Lie To Me: Pathology Of Improv

Sticks Author: Steve

In 1993 I didn’t understand how jobs worked, but I was certain that companies across America were waiting, bald heads plugged into Cerebro, searching for my special DNA tone among the masses.  They needed writers, I was assuming.  Who better than me –  a person published several times in the UConn student newspaper?  Hadn’t they seen my tendency for overwroughtity and my aptitude for word makeruppery?  I prolifically wrote about the swim team AND the cross country team.  I had once written a fluff piece on the football team – FOOTBALL – as they took on New Hampshire in which I publicly admired their license plate motto.  Live Free Or Die.  Live.  Free.  Or.  Die!

Oddly, I was not plucked proactively from the bulging hordes of UConn grads as I made my way to live with my girlfriend (now wife) in Buffalo.  I assumed that when I arrived in Cheektowaga, word would have preceded me and perhaps there wouldn’t be a parade per se, but there would surely be a ringing phone in our apartment with employers treating me like a blue chip basketball prospect.  Come work for us son.  We’ve got great facilities and plenty of coeds.  I was young once too son!  I see a little bit of me in you.  The writing comes easy, right son?  Yeah.  Well, now’s your chance to show it off on the largest stage in town.

Talent I guess isn’t a rare thing and it’s graded on a curve.  Sure I can string some words together, but writing is about writing.  Like all the time writing, never stopping, writing, typing, erasing, editing, writing, writing, writing.  Writers are everywhere and most of them are better than I was.  Am.  Are.  Whatever, screw grammar anyway.  Anyways.

Writers like me it turns out are the trees that fall in the forests with nobody else around.  You write, you get it published or you simply aren’t heard.  So instead of writing for a magazine or a tv show or a greeting card company, I got temp jobs stocking paint in the middle of the night or typing (that’s a lot like writing!) for a lawyer’s office.  I taught acting.  I tried to audition for an improv show.  I slept.  I managed a video store.  I got a job making pancake batter during which I ate a lot of pancakes.  I got a job making pizzas during which I ate a lot of pizza.

And finally, I lied.

In the end, it wasn’t my writing ability or my quasi understanding of when to use semicolons that got me what I needed; it was my ability to make stuff up.

While temping at a mortgage company, I learned of a real opening in the customer service department.  I learned that the hiring manager liked lacrosse.  It took a book, some discussion with actual athletic people, and two weeks to prepare, but by the time I interviewed I had an entire character built around a love of lacrosse and I sold it.  Got the job.

I owe almost everything I have now to that lie.

I’m still not the brightest bulb because putting this down on the internet is probably a great way for people like my past/current employers to learn that I never played right wing or what the hell ever on a club lacrosse team at UConn, but I’m pretty sure I could talk my way out of it if confronted.

I’m not saying that lying is improv, but pretending you are somebody else is a pretty big part of it.  Who doesn’t like trying on the ill-fitting clothes of some character?  I can always be Steve the insurance marketing guy.  That’s every damn day!  Why not be Luke the buff lacrosse psycho?  Or James the shy beekeeper?  Or Jacob the wayward rumspringa?

I’ve matured now and I totally understand that with great power comes great responsibility.  I don’t think I’d ever use improv powers to lie  to secure a job.

But Charles the awkwardly suave electrical engineer?  That dude would lie in a heartbeat.




FDA Nutritional Guidelines For Funny

Sticks Author: Marilyn

In my dreams I’m the queen of funny.

No really, last night – seemingly all night – I had dreams about how funny I was. In one, The Sticks were at a comedy club which was hosting a forum on improvisation. I was so inspirational, Jess and I did the ol’ dine-and-dash because, really, they owed me for all the funny.

In the culminating dream of the night, I actually went to a doctor to see if he could determine why I was so much more funny than everyone else. I asked if he could x-ray my arm to see if, perhaps, my funny bone was longer that most people’s.   He said he could, but he wondered what I was hoping to get out of the appointment, what was my ultimate goal. “I’m looking for ways to be funnier, I guess,” I said.  “I’d like to find ways to increase my funniness. Maybe there are certain foods I should eat?”

“Bananas are funny,” he replied.

I woke up chuckling.

So when I say I can be funny in my sleep, I mean it.

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.

Potent Potables: Drunk Improvising

Sticks Author: Steve

Bold!  Brave!  Bespectacled! Besmirched!

Also blitzed and drunky drunk drunk.

I’m normally not in any position to give advice to those about to (rock) improvise, but I am an authority on having too much to drink.  So.  Friends!  Don’t do as I say.. or, you know.. don’t say what I do.. or SHIT!  Do as I would do unto others or something.

What I mean is, don’t decide -that’s right DECIDE! – to have too much to drink during your improv rehearsal.  It’s disrespectful to your fellow troupe members.  Especially the ladies because you’ll say some shit to them about their boobs and things while you are drunk.  It’s not really all that disrespectful to the guys I guess because they like boobs too most of the time.  But the ladies, those frigid, frigid ladies will give you some icey, icey stares.

