class notes

PHIT 201 – Class #1

I feel sticky.

I’m standing outside a closed green door in a hot windowless hallway in central Philadelphia, listening to voices on the other side of the door go through a three-line scene exercise, and skimming old class notes on my phone. I have done zero improv in three months. No shows, no books, no classes, no practices, no nothing.

I’m nervous and fidgety but strangely fearless.

I moved to Philly six months ago, and this is my first time in the local improv community. There are no expectations from anyone. I have nothing to prove, nothing to lose.

The first class goes off with minimal hitches. I’m definitely rusty, but it’s more like… my finer points have rusted off. I feel like I’m making generally good choices. There are lines where I blather on longer than I should. There are scenes where I get too emotional too quickly. There are scenes where my emotional state flip-flops, where I lose my commitment and forget things I’d said three lines earlier. But the basic instincts are still there.

The class seems a little shy and scared and low-energy. Nick Kanellis once mentioned that you can pump energy into a low-energy room by being loud (he meant a low-energy audience, but c’est la vie), so… I’m being my loudest and most energetic and most outgoing in hopes that it’ll rub off on everyone else. It’s a little exhausting, but that’s show biz, or something, right?

Here, apparently they do a montage for their 101 show, and it seems like there are no beats, just a sequence of scenes. I’m not sure how the scenes are supposed to be interrelated yet. (Guess I need to go watch a 101 show!) But that’s what we do instead of warm-up scenes.

We warmed up with Pass the Face, and a dance-in-the-middle game, and Loserball. We worked on our initiation ideas with A-to-C-ing, and we played New Choice to address specificity and bad habits, and we did some montages. And a variation on crazy eights, which I NAILED [preen preen].

I don’t feel out of place. I don’t feel way ahead of anyone, and I don’t feel way behind. There are some really strong talents in my class, and I’m excited to play with them more in coming weeks.

Yay! The improv-shaped hole in my heart is being refilled!

Hitting branches

On Sunday, my mono-scene class had its last show (at the Magnet, Level 4 and up get four shows, ‘cos you get to be a better performer by performing). It wasn’t great. When our instructor gave us notes afterwards, one of my classmates started apologizing, and the instructor broke to give us a quick pep talk instead:

Mistakes are part of this. We all want to be perfect improvisers, and we will NEVER be perfect improvisers, none of us. No matter how long you do it, you will ALWAYS be messing up. We’re all trying to climb this impossibly tall unclimbable tree, and all we can do is try to hit a few branches on the way down so we don’t land quite so badly. That’s all improv training is, is learning how to hit branches during our inevitable fall.

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)

Notes from Magnet Level 4 Monoscene Class #1

After over a month of sadly clicking “refresh” on the Magnet class list webpage, hoping another Monday or Wednesday Level 3 or 4 would be announced, an open slot magically appeared for a closed-out Wednesday Level 4 I’d been pining for. What. After a brief assessment of my financial situation and double-checking that I could commit for the next 3 months, I jumped on that open slot. This all happened yesterday, and the first class was today.

Yay I’m taking a class again!!!

(And then I remembered I’m terrible at monoscenes! But that’s why you take classes, right? If I were already awesome, I wouldn’t need someone to teach me how to do this!)

So I’m jotting down whatever notes I can remember from class, to help me rock the monoscene as much as I can.

These are not comprehensive, and are mostly for my own use.




  • Warm-ups: Name + gesture (Superheroes), What are you doing, basic warm-up scenes
  • Warm-up scenework: Initiation + strong emotional reaction, Character matching
  • Monoscene specific:
    • Build out an environment with 3 “stations” (things to touch); then a second person comes in and initiates the speaking part of the scene while interacting with the 3 stations the first person set up.
    • Two people start a scene (in an environment); then we pause and discuss, as a class, some options for who an appropriate walk-on might be.



Building an environment

When your scene partner does an action (interacting with the environment), and you have no idea what it is, just go over there and approximate what you saw your scene partner do.

