performing

Why I Go Watch Student Showcases

Student Showcase I have gotten to know quite a few professional improvisers over the years, and a lot of them teach improv classes at Dallas Comedy House (DCH).  These “teacher friends” invite me to their showcases*

*A showcase is a one-hour show at DCH that takes place when students finish a seven-week class and get to perform what they learned.

These are awesome. Fun. Kickass. It is filled with students on stage who have been told by their co-workers, “You so funny, you should be on stage.” They say whatever, whenever, and however they want. Granted, they have gone through seven weeks of training and their teachers have taught them better, but screw it, they are on stage and ready to rock.

Some of my favorite improv moments of all time have occurred at these showcases. A few examples:

  • A performer walked on stage with four people and uttered the opening line, “I am a bear from Alaska.” I have never stopped laughing at this.
  • Students trying out their southern accents. I can never get enough of improvisers showing their sweet Georgia twang. Or Alabama. Or maybe that is East Texas.  
  • Students that get so taken up in the moment they refuse to leave the stage after an edit. This is my ark of the covenant. You know not to look directly at them, but you are so mesmerized by its power.

The other aspect I enjoy is the feeling of “I saw them first.” You catch a Level 1 showcase and see some amazing talent, then a few months later they are performing on a Friday night.  

Bonus! Upcoming student showcases for term 3B:

Ghost Watcher is a regular, DCH audience member.

(Image: Kate Alleman/Facebook)

Learning to Bulldoze

Ew, it’s group scenes. Group scenes are the absolute worst. OK, no, they're not actually the worst, that's a bit of an unfair exaggeration. I'm sorry group scenes, I didn't mean to hate on you. Let's try and start this post again. Group scenes are...challenging? Yeah, yeah, that sounds better, I'll go with that. Groups scenes are indeed challenging, especially if you're anything like me: quiet, introverted, and at times a little bit socially awkward. For those of us improvisers who fall into that category of human, we can sometimes lose our voices in the cacophony of the group scene. This happens to me a lot, not just in improv but also in group conversations in life. Frankly, it’s the lifelong struggle of being the overly polite, quiet kid. Yes, shocker, I was the quiet kid and now I am the quiet young adult, and in group scenes, I’m the quiet young adult improviser who tends to just hang back and is happy to let everyone else do all the talking.

Kevin Hart

For me, speaking up in a group scene often induces the same anxious feelings as trying to merge a car onto a busy highway. All the other cars are zooming by and it's crowded and chaotic, and for the unobtrusive quiet person it’s easier and a lot less painful to just wait for an opening than assert yourself in and accidentally cut someone off or worse, making a messy driving situation even messier (I also suffer from driving anxiety, in case you couldn’t tell. It’s fantastic.). When it comes to being assertive, I'm definitely on board the struggle bus. As a people pleaser and rather passive individual, I tend to hold back from speaking up a lot. A LOT. I hold back, even though I know it's probably not a good thing to do, in order to avoid any uncomfortable feelings or confrontation.

One particular instance, in which I went out of my way to avoid asserting myself, sticks out in my mind. I went to this Mexican restaurant that had just opened down the street from where I live. I had ordered a bowl of tortilla soup, thinking, "Soup should be good. Nobody can f*** up soup, right?" Wrong! So wrong. Unfortunately, to my surprise, you can indeed f*** up soup. I could only describe what was served to me as overly salted dishwater garnished with floating bits of stale Mission chips. Pretty gross.

When the waiter came to our table and asked us the standard "Is everything all right here?" question, I should have said something like, "No, everything is not all right, Mr. Waiter. This concoction tastes like the chef put the sweat and tears of his dying abuelita in a bowl, scooped up the three-week-old Tostitos crumbs off his stoner friend's couch, called it soup, and then thought, yeah that's good for human consumption." But I didn't say any of that. I didn't speak up. Instead, I sat there and suffered my sweaty, dishwater soup in silence. And that’s on me, folks.

polite

But now I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to change and grow and be a better human and fellow improviser.

