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!

The Improv Retreat

Dallas Comedy House performers Jonathan Patrick, Doug Barton, and Cesar Villa attend the Improv Retreat in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, at the end of May. You look for moments in your life to hold onto. The one I found at The Improv Retreat was when 50 improvisers arrayed in a circle 100 foot across all started to yell and run toward each other across a cool green field. The goal was to get to a new place on the circle as quickly as possible without running into each other. The mayhem of 50 adults acting like children is life affirming, and we played this game for about an hour. At as you would expect with improvisers, quick eye contact prevented any collisions.

My short review of The Improv Retreat is do it at least once in your life. You can get details on the event here. In my write up, I will take about a few highlights and summarize the workshops that I took.

The main highlight is hanging with 250-plus improvisers for two days. Much like the people you meet at the Dallas Comedy House (DCH), everyone is very friendly and prone to verbal (as well as physical) shenanigans. We had a free session on a Saturday afternoon. About a dozen people wrote down the class they wanted to take, and then we all wondered off to separate buildings. My group did Spanish-prov and though I was BY FAR the worst speaker (two on a scale of 10), I had a great time.

Though a large percentage of the attendees stayed out drinking and conversing until late (my bunk mate got in at 5 a.m. and was not able to navigate closing a door or falling into bed without loud concussions), I went to bed around midnight each night and on Saturday morning I had the great pleasure of jogging around the camp and down the road for several miles without seeing anyone else. Of course it was 5:30 a.m. (see previous sentence).

Here are quick reviews of the workshops I took.

Improv Retreat BookletMonoscenes, taught by Zach Ward

I enjoyed this workshop because Zach focused on a couple of specific things that can help anyone create an interesting interaction between two people on stage and then extend this interaction beyond the typical two-minute montage scene.

We did some basic scenes after a couple of warm-ups. He wanted us to establish a good foundation, and after a couple of minutes we were to zag to a different conversation between the same characters. In my scene with Carrie Koch (from Houston), we were maternity nurses after a tough day. We bonded over this for a time then zagged to a discussion about getting a drink after work and a discussion about our personal life: I had been married to five doctors. After we ran with this for a time, we would zig back to our first topic. By establishing good characters and a good foundation scene, you can zig and zag for as long as you want. At least in theory.

Fear No More, taught by Nnamdi Ngwe

This focused on drawing strength from your scene partner. I really like Nnamdi’s teaching style and enjoyed the class, though it felt like the first of a multi-class course. One of the key elements that he stressed was eye contact. We stared into the eyes of our scene partner for up to a minute before he allowed us to start our scene. It made for some great serious scenes but also helped break down barriers between us to allow for heightened silliness in the goofier scenes.

The Other Conflicts, taught by Jill Bernard

When you met someone at the retreat, a common topic was what classes are you in. Of the 20 conversations that I had with people, either they were in one of Jill’s classes, too, or lamented that they were not able to get one. Though I did not fully realize it before going to the retreat, Jill is revered by students and after taking her class I can understand why. She is an amazing combination of 12-year-old exuberance and unfettered silliness housed in the intelligence of a 40-year-old who takes the art of improvisation very seriously. She started her class by venting about the number of argument scenes she has seen in her life: the most common conflict you see performed. In her class, she emphasized the other conflicts. We focused on three: man vs. technology (the two improvisers attempt to land a spaceship), man vs. society (the two characters are best friends but one is going to come out as gay in their small town), man vs. nature (two people trying to fight through a snow storm to get to their cabin).

In each situation, the improvisers were together against the common enemy. In each scene, there was "hero" who was trying to triumph against the common adversary. And in each scene, the other person was some variation of the supporting character: the super hero sidekick, the helpless but good-natured oaf, the magical character (who speaks almost in proverbs, which leads the hero to a solution), and the Hoggett character, which is named for the farmer in Babe. His character says almost nothing throughout the movie but is silently supportive.


Doug Barton is a graduate of the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) improv training program and has taken workshops with Susan Messing, Dave Razowsky, Jill Bernard, Timmy Mayse, and others. During the day he makes signs at Accurate Signs. He has performed in several community theater plays, performed until recently with his band, Hello!, and has performed in a few video shorts (including The Scientist). He currently performs with CLR at DCH and with Comedy Sportz Dallas.

Two Great Performers, Two Great Workshops

We're celebrating our grand opening May 15-16 with a ton of great shows. And to add more fun to the celebration, we're offering two workshops from Ladytown's Kate Duffy and Jaime Moyer. Kate DuffyIgnite Your Improv Instincts w/Kate Duffy Saturday, May 16 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Quit worrying about what to say and just be present. This workshop focuses on getting you living in the moment with your scene partner through a commitment to listening, truthful reaction, and a commitment to physical space. Know who you are and how you feel and the rest takes care of itself.


Jaime MoyerAMP it UP! w/Jaime Moyer Saturday, May 16 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. This workshop is designed to boost your scenework and take it to the next level. If you've been feeling a little stalled, this is the class for you! We will be working on "extreme yes", heightening, and not adding too many ingredients to the soup. Perfect class for that boost you may have been needing! At least one year of improvising and study required to take this course!

Click on the workshop titles to register, and please visit our calendar to see all our upcoming shows at our new location, 3025 Main St., in Deep Ellum.

DCF2015: Dallas Comedy Festival Workshops

DCF Workshop 2 The Dallas Comedy Festival isn’t all laughter and Jello shots. It’s a lot of hard work, tinged with extreme fun and camaraderie. And, for many of us, it’s a learning opportunity, too.

A consequential part of the mission of the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) is it’s top-notch training center, offering classes in improvisation and sketch comedy writing. So naturally, the festival includes an educational component. This year, members of Bangarang!—a premier troop from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) in Los Angeles and one of this year’s DCF headliners, conducted six workshops covering diverse topics like openings, using silence and space work to enhance scenes, and ramping up emotion to stay committed and engage the audience.

Each two-hour workshop, held at DCH during Friday and Saturday of the festival, included lots of on-our-feet exercises, a few familiar to veterans of DCH, and many that proved our visiting improvisers from the left coast brought their A game, including, I kid you not, Toni Charline who could and did quote chapter and verse from the UCB Comedy Improvisation Manual. Not so surprising when you consider that these performers also teach at UCB. Weren't we lucky?

Expect to see a lot more more documentary openings, mood music, and pattern development (a UCB staple) on stage (and who-knows-what from the three workshops I could not attend because, damn it, they conflicted.)

At the end of each of my workshops, including our four-hour marathon session on Saturday, I kept hearing some iteration of, “I was not ready for that to end. Wish we could go longer.” But alas, our new friends were due on stage for a sold-out show later that evening. and we knew we could do little but thank them for their generosity of time, knowledge, and experience.

Thanks also to Sarah Adams and our fearless festival organizers for bringing us such a quality workshop lineup, the results of which will surely be felt for years on the Main Street stages of the new Dallas Comedy House.

See all the smiling faces from Betsy Sodaro’s workshop, “Staying Committed Through Scenes.”

DCF Workshop


Carron Armstrong is currently in David Alison's Level 2 class and has been obsessed with improv and DCH ever since she discovered that someone can actually take classes to learn this stuff. Some people would recognize her as the lady who brings her step stool along to the jams because she can't just hop on up on that stage like the youngsters do. During the day, she's a lawyer.

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.