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Being Open to Learning

If you want to get better at your art, you have to constantly stay open to learning.

This has not always come easily for me. After a couple of years of improv classes, I thought I had it all figured out. I was done with classes. I was more interested in the results than in getting better.

But a true artist (and I know plenty) never stops learning.

Today, as old as I am and as big as my ego can be at times, I am grateful that I do a pretty good job at staying opening to learning.

I would even say that learning brings me joy. And if you have been reading this blog for some time, you know joy does not come easy for me, either.

When it comes to learning, this weekend was a big deal for me. On Saturday I re-opened my one person show, “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” and it went extremely well. The show and my performance keeps getting stronger because I willing to learn.

For this run, I am working with stand-up comedian Dave Maher. Dave is about 20 years younger than I am, but I wanted to work with him because he had put up a successful one-person show called “The Coma Show” about him waking up from a coma. I also like his style of comedy, so despite the age difference, I decided to give him a call.

We’ve been working together for several weeks, rehearsing and tightening the show. He is smart, funny and gives honest feedback. He’s given me writing notes, performance notes and helped me with the show’s structure. Working with him has been really fun, and I’m so grateful for all of the help. Now I just need to slow down a little and pause for the laughs a little more.

Then on Sunday, was the 8th anniversary show of Jimmy and Johnnie, and our special guest was TJ Jagodowski. I have always learned by watching TJ improvise, and I learn even faster when I am lucky enough to play with him.

TJ’s and John Hildreth’s approach to improv is similar — they can organically find a point of view for character in a scene in a matter of seconds and just heighten the shit out of it. This is something I struggle with since I am more reactive in my improv.

As an improviser, TJ always plays at the top of his character’s intelligence, he always responds honestly, and he always brings a sense of playfulness to his improvisation. This can be ego-deflating or inspiring, or a little of both.

When I play with him, it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparing myself to him, but when I do that and tell myself I’m shit, I block myself from learning. Instead, I try to approach playing with TJ as if I’m in a grad school class for improv, and remember that playing with someone who is better than me can only make me better, too.

I am grateful today that I am able to keep learning from these artists and don’t have to leave Chicago to do so.

Are you a seasoned improviser looking to get out of a rut? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Advanced Two-Person Scene Tune-Up on Jan. 4! Sign up today!

254: Why is Chicago the Mecca of Improv?

Jimmy is really proud to share with you this piece he did for Curious City on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, answering the question, “Why is Chicago the mecca of improv?” In this episode you will hear several people’s theories about why this is. Jimmy interviews old friends TJ Jagodowski, Susan Messing and Jonathan Pitts to get their input. This is a must-listen for any improv nerd, and Jimmy secretly hopes after you listen to this episode you move to Chicago.

Why is Chicago the Mecca of Improv?

Have you ever thought about why Chicago is the mecca of improv? Well, I recently had the chance to explore this question in depth when WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, contacted me about doing a story about it for their Curious City show.

If you ask me, Chicago really has all the right elements for making it the perfect destination for improv. I First of all, for a major city, Chicago is an affordable place to live on what an improviser makes at his or her temp job while taking classes and running around town doing shows.

Secondly, you have the history of improv here, plus so many different improv schools and performance opportunities, and of course, the genuineness of Chicagoans makes the people in the improv/acting community beyond supportive. Plus, there is a deep respect for craft here. There is no show business pressure here, so the stakes are fairly low, which makes it a great place to create, take risks and make lasting friendships.

In the story, however, we wanted to get some other people’s thoughts on why Chicago has become an important destination for improvisers, so I interviewed Susan Messing, TJ Jagodowski and Jonathan Pitts to get their thoughts on this as well.

Here’s a link to the final story. I’d love to know why you think Chicago is the mecca of improv, too.

163: TJ and Dave

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi are true improv legends. Their show, TJ and Dave, is an international award-winning show that has inspired improvisers all over the world. Jimmy sat down and talked to them about the history of TJ and Dave, their new book, Improvising at the Speed of Life, and why they decided to give up running The Mission Theater.

Giving Improv Notes: How to Self-Coach Your Team

Last week, I talked about how to give good improv notes if you are an improv coach or director. This week, I’m going to give some tips on how to give improv notes to your own teammates — a much trickier proposition.

First, let me say, if you are part of an improv group and you aren’t using an improv coach because you don’t want to spend the money or you think you are “beyond” having a coach, stop reading right now and go get one. You’ll thank me later.

However, if you are part of a group of improvisers who can’t get an improv coach – maybe because your group is made up of the most experienced people in your community – then you are in the unfortunate situation of having to coach yourselves. This can be really tricky, because you don’t want to be too critical of your own teammates, but it can be done.

In fact, I have been on many self-coached teams and groups over the years. Here’s what has worked for me.

1. Use “I” statements
The number one thing you want to avoid when you’re coaching yourselves is blame, whether you’re blaming the group or an individual. Sometimes it’s ok to blame the audience, but do it sparingly. Instead, get in the habit of commenting on what you did or did not do well in the show. You can say things like, “I was totally lost in the opening,” or “I really liked the scene I did with Jenny, it was so much fun.” It seems small, but it’s important because you are sharing your experience, which is all you ever have to share, rather than telling someone else what they did wrong. You may think its a small thing, but it will set you up for the next step.

