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Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the Positive

In our last rehearsal for Jimmy and Johnnie, our coach, Jack Bronis, said to me and John Hildreth that we need to play every show with joy.

I have been improvising for 30 years and I have never played with joy. I have played with angst and fear and pressure on myself, but certainly not joy. I have not done anything in my life with joy.

If you look at the great improvisers — the TJs, the Susan Messings, the Cook County Social Clubs — there is an element of joy in their work. That is why we love to watch them so much. Messing always says when you play in her show, Messing with a Friend, “If you’re not having fun then you are the asshole.” And given that statement, I am often the asshole.

As Jack pointed out in the rehearsal, I do my scenes in “Heavy Sigh.” He’s 100% right. I live my life in “Heavy Sigh.” I know “Heavy Sigh” to me is reality. I am much more of an Eeyore than a Pooh. And how this effects my improv is that I avoid making positive choices in my scenes because I have hard time making them in my life. This is where improv and life cross, and the thought of making the positive choice about something in a scene, like being happy or excited, seems fake. I tell myself, the tortured artist that I am, that it would not be organic if I were happy in a scene, it would not be truthful.

Recently, I had a chance to put this to the test in the most recent episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was the super talented and lovely Katy Colloton from the Katydids. (Check out their web series, Teachers. It’s awesome.) We did a scene where she announced to me that she was pregnant, and I can tell you my natural reaction would be to make the negative choice. “I don’t want it. Let’s get an abortion.” Instead, I decided to choose something different, as fake and uncomfortable as it was. I chose to be excited about her announcement, which led to whole bunch of discoveries about home schooling the kid, what holiday we wanted to have the baby born on, and that having a baby was like a small business.

As the scene went on, I felt more and more comfortable with the emotional choice of excitement. I can tell you now, playing the positive choice opened me up and surprised me and hopefully surprised my partner.

As Jack further pointed out in the rehearsal, you want to “use your whole palate” of emotions, and I tend to just use the dark colors, while I ignore the brighter ones.

I see some of my students need to use some of the darker colors, because they come to me like they are ecstatically happy and unconnected,and I think I am master of getting students to go the darker, more real place. But like in life, we need balance. We need both positive and negative emotions on stage; that is a truthful portrayal of the human experience.

Recently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes said on my feedback form, “I think you’re a closeted optimist, Mr. Carrane. Come Out! Come Out!” I think this student is right. I think the whole Eeyore thing is part of my persona, my schtick, a schtick that is hard to let go off because in my head it held me together. If I wasn’t always negative, who would I be?

My wife, Lauren, disagrees that I don’t have any joy in life. She says I do have joy, I just don’t have words to express it. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m terrified, but she just smiles, knowing deep down I’m excited.

Where I go from here in my improv and in my life I do not know. The only thing is I know is today I am aware of it, and with that knowledge, I have a chance to change.

Humility = Teachability

HUMILITY = TEACHABILITY

Timmy Mayse Improv NerdIf you want to be a better improviser, humility is an important part of the process. Not fake humility, like that bullshit that people say when they are given a compliment after a show, like, “Oh, I am not that good,” or “You think I am good, you should see Billy so-and-so; he’s really good.”
I once heard the best definition of humility: Humility is being teachable. Sometimes it’s hard to be teachable, especially if your ego gets in the way when you get a note, or if you start getting defensive or making excuses for yourself when you get feedback.
And if you’re like me and you’ve been doing improv a long time, you can forget that you haven’t learned everything about it.
Last Saturday I was in rehearsal with John Hildreth, and we had asked Jack Bronis to coach us. Bronis told us that we both “improvise from our heads.” To shake us up, he wanted us to enter our scenes with a strong emotion and then be open to the emotion evolving during the scene.
At first, I felt defensive. In all my years of training, I thought you weren’t “supposed” to come into a scene with a preconceived emotion. For at least the last 25 years I have been entering a scene completely blank, watching and listening to my partner for some sort clue as to who we are to each other and what is going on between us. This is also something I teach my students, especially the ones who really need to connect with their partner or who have a head like a piñata filled with plot.
So when Jack said I should come in with an emotion, part me felt like a fraud and part of me felt relieved.
That afternoon, John and I experimented with entering scenes with a strong emotion, or a secret, or something we needed to reveal to the other character ― for the most part, emotional-based choices. As we continued to improvise scene after scene, we started to express more emotions on stage, and it was starting feel fun again.
Expressing my emotions freed me up, and choices were flowing to me. The game seemed to just appear effortlessly, and the joy slowly began coming back. The best part was it was easy. I know that when improv is easy, that means it’s working, and when it’s not, it’s like you’re “FLOP sweating” all over the stage.
The next night, Timmy Mayse was my guest on Improv Nerd, and we got an audience suggestion of “egg” for the improv portion of the show. Before we started our scene, I asked Timmy how he uses a suggestion to build a scene. He explained that he tries to figure out how the suggestion makes him feel and thinks of a character it embodies.
For example, he said egg made him think of housewife, and housewife made him think of critical. So he knew he was going to be critical housewife when he entered the top of the scene.
He took the suggestion and went from just playing a character to playing a character with a strong emotion. We didn’t know who we were to each other or what was going on between each other ― that’s what we were going to discover together.
Using Timmy’s method, I broke egg down to “walking on egg shells.” So, I entered the scene knowing I didn’t want to upset Timmy’s character. We didn’t know our relationship at the beginning, but we quickly discovered we were mother and son, and it was clear through the emotional tone that I had done something wrong, which led me to reveal that I had gotten a girl pregnant. Timmy’s reaction to me “dropping that bomb” led me to believe that my father was someone else, and Timmy revealed that it was either Ronald Regan or the Unibomber.
The scene was great, and after 25 years, I felt like I was learning again.
In improv, the joy lies in the surprise ― surprising myself and my partner ― and that scene helped me get back in touch with what it was like when I first took my first class almost 30 years ago. I hope I continue to stay humble.