Carron Armstrong

The DCH Diaries: Old Dogs, New Tricks

Get Off My Lawn The DCH Diaries live on. I took a little sabbatical, and as sabbaticals are designed to do, I have come back refreshed, renewed, and reinvigorated.

While I was away from DCH and the blog, I reflected a lot on the wonderful folks here that I call my friends and the many reasons why improv comedy fosters a sense of community. We spend a lot of time allowing ourselves to experience emotional vulnerability and working to overcome fears like stage fright. We’re taught to draw on our deepest desires, passions, fears, and joys, allow them to bubble to the surface and color our initiations and responses on stage. Exposing our deepest darkest selves, our hopes and dreams week after week (and for some performers, night after night) fosters a bond among troupe mates and classmates not unlike that formed by soldiers sharing a foxhole (Not really. I made that up. I would not expect any of you to take a bullet for me.).

A few months ago, when I started looking toward graduation, I also started considering the people I’d like to play with on stage henceforth. I would be honored to take the stage with any of you. But as an older improviser, I realized that I didn’t see a lot of folks like me on stage. I also learned that there were some wonderful improvisers within our community who had, for various reasons, not yet had an opportunity to participate in a troupe. I wrote about my plan to bring some of those players together. Read about it at "The DCH Diaries: The Over-40 Project."

Well, the Over-40 Project has been more popular and more successful than I ever imagined. From Day One, we had enough participants to field two troupes. Those troupes, "Been There, Done That" and "Get Off My Lawn!" hired coaches - the indefatigable Jerrell Curry and the inestimable David Allison.

Been There Done ThatWeeks of practice, hard work, fun, and bonding later, these two troupes are preparing for their debuts. I am delighted to report that "Been There, Done That" will compete at King of the Mountain this Wednesday, November 18. "Get Off My Lawn!" is scheduled to begin King of the Mountain on Wednesday, December 16. The shows start at 9:30 p.m. See the troupe rosters below.

Please come out and support these two troupes! Tell them how much you love their talents, their attitudes, and their ambitions. Let them show you that improv comedy is not the purview of the 25-year-old plaid shirted guys in our community (though we love you all, too). Improv changes lives, and it has changed the lives of every one of us associated with the project.

This is only the beginning for the Over-40 Project. Right now, we have almost 40 names on our contact list. In January, we will be holding a special meeting/jam/social for people (over 40, please) who are interested in forming new troupes. We’ll make sure you all know when that happens. In the meantime, get on our list by grabbing me at the Jam, in the bar between shows, or email me at carronna@gmail.com.

Been There, Done That Dan Sturdivant Glenn Smith Dawn Rummel Smith Becky Rentzel Gretchen Martens Camille Long Mano Galaviz Doug Barton Gaye Bagdwell Mike Asquini Carron Armstrong

Get Off My Lawn! Nancy Zalewski Dan Sturdivant Mark Rosenfeld Kristal Milazzo Gretchen Martens Darrin Larson Gaye Badgwell Mike Asquini

Carron Armstrong is currently a Level 5 and Sketch 1 student at Dallas Comedy House. In addition to organizing the Over-40 Project and its two current troupes, she also serves at the unofficial DCH house mother (like the one in a sorority, not the one in a strip club).

The DCH Diaries: Crossing the Streams

Ghostbusters There’s a climactic scene where our four intrepid Ghostbusters realize that crossing the streams of their separate proton packs will produce enough energy to close the door to the realm of the god Gozer, the original bad guy in the original (and best) film in the series. Doing so brings an impressive conflagration that consumes both the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the roof of a high-rise building. It’s a classic example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts, or as Cody Dearing would put it, going deep rather than broad.

That was the theme of Cody’s recent workshop held at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) Training Center. Cody is a former teacher and performer at DCH who discovered the seeds of his improv career at Austin’s ColdTowne Theater, nourished it through the Chicago collective of iO, the Annoyance, and Second City, and again took root at ColdTowne, where he currently serves as artistic director and education director.

So, how do we get from closing the door to Gozer’s temple to a DCH stage? It’s really not very far. But you have to start with a few basics. Cody is a big believer in thinking as little as possible on stage. For those of us who struggle with being “inside our heads,” a bane of almost all newbie improvisers and many veterans as well (see my previous blog post on the subject), those are reassuring words indeed. Every exercise he chose for his workshop was designed to encourage us to react to just the last thing we heard. From a classic word association drill and “Yes, and” through a rousing F@#$ Yeah! to his rendering of Crossing the Streams, where each member of a small group “Yes, and”-ed a suggestion until it blew up:

My dog is a closeted superhero. Your dog is a closeted superhero, and he has a way cool cape. He has a way cool cape, and he flies at the speed of sound. He flies at the speed of sound and shoots lasers from his ears. He shoots lasers from his ears and can blow up stray cats with his thoughts. (not really.)

