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We Are Not Alone
by Ryan Locante

I may give the impression that Iíve got this whole improv thing "all figured out". Let me just say publicly that Iím nowhere near done figuring things out. I wouldnít be enrolled in classes now for the past seven months if that were true. I also wouldnít have left Utah, where I had the chance to teach, if that were the case.

I have written articles before and while I like to think that these articles are going to help someoneís improv in some way, I do this for myself (sorry Jesse, I canít lie). I find it extremely helpful to get down all of my thoughts on different areas of improv. I have three online journals dedicated to just that*. And believe me, I frequently review these.

UtahImprov.com has grown and evolved in its year and a half of existence. Itís great to come to this site and see new members that I donít know asking questions and actually looking for ways to improve their improv - which was my original dream for this site.

Iíve become a better improviser because of the help of the online improv community (especially with the IRC). This is not an exaggeration. Utah, you are not alone - thatís why I wanted to write this. Thousands of improvisers do the same every day, and Iím writing this article to prove it.

I asked a question to members of four different improv message boards, including this one. Luckily, Iíve gotten some awesome responses from improvisers from all over the country, not just Utah. Even better, these responses come from many different skill levels (some from people whom Iíve seen and a lot from people I donít know). Some are teachers, some are students, some have been doing improv for over 10 years, and some are just starting out.

Since this article is about the strength in message boards, I figure Iíll make it look like a topic on a board and just list the responses I got to my question (in the order I received them):

"Things you think about before you go on stage will evolve over time. If you were gonna go on stage right now, what would be the one thing you would focus on? How has this changed during your improv career (no matter how long you've been doing it)?"

Because Iíll be looking back at this some day, it comforts me to know that Iím not alone and people have revelations about improv in general and about their own improv. Thereís no way that I would just go to one place to talk through improv frustrations or to just one group to discuss what I love about this cult I belong to. I am not alone.

So yes, I do this a lot... I ask questions so I can learn from them. This time I wanted to make it public and most importantly, I wanted to share it directly with Utah improvisers.

Enjoy!

Professor Ryloc:


Iíve been taking classes at UCB for six months. I just started a level 4 so most of my stage time has been in one of the five class performances I have been in. I was also lucky enough to make one of the wildcard teams for the 3on3 tournament last month. The most helpful pre-show activity for me is to watch someone else perform. When I can just sit back and laugh and cheer I come on stage completely relaxed and ready for whatever.

When the three of us were drawn from the audience at the 3on3 we went back stage and spent about five minutes warming up. Then we came out to watch four other teams compete. When we took the stage I was so eager to get out for the first scene that I think I elbowed my way past a teammate (sorry, Rachel). I am pretty sure that our team had more fun on stage that night than any of the other 20 teams who competed.

Regards,

John Ward (DrWimpy)
New York, NY


I do improv at Above Kleptomania, the PIT, UCBT, and other places. I've been doing it for almost two years. Do you want to know my groups as well?

If I were to go on stage right now, I would focus on staying present and paying attention. What that means practically is that if found myself thinking about what I had for lunch, what I was going to have for lunch tomorrow, or what scene I was going to play next, I would gently bring my focus back to the present and pay attention to what was going on around me and inside me, to all the external and information I receive.

How has this changed during my improv career?

Well, I spent a long time judging my improv instead of doing it. I used to spend so much more time thinking about whether I was doing well or poorly that it kept me from fully engaging in the scene. I still struggle with the 'head work' of improv (extrapolating premises and characters from the opening) but lately I've found that if I just act with confidence and fully engage myself in the scene, the things that come out of my mouth and my body will turn out to be from the opening without my having planned it. And that's really, really cool.

Hope that helps, Ryan.

Love,

Dan Winckler
New York, NY


For the first long while I was improvising, before the show, I would think about how the show was going to go, how big the audience was, and wondered whether or not I would do well.

Now, before I go on stage I try to really be with the people I am about to perform with. To just live with them and be as human as I can. I try to tune in with the people around me, rather than think at all.

