lessons

"Improv Tips Reaches 100 Milestone" by Jason Hensel

Congratulations to Paul Vaillancourt on posting 100 Improv Tips videos! For two years, Vaillancourt, co-founder of iO West and author of The Triangle of the Scene, has offered timeless advice for improvisers at all stages in their development through his short videos on YouTube.

Even more, he often brings in revered improvisers to offer their tips, which is great for students who don't get a chance to take workshops or classes taught by these esteemed performers. 

For example, Armando Diaz offers his advice on how to keep growing as an improviser, Molly Erdman shares her thoughts about therapy improv, and David Koechner explains how to hyper agree

Vaillancourt's 100th video features Del Close and advice about the art of improv.

"Del [Close] used to tell us that being funny is not really the sort of point of improv," Vaillancourt says in the video. "Sometimes, especially new students, want to say, 'Well, what's the point, or what's the purpose of improv?' and I don't think improv has a purpose. I think improv is like a medium like paint. Once you learn how to mix the paint and apply it to the canvas in certain ways where you have a command of that medium, then you can use it to express anything you want."

Sure, Vaillancourt says, you can get an audience to laugh.

"[But] what else can we get them to feel? Horror? Sadness? Joy? Happiness? Transcendence? All of these things," he says. "I think that if I had one thing to impart to you as we move on to the next step, it's challenge yourselves to let the work be more than just funny. I mean, funny is great and funny is a fantastic goal or a fantastic byproduct of what we do, but I think it's so much more than that."

As an example, he offers a clip (below) of Del Close "himself improvising a monologue about the suggestion 'Del Close.' It's like it's layers upon layers, but I think that when you see him do it, it'll really drive home this point."

Once again, congratulations Vaillancourt, and thank you for all of these tips!

Jason Hensel is a graduate of the DCH improv training program and performs with .f.a.c.e. and the ’95 Bulls.

Marching vs Dancing

The following was written by Chad Haught, DCH's training center director and overall swell guy.  Chad HaughtI have students ask me the question, "So am I supposed to follow the rules in a scene or not?" all the time, so I wanted to clarify a few things.

We instructors spend a lot of time contradicting each other. You'll take one workshop or class where you'll hear, "Don't ask questions," "Be specific," or "Stop saying no," then you'll take another workshop where you'll hear, "Screw the rules!" or "Don't restrict yourself!" Ahhh! On behalf of instructors everywhere, I'm sorry.

We all have the same goal in mind (for the most part). We all want you to dance. We want you to play in the moment without worrying about who is what status or how specific a location is we're in. The last thing improvisation needs to be is a march. A rule-guided, restrictive, specific, straight-lined, inside-of-a-box march. Unfortunately, it’s kind of how we have to teach this stuff.

I write this because I used to get so confused. In college, we self-taught ourselves improv games. Then we discovered a wonderful book, Truth in Comedy that opened a whole new world to us. We started taking trips to IO in Chicago to take workshops from the writers of this amazing book, and we successfully learned how to build a scene out of nothing by establishing what was necessary. But then I went to an improv festival and took a workshop from someone who basically said, "None of that matters!" and I was thrown for an absolute loop. I remember asking a guy in the class that I knew was a student at IO what he thought about this workshop, because it directly contradicted the teaching he (and I) learned. He jokingly said the instructor was crazy and mimed dousing the place in gasoline, saying we had to get out of there or we'd ruin our improvs. His spacework was amazing.

I write this because while this instructor contradicted everything I had been taught, he made sense. He was right.

So now what? Was he right, or were the others correct? Both. Learn how to march. I preach a lot to new students about making high percentage choices. Start that scene with a statement, not a question. Or add an action, (OH THAT’S BONUS!) Better yet, be doing something but don’t talk about what you’re doing, manage the relationship. That’s rich stuff! All I’m teaching is how to march. Boring. But SO necessary. Learn those rules. Know how to make the choice that will benefit everyone and that’s chalked full of information or motivation. Oh, but do it with an economy of words -- we don’t want to hear you blather on while your scene partner stands there staring at you wondering when they’ll get the opportunity to speak.

Now go back and look at that paragraph. How many things did I tell you to do. A lot. And who wants to follow a bunch of orders? Not me. I just want to play and have fun.

Then there’s the fact that even if you’re following all these rules and making all the high percentage choices it could still lack entertainment value. WHAT? Why? Because you’re marching. You’re following orders. You’re checking off a process list. Gross. If you’re not freeing yourself up to have fun, I don’t care how many boxes you’ve checked off, your audience doesn’t care.

Now what? Kill myself? NO!

Once you know how to march, you can successfully dance. And when you dance, this stuff is amazing. When you’re dancing, you can break those rules and still have a blast, you can have an argument with your scene partner and it will be hilarious. You can appear to walk thru the back of a car someone established earlier and your justification will bring down the house.

But Chad, how do I dance? Thanks for asking. Once you’ve learned all these rules, know how to successfully start a scene and providing the who, what, where is second nature, just allow yourself have have fun. Allow yourself. That’s something you have to do. How do you play that crazy character? I allowed myself to not care if I fail or make a fool out of myself. For me, this stuff went from a list of rules to (as Mick Napier once told me) “the least important thing I’ll ever do” -- as statement, that was both a travesty and the most freeing thing I ever learned.

The bottom line is you have to work. Cram all this knowledge in and go thru the repetitions. Read books on this stuff. Watch shows. Check out videos on the Internet. Be in love with improv. Time spent inhaling improv comedy is flipping switches in your brain that’s allowing all that marching we’ve taught you to flow thru your subconscious and make sense as you apply it on stage (dancing).

So the next time you hear an instructor say, “Learn these rules” or “Screw the rules!” just know that they’re both right. Learn to march so you can find the freedom to dance.

Know Everything

Shark by Ty LettauA recent headline on Lifehacker read "What You Want to Do is Who You Are," and it reminded me of something Rich Talarico said during a Dallas Comedy Festival workshop: Know Everything. It's a two-word sentence, but we often forget it when we step on stage to perform improv. We get in our heads that scenes are about discovery--and they are!--however, they're about discovering each other.

"Long-form improvisation isn't about jokes and the cheap laughs," Del Close said. "It's about people exploring and discovering situations and relationships."

The most difficult scenes to perform are the ones in which the improvisers don't know who they are or what's going on. Once those elements are nailed down, it's easier and more fun to figure out the what of the situation (another of Talarico's lessons).

Do yourself and your scene partner a solid next time you perform: know everything. Know who you are and where you are.

But, but, but, I can hear you stuttering, isn't improv about being flexible and going with the flow? Yes, it is. However, you can still know everything and go with the flow.

For example, imagine a performer stepping on stage acting like she has a broken leg (that's who you are). Not noticing the character trait, a scene partner steps out and immediately says, "We're going to have to swim all night or the sharks will eat us" (the where of the scene). More often than not, the first performer will drop the character trait in an effort to go with the flow. A more interesting scene, though, is one in which a character with a broken leg has to avoid sharks and how this will affect the two characters' relationship.

Knowing everything creates richer scenes, and the less wishy-washy we can be on stage, the less wishy-washy the audience will be to us.

(Photo via Flickr: Ty Lettau / Creative Commons)

Stayin' Alive

Staying Alive by LamerieHow many times have you been in a scene and you just know it's over, but no one is editing it? Or maybe you're in a scene, and you can feel that your partner is having trouble saying or doing anything. What do you do? As Graham Nash would say, "Make sure that the things you do keep us alive." And one of the best ways to do that is to go back to the top of the scene. Revisit what brought you to the place you've ended up. More often than not, that will get you back on track. For those in the wings, it's also a good clue that the performers are looking for an edit or help in the scene.

We see people struggle with scene progress a lot of the time. The performers get frustrated and immediately start adding elements that are unnecessary. Admit it, we've all done it. This is where, though, another strategy for keeping a scene alive comes in: Focus on the emotion. It's much easier to concentrate on one emotion than juggle 17 elements that you've just pulled out of the air.

So, there you go, two ways to keep a scene alive: Start at the beginning again and focus on emotion.

What are some other ways to keep scenes alive? Please let us know in the comments.

(Photo via Flickr: Lamerie / Creative Commons)

The Giving Game

GiftOne of my favorite things to do when I introduce strangers to one another at a party is to make up things they each like just to get a conversation going. For example, something like this: Me: Hey Sam, meet Alex. Alex likes binary numbers, Walt Whitman and making up names for stars. Sam here likes waking up with a rooster alarm clock sound, old postcards and antique nightlights. Discuss. (exit stage right)

I started thinking about this type of introduction the other night while watching some improv scenes. A lot of them started with "I..." While some were good scenes, the ones that were better were the ones that began with "you..." They were the ones in which a performer gifted another performer.

It's a lot easier--and a lot more relaxing--when someone just hands you first how you feel (e.g., "You look nervous" or "You're late again). Then you can react off of that instead of thinking how you're going to start a scene.

I decided to try my own "you..." experiment at a Wednesday jam session. Every scene in which I was able to gift another performer first was a lot more fun to play.

Give it shot. Start your scenes with "you..." and see where it takes, well, you.

What are other ways to gift someone on stage? Please let everyone know in the comments section.