Boundaries and what to do when you get there

18 Apr

The world is our oyster doing improv, but at what point does our boundary-pushing toe the line on tastefulness?

At last year’s prestigious Del Close Marathon, an ASSSSCAT 3000 show yielded one of the most uncomfortable audience monologues this world over. An audience member (later identified as a cook/host at Second City Chicago who has since moved) volunteered to tell a story for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade troupe to use as inspiration for their form (see last week’s post about suggestions and why it’s a good thing we don’t take them too literally). What started off as a funny story of the art of picking up a woman turned into a borderline-horrific account of a greaseball essentially molesting a woman and laughing about it as if it were a scene from his favorite Judd Apatow movie.

Of course, this was certainly not the fault of the improvisers. They handled the situation, which was covered by national media, with the utmost respect and grace for what they could have done. What could have been a truly painful form to sit through lampooning a very serious potential confession was mostly diffused for the time being and the form explored things other than blatant sexual assault. A couple members of the all-male cast even pointed out how uncomfortable the man’s tale was making everyone.

So what do we do about other players making us uncomfortable and making sure we don’t shatter a perfectly good improv relationship by mortifying them onstage? An article on Talking Improv featuring vlogger Grace Helbig from the Daily Grace explored the idea that just because we as improvisers seem down for anything as we “fly by the seat of our pants” doesn’t mean we’re comfortable exploring particular topics. A good rule of thumb is to play it safe with a group you’re not used to playing with; there’s no need to offend someone right off the bat by referencing their race or sexuality in a form unless you know they are 100 percent OK with it.

But even players with a strong repertoire can toe the line. I was in an improv show during UF’s Relay for Life and, being groggy at 2 a.m., I encouraged a male fellow player to lift me up during a game of Stunt Doubles. The game itself relies on big physical movements, and I absolutely trusted him to have my back. Unfortunately, a combination of rash boldness and middle-of-the-night hyperactivity gave him the bright idea to lift me up and go to jump off the stage with me in his arms. Now, I’m about 5’3 and even that relatively low stage seemed like I was standing at the bow of the RMS Titanic. Therefore, I sacrificed a potentially hilarious (and dangerous) bit to fall backwards onto the center of the stage and probably made him look like a bumbling, confused fool. I felt bad for a moment, but instantly thought to myself, “How could he not know I would NEVER agree to do that?” But, again, we all make mistakes. I gave him a look and all is right with the world.

Moral of the story? Play it safe with unfamiliar players, react smartly in uncomfortable situations and contriving a scene in which you grope a hot girl at a jam is not playing to the top of your intelligence. So don’t do it.


Suggestive behavior

16 Apr

The suggestion is, to a degree, the core of improv. It’s our inspiration that gets the gears turning to churn out a seemingly endless supply of comic genius and human interest. Of course, they tell you to go A to C so the suggestion of “jaguar” does not yield a scene with two jaguars talking about  how cool it is to be a jaguar. So if our goal is to not take a suggestion in its most literal form, then what exactly is the point? In short form, taking suggestions throughout the show is a necessity to keep the crowd engaged and to inspire each individual game. But in long form, the suggestion is rarely reflected clearly in the form, and it’s only uttered once at the beginning of the show. After a 25-minute set, I doubt anyone except that one audience member even remembers what it is more than half the time.

One of the most wonderful, unique aspects of improv as a craft for the audience is that it relies heavily on what the audience can feed the performers. While a play is staged and planned without much consideration for what the audience asks for, improv gives the audience what it wants to see in the purist sense. They ask for it, we do it. Maybe it’s not a verbatim menu order, but it’s the best a viewer can hope to ask for in the theater.  So is this practice to make sure the audience has a hands-on role rooted in a desire to keep them interested or to prove we didn’t write this whole script up in the green room before the show? And if this is the latter, why do we feel the need to prove it? If it’s for the audience to cut us some slack, then that’s just being lazy performers.

 If what we do is inferior to theater or scripted comedy unless everyone is SURE it’s just make-um’ ups, then we’re doing inferior work. – Shyla Ray, The New Movement Houston, ImprovWins Conference

The quality of good long form should be comparable to scripted theater, so I feel our commitment should be primarily to satisfying the audience as opposed to proving our own worth as performers. Only once we fully knock down those barriers can we engage with an audience in the truest form. And maybe then Groupon wouldn’t have to print out these bizarre instructions when a potential audience member buys a ticket. The audience should feel just as at-ease as we do to get the most out of the show, and expecting anything more profound than “stage!” or “chair!” from a timid audience is asking a bit much if they’re not used to participating. And we’re sick of taking “gynecologist” when we ask for a profession, right guys? RIGHT!

In the end, whether you choose to continue taking suggestions from the audience is a personal choice, and there is certainly no right or wrong answer. I likely will continue to. Just take a moment to think about your motivations for doing so and how that may affect your performance and your relationship with the audience.

But in case you non-improvisers out there reading this forget how to yell things out when people ask you open-ended questions, pull this handy list up on your iPhone that kicks the crap out of Groupon’s*:

The Onion, Sept. 27, 2000

* I was kidding. Never say these. 

Adapting to a situation through improv

12 Apr

Comedy has proven to be the saving grace for many who feel they have nowhere else to turn. It has long been the safe haven for the depressed, the quirky or those who feel like they don’t have a voice. Luckily, it’s also proven to be a great creative outlet, and the tenants of improv has been fostering a sense of love and community since it began.

I came across this article about a mother who used her ability to “teach the art of accepting anything unexpected that’s thrown your way” to raise twin boys and an autistic daughter without losing her mind. If there’s one thing I’ve personally learned in improv, it’s learning how to roll with the punches, even if you weren’t dealt the kind of hand you wish you had been.

I can hear my past improv coaches saying, “So things are not turning out like you wished. Too bad, lady. Sometimes you go into a scene as a supermodel and you end up being a tree stump.” – Katie Anderson

One of the primary stresses in life is being unable to control your own destiny, and improv positively stomps that fear out of you. When  I went through the arduous process of standardized testing and applications to get into undergraduate school, I found myself frequently bogged down by the anxiety that comes with having very little idea of what I would be doing and where I would be living in the next few months after having lived in the same place for 18 years. Half the time I’d opt to mentally check-out and bolt before I could confront the situation.

Three years and hundreds of hours of stage time later, the process of applying to law school was stressful, but I took it in stride. I could have been halfway across the country by May, but the whole idea of going with the flow when schools didn’t give me their admissions decisions in any kind of timely order has kept my sanity intact. Mostly.

But there are so many others things in our daily life that we have almost no control over. Most of the things at work, home and school that wind up getting us down the most are the things we didn’t have a preconceived game plan for — nor could we. Because we’re not all football coaches with playbooks full of X’s and O’s for every situation that could arise, improv can help us adapt to the best of our abilities.

What kind of situations have you had to deal with that you couldn’t control?

Improvisation for better collaboration, reporting

30 Mar

So it’s about time I combined two of the few things I can actually refer to as “skills” in my life (barring that watching Netflix isn’t a skill): improv comedy and journalism.

Reading this article on MediaShift about a journalist who incorporates the basic tenants of improv to better her reporting, interviewing and collaboration skills made my heart sing. There was even a subhead referring to “yes, and..,” which is just wonderful.

Amanda Hirsch, author of the article, has been performing long form for six years and teaches workshops under the company name Think Improv.  The name says it all, really: THINK Improv, not DO Improv. Just as journalism isn’t about knowing, improv isn’t about funny; it’s about thinking. Thinking doesn’t mean getting caught up in the fickle trap of your own brain trying to come up with the perfect opening line (or a fancy lede), but it does mean playing to the height of your intelligence and being engaged with what’s happening. The rest comes with due time and practice.

