Improv: Not Quite Children’s Play

I have heard improv teachers over the years describe improv to the lay person as something that “gets us to play like when we were children — like when we played house or on the playground – pure, spontaneous and no judgement.” I have even used some of this language in my marketing.

But lately, as the parent of three-and-a-half year old, I believe that image is false.

I have watched my daughter play with other toddlers, and I’ve realized their natural instincts are to want to control the play. It is about conquering versus collaborating. They are toddlers and they want to get their way. I hear a lot of “No” and “You can’t do that.”

The whole idea of “yes and”-ing and agreeing to the imaginary circumstance in a child’s play scenario does not come automatically to these little creatures, as I once believed. And there doesn’t seem to be an expectation to this, even if the child’s parent happens to be an improv teacher.

The other day my daughter had a play date with one of her friends from preschool. And my daughter was constantly saying “No” to her friend’s ideas while they were playing.

“We’re playing picnic!” Betsy would say.

“How about we have a tea party at the picnic?” her friend would say.

“No, there’s no tea at the picnic,” she’d respond.

After one too many “No, you can’t do that” responses, her friend wanted to go home. She was in tears and wanted her Mommy.

I was almost in tears, too. Lauren did a great job of holding Betsy’s friend and calming her down, and it was clear she did not want to continue to play with my daughter.

Who would?

This broke my heart.

I was angry at my daughter for behaving like this to her friend. I also could identify with her friend and I felt sad for all the times I had been told “No” in my house as a kid. Her friend was showing me how I feel when I am shut down by other people.

As painful as this was to watch, it taught me a lot, and it made me grateful that as improvisers we are “trained” to agree on stage to the imaginary circumstances that our fellow improvisers put forth. We are learning the very important skill of negotiation.

As improvisers on stage, we agree to the who, what and where of the scene, and that is foundation for our play. And when we don’t agree to those basic things, the scene sputters and stumbles. We don’t even have a chance to play because we have killed it before we got started.

When you say “no” to someone else’s ideas, it affects the relationship with the other player on a cellular level — the same way it affected my daughter’s friend.

So the whole idea of “yes, and” may not be as innate as I once thought, but luckily, it’s a skill that can be leaned and that’s why to get good at improv, you have to keep doing it because you are literally rewiring your brain to say “yes” to other people’s ideas.

Martin DeMatt and Jay Sukow believed that improv can changes lives. I never really believed that until I became a parent, and I hope these skills are something I can teach my daughter soon.

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3 Ways to Have a Good Show, Even If You Have a Small Audience

Have you ever been back stage before a show and peeked out at the audience to see only a tiny crowd and your heart sank? Yes, it’s disappointing. We all want to play to packed houses all the time, but the reality for most improvisers and actors is sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

Each group and theater has its own guidelines about when to call off a show, but sometimes it’s not always so black and white. Often, if the performers are there and the lights are on, the show is going to go on, even for a handful of people.

That’s what happened last Sunday night at our Jimmy and Johnnie show. We had six audience members — not our usually crowd. I get it, it was a holiday weekend in the summer. The stage manager came back to us and said it was our call about whether or not to perform. John Hildreth and I had to decide. I hate these kind of decisions. We had an opening act, Mr. Suave, and I asked my friend Shad Kunkle, to perform with us.

Fuck it, we thought, if we have six people in the audience and four people from the opening act, we have ten people. Let’s do it, we thought. And you know what? We had a fantastic show. It was so much fun.

So how did we do it? Here are some tips on how to have a good show, even when you have a small audience:

