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.

 

 

Back In The Saddle On A Horse With No Name Because There Weren’t Any Actual Horses

Sticks Author: Steve

Well I guess we were on a break. ¬†It’s not like we planned it and it’s not like it was anybody’s fault except that it probably was. ¬†It was probably Allison’s fault. ¬†That’s what I’m declaring now anyway. ¬†It was Allison’s fault that we just couldn’t get along any longer. ¬†You know it’s just that it’s hard to maintain a relationship these days with 12 people. ¬†Right? ¬†That’s a lot of people with a lot of issues. ¬†Mostly Allison with her issues really. ¬†SO MANY ISSUES with that girl. ¬†God!

Okay. ¬†It wasn’t really all Allison now that I have taken a moment to just calm down a little bit. ¬†I mean it was probably mostly her, but if I can turn the blame attention elsewhere and in a place that is other than me, I guess I can say it was also very much Jesse’s fault what with his good looks and his way with the women in the group. ¬†Especially Allison. ¬†Man! ¬†Can’t you just control yourself Allison? ¬†Really? ¬†Jesse? ¬†He’s married to Marilyn for goodness sake. ¬†Did you ever stop and think about that Allison? ¬†No. ¬†You didn’t. ¬†You didn’t stop and think about that.

Anyway.

We haven’t rehearsed for a good long while. ¬†There was a hurricane named Irene that probably just should have been named Allison. ¬†There was also just summer things like vacations and complicated schedules and illnesses and football season starting and odd temperature fluctuations and community theater performances and all of that stuff that went down with some celebrity that made headlines during this time period and meals to cook and things to eat and lists of excuses to be made. ¬†There was really a lot of stuff that caused us to not rehearse for a while. ¬†But it was just a short while comparatively speaking when you stop and think about the age of the Earth (6,000 years) and the universe (6,000 years and 7 days).

In that time (this time that we haven’t rehearsed, not the time of the Earth or universe) we never really stopped caring about improv. ¬†At least I didn’t. ¬†I don’t really know about the rest of these a holes, but I cared a lot.

Tonight we got back on the horse.  And we did it in style!  We played Zip Zap Zop because you have to do that to be an improv group that is taken seriously.

We also did two Harolds.  They were good.

But the real highlight was a little wrinkle called Mirth In A Box. ¬†Mirth In A Box is a Connecticut company and we are also mirthy in Connecticut so it’s like we are soulmates. ¬†Mirth In A Box provides gift boxes/baskets etc. filled with funny items like Whoppie Cushions, Joy Buzzers and all genres of fake human excresions. ¬†It’s a pretty damn awesome idea and they sent us a box of stuff to play with. ¬†We filmed some of our adventures in our highly-professional studio with our high-quality camera and our many compound adjectives.

Two games. ¬†The first was great fun and involved two people in a suggested scene. ¬†As they performed, we would holler “Mirth In A Box!” and they would have to reach into the box and incorporate whatever silly object they pulled out into the scene. ¬†The second game made use of a sound machine they sent. ¬†Throughout the scene, random sounds would play and the performers would have to react.

In any event here’s some stuff we did.

The first video is our “Mirth In A Box” game with Chris M introducing, Rachel playing the weary NASA worker, and Jesse playing Lou the bartender.

The second video is the “Mirth In A Box” sound game with Chris M introducing, Allison playing the smothered girlfriend and Steve playing the boyfriend.

Many dozens of thanks to the good folks at Mirth In A Box for the props.  Especially the slingshot monkey.  That thing is just outstanding.

More to come from The Sticks. ¬†We’ll be performing the Harold some time in October in our home town of East Hampton, CT. ¬†It will be like Woodstock and Woodstock 2 combined with opening night of Twilight Breaking Dawn.

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.

FDA Nutritional Guidelines For Funny

Sticks Author: Marilyn

In my dreams I’m the queen of funny.

No really, last night ‚Äď seemingly all night ‚Äď 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‚Äô 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‚Äôs. ¬† He said he could, but he wondered what I was hoping to get out of the appointment, what was my ultimate goal. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm looking for ways to be funnier, I guess,‚ÄĚ I said. ¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôd like to find ways to increase my funniness. Maybe there are certain foods I should eat?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúBananas are funny,‚ÄĚ he replied.

I woke up chuckling.

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

There’s No Failure In Improv

Sticks Author: Steve

There’s no failure in improv.

Right?

Right?

Come on guys!  So I made a pretty large structural error in our Harold rehearsal.  All for one and one for all!

