The Backline E159: The Johnstonian Dictionary

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 159: The Johnstonian Dictionary. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

8:40 – “When you introduce a new term, or a term that is different, or different way of looking at improv, often people take it as a criticism of a deeply held belief that they have. And I think that’s a mistake. So you know, we may say something like “oh you know, here’s game of the scene, it replaces this part of Johnstonian improv.” And people go “Why trying to replace that, that’s awesome, we need that!” And no-one in improv is trying to erase section of improv history. Like the concepts that are valuable to you are still valuable, but this is just another tool, this is another way to look at it, and they exist, they can exist both in your toolbelt.”

9:48 – “I think the goal is always, is this clearer? Or does this help anybody? And I think that’s what renaming something or finding an alternate phrase to discuss a certain topic, anybody who talks about that, their goal is hopefully, “does this make more sense then what we previously held?” or “does this help clear up something you had a hard time you a hard time digging your nails into?”

11:34Relationship vs Dynamic:

  • Relationship (Johnstonian): How you and the other person you are on stage with someone, e.g. customer and barista. Often goes hand in hand with the “no stranger” rule.
  • Dynamic (Modern): How you are treating someone, e.g. bully and victim.

14:54 – “If you feel a certain way towards someone and you’re treating them in a certain way, we actually have enough meat to make a scene out of it. And the thing that a relationship doesn’t actually give us, it doesn’t give us reproducible results.”

16:27 – Relationships can result in players acting out stereotypes, where as dynamics can provide playable feelings towards each other.

19:47Who/What/Where vs The Behavior: Both of these are considered the labelled context of the scene.

  • Who/What/Where (Johnstonian): Things that the audience will never see, e.g a forest.
  • The Behavior (Modern): The labelled dynamic between the two people in the scene that can live anywhere.

21:44 – In modern longform, we’re taking characters from one location and putting them in a different context. Taking large amounts of time setting up who/what/where is wasted time, as it’s unlikely to be reused in later beats. Instead, paying attention to the behavior allows us to bring something in that the audience has already identified with and can heighten.

23:40 – “If the location is the star of your scene, it’s not going to be a great scene to play or to watch.” The transition from neutral exposition (e.g. about the environment) to passionate emotion is hard!

25:48: Playing Status vs Playing Game of the Scene: Surprisingly similar!

  • Playing Status (Johnstonian): The belief that all characters exist in hierarchy. Relates to how you character is treated, how you are seen by other characters, and how much weight your words have. e.g. the president (high status) over a homeless person (low status).
  • Playing Game of the Scene (Modern): Involves dynamics. Finding situations to affect the characters in the scene in a certain way. Status can be apart of a scenic game.

29:34: Surrender vs The Right to Play:

  • Surrender (Johnstonian): The idea that someone in the scene has to win or lose, e.g. a fight. Solves the problem of conflict in scenes.
  • The Right to Play (Modern): “You get to choose one thing. And the one thing is, what do you step into the scene with? What’s your first emotion, the first object work, your first line of dialogue. Whatever that first thing is, you are entitled to pursuit that for the rest of the scene. And anything that I [the improviser] do that helps you pursuit that more is good for the scene, it benefits us it creates laughter. And anything that I do that stops you from pursuing that behavior is a a bad thing.”

31:48Surrendering and Moving On vs Surrendering and Reinvesting:

  • Surrendering and Moving On: Giving up on conflict and moving to something else in the scene.
  • Surrendering and Reinvesting: Taking a break from that conflict and coming back to it with more intensity.

32:57 – Conflict doesn’t need to be solved. Sit in it. “The business is experiencing feelings on stage in front of people for no money.” By solving conflict, you’ve removed the dynamic established in the scene and need to find something new to play with.

35:20 – There’s a big difference between stopping someone’s play (e.g. the medicine you’re giving these kids is poison, stop giving it to them) and having a feeling towards someone’s play (e.g. I hate kids and you giving them medicine makes them better, therefore I hate you).

