Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Five

April 4, 2012

Ah man, I killed it this class and this show.

Coming off last week where Neil was sick and everybody was so depressed about him not liking us that they wanted to form a practice group just out of desperation, it was nice to have a week where I felt good about my performance.

But a note about that, even before.

My friend (and excellent improviser) Jed Teres recently re-posted an article he read about a frustrated writer working in publishing. (EDIT: realize not all of you may be able to see this link, so here is a picture of the page) He talked about how much the writer hated his job seeing these shitty manuscripts in his pile and how it eventually gave him writer’s block too just being in that place of anger. He only was able to get through when he was able to realize that there was no reason to be angry at these people and that in fact he was externalizing his own insecurity on to them.

In improv and in life, we judge other people harshly because we are very hard on ourselves. As long as we do the work and are trying and we see others do the same, there is no reason for harsh judgement (probably even not then).

So regardless that I felt awesome after this show or that Neil praised the fuck out of me, I should get to that place where I’m happy having a shit-class, maybe not immediately, maybe not even the next day, but I’m happy for that place to grow from. I don’t go and blame my fellow improvisers or blame myself, I show kindness to all involved. I thank myself and others for doing practice in this body at this time.

When that day comes I will know that I am a better improviser and probably a better person, in that power to be ok and learn.

Anyway, here are the notes for week five, as always, abridged, incomplete, often incorrect, abbreviated, scrawled hastily.

Use them for what they are worth.

I’ve also bolded a few things this week, looking over them.

-n

***

Today we are working on the idea of who gives a shit while we are improvising and digging for “because” in our scenes.

You can phone in a game you’ve done before and get away with it but why?

The good stuff is when we are not just playing a funny/not funny pattern in a vacuum (you’re the guy who loves buttons, but who cares?)

The question is how do we avoid the instinct to play empty patterns

Answer: always bring things back to emotional core or philosophy of a character.

Maybe guy loves buttons because he loves campaign buttons, middle school political involvement

Way we get from boring to interesting is by getting to personal involvement

Which gives me the right as a director to ask who gives a shit during your sets if we get into those pointless conversations

Because we don’t want to see people juggling robotic concepts between us, it fails as theater, a bad bit, no heart or meaning.

We play patterns that could pass for game but instead end up being nothing.

We will play Harolds today where everything has to be justified

Chicago calls us jokey and we call them based solely on performance and there are truths and fallacies in both. They place faster than even us now and we have some shows that play slowly.

But I will miss Let’s Have A Ball. It’s nice to do two person scenes, really dig in to the relationships and know no one will walk through the door.

I think 4 is perfect size for an improv group. Twoprov you need a lot of balls, group mind. The things that nice about improv is surrendering to group mind by checking your baggage, but in two-prov the amount of effect that any little thing has on you will be brought to the show.

I only feel two-prov that I am comfortable with is someone I’ve worked with for 5 years (i.e: Ryan Karels)

How do you play with honor when this is the only time you get to perform? How do you play nobly when you know this is the one time you’re in something in a month? How does the selfish bastard not come out when you’re putting in cash?

Answer: It’s like being in a relationship or a family, you’ve got to be willing to just play support of that’s what the group needs.

I don’t think that our whole system of getting together and being the sum of our parts  works well with most two prov.

8 person thing is artificial, based on class size, but works. I still think 4 is perfect number.

Neil Casey- “Indie foursomes. I endorse them. Let’s see more of them on our stage them. Blog that.”

I do twoprov with people I don’t know for bar sets but it would be easier rolling with another person.

In your improv, you’re always going to fall short of the ideal, get easy/cheap laughs, you just have to do the work and keep trying 

Its when people settle into it that’s hard. It’s that you never stop the effort. It’s impossible to do the perfect thing, but it’s when people are satisfied with that, that it’s disappointing.

I totally reject improv as therapy or melodrama

But what we do does mean you have to tap into memories/emotions

Because if you be fake or impression then it will ring false

As actors or performers we have to be willing to remember instead of invent

A good improviser has to be able to pull from emotion, we develop an intolerance for people who do weak civilian bits as part of their personality

A lot of people get away of being full of shit but when you put that on stage it rings extremely false

Rather than playing a left brain pattern or an imitation of another scene, invest with the emotion of a memory, imbueing it with that, will give it that voice that you have that no one else could give.

I remember buttons as running for president because that’s what I have.

It’s not therapy, that’s bs, but being as much of yourself to the table. If you’re being broken up with, remember the last time you got dumped or whatever.

True-story invocation- you imagine whatever is closest to you about this object

Improv is not therapy, but how you play believably is recall things that are true to us

Those scenes where impenetrable characters argue about nonsense, I want to avoid

If a kid is being annoying, react emotionally. Everyone has their breaking point. Sometimes, our instincts are to be nice to play it real, but if a line is asking for anger or annoyance, play it truthfully, show the emotion you might suppress in real life.

We want our character to play realistically while we want to be funny.

The template I always want to avoid, is when we are in one of those scenes when we are discussing nonsense as if it was something, acknowledge it is nothing.

Don’t treat something as important when it is not.

Your philosophy doesn’t have to be great as a justification, just what you can get

I don’t care until you drill down until something that interests and what interests me is the truth

When you have a strong emotional choice that doesn’t make sense, the game will be rooted in how you make it make sense.

