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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Improv and Homecoming

I'm headed back to San Diego this week, for the first time since I left back in September.  (This both simultaneously feels like yesterday and approximately 100 years ago.  Such is the nature of relativistic experience.)  My experiences with improv homecomings have always been bittersweet; whenever I find myself back in southern Mississippi, I always reach out to my former teammates in Biloxi and Hattiesburg - I've found in general that neither group is particularly interested in opening up the doors for past membership.

I think this is mostly due to the fact that improv has a notoriously short attention span (something I've discussed many times in the archives) and teams move on.  Our capacity to entertain old acquaintances is largely a function of our endearment to them, something that diminishes rapidly with time (and also something teams are more concerned about waves in than individuals).  Teams change, evolve, as do the players, and everyone gets a little hesitant about playing around with people that have started to suspiciously look like strangers.  Another aspect is the "little dictator"; as teams change, so does the leadership.  I don't think anyone outside of the improv community could understand it, but who is In Charge, who is Calling the Shots, and who Has Authority is a very contentious and aggressively fought for aspect of improv.  People will fight tooth and nail for years to hold the cards and have a deeply vested interest in maintaining their hold.  Outside people, getting personal attention and "special" treatment, have a certain cachet and currency of sentiment that can threaten "little dictators", when they exist.

The big issue though, is the abandoned home issue.  Improv is nearly completely built on reputation, notoriety, and putting in the hours.  Theaters tend to not value talent or ability so much as loyalty and consistency.  While you're in house and working hard, that is rewarded, but when you leave, new people move up to fill personnel vacuums, and have a vested interest in maintaining their positions.  The biggest issue with coming home is finding out that home outgrew you, and that there's no room at the inn.

What have I been up to since I left?  I still work full time, though I now have 2 hours of commute every day on the train.  I'm taking three different improv classes right now, about halfway through both Annoyance and the Chicago Improv Studio programs, but not performing regularly.  I've had a small handful of pickup shows (five, to be exact), and one show with my fellow San Diegan, Laurel, but nothing regular.  I'm not rehearsing regularly, and only watching shows with any regularity.  The tradeoff in moving to a bigger pond is that you become a smaller fish by default.  I would describe my life as mostly "empty" and "rudderless" since I left.

I miss performing, teaching, and coaching of course - these were all regular challenges that pushed me and tested me all the time, and it filled my hours completely and fully.  But I really miss rehearsal regularity the most - having a regular group of peers to work with, play with, and hang out with.  I won't lie - Chicago has been exceedingly lonely, and I have too much time to realize how alone I am.

I'm excited to be back for a weekend; I need to see some friendly faces and some familiar turf, despite how much wrangling had to happen to squeeze me in anywhere.  I'm very excited to do a show on Saturday - one with a partner who I love performing with in a show that I enjoy and know well.  I didn't realize it when we were performing regularly, but Fourth Date is the most rewarding experience I've had as an improviser - the one show that I can honestly say that I felt most like an equal as a member.  For every strength I had, Kate had a comparable (weakness doesn't sound fair - non-strength? skill-gap?) and vice versa, and every group decision was reached equally, fairly, and discussed.  Not sure what I did to deserve such a partner, but I'm thankful I lucked into it.  I've missed that show and Kate most of all, so I'm glad to get back to it, even for just a night.

If you've followed my Twitter, you'll know I've been kicking around quitting improv for a bit now.  The reasons are various, but the Cliff's Notes are that I just don't know what the point is for me anymore.  People have recommended a "short break", but I really don't see the point of taking three months off - if I stop, it'll be for good, so I want to make sure I'm making the right choice to stop.  Whether or not I quit and the reasons for doing so is a discussion for a different post (or a conversation over a beer), but it's one I've been going back and forth on since November or so.

I know everyone in San Diego is busy, and everyone has a show, and it's just not a good weekend, but if you can, I hope to see you either at the show at Gym Standard at 8 on Saturday, or if you can spare a minute, I hope we can catch up.  Coming home, even temporarily, is often hollow - and the echoes can be deafening.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Heroes Make Us Anxious

It's really no surprise that the stories we tell and share are all truly about some deep seeded anxiety.  We are highly developed as a modern species, but that doesn't replace that somewhere inside of us lurks an animal, and those animals are still primarily driven by fear.  Storytelling, both modern and ancient, are all about dealing with those fears as a way to shine lights in dark corners.

