Leadership in Improvisation

Making great teams work better together through creative collaboration.

Recently I was invited to give a talk on Leadership in Improvisation for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta breakfast event about Making Connections.

It was a delightful opportunity to share my story, and the audience was engaged, motivated and taught me some things in the process. It is my hope that by sharing the story here, the story can continue.

Note: It was critical to discuss the preparation of the talk with a sample of individuals who would be in the audience the week before, this allowed me to understand who would be in the room, what their expectations would be like, and what has worked well, and not as well, for that group in the past.

My name is Kory Mathewson; I am an improviser with Rapid Fire Theatre, and I am also a Ph.D. student in Computing Science studying artificial intelligence and machine learning at the University of Alberta.

If you want to read Part 1 of the story of me making an Artificial Improvisor, check it out here: korymathewson.com/building-an-artificial-improvisor/

Note: it was a failure. A not a total failure, because I learned a lot.

I had four short and clear goals for the morning:

  • Teach the history of improvisation and
    its growing relevance in leadership.
  • Share my stories of success and failure.
  • Distil everything I have learned over 12 years of improvisation to 6 gemstones takeaways.
  • Explore some improvisational exercises with the audience.

The same question my mom asked when she found my brother (9) and I (6) driving in a convertible we didn’t own. Let’s start with a brief history of my improvisation that should help you understand me and how we got to this point?

February 2005 at the Rapid Fire Theatre Nosebowl High School Improv Tournament. A bright-eyed memory of myself performing impeccable mime in cargo shorts, a popped collar pink polo shirt and rolled up tennis socks, with three of my best friends supporting from the bench. We lost that tournament, by a mile but we gained memories and fashion sense.

Flash forward to this month, on stage at Rapid Fire Theatre. Performing alongside the incredibly talented cast and the Mayor of Edmonton His Worship Don Iveson.

Who here knows what improvisation is? Has anyone done improvisation? Has anyone seen a comedic improvisation show? Or performed jazz? Has anyone built an ingenious solution to a problem facing scarce resources and limited time?

Improvisation, much like my life, is art and science. It sits at the intersection between the rules and pure creativity.

By the end of this talk, I promised, you will all be familiar with improvisation and the ways that the principles of improvisation can help guide your leadership and collaboration. First, it is not about being funny, it is about failing together?

I earned my stripes improvising in long 50-hour marathons. These grueling time tests stretch physical and mental abilities and provide an incomparable safe playground of practice.

Practice makes perfect; but why? Because it elucidates your patterns, obstacles and growth goals, then focuses your efforts on improvements.

The more you can adapt, response, and extemporize the more effective you will be. Veterans of the form respond proactively to sudden changes and road blocks.

The first lesson I learned in improvisation is that “the best improv performers can improvise with anyone.” They make everyone else shine; this is not necessarily true about painters, musicians, mathematicians, or lawyers, but it is right about improvisors, and more importantly: leaders.

Once I was in, I was hooked. So I did what any newly committed student of an art form does, I dug deep into the history of improvisation.

The river ran deep. Documented improvisation starts in Rome in the 4th century BC with the Atellan Farce and mask work. Flash forward thousands of years and we learn about Commedia dell-Art(e) in the early 1600’s exploring character archetypes.

Contemporaries in the field have written, studied, tested, tried and failed at shaping the art form. Each with their form of proselytizing:

  • Stanislavski: The greatest wisdom is to realize one’s lack of it.
  • Spolin 1963: Through spontaneity, we are reformed into ourselves.
  • Boal 1973: Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.
  • Johnstone 1987: If you have a good idea, open your mouth and say something else.

And of course, no discussion of improvisation would be complete without mentioned the tortured genius of the 20th century, Del Close. A coach and mentor of many of today’s most popular comedians including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler.

With many words of wisdom, one that resonates with me as a leader is:

“Don’t bring a cathedral into a scene, bring a brick and let’s build together.” – Del Close 

Bringing us to the first gemstone takeaway.

  • Listen
  • Actually, listen.
  • Most people listen just enough to be able to respond.
  • Be willing to change.
  • Listen like this is the last thing they ever say.
  • Listen to the other is going to change your mind.

“Listen. Listen to one another like you know you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world.” – Sarah Kay

  • Positivity.
  • Accept, agree, say “Yes”.
  • Accept and offer, say “Yes, and…” – it improves your relationships with others AND with yourself.
  • It is also a base principle of meditation. Accept your currently emotional state. Yes I am feeling like this. If this is true, what else is true.

A series of yeses takes us somewhere. All it takes is one no to stop the momentum. But what do we get when we can say: “Yes, and…”

But wait, there’s more…Practice strengthening your affirmation:

  • Practice saying “Yes, and..”
  • Use it to refocus, redirect,
    and 
    collect thoughts.
  • Improvisational leaders accept quickly and look for opportunities immediately.
  • Make your agreement prominent.

Much like building a cathedral, we can try collaborating in real time.

You can try as well, with a partner try telling a story by writing it down on a piece of paper one-line-at-a-time, for an additional challenge try writing the story one-word-at-a-time.

Then read the stories back, and see what it is like to directly collaborate on a creative piece. Remember: there are no wrong answers, no mistakes, and no judgment.

You are walking alone in a wooded forest, you have been without food and water for a few days and you are cold, scared and hungry. You come to a clearning and in the middle of the open area there is a saber-tooth tiger… you are afraid. You feel fear. Scientists think this stems from the amygdala, two almond-shaped bundles of nuclei in the temporal lobes of the brain. What is your emotional response? 

Most would say fight or flight, there is also new research on the freeze mechanism, and of course, the fourth and least favorable option in real-life, fail. You have to do something very critical in this moment, which leads us to the next gemstone.

  • Make choices.
  • In improv we often call them offers.
  • Make offers instead of asking questions.
  • Make your choices specific, unique and novel for bonus points.

Often times when we are forced with a decision we encounter a psychological phenomenon called: analysis paralysis.

Remember that you do not need to be 100% right 100% of the time. In fact, you need to be 100% right only about 10% of the time, the other times you just need to make a decision.

Your choices should be made in an attempt to make others look good. Shelve the ego and embrace the collective elevation and amplification. Endow others with power, status, and agency to create a team that functions better than individuals working independently.

I have tried on 1000 masks and understand the world slightly differently from each perspective.

Alex Williams of the New York Times has a very nice piece on friendships as we progress through life. One of the more salient points to me is that the three elements required for making close friends.

These are the exact characteristics of my interactions with improvisers all over the world. From Liverpool to Austin, to Slovenia, to New York, and back through North America… I have found my community around the world. We build relationships over space and time because we can quickly adapt, work together, collaborate openly and communicate effectively.

My research is in Reinforcement Learning. Training artificially intelligent systems to act in certain ways given rewards as feedback. This is the same way that dolphins are trained to do mind-bending stunts.

You can play this with a partner as well. Attempt to encourage your ‘dolphin’ to accomplish an unstated goal in the environment using only rewards as feedback.

This simple exercise elucidates the importance of clear communication, systems of collaboration, and shared goals.

In life,we are each living our own story (or stories), but we are major and minor characters in many other stories. We are the character that will give the right piece of advice at the wrong time or the hidden romance that ends up falling out of love and stop writing letters right before a chapter ends.

If this is the case, we should aim to make our story interesting. Aim to make offers over questions, decisions over ultimatums, and bring something specific, unique, and novel to each and every interaction.

Stories are about patterns. One of the easiest ways to understand patterns is through images. First, an action is taken establishing normal, then, with a second similar action, the pattern is established thereby creating a solid platform. Finally, the pattern is broken.

We can share the storytelling by trading back and forth on who is setting the patterns and who is breaking them. Improvisation encourages this ebb and flow, the constant back and forth of transferring energy between leading and following.

These are the characteristics of an improvisational leader who can think, speak, and act freely on their feet:

  • Listen actively
  • Amplify with positivity
  • Confidence to make authentic choices
  • Bring out the best in others
  • Tell great stories

Finally, is the failure. The most under discussed reality of the modern leader.

Here is a challenge, for the next conversation you have with a mentor or a peer that you have yet to connect on a deeper level with, ask them:

What has been your biggest failure?

Then, focus on understanding the learning that came from that failure. 

So, does anyone remember the first ‘best’ piece of advice that I ever received?

The best improvisers, make everyone else shine. I wanted to put this to the test. So I did an improv show with the audience member with the least stage experience.

Spoiler alert: He was magnificent.

So I thought, can I do it with an artificial intelligence? I would fuse my love for improvisation and machine learning. I would call it something sexy like “artificial improvisation, ” and there could be a hot Hamlet sequel skull in the bionic arm of a cyborg robot from the future.

