Ben Pfeiffer

The Improvised Horror Movie

The American horror movie. What cinematic legacy can claim special effects mastery, emotional poignancy, and raw camp in the same breath? Scary movies have done so much good for cinema that it’s sickening. And now that we’re in the season (oh goodness HALLOWEEN I’m excited are you excited I love Halloween like no lie it’s my favorite holiday and I’ve been planning my costume for MONTHS) – Ahem. Sorry about that. As I was saying, now that we’re in season – eeek – the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) has started a month-long series of holiday-appropriate shows. As is tradition, it opened the first weekend of October with a premier of the Improvised Horror Movie. Though the show stands as a tribute to the horror genre, it also exists in memorial to Del Close, creator of the format, and Jason Chin, former director at iO Chicago who perfected the show. DCH runs the Improvised Horror Movie through the month of October as a dedication to their work. Improvised Horror MovieJust like its parent genre, the Improvised Horror Movie takes a couple different forms – forms, mind you, not scripts, because then it wouldn’t be improv, duh. Each form spins off of a particular type of horror movie. The version I had the pleasure of viewing was based off of one of my favorites: the "Slasher," wherein innocent, dumb kids fall prey to a psycho killing machine. Now that’s what I call comedy! Hooray!

The way the shindig worked in practice seemed pretty simple: At the top of the show, the audience assigned each cast member a role, all inspired by classic horror tropes. There’s a jock, a nerd, a goth, a stoner, a popular chick, and the surviving girl who will, in the end, determine who the killer is. (Spoiler alert, most of the archetypical characters die in a spectacularly funny fashion.)

Even though the roles are pre-determined and assigned at the beginning of the show, this doesn’t make things easier for the players. If anything, this is crazy hard. “Here’s a point of view, now understand it, adopt it as your own, and think up stuff to say from that point of view on the fly in front of strangers. Oh, and by the end of the show most of you have to have died and you have to be funny in the meantime.” Like, what even!?! That’s hard enough for me to do on a good day.

“Emily, you’re dumb. Those roles are pretty much stereotypes, and aren’t those at the antithesis of what good character work should be?”

Um, first, how dare you, I’m hella smart. Second, no. Just because the role’s been given to you, there’s still tons of flexibility as to what constitutes that role. Sporty jocks don’t have to be bullies, and the brainiac doesn't have to be socially awkward. For instance, the stoner in the last show (played by David Allison) was far away from being dumb and slow – instead, he was an energetic conspiracy theorist who suspected who the murderer was the whole time. (He felt the perpetrator was George W. Bush, but whether he was right or not is hardly the point here.) The popular girl (played by Maggie Rieth Austin) was ditzy, peppy, and fun – not a sexualized antithesis to the surviving girl the character is usually reduced to. Thinking with that kind of originality takes skill and quick thinking that isn’t often matched.

“Well, OK, fine, so the characters are diverse despite being typified. You still can’t bridge the gap between cinema and stage acting!”

Au contraire! You forget that critical element of improv – scene painting! It’s a heavy and, in this case, a critical show component. We already know what will happen at the end of our “movie” – the audience sticks around for the journey to that conclusion. Performers primarily conduct scene painting through a series of different “camera angles,” wherein they call out cinematic direction you’d normally only read in a script. These camera angles double as edits and is what give the audience a cinematic effect, if an imaginary one. Cast members are given close-ups, split-screens, and even aerial shots that they have to make work and incorporate seamlessly into the ongoing scene. Half of the fun lies in players giving each other impossible views to pull off. (Have you ever seen a dead man fly in circles around two women standing horizontally? Well, I did! You might see it, too, if you buy a ticket). It’s a brain and body workout, to be sure, not to mention the lighting and sound tricks that the techs execute on the fly. (Props to Raye Maddox - you done good, kiddo.)