Horror movies are the most obvious; every single horror movie is about some fear (obviously), and their ability to pray on Fear of the Unknown and Fear of Alone (or sometimes both) is critical to their ability to invoke fear in viewers.  We of course remain constant consumers of horror movies because they play with our fear, and what horror movies are popular is equally driven but what continues to make us afraid in an evolving capacity.  Take a look at zombie movies, which have a very storied and long history - early zombie movies didn't feature zombies as we have them today, instead they were the traditional Haitian zombies of living men bewitched of their own autonomy and made slaves.  This Fear of Loss of Self was very much the theme in White Zombie and on through the first 40 or so years of the genre.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead made the zombies truly dead: reanimated corpses hungering for living flesh.  This is a walking, corporeal reminder of our own eventual demise that we often try and bury or burn to keep it out of sight.  We don't want to have our own fragile, decaying truth around, and here it is Fear of Death incarnate shambling after us.  That the focus of zombie movies has changed is no surprise; it used to be about dealing with the moments right after an outbreak, when the apocalypse was nigh, but movies like 28 Days Later and TV's The Walking Dead move the story to well after the zombie's first arrival.  Fear of Death is still there, but moved much more to the forefront are Fear of Others (think Negan or Cillian Murphy) and Fear of Ourselves (think Rick).  When the chips are down (for everyone), how much will they betray each other to put the weak under their yoke, and how much will we betray ourselves and our own morals just to survive?

In the years after 9/11, fear has become a large part of our lives and our pop culture, we wanted all our heroes dirtier and grimmer, because that is how we saw ourselves.  Look back to 2003 and 2004 (the earliest years, given long production and release schedules, to be affected), and our movies were Kill Bill, The Punisher, and Man on Fire, where we tried to deal with Fear of Revenge.  What would a dogged pursuit of retribution mean to our lives and the lives of those around us?

Horror movies individual fears have always been driven by fears of the moment.  It isn't a surprise that The Ring, about a haunted video tape, should come out right when we as a culture was trying to get rid of physical media (and certainly older, "outdated" physical media), and also that the only way to break the curse was to follow a meme-tic, "copy & share" approach that drives the internet (or at least Facebook.  A lot of similar trends can often be chalked up to imitations of successful originators, but what is truly fearful is very of the times.

Here's a list of the top grossing supernatural horror movies from the last decade and half, and what are some of the relevant fears:

Annabelle (2014) - Fear of Domestic Life
The Conjuring (2013) - Fear of New Homes
Woman in Black (2012) - Fear of the Distant Past
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) - Fear that Our Technology Can Not Protect Us
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) - Same
Paranormal Activity (2009) - Same
The Eye (2008) - Fear of Piercing the Veil
1408 (2007) - Fear of What We Believe Actually Coming True
The Omen (2006) - Fear of Children, Especially Our Own
Saw II (2005) - Fear of the Depravity of Man
The Grudge (2004) - Fear of Unfinished Business
Final Destination 2 (2003) - Fear that Death Will Get Us No Matter What
The Ring (2002) - Previously discussed
The Others (2001) - Fear of Surviving On Our Own
What Lies Beneath (2000) - Fear of Our Partner
Sixth Sense (1999) - Fear of Piercing the Veil

It's easy of course, to point to horror movies though; these things are supposed to scare us, but why are superheroes so popular right now?  Of course, hero stories have always had some popularity, the ancient Greeks and Romans told stories of demigods, gods, and mythical creatures doing either stories of immense bravery or supernatural powers themselves, and the tradition carries on.  Superheroes (specifically the cape and cowl variety) have been popular themselves since the 30's, with regular consumers, but why do we as a larger culture love superheroes so much now?  These are all about Fear of Actually Being Able to Affect Change, very important at a time when everyone has a voice through their Twitter account, but no real ability to do anything, instead creating a cacophony of screaming voices.

