1,000 Scenes with Morgan Phillips

I think it was Miles Stroth who said you have to do at least 1000 shows before you can become somewhat good at improv. Well how about 1000 online improv shows? Morgan Phillips is on a mission to do just that and guess what you can be a part of it. I interviewed Morgan about his project:

N: Tell us about your project and why you decided to do it?

M: To celebrate my 20-year improv anniversary, I’ve set out to do 1000 online improv scenes in 2015 — each one with a different scene partner.

N: When did you start this project?

M: I started on New Year’s Day, 2015.

N: Do you have a finish date?

M: My goal is to complete 1000 scenes before the end of the calendar year.

N: Tell us how it works, how frequently do you do these?

M: Anybody who wants to be part of the project just needs to send me their general availability, and we’ll set something up. Shortly before the scheduled time I send them a link to a Google Hangout, and (barring technical difficulties) they click the link and we do a digital improv scene together.

I’ve done scenes at all times of the day and night — including a 3am scene to fit the schedule of an improviser in Australia (Reid Workman, scene #111). I have to average approximately 2.75 scenes a day to stay on pace, so I really am looking for anybody and everybody who’d like to participate. So far my scene partners have ranged from artistic directors of improv theaters to a guy literally doing his very first improv scene (Joe Cherry, scene #70). Some of the people are friends of mine, but many of them are people I’ve never met before.

N: What do you think about improv online? What are the pros and cons?

M: The technology is still in its infancy. There are frequent glitches, and sometimes we have to troubleshoot for several minutes before I actually start the Google Hangout broadcast. Once it’s up and running, it’s a lot more limited than actual, real-world improv. There’s less opportunity for physicality and space work, so there tends to be far less “going to the environment” than there would be in a standard scene.

That being said, it’s free. There’s no need to rent a space or book a show, and you can do it any time of the day or night. I highly recommend it for anybody out there who loves improv, but isn’t getting enough stage time. Provided you can find at least one other person who’s into it, you can literally add as much improv into your life as you can stand.

N: What has been the most interesting scene you’ve done so far?

Scene #221 (with Kevin Hines, head of the UCB training program in NYC) was an attempt to do my half of the scene live, on stage. It was an enormous failure, thanks to a huge delay between the scene and the live feed, and an unreliable internet connection. It made for an interesting video, though. The audience at the theater claimed to enjoy it, but it’s possible they were just being polite…

I think this project is so fun and I got a chance to do it with Morgan too. Our suggestion was Pun and we plotted to murder a co-worker. HA! Morgan is a super nice guy and very fun to play with! Go do it and help him reach his goal.

Do you want to be a part of this great project! Feel free to e-mail Morgan at morganphillips@gmail.com and join the fun!

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Nick Armstrong
Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia a non-profit improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also teaches improv throughout the country.

Spotlight on The San Francisco Improv Festival.

I’ve been to the SF Improv Festival about 5 times since its beginning 11 years ago.  I can say it’s one of the premier festivals in the West and one of my favorite cities to visit. I was able to interview Executive Producer of the SF Improv Festival, Jamie Wright about this years festivities.

The SF Improv Festival is one of the premier festivals of the West Coast. What can improvisors expect this year?

It’s still early in our planning for this year’s festival, but some of what we’re cooking up for 2015 is 10 days of fantastic improv and sketch shows, master-level workshop instructors, a professional 200-seat venue to perform in, an opening night party for the festival as well as post-show cool downs in the lobby bar, parties, Friday night jams, and the festival’s traditional close out of Game Island with Ron West where you can throw down with other performers under the watchful eye of Whose Line’s former games director. All this *and* a staff that is committed to making you feel welcome, and an improv scene in town that is beginning to burst at the seams.

What does a troupe get if accepted?

Troupes accepted to the fest get one 35-minute performance slot in a double-bill. Troupe-members get a performer bracelet which entitles you to any empty seat in a show after the audience is seated, performer pricing on drinks at our (full!) bar, and early signup opportunities for workshops.

What do you look for in a submission?

Really in the end it just comes down to looking for great work by people who love what they do. If you broke it down specifically, we look at: the strength of ensembles, improv basics (accepting & building on offers, support, team play, etc.), character work, overall quality and professionalism, and throw in a little consideration for accessibility to the general public and uniqueness of format. We also look for a diversity of performance groups and of forms. If there’s anything that tips the scales for us in the decision, it’s definitely seeing joy in the work.

Where in SF do you hold the festival?

The festival is held at the Eureka Theater, which is sandwiched between the Downtown, the Embarcadero waterfront area and North Beach. The theater is a 200-seater with a raised stage and a pretty enormous green room. The Eureka’s history includes mounting the premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and more recently, for being the home of the SF Sketchfest and the SF Improv Festival. The location is great for enjoying SF; it is walking distance to the major lines of public transportation, has a ton of restaurants and bars within a 10 minute walk, and pretty unbelievable views of the Bay just around the corner.

SF is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What do you recommend improvisors do in your city?

There’s the usual run of amazing things to check out; the Embarcadero waterfront & the Golden Gate, some of the best food on the planet, fantastic bars & night life, stupid-beautiful views of the Bay Area and pacific coast, and then you have places like the Mission (which is a cross between the birthplace of the Mission burrito and a ready-made location set for Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley), and the other famous cultural-epicenter neighborhoods like the Haight and North Beach. And these are just a few of the things within city limits.

Oh yeah – then there’s a couple hundred improvisors hanging out looking for something to do after taking in each other’s shows. And you’re in San Francisco. Pretty sure you can figure out some way to occupy your time…!

To instantly submit to the San Francisco Improv Festival click HERE.


Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops around the country.