In addition to his emphasis on reacting to the last thing heard, Cody’s approach encouraged building positive scenes rather than adding conflict too soon. It was extremely refreshing for this student to hear many examples of how scene partners can add elements that build a positive and—dare I say it?—pleasant base reality on stage rather than a your basic “I’m leaving you, Harold” scene (which I actually did last week in class and was mildly successful with, thanks to my excellent classmate and scene partner, Darrin Larson).

In my last post, I described Cody’s ultimate illustration of how we can count on someone finding life itself funny when he had us sit in groups of five to talk about sleep and sandwiches until the audience couldn’t stop laughing. All designed to show us that we are much better off not thinking, but instead reacting, because when we do, we’re funny as hell.

Cody Dearing

Cody’s current project is one that all of you can enjoy without making the treacherous drive down Interstate 35. Many of you know and enjoy Cody’s popular podcast, Got Your Back. Got Your Back recently invited 13 improvisers, teachers, and other great comedic minds from Austin to come speak at length on a topic of their choosing. These interviews, along with some excellent Austin music acts, are collected as a project called appropriately Comedy Nerd-out. Here’s Cody on the inspiration for the project:

"The idea in part came from wanting to make our content more accessible to a larger audience. There are a lot of people with passionate opinions and interesting points of view in the Austin comedy scene, and we figured it would be interesting to give them longer than normal to talk about a specific subject.

"The idea also came from wanting to do more projects beyond just the one-off fleeting improv show. We're always trying to encourage our listeners to have a DIY and take matters into their own hands. We love to point out that the resources we have at our disposal now with the Internet as a platform, the cost of recording equipment, the deep bench of talented actors and comedians who are friends of ours...all of this makes creating content more of an attainable reality than ever.

"Going through all this, I feel like I learned a lot and gained some new perspective on the reality of content creation that I can share with our audience...and hopefully we can come with a way to do that in a future episodes that will be both helpful and engaging for people to listen to."

You too can have access to these great comedic minds by visiting Cody’s podcast website at gybpodcast.com/cno. The content is stellar, and I guarantee is worth more than the donation you will offer in exchange, so pony up, people.

And for those who are feeling the want and wondering why they didn’t sign up for this fantastic workshop when they could, you may be in luck. Cody promises a return trip near the end of the year to visit relatives in North Texas. I bet we can entice him to once again teach us the value in Crossing the Streams.

Carron Armstrong is a Level 5 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.

The DCH Diaries: Funny is a Four-Letter Word

Make each other look good An important part of an improv education is learning to harness the group mind. The group mind in turn requires a sense of trust among the troupe members along with a willingness to risk and to show vulnerability. Risk and vulnerability by definition are not the easiest characteristics to bring to the stage, in part because we keep asking ourselves, “But, is it funny?”

Imagine this scenario: Player 1 steps center stage and looks out toward the tech booth. Player 2 steps out and stands next to Player 1 and looks out toward the tech booth. To the untrained eye, they are doing nothing. To improv veterans, they are forming a base reality. If nothing changes, they will soon start to hear twitters and nervous giggles from the audience. Within seconds, full on laughter. What are they doing that’s so funny? They’re taking a risk. The audience has a certain set of expectations. Those will usually include spacework, witty banter, maybe even conflict as a setup for the “funny.” Doing what is not expected, however, is often more hilarious than anything that will come out of the mouths of those players.

Maybe Player 3 joins them. Soon the entire back line is centerstage looking out at the tech booth. The audience is in an uproar. What will happen? I bet at that point it will be difficult for the players to keep a straight face, and what is funnier than comedy performers who can’t hold it together?

And, that’s what happens when you do nothing. We’re taught in improv class that it is not necessary that we try to be funny. It is necessary that we try to be real, authentic. If you’ve been around this game for awhile, you know that going for the one-liner may get you a quick laugh, and it may be a good way to end a scene that’s a little long in the tooth (that’s an old person expression for old), but it doesn’t make for a great scene. That’s why people who come to improv from stand-up have a hard time in improv class. It’s why many people, used to the popular culture of sitcoms, Saturday Night Live, late night talk shows and Comedy Central, think that improv is so hard. What is hard is coming up that barrage of hilarious stand up and sketch material. (Kudos to Law and Order: the SVUsical, which is closing this weekend.)

Cody Dearing

Cody Dearing did a similar exercise in his Crossing the Streams workshop. He instructs a small group of people to sit in a half circle and have a conversation based off a one-word suggestion. Group One: sandwich; Group Two: sleep. The key word is “conversation.” Don’t try to be funny, he says, just talk. No one cracks a joke, but soon the audience is laughing anyway. Why? Because every friggin’ thing is funny in some way to someone. Life is funny. We don’t have to try to make it that way.

Lesson #1: One way to be vulnerable is to do nothing “funny.”

Here’s another:

Sometimes in class, we do an exercise in which we stretch while we make “confessions.” Usually, the confessions are just a recounting of something that happened that day. “It was not the best day. My boss yelled at me. It hurt my feelings.” Sometimes, the confession will take the form of an opinion. “My boss yelled at me. He’s such a jerk.” Sometimes, the confession is a true admission of wrongdoing, guilt, an embarrassing act. “I screwed up, and my boss yelled at me.”

Now, imagine translating that for the stage. Which is the authentic and shows the most vulnerability? Which of those scenes will be the most satisfying, with or without laughs?

Lesson #2: One way to be vulnerable is to use "I" statements.

Harnessing the power of the "I" statement can automatically transform an average scene into one with a lot more punch. Which is funnier? (This is a test. Hope you took notes.)

  • “He was such an idiot - he tripped over his own two feet.”
  • “I’m such an idiot - how could I trip over my own two feet?”

Try this one:

  • “So, I’m just saying, Uncle Paul, I’m not going to drive a pink VW bug even if you give it to me.”
  • “So, I’m just saying, Uncle Paul, you look stupid behind the wheel of a pink VW bug.”

They both have merit, but I would venture to guess that the scenes initiated with “I” statements would be funnier and more satisfying than the others. In fact, many veteran improvisers often take exception to scenes that are initiated with “You” or “They” statements, especially if they set up conflict.

When using “I” statements, we are almost always taking some kind of risk or acknowledging some kind of vulnerability. With “You” statements, we’re projecting the vulnerability onto someone else. Some people would call that bullying. It’s an easy initiation - setting up a conflict. But it doesn’t make for a very satisfying scene.

Our Jam hosts often admonish us to “like each other.” That can mean a lot of things. To me, that means that we don’t initiate unnecessary conflict, don’t pimp, and don’t try to steal the thunder by offering laugh lines. Instead we take personal risks and show vulnerability and support our scene partners when they do. Now, that's funny.

Carron Armstrong is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.

The DCH Diaries: FRET Ye, My Brothers and Sisters

Eleanor Roosevelt In this space last week, I talked about vulnerability on stage, particularly when it comes to sharing painful feelings. This week, the focus shifts to fear.

You remember the Roosevelt family, the political dynasty that produced two popular presidents and a bad-ass first lady? Every one of those folks had something to say about fear. I know you’ve heard these:

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."—FDR

"The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do."—Eleanor

"The credit belongs to the man . . . who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."—Teddy

Do you think they cribbed off of each other?

I love acronyms. They are often clever encapsulations of much more complicated and often abstract constructs. I have a new one for you, and I am proud to say that I made it up all by myself (quite by accident, but don’t tell anyone). It will be my enduring contribution to the literary oeuvre of improvisational comedy. Prepare to be impressed:

F R E T: Fear, Risk, Exposure, Triumph

I think it is a great irony in human relations that the willingness to fail may be the characteristic we most admire in others, but fear of looking stupid cripples our willingness to take those risks.

Next time the scaredy cat claws its way to the surface, think FRET:

Acknowledge the FEAR Choose to take the RISK EXPOSE your vulnerability TRIUMPH in your high achievement

Improvisers are a singular bunch. Think about what we do. We go on stage naked, without a script or much of a game plan at all. Maybe an initiation or a gesture. We run an immediate risk of looking stupid. But, hell, looking stupid is funny. Why? Because people in the audience either 1) do improv and can totally empathize with the performer’s plight, 2) don’t do anything like improv and admire the bejeezus out of people willing to face the risk of stepping out from the back line and seeing where the journey takes us.