Also up for discussion is Sherlock Holmes; reportedly the most portrayed character in all of TV and film, and the current star of two successful TV series, not to mention countless imitators in spirit (House, Castle, John Doe, Bones to name a few).  Characters who are often inhuman, both in their abilities of deduction and recall, and also in their inability to easily interact with other humans.  Sherlock entered modern culture at a time when science and reason were becoming more mainstream, and a result he is Fear of Knowledge.  We now all have a veritable "Sherlock Holmes" of our own, riding around in our pockets (provided we have WiFi or a 4G connection), yet we intuitively understand that reference knowledge is meaningless without interpretation, function, and context.

And that, my dear Watson, scares us.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Missed Opportunities

I haven't written in a while, which is probably a missed opportunity in and of itself. All successful (and mostly likely unsuccessful writers) say that you have to write every day. Your life should never be without you recording your thoughts (or editing them down) so on that front I've been sorely missing. I've been in Chicago for four months now, and "missed opportunities" has become a theme of my life and thoughts ever since I made the choice to come here. Missed opportunities back in San Diego, where I've gotten to watch my friends (via the ruby lens of Facebook) open theaters, perform shows, teach classes, and live life.

 Ultimately, the decision to move here was also one of choice - Chicago, despite its faults, is still the unparalleled, uncontested champ for improv. The quantity is staggering (which is not always a good thing - more on that in another post, perhaps), and the quality of the performers and educators is remarkable. This is a city that is very forgiving, and highly welcoming of an adventurous spirit and an experimenter's mind. Every night that I get home and just "don't really feel like it", I remind myself that this is why I'm here. I left behind my friends and a (modestly) successful "career" in improv in San Diego to come and take in the new and bold. The great and the terrible. The predictable and the unknown. 

This post is really about missed opportunities - a phrase whose un-necessary length I'm only just now beginning to appreciate - and what they mean for us as artists. On one hand, we may look at improv communities and not see that. San Diego, as Chicago (and I strongly suspect a lot of places) is a player's market. Too much stage time to fill, too many teams, a variety of stages, and a glut of shows to watch. It makes it hard on producers, but great for content creators with a relatively lower barrier to entry. Even so-so teams are virtually guaranteed a slot, and great teams have a blank check. Same goes with players: person A graduates class, starts a team, gets noticed, and is instantly on twenty teams. It's wonderful to be asked, of course. We are all broken people, and getting attention in this way triggers the monkey part of our brains that desperately wants group attention.

"Oh, so this is another 'stretching ourselves too thin' post"? Yes and no. When you say "yes" to everything, you can't truly say yes to anything. As improvisers we consistently overlook the power of editing, which truly is our (and pretty much any artist's) greatest tool. What we choose to show other people, when, and for how long, is nearly more important that the content itself. At the very least, poor presentation can kill a great show just as well as slick polish can make a turd shine. What we choose to put our energy in to is an enormous strength, one that should not be taken likely.

 Now back to (Ctrl+V) missed opportunities - we also get burned the other way by making light demands on what we want to work on. Netflix is always calling, just inside the range of human hearing, beckoning: "Up next" and "If you liked every episode 'Elementary' you just watched, you may also enjoy another 80 hours of binging something vaguely similar". When I left SD, I had multiple students tell me "you were the best class I ever had", which is nice, but probably an equal number saying "I always heard you were good, but I never made the time to take you", which sucks. And not just because I didn't convert them into the first camp, but because it means they never understood what is meant in the conversion of intent to doing (or they were being nice). (I should point out not everyone falls into these camps - there is a minority camp that responded in seconds by saying how they were going to break up my teams and give away my classes. Can't win them all.)

 By this I mean the dead celebrity effect - artists of all kinds, whose work is seldom (or never) discussed is suddenly elevated to high status when they pass. I couldn't name anyone who really talked about Bowie in 2014, but when he passed everyone suddenly had a deep memory to share on Facebook. This isn't meant to demean anyone who shared a feeling, all of which are completely valid and I can only assume genuine. It's meant to highlight that our monkey brains also can't connect with the idea of something being exhausted until it is. No one wanted Atari ET cartridges until they were dumped in the desert, and then they became collectible, rare, and valuable. Everyone wanted Beanie Babies until there were too many of them and the bubble burst. We inherently tie value into availability (supply/demand) and connect our own motivation to this worth.