Boy. What a ride. In short, this show is a keeper. It’s one of those shows at DCH that’s a must see. You won’t get spooked, but you’ll certainly laugh, and any student or fan of improv will also get a great lesson by simply watching the cast. Oh, before I forget – that cast includes David Allison, Amanda Austin, Sallie Bowen, Noa Gavin, Jason Hackett, Tabitha Parker, Ben Pfeiffer, Maggie Rieth Austin, and Nick Scott. The whole shebang is tech'ed by Jua Holt (Raye Maddox was the technical director for the show I saw). They all deserve a big ol’ basket of treats minus tricks, allergens, and razors. For tickets, please visit www.dallascomedyhouse.com.

Emily Baudot is a DCH graduate and sketch student. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s drinking at one of the bars down the street and trying to justify ordering dessert for dinner.  Or, she’s on her computer pretending she’s a banished orc maiden, whichever one sounds healthier to you. If her crippling addiction to sugar and caffeine doesn’t kill her, she can be seen on stage with the soon to be world famous Wild Strawberry and the already-Internet famous Wiki-Tikki-Tabby (just kidding, they do go online a lot though). She’s also a Pisces because that means something.

When the Going Gets Tough

Head in Hands During a recent practice, one of my troupe mates expressed struggling with improv lately. Rehearsals had felt difficult and discouraging, and this person didn’t know what to make of the experience. The first thought that came to my mind was, “It’s a cycle.” I had felt crappy about my play just a week before. I’ll probably feel crappy about it again soon. We all know the feeling when things just aren’t clicking. It’s improv puberty; it happens to everyone.

I've been performing improv for almost four years now. That's a little while. I've been able to buy a drink at a bar (legally) for less time. In my near-presidential-term stint of making pretend, I've experienced plenty of ups and downs. We will always have both.

One of the toughest parts about practicing and performing improv is getting better. When you start, you’re overjoyed just to be able to express the thoughts in your brain. You feel an unmistakable exhilaration the first time you nail a great group game. Because you have done so little improv, every scene is a new scene. The work you’re doing might be good, but it is certainly good enough.

However, somewhere along the road, you get better. Your scenes become more consistent and you develop a small cache of improv memories. From this point forward you are cursed with the knowledge that you have done well before, and you feel a great sense of shame when you don't automatically replicate previous success.

Then you start to notice at shows how certain performers (many of whom have been improvising and teaching for years, mind you) always seem to stick the landing in scenes and why can't I be like them and just do good scenes like I used to and when did this get so frustrating and hard!?

A few things to remember:

  1. If you’re self-critical, it probably means that you care about the work you’re doing.
  2. You’re not the only, or necessarily, the best judge of your own work.
  3. Long-term consistency can consist of short-term inconsistencies. (LeBron James is shooting 30.9 percent from 3 this season. He’s a career 34 percent shooter from that range.)

It’s only because you’ve gotten better that you notice the flaws. A performer’s relationship with improv will always be cyclical. You will always go through phases of struggle and phases of euphoria. For me, it can even change week-by-week.

It’s a commonly held belief that you should regularly mix up your workout routine in order to maximize the time you spend exercising. If you do the same thing every day, your body adjusts and you no longer benefit from the activity.

The same is true when it comes to improv, comedy, and performance in general. If you spend all of your time practicing, you need to perform. If you spend all of your time performing you need to take a workshop or read a book. If you always improvise, you need to write. If you always do comedy you need to try drama. Change-ups give you a new perspective and offer an alternative when the fastball isn’t working.

In college, when I tired of our free-range improv environment, I’d focus on stand-up. When stand-up got sad, I’d work on sketches. When sketches felt difficult, I’d try to write a Regular Show spec script (I’ve got a pretty solid premise if it hasn’t been done yet. I haven’t watched Regular Show in like two years). With this system, when I felt deflated in one area, it didn’t prevent me from working in another.