  1. Commit to the experience of having fun
    Yes, doing improv shows or a play it is supposed to be fun regardless of the size of the audience, but when you regularly play to a large crowd, you get a little spoiled. So, if you are feeling disappointed, feel your feelings and then see if you can make an attitude adjustment and commit to having fun with the other people who are on stage with you. Sometimes I’ve found that if I look at this as learning experience it can help me get in the right in frame of mind. And because there does not seem to be as much pressure when you are performing to small audiences, you are more relaxed and can take more risks, which can actually be rewarding.
  2. Acknowledge the small audience in positive ways
    You can’t hide the fact that you have a small audience, so you might as well acknowledge it. In an improv show it can actually become fun if you do it in positive way. Don’t be afraid to break the fourth wall at the start of the show by showing some gratitude for the audience members who are there. Make them feel special. You may want to ask everyone’s name or go into the audience and shake their hands. You can say, “We usually don’t do this, but tonight we felt like we have an opportunity to get to know everyone.” You can really have a lot of fun without being sarcastic about it. This will make it even more special for the audience. Be aware of where they are sitting, too. This is crucial. If they are spread out in the theater, asked them to move together towards the front. Everyone will get a better experience that way.
  3. Adjust your energy
    When you play to large audiences on a regular basis, you can get dependent on the audience’s energy to drive the show, so you don’t have to work as hard. Small audience are a little different. It’ll be up to you to keep the energy up. Make sure you keep the show moving. Don’t let scenes go on too long — edit, edit, edit. Also, try to put out a little more energy throughout the show, so it doesn’t feel like it’s lagging. Finding the game quicker can boost the energy, too. Even if it’s a really simple game, go for it. I think the goal is to keep the freight train running on the tracks.

Have you ever played to really small audiences? What other tips do you have to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

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How an improviser wrote an improv book for kids

As a father of a two-and-a-half year old, I read a lot of children’s books. I mean, a lot. Not only does she have a bookshelf full of them, but she wants to read them over, and over and over. Some are good. Some are not so good. And some I’ve even memorized.

So when I found out recently that someone had written a children’s book about improv, I was intrigued. The book is called Hank and Stella in Something from Nothing, and it’s the story of two cute stuffed animals – Hank, a dog, and Stela, a bunny – who learn what improv is all about. There are even some fun improv games you can play with your kids at the back of the book.

The book is written by Damian Synadinos, an improviser and improv teacher from Columbus, OH. A father of two, Synadinos started improvising in 2007 after a co-worker invited him to her improv graduation show, and he’s been hooked ever since.

Last week, I reached out to Synadinos to ask him some questions about how he got the inspiration for the book, why it’s important to teach improv to kids, and how he uses improv in his parenting.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for the book?
A: My kids love to read, and I love to read to them. And after reading them piles and piles of excellent (and not-so-excellent) books, I decided to write one myself. I wanted it to be both entertaining and educational, so that they would “laugh while they learn.” After I figured out “why” I wanted to write a book, I had to decide what to write about to fulfill the “why.” Professionally, I’m a speaker and trainer and frequently use applied improv to help adults “laugh while they learn” various fundamental concepts and life skills. And since these fundamental concepts and life skills are also useful and applicable to kids, I decided to write a book about improv, to be both entertaining and educational.

Originally, the book was only intended for my own kids. However, after producing a single copy and sharing it on social media, it got plenty of positive feedback and attention. Then, after a bit of research, I learned that there were no other improv storybooks for kids. And so, I… decided to make the book available to a wider audience. I wanted full control, so I launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for self-publishing costs and finally made the book available for sale in June 2018.

Q: Who are Hank and Stella?
A: Hank (the dog) and Stella (the bunny) are my kids’ real-life, stuffed animal friends (lovies). Since the book was originally intended for my kids, I thought they’d enjoy seeing their favorite friends as stars of the book. However, I think that the Hank and Stella characters are also fun, cute, and relatable to many other young kids, as well.

Q: Any truth to the rumor that the success of the book has gone to Hank and Stella’s heads?
A: Unfortunately, yes. They’ve started screening their calls and are looking for representation. Hank already bought a 2019 Jaguar F-type with book proceeds. A Matchbox Jaguar, but still…

Q: Why is it important to introduce improv to children at such a young age? 
A: Because the principles and skills of improv are also useful at play and in life. They can help kids (or anyone!) develop their imaginations, play cooperatively, increase their confidence, and so much more… Plus, kids are usually more malleable than adults. Compared to adults, kids are more willing and able to consider and accept new and different ideas. And so, introducing improv to children makes sense as you have a better chance at instilling good and useful ideas and behaviors that will develop as they grow and help change lives.

Q: What have you learned from your kids that have made you a better improviser and teacher?
A: Many things. Here’s two: Patience. Not in the sense of “they’re trying my…” (although sometimes that, too), but in the sense of being better at accepting and tolerating delay. Sometimes, I observe my kids as they carefully and quietly consider some situation or problem before acting. And in addition, I’ve become better at waiting for them. This has helped me in class and on stage as I am now more likely to consider and tolerate silence and delays. On stage, I used to think that someone should always be speaking, and I’d often try to fill up any silence with noise. However, that’s usually all it was: noise. Not real, meaningful, thoughtfully-considered content. Now, thanks to my kids, I am more aware that silence and waiting on stage (and in life) is natural and ok.