Basically, what I'm saying is: don't wait. Don't skip the teacher you want to take, the show you want to do, or the place you want to be, while also considering what it is you really want. Anyway, that's my long way of saying I'll be back in SD teaching in February. My good friend Elisa is putting the whole thing together with a workshop, some social time, and a show. I hope (if this is something you truly want to do), you'll come:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Leave No Trace

So first things first:

I'm moving to Chicago.

The first big question is 'why?' (though that's probably just ahead of 'why now?'); I've had countless students and fellow performers ask me why I'm not in Chicago (or LA or NYC), and I even came close (damn close) to moving to LA about three years ago.  My answer was always that I liked San Diego: the weather is hard as hell to beat, it's comfortable and all my friends are here.  But most importantly, I was doing the things in San Diego that I wanted to do: perform weekly, teach and coach regularly, and the job I had afforded enough income and time off for me to do those things as well as travel around the US and Canada and do shows and festivals (at time of writing, I've been to 15 festivals, and am scheduled for another 5 in 2016).  Now, about that job.

I moved to San Diego in 2008 from Chicago because I got a job working for the Navy Drug Screening Laboratory, which has been my sole employer since then.  The lab tests urine specimens for illicit drugs (e.g. marijuana, cocaine), and my job there has often had people refer to me as "pee guy", "chemist", "drug guy", "piss tester", and a variety of other colorful monikers that lack nuance, to say the least.  That lab is closing, effective 1 February 2017.

The lab is over 30 years old at this point, and in desperate need of renovation and expansion, and the most recent survey assessed that the lab space only has 1-2 more years, maximum, before the physical plant fails and the lab can no longer operate.  That same survey also asked every Navy and Marine Corps installation from Mexico to Orange County if they can spare some space, and we have been flatly informed that there is "no room at the inn".  That, coupled with a $30-50 million price tag for updating has put the NDSL on the chopping block.  Some 60 employees will scatter to the wind next spring, which seems appropriate.  I'm lucky in that I've been offered a job at the sister lab outside of Chicago, and save getting my final orders in the next week or so, I start there on September 6.

I've been telling people that I've got a range of emotions: fear, trepidation, terror, nervousness, excitement, regret, sadness, stress, frustration - which are all true.  Certainly this will be a new chapter in my life, one that must be taken.  Sometimes you make the choice, and sometimes the choice makes you.  'Why not just stay in San Diego?' you may ask, and well, the answer has mostly to do with employment.  At present, I would make nowhere near enough to support myself doing improv, and I would rather not take a chemistry job in San Diego that may require an hour commute everyday to the outer rim (where most biotech is located).  Also, despite having helped found FCI and being employee number 1, I have been gradually phased out, which leaves me with very little invested in it.  Mike and Charles have been very successful running Sidestage, but I have even less invested in that enterprise.  And The Local, which Dino and I have been running for the last year or so is very nascent, so if ever there was a time to leave, this would be it.

In Boy Scouts, one of the principles we camp by is "Leave No Trace" - a concept that we should always endeavor to leave environments better than we found them.  This may sound ghostly - that Boy Scouts are Forest Phantoms, disappearing into the night in a puff of campfire smoke and merit badges.  This isn't truly the case - instead, when we go to places where we are guests or visitors, places that we do not own but that we only get to participate in, that we should exercise good ethics and stewardship in maintaining that space so that others may get to enjoy them.

It is hard to overstate how barren and non-existent the improv community was in San Diego when I moved here in September 2008.  There was one shortform theater, and their improv community engagement was more "private club" than "welcoming party".  There were a few shortform teams that would play about once a month - the Hinges and ROAR - but that was about it.  When I decided to start the Stage Monkeys as a long form team, we became instantly the first Harold team and only the second longform team the city had ever seen (RIP #1, The Ugly Truth).  This was at a time when the only improv training center didn't run classes regularly and one of my first coaches there said "some people try to break off and start their own thing, but it never works out so you shouldn't even bother".

I was the one who created the show Buddy System, taught the first longform class, started the first two-man team (Mike and Chris), and the first monoscene (Fourth Date), and took the first team to an improv festival (The Stage Monkeys).  Now these things don't seem so pioneering or groundbreaking (and to be fair, they didn't feel that way at the time).  There was a time when I used to know every improviser in San Diego, and now I go to a show and recognize barely half the audience.  Our city has become filled with hungry and passionate artists who just want to improvise, baby.  That we can even have hate-filled invective arguments and diatribes over Facebook was unthinkable 8 years ago.  And getting to see people I first taught and worked along side now become teachers and leaders of their own can only be viewed as an unanticipated benefit.

