You Win Some, You Lose Some: Games And Relationships

Sticks Author: Jesse

Remembering the Game, the Relationships, and the Relationships between the Games and Relationships.

As we have grown and learned in this medium we have spent time focusing on finding “games”. Games are the little funnies that crop up during improv that we try to heighten and expand on. They can be as simple as a little slip in dialogue, or as complex as a running gag that gets called back throughout the show. Some of us love games. Appropriately, some of us get chided for overusing games. Some would argue that our games are a good part of what makes us funny, but they can be the cause for us running amuck.

Relationships, on the other hand, are our differentiator. We have all known each other for a long time. There is trust and honest caring between the group. When I look in someone’s eyes and let them know they have a boogie hanging out, they, and the audience have to know it’s a statement based in honest compassion. When they do, it’s deeper than a low brow joke. While lots of groups build relationships, I think we are exceptional in this area. Whenever we lose our way, I find our solution is often in remembering to slow down and let the relationship simmer. Humor is often fermented in surprise. When we let an audience really know some characters, and perhaps even start to care about them, the twists we throw in are what generates surprise and laughter.

No one in the group should be surprised I was disappointed with our last show. More clearly, I was disappointed in myself. I found myself far too often an observer. I felt we lost our way during the show, and I sat paralyzed watching instead of actively contributing to try and improve things. This weekend, my mind has been filled with all the great things I should have tried. They all seem to center around a simple truth that hasn’t occurred to me before. There is, and should be, a balance between games and relationships.

I’ve always compartmentalized them before, considering them separate items that require balance, but not considering how they feed one another. Games add depth. Improv is a short art form, and we don’t necessarily have the time we need to add the depth to characters to make relationships real. Games are an avenue for not only “the funny” but for depth. Games give us a chance to explore and add to characters without them even necessarily even being present. Characters, in turn, are the manure pile for our garden of games. They have faults, quirks, and interesting habits. All things that we can explore with time dashing, parallel scenes, and straight up pimp outs. The richer our relationships, the more fodder for games.

This may seem like just the ramblings of a Monday morning, but they are actually a call to action for all my fellow Sticks. We need to remember when we are on stage to build the relationships. Take it slow and find them in your hearts. Always strive to make them real. The closer to reality a character is, the more the audience can identify with them, and the more surprise we generate when their world changes. Supporting characters need to help the characters build. We need to use our opportunities to come on and make the main characters richer. We need to push each other to add nuance to our characters. Pimp them in unimaginable ways and look for the games that make the main characters twitch just a little. Above all remembering that while big can be good, small is often best.


I (Should) Always Feel Like Someone Is Watching Me

Sticks Author: Chris B

With a scripted show, you never really know what may happen – an actor may forget her line or pages of lines (My Fair Lady, 1993), the power may go out and leave you acting into a black abyss (Into the Woods, 2005), or the flat you worked so hard to paint to look like a real house – fail – will fall over and almost take off your left foot (Two By Two, 1992).  But these things truly are oddities when it comes to scripted theater.  Sure there is always the occasional dropped line, a flubbed part of a song, or a missed entrance or cue; so terribly minor.  On a whole, in my 25+ years (really?!) of performing on stage most of the shows go just as we’ve rehearsed them.  This may be why I am now so drawn to the art of improv.  You really don’t know what you will say, what you will do, and whether you’ll be good or not.  It’s like the Actor’s Nightmare, but it’s a joke that you and the audience are in on together.

Ok, I admit it; I love having an audience.  Something happens when the lights dim, you hear the murmur of the crowd (well – small group of people you know won’t be too harsh when you suck) start to die down, and the waiting begins.  The anticipation of the unknown.  In that moment, just before the improv show starts, not a single person in the building is sure how the show will go or what the show will even be about.  You are all in this together.  Your job as the improv performer is to be quick, witty, big, bold, funny even.  The audience’s job is simple – laugh.  I feed on that laughter.  I don’t quite know why, but I feel myself become a different person.  I’m far more focused than I am in rehearsal; time seems to tick slowly by, and I notice things that I don’t think I would notice without an audience there.  I can’t really explain how this works or why.

