Squirrel in the garage

Guest post on People and Chairs: The Squirrel in the Garage

Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.

The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)

The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.

…Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.


There are sooooo many things I love about this article. Go read the whole thing.


Mike Birbiglia describes love in Sleepwalk with Me:

Deep down, our whole lives, no matter how low our self-esteem gets, we think, ‘I have a special skill that no one knows about and if they knew they’d be amazed.’ And then eventually we meet someone who says, “You have a secret special skill.” And you’re like, “I know! So do you!” And they’re like, “I know!”

Isn’t that basically the improv community, too?

In one of the recent Magnet Theater Podcasts, Sebastian Conelli and Louis Kornfeld discussed the ego’s role in improv. (“Um”s, “like”s, and “ya know”s removed from quotes below.)

LOUIS: You need an ego to be a good performer. Because on a certain level, whether you’re a stand-up or… an improviser… there’s a part of you that feels like, ‘there’s something special about me.’ And sharing that out with people… gratifies this sense of ‘I’m a special person.’ …I think it’s a lie to not accept that… it’s sort of very much at the core of performing anything… you feel like you have something worthwhile in you that other people should be exposed to.

SEBASTIAN: Yes. 100%. …Anyone that’s signing up for Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, HAS to feel that inside them. There’s no way. I mean, I understand there are people that do it for fun, because they wanna let loose, but at some point inside of them, they have to feel that.

Also this:

LOUIS: On my more honest days, it’s definitely like, ‘I’m a special guy.’ …If you lie about it to yourself, and you kinda surround it with false modesty… all you really end up doing is creating this grotesquely arrogant shadow part of your personality that secretly feels like it’s better than everybody. And it feeds all this ugly gnarly shit into your behavior over time that erodes… at… you acting like a decent person. But owning up to it and risking coming across a little bit egotistical, but acknowledging that… ‘I have an ego, I’m a special guy… and that’s sort of the battery that’s running the stuff that I do,’ I think in a lot of ways, actually makes it a lot easier to not build false superiority. If anything, it makes you accept your humilities in a much more honest way.


Let’s review.

Q: Why am I doing improv?

A: Good question.

Here’s my most recent take:

I want honest approval. I want someone to tell me I’m doing a good job. I want to be liked. I want to learn this secret special skill, and whip it out and show it to non-improvisers and accept their laudations of ‘what a secret special skill you’ve got there!’

(Probably other reasons too, but first let’s own up to wanting to feel special.)


Q: Why perform?

A: Good question.

I’m not sure.

Because I am more likely to get the approval I crave when I am in a comfortable low-stakes environment, I’m happy to limit my comedy to practice rooms + drinks with friends, and avoid the stress and heartbreak and disapproval of going onstage.

So maybe I can coax myself onstage like this:

The more people who sing my praises, the better. To achieve the highest level of approval, I’ll show off my secret special skill for lots of people, a whole AUDIENCE of people, and get SO MUCH approval all in one go.

That’d be cool, right? But performing isn’t easy. Very few people kill their first time. And the way you increase your odds of having a performance like that is to do lots of them, until you start hitting the mark more often. So you’ve gotta keep on truckin’. Yeah, performances kinda suck right now, but they won’t always.

‘Cos how great would it be to have an ENTIRE ROOM in stitches?

Is something like that even in me? Can I do that?


Yes, I think I can!

I’ve already done it! Remember “dead presidents?” Maybe it wasn’t “good improv,” but wasn’t it a thrill?

You can’t make everyone like you, but with time and dedication and hard work, you can make a large percentage of them like you for half an hour.

Lemme in!

…I get progressively more freaked out the more people I have to play with at once.

Monoscenes, by definition, require interacting with a large group of people at once, which I’m starting to think automatically sets off my introversion/ social anxiety/ agoraphobia/ fear, and renders me useless for improv.

– Me, 7-23-14


I continue to have a lot of trouble with group scenes. So here are tips from a Real Improv Instructor on how to insert yourself into the group dialogue:


  • Verbally agree with/ repeat what’s being said— “yeah, yeah, bandanas, right!”— Because then you’re immediately a participant in the scene, not an observer.
  • Don’t be so polite! Give and take focus— If you do find a line, and you start to say it, and someone else talks over you, DON’T LET ‘EM if it’s not their turn. Also try to be conscious if you’re bulldozing the scene (‘cos that’s just as bad).


There may be more, but that’s all I can remember that Real Improv Instructor told us.

Talking + object work: Focusing on multiple things

I find it hard to talk while doing object work. It’s like patting my head and rubbing my tummy— I have trouble focusing on both, especially if the object work is complex. (I think every time I’ve frozen onstage, it’s been a brain overload while doing object work.) So I asked after class yesterday, since most of our exercises required “doing an activity” and I was havin’ a helluva time:

  • It will get easier, in general. Keep on truckin’.
  • It’s easier to do object work you’re familiar with, because some of the actions are automatic and it doesn’t take nearly as much brainpower.
  • So: go home and practice different object workings, so they’ll be familiar and take less brainpower.
  • The object work is there to give you a reason for being there, and give you something to go back to when you’re not the focus. If it’s distracting you, give it a rest.
  • People get distracted in life, too. You can say “what?” if you were so immersed in your object work that you missed what your partner said!
  • Don’t worry about getting the object work perfect. (Me and my ambiguous object work? Way ahead of you.)

Abridged notes from Monoscene class #3


  • Don’t try to solve the problem. When someone says “this is my problem,” you should respond “shit, yeah, that sure is a problem,” instead of “okay, well, if you do THIS, you can fix it, it’s not so bad.”
  • When you get a location, the first thing you’ll think is to be interacting with it as a visitor/patron/customer. Instead try to place yourself as someone who works there, behind the scenes, day in day out.
  • Even a loose monoscene has a similar structure/rules to a Harold:
    • Series of two-person scenes: even when there are lots of characters onstage, what matters is the individual relationships between pairs of characters. These are the two-person scenes that you’d have in a Harold.
    • First beat, second beat, third beat. We haven’t covered this yet, specifically, but I’m pretty sure we will.
    • Giving focus: just like you wouldn’t yell over each other in a group game, give focus and take focus where it’s needed.
    • Know each other: (especially in the beginning of the monoscene.) It helps move the scene, it helps the audience give a damn (‘cos if YOU don’t care, how can they?). The characters should somehow care about each other.


More notes about walk-ons:

They don’t have to be brilliant– just be someone who’d flesh out the universe. The conversation you have with one or both characters SHOULDN’T be directly related to what the characters were discussing before you came on, so don’t feel stuck! (In fact, I bet I could brainstorm a bunch of announcements/ conversation starters beforehand, and have ’em available as backup when I need ’em– kind of like I did/still do with “relationships”. Or a bunch of three-person relationships– boyfriend, girlfriend, boyfriend’s roommate, for example)


Freakonomics once discussed whether positive feedback or negative feedback was more valuable. The gist of it was:

  • Positive feedback is best when you’re new and starting out, and you need some encouragement to keep up morale while you struggle through being new and bad;
  • Negative feedback is best after you’ve been in it a while, and you actually want critical feedback so you can get better.




Today, at a drop-in class, I helped build what I believe might be the best-received (and therefore most successful?) scene I’ve ever done. Uproars. Wild applause. My scene partner and I received high fives from classmates as we made our way back to our seats.

THAT was a trip.

I’d read a chapter from Mick Napier’s Improvise in the morning:

I’ve seen soooo many instructors watch a bad scene and chalk it up to “too many questions” or “talking in the future.” I’ve seen as many, after a good scene, say (with a half-laugh), “Great, that’s how it’s done, two more.” (p. 13)

Thankfully, our drop-in instructor didn’t do that. We took a moment to analyze why the scene went so well… and my ego was stoked for that much longer.

Positive feedback. Go me, good job.




Overall, I like drop-in classes.

The thing is— the drop-ins draw a lot of people who are very new to improv. Not a bad thing, just a thing.

An upside is— I tend to be one of the more skilled improvisers in the class (whaaa? wasn’t I the worst improviser in NYC just a few months ago?), so it’s a good ego boost for me. Which sounds selfish and dumb, but it helps me play more fearlessly.

A downside is— I want some good juicy criticism*, not just positive ego-stoking, and it’s hard to make that happen at a drop-in class.

(* Not too juicy. But at least some variation of, “Good! [You did this thing very well.] [It would be even better if you worked on this other thing.] But good job!”)




Something I read a while back:

The most common complaint about a lot of teachers is that they don’t give enough personal notes…. But, I ask you this: were you really doing anything in class that warranted a note? …My guess is that if you’re not getting enough personal notes, you’re playing it safe.

(Christy L. Bonstell, 15 ways to be a better improv student, via Second City Network)


I don’t feel like I’m getting as many personal notes as I’d like, especially negative ones. I’m not 100% sure what I need to do to be riskier. More verbal initiations, perhaps?





Because fear has been such a massive hindrance to my improv for so long, merely jumping onstage and doing my best to be fearless still feels sort of crazy and risky.

Now that I’m addressing it, I’m a little lost what else I need to work on in the classroom*.

I know there are things that separate me from good improvisers, but I’m unclear exactly what those things are— or at least the biggest, most important things that I should tackle first.

I’m making a personal list— ‘try emoting slowly and quietly, like a normal person, instead of my usual spastic melodramatic self’; ‘initiate more’; ‘work on agreeing/matching more’ (I was picking fights again for a little while)— but I have no idea if those are the things that experts would have me focus on.


* “what else I need to work on in the classroom”: I still need to address fear onstage. That is my big pink elephant. I need to find stages and get on them, especially if the stages have higher stakes than a single-scene jam or a low-pressure class show.




So that’s it. I’m reaching the point where I’m craving some negative feedback. Cushioned in positivity, of course, because my ego is always going to be a delicate flower, but I want some more “hey, keep doing what you’re doing, but challenge yourself to also do this.” Boom. Improved improv.





Tell the mountains

I just noticed that I’m in love with improv right now.

I get on stage, and I do a shitty job, and I walk off giggling and itching to get back up there and give it another go. That was fun, but I coulda done that one thing better, so let’s have a do-over, I’ll get it right this time, yeahhhh!

This has not always been my attitude. In retrospect, I think I have DCM16 and autumn hypomania to thank. But yeah, this is what I’ve been striving for for the past year.




…Welp, guess we can shut the doors on this blog of improv angst. *wipes off hands and rides into the sunset*


(Don’t worry, we’ll return soon with a brand new season of fear-borne existential crises! Stay tuned.)

No likes


An amateur observation:

As soon as improvisers use the word “like” in their expositions, I mentally check out.

I empathize with the behavior. I do it myself. We’re making stuff up on the spot, and we say “like” in normal offstage conversations, and it’s a perfectly reasonable word to use. But in improv, “like” is this big neon sign that screams “I need to pump more information into this scene,” “I can’t discover right now so I’m inventing,” “I need to use a filler word until my brain catches up to my mouth.”

It shocks me out of the scene. Suddenly the charming improv I was enjoying seems like overworked sketch, where the players are trying too hard to be clever.

It’s such a small thing. I’m weirded out that my reaction is this visceral. Fuckin’ like.

(Edit for specificity: “Like” can be effective when used sparingly, as a conscious character choice.)