Urban Yeti Director's Corner

The Courage of Exploration

 
The beginning of 2015 has been insane for Urban Yeti Improv. After we left you at our first Saturday shows in January, we got in a performance at the Alaska Fine Arts Academy in Eagle River and a special, sold-out performance of After Dark at the Performing Arts Center. Both shows left the audience wanting more Yeti and have been great boosts for our relationships in the community. We continue to exhibit our favorite quality of improv comedy, connecting with people. The next month will see a special Valentine's Day PAC performance, travel to Talkeetna for some throw downs with Iditaprov and preparation for our new season being unveiled in the next week: Urban Yeti presents The Harold. We can't stop, and you keep us driven. As always, and with a sincere heart, thank you for your support.
 
Last night we saw some awesome audiences brave the cold and come see our first Saturday performances of Love is Blind and After Dark at the Alaska Experience Theater. I was impressed with the turnout given we are sandwiched between two heavily promoted PAC shows and the weather was not ideal for downtown journeys. Our After Dark show was a riot and I am continually impressed with our performers finding unique ways to explore uncensored themes. I particularly enjoyed fun games of Story, Story Die, Slideshow and Your Place or Mine. Each of these games embodied some unique scene work elements, ranging from a frat trip with a lot of character depth to a portrayal of several elements of the population of Lion King's Pride Rock. We need to continue our pursuit of uniqueness, energy and connection in our short form, but I hardly worry about it given the performance opportunities in Anchorage are very short form heavy. It was a good idea for Yeti to get in the market, but ask anyone in the ensemble what our true focus and goals are, and they would point towards our longer form development.
 
Today I am a conflicted director of improv comedy. I believe our Love is Blind product from last night's set was worthy of an audience and showed some excellent creativity. In our last rehearsals we have been working on more reliable improv comedy through an emphasis on stronger scene initiations. We re-hashed lessons on starting in the action rather than at the introduction and clearly putting the initial offer on the table to internalize before jumping in. In the realm of scene offers, character work, energy, the troupe last night excelled. There were some great stories built, ranging from a little girl who hated all mythical holiday creatures to the creation of a male empowerment self help group. There was a beautiful moment, possibly one of the best I've seen on our stage, where a plane full of people erupted into a rendition of 'Let it Go', beautifully executed and wiped to become this novel, small vignette floating on the wind.

But the audience didn't connect as much with our product last night and we ended up selling them more on our short form improv aspects in the second half over our longer form aspirations. Stay calm everyone, this is okay. In short form, I can do improv with a 6 out of 10 score and the audience will think we nailed it at an 11 given so many games are played (Don't worry, we're always a 10 folks). In long form, I can do an 8 out of 10 and the audience will critically think about the 2 left on the table. It's a different product, a different experience, a true challenge. I love it. Yeti feeds on it.

So what makes me conflicted? I'm conflicted as a director in finding ways to hold lessons together and bridge it to 10 out of 10 long form. From our last couple of rehearsals, the players nailed what I asked them to do. Strong initiations, interesting worlds, nice use of environment. Soul quotas, letters to Santa, a brutal non profit world, physical portrayals of the Northern Lights, all fun. We even saw limited use of plot drive our stories, which is an excellent direction to be headed in. But just as quickly as I saw the wins, they were wiped away. Literally wiped, as in that was the most scene wipes I've seen in a long form set we have done to date. In the past, I have directed our performers and encouraged more use of transition and less fear to wipe a product if it was not going well. But last night's wipes were used after high moments in the scene. They were cut like a short form game, rather than explored like a long form set. The beautiful skills and quality of our performers are lost on the audience when we do not come out of our long form set with full bodied scene work. We struggled to find a group mind and thus succumbed to the nervousness of continuing the world past the laugh. I am left as a director asking what we need to do to build on lessons, rather than something which needs to be constantly re-visited. The improvements needed from last night boil down into an easy concept to explain, but very difficult to practice: We needed more why questions asked and explored. Why does this little girl hate Santa, Easter Bunny, etc? What would happen if the Tooth Fairy died? What are the Girdwood souls used for? Why such an aggressive quota? Why is the non-profit world so cut-throat? We might not answer them all, but it only takes one line of exploration, one character development, to open up a beautiful, enriching, full bodied scene.

We also need to continue exploring our confidence in monologue work. Rehearsals for monologues went really well, but I believe the fast pace of the show with multiple scene wipes left the performers a bit dazed when the bell was ultimately rung. Slowing the scene work down a bit and a few glances at the board when out of the scene can help this easily.
 
Once again, rehearsal and vigilance, the broken record of the artistic director. We should also be moving back to more shows with the entire ensemble, which I'm excited about as I believe one person's absence in our core team makes the climb steeper. I'd like to try some workshop intensives over the next couple of weeks to connect the troupe together through playing as we build our art work towards our biggest challenge yet: The Harold.
 
I keep it 100% real in this blog so you can better understand the beauty of improv comedy, the connections we strive for, the awesomeness of success and the trials of improving. Regardless of the notes, never doubt the Yeti is out there having fun and winning. This is quite the rush, thanks for joining us in the ride. See you at the PAC this Saturday!   
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A Committment to Creativity and the Art of Listening

Welcome to 2015 ladies and gentlemen! It's going to be a hell of a year and I'm already feeling the energy from last night's set of performances. Over 110 people came out to see our shows, which sets a record for attendance at the Alaska Experience Theater for Urban Yeti. Even on the holiday weekend, Anchorage came out to support in full force and you have no idea what a relief it is to business owners like Mal and myself. To start out the year with this energy is inspiring and we are very grateful for your support. But as always, we want even more growth, in both the business and with-in the improv. Let's talk about last night's sets.

I enjoyed the short form improv in both shows last night. The audience had a lot of positive energy/feedback from these sets and the performers did an excellent job converting the energy into some positive scene work. After Dark was definitely the raunchiest show we have had to date in the troupe, served up by an audience ready to push the boundaries. To be honest, though, I appreciate that. It is nice to be reminded we sometimes have to work in 'that space' to make it creative and be given the opportunity to do so. The players responded well. If you look back at the scene work, there were no easy way outs taken and every performer tried to inject a unique spin on some crazy topics. I particularly enjoyed a solid game of moving bodies. Props to some skillful audience members who paired with our performers to create a relationship with tension and a scene with nice pacing. I enjoyed both sets of Four Square which had a mix of strong objective and character commitments with a sweet moment when the performers from the back of the square peppered the ongoing scene with audience heckling. The improvement aspect I will focus on is a matter of stamina.  I'll focus on two games, Late for Work and One Act Marathon. We must never quit and we must never lose our composure, plain and simple. I threw a big challenge to our performers with the 'yum, yum' pull and which caused an end muddled in confusion and frustration. What do we do to improve these situations? Reset, look your scene partners in the eyes and start with direct instruction to get through it. Not as creative, I know, but every now and then you got to hit the eject button with-in the boundary condition of the game. In One Act Marathon, there was a strong scene initiation and oddity with a mother proud of her 15 year old son 'in da club', but a resistance to freeze and a struggle to listen to scene partners caused a difficult landing. One set of partners set up a scene where a 15 year old got in too deep with a girl who wouldn't leave the house, the other partner came in to play the exact opposite of being trapped in the house. Both of these notes are minor in affecting the overall good quality of the shows, but points I want to make sure are improved upon. I agree, two shows, one night, same performer set is tiring, but I know we're a team that could go all night because we love improv god dammit!

Let's talk a bit about our Love Is Blind long form set. There were some good examples and fun moments throughout. Highlights for me were moments of nice creativity by our performers. A casual walk through to say 'Nice shoulder spread' to tie the scene back to the monologue, a solo scene to introduce the oddity of loving sweat smell, a nice ensemble moment of using Queen in an audition, solid teamwork to create a movie theater with an eclectic mix of characters. There was also a nice oddity elevation moment between Erik and Mal in a world where parents dress their kids old school for college that was capped by a fun moment using dialogue like 'that is quite the get-up you got on there'. Slower and more fruitful. Strong characters, listening and creativity led to these moments.

Overall, however, we needed more listening and exploration to create a stronger set. I also feel we lacked in these areas because of a struggle to rehearse during the holiday season. I don't say this to whine, deflect or air out dirty laundry. I say this because I strongly believe our long form set, although composed of strong performers with a lot of skill, was affected by lack of rehearsal and it is evidence highlighting the importance of the rehearsal process, especially when tackling long formats. Overcoming this is something I need to work on as a director to set up our performers for success. We will have to get unique with our exercises and more intelligently plan our rehearsal schedules.

There were a lot of instances where 1 or 2 person scenes weren't given time to develop and a lot of moments where all 4 performers were in the scene without a distinct reason for being there. A fun moment of a solitary wrestling manager cleaning the mats was barely allowed to develop before another performer jumped in to layer another idea. A mother trying to dress her daughter for college using an antiquated dress code and a father who jumped in without fully understanding the oddity and idea. Several performers continued to jump in without fully understanding the ideas trying to be introduced by scene partners. Although I am a huge proponent of ensuring the scene goes in a strong direction with energy and objective, we need to give it a minute to figure out the offer on the table. On the creativity and exploration front, a lot of scenes were direct replications of monologues and there were minimal wipes before another monologue was introduced. We spent too much time on drinking topics, which is often time a crutch, the same as using expletives to drive laughs. I'm very confident rehearsal throughout January is going to iron out these issues and get us back on the right track.

Mal asked me this morning if there is something other long form troupes have that we should consider. In our discussion, a unique point arose that further supports the importance of ensemble time in the dojo. A lot of bigger improv organizations require main stage players to go through several levels of training courses that can span years. We don't necessarily have this training luxury. Is this a problem? Nope. I believe we have performers and directors that put up great improv products in Alaska without it. Does it put perspective on commitment required to become a better long form improv artist? Yes.

As always, I'm excited for the opportunities arising in 2015. Look to our upcoming show schedule and come out to support our PAC and Eagle River performances. In the end, our team is having a blast and I want to bring you along in our development. Come laugh with us, come learn with us, be a part of Urban Yeti Improv. 

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The Institution of Improv Comedy

As always, I begin with appreciation to the fans and audience who came out to see our final shows of 2014. We had a blast and loved every minute on stage. What comes after the final shows of 2014? Writing the final director's blog of 2014. From here we move on to more shows, more opportunities and our second year of operation. Subsequent Decembers will not likely yield so much emotion, but this is the end of our first year. I remember having my first lunch with Bre at AET, inviting Parsi and Dahl out to dinner to talk about space and troupe potential, signing our first contracts, making our first video. It was risky, it was expensive. What if no one comes? What if the players don't have fun? What if we aren't any good? The first year is incredibly important.

In one of our last rehearsals, I asked the team what they wanted out of their improv comedy, what keeps them hungry for the stage. Aneliese's response was particularly interesting. She said she wanted improv to become an institution in Alaska. In my reflections of the last year, I strongly believe some of our favorite experiences are what sums up creating the foundation of an institution. The focus has to first be the art and the rehearsal process. You then have to pour your soul into getting the brand on the market and people in the seats. When you put your focus in these two areas, you start to earn your keep and your opportunities. My fondest memories of the year reflect the strengthening of the improv comedy institution in Alaska. We brought rehearsed long form to the Anchorage market, we performed for those who have never even heard of the art, we brought local improv comedy to the PAC stage for the first time in Alaska history, we taught workshops in high schools and on the UAA campus, we even connected with troupes around the state for performance opportunities. What gives us the right to sell tickets and perform on the stage? Simply put, because we earned it. 

We now step into year two. My goals for this year are much different. I always strive to inspire both our audience and performers through this forum, but being realistic helps define your goals. We have earned our opportunities, but I'm not about to claim institutional victory. We have some of the best performers in the state of Alaska, but they need more exposure. I want more people in the seats and to perform in more theaters and more communities. We are going to charge into this goal head on. We are already contracted to perform in Eagle River at the Alaska Fine Arts Academy and we are going back to the PAC for two more shows, all with-in the first two months of 2015.

I also want to diversify and improve the improv. We focused a lot on the Upright Citizens Brigade method of scene foundation, oddity and elevation this year, but I don't want to get stale. You'll be seeing new show formats in 2015 that further challenge our performers and submerge the audience deeper into the art form. I am very excited for March, when we will unveil what comes after Love is Blind. But this can't only be done through more performance, it has to be done through consistent and focused rehearsal. Challenging performers also means challenging the director. I also pledge that you will see more full length long form shows and less long/short form mixes.

My final focus is connection to the larger improv comedy, even outside of Alaska. We have earned this. We'll start by having a strong presence at this year's Alaska State Improv Festival. I then want to find further festival opportunities for our team. It's nice to go see other shows on vacation and connect with those who do improv over a beer, but that's not what this goal is about. I want to perform for and with them. I want them walking away and spreading the good news of the Yeti. It's time to start submitting our material and taking the show further down the open road.

Something I have been doing to keep fresh during stretches without rehearsal is to revisit some improv literature I have on the bookshelf. It has been quite eye opening as books I read five years ago have a completely different meaning to me today. For example, I am devouring Mick Napier's 'Improvise'. I came across the following gem:

Integrity is living up to what you declare, in an improv scene and in life. Declare what you honestly want, and live that vision fearlessly.

At the end of 2013, Mallory and I, after some time off, decided to declare what we wanted out of improv and Urban Yeti Improv was born. We then found a team to join us in this vision, a team we never imagined would be as perfect and supportive as what we have today. And we executed fearlessly, in our business and through our improv. I look at Urban Yeti very differently from when we started. There was a lot of history, a lot of baggage. It was when we painted our logo on the walls of the Performing Arts Center when I realized what this is truly about. It's not about winning, it's about playing, it's about constantly looking for ways to diversify your experiences and performances. Alaska Experience Theater, Performing Arts Center, Talkeetna's Sheldon Arts Hangar, Top of the World Hilton, Las Vegas. This is what improv is about.

I declared early on that 2014 would be the year of improv. A year is not enough. We are fearless and we have more to show you.

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