When you find yourself in a scene when things don’t make sense, keep asking yourself why and you’re more apt to get to something.

Don’t let people stand out there running out of lyrics in hot-spot, same thing in Harolds.

How we express ourselves via specifics is an interesting pattern/game. It’s not robots and zombies, it’s slice of life. People constantly express their real emotions through proxies. People can’t be honest so they talk about money, where to eat, et cetera

How many times do I say I want something to care about? A dead dog?

I’ve never had anyone told me I have a small dick or saying that they are getting fat, because people in relationships are much more cruel to each other.

There’s a Louis CK video where he’s talking about George Carlin saying I did the same act for 15 years and it sucked because it was his little observations but then he started throwing them out every year and if you do that your cute observations go away and eventually all you have are your balls, things that are attached/true to us. 

We get to be that special class of people that gets to replicate a reality most people don’t have: talking about real emotions that are true.

Del- the smallest emotional discovery is better than the best invented idea

When you start bringing up things that are true real, people respond

Bill Hicks- If you get on stage then you have supply and demand covered, but I’d you’re trying to be something else then you’re trying to be a commodity, if you’re yourself no one else can give me that. 

If my game is that I’m apathetic it’s incumbent on the backline to give you more and more to be increasingly apathetic about.

Lessening the strangeness of other people’s behavior, while giving the same emotional reaction can be a good second beat

Why Grandma’s Ashes is so good if someone initiates a second beat dumbly we all get on board to support someone’s ideas

I hate to watch shitty scenes where is whiny people complaining about nothing.

I’d rather see a scene about an abusive domineering relationship than another scene about bickering talking about nothing.

One of my favorite things about improv are the moments when we earn making up nonsense. Be sure to seize them.

***

I won’t share the group notes because I try to leave personal notes out of here but I did a very silly run of scenes about a guy who wanted a piggyback ride very seriously and Neil pointed to it as being great because it was a super-dumb (but real ala R. Crumb) idea played with super emotional-commitment. He also talked about the important of emotional commitment in the Invocation as an opening to bring that same level of emotional commitment to our Harolds. I’m sure we will keep working on that.

One last note from the end of our Harolds, from Neil:

***

I have one souvenir, for you.

Michael Delaney- Connections, Callbacks at the end of a Harold: It’s all dessert. You can have a great meal without them. Don’t force them if they don’t come naturally or aren’t earned. I’d rather see new scenes or unconnected third beats than false connections.

For second beats, clear simple game should move you, don’t out-clever yourself!

You’re all clever enough to do analogous, but why do it unless necessary, there’s no greater glory in them.

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Mini-Addendum: A Morning Song

March 30, 2012

Now, to be clear, I don’t want this to turn into a lame fucking Tumblr, where I give off shitty one-off sayings and post animated “gifs” of things.

That said, here’s a song I thought of this morning.

I listen to Pandora in the mornings when taking a shower because it carries with it both familiarity and possibility. You know the genre, so you know you’ll get a certain kind of music, but you don’t know really what you’ll get which leaves open the possibility of discovery, either a re-discovery of something you loved and maybe you had forgotten or didn’t know the name of, an awakening of a memory within yourself, or you’ll find a new song that speaks to you, another kind of magic moment, experienced spontaneously.

I heard this song in the shower one day, “thumbs-upped it” and let it go. I even thought it was by a different artist, a guy named Jens Lekman (who also sings laconically).

But I woke up this morning on around five hours of sleep and two whiskies, feeling not as good as I could about the night punctuated by those drinks, the night coming back to me in yoga practice as we did twist after twist, performed by a sub, as the regular teacher was at a memorial in Cleveland.

As I felt judgmental and sad and self-pitying, I was also overtaken by verses of this song emerging from my memory.

I listened to it a couple times over this free lunch I was given spontaneously on the street by the dudes over at Bongo Bros, sitting in a Starbucks over on Charlton St.

I don’t have any commentary on all this really.

Sometimes those moments of memory overtake us, despite our struggle to be present or no.

There’s some magic in the way our minds work like that, or at least some chemistry.

The lunch was pretty good.

And I thought that was worth sharing with you.

***

BONGO BROS

Chicken Platter w/Platanos, Rice+Beans, Salad, Bongo Aioli – $9.00 (free for me, apparently)

Check @BongoBros for location daily.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Four

March 29, 2012

Ugh, guys, this was a rough one.

Not a lot of notes here. Neil was sick and we did two fairly terrible Harolds at the top of class where we had to do each others second beats. These Harolds caused Neil to sigh so much that someone actually is trying to start up a practice group called “So Neil Doesn’t Sigh At Us”.

We then did an exercise drilling second-beats, doing three different second beats off a source scene.

For my personal struggles, I did a tag-out in the Harold where my move was either not understood or unclear, which hasnt happened to me in a long time and which caused Neil to note me hard.

I was even stiff in the second beats, not initiating any of them and basically letting my partner define and contextual games.

I even had a freak out on stage as a put-upon mom during a bad group game that drew concerned looks.

I’m feeling really good today after writing the last blog post, so I won’t beat myself up too much, but man. Geez.

Anyway, here are the notes. Hastily scrawled. Mostly inaccurate. Use them as you will.