Austin Nava
Off The Wall
Utah
Improvising 3 years


While I started I focused on looking for laughs while trying to stay in the moment. This means that I usually wound up playing characters that were funny in their nature. Now I better engage the audience by trying to be deeper. When I am funny, it is on another level and it is much more appreciated. Even if it is a surface humor laugh, it still has more of an angle to it.

I use many tools to try to add depth, choosing one before I go on stage. The latest is to look for potential metaphors within scenes. I'm not looking to relate them to the audience, but instead as a mechanism to enhance character depth. In fact, if the audience doesn't "get it" it improves the impact.

Other techniques include: a hidden intention, a subject matter, an imitation or character, an emotion, or sometimes just a color. Anything to increase the mystery of your charater to the audience.

Todd Rice
Laughing Gas Improv Theater Company
Miami, Florida
12 years exp.


Before I go on stage now, I keep one thing in mind: This is not about me. All I think about it now is how I can fully support my teammates. I remind myself to be fearless and dive for support - whatever form that takes (edits, walk-ons, abstract things, scene painting, 'yes'-ing in scenes, etc.).

When I first started, I went through a progression of issues ranging from specifics (don't ask questions) to more abstract (just have fun). What I discovered was that if I focus on support, everything else happens anyway.

Josh Kronenberg
Been doing Improv in Chicago for 3 1/2 years, 5 years total. Currently perform at ImprovOlympic with OTIS.


I would think about really connecting with my partner, because thatís what Iím working on right now - it came out of an intensive class I took with Jimmy Carrane and Liz Allen, they pointed out thatís where Iím lacking.

Before that I was concentrating on just playing. There was a certain little point in my career when I forgot to have fun. I got burnt out without noticing it, so I began consciously saying to myself, "just play" before I went on. Iíve had other little homework assignments through time - play strong characters, take your time, remember the order of the beats. When I first went onstage I think I desperately wanted to be funny. That doesnít matter so much anymore.

Iíve been a professional improviser for ten years as of last weekend.

Jill Bernard
Minneapolis, MN


That's a good question Ryloc. My name is Jay Yerex and I have been performing for about 4 years. When I first started I was preoccupied by the rules of the games that we were playing, you know, don't block, always accept and advance, things like that. After I got used to being on stage I always told myself that it was more important to show the audience that I was having fun. Then I started to host shows and found myself looking at improv from an entirely new perspective. Suddenly I had to pay attention to the energy of the crowd, should I really involve the audience in the games? Should I keep contrrol of the show by excluding the crowd from suggestions? These days I find myself thinking about how I can introduce a lot of energy into the shows, how can I keep the energy flowing while still maintaining a firm grasp on the progression of the show? But still, my number one rule is and always will be to have fun and love what you do. I hope this helps you.

Jay Yerex
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada


Professor Ryloc --

About me: MacArthur Antigua, 28, now resides in Houston, TX. Since August, I've been directing an improv group, "Vagabondage", and we're starting to do long-form shows in addition to our weekly short form shows. Before moving here in August 2003, I was performing mainly at ImprovOlympic from 1997-2003. I performed the harold with Genealogy (97-2000); Daddy's Delight (summer 2000); and Space Mountain (2000-2003). My favorite teachers and coaches during that time were Kevin Mullaney, Joe Bill, Pat Shay, and of course, Del Close.

To answer your question in two paragraphs:

When I go on stage now, I repeat a few mantras to myself -- the gist of them are either "slow down," "be open" and/or "have fun." I imagine myself as this wonderfully whole and complete person, and think of my fellow players in the same light.

This has gotten easier to do as I've gotten older and experienced. When I started at IO, being on a Harold team and performing consistently was such a "big deal" to me, and I found it overwhelming and would often go into shows putting alot of pressure on myself to spot games, make scenes happen, etc. I know alot of that had to do with being put on a team right after Level 1, and thinking that I had cheated or "lucked" my way onto a team. Towards the end of my term at IO, I found myself to be more relaxed about doing shows -- not that I was taking them for granted. Its just that after 7 years of doing shows, it was a lot easier to take chances and risks, and I had alot more life experiences to draw on and to really enjoy "failure." In sum, I think several years ago, I kept thinking about the improviser I wanted to be someday; while now, I'm really thinking about the improviser I'm trying to be right now.

Hope this works --
Thanks --
Mac

MacArthur Antigua
Houston, TX


The number one thing that I focus on before I go on stage, is not sucking! I know that if I think about what I should do and say on stage while performing, I will suck. If I go out there to make the audience laugh (to entertain if you would) again, I am going to suck. And if I go on stage with the attitude that I am going to suck, I will DEFINATLY not dissapoint my pessimistic side. So, for me, I try not to focus on anything....(besides not sucking of course)

When I first got into the wonderful world of improv, I would freak about what I would do and say when I was performing. I think this came out of my being a "script actress" most of my life. Now that my improv and I myself have matured, so has my calmness. I realize that I want to play for myself and my fellow improvisors. I go out to have fun now than to make people laugh. Sure the audience is needed to bring in the cash, but my sanity is needed to bring in the audience.

Dianna Brickley
Utah


When I go on stage now, I am thinking about two things. What emotional state or point of view am I starting with, and also listening to everything and, more importantly, reacting to it. There was a time when I took the idea of not trying to be funny to an extreme and stopped trying to have fun on stage. Trying to be funny is disastrous, but trying to have fun is essential. I don't worry about that so much anymore as it has become something like second nature to me. Also very important is trying to stay away from plotting the show. Improv is all about what is happening now, and I have to stop myself from trying to forecast the direction of the show.

Curtis Erhart
Chicago, IL


If I were going to go on stage right now, at 6:47 Thursday December 18, I would think: confidence. No fear. When I first started improv, I was so unsure of myself and worried about being funny and didn't know what to do. Now, I pretty much feel the same way. But I remind myself to forget (can you remind yourself to forget?) those thoughts before I go on stage. As long as I go out there and do something and accept everything--whether I present it or my scene partner does--then I'll be okay. Good even. Nay, great! As long as I show confidence, the audience will recognize that I know what I'm doing and that everything that happens on stage is on purpose.

Lisa Anderson
Utah
Improviser of 1 year and 3 months


Ok, Prof, here's my essay:

If I were going on stage right now, I would concentrate on telling myself to remember the thing I need to work on most - making strong choices. I am getting a lot of feedback from coaches and teachers about this. One said I seem to be afraid I will pollute the scene with a bad idea.

This differs from when I started only in that I was afraid to say much of anything because I was so afraid I would suck. Now I donít fear suckage (not that I never suck, Iím just not so afraid of it). Now I am just sure everyone else probably has a better idea and I want the scenes to be the best they can be.

Sweet and simple, just like me. Thanks for asking for my input.

Lisa Palmisano
Dirty South Improv, North Carolina
I started improv in February '03


Thanks, for letting me answer this, Ryan. I am pleased to help.

When I first started improv, I thought more about what I could do that was funny. I would actually go through my head and review bits and things I had done in the past, and debating which ones I hadn't used in a while so that they would be "fresh".

I think it's because of how I was trained originally, but over time as my understanding of improv has grown I have changed to focusing on my strengths or weaknesses. I.e. I need to learn to listen more, or I am going to focus on playing it "real".

But even now that perspective has changed again.

Now I think, "What can I do to support the person(s) I am playing with? How can I focus on him/her? How can I contribute to the peice so that the person(s) in the scene has a lot of fun and feels comfortable playing with me?

I don't focus on my strengths and my weaknesess before performing anymore for two reasons. It puts me in my head, and if I am in my head I am not focusing on the most important person on stage; my scene partner.

The second reason is: That's what workshops are for. If you focus on what to work on in a show, then you run the risk of less risky, less original improv.

I have been performing for three years, for Quickwits, in Clearfield Utah.

I hope this helps. Thanks again.

