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

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