Urban Yeti Director's Corner

Debauchery is so damn cash...

First and foremost, thanks to everyone who came out to our show last night!  We closed our second season with another near sold out crowd and this time the achievement was in even more spectacular fashion given it was a perfectly beautiful Alaskan evening.  In spending some time with our audience in the box office, a lot of our advertising methods were bringing people in, ranging from newspaper listings to Google searches and even some folks who saw us on KTVA news a couple months back.  The good word of Urban Yeti is spreading around the community and although there are a lot of stresses with publicity during the summer in Anchorage, we rose to the challenge and had a very successful run of our Debauchery series.  Usually this morning we would be heading into a relaxing week and slowly starting strategy for our next first Saturday, but that is not the case during August.  Our PAC shows are on the horizon and we need to utilize every day for the next five weeks to plan and execute for these shows.  I want Urban Yeti to be a place where we follow-up great achievements with more opportunity.  Today we follow up two strong seasons with playing in Anchorage's 'Big House'.  Let's do this.

Our last showing of Debauchery was very comfortable.  A lot of appreciation goes out to the staff at Alaska Experience Theater.  Bar, box office and tech ran flawlessly which gave us more time to interact with the audience beforehand to set up an energized environment.  We had a diverse crowd of locals, tourists and even an improv guest from Boston College (raise a glass to Tabitha!).  Some notes I took away as a host for improvement were transition back from intermission and how to keep a strong flow for the second act.  Technical areas of improvement for our show.  I know I know, shut up John, we want to hear about the improv. 

Last night's showing had some great improv and we were on the upswing for a majority of our sets.  I was happy with the product and we once again had genuinely positive interactions during our receiving line.  We are consistently taping our shows to allow our performers and staff to revisit the performance.  This will be a good set to showcase strong examples of advanced improv technique and strong character work.  This will also be a good set to pull some examples of opportunities for improvement, we'll get to these points later on.  This show was a tale of two acts when it comes to excellent improv examples and areas we need to work.  In my opinion, the first half of our show was probably the best improv we have put up this season.  It's also important to note this doesn't necessarily coincide with the biggest audience laughs or hilarious themes.  I say this was our best improv because there was a lot of great natural scene builds which led to natural laughter.  A lot of our laughs came from the truth in the comedy rather than quick wins.  Each of our performers had strong examples of great instinct which showcased their talents.  Overall, throughout the first act, everyone stepped to the plate and did what needed to be done.  John Parsi had an awesome moment of introducing a scene oddity to play around with by being a cop who framed a citizen with multiple crimes.  Every time the scene was revisited, he elevated from speeding to possession of weapon to drugs to a dead body in the back, all of which he successfully pantomimed putting there himself.  Great energy, fun idea, great improv.  Mary Jo and Aneliese had an awesome moment of connection by elevating the oddity of a mother treating her 35 year old son like a teenager when dropping him off at an Eagles concert.  Oddity introduced and established, Aneliese steps in with the female factor, Mary Jo comes back in to torpedo her son's chance as the mom (loved the condom reference).  Great sharing, great teamwork, great improv.  In our promiscuity set, two performers are in 'Easy Park Jail', a fun base reality to play around with.  Strong characters are introduced, but the limited cell starts getting a bit dry.  Erik walks in and introduces the oddity one of them doesn't even have to be there and now we get to play with the idea of the old seasoned veteran 'Easy Park' inmate who doesn't want to leave, the Brooks of Easy Park (Shawshank reference anyone?).    Great idea, great execution, great improv.  Eagles scene needs to get to the final line of being in the fast lane, mother and son driving home from the concert, Mallory steps in as a different vehicle with a different personality.  Her pantomime work and staging allows the audience to see a developed road conflict which also leads to one of my favorite moments of the show, when the final line in a wickedness set was modified to 'It really pisses me off when someone drives slow in the fast line, but not tonight'.  Great staging, great elevation, great improv.  This sort of fun on stage is what connects an audience to a show and what connects performers to one another.

Other good examples worth mentioning include our short form.  We had a solid interrogation set and even though we pulled a basic suggestion of Abe Lincoln.  The guesser had a nice moment when they guessed the crime was shooting the fish in the back of the head.  Remember, a guesser creates humor when they communicate their thought patterns and dive in with confidence.  Slideshow was executed flawlessly with a strong narration and fun uses of slide transition.  This makes me excited for our upcoming After Dark series in October, where we will solidify Urban Yeti's place in Alaska's short form improv market. 

