Archive for the ‘improv’ Category

The show has begun.

I love improvising for many reasons. Without a doubt, my life is better because of my improvisational experiences — I am a better friend, wife and mother because of them. I’ve learned so much about being flexible, open-minded, saying “yes!” to opportunities, taking risks and on and on. AND it is my extreme sport.  I am probably never going to jump out of a plane or go spelunking or diving under wild conditions.  Yet I’ve found the place where I can get an amazing adrenaline rush — stepping out onto the improv stage to create something from nothing.

The adrenaline balanced with the frame of the improv show creates this lovely state of mind and body.  I am alert, aware, having ideas and inspirations and acting on them or holding back depending on what the show needs.  While onstage, my brain and body are fully engaged in the storytelling moment, actively accepting and making offers with my fellow improvisors while juggling all my inner reactions and ideas.

Backstage (or in the wings, depending on our stage set up) a different version of this occurs.  We are an improvisation company that strives for no backstage discussion. We want the creating to happen in front of the audience and engaged with them. ( We do always have a whiteboard backstage to keep track of  audience suggestions, character names and important details as they arise. So sometimes when I’m backstage, I’m looking at the board to remind myself of those details.)  While watching the onstage action, I may have 10 ideas or 100 or more AND as the scene continues my ideas must constantly change to incorporate what has happened.  We never “know” when we are needed onstage so we have to be constantly available.  I love it when a fellow performer points at me and walks onstage to start a scene.  I don’t anything about their idea and off I go, trusting in the moment.  At most someone might point and then whisper one word like “office” or “volcano” but then the rest takes place in public.

Backstage during a scene, I find myself watching and on my toes. Ready to go on if I’m needed and ready to stay off if I’m not.  It can be quite a beautiful experience of flow…especially in a show that is going well.  When I’m not needed onstage, I also get the thrill of enjoyment from watching the skill and talents of the other actors.

In our dress rehearsal for Secret Identity Crisis, there was a stunning experience of group mind backstage. The premise of this show is the life behind the mask in the world of superheroes.  We had just reached the climactic scene and the main character was in the spotlight. Suddenly her mentor appeared on the stage and without a pause the rest of us disappeared backstage.  Without a word to each other, we watched the scene between the two of them unfold in the main character’s inner world and then without a pause, all four other actors jumped back on stage and we were back in real time for the final battle moment.  That to me was one of the powerful experiences I’ve had of group mind backstage.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Behind the Scenes week.  If you’re interested in reading more about performing and other things from the improvisor’s perspectives, here are some recent blog posts by wonderful improvisors I know:

“The Circus Bow and other Lessons from the Big Top, Part 1 – Celebrating Failure” by Kat Koppett on the Improvisational Storyteller

“What the Audience Knows” by Rebecca Stockley on the Improv Lady

“Space Object Work in 2 Simple Rules” by Rich Cox on Improv Notebook

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Behind the Scenes week continues here at Improv-a-Mama with one of my favorite parts of a performance — pre-show!

Since early on, one of Un-Scripted’s ensemble members, Christian, has pushed us to connect with the audience before the show starts.  We mix and mingle and talk to folks as they come in and are sitting down. As a shy person, my first reaction (and 2nd and 3rd reaction) was “No!”  So I  had to do some work to get to “yes” and now nine years later, I love this pre-show time.

This mingling with the audience  is the beginning of creating together for the evening.  As performers, we have a chance to set expectations about the show (our style of improvisation as theater without a script is different from much other improv that folks have seen), get the audience thinking about the kind of suggestions we’re going to ask for, answer questions and really, just make a personal connection.

Sometimes it is thought of as a time to “get the audience on our side.” I do think that it does serve that function;  a roomful of people that has met you and connected with you is more likely to join into the communal imagination of creating a show than sit back and heckle. (Really. A connected audience is waaaaaay less likely to say, “proctologist” when asked for a suggestion while an unconnected audience almost always will.) However, I believe there is a deeper and more powerful something going on than trying to get people to like us and that is  an experience of community.

Yes it is a temporary community. It is a community of a few hours. It is a community of the performance for that evening. Still, it is a community and that feeling of being a part of something is valuable for all of us, especially in our modern society where increasing numbers of people report being shy and feeling isolated.

Improvisation is a communal art form;  we as performers are impacted by the audience as much on a kinesthetic level throughout the show as we are by their suggestions to inspire us at the beginning.  Just as improvisors warm-up before we go onstage, the audience needs an opportunity to warm-up to the experience.

I feel like I’ve had a successful pre-show if I’ve not only conveyed important information about the show, but also learned something about audience members and drawn them out to tell their stories. In recent weeks, I spoke with a woman who was a child prodigy on the piano. She performed at Carnegie Hall as a young teenager and played with many of the greats and she came to chose a path outside of the arts so she could have a more balanced life.  A man in the audience told me that he had an identical twin and he had moved across the country to California after high school to have room to establish his own identity.  Audience members’ stories tend to stay with me in a vivid way. Do I use them in the show? Usually not consciously but I’m sure my unconscious is chewing on those images and drawing inspiration from them.

Two weeks ago, an audience member asked me what I do to get ready to be onstage? Did I have any rituals or routines?  I was stumped for a moment and then I realized how important this preshow was to me, and I could simply answer, “Doing this.”  We talked about it for a few minutes and it was fun to bring the community of the moment to the surface and enjoy that together.

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I’m an improvisor, not a fighter.

I have never really thrown a punch to defend myself or shot someone or drawn a sword to do battle.

Yet sometimes, an improvisor needs to be fighter, and throw a punch or do a roundhouse kick or wield a sword or a staff or a gun.

Stage fighting is an area of improvisation that has been quite challenging for me.  Not only am I having to get over my pacifist impulses and do what my character needs to do, I also have to get over my self-consciousness and imagine myself into situations that are challenging for me. Some imaginative challenges are easier than other…I’ll make up songs on stage until the cows come home, or do Shakespeare-style improvisations or any other hundred things that are primarily mental.  When it comes to creating physical realities that are far from my own, I have to work harder.

I flinch — even if I’m the one throwing the punch or wielding the sword. And really, nothing breaks the illusion quite like flinching. It is telling the audience “I’m uncomfortable and so I’m letting you know this isn’t real.” One of the improvisor’s greatest skills can be commitment and if I can be in stage fight with full commitment, the audience will join me and color in the details to make it rich and wonderful.

I find it is one thing to think that (and I do!) and quite another thing to get over my flinching self-consciousness. To do that, I need opportunities to practice fighting and to learn how to use my body to fight in different situations.

Over the years as a performer, I’ve had some great opportunities to learn but I have to admit it is an area of practice that I don’t keep up on so I remain uncomfortable.

Enter the slo-mo fight scenes of Secret Identity Crisis.

Recently, Bryce (producer and cast member) ran us through a series of warm-ups that got the whole cast moving in pairs, following body motions through and playing with making contact and avoiding contact ALL in slow motion.  It was fun and I made many discoveries about what I could and couldn’t do with my body in slow motion. It was so much easier to follow the flow of the motion instead of thinking “where should I be falling if I get hit on this side?”  It also helped to have that connection with my fighting partners;  with that level of connection I felt safe and that I was not going to end up in a situation I wasn’t ready for (in one show, Bryce picked Michael up in a fight and it was phenomenal and not something I’m ready for!)

Then he had the inspiration for fighting four against one.  Here’s the video clip of the first time we used it in a show (I’m in the black and dark purple):

Bryce found a way to teach fighting that embraced the cast’s very varied skill set and comfort levels and it has made it much more fun to do. (I might even look forward to doing it again in another show.)

Last chance to see Secret Identity Crisis is this weekend…more information and tickets available at www.un-scripted.com.

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Welcome to Behind the Scenes week!

In honor of closing weekend of Secret Identity Crisis, I’m writing a series of posts about what improvisors are up to behind the scenes — in rehearsal, preshow and backstage.

First up — rehearsals.

“If you’re making it up on the spot, what do you do in rehearsals?” (or some version of that question) is one of the most often asked questions.

The answer: it depends on the show.