Spotlight on Coachella Valley

Last year’s Coachella Valley Improv/Comedy Festival was a mouthful, but it was also a great time for a first festival. (Also, it happens to be geographically directly between where Bill and Nick live.) They’re gearing up for their second year and taking submissions. I got to interview Jeanette and hear more about this year’s festival. They’re growing, but not losing touch with made them good to begin with.

Last year’s festival had more positive feedback that just about any other festival out there, but it was also a very small festival so many people may not have heard about it. Tell us a little bit about what the Indio Festival is all about and what it hopes to do?

White Women with Hal Williams

White Women with Hal Williams

The Coachella Valley Improv/Comedy Festival was created to give improv and comedy a platform, more exposure as well as opportunities to commune with like-minded individuals. We view improv as an under-valued art form and want to help give it the respect it deserves as well as help create a wider audience for improv (and stand up comedy.)

We just wound up our “Weekend of Comedy” at the Indio Performing Arts Center. This show featured the winners of the inaugural festival (the improv group “White Women” from Los Angeles) along with two stand up comics that also performed at the festival and fared well with audience votes. Many of our audience members had never seen anything resembling long-form improvisation like “White Women” did, but they ate it up. The “Weekend of Comedy” was really the culmination of last year’s festival. This makes the festival a year-round project, as we now approach the deadline for submissions for this year’s festival.

Indio isn’t a major city, but it brings a very informed and educated audience. Tell us about the community out there and the kinds of shows you’re hoping to attract to show them

Indio is booming. Our county, Riverside, is one of the fastest growing in the nation, and you can tell by just looking around. What used to be a highly seasonal area is becoming more and more a year round destination. The festival just happens to be riding that wave at just the right time.

The local community of Indio is perhaps a little more economically challenged and diverse than the other cities in the Coachella Valley. And yes, there is an informed and educated audience who also happens to be older and maybe a little more conservative than the average improv audience. So, while we don’t want improvisers and/or comics to censor themselves, we do encourage everyone to play to their highest intelligence.

What are some of the things people can do when visiting when the festival isn’t going on?

Some of the major attractions here are the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which transports you from the desert floor to the top of Mt. San Jacinto in ten minutes, tons of golf courses, world-class restaurants and spas which often have off season discounts, the “magic healing mineral waters” of Desert Hot Springs, Wet n Wild Water Park, Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon, Whitewater Preserve (where I personally have spotted Bighorn sheep meandering), The Living Desert, Palm Springs Art Museum, a new aquatic complex in Palm Desert, the College of the Desert Street fair (weekends), the Thursday night street fair in Palm Springs, Hard Rock Hotel, Painted Canyon, and at least 3 casinos which bring in top-name entertainment. A fun activity that costs nothing is to drive around the area and see the homes where icons like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Liberace, Elvis and others had vacation homes or part-time residences.

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Bill and Harpo

Last year you had a very swank banquet for performers. What treats do you have in store this year for people coming to visit?

We are planning to once again have an informal buffet-style meal on Friday night while we mix and mingle and pay homage to Harpo Marx. Perhaps even screen one of the Marx Bros. films together. Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, lives here in the desert. He is an accomplished pianist and has agreed to play and accept an award for his dad’s contributions to comedy. Bill has also written a book about life with his famous father, so we might have a book signing as well–still planning.
On May 16, as a teaser for the fest, we have a special event planned. Drama Desk Nominee and Joseph Campbell Foundation Fellow David Gonzalez will teach a storytelling workshop which will be open to the public. That same evening, he will perform his award-winning one man show, “Mytholojazz.” This is made possible by a partnership with the McCallum Theatre’s “Crisalida” project.

How has the improv and the public perception of it grown in the last year?

It just keeps growing, which I think is healthy. There are at least 5 individuals I know of who teach locally, all or most of whom will be involved in the festival in some way. There is an improv presence at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in the mountains above Palm Springs where I teach 2 improv classes, but also at Coachella Valley High School, College of the Desert, and at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre–all local institutions. What I love most is what you talked about in your “Miles to Go Before I Sleep” retrospective of last year’s fest. I saw it happen again after “White Women” performed as part of “A Weekend of Comedy:” an older generation with the look of a new found love in their eyes.

What are the things you learned from your freshman festival? What are some things you hope to change or grow this year?

Passionate volunteers are an absolute necessity to pull off a successful festival. It is truly a year-round endeavor. And don’t try to do too much too fast. We hope the festival will grow, but also realize the importance of not growing it too quickly. We’d rather have a high quality small intimate festival than to try to grow it too quickly and have it become impersonal.


Submissions are open until the end of April. Submit now.


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

Getting to the Point

An improv theatre is getting ready to open in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That alone is cause to celebrate. But the story here is pretty remarkable. And they could also use some help from the improv community. So check out their video and then read up on the quick interview I got to do with Jason Tomalia


Michigan has a long history of improv, but never really in Ann Arbor. Which is surprising. For non Michigan folks. Tell us a little bit about Ann Arbor and why it’s a town so in need of improv.

It did have a successful improv theater downtown for a while called Improv Inferno. I won’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs of why it closed, but I can tell you it wasn’t because they were having a hard time drawing an audience.

Ann Arbor is a university town. There is a solid music scene and the University of Michigan even has a division devoted to musical improv. We’d like to have a stage that embraces improv in all its forms. Ann Arbor is also a counter-culture hub that thrives on questioning and challenging everything. Satire is a natural fit and improv is a medium that allows for pushing boundaries with topical and relevant material.

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Jason Tomalia

That said, there is improv all around the state. How have you been connecting with the other great performers and festivals in your state?

I have been active with the improv community in Detroit and did some volunteer work with the Detroit Improv Festival the last couple of years. I have a good relationship with the folks at Go Comedy! and we are working with Gary Lehman who heads up Go U (Go Comedy’s improv training program). Gary is also a performer and director who is well connected to the Detroit improv scene.