It’s important to remember that this improv thing will never be automatic. Every time you complete the cycle of doubt and self-loathing (*cue graphic) you come out stronger and more consistent. When you watch a performer who always seems to have good scenes, it’s probably a product of many frustrating cycles. Even the established performers at Dallas Comedy House experience ups and downs:

“When I find myself in a period of regression or stagnation, I try to shake things up by playing with new people, new formats, and new characters. I watch more improv and go to more Jams.” — Tommy Lee Brown

“It’s easy to overanalyze. I used to do it a lot. A LOT. But I really try to dust it off as quickly as I can now. We’re adults playing make-believe, so it’s silly to beat myself up. And on the same note, when I walk off stage feeling too baller and cocky, I remind myself of the same thing. Learn from the good. Learn from the bad. Keep walking.” — Ashley Bright

“When I struggle, it feels like I'm forcing myself into the show instead of trusting the process and letting the show come to me. When that happens, I'm always more confident, creative, and generally having more fun.” — Ben Pfeiffer

“I think we make [improv] hard. We catch a glimpse of its splendor here or there and start chasing it. We think we can comprehend it or ‘do it this way’ so we can feel that thing we felt again. That's when it gets hard for me. When I think I can outsmart improv and make moves that aren't already there.” — Kyle Austin

The bottom line: Choosing to continue strengthens your skill set and ultimately gives you confidence for the cycles to come.

“The biggest thing I've realized about these peaks and valleys is that they pass. Focus on yourself, not just your improv but your life outside of it. Read more, take a walk, travel. Get out of your head and into your life because that's the real inspiration for everything we do on stage.” — Sarah Wyatt

Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of  the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.

(Image: Alex Proimos/Creative Commons)

Troupe Talk: Photobomb

Photobomb It’s baaaack!

The moment you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived. That’s right; ladies and gentlemen, the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) blog is bringing back Troupe Talk. This is the somewhat-semi-bi-weekly series, in which one lucky blogger sits down with one of your favorite DCH troupes to discuss performing, life philosophies, who they’d want to take a selfie with, and other deep/important questions about the universe.

For Troupe Talk’s first re-installment, we ‘re kicking things off by bringing you the best of the best, DCH’s newly awarded “Best Troupe,” Photobomb. Photobomb (Sarah Adams, Maggie Rieth Austin, Ryan Goldsberry, Ben Pfeiffer, Daniel Matthews, and Colten Winburn) pretty much has it all: beauty, brains, and perfect comedic timing. Though, when they’re not busy inserting themselves into audience members’ treasured memories or winning fancy DCH awards, Photobomb wants you to remember that they’re just like everyone else, except better and more good-looking.

Congratulations on winning this year's "Best Troupe" at the first annual DCH awards, Photobomb! Because you're winners and winners obviously know a lot about being the best at things, what qualities do you think make a troupe a "best” troupe?

Maggie: I think, for everyone who voted, they probably had different reasons for the troupes they picked. I hope people who voted for us did so because we're supportive of one another, have fun, and consistently put on a decent show. But, most people probably voted for us because we are really attractive.

Sarah: First thing is to have a "Colten"—then mix it with a "Daniel and a Ben," a dash of a 'Ryan," a healthy sprinkle of a "Maggie," and a touch of a "Sarah," and then BOOM, you’re a best troupe...but really what Maggie said, you just need to be really attractive.

Daniel: If there’s one thing I know about comedy, it’s that it is an objective, measurable competition. So clearly, Photobomb earned enough points in the “comedories” (comedy categories) to qualify us. Also, Ben can play an inanimate object like nobody’s business.

Ben: Relentless support of one another on and off the stage. We also give away shirts at the end of our show. We have no objections to bribery, in order to win votes.

Ryan: I guess liking each other helps, as does all having different and complementary playing styles, but I think it’s more about the gift baskets we sent to all the academy voters.  

Colten: Firstly, I can tell you the qualities of Photobomb: fast paced, supportive, zany and fun. I think the qualities of a “best troupe” are slightly different: agile, strong, steadfast, and adept in multiple martial arts. We aren't quite there yet.

For people who might not be familiar with you guys, how would you describe Photobomb's performance style?

Maggie: A Photobomb show starts with an interview and ends with a laugh—with a lot of inanimate objects and absurdity in the middle.