Perfect.

And then I would do it a whole bunch, and tell everyone I knew the story and find other people around the world that were similarly passionate.

And then make an art collective in the space, and book a swath of shows in 2017. Learning and growing along the way, building businesses and research that impact millions of people.

That is how I embraced one of my biggest failures as a performer and scientist.

Questions for reflections: What do all the gemstones add up to? What is the big key takeway?

What’s your Doodle?

It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page.

Back in May 2006 (10 years ago, thanks @Meags for actually dating a doodle), I carried a notebook around with me and when I would have some down time with others I would ask them to share a doodle of theirs (something that they draw when they are on the phone, or in class, or a meeting) in this notebook.

I collected so many of these doodles, from many different individuals. It is always surprising to see what people had ready to roll once they had a pen and a blank page. It seems like everyone has a small doodle … so I ask….what’s your doodle?

Collective Improvisation: A review and thoughts…

Nerding out on improv theory with a bunch of notes on Collective Improvisation: From Theatre to Film by Sonja Vilc.

May 2016, I am invited to Llubjana, Slovenia to teach and perform improvisation. Hosted by the three heads of the Cerberus of Slovenian improvisation Juš, Vid and Peter at IGLU, I had an incredible time seeing what life was really like in Llubjana.

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The improvisational scene is alive and well in Llubjana, with monthly guests from around the world and some lively improv shows in Slovenian and English, it is truly a community worth venturing to for the adventurous improvisor. As well, word on the street is there is a Eurovision inspired Improvision show that draws hundreds and hundreds every year.

Upon departing, Juš was kind enough to give me a book as a gift. By a fellow Slovenian improvisor named Sonja Vilč, the book is Collective Improvisation: From Theatre to Film.

The book is composed of three chapters: 1) The Roots and Teachings of Modern Improvisation, 2) Using the Principles of Improvisation in Film Creation, 3) Looking forward: The Promises of Improvisation.

While the books main focus is the use of improvisational techniques in film creation, I was most interested in the background research on the roots of modern improvisational techniques and sections on the philosophies of improvisation.

I enjoy what I would consider to be the European explorations of improvisational philosophies, and this book is full of great discourse and thoughts on the romantic ideals of what happens when you start making things up.

The Roots of Modern Improvisational Teaching

Vilč explores the history of modern improvisational teaching, clearly laying out a trajectory of learning and evolution of theory dating back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I enjoy how she clearly delineates some lists of ideas and concepts:

Four Johnstone-ian Basic Principles of Improvisation (pg 27):

  1. Accept and embrace your first impulse;
  2. Accept offers made by your other actors;
  3. Advance the action by truthful reaction to what is happening; and
  4. Advance the narrative by connecting previously established elements.

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Three Del Close-ian (along with Elaine May and Theodore Flicker) Basic Principles of Improvisation (pg 67):

  1. Do not deny what is said or done onstage.
  2. Take the active as opposed to the passive choice.
  3. The actor’s business is to justify.

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She delves into Del’s discussions on where laughter comes from (pg 73): “Laughter is a response to a gestalt formation where two previously incompatible or dissimilar ideas suddenly form into a new piece of understanding. The energy release during that reaction comes out in laughter”.  Which is all to say, that “the truth is funny”.

Vilč discusses the translation of the above principles and other thoughts and writings by improvisational innovators (Johnstone, Viola Spolin, Compass Players, Close, David Shepard, etc., pg. 87):

  1. The idea of individual genius is replaced by the collective group mind.
  2. The idea of a script is replaced by an emergent narrative, formed through the multitude of artistic, and audience, interactions.
  3. The idea of a final product as the goal is replaced by a focus on the risks and failures of an ongoing process.

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I enjoy one thought she presents as a derivative of a Randy Dixon-ian idea (pg 91): “Less structure can often mean less freedom”, quite an odd concept, but she continues, “it is the limitations that work as catalysts for the creative processes and not the other way around”. As Dixon said: “[The] forms are a skeleton structure that allow the improvisor to focus…”

Vilč explores the ideas of the audience as the indirect-director, or the ‘indirector” as I call it. They are reacting to what is happening on stage, in real-time, and the actors can modify their actions accordingly. But, the responses may be inconsistent across audience members, and thus the actors, as an ensemble, must synthesize and translate the conscious and subconscious indirections from the collective.

