Upcoming Shows

  • August 21, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 21, 2014 9:00 pmThe Comedy Attic
  • August 22, 2014 7:00 pmThe Comedy Works
  • August 22, 2014 7:30 pmFirst Fridays w/ Interrobang
  • August 22, 2014 8:00 pmThe N Crowd
  • August 22, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • August 22, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 22, 2014 9:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 23, 2014 7:30 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • August 23, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • August 23, 2014 9:30 pmThe Comedy Works
  • August 23, 2014 10:00 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • August 23, 2014 10:30 pmImprov Comedy: PHIT House Teams
  • August 28, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 28, 2014 9:00 pmThe Comedy Attic
  • August 29, 2014 7:00 pmThe Comedy Works
  • August 29, 2014 8:00 pmThe N Crowd
  • August 29, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • August 29, 2014 8:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 29, 2014 9:30 pmFigment Theater: Sessions @ Studio C
  • August 30, 2014 7:30 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • August 30, 2014 8:00 pmCrazy Cow Comedy
  • August 30, 2014 9:30 pmThe Comedy Works
  • August 30, 2014 10:00 pmComedy Sportz Philadelphia
  • August 30, 2014 10:30 pmImprov Comedy: PHIT House Teams
AEC v1.0.4

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.

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 – 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.

 

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.