I think we as a culture are obsessed with apocalyptic tales and origin stories because we want to believe that we are either there for the beginning or the end of adventures (probably ideally both).  We are enchanted by ends and beginnings and want to say "I was there", but even I can't say I was there "at the start".  There were people here before I was, doing the work, and there will be people here after I'm gone doing same.  The only downside of having a large dynamic community (and one that records things so poorly) is that we have very short organizational memory.  Just as we little remember the people who began the journey 8 years ago, so too will I eventually wash away, only to be replaced by someone newer, smarter, and better.

There will probably be some people very happy to see me go.  To them, I say "you're welcome".  Hate and fear are powerful motivators, and if that gets you moving, then at least you're moving.  To the teams I coach and play with, and told in person over the last week, thanks for keeping my secret so that I could venture to talk to people in person and thank you for all work we've done together.  To the students I've taught, thank you for listening, for trying, and for being brave to do this ridiculous, ridiculous art on stage.  To the theater owners and staff, thank you for making beacons for like-minded people to find each other - I expect only good things from Mike, Amy, Gary, and the next person who hasn't come to the party yet as they make homes for people here.   To the community, thank you for letting a kid who didn't know any better and wasn't very good and who just wanted to do give me the opportunity to work and grow as a player and performer and person.

My only hope is that I was able to give some small amount of good deeds back, and that if I've left a trace, that it at least is a good one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Death and Life of Great American Improv Teams

In a previous post, I spoke briefly about the writing Jane Jacobs did in her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. This book, published in 1961, was a critique of urban planning measures of the time and flew directly in the face of what was then modern dogma (an example: belief that parks cure social ills.) The book rejects simplification in favor of an understanding of the need for layered complexity, which can at times seem like chaos. She identifies four basic concepts of neighborhoods that must be maximized in order for them to be thriving, lively places to live, which I will attempt to translate into terms for an improv team.

1. “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two...”

In city terms, this is an admonishment against districts too tightly focused on a single purpose (i.e. warehouse districts) because it means there will be times when those areas will be empty. (Just think about how many times the Highlander traded blades with immortals in abandoned factories and car parks.) Sometimes people see success in one area (say, banks) and pile a bunch of other things in the same area (sometimes even the same intersection (hello, Subway and Starbucks)) in an effort to duplicate success. (Same thing happens when TV shows or movies are successful.) Translate to improv: teams need diversity of players. Different ideas, candors, tempos, energies, ways of playing. Everyone is working in different ways, but still towards the same goal. We never know what solution will be the one that works in a particular case, so we have to able to pursue all of these avenues simultaneously. Additionally, teams can't just do one thing; they have to be able to do many things well to be successful. (One way to read this is that they must specialize in one type of show, but one of my favorite teams, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, is very successful despite doing one very particular show – but if you've ever seen them, you know that they are dramatic, funny, tell great stories, inventive, bold, and also can act. It's also done in the style of Shakespeare, which they also succeed at. It's also exceptionally well done.)

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

In a neighborhood, there must be a variety of ways for residents to interact with each other, in a complicated and myriad network of contact. Long streets limit the routes people can take, which minimizes contact and observation. People on teams cannot be isolated from each other they must be able to, regularly do, make meaningful contact with each other. Time spent with each individual person must be (roughly) equal. I think this is why two person groups are most commonly the long-term successful ones; easier to maintain contact.

3. “The district must mingle old buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly closely grained.”

Too many new buildings makes it too expensive for some businesses to operate, and they stay empty. A variety of uses (business, living arrangements) necessitates a variety of places for them to occupy. Variety breeds success. This holds especially in terms of experience and function. What each person brings to the group (the funny one, the serious one, the one who initiates) and how they provide it are critical to its ability to operate.

4. “There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there...”

