Our Improv Family

The improv world lost a great improv legend. Mr. Jay Leggett. Last week at iO West in Hollywood they had a memorial for Jay, an amazing improvisor who I had the honor of seeing in Joel Murray and Friends at iO. Jay was on the legendary improv Harold team Blue Velveeta. Not only was he an amazing performer and coach he was just a warm and friendly person who would always stick around after shows that he coached or performed in and chat with you.

Being in the bar after the memorial was awe inspiring. Seeing a family come together for an amazing person. I say the word family because it dawned on me how this crazy thing we do called improv is more than just a stage, tag outs and make’em ups it’s really a family. No matter what theater or team you’re on, we are all a part of something bigger. I think Susan Messing said it best on her Facebook Page…

From Susan:

Last night, in the haze of sadness and joy in celebrating Jay, an overwhelming feeling came over me. It’s not until one of our comedy friends leave us that we really get to take stock of how fortunate we are to know each other, to have been able to grow up together, how privileged we are to be able/allowed to do comedy and to be members of this tribe. As someone who tries to always look forward, sometimes it is good to sit back and take stock of how long we have known each other- I am so grateful to be a member of this community, to have the opportunity to take such pride in your collective brilliance- and I look forward to the opportunity to play with you again. Infinite Love to You All.

Thank you Jay for your contributions to improv and everyone you made laugh, taught and inspired. The improv world has lost a great soul.

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Blue Velveeta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

The Improvisors Project – A Discussion with Sam Willard

If you’ve been lucky at an improv festival or camp in the last year, you may have been lucky enough to have had your picture taken by Sam Willard. Sam is a photographer who has been capturing improvisors offstage expressing emotions and feelings through his photographs. It’s a fascinating project and Sam was kind enough to share some thoughts on the project.

Sam WIllard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

Sam Willard photographing David Razowsky back stage at the San Francisco Improv Festival in 2012.

It’s clear from just the avatars on this page that many people on the National Improv Network have been involved with the Improvisors Project, but for everyone else. What’s the project about?

The Improvisors Project documents and celebrates the diverse pool of talent in the improv community, through portraits of its many members. As soon as I started getting involved with improv a few years ago, I saw the amazingly expressive people and knew that they had the potential to be great portrait subjects. That realization planted the seed for the project.  My first photo shoot was in 2012. Since then, I have had shoots all over the country and photographed over 200 improvisors.

Everyone here loves improv. You love photography with equal zeal. But we’re all artists who appreciate the process. What brought you to photography?

I was always an artistic kid. From early childhood, I had a passion for drawing. I spent hours drawing every day after school. In my teens, I got more into making portraits, instead of just ideas from my imagination. But creating realistic drawings of faces was difficult for me. I suppose that the camera’s ability to realistically render faces is part of the reason I shifted toward photography, as my interest in portraiture deepened.

I spent years taking pictures as an amateur, starting in college and on into my twenties. I discovered that photography was a way to engage with people, and to draw out and capture something essential about them. During the time I was learning photography, I got a business degree and worked in business and tech for several years. When that started to lose its appeal—and at the same time my photography skills were maturing—I decided to make a career switch. That was ten years ago. I have been a professional photographer ever since.

Improv and photography are two very interesting art forms to bring together. One celebrates the immediacy and intimacy of a shared moment that will never be recreated. The other is about finding the beauty of a moment and preserving it. Being part of both worlds, how do those ideas play off of each other? How do you feel the marriage of the two helps you grow as an artist.

As I mentioned, photography was a way for me to engage with people and make authentic connections. I guess improv appeals to me for the same reasons. As you say, improv is ephemeral, and photography is more permanent. But that difference is in the product. I like both art forms because of the process. And in terms of process, portraiture and improv are remarkably similar.

When I meet with a portrait client, they have hired me because they need to project an authentic image of themselves, capturing those qualities that best communicate to their intended audience. But they have never met me before. I have never met them. And usually (unless they are a celebrity) I don’t know much about them. It can be awkward. And the photo studio is an intimidating place, with bright lights and this stranger pointing a camera at you. On top of all that, the only tools I have to tell my client’s story within the rectangle of the image, is their face and body, and my simple background.

If you think about it, this scenario is almost exactly like a basic improv scene: Two people. Simple stage. Bright lights. No props. Just your body and your voice to connect with each other and tell a story. Both performers have to engage and discover some essential truth, and go from there.

Without a doubt, my experience as a portraitist informs my improv, and vice versa. And they both strip away all the bullshit. Just two human beings, creating an authentic human connection. One is ephemeral and one leaves a record, but both are awesome. Life is full of so much noise. Authentic connections are precious, even thrilling. It is why I love portraiture. It is why I love improv.

Looking at your photos, it’s clear that this isn’t The Improv Project, it’s the Improvisors Project. Most improv photography in years past has focused on performance and the ensemble, but this project captures the individual performers outside of that environment. As a photographer this probably gives you a more individual connection. What was the motivation for the focus on the performer rather than the show?

What amazes me about improv is that so much can be created with just vocal and physical expression. For me, the best way to capture expression is by isolating the individual. This strips away context and narrative, and leaves pure expression. Also, these portraits are meant to be viewed in groups. The identical composition, lighting, and backdrop, framing the individual subject, makes it easier for the viewer to see the amazing variety of expression from person to person and shot to shot.