Jake Plumley
Utah


When I was first improvising, the thoughts going through my head were along the lines of "say something funny", "say something clever", and "whatever happens, don't look like an idiot". Like many people, I did shortform first, which probably exacerbated the (self-inflicted) pressure to be brilliant on cue. When I started doing longform, I was probably thinking "OK, don't do that (thing that screwed me up last time)" or "do do this (thing my coach told me to focus on)" as well as "say something funny".

As I became more comfortable with the work, I would enter with premises I thought would work, or go out with nothing, confident my partner and I would be able to create a game. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn't. It wasn't until I focused on giving myself an energy to play from that I was able to escape the self-conscious thinking and just play the scene. This could range from a specific character I knew I would be, to a physicality with which to start from, open to incorporating whatever gifts I received. Giving myself a who is now so ingrained in my improv routine, I now try to start scenes by looking at the person opposite me and thinking, "How do I know this person?". Everything I say and do, and how I say and do it, is therefore influenced by whom I'm with.

Craig Cackowski
IO West (Los Angeles)
14 years of improv


Hey,

I think of an emotion just before I hit the stage. Within that,I can think of a motivation because if there' s an emotion , I can just justify why that character feels that way.

hope that helps

Tod Hosheit
Spokane ComedySportz
2 years experience


When I first started performing improv, my main goal was to make the audience laugh. I brought friends to most of my shows, so it was really important to me that I gave a solid performance and made a good impression on my friends, as well as the rest of the audience. So, before all my shows, I would sneak peeks at how many people were in the audience and then think about how I wanted every one of them to leave the show thinking, "wow, that skinny French kid was good. I could never do that."

When my main improv goal switched from wanting to make the audience have a good time to wanting myself to have a good time, my pre-show focus also switched. Now, before shows, I just focus on "doing my thing" and having fun doing it. I think about all the people that would be thrilled to take my place on a Harold team, taking the stage for 30-minute sets and making people laugh, and that helps to motivate me. There's so much fun out there on the stage, and it's just waiting for improvisers to go out there and grab it. If you don't, then you'll be spending that night thinking about what you could have and should have done on stage.

Greg Brainos
DSI - Chapel Hill, NC
4 year improv vet


RYLOCíS QUESTIONANSWERED:
MICHELLE DOBRAWSKY

Iím a student at the Upright Citizenís Brigade Theater here in New York City and Iím nearing the end of my first improv year. Since January 2003, Iíve taken Levels 1-3B at the UCBT. Iíve also taken a class on improvised one-act plays at the UCBT, and done workshops during the DCM with Joe Bill and Mark Sutton. I am a founding member of an independent improv group, Ja-Looozers!, that performs in New York City. Iíve also performed stand-up comedy.

I wanted to write this up purposely after my last Level 3B class show, so I could put both ends of my brief improv "career" into perspective. I clearly remember pacing around backstage before our first show at the end of Level 1. I knew what it was like to be on stage, since I had done standup, but these butterflies were hundreds of times more horrific and strange - suddenly, and I did say this out loud, louder than I needed to, "Oh my god, Iíve forgotten everything Iíve ever learned." It all seemed to drain away from me. A few odd looks from my classmates shook me back to the reality of the situation. All I know is that all at once, our class just stormed the stage, with unbelievable enthusiasm, and suddenly I was back "in the zone," and it was a great, fun show. Now, every time I do a show, that first fear from my first show flashes into my head, and gives me a little perspective, and reminds me to run through the basics - yes-and; listen hard and actively to what others are saying so that you can play actively in that scene; commit to your characters - all the good stuff that can slip by you, when you continue to learn so much as you go through the process of training and practice. So, that little bit of fear and excitement, in recalling my first show, propels me forward, and yet it grounds me a little at the same time. And thatís what I remember before I go on stage.

Michelle Dobrawsky
New York, NY


Right now, Iíd be focusing on what this character Iím creating right now wants. Iíd be taking inspiration from the suggestion or an opening based on the suggestion. In adding new information, Iíd be drawing as much as I can from the opening or other ideas presented in the piece, trying to invent less and less in the moment, using whatís already been established. Things like non-sequiturs or crazy pop references that donít directly relate to the long-form Iím helping create are greatly reduced -- the end is contained in the beginning.