Johnstonian improvisation focuses on the idea of “Yes, and”-ing any offer. But, there is an extension of this that connects to the theory of mind of the improvisors on stage. That is, that “in order to play … one first has to know what the other improvisors want, one has to be able to inspire others”. This note really resonates with me, as my inspiration these days has been stemming from the idea of Finding your Fun in the Fun of Others. Improvisors should be able to quickly embrace multiple impulses (as offers and acceptances), and start to guide their offers to this specific situation (the actor across from them, the audience, the show, the moment) accordingly. I am not sure if this something I truly do on stage, but I like to think that being able to play with different individuals, starts with being able to model the actor that you are improvising with, and updating that model online during a scene/show/performance.

Finally, there is a full chapter which explores some novel philosophies behind improvisation quite eloquently:

  1. “…to enable truly innovative art forms that will be able to address the questions and issues we are interested in … in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences, there needs to be a place and enough time for experimentation… Experimentation means that the artists need to have the freedom to take risks and … to fail (pg 156).
  2. Collective improvisation should be inclusive (pg 157).
  3. “The other actor is the most important focus of my own work and it is only through supporting the other actor that I will be able to shine and succeed myself” (pg 159, incl. Gregor Moder)
  4. Taking risks is a precondition for anything to happen at all, and any mistakes do not exist. Out of the thousands of choices one could make the first and often accidental or associative choice is the best and it will always enable the next thing to happen. Quality is not a matter of pre-meditated action but of complete commitment to what one is doing here and now (adapted from pg 163).
  5. The audience is freed from a role of passive spectator by being included in the show (cf. Ranciere The Emancipated Spectator, pg 164-5).
  6. One can only do things for oneself by doing them for and through the other (cf. Jean-Luc Nancy Inoperative Community, pg 167). Decision making happens because each individual is empowered to make decisions, but this is only possible if all the actors are tuned into the decisions of the others (pg 169).
  7. The more actors there are onstage, the less each individual needs to initiate and the more each individual needs to be actively listening (pg 171).

The thoughts and ideas presented in the book Collective Improvisation are inspiring and well-researched. I admire the preparation and writing of this book, as it formulates a great background for those of us that enjoy the philosophical understanding of improvisation as well as the historical exploration. As Julian Faid says, we are all looking forward to looking back.

Anything in this post totally counter to what you believe? Let me know below! As you can probably imagine, I really dig nerding out on improv theory.

 

 

 

Dirt City: Grime and Punishment

Writing, Directing, Producing and Acting in a show at the Edmonton Fringe Festival.

The 2015 Edmonton Fringe Festival is almost upon us and this year will be a very special one for me. I co-wrote a show, alongside Colin Matty, Sam Jeffery and Lee Boyes. It is a wild ride to put a show together from scratch, and while it may be old habit for some talented fringe veterans, I had a lot to learn.

The Concept

Around June 2014, Colin and I were riffing on the idea of writing another show together after the wild (mild) success of My Name is Jonas (a concept-comedy-sketch show based on The Blue Album by Weezer, it was attended by Zach Galifianakis “which is probably the best endorsement any fringe show could ask for“. The idea gets shelved after we lose the Fringe lottery and the writing begins.

The idea comes up over a small riff on ordering red herring at a diner, it flourishes from there…

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Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946 Film) with Bogart and Bacall. This scene is the origin of the ‘take-off-the-glasses-let-down-the-hair” to make you more sexy move. If that is a move.

Writing

During the writing process we ask two additional members of Rapid Fire Theatre to join the team, Sam and Lee. Both are extremely talented performers who bring their own special talents to the show. Writing begins and continues over the summer of 2015 with a Google Doc that expands and contracts with good ideas and bad.

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Rehearsal in the best room in the Fine Arts Centre.

One idea that is presented by Joe Vanderhelm is the idea of writing a dramedy, but with each edit creating a second script with each of the removed chunks in chronological order, then presenting both shows in parallel (this is an obvious idea, but I wonder if it has ever been done?).

Paul Blinov and Lana Cuthbertson are great help and supports on the writing of the script, making sure that things make sense, flow, and stay interesting. Jokes are punched up, love is magnified and the mystery is expanded.

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Character portraits of (L-R) The Mayor, Pinot Noir and Ella Twist. Lee, Kory and Sam.

Producing and Directing

Putting a show together is hard work. The amazing team of talented artists and volunteers are Rapid Fire Theatre help to design promotional material (thank you Matt Schuurman) and handle administrative tasks (thank you Karen Brown Fournell).

We decide to self-direct the show as a co-creation team and elect not to bring in an outside director. Several individuals volunteer their time to come in and watch segments or runs of the show and provide an outside eye (thank you Matt, Paul, Andy and Lana).

Design

Late in the game we ask Syd Gross to join the team as the technical designer and stage manager. Her eye for lighting and ear for sound help to elevate the script to a magical space of suspended reality where dangerous and sexy things can happen.

The lighting, sound and costumes in a film noir are integral to the motif and story-telling and the dirty underbelly world that we zoom in on is aided by the ambience.

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Costume shopping with Ball’n Colin.

Press

We have been lucky to be featured on the What It Is Podcast as part of the Forceful Fringe Promo 2015 show, discussing gender politics and how to pitch a show to BROS.

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Podcasting with Taylor Chadwick and Colten Taylor Thomas.

As well, we had a nice little write up on After the House Lights by Jenna Marynowski, where we  discuss the show and coming from a world of improvisation into a scripted show.

Conclusions

This city never sleeps, except when it does.

It takes a village to raise a fringe show, in this case it takes E-town, or E-ville, or EVIL…

Come see Dirt City: Grime and Punishment at the 2015 Edmonton Fringe Festival starting Friday August 14th at Noon at Fringe Venue #9: Telus Phone Museum at 10437 – 83 ave.

For more information check out http://grimeandpunishment.ca

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Poster design by Matt Schuurman

Gallery of images of Dirt Cite

Gallery of images from Off Book

Diving into HarshImprovNotes.com

HarshImprovNotes.com has taken off in improv communities around the world. Looking back at some of the reasons it exists, and what we can glean from it as we progress the art form into the future.

As of July 8th 2015 (only 5 days since it went online), HarshImprovNotes.com has over 400 submissions. That is 400 harsh improvisational theatre notes given. Granted some of those are mine, and granted some people submit more than 1, or 2, or 5, but the site has brought together a community of improvisers from around the globe to share something super-personal. To share a note that they have received somewhere along their training that they deemed harsh. 

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What makes a note harsh?

Perhaps it is a note given the wrong way, perhaps it was given by the wrong person, or at the wrong time. The harshness of a note can vary from person to person and moment to moment, so who am I to decide if a note is truly harsh or not.

Often times it would seem that the harshest notes, least taken to heart, are those that are completely out of context. Many of the notes on the site are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

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Think for a moment that there are people in your company that have been given a note strictly based on things that they can not change about themselves. I find that so hurtful. Maybe you are someone who gave a note like that somewhere along the way, if that is true, in the words of Paul Blinov, “you need to check yourself”.

Why ask if it was taken to heart? 

Asking if the note was taken to heart sort of allows for the submitter to reflect on the note, and see how much it truly impacted them. There is a precious dichotomy between the serious, well-natured note and the submitted who doesn’t take it to heart. Similarly, there is something very curious about the harsh, offensive notes that are completely taken to heart.

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It is interesting to look at the statistics of submissions on a large scale to see on average how much a harsh note was taken to heart. The scale is 1 – 10 (from ‘not at all’ – ‘I think about it everyday’).  The trend shows a wide variation around a mean of about 7.5 save for a huge spike at 1. What is this to mean? I call it the blue whale distribution.

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Why does this exist?

HarshImprovNotes.com stemmed from my compulsive note taking, collecting, collating and aggregating. I have been doing improvisational theatre for 10 years, starting with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Soon after my first soirée in improv, I started travelling the world performing, learning, and teaching improvisation. I love the opportunities to co-create, to share creativity, and improvisation provides that in such a raw manner that I have wholly embraced it as a life passion.

I have had many great, influential improv teachers, mentors, and peers in my life: Jacob Banigan, Patti Stiles, Chris Craddock, Kevin Gillese, Amy Shostak, Keith Johnstone, Dana Anderson, Donovan Workun, Alistair Cook, Becky Johnson, Graham Wagner, Kurt Smeaton, Joe Bill, Billy Tierny, Steve Sim, Lee White, and Craig Cackowski, Ken Campbell, Adam Meggido, Torsten Voller, Susan Messing, Matt Baram, Naomi Snieckus, Ron Pedersen, and the list goes on.