This doesn't mean all groups have to be huge, it means they all have to be close enough to each other that their interactions are meaningful. The level of engagement and responsibility everyone has for each other keeps people needing each other. This isn't a bad thing; we can't forget that the basic un-written underlying premise of “yes, and...” is cooperation. Best thing about using the word “need” is the connotation the word has of being “active” in what we do with and for each other. Low density neighborhoods feel empty and unoccupied, the same way that sparsely populated teams do. Teams with high density feel busy.

I get asked by people all the time about teams; which they should join, should they take this person or that, or should they quit this one or that one. They are equivalent to “should I move?” in terms of cities. Ms. Jacobs would probably say that moving only furthers the collapse of neighborhoods; that moving people around only lessens their capacity and drive. I think its very easy to get distracted by the offer of new teams as being the offer of better (improv) lives, when those things are not always mathematically equal. We can't fix things if we're always just on our way to the next place.

“We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.” - Jane Jacobs

Monday, December 28, 2015

To Play Music

(This was orignally published at The Green Room ( with much better design.)

We spend a lot of time talking about improv teams as “ensembles”, often without really appreciating what that actually means. To most theater owners and/or directors, it conjures an image of cohesive uniformity. We like to think of it as a homogeneity – a team that is unified to common purpose, internally reliant, and trusts each other complicity. All of this is true, but how do we get to that point? The classical approach is to take your team, stick them together for long enough, and have them spend time until they develop bonds. This works, and is how a great many number of friendships form, so it should hold true for improv teams as well. This doesn't explain, however, why some teams seem to just “work” and others don't, and also takes a “fingers crossed” approach to team dynamic.

We know that successful teams are built on commitment, but there appears to be a magic spark that makes some teams fun to watch and others, less so. We also know that successful organizations have diversity, or rather the “right” kind of diversity. Large enough groups (let's say, the Navy or the US) need maximum diversity to account for their large size, but small groups (say a three-man improv team) have no way of representing every possible demograph in it's population. How do we put humans together in a way that they can function together, and more than function, succeed? Bands, as it turns out have been doing this for centuries. You have orchestras with every possible instrument present, all the way down to duets of every possible variation. Billy Merritt refers to the “Pirate, Robot, Ninja” classification, but this doesn't really indicate “how” people play. Everyone has a tone – a voice – about how they improvise. This is really about (using this band analogy) what kind of instrument each person is. Here's a brief overview of the common instruments, and combining the right ones is what makes groups “sing”, where right really only means “complementary voices”.

Flute – highest voice in the band (excluding the sub-flute piccolo); flute is technically a woodwind despite the fact that it is made of metal (usually brass or an alloy of copper and/or silver). Flute parts are typically fun, bouncy, bright, cheerful, and delicate. In solo parts, they can be buried by the band unless they are given opportunity to soar. ( Most flautists are female, and this type of player also tends to be female. This player's voice carries the melody, so is a voice that carries the game and the engine of the scene, but doesn't carry power or oomph with it.

Clarinet – mellow, high range woodwind and reedy. Often carries the melody, but is excellent at providing fill and mood. When soloed, it very commonly does so in jazz music – again it's high range combined with a delicately reedy sound can make this an instrument easily overshadowed if not given room. There are usually a lot of clarinets in a band, and when put together, they can do some very amazing music. ( As an improviser, this person can be very easily overlooked because they rarely shine. Tasked with supporting the central voice, yes-anding ideas, and filling in information they may not always get laughs, but what they do provide is essential.

Oboe and Bassoon – I've combined both here because many times bands may not have these instruments. Few arrangements require either instrument and they don't have an essential role in most non-professional organizations. Also, most groups don't have more than one of each, to give you an idea of how rare they are. Both instruments have the potential to have gorgeous musical lines, but other more prolific instruments can drown them out. The oboe is a high, haunting and bucolic sound. ( The bassoon, known as the “belching bedpost” is low, bass reed sound. Warm, friendly, and supportive of other similar parts in most arrangements. ( A hall mark of both instruments (and players), is the finicky-ness of their sound and the intelligence both require. These players will very commonly find themselves waiting for opportune moments to add perfect additions to melodies and harmonies.

Alto Sax – there are a number of different saxophones, but this is the one that you're thinking of when you're thinking of a saxophone. Also a woodwind despite its brass construction and reed used to generate sound. This instrument can be very loud very easy and sounds jazzy, funky, and bright. When given solos, it is very common in jazz or Broadway type songs, or does well in harmony and counter melodies. ( This player is loud and big – imagine heavy characters or premise heavy initiations. This is an improviser who may be light on finesse, but will be heavy on energy and play.

French Horn – a high brass sound that is regal, haughty, and soaring. Quartets of these instruments can be gorgeous and solos are marked by being soaring and big affairs. ( (pertinent section begins at ~3:45)) These improvisers are probably seen as being arrogant or cocky. We might interpret this as a negative, but even these roles have their purpose in shows and scenes.

Trumpet – the biggest carrier of melodies, especially so in marches (e.g. John Phillip Sousa); the trumpet is brassy, bright, and bold. It can do subtle, but it isn't it's strength. When used traditionally the trumpet plays to it's power, energy, and liveliness. ( This improviser does melody and power – strong initiations, big characters, bold moves, and speed.

Trombone – also known as “the one with the slide”, trombones are known for power. A common joke in bands are as to how loud the default playing volume of a trombone is. The biggest difference is the slide; notes are reached not by clicking down keys or valves, but by sliding the tube longer and shorter. As a result notes may ooze into each other – this is done for purposeful effect in jazz numbers using glissandos, or if players get sloppy, entirely by accident. ( Because this plays in the tenor voice range, it carries well, and will be commonly found initiating but may play more outright comedic characters. An improviser playing like a trombone may have a little “sloppiness” in their play – a kind of fun funkiness.

Baritone – this one is a low, angelic “small tuba”. Baritones often play bass lines in arrangements, but will sometimes have lovely solos or countermelodies. The instrument can also be known for silly, goofy, playful parts – voices that mimic clowns or baffoons. Played well, it fills a needed middle tone in the ensemble. ( Improvisers playing as baritiones are often fun, silly, have an emphasis on play and funny but may not always “shine” in scenes. Baritones are a comfortable, consistent, reliable presence in scenes, often doing the hard work in small scenes to keep them grounded and stable.

Tuba – the lowest voice in the band; strong, bold, but often a slow, plodding voice. Tubas rarely get solos, mostly because the precision and speed required is hard to pull off in the instrument, instead it can be found doing low pedal tones or oscillating bass tones in marches and the like.( Tubas as improvisers are doing the hard work; towing the line in scenes to keep them grounded or give them gravitas. They maintain the reality of scenes and keep them with a pulse and heart.

Percussion – the metronome, the beat, the thrumming backbone of the band. This includes snares, bass drums, cymbals, chimes, bells, marimbas, and all the fun “toys” that add so much little touches to music. Precussion instruments are interesting in that a single one cannot provide all of what is typically needed in a large ensemble (excluding drum kits), but instead have to highly work together to produce rhythm and beat. ( As improvisers, expect these people to maintain tempo in games and dynamics, to provide edits, and off-stage color. Usually more unassuming players are precussion, but they deliver powerful one-liners and buttons for scenes in addition to small color in large group scenes.

Strings – strings are very common in orchestras, but for our purposes, we are assuming all our instrumentation is only for a modern sit-down concert band. In that concept, strings are uncommon except for very specific arrangements, and then only for a very specific purpose, like the bass guitar in Horner's “Coming Home from the Sea” or the harp in a number of Christmas arrangements. Strings are delicate, full bodied instruments that provide rich melodies, harmonies, and bass lines to orchestras, and we are assuming that violins, violas, cellos, and basses are all a part of this category. ( Why lump all of these together? Quite simply, if we use this system as a method to categorize people, we will undoubtedly run into people that don't easily fall into one of the instrument categories, and this is our “everyone else” group. If you have a person on a team that doesn't quite jive with what other people are doing, that seems to be playing by their own music, they're probably a string instrument living in a wind band world. They don't sound “right” because the accompaniment is “wrong”. They're not bad players, they just need other string instruments to complement them appropriately.

