Matt Besser Lecture Notes (in collaboration w/Will Hines)

May 21, 2012

This past Sunday, founding member and owner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Matt Besser, gave a talk at the Chelsea theater about what his concept of “UCB-style” improv is and what he’d like to see taught here in New York and what not. I have my thoughts on all this but that is not what this post is about.

Instead, here are (w/Will’s permission) the notes that I took at that lecture that were organized and clarified by the Associate Academic Supervisor of the UCB, Will Hines, and sent out to some staff and performers.

I hope you enjoy and maybe (hopefully!) discuss.

-Nick

***

Outline of 5/20/12 Besser Meeting, courtesy of Nicholas Feitel:

MINDSET
I’ve been talking a lot about mindset, what’s your mindset when you enter a scene and start improvising.
When I started I was standup, so I already had stage confidence.
Charna told me that I wouldn’t be good at improv because of stand up. She was right, at least at first.
Difference between standup/short-form, the game is already given.
In short-form game is explained to the audience, details fed into comedy machine
Short-form more selfish, who can do it “the best”, less group dynamic.
ImprovOlympic didn’t work when it was competition based
Long-form improvisers listen to others, the most important note an improviser can get. You listen to others.
My mindset used to be dueling stand-up, you say something funny and then I say something funny. Two separate thought bubbles.
I didn’t trust or give in to listening, I didn’t have trust that it was funnier to build off something someone else created with me as opposed to me being funny, trust in the group mind.
I was on stage with someone was good and I thought the other persons idea was better so I shared it. One shared thought bubble — group mind.
Stand up and longform are different muscles, different mindsets

IMPROV and SKETCH
At UCB, a great improvised scene is the same as a great sketch .
You don’t always do A+ scenes, just like we don’t do perfect Harold’s
Everyone else is doing improvised plays, narrative, with silly people and that it wouldn’t work written down. It stills works because the audience loves improv but we are trying to get away from that.

SEMANTICS and TERMS
We have two kinds of long-form: organic and premise-based. Equally as good.
Organic coming off a suggestion and we start improvising not off of an opening. We are “yes-and-ing”
We build a base reality (who, what, where) from yes-and-ing.
Base, what you’ll build a scene on, reality so we know what’s normal, and what the first unusual thing is.
Once we find that unusual thing, we don’t need a yes-and, we just need to say if this unusual thing is true, what else is true. That’s the difference between UCB and other schools, other schools have “yes-and”-itis.
Game doesn’t happen until a second person reacts.
If someone says I’m going to “kill myself with potato skins”, you then say “yes let me help you” then we have two unusual things because of yes-and, because then we have someone who is helping people kill their friends (unusual) and someone who wants to kill themselves with a potato-skin (unusual). It can’t go down the two paths.

I want you in the mindset of this: “if this one unusual thing is true, what else is true”. It’ll take you through that sketch of any show you like.

TOP OF INTELLIGENCE
Maybe yes-and-itis is caused by people who don’t play at the top of their intelligence, that fear leads you to play not at the top of your intelligence to say something funny
Del said two difference things that get lumped together
-Treat your audience like poets and geniuses, don’t “dumb down” the scene for your audience.
-commit to playing a doctor the best you can.
Your character isn’t necessarily as smart as you are, they’re not necessarily. If I’m an 8-year-old, I’m not as smart as who I am normally.
The intelligence is our intelligence of how people behave towards one another.
That’s not what a person would say (I’ll help you kill yourself), because no matter who you are, you’ll deal with the unusual thing. The top of intelligence choice is dealing with the unusual thing.
You have to get into the mindset of how would I respond in that scenario, most of you are not truly reacting as you would react.

OPENINGS/INITIATING OFF MONOLOGUES
A good monologue lasts about two minutes, we need to slow down and tell a little bit more.
The purpose of this initiation is to let them know where you are coming from, so it’s your take on what was funny from the opening.
We use the opening to come from a common place, I like to think of if as the pitch meeting from the sketch show.
What makes a memory a memory is that they are unusual things in your life.
I want to get pretentious words like “emotional” out of your vocabulary. Let’s use the words from our curriculum.
Could be the point of the story, the way someone told the story, some part that got laughs.
It would be idiotic not to use the parts of the opening that got laughs, we have to find our own way to flag to, but we want to find a way to flag 3, because it’s more efficient. 4-5 are too many to remember, 1-2 is not enough because other people may hopefully use them.
With my initiation line, in an opening there’s chaff (doesn’t bring us anything, words equal to suggestion word), premise (when I can really gel what I found funny in the opening and who,what, where), half-ideas (no premise but at least directing towards what we think is funny off the opening).
If you see immediately that you’re joking, or bringing in your own idea, let it go.
People talk about emotion or relationship, but really just commit to being real. Either that or commit to being peas in a pod which can be helpful and you could be a slight straight man (ala Cheech and Chong), the straight man is the one who gets to explore. You have to be your own unusual thing.
Our opening is the pitch meeting for the sketch show, I wouldn’t pitch something at SNL that I didn’t think was funny. We don’t like to imply that one person brings the whole game, but that funny thing from the monologue is the thing we should heighten and explore.
Why did a scene peter out after the beginning? Because we let the truth of the funny thing go.
Really explore why something is funny, ideas off a suggestion, otherwise why are you doing the opening, you’re not honoring the audience’s ideas and the group mind you just built if you go out there with nothing
You’ve got to give the initiator their real chance to say what they think is funny before laying on your own thing.

HEIGHTEN/EXPLORE
Like stair steps
NOT raising the stakes! Don’t say raise the stakes. For exploring, when we started in Chicago, we were told to raise the stakes in the second beats, it seems to take us to the same places (doctor’s office, white house), INSTEAD: what’s another great place to play this game?
Raising the stakes imply that second beat is better than the first, and that’s not necessarily true.
After Wiig’s Penelope/”the one-upper” they weren’t thinking how to raise the stakes the first time the character premiered for next week, they thought about where else to put her.
What’s another scenario that’s full of potential?
I need another place that has other details (not better, funnier, a lot of potential in this new place/situation).
Second beat may be better based on better handle on the game.
Find what’s funny and make it funnier- heighten
If you heighten without exploring, then we lose the reality, it’s over more quickly.
Explore= figure out why this crazy thing is happening / justify
Exploring allows our scenes to go longer.
The “sillier” something is the quicker the truth runs out.

PLAUSIBLE CRAZY PEOPLE
When I was doing Crossballs, the character debating the real person has to be a lawyer for their absurdity, explaining the premise.
Ex: a guy who kills ducks with a rocks because a guy who’s kill a duck with a gun is a pussy.
It takes longer to get through the scene arming ourselves with more specifics.
The earlier on in a scene, the more grounded and logical I have to be, have those slower builds, because if you heighten too much you play out the scene to end.
I try to give the initiator more respect, so you try to give the initiator more respect, if it’s premise based, you really try to find what the person’s idea is and clue-in on what they’re doing. Sometimes when things get messed up, the second unusual thing is more unusual than the first, so you have to drop the first thing and play the things the audience chooses
Don’t aim to find the flaw in someone’s logic, there are flaws in all logic, just keep heightening and exploring.
Make sure you stick to your guns even if someone questions or calls out your logic.
You’re allowed to be selectively oblivious about one unusual thing but if someone lays on a second unusual thing, it’s bad, but give up and play their thing.
Some people like to juggle two-three games, as the other player in the scene just try to focus on the one most unusual thing. Sometimes organically a new game can come up and you can play that if you heighten enough (not in a Harold).

AVOID THE TERMS EMOTION/RELATIONSHIP WHEN ANALYZING IMPROV
I hate hearing the word emotion, relationship, this is a sketch, not a movie or a film. Who is this person, what do they want from me is acting, we don’t need that, we need base reality, commitment to that, an unusual thing, ability to heighten explore.
Just try to react as yourself in situations and maybe really ask yourself how you’d actually react.

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Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Week Final

April 27, 2012

It’s been a rough week or two for me.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Anyway, my Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Class is now over. I got a lot out of it, I feel like, getting better at drawing premises from openings, really finding the emotional commitment in my harolds that I struggled to find before, learning how to respect the other people in my class and deal with my own expectations of myself. It was all difficult, but in the end, like many things in life, I grew.

As I’ve said here before, the point of writing down these notes and putting them on the internet was that Neil is a performer who is very highly respected, within the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and beyond, who does not teach classes often anymore (he said he would not teach another class here until at least August), whose philosophy I admire and so I thought I could (with Neil’s permission) share.

If I were to take the one thing that I got from this class, it would be to take things personally in scenes. Be real and in the moment and react as you would in life if this was important to you. Doing so will lead you to the sort of emotional commitment that will lend itself to interesting scenes and games that will not be cliched because they will be filtered through the lens of your experience.

That said, that’s my extrapolation.

So here, for the last time, are the notes from our last class. Hastily scrawled, certainly incomplete, almost definitely inaccurate. Use them for what you will.

And thank you to my classmates and especially to Neil, for the experience and the notes.

***

This week try to put it all together:

What we are shooting for is to do truthful high commitment invocations which lead us into truthful emotionally committed scenes and fun games. Commitment is the name of the game.

For second beats, follow the fun. You can follow tangents as damage control, but only do it if it’s the more fun thing, otherwise let’s reinvest in one or both of these characters or go analogous if we earn it.

On Anxiety And “Pressure”: all of us are very concerned about how well we do in our performance or on stage, but it leads to second-guessing and selfish play, you may steam-roll over someone’s ideas or invent. The trick is genuinely to make your scene partner look good and make their ideas look like genius. If you take yourself out of the equation and are really doing that, which is hard to do, then you’ll be doing the best work of your life, even if the thing you did was something your scene partner set up. Then the credit you get is funny, because you’ll be getting credit for other people’s moves, them yours. Because the stitching behind the tapestry you’re showing everyone is everybody helping each other, everyone owns the laughs.

There’s no way to teach that or to make people do that, but if you do that your anxiety will be taken care of.

Warmup: character telephone, match in the moment, not call and response and then match, pass it on.

You want to make sure if your behavior is interesting or funny, we want the philosophy behind it to pass the bullshit test. Just like anytime you’re talking to someone and they are blowing smoke up your ass, is like a weak justification on stage.

The why behind the why- you can always justify something on a surface level, the worst example of which is “because you’re crazy”, But if you give the why behind the why, we get to a playable attitude.

For instance “I like paper because paper is awesome” vs. “I believe in physical things, everything is too impermanent”.

What’s the thing behind “It’s not you, it’s me”. The reason why that’s so cliched is because even if it might be true it doesn’t reveal a deeper philosophy or reason.

When you cease to do what you love or be who you are, that’s one step towards selling out. Object monologue warmup (tossing around a mimed object and telling a truthful story about it) gets you towards remembering truth.

If you’re gifted as sleeping in dog shit, find something that you remember that’s important as opposed to “I like the smell of shit” but if I can convince you that I’m the guy that likes that for an interesting reason (“because I want to get back to animalistic nature”) then we are there.

Do a Harold with invocation then do an  “I believe” Harold. Both characters in a scene should say at some point I believe____. Shouldn’t be inelegant because that is often what game is, a point of view or reaction. Every character that’s a good character can say that

Take big swings for thou art. An invocation gone wrong is when people leaned on silly voice or phrasing. Of course you can rephrase what you already said but if we’re not saying anything new we’re not using it for what it’s good for.

Make sure we’re not playing too glib, even if we are having funny philosophies, make sure to acknowledge reality/the other side even still

When you’ve got a simpler game from the opening, don’t ignore it in favor of other games we’ve played before.

Be careful of treating something that might be close to an improv cliche (candy for drugs, for instance), we can play it, but then we need to treat it even more seriously/personally.

You can’t be resting in thou arts, we should feel like we are increasing our speed and our momentum, not just casually rephrasing things. Take the idea from the mundane to the sublime, take it there with the delivery and the content. When you get to the big ideas, we find things we can play in our piece.

Doing three line scenes where we get “who what where” out is clunky and should not necessarily be how we start scenes, but it’s to make you miss those things when they are going in to your scenework.

I always say to earlier level students that audiences are so happy to hear what they are looking at that they will forgive clunkiness.

In that way, even a clunky explanation is better than a meaningless pattern.

It’s not a rule that we always connect the scenes in the first third beat. Never play for the blackout at the end of your pieces.

The trick of this class is step out and mean business immediately, be emotionally committed and real and then play what’s actually fun, not what you thought would be. Once we’ve got our game, push it and don’t let it die.

 


Neil Casey Advanced Study Harold Notes Day Six

April 11, 2012

A rough one.

This week we did a character wheel exercise focussing on second beats off of a character monologue and Neil was not pleased. None of us did particularly well and even the Harolds were a little bit of a slog with some second beats getting restarted (including one I did). We then did a final tag-out exercise like a La Ronde to build off patterns and blow-out games, focussing on taking “big swings”.

It felt difficult to get into the groove of it and everyone seemed dejected leaving. Some times are just like that.

I felt fine, in going with my notes from last week, knowing that even if I performed less well this week, I could feel the stretch. I felt like I was getting second beats drilled more into me.

Anyway, here are the notes from this week, abbreviated, hastily-scrawled, typo-ridden, mostly inaccurate.

Use them for what they are worth.

***

Strong emotional commitment will carry the day in your first beats and invocation.

Today is about encouraging simpler stronger second beats and then simpler stronger third beats

Harold exercise without connections

Last line/first line edits: I like editing on the lines, I think it’s nice to pivot on that line, it feels like we’re building a chain between the scenes.

Playing real vs. making things important: think back to park bench of truth

If you and I sit somewhere and have a conversation, something playable will come up if you’re being aggressive about observing and seizing things.

The artifice of playing it real is yes-anding, because if we were in real life we can just sit around and not doing anything

If you’re at my house and we are sitting around and making iced tea, we can sit at that in real life, but as improvisers we have to provide verbal information into the scene while still being in the reality

Sometimes if my big note is play it real, I’m not noting people on plateauing and not adding things. I’m not going to barge in and say “yes, and” but if you’re playing it real and not getting to funny you are probably not yes-anding

Follow your instinct about how big of a choice to make, don’t sell out the first thing you make, just trust yourself. There is no such thing as too big of a choice, but such a thing as a false choice, if something is contrived and shoe-horning a sitcom premise. Make sure it’s actually flowing from what’s going on on stage. If I step out with you and have a moment with you it sucks if I back out of that to do an initiation.

Threes going to be something that’s already there when we step out together and it’s easy to see people reject that, hard to point out what’s right.

What’s always going to be new is you and me looking at each other talking about what’s on our minds.

Why is it that when I say characters people do half-crosseye and insist on playing morons?

You can play characters that are dumber than you, but have a good reason. Your instinct shouldn’t be to knock 10 IQ points off.

Play someone you know, our instincts to play characters is to play goons.

If I’m an idiot then my fundamental game is that I’m an idiot and you can’t play anything else

A real blockhead is an unusual thing, they don’t exist in real life

People say I wanna play a big character and so you play stupid

Note on second beats:

We don’t want to get vaguer with a specific game, we want to get more specific with what we are doing.

And don’t miss the beats, the builds of first beats.

We don’t want to be second-beat robots, if you expressed something in a certain way in the first beat, that will probably be a big part of your second beats.

It’s ok to play unoriginal games, you just have to act the hell out of it, because if you are doing it the same way we’ve seen it done before then we lose interest.

We have to honored what we’ve been labeled with, one way or another.

We don’t want to do second beats where we are more detached about the things that are cool, we want to be even more in the shit.

I’m trying to draw out of you second beats that peel the onion away as opposed to pass them around

I want to do second beats that you do first beats that are hit or miss but second beats you know what’s coming so really hit that pitch

I would rather you guys la ronde or push your second beats, if the move is lateral. If your second beat isn’t clearing the bar that your first scene met, then work it

We want clear, simple more hard-hitting attacks on the game

If not, let’s take group ownership w/ tag-outs and walk-ons to mold things


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.


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.


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.