That being said, over my progression in this wonderful art form I have encountered many harsh instructors (not going to name names). These companions and instructors have given me notes which I have both discounted, and taken to heart. They have reached deep into the pit of my soul and vacuumed up all the confidence marbles. Each time this happened, I would write that note down. I would collect it. Save it. Write it down and think about it.

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If the show sucks, it is because someone did something but usually because someone did not.

This collection soon turned into notebooks and notebooks of introspective improvisational ramblings, positive and negative. I needed a way to synthesize the good and the bad. I needed a cathartic release of the strain and pressure of saving these notes. In the same way you can’t keep love letters (or hate letters for that matter) forever, I wanted a means by which I could save the notes, de-personalize them after all these years, and open the discussion to the wider improvisation community. HarshImprovNotes.com does just that. It allows us to share what we have been harbouring, to hopefully move past that, into a realm of growth and development, together.

Would this work for other domains?

I think part of the reason that the notes read so well are because I, and many others, appreciate the improvisers sense of humour. I presume that either or both the giver and receiver of the note have at least somewhat attuned comedic-sense, so the notes are often funny.

The idea of a similar collection of Harsh Teamwork Notes or Harsh Breakup Lines is somewhat more tragic in my mind. In improv, we are our own worst (and best) critics, but there is something to be said about the external director’s eyes which see the performer as a part of the show as a whole.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this project makes me a better teacher and improv instructor. I hope that it makes us all more effective communicators. Improvisation is a young, transient art form. It is still developing modern masters. The vocabulary surrounding it is still forming (improv or impro? improvisor or improviser?), and I think that this allows for opportunities such as this: to look back on how we provide and receive feedback, and refine it such that it is more meaningful, more constructive, more supportive and generally less harsh.

Appendix: Demographics of Users on the Site

Using Google Analytics gives you all sorts of amazing insights in to visitors on the site. Here are several charts that show the demographics of the visitors to HarshImprovNotes.com.

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The Game with The Brothers Hines

Finding The Game of the scene, with The Brothers Hines from the UCB.

On my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I had the incredible honour of performing, and learning with Kevin and Will Hines. Commonly called The Brothers Hines when performing together, these two brothers are seriously on the same wavelength. They have mastered the slow-play game finding improv that I associate so distinctly with the Upright Citizens Bridge.

The Hines Bros

After working with the two brothers over the course of a weekend, I amassed a vast collection of notes and scribbles. This post is the culmination and distillation of that information into something that perhaps can share a little bit of an outsiders perspective on The Game.

The Game

What is the game? The game is everything. It’s the way we structure our improvisations and our lives. It’s what makes us laugh, and it’s what the audience comes every night to see. The game is the idol of worship at Upright Citizens Brigade.

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The game can occur in any situation, time, or place. When we set up a scene on-stage, we may or may not be thinking of the game. How do we find the game in a scene? It’s the first thing that this performance interesting, absurd, unique or fun. It’s the first weird thing that happens on stage. The game should be embraced and tended to.

If your scene partner creates a bizarre exaggeration of a real-life scenario, embrace and exist in that exaggeration. Don’t over explain, justify. What if the setup is truly bizarre — an outrageous hypothetical with no relation to lived reality? This is the normal in the scene, and the unique thing can come from contrast. Justify the world, and live within its rules. Don’t just explain them; make them tangible, and play them to their fullest. It was once described that scenes in improv are either normal people in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people in normal circumstances; both situations are completely valid but transpire differently. In either case, you want to keep track of the real world, and even in the most out there situation, maintain ways to stay true to the shared perceptions of you, your improv partners, and your audience.

Let’s take a step back and describe some workshop exercises that will prepare you to reach a state of comedic flow and achieve maximum absurdity.

Exercises

The first exercise is simple: describe an object. Create it in your mind and build it for your audience. Keep an eye to its details and start with a close lens before slowly expanding your field of vision. Don’t think of inventing details but rather discovering things about the object that are already there. Most of this is selling it to yourself and your improv team — if you believe it, so will the audience.

Discovery over invention.

The next exercise is to form a circle and voice a single character monologue with your group. The character is created line by line through the whole group, with each person building off what the previous team member contributes. There’s no hurry; be confident and calm. Hang out with the details and stew in your own truth (or, to put it another way, sit in your own farts). Expand the character with clear, confident, and specific details. Don’t just advance the story for its own sake; instead, breathe life into a shared persona.

