AAA Rated Patterns

Craig steps out of the backline and announces to the audience, ‘Cheddah’! Jon follows along with ‘Tasty!’ Sarah is next, ‘Swiss!’ Jadwiga is fourth in line and says ‘Edam!’. We hear from Gouda and Feta and Parmesan. And then Carl steps out. But Carl doesn’t name a cheese like the rest. Carl is a rat. He sneaks around, before taking a nibble out of Sarah, then stealing her offstage.

The rest of the cheeses freak out, running around the stage and changing places in line. Cheddah is suddenly not so proud, announcing itself in a lower volume. Bobby follows with a slightly scared ‘Swiss’, and the rest follow along until Sarah returns as a rat, chewing on Feta and stealing her away too. The cheeses freak out again, with Craig yelping out a horrified ‘Cheddah!”. The speed picks up, as cheese after cheese is listed. And I’m there sitting in the audience laughing my ass off, because I know what’s coming next.

Group games are the best part of the Harold. Yeah yeah, there’s nothing like a well acted funny two person scene but when a group game is performed well, it sticks with you because you’re watching magic play out on stage. Think about it: how on earth do eight or so people play a game when they can’t establish the rules ahead of time? Oh, and also make it funny because an audience has paid to see this show and want to laugh.

The truth is that group work is easier to do than two person scenework purely due to the numbers. If you’re on stage with seven other players, you’re only doing one-eighth of the work. Groupwork is about sharing the stage and putting the group first, with every person adding their part brick by brick to build a wall, and then coming together as a wrecking ball to knock that wall down. Of course, groupwork can also be easier to go disastrous – after all it is a group of performers trying to get on the same page very quickly. It’s easy to let one person control proceedings and follow them without adding anything. Or alternatively, everyone has their own opinion and any unity from the group gets lost in the noise of individuality.

These are all airy-fairy thoughts, I know. So here’s a way to use these qualities on stage in a more digestible way. Use patterns in your group scenes and group games. Patterns are easy to establish, identify, follow. Audiences relate to patterns because we have recognisable patterns in our daily lives – from our morning routine to the words we choose when we speak. The cheese game listed above follows a clear pattern: a list of people name cheeses, a rat steps out and steals one cheese, the cheeses get scared; and the pattern repeats.

A fun pattern follows three areas: accept, add, and advance – aka my patented AAA rated pattern pattern.

Accept: In the cheese example above, the floor is open for the second person in to do absolutely anything. It would be tempting to explain away why Craig said ‘cheddah’, or try and establish a location in order in fear that Craig stepped out with nothing and needs help. It’s easier to accept Craig’s move as brilliant and support it. Sometimes that’s easy as mirroring your performer and doing the exact same actions or saying the same phrase. Doing so shows connection between the group while stripping away that awful panic and in-our-headiness where we need to something clever or funny – we’re on board with the first idea and it’s coming together bit by small bit.

Add: It’s said that the third idea in a list sets a pattern. In our pattern we hear cheddah followed by tasty. Sarah’s suggestion of Swiss confirms that the group is listing off varieties of cheese, and not say.. descriptions of money. It means that it’s now easier for Jadwiga and the rest of the cast to come in and add items to the list – the pattern is set, let’s build it together to a point where we can make it blow up.

Advance: If we’re travelling together, we’re not spinning around inside a hamster wheel, we gotta get somewhere. That means that we need to break the pattern in order to go somewhere new with it. In our cheese example, Carl could have named himself another cheese, but it’s likely that everyone on stage would shrug their shoulders and someone would have made an embarrassed sweep edit from the line. Carl’s move was not to take focus and make himself the star rat. It was to advance the pattern by breaking it. Carl taking Sarah off-stage means the pattern can advance – the rest of the cheeses are affected and it heightens the pattern, keeping things fresh.

The next time you’re watching a Harold, try and find the patterns going on in a group game. Make guesses on how you would add to the pattern and advance it. Then when you play, make those small moves of agreement and acceptance to create patterns and see where it leads you. Even if your group creates some wonky patterns (and all groups do), you will find yourselves more closer together as performers, and that’s only a good thing.

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.

Awareness of the Game

There’s only so much you can do by yourself in order to develop your improv skills, especially on your lonesome. Try shaking it out in front of a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. Lately, my improv development has been watching episodes of the old sketch show Full Frontal.

Yeah, I’ve been watching sketch comedy to improve my improv. I must sound crazy – like telling you that I’m learning how to ride a bike by driving a bus. Sure, they are both forms of transportation but they are executed very differently! The same goes for sketch comedy and improv, but there are lessons we can learn from the former to apply to the latter.

It’s said that a great improvised scene could be written out beat for beat as a scripted sketch. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s approach to scenework is that a scene should have an identifiable pattern that the performers find during the scene, which is then played back and forth. The pattern starts off as something familiar and even relatable, but gets more and more absurd as time goes on. This is known as the game of the scene. The idea is that once we have found this game, we can strip out the specific details from the scene and apply the same game to a different scenario – meaning that we are getting to the funny thing even quicker because we have established rules.

If you’re head is spinning, stick with me. It sounds impossible – how am I supposed to work out what game we are playing in the scene and play it without discussing the rules before the scene begins!? Much like how awareness and listening to your scene partner makes it easier to yes and, awareness of what you are doing in the scene and what your scene partner is also doing makes it easier to identify the game of the scene. Amazingly, that skill can be practiced off-stage simply by watching some sketch comedy and identifying those elements as if we were performing an improv scene.

Back to Full Frontal. Here’s a sketch featuring Shaun Micallef and Daina Reid. Give the sketch a watch, then we will break it down.

Done? Good. Reviewing the sketch, we have Viv (Reid), a personal assistant talking to her boss William (Micallef) about his schedule. So to establish the scene..

WHO: Manager and personal assistant.
WHAT: Meeting to discuss schedule.
WHERE: Manager’s office.

This can be referred to as the base reality of the scene. The idea of the base reality is that it’s a believable, somewhat realistic situation featuring complementary characters. It’s not funny, and that’s ok. We are going to find the funny as the scene progresses. Let’s continue.

Viv continues going through William’s travel plans, giving William the time, his next activity (having lunch), and what he is going to say next (“Good I’m Hungry”), which gets the first big laugh of the sketch. Why the laugh? Because it’s illogical to the questions that came before it – why would a manager ask his personal assistant for a line of dialogue? We can refer to this as the first unusual thing that happened in the scene.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: Manager asks Personal Assistant for what he is going to say next.

The sketch goes on with Viv going through William’s schedule, before telling William to keep breathing. Now while this is sketch and everything is predetermined, if this were an improv scene, Reid is acknowledging to Micallef that she noticed the unusual thing and is going to continue down this path, creating a pattern of Viv dictating William’s actions. If the characters in the scene are Punch and Judy puppets hitting each other with a rolling pin, the actors are puppeteers exchanging a firm handshake that they know what they are working on.

Continuing, we have Viv and William going back and forth on the schedule. William asks Viv if he is doing anything else, Viv asks if he’s had a poo, and William replies “Well you’re my personal assistant, check my schedule”. And boom goes the dynamite – our pattern is established, we have a game in this scene. William asks Viv what he is going to say next, Viv tells William to keep breathing, and Viv asks William if he has done a poo – and he will only do it if Viv has scheduled it. Viv isn’t just a personal assistant to look after William’s work life – she’s a personal assistant to look after EVERYTHING William does!

GAME OF THE SCENE: Manager employs personal assistant to do everything for him.

But the aim of finding the game isn’t just to play it in this scenario, it’s to play it in different scenarios. So we should remove the specifics of manager and personal assistant to try and work out the true game of the scene. A high status person delegates their life to a low status person. Or even simpler..

TRUE GAME OF THE SCENE: Delegate my life.

The rest of the sketch is the game playing out. Viv reminds William to keep breathing, and William keeps delegating his tasks to Viv. Viv reminds William to keep breathing, eats his lunch, gets his massage, kisses his wife, drinks his coffee – before almost reminding William to breathe one last time which she doesn’t (rule of threes!); seeing William collapse and the scene get its blackout moment.

Now if this were the first beat of a Harold, we have a clear game that we can bring into the second beat, placing the true game of the scene onto different specifics. The beauty is that because the audience has already been introduced to this game, they will understand what’s going on – be it in a different scenario with different performers. All we need to do is introduce someone delegating tasks to someone else who might be their servant, or at least lower status. Perhaps a tennis player asks for the ballboy to serve the ball for him, take their car to the car wash, and sleep with their partner. We can then explore the life of the ballboy, finding out who they delegate their tasks to, all while playing that game.

So in review: Set up the base reality – make it relatable, make it real. Play with that until you strike on the first unusual thing, and make sure both performers know it has been found. Pattern out that unusual thing until you have the game of the scene. Play that game out by heightening until you can heighten no more, which will conclude the end of your scene. Then break down the game as simple as you can to find the true game of the scene so you can play it later on.

Not every sketch you see will have a game, let alone a clearly defined game; and the same goes for improv scenes. But if you’re working towards playing games in scenes, or just want to understand how that funny sketch you watched kept getting funnier, watch that sketch again with awareness for the elements of the game.

Small Lil’ Exercise on Playing Status

The awesome Anna Renz taught this one to me. It might have been from Keith Johnstone’s Impro? I can’t remember. It also has the great benefit of being fun as hell to watch.

  1. Four people up.
  2. Number four slips of paper from one to four.
  3. Hand out the slips to each person. Ask them to look at the slip but not show the other performers.
  4. Ask the four to play out a scene.  If it helps, give them a scenario such as a family sitting in a car or employees having post-work drinks.

Why This Is Awesome: Status Dynamics! Each performer knows their own status and can communicate it. A player with a status of 2 might show unwavering support to 1, while putting down 3 and 4. When that is combined with character (such as a family where the kids have higher status than the parents) or point-of-view (3 might mirror the POV of 2), the scenes come to life and are both realistic yet funny. Then add status stifts, where a player might try and raise or lower their status depending on what has previously happened in the scene and you have something that is vibrant to watch.

How To Use This Outside of the Exercise:  When we are aware of status, we can respond appropriately, either by adjusting our status or adjusting how we respond to that status (be it through dialogue, movement, body shape, etc). We can mirror that status too, although you want to be careful playing even higher status, as that may just start argumentative scenes (boring). If we’re on the backline, we can add side-support by complementing the status that already exists in the scene, as opposed to adding something new too. Lots of fun to be had!

Year in Review: 2015

I really went in deep on improv this year. Lots of shows, lots of training, lots of different times and people and stages. I did a lot of things I’ve never done before – two-prov, hosting live podcasts and game shows, running independent shows, and just getting better at the basics. Whether we were kicking each other after a show or celebrating fun times together, it was a real treat for me. Here’s to an even better 2016!

The Numbers

  • Improv Shows Performed: 48
  • Sketch Shows Performed: 1
  • Training Sessions and Workshops Attended: 50+ (at a minimum of two hours).
  • Beverages Consumed: No Comment.
  • Teams and Ensembles: Airblade, Snakes Up, Blokes, Lauren & Mike, Prudence, Inflorescence, Pavlatich and Brewn, No Worries, Shake-A-Stick, MBC, Mixtape, Full Disclosure, What Dat Crum?