Urban Yeti Improv takes rehearsal and improvement very seriously, which is why we always spend some time on weaker areas needing improvement.  I think most folks know this section will be focusing on our Indecency set in the second act.  We had strong character and energy work last night which held throughout the whole show, but we found a bit of quick sand at the Loussac Library.  Rather than focus on choices made or confusion into why we felt the need to stay in certain environments/character interactions for so long with no progression of an oddity or objective, I want to focus on transition and wipes.  Over the last two rehearsals we have been working on more of a free form palette in our scene work.  The idea of taking a suggestion and then just playing, meaning our players can transition to different characters, different environments or even wipe the world entirely and start new.  But we still have further to go in this space.  I sense players are nervous to wipe out their partners work and are attempting to find glimpses of strong in a sea of mundane.  Our indecency set needed to go somewhere else.  I understand we have to get to a library and a food fight, but that can be built in less than a minute if necessary.  This also applies to our Promiscuity set, which was modified from our previous shows.  In both rehearsals and the show, there were opportunities for wipes not taken, but likely needed.  Like most good practices in improv, it comes with more time and more playing.  We will continue to work this and I suspect you'll see a troupe in the future more comfortable with leaving an environment or even a whole world behind.

I'll focus the last discussion of improvement on myself as artistic director.  I have learned a lot throughout our first two seasons about show formatting, especially when dealing with longer form scene work.  Throughout these experiences, I will be taking two lessons away to utilize in our upcoming seasons.  The first is to make longer form sets less restrictive.  Although I like the premise of a scene culminating into a predetermined audience objective or having to include different elements, we perform better when we can just explore and find the fun.  I would likely execute our Promiscuity and Indecency sets differently a second time around.  The second lesson I'll take away is always leaving the audience wanting more.  The last two games or sets are very important and although I like the way our team plays Survivor and the uniqueness they bring, it is no longer the ideal closing game.  I don't believe either of these points were detrimental to either of our seasons, but rather opportunities to create stronger formats in the future.  Our players aren't the only people on a steep learning curve, their director shares in the journey.

We have all been putting a lot of work into Urban Yeti and I can personally say sometimes it gets stressful.  But whenever someone asks me if I'm still having fun, I never have to pause and think about it.  I have tremendous pride in what we are doing and those we are working with.  We are getting the best out of people, and no matter how hard the work gets, it is rewarding.  But the simple answer?  Of course it's fun, because this shit is so damn cash.

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The Bare Bones

 
That was one hell of an interesting experiment in improv comedy last night ladies and gentlemen.  First, I was excited to get around 50 people to come out and see us on a 4th of July weekend with beautiful Anchorage whether.  When you expect to perform for 10, the sky is the limit!  Second, everything which could fail with our tech aspects of our show last night...did.  A blown fuse left us with only 4 stage lights (primary out) and cable connection issues in the booth left us with no sound.  Therefore our pre-show/intermission music and video had to be cut.  Tech is a work in progress as Urban Yeti explores its relationship with AET and comes up to speed on their equipment and we'll be back to 100% for our upcoming shows.  This obstacle shows how important tech is to a performance and how it can help bring an audience into your performance mind set.  However, I am going to say something radical here:  I think this was a good time for this to happen and it actually helps our performance in the long run.  You're CRAZY John!  I know, I know, but step back and look at it from a different angle.  Without all the tech what is the only thing you have?  The improv with no safety net.  Every laugh our performers worked for last night started deep in their own end zone.  No sound, house lights up and a warm theater on an 80 deg Anchorage day.  The Urban Yeti performers were given a challenge that is going to make the troupe stronger in the long run.
 

I'm excited to say the troupe stepped up and performed well in this experiment.  Although we still have things to work out in our long form sets, I was particularly impressed with the creativity of our performers in the show.  From solid character interactions in Building Blocks to Evelyn and Janosz in the produce section, our performers came up with some very interesting objectives and were able to sustain great character dialogue in several of their scenes.  It was also nice to see an infusion of energy in several places when needed.  Although one could argue the breast feeding Wickedness scene was a lot of two characters yelling at each other, I would counter and say they stayed true to the situation, brought in some good detail (empty theater, 9:45 pm showing of the Notebook) and the energy was much needed.  I was also particularly impressed with our short form, especially Slide Show.  I will throw some props to Erik, who really made that game with a solid narration.  The funniest thing I have seen in a long time is his constant reference to that 'ass hole' Bob who judges.  Why is this funny?  Because going through a Las Vegas slide show is one thing, but building out complex relationships with the characters in the pictures strengthens the improv immensely.