If there’s one thing I personally learned from improv, it’s that the truth is by far the funniest thing out there. The straight guy gets just as many (if not more) laughs than the whack-a-doodle character simply because genuine human reactions appeal to an audience. We can identify with the character, and that’s the most imperative part of an actor connecting with his or her audience. Likewise, a journalist’s goal is to tell a story the reader will care about, which comes down to a truthful portrayal of the human experience.

Even outside of journalism, opening lines of communication and thinking outside the box are skills that any professional could make good use of — and the secret’s out. Both MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business incorporate improv ideas like suspension of judgment to further brainstorming and listening, and they have included classes and lectures on the subject into their curriculum. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism even offers an Improv for Journalists workshop to help students learn how to generate story ideas and go with the flow.

“It applies to leadership and it applies to negotiation, where you never have control over what happens. Negotiation is a dynamic process — you have to be able to think on your feet and adapt.” — Lakshmi Balachandra, improvisational leadership teacher at MIT

Students at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Communications focused an entire multimedia thesis project on how both daily life and communication are affected by what improv is all about. The project didn’t even mention comedy; it explored how a jazz musician, surgeon, confectioner and many others use the idea of improvisation to go forward both professionally and socially. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this, I’ll be honest. It’s genius.

So “yes, and…” on a project and get momentum behind you all the faster. Listen to your fellow reporters, sources, facts and the story bubbling under the surface waiting to be told. Dive in, take a risk and overcome self-doubt. And just remember — you don’t have to be perfect.

Women in comedy vs. people in comedy

20 Mar

Women in comedy. It’s a concept that has long been heralded as the sort of novelty act that is worthy of commending or criticizing over other forms of the craft. As a woman myself, it’s sometimes difficult to determine if this attention above and beyond (or, at the very least, separate) to my male counterparts sheds light on an oft-ignored aspect  of the comedy experience or simply highlights an archaic rift that no longer exists?

I was recently interviewed by INsite, Gainesville’s leading entertainment magazine, for a story about local women in comedy. In addition to the interview, I also participated in a cover shoot that recreated the promotional poster for the 2011 summer blockbuster comedy “Bridesmaids.”  The article emphasized female participation in the comedy scene throughout Gainesville, focusing mainly on improv and directing comedy in the theater. However, the reporter spent much of the interview asking about the differences between men and women in comedy — what jokes worked best for whom and what boundaries I felt I could cross. I had so much trouble coming up with an answer, and I feel like the one I gave was just to move the conversation along without tripping over my own conflicting ideology on the subject.

The INsite cover photo featuring (from left to right): Sara Solano (myself), Brittany Brave, Katie Kirkpatrick and Sami Main.

When one of the top-billed performers on “Saturday Night Live” is a woman (Kristen Wiig has been undeniably running the show lately, even if some of her characters become overused) and when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have become synonymous with television success, it makes one wonder how they can be considered separate beasts from Jason Sudeikis and Seth Meyers. For every shamefully underwhelming “Whitney,” there’s a “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” just waiting to be appreciated for the comedy gold it is.

“30 Rock,” which features Fey as the head writer of a variety show, particularly lampoons the absurd male/female dichotomy in the comedy workplace and featured an episode satirizing “The Daily Show” and it’s questionable choice to hire Olivia Munn, a gorgeous television personality from G4, as a correspondent in response to complaints that it did not feature enough female talent.

In the evolution from Carol Burnett to Bea Arthur to Maya Rudolph, it makes you wonder where that difference between the sexes and genres of comedy begins and ends. Every woman brings a different element to the table, so it makes it impossible to pigeonhole women into their own genre of comedy. I’m sorry, but lumping my personal style with Sarah Silverman’s crudeness and Chelsea Handler’s sorry-I’m-not-sorry attitude is just downright insulting — but, on the flip side, it probably wouldn’t be to one of my fellow female comedians who emulates either one. We’re all different flavors of the same Kool-Aid. I’ll admit I find myself more and more frustrated feeling obligated to support women comedians (and the tired archetypes we’re often expected to emulate) simply out of support for the sisterhood. If you absolutely despised Bill Maher, you likely wouldn’t say, “Well, for a guy he’s doing pretty well for himself, so I ought to give him some credit there.” The easiest and most pragmatic thing to do would be to treat everyone on an equal playing field and deduce your preferences and opinions from there.

Luckily, this idea of segregating women from the rest of the comedy playing field is lessening over time as women are more and more considered genuinely funny. English author Christopher Hitchens received a lot of heat for his 2007 Vanity Fair column slamming female comedians as a whole. I just can’t wait for the day someone calls me a funny person instead of a funny woman.

iO summer intensive inspires young comedians

5 Mar

With summer quickly approaching and others are reaching for their swimsuits and tanning oil, young comedians from across the country will be flocking to Chicago for the summer intensive at the iO Theater in Chicago. From July 9 to August 9, students will go through five weeks and four levels Monday through Thursday all day each day, culminating in a show on the famous Del Close Theater stage to showcase their skills.

Last year, UF students RJ Mills, Jacki Schwarz, Nick Slater and Collin Cunninghame traveled to Chicago to live for a month in a big city and learn from some of the most qualified instructors on the improv scene. According to Mills, a telecommunication junior, it felt more like a camp than an intensive.

“It’s interesting to not only befriend, but to improvise with people who come from varying parts of the nation — from Salt Lake City Mormons to a girl who lives on a pig farm in West Virginia,” he said. “By the end of five weeks, we knew what the other was thinking, but we couldn’t have been more different before.”

Slater, a senior psychology major, said the experience was eye-opening. “It made me love improv more,” he said. “After performing with [Theatre Strike Force], it was great to see the difference between regional improv and the national circuit.”

TSF members pose with two new friends in Chicago's Millennium Park. (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): Two iO classmates, Nick Slater, UF alumnus Spencer Hamilton, Jacki Schwarz, RJ Mills and Collin Cunninghame. PHOTO PROVIDED BY COLLIN CUNNINGHAME.

Because acting and the performing experience is so highly individualized, the value of the $1,100 investment is subjective. Austin-based author and improviser Chris Trew, after reviewing his own experience, said it’s a great value for new up-and-comers looking to experience the scene in a big city.

Cunninghame, an economics sophomore who had previously lived in Chicago to study with The Second City, had two radically different experiences. The first time living in Chicago, he resided in a $1,000 studio apartment half a block away from Second City with all the cushy amenities he could ask for. The second time, he shared a two-bedroom apartment with Slater, Schwarz and Mills, slept on an air mattress, and contended with a backed-up shower, broken sinks, and a fridge empty of anything but takeout Chinese food and half-empty vodka bottles.

He loved it just as much the second time around, he said.

“The improv community of that city is so magnetic that it doesn’t matter if you’re tackling it or grazing it with the tip of a fingernail — you get pulled straight into the middle, and it’s bliss.”

Laugh In Peace tour promotes coexistence through comedy

29 Feb

So a German, a Russian and a Jew were wandering through the desert and, believe it or not, the punchline was in good taste.

The Laugh In Peace Comedy Tour features two comics — Azhar Usman, a prominent American Muslim comedian, and Rabbi Bob Alper, the self-proclaimed “only rabbi who does stand-up comedy…intentionally.” The two have toured the country performing on college campuses and in places of worship to promote the idea of equality and coexistence between two religious sects that are often defined by the tensions they share.

In a joint effort between UF Hillel and Islam on Campus, Islam Awareness Month ended and Jewish Awareness Month began with program embracing the core ideals of both religions under the common thread of humor. The event took place in the J. Wayne Reitz Union Grand Ballroom Tuesday evening. Opening remarks by Rabbi Daniel and Imam Abdul Malik of the Gainesville community further pushed the idea that humanity is, above all else, the foundation for the human experience.

Alper, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, left his rabbinical duties to pursue a comedy career that has successfully spanned the past 20 years. His act is completely family-friendly and not blue in the least, which is charmingly juxtaposed with the more frank Usman.

We’ll do our own thing and then talk together, the message being we model our friendship not just from being on stage but as true friends…We’re an odd couple; I’m 63, he’s 32. The only thing we have in common is both of us are exceptionally good-looking.” – Bob Alper, The Boston Globe

Both Alper and Usman have been featured multiple times in the media; Alper is a regular on SiriusXM satellite radio and Usman had an entire episode feature on ABC Nightline, as well as spots on CBS Sunday Morning and CNN Headline News.

The performers may have expressed themselves through stand-up instead of improv, but their message is genuine and true for all forms of comedy. Although we may come from all walks of life, the universal language of laughter is boundless.

Improvised Shakespeare brings theater, comedy to UF

18 Feb

I wouldn’t get thee to a nunnery all too quickly — you’d miss a fantastic show. The Improvised Shakespeare Co., an institution of the Chicago comedy scene and the improvOlymic Theater, is taking its talents to Gainesville for a show on the University of Florida campus Monday evening.

Since the group’s inception in 2005, it has been critically acclaimed and continues to pack the house at iO nearly every night they perform. But what is it about these performers that separates them from the hoards of other improvised gimmicks coming out of Chicago? After asking the audience for a suggestion of a play that has yet to be written, the cast launches into a full-length Elizabethan play with zero preparation in advance. Considered one of the most impressive and smart gimmicks, the players themselves are as sharp as their act — troupe member Joey Bland is a two-time “Jeopardy” champion.

“They are routinely called the best group in Chicago,” said Theatre Strike Force president Liz Anderson. “They have two shows a night and both usually sell out.”

“Mind-blowing. It was one of the funniest, most amazing things I’ve ever seen.” – The Charleston City Paper Online, iO’s website

For the past two years, TSF has brought down stellar acts from Chicago and New York such as The Reckoning and the Upright Citizens Brigade Tour Co. for free shows and workshops — a value that would easily exceed $100 in Chicago. With ample connections in the improv community, TSF plans to keep bringing down groups to educate students and performers about different styles of improv.

“If we have the means, why not shoot for the stars?” Anderson said.

Workshops will take place on Sunday at 4 p.m. in Weimer Hall. Please contact for more information. The show will be in the Rion Ballroom of UF’s J. Wayne Reitz Union, and doors open at 8 p.m. and there will be a Q&A session after.

Gainesville improv fest fosters learning, friendship

5 Feb

The Gainesville Improv Festival rolled into town once again, bringing with it talented improvisers from around the country and an insatiable hunger for knowledge and networking. From Wednesday to Saturday, improvisers from Chicago to St. Louis and more headed to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on the UF campus for four nights of shows and workshops.

Combing both long form, short form and musical improv, these groups came together for the ultimate form of camaraderie  — a non-competitive improv festival. While some hard-and-fast staples made their triumphant return to the Phillips Center stage such as OFFSIDES from Orlando (now a two-man group instead of their usual five or six), A.I.T from Palm Beach State College and MAD Cowford from Jacksonville, some wowed their first Gainesville audience, like the all-female musical group STACKED and the long-running British television show Dr. Who-based The WHOligans.

Festivals are great because there’s no pressure; everyone’s just here to have a good time with fellow players to make friends and learn from each other. — Rich Camillucci, Theatre Strike Force short form director

Hosted by UF troupe Theatre Strike Force alumni Tom O’Donnell and Skyler Stone (and emceed by Brian Jeagar) since it began in 2005, the festival provided plenty of laughs while encouraging friendship among its participants. The first night featured a lottery show to combine the talents of a random selection of performers, and after-parties at local hookah bar Farah’s on the Avenue, Gainesville House of Beer and a TSF member’s home certainly fostered conversation.

“We kind of grew up [with TSF], so when we graduated we wanted to give back to Gainesville and show national talent what a great place Gainesville is,” O’Donnell told The Independent Florida Alligator.