Daniel: It’s goofy and dynamic, and then sometimes Cell Block Tango does a scene in the middle of it.

Ben: It is a premise-based improv show, in which we interview an audience member and pull fun details and themes throughout the interview. Once the interview is done, we improvise based on the information provided to us.

Colten: We attack with our ideas after bothering an audience member.

Sarah: What they said.

Photobomb

Tell us about your most memorable Photobomb scene or show.

Maggie: Dallas Comedy Festival (DCF) 2014. We were gifted with a Friday night spot and were so excited. The audience was great, our show was great, and I think it was a defining moment for us. It helped us find our voice and style.

Sarah: I know you’re asking for a scene or show, but the thing that will always be the most memorable for me are our pre-show warm-ups.  We sing, we dance, we do bad jokes, we catch each other from falling, or make each other fly...our pre-show warm-ups are hands down some of my favorite moments in life.

Daniel: I think it was DCF 2014 that we did a musical show, right? That was fun, but Maggie already covered it. There was a show recently when Ben and I were both playing Willy Wonka simultaneously. Or some take off of that. Some weird twin Willy Wonka-esque guys. That was neat.

Ben: DCF 2014 was very memorable and fun. Also, as mentioned, we give away shirts after our show. We did a show on Friday night, and I saw the person we interviewed on Saturday afternoon at Kroger wearing the Photobomb shirt. I’m telling you people LOVE free stuff. I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure he slept in the shirt that night.

Ryan: Real sorry I wasn’t a part of Photobomb during DCF 2014, guys.

Colten: One time, in a Photobomb practice, Maggie just straight up spit in my hand. It was memorable, because it was real spit in my hand. The scene had something to do with MacGyver.

If you could replay/relive a fun (or deep or big) moment in your life over and over, like Groundhog Day style, what would it be?

Maggie: Probably, because this is Troupe Talk, I'd relive the moment in a Photobomb practice when we all set our phone alarms to go off in the middle, grabbed sandwiches out of our backpacks and pockets, and ate them over the buzz of alarms while staring at Nick Scott (our first coach).

Sarah: I would ditto Maggie’s moment. The look on Nick’s face is worth seeing for eternity, plus the sandwiches were really good.  

Daniel: Regardless of the quality of the moment, reliving anything over and over on an endless loop would become an abject, Sisyphean hellscape. But probz DCF 2014.

Ben: That one burrito.

Ryan: Probably, the first stroke of a sharpened Ticonderoga pencil. (This answer brought to you by Ticonderoga.)

Colten: One time I coughed, and my friend asked if I was OK, and I said, “Yeah, I'm just bad at beat-boxing.” And I'm proud enough of that joke to relive it over and over. So proud.

PhotobombImagine if every time you took a selfie, the same person (celebrity or someone you know) always showed up as a Photobomber in the background. Who would you enjoy seeing crash all your face pics?

Maggie: Probz my mom.

Sarah: Um…anyone? Probably, Maggie’s Mom.

Daniel: If I had to pick...probably, Maggie’s Mom.

Ben: The Trix rabbit.

Ryan: I had a long-winded answer about how I’d choose a historical figure, because, the way I interpret the question, this person is going to be summoned into my presence every time I turn on my front-facing camera and I could interview them. But you know what they say about planning your scenes in improv, so I’ll drop my shit and yes-and the Maggie’s mom bit.

Colten: Novak Djokovic.

Now it’s time for our “best troupe” winners to pull out their improvised award acceptance speeches. Who are a few people you’d like to thank? Remember to keep it short; the orchestra will cut you off if you go over time.

Maggie: Thank you to the panel of judges who put us together at the DCH auditions back in 2012, to the members of Photobomb who have moved away, to my parents, my husband, and my “phavorite phriends” I've ever had the pleasure of playing with. What an honor.

Daniel: I’d like to thank Grace, Danielle, and Madeleine for abruptly leaving Dallas, giving the remaining members of Photobomb no choice but to add me on to the team—because they knew that deep down, I’m actually three women.

