Are You in a Jam?

Work this week was a little rough. At my office, we have four creative teams that work with different clients, but when a huge project came in Monday morning, for better or worse, all 40 of us were forced to work together.

I have the benefit of being on a great team at work, but there are only 7 of us. We all know each other really well. We understand how everyone works. We’ve learned how to deal with the weird interpersonal quirks that arise in high-pressure situations.

But put 40 people in a room that don’t typically work together (not to mention 40 “creative diva” types), and you’re creating a recipe for disaster. And although the finished project wowed the client, during the course of two 14-hour workdays, tensions ran pretty high as people started focusing on what was best for them rather than what was best for the project or team.

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Like work, in improv we generally have the benefit of playing with a small team. We know each other’s quirks and nuances, we know how others will react in high-pressure situations (aka shows), and we know how to work best with their style of play.

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Ignore the Suggestion

Hat tip to Jimmy Carrane who wrote a similar blog post in May, 2014. I remember reading it a few months ago, and I stumbled across it again as I was writing this post. I’m sure somewhere my subconscious remembered Jimmy’s work and it definitely inspired my own. Not that he reads this blog, but thanks Jimmy! Although we make similar points, I’d recommend reading both.

My dad doesn’t understand what I do for a living.

I guess I don’t blame him since I have a hard time explaining what I do for a living in the first place.

In the most unglamorous way I can possibly imagine describing my day job: I show up to work, check Facebook, write some text in a word document about how great this new beer is or why you should buy this salad dressing and not the other one, check Facebook, write some more words about boats and fishing (which I obviously do a lot of), and then every two weeks a check comes in the mail and I go out and buy more beer (for the record, it’s not the beer I tried to convince you to buy at the beginning of the paragraph, for whatever that’s worth).

So when my dad calls me, he always opens by asking me if I’ve thought about going to law school. Mind you, my dad doesn’t want me to become a lawyer. He wants me to get a law degree, become a clerk for a few years, and then teach law at Yale’s law school. You know, a traditional career path.

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Never Shake Hands

Never Shake Hands

I’m a big, “we can still be friends” guy after a break up. And when I say it, I mean it. I start dating someone for a reason, and, just because we stop smashing face, that doesn’t imply that I dislike her. It just didn’t work out.

But every time I make an honest effort to “still be friends,” inevitably, the old issues resurface. She’ll know exactly how to push my buttons – the attraction and conflict buttons. Old wounds will reopen, and I end up leaving, remembering all of the reasons we broke up in the first place.

And that seems pretty universal.

But aside from breakups, every other aspect of our lives revolves around conflict management. We’re constantly trying to put out fires, to apologize for mistakes, to keep bridges from burning. And that’s probably a good thing. If we held grudges and never moved on, we’d all end up spending a lot of time at home alone watching Netflix with our cats.  And while we’re watching Netflix, we’d notice how in every movie and TV show, a serious conflict is introduced and then resolved in no more than 3 short hours.

With all of this conditioning, it’s no surprise improvisers are constantly trying to resolve conflicts in their scenes, the same conflicts we learned how to start last week.

And while the issues that arise on stage are seemingly infinite, the resolution is always the same. This scene-work standard is a move I like to call the handshake. It can come in many disguises – a hug, a nod of the head, or for the boldest, a kiss. But don’t let these Groucho Marx glasses fool you. This class of signaling devices is just a fancy way of burning all the rum to create a smoke signal, just another way to say “someone better cut this scene RIGHT NOW.”

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Don’t Wait to Have an Opinion

I am only qualified to talk about two things: improv and dating. So it follows logically that when I know I won’t be able to discuss either subject (like on an elevator with a coworker), I go out of my way to avoid conversation.

I don’t know if this…let’s call it neurosis…is something other people share, but I assume I cannot be the only one in the parking garage, sitting in their car for three extra minutes just to avoid making the short walk to office with another human being who pulled up at the same time. Right?

For the sake of this post, let’s at least pretend that you go out of your way to avoid small talk in your day-to-day life like I do. Based on that assumption, wouldn’t it just make sense to avoid small talk in your scene work as well?

Different forms can dictate the style of play in a show. While a mono-scene will force players to go deep and really commit to a character, a set of issues, a conflict, whatever, other forms may be more gamey or seemingly require “less work,” as performers since the time to fill isn’t huge.

I think the Harold can feel this way at times.

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You’re Not the One: How I (Sort Of) Learned to Stop Trying to be “Good” All the Time

My friend, Melissa Darch, has something she calls the John Adam’s theory – the propensity to learn a new fact, word song, etc and then see or hear it everywhere (the name comes from a fact her brother once learned about John Adams). With three different “John Adams” in the past two weeks on this topic, I felt like I had to write an article. It’s more personal in nature, but there should be some good takeaways here. I hope you enjoy it.

Have you ever had a “perfect show?” If so, you feel a little like Neo in The Matrix discovering he’s the one. You can see all of the pieces and bend them to your will – games, callbacks, characters, perfect edits.

It’s exhilarating. It makes you feel like you actually know what’s going on.  You feel good at this thing called improv. It’s a feeling you’ll spend forever chasing.

Recently, a student confessed she was struggling with trust. She trusted her own skills, but often felt the need to shoulder the weight of the entire show. She was constantly trying to “save the scene” or “save the show,” even if it didn’t need saving.

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So, You Want To Edit Scenes?

During Monday’s Serendipitous Pastiche, I initiated a three person scene in a car. I did a little object work to set up the fact that we were driving fast and dangerously, and I opened with the line, “I love you both so much. I want all of us to die like this together.” Obviously, this freaked out the two characters in the car with me, and one of them jumped out of the window. The second player stayed with me and freaked out for a moment, but then she jumped out of the window as well. So I was on stage, alone, driving a pretend car, with the intent to kill myself. With both of my scene partners gone. What comes next?

Good edits can make show and poorly timed cuts can kill even the funniest scene work, so it’s important to develop your skill.

Although people ask me about cutting scenes all the time, the best advice I normally give is to “just feel it out.” The more improv you do and the more shows you perform, the better you’ll become at editing. You will slowly start to “feel” the right time to cut a scene versus the right time to let a scene breathe.

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But since this post is only at 203 words, I guess I have to make an effort to give you guys some more concrete tips.

So rather than do any hard thinking, I’ll just steal a tip from some another blog; how about the People and Chairs blog? They say, “The best time to edit is almost always before you think, ‘Someone should edit this.”

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You’ve Only Got This Scene. Right Here. Right Now.

I know I’ve been harping on this a lot lately, but it’s something that I see coming up a lot. So I’m writing about it again.

Let’s open with a true story:

Last week a cute girl at the mall started a conversation with me. So of course, instead of investing in the interaction and connecting on a real level, I got in my head, stopped listening, and started wondering what the perfect words would be to ask her out. When I realized that I had completely zoned out, I had to stop myself and say, “Hey, could I get your number?” I just said it, nothing eloquent or fancy, and I felt so much better, like a huge weight had been lifted.

If you had watched this interaction play out as an improv scene, it would have been terrible and boring, because nothing was happening. We were just making small talk. However, you’d probably want to see the scene that started with me asking the big question rather than ending with it.

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Scenes Aren’t Black or White

After practice the other day, a student was lamenting that she always found herself in “conflict scenes.”

Part I: In most performers’ minds, the word “conflict” suggests that characters should disagree or fight.*

All stories need conflict. Conflict keeps the audience interested and engaged. If we’re not playing a very gamey, heightening scene, then we have to heighten via a conflict (which isn’t a synonym for argument)

Unfortunately, I had to tell her that she was doomed to be in conflict scenes the rest of her life. But luckily, when she said “conflict” she actually meant “argument,” and that is a curable improv disease.

I sympathize with this student, because I used to find myself in nothing but argument scenes as well, mostly because they felt safe.

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Just State the Obvious and Justify It

In my last Harold practice, I had the opportunity to try an object work exercise Rich Talrico taught at a recent workshop. Having learned a lot from it, I took it to the students I coach. But in coaching rather…

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