The Gainesville improv scene has always been surprisingly strong in spite of its isolated location from a major metropolitan hub of activity. The active college scene and UF’s dedicated alumni have kept the tradition alive, however. Bill Arnett and Danny Mora, both UF and TSF alumni, have some of the strongest presences in Chicago’s prestigious improvOlympic (iO) Theater  and have made the journey down South to headline the festival with their well-respected troupe 3033 for the past two years. In addition, Arnett and Mora have held workshops with other experienced performers for a special local price of $30. This year, GIF got an even bigger surprise when 3033 announced to TSF members that it was their last show together since one of their members, Andy St. Clair, has relocated to Los Angeles.

Danny Mora, Rush Howell, Andy St. Clair, Bill Arnett and Alex Fendrich have been performing together in Chicago as 3033 since 2007. Named for the address of a residence a few members shared, they have been awarded the Best Non-Harold Performance at the Del Close Awards from 2008 to 2010. PHOTO PROVIDED BY 3033.

Having been lucky enough to perform in the festival in 2011 with UF’s Generati0n Sketch Comedy and filmed performances in 2010, I’m glad to see how GIF has become an important facet of the local comedy culture. At Farah’s on Saturday night, I cornered Arnett, who manages a blog that’s incredibly influential in the national improv scene, as he was attempting to pay his bill to tell him how grateful the community is to have access to his wisdom. He thought nothing of it. That’s the core of the true improv value system — your fellow players are your family, and to share your experience and knowledge with generations both older and younger is a blessing.

If you missed the festival this year, even more great groups will be featured in 2013.O’Donnell and Stone looked nervous at the last after-party, knowing that “going back to normalcy” after the festival just meant  “begin planning for next year.” And because they needed to get their deposit back on the keg before they left, but that’s another story.

WWE, indie wrestlers on the comedy scene

28 Jan

Anyone who knows me is privy to the fact that I have a deep-seeded love for professional wrestling and the WWE. The secret’s out, everyone. But what many don’t realize is that outside the squared circle, these muscled behemoths have hobbies and interests that don’t involve suplexes and body slams.

One of the most popular outside activities wrestlers have been getting into is improv and stand-up comedy. With a booming independent wrestling circuit in Chicago, it’s only natural wrestlers with a day or two off would be interested in taking classes with esteemed schools of comedy such as improvOlympic (iO), Second City or ComedySportz. But many have gone above and beyond the classroom and have been performing shows both in city and around the country. Popular indie wrestler Colt Cabana has studied with iO (and was taught by prominent UF alumni Bill Arnett) , and has made a name for himself as the Clown Prince of the Ring of Honor wrestling company by integrating comedy into his character. As a part of Total Extreme Comedy, he toured with WWE legend Mick Foley doing stand-up. Gainesville-based wrestling humor podcast Podswoggle spoke with Cabana about his integration of comedy into his wrestling persona, as well as his experiences learning improv in Chicago.

…My forte in life was being the comedic Jewish kid and so I decided to transition that into wrestling. – Colt Cabana, IGN TV interview

Current Superstars such as The Miz and Chris Jericho have also honed their improvisational skills to improve on the mic during live shows. Jericho has performed with the Los Angeles troupe the Groundlings with the likes of comedy stars Mindy Sterling and members of the “MadTV” cast. After watching botch after botch on the mic, wrestlers embracing improv and other forms of comedy as a means for improving their confidence and speaking skills is great (and makes the promos they cut much easier on the ears).

EDIT 02/03: Recently released Superstar John Morrison announced on the podcast Curtain Jerks that he will be performing improv at the “Saturday Night’s Main Event” comedy show from Second City Feb. 25  in Hollywood, Cali.

EDIT 03/20: Bret Hart has also dabbled in comedy at The Comedy Bar in Toronto. I cannot stop editing this post with updates I get about wrestlers in comedy simply because it’ so pervasive in the industry.