Ben: I’d like to thank the members of Photobomb. It is a delight to perform with such talented individuals on a weekly basis. It is without question one of the highlights of my week.

Ryan: The folks at DCH for making me feel welcome every time I’m there, the folks of Photobomb for inviting me to play with them a year or so ago, and the folks at the Taco Bell on Washington for always having some quick bean burritos ready in-between work and evening classes/practices.

Colten: I would like to thank Nick Scott for starting us off strong and Terry Catlett for shaping us into a stronger team. Thank you to all of the members of PB for being so supportive and professional and consistently awesome. There is one member I would like to thank especially, my favorite member. My rock, my sun, my joy of joys. Her/his name, of course, is…

Sarah: I would like to thank the Academy, for this honor I am truly humbled by. Maggie, Daniel, Ben, Ryan, and Colten, for being so much better than me. Nick and Terry for always believing and always pushing us to be better. And finally Baxter T and Lady Squirrel Adams…they know what for. GOOD NIGHT!

Catch Photobomb’s upcoming performances at DCH on January 22, January 29, and February 5. They will also co-host the free improv Jam on Tuesday, January 26. 

Lauren Levine is currently a Level 3 student at DCH. When she is not trying to come up with witty things for this blog, she is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur photographer, a Zumba-enthusiast, a dog lover, and an 80s movie nerd. In addition, she enjoys all things Muppet-related, the smell after a rainstorm, and people with soft hands.

Be More Than a Talking Head

space work The only interesting talking heads are ones in jars. So, unless you plan to surround your head with glass (not advisable!) on stage, you should learn to add elements that will make your scenes more enticing to audiences, scene partners, and yourself. Those elements are found in space work (a.k.a., object work), and Dallas Comedy House teacher and performer Ben Pfeiffer plans to help you build those skills in an upcoming workshop. To learn more about space work, I sat down with Ben at Internet headquarters.

Jason Hensel: Why is space work important in scenes?

Ben Pfeiffer: I think space work is under-utilized and is a powerful tool if used with purpose. Space work makes your environment and characters believable. I try to use the environment to show my characters traits or point of view and help my scene partner show theirs as well. So, instead of randomly doing space work to fill up a stage, we should create items in our environment to show our characters' traits and that helps strengthen our scene.

For example, if my partner and I discovered we were cool kids in middle school in a scene, perhaps I could pull out a pack of cigarettes and start smoking to show I was cool because I was smoking underage. Also, while doing that I could label we are in the teacher’s lounge to establish not only where we are, but solidifying we are cool kids who don’t respect authority/boundaries.

JH: Why do you think space work is often forgotten about during scenes?

BP: In terms of space work, I think improvisers forget what has been already established by walking through an object on stage that was created. Or, they forget to do space work entirely and just stand in the middle of the stage talking. There is a lot to think about while improvising, so space work is often not utilized in a show because our brains are trying to remember the fundamentals.

JH: Every performer has a go-to space work move (e.g., opening a cabinet or fridge door). What is your go-to move?

BP: Juice box. Always Capri Sun brand.

JH: If someone isn't able to attend the workshop because of time or because it's sold out, what are some ways to practice space work on your own?

BP: If the workshop is sold out, we might open another workshop sometime in January. But, I'm unsure at this point. Improv is a group/partner dynamic, so it is often hard to practice on your own because it is not a one-person show. However, space work is one element that you can do by yourself. I would take notice on how you do basic things (e.g., brush teeth, etc.) or watch how people do things (e.g., drink coffee, etc.) and store it away in the memory bank or practice what you saw at home in the mirror.

Spacework! w/ Ben Pfeiffer is on Saturday, December 19, 11 a.m-2 p.m. Register now!

Troupe Talk: Age Appropriate

Age Appropriate Sometimes I wish that there were two universes you could step in and out of: one where, sure, fine, you have to behave age appropriate. I mean, everyone loves a little bit of stability and habit. You have to go to work, wash your socks, and pay the milkman for his delivery. But then there is another universe where work means WERK (AMMIRIGHT?), washing socks only happens if you are playing in a sweet, sweet rain storm, and you're paying the milkman, sure, but not for that kind of delivery. *wink*. (...Did that just get weird?)