Enough of this positive crap Hanus, get to the juice!  As a reminder to those new to the blog, we have been working in rehearsals on putting a structure to our longer form work.  Build a strong base reality with good characters, environment work and detail, then throw in an oddity identified by the team and elevate that oddity by asking questions about how it changes the world around them.  We didn't do a great job of finding this structure in our performance last night.  It was not as easy for me to write down a series of oddities like our last shows and the strength of the performance last night was more found in interesting character interactions and objectives.  Two examples of the challenge were our Promiscuity and Indecency sets.  We continue to struggle through our Promiscuity set.  It is not because three suggestions are hard to juggle, it is because at it's core it is the closest thing a lot of us have ever done to long form, it is our first true experiment of taking an empty palette and building a 15 minute scene with sustaining content.  In both last night's show and previous performances we are finding situational quick sand.  We have an unhealthy attachment to resolving situations instead of exploring the world created.  There was way too much time spent on a basketball court in the set last night and way too much time spent on dwarf jabs.  When in doubt, we need to fall back on the world we created to find something better.  We created outs, but didn't use them.  Some questions we could have asked to get to a better place:

  • What is the link between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the initial world created?  It is kind of strange a back story to a seemingly normal environment included fairy tale characters, let's explore.
  • What does basketball have to do with the initial offer which was really solid: Girls changing boys in relationships?

Overall, our Promiscuity set has yet again showed us we need a lot more play time in the long form arena.  It is also important to talk about our indecency set.  A solid story, some fun details (Russian occupation, torture, aging love), but if you step back you'll realize the scene fell into crazy town.  The strong objective floated us for the amount of time needed in the set, but after the produce affair was over, we wouldn't have had many places to go.  Why?  No one challenged an oddity which was there waiting to be taken:  All of this was over a simple recipe.  The humor of the indecency set could have been elevated much more if we had a straight character challenging the element of Russian conspiracy over a simple home made recipe.   

If you go back through my last couple of blog posts you'll see similar elements being discussed about our long form.  It's time to start asking myself what I need to do as director to help get us through a transition to solid long form quicker.  I'm going to focus on three areas in the future:

  1. Better play time.  Summer can get intense in Alaska, especially when you layer individual schedules on administrative prep for our third season.  We are going to bring more focus to the improv arena in the coming months.  In addition, I'll be joining the troupe in playing some of these sets over the next couple of rehearsals to get fresh perspective on the challenges faced.  Rather than focus on our sets, we are going to focus on 10 - 15 minute longer form scenes based on single words.  More play will always equal a better product.
  2. Don't just make it about a challenge.  Hey, if you are reading this, I'm rewarding you by giving you one of our big announcements now instead of making you wait!  We will be starting an Urban Yeti After Dark short form show in October.  The focus will be high energy, uncensored short form games.  The performers in Urban Yeti are amazing and I have no doubt in my mind they are going to kill these sets.  By allowing Urban Yeti to offer different formats and letting our team mix it up, it is going to strengthen all of our performance offerings. 
  3. Play AND watch.  It is no secret Urban Yeti shares performers with other troupes in town.  As a result, they put in a lot of time performing.  I would like to find more ways for our performers to watch improv as well so they can sit back and identify/assess just like this blog does.  This could include getting the troupe together to watch our own shows or finding some good internet/video content to offer a fresh perspective.

This blog focused a lot on improvements and potential change in the future, but I don't want that to detract from the talents our troupe has and continually shows each performance.  I am very proud of the product we are putting up and the evolution of our improv.  A start-up company is allowed to find themselves over the first 12 months of their existence.  Another incredible aspect of this experiment is I am having some really great conversations with audience members and supporters about improv.  I really think we are elevating the understanding of the art form and starting to bring in folks who don't just want to drink and hurl dick references on stage, they want to explore with us.  Thank you to the performers who are bringing it set after set and thank you to our fans who are continuing to come out and support.  We are truly creating change folks, can you feel it? 

Look to our social forums this week, we are about to make announcements which are going to change the game completely...

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Elevating into the Unknown

 
Doing shows in Anchorage during the notoriously beautiful Alaskan summer stresses me out.  Sure, there is a healthy tourist market, but you never know when that perfectly beautiful day is going to hit and you are left shit out of luck.  I highlight this to boost my excitement for how well ticket sales went last night.  Yet again, even with the summer card in play, we came close to a fully packed house.  My thanks, as always, goes out to family and friends who continue to support our art and those who take a chance to come see something they know nothing about.  After the show we got some genuine enthusiasm from the audience and I am ecstatic we are putting up a show that continues to fill the seats.
 

Let's talk about the artistic aspects of our show last night, let's talk about the improv.  It is again important to re-iterate the troupe is working on a structure consisting of setting up a strong base reality, introducing an oddity into this world and then elevating this oddity by asking 'If this is true, then what else is true about the world we just created?'  This last month, with-in these efforts we focused on everyman characters and really challenging the oddity because it is in the challenge detail arises.  It is in this detail where humor is often found.  We also worked starting our scenes 'in the action'.  Rather than the first positions and lines of dialogue of our scenes being character introductions or 'talking heads' heavy, we wanted to spice things up by starting in the middle of strong, physical situations.

