As Long As You Listen to Your Body...
Every couple of years I get really into spinning. Not the DJ kind, but the “riding a stationary bike in a room with forty other people while a trainer at the front of the room barks orders at you” kind. I like spinning because I’m not very good at self-guided exercise, and I’ve found that it’s the class that provides the best results if I just do it the way I’m told. This last time around in my...
Yes And (No)
You know how after a few years of doing improv, someone lets you in on the secret that denial isn’t about literally saying the word “no,” but rather about saying “no” to the reality that your scene partner has created, to the expectations of the scene and the situation in which you find yourself? It’s an expansive feeling—suddenly you find yourself being able to still say “yes” while your mouth...
Breaking Bad, Character, and the Myth of "You...
(WARNING: This essay contains Breaking Bad spoilers up through S4.) I was running a rehearsal once where the following scene occurred: Person 1: Have you seen the donut I left in the break room that I was saving for later? Person 2: Oh? This one? I ate half of it. Person 1: But I was saving that! Person 2: Oh, sorry. But your chocolate milk is still here (drinks some of her chocolate milk, then...
The Multiverse of Denial
We know not to “deny” in a scene. I’ve talked about why it might be an instinct (borne of a desire to create one’s own reality rather than accept the terms of another’s) and what is and is not denial (simply saying the word “no” in a scene has very little to do with denial. Rather, denial is the act of rejecting the rules of the reality of the scene established by your scene partner). But, the...
Natalie Baseman: Upright Citizens Brigade:... →
nataliebaseman: Just re-watched the 2007 Upright Citizens Brigade: ASSSSCAT on Netflix. You should watch it - especially if you’ve never seen the UCB4 (plus a line up of additional amazing comedians). It is a full hour of great, great improv. I first saw ASSSSCAT as part of the Del Close marathon when I… Natalie is one of the most naturally talented performers I’ve ever known....
This has been a hard year in the Boston improv community. Two great luminaries—one who’d just begun his career, the other who’d already left his name indelibly on the community—were taken from us. Everyone has handled this loss differently—some hardly knew either man, others had been close with one or both of them for years, had worked with them, knew intimately their talent, good natures, and big...
improvdan asked: I'm an improviser from Australia and I just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog. It's a real honest perspective on your journey and I've really found it useful. I wanted to ask who is your favourite improviser, or improv idol? And what is it about their work that you enjoy? Look forward to hearing from you. Dan
Laugh Your Cares Away
When the cable television in my home was first hooked up, the first thing I saw was Fraggles. Like most kids at that time, I loved Fraggle Rock, but it was only years later, when my brother got a hold of a box set of DVD’s of the show with facsimiles of Henson’s original scribbled notes as well as letters to producers and executives that I learned that the show was created by Jim Henson with the...
Coaching the Character
Two people are doing a scene. It’s going just okay. Suddenly it’s going pretty not okay. They’re losing the center of the relationship, the premise, they’re denying, not locking into the moves of their scene partner. Don’t worry—this is just a class (or a rehearsal). The teacher/director can help! Suddenly, a voice emerges from a person sitting in a chair and holding a Moleskine. The voice starts...
A Series of Accidents
“If you don’t have the technique upon which to base the style, you don’t have a style at all—you have a series of accidents.” -Philip Glass The quote above is from an interview Philip Glass, the famous avant garde composer, gave to his cousin, Ira Glass (maybe you’ve heard of him, nerd), in 1999. I was so struck by it when I heard it (yes, on NPR) that I had to pull over to write it down (okay,...
bankyhimself asked: "the Harold is probably the greatest inherent structure for improv ever discovered" If that's true, we've all given up on this stuff WAY too early. There is much to be learned. And MUCH more to discover. Phrases like that make me really sad. Del built the foundation - not the house. I guess this isn't a question. But I invite you to respond.
Third Beats in the Harold
There are a million different theories on Harold third beats, and the only one I’ve ever rejected out-of-hand has been the “1 meets 2, 2 meets 3, 3 meets 1” or “worlds collide in a very specific and codified way that implies that all three plots were actually part of the same temporal universe.” My rejection for this systematic approach probably comes from the same place that my aversion to set...