These aren’t mug shots. The photographs in your collection are filled with incredible variations in expression and ideas. What are you hoping to get out of an individual photo shoot? What goes into the decisions you make on a performer by performer basis?

My goal with every photo shoot is to capture a wide range of improvisors, and to make photographs that capture big, authentic emotion. I usually schedule photo shoots at times and places when I am going to get a lot of people in a short period (festivals, workshops, camp, etc).  I photograph each improvisor for only about five minutes, but I schedule many people over a period of several hours on one or more days, so I end up with a lot of portraits at a single event.

When an improvisor steps in front of my camera, I don’t have any set ideas of what I want before I begin. I start with a clean slate and an open mind, like at the beginning of an improv scene. I usually let their physicality cue me toward an emotional state of mind, then I prompt them to heighten. For example, if they look uncomfortable (as people often do when first in front of a camera), I might say—as if I am their inner voice—“Timmy Jenkins, don’t you dare wet your pants, no matter how bad you have to pee! Everyone on this school bus is going to call you pissy-pants, and you will be the laughing stock of Third Grade!” Then, once he or she starts to squirm, and get into the state of mind, I might engage with them as a scene partner. “Hey guys, look! Timmy looks like he’s gonna piss himself! Pissy-pants! Pissy-pants! Hah, hah!” This heightening can go on for a few rounds. When the emotion gets dialed up as high as it can go, that’s when I start making pictures. The whole process from start to peak to done lasts just a few minutes, then it’s over and the slate is wiped clean again with each new person.

I should say that much of my work goes on after the fact, during the editing process. The photo shoot is a frenzy of activity where I try to create as much raw material as possible. Sorting through everything afterwards is where I do the precision work of finding those peak moments of authentic emotion. And, as you said, the end result from a series of portraits is incredible variation.

You’ve had the opportunity to meet many incredible performers, but specifically, you’ve had the opportunity to work with The Committee. That’s a pretty rare and special thing. What are your memories with working with that group of incredibly talented performers?

Hands down, the best part of doing this project has been the access it has provided me to people I otherwise would probably never have met. Photographing members of the Committee did indeed feel rare and special.

The 50th anniversary reunion event earlier this year had almost every living Committee member in attendance, and I jumped at the chance to participate. Many guests were in their 80s, and hadn’t performed in decades. But every individual brought incredible presence when they stepped in front of my camera. And to my pleasant surprise, many of them twinkled with incredible mischief and glee, as if they were still young actors creating live improvised theater every night.

Some of my favorite portraits from The Improvisors Project were created that night. But I have to say the highlight of the evening happened off-camera. As the event started, and the room filled up with people, arriving one by one, old friends lit up seeing each other for the first time in ages. Many of the original Committee members in attendance had lived 40+ years living elsewhere and doing other things after the Committee. But being together with dear old friends brought everyone back to 1963, and all the youthful camaraderie that time held for them. I wasn’t even alive in the 1960s, yet I was overcome by the emotion in the room. Like seeing old soldiers being reunited long after the war had ended. I was reminded of the great fraternity that improv creates, and the close bonds I have in my own group of improvisors.

I notice one important omission from the project so far. No pictures of Sam Willard. At least none that I’ve seen publicly. Do you consider yourself – as an improvisor – to be part of this collective, or do you feel yourself more the observer in this project?

Hah. I definitely consider myself to be part of the improv community. It’s just technically a bit hard to do a self-portrait, with the way these images are made. I actually did get in front of the camera on my very first Improvisors photo shoot. I wasn’t thrilled with the results. Maybe there will be a Sam Willard portrait at some point.

Just like any great improv set, this project started from a simple idea. Where it went from there was not based on invention, but discovery. What have been the discoveries you’ve made along the way? How has the project shaped you and those around you?

As an artist, this project has shown me that the old axiom is true—follow your passion. The elements of this project are things that I am passionate about, things that excite me. That got me energized, and in turn energized others whose support have been essential to the project’s success.

I also discovered that—like in an improv scene—being open to serendipity is more fruitful than having a rigid plan. At each step of the way, I was uncertain what was next for the project. The more open I have been to possibilities, the better things have worked out.

Finally, by meeting so many improvisors, I have discovered that the improv community is even more awesome than I had thought. I have been fortunate to meet a ton of people who are fantastic on and off the stage, and it motivates me to continue the project, so I can meet and photograph many more.

Along those lines, what’s next? Do you think this is a project that will ever be complete or will it keep on growing? Have your ideas on what to do with these photographs changed over time? What’s the next step for The Improvisor Project?

This year I got married and had a lot of other big events in my personal life. Time to work on The Improvisors Project was limited. Now that my schedule is opening up a bit, I am planning to dedicate more energy to the project in 2014. I hope to travel to several cities and festivals, and photograph many more awesome improvisors. I have a “bucket list” of people who I particularly admire, and hope to photograph starting next year. All the while, I hope to continue sharing the project with the improv community that it represents.

I recently set up Facebook and Twitter pages to announce photo shoots and show off new work. I share an “Improvisor of the Week” every Friday. I plan to roll out a dedicated website in early 2014 (and in the meantime, you can see portraits from the series on samwillardphoto.com). A year from now, I will probably be thinking about putting together a book and exhibition.