-Nick

***

Today, take a break from commitment and focus on game
Drill second beats. So that you focus on game in second beats, as opposed to plot or fun character patterns that ucan just get you by.
When you are doing an interview opening, if they are being honest, be on their side

Everyone loves to initiate scenes with dead dogs no one cares about, but people don’t care enough to sell it.
How would you really react to grief/tragedy, let’s see it.
If you make a move and a person doesn’t react the way you want them too, do it harder or roll with it, don’t freeze.
Don’t play characters who are morons, play to the top of your intelligence means play characters who are at least as smart as you. Otherwise, if we’re playing dumb people who are emotionally impenetrable, commenting on the situation without being invested, we’re just going to be doing bad improv.
What’s the emotional reality of this scene? Act like you would or justify it.
If you’re in a scene and nothings going on, decide what is going on. Don’t be too willing to let things drop.
If you touch on something dark, commit to it, don’t back away. We can all see it when you apologize for your choices.
It’s constantly going to happen that the two of us are going to be in two different dimensions in scenes. It’s what we do that matters.
If you make a move that I don’t understand I will make you explain it to me and if you don’t then I will label it explicitly, just to make sure we know where we are/who we are/whats going on.
The most important thing is playing relatable characters on stage. I don’t care how funny it is if it’s bullshit.
I’ve seen this become a thing of college-educated white people doing funny voices on stage and it makes me ashamed to feel this is what I spent my life on.
Heightening stakes to crazy places in second beats can seem forced or too big as opposed to putting a fine point on what was funny in the first beat.
I want to see you working all the time.
It’s perfectly fine to have flawed first beats, but you have to be smart and forward with what you bring from the first beats.
We do second beats so we can do the perfect version of our first beat, it’s why we teach the Harold.
In the best case, it allows you to pick up what the audience loved after a respite.
But, in the more common case, you’re getting a second chance to attack that game in a way we didn’t before.
A lot of time our instincts are to make a lateral moves or mad-lib it, it’s not something we do for the hell of it, it’s for a second chance.
Try and sum up the headline of what was funny about your first beat.
The way you sum it up is unique to you, there’s wrong if it doesn’t sum it up but your sense of humor defines that.


Feel The Burn

March 28, 2012

I talk a lot about yoga nowadays, which I still believe firmly makes me into some sort of douchebag but that said:

Often times in my life, it feels like improv, yoga, dating, living, just walking around on the street, is all just a journey towards self-acceptance and the accompanying tension and struggle of that journey.

Put in a different way, by the great improviser David Razowsky (among others), denial is the source of all suffering.

The way we want to be or imagine ourselves versus seeing clearly where we are and are surrounding, being present in the moment, is the tension of existence.

And it’s painful and difficult to notice how aware you are, how present you are, and to try to make yourself more so.

Some of us are tighter than others, I can’t even do a decent downward-facing-dog because my hamstrings are too tight or are decent chair pose, because Frank thinks I’m too weak and my teacher thinks I might have too much tension.

Or, to pull backwards, It can be difficult for me to be confident in improvised scenes because I’m often not confident in life and my choices, it can be difficult for me to “be in the moment” listening to people and absorbing what they have to say (in scenes, life, dating) because it’s not a skill I’ve always used, it’s a “tight” muscle.

All of this is fine, we all have our limitations as humans, our own stretching to do. But not being present, wanting to be somewhere else, being desperate, judging or hating ourselves, is a slippery slope to despair.

And all of this is too vague. Some examples:

This past weekend, I auditioned for Harold teams over at the UCB. Those of you who know me know it is sometimes a place of stress for me (I still get rejected for even classes there all the time, take that reality-star pseudo-fame). I had decided long ago that the Magnet was the place that I loved and getting to work with Christina Gausas in her classes and shows, learning her style. Harold teams weren’t a priority for me, heck I didn’t even like Harold Night for the most part (Neither did they apparently, since they broke up most of the teams while I was writing this). But, the thought is you’d be crazy not to audition, at least to get the experience. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has a lot of exposure and can be a good place to perform and there is much to be learned from any performance opportunity. I decided I would be fine with the auditions, because I didn’t want it, unlike some people in the comedy community, for whom getting on a team there is the be-all end-all next-step for them in their ascendance to greatness. I told myself I was ok.

But I wasn’t. As the audition came up, I got gradually more stressed. I wasn’t too stressed before the audition and even going in felt like I did fairly well. But after the audition as I talked to friends and they seemed overjoyed, I felt overwhelmed by failure. Even if we didn’t know who made teams, I wasn’t as good as them. Who was I here? Why did I care so much when I told myself I didn’t care, when I didn’t even love all of UCB, this stressful place for me? The truth, as my father told me over a turkey burger before the audition, was “that you do care so you should just stop lying to yourself about it”.

And what I realized, walking back down along lower 6th avenue to write this blog post, was that I did care because I wanted their approval BUT even more than that (explain the explanation!) I wanted their approval because still in me there is so much that isn’t ok with myself, so much that isn’t self-confident, that wants someone to tell him that he is great and that everything will be ok.

And what’s more than this and this is the most difficult thing to say of all:

THAT. IS. FINE.

