by Matt Holmes
I learned improv in a way that wasn’t helpful for me logically or in the moment. Eventually, I boiled it down to a simple, underlying 3-step process.
How to Answer
The first lesson I learned for improv was “Yes And.” You agree (saying Yes) and add (starting with And). This made sense; you can’t waste time arguing about invisible stuff, and you can’t have a scene without moving forward.
This had some problems, though. The theory was all about responding. This was step two. What do you do first? I, and my partner, needed something to agree with. Plus, it was so verbal. We were just standing there talking and agreeing.
Also, this led to a lot of concern and pressure about being agreeable. I was worried that I might be doing it wrong; it almost felt like I was a bad person or “didn’t play well with others.”
Saying “Yes And” to everything and anything led to a lot of starts that didn’t go anywhere and tangents that either derailed or fizzled out.
Accepting the facts of the situation is important, but I wanted to know how to begin, and I wanted to get somewhere with it.
First What to Say
Then I learned to get the Who, What, and Where in the first three lines, including names and relationships and a kernel of conflict. This made sense, too. It was a checklist, a to-do list.
The problem for me was the pressure of getting all those details right away. Plus, the end result was a lot of awkward exposition, and I still wasn’t sure what to do next.
It felt like the whole scene was puked out in the first three lines and I was still stranded, but now with a lot of facts nobody cared about. A lot of the information seemed unimportant, too. Sometimes, the location doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re playing sisters or just best friends.
I went from “What do I do?” to “What do I do now that we’re twin pirates at the DMV?”
Thinking about Playing
Then I learned “Finding the Game.” How you find it and what exactly a game is were both a bit mysterious.
Jumping on the first unusual thing that happened and asking, “If this is true, what else is also true?” worked and led to some really clear-cut scenes. It was almost like sketch comedy that we made up on the spot.
I had something for the scene to be about and stuff to do based on that premise. I learned that plot was bad and game was good, because plot got people “in their heads.”
The only problem was that I still got stuck in my head thinking about what was also true and what to do next; only now I was confused by the mystic nature of the theory. Plus, I found that every scene was about an usual thing.
It still felt like scenes worked just by luck. I knew what a game was and why to play it, but it was always a challenge to create the rules and play them.
What’s my Motivation?
Then I learned about some real acting. I tried to give my characters a “deal” or a “want” and figure out what my partners were giving their characters. I tried to play real people with back stories and core characteristics.
It was confusing. I was thinking too much. In improv, there’s no time for secrets, especially ones that never get divulged.
This might be helpful for working with a script or improvising to develop one, but if your technique in every improv scene is focused on a want, then that’s what every scene will be about. It’s a good exercise, but it’s not a technique to use every time.
So what do you do to do it?
I boiled down all these elements into three simple steps that I could follow.
It doesn’t matter what. You can choose to be witty or physical or emotional. You can come up with an idea or just be a character. You can purposefully decide specifics or let them emerge later.You, and your partner, and the audience all just need
something.Start the scene and keep it going. It’s okay if it feels vague and uncertain. The audience doesn’t need every detail right away, and they’re more patient than you’d think.
In improv, you start with a blank slate and draw in some details. When we all have some idea of what’s going on, then we just want to invest in it and get something back.
If you start over or shift gears, it’s like reading the first page from a few different books instead of getting through one story.
Even when something is working and making sense and getting laughs, it needs to go somewhere. Comedy is built on surprise. You can stay on track, but change it up a bit. Grab people by doing what you’re already doing, but bigger in some way. Go to the Nth degree with whatever it is.
Improv can be trivial and ephemeral. Part of the show, even a really good one, is the aspect that it’s being made up in the moment. You give improv a point and a purpose by picking out something to explore and use.
- Imagine if Beethoven only did one “dah-dah da-DAH!” You’d want more.
- Imagine if he did it exactly the same way ten times. You’d want it a little different, bigger, softer, played on a flute; not exactly repeated again and again.