A knowledge of the instruments and their accompanying player personas allows for easy ensemble building – some instruments do not naturally go together (though there are some nice tuba/flute duets, these are niche, rare, and gimmicky). Also, some instrumentation doesn't fit the music well; I've had a dream for some years of having a large jazz combo, but having the instrumentation re-written to concert instruments. Saxes become clarinets and bass clarinets, tenors and baritone saxes bassoons, trumpets as french horns, trombones as baritones. Though this would be interesting to hear, it's more akin to the strange “IPA with Sriracha cream” gimmick beers that pop up in San Diego from time to time. They'd be interesting to try, but you wouldn't buy a keg of it. My long time duo, Mike and Chris, works because Mike is a trumpet, and I'm a trombone. Our two brassy tones complement each other. Small groups (duos, trios) need very well balanced instruments – brass go with brass, woodwinds with woodwinds, basses with basses, etc. Larger groups need and can handle more diverse parts.

At the end of the day, our objective is “ensemble” and playing together. Well made music requires more than a single note, we need chords. Multiple notes built to go together, where the pieces work in concert towards a common goal. All groups end up with stylistic choices that define their show, it's what makes two different teams that do the “same show” (e.g. harold teams) have performances that feel different. This isn't a side effect or accidental – this is part of the built in, secret sauce that makes live performance unique. More importantly, this is what makes our team work important. How the parts fit together and what everyone contributes makes team. As the clothes make the man, the instruments make the band.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Books and Shirts

The Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre (UCB) published an improv book recently, though more likely than not, if you're reading this blog, you already know that. This book was obviously groundbreaking in a number of ways: one, the first book to completely encapsulate a theater's approach to improv (as opposed to a person), and from a theater that is very much having a moment right now in the improv zeitgeist. It also was a book that was years in the making, and was the first one to propose to be a toolkit that could completely guide an improviser all the way from neophyte to functional. But I think the biggest thing about the book was more than the content of the book itself – it was that nearly every improviser I knew pre-ordered it and started reading it right away (and also posted a picture of themselves reading it with a cup of coffee). This happened again very recently with the TJ & Dave book, although apparently to a lesser degree.

I'm a bit of an improv bibliophile; I have improv books occupying over an entire shelf, and going back to the 60's. Improv books actually come out pretty often, but this was the first “big” one to come out while improv is on such a huge swing. The interesting thing about improv books is that they are a static, tangible totem in a craft that is absent such adjectives normally. We don't create things that can be shown or kept in perpetuity. Even our improv shows, when recorded, never quite recreate the experience of watching it live. This is kind of one of the magic sauces of improv, that live is what people truly come to see.

The downside is that we have very few totems that we can hang on to as a community; outside of a cluster of improv books (and even fewer really great ones), the TJ & Dave movie, a few team, theater, and festival t-shirts, we don't really have anything that we can hold in our hands. Even most of the great philosophy and writing is mostly in the land of the easily shared, but also easily forgotten digital (like this blog!). Improv is dangerously ephemeral.

I had a student ask me a great question recently: “what is improv?”. Some context as to why this is a great question is that she was explaining to her sister what the classes were about and was looking for a response to give her that described what we were doing. What we do may seem obvious to us as improvisers, but it's always worth remembering to think about what we look like to our audience, and the uninitiated. How would you describe improv to an alien that had absolutely no frame of reference? Hell, how do you describe the majority of what we do even to people who've seen “Whose Line”? (Which, on a related note, can we all bow our heads for a moment and thank God that a show like “Whose Line” exists and was relatively well played on ABC Family, because seriously how would we describe what we do to our families otherwise?)

The answer I gave my student is that it is “theater that is unscripted and unrehearsed”, which is a definition I rather like in that it is accurate, fairly all-encompassing, and concise. But it's not really a precise answer. It does say what we do, but doesn't really give you an idea of what that looks like. I always liked the poetry of the iO description of the Harold – saying that it was like a jazz band, which again, nails the artisanal, flexible, and complicated nature of it, but still doesn't really tell you much. You could of course recall its scene/game/scene structure, but that tells you even less about it. My student's follow up question is: “is it always funny?”, which we as improvisers I think have matured enough to be able to say the truth, which is: most of the time, but not always. But more importantly, that it doesn't have to be.

What is improv? It's something we can't write out easily. It can't be described in a sentence that fully captures what it looks like, what it means, and what it is composed of in a single sentence. This is its inherent beauty. We get to participate in something that we can only share by being present, in the moment with each other. Our entire art is a summer memory, fondly recalled.