By Jack Bisson 12/30/2018

A week of hiking in Sedona and exploring the Grand Canyon can only lead to one thing: improv revelations. When I have time to turn things over in my head and view them from many angles, I usually end up smack in the middle of contemplating the world of improv. I think this is because improvisational concepts pair well with just about anything you can think of or experience. Of course, thinking with an improv focus inevitably leads to jumping around as you make one discovery/connection after another, so bear with me as I lead you through the canyons of my mind. Let’s start with a contemplation.

What can improv do for me? How do I get good at improv? Will it make me funnier? If these are your questions, you’re asking the wrong ones. In fact, any question is the wrong question. Improv is not about getting to the bottom of some profound mystery. It’s also not a self-help movement. Yes, improv can help you discover things you never noticed before and it can actually help you help yourself. However, these things never unfold the way you expect them to. You see, improv is messy and disordered and different to different people and even different to the same people at different times. Find me an improviser who has mastered the art and I’ll show you a person who has, sadly, lost hold of what improv should be. Its mystery and mess are what make it worthwhile.

Let me be clear, an improviser can become efficient and error-free at performing, carving out interesting characters, mastering numerous editing techniques and when to use them, finding and playing the game, and so forth. A set can be executed to perfection with ideas explored, heightened, and reintroduced at just the right time for maximum effect. The audience laughs at all the right places and goes home satisfied. But that sounds a lot like following a recipe instead of creating spontaneous comedy. You may get the satisfaction of a job well done, but what happened to the risk? 

Beginning improvisers expend a lot of energy trying to keep themselves safe in scenes; they ask a lot of questions instead of declaring their own thoughts and feelings, deny the other person’s reality, play without emotion, and, in general, keep the scene as far from the edge of the scenic cliff as possible. But highly skilled, paint-by-numbers veteran improvisers are too often doing the same thing, just with different tools of safety. Heck, I see improvisers play Big Booty safely. BIG BOOTY for goodness sake! Yes, BB can be mastered, but where is the fun in that? I prefer playing it recklessly without a 100% of my focus. That way, after hundreds of times of playing it, I can still get caught making a “mistake”. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t deliberately take a dive, but rather I let myself be silly and take chances (funny voices, leaving the circle, and whatever else keeps me from locking in on my number). Improv should surprise, above all else, those who are doing the improvising.

So take a chance and see where it takes you and your scene partner(s). The beauty of doing improv is getting the chance to take risks and live lives and say things and do things that we would not normally do in our real life. As long as we pull our choices from the realm of the real we are representing a reality that could exist in this world. Just a few days ago, we saw a guy dressed in a Cookie Monster (looked more like a blue Elmo) costume outside the visitor center at the Grand Canyon. My seventeen-year-old son had his picture taken with him. Since the guy in the costume was not beholden to some expectation in someone else’s head, he acted through his own reality. What did that look like? After I took the picture, he said to us, “Any donation would be appreciated since I am an independently contracted Cookie Monster. I am not paid by the park.” This happened in the real world. Safe choices don’t get us to interesting realities. 

Improv as Vortex

In Sedona, there are numerous locations known as vortexes that are supposed to have strong energies flowing through them. People hike to these to meditate or pray or simply groove on the idea of experiencing something special. Think about it, people hiking miles, sometimes up steep inclines, in the blazing sun to experience a powerful, positive, and even healing energy. Put down the granola and take off those hiking boots because you have access to the best vortex I know: improv.  

To do improv well you need to commit every cell in your mind to the present moment. If you can accomplish this than you have entered an improv vortex. The level of focus required can actually heal you (at least during the time you are improvising). Colds go away, sore backs are forgotten, headaches subside, and so on. It’s a simple matter of focus. Your mind is so busy with listening and reacting that it doesn’t have time to let you think about the other crap. So let yourself focus completely and see what happens. If nothing else, the stress of the day will melt away for a few precious moments. How much is that worth?

Mesa Hike as Scene Analogy

A mesa is essentially a mountain with the top cut off: just a flat top. As we hiked to the top of Doe Mountain, a mesa, it occurred to me that all the key elements of good scene work were present. Okay, fine, I have an improv obsession. I get it, now let’s move on. Each new switchback was like a new idea to explore because when you changed direction you had a totally different view of the same scenery. A new idea would occur and then be heightened until it was time for a new idea/switchback. Through this cycle of exploring and heightening, you eventually reach the pinnacle of the scene. 

Once on top of the mesa, there are many new views to consider. This is the reward for having made the effort to traverse all those switchbacks. When you’re in a scene, take the time to explore and heighten the ideas that present themselves instead of looking for something more interesting elsewhere. Eventually you will reach a natural conclusion that will provide a jumping off point (maybe that’s not the best word choice given the analogy) to other fun trails/scenes.

Last Thoughts

Maybe my reflections are a bit disjointed and messy. Maybe I should have played it safe and kept my thoughts to myself. Still I enjoy the thrill of sending you these thoughts, which may or may not be well-received. I took a chance and I don’t regret it a bit. Then again, now that I’m finished, I’m noticing that my usually sore back is starting to hurt again. Must be time for another improv fix.

By John G. Kalinowski 1/20/2018

Before I start teaching a new round of classes, I like to go back to notes I've taken from instructors and books throughout the years. Here are some notes from a workshop I took from Joe Bill from Chicago in 2006. 

Scenes Occur with:




Action and Emotion are the strongest places for scenes. Talk is where most scenes are.

Scenes should be balanced with different energies. They should also be balanced regarding where they come from in the action/emotion/talk spectrum.

There are three things one can focus on in a scene:

1.  Yourself

2.  Your partner(s)

3.  Your Environment

If ever you run out of things or get stuck on one of them, go to another. Searching for balance, if a scene is mostly about oneself, the next should be about partner or environment.

Scenes should be dynamic. The only pure emotions are love and fear and everything else is a mixture.  It’s fuck or flight. There are two ways to get there: Curiosity and suspicion.  

Stage problem: the natural instinct in love scenes or arguments is to go toward each other. On stage, however, no one will ever actually fight. No one will ever actually fuck. There may be a stage kiss, but it will never be enough. Stage combat is eh, okay. Just allow the distance between the two of you to work for you both.

Give yourself selfish gifts. Name the things you want and why you want them. Give yourself a stake in the matter and tell why something is important to you. That will always give you something to return to.   

Edit Options: the “Bolt”. In a two person scene, one drops character and quickly bolts out. This theatrical gesture means the character is still there even though the person is not. Also, an improvisor can theatrically place a chair on stage. This chair must be used somehow in the next scene.

Really listen to the other character.

Improvisers spend much of their time moving objects, but rarely do the objects move us.

Figure out an object and what it is. Let it process through the mind, heart, gut/groin and figure out what it means.  

Difference between short and long form is the audience tension:

Short form: the audience tension is will they execute the game they have explained, and will they do it in an interesting way.

Long form: the audience tension is whether or not they believe you.

In long form, everything should take three times longer than you think it should take.  

Feel free to throw in your Chekov, Brecht, self-indulgent acting shit and do that stuff too. If a scene breaks out that is it so serious that it makes people not want to be alive, then that is fine.

Firework Shows
By Sebastian Inks 10/21/2017

I want you to picture fireworks in your head. Think about what they look like. What color. Think about what you associate with fireworks. For me, fireworks are big, in the air, loud, attention-grabbing, confident and always putting on a show. The colors are bright and the noise echoes through a night sky with every explosion being another SCREW YOU NEIGHBORS! Each firework works with the next to create a symphony of color and light. Every firework serves as a very specific piece in the overall show being created. I would say there's three types of firework the first being "The Focal Point." The Focal Firework sets the scene for the other fireworks to decorate around. The Focal Firework is the largest of them all and always sets the mood. However seeing one firework in the sky can only be interesting for so long. The Second Firework is "The Glance Firework." The Glance comes second and it's either slightly left or right or behind the Focal. The Glance’s job is to complement the focal point and make it look as good as possible. Whatever the Focal Firework is doing the Glance is trying to make look better. The Third Firework is the "Peripheral Firework." You know it's there but you never need to look at it for more than a second. The peripheral weaves in and out, waiting on the sides trying to find moments that will really make the other fireworks stand out. Whether it’s the addition of movement in squiggly lines or the extra sound of high pitch tone the peripheral doesn’t want attention. It only tries to help. The show is great and the crowd loves it, women are throwing their tops and men are throwing their panties. Everyone is wild and hyped because of what they just saw. Then it fades away never to be done again.

Here's the thing about fireworks. The show is great because of the careful prep. the aim, the packing, mixing the ingredients so that they explode at the right height and time. It's all of the mistakes along the way. It's starting over. It's trying something new to push the craft. It's everything we don't see. The Mechanics of a firework are what make the show. Without solid mechanics, the show wouldn't get off the ground.

If you missed it that was an analogy for improv. Boom.

When the Lights Come Up
By Sebastian Inks 7/13/17

We've been interested in starting a blog for quite some time now but have always been unsure how to start. That's the thing about improv: we never know how it's going to start. No matter how much practice the team goes through we will never know how the show goes go until we do it. So with that in mind we will never know how this blog goes unless we do it. 

What happens before the lights go up? Everyone is different, but personally it's the most terrifying and rewarding experience. The music blaring, heart beating, sweat beading, team bonding, voice echoing, chatter fading, chairs scraping, wooden floor creaking, darkness surrounding, creative energy doing everything it can to start escaping until a voice from the speakers says "Welcome to the stage Mad Cowford". The lights go up and then there's a moment... everything stops for a split second.  I'm looking at you and you look back at me. You and I try to feel each other out in a 2 second tango. Then the music stops, the sweat rolls and the show begins. That's what happens for me. As performers the cast knows they will get a suggestion. That's all, the rest of the show is unknown to us. The truth is we don't even know what the suggestion will be but we've promised you a show. We come out and there is nothing but air until you provide a suggestion. It's like jumping out of a plane and waiting for someone else to pull the cord. You are the ones that start the creative engine. That's the fun in it.  Every time the stage lights turn on we start to fall. Plummeting until you pull the cord at which point the team unravels into a parachute and the steady flight to the end of the show begins. That's enough of the metaphors. If you have seen our show you know it's high energy, physical, and smart, but most importantly it's funny. If you haven't seen one then I invite you to come and see for yourself. I invite you specifically...because the show is for you, it's about you, it's made by your thoughts. The audience is both a welcome friend and an equally dangerous foe. Your laughter carries us and your silence crushes. Come take a risk and see. I have one question for you. What will you create?