3 is Funny, Conclusive, & Ingrained
“Omne trium perfectum” means every set of three is complete. In comedy, we just say that things are funny in threes: the rule of three. Thrice is nice.Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern with an expectation to follow. Doing something more and then “bigger” satisfies that expectation while still being some kind of surprise.
This is the ‘how.’ The ‘what’ is up to you.
You can follow this technique at any level, no matter who your partners are, no matter your energy level or mood, and it’ll work.
These are the underlying basics. Everything else is personal taste and preference. You can still “Yes, And.” You can still find the game. You can play real or clever or silly or whatever you like, but you can do it with a plan for how.
What you choose to play becomes the game, without having to think about it. You don’t have to find something or hope for anything. You can actively create, just by repeating any choice.Any details missing from the scene aren’t necessary or can be added in later as clarification or a reveal.
Sometimes, you don’t need stakes or emotions or a setting or names, so long as something else is strong enough to fill that void.Sometimes, improvisers patiently explore, listen, agree, and add until they get a good idea. Then, on that good laugh, they edit and start over, grasping at straws again. It’s so much easier to make the first thing that happens into something great and stick with it. There’s less dead air, less to keep track of, and fewer dead ends.
In a story, the plot is created by having characters do something more and bigger. In a game, the moves are repeated (done more) and heightened (done bigger). Even when a scene or sketch takes a turn, that’s just something else that’ll be done more and bigger also.
In improv, you might only see pieces of a larger narrative. If the show doesn’t complete a traditional structure, wrapping up a climax and resolution, the audience won’t care too much, as long as the pieces they saw were good. By repeating and heightening something, you create the slices of a larger pie.Plot asks, “What happens next?” Game asks, “If this is true, what else is true?” Deal asks “Who are these characters, what do they want, and how do they try to get it?” I think this 3-step framework answers all these questions in a pragmatic, practical way so improvisers can relax and play.
You’re not lost; you have a map. Take a step in any direction and keep going.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on June 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The seventh annual Troika Tournament, presented by Figment Theater in partnership with The Sideshow came to a conclusion this Saturday with Law and Order: LOL (Alex Newman, Andrew Stanton, and Nicole Labrecque) taking home the title, along with a cash prize. The group performed a show with scenes and characters stylized after the popular television franchise including detectives, assistant district attorneys and CSI personnel.
The group bested efforts from Round One winners Improv Against Humanity (Alli Soowal, JP Boudwin, and Kevin Pettit) and Round Two champs Craft (Jason Grimley, Marc Reber, and Sue Jay)
If you have any Philly comedy news for us to mention – send it our way with an email to email@example.com
The N Crowd is turning 8 this year, and to celebrate they’re throwing a special anniversary show and party at Ruba Club this Friday. Read on for more details and reflections on the Crowd’s history from Executive Director B.J. Ellis.
WitOut: How did The N Crowd form?
B.J. Ellis: The N Crowd was formed after a pair of auditions held by Ray Reese and Emily Dufton in February of 2005. Mike Connor, Jessica Snow, Brandon Libby and myself were the original cast from that audition.
WO: How has the group evolved over the years?
BJE: The group has evolved in a few ways over the years. Many changes were behind the scenes. As we all gained more experience over the years and as technology changed, we found easier ways to make the show run smoother. For example, the way we sell tickets went from cash-only that week to the ability to order tickets for shows 3 month out.. I honestly can’t imagine running the show now without the benefits of technology we now use. Our show is also way funnier now than it was in 2005. We came across some old archive footage of one of our first shows. After watching it I thought to myself, “Whoa…that… isn’t…very funny. Yeesh.” I feel that the quality of our shows has really evolved. The cast has also changed a lot over the years. I believe over the 8 years nearly 40 people have been in The N Crowd.
WO: What are some of your favorite moments in N Crowd history?
BJE: That is truly a tough question to answer. I enjoy just about every week I am here. My favorite moment nowadays is coming in on a Friday and knowing we have a sold out show. In the early years of The N Crowd, we would have weeks that no one came to the show. Today…I honestly couldn’t say when the last time that happened.
WO: Do you have any new goals or plans for the N Crowd as the group enters its 8th year?
