A few weeks ago, as I was leaving a social gathering, my good friend since middle school (high school besties!) took me aside and shyly/excitedly mentioned that she was taking group music lessons, and she somehow ended up being the singer, and the group was performing in a bar in our hometown in a couple weeks, and, y’know, if I had time, maybe I could swing by?
“YES!” I screamed, surprising both of us. “YES holy fuck that’s AWESOME!!!!!!!”
This past week, I drove an hour to come see her, and it was amazing. All the student musicians had only first touched their instruments three months ago, and I was super impressed. But the part that made my heart explode— my introverted friend strutted onto that stage and fucking OWNED it, on pitch, rocking the fuck out. Were there a couple notes that weren’t quite what I remembered from the radio cuts, maybe. I didn’t care. I was grinning with glee the whole freaking time.
And I thought: I bet this is what it’s like for outsiders to come watch their friends do a Level 1 improv class show.
If I’d known, back when I was taking Level 1, that my beginner-level skills had the power to spark such joy for other people, I’d’ve told everyone.
I just hit my one-year-since-starting-Level-1 Improv-ersary last week.
And my brain said:
It’s been a year, and I’m still doing this.
Why am I still doing it?
I’m sort of convinced that everyone secretly hates me, and I’m working through some petty angry drama on my end right now, so the social thing isn’t a strong motivator these days, so… not that.
I didn’t suddenly get good at improv, so not that.
It still scares the bejeezus out of me, so not that.
Right now, I’m not taking classes, I’m not on a team, and I’m not organizing a practice group. I have zero obligation to commit time to improv, but I’m still carving out time for it.
Am I in this for real?
Have I proven that I’m not going to drop this the moment it gets hard to handle?
Am I an improviser yet?
I have told probably ~4 people outside of the improv community that I do improv. Word spreads anyway— “Wait, whoa, WHO said I was doing an improv thing last Friday? I never told HER I do this…!”— and photos/posts/links/event tags leak through Facebook, even if you hide stuff from your Timeline.
I’ve always been afraid that non-improvisers:
- Will judge me offstage, because I’m not the most hilarious person offstage.
- Will judge me onstage, because they’re expecting Whose Line and I’m Amateur Hour.
- Will constantly ask me “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll go through a rough patch where I don’t want to talk about it, or I’ll quit improv and everyone will keep asking “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll have to face a bunch of really awkward uncomfortable conversations.
Those are all still concerns. I’m not going to start broadcasting my improv life to the world anytime soon.
But with hitting the one-year mark, something in me was like: You can come out now. Maybe this IS just a phase for you. But it’s shaping up to be a long phase. And it’s been a part of your life for long enough. You shouldn’t have to hide it.
So. This little light of mine? Maybe it’s time to start creeping out from under this bushel.
My friend and I chatted after she sang her heart out in the bar.
“Some woman came up to me and said, ‘You looked like you were having fun!'” she said. “In other words, we sounded awful!”
“No no no no no no no!” I said. “Looking like you’re having fun onstage is half of it!”
She seemed skeptical.
“No, so, look, I’ve been doing improv— comedy— in New York for a year—” I blurted.
“Wait, WHAT?!” she said. “That’s awesome! How did I not know this?!”
“You didn’t know because I don’t tell anyone. I think you’re the fifth person I’ve told. I’m coming out, haha!”
She chuckled. I prattled on.
“In the improv that I’ve been watching, the best groups are the ones having the most fun, see. Skill is part of it, sure, but if YOU ain’t having fun, ain’t NOBODY having fun.”
That’s where I am right now. Stop hiding. Come out, have fun, shine bright. Only asshole snobs give a fuck whether your brightness comes from a $2 LED flashlight or a $4000 track lighting system. Bright is bright, and your brightness has the power to rock the world of everyone around you.
I have a new solitary pre-game ritual/warmup that I’ve been enjoying while commuting to improv practices/ shows, and thought I’d share. I’m calling it Character Alphabet.
Cliff’s Notes version: make sentences where all words start with the same letter of the alphabet, and do each sentence as a different character.
With the Dada Monologue, you’re trying to come up with random words on the fly; you start forming your mouth into a letter, and you just trust that the rest of the word will follow (like grabbing something out of the air). Which is fine. But I kept falling into the same default emergency starting consonants. “Fffffutile dinosaurs c… c… cracked generic pastries, and c… classic ffffffrankfurters p-p-partied with five piranhas.”
Plus I realized I was using a lot of the same words from day to day. “Potato” kept popping up a lot.
So to force myself to get more words and letters into my brain, I started doing short four (or more)-word sentences that cycle through the alphabet. Words can ONLY begin with the letter you are on. Start with a different letter every session so you don’t overwork the same section of the alphabet. I try to make the words as visual and specific as possible (avoid abstract vocabulary like “freedom,” “incidentally,” “existentialism,” etc.).
“Narcissistic newts nipped nine Norwegian nails.”
“Orange octopuses orated occasionally.”
“Pentagonal pterodactyls pined peacefully.”
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE
Whenever I’ve tried Napier’s “Solo Character Switches” exercise, I blank out of words to say, and I never get through more than about 2 minutes of the exercise (covering probably about 3 characters instead of the 12 I should be covering with 10-second switches).
So I’m combining Character Switches with Alphabet Soup. Do a different character for each 4-word sentence. (I base the character off the first word of the sentence.)
While I’m not brave enough to break into full-out characters on a New York City subway, I have no problem mouthing words in public, silently positioning my throat and lips exactly how they’d need to go to create the voice of this character. I can visualize what sound would come out of me if I were to activate my vocal cords. It’s as close as I can get to full-out characters without becoming a public nuisance.
To me, characters are one of the most fun parts of improv (which I always forget), and coming up with words on the spot is one of the hardest parts of improv. This exercise isn’t the most challenging warm-up in the world, but it’s a pleasant wake-up for the bits of my brain that need to get woken up.
For my pre-practice rituals (and I guess pre-show rituals, tho’ I haven’t had a show in a while), in addition to ½ cup coffee, 3-5 min of Mind Games on the train, and 3-5 min of Dada Monologue as I walk from the station to the studio, I’ve added “be funny for a few hours beforehand” to the list of things to help put my mind in a peak improv mood.
…Which sounds a little weird when I type it out, not gonna lie. I believe that trying to be funny is a recipe for automatically not being funny. More accurately, I am trying to let myself be funny. Permission granted, go ahead, do it.
Here’s the thing: one of the reasons I started getting into improv in the first place was to learn how to be funny without alcohol.
The reason I think it’s easier to be funny with alcohol is because alcohol allows my carefully constructed wall of social propriety to fall to the ground. More succinctly: lowered inhibitions.
And one of the things I’ve learned from doing improv is that it’s hard to be funny if you’re inhibited. Inhibitions = fear = not taking risks, avoiding bold moves, doing cautious improv = bad comedy.
And the inhibitions that stop me from being a goof in everyday conversations are pretty much the same inhibitions that make me freeze up when I improvise.
So: I’m trying to practice being a goof in everyday conversations. I do characters and voices, I break into small silly dances, I crack jokes without second-guessing how funny they are. (A lot of it is in the delivery, I’ve found. And shrugging off the failures. And having an appreciative audience. My coworkers, thankfully, chuckle politely anytime they identify a joke as a joke, which is enough for me.)
My point: in my estimation, as an anxious performer, learning to be loose and goofy in front of one person… is a precursor to learning to be loose and goofy in front of seven people… is a precursor for learning to be loose and goofy in front of a thousand people.
Can I maintain this playful persona all the time? Fuck no. I can’t force playfulness if I’m not feeling it, but— I guess in the school of CBT— I can focus on little concrete goals, like finding reasons to insert silly voices into my conversations. And over time, “silly voices” can lead to “silly” can lead to “less inhibited improv.”
My own probably-ignorant two-cent ramblings, as ever.
P.S. Text images are dumb! Don’t care, using them anyway, fuck you.
High on jet lag after a successful family reunion on the other side of the country, during which time I established myself as “one of the funny cousins” and remembered how good it feels to have people laugh at your jokes, I went to my first Del Close Marathon (#DCM16) on Friday night. After watching 7 groups of high quality improv, I’m starting to remember why I want to do this.
The best groups—in my estimation—look like they’re having fun. They are doing ridiculous exaggerated characters, and doing buttloads of physical silliness, and calling out everything illogical (which I love to do!).
I mean, that’s not all of it, of course. Part of what separates the wheat from the chaff (IMHO) is an extra helping of intelligence, wit, and fearlessness. And I have to face the reality that maybe I will never fully own those traits. But in the words of Rick Andrews’ Magnet podcast interview (~20:52):
“In Level 1, it’s ‘get over the fear,’ but it’s also like, ‘here are some tools,’ and you teach people character, and emotion, things like that. And they’re not tools just because, like, someone said they are. Like, the more I teach the class, the more it’s apparent to me that these are tools because they help us not think. Character and emotion helps you be in the moment and express yourself. They are ways to fight the fear. They are ways to kill that stuff so you can just follow your passion.”
“It’s just so much easier to follow passion than it is to follow…”
My point: I’m finding that briefly distancing myself (both physically and mentally) is providing a helpful viewpoint for seeing that any worthwhile pursuit of comedy comes from love, not from obligation and dread… and I’m making a liiiiitle bit of headway in finding that love, and losing that obligation and dread.
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.)
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.
Continued from the past few days, last in a series of five. Find an actual copy of Mick Napier’s Improvise, it’s way awesomer than my summaries.
Miscellaneous Bonus Exercises
(18) Write an Improvised Scene
Write a two-person scene like this:
- Set a timer for 5 minutes.
- Never EVER stop typing. Your fingers will get tired. Power through it.
- Don’t self-edit or worry about grammar/punctuation/spelling. Just keep typing as fast as you can.
Name your characters A and B to speed things along.
Do not worry if the scene is bad or doesn’t make sense. You can go back and apply structure later (LATER), if you like.
If you truly do not stop typing, you’ll find channels of creativity that would normally be closed to you. And with practice, you’ll be able to differentiate and heighten the characters’ points of view.
Improvise a song while walking down the street. Or in your shower. Whatever. Just start singing.
Don’t worry too much about rhymes at first, but rhyming is the eventual goal.
If you improvise for any length of time, there is no way in hell you will escape having to improvise a song on stage. Start preparing now.
(20) Counting to One Hundred
You are a great speaker giving a speech to a room of 5000 people. But instead of words, say numbers. Ask questions, make declarations, provide variety, count to 100. It’ll help you work on your performance skills without worrying about exactly what you’re going to say next.
Turn on some music and dance. That’s it. It’ll help you get in touch with your body.
(22) Notes on Good Acting
Watch a good film with good acting (one you’ve seen before, so you don’t get caught up in the plot). Take notes on what makes the lead actor’s acting so good (to you). Do this for a few movies and compare notes. You’ll be able to isolate what techniques speak to you, and apply those notes to improve your own acting.
(23) Non-Fiction Summary
Read a piece of nonfiction, at least chapter or so. (I think Wikipedia articles would do nicely.) Then, as a character and without taking time to gather your thoughts, summarize the concept to an imaginary person.
This is an all-around good exercise to improve your reference level and incorporate specific non-improv ideas into your improv.
Exercise. It’s good for you.
Here’s links to all of ’em:
Part 5: Miscellaneous bonus exercises [You are here]
Continued from the past few days, #4 in a series of 5, spreading the wisdom of Mick Napier’s Improvise. The book is much more complete than these stupid summaries I’m writing, and plus there are like another 120 pages of improv gold that I’m not even mentioning; I encourage you to buy the book.
Exercises to improve scenic improvisation
Do a scene with yourself. Sit and launch into a dialogue with another character, and immediately respond as the second character. Continue the scene.
Try to make your characters as distinct as possible. You can try physically shifting your body, if it helps.
DON’T STOP. You’ll be self-conscious at first. Try setting a timer for 30 seconds and forcing yourself to power through.
You’ll likely tend towards simple question/answer scenes at first, but the scenes will grow more complex as you practice.
When you’re doing a scene with a partner, you might find yourself thinking of what to say next while your partner is talking. This exercise forces you to stay in the moment.
(13) Scene with Emotional Shift
Same as #12, but now each character has a different emotion (ex. gleeful/sad). Practice both extremes of these emotions (ex. anger = shouty) and subdued expressions (ex. anger = clenched teeth).
(14) Scenes of Status Shift
Same as #12 and #13, but instead of different emotions, shift between high/low status.
A lot of us tend to play within the same status. Status in a scene is super-important, and knowing how to handle both sides of it is a good thing.
Start a scene— a dialogue with an imaginary scene partner who is responding in gibberish (don’t actually speak the gibberish). Each of your lines should build on the previous one, heightening the energy or point of view you established in your initiation.
Hell of a weather system we’ve had this week.
I’ve never seen so much hail in one day.
True, at least it melted before the tornado on Tuesday.
At least we’ll be prepared for the frogs and blood tomorrow.
I made that up, it might not be a good example, but the point is to get you to heighten your own thing without depending on someone else to do it for you. (Napier preaches the idea of “take care of yourself first, because that is how you take care of your partner” earlier in the book.)
(16) Read a Character from a Play Out Loud
Reading plays is a great way to learn about scene construction and character attributes, and learning how to act/play roles will give your improv an edge it needs. So find a play, and don’t just read it, but read a character out loud. Don’t worry about how well you’re acting— not yet, anyway— just read it. Notice how the character’s point of the view heightens and flourishes and is unwavering. How can you bring that to your improv characters?
(17) Film Dialogue
Watch a random movie with the sound off. Improvise the characters’ dialogue.
This is more an endurance exercise than anything; you must keep talking as long as the film characters are talking. You can start just improvising one character’s dialogue, but aim to build up to improvising all the characters for at least half an hour or so.
Here’s links to all of ’em:
Part 4: Exercises to improve scenic improvisation [You are here]
Continued from yesterday, #3 in a series of 5. Again, I’m paraphrasing a chapter of Mick Napier’s Improvise, but he says everything wayyyyyyy better than I do, and you should buy the book.
Exercises for physical body and space
Stand in the middle of a room. Without thinking, reach out in the air and grab an (imaginary) object. Truly challenge yourself not to preconceive the object. When your hand hits that object, let it inspire you to choose what it is, then use the object.
Ex.: You reach out and grab something, and you see your hand and think, “torch,” and now you have a torch in your hand. Start using it to walk through a dark room. After you’ve used the object for a bit, set it down (take note of where you put it) and pick up another object somehow inspired by the first object. (Maybe a set of keys.) Set that object down, and find a third object inspired by the first two objects… at this point, maybe we’re in a dungeon, and you find a heavy chain. Continue for about 10 objects.
Bonus points: revisit all 10 objects.
Goal: When you begin with nothing but the act of reaching out, you learn to immediately come up with something, and eventually it’s not so scary.
(9) Body Parts
Walk around a room. Think of a body part (e.g. “chin”) and lead with that body part. Give it presence; stick it out a little; walk forward. After a while, pick a different body part and lead with that. Continue until you’ve covered every body part you can think of (nose, chest, pelvis, ear, left elbow, right knee, shoulder, etc.). It can help inspire characters that might not normally occur to you.
After you’ve been through this exercise a couple times, make character sounds that feel appropriate for that character’s walk. After you’ve done THAT a couple times, give these characters a whole monologue.
Lie on the floor. Wordlessly create a character who wakes up and gets ready for the day. Let it evolve, so each moment brings more information about the character. What kind of clothes does she wear? What’s his bedroom like?
Make breakfast. What does the character eat? How does he prepare it?
After breakfast, what does she need to get out the door? A hat? Coat? Metrocard? Car keys?
This can help you develop a character by committing to a detailed environment.
(11) Object Monologue
Write 20 objects on slips of paper and put them in a hat. Launch into a character monologue. Every once in a while, grab a slip of paper. Continue the character monologue and integrate that object into the scene— don’t focus on it, but treat it as an incidental prop.
Why? Because a common rookie mistake is to just talk about the environment or the object they’re holding, and you don’t want to be a rookie. To quote, “practice in having the environment be incidental is invaluable.”
Here’s links to all of ’em:
Part 3: Exercises for physical body and space [You are here]