I am taking time to get out and watch other performers and groups. We will be inviting established groups in to perform on Fridays and Saturdays, so I will be continually looking to connect with groups from all over the state and beyond.

Tori and Jason will obviously be involved. Who are the rest of your ensemble? How did you come together?

I already mentioned Gary. Mike Fedel also teaches improv in the Ann Arbor area and has a connection to the improvised music scene and he is a musician himself. Meriah Sage is a counterpart to Tori and provides depth to our Saturday Family Series goals as well as creative dramatics for kids, which is essentially a precursor to improv. She is also an outstanding director, designer, and marketing guru. All of us have ties to Eastern Michigan University.
We will be forming our cast of Pointless improvisers (you like that?) through auditions and they will be pivotal in creating our improv, sketch shows, and array of other offerings.

We truly want to embrace a spirit of cooperation so we will be reaching out to others (theaters and individuals), but I don’t want to say too much because nothing has been finalized. (I know, mystery, right?)

Tori Tomalia

Tori Tomalia

When you faced a crossroads, you decided to make the world a little better. Why improv? What has it given to you in your life? How do you hope to share that with the world?

Oh, wow. Why not improv? What hasn’t it given to my life?

Just before Tori’s diagnosis, she was making a name for herself through teaching and directing at EMU and I was getting more connected to the improv scene in Detroit. After the news, I tried to maintain a level of normalcy and continue on, but I had to draw back and process our new reality. I fully relied on skills gained through improv, i.e. accepting change as fuel and going where the scene takes you. The experience has driven home the notion that life is one big improv set with the stakes constantly being heightened. It is up to us to find a way to cope, to “yes, and” and carry on.

Improv has helped me grow and become a better person in so many ways. It has given me an ability to dig down deep, trust my instincts, and find solutions. It has provided a safe place to truly question and it forces you to empathize. Improv builds confidence and character. It has taught me how to have someone’s back and trust in others to have yours. Okay, improv mixed with Tai Chi, meditation, and theatre experience.

Life is improv and improv is life. Conversation is the most natural form of improv. We all do it, everyday. To take that and turn it into a theatrical experience is totally awesome, and super scary. I think the scary part is also a draw. Fear gets in my way all the time. It is what has held me at plateau points with my own improv. It has kept me from making bold moves. Fear has kept me on the back line. The funny thing is that I say fear has done this, but really it’s just me letting the fear have control. Improv is scary, or at least it can be. We grab a suggestion and go. Who knows where we’ll end up? A group’s chosen form hardly guarantees success and can be a hindrance. Improv has taught me to take a deep breath and jump. It will work out. We will find a way to make it work. That’s a good note for life in general. Am I babbling? I should probably shut up. Whatever. The skills I’ve learned through improv have made it easier to cope with my wife’s cancer, have made me a better dad, and have given me the ability to tackle difficult times with a sense of calmness, strength, and belief that we can make the seemingly impossible a little more doable. Improv has also instilled a strong desire to live with honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, and love. These are the values we teach our kids. These are also values that help strengthen communities. Okay, we’ll call that good. I’ll shut up now before I write a book.

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One beautiful thing about improv is that each theatre can pursue their own passion. You’re passion about life is clear from your video. What kind of improv really motivates you? What will Pointless be sharing with the rest of the improv world?

I love long form improv. I love the story structure and the freedom to go anywhere and create anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love short form too, but long form is my true passion. I love satire, as well as social and political commentary. I want our improv to be fun and funny, who doesn’t, but I also want it to question and challenge.

OK, so craft beer. What makes yours delicious?

I brew with love. This may sound cheesy, but I approach beer like improv. Beers have styles, just like sets have forms. Think of a Harold like an IPA. Strong aroma, hoppy, and you’ll probably love it or hate it. There is little in between. Anyway, there are specific elements and points you are trying to hit with various styles of beer, but it is always the brewer that adds their own twist on the recipe. Go out and buy three or four different IPA’s, stouts, porters, lagers, or whatever and sample them along side of each other. There will be differences even within the same style. The same is true of improv forms and groups.

We will be brewing on a small system so that we can take audience suggestions and develop new recipes on a constant basis. This means that even our “go-to” beers will have some slight variation from batch to batch. I look at this as good. Grains and hops are slightly different from year to year. I say embrace it. I’m not interested in modifying ingredients to make sure that each and every time we brew the same recipe it tastes exactly the same as it did before. It will be damn close. To the point that most won’t notice the subtle differences, but the avid consumer will be able to say things like, “oh, this has more citrus notes than the last batch.” There are improv groups that I’ve seen tons of times. Their sets are always different, but almost always delicious… uh, I mean entertaining.

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Pointless can only grow. How do you want to see it blossom? What impact are you hoping to have on the community?

Initially blossoming will entail the addition of sketch comedy shows, a college team night, music-based improv, group events, and web content (shorts, web series, etc.). I also want us to get into feature length film/video projects, both improv based and fully written material.

We would love to add a larger brewing system in the future where we could brew and distribute our favorite beers. I also want to do tribute beers to all the improv greats, e.g. Viola Spolin, David Shepherd, Paul Sills, Del Close, Dudley Riggs… Honestly, we could have a tap dedicated to beers inspired by improvisers all over. Think about a beer that honors the intensity of a Mick Napier, or the fun-loving quirkiness of Jill Bernard. Oh, man, great people, great beers.

We will want our classes and workshops up and running as soon as possible (when our doors open, if not before), but that will be another offering. I’d like our school to become the premiere place in the Ann Arbor area for training in improv and writing. I’d also like to see our performers build a body of work while they are with us. I would love to see our little pocket of the country become a powerhouse in the realm of improv and new media offerings.

