Greedy Improvisers

Greedy improvisers are the worst. They are frustrating to play with and suck the joy out of performing. I’ve certainly been on both ends of the spectrum, so I’m not going to pretend that I’m a white knight. But the opposite of being polite in improv sets is not by being greedy – you wanna reach that middle ground.

The signs of a greedy improviser

  1. A lack of attention: Playing with your own ideas. Not following or remembering the previous beats or scenes. Being in your head thinking of ideas. Not knowing who has or hasn’t been on stage yet. Not listening.
  2. A lack of trust: Putting your own ideas ahead of your scene partners. Talking over other players. Dominating scenes, giving your scene partner everything instead of building together. Being on stage multiple scenes in a row. Not yes-anding.

Fortunately these issues are fixable: both of them by being aware.

  1. Listen like a thief: not only with your ears on what’s being spoken, but with your eyes for stage picture and who is performing, with your skin for the heat and weight of the scene. Play in the moment – once that scene has started don’t go backwards to something that you thought off stage but react off what your scene partner has given you.
  2. Share the toys. As the famous Del Close quote goes, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” My ideas are no better or worse then your ideas (in fact, all ideas are worthless. The money is in execution and reaction). Everyone has their part to play in a show, so even if I’m having the show of my life, I need to hold back and let my teammates have a go – because they are awesome too!

If you’re aware of everything that’s going on, things will get easier, simply because you know what’s going on and can make your choices off the information you have gained. This is a team sport – and you’ll have greater success being one part of a team then being an individual in a group of people lumped together.

Learning to Trust→

I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I’m asking you to like–no, love the people who you’re doing improv with. What happens to them, especially on stage, should be more important to you than what happens to you. You are a tough, smart, grown-up person who has seen a lot of tough situations. You can take care of yourself if it comes down to it. Your Improv Friends? Give them everything they need! Be their sugar daddies and tell them how they’re never gonna have to scratch and struggle for anything while you’re around. And you know what? They’re gonna love you back for that. They’re gonna trust you and try to give just as much back. If they don’t then you’ll survive, but if they do you both will thrive.

To Think or Not To Think→

Your reaction is all you get. No one is more than they are right now. In trying to be so is where we fuck up. We hear a line of dialogue, we have a reaction, we ignore or try to be better than our reaction, we think, we come up with a second or third option, but now we are no longer in the moment, we aren’t focused on listening or playing our character, we are in our head. We think we can’t come up with anything when actually we have come up with too much. What we should have done was the first thing that occurred to us.


How do you play differently with different people?→

All great improv is done in the moment. Like anyone else starting a scene, I either make the first offer, or respond to the first offer, and go from there. I don’t go in expecting anything, and find if I go in trying to do anything I either won’t succeed at it or I won’t succeed in having a good scene.

If I go into a scene with, say, TJ, thinking any variation of “OMG OMG OMG”… I’m in my head from moment one and I’m fucked. Likewise, if I’m with a rookie thinking, oh, this person isn’t good, I’ve got to dumb it down… I’m probably limiting both of us.

There’s a saying in college basketball, “Don’t play the name on the jersey.” If a small school is preparing for an NCAA Tournament game with, say, vaunted Duke University, it’s too easy to psyche themselves out on the name DUKE and their history plus high caliber of talent, and completely get the small school out of their game. Conversely, if a big school looks down at a lesser opponent and doesn’t do much to prepare for them, they increase the chances of suffering the upset loss. If you focus on the actual players and team, and matching up with them in the moment, you will have a better chance of exploiting opportunities, playing to your strengths, and beating them.

Say Day

Today marks two special days. It’s my second anniversary of improv. It’s also Say Day.

I never expected to be improvising for this long. Performing regularly was never a goal, neither was continuing study to the craft. An improv blog certainly wasn’t on the cards! I went to a drop-in spin cycle class once and it wasn’t one of the most comfortable experiences when I left the classroom. I felt the same way after leaving my first improv class and in all honestly, only stuck with it as I didn’t want to spend $350 on one class. I’ve made a lot of improv moves in shows, but that was one of the better life moves I’ve made.