2. Own Your Part
My experience with working with people who have been improvising a long time is they don’t want to call out other people’s behavior or give other performers notes. That means it’s up to each individual to be honest, vulnerable and take responsibility for their moves. This will give other people in the group permission to do the same. For example, you might say something like, “When you came into the scene, I was confused about whether you were doing a call back or not from the beginning.” By you admitting that you were confused, you may get them to admit that they were confused, too.

3. Ask the Group Questions
Remember, the goal is to learn from each other, not tell each other what to do. That is how you get better. One thing I do to learn from other members is to ask them questions. For example, you might say, “What could I have done to make it clearer that I was doing a call back?” Or you could say, “I thought the opening seemed flat. What did you guys feel?” If you get a lot of heads nodding, you could say, “How could we have done differently for the next time?” I have always found this helpful.

4. Don’t Dominate the Discussion
Just like you don’t want to be in every scene in an long form improv show, you also don’t want to be dominating the notes session. If you realize you are dominating, then maybe you’d secretly like to direct. Be aware that if you hijack the notes session, others may be less inclined to be involved in the discussion. If you find that happening, stop and ask them what they thought, or just take a break and let some else lead. Not everyone is going to want to participate and that is fine. Your job is provide some room every now and then so other people can.

5. Bring in your sense of humor
Just like the improv show, make the notes session fun. When I played with Carl and The Passions at iO Chicago, with TJ Jagodowski, Noah Gregoropoulos, Bill Boehler, Shad Kunkle, Jordan Klepper, Katie Rich, and Paul Grondy, I sometimes had a better time in the notes session than I did during the show because weren’t taking what we did on stage or ourselves too seriously. I cannot express how crucial this is, because sometimes improvisers want to make their improv life and death, and it’s not.

Want to study with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy: Advanced Ensemble Class, starting April 15! The class runs on Wednesdays from 6-8 p.m. and includes a performance on the last day. Register today!

Accepting Other People’s Success

Accepting other people’s success is not easy. Sooner or later it will happen to all of us: One of our friends will get ahead while we are left behind. It’s always hardest with the people we are closest to.

You may start out in improv classes with people, and some of them will end up making a Harold team but you won’t. Or they will get cast in a show or be hired by a big theater before you do. They may get an agent before you, and end up doing commercials, TV and film, while you’re still taking classes.

I’ve been feeling that way lately, now that Steve Carell has been nominated for an Oscar. Back in the ’90s here in Chicago, Steve was on the Second City Mainstage. I was in the same building writing and teaching corporate workshops for Second City Communications. Even back then, Steve was someone we all aspired to be.

Recently my wife, Lauren, very seriously said to me, “Aren’t you excited for Steve Carell’s nomination? I mean, if he did it, don’t you think you could do it, too?”

(For the sake of this blog, I wish I could say yes.)

My jaw dropped and my face had that “are-you-kidding-me?” look on it as “NO” dropped out of mouth, which sounded more like a “Fuck You.” If I was doing an improv scene with my wife, it’s clear I just denied her reality.

Lauren was a bit surprised that I had such a strong reaction.

I trust Lauren because she always been brutally honest with me about my acting, improv and the size of my penis. And she was sincere, which made it even crazier for me. I guess the crazy part was that I would not allow myself to even go there, to even think for a second that if Steve Carell did it, I could do it, too. I think they call this limited thinking.

When we hear news of people’s success there are really two ways of dealing with it. One is self-pity, thinking “What am I doing wrong? Everyone else is having success except me. I will never get it.” The other is to be inspired and think, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

Now, I am not close to Steve Carell, and to say I am one of his peers is a stretch, but I have been fortunate to work with other great people who have gone on to do great things, and over the years, I’ve realized that if one of my friends gets a great opportunity – a chance to be on a boat with Second City, a spot on the Mainstage, a pilot on TV – that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It means I am friends with the winners.

When Jay Sukow was a guest on Improv Nerd his advice for improvisers was to “play with people who are better than you.” In so many words, he was saying “Hang with the winners.”

It’s not easy to work with people who are better than you, especially if your goal is to be the funniest or the best or the audience’s favorite. When you work with people who are better than you are, you can often feel like shit and tell yourself you aren’t funny at all. But take it from me: Instead of having the goal of being the funniest person on your team, try to have the goal of just getting better. And when you play with people who are better than you are, that’s exactly what happens.

I remember getting to play with TJ Jagodowski on Carl and The Passions. TJ is Mozart. When I played with him, I first had to let go of the idea of being the best or the funniest, and once I did, I felt relief realizing I was never going to be better than he is. Your ego always wants you to be the best or the funniest, but the artist part of you is always going to want to play with the best.

When you hang with the winners, you’re bound to see many of them go on to land great opportunities. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean you suck, it just means they’re paving the way for you.

Experience Jimmy Carrane’s unique method of the Art of Slow Comedy during a One-Day Intensive on April 25. Perfect if you’re going to be in town for the Chicago Improv Festival. Sign up today!

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