Sit in your own farts.

Now let’s begin to use our bodies, which are an integral part of improv comedy. “Abstract Action Justification” works like this: one person gives an outsized, unplanned, unique, and nonspecific physical movement. A second person enters and justifies the first’s actions while also creating his or her own character relationship to that initial stimulus. Begin rationally, then start to hone in on that game characteristic — naturally develop and begin to chase that weirdness in the scene.

Chase the weird.

The two-person scene requires a lot from its participants, but its basic drives are the same. A successful scene immediately dives into a search for the game, a shared reality, and an interest in the other participant.

Improv and The Game

The exercises above should get you into the mindset and flow of successful improv comedy. The details of a situation are what define its success or failure. You want to be bold, specific, and mindful, but you also want to be economical. Don’t just keep talking — and if a moment is fledgling, get out. You can always pull the rip cord. The absurdity or weirdness of a scene should be tangible and should be treated with emotional honesty. There is a lot to discover in any moment, and your comedy partners are creative. Work with your team to flesh out a situational and emotional reality rather than constantly piling on new inventions. Remember that, in improv, agreement is first priority. In standup comedy, it’s truth.

The game is the unusual, the weird in the scene, it is the hook, or schtick, or handle. We want to justify the weird, keeping it real but exploring and heightening it at the same time. Being grounded and real at the start of a scene only helps to illuminate the weirdness.

Other Resources for the Contemporary Improvisor

Curating contemporary improvisational genius, in blog and podcast form.

Recently, I posted a big ol’ list of the best books about improvisation. I did this for two reasons:

  1. I like to keep my resources in order; and
  2. To provide references for other improvising teachers / students / directors to enjoy.

The post generated a lot of chatter on Facebook about great resources on improv and acknowledged that sometimes the best writing on improvisation is unpublished. While the collection of books may provide a great corpus of our extemporaneous art form, there exist far fewer critical contemporary writings / improv blogs / podcasts on improvisation, save for a few well curated, and more importantly updated regularly, resources online. Without further adieu, here is the small subset that I subscribe to:

  1. Improv Nonsense by Will Hines
  2. Improv Octopus by Alex Berg
  3. The Way of Improvisation by Dave Morris (and others)
  4. People and Chairs
  5. Improv Nerd by Jimmy Carrane
  6. The Backline – An Improv Podcast
  7. The Improv Resource Center

These are incredible resources from contemporary thinkers in the improv world today… if I am missing something, let me know and I am happy to add them to the list.

The Best Books on Improv

A compendium of the best published books on improvisational theatre.

On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon I was lucky enough to be put up by the incredible Stacey Hallal of the Curious Comedy Theatre, who among a veritable endless resume of accomplishments also had the most incredible library of books on comedy; stand-up, sketch, improv … all represented in thousands and thousands of pages of published materials.

It made me think how I would curate a library of the best books on improvisation. What would be included in the top 50 books on improv?

Goodreads is a great place to start, it is like Rotten Tomatoes, but for books. The Goodreads top 50 books tagged ‘improv’ contain a veritable lifetime of improvisational technical theory and practical anecdotes, as well as several items that are not at all related to improvisational theater. From that list I distilled out the unrelated material to get this library of the best books on improvisation.

  1. Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation by Charna Halpern
  2. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone
  3. Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier
  4. Improvisation for the Theater 3E: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques (Drama and Performance Studies) by Viola Spolin
  5. Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation by Charna Halpern
  6. Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv by Jill Bernard
  7. Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy by Katie Goodman
  8. Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson
  9. Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players by Jeffrey Sweet
  10. Impro for Storytellers (Theatre Arts (Routledge Paperback)) by Keith Johnstone
  11. Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser
  12. The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising in Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond by Tom Salinsky
  13. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  14. Group Improvisation: The Manual of Ensemble Improv Games by Peter Gwinn
  15. Process: An Improviser’s Journey by Mary Scruggs and Michael Gellman
  16. The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy by Janet Coleman
  17. Causing a Scene: Extraordinary Pranks in Ordinary Places with Improv Everywhere by Charlie Todd
  18. Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen
  19. Improv for Actors by Dan Diggles
  20. Improvisation Starters by Philip Bernardi
  21. How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater by Kenn Adams
  22. Acting on Impulse: The Art of Making Improv Theater by Carol Hazenfield
  23. Directing Improv: Show the Way By Getting Out of the Way by Asaf Ronen
  24. Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch
  25. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
  26. Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook by Viola Spolin
  27. The Second City Almanac of Improvisation by Anne Libera
  28. Improv Therapy: How to get out of your own way to become a better improviser by Jimmy Carrane
  29. Improv Ideas 2: A New Book of Games and Lists for the Classroom and Beyond by Justine Jones
  30. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  31. An Improvised Life: A Memoir by Alan Arkin
  32. The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus
  33. The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine S. McKnight
  34. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard by Norrie Epstein
  35. Improv Comedy by Andy Goldberg
  36. Long-Form Improv: The Complete Guide to Creating Characters, Sustaining Scenes, and Performing Extraordinary Harolds by Ben Hauck
  37. Improv Wins by Chris Trew
  38. Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation by Patrick Bateson
  39. 58 1/2 Ways to Improvise in Training: Improvisation Games and Activities for Workshops, Courses and Team Meetings by Paul Z. Jackson
  40. Acting: The First Six Lessons by Richard Boleslavsky
  41. How To Start Your Own Improv Comedy Group by Paul Johan Stokstad
  42. Handbook of Recreational Games by Neva L. Boyd
  43. Second City: Backstage At The World’s Greatest Comedy Theater by Sheldon Patinkin
  44. Musical Improv Comedy: Creating Songs in the Moment by Jason Alexander
  45. SCTV: Behind the Scenes by Dave Thomas

What is missing from this list you may be wondering? I would say one book that I love that is not on the list is Christian Capozzoli’s Aerodynamics of Yes

Disclaimer: these books are Amazon linked, so if you felt like I somehow helped you find what you were looking for Amazon might send me a 4% referral for your purchase. Also, sign up for Amazon Student for free two day shipping.

Update September 2, 2014: Roy Janik from The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas tells me that the most commonly cited, popular books down there are Impro, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance and Acting on Impulse. Very curious and exciting to know the differences between defining books between different theatres.

Update September 3, 2014: There were a few small authorship omissions, Process: An Improviser’s Journey is by Mary Scruggs and Michael Gellman, and Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser is by Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen.  Valerie Ward, also from The Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, compiled this massive list of the Improvisors Bookshelf, which contains lots of the books listed here. Also, there has been lots of discussion over some books that explore the improvisors mind:

Austin: In Retrospect

Raw broth from a tiny town in Texas named Austin.

Austin, Texas is a beautiful city. Southern hospitality abounds in this deep and dirty town. At the centre of conservatism sits a creative capital, similar in many ways to the beautiful Edmonton, Alberta.

It was a blast being around the Out Of Bounds Festival, Barton Springs, 6th Street, UT and South Congress.

Some Salt Lick BBQ, hot hot sidewalks, and from the Cathedral of Junk, Vince, with some conspiracy talk. Austin, you have been good to us.

27th Birthday Pictures

For my 27th birthday I asked everyone I knew to send me a picture (a photo they took preferably) alongside birthday wishes. This is part of a series I am working on … asking for 25 “Stories When You Were 25” two years ago, and doing some audio interviews at 26.

These idea all seem to stem from this collective creation work I have been continually fascinated by. The premise that the idea comes from me, but the content comes from the crowd.

I think these photos are particularly poignant because, in this Social Media dominated world, we are so focused on capturing the moment, that we sometimes forget that we should appreciate each moment afterwards… The process of looking back, while not something that is particularly my forte (re: memory loss in improv), is fun in and of itself.

Also, we take so many photos… I thought maybe it would be a nice opportunity to show someone who cares (me) a photo that they have taken but maybe not had the motivation/impulse/desire to share with anyone in particular yet. Maybe they had the most amazing they ever took and wanted to share that as well.

Other examples of these kind of works include:

  • timmikulaisgreat.com – a secret santa gift I curated for the man himself… asking the crowd to write reasons why they thought Tim was great. This content was aggregated in a database of nearly 165 reasons Tim is great.
  • thecouriers.org – a collaboration with amazing Winnipeg Artist Caitlin Curtis… we used Amazon Turk to collect lost love letters. One day we will improvise on lost love letters, finally bringing some finality to their purgatory-like existence.

There are 60 photos in the gallery as it stands… if I forgot your photo, please email (or facebook) it to me. I can always add more in.

Without further adieu, here is the collection: