Upcoming Shows

  • February 7, 2014 7:30 pmFirst Fridays w/ Interrobang
  • November 22, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Heliun
  • November 22, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • November 22, 2014 7:30 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • November 22, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • November 22, 2014 9:30 pmThe Comedy Works
  • November 22, 2014 10:00 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • November 22, 2014 10:30 pmImprov Comedy: PHIT House Teams
  • November 26, 2014 8:00 pmComedy Masters
  • November 27, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • November 27, 2014 9:00 pmThe Comedy Attic
  • November 28, 2014 8:00 amNationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • November 28, 2014 7:00 pmThe Comedy Works
  • November 28, 2014 8:00 pmThe N Crowd
  • November 28, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • November 28, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • November 28, 2014 9:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • November 29, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Heliun
  • November 29, 2014Nationally Touring Headline Comedians @ Helium
  • November 29, 2014 7:30 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • November 29, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • November 29, 2014 9:30 pmThe Comedy Works
  • November 29, 2014 10:00 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • November 29, 2014 10:30 pmImprov Comedy: PHIT House Teams
  • December 3, 2014 8:00 pmComedy Masters
AEC v1.0.4

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Kill Your Darlings, but for improv

by Matt Holmes

Writers are advised with the axiom “Kill Your Darlings,” which should be traced back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Crouch. The idea is that writers should not to be too precious about their creations.

If you craft something that you love, you might shun any criticism or advice. Even if it’s perfect and beautiful, you might include it where it doesn’t belong. You might like it, but will your audience get what you mean? Your terrific turn of phrase might be one word too long for your limit; what can you do?

Maybe you don’t hit delete and instead save it to be used elsewhere (Will and Grace started as traditional wacky neighbors until they became the main focus). Whatever you do with your work, you must not coddle it.

Writers usually work in private and alone; they spend time on their work and don’t know what the readers think until long after publishing. Improv, in contrast, is usually a group effort done in the moment with a public, immediate response.

In improv, the equivalent of this concept might be “Love Your Garbage.”

Sometimes, you’re blessed with good stuff that magically, automatically falls into place. That stuff takes care of itself. If you know what you’re doing, even the mediocre stuff gets heightened and used. The tricky part is the bad stuff.

Make the mistakes part of the pattern. You can’t edit anything out, so you have to make it so you wanted it to happen for some reason. Make it seem on purpose.

If you’re embarrassed that those words came out of your mouth, make them important and meaningful in retrospect. Make the beginning work because of the ending. Now is the time to make your partner look good. Make their dumb move into a brilliant choice. If you do something stupid, do it again and figure out why.

When we watch improv, we want to see your brilliance, but we also like to see the  tightrope wiggle a bit. Let it wiggle, let us see the process of you using your skills. Then make something good out of it.

 

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 July 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – The Secret to Improv

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.
 
  • 1. Do something.
 

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.

 
  • 2. Do it more.
 
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. 
 
  • 3. Do it bigger.
 
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 alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – The “Best” Thing on ‘SNL’ Recently

by Matt Holmes

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday, March 5. On Saturday, March 9, Saturday Night Live opened with host Justin Timberlake impersonating Elton John as he sang a dedication of “Candle in the Wind” at Chávez’s funeral.

The lyrics were altered, as Elton John did after the death of Princess Diana, but to include bizarre facts about Chávez’s life, including his radio show Aló Presidente, hat-wearing parrot, and comments he made about capitalism destroying a civilization on Mars.

I think this sketch was the best thing on SNL recently.

  • The sketch used the host’s talents. He sang it well, and I think played the piano part too. He sold the jokes and did a good impression.
  • The sketch was topical. The live aspect of SNL allows—if not demands—that current events be used in the humor.
  • The sketch was funny. It had clever rhymes, good pacing, and insight about the subject.

It’s the combination of these things that makes it stand out for me. It’s SNL being SNL.The show has certainly had some other funnier stuff, but funny is subjective. What’s funny is based on personal taste, awareness of the subject matter, how well it pans out, even your mood at the moment you’re watching it.

Saturday Night Live is a live sketch-comedy show with a celebrity host who performs in sketches. SNL‘s DNA is funny, political, timely, edgy, and flavored by the guest host. With the right mix and balance, you can watch it live or 30 years later and love it just as much.