Who’s with me?

Hello?

Back when we were fledgling Harold rehearsers (1 month ago) we got slapped around a bit. ¬†And last night was another rough one. ¬†At one point, I thought we were in 2C, but it was 2B’s turn. ¬†Then, when I went on to 2C, I tried to do the group a “favor” by nudging things along into a logical third beat collision. ¬†Too early! ¬†Too early. ¬†It confused everybody as it seemed I was deciding to skip right into the third beat. ¬†There was other general sloppiness. ¬†Our pacing wasn’t as good as the last time. ¬†Kendra didn’t bring Cinnamon rolls.

But!  BUT!  This group is resilient, flexible (Jim can bend in half on the vertical axis), and funny.  There were some really great scenes, some excellent time dashes and some wonderful demonstrations of group mind.

Sitting there last night, deconstructing and analyzing what went wrong (my absolute favorite thing to do… seriously) I realized how much I love this group. ¬†We’ve been friends since junior high in many cases and have seen graduations, weddings, children, jobs, adoptions, houses, vacations, successes, failures, boobies (!), low hangers, bad hair (my Richard Marx mullet), good hair, chest hair, facial hair, Hair (let the sunshine in), movies, books, new friends, old friends, best friends, Friends, medical emergencies, medical necessities, medical marijuana (not really), good times, bad times, the Durham Fair, live dogs, dead dogs, dog bites, Spelling Bees, bee stings, Sting, comedy, tragedy (my Richard Marx mullet), Richard Marx, Billy Joe confused with Billy Joel, tears, laughter, hugs, kisses, boobies (again!), smoked meat products, weight loss, weight gain (I’m big boned), rogaine,¬†Novocain, Chicken Stemperata, Thai food, promotions, demotions, emotions, Animotion, objects in motion that tend to not stay in motion, motion pictures, moving pictures (today’s Tom Sawyer), sprained ankles, broken hearts, soaring hearts, kites, bikes, trikes, transvestites, shots, pots, cots, lots, and Sasquatch.

I love them all and would rather learn with them than anybody else.

I mean, I wouldn’t take a bullet for them because that would hurt. ¬†But I would give a very, very accurate description of the shooter so that the police sketch artist could get the investigation started on the right foot.

Effective Harold Work: Catching Our Stride

Sticks Author: Steve

Has there been floundering? Maybe. Has Steve been a little harsh and overanalytical? Perhaps. Why am I using the annoying rhetorical question thing? Because I am not a good writer.

The truth. That’s right! Now comes the truth. Everything that I have written or said before was a lie. Or was it?

The truth is that we’ve done incredibly well learning the Harold. To go from a basic understanding of the structure to where we are now is pretty nutso. Chris M and I started talking about trying this in August. He made it happen by September. Since then, we’ve done hundreds of scenes together and reviewed, rewound and rebuked ourselves. We’ve laughed, chortled and snickered. We’ve eaten. We’ve drinkened.

And dang! We’ve gotten better. Structural issues are rare. Scenes are stronger. Flow is better.

This Sunday we had a breakthrough. A really-seriously-yowza-we’ve-done-it 3 hours. There are a few reasons why:

  1. Speed. We aimed for roughly a 25 to 30 minute performance. This meant that each scene had to happen much faster as we’d been averaging 45 to 50 minutes per Harold before.
  2. Focus. We love to time dash, but because of the speed, we could not afford to dash too far away from the first grounding initiation. This meant that characters and relationships had to be established faster and held. We believe that this will limit audience confusion.
  3. Jokes. Instead of time dashing into completely new scenes with new central characters, we opted to do quick tag edits that drew attention and the funny from the main scene. A quick edit to take the audience to the point in time that the main character just referenced. A joke. And then right back out and into the main scene again.
  4. Group games that are scenes. We’ve struggled here for a while, but something about the speed of everything brought success. Instead of trying to have everyone on stage right at the start of the group game, we let a scene happen and the players filled in.

We also had an audience member! My wife. And she thought we were funny and that most things made sense. This is very important for us as we anticipate performing in front of people who are not familiar with the structure of a Harold.

There is still concern in the group (Allison is right!) about abandoning what we’ve worked hard on so far. We do not want to move so quickly that there are no characters built, that there isn’t a sense of the relationship and that things don’t breathe a bit. Since we were moving quickly, we actually got through two full Harolds and the second was far stronger than the first. We believe that by continuing to focus on strong (but fast) scenes, we will truly find the formula.

We are almost ready.