Although my default setting is to sit back and listen to and absorb everything/everyone going on around me, content with not uttering a single word for a solid chunk of time, I’m working on pushing myself to speak up, or, as my teacher Kyle Austin phrases it, “bulldoze” my way into a group conversation. I’m now envisioning a little Kyle Austin/Jiminy Cricket character on my shoulder telling me, “Be the bulldozer, Lauren. Be the bulldozer. You can do it!”

Now by bulldozing I don’t mean suddenly giving myself the license to be rude and pushy, ignoring what others have to say and bullying my way in just to hear my own voice. Geez, let’s be real, people. Nobody likes a super-aggressive, attention-grabbing, conversation-stealing Biff Tannen of a human...unless of course you’re improvising a scene from Back to the Future, which could be the exception here. But what I mean by bulldozing is this: Allow myself the opportunity to contribute when I know that I have something worth saying.

spongebob

In other words, when you got something to say, don’t hold back. Go ahead and assert yo bad self. Your scene partners really do want to know what’s on your mind (at least that’s what my teachers and coaches keep telling me) so you don’t always have to politely wait your turn to say something. In fact, Dallas Comedy House OG, Chad Haught, will tell you that politeness and improv don’t often go hand in hand. The overly polite, quiet kid improviser, who is all too eager to let anyone and everyone else take the lead, doesn’t help drive a scene forward by hanging back and keeping her ideas to herself.

As the quiet kid, you're the observer and the analyzer. Your mind is constantly engaged in what's taking place around you, allowing you to view the scene from a different perspective than your more extroverted peers. This means that your contributions to the scene are indispensable, because no one else will have the same voice or the same views as you. You're one of a kind baby! As my homie Dr. Seuss puts it, "There is no one alive who is youer than you." And that is a pretty magnificent, cool thing to be.

So when it comes to group scenes, be respectful, be generous, but don’t worry about being polite. If you got something to say, just say it. (I know, totally easier said than done, btw.) Be the bulldozer. I think rapper A$AP Rocky said it best, “Wild for the night. F*** being polite. I’m going in.”

quiet people

Are you a quiet kid? Do you have any stories from being the quiet kid? Do you have any stories from being the NOT so quiet kid? Do you just maybe want to say hello and tell me what the worst soup you ever ate was? Then put it in the comments bellows, please and thank you! All thoughts, comments, questions, and tellings of worst soups ever eaten are welcome!

Lauren Levine is currently a Level 5 improv and Sketch 2 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.

Knowledge is Power

The More You Know Improv is the exploration of the unknown. In its most magical form, shows look like acts of God — preordained explosions of kinetic energy being directed at a single target. Performers’ improv mana comes from a variety of sources: good chemistry, an interesting format, loads of energy. However, one of the richest resources you have at your disposal lies within. I’m not referring to the heart, but rather its calculating counterpart.

Improvisors are terrified of being trapped in their heads, and that leads many of us to become afraid of our own brains. But you see, your mind is Dragon-type: it’s super effective against Dragon-type. By choosing to harness your own brain, you can avoid improv’s most common pitfalls.

House of Cards is at its best when the characters wield the power of knowledge against one another. One character is leveraging intel against another’s congressional clout that they earned by doing a favor three episodes earlier. The characters have confidence, and they make strong moves because of it.

Improvisors deal with infinite possibilities at the top of a scene. You’ll often hear the phrase “choose to know” coming from teachers and coaches. I endorse that phrase, but I want to take it a step further: “Choose to know that you know.” Or if you need something less contrived: “Choose to know the shit out of it.”

When you play the game “expert circle,” it’s your job to field an array of questions on a particular topic. You are freed from the burden of the unknown and you get to take on the persona of a trusted source. But you’re an expert on the topic. Don’t just swat uncomfortable questions away with short, defensive answers; share your knowledge. Your expert brain knows secrets about the topic. You get excited when you get to educate other people. Maybe you’re even a little condescending about how much you know.

Knowledge is complicit with agreement. Any time you choose knowledge, you support your scene partner, and finding your collective way through a scene becomes easier. A few weeks ago, Kyle Austin told our Level 5 improv class, “There’s no reason to ever be surprised in an improv scene.” When you choose to know, the scene can move beyond an explanation or a slow group decision as to what is going on.

What makes Ocean’s Eleven awesome? (Too tough of a question; too many answers, I know.) Certainly one of the reasons is that the characters pulling the heist know what they’re doing. They’re experts in their given fields. While each character has his quirks, each is a valuable team member.

Competency porn is fun to watch. For comedic purposes, we often choose to be bad at our profession in improv scenes. Wouldn’t it be funny if this mechanic couldn’t fix cars? Yeah, I guess, because I would usually expect a mechanic to know something about cars. But wouldn’t it be funnier if the mechanic could fix cars so well that the vehicles ran better than when they were new on the lot? What are the implications of that choice?

English teachers will tell you to eliminate phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion” when writing essays. Your writing reads better when you make an assertion. Statements that come with caveats usually become inherently weaker.

Treat your improv like writing. Have confidence that your spontaneous choices are as good as carefully selected words penned on a page. Knowledge fuels confidence and vice versa. Choose to know (the shit out of it).

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.

The Importance of Base Reality

Jua Holt WrestlingEvery improv theater has its own style of teaching and performing. UCB preaches “the game” over everything else, while iO demands a wholesale commitment to organic group choices. Second City uses improv as a means to an end (sketches), and The Annoyance asks that you please just “do something.” No matter the particular theater’s creed, empirically good improv has a few principal tenants in common. The one that stuck out to my analytical brain the most when reading about the art form on my own was the idea that you should develop a “base reality.” Creating a vivid world for your improv helps bring the audience into the show. The people watching your run are like a talented-if-not-arrogant high school basketball team. They’re ready to laugh, but only by getting them to buy into the work you’re doing can you maximize their potential. When they’re fully invested in the show, they start to forget that they’re watching a group of goofballs make stuff up for 25 minutes.

Every time you drop a cup or look directly at the person making side support noises offstage, you remind the audience that none of this is real. It’s as if you’re forcing them to take the red pill when they were having a perfectly good time in the Matrix.

In addition to painting a picture for the audience, a base reality functions as a set of ground rules for you and your scene partner. In our everyday life, gravity, finding zombies scary, and dogs not talking are all part of our base reality. We have a more-or-less-agreed-upon expectation of the normal, so when something outside of the normal happens, we have a shared reaction.

Red paint doesn’t show up on red canvas. Only with a grounded backdrop can the absurd stand out. That’s how the UCB manual defines “crazy town” (p. 89). I often hear people bring up this phrase when talking about a particularly exotic scene or run. To me, “crazy town” isn’t just a descriptor for bizarre scene work, it means that the improv being performed didn’t have any grounding principles. A scene about riding pigs through an abandoned theme park isn’t necessarily taking place in crazy town. If the characters are participating in an honest discussion about the merits of having children, you’ve got a grounded scene. It’s when the improvisers in the scene don’t agree on a set of common rules about the world in which they live that they ride the eccentric CT monorail.

The best way to avoid crazy town is to listen and react to the words and actions of your scene partner. The UCB manual also prescribes solutions like the “peas in a pod” mentality (p. 169) — which is essentially a more analytical approach to mirroring.

If you and your scene partner react differently to something that happens on stage, the scene isn’t necessarily shot. When one character considers an occurrence normal and another character considers the same occurrence absurd, we may witness a conflict in expectations and reactions. Conflict, in this case, isn’t bad, but it needs to be explored. Why did Character X react differently than Character Y? Even if you fail to react to a scene partner pulling a gun, you’ve told the audience something about you and the world you’re inhabiting (e.g., you see guns all the time, or you’re unafraid of death).

Because this post sounds teachy/preachy upon rereading it, I want to incorporate a real-life example to support the base reality point.

Even with a recent surge in mainstream-adjacent popularity, most people don’t watch professional wrestling. If you didn’t fall in love with it as a kid, you’re unlikely to develop an infatuation with this form of entertainment as an adult. However, wrestling offers plenty of guidelines for strong improv scene work:

The outcomes of wrestling matches are predetermined, but the athleticism and danger on display are real. Without a shared understanding between two wrestlers, things could spiral out of control quickly.

When one wrestler reacts to taking a bump from another wrestler, they help maintain the reality of in-ring conflict. While the characters wrestling are at odds, the wrestlers themselves are in agreement.

Additionally, professional wrestling is about putting on a show. Competitors telegraph their moves not only for their opponents’ sake but for the audience, as well. This creates an expectation and anticipation for a coming clothesline or a leap from the top rope. When the opposing wrestler counters or dodges the move, the subversion of audience expectations stimulates an audible reaction.

At the start of every match, wrestlers assume an identity. There’s usually a good guy (face) and a bad guy (heel). The way they interact with the crowd and the way they wrestle tells the audience how to feel about them. They have strong perspectives established at the top of the match that they carry through to the end.

To close, here’s DCH’s resident professional wrestling advocate, Jua Holt, on the connection between the two artforms:

“At a basic level, pro wrestling is two people working together to put on a good performance. If you trust the other person and share the load, then your match — more often than not — will go well. One of the biggest things I’ve been able to bring to improv from wrestling is that the commitment level of your character can make or break a performance.”

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.

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)

Not So Awkward Silence

silence You’re in the middle of a conversation with a person or a group of people. For the purposes of really exploring the term “awkward,” and setting the scene, let’s say the conversation you’re in the middle of is with one person. Maybe it’s a person that you really look up to, personally or professionally, or, maybe it’s someone you’ve just realized you have a crush on.

You’re actually talking, you know, being a normal human being. Things are going well but the conversation is starting to slow down, you’ve said everything that was on the script you had written in your head, and they’ve responded positively and appropriately, but now, suddenly, silence. You’re both standing, still facing one another, looking in various directions, maybe nodding your head, saying things like, “Anyway…” You’re probably smiling to keep the panic in your eyes from showing, trying desperately to figure out how to get out of the conversation. There you are, just wallowing around in what is now very awkward silence.

My advice for getting yourself out of this mess? Just a clean break. Say something like, “Welp. See ya later!” Perhaps then that will leave them curious to know more about you based on your outstanding social skills and the fact that you have seen Dumb & Dumber one too many times.

Dumb and Dumber

Or not. You probably shouldn’t take advice from me or let me send your new match on Bumble a message. I’ll ruin it.

Regardless of that silly scenario, there are many moments in life when silence is very uncomfortable. Those moments often teach you to fear it, no matter the situation. If you aren’t talking, then something’s wrong. Right? Not necessarily.

I’ve always been terrified of silence. The thought of awkward silence in person is one thing but awkward silence on the phone? Yuck. Don’t even get me started. There are reasons I’m a pro at texting. Obviously, the more you get to know a person or people, the more comfortable you all are with just enjoying a little peace and quiet, but even still, I’ve always felt that if you were talking, the better things were going.

As it has with many things, though, improv has taught me otherwise. I feel like maybe it’s natural to step out into a scene needing to say something immediately, especially if you’re in front of an audience. You feel like you need to say something, anything, so that you don’t appear lost. You feel like you need to speak so that you and your scene partner(s) aren’t just standing there in silence. Sure, it may feel just as uncomfortable as it does in real life but remember, improv is pretend, it’s make believe, and we’re all just making it up as we go.

Embracing this not-so-awkward silence will allow you to better listen to what’s happening in a scene, catch all of those very important details, names, and gifts that your scene partner is giving you and play at the very top of your intelligence.

And, as far as the audience goes, just think about it: If you step out, take a breath, take your time initiating or responding, not only is what comes out of your mouth most likely going to be better and bolder, but the audience will not feel an ounce of your awkwardness. If anything, they’ll be intrigued and that much more engaged in your scene when you do finally speak up.

If you apply some of these lessons to your everyday life, especially things like, really listening, taking time to respond, and simply not rushing a conversation along, you’ll become a better improviser and conceivably, a better friend and communicator.

So, settle in and get more comfortable with silence, in your scenes and your life. No one’s thinking about it as hard as you are anyway.

Megan Radke is currently a Level 4 student at DCH. She is a copywriter and social media manager by day and an essayist and mediocre musician by night. She is a constant consumer of books, music, film, and all things comedy. She is also great at racking up copious amounts of credit card debt with spur-of-the-moment travel.