I used to approach a scene with a hodgepodge of advice nuggets that lacked any kind of order in my mind. Stuff like, "Say yes-and," "Avoid arguing," "Donít do transaction scenes," "Donít think," etc. - rules, without understanding how they fit together My improv as a result was not as focused as now, when I think of what I want in a scene. And anything was game for incorporating into a scene, even if it wasnít generated from the opening or related to the suggestion. As a result, my long-form was occasionally funny, more often haphazard, and caused a lot of confusion amongst those playing with me, as well as for myself.

Ben Hauck
Coach, Devil's Dancebelt (long-form improv group)
New York, NY
Improvising since 2000


OK, Ryloc. I think Iíve got an answer for you.

Before going onstage I try to clear my mind of all limitations/restrictions/goals. Because, naturally, when you go onstage if your mind is focusing on specifics, youíll be way too "in your head" to be of any use in scenes. Now saying that I donít think about what Iíd like to do onstage before hand would be a lie I have personal goals that I set for myself, but then I try and forget them right before going onstage.

I used to really be concerned about the audience. I wanted them to enjoy it so much that it hurt my scenework because I was focused on that. I also wanted to make sure that I was protected. Meaning, I wanted to make sure that my ideas would go over with the audience and the group. But the longer you do it, you realize that the audience will enjoy it if you do.

Hope that helps. My name is Henry Garrett Droege, and Iím with The Other Side in Wilmington, NC. Iíve been doing improv for four years and counting! later.

HGD


The thing I need to remind myself before I hit the stage is, more often than not, "just have fun." Ideally, I'm able to get into a space with my fellow performers and get ourselves focused on the performance and what we plan to do. Then, it's just a matter of not worrying about a thing until we hit that stage. And even then, I think having fun is at the top of the list-- I mean, if I'm not having fun out there, who's gonna have fun watching me?

It's taken some time to really get comfortable so that I don't have millions of thoughts running through my head. I remember just a couple years ago taking the stage with some of the IO "veterans" and being nearly paralyzed with self-reminders of the improv basics. Now, though I still get butterflies (or excited, as I like to call it), I find that if I'm focused on having a good time and just listening to my fellow players, that's all that's really needed. I think it's definitely an evolution that all performers experience, and everyone's got their own pace.

That's about two paragraphs. Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to expand upon, though, based on discussions I've had with some friends, I'm guessing that I may just be a run-of-the-mill answer.

Thanks!

Name: Sean Monahan
doin' improv: since 1995
Perform: All over the country with Mission Improvable, currently at IO with Johnny Roast Beef (been at IO since '98)


Aloha prof. Ryloc

Here are my thoughts

I find that for the last couple of years, when I go on stage, I'm not really focused on anything most of the time. Indeed, when I find myself thinking about something - even something like listening or agreeing - I tend to 'get in my head," as they say. I don't know whether this is because I'm approaching zen mind, or whether it is because I've just been doing it for so long that it is habit. Hmmm.

In the old days, when i first started, I tended to focus on commiting to whatever suggestion came my way 100%. I would pounce on it as a tiger might on an aged wildebeest in order to cull the herd.

Anyhow, my name is R. Kevin Doyle, I live in Honolulu, HI. I've been doing improv for about 12 years as part of Loose Screws (www.loosescrews.org) and Mental Tilapia (www.mentaltilapia.com)


Key:

IRC: Improv Resource Center
UCB: Upright Citizenís Brigade - New York, NY
IO: ImprovOlympic - Chicago, IL
IO West: ImprovOlympic West - Los Angeles, CA
DSI: Dirty South Improv - Chapel Hill, NC

Links:

http://www.improvresourcecenter.com
http://www.chicagoimprov.org
http://www.dirtysouthimprov.com
Spokane Comedy Sportz

* My Improv Olympic Class Notes - That one's my favorite.
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