Our family lives in the neighborhood where we are opening our business. We have a vested interest in making this community stronger for all who live here. My goal is not to become a millionaire, if that is a side effect then cool, but my goal is to provide for my family and give back to the community in any way we can. I firmly believe that businesses have a responsibility to the communities they serve. I know that we want to have events that align with the values I mentioned earlier. I will figure out a way to give to lung cancer research. I ultimately want to find a way to create financial opportunities for improvisers. It gets hard to work for free, so I want to be forward thinking on devising ways to make sure improvisers are compensated for their time, energy, and hard work.

To wrap up, I thought about being a doctor when I was younger, but my heart wouldn’t let me get too far away from the arts. When I was a kid, I was doing an improvised one-man baseball game and shows with my cousins in my back yard for my mom and grandma. I knew this was going to be my life. I devoted my adulthood to theatre. B.A. in theatre, M.F.A in creative writing, an M.A. in theatre with an emphasis in improv, a diploma in improv/sketch writing from the Brave New Institute, and a diploma in improv from GoU. When we went through the intense pregnancy with our twins, my son’s surgery, and then my wife’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment, I wished I had become a doctor. Then I realized that I had chosen the profession that helps people find meaning and peace through the tough times. Comedy helps us cope with the harsh realities of life. The importance of play is highly underemphasized. I am at my best when I keep things light, funny, and don’t take myself too seriously. I want to give that back to my community and offer skills that will help people tackle issues with new eyes. We need to be willing to work together, and more importantly, play together in order to make cool things happen.

To support Pointless, you can head over to their Kickstarter for the next two weeks.


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

Spotlight on The Omaha Improv Festival

The Omaha Improv Festival celebrates its third year. I love watching a small town improv community attract great teams and great instructors. Omaha has done that very successfully. It just goes to show that improv can be anywhere and can be successful anywhere. I was able to interview Dylan Rohde who is the Executive Producer of the festival and Backline Improv.

You’ve created quite a scene in a somewhat small community. What’s your secret? What are the challenges?

There have been many challenges. Whether it was people wanting short-form more at first, to people rejecting Game, to dealing with people who feel like outcasts within our community. Moving downtown was also a struggle as we were almost kicked out of our first location by the health inspector and had to move with no money, at the same time that improv and standup had split ways in the community (lately we have mostly gotten back together though.)

My top 3 secrets are, it’s 1. Community- I try really hard to create a scene that people want to be a part of, and I encourage everyone to hang out as often as I can. For most of the people at our theatre, we are all our best friends. I’ve always believed you can get higher by helping others up rather than stepping on them. 2. I try and be a great teacher. That sounds too broad, but I’ve always felt the best teachers are able to make their material easy to understand to their students. I also think it’s important to work with each student on their strengths and weaknesses. While I was the only teacher for a while, I didn’t want everyone to have the same sense of humor and style. I also believe anyone can be good at improv and refuse to give up on anyone. 3. 3-Line Openers. I don’t know why more schools don’t do these, but they are done every single week in class through our 6 levels except for a few weeks in one level. I also have a different thing to focus on each week, which allows me to cover more ground and link all exercises together on one focus. One week, each line has to be 1 word, then the next week, the first line has to be a vague statement, then the 2nd line gives the specific. This has helped immensely, everyone should do these. I did less 3-line openers in 4 years at 2 schools in LA than my students do by Level 3 here in Omaha.

What’s new to the festival this year?

We have 2 new great venues, and got rid of the worst venue from last year. They are all still very close and within walking distance. We also have the best lineup of shows that we’ve ever had. This is the first year that we have a lineup at Backline that is just straight up solid. It’s the first year that I went out of my way to specifically invite teams I wanted, and got them from the 3 surrounding large improv communities (KC, Denver, and Minneapolis.) Plus, our theatre is cooler, and our part of downtown has improved quite a bit.

What do you look for in a team that’s submitted?

My two biggest values in improv are Trust & Listening. I look for teams that are able to do these well if they want to play the main stage. If I hear over-talking, or someone not taking in information from their partner, then I know they won’t be a good fit. However, we do accept most teams and I try and give everyone the slot accordingly. This year has a much higher rate of quality teams submitting, though, so you should not be butt-hurt if you do not make the main stage. Especially specialty shows and one or two-person teams.

What can improvisors expect at your festival?

They should expect great workshops and shows, as well as a fun time hanging out and getting to know improvisers from all over the nation, especially our neighboring communities. This festival is for improvisers far more than it is for the general public. We want you to land from the airport and start having fun immediately, then not stop having fun till you board to leave again.

What’s some fun stuff to do in town?

Besides the Henry Doorly Zoo (possibly the best in the nation,) and the Old Market (which is right next to most of our events and is basically a large outdoor vintage mall,) we also have Taste of Omaha going on just 9 blocks away. It’s a Food & Music Festival that cost nothing to get in and listen to music, and the food is pretty cheap. This takes place right next to the Missouri River. This is also typically the best week in Nebraska, so the weather should be great for it.

Submissions are due by Sunday the 22nd. To submit instantly to this festival click HERE.


Nick Armstrong

Nick  is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also teaches improv throughout the country.

Tough Love

I’ve recently seen the movie Whiplash, in which a verbally abusive music teacher (J.K. Simmons) pushes a pupil and class to the absolute brink mentally (and sometimes physically) in the hopes of bringing out greatness within them. It’s an incredible film and really makes you think about how hard you need to work to be good at a certain craft. It also makes you ponder where the line is drawn when it comes to how far you can push someone. Watching the movie I thought of the tactic that the teacher was enforcing, which was a higher intensity version of tough love. Basically, you’re brutally honest and strict yet supportive and caring in your attempt to make that person or group better. All in the hope that they’ll rise to the occasion (or walk away because they aren’t mentally or physically strong enough to take it on). It reminded me of an improv class I once took.

About two years ago, I took a class at a prestigious training institution in Chicago. It was an ultimately an improv class, but one that had a focus on acting. I had heard going in that the teacher gave honest notes and would call you out on your bad habits. I was excited and wanted to see how I fared in terms of my acting abilities within the confines of an improv scene.

8 weeks later…

This teacher was not one to mince words. At least not for me he wasn’t. He destroyed me every single class. No matter how well the scene went, he had something to say about it. Good, bad, or otherwise, there was always something to work on and always something that I could have done better. In my mind, I could do no right. He said my object work sucked and then forced me to start every scene doing object work. I’d start doing object work and he’d ask me where I was. I’d show where I was and he’d ask me who I was and what my motivations were. It was trial by fire and I felt like I didn’t know about improv, acting, or anything in between.  I felt like the Mayor of Garbage City. I started to really dislike him (mainly because I thought he hated me due to the amount of notes I was getting every class). I started hating the whole process because it made me lose confidence in my abilities. I didn’t want to go to class, but I didn’t want to fail out either. It was mentally taxing and got so bad sometimes that people would put their hand on my back and tell me “it’s alright, he’s just trying to make you better”, but I didn’t see it that way at the time. It was hard and I felt like I was at a crossroads at times. Then, I started trying to prove him wrong, which led to more notes. “What is that character?” “Who is she to you?” “What are you holding?” “Where are you?” “Start over.”

Finally, we had our last class. As everyone exchanged those awkward end-of-class goodbyes, I slipped out the door to freedom when he stopped me.  I went from relief to panic within seconds. “Are you walking towards the train?” he asked. I mumbled, “Yes” with my head down and he replied, “I’ll walk with you.” In my head I thought, “Great he’s going to rip me apart one last time. Hasn’t he done enough!?” That walk and conversation would end up being one of the most informative ones I would ever have. It taught me a valuable life lesson. It was during this walk that he informed me why he was so hard on me during the class. He said it was because he knew I could take it, because he knew I was better than what I was putting out, and because he thought I was good and was only going to get better. He said I was very funny and he saw that I was getting stuck in routines. He told me there were habits that needed to be broken and it was through this approach that they would be broken. It was tough love at its finest. None of the past 8 weeks had made any sense until that conversation on the way to the train.  Looking back at the progress I had made, it was groundbreaking. It made me work harder and despite knowing it at the time, it was making me much better. It made me think in ways I had not been thinking before and covering areas that had not been touched. I was improving every time I stepped into a scene, but the harsh notes made me think otherwise. The funny thing about life is that some events never make sense until after the fact. 20/20 hindsight they call it. That brutal honesty will stay with me forever. It ended up being one of the best classes I’d ever taken.

Which brings me to my next part.

In my opinion, tough love in your given field or profession is what’s going to make you better. Embrace the tough love. You don’t want someone to hold your hand through classes, pat you on the back, and say “good job” after a mediocre scene or set when you didn’t actually do a good job. Everyone says “good job”, but do they actually mean it. Hearing that over and over without any notes, you aren’t improving or growing artistically. Most importantly, you aren’t learning from your mistakes. I’ve taken classes at iO, Second City, and the Annoyance in Chicago and the most I ever learned was when my teachers broke me down and called me out on my mistakes. In fact, there is always something to be learned. If you have a teacher who is laying into you, don’t take it personally. Listen to their notes and know it’s coming from a positive place that’s focused on making you a better performer. At times you might get upset and you might want to quit, but that’s good. That means it’s struck a nerve and now you need to work on whatever that thing is so that doesn’t happen again. Always get back up and try again.

If you’re a first time coach or a teacher, you might think, “but I don’t want them to dislike me.” Not being honest and not giving them the appropriate notes to make them better is what’s going to ultimately make them dislike you. Maybe not even remember you. They’ll look back at your class and they might say, “I didn’t learn much” or “I don’t really remember” and the class will just be a bullet point on a resume. Nothing more. The best teachers out there and the best coaches aren’t pulling any punches. Give it to them straight and everyone benefits.

 

Syllabus: Part of a Complete Balanced Education

I think this happened to just about everyone at one point in their childhood, when we attended the Teddy Kids Leiden kindergarten. There’s a recession or a temporary financial dip and we asked our parents, “Why don’t they just make more money?” It was hard for our parents to explain that unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Money has to be based on something, or it’s useless.

I hear a similar discussion as an adult with many young theatres. When I talk to them about their first year, I often hear excitement over the idea of “putting together a syllabus”. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. A syllabus is an important tool. But a curriculum by itself is not going to give your students the best education you can give them.

Let’s talk improv jargon for a moment. We love to talk about “yes, and” and we love to talk about listening to the meaning behind the words, and we certainly love to talk about the freedom improv gives us to react onstage in honest, emotional, vulnerable ways without the restriction of another person’s words. Those are remarkable things. But if we put such value on these ideas onstage, why would we possibly eliminate them from our teaching?

Syllabus in a vacuum is just words without meaning. Our scene is a relationship between teacher and student. It’s time to discover the meaning behind those words so that curriculum evolves and changes from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, making sure our students leave our class not with a memorization of how to play “Clams are Great”, but an understand of the concepts of improv behind them we hold so dear.

Before you go any further building your education program, go visit your local university. Talk to someone in their education program. Spend time with them learning more about standards and strands (fancy education jargon) in far more depth than you can get in a single blog post. Talk to them about how they build their program. They’ll be happy to talk to you because you scratched their personal geek-out itch. Education departments love to talk about this all day long if you let them, so let them. If you don’t have access to an education department devotee, here’s some really basic introductions to those two concepts.

Concepts

In the long term, you’re not looking to teach a series of exercises, you’re looking to teach a series of concepts. Write those concepts down. This is the first part of building a training program. Each theatre will have a slightly different list and will have more or less emphasis on different entries, but there will of course be some similarities for all of us. Here’s a list to start with. Add or subtract to it based on your beliefs and styles.