Part of me feels a little bad – like I’ve been letting my fellow Sticks members down during our rehearsals.  I can remember rehearsals when I struggled to get my butt off the chair and contribute, unless that contribution was pouring more wine into my glass.  In front of an audience, I could hardly stay in my seat.  I’m starting to think that this may be one of my fatal flaws.  When I think no one is looking, or it doesn’t matter so much, I get lazy.  I’ve been acutely aware of this ever since our performance last week.  I do this same thing in many aspects of my life.  As soon as the spotlight is on, I grab the controls and act like I’ve been flying the ship the whole time when actually I’ve been on cruise control  gliding through life happily unaware of my lazy bliss.

Improv is no time to be lazy.  Because you have to completely trust your fellow troupe members, you have to believe that what they give you in rehearsal they will give you in performance.  I am not doing that right now.  I will though.  I’ll pretend there’s an audience, set up a video camera and threaten to put it all on YouTube, open the window shades – put speakers outside and let our neighbors watch and listen (kinky!), or drag a homeless man off the street to come watch and judge me.   Or, maybe I don’t need a gimmick.  Maybe I just need to bring it, all the time, because that’s what my friends and family deserve.  Consider it brought – now, time to get my butt out of this computer chair and pour myself another glass of Malbec.


There Was An Audience And Everything!

Sticks Author: Steve

I really recommend that when you are 12 or so you start hanging around with smart, funny, talented stagey types.  It’s about the best thing you can do if in the future you want to try and learn the Harold.  It’s what I did.

We did our first public Harolds last Friday in front of a warm, engaging and appreciative audience.  The Sticks, my closest and most important friends for 30 years, were truly amazing.  We’ve been rehearsing since September 8, 2010 and I suppose that’s a long time .  But consider that up until about August 2010 only one of us (Chris M) even knew what the hell a Harold was.  Personally, I never even knew a person named Harold because I wasn’t alive in 1910.  My only exposure to things heraldric came via dungeons and dragons (heraldry) and Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

So.  A rewarding trip with these Sticks that began as a discussion with Chris M and I on the rooftop bar of The Elbow Room in West Hartford and continued with frantic research, book reading, video watching (while on vacation with many of the soon-to-be Sticks in Cape Cod) and finally, outrageously, audaciously with the first Sticks rehearsal at Chris M and Jen’s house.

We barely understood what beats were, but we knew how to improv.  We studied and worked and disagreed and then, then!  Then the bastard Sticks staged an intervention against me.  Me!  An intervention to wrestle me into submission about performing publicly.  An intervention against my pickiness.  Assholes.  Lovely, lovely, correct assholes.

Up until now we’ve performed in various Sticks living rooms across the great town of East Hampton.  And all of these Sticks long, long ago surpassed my improv abilities.  With the structure of the Harold down, and with our decision to include mini monologues instead of group games between beats, we’ve been flying.  The best part is – I get to watch them.

Last night, other people got to watch them and it wasn’t in a living room. It was in the upstairs of our little town museum.  That’s practically Radio City Music Hall or The Apollo or some other famous theater like the main stage of the Gold Club.

Since most in the audience were unfamiliar with improv (let alone the Harold), we spent a minute explaining the form.  We then warmed up with a bit of shortform.  After that, we got the first audience suggestion.  Horse.

Chris B. performed a nuanced monologue dealing with his first experiences with horses and we had plenty to work with.  From there, things went really, honestly, perfectly.  Bad driving, horse chicanery, QVC horse-themed restraint devices – all tied neatly together in the third beat thanks to great listening and trust in one another.  The tie ins were especially helped by Chris B, Jen and Jim.  The three of them thinking together is what made it happen.

The audience seemed to like it, but I was tempted at that point to end.  We had planned on doing two, but I was afraid that the audience wouldn’t be interested in watching a second one.  I was wrong.