Soooooo, unfortunately, this week's troupe talk doesn’t have two universes for you. (Or a milkman.) But what we do have is something better. We’ve got the two, solidly funny fellows from the two-man improv show, Age Appropriate. #youareeeeeewelcome

So go ahead, give us the cutesy, tootsy story of how you two met! How long have you been a thang?

Mike: Well, it's a fairly crazy story. Ben and I took classes together at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH). I think a couple months after finishing the program in 2012, we started practicing together for a two-person show. Like I said, a crazy story. Ben: Mike and I met in our Level 3 class at DCH. We went through the program and have been improvising together for almost four years. It is oddly similar to the movie Sleepless in Seattle, only it takes place in Dallas and we are both heavy sleepers.

Why do you like improvising with each other? (*awkwardly dances while hoping you actually do…*)

Mike: I love improvising with Ben, because I think we're different improvisers in some ways. We both have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, Ben does awesome stuff with environment and space work that I would just never think of. We're also just different people outside of improv with different interests and perspectives that we bring to our scenes. I just typed the word "different" four times. Ben: Without a doubt, improvising with Mike is one of my favorite activities in my week. He plays exceptional characters and makes really fun choices on stage that leads us to wonderful discoveries during a show. Truthfully, we are very different individuals, and without improv I very much doubt we would have met each other. Thanks to DCH I have a fantastic improv partner and friend I get to see and perform with every week.

What do you think makes a really good scene in improv?

Mike: Shouting, touching, going for a laugh at the expense of the scene, ignoring your partner, and references to pop culture. These are guaranteed to make for a really good improv scene. Ben: Even if you aren’t “following” the rules of improv in your scene, if you are having fun onstage, so is the audience.

What's the difference between playing in a group of two as opposed to say, six?

Mike: A lot. I think playing with just one other person is more challenging, but it can also be more rewarding in a way. It's just the two of you out there, so you know there's no one coming in to edit or walk on or tap out or whatever. I think a two-person show also forces you to just deal with what's in front of you a bit more than in a group. You can go for just the joke, but that scene is going to be over fast. You're kind of forced to deal with relationship to make the scene work, or it's just going to be a bad show. Ben: In Age Appropriate, I’m responsible for 50 percent of the show. In my mind, I am obligated and expected to do more in a two-person show because there is no cavalry coming to support the scene. With an ensemble, sometimes you can have a secondary role that evening because the show dictates it and your other players are the primary characters within the show. In a two-person show, that is never an option. All we have is each other when we walk on stage.

The world would be a better place if everyone followed the _____rule of improv.

Mike: "Slow down, listen, and have an honest reaction" rule. Ben: Make your partner look better than yourself. Generally, we live in a self-absorbed and a me-first society. If everyone looked out for each other and put others before themselves, without a doubt the world would be a more harmonious place (jumps off soapbox).

Please name three things that ARE age appropriate and three things that ARE NOT.

Mike:

Age appropriate: 1) A 34-year-old man drinking a beer 2) a 34-year-old man crying while watching It's a Wonderful Life 3) a 34-year-old man listening to Merle Haggard

NOT age appropriate: 1) a 34-year-old man drinking a glass of milk 2) a 34-year-old man watching any cartoons 3) a 34-year-old man listening to any teenager sing

Ben:

Age appropriate: 1) Ron Howard 2) M&M’s 3) Bob Saget, pre 1995

NOT age appropriate: 1) Ron Jeremy 2) Eminem 3) Bob Saget, post 1995

Age Appropriate performs at the Dallas Comedy House on August 14

Tori Oman is a Level Five student at DCH. She’s trained and performed with the Second City and iO in L.A. and Chicago. Favorite pastimes include being irrationally competitive at Monopoly, eating an apple in every country she’s traveled to, and being the sole person on this planet that thinks Necco Wafers are a delicious candy choice.