Those who either improvise with me on a constant basis, or watch me improvise on a constant basis, usually draw two conclusions:
1) They like what I do, and
2) My improv tends to be more physical than verbal.
That first conclusion is great and hopefully they’ll continue to like what it is I bring to the improv table.
That second conclusion is a result of me taking a weakness and turning it into a strength.
Since I’ve pretty much learned how to make words, I’ve been a fast talker. My mother attributed it to my mind moving too fast for my mouth, but I think it stemmed from me being ridiculously shy and wanting to say what I needed to say in the fastest amount of time possible.
That shyness tactic stuck with me for a good long time, up until I started performing plays in high school. Even then, it took me two years before “Slow down, Zach, you’re talking too fast,” wasn’t one of the main notes given to me during rehearsals.
Practice went into reducing the speed of my speech: voice warm-ups, stretching the tongue and jaw muscles, studying how to actually do the legit Act-TING!, becoming different characters, so on and so forth.
Over time, my speech slowed down, and I became a pretty good actor.
Then I went over to improvisation, and it all went away.
No, I’m kidding! The progress I made didn’t disappear. It just took a step to the side, and maybe a little backwards.
While frustrating at first, I looked at my previous performing history to determine if there was some lesson I could go back to. Maybe some long-forgotten tongue twister to regain my brilliant elocution. What I realized, though, was that all my previous stage experience had been based scripted shows. Shows where the words were already written down for me, where my only job was to recite them with an intonation and affectation that would have people saying to themselves, “You know what, I’m glad I paid money to watch these people read a script from memory.”*
Improvisation, with its distinct lack of scripts and overall story spine, was freaking me out. And as it freaked me out, I regressed back to being the tongue-tied gentleman I had long been.
I had to find a way to combat this, otherwise my fast speech would inevitably become an obstacle in obtaining improv supremacy**. The tactic I latched onto came from my days within performing scripted theater. Along with those written-down words, there were also stage directions. These stage directions would inform my character of what to do on the stage: Walk downstage, pick up vase, sniff flower, and so on and so forth. Actions I could be doing onstage within improvisation what would allow me to relax and not have to rely solely on my voice and words to move a scene along.
I began incorporating these spontaneous stage directions more. As they were incorporated, my speech began slowing down. My characters began to be more defined. And I began to enjoy myself more on the stage.
After about a year into this renaissance, I began receiving praise for my stage presence, and my efficient (I guess?) use of words within scenes. I had taken my weakness of fast talking and transformed it into a strength of physicality and efficiency. A lean, mean, improv machine. Or something like that.
Now you tell me: In your improv, have you taken any weakness and transformed it into a bastion of strength?
*I know there’s more to scripted acting than that.
**There is no such thing as improv supremacy.
New year, new you, new resolutions.
Keeping up with that theme, I’ve been thinking about what my improv resolutions would be.
-Enter the stage with a character, an emotion, a “something” to contribute to the scene.
-Appreciate, don’t hate.
-Aid and abet.
-Physical contact to draw focus to the scene.
-Make every scene about the people, not about the invisible thing no one can actually see.
-Transform emotions from those “other” invisible things into something the audience can truly see.
-Receive at least one standing ovation.
-Shift sour grapes into sweet opportunities.
-Make the improv better through making myself better mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Not many resolutions, sure. But necessary ones.
Have any to steal or add? Leave them in the comments.
Over the past six years that I have been performing in the Richmond area, I’ve had several people ask me how it is that I got into this absurd (and I use that term in an appreciative way) art.
I’ve been improvising for 15 years, give or take. Didn’t really get deeply into it until the winter of 2007, where I went to an 8-week workshop at ComedySportz Richmond, and joined the main roster of performers shortly thereafter.
That’s pretty much it. That’s my how. Cut and dry.
I think the bigger, more soul-fulfilling question, would be why I got into it.
Everyone’s motivation for going to an improv class, or joining a troupe, or whatever, are as varied as the color spectrum. Some improv to improve their public speaking. Some, because they’re funny, and like being around funny people. Some, they just think it’d be a fun way to spend a night a week.
For me, though, what has become a great passion of mine started out as a strategy to gain confidence.
Not more confidence. Confidence, period.
Starting at the age of 10, give or take, I became stricken with extremely low self-esteem. In my mind, everything I attempted was doomed to fail. The successes I had, I attributed to outside factors. I never felt like I deserved credit for anything good, but everything bad was a result of some decision I made, some action I acted upon.
I hated myself.
Theater became my shining beacon when I reached high school. Not so much the idea of obtaining glory and fame, as much as the idea that I could disappear on the stage, be someone else, someone who wasn’t me. A role wasn’t a role, it was an alias, a disguise I could place over myself so the audience wouldn’t see just how terrible I was as a person.
I convinced myself that this was building confidence. That my self-esteem was rising every time I stepped onto the stage.
Really, it was hiding. Attempting to sweep the loathing I had for myself under the rug, to be worried about at some other time.
This tactic worked, to an extent. It worked for around 8 years.
But then the opportunities to be on stage stopped in college, due to grades slipping. With that lack of outlet, that lack of asylum, the crushing blows came back, tenfold. They never disappeared, they just waited, gaining power.
That power overwhelmed, and I found myself out of college in December of 2005.
There was time spent working in a job I came to despise. There was more stage time, thanks to a theater group I auditioned for in the winter of 2006. And as grateful as I was for finding these new and brilliant people, the self-hatred continued.
I convinced myself I was never good enough. Not good-looking. Not a good actor. Not not not not not….
The time came for a change of atmosphere. And that’s how I found myself in Richmond. And how I found myself finally enrolled in an improv class.
One of the first lessons, one of the biggest lessons, took me by surprise: Don’t be afraid to fail.
Don’t be afraid? I had spent the last decade pretty much scared to death of failing. So scared that I barely attempted anything that could prove to be a failure. Classes, work, girls, etc… It was all off the table.
But there was that lesson. Don’t be afraid. There’s no need to be afraid because those around you in the scene will help you, support you, keep you afloat in the tsunami of judgment going on inside my head.
This idea was foreign. Here I was, a guy who had convinced himself that I was a failure as a human being, and I was being told that it’s alright to fail? That instead of judging me, there would be people who had my back, who wanted to make me look good?
What the hell is that?
I resisted initially. Tried to prove that I belonged. That I was funny and people should like me because I was funny and oh hey look at me I’m funny and not at all telling myself that I’m a fraud and don’t deserve the attention I’m getting.
But then I failed. And nothing happened.
The scene went astray, went off the rails. But there was no yelling. No judgment of my capabilities. Just an, “Alright, let’s try it again,” and back to business.
I could fail. And instead of cursing at the failure, the opportunity for learning was brought forth.
And that’s when I began to grow. To slowly, so slowly, realize that by hiding myself on the stage, I was preventing growth. Stagnating the potential for the self-esteem to rise.
The improv continued. I got better at it. I got better with myself.
Now, here, in 2013, I find myself still playing, still performing. But no longer do I feel like I’m hiding from myself. Instead of feeling anxiety before stepping onto the stage, I feel a sense of joy and calm all rolled together.
I’m going to perform. And if I fail, it’s okay. I have people there to support me, or fail with me in a grand spectacle.
There are times when I still feel the self-esteem come to a crashing low. But I know those times are temporary, and that I will eventually find myself being once more at ease, and confident in my actions.
I just realized that I’ve spent most of these blogs discussing rules. Rules about space work, not being pun-tastic, and other various things that I thought would sound good and readable.
And I made a big mistake. I left out a very important word. A word that pretty much should be contained within all rules of improvisation.
Every theory, every so-called rule that I’ve put out on this blog could be followed. You could Yes, and… everything your partner gives. You could avoid questions by making statements. You could give every character you meet onstage a name.
Here’s the twist, though: You don’t have to.
These so-called “rules” that improvisation has are not hard and fast rules, so much as they are philosophies that improvisers have used over the years. These philosophies, many improvisers agree, come together to create some great scenes that can be enjoyed by both performer and audience.
These great scenes were given the opportunity to happen. They could have happened, and they did.
Those philosophies are great. They encourage the spirit of collaboration and heightening and moving a scene along.
Should these philosophies be held up as the commandments of improvisation? Nah.
Seriously, if we held these philosophies up as commandments, do you know how much penance I’d have to serve just for me asking questions? So much penance, guys. So much.
Del Close is not going to rise up from the stage and mock you for not giving a name to your fellow performer’s character.
So, these philosophies are ways of thought that you can use when improvising. And if you’re just starting out, they are great philosophies to adhere to. But when you get further along in your improv life, take those philosophies, set them to the back of your mind where they’ll always be, and then remember: Have fun.
Have fun making stuff up with your improv friends. Have fun coming onto the stage in a different way. Have fun with exploring the relationship between a dinosaur and a dinosaur trainer. That joy and excitement you have inside you while performing will shine forth onto the audience, and will fill them with that same joy and excitement.
With all this could talk, I should also say this: You could spend the scene denying every offer. You could do nothing but say punchline after punchline. You could choose to not play in the scene as much as commentate on it.
If that’s your idea of fun, I would suggest that you could consider stand-up as your chosen method of expressing humor. That mindset fits much better with a solo act than a group act, I feel.
That’s a weird way to end this post.
Eh, high-five. High-fives for everyone.
When I sat down to write this entry, my initial thought was to discuss choices in improvisation scenes.
As an improviser, I should know that to go with the first instinct is the best bet.
And then I realized what day it is, and how it’s been 6 months since Thomas, my friend and fellow improviser, passed on.
Choices can wait.
Rather than mourning, I’m using this post to celebrate Thomas. How his charisma, enthusiasm, and humor came to be such a large part of my life.
I can’t tell you the exact date I met Thomas. His personality was such a force of nature, he had this ability to sweep into your life, and you’d become convinced he had been a part of it since you were born. Dig deep enough, you could probably convince yourself he was the one who delivered you into this world.
I do know that he appeared at CSz practices some time within the first months of my rookie year with the group. There had been stories told about his past exploits, and these stories only served to heighten his legend among the new people populating the cast. When he entered through those doors, it was evident that his personality was not exaggerated by others; he was gregarious, smiling, and quick with a joke.
Time passed on. I worked with him on occasion, but nothing too deep. Helped run sound for his segment in a Valentine’s Day themed musical show. Watching him work the audience was a lesson in of itself. He didn’t care who you were, just as long as you were having a good time.
More time passed. He started offering a workshop on Sundays. 5 bucks. Couple of hours of just playing and learning and honing skills in an enclosed, supportive environment. These times were the times that I started connecting with him more. We would hang out after practices, discussing what had transpired in the past couple of hours. Then the conversation would veer off into completely unfamiliar territory, where it seemed the only goal was to make the other person laugh the hardest.
More time passed. CSz closed its location, leaving that Sunday crew looking for a new place to practice. Thomas, ever the one the one to put forth effort for something he cared about, finagled his way into a space that was an office used by one of the Sunday players. It was there the next comedy experiment, Paradox, began.
Our time at the office wasn’t too long. Soon enough, we moved into Art6, sharing space with random and sometimes weird art pieces. Ask anyone in Paradox about the cardboard sculptures, and they’ll be happy to give you stories upon stories about how those damn things were always in the way. The space was cold in the winter, unbearably hot in the summer. But it was a space, and we used that to our advantage by putting on several shows of all types of formats. Shortform, longform. A variation on Inside the Actor’s Studio. A story based within a motel conveniently found in the depths of Hell. A lemonade stand where the proprietors almost always ended up with a visit from the health inspector.
We rarely sold more than 15 tickets. But it was all right. Paradox wasn’t about the money; It was about people getting together and putting on a show for other people and just having a grand time.
It was within Paradox where Thomas gave me the reins, to be the director of education. It was a title that I held with distinction. Any ideas I had, he was immensely receptive to them, and would gladly add on things that would make the initial concept even greater.
Paradox was essentially Thomas’ beliefs in improv form: Open to anyone. No judging. Everybody brings something to the table.
As Paradox continued, Thomas and I would begin a tradition of “Sheetz Runs.” We’d finish practice or a show, and head over to the 24-hour wonderland that is the Sheetz gas/gastro station. Our foods in hand, we’d sit for hours on the patio, again discussing whatever it is that came to mind. There was the unspoken rule that if we stayed past 1am, we knew we would be seeing the oddballs of society, either drunk, aggressively friendly, or just aggressive and necessitating assistance from law enforcement.
It was on this patio that some wonderful games were discovered, in semi-twisted glory: The terrorist leader who runs his pack of believers as a manager in an office runs his employees; The numerous types of farts, and their official names (The Lunchable and the Hindenburg were top favorites); How many different ways could we end someone or something in “-obama” (ex: If our President had been the father on Family Matters, he’d be Carl Winslow-bama). Were they our smartest and sharpest humors? Not at all. But it was fun.
More time passed. With the re-emergence of CSz, Paradox was put to the wayside. Bittersweet, but overall we were both pleased with what he had done, and were ready to perform in spaces where temperature was actually regulated without the use of space heaters or portable fans. I focused on helping CSz become built, while Thomas focused on creating a weekly variety show for the Capital Ale House. Once again, his life philosophy bled over into this venture: Be interesting, love what you do, and there’s a space on the stage for you.
Thomas brought in a variety of performers. Singers, comedians, comedians trying to be singers, singers who were unintentionally comedic. The only thing that mattered, it seemed, was if he was entertained. If he was laughing, that was the validation. That was what made the sometimes otherwise deathly silence liberating. You knew you had entertained the big guy, so it was going to be all right.
More time passed. After dealing with apathy from the Cap Ale venue, Thomas moved back into CSz, picking up right where he had left off: Making new friends, flirting shamelessly, and impressing everyone with his improvisation skills and philosophical speak which, frankly, sounded like it came from demented Hallmark cards on occasion. The passion and enthusiasm behind each message was evident, though, and each person took what they needed, and felt good, felt wanted and talented and that yes, they could do this scary improv thing.
Then the end of December, 2012 came.
And time stopped passing.
Now, it’s the end of June, 2013. According to the calendar, time has continued. But in my brain, my heart, there are times where it skips back to that weekend, and those feelings.
Like I said before, this isn’t a post of mourning. It’s a post of celebration. And Thomas should be celebrated. His vivid character, his distinctive laugh, his overcoats, his perpetual Eagles baseball cap.
He was CSz’s Falstaff.
Goodbye, my friend. Save a duck or two for me.
Additionally, if you’d like to donate anything to the George family, to help offset the costs that come along in this hard time, visit the YouCaring website. Every little bit helps.
Your group is performing. A scene is currently playing onstage, and you’re off on the sideline/back line. As that scene’s going, you’re thinking back to this sweet character you created a couple of days before the show. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s challenging, and you know people are going to eat it up once you set up the perfect scene for this new character.
The current scene onstage reaches a high laugh, a perfect edit point. You do the edit, ready to unleash this new character onto the performing world, and forever cement your place in improv glory for at least three minutes.
The edit finishes, and… A player has walked onstage and created a new scene that your predetermined character will have absolutely no place in.
What the hell, fellow improviser?!?
You play the scene, reluctantly. Sure, few laughs and titters, but the scene sucks, and is only saved by an outside edit.
Your character, ruined! The scene, ruined!
By having that predetermined character all up in your memory banks, you denied yourself one of the best things about improvisation: Discovery.
As we like to tell people, whether they believe us or not, nothing we do up on that stage is scripted. It’s all spontaneous. Off the cuff. Some-other-phrase-to-describe-being-created-on-the-spot. We take great pride in our ability to form a coherent, genuinely funny scene out of any and all suggestions, or no suggestions at all, you lovely risk taker.
By having these predetermined beats in our head, we lose a little of that magic. What’s worse, the person you’re on that stage with may also have his/her own predetermined beats planed out, and when those two sets of beats collide, it can create a cacophony of noise and action, which some will find amusing and others will just find odd.
So, how to get into the mindset of creating something right then and there?
Step onto that stage. Do a quick physical inventory. How did you step onto the stage: Were your steps light or heavy? Is your body slouched, or standing straight?
These physical elements have the ability to inform the character you are creating. Allow them to have that ability.
What about the emotional element? Choose an emotion! There are plenty to choose from! Is your heavy-footed character happy? Sad? Intimidating? Attempting to be intimidating but really a sweetheart? So many options!
Play and discover. Take the audience on that journey with you. It’s a sheer joy to watch someone or something discover a new piece that forms the whole.