We are doing a fantastic job of setting up oddities in both rehearsal and our shows.  These oddities are strong, they are fun and most importantly, they have the ability to establish games to play off of throughout the scene. Let me provide a list of a couple from last night's show to demonstrate my point:

  • Base Reality = Fast Food establishment, Oddity = Souls of the animals killed to make the nuggets drive customer's to avenge their death
  • Base Reality = Manufacturing facility where animals are harvested for food, Oddity = New hire employee has WAY too much passion for her work and comes up with inventive ways to harvest animals
  • Base Reality = Fast Food Drive-Through, Oddity = Massive employee communication and mistakes are backed by confidence the customer is the idiot
  • Base Reality = Waitress training to be a bartender, Oddity = Waitress has a lifetime of using awful ingredients in anything she makes that is dangerous to the human body, yet this goes uncorrected
  • Base Reality = Female character growing up and going to high school, Oddity = Entire society is misogynist to the point female learning has to go underground
 
In addition we had some strong commitment to characters, good pantomime and environment work and solid scene transitions.  A good example was a transition of a characters out of a beach while others were strolling on for some relaxation as well as transitioning into a vehicle with minimal confusion.  I also enjoyed the drive through staging with added roller skate benefits.
 
Where we need to continue improving is getting every single performer to identify similar oddities and work together to elevate with-in the context of the scene.  Last night we a hard time reaching high notes throughout our scene work, finding those moments of high audience engagement.  This was because of confusion introduced that couldn't be overcome with strong listening.  An example of this was old librarian grandma in the misogynist society.  Although a fun character, some performers confused this for the oddity while others were trying to stick with fun scenarios in a misogynist world.  The scene lingered far too long on the aspect of libraries and librarians when the real gold was portrayed in scenes that asked questions like 'If this society is clearly different from our own in views of females, then what would a first date be like?' of 'If this character is not encouraged to learn at home, then what lengths does she have to go through to become an intelligent female?'.  Another example was in our promiscuity set.  The further into the scene we got, the further away we got from the original theme of odd ingredients.  We got so far away the scene become a mixture of performers trying to stay true to it and those trying to drive plot points to conclusion.  We need to continue working the 'If, then' questions of the worlds we are creating throughout the rehearsal process.
 
I'm not worried about this, in fact, after the show last night I was quite relaxed.  Even with these missed opportunities it was a solid show with good audience enjoyment.  When it comes to theater, a single performance can never be the full resume of the ensemble.  What I'm seeing in rehearsals and shows is worthy of an audience and improving.  When performers start discussing things like audience energy, disagreement with show/game formats, I remind them it is all on us to make any environment or suggestion work, this is the nature of a truly professional improviser.  Let's take golf for example.  Going to the driving range is important, but actually playing full rounds of golf is more important to work things out.  So it goes with most things.  We are making the most out of one show a month, but it just takes time at this rate to get everything right.
 
It is also important to note smaller, more administrative things we can work on.  Overall, I wanted more 'in the action' from our scene work and to start during the middle of strong scenarios rather than at the beginning of conversations.  I've also noticed a trend over the past few rehearsals we are starting to get more physical when there are opposing characters.  Dude bros for example, or fast food employee getting the wrath of the animal spirits.  Although a solid dude bro punch from Mary Jo, most of the time our staging in these situations seems a bit awkward and amateur.  I'm a big fan of physical conflict rarely being necessary in improv and I'd like to stick to this mentality, but if opportunities arise to work this physicality, we should also rehearse some good practices.  Finally, we need to ensure guessers continue to guess throughout the scene in interrogation and we manhandle that audience member in slideshow to introduce a moving bodies aspect into the game.     
 

I love what we are doing and I am proud we are coming together as a team to try different ways of playing improv, ways I can honestly say have never been seen in Alaska.  Everyone in Urban Yeti Improv started out with short form and loves it.  Short form is a high energy and fun art which really sucks an audience in.  In fact, I would like to do more of it with Urban Yeti in the future.  Scenes average 3 - 5 minutes and the games are structured.  You are placed in a sandbox with a playground that has slides, monkey bars, swings, even a weird dome jungle gym thing people are constantly getting hurt on.  Some of us have done this for over a decade.  But those of us in Urban Yeti all stepped to the edge of the sand box, looked at each other and asked what is outside of this playground.  When we all took that step together we took on a very challenging art form.  What happens after the five minutes?  What happens when plot, funny character traits and big movements can no longer sustain the scene?  What happens with less structure and more unknown?  I'm confident what is starting to emerge and will continue to emerge more often will be comedy where the players can look back and be proud they literally made a whole play out of a single suggestion and in the process created a world that could be viewed for hours with excitement.  Why try this?  Simple, we are no longer just going to play on this playground, we are going to build it from scratch in front of an audience.

 
As always, in my opinion, the future is looking bright for Urban Yeti Improv.  Thanks for exploring with us.   
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