BJE: A few goals, a couple of plans. Maybe a hair-brained scheme or two.
WO: What can fans expect from the anniversary show this Friday?
BJE: We are going to be at The Ruba for our anniversary show this year. Unlike our usual shows, this venue has a cash bar. We also will have some pizza there for consumption and after the show there will be dancing. The show starts at 8:30 pm, which is alittle later then usual, just in case anyone goes to The Actors Center [our typical home] accidentally.
The N Crowd 8-Year Anniversary Show is this Friday, April 26th at Ruba Club (414 Green Street). Tickets are $12, which includes the after-party.
On the last Friday of every month, ComedySportz
is bringing in original outside acts for their 8PM time slot, ahead of their 10PM adults-only The Blue Show
. This month, ComedySportz Presents
runs on two bonus days—Wednesday and Thursday—and features Friends of Alcatraz, an improvised puppet show. Here are cast members Joe Sabatino and Kelly Vrooman with details on the history of the group, the format of their show, and what it’s like to play with puppets:
WitOut: Can you give a brief history of Friends of Alcatraz? What sparked your interest in combining improv and puppetry?
Joe Sabatino: I’ve been making puppets since I was a kid, and I was always too nervous to actually put them on display or admit to anyone that I like puppets. But when Kelly and I started dating…
Kelly Vrooman: By the way, we’re dating.
JS: When we first started, I knew we shared a common interest in puppets. So, I decided to do the creepiest thing for someone you’ve only been dating for a month and I built a puppet of Kelly’s cat Alcatraz. With it came the idea to do an improvised puppet show called Friends of Alcatraz.
KV: It was a weird yet endearing gesture…but mostly weird. He put the puppet in my arms and said, “I was thinking, um, maybe… you would want to create an improv puppet show with me?” I reluctantly said yes.
JS: We gathered a group of our funniest friends, that happen to also be some of the best puppeteers in the city: Dave Jadico, Jason Stockdale and Rob Cutler. It was a fascinating group of inventive people that know how to make a puppet come alive. Thus, FoA was born.
KV: I work with puppets on TV, so I knew I wanted to have monitors for the puppeteers, which led us to want a screen the audience could watch. Once the “impropputeers” (a mind-blowingly awesome name I made up) got used to working with the monitors, the show took off. We took it to the next level by adding an a capella opening number and musical edits (Music by Liz Filios, Lyrics by Kelly and Joe). Oh, and Joe designed and made a ton of incredible puppets for us to use. That should probably be mentioned.
WO: What would you say are some of the key differences/challenges between regular improvising and improvising with a puppet?
JS: I think the world is even more infinite than human improv. The things puppets can do is borderline scary in terms of bringing imagination to life. Especially the way we present our show. The puppets can literally do anything we want them to do: fly, twist into a pretzel, enter the scene from the side of another puppet’s head, eat another puppet whole, be as big as a building… The possibilities are endless and with a camera it makes the execution of these things more real. Because of all of these different elements to play with our minds need to be a clean slate away from reality, almost. We still play grounded scenes but our “If this, then what” mentality is stretched. One or two people have questioned this project in terms of legit scene work because we never interact or make eye contact with our scene partners. When in reality it’s the exact opposite. We are in tune with one another, watching every single nuance of the puppets and reading the body language of our human scene partners. It’s also easier because we, the puppeteers, have monitors we are watching which is the same image as the projection the audience is watching. This makes it MUCH easier to really know what is going on all around the puppets, and helps us create a scene that not only makes sense, but also looks good in terms of staging, spacing and scene action. Plus… your arm gets tired.
KV: Well put Joe! In addition, improvising with puppets is one thing, improvising with puppets for the camera is another thing. And doing it well, is yet another thing! It’s kind of like singing and dancing while acting and juggling. A bunch of skills have to come together for it to be good. Sometimes a great improviser can put on a puppet and feel restricted. Sometimes, an inexperienced improviser can put on a puppet and become great.
WO: What’s the origin story of Alcatraz the Cat, the star of the show?
