teaching

You Won't Believe What Happens When You Watch These 7 Videos

Dallas Comedy House (DCH) performer and tech Scriven Bernard was a teacher assistant this past term for a Level 1 class led by Sarah Adams. The assistants are instructed to send follow-up notes reinforcing what the students learned in class each week. Scriven changed the note-giving game by turning them into music videos.

I recently sat down with Scriven in his Plaid Park studios to learn more about the project.

How did you come up with the idea to produce the videos?

I came up with the idea to produce the videos during the first class of the term. Sarah Adams and I recognized that the students had a lot of energy and seemed like a really cohesive group, and we really wanted to capitalize on that. So she turned to me and said, "We should do some sort of bit with them." I wasn't sure exactly what to do at first, but I knew it would involve music and costumes because I love both of those things. I told Sarah I'd think about it and that I'd draft something when I did the notes. The next day, I recorded that first video during my lunch break and sent it over to her. She loved it and insisted that I share it.

I also tend to get bogged down in the structure and rules of everything and forget that after all, we are improvisers. We are all here because we love spontaneity and supporting other people. So, these videos are another way of sharing that spirit with the students and reminding all of us that while there is a structure to the program and while there ARE higher-percentage choices, we can still let loose and have fun.

What kind of reaction have you received from the students, teachers, and other T.A.s?

The students seemed to love the videos. They were excited each week to see what I'd come up with next, and I think it made them feel more comfortable about coming out of their shells. And they were absolutely thrilled when I told them I wanted them to be in the last video with me.

I've only spoken to a small number of teachers about it, but a majority of the reviews have been positive. For the most part, the teachers love the idea and the energy that the video notes bring. The teachers with reservations about them value the structure, consistency, and neutral energy of the traditional note-taking system. One of the fears expressed is that a shy student might feel out of place when confronted with such strong energy in a Level 1 class, but I have not yet had that experience, and I will continue to make sure that all students feel welcomed and comfortable regardless of how I'm sending the notes.

Fellow T.A.s have loved the idea, but some have expressed concerns over its sustainability. And yeah, I definitely had that fear at first. I thought, "Oh, crap, what have I gotten myself into?" But, you know, I'm having so much fun with it. I love doing the videos, I love getting the students involved, and until someone tells me to stop, I'm going to keep finding fun ways to enhance students' improv experiences.

How can you top what you did this term?

I learned a few valuable lessons when writing the lyrics to the music videos. The first is that I can't choreograph to save my life, and the second is that things are better when I let them happen naturally and don't try to force them. When I'd write out the notes first then let the natural rhythm of the words inspire a song, the end result was far better than when I picked a song and tried to force the words into it.

I'll adopt that second lesson with figuring out what to do for this next Level 1 class. The idea for the video notes came naturally from my desire to have fun with the class, the energy dynamic between Sarah and me, and the overall chemistry among the students. So, just as in an improv scene, I'll listen to the situation before I respond. I'll let the ideas form naturally, then I'll see where that takes me. Perhaps I'll do another round of video notes. Perhaps something even better will happen. I don't really know yet, and that's the beauty of it.

If I had to give advice for how everyone can top the notes, I'd say this: Adopt the teachings of improv in everything you do. Follow the normal structure, but support the moves of everyone around you and have fun. Listen to the things happening around you and respond honestly to them. Be spontaneous. Make each other laugh.

A rundown of the song list. 

Week 1 - "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars Week 2 - "Africa" by Toto Week 3 - "Price Tag" by Jessie J Week 4 - "Hello" by Adele (Fun fact! Rob Howe subbed in for Sarah during this week, and before we'd talked about choosing a song we each independently wrote our own lyrics for "Hello." I ended up combining them.) Week 5 - "MMMBop" by Hanson Week 6 - "Dragostea Din Tei (Numa Numa)" by O-Zone Week 7 - "Bye Bye Bye" by *NSYNC

What We're Loving: Long Descriptions, Short Descriptions, Pre-Teen Interests, Teen Interests, Our Lying Brains

Each Friday, DCH performers, teachers, and students offer their recommendations for what to watch, read, see, hear, or experience. This week David Allison shares his inspirations, Jonda Robinson rules middle school, Sarah Wyatt is mesmerized, Amanda Hahn reignites her passion, and Ryan Callahan plows ahead.  P1-AT967_RADIO_F_20100224175520Terry Catlett and myself have been hard at work for a while trying to figure out what sort of written show we wanted to bring to the DCH stage. This week, we’ll finally be putting up the fruit of that labor with the show David and Terry: Portrait of a Crime. It’s a radio play, complete with live sound effects provided by Colten Winburn and Daniel Matthews. In honor of that upcoming show, I wanted to share a couple of clips that inspired the production.

The first idea for the show came about when I randomly heard WC Fields’ “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water” and played it for Terry. It’s super dumb and terrible, but you can check out the ten minute piece here. Favorite part would be the long, drawn out description when he finally goes to take a drink. The sheer absurdity of how they over explain it really spoke to us. After listening to this, and similar radio plays, we realized the sort of show that we wanted to do.

Our primary inspiration for the style of humor would be everything The Smothers Brothers did. If you’re not familiar with them, The Smothers Brothers were a comic singing duo that hosted a variety show in the 1960s. They created these happy, upbeat, clean, folk songs that still hold up today (Especially if you liked my piece on A Mighty Wind.). I love the dynamic between the straight and absurd players, something that is especially evident in “Boil That Cabbage Down.” Check it out here.

So if either of those billion year old clips, or my normal shows with Terry, are to your liking, we’d love to have you join us on 8/31 at 8:30 as we debut the radio play! - David Allison

Middle SchoolIt’s been a big week for students, parents, and teachers around these parts, as school started back this past Monday. Because of this, the thing I’m loving this week is hanging out with middle school kids. No, it’s not a creepy thing--I’m a “highly qualified” teacher by Texas standards, so it’s not only something I enjoy, but it’s something I get paid to do.

The first week is filled with lots of emotion. Crying, complaining, wondering if you’ll make any friends--and it’s pretty rough on the students, too. I teach both 6th grade and 8th grade, so I get to see both sides of the spectrum, all the way from the eleven-year-old on the verge of tears because she can’t get her locker open to the smooth 8th grader who has gotten as good at this middle school game as he did at [insert title of popular video game all the kids are playing these days]  over the summer. I’m only three days in, and I’ve already had had one sixth grader ask me if she could read Milton’s Paradise Lost, another tell me that when he grows up he wants to be “a problem, so people throw money at me,” and a group of 8th graders who have declared an “anti-spork” movement in our classroom, proclaiming the superiority of the spoon and hoping to get #antispork2014 trending.

If you get ever get the chance to hang out, work with, or mentor some middle school students, go for it. It will open up the door for some memorable conversations, you’ll get to make a (hopefully) positive impact, and you’ll also be reminded that even on your worst day, you can be thankful for the fact that you never have to be that awkward thirteen-year-old version of yourself again. - Jonda Robinson

nicki-anaconda-previewOh. If I could sum up Nicki Minaj’s music video for her latest single, “Anaconda”, in one word, it would be “Oh”. It’s a non-stop barrage of ass, sex, glistening skin, and Sir Mix-a-lot doing more work than Miss Minaj. And I kind of love it.

I thought I’d check it out while I was writing, foolishly thinking that it would just be background chatter. I was mesmerized from the first image. Oh. “What is this?? No! Why can’t I turn away??” It’s so much writhing, so much skin, so much Nicki. I mean, there’s no way everyone on set didn’t see her sorganz (my new slang for sex organs, try it out) well enough for a police sketch artist to use in court.

There’s such a build up in this video to her actually dancing but she never really does. Her back up dancers kill some moves while she pats their asses and twerks a little on a chair. Oh. There’s a section of the video that consists of cuts between her suggestively eating a banana and spraying herself with whipped cream and lots and lots of butt.

I’m not feeling it. But I could hear the sound of thousands of young boys closing their bedroom doors while I was watching it. And if that wasn’t enough, the bridge (???) is a scene of Nicki giving Drake a lap dance so good it seems to be a religious experience. I think we sometimes forget that he started as an actor because that lap dance looked weak as hell to me. This whole thing probably sounds like I hated the video. I did. I love that I hate it. I hate that I love it. I love it. Oh. - Sarah Wyatt

pomerantzThe new school year started up again this week. That doesn’t make much of a difference for grad students since our schooling is year round, but this marks the beginning of my third year in grad school, with about two or three more to go. This summer, for the first time since I started doing research almost 5 years ago, I started getting bored with what I do. I cared a little less about my ongoing studies and results. I spent less time playing with my data (usually a favorite hobby of mine). I stopped reading the RSS feeds of science journals I follow. I just wanted to lay in the sunshine all day and do comedy all night. I needed a kick in the pants. You guys. I got it. I got my kick in the form of this video by Dr. James Pomerantz.

Even if you’re not interested in neuroscience, I highly recommend watching it. Dr. Pomerantz was the PI of the lab I volunteered in after college, and he always demonstrated an amazing ability to explain such a vast array of different topics so simply, clearly, and interestingly. In this 8 minute long video taken at colloquia at Rice University, he does just that. He describes how we perceive, and essentially recreate, the world around us. As Dr. Pomerantz puts it, “when our neurons and the external world disagree with one another, the neurons win every time as for as our experience is concerned. We are all prisoners of our neural architecture.”

That applies to everything we experience. If you have vertigo and your neurons are firing in a way that says the world is spinning, then to you, the world is spinning. If you’re depressed, it doesn’t matter how many people tell you cheer up and that they love you. You’re going to be depressed until your body corrects itself or you seek help. Knowing why our brains don’t always mirror reality can help inform solutions. It can change lives. In the meantime, it’s just really, really cool to learn about. To all of you who are going back to school too: let’s learn the crap out of this weird little world we live in, shall we? Bring it on, year three. - Amanda Hahn

urlOver the past few weeks I have been working my way through the novels, stories, and other writings of Raymond Chandler. Okay, I haven’t read any of the stories yet, or the other writings, but I have finished the first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

Both of these novels, in fact all of Chandler’s novels, star world-weary, hard-boiled, heavy-drinking, quip-ready private detective Phillip Marlowe. Chandler writes in the first person, allowing the reader to see the people and places of pre-war Los Angeles through Marlowe’s point of view, alternately sardonic and empathetic.

It is this point of view that makes the books great. The plots are nothing special; they’re often needlessly complicated. The mysteries are either incredibly obvious or impossible to sort out. It is the words, the tone, those descriptions – "She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.” “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.” – which will keep you turning the pages.

I enjoyed Farewell, My Lovely more than The Big Sleep, likely due with my familiarity with the plot of the latter thanks to the Humphrey Bogart film version. Farewell, My Lovely also benefits from a virtuoso chapter in which Marlowe wakes up in a locked room, having been drugged, and struggles to regain his senses. It’s a terrifying flirtation with madness, made all the more effective by how grounded the character is the rest of the time.

My adventure through the Chandler bibliography shall continue. There are only dozens of stories and four more novels to go. After that, I can rest easy. Until I move on to the complete works of Ross MacDonald. - Ryan Callahan

DCF14: Susan Messing

Messing_S_293web-1Susan Messing will teach two workshops AND perform in the festival's closing show on Saturday, March 22nd. She's one of the top improvisational comedy teachers in the world and she's been improvising for over 25 years. There will be a lot to learn next week, but the teaching starts today. How did you get started in comedy? I was a theatre major at Northwestern University. I was a horrible actress. I started taking classes at ImprovOlympic after graduation and never had to butcher Chekov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare again.

How has comedy changed since then? The face of Comedy has evolved so much it is almost mind boggling to see where it was when we started. What was considered verboten then is banal now- improv forms from the past look static and crunchy and now it seems there is a freedom that I don't know that we thought even had the potential to exist. Thankfully I get to be in a position to evolve with the art and not sit and bemoan "the good ol days."

The evolution is so natural in this work that all of a sudden you look around and realize that improv reaches a certain level of performance sophistication that sky's the limit. It's been difficult to put improv on tv and make it look as effortless and exciting as it is live. That is a huge challenge- it still looks flat- but if that nut is cracked it'll open an entirely new can of worms of delight.

How has improv affected the rest of your life? Every fiber of my being wants to be a snotty "no but" person. Saying yes when I would have normally shot an idea down or being agreeable to something out of the box has led me to extraordinary places in my life. It helps me formulate creative ways to raise my kid that I might not have had otherwise, and we laugh a LOT. Being agreeable also led me to saying yes to the love of my life. I had known him for 25years and one day he sent me a text that said, "Stop farting around, Messing. Life is short. We should be together. And, you're perfect." So we got married a year to the day that he sent it- Uh, yes AND. By the way, men shouldn't feel bad about not coming up with that kind of line- he's an extremely good screenwriter.

Who influenced you when you were still a fan? Who inspires you now? When I first started, there was a team at ImprovOlympic (now iO) called Grime and Punishment with Dave Pasquesi, Rich Laible, Mick Napier, Tim Meadows, Dave Razowsky, and Madeline Long. Their team work and comic sensibilities blew me away. In particular, Mick Napier made me an instant fan of his work.

Everyone,and I mean EVERYONE, good, bad,and ugly, inspires me now and I have no idea how my observation of the human condition will affect my work, but it always seeps in there.

You'll be performing and teaching at the festival. What do you get out of teaching versus performing and vice versa? Teaching gives me the opportunity to share what I have learned in almost thirty years in terms of saving my students time- time that they could be pursuing joy instead of suffering trying to improvise "right." Performing gives me the opportunity to SLOW down and love exactly where I am with exactly who I'm with- I am nothing without my friends onstage and feel immensely fortunate to be able to play with them.

How did teaching become such an important part of your comedy career? I fell into teaching but once there I truly understood the mindset of the student because I distinctly remember being there. Plus, when I walk my talk I have more fun than anyone onstage and I win. When I don't, I am a hypocrite and can be as horrible as someone who fell down a mineshaft and landed on a stage. Teaching keeps me honest. I'm not going to rest on my petty laurels at this stage of the game. The day I stop growing is the day I start dying and I'm too young to die.

What is one lesson you wish every improviser could learn today? Improvisers can do anything and take the damn note. No, really. Shut up and take the note.

What makes festivals special? How important are they in the growth of a performer? Festivals are a celebration of our community. They are important because although our world is huge in comparison to what it was when I started, it is still tiny in many ways- our joy for this art brings us together and there is a celebration of trust and collaboration with improvisers that I have never seen anywhere else. It's kind of majorly beautiful and stupid and awesome.

What are you most excited about at this year's Dallas Comedy Festival? I am delighted to be invited and extremely excited to be in Dallas to soak up their enthusiasm for this art. I can't wait to play with my friend Kate Duffy, who now lives in L.A., and I miss very much. And I know I shouldn't mess with Texas, but after all, my show is called Messing With A Friend and NO sort of always means yes…

Take Susan's workshops during the festival.  See her perform with Kate Duffy at 10:30PM on Saturday, March 22nd.  Tickets available here.

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.