39:01Establishing a Character vs Establishing a Deal:

  • Character (Johnstonian): Who you are, your name, how you move, your job.
  • A Deal (Modern): The one thing you bring into the scene (see the right to play).  The emotion, line of dialogue, object work.
  • A deal is a thing that you’re doing in this moment. It is something that you are present for. Your character is how your deal is received by your partner.

41:36 – “Who we are ultimately is something we discover by what we’re doing in the scene.” If we’re coming in with a pre-established character, we’re expecting a certain reaction from the other characters in the scene.

42:50 – “When I step on stage with a full character that’s pre-established, I turn the person I’m playing with into my puppet. Either they do what I say and do what my psyche demands of them, or we get into a conflict. And that’s a bummer of a feeling. It’s a bummer of a feeling to either go “okay I’m just doing what you want me to do here.” It’s also a bummer to be like “I don’t want to drop my deal ’cause this is who I am but you won’t let me play the thing I stepped on stage with because it interferes with how the scene is supposed to go with your fuckin’ Jorje the Spanish waiter, you know?”

The Backline E66: Improv Is Not a Formula

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 66: Improv is Not a FormulaClick the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

2:56: When learning how to improvise, you are taught that improvisation is the execution of a bunch of techniques/standards/lessons. With experience, that will dissipate as you make your own discoveries and break rules, while having successful scenes and shows.

5:10: “As you train more, you start to develop formulas. Or certain teachers start to suggest that ‘oh there’s a way to improvise and this is the way to do it. So do it my way and you’re going to find good scenes.’ But I don’t really think really true.”

6:06: “If the end product is a success in terms of laughs and enjoyment, then no-one gives a shit about what style or technique you use.”

8:22: “Yes And works, but it’s only one of the tools you have.” You don’t always have to agree – if you say no in real life to something, you don’t have to say yes just because you’re in an improv scene. The actors in the scene share consensus, they don’t necessarily say Yes And to everything.

9:29: Grounded/truthful scenes are not soap opera overdramatic heavy pretentious scenes. Play truthful and grounded to the reality of the scene. Don’t force truth into a scene where it doesn’t belong – it doesn’t necessarily need to be in every single scene.

13:02: “I think it’s a real disservice to tell people that something can never happen, in art, as well as improv.”

13:29: “It’s not about don’t make jokes. It’s about find the time, be aware of what you’re in right now, and if a joke is needed, make a good joke man!”

15:01: Object work makes performers look comfortable to an audience, even when they are saying nothing of value. “Once you start to say more interesting things and do more interesting things, object work is still fantastic, but do you need it in every minute of every scene? No.”

16:17: Listening and Reacting – You don’t necessarily need to use every single bit of information added by your scene partner in a scene – both of these are important, but it’s ok not to take in everything or react to everything.

20:28: A sense of whimsey or play with your partner – if the two people on stage are having so much fun, you won’t be thinking about missing character or relationship or plot. But if it has those elements, it’s just as good!

22:55: Good scenes don’t need to be overwhelmingly complex. You don’t need to create the whole pie from scratch at once. Start in a simple way, find a simple behaviour to explore and build together little by little. Think less Lord of the Rings, more Whiplash.

26:23: “The idea that the audience is watching something begin so small and then grow into it’s final product is an exciting adventure, and people can really get off on that.”

27:33: Drive – “What is the scene about? Where’s the momentum? What are we building towards? There’s an end in sight. [..] Your scene needs to go somewhere.”

28:19: If you make a discovery that the audience enjoys, trust yourself to move on – don’t be afraid to continue. Don’t just hang out, continue and find something better.

32:07: “It’s important that your job isn’t to perform the perfect scene and get all of the criteria from above down, but really it’s about existing in a certain space and just experiencing what is happening to you. Being able to do that forever – not feeling subconscious, not pulling yourself out of that moment.”

33:19: Vulnerability – often mistaken for being truthful or reacting. It’s not about character vulnerability – “it’s about exposing your truth to the audience.” It’s being able to do something that you would never do in real life in order to service the scene – be it playing a low status jerk or singing. Don’t push back, don’t resist.

43:05: “It’s always good to be true to yourself and how you play but I don’t think there’s any harm in being open to altering your play based on where and who you’re playing to.”

Improv Nerd E163: TJ & Dave

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Chicago improv podcast Improv Nerd. This is from Episode 163: TJ & Dave. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

10:34: How the TJ & Dave format came about: “We decided to improvise in the way we were going to improvise.” No planning of what the show was going to look like in advance, including format. After a bad first show, the duo made some choices to “find out what this show tends to do”. The cast was kept to two, as they only wanted to add people as they were needed. Rather than doing “a bunch of different stuff, let’s just do one thing.” Someone else pointed out that the shows would always take place in the same time – almost real time, within the hour TJ & Dave are on stage. No time dashes, but jumps to different locations (in the same time) occur. TJ & Dave playing multiple characters over the course of a show came out of necessity.

14:40: “The show itself, it’s an exercise in seeing what happens when you really only go from moment to moment to moment with no plans, no bits, and really just behave this way. [..] Like an actual human being, which is like the easiest way to get a show to a sustainable way, like put real people in it. Real people tend to live for a while, you know what I mean? They do things that they live by, and make choices that their accountable for, and that kind of stuff and so, if it was just going to be us and the show would be about an hour then, let’s make these people as actual as we can, and they’ll do things that people actually would do. Because no-one’s coming, we’re not getting edited, so we gotta live in these people for a while. It’s going to be easier if we make them real.”

16:53: Responding honestly means the response falls in the believable realm for that character’s point of view. In short, the logic checks out. An absurd character can be believable by being honest on stage, which may in turn gain laughs more so than an absurd character stating absurd things (because they are absurd or funny).

17:35: What a character first does can deem what they become. An over-solicitous waiter stands in a certain way, walks in a certain way, the pace in which they move or talk.

19:45: [..] There is going to be comedy in it [a TJ & Dave show], but it’s not the intention. That isn’t what we’re focusing on, we’re really just trying to go from moment to moment to moment, and one’s own nature will probably reveal itself in certain situations, you know the tendencies. We have a skewed outlook that often people view that as funny. Like in therapy, that’s sad. It’s medicated. But on stage, oh that’s hilarious! If you said comedy is the goal, if you said funny is the goal, you’re likely never going to hit interesting or frightening or any of that, you’re just going to hit, you’re going to miss, you’re going to hit unfunny.

21:44: “Honesty doesn’t prohibit comedy.”

30:23: Improvisation isn’t getting on stage and talking. It’s choosing your words, your movements, how you conduct yourself carefully in response to your scene partner.

33:56: Scenework that involves making discoveries on stage involves removing internal fears. “Empty yourself of all your own garbage”, and to “operate as an antenna” to receive, not push the scene in the direction we want it to go in. You don’t have to say something soon – talk when you feel the need to talk. If a place or person isn’t defined, we don’t have to define them in order for the scene to be considered good. “When in doubt, seduce.”

35:17: “Pay attention to the other person. That’s all that matters, that’s all that matters. What is going on here, what’s the relationship. That’s the extent of how important I am, what am I to them? And it takes a lot of the onus off trying to work all this shit out.”

56:45: “The job of the improviser is to not do the same thing, to always have a new. If what we’ve decided to explore becomes less than new, we have to find something else to explore.”

1:09:16: “Never love it [improv] so much that you’re not having outside experiences.”

1:09:55: “A bad scene should not force you to think less of yourself. A bad scene should and can make you look forward to improvising again.”


If you like nerdy in-depth discussions of what improv is supposed to be, Pack Improv with Miles Stroth is your podcast. Also, at 30 minutes an episode it’s an easy listen.

Hoo boy, this is a good episode of Improv Nerd. Around 16 minutes in, host Jimmy Carrane asks guest Will Hines to define the UCB’s philosophy and go into the game of the scene. Then at 18 minutes, the two perform a game based scene followed by a discussion where Hines separates the base reality from the games going on inside the scene. They then re-do the scene, playing the game differently each time. Neat! Download the episode over at Feral Audio.

Magnet Theater Podcast E50: Will Hines

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to New York improv podcast Magnet Theater Podcast. This is from Episode 50: Will Hines. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

2:12: Improv fighting: philosophical debates are good, but wizard battles are bad.

  • Philosophical Debates: Two characters are having a point of view discussion. It’s not about winning the fight or defeating your scene partner. It’s about exploration of point of view, which could lead to further point of view, game, or pattern.
  • Wizard Battles: Using the powers of reality to win the fight. Making up something to justify your own point of view/make your scene partner look wrong.

Find the sweet spot for fighting in scenes. No fights makes for unrealistic discussion (people in real life fight!). Too many fights leads to defensive moves by the improviser, instead of the character in the scene.

6:20: When a fight is over, we move forward. An interesting change happens in the character as a result of the fight impacting on the character. Fights don’t exist just to fight.

8:14: “Fighting (in scenes) is tricky I think ’cause [..] good fighting and bad fighting feels very similar I think. And bad fighting feels like a lot of good stuff in improv. Like bad fighting feels passionate and true, and honest and specific, all that stuff’s great, like that stuff is what you’re trying to get to right? So it’s really tough for younger improvisers, you want them to be like passionate and committed and honest and personal, but then they’ll only do it to defend themselves. I mean I’ve done it, I don’t mean to. But that’s the trick, to get them to separate their ego out.”

8:53: “The guaranteed way to know if a fight is good or bad, and this is not helpful for when you’re doing improv, is like if you feel like defensive anger while you’re doing it, it’s wrong. Like if you’re just doing it to protect yourself, that’s wrong. Even though that does happen in real life, you can’t pursue that feeling [in a scene]. But that’s not necessarily helpful. Like if you make fun of me on stage and I zing you back, that’s probably not helpful even if it makes the audience laugh. But if you say something about yourself and I zing you just to like make your thing more true or creative more evidence to back up what you said about yourself that is good, and the audience might laugh. Those things feel very similar, but the former is a protective move, it doesn’t work.”

11:05: Fights often break out due to scene partners not acknowledge each other when starting the scene. The first performer in enters the stage, starts doing object work, leaving the second performer to make a big choice. First in will then feel violated and then fights with the second in. “Shake hands” before you start the scene – acknowledge your scene partner when you start the scene – use eye contact, get on the same page early. “The person tried to shake hands with you by talking about a sandwich, and you rejected the handshake. So they’re as miffed as if they put out their hand and you ignored it.”

18:44: Differences in Magnet style Harolds to UCB style Harolds according to Louis Kornfeld:

  • Less game oriented.
  • Second beats: Extensions of the first beats instead of literal direct heightening. First beats are considered source scenes, which are followed in the second beats discovering resonance between them.
  • Use of opening: Casual, exploration of ideas, finding characters. Not literal, not so much to generate premise or game to re-use in scenes.

19:34: Will Hines’ pragmatic thoughts on Harold openings:

Premise or game based opening pulls

  • Advantages: You get something funny earlier, potential of laughs earlier, makes the performers and audience comfortable that the show is going somewhere.
  • Disadvantages: Discovery can be rushed, scenes can be thin as a result.

Theme, moods, characters, half-idea based opening pulls

  • Advantages: Connect more with your teammates, commit harder, more real, more freedom to find yourself in it. Yes And/Agreement is stronger.
  • Disadvantages: Can meander more before something funny happens. Less aggressively entertaining – if people aren’t funny naturally, the show will ramble around.

22:02: “Entertain the audience now. Do it now, that’s what you’re there for.”

22:24: “I treat openings a lot [..] as gifting each other with what the suggestion brings to my mind. So what I mean would be, if I do something in an opening, let’s say I come on out and do a short character monologue in the opening, I would then avoid touching that character for the rest of the show, that’s, I’m leaving it out there for the reason of the group to pick up, should they be so inspired. Once I get my idea my idea out there, I’m actively looking for somebody’s idea that’s inspirational to me.”

28:38: Great acting in an improv scene may not be great acting at an acting school, or even feature great actors. It has an honesty and a sincerity to the way that is played. The simplest thing becomes fascinating to watch.

31:20: Just do what you’re being asked to do. Don’t add more, just do what you’re being asked to do to the best of your ability. That will lead to something fascinating, a glimpse between two people – not big, not bullshit, just direct and sincere.

36:37: “Scope on the rules is what’s good.” Not all improv rules apply to every scene uniformly. If the improviser is aware of the scene – what they are doing and what their partner is doing, they will know what rules to apply in the situation.

42:47: “If you’re a good student, you’ll try on different things because the teacher’s asking you to and you’ll decide later if it’s for you or not. But that’s definitely the most productive approach if you’re a student anyway.”

59:48: “It’s all like are you being present and honest in the moment? Or are you relying on formulas and shoulds and you’re no longer like, tuned in. You have to be an honest reporter of the moment to the audience. The audience is watching you so you have to report honestly on what’s going on. So if you’re not doing that because you’re obeying a rule you heard, then you suck. But it’s funny because what is a freeing simplification one day is a binding rule the next day, just because you grew.”

1:22:08: Know/Care/Say: The opposite of the “normal” improv rules that are all negative – scenes should have positive things – choose to know what’s going on, choose to care about it, and choose to say something. “Because those are the three things we’re socialised to not do. [..] Those are real instincts that we have learned. And although we want you to be real on stage, it’s except for those three very ingrained things, big exceptions.”

1:26:51: Know/Care/Say: It’s about skipping all your natural “mammal brain” defenses without changing your real personality.

Got Your Back E43: Maybe You Aren’t Listening

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 43: Maybe You Aren’t ListeningClick the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

7:08: “If you’re not listening, you’re inventing. [..] If you’re not using what the other person is giving you, or what you’re even giving yourself, or if you’re not aware of what’s going on then you’re not going to be able to use it.”

  • Usually happens the first line out of a scene, due to nervousness?
  • Use the intended specifics given at the top of a scene by your scene partner

9:06: “It’s like you gave some information, and then I was like hey this would be crazy! [..] It’s not working together, it’s like working alone, next to each other at that point.”

11:05: “Relax up top. [..] If you get nervous, just try and do more of what they already said, or just try and react to what was already there. Try to avoid going into your head and creating something external based on something that wasn’t said, inferred, with a subtext of what was said.”

  • If you feel unclear, do some object work, keep listening, let your partner keep feeding you, or just ask them
  • It’s fine to ask “what did you say?” if you didn’t hear your scene partner. React to it!
  • No matter how crazy it gets, we can always make sense of it.

14:31: “It changes the reality every time we aren’t listening.”

15:36: “It’s all right there, you know. It’s always all right there. There’s never nothing going on. If you look at the person there, you’re in a position in relation to each other, you’re probably emoting with your eyes even if it’s just I’m uncomfortable because I’m an improviser on stage and the show just started, and you can always use that. You can always read what’s there.”

  • “Being ahead of your audience is a great thing, but not during the first few lines”
  • Get on the same page as performers, then race to the top!

19:51: “The second level of listening is communicating that you’ve listened.”

  • Listen for the intent behind the message, which will prevent negotiation at the top of the scene. Agree with that first line and play it!
  • Play the simple game and make it more complex.
  • Let the things that come up from the suggestion/opening filter who you are, rather then what you say at the top of a scene.
  • If your scene partner walks through a object work made desk, do you call it out or leave it be? Prioritise: What’s the most important thing in the scene? If the scene partner is talking about relationship, it’s that. If the scene partner is spouting non-sequiturs – it’s the desk. Play with the fire – their intent should be given weight.
  • If you want to play with it, tie everything together – make the walk through a choice with wha telse your scene partner is giving.

35:51: “Listening is the willingness to change.” – Dave Pasquesi (or someone. It wasn’t made clear)

36:06: “The desk in a certain level plays the same role as an improviser talking through their drink as they’re drinking. As an audience member I’m going to notice it and I’m going to move right past it because the interaction and the emotional connection between the two performers trumps that little bad piece, or quote unquote bad piece of space work. [..] If there’s a perfect world to bring it together without derailing the scene, that’s great. But if not, I’d say the emotionality trumps that bad space work and that ignoring it, most of the audience will ignore it [..], maybe some of the improvisers will notice and if they’re judging your show on that they can go fuck themselves.”

  • If you don’t know what to say, let it wash over you. Take a moment and then react.
  • If you’ve created something, there’s probably so much more to do. So explore.
  • If you’re going to reference something, reference something from the show, not something completely outside of the show. Use the universe we have!
  • Entering/editing after a reveal: hurts the group as a whole. If the people in the scene have just found momentum, let them keep that ball rolling before taking or stopping the ball.
  • Side support: Don’t come on to add information that has previously been established. Add information that helps the people in the scene focus, don’t distract them. Give the players time to use that information too – don’t make the move because it’s a “good” move to make.
  • If it’s fun for you on the sidelines, it doesn’t necessarily make it fun for the people in the scene.

54:41: “Try this guys. Go out there, start a scene at a restaurant, be clear you’re at a restaurant but have no waiter there. Be talking to someone else, and see if your group has the discipline to not just walk on with some wacky waiter that changes the game. [..] If there’s a scene at a restaurant there’s going to be a waiter coming in. And they, likely are not going to have the same focus or necessarily be heightening the focus that the two people who started the scene had, and that feels shitty to me, it feels like that person isn’t listening.”

55:41: “So basically, listening trumps inspiration.”

57:52: “Listen to yourself. Do you know what you just did so you can do it again? So you can play that thing? So you can replicate it or in some way use it? You have to have an awareness to yourself.”

  • Take time with what you’re doing. You are not forced to do stuff without realising what you’re doing. Slow down!
  • Call out what the other person is doing – they might not be aware that they are doing it.

59:53: “If they know what they have each done, there’s a whole well to go back to.”

  • Sometimes informed by the feeling of “we need to” instead of listening met with judgement. Keep yes-anding.

1:01:33: Group scenes: Focus everyone on to one piece of information. The more people on stage, the more you should be listening.

1:03:02: Remembering elements of the show: Games/What scenes are about and names!

  • Names: Allows for a slow show to look slick, allow for big show moves to happen because you can shortcut them by simply mentioning the name. Smooths things out, especially for second beats.
  • If it’s half way through the show and you have to keep rebuilding, you would have never be able to build higher than you previously did.
  • Repeat names at least three times, so your teammates have something to use. “Plant the flag”
  • Give them nicknames, adjective names to help them stick. “Old Mean Steve!”
  • Naming scenes: A short descriptor to make things easier to remember in second beats. “Garlic eating Ned”
  • Use physicalities, use space to do second beats and callbacks.
  • Name the scene based on the relationship.
  • You can remember stuff based on movement – rocking back and fourth, part of the stage.
  • Write on your hand (ala spelling bee)
  • Hosting: Don’t over explain! Let the audience handle some of the joy of finding out what’s going to happen for themselves.

1:28:00: What to do if someone isn’t listening to you:

  • Listen to them, go to them. Long term, may not be someone you want to play with.
  • Use the “not-listening”. Justify what they are saying and build off it. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, it’s a gift.

1:31:07: You realise you’re not listening: Don’t beat yourself up in the moment, just start listening.

1:31:39: Joe Bill – two ways to deal with the negative and positive on stage.

  • Boil everything down to the plain of it’s existance – everything is a duoality, either a postive or a negative. Take in what your scene partner is doing on stage and frame it as either with curiosity (positive, I want more of that) or with suspicion (negative, I don’t want more of that). Use it to explore the reason behind the action.
  • “I think it’s much more sustainable to say ‘why would you doing that?’ then to just say ‘stop doing that'”
  • If you’re going to ask a question, add information like a name. “You went to the store, Joe?”
    Memory exercise: Repeating some of the last line and adding on. Makes what you’re playing with super clear.

Got Your Back E24: Roy Janik

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 24 with Roy Janik of improv group Parallelogramophonograph. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

4:50 – Interesting things about the Keith Johnston approach:

  • Be obvious above everything else. If something occurs to you and it’s really stupidly obvious, that’s what you should be doing.
  • Don’t try so hard, don’t get in your own way.
  • Teaching yourself to trust your very base instincts

7:08 – “You’ll probably discover some fun thing along the way if you just start doing it.” Creating something from scratch and communicating it to 3 to 10 other people without talking about it ahead of time will probably create its own problems.

