Urban Yeti Director's Corner

A Debaucherous Slam Dunk

 
Last night we debuted Urban Yeti Improv's second season, which included a new show format entitled Debauchery.  The basis of the show was exploring the themes around the word Debauchery, including what makes people angry, what are elements of their fantasies, what do they consider as indecent.  We then took these suggestions and applied the creative process to build characters, stories and worlds around them.  For those of you who are dropping by but unable to travel all the way to Anchorage to see our show, a detailed breakdown of the format is as follows:
 
  • Audience Warm-Up:  Human Symphony
  • Player Warm-Up:  Short form game of Building Blocks.
  • Debauchery is...Wickedness:  As audience members arrived to the show they were asked to fill in slips of paper containing the line "It really pisses me of when ___________".  A random one of these lines was chosen and the players did a montage of scenes all culminating in the same line being spoken with a scene wipe as transition.
  • Debauchery is...Corruption:  Short form game of Interrogation.
  • Debauchery is...Promiscuity:  As audience members arrived to the show they were asked to fill in slips of paper containing the line "My fantasies typically consist of ____ , ____ and ___".  A random one of these lines was chosen and the players performed a 15 minute scene incorporating all three elements into the story as direct / subtle as they so chose.
  • Debauchery is...Craziness:  Short form game of Slideshow.
  • Debauchery is...Murder:  Short form game of Chain Murder.
  • Debauchery is...Indecency:  As audience members arrived to the show they were asked to fill in slips of paper containing the line "I was once kicked out of ____ for ____".  A random one of these lines was chosen and the players did a scene where the only restriction was the end had to culminate in the suggestion provided.
  • Will we survive this Debauchery:  Short form game of Survivor was played to close out the show.
 
The Wickedness / Promiscuity / Indecency portions were the longer form foundations of the show while the rest was opportunity for intermittent short form and fun with the audience.  After closing Frigid Affair in April, we built this format around two principles of more audience interaction and applying improv creatively in a themed environment.  Thus, Debauchery was born.

I was very pleased with the product.  The numbers are still pending, but I'm fairly sure we sold out the show with an audience who had an outstanding time.  The reception both I and the players received after the show was genuine and loaded with positive comments.  We even got some unexpected t-shirt sells and fan mail sign-ups, which we are particularly happy to see given there were a lot of new/unknown faces in the audience.  The foundation of a business is a great product the community will support and the last four shows have reinforced Urban Yeti Improv as legit.  We still have some administrative things like space flow, ticketing system improvements and getting the color red into the projector to work on, but we will get there.  A lot of effort is going on behind the scenes to fine tune Urban Yeti as we want the customer to have the best experience possible.  But we are in the game, folks, and we are hungry for more.  My thanks goes out to all the wonderful fans who had fun with us last night in addition to Alaska Experience Theater who continues to support our art in Anchorage.

Let's talk about the improv!!!  If you could have been in my brain from 7:00 pm - 8:10 pm you would have experienced a lot of nervousness.  I don't really get nervous about hosting, the nerves come from having to balance box office, customer happiness, seating, tech, warm-ups and high energy introductions at the same time.  In addition, we want creative improv fueling Debauchery, not scenes based on dick and fart humor culminating in quick, easy to achieve laughs.  When the first suggestion I had to pull from the audience during warm-ups was bathroom stall, I literally died a little inside.  What have I done?  What will Debauchery become?

But guess what, the performers came in and rocked it.  They played at a highly intelligent level and as a result, the audience followed suit with great suggestions and engaged in an experience of watching stories built for them.  Even more impressive, the troupe was able to do this at a premiere event and first run of a new format.  If you asked me today what I am most proud of in regard to Urban Yeti, it wouldn't be the show sell outs or audience laughter.  It is watching performers who want to perform better improv rehearse diligently and produce better improv as a team.  We are getting the best out of our players and they deserve a lot of accolades.

I want to focus on two highlights from the show last night:  Solid oddities being introduced to enrich scenes and audience connection moments.  If you have been keeping up with my blog, you know we are trying to work long form through establishing strong scene foundations, dropping an oddity everyone can pick up on and elevating the oddity to build a strong story.  If you focus on the Promiscuity and Indecency segments, you'll see very strong oddities that make for compelling theater.  The first was a scene inspired by seduction, where a girl was going over the ways she typically tries to seduce her man with a friend.  As the character describes a variety of feminine techniques that guys typically wouldn't be into (roses, bath salts, lavender, etc), the friend starts questioning where she picked up this knowledge (several backstory transitions were fun here).  But then our performers dropped the oddity that was easy to pick up on:  The men of the scene loved these feminine techniques.  This creates compelling scene work.  The second was inspired by an audience suggestion requiring the scene to culminate with sex in the back of a movie theater.  The scene started with two teens going on a date to a movie, very anxious to get in the theater for this supposed debaucherous affair.  But as the scene built, through the efforts of the teen and parent characters, the oddity was introduced that this was not about sex at all, it was about candy addiction.  This was elevated by parents finding 'awful' things under the teen's bed (candy wrappers) and an anxious concession counter scene.  Combining this oddity with still needing to end the scene with someone getting kicked out of a theater for having sex in the back culminated in the parents, not the teens, being caught and thrown out by the manager.  This was an awesome moment.  If the parents treat candy addiction with as much worry as their kids having sex, then how do they actually treat the topic of sex?  A slam dunk for our performers and a smiling director given it was in the context of oddity and elevation.

The performers did excellent in engaging the audience through different methods as well.  The example standing out to me was the layering of the popcorn in the indecency set.  It is a subtle nuance, but one which pulls the audience into the environment.  It brings them into the scene because you know what, I watch them layer my popcorn with intensity too when I go to the movies.  Another example includes strong characters in the back story of our promiscuity scene.  I enjoyed the french character in this set of scenes, in particular because it showed a lot of commitment.  I will also take this opportunity to welcome Mary Jo to our troupe, new for the upcoming season.  She always does an excellent job with her character and detail work, which were on display last night.
 
On to opportunities for improvement!  We need to hammer out some logistical issues prior to our next show.  We have emphasized playing to the front of the space over several rehearsals, but we have developed a recurring problem with scenes sinking back into the curtain.  Sorry players, but we might have to throw some tape down during the next couple of rehearsals to retrain ourselves.  Folks can sometimes see this as minor but if there is a good scene, it is made so much more powerful when played closer to the audience.  There is also some work needed on the short form game of Slideshow.  We need the performers to take more control of the audience volunteer and the narrator needs to guide a story through several pictures.  I am still confident this game doesn't need explanation to the audience member because half of the beauty is watching their reaction in a fast paced freeze frame environment.  For the narrator position, we need to remember the pictures/poses set the context of the scene, not the narrator prior to switching.  I'll take responsibilities for this given I underestimated the need for strong rehearsal of this game.  We all need to continue working the mantra that no short form game is a throw-away.

The real push, however, is still needed with our straight characters.  Given a hectic rehearsal schedule and needing to learn the Debauchery format, we didn't get a lot of time to work skill building exercises, but I suspect we will hit on this topic during the next two now that we are settled.  Oddities and scene elevation are only strong when there are characters in the environment who are not pulled into the craziness and continue to question the reality they are a part of.  Wait, we aren't going to this movie to make out in the back?  The men actually like the rose pedals?  Why is this family so in to cats?  The normal is used to establish the abnormal and although they don't typically get the laughs, they are the foundation of the scene.  We still have several instances of losing the straight characters into the abnormalities and over the next couple of rehearsals we will work on standing our ground and contributing through strong detail as well as creative oddities.

I would also like to continue adding discipline as a layer on top of our performances.  The performers did this well through focus on the stage wings and smoother transitions.  I still, however, want to emphasize player focus during transitions and make sure we apply it as a philosophy.  People are already leaving the theater recognizing our performer's talent.  I want them to also leave astonished by access to professional improv in Anchorage, Alaska.
 
As always, awesome stand outs and room for improvement, but the big take away is the team is getting more intelligent and consistent in their scene work.  I'm excited to see our future work.  Continue on this journey with us friends!  There is more to come and big things in the future for Urban Yeti Improv.
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Delicioso

 
What a way to end our Frigid Affair season!  As the exhaustion caught up with Mal and I last night post show, we couldn't help but have smiles on our faces.  We are very proud of the Urban Yeti team and ecstatic about the support we have seen from the Anchorage community.  Last night capped off Urban Yeti week, which was full of a Geeks Who Drink dance off competition, a feature in the Anchorage Press and a television spot on KTVA's Daybreak.  We had an awesome time and increased our exposure into the community.  If you haven't seen our pictures and videos, check out our Urban Yeti Facebook page.

To understand where I am coming from on these show notes, you need to understand what we have been rehearsing over the past month.  There were three rehearsals between our Episode II and III shows and we used them to work a concept I was exposed to through the Upright Citizens Brigade long form manual.  We worked three different aspects of our scenes:

1)  Establishing a strong scene foundation (base reality) with solid characters, environments and detail.  This was a continuation from our last set of rehearsals and notes.