After a quick break for BYOB imbibing, we settled in again.  The suggestion was “love” and I did the monologue touching on what love means to me and how it can compel even the youngest of us to break down barriers to be together.  Again, everything went extremely well from there.

We’ve all performed in various things for most of our lives and we are very familiar with the feeling you get, how you draw on the audience and how you feel grateful for them.  It was different this time because we were unsure if the form would resonate or if we would pull it off.  Would they know what was happening?  Would they get edits, dashes, beats?  Could they follow people as characters, multiple characters across different scenes?

Would we be funny?

This was a special audience and they seemed to love it.

There are a few things that I’ll take away from the night.  First, we’ll be doing it again and more regularly.  We are beyond ready.  Second, my friends The Sticks are the best bunch of people you could know.  Third, the funny stuff happens when we connect details from the monologue, our relationships, and through listening.  Fourth, quick edits, time dashes etc. are funny.

Most importanly, I will take away that this is freaking fun as hell.

I am grateful to all of The Sticks for doing this and I am very appreciative of the audience who came to see us.

Second City Touring Company In New Haven

Sticks Author: Steve

We don’t need an excuse to  remove the child seats from our minivans, load up with beer, cheese and smoked meat products, lock our children up with babysitters and hit the road.  We don’t need an excuse for that.  We’re adults and if we want to pack into the minivan and head to New Haven, we can do that damnit.  We can.

Eight Sticks in Chris M and Jen’s minivan.  A jumpseat added (a cooler) for comfort of the eighth.  And off we went.

From where we all live in Connecticut (East Hampton) it’s about 45 minutes into the Elm city.  Since our lives mostly revolve (lovingly, joyously) around our small children, we don’t actually get out much.  So when Kendra noted that the Second City touring company was playing the Long Wharf, we jumped!  And by jumped I mean that we loaded up a minivan with beer and pepperoni.  Beep beep! Squeal of tires.  Dust cloud.  Good luck to you babysitters!  We’re outta here.

A quick ride, some cheese cutting in the car (you heard me), some monologues for the fun of it and we arrived.

Listen, it’s our personal brand as an improviser troupe that we are family types.  Piling in and out of the minivan obviously fits this brand and you may think I’m making it up.  But I’m not.  It was honestly the best and most fun way for us to get there.  Right out of the suburbs and into…

Long Wharf.  A fun little theater in New Haven stuck between salami shops and Ikea.  The whole thing actually looks like where they would stage a mildly-urban superhero fight.  Quick Batman!  Down by the loading docks and dumpsters!  There’s a group of criminals trying to get into a theater to steal pearl necklaces right off the rack (!) of entitled theater goers!

I could probably write a lot of detail about the Second City show, but others have done that before me.  Many, many times in the 50 year history of the group.  But I will say that I can’t remember laughing in such a full-guffawish way in a long time.  More than two hours of high-quality entertainment.

We don’t do sketch comedy in The Sticks, but I bet we will at some point.  Many of the scenes were revelations, finely crafted, perfectly paced.  For us, the value (beyond laughing a lot) was in being able to see how those sketches started.  You could see their origins as improv scenes and that was enlightening.

A talented group these Second City folks!  We’ll do it again and I’m sure we may go this time in a station wagon.  With wood paneling.

Sticks Pic: Chris B, Jen, Rachel, Marilyn at Long Wharf.

IO West Harolds: Fast, Fast, Super Fast

Sticks author: Steve

I’m in LA where my pasty, puffy skin is burning. It’s like our hot denizen of outer space has something against the English and is making an example of me. Whatever sun! You may be big and important to photosynthesis, but you can’t deter me from gazing up in wonder at smog!

Also, and this is impotent. I am trying to write this on an iPad so there may be a few damn you autocorrect moments. Forgive me! I’m nude at this.

I am out here on very exciting business that I can’t talk about, but rest assured that it has nothing at all to do with me being a US Navy Seal. It’s more in the genre of jobs that people like me do. So if the Navy Seals are in the genre of Tom Clancy books, I am the equivalent of Judy Blume and not the sexy stuff like Are You There God It’s Me Margaret.

Speaking of sexy children’s books, The IO West theater is here with me in LA! It’s in a place called Hollywood that comes up every now and then in America. I was able to see a Harold each from The Cartel and Local 132.

I went with a group of advertising-type friends. It is the second time I have dragged a few of them to a Harold. Enjoyable fun the first time and this time for them. It’s funny the pressure I feel for it to be funny for them. I feel like it’s a very specific interest of mine and the beauty of improv may be something that not everybody digs. Especially a Harold!

But both groups had it all under control. They were sharp and clear and very funny. I found the group games to be particularly smart for both teams.

And the speed! Holy crap. Maybe 15 minutes each. Scenes were crazy fast. To me, as we have been discovering in our rehearsals, speed helps. I might have wanted some of the scenes to breathe a bit more, but the pace was very close to right for an audience.

One note on the opening. We tend to use a monologue. It’s a strength of our group across the board and I am more convinced than ever that it is the right way to go. Both of these teams used more of the living room, group discussion opening and while it worked for me, the folks I was with didn’t know what the deal was. They couldn’t follow it and then had trouble seeing the connections drawn from it into the beats.

Onward! I’d go to IO West or Chicago or East again.

Get Out And Watch Improv

Sticks Author: Steve

I think it was Franklin Roosevelt who said “The best way to learn stuff is to get it taught to you or by buying a book about it or by watching a DVD.  You could also consider watching other people do the thing that you want to learn.  If you want.  You know, if you have time for that kind of thing and like to watch people doing things.  Sicko.”

He was a good Prime Minister of England, no question about it.  And he could turn a phrase and end it in a judgement of your morals just like that.  A lickety-split judger was ol’ Prime Minister Roosevelt.  Well you know what your highness?  Maybe I do like watching other people do things and maybe it is a good way to learn everything from juggling to loving.  Get off your high horse Mr. Rough Rider!

By now, all of our regular readers (which is us, we’re insular AND provincial… take that Prince Roosevelt) know our story.

  1. There are 12 of us.
  2. Our average age is 38.
  3. Ages range from 25 to 50.
  4. Two of us have no children and the rest have 14 children. (Not each! Man. In total.)
  5. 5 couples, 4 of them married.
  6. We live in “The Sticks” of CT.  Kind of.  It’s not like banjo time, but we’re in a smallish town.
  7. We have corporate jobs, banky jobs, kid raising jobs, teachery jobs.

So, we aren’t in a position to take regular classes even though we’re only a couple of hours outside of NY/Boston.  We rehearse now only once per week and we are self directed (i.e. we drink a lot at rehearsal).

Teaching ourselves has been fun, audacious and sometimes bodacious.  There are resources for learning improv, but we are often struck at the opportunity that some of the larger improv theaters are missing.  I’d shell out many of my corporate job dollars to buy better instructional books (perhaps I expect too much, but Truth In Comedy just isn’t that well constructed) and instructional DVDs.  Heck, we just want to see clean, solid video examples of full Harolds.  Tough to find even on the internet and the internet has lots of things in it.

We need to get out and see more improv.

Last night, every member of The Sticks (except Thom who was being a Father for goodness sake) got out to see the 2-year anniversary show of Sea Tea Improv.  Improv circles I think are tight and we’ve been learning about Sea Tea via Twitter, Facebook and other cool webbish devices for a while.  They seem like good people and we like good people more than we like bad people except when we want somebody to do something bad to/for us.

Not only was it a fun night out for The Sticks (plus my wife went too!) with adult drinks adult food adult conversation and adult bookstores, but it was a treat to watch an improv group perform.  We learned a lot.  It was a short form show, but we love short form.  There is plenty to be applied to the shorter bits of our longer form Harolds.  The truth is, we’re not really having a hard time any longer with the structure of The Harold – but we have plenty of room to get better at many of the things that are on display in short form.

The game structure is something that we need to apply to our intermezzo (yes I speak Italian… please form an orderly line ladies) group games.  Sea Tea is particularly skilled it seems at listening to one another – again something that any improv group needs.  There was a calm cleverness to the delivery that was right on also.  You never saw somebody making a joke just to make a joke.  Things were true to their characters and relationships.  We laughed a lot which is good since it was a comedy show.  One of us cried, but it was because we almost didn’t have enough seats.  That one of us was me because I had planned the little field trip.  Okay?  Are you happy now making me admit that I cried?

So, yes!  Mr. Roosevelt.  You were right about the going-and-seeing-things-to-learn-about-them theory.  Good for you!  But let’s face it.  You were way off on a bunch of other things.  Still, we’ll keep following your advice.  It’s time for us to see more improv whenever and wherever we can.

He Used To Be A Mime: Get him!

Sticks Author: Chris M

Sticks rehearsal is a highlight in my week. A couple of days beforehand I start thinking about what I’m going do to improve at the next rehearsal.

The internal dialogue goes something like this.  “OK this week  I need to work on character, relationship , environment,  “yes and” ,  finding the game, and clearer initiations, …but my object work is pretty good.” (on accounta I usta be a mime)

In rehearsal, of course, none of this sticks, and I flail about just trying desperately to remember the monologist’s theme.

So this week I’ve decide to list ten things that I will not do (most based on past catastrophes) and only one thing that I will do:

10 things I will not do at the next Sticks rehearsal

I will not:

1)      Repeat a pattern and pretend I found a game

2)      Find an excuse to use my spectacular German accent

3)      Stand on the back line and laugh at my funny friends all night

4)      Pimp my partner with circus arts

5)      Let everyone else know I have no idea where my scene partner is going

6)      Be coy

7)      Initiate  with “Thank you, Fuck me”

8)      Callback to 1A from 1B

9)      Start at the beginning

10)   Tell, I’ll show

1 thing I will do at the next Sticks rehearsal

I will:

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” -Del Close

A Darn Fine Description Of The Harold

Shamelessly reblogging here from The Boiling Point Improv blog.  This will be a handy way to describe the Harold for me from now on.

Overanalyzing Harold Night At UCB LA

Sticks Author: Steve


Steve posting here.  Two weeks ago, I was in LA and had a chance to see Harold Night at the UCB Theater in Hollywood.  At the time, I sent a breakdown of what I saw because I thought it would help The Sticks to see how the parts come together.

I was able to watch two house teams (Elroy and Flap Jackson) and enjoyed them. A lot.  The people with me seemed to like it also.  Since both teams did fairly standard Harolds, the structure was pretty easy to spot and therefore very helpful.  Here’s my slightly edited breakdown.  Sorry, but I’m the type who analyzes way, way too much. Indulge me!
I saw two teams perform. Both teams performed a pretty classic Harold. They both started with a suggestion from the audience (the first team got “convertible” the second “sneakers”). Both teams started with a word association  to get the themes. Many teams use the word association game to start a harold. It fills the role of the monologist we saw in Asssscat by permitting the groups to expand the theme beyond just the suggestion. In the “convertible” group, this word association game took them into ideas of mid life crisis, compensating for a boring life/small penis/stale marriage, freedom, speed, taking chances. The team just played off of each other downstage – all of them sort of lined up, holding the steering wheel, talking (not over each other very often) and building on the ideas in a free association way, but just in a simple character of a person driving the convertible. The game was theatrical and organic, quick and odd in a good way. It ended within a minute and then the scenes began. From the word association game, people were clearly listening to one another as throughout the rest of the 30 minute performance, specific themes drawn from the game continued to come out – sometimes specific phrases.

The scenes began and were pretty clearly identifiable. Unlike the scene we watched together the other night (Beer Shark Mice team on the Art By Committee DVD… the submarine one) both groups created Harolds that were much, much simpler.

Scene 1A
In the convertible group, the 1A scene was pretty much a couple who had hit a midlife crisis together. They decided to take chances but damnit TOGETHER. They had just robbed a bank. The game of it was their attitude toward it. It was as if they had read a book on how to do things together that would normally suggest things like learn to dance together or take tennis lessons, but their book was about violent things. Their characters made it funny because they were clearly boring, suburban types (hey!).

Scene 1B

1b was a scene about two guys. 30 something friends. One of the guys had just gotten a convertible and he loved it because it got him out of his boring life with his naggy wife and live-in mother. The game of it was that the second guy was amusingly subservient. “I would go anyway with you in this car! I’m your #2, we’ve clearly established that…” and they would then list the silly places they would go in it.

Scene 1C

1c was a woman at a bar doggedly singling out one guy that she was trying to pick up. This scene did illustrate something very interesting to me. “yes and” might have dictated that the guy in the scene allow her to pick him up right away even though her opening pick up line (and the initiation for the scene) was “do you have a cell phone? I want to call your mother and introduce her to your new wife – me.” But since “yes and” doesn’t really mean patent agreement with everything – it really means “i am accepting the world you built and will add to it” he responded in a more real way with “ummmm… what? Jesus… I’m just trying to have a beer here.” That created the game for them – she became weird stalker girl. Her character would reappear in the second beat later trying to steal a child from walmart because she was lonely.

The First Beat

So 1a, b and c had happened all of them pulling in varying degrees from the word association ideas inspired by original suggestion of “convertible”. This group stayed closer to the original suggestion than did the other who had gotten “sneakers”. The sneakers group pulled ideas of growing up (changing sneaker sizes), athletics etc.

First Group Game

In any event, after the first beat of the convertible group they began a group game. In reading about Harolds, this has always been the part that was the least clear to me. It happened in the Asssscat video, but it was so smooth that it doesn’t often wholly standout as a group game. The whiteboard “dead cowboy in the basement” was probably the clearest group game. In the “submarine” one we watched, the group games were much more buried.

The “convertible” team did group games that were much more apparent. It was interesting to watch them work because it’s not like anybody signaled or said “okay, whole group off the back wall… here comes the group game”. Once the 1c scene was edited (and it , like almost all of the scenes that both groups did, was “sweep edited” by a person on the back wall at a high point to end it on a laugh or cool connection) the group just began a group scene. I don’t recall the specific group thing they did at this point, but it was less wholly “scene” structured and a bit more like the word association game they did at the start.

Second Beat

After the group game, 2a began. This time our couple had moved forward in time. Their appetite for spending time together doing violent things had continued. The idea from 1a was heightened. The husband brought in a bound and naked third person and presented it to his wife as a present. She was delighted by the gift and they intended to kill the man together.

2b and 2c evolved similarly. in 2b, the man who had the compensation convertible now had a horse. In 2c, the woman stalked a child in walmart. etc.

Second Group Game

The group game here now was initiated by the convertible/horse man. He pulled a couple of chairs forward and the rest of the group followed. Interestingly, he initiated a simple “road trip with the family” scene, but because the group didn’t know what he intended as they moved their chairs forward, there were 5 chairs in a row with him kind of in the middle. It did not look like a car at all! The group simply took advantage of this mistake once they realized that they were supposed to be a family in a normal car. They pointed out to their dad that he was always odd, always getting different vehicles like a convertible and a horse and now he had gone ahead and modified a 747 to drive on a highway. This became the game, but he had actually intended a different game. He tried to kick off a game of “hey family, oh we all have such different and unique personalities” in an effort then I would imagine to have each person create a weird personality. But since the 747 thing happened, his game simply didn’t get going.

From here they moved quickly into the third beats with some resolutions in rapid fire. It all wrapped up pretty well.  There wasn’t a transcendent moment of all three worlds coming together,but some good connections were made. That’s not to say that it wasn’t well done.  It was.  It was very funny.

%d bloggers like this: