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Is It OK to Say ‘No’ In an Improv Scene?

Is ok to say ‘no’ in an improv scene? The answer is yes.

Improvisers have struggled with this one for years. They feel if they don’t say “yes and…” to everything, they are betraying their scene partner. But if they always avoid saying “no,” they’re usually just betraying themselves.

I cannot tell you how many improv scenes I have done over the years where I have said “yes” to something when, based on the situation, I wanted to say “no.” And I’m not the only one. I have seen some poor students do it over and over again, and when they do it they are giving their power away on stage.

We all have a slightly different definition of agreement. I think it means that you have to agree to the reality of the situation—everything else is negotiable.

Last week I was re-reading Will Hines’ excellent book, How To Be the Greatest Improviser On Earth, when I came across a section about saying no, and I was like, “That is it!” So, I e-mailed him and asked him if we could use this part from his book. Because Will is a stand up guy and one of UCB’s most sought after teachers, he said yes. So, here you go:

Saying No: Pumping the Brakes
(from How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, by Will Hines)

Another key factor to keeping your scenes real is learning how to say “no.”

In improv, the main mantra is “yes and.” You’re supposed to say yes to everything weird. Right?

No.

Your character will very often not want to do something, and in those cases it is okay to say no. New improvisers and even experienced improvisers feel guilty saying no. You shouldn’t. You just have to know how to do it correctly.

Let’s think of improv as bicycling. “Saying yes” and moving the action forward is pedaling, and saying “no” is pumping the brakes. If all you do is use the bakes, then you’re not going to go anywhere. You also can’t really start off by hitting the brakes. Over the course of your ride, though, you’ll absolutely need to hit the brakes at some point.

Say someone tells your character something crazy—you’re a guy on a bus, and a stranger suggests that you rob a bank. You say “no.”

But you do it as if you’re hitting the brakes on a bike. You don’t want to hit the brakes so hard that you stop the ride, so you just pump them a bit. You say “no” but you stay engaged in the conversation and stay suggestible. Maybe this person is going to be able to convince you to rob the bank. Stay open to that possibility. If the scene needs you to say yes, the offer will come around again soon. If you feel the scene is grinding to a halt, find a way to pedal (make the unusual thing happen, and say yes).

You just have to make sure that it’s your character who is saying no and not you the actor. It can’t be that you the actor are scared of doing something, like being committed in the scene. You have to be in the flow of the scene and committed, and once you are in that state, then there will just be times your character wants to say no. Don’t feel bad for hitting the brakes.

And, again, I’m not talking about physically intrusive stuff like someone yelling too loud in your face.

When you’re first learning to ride a bike, you hit the brakes more often because you’re nervous about going fast, but as you get more comfortable you’ll find you need those brakes less.

Buy How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines at Amazon
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Will Hines’ new improv book: How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth

I first met Will Hines when he contacted me after an episode of Improv Nerd that he particularly liked. I was floored. I had been aware of his reputation as a teacher and improviser at The UCB in New York, and of course of his terrific blog Improv Nonsense. Whenever one of my peers likes my work, I am both a little surprised and very honored.

At the time, Will was the Artist Director at UCB in New York, a job he had for a very long time before moving to Los Angles. We’ve kept in touch over the years and we finally we got to meet in person in Boise, ID, at the Idaho Laugh Festival. Will is part of the second generation of UCB people, behind the original UCB four, and his contemporaries include people like Billy Merrit, Chris Gethard, Michael Delaney and more, whose knowledge about the history of the place is as fascinating to me as Besser’s, Roberts’, Poehler’s and Walsh’s.

Will has a great mix as a teacher and performer. He’s a pure technician of the game-style of play that UCB is famous for, and he comes from a very thoughtful and caring approach to this art form, which shows in his work on stage, in the classroom, in his blog and now in his latest improv book, How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth.

Will says the purpose of the book is “to help people who are new to improv learn to play like experts.” The book will be released next week, and anticipation of that, he was kind enough to share with us an excerpt. Here it is. Enjoy!

Become The Most Riveting Person On The Stage

You will know that you are truly being present when this happens: You become the most riveting person on stage.

They say you can’t teach charisma. But you can, and I just taught it to you.

Be fully present, and the audience will watch you like a hawk.

It doesn’t matter how good an actor you are. Or how “naturally charismatic” you are. If you are honestly communicating how the current moment feels, in an authentic way—no matter how clumsily or awkwardly—the audience will pay attention to you. People will magically give you space. Yes. It happens.

I saw a show a million years ago with a nervous, bulldogging man and a quiet, confident woman. He started the scene as a husband on a fishing trip with his wife. He was complaining about the weather and demanding a beer and asking her why she picked this day to go fishing, all the while not giving her time to answer. She had time only to peep things like no and yes and “Boy, it sure is rainy!”

In his defense, the guy was more nervous than actually bullying, but the effect was that his scene partner couldn’t get a word out.

But she was so much more confident as an actor! She did everything physically. Her eyebrows popped up when he revealed that the weather was bad. She looked a bit sad when he said the fish weren’t gonna bite. When he asked for a beer, she leaned over into a cooler and plucked a beer up in sharp, funny movements. I remember she clutched the can just at the top with her fingertips, letting the imaginary can dangle as if it were a gross thing she didn’t want to touch. And when she handed it over to him, and he absent-mindedly took it as he rambled, she gave a quick nod of satisfaction to herself, and at that the audience laughed.

She was in the scene. She was a specific character. She was cool and calm and confident and specific. She was having fun. She was funnier.

And all the while he was talking, we were just watching her.

That woman? MERYL STREEP. No, I’m kidding. I don’t know who she was. But I remember thinking that’s the way to play with a stage hog: You ride the wave in front of you, instead of looking ahead for a different one.
How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth
by Will Hines

224 pages, $15
Available at http://www.improvnonsense.com/

 

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Tips to Nail Your Next Improv Audition

Auditioning is a way of life for improvisers. You’ll never stop auditioning, so you’ll just have to get good at it! Learning to embrace the audition process, and to finally relax and have fun, will do wonders for your performance. We asked some professional improvisers — Jay Sukow, a former teacher at Second City; Amey Goerlich, an independent improv teacher in New York; Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York; Brian Posen, Program Head at the Second City Training Center; and Adal Rifai, member of the Harold Commission, which selects teams for iO Chicago — for their best tips to use at your next improv audition.

Here’s what they had to say:

Headshots and Resumes

“Get a good, professional headshot. Not a photo from a friend who shoots weddings, or a Facebook photo, or a stick figure drawing (I’ve personally seen this more than 10 times). And get an acting resume together. It’s different than a professional resume. A sparse resume is fine if you’re just starting off. But never, ever lie on your resume. Your resume lists an Irish accent? Be ready to speak it. Says you can do a New York accent? Change it immediately. There is no ‘New York’ accent. There are boroughs, the Hudson Valley, upstate New York, but no one New York accent. My wife and I ran a company who cast actors and improvisers. She’s from the Bronx. If during our audition you claimed you could do a New York accent, she’d ask to hear it. It was always a caricature of Jersey/Boston/Sopranos. And we never cast that person. Ever.” — Jay Sukow

“Be prepared. Have a few headshots and resumes always ready to go. Even though many people do not take hard copies anymore it’s still good to have them on hand and replace as you go. Don’t scramble around the day-of making copies at Kinkos.” — Amey Goerlich

Audition-Appropriate Appearance

“Treat this audition like a job; which it is. No shorts, t-shirts, sunglasses, baseball hats, loud shoes, dangling jewelry. Look sharp.” — Jay Sukow

“Look your best. Don’t dress like a slob, but don’t overdress for an audition. Know your type and have some outfits on hand that are your go-to winning looks.” — Amey Goerlich

“Dress appropriately. Look nice. And try to wear a little something that would have the auditioners remember you. A bow in your hair. A vest. Something that makes you pop a bit without being ‘on.’” — Brian Posen

“Dress as if you’re doing a show. If you wear a t-shirt, sandals, shorts, a hat (on stage), a scarf or anything else that’s distracting or could be used as a prop then I’m not going to take you seriously. Even just blue jeans and a button-up are fine. Doesn’t have to be a tux. And for God’s sake, turn off your phones.” — Adal Rifai

Be On Time

“Show up early, be ready to wait. Be nice to the person checking you in. Let them know if you have to step out so when they call your name, they aren’t searching for you.” — Jay Sukow

“Be on time. Even though you may have three auditions in one day, schedule appropriately and give yourself enough time to get to each location. Try to be 10 minutes early. Sometimes you can slip in before your time, which is great, because most auditions are at least 30 minutes behind.” — Amey Goerlich

“Arrive early. You need time to breathe and get yourself in the right frame of mind.” — Brian Posen

“Be early. If you show up 15 minutes before your timeslot then you’re on time. If you show up on the dot, you’re late.” — Adal Rifai

Take Time to Focus, Prep, and Warm Up

“Relax. Take a deep breath before your audition. Leave your ego at the door. Warm up. A lot improvisers don’t warm up before the audition and they go in nervous and cold and don’t connect to their scene partner. They think they can just show up and be great. Or, they’ll show up late, or flustered and/or sweaty, or not ready in various ways. That will affect your audition. Put yourself in a mind-set to be ready to play.” — Jay Sukow

“Prep yourself before going in. Warm up. Get yourself playful and focused. Have your mind set to initiate, listen, support and have all your scenes filled with feeling.” –Brian Posen

Walking into the Audition

“It is an audition. You are judged once you walk into the room. Auditors each look for something different. I watch how much you support your partner. I watch where your focus is when you’re waiting to improvise. Other people look for different things. There’s no one way to audition, and each person looks for something different. If you want to be an improviser or actor, your job is to audition. This audition is one of many. It is a chance to perform. We want to watch you have fun.” — Jay Sukow

“If you have to introduce yourself as part of the audition, make sure to fill the space with your voice, state your name with confidence, and always have a feel about yourself that is nice and playful.” — Brian Posen

Tips to Follow During the Audition

“Listen. Listen to what the instructions are, listen to your scene partner. In the scene, listen and react. Also, be great. I watch a lot of people think it’s funny to be ‘ironically bad’ at something. It’s not. Play to the height of your intelligence. Also, make emotional connections with your scene partner immediately. Know who they are. Be in a relationship with emphasis on the first part of that word: relate. Give them gifts. We are all supporting actors.” — Jay Sukow

“Don’t start with a fight. The pressure to react decisively and to give yourself a point of view will trick you into being offended by the first choice. Spend your first move being cool with and unsurprised by the start of the scene — say yes, match tone, be cool, be in it. Even if the person initiates (or if YOU initiate) with an accusation, the accusation should not be received with surprise: agree with it. You’ll feel a nice little click of connection. After that click, you’ll be okay reacting however you feel, even if your characters THEN start arguing.” — Will Hines

“Take direction. If a director or casting agent asks you to try it a different way, then show them you can take direction and do it. Be your brand, but show range. If you have two scenes, try to support in one and initiate in another. Play a straight-man and then play a character, or just show that you can have a point of view that is strong.” — Amey Goerlich

“Feel, feel, feel! Please… feel something. And something about your partner. The scene is always about sharing moments between you and the other breathing people on the stage. Make sure you show your range. Make sure not to fall into the trap of playing the same type of character throughout the entire audition. Mix it up. Always be interested and active. Especially if you are watching someone else’s work. Believe me… we watch you watch. Are you a team player or just about yourself? Be nice. Be positive. Be playful. Be confident. Be grateful. Be nice. And be nice.” — Brian Posen

“View everyone you’re playing with as potential teammates and not competition. Show us your unique comedic point of view and sensibilities. Don’t mimic pop culture or your favorite improvisers outright. It’s incredibly important to make your scene partner look good in scenes. If you can make anyone you play with look brilliant, then I want to cast you. If you wait until your partner stops talking and then launch into something ‘funny’ you were thinking about, you’re not going to get a callback. Be ok with spitting out coal and turning it into a diamond. There’s always a handful of people in auditions who struggle and shut down, trying to think of the absolute most brilliant or perfect thing to say for an initiation or response, trying to spit out a diamond. Just react and go from there. I’d rather see a scene start a bit slower and watch the humor build than see a scene start with a killer one liner and then tank because there’s nowhere else to go.” — Adal Rifai

After the Audition

“Once that audition is done, leave it there and move on. Don’t play out the audition in your head and think of things you could’ve done differently. You’ll never be able to change it. Be a nice person. It’s a small community and we talk to each other. And, if you don’t get it, audition again. Follow the fear.” — Jay Sukow

“Depending on the audition, send a ‘thank you’ letter within a few days of the audition. Believe me, a ‘thank you’ goes far and leaves an impression.” — Brian Posen

“Never give up. Also know when to say ‘when.’ Is this goal important to your overall career? Maybe one theater isn’t grooving with your brand or sensibility. That’s fine — go somewhere else and try another theater. If all fails, create your own community of like-minded people to perform and network with. If you are affected too much by rejection then this isn’t a career you want to get into. The wins may be small, but they outweigh the losses by a long-shot.” — Amey Goerlich

 

What are your best tips for rocking improv auditions? Share in the comments below.

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Jimmy Carrane, Will Hines Answer Your Improv Questions, Part 3

When you get to be an improv teacher as respected as Will Hines, former head of the UCB Training Center in New York, who happens to write a great blog (http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com), you get flooded with questions from improvisers all around the country. When you’re me, you just tag onto Will’s questions to make yourself sound smarter.

This week, Will and I are reprising our segment, “Ask Will, Ask Jimmy,” to give you more answers to your burning improv questions. If you have a question for either of us, please let us know!

Q: I’ve recently become interested in doing improv, but my issue is that I’m not the funniest person, nor am I super quick on my feet. I know that when my friends and I joke around with each other and go into all these scenarios I’m the straight man because I can’t think of things quick enough to say to keep up with them. This scares me because I know improv is about reacting so you can move things along, and I wouldn’t want to hold my group/partner back because I can’t react well/quickly.

Will Hines: Hmm. The short answer is that you should just try improv and see if it feels good. Like, don’t worry about how you are it if you’re never even tried it.

A longer thought: Your question also reminds me of something I hear people who have not done improv say when they talk about improv: “How do they come up with all those things to say?” They seem to imagine that improv is about being the fastest, wittiest person. It implies that everyone in a scene is racing against each other to win.

A surprising thing about improv is that you don’t really HAVE to be the WITTIEST person to do it. You do have to be quick on your feet, but not impossibly so. You have to listen and be able to be truthful and be able to pretend to have opinions that you don’t really have in a realistic way. But there are very few times when the pressure comes down to come up with something amazing FAST. It happens, but not on a regular basis.

Given a choice between a witty person, and a person who listens and understands deeply — I’d take the second kind of person every time.
 

Jimmy Carrane: I love that you don’t think you are the funniest person and not quick on your feet. Actually, this is an asset, not to mention the fact that you are very comfortable being the straight man. I hate to tell you this, but you are built to improvise. Here’s why.

Some people start taking classes in improv because they were the funniest person at their fraternity or at their office and someone said to them they should take an improv class. The funniest person usually ends up relying on their wit and cleverness and ends up cheating themselves out of an improv education. They are scared to be real because they are afraid that being real isn’t funny, and they think improv is all about being funny.

As long as they are getting the laughs they are fine. Nobody is going to tell them what to do. They start out strong and then fade quickly. Oh, sure, it may work for them for a while and then people who they started out in class with them pass them by, because they are learning what improv is really about it — building a scene and listening and agreeing.

Now the funniest person from the frat or the office has hit a wall and they are either going to go over the wall and become a serious student of improv or they will quit. My experience is that 90 percent of them quit.* (*Totally made up statistic.)

By admitting that you aren’t that quick or funny, which I question, you have just saved yourself at least two years. The other thing that is important is that one of the skills we teach people in improv is to think on your feet. If you listen and respond to the last thing that was said by your partner, you will be naturally quicker. You still may not be able to come up with zingers or one-liners, but you will be quicker in being able to respond, trust me.

One more thing: It’s been my experience that some of the best improvisers are not always the funniest people in the room, but rather the most serious people. And sometimes the funniest people in the room can be lousy improvisers. So, for God’s sake, please take an improv class. My guess is that you will be pretty damn good at it.

Jimmy Carrane, Will Hines Answer Your Improv Questions: Part 2

A little over a month ago, Will Hines, a well-known teacher from the UCB, and I started a new segment on our blogs where we decided we would each solicit questions from the improv community and share our answers with you. (By the way, check out Will’s great improv blog, too: http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/)

We had such fun with the first segment that we decided to bring it back and do it again. I love getting all of your improv questions and passing on some of my experience to you. Keep the questions coming!

Q: What steps do you recommend for a troupe that does almost exclusively short-form/game-y improv, but is looking to add a bit of Harold or other long-form work into their repertoire? Is there a certain form that is a natural starting point?

Jimmy: When making the transition from short form to long form, it’s more import to focus on scene work, especially two-person scenes, than form. That is the foundation for most long-form: good, solid scene work. Don’t ever lose site of this. I see way too many improvisers when they are first starting out worrying about form before they have their scene work down. It is very frustrating to watch. NO form is a substitute for good scene work.

The other skill you’ll need to work on besides doing good scene work will be editing. This can be a bit tricky since you are going from more structured short-form games to a more unstructured long-form piece. My suggestion is to keep it super simple at first, and I think “Montage” would be a very safe place to start before going into the Harold. Montage can be played in various ways. Most ways I am familiar with feature a series of unrelated scenes that you edit from the back line or from the sides with a sweep edit. You have the option to bring characters back, but I would not concern yourself at the beginning with trying to get to fancy. If that happens organically, by all means take advantage of it.

Once you get comfortable with “Montage” and you feel you have your scene work down and your editing is up to speed, then I would move on to the complex forms.

Will: I’m spoiled since I learned improv at a long-form theatre that already had a pretty big audience (UCB Theatre in New York). So I’ve never done short-form, or had to build a long-form audience.

But another UCB teacher named Brandon Gardner has thoughts on this because his alma mater’s improv troupe is trying to get into more long-form. Here’s the article: http://collegeimprovadviser.tumblr.com/post/109552369613/transitioning

If you have a question you’d like to ask us, just let us know. Please email me at jimcarrane@gmail.com.

 

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Will Hines, Jimmy Carrane answer your improv questions

One of the fun things about writing an improv blog is that I often get questions from people all over the world asking for my advice. They often want to know what their next step should be in their career, whether they should move to New York or Los Angeles, or how to deal with a problem in class.

Today, I thought I would answer some of the recent questions I have received. To help me out, I asked Will Hines, teacher and performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, to weigh in with his thoughts, as well. Will is the former head of the UCB training center in New York, and he has been part of the UCB community since 1999, so he has a lot of perspective to bring to the discussion. He also writes a popular improv blog at improvnonsense.tumblr.com.

Here goes…

Q: I have a severe insecurity over my intelligence level. I was a terrible student, dyslexic and barely graduated high school. I work now in comedic TV shows and commercials, but I’m scared to death of improvising. My agent asks me why I’m not at UCB or The Groundlings. I always make up some excuse, but really it’s because I don’t feel smart enough! I walked through my fear recently at The Groundlings but quit after Level 2 because I felt incapable. Is there hope? Suggestions? Thank you!

Will: I think this is a really brave and honest question. I wish my answer was as brave, but I get a little technical and wordy and I apologize in advance.

Insecurity over intelligence: This is a tough but very common fear. I think a lot of people have it. I think it’s totally natural when you take an improv class to feel that you have to be unbelievably brilliant or else the class and teacher are going to think you’re no good. I notice it most in Level 1 classes when two people are in a scene, and one person brings up a movie or TV show or worst of all, a book, that the other person has not heard of. You can see the other person be overcome with fear: oh no! I don’t know what the movie is, and everyone else knows it, and I look dumb! It’s a genuinely scary moment!

But the reality is that you can never know about every single thing that gets brought up in an improv scene, and that you just have to learn to be calm and do a combination of kinda faking that you know, and being willing to just calmly admit it when you don’t.  If you watch seasoned improviser do improv, you will definitely see countless moments where someone either doesn’t know something or doesn’t understand something. They never let it rattle them because they know it’s just part of the deal when you don’t have a script.

Here’s the main dirty secret when it comes to being smart in improv: it doesn’t really matter. It’s way more about emotional intelligence than witty knowledge. Really. People who don’t do improv assume that improv is about being brilliantly witty, meaning SAYING FUNNY AND SMART THINGS. It’s not. I mean, funny and smart things do get said — but the ability to come up with a brilliant phrase is low on the priority list for a good improviser. I’d say the main skill of a good improviser is something much close to just emotional intelligence: being in the moment, and reporting very honestly how your character feels. That is a much more valuable skill. If you can calm your fears down (not always easy) and just hear what’s being said and then report back honestly — you will be a great improviser.

Jimmy: Yes, there is hope, and I hope we are not going to lose you because you think you are not smart enough to improvise. There is a misconception in improv that you need to be some sort of brainiac or have some incredible reference level to be good at it. Intelligence can be overrated in improv. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is or what your SAT scores were in high school. If you can listen, agree, emotionally react to your partner, find the game, and not be an asshole you will do just fine. I have seen smart people be terrible at improv and people who weren’t that smart soar. It’s your life experience that matters. Being a terrible student, having dyslexic and barely graduating from high school is your life experience. You just need to embrace that and use it in your improv. Here are my suggestions to get your butt back into class:

First ask yourself why are taking these classes. My guess is that you are an actor who wants to book more on-camera work. You may be taking classes at The Groundlings to eventually be on SNL, I don’t know, but I think to be honest with why you are taking the classes will take some of the pressure off yourself. This is important because when you study at places with such famous alumni as The Groundlings, you can sometimes be intimated and have a huge expectation for yourself, which can make it weird and competitive. Once you are clear about why you are taking classes, such as because your agent thought it would be a good skill to have for auditions, then you can focus on learning and having fun.

The second thing I would suggest, which you may think is crazy, is to admit to the entire class that you are scared to improvise because you don’t think you are smart enough. You are not looking for the teacher or the students to fix you or say, “Of course, you’re smart enough.” You just want to admit it. When you go back to take Level 3 at The Groundlings, you could say, “I am back taking Level 3, and I am terrified that I am not smart enough to take improv.” We don’t have to hear your life story, just your fear. You may or may not get a reaction from the students or teacher. That doesn’t matter. You just need to say it to get out of your own way. I cannot tell you how freeing it is when my students get an opportunity to speak about their fears out loud. I have had people wanted to quit the class before they gave themselves permission to speak their truth. Also, usually at least one person in class will speak up and say they can relate.

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