Urban Yeti Director's Corner

A Glimpse of the Future

         

Last night Urban Yeti Improv closed it's Harold season with a double dose of improv comedy for Anchorage audiences. Numbers were a bit down due to a combination of beautiful weather and Second City performing at the PAC, but to be completely honest the laid back nature of both shows combined with great performances led to some pretty awesome sets. I'm proud we pulled in sizeable audiences regardless of the obstacles and even greater was the surge of people who came to After Dark after the Second City performance at the PAC. I bet they laughed more at our show anyway. Oh come on, let a director puff their chest every now and then. 

A few words need to be said about Urban Yeti Improv's participation in the Alaska State Improv Festival (ASIF) which took place in Juneau from April 23rd - 26th. First and foremost, it is a hidden treasure that Alaska needs to know more about. 17 improv teams converged for ASIF from across the nation. There were talents from New York, Chicago, Austin, Portland and Seattle. Even more awesome, the Alaskan troupes held their own with groups from Anchorage, Talkeetna, Sitka and Juneau. Yeti performed two sets (long form with our Love is Blind show and short form with After Dark) plus all of our players performered in one of the mixer shows with players from around the country. We also individually took 12 hours of improv workshops from the festival headliners. Have you heard of the Alaska State Improv Festival? I bet not, but you need to spread the word. National, professional, quality improv is happening in our backyard and a lot of Alaskans still have never seen an improv show. You, reading this right now, help us correct this. Scream it from the mountains, the Alaskan improv revolution is on fire and burning brighter than ever! A strong thanks to Eric Caldwell, producer of the festival, for putting on such an incredible event. Although some might not see it, ASIF 2015 has marked a significant milestone for Yeti: We brought our talent to the wider community and gained the respect of our peers with fearless improv.

Now onto the main event, the final shows of the Harold season. I have been a bit leary of my choice to do a Harold set for a whole season. You can revisit previous blogs where I talk about the difficulties of the longest running long form standard in the world. Improv is sometimes having to work through scenes that fail and the Harold is unforgiving. Last night, however, we put on a strong product and I firmly believe the foundation of our success was in committment to characters. Whether it be two southern lawyers, an alcoholic Costco sampler, a frustrated girlfriend or parent/child relationships on display at a karaoke bar, the committment to these characters brought to life some great story to play around with. The strong character choices also made it easier on the third beat to merge the worlds together. Although I believe a Harold shouldn't always just mash characters together for a third beat, I think it was the best choice for an ending to the set. I applaud our players for taking rehearsal notes to heart to improve the performance. Each beat started with strong two character inititations, action was played more to the front of the stage and we saw more of what character's wanted rather than getting lost in dialogue. Looking back at the entire season and some new learning's at ASIF, I'm starting to catch glimpses of the future. I would like to work on finding the game quicker in our scene work. I'm not saying I want to find the game quicker in every scene, but I would like to work this muscle to be able to vary our pace. What does finding the game mean? It means finding something odd to elevate in the story, like a southern lawyer's illicit relationship with a judge, or having interventions in mundane every day locations. These are the games and I want to see us spend more time in elevation and less time in discovery.

If you missed After Dark last night, you missed a real treat. I surprised our performers by placing five games in the set list they have never played before and I made sure we got to all five. There were no backstage antics or cheap promotional tricks, they didn't know the rules and we never played them. On top of that, the audience was really into the show format with a nice level of uncensored improv and great audience participants in our Moving Bodies / Objection games. There were times where it got pretty raunchy and silly, but I identified some moments of great creativity throughout with these suggestions. Also, think about this: these player's EXPERIMENTATION with five unknown games yielded show ready material. Fearless improv, fearless improvisers, the Yeti's are dangerous.

So why hibernate for the summer? We had some solid summer shows in our first year of performances, but it was twice as hard to keep momentum going in the summer. Scheduling was harder with our performers, publicity was harder because you are forced to change your market from local to tourist, and energy was harder because nice summer days in Alaska can often inhibit the excitement of being on stage. This year we are trying something different. Our fall contracts are already in place for AET and the PAC and we are going to take a break on shows we promote alone. There is a strong possibility we will leverage some partnerships made to do gigs throughout the summer elsewhere, whether it be the valley, Talkeetna or even out of state with other groups we have met. I'm excited about this model over the next 4 months, so keep up with our facebook page to see how Yeti is having fun this summer. We'll call it a hibernation with random Yeti sitings. Don't worry, we'll find ways to bring the funny, you just sit back and laugh.

There is an additional highlight for me from last night and this season as a whole. I look back on season highlights like two sold out PAC performances, a submission worthy Valentine's Day performance of Love is Blind, a strong opening of the Harold season lined up with the Iditarod, a sponsorship of our friend and musher Bryan Bearss, trips to Talkeetna and Juneau, engaging with the wider improv community and the list goes on. I can feel a sense of pride in our players as they walk away from their sets. Sure, sometimes we might have a rough show, but I'm starting to see a stronger record of success in our experimentation. We have also done a lot of workshops in the community, allowing folks to share in the fun. I'm seeing a similar sense of pride in the Alchemists at UAA and the random person wandering into open rehearsals. This is something Mal and I were missing for a long time before we created Urban Yeti. If you are reading this, thank YOU. You helped us find it, and we are greatful. On the road ahead, there will be successes and failures, acceptance and rejection. But I will take 10 rejections for the moment of walking off stage with a group of performers who were proud of the set performed.

Our hunger means it is never enough. Two people on stage please... 

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The Disease of Agreement

Thanks for coming, proud of the business, this is what I liked, these are needed improvements, something inspirational for the team. Repeat. Thanks for coming, proud of the business, this is what I liked, these are needed improvements, something inspirational for the team. Repeat. Thanks for coming, proud of the business, this is what...

I have caught on to my own blog formula and much like improv I need to take some more risks. I always tell our Yeti performers in scenes they need to 'hit it harder'. Let's see if I can achieve the same here and find some deeper truths and a renewed vision.

I'll let you in on a little secret. This is the Yeti side of my brain during an average performance month: Last shows were great, gotta make sure to keep on top of advertising, is it too soon to think about scheduling the next performance season, what opportunities are out there, time to schedule rehearsals, I hate scheduling, I hate scheduling, I hate scheduling, why do the stars align against me, rehearsal went well, rehearsal went rough, got some weird looks from performers, that set was awesome, have we hit an artistic wall in our improv, I hate it when everyone isn't here, sometimes I can't be here, are we improving as an ensemble, have I reached the limit of by knowledge, am I deserving of a director spot, trying a Harold without a formal training program, eesh, formal training programs are overrated, I need help, I don't need help, I got this, I hope Josh is happy, he needs to be happy, do audiences get what we're trying to do, let's apply for festivals, is our submission material competitive enough, what will they think of us outside of Alaska, should I be nervous, I'm nervous, I'm not nervous, it's improv right, how do people talk about Yeti when I'm not around, FACEBOOK REVIEW, is that my co-worker in the audience, do we take our short form for granted, man I wish I could play more, I like not playing as much and focusing on the business and directing. Repeat.


 
The combination of being a human and John Hanus is both exhilarating and exhausting.

Josh gave me a book this past year called 'The Director's Voice', which is a compilation of successful stage director interviews across the country. No improv directors, but the parallels are amazing. In an interview with Anne Bogart, she describes the idea that direction is not about knowing, it's about having questions. She describes the best actors to work with are the ones that challenge direction through conversation and offer alternatives:

"We do suffer in this country from the disease of agreement. If you think that a rehearsal is doing what the director wants, then there's something sick in the room."

This actually provided a bit of an epiphany for myself. There is no director and ensemble, there is only the ensemble. The Harold has been a challenging set because we can't just focus on the basis of good improv and long form scenes, we have to focus on making all content audience worthy and converging the ideas and themes into a coherent end point. To give us more focus on scene convergence, we applied a little structure to scene transition with the bell and the approach to group games. I have found myself hitting the concepts of strong choices, strong energy too much over two months of rehearsal. After poor sets, all I can get out is "Stronger, bolder choices will yield more memorable moments you'll want to revisit in the second and third beats of the Harold." Saying it is easy, applying is difficult and I feel the exercises for this sort of set are hard to come by for me. I'm sure they are out there, I just need to reach in the right places.

Then came a bit of relief during our last rehearsal. After our third Harold set, Aneliese started discussing the third beat and how we should approach it. No more weird looks and confused faces, the discussion began amongst the group about what went well and what didn't. Everybody got in the game, and alternative views were refreshing. I want this to continue. I want more full group discussion and ideas being brought to the table. Conversation implies better focus and passion for getting to a true group think. In our conversation, we started talking about structure vs. free form and the benefits of each. Of course I started by re-emphasizing performers should slide in to the scene from transition with a strong choice and the others should follow (broken record, Hanus), but then we started bridging that with what Aneliese, Mallory, Mary Jo were seeing and thinking about as they go through the set. God dammit Hanus, reading and watching improv has hidden the fact that answers are not meant to be seen and relayed, they are meant to be discovered by the ensemble.

This is a good place to be as we wrap up our spring season and the timing couldn't be better. This month we head to Juneau for the Alaska State Improv Festival, which will consist of workshops with outside directors who will engage us with alternative view points. We'll then come home to our final spring show and additional workshops with Second City instructors visiting for other shows. Finally, we will hopefully hear some positive news on summer festival opportunities. Yeti is setting itself up nicely to Skywalker the shit out of our summer, getting away from the rebel alliance for some swamp time with Yoda. We've spent over a year establishing our brand and now we go into these diverse experiences stronger and more adaptable.

I got to slow down the brain ticker and encourage a focus on true ensemble work, rather than too much emphasis on a director/performer relationship. I'll take all of these ticker thoughts, mash them up into a small little ball inside my brain, and exhale. No big audience reaction? Set didn't go as well as you wanted? Butts in the seats low? Submission rejected? Performers didn't get as much out of that rehearsal? Everyone not showing up? So what Hanus, how cool is it that we're even in the game? How awesome is it to even get a chance to bring the best out in people and be part of a community exploring improv?

My renewed vision? The ticker is the distraction. You can't have it perfect all the time. Wipe off the sweat, quit your whining and get back on stage. 

 
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Convergence

This is crazy. Absolutely crazy. The beginning of our 2015 performance season has been non stop. Two PAC shows, networking through performance and workshops at the Fine Arts Academy and UAA, submitting for Lower 48 festivals, the list goes on. This weekend alone we had four shows over two nights spread between Talkeetna and Anchorage, culminating in our season premiere of the Harold. But you know what, why the hell not? It takes a lot of work to make a brand and nurture an environment where performers can grow and experiment. When the load gets heavy and the stakes get high, it is time to take a step back and realize, why the hell not? Although this game can be crazy, it's a hilariously fun ride and this roller coaster isn't even close to finished.

Some people think performing during Fur Rondy, with so much activity downtown, can help boost your numbers, but I have typically found the opposite to be true. The more options, the harder the sell, which is why I'm excited over a hundred fans came out to view our Harold and After Dark combo last night at the Alaska Experience Theater. We all had a great time and we got some awesome vibes in the reception line. As always, amongst the crowd are family and close friends, who choose to spend their evenings with us and our crazy dreams of experimental comedy. Simply put, thank you.

Our short form this weekend was strong. There are always a few games we can do better, where we can focus on building a scene a little more than a gag, but those were far and few between. I had a great fondness for our After Dark One Act Marathon, where we came together as a team to build concise characters with back stories and bring it all together for a nice story arch to end it. We need to continue our stage work to push scenes forward, not sink back into the curtains and diversify our environments to avoid all players standing in a straight line on stage, but we'll get there and these are minor in context. We also need to start thinking about our f-bombs, which got a little too crazy in the final Objection set of After Dark. I would also like to get to a place where our earlier showings have none. The meat is in the long form ladies and gentlemen, and for that we turn our attention to the foundation, the original, the experimental, the Harold.

Erik Martin, a great performer for the Iditaprov team in Talkeetna, asked me this weekend if I get stage fright. My response was no, I don't get stage fright as people typically describe it, but I offered a counter view. I can certainly be uncomfortable on stage, especially when approaching something new. Yes, as a director of a troupe, I have to be a rock and encourage our performers to come together as a team to conquer, but I'm going to open up a bit to our blog readers out there. Sometimes I'm in over my head. But when these moments come around, I remind myself of two facts. First, this is a good feeling. In improv, never be comfortable with what you are doing. When you get comfortable, you're done in this game. Our shows sell risk and if we ever lose site of that, our performer/audience connections will weaken. Second, and the true beauty of this art, it only takes a line. When you think you offered it up horribly, when you are losing the set, all it takes is one strong choice to lift it to something amazing.

The Harold is a tricky set, and it's not because of a specific structure or group games. It's tricky because the content has to converge in the end. Your set-ups have to pay off and your audience needs to view a solid evolution of scenes to something greater. It's so tricky, the Harold is typically a 601 style class in most improv training grounds across the world. Some students will engage in months, years of courses before they take a run at this format. Did I get stage fright? No. Did I think we were in over our heads, daring to take on an advanced format without the same structured learning in place? Yeah, I did. For the last four weeks I have been struggling as a director to balance three rehearsals with warm-ups, skill buildings, a new format and embedding myself in the format. In the end, rehearsals just ended up being Harold after Harold, with me contributing notes that felt like diagnosing symptoms and left me questioning my ability to inspire my team. But we took the risk and asked why the hell not. I stand in front of you now having learned something very powerful about our Yeti performers: We are ready for this and so much more.

Our Harold last night was a success. I'm still reflecting on this simple truth with a wide smile on my face. We started with a great theme around the Iditarod, built three scenes touching the content of the monologues it inspired, and converged the scene work after the second group game into a post apocalyptic environment shared by our set's characters. The pacing was right, we had some great physicality in our group games and the audience was engaged the entire set. We did exactly what we needed to do, we found the game and the fun, relied on playing to their strengths and didn't get lost in the advanced nature of the format. My fellow performers, I say to you now, nice job, the risk paid off, let's keep being risky.

There were areas needing to be improved, there always are, but given my inclusion in the set it is hard to take specific notes to discuss today. Instead, the focus needs to be on future rehearsal and how we should structure it to unlock more potential in our Harold. I would like to experiment more with looking at the A/B/C scene sets between the group games as a playground rather than forcing us to revisit in sequential order. This will also apply to the third and final beat, where we should continue experimenting with what works and leaving some content behind. Last night was the first time we didn't revisit all three scenes in the end and decided to bring them all into the same environment in a single wrap-up. I loved it and I want to keep experimenting with this.
 
Ladies and gentlemen, be uncomfortable, bathe in the feeling and work through it. We can attest, that lazy Sunday afterward feels so much better and you carry with you a rare pride. Thanks for listening, we hope you come takes risks with us again soon.
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