Scales and Arpeggios
The other day, I wanted my Harold team to work on incorporating moves from the opening into the rest of the show in order to infuse not only the content of the opening but also its style into the whole piece. The exercise I put to them was this: do an organic opening, then choose three (and exactly three) style elements from that opening (a gesture, a sound, a stylized statement, etc.) and use...
The Economy of Comedy
I had the pleasure of returning to my improv roots last month when I took a group of high school students on a week-long Chicago Improv field trip (one of the perks of teaching at a private school that values “experiential education”). We had workshops at both iO and Second City, and each night we saw a show. It was awesome. Of course, I got my former Harold coach and improv...
Jumping the Shark
Being a parent means getting the chance to explain all sorts of awesome things to your kids. Recently, for me, it was “jumping the shark.” As I started trying to explain it, I realized the only way to really clarify the concept for my kids was to go back to the original shark-jumping and explain it as it first appeared in our cultural consciousness. As you (and now my daughters)...
Stirring The Hot Chocolate
I’ve been hearing myself saying something a lot lately that I think warrants fleshing out here. “You are always two seconds away from a great scene.” Here’s what I mean by that: I notice that many students who reach my advanced Harold class are still having trouble getting beyond the quick gag or goofy character as a scene premise and into the “truth in comedy”...
shoemakerchris asked: Hey, this blog is super-helpful! I'm taking a Harold class down in D.C., our graduation show is in a week and I was curious if you had any suggestions for the following situation (that seems to happen a lot): what should you do if you think you've figured out what the scene's "deal" is, and you're responding with emotional honesty to your scene partner, but they end...
The Bengal Tiger in the Closet
I want to talk today about one of the biggest pitfalls for any improviser. And no, I’m not talking about denial or not listening or forgetting to name our scene partner. I’m talking about the deep and abiding desire to elicit a laugh, and that crushing moment on stage when laughter-addict in us doesn’t get the laugh it craves right away. We all know that moment of dread you experience when you...
The Four I's of Improv
Let’s take a moment to think about some of the improv wisdom we’ve all heard a million times before: “Play to the height of your intelligence.” “Don’t think.” “Follow your instincts.” “Play smart.” “Don’t get in your head.” “Check your impulses.” Taken together, this advice starts to feel like a giant mass of contradiction. Which way is it? Are we supposed to think or not? Are we supposed to...
Everything is Process
I’ve written about the rehearsal process before in terms of the ways on can break down rehearsal and create both goal-oriented and skill-oriented “lessons.” And I’ve talked about the importance of setting up rehearsals in a way to allow players to take risks and feel safe so that when it comes to showtime, they’ve done the work and it doesn’t feel scary. But I want to go back and stress...
Guest Writer: Rachel Klein (Boston)
montrealimprov: Here’s the second guest piece in our new weekly series. Each Monday we’ll have a new guest dropping by with some thoughts on improv. So, ladies and gentlemen: Boston’s Rachel Klein. Rachel Klein is Head of Improv at ImprovBoston and player-coach of Maxitor, one of IB’s Harold casts. Before moving to Boston, she trained at the Second City Conservatory and iO Theatre in Chicago,...
Connecting The Dots
The other night as I was getting in my car to head over to Harold Night at ImprovBoston I turned on the radio and heard a sort of pinched, nerdy-sounding voice say the following: “You can’t connect the dots going forward; you can only connect the dots going backward.” It was Steve Jobs, from a commencement address to the students of Stanford University in 2005 (you’ve probably heard some other...
The Atomic Model of Improv
I’ve been using the analogy of an atom a lot in my advanced Harold class this session. Specifically electrons. Specifically electron valence levels. Specifically revealing that I am a big fat nerd. Now, I was an English major in college, but I find that some of my favorite and clearest metaphors for improv come from the world of mathematics and physics. And I think that must be because comedy,...
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jill Bernard for the first time. We got breakfast and chatted about life, and a little bit about improv. We talked about the improv rule “don’t deny,” and were both bemused by how the very fact that there has to be such a rule assumes the worst in human nature. I mean, do we really need to have a rule telling people to play nice? As if we have to say...
Improv Vs. Sketch
Views on the relationship between improv comedy and sketch comedy are varied and passionate. When I was training at Second City, the story went that Viola Spolin, the mother of modern improvisational theatre, and Paul Sills, her son and founder of the Compass Players (the prelude to The Second City) had fundamental disagreements about the role of improvisation: Was it an end in itself? A way to...