In the last two years I’ve performed in both the Melbourne Fringe Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I’ve travelled overseas to perform and learn this stuff, meeting heaps of new people along the way. I’ve sat through so many hours of workshops, fearing that it’s my turn next and everyone would be looking at me; only to realise that they want to see me succeed.  I’ve produced, won, tied, and lost at Cage Match. I’ve made a lot of friends, drank a lot of beers, and did a lot of bits.

Not to mention the personal growth I’ve felt. It took improv to truly know what it’s like to listen and be listened to. That teamwork isn’t a group of people who all want to win, but to work together. Improv has calmed me down. It’s made me more comfortable to express who I am and what I’m feeling. It’s opened me up to trying new things rather than fearing potential consequences. It’s even created some flaws that never existed before, but I’m glad that I’m aware of them.

But ultimately, I’m a result of the people who put faith in me. I’m not a one man army and I’m glad for it. So shout outs to the following:

Andrew Strano: Andrew, you were there during Level 1 introducing me to Alien Soul-Mate (the worst) and now you’re giving me notes every week following Harolds. For some reason I remember you cranking up the heat to 26 degrees at that first (and subsequent) training, causing a warm room to turn into a sweat box after two hours. I’m glad you don’t have access to the thermostat at our trainings.

Andrew, you see good in everything and everyone. You sweat trust, love, and support. When I said I was done, you said go on this path and believe that it would be for the greater good. It is Andrew. Thank you.

Daniel Pavatich: So it’s a Saturday in November 2013. I’m sitting on the floor of a hallway at Fitzroy Library, typing up a desperate pitch to a shop in the city to let me hold a MICF show because my original venue pulled out after registration closed. I’m on the floor at Fitzroy Library because Dan is running a workshop that I’m attending. Everyone around for the class has went inside except me. Dan comes out and says that we’re starting and to come inside, to which I reply that I’ll be just a moment. Dan smirks and says “When you’re ready,” and heads inside.

I’m not entirely sure why that sticks in my head, but for some reason it says everything to me about how I feel about you Dan. Your willingness to share what you know. Your incredible passion, and that you want to see the people around you improve. That you’re a bit of a smartarse but are willing to put faith in others to look after themselves. You’ve called out on my bullshit and celebrated with me when it’s worked perfectly. Thank you Dan, see you at Grain Store.

Adam Kangas: Adam, you say some dumb stuff sometimes and I get offended and fall into my bad old habits. And then I think about your actions and realise that I’m being a boob. Because your actions aren’t dumb. You have an incredible willingness to say yes, even when I haven’t believed in myself that yes is the right answer. I’m on a Harold team because you said yes. I produce Cage Match because you said yes. I assisted teaching a class because you said yes. I put up crazy ideas like a live podcast or two-prov show based on dancing chairs or a game show based on a party game and you say yes.

Adam, you’re ultimately responsible for this ever growing community. I’ve made friends, taken risks, and been given permission to fail and grow all because you didn’t say no. Thanks for saying yes Adam.

Lauren McKenna and James Brennan: Two people I went through my initial training with, and boy aren’t they wonderful. Lauren, if I was the cowardly lion coming out of level three, you were Dorothy; giving me self-belief and support when I needed it. James, I remember the night you joined Skeleton Kisses and we went to have a drink after training. It felt “right” – like putting on a comfy pair of shoes that had been in the cupboard for a while.

I feel lucky to have performed with you in some of my favourite and best shows in the last two years, and look forward to when we play again soon – be in in Melbourne, New York, or anywhere else in the world. Thanks James. Thanks Lauren.

Airblade: Goddamn. My current Harold team – Pat, Shea, Meg, Kay, Bridget, Josh, Brit, and Amruta, you’re all stars. You give me fun in my life every Tuesday and Wednesday – every in-joke, every stretch and share, every post-show beverage. It’s incredibly intimidating playing on a team with performers who are better than you, but somehow it’s so motivational while not being competitive.  Here’s to more board game nights, more beach house getaways, more post-training pancakes or burritos, and more time as one on stage. Thanks Airblade.

Trillcumber: These three people, man. So many post-show complements! I still struggle to take them, but know that I’m ever appreciative. Mario: Thanks for telling me to go to Chicago and produce Cage Match. Thanks for the after-show lifts while I read your mail on the back seat. Thanks for all the bits about sportz. Hayley: Thanks for being the first person outside the team to tell me I did good when I was scared and worried that I wasn’t doing good. Thanks for being obsessed with the same John Mullaney bit to a point that we sought out a diner in Chicago. Simon: Thanks for opening up about yourself and making me realise that I’m not alone in feeling this way about improv. Thanks for the ShottsSmiles© during shows that give me oh so much delight. Thanks for all the beers that we’ve had so far. Thanks for letting me be an extra in your sketch! Thanks Trillcumber.

It’s been a great two years thanks to these and many other friends I have made as a result of improv. I’m super grateful for it. I’d encourage you to get out and tell the people you care about how you feel today too. 

“Del Close Notes”→

Some notes from Del about his improv philosophies and the Harold that I found with some digging. I love point five.

Got Your Back E39: Eat the Whole Pizza

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 39: Eat the Whole Pizza. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

3:24 – Working way harder then you have to – aka eat the whole pizza, use the whole buffalo. Slow down, be more efficient, use what we have to create more stuff.

4:39 – Why does it happen? Judgement (of what’s happening on stage), a lack of trust.

6:16 – “If it feels weird, do it more.” – Liz Allen. If it feels weird, you’re not 100% committing.

8:02 – “The minute you start judging from inside the scene that what you’ve put out isn’t enough, you start being at that 80%. You’re not committing, and all that judgement can rush in and you’re stepping away.”

9:12 – “This idea that if you’re going to keep worrying and being in your head and trying to control stuff, it’s going to be so much more work for you.”

10:30 – “It’s improv – to get something going someone is going to have to buy into someone else’s thing at some point. If we’re not going to do more of this thing, then maybe you could give the next thing, but are people going to buy into that thing? Or are people going to be people putting out next thing after next thing after next thing and we never get anything going. So it’s that idea of going deep versus broad. It’s not about doing the next thing after the next thing after the next thing. It’s about doing a thing and then doing the next thing specifically affected by it. And that requires awareness of the moment.”

16:45 – “Looking at the offers that happen not just as throwaway lines, but every offer we could go deeper into.”

19:16 – The ideas you pull from the opening of a Harold is like a stool. “The further apart those three worlds are, it’s going to hold up that stool so you can sit on it.”

23:41 – “A scene starts, you have something, and I’m like “this is great, it’s real, I believe it, I’m into it”, and someone will get scared or fearful or otherwise self-aware in a negative way and then try to force something or they’ll invent, they invent rather than mining or inferring from already established information. Or even backing away from it is another thing that happens.”

28:43 – Be patient in our exploration of each move. It requires really listening to and reacting to each move, and not being in such a hurry. You’re not really soaking in the implications of what is being said and using that verses getting too carried away in what you thought was happening.

33:40 – Heightening without exploration – if it’s heighten/heighten/heighten/heighten/move/move/move/move, and we’re not taking the time to use any of these, it takes you out of reality. You have to explore/deal with the consequences/react and respond, otherwise it’s replication/ignoring – it’s crazy town, people making game moves.

Think I am a Tree – because of the last thing, we have the next thing; not a new thing. If we have the tree, we have bark, if we have bark, we have a carving.

37:20 – If we have an idea in the first beat, we want to explore the specifics in the second beat. If people’s butts are poison in the first beat, we can explore that reality – people’s butts are poisoned due to incompetence at the boron factory – let’s explore incompetence at the boron factory.

38:42 – “On a big scale, what are we doing here? Element: butt poisoning, how can we do more of that?”

39:20 – On callbacks: Callbacks are like steak. It’s really great, but five bites of steak really fast is gross. But if you put a little space, it’s incredible.

44:42 – “Keep it simple – it doesn’t always have to be two guys hanging out and one of them’s a vampire! The fun will happen if you trust the process. […] There’s going to be some fun thing that we can do, either implicit or explicit, if we’re listening and being efficient. That’s going to be less work than creating something from scratch.”

45:20 – How to use this. Person A starts a scene, Person B’s response must contain some of Person A’s line in their response. Person A’s response must contain some of Person’s B line in their response. Repeat.

47:07 – “Let’s get more specific on the specifics.” Using some of the last line will get you that emotion of that out that makes you continue

51:00 – As an audience member, simple = satisfying. If you do that and it happens organically, it looks amazing. The laughs that you generate are of a different quality too – they are more staying, and will stick around longer.

Squirrel in the Garage→

It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.