Ultimately, do I want to be an insecure person? No! I would like to be less of one, at least. I have girls constantly telling me how much they hate “weakness” or “men with no balls”, just for instance. But we all have our own places we are tight, our own places to stretch, our own progress that can be made from where we are. If I have a core of insecurity and I know that, guess what?! It’s the fist, million-time-th-better-step to being less insecure! Just knowing where you are and then stretching from that place, trying on more confidence, little by little. Doing the work and being satisfied.

At the end of my Neil Casey Advanced Study class yesterday I had a terrible class where I couldn’t make choices, another player on stage didn’t understand my move and we sat in the shit we had collectively taken on stage and I just performed generally poorly. And yet I knew I had done the work so I tried to feel good, I knew I had identified weaknesses and stretched them.

When we are practicing yoga, or working out or running or whatever physical activity we do to strengthen our bodies, we know we do well because our bodies literally thank us through releasing endorphins telling us that we are helping them, physically MAKING us feel great! But when we work our minds, our souls, there is no accompanying flow of endorphins, no hints to make us be okay with the stretch, the tear, the weakness we have endured, so insted of thanking ourselves, I judge myself and make myself feel bad, or I can.

I walked out of a rehearsal for the show I have that I was cast in that Christina Gausas is directing that I am SO honored to be a part of, that meshes with my values and background and how I love to play and knew I was worse than the other people there, knew I had fucked up repeatedly in rehearsal, knew that only in the very last moment of rehearsal did I begin to grasp myself and my skills and have a breakthrough. I moved already from a place of weakness to a place of strength in such a small time. As my yoga teacher, Chrissy Carter says, do not think of the body you are not in right now or wish you had, thank yourself for the practice you are doing in this body at this time.

But as I walk out, I am consumed with worries. Will I not be good enough and be dismissed from the show? Am I being too weak in scenes, in that struggle to be in the present? What about my habits and quirks that I try to suppress, picking my nose, or scratching my scalp or just my insane gestures from the audience (a fun sight for those of you who know me to behold). It is a struggle to not judge one’s self for one’s mental work because WE CARE. I care! We all care about our lives and our passions and so it is difficult to see them as practice. It’s good to be emotionally invested in things, to feel things. My friend Jon Bander said last night in rehearsal that “it is so wonderful to see people feel things on stage, because frequently as stand-up or sketch comedians, we are not allowed to feel something on stage, only comment”.

But I also have to recognize that note that Ashley Ward gave me over a year ago that, “you are where you need to be”.

I didn’t get on a Harold Team at UCB. I didn’t even get a callback.

I didn’t have a good class with Neil Casey and impress him, so I could get petted and stroked and told how brilliant I am.

I wasn’t up to snuff in my rehearsal with Christina, whom I admire and adore, and it breaks my heart.

But today, I feel happy and I feel fine.

Because wherever I am in my life, I’m doing the work. As my friend Sebastian told me as we were walking down the street, quoting another great improviser and teacher of mine, Michael Delaney: “If you want to do this, see that you are working the hardest out of all of your friends.”

Because today, I look at myself, I see where I am in the present moment, I forgive myself, I love myself and know there is nowhere else that I could be.

Whatever happens, I do not control. I don’t control what others think of me, whether I am cast or not, admired or not, nothing.

Only if I am in the moment, the present and I’m okay with my own weakness.

Which I guess, you could call, a kind of strength.

Oh yoga.

What the fuck have you done to me?

***

My friend Frank, who is now the big brother/probably partial-dad (his pops is in his early 60s) of one Charles Orio, tells me I obsess too much about my weight.

This is true.

When I went into my therapist’s office, I described a night of regret where I got drunk ate two “Kooky Brownies” (Brownies that had a chocolate chip cookie top to them), bought too many drinks and let other people buy me some and woke up 3 pounds heavier.

(I also saw Kiss*Punch*Poem that night, an improv show inspired by and involving poets, which I highly recommend, as it currently is I think the only show that elevates improv to art in New York City that is running right now.)

My response, which calmed her down, was that I just ate normally that day. Had some nuts and coffee for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, a Fu Man Chew from Better Being Underground (aka my secret sandwich shop) for dinner and this taco for a late-night snack.

My couch-crashing roommate Teddy and I were walking down Greenwich Avenue on the sort of long-stroll from the Magnet back down to Soho we occasionally get to indulge in on a nice night when we noticed a lone taqueria standing open on the late-night street.

We went in to discover it was “Taco Happy Hour” at Oaxaca as exemplified by an open tall-boy of Modelo Especial at the counter and a dude who was willing to talk about why he was not willing to join the co-op in Park Slope.

The taco itself though was fragrant and delicious, mounds of picked onions, spicy salsa verde and a light sprinkling of cotilla cheese on two light corn tortillas with some chewy, salty chicken for an umami core. At 2 bucks, it made me more okay that the taco truck wasn’t out on a weeknight over on 6th Ave.

Teddy and I headed home after he even talked about applying there for a job and our conversation was complete.

The next day I weighed less, I told my therapist.

And all was right in the world.

Until I woke up 2 pounds heavier, this morning.

***

OAXACA TAQUERIA WEST VILLAGE

Pollo Taco- $2.00 (5-7pm or after 10pm)

Greenwich Ave. bet. 6th and 7th Avenues.

123L to 14th St-7th Ave. ACEBDFM to West 4th St.


The Courage Of My Convictions

March 23, 2012

This is the sight of me walking down 7th Avenue after a midnight show, semi-successfully executed, in the post 1am hours, going down past the bar from 57th St.

I had been flirty at the bar, an easy enough affair. I had tried it on like a coat, or like the clothes at that American Apparel warehouse sale I go to, seeing if things make me look good.

An apt analogy actually. I have commented to people that never before when I weighed much more did I ever comment on or want to shop for clothing. It was outside the realm of my expectations as I knew I didn’t look good, so my defenses shut me off to the possibility of shopping, of having to see myself, or accept the way I was.

Now, I shop endlessly on the cheap, mismatched racks of the American Apparel Warehouse Sale on 26th St, looking for things that make me feel good, asking for opinions on what works and what doesn’t, what colors, what styles, looking for shirts that fit me tight, that show me off.

That’s how I try flirting on in that bar after the Gethard show, my friend Andrew Parrish (who met his current girlfriend this way) had recommended it to me previously, actually, but I’m usually too tired after the show, too wanting to do Yoga the next morning, too scared to put myself out there and fail or, worse, fuck up a good situation for me.

So in that mix of defensiveness, self-doubt and common sense, I usually end up walking home down that 7th Avenue, either all the way down or far enough to pick up my locked-out couch-crasher Teddy, who is at a different bar, before completing my 3 miles and being home.

But I try on flirting that night. Complimenting, finding ways to be assertive without being intrusive, seeing opportunities to connect, making sure, as I try to with all people now, that I am looking them in the eyes confidently, with a smile or the receptiveness of listening.

Like clothes, it’s not a natural fit for me, a thing out of the past. Like clothes, I still don’t really know what I am doing, throwing on a slapdash approach, sometimes not seeing how silly I look.

But Michael Delaney pointed out to us in a class that the difference between writing a sketch and doing improvisational work (being in the moment), is that a sketch is like working with clay where it can be formed and reformed, changed and shifted before being presented. With improv though, he said, we are working in marble and every move we make, mistake or not, is visible.

I don’t know what I am doing in marble right now.

Flirting or performing, though I’ve gotten better about being okay about life.

Christina Gausas (an amazing performer and improviser who I am lucky enough to get to work with) noted me a few weeks ago that when I made moves in my scenes it was like I was moving through water, making half-moves, unconfident. A non-improviser or even one might be confused by the terminology, I’ll explain. Instead of grabbing someone by the hand and giving a firm handshake, you reach out in slow motion waiting for their acceptance. Instead of brushing a girl’s hair back, you touch her lightly on the arm, uncertainly. When my old friend Jonny-Jon-Jon told me I needed to “take more leaps, not just from sinking in the mud to a rescue helicopter, more uncertain ones”, he was right too.

And life, improv, writing everything, they all tie together and seem to intermesh, though my life is full of them, so that may just be it.

Another moment learning from Christina was an exercise she does where we draw a trait from a piece of paper in her hand and have to play it subtly, or to put it differently, like a real, normal person. I nailed “gay” apparently (I talked about taking some time off from work to explore the world and a collection of Portuguese spun-glass), but when I drew “sexually aggressive”, I stumbled into creepy or timid, struggling like balance in yoga, to find a middle ground.

“When I think about being flirty or aggressive, ” she told me. “I think about a male improviser who would always be at the bar, just making super sexual jokes and it was always cool because that was just who he was, but if you ever took it seriously, he’d be down in an instant.”

I think my version of that was someone telling me my voice was hoarse it was and saying it sounded super-masculine.

“Yeah, I have huge balls.” I replied.

I think that got a laugh.

But in the end I walked home by myself again. I didn’t want to stay out late (I did), didn’t want to feel like shit again (did), wanted to get up in time for yoga, which I did.

But what am I looking for?

Playing my gameboy (a term, Nintendo DSi is the more accurate one) is often a troubling sign, something of a detachment from reality for me. Playing it while walking, an even greater one, especially now that I am aware of the work I do on my posture in yoga and how I fuck that up looking at my screen.

In improv and in life, the work I do is essentially to listen better, which is what I’ve told my friends, listen to myself (which I have gotten better at), but listen to others, be vulnerable, be in the moment and be confident not knowing ever what you are going to do.

Think about it, the amount of times in life we pre-plan what we are going to say, the times we judge a conversation or muscle past it just to make our point. If our points are so great, let’s make them, but as a talker I am almost exclusively defined by my propensity to talk about myself to the exclusion of others. Thus the blog you are reading right now.

So to listen, to not pre-plan, to be in the moment and vulnerable is practice in life as well as an improv. It makes you into a better, more responsive person. Know what you want in life and have that somewhere and how you feel, but I think that’s all you get to take for things.

When I go into a bar, or a classroom, when I hang around the Gethard show, or the different comedy theaters, who knows what will happen? It’s painful to be there, frightening to be confident.

So the “safe choices” are either detachment or self-abuse, detachment by not trying to connect with other/yourself (video games) or just judging yourself for your inadequacies as a way of not absorbing them, by viewing your perceived weakness as an external force, itself a kind of detachment as well.

All of this seems rambling and it is late. No apologies.

On Tuesday I had a great show and a great class and felt on top of the world. I got asked to be in a sketch group the next day out of the blue with people I respect, again people much more talented than me.

And yet, for all my practice not judging, for all my work, I still find myself slipping into judgement after a bad class, beating myself up over not being good enough or confident enough to really connect or hook up, wondering what I am doing or who am I, looking for external approval, because somewhere within me still lives vivid my own sense of worthlessness birthed from years of insecurity.

I’ve said here many times on this blog, I’m happy to return to yoga as much as I do because it reminds me when I am exerting myself that staying calm in the moment is how I stay calm in the face of adversity of life, that when I am not good at a pose it only means that I have self-awareness and I am doing the work, that when the teacher comes over to adjust me (which is very frequently, even now), it is a help because it means I am learning and getting closer to my own self-sufficiency, put succinctly by my friend Amy Hellman: “Think of everything as practice and you’ll get a lot more of a kick out of it.”

I spent time with my friend Frank today, a new big brother to his 62 year-old father’s son with his wife, Karen, a sort of slightly removed half-brother for Frank as he’s adopted. I knew though talking to him, as I went to Park Slope and to New York Methodist Hospital to see little Charlie in the NICU and saw Frank’s pride and wonder at his little brother’s cuteness, at his little brother’s being.

Well, some shit’s real.

And sometimes it’s good to remind one’s self of that.

And have more fun, if you can, and be more “practical” with the stuff that’s not.

And maybe that’s called “being a man” which is a note I got once, and maybe that’s called being confident.

Or maybe, it’s just something I’ll just have to be okay not knowing how it looks on me, until I do.

***

I am addicted to Mediterranean food.

It’s just delicious and healthy and flavorful. It’s adjustably spicy. It has great textures and vegetables. Hummus and falafel are so good that it’s just silly that they even exist.

So I apologize for how much I cover them, it’s just that I love to eat them and so I write what I eat.

In this case, it was The Hummus and Pita Co., a new joint over on 6th Avenue that, like Meze Grill before it, attempts to be a sort of Chipotle for mediterannian food.

Unlike Meze though, which I have not been to in a long time (I’m not often in the 50s during dining hours), THPC seems to be put on a little fanciness with a wider range of stuffings (fried eggplant, shawarma or a sort of tandoori chicken/steak as well as falafel) and different kinds of hummus.

All of it of course seems a little strange when you can get a 4 buck chicken kabab sandwich on many street corners.

But everything was really fresh and delicious. The salad bar of toppings (the mark of any great Mediterranean take out place) was ample with different kinds of cabbage and pickles and the shawarma I got was greasy and great and I even found some whole wheat.

The result was a yummy journey from crunch of cabbage to soft plyant chicken thighs rounding through to savory hummus and tahini, with dabs of hot sauce flecking in a mess that fell apart only to be scooped up, finger food, the dirty work covered up with napkins.

Maybe not for every day with the amount of good halal carts, but if I need some primo-shit, I know just where to look.

***

THE HUMMUS AND PITA CO.

Chicken Shawarma Whole Wheat Pita w/Fried Eggplant, Pickles, Red+White Cabbage, Hummus, Tahini, Hot Sauce- $8.11

6th Ave. bet 16th and 17th Sts

1 to 18th St. FLM-PATH to 14th St-6th Ave.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Three

March 21, 2012

Whoo.

I killed it in this class.

What a day.

I got up and did improv at 2:30-5:30, learned the opening for the show during that time, had a really fun set of the Bat (a harold done in the dark) and did an Invocation (Neil’s favorite opening and mine) in the dark too and then had a show for that class at 6:30 which, while I always feel like I could be better, felt great about. Then I had rehearsal afterwards. Now, soon, sleep.

Most of the notes from today are about Neil’s take on openings including his version of the invocation as well as some stuff about playing it real and not being “cute” or jokey which those of you who followed my 401 notes will remember as his pet peeves.

Neil had no negative notes for me after the show even called one of my moves “a stroke of brilliance”.

I feel exhausted and like a million fuckin’ bucks.

So here as always are my hastily written, definitely incomplete, probably somewhat inaccurate notes taken from class with Neil Casey.

Enjoy and take his invocation workshop if he ever teaches it again. I’ve learned it four different ways and any way I’ve done it, it’s always been fun.

***

Any opening has a lot of pros and cons, but if you’re not using it what it’s good for it’s worthless.

I think “the interview” opening has a lot of cons, but it’s the best way to get an audience on board with a long-form.

Will Hines’s Philosophy- In our upper levels when we have so much of a handle with our technique, how do we foster a sense of cooperation without singling people out?

Neil- Im going to make my case that the Invocation is best opening, lots of pros, negligible cons. Shows you how good the show is.

Interview- cons, the person can be a dud, can bullshit, be boring.

Good thing is that it is a good training wheels for an unsophisticated audience. It works as a way to show how you got your info and how were being funny of it.

You heard the story. Now here it is funnier, same as an Armando. Not reenact ing, not noble but not bad.

Pattern Game(three loop)-

Pros- group mind, a million suggestions, shows your work to the audience.

Cons- boring, fails theatrically, trained audiences deal with it

Sound/Movement-

P- perspective, getting into physicality, interesting to watch, getting on the same page as humans

C- no ideas or repetitive ideas, vague or no labels, lot of time not a lot of ideas

Organic opening could be anything

(pattern, movement, could do anything)

Scene Painting

P- gets you ideas, entertaining, not as many ideas

C- people don’t like when we don’t use scenes we’ve created

Documentary

P- like pattern game but locked in to character

C- slightly more interesting but not constricting

Armando

P- entertaining, theatrical, variable rate of return

C- pressure on one person, no group mind

Scene Deconstruction

P- scenic so helpful

C- if the scene is bad its bad

Openings are overrated, people look for perfect ones when they should just do better scenes, gel better as players and you’ll be be better as a team.

Invocation

Fun to watch, we’re speaking in a weird way, more intense.

Second, commitment. Youve got to be committed, if you’re teamwork is bad or trying to be funny it comes out there

Third, come up with great ideas, not as many as PG, but we’re talking about an object, human reactions, behaviors, when we get up higher we talk about philosophies at its height. Quality ideas, demonstrates your commitment to the show, pure group mind were all getting on the same page AND it’s literal witchcraft.

Here’s my skeleton of invocation-

You are creating object on ground or in air

One specific thing, yes and every choice, building on top of each others ideas. Can’t be purple if its already red. You can dive into details like scene painting. You talk about the history and then we heighten it. One thing right in front of us, right here.

Id rather you heighten someone else’s idea than you’re own, just like a pattern game. Build on other people’s ideas rather than push your own, unless something really resonates with you.

tennis ball to truth warmup- big idea based on true sounding story

When our conclusions come close to self-help maxima, we’re hitting high, but we’re not getting real enough

What is it to be punctual, for instance? The idea that you don’t want to hurt other people? That if people are late then society ends? Not eat right, “why eat right”. To not support agribusiness? What are we really talking about? When you are reducing to a cliche or platitude think about what you are talking about instead of the shorthand

Take something tangible as a suggestion (can’t invoke courage or friendship)

It is- description of particular object, physical object, don’t get carried away with scene paint. Only things immediately touching it. Close shot photo of it as guideline. Make it “the kind of thing”

You are- based on what bike it is, assuming persona of person/character, the relation to you. The more you can make it matter/give a shit, the better. Don’t be someone not intimate to it. Everyone be different characters. Don’t worry about consistently of stories, objects have long lives.

Thou art- summarize those stories, the big ways those things relate to people, a big thing (passion, lost innocence, pure pleasure).

I am- one word, biggest things

You can build the object or not if you want to do something physical

Don’t try to speak above your intelligence, speak naturally. Lose the flowery voice people sometimes do in Thou Art.

Thou-art stage could be seen as titles of scenes.

The same thing as pattern game, it’s not bad to talk about pop culture but it shouldn’t be the whole thing. Pop culture references are not three dimensional

With the It Is stage or at any point, of you stumble on something dark or terrible, explore it. It’s going to be funnier to see you sad later than if you’re not being true. Allow yourself to get in to a funny second beat of it in the actual Harold. It’s not funny unless you have the same emotional commitment as something found that’s dark and awful.

Be careful for being too funny. You can know its funny, but we can’t know it. Try for dark or emotional or what it’s really like.

The invocation gives you an opportunity for heavy commitment at the top of the show that you can maintain throughout the show.

No one wants to watch the people on stage be funny or think they are funny.

Don’t make the invocation be jokes, make things that actually matter.

The worst thing that has infected our scene here are people who think that they are funny taking this stage.

Let’s get laughs from being truthful as opposed to mastering the sitcom cadence of when to laugh, a silly voice or demeanor. You coming in as officer shit pants isn’t going to be why you devoted your life to this. You can get so far being funny, but you can’t do the stuff that makes your jaw drop if you’re not playing the characters and just puppeteering thing.

Nobody thinks you’re cute on stage. College improv yes. But you’re not cute and funny because you’re grown ups on stage. You can get laughs by being silly, but let it not be the trend.

I don’t think any audience wants to see you be cute or precious but they want to see you be good

The sad thing is it does fly, because people get laughs get on teams but then that becomes the paradigm. Meaning someone gets on a team who is “funny” and then we laugh at them because they are on a team and then they are considered funny and then they are. Which’ll kill us.

I’d rather you err on the side of melodrama, playing the characters who care too much about scenes, rather than characters who are aware of how funny they are.

This is everybody right now, the whole scene, you’re all funny enough that you could get on a team right now and students would laugh but that doesn’t matter because you saw something great which is why you got into improv but you will not create something great if you can’t play truthfully.

Commit and be more vulnerable or be such a great puppet master that you can’t see the strings, which may end up being the same thing.

The point of the invocation is not necessarily to grab game but also tone, people want to see things that hit from the opening hit in the piece.

Walk-ons are great when helping a game but not as a left turn.

You can get away with a goofball group game if you’re doing good grounded scenes, in fact it can be a nice break.

e.g.: You can have the coke if you ran a mile today.

What we hear in our openings should resonate into our shows.

You can take from “it is” as well. You can do a shitty invocation and have a fine pattern game out of it.

The point of the invocation is to find strong character choices, play the sort of person who believes the things they say about that object.

Pre-packaged justifications based on strong things we’ve built off the opening.

Me doing something weird is ok but only becomes funny once we justify.

When you say “I’m not letting go” be the person who is not letting go. Infuse as much emotion as you can.

Initiate what was fun in the second beat at the expense of every thing else. Some parts of a scene will be better than others, initiate what was fun, what people laughed at, what you enjoyed.

The whole trick is playing grounded while an exemplifying a crazy characteristic, without us all seeing its really funny, betraying that you know what you are doing.

I know that you’re funny enough to make these moves but don’t make them do broadly that I see the man behind the curtain and I see him congratulate himself.

Compliment yourself and others offstage.

My overall note, play good games, get there faster. But you did find funny things organically so that’s great.

Find commitment in the invocation, bring emotional commitment to your scenes from that and find games quickly and you’ll be doing the best improv out there, guys.


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Two (w/guest teacher Will Hines)

March 15, 2012

This was a challenging day for me and for most of the class I think.

I have my said my statements about Will Hines here on this blog frequently and made my opinion known: in short, I have a lot of respect for him as a performer and a teacher and he’s one of the bigger influences on my style of play.

But when Will came to sub for our intensive, I still put on myself that onus of “I’m performing in front of Will” (which was less serious in front of Neil, because I felt like/was such a better improviser when I took his class as opposed to when I took Will’s).

Also, we were doing a difficult thing for me: playing realistic scenes.

It seems like for me and for most of the class when you hear: play realistically at the top of the scene, don’t try to be funny, you forget you are an improviser and forget all of your skills there.

I felt like there was a lot of this in this class, a lot of the pain that comes of exercising like your trapezoidal muscles or getting your balance right.

Maybe that second analogy is right: as people, we can walk around unbalanced for most of our lives. Our legs still work and we walk pretty well. But later in life, as we mature, we find ourselves more and more unbalanced because of the lack of work we did in our youth, having problems all through our bodies or just hobbling.

As improvisers, we can improvise without playing truthfully necessarily at the top of the scene or without focussing on that muscle, because a lot of what we do as performers is based on ourselves, because we’re not smart enough to think of a lot of random stuff instantly for every situation. But by isolating that “truthful” muscle and making it stronger, we help make our scenes more real and powerful.

But that’s a hard day at the gym as everyone knows, working on balance, working small muscles. It tends to make you very sore and you fall a lot.

So that’s what I did in class, this class.

And then the next day, had a great practice using exactly the muscles I’d worked on here.

Thanks, Will.

Without further ado, the hastily scrawled, incomplete, inaccurate notes of my 501 class, subbed by Will Hines.

***

Your first mission as an improviser is to make realistic scenes, truthful

Don’t make problems where they don’t exist, like passing a fork or opening a refrigerator. Those wouldn’t be a problem in real life so not here either.

Ok to be boring at the top of scenes.

Basic scenework:

Truthful scenes that move forward are key.

Those things are hard because they can oppose each other

A confession is an active choice to make

A want is active, care about something, even if you don’t in real life

Doing something/object work is often helpful. It almost never hurts. Being active is almost always good.

Making the people on stage the center of the action.

Make a decision that the naturalistic conversation you were having actually was much more serious, justify/contextualizing a naturalistic scene five lines in

Not talking about future/past too much

With The Stepfathers, when I come out with an opening line, I’m just trying to be truthful, not funny, just make the audience believe it make sense and hopefully make it involve someone else.

Example, suggestion “Bakery”: “Yeah I’m glad you got me a cupcake, but I’m worried about how I’m going to look.”

Any first line can work but better hit percentage with truth.

Truthful scenes should be what we aim for, looking for more opportunities to make stuff active.

We need an opportunity in our scenes for people to care.

A problem many improvisers run into: You get a game, you play it, but that second game move can seem false or forced.

So to be the best improviser you can be, how can you find something active that is also truthful for that second move.

The move to make something more active will be the same as a second game move

So that way you’ll have something true when playing less real or grounded

Not every scene needs to be like a great play, but you need to have those moves in your satchel, a confession, making something theatrical and important.

We tell level 1 students not to ask questions. Questions are ok, but being surprised is a passive choice. It just makes the people restate their choice. Always better to remember, to contextualize.

Giving a shit, knowing about it, having an opinion, being affected those are all active choices.

You don’t always need to do that but you need to be sensitive about it, those forks in the roads when you come across them.

If you mess up a second-beat, acknowledge it, clean sweep, contain it and do a clean second beat. Don’t let every scene bleed into each other, maintain poise.

Kitchen rules of good improvisers from del close: good improviser accepts offers, makes active choices, good improviser justifies

Doesn’t have to be the whole point of the scene just an aside or one line.

If you do everything right and it doesn’t work, what do you do? Nothing. That’s why we have openings. If you accept every offer, make active choices and justify it will be funny most of the time.

Often the justification is the game, a little piece of dream logic that doesn’t necessarily make sense.

Be funnier, look for places for things to be funny, use your sense.

I have had a boring first beat in a Monkeydick show, but it was real and we ended up blowing it out to be huge. You don’t always want that, but trust your team to make it work.

You’re at the stage now where the rules contradict. Salt is delicious but too much is bad. Use your judgement as to your own ingredients. I can tell you what the ingredients are but we’ll all still have wrong amounts.

A team that knows each other may not use an opening because their months of knowing each other is their opening, knowing that they trust each other to discover the scene.

But even the Stepfathers might at some point. If we could ever agree on one.

***

P.S.- See Will Hines teach people improv on TV right here (pretty cool)!