Month: January 2014

Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (2/5: Exercises for unthinking character creation)

Continued from yesterday, #2 in a series of 5— paraphrased exercises you can do at home, from Mick Napier’s Improvise. Again, buy the book, it’s better than my lame-ass summaries.

Exercises for unthinking character creation

(4) Solo Character Switches

Begin a character monologue. After 30 seconds, without pausing, switch the character to something completely different. Repeat indefinitely. Make sure there’s a chair in the middle of the room, so you can use it/not use it as the character dictates. And make sure there’s lots of variety— if you’ve just done two quiet characters, change things up with a loud one.


(5) Character Interview

Think of ~15 questions you might ask another person. Ex.:

“Where did you grow up?”

“What’s your favorite movie and why?”

“What was a sad moment in your childhood?”

Write them down on strips of paper and put ’em in a hat. (Ignore them for now.)

Begin a character monologue. After about a minute, pull a question out of the hat and answer the question in character. Continue as you see fit.


(6) Styles and Genres in a Hat

On slips of paper, write down 20 styles/genres/authors/playwrights (ex. “romance novel,” “action film,” “horror,” “Shakespeare”) and put ’em in a hat. Begin a character monologue. After 30 seconds, pull a slip of paper out of the hat, and have your character immediately be affected by that style or genre.

Ex.: Your character is an ice cream man. When you pull “romance novel” out of the hat, the character starts talking about his love and passion for Dove bars.

The goal: Your understanding and comfort of literary styles will expand your toolbox for scenes, and bring more variety to your work. (And maybe familiarizing yourself with various authors and playwrights and genres isn’t a bad idea, either.)


(7) Sound to Dialogue

Make a sound, any sound. Let that sound slide into a character dialogue, and go for ~10 seconds. Then make another sound and slide into another character. Do this for about six hours. No, do this for two minutes.

Ex.: “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhkey-dokey, I’ve packed the shotguns!”




Here’s links to all of ’em:


Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation [You are here]

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises


Mick Napier – Improv at home by yourself (1/5: Exercises for thinking faster)

You should buy this book.

My local library had a copy of Mick Napier’s Improvise. I like it. A lot. It’s got tons of information for a slim 130-page book, but more importantly (to me), I like the tone. (The blurb describes it as “irreverent.”)

I’m especially digging the chapter on “Exercises to Do at Home.” For the sake of trying to preserve copyright but still disseminate this awesome information, I’m just gonna summarize the exercises here. For better and more in-depth explanations, find the book. (It’s good.)

I’ll also split this into a few posts. I didn’t realize until I started writing that there are 24 of these, which would be overwhelming to take in all at once. (They aren’t numbered in the book.)


Exercises for thinking faster

(1) Dada Monologue

Launch into a nonsensical Dadist monologue. Make sure it makes absolutely no sense (e.g. if you say “jolly,” do not follow it with “giant,” because that starts making sense). Ex.:

Lamps are cats when vitamins take the frog outside. Back in the pot, my crabby melons cried to three weeks. Do you realize the flappy bat song? Modicum of freelancing forever tastes in campy wallpaper. Coated tape scrolls, right?

The point is to free up your brain to make random and absurd associations you couldn’t normally make.


(2) Word Association

Look around and find an object. Say the name of the object out loud, and immediately start talking about the object. Describe it, or (preferably) talk about some experience it inspires. After ~10 seconds, without pausing, interrupt yourself with the name of a new object, and launch into another 10-second description. Continue for a while (at least 10 objects).

(Eventually, the starting words can be drawn from the ether, instead of taking physical objects in your view.)

DON’T pause. Often, people will say the word out loud, repeat the word as a buffer to give their brains time to catch up, and THEN launch into the 10-second association. The whole point here is to practice talking and catching up with yourself, honing your ability to talk about anything.


(3) Gibberish

Do a scene in gibberish:

Pick a character, and speak a line of gibberish from that character’s point of view/energy (“Meeny tocka fleek marni!”). Then respond as another character with a totally different PoV (“Noop wock.”)

The purpose is to get you to stop worrying about what you’re saying and start focusing on how you’re saying it.




Here’s links to all of ’em:

Part 1: Exercises for thinking faster [You are here]

Part 2: Exercises for unthinking character creation

Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space

Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation

Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises

Such a character!

Whenever I read advice on overcoming depression/anxiety/low confidence/fear etc., I always see “think of something you do well!”, and I think for a few moments, and I always come up empty, which fuels the depression/anxiety/low confidence/fear etc., because oh god I can’t do ANYTHING.

That in mind… I got a compliment last night, and I want to write it down before I forget it.


Some buddies from my practice group watched the (awesome) class show of some other buddies from my practice group. After the show, in a nearby bar, our conversation turned towards general appreciation for the excellent improvisers we get to play with.

More or less out of the blue, Graham turns to me and says, “No, YOU… you do really awesome characters.”

Startled, I stuttered, “Really? Uh… thanks…!”

“No, I’m serious,” he continued. “Like, when you get on a character, it’s really funny. There was something you did last week… the old lady! That was amazing. I think when you get into a character, it gets you out of your head a little, and frees you up to react in really great ways.”

I blushed. “Wow,” I said. “I… thank you. Really.”


(I should also mention: Graham doesn’t have much tolerance for bullshit and empty compliments. This is trustworthy insight.)

Bad stories

We spent most of our first (PIT Level 1 improv) class talking about ourselves.

Not thrilled with that. I’m naturally pretty narcissistic. I like improv (in part) because it helps get me OUT and AWAY from my own selfish obsessions, not deeper INTO them.

For one exercise, we stood up and shared stories (in preparation for a future Armando, I guess).

I don’t like telling stories. Because I don’t get out much, I don’t accumulate a lot of stories; because I don’t have a good memory, the few stories I DO accumulate fade away after a couple years.

Plus, my spoken narrative is usually terrible: I put in too many details about this part, and I leave out significant details from that part, and the whole thing is a disjointed mess.

I dunno. Everyone was telling heartfelt stories about their families. I panicked and told the class about how I don’t have a lot of connections with people, and how I was a selfish jerk who didn’t call my great aunt the week before she died.

I went home feeling like shit. (Rightly so?)

In one sense, this is a victory. Normally, when I meet new people, I pump loads of effort into being as likable as possible. Painting myself in a super-unflattering light straightaway is one way to get over that, I guess. “Be real?”

On the other hand, I foresee this becoming a pattern. From now on, I can self deprecate in front of these people without a second thought. “Oh, ha ha, well I’m a selfish asshole, remember?”  But I don’t want that to happen. I recognize the beginning of a downward spiral. (Whoa, hey, is mindfulness finally paying off?!) And geez, if I just wanted to put myself down all the time, I’d do standup or something.

Possible solution: Put that bad memory of yours to use and FORGET THIS. Next week is a fresh slate. Maybe some people, instead of being horrified at you, were touched by your frankness and humanity. Everyone fucks up sometimes, right?

Lateral move

I signed up for a(nother) Level 1 class at the PIT.

When I mention this to my improv friends, they half-smile encouragingly but are clearly a little confused. I’ve already taken Level 1 at the Magnet, and PIT is more expensive. It’s a lateral move, not upward. WTF?

Here is why I have made this apparently senseless choice:

  1. I, like many people, tend to hunker down during the cold winter months. I’ll be like, “Oh, I should do a drop-in class! …but I am SO TIRED. Mehhh, I’ll skip it.”
    I’m hoping that a structured “you-already-paid-for-this, you-have-to-be-here” class will keep me out of that vicious pattern of inaction and ensuing hermitude.
  2. My short answer to “how’d you get into improv” is “it seemed like more fun than therapy.”
    I’m only joking a little bit.
    Group therapy in NYC is ~$50-200/session. Improv class is ~$50/session, plus you have to drag yourself out to see shows (which are usually free with a student ID) and meet up with new friends. For what I need, improv seems like a better deal.
  3. I can’t imagine getting anything out of a higher level class while I’ve still got such a shaky foundation. I want to take time to solidify my basics.
  4. Time, practice, and experience are the main keys to improvement (asserts someone who has not yet put in time, practice, or experience). I can read classroom concepts out of a book. Trying to implement those concepts, and getting feedback/advice on my trials, is what’s valuable about a class. Why not skip the class and let a practice coach give me that sort of feedback? Do classes even really matter?
  5. I can only commit to Mondays. I just missed the boat on the last Magnet Monday Level 2 class, and the next Magnet Monday Level 2 class probably won’t open until February or so. This’ll keep me motivated in the meantime.
  6. Every theater, I’m told, has its own unique and beautiful philosophy, and no one is “better” than the others. Why not compare for myself?
  7. The move may only be lateral… but I moved! I made a decision! That counts for something, right?

Vinny Francois – The Four Stages of Competence

The four stages of competence, cribbed from Wikipedia but applied to improv:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

When we are first learning to do something, we are unaware of the difficulty and we simply do it unself-consciously. There’s a pleasure in the doing without self-judgement and the bliss of ignorance is in full effect. We are like children playing for the sake of playing. This is the joyful high of finishing an introductory class. We know we are not “good” but we also have no expectations of excellence.

2. Conscious Incompetence

As we start to learn a skill and wish to improve and master it, we begin to see the gap between our novice skills and what is required to become competent at it. This is where we start to wonder why we are suddenly terrible. But that’s not really the case, we are simply more aware of our failure to meet our newly discovered (and ever-rising) standard. This is where a lot of people quit because it’s not a lot of fun to go through the struggle and it’s a test of one’s self-esteem (especially if you have no peers to share the struggle with).

3. Conscious Competence

After a long period of practice, observation and imitation, we slowly achieve success. At this stage, there’s a lot of focus and conscious effort being put forth to apply the skills we’ve picked up. Success can feel random and elusive and fleeting. Students start to reach the high of doing well but it feels like work and comes inconsistently. There is perhaps a narrow range where the skill can be applied successfully which gives repeated works a “sameness” but the skill is now clearly apparent.

4. Unconscious Competence

This is the ultimate goal. When we’ve mastered a skill, we’ve internalised a hundred smaller foundation skills and can reproduce them without thought or concentration. We simply “do” it without really being able to articulate what it is we’re doing. We can return to a state of childish playfulness; breaking rules and following instincts because we trust our taste and judgment and allowing us to push the skill into new places. Though this can require work to maintain, skills gained at this level never truly fade since to achieve it means to have it imprinted deep in our unconscious.

“A test of one’s self-esteem,” huh. I see I have my work cut out for me.

Women and improv

While my buddies and I were waiting for the doors to open for a “women’s improv event,” we started talking women and comedy. My stance was along the lines of “seriously? this is the 21st century, of COURSE women are as hilarious as men, and have a strong presence in comedy, why is this even an issue, didn’t we get past it decades ago, sheesh.”

The next day, I found a compilation of the best Vines of 2013, which features about 5 women in 23 minutes of 6-second Vines.

(There are more than 5 women in total, but at least 20 of them are sidekicks/ cameos.)

It might just be this one video, but the skewed ratio got me thinking.



1. Numerical presence.

What is the actual proportion of women in— for the sake of keeping it to things I sort of understand— improv? The ratios seem pretty evenly 50/50 men/women… but are they really? Remember that Geena Davis piece where she mentions crowd scenes are usually only 17% female, which we viewers see that as totally normal and evenly co-ed?

I ran down all the current improv house teams in NYC that I could find, and averaged the results. (I am not a statistician.) The vast majority of house teams have 2 or 3 women per 8-person team.

Magnet: 23.657% female

PIT: 37.8% female

UCB: 34.375% female

UCBeast: 47.5% female*

*UCBeast has Detroit, an all-woman improv team, and only five house teams in total (that I can find personnel lists for.) I’d say this skews the results in their favor, but no other theater even HAS an all-woman (regular**) improv team, so screw that, UCBeast totally gets all the points here.

**Magnet has The Jezebelles— which are musical improv and not included in this particular count.


Overall average: 35.8% female

Maybe that’s better than it used to be, back in Ye Olde Days, but I’d still like to see it closer to 50/50, and I don’t have a good theory why it isn’t.



2. Characters

I don’t have much experience or insight to offer on this, but I hear that back in Ye Olde Days, female improvisers used to get pegged into submissive/inferior roles. I’m also told that women tend to play much stronger characters now, so maybe that’s coming around, I guess, hopefully.

…Just making a note. It seems important. I’d feel remiss if I left it out.



3. Are women funny?

Yes. What the fucking fuck, don’t even go there, the fuck is wrong with you.