There’s a certain timely element that gives an added impact in the moment. (You can’t even find this sketch on Hulu or NBC.com/SNL because of music rights; you actually had to watch it live.) But if something’s well-written and well-performed, it’ll hold up later.Look at the Sarah Palin sketches or Dan Aykroyd playing a hemorrhoid-suffering President Carter, outlining his plan against inflation: Preparation I.

And certainly not every sketch is going to be that mix of current events and host talents. It shouldn’t be even if it could be. There are other aspects of SNL that make up its identity.

  • My point is to know thyself and be the best you.

Comedy—and art in general—are often spoken of in mystical terms. There’s an extra something that makes it all come together as more than the sum of its parts. That magical spark; it’s you. It’s the comic or group or show, etc., having a self-awareness and producing material that is representative.

There are ways to get people talking around a water cooler or tweeting, ways to get more video plays, ways to get remembered or imitated. Too often, though, these formulas can lead to comedy that is formulaic. It’s more important to be a good example of yourself.When Chappelle’s Show was about to come out, network executives said they weren’t sure if the sketch about a blind Klansman who doesn’t know that he’s black would be a good representation of the show overall. Dave Chappelle said it was a perfect representation. 

When Bill Prady, showrunner for The Big Bang Theory, was working on Dharma and Greg, he woke up in the middle of the night with a perfect story, but the perfect story for Star Trek: Voyager. He got in touch with them and handed it over.

Even if something’s good it has to fit and feel right. Comedians should become tailors.

It’s a lesson to learn from any outstanding piece created out of knowing not only the message, but the medium.

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 May 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – If Music Were Taught Like Improv

music-improv-lesson

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 April 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

Hey Rube Remembers Hey Rube

77649_369702319772818_2023223526_oHey Rube will perform for the final time as a House Team this Saturday night at Philly Improv Theater. The group made their debut in August 2011 and have since performed at venues all over the area and festivals including the New York Improv Festival, Del Close Marathon, and the Philadelphia Improv Festival. They were crowned Best New Group at the 2012 WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy, and were nominated for Best Improv Group at the 2013 WitOut Awards. The members of Hey Rube and their director Matt Holmes took some time to reflect, and say some nice things about each other.

Aaron Hertzog on Dennis Trafny:
Dennis blows me away every time I see him perform. The only thing I know for sure when Dennis enters a scene is that at some point he is going to totally surprise me. He can take a seemingly everyday boring offer and come back with something that is (incredibly) completely off-the-wall but also somehow makes it easy for his scene partner to react to and build with. I don’t know if it’s a natural skill or something he’s had to work tirelessly on (or a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B) but either way I am completely impressed. He can also bring great intensity to a character (seriously, look into those eyes), and inject some much-needed energy in a show at a moment’s notice. Of course, this also makes for extra special moments when he decides to tone it down and show us his tender, soft side.”

Tara Demmy on Mark Leopold:
“Before Hey Rube, I didn’t know Mark Leopold. He was just one of those guys with a really great name. Now I know him as one of the most talented performers I’ve ever worked with. His character work is the best (Dr. Dandelion) and he is a super intelligent and creative player, knowing when to give a set that necessary plot twist. When I’m in scenes with Mark I have trouble not just hanging out and watching him work, laughing along with the audience. One of my favorite moments was when Hey Rube was doing one of our usual group scene orgies and Mark came on and just sensually untied Jen’s shoelace. The best. Catch up with Mark playing “5 Things” at ComedySportz or doing a “props made out of only cardboard” sketch show with The Hold Up or even doing a show in the Philly Fringe (his 2012 Fringe show Archdiocese of Laughter was one of the best comedy shows I’ve ever seen—he made a rap out of my favorite hymn: Gift of Finest Wheat! Genius). See you there—I’ll be the girl in the first row wearing my ‘I heart Mark Leopold’ T-shirt.”

Lizzie Spellman on Alex Gross:
The first time I really hung out with Alex, he took me to a gay club with a hot Asian chick. I’ve come to learn he is one crazy cat (and I’m not just saying that ’cause he owns way too many cat shirts). Alex is so fun to play with on stage. When he makes a choice he always fully commits to it. He can go super weird with a character, but it’s always grounded in truth. I think if Hey Rube were a rock band, Alex would be the guy smashing his guitar on an amp and flipping off the crowd. I tell him all the time and I really mean it, he’s become like a little brother to me. That’s why I forgive him for drunkenly walking in on me in the bathroom and proceeding to pee in the shower. But that’s another story…”

Mark Leopold on Aaron Hertzog:
“I first saw Aaron something like six years ago. I went to an open mic and did some terrible set where I impersonated Forrest Gump at one point, and I saw this big man with a big personality just own the crowd and receive their adoration with composure and charm. It was amazing. I then retreated to the suburbs for three years. When I got cast on Hey Rube, the only person I actually recognized was Aaron and I was immediately intimidated by the prospect of playing with him. My fears proved to be completely unfounded of course. Aaron is one of the sweetest, most open, gentle and loving people I’ve met. His ever-present playfulness is infectious and when you have the good fortune to be in a scene with him, it’s such a familiar feeling of silly frolicking that you can’t help but have fun. Fun. That’s really the best way to describe what Aaron is like. He’s just like someone who it’s always fun to be around and with. He has a gift for vulnerability. He is just so brave and so foot-forward, always ready to give himself to the show or scene. Whether it’s dark or emotional, serious or silly, Aaron commits totally and performing with him is so easy and simple because you know he is going to completely receive what you give and build with it. Some of the most satisfying moments of collaboration in my life have been with him. Aaron is wonderful and any city, town, or village that doesn’t leap at the chance to welcome him is just tragically stupid.”

Rob Cutler on Lizzie Spellman:
“Lizzie is commitment personified.  She’s an incredibly gifted performer, but the original characters she creates and maintains are nothing short of brilliant.  Whether she exhibits the child-like innocence of a three-year-old, or the decrepit bitter wisdom of a wicked crone, Lizzie will up the intensity with every passing moment.  She’s a multitalented performer, whose musical prowess is displayed often with her ukulele, singing some of the most irreverent, funny, and original songs I’ve personally ever heard.  She has a gift for character and her future on stage is limitless.  On the personal end, I’ve yet to meet a more patient and engaging personality.  She has kind words for everyone I’ve seen her interact with (even if they were complete assholes).  In short Lizzie is funny as hell, sweet as sugar, with talent oozing out of every pore.  We should all be so lucky as to have someone like Lizzie in our lives.  I’ll miss you Rubes!”

Jen Curcio on Tara Demmy:
“I will never forget the first time I met Tara.  It was at Hey Rube’s first practice. I was really jealous of her because she was prettier, cooler and funnier than me. Then I got over it. Tara is a total improv pirate and for those of you who are not familiar with the term that means she attacks the scene. She is fearless in her choices, yet fully commits to and supports her scene partners’ choices. Tara is able to play characters that have a sharp contrast in stage presence. She will support anything and add value to it. I feel so lucky to have been on a team with her, I learned a lot from watching her be an awesome improviser!”

Alex Gross on Jen Curcio:
“Oh, geez. Jen is the worst. I’m just kidding! I know that really freaked you out Jen but seriously, I’m just kidding. I swear! Jen is one of the kindest and weirdest people I know. She is always thinking of others before herself and she’s given me countless car rides home. Her paranoia and craziness are right on par with mine, which makes me feel like she’s my improv twin. I’ve done some of my favorite scenes with her and she is always a joy to work with, no matter how many times she initiates scenes with hints of a gangbang starting. Jen is an improv powerhouse who isn’t to be fucked with and I’ve had a blast working with her. Rubes for life.”

Dennis Trafny on Rob Cutler:
“Rob is the ‘Phil Hartman’ of Hey Rube: really solid in every scene and he reigns in the crazy. He never gets scared on stage and is always cooler than the other side of the pillow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hesitate. Not once. Never. Not even for a second. No ‘uhhhh’s or ‘ummmm’s. Nothing. He’s a beast. He also plays characters smartly, and on many occasions, very cleverly ties all the preceding scenes together.  He is no one-trick pony either.  He has a gift with puppetry and is awesome in Friends of Alcatraz . (If you haven’t seen it, you should!) Good luck with your future projects Rob!”

Matt Holmes on Hey Rube:
“It’s sad to see Hey Rube end, but things that burn brightest snuff soonest.

I got more out of directing Hey Rube than I ever thought I would. First, I learned to get past your perfect idea for how things should go. It’s better to be flexible and make it work. It took us a few months to all get in the same room together at the same time, but that didn’t matter much.

Then, I learned all kinds of insights about improvising, telling a story in a visual medium, teaching people, using people’s strengths and working together on their weaknesses, building something together in small steps, and creating a show (style, format, framework) that is a signature.”

 

Hey Rube’s final show will be Saturday, February 9 at 10pm at The Philly Improv Theater at The Shubin Theater (407 Bainbridge St.) Tickets can be purchased online.

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Teaching Comedy Openly & Inclusively

by Matt Holmes

Comedy has always had a tradition of education. It could be informal advice, taking someone under your wing, or a formal series of classes, workshops, and speeches. People transition from beginners learning the ropes to experts who can pass down their wisdom.

As comedians progress in their career, they might find themselves taking on titles like teacher, instructor, director, coach, adviser, guru, guide, lecturer, team captain, or mentor. When you teach something, you learn more about it yourself; you have to know the subject comprehensively to enlighten someone else.

  • Regrettably, there’s little training for comedy educators. There are some models for curriculum and resources, but the focus tends to be on what’s being taught, not how to teach it.
  • Also regrettably, the world of comedy can be somewhat segregated, and people can struggle as much with how they fit in as how they get funny.

Here are some tips for creating the right atmosphere for those in your tutelage, highlighting issues of diversity.

CONTINUE READING…

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – Premise

by Matt Holmes

In an HBO comedy special called Talking Funny, Ricky Gervais welcomed Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. for a discussion. The topic of “premise” came up, and they cited its importance. They highlighted that Chris Rock will be blatant about it, even literally saying the premise and repeating it again and again to punctuate his point.

Rock says that if it’s not working, it’s not working because the audience doesn’t understand the premise. Perhaps the difference between a real pro and an amateur hack is the talent, time, effort, and finesse involved in crafting a clear premise.

You have to have some kind of premise to play. A good comedian will let everybody know what it is that we’re talking about. It could be acted out scenically with characters or told as a story through observations or monologues. It could be a topic explored from different angles. It could be a running gag. It could be another scenario that serves as another example.

In comedy, the premise answers the question, “What’s the point?” It’s what you “get.” It’s why I should pay attention. It’s what helps you do more on the joke, what helps your scene partners build on it, what helps you fine-tune it.

If it’s not clear (for you and for the people watching you), it’s going to be harder than it should be. It can be easy and fun, but you have to have some kind of premise to play.

CONTINUE READING…

Discussing a Bit with Matt Holmes – I Decry All Improv Rules

by Matt Holmes

The biggest hurdle for good improv is the rules for good improv. Most rules are phrased as strict negatives. Few tell you what youshould do. Many are vague, optimistic tips for how to handle stuff, instead of how to create stuff.

These all swirl around in people’s brains, along with the mechanics of performing. It can be confusing, frustrating, and counter-productive, especially when coupled with a freewheeling, everything-is-good attitude.

People seem to like rules and want a clear do or don’t, but they can be problematic.


Yes And
My problem with the concept of “Yes And” is that it’s tailored for how to respond. Improvisers first need something to say yes to, yet this second step is often the first rule you learn. Giving this as the be-all/end-all number-one rule of improv leads to boring scenes that go nowhere or obnoxious scenes that go straight to insanity.

This rule also leads to beginners who literally say “yes” to everything, no matter how awkward. They then become experts who follow in any and every direction that happens, instead of picking a track and staying on it.

“Yes And” leads to scenes that are all beginnings, with no middles or ends.

Agreement
Players need to agree upon the facts of a scene, because improv doesn’t use props or costumes or sets to convey information. Hesitation and resistance can stall an improv scene, so players should be willing, but that’s a different concern.

However, the concept of agreement can be confusing and lead to characters that only ever say yes to things and a backlash against anything other than an explicit “yes” in a scene.

I think a better term is “accepting.”

  • Improvisers can accept the fact that there’s a table in the room, but decide whether or not their character agrees that it’s pretty.
  • Improvisers can accept the fact that their partner’s character wants to rob a bank or go to a movie, but decide whether or not their character agrees that it’s a good idea.

No Questions
This rule sucks, and it’s often one of the first taught. In life, people ask questions. Theatre is a reproduction of life. Similarly, life involves strangers, teachers, and transactions (also outlawed), no matter how tricky it can be to do a scene with them.

It’s fine to clarify the difference between demanding stuff from your partner and offering it, but making a rule out of it just leads to stressed improvisers thinking about the rule instead of playing.

Plus, if you can do a scene that’s only questions (a thing people do), then you can certainly do a scene with one or two questions.

Take Your Third Idea
Improvisers don’t have time to come up with an idea, judge it negatively, and repeat. Improvisers should take anything and make it work.

Play to the Height of Your Intelligence / Don’t Think
The phrasing of these two rules, especially when learned in conjunction, is the zenith of confusion. How do I use my intelligence if I’m not thinking?

Sometimes, people can get ahead of themselves. They start planning instead of playing. Sometimes, people will do lowest-common-denominator comedy that doesn’t challenge themselves or their audiences.

Teachers, directors, and coaches can clarify the situation without turning it into a rule that people can fail at. People can play sloppy and stupid sometimes; help them not do that without stressing their minds.

Get the Who/What/Where/Names/Relationship in the First Three Lines
Firstly, this tip leads to scenes that start with too much exposition and go nowhere. Secondly, improv scenes aren’t about facts.

Scripted scenes also aren’t about facts. Whether it’s in a ballroom or a prison, you can get the feel of the scene without worrying about the details, especially not all at the beginning. You can do a lot more with a lot less stress if you focus on showing instead of telling.

There’s nothing wrong with details; they can make all the difference and be really fun. But they should be the icing, not the cake. Also, some details don’t matter.

Make Your Partner Look Good
My big problem with this is how vague it is. It’s nice to nudge players towards helping each other and point out behaviors that aren’t “playing well with others.” But how and when exactly are do you make your partner look good? This concept gets warped into people forgetting about themselves and playing sloppily because they’re worried about someone else.

A lot of improv techniques are lovey-dovey and hippie-dippie and end up being helpful paradigms for working together, but let’s remember that you’re performing for an audience. Otherwise, it’s not art; it’s art therapy.

Thou Shalt Not Shine Above Thy Fellow Players
While you don’t want somebody hogging the limelight or screwing somebody over to get a laugh, you don’t want to discourage people from doing their best. I’d rather have to keep up with someone great than herd mediocrity.

Making a rule for this topic leads to players afraid to stand out, try hard, or take risks. Talk about it, but don’t make it into a commandment.

Don’t Pimp
Pimping is making your partner do something. The label of pimping can be slapped onto anything in improv, and you could say that everything any improviser does or says demands something from their partner.

The best ensembles have members who trust and support each other through anything that comes up and have fun creating together. Even if they pimp their partner, it’s not a problem.

  • If you know that your partner has your back, you’ll let them do anything to you.
  • If you have your partner’s back, you’ll never let them suffer (too much).

Listen
This seemingly clear word can be used vaguely in improv, and the accusation of not listening can happen at any time, from literally not hearing something to not getting what somebody intended or wanted to just not being on the same wavelength as your partners. Focusing on listening can be great, but boiling it down into a rule that you violate is not helpful.

Don’t Wimp
Wimping is making a weak offer or not doing enough with what you’re given. This issue phrased as a rule leads to improvisers afraid to do anything simple or realistic. Any and every choice can work.

Don’t Try To Be Funny
I think it’s a mistake to shift gears away from comedy in the form of a tip or guideline. People get into improv because they are or wish to be funny or fun or interesting.

It’s better to show people how to be funny (via the acting and writing that improv is) and explain what else is being created, rather than just telling them not to try to be funny.

Make The Active Choice
There’s nothing wrong with being active, but it’s just one option. Making it a requirement is like telling all painters to always only use blue.

I think the hesitation seen in improvisers is a symptom of the overwhelming and confusing nature of improv rules (as well as just warming up to playing), rather than being a disease of its own.

If your character is shy about jumping off the diving board, making the active choice destroys that choice. Of course, you shouldn’t play every scene as someone who is hesitant, shy, or disagreeable.

Create Conflict
This might be the rarest rule, but perhaps the most damaging. The majority of improv education is about reducing conflict between players, but then there’s a faction that says every scene needs conflict between the characters.

Again, it’s one choice of what could happen in a scene.

Don’t Talk about the Past, Future, or Anything Not on Stage

If there can be a scripted show about waiting for someone who never arrives, then there can be an improv scene where two characters reminisce.

If you start a scene about two people complaining about their boss, I want more of that, not to blow the scene’s wad by jumping immediately to seeing the boss.

Be Changed
This is another good option that shouldn’t be forced. Characters are interesting when you see them develop, but let’s earn it.

If you’re going to make a rule, at least make it something like “Be Capable of Changing If You Want That To Happen.”