7:46 – These issues that people give themselves come out of fear.

9:01 – “It’s not just managing failure, and it’s not just being ok with failure. It’s actively perusing failure and celebrating it.”

9:48 – “That’s an easy thing to say but truly a tough thing to believe. But if you can get to the point on stage where you make “a mistake” and not only are you ok with it but basically you laugh it off and turn it into something beautiful, the audience sees that you’re at that level of comfort and confidence, basically half your job is done.”

12:58 – “Be average! Be more boring! Do less!”

21:38 – Narrative is taught to focus on one single character and follow their journey.
Tools: Once upon a time there is a thing, and every day they did this, until one day something happened that shook it all up, and because of that all these things happened, until finally this climax happened, and ever since that day it’s been like this.
“There’s a world, something happens to upset it, we go through a bunch of shit, and something happens to create a new normalcy”

24:20 – Difference between Johnstone style and Chicago style: character change.
In Johnstone style narrative, a platform tilt will result in change of status or relationship and a character might have a change of heart, status, or change of philosophy.
Chicago style means that we play with character and heighten that relationship/status/philosophy, but not necessary change it.
Same want, same character, different environment.

30:45 – “What does this show want to be? What makes sense for this show?”

34:00Mindsets: “Completely serving the show, to a point where […] trying not to worry about being polite, accepting the fact that we have this level of trust where I can put motivations in other character’s minds, or I can endow them as having done things in between scenes, and vice versa. Or where I can tap them out and take over their character, and mess with them in that way.”
Full commitment, zero risk.

43:40 – Narrative can work on instinct rather than sticking to structure – work on impulse, move when inspired. “In a perfect show, I’m never thinking ‘right now a mentor needs to come in’ but I will know a mentor needs to come in.”

The Backline E32: What’s Missing

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 32: What’s Missing? Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

11:11 – “Just because you’re not in the scene, doesn’t mean you’re not in the show.”

11:28 – “What isn’t on stage right now and how do I add that? Or how do I take this idea and bring it back later? Or what does the audience need right now.”

12:01 – “You’re working; you’re working every single minute.”

12:40#1: Stage Picture

  • Upstage, downstage, left, right, something on the ground, something on a chair, something dangerous.
  • “Think about initiating a scene with your back to the audience. That’s super fun and it’s going to make everyone stop and watch – it’s that popcorn moment.”
  • If you do something that looks non-conventional, you have made the show better because you’re forcing your teammates to think about that – and it turn remember that. When you make a snapshot of the scene, you’ll remember that non-conventional physicality, and bring it back later in the show
  • If your team isn’t as adventurous as you and returns to that two-person centre-stage scene, they’ll enjoy it because you have taken it away from them.

16:36 – #2: Content

  • The kind of things we talk about in a scene.
  • Teams of the same age, same gender tend to improvise about the same stuff.
  • “We may not notice that. We’re on stage and we have a relationship scene of two mid-twenty year old’s breaking up. Then we have another one, two mid-twenty year old’s in a fight. Then a mid-twenty year old getting in a fight with their mum because of their boyfriend. We tend to spew out the same content.”
  • If one type of scene plays out well, we think this kind of audience likes these scenes, let’s do it again. “That’s diminishing returns for you. The second one in a row is half as good; the third one in a row gets no response.”
  • “We should be mindful of our own priming” – the idea that you see before is seeded in your brain, so you tend to do that again.
  • “If the last set/scene I saw was about dicks, the next set/scene should be about unicorns.”

19:00#3: Speed

  • “Improv is a nervous energy artform… A lot of our scenes tend to be infused with that energy.”
  • “Give them that fast pace, then slow it down, then the audience misses that fast pace. Give them that fast pace, then slow it down again. Keep that variety going back and forth.”
  • “Do you have the ability, the ego, and the energy to declare in a set that’s moving too quickly – this is a slow relationship scene?”

22:18#4: Task

  • The same players always playing in scenes – diminishing returns. Everyone has their part to play – so even if you are running hot, you don’t have to be in every scene.
  • “You have to be mindful of yourself”
  • “If you’re too hot, too quick, and you show them all of your tricks, what are you going to do for the rest of the show? Make some room, give some space, use that power you have – the audiences good will, endow that to someone else.”
  • “It’s dangerous to get addicted to that laughter.”
  • If you are one of the leaders of that team, and other players are looking towards for guidance; you need to back off sometimes and let everyone else get their stage time to gain confidence.

26:45#5: Energy

  • “What does it feel like for the audience to watch that scene? Is it a happy scene? Is it a scary scene? Is it playful? Is it high stakes? Is it gamey? Is it more organic?”
  • Mixing up those energies is really important for you to do.
  • If you are focused on playing game, and you play game hard three times in a row, the audience may not find it that funny. Mix up how you find that game.
  • “We want to be surprised” We don’t want to know what’s next.
  • It’s mostly about variety – knowing what we’ve seen, and not giving the exact same thing back.
  • Newer improvisers treat conflict as a very strong successful way to start a scene, because it’s interesting from the beginning. “So you might see three fighting scenes in a row. What a horrible energy to see again and again and again.”
  • “You need to bring an energy to the stage. You don’t walk on stage, do object work and then someone else tells you what the scene is about. That’s a bad scene. Because in that scene you have no control over energy. However, if the last scene was happy, there’s no reason you can’t walk on stage and be horribly upset. That’s a huge gift because you can control part of the energy, and even if your scene partner is super happy, at least you have brought that sadness, that’s a different flavour we haven’t seen yet.”
  • If you an entire set of an open longform montage where every scene is set in 2015, you’ve fucked up. There should be a scene set in the future, or the past, or something fantastical. Because by doing something different, you reset all of the audience’s expectations of what this could possibly be.
  • Keeping the variety going will not only be more fun for the audience, it will be more fun to play in.
  • “They just want to walk on stage and do what they’re good at. […] But its bad improv, and you’re a bad improviser if that’s all you do. You should be able to walk on stage and if you can’t, then that’s a problem.”

31:32#6: Technique

  • How you get to whatever you’re doing.
  • If you initiate scenes with a vague line (“ooh it’s cold”), you’re using the same technique. If the next scene you roll onto stage and loudly yell “Mum I did it, I love you!” that’s a different technique.
  • “If you do three mirroring scenes in a row, no-one’s going to think mirroring’s funny anymore. They see the technique, they see the mechanism.”
  • “All that A to E training you have, you have to do that sometimes in a long-form set. You need to start a scene chopping carrots – sometimes.”

33:45#7: Your Role

  • “You need to have variety in your role, the kind of player that you are.”
  • Three kinds of players – first in (person who makes hard offers), second in (person who loves supporting and yes-anding), and glue (walk-ons, navigate stuff)
  • “In a set you need to isolate between all roles. You don’t want to see the improv dad come in; set up context, my work is done. Go and play in the world I set up.”
  • “You might be a weirdo player who makes the best pervs and freaks and psychopaths. […] But you need to show me a scene where you set up the who, what, where and fold laundry.”
  • “Being aware of that is a very big part of being cast in things. […] If you can show this director, this producer, whoever you’re trying to show off your abilities to, that you can be any of those players then it’s much more easy to fit you on a team.”
  • “The key of: Just because you’re not in the scene, you’re not in the show.
  • “It’s a team spot, and you’ve got to be available at the beacon call of the entire team the entire show.”

37:07 – “The mentatity that you can fix something from the backline. I think that these elements are necessary, but never think that if they are missing from the stage, that you walking on or you sweeping early or you twisting the show because you see what’s missing and nobody else gets it, that’s a bigger problem than variety for me. For us we always want to be thinking as a team about these things. This isn’t your job, this is everyone’s jobs.”

38:12 – “If I ever die in an improv related accident, I hope there’s something called The Curse of Rob Norman. That any improviser that sees two people on stage who haven’t got around to saying the who/what/where and walks out and says ‘Your table is ready, here are the menus,’ in that curse they instantly catch on fire. It’s my least favourite move of all time, it shows such a lack of trust, it shows ‘I know what’s missing, I can solve your problems for you!’ as opposed to ‘Adam Colley, you’re an amazing improviser, when you want the context, you’ll drop the context’.”