JS: Kelly knows how the cat got his name and what not, but I’ve always felt like Alcatraz the real cat is a little bit of a dick. I’ve NEVER been a cat guy. In fact I’m comfortable to say that before I started hanging around Kelly’s cat I hated cats. But Alcatraz always fascinated me. The defining moment for me was when I made a delicious dinner, one night. I dressed the plate nicely, set the mood and it smelled wonderful. I locked eyes with Alcatraz and he walked over to where I was sitting and eating, which was all the way on the other side of the room. He slowly walked over, climbed into my lap and put his asshole right into my food. He got up and walked away. He made a statement. So, I made a puppet of him.
KV: I adopted him off the street and held a naming competition with my family. My sister was in the lead with “The Great Catsby” or “AlCATraz”. Then, that night, the cat escaped out my second story window and got wedged in the bars of the first story window. Therefore…Alcatraz won. I really wanted Joe to perform Alcatraz the puppet because I heard Alcatraz’s voice in my head as a deep man’s voice, but Joe insisted I was the person who should do it. I reluctantly gave in. He ended up with an ambiguous European accent that hurts my throat to perform, but it’s worth it. We started to joke around about Alcatraz being a sophisticated world traveler, incredibly popular with everyone he meets, the most desired cat in the world. And if he’s that amazing, he’d totally be able to gather a group of weirdos he’s met on his travels and convince them to perform in a show, right? We discovered that he shouldn’t even perform in the show because he’s too much of a character to be able to pretend to be anyone else in a scene. So, he introduces the show, the cast of characters and gets the suggestion.
WO: Can you give some details on the format and staging of the show?
KV: Friends of Alcatraz is a long form improvised puppet show. We don’t stick to a rigid format, but we look to play out several scenes then see how those stories intersect. And spice it up with a happy dose of randomness and frivolous puppet-y fun.
One side of the stage is the “show”—a projected image of the puppets’ world. It’s like watching a puppet TV show. The other side of the stage is the behind-the-scenes creation of that show. You can watch the finished product projected on the screen while you simultaneously watch the puppeteers create the show.
JS: Our format is very catering to the puppeteers/improvisers.
JS: It was important for me that the presence of our powerhouse improvisers didn’t get upstaged by a big screen. People love to see improvisers’ minds work and the audience rarely gets to see what it’s like beneath the camera of a puppet show. We’ve really nailed it on the head in terms of being able to allow the audience to split focus. It’s great to be able to see all the work that goes into the projected image on the screen: shuffling around getting the right puppet, making a prop for a puppet to use, someone helping one puppeteer manipulate their puppet so it can do something specific…etc. Plus we are a great group of people who are really good at making each other laugh, so the audience gets to see how much fun we are having. It was important to me to really showcase the humans. It’s an experience to see our show. It’s almost like seeing five shows at once: a puppet show, a TV show, an improv show, a blooper reel and a musical.
KV: That should be our tagline.
WO: What can audiences expect from your upcoming ComedySportz Presents run of shows?
JS: They will see a group of people stretching themselves between skill sets that are difficult, yet work harmoniously with each other. We’ve found a system that works and we will keep perfecting it.
KV: This run, we have some new improvisors (Rachel Whitworth and Caitlin Weigel) who are a GREAT addition to our cast, new AMAZING puppets, and maybe Alcatraz will dance this time.
It’s almost time for the 2013 WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy! As we get closer to the show, we’ll be rolling out a series of posts to help you get more acquainted with this year’s nominees. Read all about ‘em, and then be sure to get your tickets for the big event on January 13th at World Cafe Live!
The nominees for Best Improv Group are:
A mix of improv veterans and fresh faces, Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger likes its improv lean and gamey. Performing the classic Harold format, they attack the stage with emotion, intellect, and a strong sense of mischief.
The Amie & Kristen Show/Kristen & Amie Show
Best friends, total babes, and improvisers Amie Roe and Kristen Schier perform an organic and fluid improv comedy show that’s been featured in theater festivals throughout the United States and Canada (eh!). These West Philadelphia natives deliver improvised comedy that is part best girlfriend, part social commentary, and mostly id.