2)  Dropping an oddity the team can easily identify together.  Once the foundation is established, rather than being driven by plot, we tried driving the scene based on an established oddity which doesn't necessarily blend in the base reality.

3)  Once the oddity is identified, switch the mind set from pure 'Yes, And' partner agreement to 'If, Then'.  Now that we have seen something strange, what does this mean in the world we created.  If that was true, then what else is now true in this world?

I was very happy with our rehearsal process and not necessarily because we did amazing scenes.  Quite opposite, actually.  When we broke our scenes down to the basic structure of establishing a scene foundation and stopping them when someone raised their hand because they identified an 'oddity', we found out we are often not on the same page with one another.  What one person thought was odd to play off of and elevate, the rest of the team didn't catch.  This means our four players were often pulling scenes in different directions.  But isn't that a set back John?  Quite the contrary sir!  I felt breaking it down to find a weak muscle to strengthen in a matter of one rehearsal was quite impressive on our players part.  They are willing to play for the sake of learning and improve.

Still not seeing it my way?  Let's look at it in the context of last night's show.  What you might have seen in the 'Wrap it and Wack it' theme of Frigid Affair was some really funny ideas presented by our players and funny character exchanges.  But lets put it in the context of the above structure to show why the players found a lot of success.  A strong scene foundation was established, particularly through strong characters.  We learned about Cody the Coyote, his strong personality and relationships with friends/women.  This was also tied with a corporation thinking of unique ways to market different styles of condoms, based on the headline chosen by the audition.  Then the oddity was dropped and clearly identified by all players in the show:  What Cody the Coyote thinks is sex, is not sex at all.  Now that everyone is on the same page, there are so many places to go and questions to answer.  If Cody doesn't know what sex is, then who taught him these ridiculous ideas?  If Cody says he had sex in the past, then what were these experiences actually like and who was involved?  If Cody's girlfriend is still with him, then what are her motivations in the relationship and how does she not fix this?  This is just a sampling of 'If, Then' ideas the players explored.  This combined with high energy and strong character diversity by all four players led to a very successful show.  I am excited to continue working the foundation/oddity/elevation formula into our next season of Debauchery.

The strength of the Frigid Affair set then led to some strong short form performances as well.  I enjoyed Four Square, Stand-Ins and Half Life.  It is funny how short form improv is strengthened when you are playing long form to the top of your intelligence.  I could definitely feel the players firing on all cylinders for the whole show.

But enough with all that ego stroking I just did, let's get some opportunities for improvement in the equation.  Although there were strong indications we were working well in the rehearsal formula, there were still some times when driving towards plot and not listening for natural scene progression had some consequences.  Towards the end of the Frigid Affair set when we tried to bring back the corporation and file cabinet of condom ideas, the idea of trying to weave the storyline cost us continuity.  The players got confused on who stole what idea and for what purpose.  This is a good example of what happens when players are not elevating on the same page and one player's idea of where the plot needs to go gets lost because listening and agreeing is much harder when someone is working to drive plot.  No worries though, the overall consequence was minimal and I use this to demonstrate more rehearsal is always needed to increase our efficiency of playing to the top of our abilities.

There is also something we can work on regarding the way oddities are identified through straight characters.  An important part of good improv comedy is making sure everyone is not in on the crazy.  Being in crazy town with everyone in the scene doing something unusual might lead to some good short term laughs, but it can not sustain a scene.  We had good straight characters, but I want to see some more organic/fluid dialogue from these characters and more push back on the oddity.  More push back leads to more detail and more detail leads to more humor.  This is a way to take character interaction in a scene from a B+ to an A.

On a more scene administration front, time jumps are awesome.  They are great ways to see back story on situations and characters.  Sometimes we need to announce time jumps in more detail and I encourage this with our team.  During the show, however, I think we announced too many time jumps when they didn't need any explaining.  With strong characters and situations, the audience can often follow the story.  Work in this area can further polish our product.

I made a toast last night to our team and made sure they understood how proud Mal and I am of what we are starting to create with Urban Yeti.  But we also need to be aware great beginnings require continued hard work and motivation to reach our full potential.  One season down, but we need to work hard, maintain focus on good improv and continue to find unique ways of spreading the word about Urban Yeti in the community.  Buckle up Alaska, you haven't seen anything yet...

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Admiration and Realities

Once again, Urban Yeti appreciates Anchorage for coming out and making our second show another sell-out!  We had a great time last night and we hope you did as well.  Looking at the business side of Urban Yeti, we really like what we are seeing.  Hits on the website are up, our relationship with AET is solid and last week we unveiled the Urban Yeti at the Fur Rondy parade.  It was a blast and we took dozens of photos with folk who couldn’t get enough of the Yeti.  Be on the look-out in the coming months.

