Month: May 2014

Salt and pepper

Salt and pepper - Macroscopic Solutions

Our substitute practice coach gave us a metaphor this past week.



There is a lot of salt in the world. It’s a mineral. It’s in the earth, it’s in the water, it’s easy to come by, it’s cheap, and it’s necessary for life (to some extent).

Mounds of salt in Lac Retba, Senegal - herr_hartmann



There is not so much pepper in the world. It has to be grown from a plant, cultivated, watered, tended, harvested. It’s comparatively expensive and harder to come by.

Peppercorn rows, Phu Quoc - Katie Yaeger Rotramel


When you’re cooking, usually you’ll use more salt than pepper.

They are both important for adding flavor, but the salt sort of functions as a base grounding for the flavors in the dish, while the pepper adds a little bit of kick.

Salt & pepper pork chops - hermitsmoores


You can think of improv scenes this way, too. The base reality, the grounding, the basic human nature and relationships of your scene— that’s the salt. That comes first. Unusual things, weird shit, crazyness— they’re the pepper. They work best for an additional punch of flavor after you’ve set up your base grounding of salt reality.

Salt and pepper - Charles Haynes


If you only use one or the other, the dish won’t taste right, but together, and in the correct proportions, you can make beautiful meals.

Salt and pepper, beautiful together! - Jeannine St. Amand

Salt and pepper, beautiful together!

(All photos here are hyperlinked back to their Flickr pages and shared with Creative Commons licenses)

Jimmy Carrane – A Bad Day Doesn’t Have to Mean Bad Improv

Trying to answer the problem of “well I’m in a shitty mood. Nothing is funny. I’m not funny. How the fuck do I get through this?”


Improvisers think they need be in a certain “positive” mood to do improv, and if they are not, they either don’t bother to show up to class or they ignore their feelings and paint a big latex smile on their faces and muscle through with that fake energy of a birthday party clown. Then when they have a bad improv class or a bad show, they end up beating themselves up or blaming it on their bad day.

What if we looked at those so-called negative emotions as a gift? And instead of trying to push them away, we were brave enough to acknowledge them by saying them out loud to a friend, the class or the group?


…Charlie McCrackin of The Reckoning… said if you are feeling sad or angry you might want to use them in character. Charlie e-mailed me later: “The only things I can add to my thoughts on emotions is that it’s easier to make use of the strong emotions already present in you than to try to build strong emotions from out of nowhere. Plus denying your actual emotions diminishes your ability to play truthfully.”


…just because I have a bad day does not mean I have to do bad improv at night. Instead, I can use those emotions to inspire my choices and deepen my connections with my partners to make me an even better improviser.

Successful actors freeze, too

(From 2011: Study Shows Stage Fright is Common Among Working Actors)

84 percent [of 136 successful professional actors surveyed] reported experiencing stage fright at least once in their careers. [Goodman] described the condition as freezing or choking and said it is usually represented by a performance’s sudden collapse, rather than a gradual decline. Anxiety is particularly debilitating to actors, because fear of the future occurs in the same part of the brain where imagination lives, Goodman explained. He likened it to an overloaded computer: It will freeze if it has too many programs open while trying to process something complicated. “Imagination,” he said, “is a limited space.”


“All of a sudden I really got stage fright,” [Bailit] said. “I couldn’t figure it out, and I remember looking out, and everyone had a stunned look.” She almost walked off the stage, a move that would have haunted her career, she said. One thing kept her onstage. “I was frozen,” she said.

More-positive thoughts quickly took hold, she said, and she remembered her training: Concentrate on what you’re saying; get in the moment; connect with someone.


Experience and success are no guard against [stage fright]. Actors such as Meryl Streep, Ian Holm, and Barbra Streisand also suffered from it after they had established their careers.


(I froze in class this past week. Upside: I didn’t break the fourth wall like I usually do. Downside: I froze, what the FUCK, I should be past this by now, why am I not. Other downside: it was our first level 3 class, and I’m ALSO obsessing that my classmates all judged me. Great first impression, right?

So instead of wallowing in self-loathing, I’m trying to figure out: what went wrong? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Can I prevent it from happening in the future? If I can’t, how can I manage the symptoms? If I can’t, is it a total waste of time to pursue a stage-based hobby?)

Pre-show rituals (2)

I sometimes do [a Dada Monologue] as I’m walking to the theater to improvise. It brings to light fun and absurd thoughts: different tools to associate with while improvising, as opposed to the limited range of associations we usually have.

-Mick Napier, founder of the Annoyance Theater


(Right now, my own pre-practice/pre-show ritual is: ½ cup coffee + 3-5 min of Mind Games on the train + 3-5 min of Dada Monologue as I walk from the station to the studio. I don’t know if it actually improves my improvisation, but I sure as hell feel better about it.)

Naming things

There are a million ways that doing improv will improve your offstage life, as described here, here, and elsewhere around the internet.

One downside, though, is that I’ve gotten into the habit of calling people by the first name that pops into my head.

“How’s life, Robin?”

“Great, Marty, how ’bout you?”

“Uh. I’m Jake.”


Be careful, folks.



Storytelling 101

He knew that great stories are never about success. They’re always about failure.

– Intro for George Plimpton, The Moth Radio Hour, Episode 1210



Just a thought— aside from coming up with stories for an Armando in a Level 1 class— the character you play can be competent and knowledgeable and believable, but she can have a shitty day. We can all relate to that. Comedy in truth.

“I hate women,” said the woman

In my practice group this past week, we worked on status (which was like, whoa, coach, have you been reading my blog? No, it’s a common improv skill to work on, and he probably noticed the same fuckups in last week’s practice that led to me introspecting and writing a bunch of blog posts).

So that was useful.

Unfortunately, I’ve been equating high status with masculinity, and low status with femininity. Shit.

But I can’t be a misogynist because I’m a woman, right? Yeah I wish.

I struggled with gender identity for years before it finally dawned on me that women are not stereotypes. (i.e. “Women are weak – overemotional – catty – expect special treatment for being female – dress impractically – etc.” / “Oh! You can still be 100% female and NOT BE ANY OF THOSE THINGS, who knew.”) Sadly, those anti-female roots go pretty deep, and my past disdain for women unconsciously bubbles to the surface more often than I’d like.

I’m really lucky to have groupmates— mostly men— who are less sexist than I am. I may think I’m playing a shy, nervous, high-voiced, low-status woman, but then someone will call me “Mark.” Or the other way ’round— I’m a confident, wide-stanced, low-voiced man, but I’ll get named “Sylvia.” It’s a great reminder to get my head out of my ass, and I’m hopeful that someday I’ll learn not to stick it there in the first place.

So thank you, feminist men of improv. You rock.


P.S. Credit where credit is due: I saw the title of this post in my feed reader last week, so it may have sort of inspired this post, but didn’t totally read it until I finished writing. Turns out it’s related and a good read.

How early is too early to make a character choice?

I’m revisiting Mick Napier’s Improvise, and I’m taking issue with one of his suggestions, because it doesn’t seem to work.

(I hate to get uppity, because I’m sure Mick Napier knows more about improvising than I do, so I’m probably not following his advice properly. But anyway.)

Even [if] you don’t initiate, snap into a character or point of view or at least an emotional disposition at the very top, right when or slightly before the lights come up. Then you have your armor for the scene, even if your partner literally initiates the content with words.  Now, when you respond to your partner, you already have something to respond through. (Napier, Improvise, p. 33)

It seems to me that it works better to snap into a character AFTER the initiator says his/her first line, not BEFORE.

I mean, I don’t see the harm in having a Plan B in your back pocket (“if I don’t have anything better, I’ll be angry/nervous/excited”), but otherwise, it feels disrespectful to the initiator— 90% of the time, there is an honest response that will make more sense than whatever you picked before the scene started— and having a pre-planned response, especially if it doesn’t work in the new context of the initiation, can make for a much more difficult scene. (I think difficult scenes are trickier to make into good improv. Is that wrong?)

You’re not committed until you DO something, but after you do it, you’re committed. So— if I were to arrogantly give advice here— if you aren’t the initiator, come into the scene neutrally, listen hard, and snap into a character/ have a deal/ have a reaction/ etc. after the first line, not before.

I might be picking nits, but it bugs me. (GET IT? NITS, BUGS?! AHAHAHAHA I’M HILARIOUS)

My inexpert $0.02.

Fuck strong

I’ve gotta stop thinking of the word “strong” as aggressive and high status. I keep blasting in with loud, in-your-face characters because that’s what a “strong character” or “strong initiation” is in my head.

And it isn’t, not always, it’s not what “strong” means! A terrified low-status character can be way stronger than a loudmouthed crazy character!

Therefore, from now on, to avoid associating “strong” improvising with high status aggression, I will call it “juicy.”

“That was a real juicy initiation, good job!”

“You had a nice juicy emotional reaction to that first line.”

“Have a juicy character in the first beat.”

“We’re all working to be juicier improvisers.”