Possible outcomes:

  1. You’ll understand what they were going for once you go through the motions.
  2. You’ll still have no idea what it is, but you’ll be able to name the thing.
  3. You’ll still have no idea what it is, but you don’t HAVE to know what it is, because the scene isn’t ABOUT your environment, because you don’t need to TALK about your environment ANYWAY.


Two-person scenes + walk-ons

Walk-ons are still scary! Aaaaaaaagh I am a huge scaredy cat.

The first two people in a monoscene: match! Maybe not as much as you would for a regular two-person scene, but matching accents, jobs, and/or relationships (etc.) are great tools.

The third person (first walk-on) can be whomever, but:

  1. If the entire scene is largely about some offscreen person (“I want to sleep with Jessica!” “After what she did to me?” “She’s my spirit animal!” “I’ll never forgive either of you!”), save that person’s walk-on until closer to the end. Build and heighten this Jessica character, so when she finally walks on, she’s the big satisfactory “ah” we’ve all been waiting for.
  2. Another parallel match can work well— like, again, matching accents, jobs (preferably a coworker— if you’re a boss, don’t just talk about your employees doing the job better), and/or relationships— to help flesh out the world the first two people have started building.
  3. Someone else in the world that the first two characters have set up. Keep your ears open. Where are the characters? Who else might exist in this location? Does one of the characters have a brother? A child? A teacher he/she is avoiding?



Personal notes

  • Stop being scared (but you knew that)— if the scene needs a thing, go out there and do that thing, even if you have no idea what or how to do it. (Maybe ask about how fully formed the premises/walk-ons need to be— or maybe you’ll find out)
  • Respond to the last thing that was said— even if you think you’re mostly doing that, you and your scene partner(s) may not be on quite the same page. If he/she uses a colorful word, grab on to that word and repurpose/repeat it. (Remember Sebastian’s trick of just repeating the thing the other person said!)
  • Listen! Drink coffee! My brain fogged over after 8:30, and zoning out is terrible for improv.



…I keep skimming the above section and misreading it as “fully formed penises.” Heh heh heh.


…Aight, it’s after 1am and I need to get up in less than 5 hours.

Class notes – Magnet level 2, class 3

New notes on old concepts– or refining what I think I know about old concepts–

STATUS: Matching scenes are always fun, but knowing your character’s status (is this guy a 1? a 10? a 3.5?) makes for a stronger character, which makes for a stronger scene. Beginning improvisers tend to play mostly high status characters, so make sure you’re mixing things up.

INITIATIONS: Make sure everything you need your scene partner to know is clearly conveyed in your initiation. If they take the scene in a direction you didn’t intend, that’s YOUR fault for not being clear. Your scene partner can’t read your mind!

SECOND BEATS: Having a strong character in the first beat, or making sure your character “has a deal” in the first beat– makes it much easier to do a second beat with that character/situation.

Play it like it is

There are no mistakes in improv.


…I mean, of course you can fuck up, but the point is no matter what stupidity comes out of you, your teammates are supposed to treat it like it was intentional and brilliant.

As someone who fucks up a lot, I am trying to keep this in mind.

In a scene in Friday’s practice group, among a two-hour parade of other exquisite brain farts from yours truly, I tried to name my “husband”‘s job and instead came up with a 10-second stutter.

In the notes afterwards, our coach told us— once something like that is out there, you’ve gotta play it. Don’t just ignore it. I may see a shameful inability to think on the spot, and maybe the audience can see that too, but if we incorporate it and play it like it’s an intentional part of the scene, like I’m a wife who can’t remember what the hell her husband does for a living… then we’ve got a game (i.e. what other crucial details about my home life can’t I remember?), and our reputations as competent improvisers are salvaged. We’ve just managed to pull off the stunning recovery.

Our coach gave an example of a performance where one player accidentally pronounced “gazelle” with a soft G (“giselle”). So for the remainder of the show, the rest of the players exchanged hard and soft Gs in other animal names (“girilla,” “garaffe”). Stunning recovery.

From my own experience, I watched some musical improv a couple months ago— A singer appeared to be done with his verse, so another player stepped forward to continue, but the first singer plowed ahead into a second verse. Whoops, misstep. But no— the soloist sang the entire song, and the game became other players frustratedly failing to get a word in edgewise. It was hysterical.

No mistakes in improv. If it’s out there, and you play it, then it’s no longer a misstep but a brilliant piece of comic mastery.

My scene partner is being crazy. What do I do?

In our last Level 1 class, our instructor told us not to “comment on the scene,” e.g. when you don’t know how to react to what your partner is doing, and you respond, “hey man, I don’t know, you’re weird.”

“What’s the difference between ‘commenting on the scene,’ which we shouldn’t do, and ‘calling out the crazy,’ which we should do?” I asked.

He paused to consider. “It’s a fine line,” he mused.

Here’s my understanding:

If your scene partner seems crazy to you, you have three basic ways to go (but don’t do the first one, ever):

  • COMMENTING is “no, but”-ing. Your partner has established some weird reality where plesiosaurs eat submarines, and you respond with “Plesiosaurs went extinct millions of years ago. There are no plesiosaurs. I don’t know where you get this from.” (Bad. No. Don’t do this. You have just completely deflated the scene.)
  • CALLING OUT THE CRAZY is “yes, and”-ing. Your partner has established some weird reality where plesiosaurs eat submarines, and you respond with, “Whoa, what? Really? The military actually got that sauropod-breeding experiment to work?” (I don’t know that much about Straight Men, but that term seems appropriate to describe this.)
  • Alternatively, MATCHING THE CRAZY is another way to “yes, and.” But I think this works best for physical crazy, not verbal crazy.
    • PHYSICAL CRAZY: If your partner is crab-walking and miming antennae… then you too can crab-walk and mime antennae, and how fun could that scene be!
    • VERBAL CRAZY: If you and your partner both continue treating submarine-eating plesiosaurs like a totally normal thing, then before you know it, the scene has floated away and has zero grounding in reality, and neither you nor the audience has any idea what’s going on, and that’s no fun. It’s “yes, and”-ing, but it’s outta control.

      (Ed.: And I just learned there is an actual term for this last situation: “CRAZY TOWN.” To quote the UCB Manual [p. 89]:

      Failing to be affected can cause you and everything around you in the scene to seem absurd…. In a Crazy Town scene, there are so many absurd elements in play that it becomes difficult to distinguish the unusual from the ordinary…. Often, the best way to avoid Crazy Town is to be affected by your scene partner’s idea at the top of your intelligence with a grounded reaction.)


Our usual practice group improv coach was unavailable, and I found a sub, and he was awesome, and here are some notes from the practice:

  1. WHO WHAT WHERE within the first 30 seconds of the scene. Within the first three lines if possible. (Not the first time I’ve heard this, but I keep forgetting. It makes the scene so much stronger!) At this n00b level, don’t worry about being too heavy-handed with the information—  it’s kind of ridiculously funny in its own right.
  2. Call out weird shit. If someone says something unusual or weird or crazy, take a moment to step back and unpack the weirdness. Don’t just gloss past it. (This, to me, is a concrete method to uncover The Game: first unusual thing + “if this is true, what else must be true?”)
  3. Protip: if you don’t know how to respond to something (or even if you do), you can repeat what your scene partner just said. Using different wording to provide specificity to the statement is great— detail is funny. Plus— it assures the audience that both players are on the same page (mind trick!).
  4. Protip: if you don’t know how to respond to something (or even if you do), have a strong emotional reaction. (a) Nothing is less interesting than blasé ambivalent characters, and (b) if the strong emotional reaction is out of proportion to the statement that incited it, voila, you have your #2 Weird Shit to Call Out.

Side note: One of my groupmates has noted when coaches don’t let us sit for the entire practice, it ups the energy level in the room, which I loooooove.