Our latest Level 3 Sketch class work hard to produce a stellar show, and it's evident they succeeded with Sixth Floored. Performer Jonda Robinson and assistant director Julia Cotton fill us in about the revue and how sketch writing can help make you better improviser. How did the group land on the theme of the show? What is the through-line in each scene connecting with the overall Dallas/Kennedy title?
Jonda: Because this is the first sketch show at the new Dallas Comedy House (DCH), we thought it would be nice to try to write some things that were inspired by Dallas. Nick Scott (our director) asked us to bring in pitches that involved the city, and almost all of them had to do with the Kennedy assassination in some way. This made us think about how that event is still such a big deal for the city, and Dallas has never really moved on from it. In our scenes, we saw this related theme of characters being stuck in situations, unsure of how to move forward, and that became that thread that runs through the show.
Julia: Nick and I had them go around the table and just tell what was going on in their lives. In everyone's response there was some mention of not knowing what was coming next in their lives. Everyone seemed to hint at the need to move on to the next thing, but not quite being sure what that next thing was or even if moving on would be the right thing to do. So that's something underlining the show, for sure: staying stuck in a situation or moving on from it. JFK came along because I think we had them bring historical pitches and Dallas centric pitches in the same week. There was some grim holocaust stuff, some grim 9/11 stuff, but I think mostly JFK stuff came through the pipe that week, and we ended up running with that. There was a joke about the JFK assassination being the thing Dallas is most known for and there's like this weird sense of pride about it. The title Sixth Floored, though, is also a reference to the band Sugar Ray, which is another prominent element in the show (their second studio album was titled Floored).
How does working together as a sketch group differ from working together as improv troupe?
Jonda: When you are onstage as an improv troupe, you don’t have time to overthink—you just have time to react, and once a scene is finished, you’ll never do it again. In sketch, you get to take your basic idea, write it, and rewrite it until it’s something you really like. Sketch involves a lot of bouncing ideas off of each other and, as a group, picking the ones that work best. The collaboration is different, because you get to actually explain the reasoning for your choices and hear other ideas to see which is best before putting anything up for the audience.
Julia: You're getting to explore each other's ideas further, which is great on a lot of levels. Not only does that mean you're digging into the sketch and what can make it great and better and finding different directions it can go, but you're also digging into each other more. In improv, you make things up on the spot and scenes and moments pass so fast and you forget about them so quickly. With sketch, obviously you're planning things, so you can ask someone, "How did you get to that thought," which prompts a lot of conversations in and out of that writer’s room. Being able to bounce ideas back and forth, you end up getting a deeper look into each other's psyche. I like that, because there’s the opportunity for writing specific things about the people you’re working with.
How does writing influence your improv skills?
Jonda: Writing sketch has helped me become more aware of just how important the basics are in an improv scene. When you write something, you know that you need to get the set-up of the scene out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Without this foundation, the audience is left missing out. Writing sketch has also forced me to take the time to analyze the game of a scene and figure out how to best heighten it, which in turn has made it a little easier to recognize the game when I’m in the heat-of-the-moment of an improv scene.
Julia: I think both skill sets go hand in hand. I signed up for improv with the intention of getting into sketch writing. Doing improv makes you focus on things like “who, what, where” and “relationships” and “finding the fun” and “burning the leaves.” When you go into writing a sketch, all of those improv “rules” are so vital in giving you places to take a scene and finding out which one of those places is most interesting to explore and make a sketch out of. I feel like going back to improv after writing, you end up finding those interesting places faster.
What kind of work goes into putting on a sketch show?
Jonda: The work is basically four phases:
- Pitch a million ideas and pick the few that you like and have the most potential.
- Write, perform, rewrite, perform, rewrite again, rewrite some more, etc., until you have your sketches where you want them.
- Memorize your scripts and rehearse to get your performance down.
- Spend the entire run of your show having lots of fun with your group, because you’ve got it all down and are excited to show an audience what you’ve created.
Julia: Each week, everyone meets together in a “writer’s room” environment. The first couple of meetings everyone pitches ideas based on whatever’s happening (in their life, in the world, etc.), or maybe a prompt or theme is thrown out there (“pitch something about Dallas,” “pitch something about a particular historical event,” “pitch something about sports”). We go through all of the pitches, pick the ones that jump out enough for everyone, talk about them for a bit, and then improvise them. If something is working as an improvised scene, someone is assigned to take it and write it out. When there are enough scenes that kind of lean toward a similar theme, we get a few more pitches specifically for that theme and go through that same process with them. The directors take them all and come up with a preliminary show order and after that, it’s much like doing a theater production: Everyone needs to get "off book." Usually there’s some rewriting. There are ALWAYS sketches that get cut. There are revisions to the show order. There’s a prop list. There’s blocking/staging. There’s sound and lighting. There are rehearsals. There are tears. And then there’s a show!
Which skills does one need to be a good sketch performer?
Jonda: To be successful as a sketch performer, one needs the dedication to memorize lines and the willingness to try to play scenes in different ways, even if it pushes you out of your comfort zone. To use a term from my days playing team sports, you’ve got to be “coachable” and willing to listen to your director and fellow performers to make the performance the best it can be.
Julia: Having an improv background is definitely helpful, not only for writing but for the nature of live theater (because who knows what will happen that one time when someone forgets to bring the birthday cake prop on stage!). Also, all improv fundamentals are relevant in putting on a sketch show: support, react, use the environment, make eye contact, etc.
Confidence. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it comes across in your performance, so the audience won’t believe it either.
Thick skin is important. Not only are there ALWAYS sketches that get cut, not all pitches get the reaction you’re hoping for. That doesn’t mean you can’t write them and prove everyone wrong! But also, writing them doesn’t always prove everyone wrong… :)
Patience with yourself, your cast mates, your directors, your tech people, and those people building a brand-new theater for you to perform in. Sketches don’t always come together the way we expect them to come together in our heads. You may write something for a long time and it end up making no sense to you or anyone else. There are always technical challenges. There are sometimes new theaters being built in the middle of trying to put together a show, and you don’t have a stage to rehearse on for a while. Trust that all will come together as it should.
Also, night vision is good if you have that, because sometimes it gets dark on that stage.
Are there any scenes left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have been performed? If so, which ones?
Jonda: I don’t want to give away too much information about those top-secret scenes, as we might want to pull them out at some point, but the one that comes to mind was entitled “Peanut Butter Slap” and involved Ashley in the role of an office janitor who violently interrogated us all because someone was slathering peanut butter all over the workplace. Sometimes those sketches that never make it to the stage are the most fun because you’re trying hard to make some crazy premise work, and along the way inside jokes are created within your group.
Julia: SO MANY!!!
Katie had a really good idea that no one really latched on to that I was kind of in to. Something about a woman that talked to people that kept leaving or dying, but someone else would come in and be there for her to keep talking to. Then I saw an episode of Louie later this season where he did EXACTLY THAT! It was a good idea. Louis C.K. thought so.
Also, there was a "Middle Aged Mutant Lawyer Turtles" thing that never quite came together.
Jason Hackett had one that I really loved, but I do believe he’s still going to perform it somewhere, so I don’t want to ruin it. Stay tuned for that.
Plus, who knows what we can add back throughout the run of the show...
Speaking of the show, you can catch Sixth Floored May 21, May 28, and June 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available for advance purchase.
Sixth Floored was written by and stars Ashley Bright, Jessica Dorrell, Jason Hackett, Jon Patrick, Katie Pedroza, Jonda Robinson, and Cesar Villa. It is directed by Nick Scott and assistant directed by Julia Cotton.