Urban Yeti Director's Corner

The Beauty of Performance Exhaustion

 
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a performance hangover. I'm betting a lot of you from last night's After Dark audience have actual hangovers, but that's beside the point. This is the second month we have doubled up performances at Urban Yeti and it's both awesome and exhausting. The long form mentality of Love is Blind combined with the intensity of After Dark is like drinking liquor after beer. Once again the Anchorage improv community has amazed me and I'm happy to see ticket sales are not dipping. Even though we still have more seats to sell for both of our performances, we are proving the two show concept to be a good foundation for our future work as a troupe. There was a lot of genuine positive audience feedback after the show as well (in addition to some sweet web traffic ranging from facebook likes to written reviews!). The post Bodega-fest audience could at times be a little talkative throughout the show, but that is sometimes the ambiance of After Dark and we are more than capable of handling it for the benefit of the show. Thanks to those who came out to see us, we hope to see you again very soon.

After creating Love is Blind, I set the goal that this season would not only challenge the ensemble who typically perform with Urban Yeti, but most of all I would challenge myself.  I've been spending a lot of time creating this business, helping developing our performers and getting people in the seats. This doesn't leave a lot of time to improve your own performance skills. By shifting the focus a bit internal this season, I've given myself a lot of insight for future directing and understand my strengths and weaknesses in the scene. For example, I still have a lot of work to do in the character sphere (including a natural tendency to be a deer in the headlights with accent work) but I have also made a lot of progress in having a clear mind, nothing pre-loaded when entering scenes. In previous blogs you will have heard me talk a bit about getting into quick sand when a scene needs to be elevated. Directors performing is a good reminder how much focus is required to get in a place of control to avoid just that. It's challenging, especially when you want to feed on the audience energy.

Given the increased focus on myself and diving in as a performer to both sets last night, I don't have the best perspective to fully critique both shows, so I'm going to need some help. Aneliese and I recently had the pleasure of rehearsing with a group of UAA students who formed a troupe called the Ad-Lib Alchemists. It is always refreshing to play with new people and see improv in the community outside of your own ensemble. Several of the performers in their group came out to see the shows last night, including Shawn, who stayed for both of our performances. I asked Shawn to provide me his thoughts this morning and he didn't disappoint. He provided the following:
  • Really good presentation, clear understood conventions and generally very clean (good edits).
  • Very professional. Fun, but a lot of control.
  • Love the "no fear" attitude, but refreshingly not crude. You are clearly very comfortable with each other.
  • Also, the guy from Service (Erik) has excellent physical humor. I was constantly excited with what he was going to do.
  • Mime could use some improvement, don't talk through doors, open them all the way.
  • Clearly get rid of objects and remember what does and does not exist.
  • Edits could get more creative.

This does an excellent job of capturing some overall themes in the show and I'd like to expand on some of the points made. I'm particularly proud of Shawn's assessment of a 'no fear attitude'. We want this to set us apart from other groups. We want our formats, our scenes, our energy to show we are fearless in what we do. I also enjoyed several areas of physicality in our show, ranging from the cuddling scene to the Jack in the Box drive through.

On the opportunities for improvement, I think Shawn's comments build an overall note of control in a high energy event. As After Dark evolved, it got a bit sillier throughout the evening and I think we as performers need to find more opportunities for creativity. Ultimately, our silliness resulted in a chair thrown, which I'd like to avoid. One performer did not throw that chair, we all did at some point. I love the product Parsi has created through After Dark, but it is up to us as performers to ensure we still differentiate this product as great improv in a high energy short form environment throughout the whole show, not just parts of it. Some of this also applies to the second half of our Love is Blind set. We relied too much on fouler language towards the end and less on creativity.

In the upcoming Love is Blind rehearsals, we will emphasize our monologue work. I don't think they were lacking, but I would like to move from a casual conversation monologue to a strong storytelling monologue. My initial reaction for After Dark was to say more scene based games, but my initial reaction is wrong. The answer is rehearsing the scene in every game, regardless of guessing. There needed to be more scene work in Dead Celebrity Diner, Late for Work and other guessing games. There also needed to be more emphasis on scene work in games like Half Life. This is something Parsi has been working in his rehearsals and something we need to continue.

We are growing stronger, but more importantly we do this together. We are finding more opportunities for performance, so make sure to swing by our Facebook page every now and then to see what we are doing outside of first Saturdays. Look around you ladies and gentlemen, the Yeti is everywhere.

Author: 

Clacking Mandibles

This. This right here. This is the moment. Can you feel it, dear readers? It's a thing you can neither see nor hear, but you can sense its cold chill as it passes you by.

What you feel is where it all went wrong for the Yeti. Yes, that first seam, that crack that always appears. Where their inexorable rise to greatness, their seemingly unstoppable freight train of improvisational talent started to edge itself off the tracks. And it was here. Right here, my lovelies. Right now. This was the time that they let the tech crew write on the directorial blog. Where they asked those with an enduring faith in a discrete and knowable universe to comment on the infinite expanse of art and imagination.

"Oh, hey, could you write the blog this time?" they asked, "My flight's in the morning, and I probably won't have time to write something up."

And so was the beginning of the end.

Dramatic pause. Hi there, everyone. Josh Rhoades speaking. I'm the guy in the sweaters, pushing buttons. You've seen me. I'll be your harbinger of doom for this, our monthly missive from the seedy underbelly of Anchorage improv. Please. Take a walk with me through our cluttered backstage. Let me show you what improv looks like from someone on the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum.


John Hanus is on my speakerphone. "Uh, so I shut down the store, and when I'm logged in it's fine, but when I log out, it still shows the store is open." To fill you in: we have to shut down the online store a few hours prior to shows, as otherwise we introduce madness to the house management and ticket taking processes.

I happen to be naked, but the insect-programmer-brain buzzes. IT IS AN OBJECT CACHING ISSUE it tells me. I just got out of the shower. I work in IT. You don't have to do a lot of things in IT. You don't have to lift heavy things. You don't have to deal with the public. You don't have to work against the clock to save anybody's life. But you do have to answer the phone at 5 o'clock before a show.

"I, um," I start, rifling through a pile of clean clothes, "I need to get some clothes on."

"Take a look at it," John says, "Give me a call back."

I pull on some socks. "I'll fix it." It's always an object caching issue. "I'm about to leave. See you in 20."

I dress. I wake up my computer and I fix it. It was an object caching issue. I leave. I see John in 20 minutes.


 

It's frustrating as hell. You know how, ah, let's see... bowling. Bowling is a great example. I, for one, am a terrible bowler. Always have been. Always will be. Rather than a controlled, aimed throw, I throw the ball in a single, cathartic, full-body spasm, aiming the ball more out of sheer force of will than any degree of finesse or motor control. Hockey slapshot meets Street Fighter hadouken, if you will.

There's a weird thing about it, though. Being that I am a terrible bowler, and therefore rarely seek out my own bowling adventures, there is usually a significant amount of time that passes between bowling sessions. Often, a year, or even years, can pass between my final frame and the first frame of my next game.

The frustrating thing is, after such a long time, I usually kill it on my first frame. Almost without fail, a strike or a spare, easy. And not even trying, or even thinking about it. Beginner's luck, you might call it. ABSENCE OF PROCEDURAL MEMORY INFORMED BY HUMAN CONFIRMATION BIAS the insect-programmer-brain reminds me. The second I do think about bowling, all is lost. I can't even break 100 for the rest of the game. But, for that one singular, crystalline moment, I am throwing goddamn rocks.

So here's the thing. Urban Yeti. These shows? They're down two people in their troupe, playing with the bare minimum players for all of the games, even having to share the load when it comes to announcing games and other stagecraft boilerplate. The games themselves are mentally and physically exhausting, even when you get to sit out a game or two. This time: everybody fights, nobody quits.

On top of that, they've never performed some of these games in front of an audience, and from what I pick up between furtive looks and not-so-secret stage whispers, some of the rehearsals had gone less than swimmingly.

Oh, right, and every single one of the players have difficult, high-impact lives outside of improv, going to difficult, high-impact jobs, coupled with difficult, high-impact families. It's been a hell of a week.

I stand to the side during shows, ineffectively ushering people in, and helping when I can. If unneeded, I peek over the barrier and watch what I can of the show between light cues. And here they are, opening night of Love is Blind and After Dark. And they are throwing rocks.

This is, in fact, the headspace they thrive in. I've watched them rehearse while I am mashing away on the nearest keyboard. They aren't practicing how to be funny. Instead, they're practicing how to not think about throwing something, and hitting what they they want every time.

For this first show, they're trying out a new game. They call it, um, what was it... Arecibo? Alejandro? Armando? I don't know. Something like that. They collect suggestions, then a player must give a truthful monologue, related to love, blindness, or the intersection thereof. There's an element of truth, sadness, and embarrassment in each of the stories, but they are all, in turn, hilarious. And from those monologues, the rest of the players invent new stories, games, and characters based on their partner's story.

This is what they do. They're in a new, limitless space, riffing on the varied and diverse backgrounds of the players themselves. They're like kids set loose on a brand new playground, screaming with that weird, piercing laughter the childless can't distinguish between joy and murder. Everyone is having fun, and the audience is having fun with them. How can you not? How can you not have fun exploring a new playground?

I laugh from my dark station in the wings. The chitinous mandibles of the insect-programmer-brain start clacking together again. THEY ASKED YOU TO TAKE NOTES, it chides me. YOU SHOULD BE TAKING NOTES.

Quiet you, insect-programmer-brain. I am enjoying this.


A few months ago. One of our first Debauchery shows. Players are coming back from intermission. John is getting the crowd back into place. Screen washers are up, house lights are down. YOU FORGOT SOMETHING HUMAN it reminds me.

What? No. No, I didn't. Be quiet. Let me enjoy the show.

THE HUMAN IS WEAK.

"So, can I get a suggestion from the audience for...?" John pauses, "Uh..."

The All-American Rejects' song, "Dirty Little Secret" suddenly begins playing over the sound system. This isn't supposed to be happening.

"Well, that's kind of weird," John says, flashing a smile to the audience, then glancing in my direction.

WE TOLD THE HUMANFLESH, it tells me, chirping its hindlegs in violent glee.

Oh no. I forgot to hit pause on the sound setup. VLC Media Player by default has a 10 second default display on the transition images. It had reset the defaults when I upgraded. It had been 11 seconds since I stepped down from the projector booth. I sprint back to the booth, climb the ladder, and hit the spacebar as hard as I've ever hit a spacebar. The syrupy pop rock stops.

I peer through the tiny projector window. I see the players are rolling with it. Laughing along. They've started a game.

All I can hear is the roar of the HVAC and insectoid laughter.


Screenwashers down. Main house lights on full. Projector on, channel 3. Ignore the error message, that is always there. Douser open. Volume at 8.0. VLC Media player's default image transition settings are at 9,999 seconds. Still, though. I feel like I've forgotten something.

I'm in the lobby, waiting for the house to open for the second show. We've never done two shows in an evening with Urban Yeti. One show was usually plenty. This is unprecedented.

Somebody asks me: "Why did you guys start doing two shows?"

I shrug. I think I say, "They wanted to play different kinds of games." Then I continue gesticulate wildly as my social grace emulation engines start to glow a worrying red.

It occurs to me that maybe we haven't ever described improv games. Have you ever been to an improv show? They have these games they play. All of the games have fun names. "Try that on for size." "Deaf Replay." "Chain Murder." Some even have multiple names, depending on different variations on the rules. There are, well, dozens upon dozens of games I've seen, and likely hundreds in the whole scheme of things.

Anyhow. We have 30-45 minutes to reset the stage, and then begins the second show. Starting at 10pm, and aptly titled "After Dark," it focuses on what the people in the biz call "short form" games. This is in stark comparison to what the people in the biz call "long form" games. Nobody will answer me when I ask if there is a "medium form." Maybe I lack a critical understanding.

Anyhow. For an example: the Arecibo/Alejandro/Armando game they played in the last Love is Blind set is what you consider a "long form" game, built around taking single suggestions and turning them into longer, more robust comedic stories.

The After Dark set is built around shorter games, with smaller, concise objectives. These are the most popular, and if you have seen improv before, you have likely seen these types of games. And for our players, these are their bread and butter. They've played on this playground before. They've been down that slide. This is their home turf.

But here's the thing. The After Dark set scares me a little bit. Not in the "there are legitimate safety concerns" sense, though, for our Speaker with Arms game last night I was a little worried the Hanii had hurt themselves. No, it's more scary in the "they've added an element of true randomness to the show that could really muck with things."

And here's why. Rather than laying out their games in a predefined set list, checking for pacing, non-repetition, audience exhaustion, or player exhaustion, they've instead written the numbers 1 through 20 on laminated sheets of paper and taped them to the back of the stage. For each new game, the players have the audience pick a number. On the back of each laminated card is a "short form" game to play. Pick the card, and you have to play that game.

Somebody jokes before the show: "Wouldn't that be terrible if we had, like, Dead Celebrity Diner, Return Desk, and Interrogation, all in a row?"

John Parsi, our newest director, just laughs a hearty John Parsi laugh. Those are all challenging, arduous guessing games. Having them back-to-back risks losing the audience if there are mistakes, missteps, or too-obscure suggestions, making it hard to keep up energy and audience attention.

Coming from a world of logic, determinism, and finitude, we computer people seek to eliminate all possible randomness. If a system starts to exhibit signs of random occurrence, happenstance, or begins to understand the nature of human emotion, we must purge it and start anew. There is no place for randomness in a knowable universe.

For improv, however, they welcome it. They feed on it. Again, this is what they do. This is what they're here for. We did end up playing back-to-back, difficult guessing games. The insect-programmer-brain clawed nervously at its tunnel walls. But they did great. They all laughed a hearty laugh.


"What'd you think of the show?" they ask. They always ask. I should probably take notes.

"It was good," I say, staring out a window. "I enjoyed it."

I try to make it a point not to judge people on something I can't do myself. Being friends with performance artists, this makes for a lot of frustrating discussions after shows. I know they are serious about what they do. There really isn't anything I can tell them that they don't already know themselves. But all they want is honesty, and maybe something to eat. Nobody usually eats before a show.

"Yeah," they said. "We've got some stuff to work on."

A while passes.

"Should I be playing slides on the screen during intermission?"

"Yeah, probably. We also need some sort of announcement. Give people a one minute warning or something."

TIMECODE, comes the chittering, TRANSPARENT TITLE. REVERSE SPEED. BURN. "I bet I can add I countdown timer to the intermission slides." I trail off, eyes focused distant on a far away problem.

"Eh, don't worry about it."

There were plenty of new faces in the crowd as well as regulars. I suggested the Urban Yeti improv classes to multiple people who expressed interest. If I can bestow but one accolade, it should be that you make it look easy, look seamless, look fun enough that people would want to step on to the stage and try it themselves.

That's not for me, though, I do enjoy being elsewhere in the process. I enjoy seeing the shows. I'm happy they let me push the buttons. Or twist the occasional knob. Or edit the occasional video. Or customize the occasional CMS.

That is what the insect-programmer-brain makes me good at. I can't help them do what they do on stage. But I can certainly help them get up there. And I'm glad that they do.

Author: 

Unleashing the Inner Yeti

This weekend Urban Yeti took on it's biggest challenge yet:  Two nights of performances at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.  We revived our show formats from the first two seasons on the Sydney Laurence stage.  There are a lot of thanks to give out for an adventure like this.  The first, I'll give to the the ACPA and house crew, in particular Cindy Hamilton, for having faith in the show we wanted to bring in to the big house.  The second is to our wonderful stage managers, Shiela and Rick, for taking a group of improv misfits and helping shape it into a professional show.  The final one I will give to the community of Anchorage, who showed strong support for both of our performances.  We had over 100 in the crowd for each evening and they left loving the art.  More than numbers and acolades though, I was particularly relieved to see that hard work with promotion and talent was rewarded.  There is no single silver bullet or secret ingredient.  If you work hard in rehearsal, come together as a team and put determination into the way you do business and promote, it can pay off in the long run.

Some people might read this and say I am overhyping things for the purpose of promoting our group.  However, if you go back and read previous blog entries, I'm confident the tone that shines through truly represent our shows.  Sometimes you'll see excitement, other times you'll see a lot of focus on opportunities for improvement.  The blog is not just for our audiences to get a behind the scenes look at our art, it serves as a platform to improve our performers.  I want to emphasize this to bring further strength to the following statement: Our PAC performances took us to a new level of improv comedy in Alaska and the shows were so good I'm left exploring what we need to translate from the PAC into our work going forward.  I'm truly sorry for those who missed these performances as they missed something special that will remain with us at Urban Yeti for a long time to come.

I would like to provide insight by highlighting my personal top five of the overall experience:

1)  The staging in our scene work was phenominal.  The ensemble pulled the audience in to several worlds through the simple act of where they stood and how they transitioned.  We had a scene focused around NASCAR (don't care if that is not single speed bikes) and a beautiful constant transitiong between a pit crew on stage right and driver/inspector on stage left.  It culminated into a really fun moment where there was a transition into a car crash that brought the two parties together.  We had a scene focused on online dating where the performers were switching back and forth between two different users.  The performers then decided there was no reason to keep jumping in and out, why not split the scene into the right and left sides of the stage and play the scene together.  Beautiful connection and truly unique scenework.

2)  It's no secret there is strategy behind doing performances at the PAC.  Challenging our performers and trying bigger things is important, but building relationships is what builds businesses.   Behind the scenes was going just as well as on stage.  Our house crew had a good time, our house managers were fun to work with.  Learning more about the craft from our stage managers was enlightening.  To have a conversation at intermission, back stage, with a very experienced stage manager telling you the ensemble has true talent is revitalizing.  We hope to continue building this relationship to even more performance opportunities and exposure to the Anchorage community.

3)  In previous show wrap-ups, there is always a segment that didn't go as well, had more content for improvement.  However, throughout both of these shows the story work in all of our segments was strong enough to continue on, whether it be voted forward in Frigid Affair or lengthened for another hour in Debauchery.  I wanted more Point Waranzof ranger training, vinettes on Jansport backpacks or scenes involving Buffalo.  Time to vote which story moves on?  It doesn't really matter, I could have taken them all.  I want more Men's Health articles!  Strong transitions and scene wipe timing helped the performers keep the audience engaged from curtain up to curtain down. 

4)  There was even more humor and great scene work in our warm-ups.  I laughed really hard from a seat in an empty theater two hours before the show even began on both Friday and Saturday.  A team firing on all cylinders is one that is keeping things fresh even when the audience isn't around to validate.  It also helps validate there was no luck or fluke with this experience.  Two solid show run throughs with two amazing shows over two days breaks the notion it can be anything but great talent. 

5)  Allow me a more emotional observation for a moment.  After it was all done, three months in the making, promotional pushes all throughout August, rehearsal preparation emphasizing strong scene initiation, projection and enunciation for a bigger venue, there was signing the wall in the hallways of the PAC and toasts throughout downtown Anchorage.  I have directed several groups and worked with a lot of people.  What a lot of folks don't realize is the payout is not in the crowd numbers or ticket takes.  It's in that handshake that is particularly strong tonight or that hug that is held a bit longer after the show is done.  It's in the moments where performers don't have to break down a show or talk about it because they all know they just went through something special.  It's been a long time since I felt the way about a project or team as I did last night.  I am no fool, I know it can all go away in an instant, but with Urban Yeti Improv, it doesn't matter, we have now had so many wins it will hold a special place in my memories for a long time to come.

It is now time to head back to our awesome partners at the Alaska Experience Theater and debut our two new shows:  Love is Blind and After Dark.  To keep up the momentum, we need to continue with hard hitting scene initiations and not getting lost in dialogue and character introductions.  We need to continue watching our work from the wings with an attitude of getting in their and doing what needs to be done to maximize audience engagement.  We need to treat every show like we are going on under the lights of the PAC.  Time for reflection is pleasant, but I'm already back on the boards hungry for more.  We have broken through so many walls up to this point, it would be a waste not to keep unleashing the beast.  No more apprehensions, game on.  The Yeti is on the prowl.      

  

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