But let’s just say that you do decide to have too much to drink during your improv rehearsal, here are some things that might happen or may have happened to me or whatever why are you judging me?

First, you’ll have decided ahead of time to stick your buddy with the task of organizing the whole rehearsal.  So, don’t let him drink too.  Seriously.  That dude likes to tie one on and you’re going to have to be forceful.  You need to say something like “Hey, Chris M.  It’s all you baby!  I am SO drinking tonight.  Gonna make me loose!  Bitch!  Gonna be free-eee-eeee so.. free-eee-eeeee.”  He’ll make a break for the booze, but you’re on to his hip fakes.

Second, you’ll be convinced that it’s gonna make you loose and free.  This does in fact happen.  But you’re going to need to compensate for being all booze addled and dizzy and parched and loud and then soft and loud again and now portraying a cartoonishly flamboyant homosexual again.  And again.  Goddamn you are funny!

Third, you’re normally the guy who is a bit obsessed with rules.  You think the smart alecky rules like “there are no rules” are filthy lies spread by filthy whores of untruth.  You argue for structure and adherence to it.  Now you drink and you’re doing okay.  You explain and reiterate rules and who goes next and why that person goes next and who tags out when and why it’s important to remember your turn and it’s soon to be your turn and here it comes it’s your turn and shit whose turn is it and what am I supposed to do and am i the last one in La Ronde and no it’s not me but i’m thirsty I need to pee I just peed a minute ago do they all see how much peeing I’m doing did i just pee in my pants and SCENE!

Things probably get a bit foggy after that.  But just remember, when drinking at improv rehearsal….

There are truly no rules.

She’s A Super Freak, Super Control Freak

Sticks Author: Rachel


Anyone who knows me even reasonably well knows that I am a control freak.  I try and keep my control-freakiness in check and apply it to useful things such as planning parties, choosing restaurants, booking hotels etc…but it’s definitely something I battle with daily.  No one likes to be bossed around and, left to my own devices, I’d probably have an opinion on what you should have for breakfast and where to buy your next pair of sneakers.

This “issue” I have has been useful in my professional life.  I was a teacher, and got to control an entire classroom of kids all day long.  I also run a theater camp and get to call most of the shots in that arena as well.  Every summer, the theater camp I direct gives a variety show performance the third week of the program.  We feature the campers performing all sorts of different talents including hip hop, monologues, stage combat, and Shakespeare.  Every year it is the highlight of my camp experience… except for one ten-minute period when I have to leave the auditorium and hide in the bathroom.  It’s the ten-minute comedy improvisation performance.  I literally cannot handle being in the room while it is going on.  I am convinced it will result in the sound of crickets reverberating through the room while the audience silently wonders to themselves, what were they thinking?

Fortunately, that’s never happened, the kids perform a hilarious scene and leave with newfound confidence in themselves and their ability.  But this insecurity about improvisation is not their problem, it’s mine.  And it has been a problem my entire performing career.  The minute someone says the word, I look for the nearest script and hold on tight, convinced that the written word is sure to be funnier and more entertaining than what I could come up with.   My inner control freak screams out for, in the words of Stephen Sondheim,   “Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance.”  None of which have a lot to do with improvisation.

Still, I find myself every other week trekking out the door to go do the activity I fear the most.  And I have been thinking about why.  Why torture myself and others in this way?  I think it comes down to wanting to in some way put some order into this art I find so disorderly.  To try and figure out what works and what doesn’t…to find its rhythms, the game, the character, the beats.  I’ve been improv’ing in one form or another for thirty years.

Maybe by year forty I won’t cringe at that thought.


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

From Sondheim To Harold: Becoming An Improviser

Sticks Author: Jen


I’m originally of the species theatrum-musica by nature and experience.  The beings that crafted my world are the orderly, structured and (mostly) benevolent gods Sondheim and Hammerstein.  This is a world populated by an aristocracy of beautiful and graceful creatures like Bernadette, Mandy and Chita.  We are a people who like a nice fat libretto, some sort of sexy period costume and jazz hands.  Even those of us who dwell in our society’s underbelly (Community Theater) know that improvising is something you only do when some jackass has missed an entrance, or the ensemble needs an icebreaker game!

And then one day I woke up in the Bizarro World of Long form Improv!  There were no costumes, no perfectly executed kick lines, no scripts.  The language of beats, games and heightening was foreign and scary.  There was a terrifying lack of “stuff” to rely on. Oh, there was structure to learn, but then every time I thought I got the structure, I’d watch a video of some group who impossibly and perfectly broke away from it, creating a brilliant performance, not unlike like some crazy Picasso painting.  I was pretty sure I didn’t belong in this theatrical chaos.

But somewhere between a second glass of wine and our third try at completing a full Harold, I had a breakthrough.  I found myself standing on a folding chair in the 3rd beat pretending to spray breast milk like a lawn sprinkler, and it dawned on me that maybe I had something to contribute.  I could physically heighten a scene.  Maybe I wasn’t great at spotting or purposefully creating the “game” yet, but I could definitely establish some physicality here.

Now, I am even starting to see how this physicality can be built upon as our stories and characters unfold.  Maybe that’s something I can bring to our group.  There is so much to learn and explore here. I am glad we are dialing it back a bit and working on the basics of relationships and scene composition.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by talented, intelligent and big-hearted team members, who are also hilarious as hell!   As we continue to rehearse and analyze, their skills emerge and shine.  They are all such generous performers that I feel like I’m bound to find my personal funny soon.  Citizenship here is now definitely a long term goal of mine, but I don’t mind hiding amongst the crowd and picking fruit for a while!


Finding The Funny Isn’t A Sprint

Sticks Author: Jesse

Since I have started to learn long form improvisation, one of the first habits I’ve had to try to break is my instinct to go for the early laugh. Up till now, my only real experience with improv was in short form games. In that arena, I learned that a good recipe for success was going for a chuckle line early, and then often. Everyone had a good laugh, and we moved onto the next scene.

Now, with long form, an early gag line often comes at the expense of my peers and the overall success of the scene. With that in mind, I keep trying to remind myself to let the scene breathe. My mind paints a mental image of how a good meal would be composed. It needs to build. Course by course, moment by moment, each section heightening the prior and moment’s in-between to cleanse the pallet. The analogy feels right, and I like the challenge, but at the same time I am finding that it’s easy to overthink this as well.

If going for the early gag is bad, then starting a scene while trying to imagine the entire four course meal and figuring out how it will all fit together isn’t good either. I’ve been struggling to find a middle ground between the two, and grasping for tricks to focus my brain while I work at it. In the end I’m lucky to have a group of extremely supportive friends who help me identify what’s working, and what isn’t.

My goal for the next rehearsal will be to focus on character first. To paraphrase Steve, I want to wrap myself in the clothes of my character from the start and not push for either the early gag or the end game. I believe if I do that, everything will fall into place. Somehow this lack of preparation feels akin to taking a leap and assuming my safety harness is in place, but I think it’s the point of the exercise in some way. It’s the lack of control on all levels that makes the moments special.

If I fall, I know my friends will be there to pick me up. (though they might noogie me first! )

Mommery And Improvery In The Sticks

Sticks Author: Kendra

I walk into the children’s section of the Public Library and I am immediately greeted by friendly parents and exuberant children.   As we greet each other by first names, I am grateful to live in a small town where you can meet up with the same people week after week.  We have all gathered for “Time for Twos”.  Each Thursday a brave children’s librarian hosts an hour-long program in which parents, caregivers and a massive sea of two year-olds sing, dance, complete an art project, and listen to stories.

As I survey the room I notice that with the exception of the daring librarian, the adults all have the same look in their eyes.  It is the glazed over, weary, I‘ve-had-three-cups-of-coffee-but-it-is-still-not-enough look.   It is the look of colicky newborns and toddlers that have been up all night as they transition to their big-kid beds.  It is the look of heinous diaper changes, ceaseless whining and partners and spouses that are away on seemingly endless business trips.  It is the look of a serious hangover but without the frivolity and antics that landed you with a massive headache and purses under your eyes.  I have that look in my eyes too, but mercifully my children slept well, we are out of the diaper stage, and my school-teacher husband is more likely to be invited to Prince William’s impending wedding than be flown to an exotic location for a business trip.  I have that look in my eyes because I was out way too late rehearsing long-form improv with The Sticks.

Being a long-form improver and a full- time parent is a little like being in the C.I.A.  You have this very public life in which you bring your children to soccer practice, race through the grocery store before your children rebel against your desire to provide homemade nutritious meals and they initiate a double melt-down, and meet up with other parents of young children at the playground so that the little tykes and run around play elaborate games of Scooby Doo.  Then you have this other life.  The name of this life is “trying to learn long-form improv such as the Harold”.  You read books.  You watch DVDs of other groups and sit in awe as they effortlessly school you.  You rehearse, comment, deconstruct and rehearse again.  You have a Smirnoff Ice, get some feedback, and rehearse some more.   I have to admit, it’s a pretty good life.

There will soon come a point in time where my daily grind life will meet face-to-face with my improv life.  As we begin to entertain the idea of our first public show I am excited at the prospect of sharing our work with others.  I am hoping that when I look out into the audience, I see many of my comrades that are also parenting young children.

I can almost hear them now.  “Hey, look over there.  Isn’t that the mom from the library?”

We Put The Urban In Suburban

Sticks Author: Marilyn

Jess and I just had a long discussion over coffee about going for the funny line vs. finding the funny. It was all very bohemian except for how it was at Dunkin’ Donuts and we were waiting for our daughter to finish up at basketball practice.

%d bloggers like this: