What to do when your team makes dumb choices

A friend called me recently and said he had just had one of the “worst improvisational shows” of his short career. His group was doing a Harold, and before the show the director had specifically instructed them to let the first beat be only two-person scenes, no walk-ons.

Guess what? It was a cluster fuck. They had walk-ons in the first beat and sound effects from the back line that high jacked the scenes. It was as if the group hadn’t heard a thing the director said to them.

The way he described it, it sounded like a real improv shit storm, the type that if you’ve been around a while, you have experienced hundreds of times before and that you’re hoping you never have to experience again.

My friend went on to explain that because his teammates weren’t “doing it right,” he shut down, felt like he couldn’t participate, and then wanted to single handedly get the whole group back on track.

Oh boy, could I relate, both on stage and off. In his story he covered ALL my flaws: the judgment, the superiority, the need to save the rest of the team, and in the process, once again killing the joy and ruining any opportunity to have fun, which is exactly how I live my life.

Judgment is something we all struggle with as improvisers. We’ve all been on stage when someone starts doing or saying something we think is stupid, and we feel frustrated and annoyed with our teammates.

We might not know this, but we’re judging because we feel scared. We often think if we stick to the “rules” and do it the “right way,” we’ll feel safer, not really realizing that there are no rules. In improv, rules are just guidelines, and everyone on stage has a different idea of the right way to improvise. When you judge you separate yourself from your group.

So what do you do when you start judging on stage? Well, first recognize what you are doing and then, second, realize that everything is in divine order, meaning that this is how the show is supposed to go. You can resist what’s happening and judge it, like I often do, or you can find the handle of the rocket ship and let it take you for a ride.

Remember, you are the problem, not them, and it’s your job to find a way back in. Supporting all the initiations, being vigilant about agreement and matching their energy and tone are great ways of re-joining your group.

I used to work with a person in an improv group who would say “No” in a lot in scenes — I mean a flat-out “no” — and yes, I judged the shit out of this person. Yes, it was frustrating, and yes, I wanted to quit. Before one of our shows, a friend gave me the best piece of advice: “Jimmy, you are technically a great improviser. Overly agree to whatever this person says on stage.” I took his advice and it worked and it was fun again.

I have the habit, too, of judging people every time they start doing a silly scene, like ones with kids in it or a crazy premise, because I don’t think that is the “right way to improvise,” which is a made-up rule in my head. But when I join people who are doing silly scenes, I have a ball and it always makes me a better improviser. Playing silly gets me out of my comfort zone, and I say and do things that surprise me.

Carl and the Passions had some of smartest, headiest people, but one time I remember doing a hilarious scene where three of us just stood there talking about someone’s mother. It wasn’t the way I usually play, but it was pure agreement, and we were simply matching each other’s energies, making it one of the most memorable scenes.

Doing those kind of scenes helps me let go of control and gives me permission to have fun, which is something I have been resisting since I was born.

Remember, often you will not realize you are judging other people’s ideas until after the show, like my friend realized when we talking on the phone. The important part is to acknowledge that you were judging their ideas and realize that judging is just part of the learning curve.

I am not saying this easy. I continue to struggle with judging, and I am almost 50, a lot older than most of the people reading this blog, but something tells me if I can overcome this in my improv, it may actually help me in my life

10 Tips for Good Long-Form

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

Jimmy Carrane and Susan Messing

As another one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv class prepares to do a long-form performance at The Upstairs Gallery in Chicago this Saturday, I want to share with you some good reminders on what you need to make a long-form work.

1. Have Fun — When you play with Susan Messing in her long-running show, “Messing With a Friend” at The Annoyance Theater, she says “If you are not having fun, you’re the asshole.” Nobody is getting rich off improv. We do it because we love to, so bring the joy, bring the fun, bring the love on stage. If you do, you will surely NOT become the asshole.

2. Use Variety — This is huge in doing good long-form. With longer scenes, you don’t want the audience to get bored, so make sure there is variety in your piece. You can accomplish this by using different energies, different numbers of people in your scenes, different styles or genres. If the group has just done a slow, two-person relationship scene about a couple breaking up, the next scene needs to have a different energy. If you are doing a series of two-person scenes, break it up with a group or a three-person scene. If you are playing a real and grounded scene with a lot of emotions, in the next scene should can play some silly, big characters or do a genre scene, just to mix things up a bit.

3. Name Your Characters — Naming is specific, easy, and can help you discover your character. It is also the simplest way to call a character back later in the piece. All you have to do is say their name and your partner will already know who you are to each other.

4. Focus on Editing — Editing is such an important skill and it can make or break a long form. Edit on the laugh. If you don’t get a laugh, look for the scene to come full circle or some other conclusion. Great editing is a balancing act. You don’t want to leave the other players out there way too long and you don’t want to step on a good scene with clumsy editing.

5. A Form is Only as Strong as the Scene Work — I believe Jason Chin said this: “The form is for the players, and the scene work is for the audience.” It’s true. Form is never a good substitute for good scene work. Scene work is the foundation that any form can be built on. If you are struggling with doing solid scene work, simplify your form until you get back on track. Put scene work first and everything will follow.

6. Don’t Overdo the Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting – These elements are a spice, not the main course. Too much will over power the main dish and provide no substance.You will leave you and your audience hungry. When using Tag Outs, Swinging Doors and Scene Painting, pay attention to overall rhythm of the piece. If we just saw a series of Tag Outs, unless it specific to that particular form, wait to use them until later in the piece.

7. Walk On For a Good Reason – When you walk into a scene, ask yourself, what are you adding to it? Are you going out there because you have been hanging back and this is a safe way to go out there? Is this an opportunity to get a laugh at your team’s expense? You need to be adding information, or heightening, or placing the other characters in an environment. Ask yourself, “What can I give to the scene to enhance it?” instead of “What I can take from it?”

8. Sometimes a “Walk-On” is Really an Edit — If a scene has been going on for a while and your instinct is to do a “walk on,” try an edit instead.

9. Don’t Get Hung Up on the Theme — The theme is there to inspire you, not for you to hit it over the audience’s head. If “shoes” is the suggestion, think about what you relate to “shoes.” For me, shoes would make me think of running, and that would let me know how to embody someone in an emotional choice/character. Maybe I am person running from relationships or someone who is afraid to get close to people. If the theme puts you in your head, throw it out for a while, and let the audience make the connection. I would rather see you do scene that you think has nothing to do with the theme (which is impossible by the way),than to do one about two people talking about the shoes they just bought at Shoe Carnival.

10. You Always Have Something — If you are on the back line and you feel confused, start a scene where you are confused.If you feel scared, start the scene being scared. When I did Armando when it first started, I was intimated by all the players, and I was genuinely scared. I must have done 40 scenes playing someone who was scared since that was what I actually was. I was so terrified that I could not use the theme, until I was less afraid.

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.