you,” or “I know I’m your step brother, but I’ve always had a crush on you” are great meaty opening lines that start in the middle of the action.

Bad shows still suck

Jimmy Carrane and John Hildreth in Improv NerdBad Shows Still Suck

After more than 25 years of doing improv shows, the one thing I can tell you is a bad show still sucks, almost as bad as when I first started.

Oh boy, I had one on Sunday, working with two really talented improvisers I respect, John Hildreth and Rachael Mason, which makes it worse. I left the show feeling awful, like I had exposed to them how truly awful an improviser I am.

The messages in my head go from productive to suicidal: “I was tentative. I was scared. I was too plot-heavy. I had no emotional response. I was too verbal. I could have committed more. I sucked. I hate myself. I want to die. I want to kill myself.”

This is not an exaggeration. These messages are on a continuous loop that won’t stop. Which leads to an awful night’s sleep, waking up remembering the specific scenes and reliving the shame.

Over the last few days, when I am not replaying the scenes in my head, I am imagining ways I can take my life. The irony is I am surrounded by love: a beautiful wife and a new kitten all in the same bed. And despite that, I’m still miserable; nothing can help me at this point.

My wife tries to help, but when you are that far down in the hole of self-pity, it’s really a waste of time. She said something that I imagine I would say to my students: “You have to have the bad shows to appreciate the good ones.”

Of course I could not hear that, the same way I could not hear what my good friend and improviser Bill Boehler said on the phone the other night: “You learn more from the bad shows.”

I was too busy wanting to kill myself, questioning my existence, and listing the ways I still suck.

It’s a form of self-mutilation. Instead of cutting myself with a sharp instrument, I do it with the voices in my head. The bleeding is internal, the pain is excruciating, and the messages continue.

“You suck. You have been doing improv for over 20 years. You teach this stuff? You are a fraud.”

I had students in the audience on Sunday, and now I am embarrassed to go into the classroom. Maybe I am not the best improviser in the world, but I thought I was a great teacher, and now that is all gone in one show. One terrible show.

And the more I think about this the more I want to die.

I wish I had more hope to offer about how to get through a bad improv show. I wish I could tell newbie improvisers that it gets better over the years. But I am sorry to say that suffering after a bad show is still very much part of my process. I guess there is hope that I’m still here to talk about it. If any of you figure out how to get through a bad show, let me know. You may be saving a life or two.