When your friends and relatives see you on stage for the first time, don’t you get a post-mortem like this? “Gee, that was great. You were so funny! But I could never get up on a stage like that.” By the end of Level 1, I was saying, “Of course you can. Everybody can.” For a time, I thought, “Why do they feel that way about themselves?” I figured they were afraid of freezing up or looking silly. Classic stagefright precipitators. Maybe it’s more fundamental than that even. Maybe they are afraid of taking the risk, of appearing vulnerable, of ceding control to a process or another person.

Next week, we will explore practical ways to apply that cool FRET acronym to help us all deal with the insidious fear of emotional exposure. This week, I will leave you with another favorite quote of mine. Because it deals directly with vulnerability in comedy, let it inspire you.

Robert Kelly"Yeah, we are cool motherf******. We are rockstars—when it comes to what we do. But we are f**k-ups, but we know it. We know all of our flaws. We know all of our dimples and zits. We use it, and use that to make you understand us more. It makes people like you more. When you are on stage talking about how f***ed up you are and people relate to it, I don’t know if there is anything more powerful. That’s how people get sober off drugs, just being completely honest. That’s what kind of power lies in stand-up comedy.

"Being as vulnerable as you can on stage. And then adding making people laugh at it. That’s why I get mad when people get offended at comedy. It’s like wait a minute, the person that gets offended, okay f**k you, but what about the other person that it helped?"—Comedian Robert Kelly, Paste Magazine, 1/9/2015

Mr. Kelly plays the brother of Louis C.K. on Louie.

Carron Armstrong is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.

The DCH Diaries: Comedy is Pain

Vulnerability-Just-Ahead “Comedy is pain.” - Jean-Paul Sartre “Comedy is pain plus time.” - Carol Burnett “The root of all comedy is pain.” - Charlie Chaplin “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity.” - James Thurber “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” - Mel Brooks

The last one’s your favorite. I know you people.

When I tell folks that I perform improvisational comedy, they often say something like, “Oh, cool, you do stand-up." Of course, I then have to explain what improv isn’t before I explain what it is. There are myriad differences between stand-up comedy and improv. Script/no script is fundamental. But one difference between improv and stand-up (and other forms of scripted comedy) may not be so apparent. It has to do with how much we put ourselves on the line when we tackle the stage. I’m not talking about those butterflies. I’m talking about exposing our authentic selves.

Several months ago, early in my improv education, I had a conversation with a new friend at one of his first Tuesday night jams. Said friend expressed a reluctance to go on stage, even though it would not be his first time. That night he was afraid that his dark mood was so strong that he would not be able to keep it under wraps and it would spill out into the scene and bring everyone down. He didn’t elaborate on what led to his dark mood, and I was not going to intrude. I understood his concern. It was a little frightening, the thought of strong feelings leaking out.

In fact, don’t we often use humor to hide strong emotions? What about nervous giggles? Guffaws of relief? This is the nature of stand-up. We often laugh because we are identifying with the comedian or the subject matter (“He’s talking race or sex or religion. I can’t talk about that in polite company, but I can laugh about here.” Or, “She’s bombing. You'd never catch me on that stage.”) Some people may disagree with this, but it appears to be a fact that the incidence of severe depression among stand-up comedians is significantly higher than the general population. Some theorize that comedians use their art to mask their emotions. (“You gotta laugh or you’ll cry.”)

It doesn’t work that way for improvisers. Improv players are at their best when they go on the stage naked, stripped down to their raw emotions, positive and negative. But that's not how we start out. We go into improv classes thinking we’re supposed to be funny, right? We’re supposed to look for the humor and ensure that our audience has every possible opportunity to find the funny and go away with a light heart. It’s called Dallas Comedy House (DCH), after all.

I'd say that it was somewhere in my third class that I began to finally hear something that I think every one of my teachers has tried to drill into us: Improv is about being good and real. It's not about being funny. Isn't it hard, though, to think about being on stage and not eliciting a laugh. This is why some stand-up comedians have trouble adjusting in their improv classes. They have to fight the urge to go for the quick joke.

I had a night at Jam when everything I did was dark. I initiated a scene in which I was folding little pieces of clothing while crying. My scene partner picked up on the little clothing but did not address the crying. I ended up being a bitch of a mother in the scene. Afterward, someone asked me if I was putting away clothes for a child who had moved out or for a child who had died. It had been for the latter. Where that came from I don’t know. I have not lost a child. But I have two young adults at home on the cusp of moving out of the house. Perhaps that’s where that came from. But, no, that’s not where I went. I went for the deep down fear every parent has that she will outlive her children.

I did not do it intentionally. I just let it bubble up. The laughs were few and far between, but the scene worked. It was the last of several scenes I did that night with very dark elements, none of which was particularly funny.

I think that night I began to understand the power of vulnerability on stage. I did not want to bare my soul in front of people regardless of how well I knew them. But, for some reason that night, I went where my heart told me to go. It worked.

One of the most difficult things we do as improvisers—but the thing that marks some players as the best—is their ability to be vulnerable on stage. My friend, Mike Asquini, tells me that for all the laughing we do at DCH, his favorite performances have been the ones with the most serious elements. I would agree. I’ve seen some pretty powerful stuff, and I'm sure you have, too.

How does your vulnerability translate on stage? How do you present that gift to your audience?

Next time: Fear, Risk, Exposure, Triumph: Giving it Your All on Stage

Carron Armstrong is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.

The DCH Diaries: Charactaurs Among Us

Charactaurs Who knew dinosaurs play mating, er..improv games?

A recent sighting in a remote area of North America known as Deepest Ellum, Texas, has scientists buzzing with excitement. Explorers believe they have spotted a pack of modern-day, living dinosaurs. The pack, or herd, included approximately 14 individuals, males and females of various species, led by an alpha male, believed to be of the species, improvisaurus instructus.

Until recently, many paleontologists were convinced that dinosaurs did not live among us and that they became extinct approximately 65 - 70 million years ago. It is posited that an event, possibly a meteor, caused their mass extinction, along with about three quarters of the rest of earth’s plant and animal life.

Other researchers have questioned that theory, citing evidence that dinosaurs, which had resolutely ruled the earth for 165 million years before the meteor allegedly struck the Yucatan, survive to this day. These so-called cryptozoologists cite to what they claim is irrefutable evidence that sauropods and theropods do or have recently co-existed on the earth with humankind. They point to famous photos of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster*, various depictions of Godzilla, the Flintstones, and the wealth of data discovered and explored by the experts at the Creation Evidence Museum and other such hallowed establishments.**

Perhaps the best evidence yet for the survival of the dinosaur family of genomes surfaced just weeks ago in the form of a photograph taken by an as yet unidentified explorer. The photo, said to have been snapped near the end of an extraordinary gathering of what looks to be representatives of many species of dinosaur, would suggest that dinosauric life is not only present on earth today but has taken on a measure of organization not seen in ancient collections of the fossil record, like those of the famous Tar Pits of La Brea or the many recreations depicted in the Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum.

In fact, this brave explorer reports that these dinosaurs almost seemed to be performing for each other. Much of the time they appeared to take turns interacting in twos and threes, while the rest of the pack patiently waited for their own opportunities. At other times, they performed alone or in larger groups.

In the explorer’s words, “Yeah, it was friggin’ breathtaking. I’m convinced I witnessed some kind of mass mating ritual. The alpha male, who mostly stood to the side, barked orders at the pack. The resulting behavior was virtually identical to that exhibited by male ducks: strutting, furious wing flapping, ruffling of feathers, bellowing, all for the amusement of their potential female partners. That makes sense when you consider that birds are actually modern-day dinosaurs.” Truer words were never spoken.

Unfortunately, the explorer was unable to get more extensive video evidence, but the photos she brought back seem irrefutable. Judge for yourself. In fact, rumor has it that another expedition into the wilds of Deepest Ellum is scheduled for Saturday, August 29, 2015. Professional credentials are not necessary to participate in this trip, and in fact, the adventure can be had for the amazing cost of just $20. Spaces are going fast, and you must register soon. Go to DallasComedyHouse.com, click Classes, then Register. You will find the expedition listed under Charactaurs.

Happy hunting!***

*Footnote 1: It is a little known fact that Nessie actually resides near the Glen Rowan Guest House, West Lewiston, Scotland. See photo here.

**Footnote 2: Many of these same cryptozoologists are quick to discount such pseudo-science as Will Ferrell’s remake of the iconic Land of the Lost, finding them little more than opportunistic attempts to capitalize on a hungry public’s insatiable desire for sensationalism in journalism. They also almost universally decry the 24-hour news cycle and liberal media. But I digress.

***Footnote 3: Please note that this is a photo-only safari. Trophies will not be taken, and absolutely no weapons will be allowed, even if you are willing to give up $55,000 and your Minnesota dental practice for the privilege.

Carron Armstrong is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.