Neil Casey 401 Notes Day Final

This is my final day of notes from my Neil Casey 401. As I’ve said before, these are hastily scrawled, filled w/typos and probably somewhat inaccurate. For those of you who don’t know, Neil is a very well-regarded performer at the UCB Theatre NYC who does not teach often anymore, it would seem.

This last class was actually subbed by Will Hines, as Neil booked a commercial (I may post the notes from my final show if applicable, which I have heard he will be at).

However, as I have mentioned several times before on this blog, I have very high-esteem for Will as a teacher who taught my first level 4 class at UCB. He is also an excellently regarded performer whose classes are filled up near instantly. His philosophy on improv (centered around agreement) is also very interesting to me. It is egalitarian and thus applicable to any style of improv, I believe.

On a personal note, I look up to Will and his style of play so while I was somewhat nervous in the class with him, I was happy he got to see how I’ve changed from Spring 2011, to whatever degree that might be.

Anyway, no one cares about that.

Here are the notes, enjoy!


Being around the community, constantly I see people go from doing improv baby talk to being my best friend, on teams, to being jaded and then gone. The turnover rate is very rapid here. Jaded is too negative, but whatever that process is where you are over it happens quickly. I would say a year and a half.

The main difference between a 201 grad show and a seasoned improv show is that when people step out their eyes are locked on each other. People are so worried about putting out their initiations that they don’t see the choices they’ve already made.

Especially when there is no opening, make sure that we are working our good scenework muscles, agreeing with each other, getting out the who/what/where, checking in.

You don’t always need to have characters who are saying yes, but you do have to have characters who move the scene forward. If someone says “have you ever been to Iceland?”maybe you haven’t but if you say no it’s a dead-end, but of you say “no, but I always wanted to” there is something there. No doesn’t have to mean a denial if it’s coupled with an offer.

Improvisers do tend to go through a phase of arms folded and saying no, also in your body language.

If somebody else is initiating, I form my emotion based on the initiation. Simple emotional choices can work too, but I think you have a higher-shot percentage if you do.

At the point you’re at, it’s more like art though. There’s not one right answer, but your training should be reacting.

I think of scenes like pyramids, on the bottom we are listening to each other and agreeing, above that we are playing realistically and intelligently, above that making them important and reacting emotionally and above that game.

A teacher I had named Kevin Mullaney used to tell me if you don’t find a game don’t try to play it; it’s real easy to go from playing it real to finding a game, more difficult the other way around.

You’ve got to let each other know that you’re finding the game in a way that’s not obvious. I find that players often try to invite each other to find things weird.

Don’t undervalue scene-work and agreeing and liking each other. Those are difficult things to have especially after an opening.

Make sure to have initiation etiquette. Let people introduce themselves, just like in a radio show. You wouldn’t tell people what they want to say if they called into your radio show.

I don’t like the phrase “calling out” but I do like speaking to the obvious truth. In improv we should be thinking out loud for the audience to watch. Not being coy, being explicit is helpful. Not helpful is “you’re doing/not doing this because you are stupid”. Surprise/a reaction could be good.

You know when you start watching a sketch in Saturday Night Live, every line that passes you’re looking for the funny thing until you see it. If you step out with a part of a funny idea we’re on board.

Starting with irony or a twist on reality is good, but never at the expense of reality. I’d rather have someone come out and say “I like painting”.

Some advice: a very common thing that happens is: “You did this, explain it.” and the human response is to explain it away, but it’s a gift and the quickest way to a good scene is saying yes and accepting the idea. I think 90-percent of the time it’s done well. It makes clear what the truth is, because everything is a lie, so lying about a lie is a difficult thing.

If you must argue, argue sympathetically, because if you keep saying you’re attacking the other player. Be able to articulate the other side of the argument all the time.

All accusations, criticism and insults are always gifts. Remember that.

There’s a way of “comedically yes and-ing” something just to firm it up, keeping your ears open for things and then restating what’s funny.

It’s always better to yes and with a philosophy than a plot.

Make sure to initiate with the simplest most direct thing possible.

If you listened and you don’t know where they’re coming from, react as you will and support. If you just answer confidently with something it will be just as good if not better than the scene they wanted.

I think what we are still learning is how to be clear on that first line, it’s why we learn how to say yes so we can roll with it. I wish I knew how to teach that perfectly but I still do it wrong half the time.

It’s so tempting to focus on the initiation because it’s the nut of the scene, but knowing the basics of improvisation is the best. If I have a show and one writer and a group of improvisers I only need one funny line. If I have a bunch of writers and no improvisers I need a hundred. It’s five percent of the scene.

Sympathetic arguing exercise: someone comes in with a crazy accusation and you don’t deflect it, accept it and give a reason and then the other person sympathetically argues and you respond in turn, both acknowledging the other’s POV. Make it your own choice when someone accuses you.

It’s a frequent thing that someone accuses you of something, calls you something weird if you deflect it or make it make too much sense the gift goes away. If someone goes and says you could work harder and you say yes I can and they react sympathetically you probably have a game. It’s very satisfying to see.

Thinking about heightening early gums up the work. Don’t even worry about heightening, just hits what funny a few times and see where it brings you.

When things are funny in the pattern game, think why you think it’s funny. That will help you in that scene, that little thought.

Saying a suggestion in a Harold is usually really lame. It’s like if Darth Vader were to say “I declare Star Wars”.


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