Asteroid! are the nerdy-sexy Philly Improv Theater House Team who perform the grand-daddy of all improv forms: The Harold. Aided by their great hair, pop-culture references, and excellent fashion sense, they create aerobic, quick-paced shows where you’re all but guaranteed to see a funeral–or at least a death–and one terrible celebrity impression.
Kait & Andrew
Kait and Andrew have been performing improv comedy together as a duo since the first Duofest in 2010, when they performed a premise-based show called Mr. and Mrs. After discovering how well they worked together, they decided to carry on as a two-person team under the much simpler, way less imaganative moniker, Kait & Andrew.
Hey Rube is a PHIT House Team. They take one word from the audience as inspiration for a flurry of improvised craziness. Formed in 2011, Hey Rube appeared in the NYC Improv Festival and 2012 Del Close Marathon, was a Philadelphia Weekly Pick, and won last year’s WitOut Award for Best New Group.
Description: We’re buckling up for the end of the world with some of the funniest acts around during our December Polygon show: Holiday Explosion!
This month’s lineup:
Jake Alvarez (Stand-Up)
Angry People Building Things (Improv)
Rosen and Milkshake (Improv)
Hosted by the one and only Joe Gates!
Style: Stand-up, Sketch, Improv
Date: Tuesday, December 11th
Time: Doors: 7:30pm
Show Begins: 8pm (prompt)
Admission: $5 at the door
Location: L’Etage (Above Beau Monde)
624 South 6th Street
Contact: For more information, visit: http://polygoncomedy.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/events/452068454839768/
Are you an independent comedian in Philly? Looking to perform? Stand-up, improv, sketch and storytellers; we support ‘em all. “Like” us on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/PolygonComedy), follow us on Twitter (@PolygonComedy), and send us a line firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on how you can be a part of our upcoming shows!
Last Saturday, I encountered an improv show that radically expanded what I believe the form is capable of.
At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea, New York, an improv team called Grandma’s Ashes has a Saturday night show titled Grandma’s Ashes Gets Dark. In lieu of getting a one-word suggestion for inspiration, the team invites an audience member to share the story of the worst moment of his or her life.
That’s right. Grandma’s Ashes starts its improv comedy show by asking the audience to think of the most painful thing that’s ever happened to them.
While asking for volunteers, an improviser offers up some past stories as examples—somebody nearly severing her leg in an accident and calling her dad thinking that she might be telling him she loved him for the last time, a person who lost his job, got kicked out of his apartment, and found out his mom died—and the examples are extreme, but have a certain, could-have-happened-in-a-movie quality, a survived-the-storm distance that allows us to laugh.
A young woman volunteers, and improviser Abra Tabak sits down with her for the interview, asking what moment in her life she’d like to talk about. The woman takes a breath and answers:
“It’s when I realized that my dad had been raping my sister for 18 years… and then I remembered that it had happened to me too.”
by Kristen Schier
Here is why I love you, Improv 101 Student: You are embarking on a huge adventure even if you aren’t aware of it yet. Your willingness to discover and to try something new is courageous and inspiring. I wait with anticipation to see how you will change the face of the scene in Philly as you become more involved–and you will become more involved, because improv is a sort of cult. Ok, improv is definitely a cult—but don’t be scared, because it’s a benign cult. But definitely a cult. (One more time: “cult.”)Some level one students sign up without any idea of what they are getting into. Some are returning to improvisation/acting or a creative endeavor for the first time in a long time. Some of you have loved improv for years, but this is your first time giving it a shot in a brand new city. No matter what, you’re on an adventure, and you’re making new discoveries, and for that I admire you. At the risk of sounding cheesy, a sense of discovery is what it’s all about, isn’t it? I love watching people discover/rediscover how much fun it is to play. I mean, it’s darn-right inspiring.