Tag-Outs and Walk-Ons: an Alternate View
I’ve had three different discussions about the purpose of tag-outs and walk-ons this week alone, one with a current improv student, two others with experienced performers. In each conversation, the same questions and concerns came up, and I realized that this major stumbling block in the execution of tag-outs and walk-ons that kept coming up was worth addressing in a thoughtful way. What was...
A Note on Notes
If you’re reading my blog, you may be enough of an improv nerd to have already seen this amazing video of the most generic notes for a Harold ever. What’s great about this video is how universal it is. Although the show it’s reviewing never existed, we watch it and think, “I’ve gotten that exact note before!” What’s also great about this video is how it reveals two of the most common note-giving...
Monologue Openings: A Case Study in Developing...
I’ve talked before about the benefit of having a theme for your long-form show rather than just riffing off of a bunch of information and/or topics. Without restating the entire argument (which you could go read if you’d like), it basically goes like this: generating a conceptual/thematic center for your show in your opening gives you a framework that makes the rest of the show easier to play,...
I’ve been reading Michael Chekhov’s On the Technique of Acting lately. Chekhov, for those of you who might not know, was the master student of the famous acting teacher and director Constantin Stanislavksi, founder of the “Method” school of acting. He went on to found his own acting philosophy (used by Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Quinn, and John Turturro, among others) focused on, among other things,...
Objects of Art
As this is being posted, I am conducting my final preparations for my first ever big-girl grown-up trip to Europe—Italy, to be exact. I tell you this firstly because it means that there won’t be a blog post next week. Sure, I could queue one up, but there’s something weird to me about an improv blog post I wrote two weeks ago suddenly popping up in the virtual universe while I’m on a very real...
Don't Kill Piggy
Group games might be one of the absolute hardest things to get right in long-form improv. First of all, there are so many different ways teams use them: are they just a random palate cleanser? A reminder of the suggestion? An exploration of a detail from the preceding run of scenes? A reinforcement of the show’s theme? And then there’s the inherent lack of rules and structure. You can’t really...
Imitation vs. Inspiration
Could we all please make an improv pact right now never again to do a scene that is just a literal enactment of information from the show opening? Your opening is one of those documentary things and two people tell a story about one of them getting his hand stuck in a pickle jar, so your first scene out the gate is…a guy getting his hand stuck in a pickle jar. The monologist in your Armando tells...
Getting Better All the Time
I’ve been coaching high school Harold teams for six years. They’re awesome, and I learn so much from working with them. Wanna hear something cute they like to do when they first start doing improv? Like, invariably? Okay, I’ll tell you: High school kid #1: Hey, I baked you this cake for your birthday. High school kid #2: But don’t you know I’m allergic to chocolate (or vanilla or strawberry or...
Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Improv I...
In college, like all good college improvisers, I dated another college improviser. And like all good college improviser couples, we once got into a horrible fight over the nature of comedy. It ended in tears. Hilarious. Oddly, I remember quite a bit of the argument, and what I remember best is that we both used the television show The Tick as our case study. Remember The Tick? It was about a giant...
Just Say No! (...Sometimes)
I need to clear the air about something that keeps coming up lately, a very common misconception about a very important—maybe the most important—basic rule of improv: Don’t deny. Let’s get one thing straight right now: Don’t deny does not mean you can’t say the word “no” in a scene. Don’t deny does not mean you cannot disagree with your scene partner. Don’t deny does not mean you...
The iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel is purported to have given the following advice (oft re-quoted by designers, stylists, and the like): “Before you leave your house, remove the last thing you put on, as it is generally unnecessary.” Chanel was speaking, of course, about clothing and accessories, and the advice supports a general belief that “less is more,” but it also hit me the other day as...
Give The Show What it Wants
Before every show I give my Harold team little pointers to think about for the show that night: maybe I tell them, “Take your time in the opening,” or “Listen to your scene partner”, etc. But the last thing I often say, and the directive that supersedes all other directives is this: “Give the show what it wants”. It’s sort of like Asimov’s First Rule of...
Last week I extolled the virtue of “skipping the joke.” This week, as promised, I’m back with what at first may seem like a contradiction as I extol the virtues of embracing the “typical situation.” Like many of the insights I’ve had over my improv career, I owe the origins of this one to an exercise taught to me by my coach in Chicago—and one of the smartest improvisers I know—Bill Arnett. One...
Skip the Joke
The other day, my husband and I were having a conversation with our 9-year-old daughter when something she said reminded us of the famous René Magritte painting of a pipe accompanied by the phrase “This is not a pipe” in French. As we usually do in such situations, we quickly headed to the Internet to show her a bunch of Magritte paintings and give her a five minute introduction to...
Like most improvisers, I learned about “tagging out” to forward a particular character’s dominant characteristic (an inept McDonalds worker becomes an inept doctor, and then the inept President of the United States). But it occurred to me that there are many other kinds of tag outs that don’t quite fit that “heighten the game” category, and that different tag outs seem to be called for at...
One day when she was about two-years-old, my older daughter looked up from her plate at the dinner table, cleared her throat, and proclaimed, “No chair!” then burst out laughing. We looked around at each other confused. Then she blurted out again: “No table!” she squealed, looking straight at the table. Suddenly, it dawned on me what had just happened: My baby had just told her first joke. Being...
The Rehearsal Process Part II: Warm Ups
Maybe it’s the weather changing—I don’t know—but people have warm-ups on the brain. I’ve had three email exchanges in the past few weeks talking about how to pick the right warm-ups, and how to connect your warm-up to the rest of your rehearsal. So, first of all, let’s divide the warm-up into component parts. Just as I take my cue from sports for the rehearsal process overall, I like to think...
The Rehearsal Process
Lately I’ve gotten a lot of questions about running rehearsals—practical questions rather than philosophical. And they’re important questions, because we can have all the theory we want in our heads, but if we don’t know how to put that theory into action in rehearsal, we’ll never be able to transform and refine our play. I’ll say right off the bat that I take rehearsal very seriously. As a...
Playing the Relationship
Although I usually post on Thursdays, we just concluded the glorious Women in Comedy Festival here in Boston, and I wanted to share these thoughts while they’re fresh, and while the festival (and the workshop I taught there) is still lingering in my mind. So, here we go: The best single note I’ve ever gotten was given to me by Colleen Murray in her level 2 class at iO. Her note, like...
Theme and the Harold
“Can we get a suggestion from the audience of anything at all?” “Liverwurst” “Thank you, I heard liverwurst.” And so begins another Harold. But what’s this Harold about? Shoot me in the face if it’s 30 minutes on liverwurst: a kid who doesn’t want to eat it; a lady who makes it at home; two pieces of it talking to each other. Come on. The suggestion is not a mandate for the subject of the...
The Secret of SET
The game of SET holds numerous untold secrets for learning how to create satisfying groups of threes in long form improv shows. If you don’t own it, you should buy it right now. You can also download it as an app for your smartphone. Do it. Now. I’ll wait… Okay, now let me explain why it’s the greatest game for teaching the Rule of Threes…ever. See, in SET, you create a “set” with three cards....
The Rule of Threes: Freedom, Power, Responsibility
The Rule of Threes. We all know it. It’s been beaten into our heads since our first day of improv, like “Don’t Deny” and “Yes, And”. And we have some idea of why it works, too. Three’s a pattern. Three’s a set. Three’s company. But if we really want to crack the code of threes, we have to start with mathematics. In geometry, one point is simply a placeholder, two points a line, but three points...
Why Improv is Art, and Why We Should Care
Abstract art is one of most tempting things to fake. Jackson Pollock paintings are a particularly easy target. They’re just a bunch of splatter paint blotches, the forgers figure. But many art critics and collectors, looking at Pollock fakes, can often sense that they aren’t Pollocks. They can’t always put their fingers on it, but something feels “off”, “odd”, “unsatisfying” about...
Welcome to the house!
Hello, fellow improv nerds. Lots of times, people in my classes or on the teams I coach will say to me, “That is so improv-nerdy! You should write an improv-nerdy book!” But I figured, a blog is even nerdier than a book, so here we go. This blog is going to be super-thinky—lots of improv metaphors (including, for starters, connections to abstract art, mathematics, and sports, to...