  • Performed at the Del Close Marathon in New York City.
  • Auditioned for Under the Gun Theater’s Apprentice Program and was accepted.
  • Created improvised game show “Full Disclosure” with Shane, got accepted for a monthly run at Improv Conspiracy Theatre.
  • Performed standalone show Inflorescence at Melbourne Fringe Festival.
  • Produced going away show “Everything Must Go” with six days notice and filled the joint~!
  • Won a Cage Match (somehow). Lost a bunch of Cage Matches.
  • Handed over Cage Match production duties to Ryan and Matt, two great eggs.
  • Summer Holiday with Airblade after we became a team.
  • Got asked to tell stories at The Remix. Presented really dull stories to the cast of The Remix.
  • Wrote and performed my first sketch pieces.
  • Hosted live improv theory podcast.

Wishes for 2016

  • Produce!
  • Perform less often, study more. Study more than just improv and performance – writing, producing techniques (lighting, sound, etc).
  • Complete formal acting course.
  • Run “Things I learnt in Chicago” workshop in Melbourne.
  • Find indie team interested in performing Harolds.
  • Work out the tricks behind a good organic opening.
  • Start “Comedy Book Club” podcast. Put out episodes on a monthly basis.
  • Perform at least six solo sketches.

Yummy Pineapples: Eight Ways To Cut Open A Suggestion

Suggestions, the supposed proof that what we’re doing isn’t written. Even then, you’ll still have people coming up to you after shows asking if you pre-plan characters or scenarios. Sigh.

When I was learning the Harold, all I remember of interpreting suggestions is that you don’t want to go with the most obvious idea, but go with your second or third idea. In other words, if your suggestion is pineapple, it’s poor form to initiate a scene about eating a pineapple. Instead, we want to take the themes and larger concepts that come up in an opening and play with those. I remember coming up with scene initiations on the sidelines, then panicking when one of my teammates came up with the same idea and initiated first. What do I do now!? I’m screwed!

Since then, I’ve had a lot more training and heard a couple of techniques that have really stuck with me, making things easier, giving me more options, and allowing me to explore suggestions in new ways I never have before.

Lliam Amor, a brilliant improviser from Melbourne took my old Harold team Airblade one week for training. He let us in on how a suggestion can be broken down into four parts:

  • Literal: Playing the suggestion for exactly what it is. Initiate a scene as a pineapple, letting the characteristics of a pineapple influence your character choices – you’re prickly and mean.
  • Personal: Letting a personal memory influence your choices. When I was a kid I would only eat Hawaiian pizzas, so I might initiate a scene as a pizza shop owner running short on supplies.
  • Historical: Use your historical knowledge of the suggestion. I know that pineapple was considered an exotic treat in the 20s and 30s, so I could play a dapper business man trying to sell the world on something new and strange.
  • Pop Culture: What does the suggestion remind you of in the real world? Perhaps your scene is set at The Big Pineapple on the Sunshine Coast.

Last week I was at a live taping of Improv Nerd with iO alumni Matt Higbee. Right before performing a scene with host Jimmy Carrane, Matt was asked how he interprets a suggestion. Matt’s mind works through the following:

  • Sound: What noises/voices does the suggestion remind you of? Pineapple might remind you of tribal warriors on a tropical island.
  • Physicality: Let the suggestion effect your body shape. You might stand with your legs split, bent at the knees, and your hands out by your head; which in turn might generate a character choice or inspire your scene partner.
  • Phrase: Say a phrase that comes to mind from the suggestion. It could be as simple and coming out and saying “How sweet it is!”
  • Thematic: What themes the suggestions inspire – play them. Pineapples are spiky on the outside and sweet on the inside – maybe the characters in the scene reveal themselves to have a hard outer shell but change once opened.

I can’t believe I’ve found eight ideas from the (often oversaid) suggestion pineapple, but there’s a whole lot going on without being a boring dude opening a can of pineapple rings. I really like the idea of using personal memories, because there’s a good chance that my memory is not going to be the same as any of my teammates. Physicality is really cool too, because you might do something that reminds you of the suggestion, but reminds your scene partner of something else!