The Un-Scripted Theater Company follows a rather standard theater schedule of 6-8 weeks of rehearsal, then we open and have a run of shows for 4-8 weeks with rehearsals continuing through the run.  There is a director (or co-directors) for each show who come up with the vision and design rehearsals to train the cast in the skills needed to make a successful show.

Secret Identity Crisis takes place in a world of superheroes, specifically inspired by the world of comic book superheroes.  One aspect of rehearsals (and research outside of rehearsals) is getting the whole cast on the same page of what that can mean.  I have to admit to probably never having read a comic book as an adult and it was really fun to be introduced to the range of what is out there. (Did you know Joss Whedon also writes comic books?)

In rehearsal, we worked with exploring the archetypes of the genre (the hero, the nemesis, the sidekick, the love interest and the mentor). By exploring them in rehearsal, we get through the easy references and common storylines so by the time we open we are ready to explore a wider variety of story arcs.

We worked a lot on endowments; always critical for an improvisor, an endowment is something an improvisor says or does that provides color and specificity. It can be about the location (“I’ve never seen so many posters of bears in one room.” or “Watch your step, there’s a sudden drop into the abyss over there”) or your own character (“I’ve never told anyone this before, but after the accident I started to have psychic visions.”) or someone else’s character (“I love you even if you never let me see your face behind the mask.”)  Since we perform on a basically empty, black stage, we need to create the set in our audiences mind and communicate with each other within the scenes all of the ideas in our head.

We also practice the specific structural elements of a show. In Secret Identity Crisis, the show always starts with a climactic scene that ends with the main character in a spotlight. Then the story moves back in time and we work towards that moment for the rest of the show.

And we practice specific skills, like stage fighting which is its own post later this week.

Most importantly, the weeks of rehearsing together gives the cast time to know each others strengths and weaknesses and how to play together.  There are 13 cast members, some of whom have played together for years and others who are totally new to each other. That’s a lot of playful relationships to develop. Rehearsal, for me, is an amazing time of growing appreciation for each persons’ skills.

Once the shows open, there is focus on how to go farther, tell more sophisticated stories, bring in more skills and achieve our goal…which is that our audience on any given night leaves feeling not only satisfied with the superhero show they’ve seen but that they feel like they’ve seen a play that just happens to not have a script.

If you want to hear from other cast members and see rehearsal footage, check out the fantastic vlogs  that cast member Aaron made:

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Registration is open for my next series of Playtime for Parents classes. Thanks to the Recreation Department from the City of Albany for the opportunity to teach there!

Here are the details:

Playtime for Parents

Enhance your enjoyment of playing with your kids by (re)discovering and deepening your own sense of play.

Have fun exploring play with other parents, while learning practical hands-on ideas you can use with your family.

The class will incorporate improvisation and storytelling techniques and explore how to use them with children of all ages. Each week will involve new games and activities.

Shy people are welcome!


Four sessions. Register for individual sessions or receive a discount when you register for all four.

June 15 Wed 7-9:30 pm 1x $27 $37
June 22 Wed 7-9:30 pm 1x $27 $37
June 29 Wed 7-9:30 pm 1x $27 $37
July 6 Wed 7-9:30 pm 1x $27 $37
June 15-July 6 Wed 7-9:30pm 4x $82 $92


Ready to register?

The online City of Albany Summer 2011 Activity Guide is here. (Playtime for Parents is on page 27)

City of Albany online registration is here.

You can also register by phone by calling (510) 524-9283.



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We’re already in week three of performances and tomorrow night is my first show. (There are 13 improvisors in the cast with 5 or 6 performing each night.) I’m very excited to be back on stage and creating improvised theater.

Full details and ticket buying at www.un-scripted.com.

If you want to come see me play…I’m in the shows on Sat April 9th, Thurs April 14, Thurs April 21, Thurs April 28th and Sat April 30th.

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In improv lingo “going into the cave” means taking a risk or taking on the thing that scares you.

In an scene, if your character comes up to a cave where there’s a lion, you’ve got a choice. You can stay safe outside the cave or go into the cave and find out what happens.  Perhaps you get eaten by the lion. That would be terrible in real life but is wonderful in improvisation because now you have the opportunity to find out “what comes next?” — do you survive in the lion’s stomach like Jonah in the whale?  Or move on to the afterlife and explore Heaven or Hell or some alternative?  Are you absorbed into the lion’s consciousness?  Or reincarnated as a lion?  In the world of imagination, there are limitless possibilities IF we are willing to go into the cave.

I’ve found that the practice of going into the cave through improvisational play has helped me be more brave when I have  a real life cave to enter.  There’s plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence of how children work things out through play, I believe it holds true for our whole lives if we are willing to continue to play.

LP is circling in on asking about my mom. That’s  a cave for me.

My mom, Joan, died when I was 16.  I’ve had many years now to grieve, mourn, miss her, come to peace with life without her and go through that cycle again when life events stir up my desire to share great happiness or have her love and support in difficult times.  Becoming a mother certainly has stirred that pot many times.  Overall my experience has been that being a mom reconnects me with her spirit and reminds me of her in positive ways. And…I know that at some point, LP will want to know where her other grandmother is (and ImprovDad’s father as well but that is his story to tell).

We have photos of my mom.  LP has a few things that my mom made for me when I was young including  a cat pillow my mom made that we call the “Mama’s Mama Cat.” I’ve told LP stories  (especially during some rough times in the middle of the night) that start “When I was a little girl and having a hard time, my Mama would…” These objects and stories are for me, a sweet spirit connection between my mom and my daughter.

A few weeks ago, when I picked her up at preschool, LP asked “When will Joan pick you up?”

For a moment I couldn’t breathe.  I was surprised at the question and not sure how to answer.  My heart sank and all my fears about not knowing what to say bubbled up inside. Hello cave.  LP has only recently started the questions about death with all the innocence of 4 years old and ImprovDad and I are walking that line of answering her questions openly (hopefully with ease) while not giving her more information than she’s ready for.

In the moment I gave her an honest but somewhat evasive answer along the lines of “I’m a big person and mamas don’t usually pick up big people.” As I took the time to reflect on the interaction and let the sadness be present, I realized the other side of going into this cave.  Although it is sad for me both because I miss my mom and because it leads to LP’s awareness that ImprovDad & I will someday die as will she, I can look forward to sharing more about my mom with LP and there is a lot of joy in that thought.  LP’s awakening to who is missing in her life, is an opportunity.

Yesterday LP asked “Will Joan look more like you?”  (She’s overheard people comment many times at how much I look like my mom.) It is the first time that she has asked about my mom that I greeted her questions with a genuine smile.  And I said something along the lines of “I do look more like my mom as I get older.” It was all she needed in that moment and her attention shifted to the next thing.

I know that over the years we will have many different kinds of interactions both around her growing understanding of death and about my mom in specific.  Allowing my internal state to shift has made that cave not so scary.

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A Novel Update

In November, I was racing my writing word count for NaNoWriMo against our decomposing pumpkins.  I didn’t win (write 50,000 words) but I did scratch, claw, hunt and peck my way to 20,136 words which is more than I expected in my 3rd week of having the flu. Those 20,136 words are the beginning of the second novel that takes place in the same world as the first.  I made some important discoveries about that world that will help inform the first as well…if I can get myself buckled down to do some serious writing.

But alas, the pumpkins continue to lead the way.

I’m at an interesting place with my novel…I find myself working on the ending while there is still a big, gaping hole of “what happens HERE?” in the middle.  I realized that I was fighting working on the ending because…well just because that’s what was happening in my brain.  Even though I went into this whole novel writing experience without a plan (or a plot), somehow I ended up making up some rules for myself about how writing is supposed to progress at this point.

The pumpkins decompose the way they do because of nature. Laws of nature and all that.  Writing a novel however has no laws and I don’t help myself by making up rules that don’t help me write.  Really I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks or so not writing all the ideas, images and scenes floating around in my head because they aren’t from the part of the story I thought I should have ideas, images and scenes about.

Bring on an improv moment!

It is time to throw my hands in the air and shout “I failed!” (a classic improv release for my non-improvising readers) and “again!” (another shout-out that improvisors use to embrace failure as a learning experience).  And then to give myself the time and gift of letting those ideas, images and scenes take shape on the page so I can play with them, flesh them out, edit them down, rearrange them or whatever else my imagination gives me to do with them.

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I wrote this one back in November and never hit “publish”…so here it is now:

As a new improvisor, I remember being awed by how quickly experienced improvisors created stories and brought them to life. They were just so fast. I certainly could never do that.

As I became more experienced in working with stories and re-engaged with the joy of making things up, I started to learn how quickly my own brain worked to create stories AND how one of the many challenges of co-creation is to simultaneously allow stories to blossom in our imaginations and to discard them in response to what someone else says or does.

I became fascinated with the process, with how we are storied creatures. This is what humans do; we tell stories. We are made for it. Our brains are wired for it. If someone asks you to use the words cow, spoon and river in a sentence, you’ll do it by creating a very brief story. I immediately see a cow floating down a river with a spoon around her neck. That’s what my imagination offers me. I’m  curious about that image…I’ll have to see where that story goes.

As a drama therapist with and interest in narrative therapy, I’ve had many opportunities to explore how stories function — both to hurt and to heal — in people’s lives, including my own. Again and again, I’ve reawakened to that early improv-based discovery — we create stories fast.  Improv has helped me become more aware of the process and also the rate at which we discard our imagination’s offerings because they are not good enough, funny enough or some other reason. (Really? A cow on a raft on a river? That makes no sense, there’s no story there.)

As a parent, sometimes my story-ing is wonderful and helpful at imagining what might be going on in LP’s world.  Other times it gets in the way.  When I don’t realize that I’ve created a story about her experience and am missing her expressing her actual experience, we are often bound for a clash or a visit to tantrumville.  Truly, nothing sets off my girl like the phrase “I know…” even if it is something I do know is true for her.  She is sensitive to that turn of the phrase and I think the meaning underneath it — that I already have a story about her that explains it all.

A recent life example:  LP had her first dentist visit last week.  She was a trooper and for the most part pretty curious and engaged. Until the tooth polishing. She tried to climb out of the chair so fast it was hard to catch her.  After a bit of coaxing (and  a promise of a red balloon), LP was willing to lie on top of me on the chair.  The dental hygienist said (and I echoed) “It’ll go real fast” and LP fought her hands away protesting.  It took some work to help calm her down and then LP said, “NO. Not fast, slow.”

Oh. Yes. That is her telling her story, expressing her needs. I would want it to go fast so of course that was the story I told myself about what LP wanted. However, LP is different she wants it to go slow. And with the dental hygienist going slowly she was able to have every tooth polished and when it was over, she seemed quite proud about that.

Our innate story ability is a beautiful, amazing thing AND as parents who have such influence over our little people’s worlds it is important to take moments to check-in and see if the story we have about them matches their reality.

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Playful Eating

I realized  that in true grown-up fashion, I was making saying “yes”  too complicated.

LP was in horse mode at lunch the other day (which she has been for most of the day recently except  for breaks when she is an otter or a rooster) and wanted to eat grass for lunch.  So I made her pasta and used some food coloring in the butter to turn it greenish and then added some chopped spinach. She seemed pretty happy with it although I don’t think much was eaten (she likes her leafy greens fresh from the earth, anything even slightly cooked gets a pass from her).

A playful twist on food is often a hit…green eggs (a la green eggs and ham, although mine often come out more olive green) are popular with LP, as is any food that ties into her current imaginary world.  So while sometimes I get inspired to create an “urchin” out of a cracker with hummus and dried lentils for my otter, I realized that at this stage of the game she’s happy to use her imagination. She seemed completely delighted with me putting down a plate of turkey and cheese for lunch while calling it urchin.  Hmmm…no fancy food effort on my part with a happy result and food for discussion for our meal (always helpful, I struggle with mealtime chat on a daily basis).

So I’ll accept her offers of what she wants to eat as she stays in character for meals and I’ll make offers too that fit in with her play. Sometimes my “yes!” will be in the form of creating something to eat that represents that and sometimes it will be in form of imagining along with her….which is a little easier on the cook!

This post is part of the Moms’ 30 Minute Blog Challenge over at SteadyMom.

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