Also, the willingness of the new improv student to jump into the unknown and be game for anything is a great reminder for more experienced improvisers of how they’re supposed to play. I suppose someone could make the claim that this doesn’t apply to all level one students, and that my portrait of the level one student is somewhat idealized. And to them I say, “Yup, you’re probably right. But some of them do exist, and those are the ones I care about.” I think that a beginning student’s sense of adventure is a model for those who have been improvising a while longer, and consequently have a bit of a stick up their bum about it. Improvisers who have been working for a long time develop a somewhat understandable sophomoric skepticism about the work. They start to close themselves off from possibilities. Not everyone—just some people. And these are the exact people who need to watch a level one class, and see that the students in there are trying things that are brand new, and playing in a wonderful, earnest way.
As an experienced improviser, I’ve learned from my level one students to always try new things—which is a great way to prevent myself from developing a myopic view of the world. Being around level one students is one of the reasons I recently forced myself to sign up for a dodgeball group, even though I pretty much suck at dodgeball. Level one students, by their example, continuously encourage me to venture outside my comfort zone. Of course life is and should be about more than just improv—but I guess it’s strange that a group of people signing up for an improv class reminds me of that, and reminds me that I should always be looking to try something else – something new, different and definitely uncomfortable. I can’t wait to see what I sign up for next. (I’m thinking some sort of martial art. Yeah, that ought to do it. So, thanks for that, too, level one-ers.)
And here comes the creepy cult-like part: I remember when I first started hanging around improv shows and falling in love with improv, and how the people I met became my really good friends—and I like that I see that happening with you students who are just beginning now. I hate to think that any of you will stay shy and/or intimidated in such an open and accepting culture. We can appear to be a closed group at times, but none of us are perfect, and I can assure you that at one point in time all of us were “new.” But it did not take long for this community to absorb us. So—see you around!
Kristen Schier is one half of the Philadelphia-based improv duo The Amie & Kristen Show/The Kristen & Amie Show, as well as a Philly Improv Theater instructor; improv instructor at University of the Arts; director for PHIT House Team ZaoGao; and Artistic Director for the short-form Philadelphia improv group The N Crowd.
Want to write a Comedy Love Letter to your favorite comedian, theater, improv team or sketch group? Email email@example.com!
Below you can find the full schedule for this year’s Philadelphia Improv Festival. All shows take place on the second floor of The Prince Music Theater (1412 Chestnut St. Philadelphia). Tickets for the event are $10 for a single block of shows, $15 for a full night (Wednesday, Thursday), $20 for a full night (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), or $60 for a full festival pass and can be purchased online.
WEDNESDAY, NOV 7TH
Rintersplit - Philadelphia
Nielsen - Philadelphia
Hot Dish - Philadelphia
Gross Butler - Philadelphia
Chaperone - Philadelphia
Beauty School Dropouts - Toronto
Davenger - Philadelphia
THURSDAY, NOV 8TH
N Crowd - Philadelphia
Firth&Arjet - Austin
Soiree - Philadelphia
Iron Lung - Philadelphia
Photobomb - Baltimore
King Friday - Philadelphia
Briami Sound Machine - Chicago
FRIDAY, NOV 9TH
Mister Licorice - Baltimore
Popular Science - Los Angeles
ZaoGao - Philadelphia
Adrift - Various Cities
Wisdom Teeth - Philadelphia / Los Angeles
‘Til Death Do Us Part - Philadelphia
The Imposters - New York City
BWP - Philadelphia
Rich Uncle - Boston
Grimacchio - Philadelphia
SATURDAY, NOV 10TH
Birthday Milk - Boston
Lekker - Baltimore
Junior Varsity - New York City
Hey Rube - Philadelphia
ImprovBoston - Boston
BillyHawk - Los Angeles
Live Nude Improv - Austin - AGES 18 & OVER W/ ID
PHIF All-Stars - Various Cities
Rare Bird Show - Philadelphia / Los Angeles
Vox Pop - Brooklyn / DC
SUNDAY, NOV 11TH
Population: Six - Baltimore
Double Date - New York City
Suggestical - Philadelphia
Mayor Karen - Philadelphia
Scoresby - New York City
Amie & Kristen Show / Kristen & Amie Show - Philadelphia
ShawnMikael(s) - DC