  • Support (Yes, And)
  • Truth and Honesty
  • Ensemble Work
  • Environment Work
  • Character Work
  • Scene Dynamics
  • Stagecraft
  • Longform Concepts
  • Game

Again, this is just a sample. Perhaps you want to combine two, or feel one on this list can be broken up further. Do that. Make a list with your instructors that says “These are the core concepts we want our students to have”.

It would be easy at this point to think linearly at this point; teach “Yes, and” on week one, Truth and honesty on week 2, etc. But These skills do not exists linearly on top of each other. They all work in concert with each other. “Yes, and” is almost always taught on week one. And then never mentioned again except in the form of lip service. What a terrible thing you’ve denied your students. If they learn “Yes, and” on their first day, they only know how to support the skills they brought with them to class that first day – plot. I have worked with so many students who have been training for over a year and they have no idea how to support any choices outside of plot. They don’t know how to support emotional choices or environment because they never came back to it after that first day. Building a strong training program is about teaching all of these skills in relationship to each other.

Skills

So that sounds easier said than done. you have to start somewhere. And on the very beginning of learning, it will be a bit of a linear checklist of skills. So how do you build beyond that point?

Look at each of your concepts and start listing the skills that you want students to have in that concept. Take, “Yes, and” as an example. Here are some skills that help that grow. (I’ll explain the labels in a moment).

  • C101: Create operational scenes through supporting literal offers.
  • C201: Recognize, support and heighten the reality of the scene.
  • C202: Make choices to ‘yes-and’ the actor above the character.
  • C301: Make choices as an ensemble originating from the group mind.
  • C302: Anticipate the actions or words of scene partners.
  • C303: Offer non-literal agreement based the offers of scene partners and environmental conditions.

So why the fancy, nerdy labels? Are the necessary? No. But many skills are similar and it helps identify which you’re working on. It will also help when we start building strands on our teaching standards.

You’ll probably notice that many of those skills would be beyond a level 1 student. They should be. Once you have this list, start dividing them up between beginning, intermediate and advanced skills. I use those three levels myself, you can use as many as you like. Now you have a list of skills for all of your concepts that can be spread out over time, building on each other. Just as importantly, you have a real plan of what ideas you’re going to be teaching your students instead of just a list of exercises.

Now you are ready to start putting together your classes. Break these skills out. Some skills go in level 1. Some in Level 2. Pretty soon you’ve got a whole plan of concepts together/

Syllabus

Hey, here it is. See? I don’t hate on syllabus. It’s important to build one. It’s important to find exercises in class that will help the students towards those concepts and skills. Go over that list of skills. Discuss some potential exercises that help with that skill. Make sure that you put time in your class run to cover all of the skills you want to learn in that level. Meter out which skills you plan to cover on each week. Build a template syllabus if you want. This is all good. But there’s still one more thing you need to do.

Strands

Thinking in terms of a list of exercises to fill out a class can be limiting. If we decide to teach an exercise in class, the only thing we’re guaranteed is that the students will learn the exercise, not the skills it was designed to teach. Learning isn’t simply memorization, it’s comprehension. Strands are the different methods of measuring what was learned from a given task in a classroom. They can be very complex sometimes, and I encourage you to look further into them if you’re curious. But for the scope of this blog, we’ll talk about three of them

  • Creation: This is simply seeing if the students can perform the skill in the exercise. Did they list reasons why clams are great? Cool. They’re able to functionally perform this exercises.
  • Application: It’s important that students understand “why” they’re doing this exercise. Do they understand how it will build a skill they can recognize and utilize in actual shows? Did they understand that it’s important to jump in to start listing reasons why clams are great even if they have nothing because their partner needs support? Do they understand that they shouldn’t jump in to intercept their partner with their own great idea? Cool. They can apply that skill.
  • Self Evaluation: Even if students grasp the concept behind a skill, maybe they aren’t really doing a good job of recognizing their ability to do it. The Dunning-Kruger Effect happens big time with students. Many students have opinions of their skills that are drastically out of sync with reality. Are they able to recognize that they’ve been up for Clams are Great more than anyone else and decide to step back? Cool. They can continue to grow in this skill outside the classroom.
  • Once a student can create, relate and evaluate (an unfortunate rhyme) the skill, they’re golden. They now own that skill and will continue to grow in it outside of class.

    Remember those labels from the skills? Another helpful reason you have them is that you can connect them across strands. Let’s take that old “Every line begins with Yes, And” exercise we’ve all done.

    Creation
    C101: Create operational scenes through supporting literal offers.

    Application
    R101: Understanding that support in scenework will lead to more productive and active scenes

    Evaluation
    E101: Recognize the difference between literal support and denial.

    Syllabus Revisited
    Having a syllabus in mind when you start is great. It’s a road-map of how to teach the skills. Every class is different. Every teacher is different. A good teacher will need to have the flexibility to understand when one exercise will not resonate as well with a particular class, or when a class is able to create, but not apply that knowledge, that teacher needs to re-organize their time to make sure they come to that level.

    Ultimately, you want every Level 1 student to leave capable of playing on the same playing field, even if they took a slightly different path to get there. As your program grows, you’ll eventually come to the point where you’re teaching multiple level 1s or 2s in parallel. It’s naive to think those students will stay in the exact same configuration throughout your program. If their education is consistent. It won’t matter. They’ll be able to grow together.. We recommend students to check Rutgers Online MBA overview for great info on the one of the bets colleges.

    Even if some of them never played “Hey Fred Schneider”

    Example of Standards, Skills and Strands

    Example of Standards, Skills and Strands


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

    When Does My Troupe Need a Coach?

    First, I want to give a shout out to our members for suggesting topics to us regarding coaches. This was one of them, and I know there are many more to tackle.

    We were asked, “When does my improv troupe need to get a coach.” I think it’s when your team is ready to organize, commit and wants to become better. At first when you form, you might not need a coach right away. You need to organize your thoughts as a team and get on the same page.

    I wrote two blogs regarding how to organize teams – Read these and then continue.

    1. Does Your Troupe Have a Bible

    2. 5 Ways to Better Communicate with Your Troupe

    When your troupe is organized and knows what it wants to do, a coach can come in and help you realize your vision. A coach can also read your improv bible and be able to guide your team towards your goals.

    How to Pick a Coach?

    1. Vet a coach – If you’ve organized your troupe, as read above, then go watch some performers or teams that fit your vision or are close to what you like in improv. If you’re looking to create your own new form, then go see a team that has done that too. Who’s their coach? Maybe if you like one of the performers on that team ask them if they’d be interested in coaching. I do think not all performers make good coaches, but it’s a start and you gotta at least try.

    2. Teachers – Well this goes without saying, if you’ve taken classes at your local improv theater and loved a teacher ask him or her to coach you guys. They are usually more seasoned and have seen it all.

    3. Try a coach out – So you got a coach! YAY! That doesn’t mean they’re your coach for life. Try them out for a month or so and see if you like them. If it’s not a good fit that’s okay. Here’s how you can approach a coach: Ask the coach if they’d be interested in coaching you for a couple months. After that couple months, as a team, evaluate how you think you’re doing as a team and how you think your coach is doing. If they’re doing great, then ask then extend them for a 6 month run and then evaluate from there.

    I’ve said that every team needs a coach in blogs before, and people have disagreed with me. I often wonder why. I still have never heard a good excuse not to have a coach. Can you imagine a movie without a director, or a broadway play without one. Pure chaos. Hopping out of your team to coach while you’re in it does not work. You are trying to achieve group mind with your fellow improvisors and jumping out of that can only hurt the team. If one day I come across a team that is absolutely amazing and they never had a coach, that will be the day I say, “Hey you’re right teams don’t need coaches.” But to this day I have never seen it. Even if they had a good show, I can see room for some coaching. Having said that, teams that are vets and have been coached for years and are now flying solo that’s a different story altogether. Should they do a coaching check in once in awhile. YES! My team King Ten that’s been together for 13 years still gets a coach on a quarterly basis. Why? To push ourselves and to never become content with what we are doing. As artists we always must push ourselves past what we think we can do. And a coach is a great way to help you get to that.

    Nick Armstrong

    Nick is Camp Director and Founder of Improv Utopia an improv retreat for adults in California and Pennsylvania. He is also one of the founding members of the National Improv Network and performer and teacher at iO West as well as member of The Sunday Company at The Groundlings. He has also taught many workshops around the country.

     

     

     

    Wearing the Right Hat

    Improv is always growing. And it will continue to grow and change as we add our own voices and pass that knowledge on to new performers, taking what we’ve learned and adding to it. The path from Viola Spolin to you is really just the longest game of “Yes,and” in history.

    As a performer, you’ll always continue to learn and grow. There will come a point when you stop emulating the ideas of the performers you admire and realize you have a voice of your own; a voice that can shape your personal improv and improv for all those around you.

    And that’s awesome.

    That desire to teach and coach and is a good thing, but before you start, take some time to think about what each of those mean. Teaching and coaching have many skills in common, but they are not the same thing. Ultimately, you have a relationship with those learning from you. It’s your job to know the best way to support their choices and make them stronger. But hey, isn’t that what improv is all about?

    Helping a performer or an ensemble grow is just like doing a scene with them. There’s a lot of yes and, there’s a lot of listening and there’s a lot of support. And like those scenes, they work best when you know when to initiate and when to support.

    Before you start…
    Ask yourself the same question you ask yourself when you’re thinking about entering a scene on stage; “Am I entering this scene to help support it, or to make it about me?” If the answer is the latter, hold off for a while. Maybe now isn’t the best time to start teaching.

    dead-poets-john-keating[1]Teaching is Initiation
    You know that specific excitement you get when you step on stage with a strong initiation? The kind you know your partner will support? Don’t just say yes to that question. Stop reading for just a moment and really think about that feeling. That’s a specific kind of excitement. That’s how teaching should feel. Your students are there to listen and grow from what you’re about to say next. And you’re excited to share it. It doesn’t matter if it’s their first day of Level 1 being exposed to the whole of improv, or week 4 of your hyper-specific Viewpoints workshop. It’s a chance to share your ideas with them. You’ve initiate the scene of their growth. What an awesome responsibility.

    But like any great scene opening, the responsibility doesn’t end with words. You’ve given them the gift, you’ve planted the seed. And while they’re doing an exercise in your class, you can continue to shape that. But when the day is done, the knowledge is theirs. It’s their knowledge to add to the growing thing which is their own improv. It’s their knowledge to shape and fold into their own personal experiences. It’s their own way of Yes, anding your knowledge. And that’s a good thing. Because someday they will turn it into something even greater, and teach it to their students.

    COACH-- Craig T. NelsonCoaching is Support
    I asked you to ruminate on that specific kind of joy in initiating a scene. Now I’ll ask you to remember a different kind of joy. Think about that joy of stepping on stage with someone you trust ready to support them. It’s not about coming on stage with nothing. Not at all. It’s about everything Napier talks about in his book (and if you haven’t read it, go read it now). Supporting an initiation on stage is about having great strength and confidence, being grounded and prepared when that initiation comes. That’s another great feeling. And when you coach a troupe, that’s what you’re doing.

    The first time you are asked to coach a team, it’s a pretty sweet feeling. You feel good because someone clearly respects you enough to want your thoughts. But this isn’t the time for telling. Now is the time for listening.