We Rehearse For The Cinnamon Buns

Sticks Author:  Chris M

WHY?

On my long drive back into real life this morning, I was thinking about last night‚Äôs rehearsal. ¬†All the usual post mortem stuff, ‚Äú We did well with beats one and two, struggled with three, but our warm up focusing on group games paid off.‚ÄĚ ¬†I then started thinking about this rather amorphous and bizarre project as a whole, and ¬†I was immediately struck by the commitment of our team. Every Sticks member is overcommitted. We are teachers, bankers, corporate leaders, gardeners, theater directors, cooks, students, and Moms and Dads with 11 kids amongst us. Yet each week, despite the flu, leaky roofs, collapsed lungs,¬† sick kids, business trips, and law school exams we still pull together enough of our team each week to have really great rehearsals.

Why?

We moved rehearsals to Sunday night for the next few months, and as expected it created conflicts and difficulties for all. Team members had to miss more rehearsal because of the switch. I was worried that the project might not survive the rescheduling.  But the actors just keep on showing up ready to work.

Why?

Could be the laughter. We laugh a lot in rehearsal.  Could be the food and drink. We eat and drink well at rehearsal.  (Cinnamon buns.  Wine.  Health food.)    Could be the friendships. We’ve all grown closer during this unusual project.

But at the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, I think it’s improv that keeps the Sticks vibrant and growing despite all the real world road blocks.  Everyone gets off the wall, everyone is fully engaged in trying to understand what is working, and what is not working.  A couple of months ago, most of us didn’t know long form from long johns.  And yet last night the whole cast was engaged in a spirited discussion around why 1A was so much easier to heighten than 1B.  I think we are all a bit surprised by our passion. Everyone desperately wants to get better at the craft. And we are, slowly, beat by beat.

Nah, on second thought it’s probably the cinnamon buns….

See you next week.

The Harold Makes Us All Its Bitches

Sticks Author: Steve

Rehearsal! ¬†And that means cherry pie from Kendra. ¬†And cinnamon buns from Kendra. ¬†And scones from Alison. ¬†Christ! ¬†All I can tell you is that if you don’t get that at your rehearsal, you need to get a Kendra and an Alison.

You can’t have ours. ¬†Find your own.

The group was itching to get back to The Harold. ¬†We made progress on creating more solid scenes and characters and felt that we’d carry it over into a good ol’ rompy Harold.

And The Harold said “Take THAT! ¬†And that. ¬†And THAT! ¬†Respect me bitches!”

And bitches we were made. ¬†Sticks no more…. bitches of the Harold.

Stuff was still funny. ¬†(These people are funny… I’m telling you.. every last one of them.) ¬†But the scenes were sprawling, sailing, time dashing away from clarity. ¬†We had characters, but we failed to anchor the scenes as we edited in and out. ¬†People playing main characters also got brought in to be different characters. ¬†By the end, had we been the audience, we would not have known what happened or what really held the whole thing together.

Focus for next time will be to keep the characters very firmly established and to not dash too far away from them in each beat.

Successes¬†however! ¬†Rachel monologized despite her insistence that she has no stories. ¬†Bah! ¬†Let’s just say she’s lived a little bit. ¬†She’s got stories. ¬†Off of a suggestion of “beach” she took us on vacations, adventures across swamps, into the lives of Candy, Nina, and Deena, into a sprawling beach house of splendor and a humble cabin. ¬†We had polygamists, bouncers, Madonna and… and …. XANADU!

Also, two of our stronger group games.

In any event, onward! ¬†We’re at the point where we can be pretty darn hard on ourselves as we try and get better. ¬†Everybody has thick skin.

Except me. ¬†I’m a fragile flower with delicate petals made of insecurity and pollen made of doubt and a flaccid stamen and a.. stem .. made from infinitely extended metaphors.

Of Montreal, Gronlandic Edit.  Physics makes us all its bitches.


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 ‚Äúissue‚ÄĚ 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‚Ķ except for one ten-minute period when I have to leave the auditorium and hide in the bathroom.¬† It‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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,¬†¬† ‚ÄúOrder. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance.‚Ä̬† 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.¬† ‚ÄúOK this week ¬†I need to work on character, relationship , environment, ¬†‚Äúyes and‚ÄĚ ,¬† finding the game, and clearer initiations, ‚Ķbut my object work is pretty good.‚ÄĚ (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 ‚ÄúThank you, Fuck me‚ÄĚ

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:

‚ÄúFall, then figure out what to do on the way down.‚ÄĚ -Del Close

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