The project is ongoing. As long as there are improvisors expressing themselves so creatively, I don’t see why I would stop.

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Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

We’ve Made a Team…Now What?

In July I wrote a blog 6 Ways to Make a Successful Improv Team and I wanted to do a follow up and dig a little deeper. So you’ve made a team…now what?

It’s an exciting and sometimes hard task to start a new team. Getting people to share a common schedule for shows, rehearsals and more. I’ve started, coached, directed a ton of teams in my over 10 years as a improv instructor and below is some advice I have for improv teams once they get started.

I’ve Got a Conflict!

This will happen 90 percent of the time. People will have conflicts. If you can’t get on the same page this way you’re going to have a difficult time from the start. There is a lot of, “Well I got this on this day so I can’t do it.” I see it on teams all the time. Then it ultimately comes down to who’s conflict outweighs another members. The only true good excuse I can think of is work. It pays the bills letting you do this art sometimes. If you are in a play, another team or some other commitment then that’s great go for it, you should do those things. But don’t commit to an improv team if you are doing those things. It’s all about priorities and when you start a team shouldn’t your team be a priority?

Priorities and Expectations:

An improv team needs rehearsal and practice. It takes a certain focus. In Long-form you have to create group mind, connect, know your philosophy of play and discover a shared language if you want to be a successful team. I want to believe that every teams intention is to make the next great improv team, but you have to set realistic expectations that match your teams priorities. If you want to be the “next great improv team” that’s going to take work and that’s some high expectations. You don’t have to decide on a form but you do have to start speaking the same language in expectations. If you want to be just a practice group and play then that’s a different expectation. A high expectation is a good thing, you should strive for greatness. But it takes work and your priorities need to be focused on this one group in order to have a chance to try and reach your expectations. My advice for a new group is sit down, have a chat and make sure everyone is on the same page. What kind of group is this going to be? A practice group? The best harold team ever? The new form team? Just make sure you’re speaking the same language and know what your expectations are so you can prioritize together.

Developing a Same Language and Group Mind:

Developing a language for a team and group mind is probably one of the hardest things to do in improv. It takes patience, time, wisdom and commitment. You don’t get this right away so don’t think it’s something you can get overnight. But you can start figuring out if you can achieve that by starting to speak the same language. What I mean by this is sharing, as an ensemble, what you agree upon as far as your philosophy of play. For instance, my Harold Team King Ten, speaks a language and philosophy of thematic, theatrical and deep idea based Harolds. We know this, we all agree that this exists within the bible of our team so we know what to look for when someone is trying to point it out or pull a move that associates itself with that move. Your team might want to be a team that plays physically and has no edits. It’s agreed upon you know what’s up. Start telling each other what you love about improv and try to incorporate that into your ensemble.

Who to Get as a Coach?

Not all coaches fit a team. I’ve coached some teams where I clearly was not a good fit and have told them that. Once you’ve decided what kind of team you’re going to be and have set those expectations find a coach that will fit those expectations. Sure you might have to try a couple first and if you’re a practice group you can probably filter through different coaches to get different flavors. If you’re a team that wants to be a great harold team, find someone that has a track record of coaching great harold teams, if you want to do a JTS Brown or Deconstruction find a coach that knows those forms inside out. You owe it to yourself and your team. Set yourself up for success. Yes, it cost money to get a rehearsal space and a coach, but you have to invest in your improv and acting education if you have set those priorities and expectations. Stay true to them.

Don’t Try to Be That Great Other Team Be Your Team

This is big. Watching improv is probably one of the best things you can do to learn how to be a better improvisor and team. Watch shows together even! But don’t become that team. Why? Because that’s already a team and they do what they do. What do you do? What stamp is your group going to put on improv? Your team is your own thumbprint on improv so be different, play to your strengths as an ensemble. Those people you just watched are 8 or so people who come from a different walk of life then you. Allow yourself to find who you guys are.

Support

If anything this is the single most important thing. Support your fellow ensemble on and off stage. Make them look good in life and stage. Be there for them, learn who they are as a person, their passions, triumphs and failures. Know them as a human. This will help you connect and know them on a deeper level gaining each others trust and if you can do that the sky is the limit onstage.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

 

 

Spotlight On: The Milky Way Improv Festival

482773_523852694324029_8972322_nThe Milky Way Improv Festival, held in Roseville, CA (Near Sacramento) will be celebrating it’s second year March 21-23 and we couldn’t be happier. I had the privilege of attending last year and they treated us right. Great venue, great people and a great town! I had a chance to interview the Festival Producers and owners of Blacktop Comedy Paul Burke and Betsaida LeBron:

This is your second year throwing the Milky Way Improv Festival. How did the idea of doing this festival start?

We had attended a lot of improv festivals (Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angelas). An improv festival is this perfect blend of talent, passion, and openness. It’s all about the art form at a festival, and everyone wants to share, and listen to ideas. Simply attending the festivals inspired us. We wanted to bring the Roseville/Sacramento community a festival that could showcase incredibly talented improv productions from all over. We want this area to be inspired, and realize, “We can do that with improv?!”

Why Milky Way Improv Festival as a title?

Maybe there’s life on other planets! We’d hate to limit our festival to Earth and possibly miss out on some improv troupe submission from Gliese 581. We wanted to suggest this festival is big and welcoming.  We want to include as many teams as possible. There’s so much amazing improv being produced and performed, and we welcome all of it to the Milky Way Improv Festival.

What’s the improv scene like in the Roseville/Sacramento area?

I’d say ‘growing’ and ‘learning,’ describes the scene. New faces drop into an improv class every week and keep coming back! Seeing new performers, people who have NEVER stepped onstage before, realize, “I can do this!” is pretty inspiring. As performances go, you can find both long and short form improv in Roseville/Sacramento. Everything from a classic harold, to an all female acappella improv group perform in Sacramento/Roseville.

What are your goals for the second year?

The first year was so fun and we got a lot of positive feedback. We did learn a number of things and are excited for the 2014 festival.

Our goal this year is threefold.

First, let the improv community know about our festival. We’ve met a number of improvisers who have told us, “we didn’t know about the Milky Way Improv Festival.” That’s on us, and we’re working to fix that.

Secondly, we’re looking for lineup of shows that extends beyond California. California troupes and beyond, we welcome your submissions!

Thirdly, we’re looking to offer more improv courses. As the local improv community grows, we would love to bring them, and all festival goers, a variety of classes. Interested in teaching a class? We’re accepting submissions!

What can improvisers expect if they attend your festival?

We want you to enjoy yourself. Think of this as a weekend long party for improv. One of the biggest perks of the festival is our theater venue. We’re lucky enough to partner with a Tower theatre in Downtown Roseville. The Tower Theater is a gorgeous 200+ seat theater. Social events at local bars and restaurants will be planned and organized, so you will have an opportunity to spend time with other performers. Discounted hotel rooms will be arranged. If you would like to teach a class, a classroom with be provided to you. What would you like to see at our festival? One thing we do well is listen, and are always open to ideas.

For those who haven’t been to Roseville/Sacramento, what are some of the things people can check out in the city during the day or any places to visit?

There are lots of great things in the region. Here are just a couple (we’ll list more on the website soon):

Placer County Wine Trail

Hiking and Biking trails

Award Winning Restaurants

Sacramento Kings basketball

The Crocker Art Museum

white water rafting in Montreal

Old Town Sacramento

Maybe I’m biased because Sacramento is my hometown, but I have to say this festival was amazing and the venue is a great place to do your improv show! It’s an amazing theater and you’ll get a great crowd! Paul and Betsaida have created a wonderful community here and the Sacramento/Roseville area is a great place to explore. It’s Gold Rush town!

To submit to the festival instantly on NIN click HERE.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

 

Festival Travelling Tips

Congratulations on being accepted to your first festival. You’re going to get to perform for people in a new city and go on a road trip with your friends. It’s going to be a fantastic time. But if it’s your festival, there are a few things that will make your time more fun overall.

1. Pack accordingly

This is just like any non-improv trip, but it’s a good reminder. Check the weather. Know how many days you’ll be there. Bring the right toiletries etc.

2. Drive if you can

Sometimes flying is the only feasible option, but if you can drive – do it. It’s not only a cheaper option (most but not all of the time) it gives you two advantages. First, a road trip with your cast is fantastic group mind building. You’re show and your future ensemble health will be better for it. Second, you’ll be able to get around in town. There’s nothing worse than being stuck at the venue and not able to find a ride back to the hotel.

3. Stay near the venue

If there’s an official hotel. Consider staying there unless it’s really outside of your price range. You’ll get to spend some time at the continental breakfast and in the late nights meeting and sharing with other improvisors and you’re more likely to get rides back and forth. If there isn’t a hotel, find one that’s nearby. You don’t want to be so far from the action that you can’t get back to your hotel for a shower or a nap.

4. Party after your show

There are often parties every night. Go. Have fun. But don’t overdo it the night before your show. Doing a show with a hangover is miserable and you’re going to feel crummy for going all that way and not having the best show you could.

5. Record your show

Often times a festival will be recording shows anyway, but if not, ask the tech person if you can set up a camera to record your show. And be respectful. The tech person at a festival is often one of the most thankless jobs at a festival and they’re stressed. Be respectful of their time.

6. Thank volunteers

Speaking of thankless jobs, any festival has countless volunteers who are working their tushes off just because they love improv. Let them know they’re appreciated. The festival wouldn’t be happening without them.

7. See shows

For Pete’s sakes, you’ve come all this way. Why not see something you don’t normally get to see. Go see your friend’s shows, but also try to catch as many shows as possible that you’ve never seen. In our own cities, we often build up our own assumptions. It’s great to have those assumptions challenged.
And if you like a show. Tell them. It’s always nice to hear that you did a good job.

8. Talk about improv outside of the bar

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about improv when you are at the bar. Do it, it’s awesome. You’ll have some passionate debates and idea sessions there. But most of them will be forgotten. Check in during the downtimes during the day. Ask people about their shows and their philosophies. They’re always happy to talk. More and more festivals are having conferences. Go to these, they’re amazing chances to grow.

9. Buy the T-shirt

Yes, you will regret being the only one to not have one.

10. Say goodbye

Take a chance to say goodbye to the people you’ve met on your trip. You’ll see them again in another month in another city. You’re now part of the great travelling nomadic culture of performers. But for now, say goodbye and head back home.

Share the Love!

So I was thinking of what to write about this week and even had a great plan to write about how Improv is much like Star Wars! But instead I wanted to share with you some other blogs and podcasts that I read and listen to.

A.D.D. Comedy Podcast with David Razowsky

The first is a must listen to podcast from Master Teacher and former Second City Artistic Director David Razowsky A.D.D. Comedy Podcast. Dave has some great interviews here with some improv legends. This is a must listen to for any improvisor.

Improv Nerd (Blog and Podcast)

Then there’s the Improv Nerd, Jimmy Carrane. This is a very honest blog and Jimmy has no problem sharing his personal struggles and triumphs. He also writes improv advice and interviews great guests on his podcast.

IRC Podcast with Kevin Mullaney

Also a must listen to is Kevin Mullany’s IRC Podcast. Kevin has great guests as well. Listen to him talk to improv greats like Armando Diaz, Craig Cackowski and Joe Bill.

Geeking out with… (Pam Victor’s Blog)

Pam’s blog is almost like a podcast on paper. Great interviews! Pam is a journalist and it shows in these blogs and she treats here guest like poets and scholars.

Some Recent Improv Blogs I read that you may like:

Here are two recent blogs I read, one is about the recent Harold Auditions at UCBLA. I thought it was an interesting read because its author Rebecca Drysdale really puts things in perspective for people who stress about not getting on a Harold team or the process of auditioning in general. Read HAROLD MOON

There was a recent shake up at iO West in Los Angeles where all the house teams were disbanded. This was an interesting take on the situation from the perspective of Erik Voss who was one of the people who was on a team that was broken up. Read CLEANING HOUSE.

I wanted to share the love today to all of you. I’m sure you’ve heard of some or all of these. But as I sit here and write blogs for the National Improv Network I’m always reminded of some other great resources for improvisors. I think of improvising as a never ending quest on knowledge and this is a great way to get improv advice, hear about the history of improv and just laugh from the greats.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

J.T.S. Brown: An Improv Journey

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Nite Terrors

When I first finished iO West in 2002, my level 6 class was confronted with a decision to make. The decision that all improvisors who come to the end of their improv education at an institution come to. Are we going to stick together? Our answer was yes. At the time Craig Cackowski was our level 6 teacher and he agreed to continue on as our coach. We formed a group named Nite Terrors. Craig had asked us what we wanted to do. We knew we didn’t want to do the Harold as we had done it in class. He recommended we’d be ready to do a form called J.T.S. Brown. It would change the way I do improv.

The J.T.S Brown was developed in Chicago in the late 90’s. The cast included names like Jason Sudeikis, Ed Goodman, Jack McBrayer, TJ Jagadowski, Peter Gross, Ike Barinholtz and Directed by a few directors one of them being Cackowski.

Here is what Craig had to say about the J.T.S. Brown:

J.T.S. Brown was not a form so much as a philosophy of play. It was designed for a large cast (10-14 people), to involve as many players as possible at a time, to have a higher level of theatricality and polish than a typical improv show, and to encourage any move to be made at any time, with the idea that anything that happened was the perfect thing to happen. We didn’t have a set structure, but we had a few rules to abide by:

1. No sweep edits. Every edit was a transformation. Transformations could come from within or without. Even in a 2-person scene, an improvisor could abruptly change character, initiating a new scene with the same partner.

2. No walk-ons. As soon as someone joined the scene, it became a new scene. Anyone in the previous scene should instantly choose to either exit, become a new character, or become some inanimate or expressionistic element in the new scene. If someone knocked at the door to enter a scene, it became a new scene the second the door was opened.

3. No sidelines. Anyone not in the scene was watching from backstage. Anyone the audience could see was in the scene.

4. The playing area was not limited to the stage…the whole space was used.

5. Any scene could recur at any time, so the players were fine with a scene being edited after 10 seconds, knowing they could bring it back whenever they wanted.

6. There were “worlds within worlds”. If, for instance, Scene I tranformed into Scene II into Scene III, it was fun to spiral back out and have III become II and then I again (similar to the shortform game “Spacejump” or “5 to 1” or “7 to 1” or whatever).

7. We had a number of “gimmicks”–devices that we had rehearsed that could be pulled out at any time. They included:

Hemingway: The players narrate their own scene as well as playing it.

EdTV: A scene can return to a pivotal moment at any time, presenting an alternative outcome. Usually done in threes. (This was named after Ed Goodman, not the Ron Howard film).

The Third Degree: The players could come out and ask 3 rapid-fire questions of a character at any time. These were the sort of questions that you might ask while sidecoaching a scene (“How long have you known this person?”, etc.)

Shadows: A character was sometimes “shadowed” by a another improvisor playing their essence, or id, or subtext. The 2 characters’ shadows would then have a scene of sorts in the background, presenting a more representational version of the original scene.

Shapeshifting: Any improvisor could play anyone’s character at any time. Particularly effective in cross-gender scenes. This fostered the idea of group ownership…every character is owned by the group, not necessarily the improvisor who created it. The show began with a shapeshifted character monologue, which allowed the audience to meet the cast members one at a time.

8. There was an emphasis on physicality, sound, and environment. The players were encouraged to be architecture, inanimate objects, animals, weird shit, etc. All this probably sounds crazier than it actually played. We tried to eliminate weirdness for weirdness’ sake. The idea was that the form was crazy, but the content was solid. It was an interesting package for good scenework. We worked hard to emphasize gift-giving and relationships in the scenework. In fact, we tried to, at some point in the middle of the show, have a “spotlight scene”, a 6 or 7-minute 2-person scene that was not fucked with in any way. In the middle of a fast-moving, constantly evolving show, it was a nice to have a little scene oasis and to take a deep breath.

Yeah! Pretty awesome! I liked the JTS because it was a philosophy of play and when Nite Terrors did it, Craig always said make it your own. That what they did was great, but you are different people who can bring new things to it. It’s a philosophy of play so bring your philosophy to it. Unlike the Harold, which can be rigid sometimes, the JTS was a breath of fresh air. You could do anything! It’s mantra is “any move to be made at any time, with the idea that anything that happened was the perfect thing to happen.” This mantra should be in any form or philosophy really. The JTS is not to be just thrown up, the original team rehearsed for around 6 months before putting it up and Nite Terrors rehearsed for a while before putting it up too. You have to build trust, a group mind and a have a great director who knows the JTS inside out. It’s not a thing you just rehearse a couple times and put up. It takes time and patience but the reward is huge.

After 3 years the Nite Terrors retired. But I still crave the form every once in a while and we even re-booted it with the iO Repertory team in 2008. I even teach it now out in LA sometimes. We were lucky enough to have Craig as our director for 3 years and I believe we were all lucky to master this philosophy because it’s influenced everything I do in improv.

Links to more information about J.T.S. Brown:

To read up more about it there is a wiki page: Click HERE.

Interview with Jason Sudeikis about J.T.S. Brown.

Nick Armstrong

Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for grown ups in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network. We are always looking for better ways to serve the community. Drop us a line and let us know what you want! To e-mail nick e-mail nick@nationalimprovnetwork.com. For more information visit: http://www.nickarmstrong.com or http://www.improvutopia.com

Book Highlight: UCB Manual

ucb_cover_1Most improvisors have the same core books in their libraries; Truth in Comedy (Close / Halpern, Johnson), Improvise (Napier), Impro and Impro for Storytellers (Johnstone) and of course Jill’s Small Cute Book of Improv. These are the great starting books to learn the core of our craft. There are of course dozens of other great books that focus on specifics, and countless terrible books.

Many of these books were written in a near vacuum. They were invaluable resources for people who had previously had practically no introduction to true improv. This last decade has been an exciting time of growth. Theatres across the world are resources for this knowledge. We’ve reached a form of critical mass where there is a market for something more, something more specific.

Anyone who went to The Del Close Marathon this year (and saw the mystery box) knows that after a long wait, The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual is finally here and one of the first books to make this step into more specialized improv training.

The book is perfectly named, this isn’t a book like Improvising Better. This is a manual, a textbook. And I don’t mean that it’s cutely formatted like a text book. It’s an Honest to God text book on UCB style play. The book is filled with exercises, terminology, examples, scene analysis and all the other things you would expect from this kind of book. No book can ever be a substitute for actual live training, but the book will solidly prepare you to understand the method and techniques of performing at The UCB.

Does that make this book useless for those who play in other styles? Of course not. The core ideas and evaluations will make any performer stronger, but it’s certainly designed specifically around UCB’s style of play. And that’s fantastic. It fills a gap left by more generalized books on the subject.

The book does indeed seem designed for those with a functional knowledge of longform play, but is always careful to explain even the simplest concepts for the truly beginning improvisor reading the book. That said, although the book is extremely thorough and attentive to the smallest detail, there does seem to be one oddly missing piece of information. Being a UCB book, there is a strong emphasis on game play. There are dozens of wonderful examples and exercises to identify and create game, but there doesn’t seem to be any intro to what a game “is”. That seems to be the one and only assumption the book takes in it’s readers – an understanding of the concept of “the game”. I found this surprising, but even if an unfamiliar reader might be confused in the early chapters, I think the concept becomes fairly clear, if not explicitly addressed.

Improv is growing and education and sharing of ideas is growing with it, both online and in more tangible forms. The UCB Manual is a fresh new take on improv training and I think every performer – UCB or not – longform or not – should give it a read. And this isn’t the end. There are more books coming in the next year with exciting other forms of training. (Including one that will be discussed in two weeks right here.)

What about you? What other books are you excited about?

Hooray books!


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

Who should I submit?

The hardest choice in the world

The hardest choice in the world

Back in the olden days (circa 2002), submitting to festivals was a bit more of a chore; mailing addresses, VHS tapes, CD-Rs with pictures. It was a messy business. On the other hand, one part of festival submissions was easier back then, knowing who to submit. Before improv theatres started growing in many cities, most improv troupes were islands and – unless you lived in Chicago – most performers were in one, or maybe two shows.

It’s a different world now. Performers have more freedom to explore their craft and play with many new players. That’s a great thing. The only tiny downside is that when an exciting festival is on the horizon, we have to ask “Who should I submit to go?” It’s not the hardest question in the world, but here’s a few things to think about to have the most fun year round.

1. Have an honest conversation with your group

We’re improvisors, so we say “yes” to everything. When you ask your friends if they want to go to a festival, they will instantly and excitedly say yes. Then later – maybe – they’ll ask when it is and what it might cost them to go. There is nothing more disheartening than getting accepted to a festival and then having to decline because your troupe can’t get the time off from work. And as a festival producer I can tell you, you won’t get blacklisted if that happens. We understand things come up. But it will lower your chances a bit of further invites.

Have a realistic conversation with your troupe before submitting. Find out who can go, who can’t. If one member can’t make it, will your show still be solid? Will it hurt your group mind to go without a member? Often times the answer to both will be yes and it’s not a big problem, but it’s best to ask.

Pro Tip: Try to bring what you promised to a festival. IF you submitted an eight person show and only seven people can make it, that’s understandable. If you submit a four person show and one person and two different people not in the submission come, you weren’t accurately representing yourself and it will hurt your chances of being invited back.

2. Talk to the festival

Get in touch with the festival producers. They’re always happy to talk to you about your show and offer advices on their own festival. Each festival has their own vision of what they’d like the weekend to be like. They also know how many slots they’ll have available. Tell them about your shows and what each one can bring. They may offer specific suggestions of what is more in tune with their festival. They may offer only some general advice on what they’re looking for that you can consider. Please keep in mind that a festival producer does want to help, but offering advice on which show would be a best fit for their festival doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Most of the time, festivals wish they could invite everyone, but it’s just not possible.

3. Don’t oversubmit

If you feel there are a couple of troupes that might be a good fit for a festival, there’s nothing wrong with submitting both. Smaller festivals will likely not accept both because they want variety, but larger festivals often accept two troupes with some overlapping members. But don’t submit every show you’ve ever done. You know which shows are the ones you’re proud of and which ones are filler. The reviewers don’t. Your good shows will get lost in your own shuffle.

That said, don’t be afraid to mix it up sometimes. You might be on a couple of house teams that travel frequently. But there’s nothing wrong with once in a while taking a gamble and submitting a show that doesn’t travel often. You might not have the name recognition, but sometimes it’s the little offbeat shows that fill a gap in a festival schedule.

Bonus Note: Theatre owners

Most of the advice here was for autonomous troupes that submit for themselves. Many theatres have a slightly different setup where the theatre’s artistic director wants to send some representation of their theatre and needs to choose which shows to submit. A lot of the same ideas can be easily modified to your use, but keep in mind that – especially if your a younger theatre – many of your shows will be pretty similar in style. You love those shows and know the subtle differences between them, but the submission reviewers don’s share that context. Try to view those troupes from an objective point of view and see which troupe best represent your theatre. Keep in mind that you’ll probably be submitting to a few festivals throughout the year and you can always rotate the troupes you submit.

Have a good luck
Make good choices when submitting to festivals and you’re likely to have a more well rounded festival season. Don’t forget, submissions for Eau Claire and Phoenix both close tonight.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

People Love Us on Yelp

yelp[1]In the last few months, I’ve had the great opportunity to meet many theatre owners across North America and talk about many subjects. Some of them are doing amazing and unique things. There will be many guest blogs over the winter with great ideas.

It wasn’t surprising how often social media came up in conversation, but it was a bit surprising to hear how many theatres felt a drastic impact from the reviews they were receiving on Yelp.

There are many great guides to using Yelp wisely across the internet. I recommend reading as many as you can and finding the tips that work best for your theatre. What’s gathered here isn’t unique, but it’s a collection of practices that some of the improv theatres across the country are having the best success with.

Take Ownership

Anyone can create a listing for your venue. In fact, there may be many listings for your venue, each with different and possibly inaccurate information. It spreads confusion and fragments the conversation.

Yelp doesn’t want this any more than you do. If there is a listing for your space, request ownership of that listing so you can maintain it. If there are multiple listings, reach out to Yelp. They’re usually very happy to help you consolidate those listings. And if there’s no listing at all, by all means create one.

Once you have the account, it doesn’t require nearly as much attention as your Facebook or other online presences, but make sure the information is as complete as possible. Add a few pictures. Check back periodically to make sure it’s up to date.

And be honest about what you are. Don’t paint an unrealistic portrait of what people can expect from a visit. You’ll get much better response if people are getting what they expect.

Ads

Should you pay for a promoted listing? Every situation is different. It’s certainly worth looking into. Keep in mind that the businesses that usually pay for accounts are ones in heavily competitive industries where several businesses are all equally nearby. Improv isn’t there. At least not in most cities. There usually aren’t three improv theatres on the same block. As of this writing, I have never talked to a theatre who got more visitors or better ratings with a paid account. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find creative ways to do it. Just don’t expect it to be a miracle cure.

Don’t Cheat

There’s a reason Yelp is still around, and many of its competitors are gone. Yelp is good at giving people accurate information. Yelp is smart. And it’s users are smart. Asking your friends and family to spam your account with glowing reviews is a quick way to get you account flagged or deleted, or certainly lose a few potential patrons who can smell a fake review. Even if you “get away with it”, the positive reviews from your friends and family won’t affect your score as much as you’d like it to. (More on that later)

Don’t Ask

This seems very counter-intuitive and frustrating, especially if you’re just starting to wrangle your account and counterbalance some bad reviews. It’s true that you’ll need to boost awareness of your presence on Yelp for people to leave reviews, but asking for positive reviews isn’t going to yield much net positive result.

How many times a week do you get asked to go to a website and fill out a survey? How often do you do it? Not often. If people have something to say, they’ll say it. If people aren’t self-motivated to leave a review, they aren’t going to want to take time out of their day to do so, and will more often be mildly annoyed at being pressured to do so. If they do leave a review, it’s probably going to be less enthusiastic than a review from someone who is genuinely motivated to leave one. And wouldn’t you rather have your top reviews be the most excited ones?

Pressuring people can turn people off and – at best – will result in a few filler reviews.

And here’s a familiar sentence. Even if you “get away with it”, the positive reviews from the people you ask won’t affect your score as much as you’d like it to. (Yup. More on that later)

Show the way

If you don’t ask people to leave reviews, how can you possibly start gathering reviews? Believe it or not, some people are eager to share their thoughts on Yelp. Some are very excited by your show. Some just love leaving reviews. Either way, they’re your best friend. They’re willing to do the work for you. They just need to know where to go.

Put a link to your Yelp page on your webpage. If you print a program or fliers, have the Yelp logo there. Treat it the same way you would Facebook. You don’t ask each audience member to like you on Facebook, but you make that information available for those who want to be there.

Having Yelp information at your venue and on your webpage shows that you are engaged in and respect The Yelp Community as a whole. People who are likely to write reviews are going to respond. They’re going to start building your Yelp page into something respectable.

Yelp is willing to help you out there. Yelp has it’s own Flickr page with all manner of logo that you can download and use for free.

If you build up a healthy presence on Yelp, you’ll receive a sticker. You can’t order these stickers. They’re given to you when you’re theatre has been having a postive impact. It shows people that you take Yelp seriously.

This kind of passive promotion will bring you much more thoughtful responses.

Quality over Quantity

We’re finally on that “More on that later” part of the post. Yelp scores and searches are driven by the quality of reviews, not the quantity. A raw 5-star review from a user doesn’t count for much by itself.

Many times earlier in this post, I mentioned that certain reviews won’t have a strong effect on your overall score. Your mom probably doesn’t write a lot of Yelp reviews. That’s taken into account. Any review from a user that only has one or two results is is going to have a smaller overall impact on your page than someone with 100s of reviews. Their review will also be buried at the bottom of the list. The more active a Yelp user is, the more clout their review carries. One positive review from an “Elite” member on Yelp is going to do a lot more for your Yelp presence than 10 reviews from audience members who you’ve solicited.

Taking the math out of it, you want experienced Yelp users leaving reviews because they speak the same language as the people who will be reading those reviews. Your ultimate goal is to bring more people to your theatre and your best bet is if the reviews they are reading are written by their peers.

It’s not an instant magic bullet. There are no magic bullets. Patience will pay off.

Say “Yes And”

Inevitably, you will receive a bad review. They’re never fun. Just like before, there’s no magic bullet to sweep this under the rug, but there are ways to continue to build a positive environment. It’s the same way we build positive scenes. With “Yes And”.

There are some reviews that are about one step above a YouTube comment. If they’re truly offensive or off-base, you can report them for review from Yelp, but in general they’ll just naturally go away by themselves. Not “go away” completely, but get shuffled down the obscure bowels of your reviews.

But you will also get legitimate well thought out negative reviews. Ones that did not enjoy your show or your space. Sometimes these reviews are true. Maybe you had an off night. Sometimes they’re a little unfair or inaccurate.

It’s tempting to prove them wrong. To show them how much they’re off base. But what does that accomplish? You’re engaging in a fight on their turf. If there’s any validity to their review, arguing about it makes you look like the bad guy, and it can bring a lot of negative backlash. (Instead of a simple hyperlink here, I strongly encourage you to read up on the story of Amy’s Baking Company as an example of destroying a businesses reputation in Yelp).

Instead, publicly respond and acknowledge the complaint. If possible, offer to make it right. If suggestions are offered, you don’t have to abide by them, but at least acknowledge the suggestions and promise to consider them. And do consider them. They may have a valid suggestion.

It isn’t uncommon at all for a bad review to be edited and improved if a reviewer feels that they’ve been heard and respected. A 1-Star review can be turned into a 3-star review. Even if it doesn’t, other viewers will see that you’re open to ideas and looking to engage.

Don’t freak about 4.3 Stars

If you have three reviews and they’re all 5 stars, that’s great! If you have 90 reviews and they’re all 5 stars, that’s fake. No one believes that. It’s not realistic. Yelp users are just as aware as you that not everyone is happy all the time. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You want a good score, but a perfect score feels artificial and you will lose people.

Respect the culture

The short version of all of this is that Yelp, like any other social platform has a culture. If you advertise in Japan, you respect the culture of the Japanese people. If you want to attract people on Yelp, you have to respect the culture of Yelpers. They will respond in kind.

  • Don’t flood your profile with reviews from people who aren’t part of the Yelp culture
  • Make your venue a frienly and welcoming place for Yelp users
  • Treat all reviews with the same respect you’d expect

If you do these things, you’ll build a healthier relationship with Yelp and your reviews will more accurately reflect what you truly are.

And don’t forget that Yelp is just part of a complete balanced breakfast. Make it part of your overall social strategy. Also, make sure to check in now and again with other review sites. You don’t want to split your focus all over the place, but at least check in on those places now and again and say hello to the people who are having conversations there.


Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.

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