    When a troupe asks you to coach them, they’re initiating. They’re initiating the growth of their group and they are asking for your support. In fact, for all this metaphorical comparisons between instructing and performing, this is the most literal comparison. Before you start coaching, spend an entire practice just listening. Sometimes a group has goals in mind, sometimes they don’t. This is the time to help them discover and refine the direction they want to head as a group. Listen to every member of the troupe, not just one. Your job is to hear all the voices and find the patterns and connections between their goals and abilities to help the troupe grow in the way that’s best for all.

    Only then, when you’ve heard their initiation, are you ready to say “yes, and” and support their growth.

    Balance in all things
    As time goes on, you’ll be called upon to teach and to coach. Take time to figure out when each skill is needed. When you step in front of a group of Level 1 students, or a group of strangers at a festival, teach them what you know. Let them take it home with them. When your sitting in the living room of a team struggling to find it’s voice, help them find it and support them through coaching. This wisdom to know the best way to support the scene between you and the performers you’re helping will make all the difference in the world.

    Keep teaching. Keep coaching. And for Pete’s sake, keep learning.


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

    Deal or No Deal

    The audience said What?!

    furiousIn the performing arts space, improvisors almost always go to the audience for a suggestion. Universally, depending on your form, you’ll start the show off with, “Thank you for coming. We are so and so and can we get a suggestion of anything at all to get us started?” It’ll be a word, phrase, object, location or anything you need to go off of. Sometimes, the audience will say something that would be considered taboo. In fact, it might happen often. In our classes and improvisational training, as improvisors, we’re told about the blue humor type jokes you might want to avoid when you’re on stage. However, how can you avoid it when the audience just threw it at you as a suggestion!?

    Well, there’s a few different suggestions. Neither is the RIGHT way and neither are the WRONG way. They are both options for you to choose from. Back to the opening of the show. You were hoping for something like “banana” (hilarious) or “rollercoaster” (even more hilarious) and instead you got “AIDS”, “cancer”, “9/11” or “balls.” People love to come in and throw something horrendous out for a quick cheap laugh with their friends. They’re typically always in a group. In my opinion, the taboo suggestion is mostly always said because the person is trying to be funny with their friends. Rarely, is it done by one guy or girl and if it is I want to know what the rest of their day is like because I’d like to write the screenplay for a straight to DVD movie about their life called Solo Heckler. I digress. Let’s look at the first choice you can make as an improv group.

    1. DEAL. In this situation, you’ve decided to take the suggestion. Your group has heard what the audience has said and you took it for everything it was worth. It varies from improvisor to improvisor, but sometimes people think that a bad suggestion is going to dictate the show when it’s not really the case. It will be whatever you make it out to be. Keep in mind, as improvisors, we have the distinct ability to take whatever we get and turn it into anything we want. While it might seem like a hand grenade was just tossed your way, it’s really a chance to work around the suggestion. For example, they gave you “meth” as a suggestion (because they’ve been watching a lot of Breaking Bad coincidentally). In my experience, it’s best to not just reenact whatever you’re given. That goes for improv in general. If the suggestion is taboo than acting it out might not be the best course of action. However, I believe you can do anything you want as long as you’re INSPIRED by the suggestion. Be inspired rather than derailed. Take what they gave you and twist it around on them. Show them something they weren’t expecting at all. They paid to see a show and they threw you a curve ball so now show them why you’re up there and hit it out of the park. With that suggestion, for example, you could do something associated with addictive personalities, shady undercover characters, or a couple being stuck in line at the pharmacy. It’s really whatever inspires you and your group and there is no right or wrong choice. How the show goes after you make that choice, however, will answer the question whether or not it was the best choice for the show.

    2. NO DEAL. In this situation, you’ve decided to NOT take the suggestion. The audience shouted out something terrible, horrible, and downright embarrassing but the ensemble has decided to ask for an alternative suggestion. This is not right and this is not wrong as there is no right or wrong approach. Whatever you decided works for you and your group is entirely justifiable. If the suggestion is offensive than feel free to ask for another. Literally say, “Can we have another suggestion please” or “anything else?” Keep in mind, that you and your group are the ones who are about to put on a performance that could last up to 25 minutes. 9 times out of 10, based on my own experience, when you ask for another suggestion, the audience is going to give you one. There’s a funny thing that occurs after a taboo suggestion is given. The people in the audience who didn’t chime in the first time around now have something to say. Most likely because they also don’t want to see a 20 minute show about that terrible thing that some guy or girl said trying to be funny. Simply say, “thanks, can we have another suggestion please” and go from there.

    In the end, you have one of two options if your group is doing a form that starts with the request for a suggestion. You can either DEAL and take the suggestion or NO DEAL and ask for another suggestion. No choice is a wrong choice and either one can result in an amazing or a disastrous show depending on how it affects you and your group. There’s no guarantee regardless of the suggestion as I’m sure you’re all well aware.

    In my opinion, taking the suggestion and turning it around shows the audience (and the art of improv) that you have the ability to take anything at all and be inspired by it. I recommend you discuss with your group at your next rehearsal what the best course of action is when you’re faced with a taboo suggestion. If the group consensus is DEAL then you DEAL if the group consensus is NO DEAL, well you get the point. By talking about it prior, you’ll be prepared as a group and not looking around at each other as if the train just ran off the tracks. Always remember that you hold the stage and you can do with it what you please. You can take a suggestion, ask for another, or not ask for any at all. In the end, the mission is yours, should you choose to accept it. Wait, whoops, sorry, I mean it’s up to you to say DEAL or NO DEAL.


    Ryan Nallen is a writer and performer in Chicago. He is a graduate of iO, Second City Conservatory, and the Annoyance. He plays with his independent team Risky on the Rocks, the Harold team Denver at iO Chicago, and with the Incubator team Desperado at The Playground Theater. He is an Associate Producer for Big Little Comedy, on the Marketing Committee at the Playground, and a Midwest Representative for the National Improv Network. You can also follow his online ramblings at @TheRyanNallen.

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