In short: You can take plenty away from a suggestion. Cut open that fruit – there’s plenty of juicy stuff inside.

Community Action

On Saturday night The Improv Conspiracy Theatre hosted Everything Must Go, a show I was fortunate enough to produce. It was my take on all improv-All Tomorrow’s Parties festival – I’ll ask a bunch of my favourite teams to perform, have a little play myself, and add all the MB trademark flair (baked goods and dumb bits) to put my signature on the evening.  The turnout was great, the performances were spectacular, and the people who spoke to me seemed to really enjoy the night. All in all, good times.

Here’s the confession: I can’t take credit for it.

I’ve been with The Improv Conspiracy for just over two years. Now I’m off, to go chase some dreams that I’ve had before improv even came into my life. I’m excited but it’s a bittersweet excitement, because I have to give up being a part of the community that gives me so much ongoing joy.

When I signed up for Level 1, my aim was to develop some personal skills then walk away after the eight weeks. Intentions of being a performer, or even taking up further classes were zero – this was development and nothing more. What kept me on this road was the encouragement of people around me – students, teachers, Conspiracy performers.

These people were kind to me simply because they made the choice to be kind. They didn’t have to be. I wasn’t a good performer. I didn’t share a warm, open personality with them. I was scared of my shadow. They took action and made me feel welcome. In turn, their kindness lit a fire inside, on stage and off. It drove change within me, regarding how I felt about myself and how I look at the world. It also gave me a duty – to take action and make others feel as welcome as I felt.

I think that’s the secret to any community. A community is made valuable by having its members take action. Some people will take more action, others less; but it needs the involvement of everyone in that community doing something in order for it to succeed. It doesn’t need to be anything spectacular. It could be as small as saying hello to a stranger at the next Harold Night, or yes and-ing your partner in your next scene. That’s something.

That’s why an event like Everything Must Go occurred, and why I can’t take credit for it. The community came together and made it happen. I simply packaged it. The community performed, the community sat in the audience, the community ate brownies and drank cans of Coke and laughed out loud. Everything Must Go was the community coming together and supporting each other, nothing more. To walk away from a group of people who feel that way about each other is incredibly hard because really, why would you leave such a good thing by choice?

But I’m ok with it. The Improv Conspiracy community will live on long after I’m gone, because there will always be someone taking action. Here’s hoping it’s you.


Resetting to Zero

Back before improv took over my life, my dedication was poker. I would play it as often as I now perform, watch all the TV shows, and read through as many strategy books as I could handle.  My main game was no limit hold’em tournaments. Tournaments allowed me to play the strategy of the game, while having a lower cash risk attached. One of the concepts drummed into me regarding tournament poker is chip value. When you’re playing in a cash game, your chip value is equal to its respective cash value. Go all-in with $200 of chips and lose? You lose $200 from your pocket. The chip value is 1 to 1.

The same isn’t true of tournament poker. In tournaments, players pay an entry fee. A portion of that fee is added to a prize pool, with percentages of the pool given based on where you finish. Finish in the top 10% of players and you’ll receive a cash prize from the pool, with more money depending on how high you finish. The chip value frequently changes through the tournament, depending on how many players are left competing and how many chips you have in your stack, which will constantly fluctuate.

You could have $200,000 worth of chips at the start of a tournament, but they’re actually worth $0 cash until you enter the prize stage of the tournament. Or you could have $200 worth and be one of the final two players, knowing that your $200 is worth $200,000 cash in the prize pool.  The concept is designed to get away from associating a bond with tournament chips like you would with cash chips (aka money). In turn, you’re taught that winning or losing individual hands in a poker tournament matter less than finishing in the prize winning stage of a tournament. You could lose ten hands in a row and go on to win the tournament. Or you could play tight aggressive poker for six days winning hand after hand, only to lose two hands and be eliminated without a payout. I’ve had both happen to me.

My big takeaway from this lesson is that tournament poker is all about the greater goal. You want to finish in the money, get that cash reward. To do so, you want to let go of the various emotional swings that are a result of individual poker hands. If you lose an important hand but still have chips left, you are still playing in the tournament. But the act of losing will probably affect you emotionally, and may influence how you play future hands, even though they have no relationship with the hands that come before it. The cards on the table don’t know you just had a bad beat – they are inanimate objects. The dealer doesn’t care that your strong cards lost – they are just doing their job. When the cards are shuffled and dealt, you have all the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but you’re starting a new hand – you’re resetting to zero.

When I started performing improv regularly, I was terrible. Part of this was due to letting my internal emotions drive how I played on stage. Even if I was coming on stage at a neutral level, if I left thinking I did a bad scene, you were not going to be able to shake that feeling from me. Show after show after show, I’d go in thinking that it started off bad and only got worse as time went on. Or I’d have a good show one week, then poo the bed the next. I’d have slumps for weeks and not know how to deal with it, doing crazy stuff in shows in hopes of ending my slump, and hating myself for it. A lack of consistency is frustrating for an improviser.

More recently I have noticed a change – I’m more bad then terrible (progress!) and part of that is not letting those emotional swings affect me. Easier said than done right? Part of it was the realisation that individual scenes don’t matter all that much. Individual shows don’t matter either. Or a festival, or a measured time amount of performances, or whatever. It’s all about the greater goal – am I improving my overall skills as an improviser? Am I achieving the personal goals that I set myself? The same lesson I learned at the poker tables years ago also applies when you’re on stage at an improv show.

Your past performance is no indication of your future performance. You have the knowledge that you’ve previously gained, but starting new means resetting to zero.

You can’t force yourself to do a good scene from scratch just because the last scene you did was good. While studying in Chicago, I was in a downswing – four bad scenes in a row, all in the one morning. So I forced a scene with a partner who was in one of the best scenes I ever did. Didn’t work – make that five bad scenes in a row. During Melbourne Fringe, I performed in a show that would easily be in my worst ten shows of all time. The good news was, the very next night I got to do a brand new show. I had the opportunity to take the knowledge I had, but reset to zero. It was one of the best shows I’ve performed in.

By not giving focus to those emotional swings, you have an opportunity to do something brand new every time you go out, unaffected by what came before it. It means you can let go of annoying defence mechanisms that serve as distractions on stage – your scene partner didn’t listen to you, your teammates edited the scene too late, you didn’t trust myself to make a move; and just focus on serving what’s in front of you. Sure, when the show is over you can rewind and review. But on stage, you’ve always got a new opportunity to do something – even if it’s just an edit or some side support. While this isn’t an excuse to do lazy work, because it’s only one small moment in the greater scheme of things; letting go of those swings means that you have relieved yourself of the pressure or fear that comes with the mindset. If you’re working towards greater goals, all you need to do take in the knowledge you have, then reset to zero.

It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and played poker. Part of me wonders what improv lessons apply at the table. I’ll report back soon on any findings.

Rough Show

About a month ago my team Airblade had a “rough” show. Fresh off a weekend workshop, we decided to implement a bunch of techniques that we had learned, but hadn’t entirely worked out how to use. Some stuff worked, and some stuff didn’t; shows like that happen all the time.

What made it rough? The content that came up in the show. The new techniques somehow cause a shift in how we played. Our show, built off the suggestion of corn cob featured scenes about human trafficking, self-harm with knives, and suicide, not to mention a ships worth of swearing. The audience laughed at the show in certain stages, but also let their discomfort be known out loud. When we got off stage to decompress, the team felt pretty crummy about it.

Later on that night a teammate and a punter were having a chat about the show. My teammate was explaining how we tried something new, and that sometimes you need to fail before you succeed. The punter in turn responded that we should never try that again, because the self-harm stuff offended them and could have offended others in the audience.

Thanks for coming out.

It got me thinking. What is the role of the improviser? I’ve often heard that an improviser is simultaneously a writer, director, and actor during a show. But I’ve never heard anyone add producer or promoter to that sentence. I don’t mean in the sense of plugging your show that night on Facebook, but creating something that the audience wants to see more both during the show and after it’s finished, bringing out new people to see it. Not necessarily funny improv or even “good” improv, but something intriguing, something with curiosity, something that’s bold and takes risks and where something happens and my brain is forced to play catch-up to make sense of how the performers got to that point. Sustainable improv – otherwise we may as well just practice improv to no audience.

What I have had people tell me is to ignore the audience. Don’t play to them, play ahead of them. Focus on your scene partner and yourself, not the thing the audience responds to. Part of this is to prevent judgement – if I put something out there that the audience doesn’t like, my focus might change to a point where I’m ignoring my scene partner in order to give the audience something they do like (if you’re a standup fan, you’ll see this a lot in people who have been performing for a year or two. They keep going on after they get the light). Or worse, I’ll go into self-judgement mode – I’ll freeze on stage and not offer anything, essentially shutting down the scene or the show. Part of this is also to prevent gaggy play, where the performers get so hung up on generating a response from the audience that we lose any realism the performance has, coming off as desperate.

Unfortunately, what I think gets lost sometimes in play is mindfulness. We are mindful of our scene partner and our fellow players, because we are told to focus on what they are doing and support those choices, not judge them for making them. But we’re not told to be mindful of the audience, and we need to be. They are part of the show as much as we are – they don’t go away after we ask for a suggestion. I also have to be mindful of what I’m doing on stage. Just because we are making it up on the spot doesn’t mean that every offer is equal. All words and actions have meaning, so we have to be measured with what we offer.

Mindfulness in a show is a tricky balancing act. The improviser needs to give equal weight to mindfulness of self, the team, and the audience; but also needs to shift that weight on what the show needs almost immediately, all while not taking away from what’s come before us. Ultimately we have one job to do as improvisers when performing to an audience, and that’s to provide an engaging AND entertaining show, and it has to be both of those – it can’t only be one.

So if we’re being mindful of the audience, the solution to this problem is to stop any sensitive content that comes up in a show to avoid offense, right? Well, not quite. Consciously avoiding sensitive subjects results in polite, self-aware improvisation. As an improviser, if I’m so busy catching myself in shows, constantly looking for something that I don’t personally agree with, it’s unlikely that I’ll get to those moments of total surprise where I find something “right” instead of something wrong.

If I’ve learnt a lesson from the show, it’s being mindful of the variety of show and letting that dictate the kind of content that comes up (yes, one more bit of mindfulness to balance!). Being aware of what has come before you in the show in terms of speed, energy, emotion, and technique, and presenting something that the audience and your teammates haven’t seen yet. That will lead to different choices being made, and therefore different content coming up. It doesn’t mean you avoid those sensitive subjects – but it means you get some lightness with the dark.

Back to the punter and my teammate. The punter had every right to be upset with that show, and I don’t want brush it off by saying “this is just acting, it’s not real, it’s not how I feel, you shouldn’t be upset”. I’m sorry for offending you, it wasn’t what I set out to do. My teammate is right too – the show failed. We may have been engaging enough in our show to draw audible groans, but if a person is coming away offended we can’t say we’ve provided entertainment.

What’s nagging at me is the idea never trying that again. It would certainly be an easy solution, throw away the learning that leads to bad stuff. But my goal is to make sustainable improv – intriguing, curious, played boldly with risk and variety. So shying away from new techniques isn’t an option, even if occasionally it leads to a place that means that we don’t hit that goal. We’re going to keep trying until we crack it, and then rip it all apart and start over I’m sure. All I ask is that you come back again, because it will always be different.

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.