Find the Game of the Scene

Determining what ‘game’ is and how you play it is a blurry, moving target for even the best players. Game becomes a spiritual feeling, instead of anything pragmatically achievable.

Underlying all the games, patterns, deals, motifs, routines, and breaking of routines is the simple concept of repetition and doing more of something that everyone has invested in.

That’s all you really need: a track to follow. A good education in improv should highlight what works and how to get there. Creating a label for success, instead of a method, leads to formulaic scenes and limited players (or frustrated people who gave up).

Justify
In improv, you’re creating an entire universe with its own reality. Whatever you say is true. You don’t need to explain. You don’t need to derail everything to follow that tangent.

Everyone is accepting that you’re an octopus lawyer; they’ll accept that this jury has 13 people. Don’t get distracted trying to make sense of things. Don’t explain away the interesting thing that’s happening. Don’t destroy what someone else is creating because you feel like you’re on a tightrope; you’re supposed to feel like that.

Don’t Deny/Cancel/Bulldoze/Steamroll
It’s easy to screw your partner over in improv. You can ignore them and even disintegrate what they’ve created. This creates confusion for everybody.

The problem with these as rules is that you can accuse anybody of doing any of these. It shouldn’t just be a violation; it should be a discussion.

Of course, a good teacher can clarify rules, explain away any confusion, put things into context, and give real examples.

Of course, people can misunderstand anything and create a rule in their head even when it’s not presented as one.

There are bigger, deeper issues that improvisers could work on if they get past the few, limited, basic-level rules for making stuff up together.

Improv education seems to be especially rules-based, more than other things you could learn. Perhaps it grew out of the history of improv as games with rules of play. Perhaps it’s because improv is so ephemeral that we’re drawn to anything solid and certain. Some rules were more helpful 10 or 20 years ago, but now they’re immortalized in a book. Some things that weren’t a strict rule got edited down into items on a list.

Rules aren’t inherently bad, but you can really do a lot of damage with them, and they can really get in your way.

My work in improv focuses on reducing fear and doubt and judgments. I try to get people to play, to make any choice and then make that choice work by doing it more and bigger.

If you’re trying to make something out of nothing, you want a small number of clear, simple, pragmatic things to do (instead of what not to do). In something as free as improv, you shouldn’t let any “rules” hold you back.

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 and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf” –The Apiary, “Philly’s homegrown ‘enfants terrible’” –Inquirer, “Seven Thumbs Up” –Phil, “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 December 1st.

Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email alison@witout.net.

 

Breakdown of a Bad Improv Workshop, Set to Run From Noon – 2:30

By: Matt Holmes

11:40:
The overly eager and overly early arrive to find a locked building with no signage. They wait.

11:50:
The regularly early arrive. Everyone meets everyone else and discusses the situation. They wait.

11:53:
Somebody arrives to open the door.

11:56:
The workshop instructor arrives, says hi to everybody and goes to the bathroom.

12:03:
The instructor tells everybody that they’ll start in five minutes and give people a little more time.

12:11:
“Well, I guess we’ll get started.”

12:11 – 12:13:
Roll call with three people not present

12:13 – 12:17:
Sitting in a circle as the first three people briefly introduce themselves, their complete improv background, an attempt at a joke, and a self-deprecating comment

12:17 – 12:19:
The fourth person in the circle goes into every last detail of her life leading up to this point.

12:19 – 12:20:
The rest of the people introduce themselves briefly.

12:20 – 12:25:
Instructor explains the plan for the workshop, now for the first time really thinking about it.

12:25 – 12:40:
A basic warm-up that’s overly simplistic for all but two participants who can’t grasp the mechanics or have like absolutely no rhythm or just can’t think of anything or have a really bad memory, so sorry everybody

12:33:
A late student arrives, complaining about traffic and parking, while carrying a coffee.

12:41 – 12:53:
Instructor explains in complete detail how the first exercise will work and how we’re pressed for time because most real workshops are at least three hours and this one, for some strange reason, is only two and a half, which really is not enough time.

12-53 – 1:10:
3-Line Scenes, alternating between jokey punchlines and confused arguments

1:10 – 1:17:
An open discussion about the previous exercise, trying to remember what happened, while highlighting problems and explaining rules of what never to do and what always to do

1:18 – 1:30:
An exercise focused on loose organic transitions and freeing yourself up to follow wherever it goes and being open

1:30 – 1:40:
An open discussion about the previous exercise, trying to remember what happened while highlighting problems and explaining rules of what never to do and what always to do

1:40 – 1:45:
Instructor asks everyone how they’re feeling about the work, everyone shrugs their shoulders and says they feel okay but wish they were doing better, and one student speaks at length about confusions and specific examples of “just not getting it”

1:45:
“Let’s take a ten-minute break to hit the bathroom, feed the meter, take a smoke break, etc.”

1:46:
One student has to leave early and thanks the instructor.

1:59:
“Okay, I guess we should get back to it. Let’s circle up and get warmed up again.”

2:00 – 2:04:
A children’s game with vague connections to theatricality

2:04 – 2:07:
Two students improvise a patient, engaging scene with an interesting point to it.

2:07 – 2:09:
Instructor points out that we didn’t know the characters’ names, if they were sisters or just friends, and that it wasn’t clear if they were in a restaurant or in somebody’s kitchen.

2:09 – 2:17:
Four more improvised scenes struggling to be coherent and interesting

2:17 – 2:22:
Instructor shifts gears into a series of scenes where students tag each other out.

2:22 – 2:25:
Students discuss the scenes, most citing that they were just about to do something good before they got tagged out.

2:25 – 2:34:
Another round of scenes with tag-outs; students now make quicker punchlines

2:34:
“Well, we’re a little over the time when we were supposed to end. Does anybody mind if we go a little longer?”

2:34 – 2:41:
Another round of scenes with tag-outs; instructor pauses each scene to discuss how truthful the scenes feel and then having them continue

2:43:
Instructor thanks everybody for coming and ends the workshop

2:43 – 2:50:
Casual discussion among students and instructor

2:45:
An overly eager student arrives for a workshop scheduled to start at 3.

Duofest Interview: Matt&

By: Alison Zeidman

In the year 2007, during a great time of growth for the Philadelphia improv scene, one man set out on a mission to team up in one-off shows with as many of the city’s players as possible. By 2008, subconsciously fueled by short form improv experience and a particular Andy Kaufman performance he’d obsessed over in his youth, that man decided to forge a more challenging show partnership: scenes with audience members encountering him–and improv–for the very first time. The name of that man is Matt Holmes, and the name of his “duo” is Matt&.

Alison Zeidman: For people who aren’t familiar what you do, can you explain what Matt& is?

Matt Holmes: It’s a show that I do with an audience member, and I try to look for somebody who is not a performer themselves. I usually ask if there is anybody there seeing improv for the very first time ever. And then I pull them up onstage.

AZ: Is it sometimes difficult to get them to go up there with you?

MH: The rest of the audience tends to overzealously cheer them on as soon as the concept is brought up, so there’s only been once or twice where the person has been really like oh, no, I don’t want to, or just flat out refused. Then I bring them up onstage and I tell them that the responsibility is all on me for making it all work, and they have free reign to do and say whatever they want, and to purposefully try to mess me up if they want to. Then that gives me the opportunity to show off my skills and make things that for any other improv group might be sort of a stumbling block or a challenge into something impressive.

AZ: Is there a specific format that you follow for these shows?

MH: By the very nature of how it works I sort of have to be flexible, and I kind of prefer to work that way. I’ve been in a bunch of different groups and projects before, and I’m always the one who wants to keep it less rigid. So with this show even if I tried to have an idea sketched out of [how I’ll do scenes], it’s probably not going to work out that way anyway. So sometimes it’s just scene after scene with whatever pops up into my head, and sometimes it’s more like a Harold where things will come back or there’ll be patterns, but I really have to not be too precious about format.

AZ: When you’re doing these shows, do you feel more or less in control than when you’re doing a show with an actual improv group? On the one hand it’s so loose and you’re with this person who’s never done a show before, and you can’t really follow a format, but on the other hand being the only experienced performer onstage means you can drive the scenes and drive the action.

MH: Yeah, that’s one of the many dichotomies that I think is present in my show, is…maybe more than any show I’ve done, it’s exhilirating and a challenge and I still get nervous and find it thrilling, but at the same time I’m more relaxed when I’m actually doing it and it’s working and things are just falling into place. So yeah, it’s kind of yes and no, I’m both in control and allowing myself to be not in control.

AZ: Are there specific things that you like or dislike about performing with an audience member versus being in a larger improv group? You started to get into that with how you prefer the looser format, but are there any other things where having half of your group being inexperienced gives you more freedom?

MH: Yeah, I think it really falls right into place with how I like to work. I’m kind of a stage hog. I like to be out a lot when I’m in a group, and in this show I’m in every scene. And I’m not always as good at supporting other peoples’ ideas and playing well with others in any other show, but in Matt& I have to. I have to take whatever this audience member brings and utilize it. And it works best that way.

AZ: Can you think of any other ways in which performing with Matt& has enhanced your improv skills in general? It sounds like it forces you to be more agreeable and be more supportive of your scene partner. Are there any other things where you’ve really noticed it improving your skills, and where you ‘ve been able to bring back some of those things to your group performances?

MH: I think it’s helped me be truly relaxed and flexible as a performer, and also be more confident and personable hosting and introducing a show, and talking with somebody not as a character beforehand, and then playing with them and helping them through what can be kind of an awkward situation for them.

AZ: So in general, you’re more comfortable being a character in a show setting than you are being yourself?

MH: Yeah. [Laughs.] I’m not nervous at all about being in some embarrassing situation. One time I had to kind of improvise a song, one time I had to improvise a poem as a gym teacher, you know, weird, awkward, embarrrasssing things. That doesn’t bother me, because it’s not me. It’s just some weird character, so I sort of get to lose myself and hide behind that. But hosting and talking to the crowd after and being myself, that’s more of a challenge for me. And I think probably for a lot of performers, in all art forms.

AZ: Is this a little bit uncomfortable for you now, speaking about yourself and your own performance?

MH: Well no, I’m getting better at it now, from having to do it at the begining of each Matt& show. I’ve had some shows where the audience member kind of demands that we stop playing as a character for a bit, and get back to the one-on-one interview part as ourselves. There was one show I did when Penn State had an improv festival, and I got an audience member, and it started off like all Matt& shows start off, with “who am I?” and “who are you?” and getting to know each other, and then we got into a scene and that was over, and I wanted to get into another scene and play another character, and she wanted to get back to interviewing each other. So It sort of became that pattern of I have to be myself again, now I get to do a scene, now we have to be ourselves again, now we get to do a scene. And that became this great challenge where at the end I kind of wove those together into her playing my therapist, and working in factors of my own life, and the whole audience got on board with why that was so interesting, because everything that was in the show led up to it.

AZ: When you do the interview with the audience member, is that how you usually generate your material for the scenes to come, or do you get a suggestion from the audience once you have your partner up there with you?

MH: I’ll always get a one-word sgugestion to inspire the show just because I like that aspect of improv. I like exploring the scene or disecting a word or whatever that word leads to, but sometimes elements from interviewing my partner will come back later or I’ll use them. A lot of times I don’t, but it’s always good for a laugh and interesting to the scene when I do.

AZ: Has an audience member ever taken you by surprise with their adaptability, or have they ever just displayed some sort of surprising inherent improv skill, even if they’re just getting up there for the first time?

MH: Yeah, surprise is probably a big, big part of my show. Me being surprised to have to play with somebody who’s really hesitant at first, and then the surprise when they start playing along and offering things. Surprise when somebody leaves the stage and I have to figure out what that means for the story, and how to work that. That’s happened a lot.

AZ: Do they come back after they leave?

MH: One time I brought them back, and one time I kind of worked it in like I was yelling up at them in the balcony of their window, kind of a Romeo and Juliet serenade thing, and then I ended the set after that scene instead of trying to convince her to come back onstage. But yeah in terms of being surprised at how good they are, that happens a lot more than you would think. I’ve had people have these great insights into a cultural reference that we’re bringing, where they’ll bring back stuff the way that a really good improviser will, or they’ll make these jokes that you’d swear they had written beforehand. There are a lot of great surprises. The one that stands out because it’s such a “joke,” is when I was at the Del Close Marathon, my first time performing Matt& there, and the show was going really well. I was really pleased with how well it was going, and then at a certain point my audience member partner, who was not a performer and hadn’t taken an improv class or anything like that, brought up the concept of if you were to rape a prostitute, would it be rape or would it be theft? And it got this huge laugh. Afterwards I went and Googled to see if that was from some movie or TV show, but I think that, you know, it somehow came up in the story, and I think she just said it off the cuff, and it was great.

See Matt& perform in Duofest at the Shubin Theatre on Saturday, June 9th at 9 pm. Get advance tickets (or full weekend passes) online.