They’ve also taught me perspective. Adults have years of learning, examples, and experience about how they “should” see the world. However, kids don’t. Most kids have not yet developed strong biases, social norms, expectations, etc. And so, their perspective is often surprising and refreshing. And as I enjoy watching them view the world through their untarnished lens, I also get to practice empathy as I strive to see and feel things as they do. And as I develop my perspective and empathy, it helps me on stage as I consider my own character, the characters of others, the scene, the situation, and more – all moving towards a more interesting, entertaining, and successful improv experience. And, of course, enhanced perspective and empathy are important in life, as well.

Q: How do you use improv in your parenting?
A: Lots of ways. One example is a game I sometimes play with my kids that we call, “Or what else…?” In the game, I pose some question or problem and then ask them to think of solutions. Like, “How can I get an apple out of a tall tree?” After they come up with an answer, I agree and then ask, “Or what else…?” Then they try and come up with another (and another, and another) way to answer the question or solve the problem. It is essentially a long game of “Take That Back.” But it helps develop their imagination, creativity, problem solving skills, and more.

Another example is related to the idea of “no mistakes in improv.” When my kids have an accident or make a mistake, I often try to help them think about how or why that accident or mistake might actually be a good thing. This helps teach them that the reaction to an accident or mistake is usually more important than the accident or mistake itself. And it also helps them exercise and develop their perceptions.
Looking to get out of your improv rut? Try Jimmy’s unique approach. The Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 starts March 13, and you can save $30 if you sign up by Feb. 27. Sign up today!

212: Jon Glaser

Jon Glaser is a writer, actor and producer whose new show, Jon Loves Gear, premiers on TruTV on Oct. 26. He has written for Conan and Inside Amy Schummer and has acted in Trainwreck, Girls, and Parks and Recreation. Jimmy talks to him about starting out in improv in the ’90s, his approach to comedy and why he drinks apple cider vinegar.

208: Micah Philbrook

Micah Philbrook is one of Chicago’s most thoughtful and innovative improvisers and teachers.  He teaches at The Second City Training Center, he’s a founder of pH Productions, and he performs in the Tim and Micah Project.  Jimmy sat down to talk to him about joining a cult-like improv group when he first moved to Chicago, the importance of hanging out in the improv community, and what he likes most about improv.

204: Marty DeRosa

Marty DeRosa is a comedian who is considered the king of Chicago crowd work, using a lot improvisation in his stand-up act. He is a founding member of Comedians You Should Know and he co-host the hilarious podcasts Marty & Sarah Love Wrestling, and Wrestling with Depression. Marty talks about experiencing the death of one of his siblings and a parent at a young age, his dad, and how he uses improv in his stand-up.

203: Jeff Quintana

Jeff Quintana is the Artistic Director and co-founder of The Villain Theater in Miami. He is a respected teacher and improviser who has studied in New York and Chicago. In this episode, we recorded live at The Villain Theater and talked to Jeff about his dream of opening up an improv theater, being homeless in New York, and how to create a character immediately at the top of an improv scene.

202: Joe Bill

Joe Bill is an international improv teacher and performer. He is a co-founder of the Annoyance Theater and tours with Mark Sutton in Bassprov. He has taught at Second City, The Annoyance and iO Chicago and continues to teach around the world. Jimmy sat down with him in this live episode to talk about The Annoyance, the day he quit stand-up, and his unique psychological approach to improv.

201: Simon Helberg

Simon Helberg is best known as Howard from the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. He is currently starring in the new film Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. We talked to him about following in his father’s footsteps at The Groundlings, how acting is like improv, and the importance of putting your stuff up.

200: The Advice Compilation

This is our 200th episode of Improv Nerd. To acknowledge this milestone, we have compiled 15 of our favorite pieces of past guests’ advice for people who are going into improv or comedy today. You will hear wisdom from people like Adam McKay, Broad City, Lauren Lapkus, TJ and Dave, Jill Soloway, Bob Odenkirk, Jon Favreau and more. Take a listen!


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