Let’s talk about last night’s show.  The performers have once again gained my admiration for putting everything out there in front of a hundred people.  I can see the team working skills we have been rehearsing and having a lot of fun doing so.  Some of the areas of focus have been strong, detailed scene initiations and using natural motivations to progress scene work.  I particularly appreciate their support with the failing health of their host/director.  This resulted in tougher transitions, scene cuts and missed admin things like thank-yous and future activities.  No excuses, I’ll be back to 100% next show, folks.

It is a challenge when you ask an improviser to clear their head at the beginning of a long set and approach their scene partners with an open mind, walking off that cliff and having faith everything is going to be okay.  I have chosen to take the director spot with these folks and I find one of the toughest things to do is push them into better, cleaner creativity when you yourself could be in their same shoes.  None-the-less, notes are notes even if you have to work them yourself, and I invite you to join me in this deep dive.

What did I like about last night?  I enjoyed the high energy short form in the second half of the show.  We have been working ID symphony hard this week and I was happy to see the performers find the beat with one another.  Four square, stand-ins and half-life all went well and the players found some good story lines and characters to play off of.  I rather enjoyed the variations created on opening the jelly-fish tank in our last game of the evening.  I also like paddywax.  I love it when no one in the room knows what something is as it creates a clean palette on which to build something new.

I was very pleased with two out of the three set-ups for the frigid affair sequence.  The scene inspired by not saying I love you was a particular success for the performers.  Strong relationship connection in the beginning, finding the game of avoiding the term ‘I love you’ and how far the girl would go to get what she wanted was really fun.  Very nice cherry-on-top of ‘I love you Xbox’.  The sequence inspired by the headline regarding someone being ok after they got thrown in a dump truck from a dumpster had a fun theme of enforcing ‘stench’ rights in the state of Alaska.  After a couple of sitting scenes, the performers responded nicely by doing some good dumpster pantomime work.  That’s right, I just said good dumpster pantomime work. 

But the audience didn’t choose these sequences and opted for the scene inspired by obscene 911 calls.  It is here we find some opportunities for improvements and areas we can focus on in the next couple of rehearsals.  I think the performers would agree out of the three sequences, this storyline presented the biggest challenge of folks getting on the same page and finding some good games to play.  The challenge was present from beginning to end on this story line.  The basis was two kids prank calling a 911 operator, who in turn got so frustrated with the continued harassment she took the issue to her sergeant, who offered to handle it personally but instead focused on training the boys to be better prank callers.  The scene quickly developed the qualities of quick sand.  The original unique game of someone in authority playing to his immature side could have been fun but suffered when not enough time was spent building the sergeant character prior to the immature being introduced and then the players struggled to elevate the immaturity (several dropped prank call opportunities).  Two nice moves were introduced in different middle variations.  The first, if we can prank call the 911 operator with no consequence, who else can we prank call.  The second, if the sergeant doesn’t follow protocol, what else might be going on that is questionable at the station (phone sex).  However, the quick sand sucked us back in as the team felt beholden to characters and ideas which were not working out initially.  Rather than letting go of these weaker ideas and expanding the game, we got sucked back into them.

But why do we fall Master Wayne?  We sometimes struggle in scenes and that is okay.  Not only okay, it is natural.  The important part is the lessons we take away to work, the ability to show we recognize the weak and strive to make it stronger.  What can we take away from last night’s frigid affair sequence?  We can certainly take away letting things go when they aren’t working.  It’s okay if one of the characters is inexplicably dropped from the story line.  It is okay if we leave the sergeant behind.  It is okay if we trash something that doesn’t work.  Elevating a scene can often times mean not looking back and we could have use more of this last night.  We can also take away the need to rehearse finding the game and playing it together.  We will be working this over the next couple of rehearsals by starting open scenes with strong base realities.  Nothing odd, just characters staying true to their motivations.  Then we will work on dropping in the odd and elevating it.  But most importantly, we will work on everyone recognizing the oddity and joining each other in the game.  I as a director have danced around what I have been reading for inspiration in an attempt to find a unique voice.  I still think we create a unique voice, but I want to try some of the lessons more directly.

Also, an important thing we need to emphasize, regardless of format or long form / short form is holding our characters.  It is tough in rehearsal to crack down on something like this because it is typically a sign your performers are having fun.  No one wants to throw the birthday cake on the ground when folks are singing happy birthday.  But 2 -3 times is cool for the audience to connect with the performers.  5 or more times and the perception of skill level starts degrading away.  We need to take this more seriously.

I love this environment we have created and adore the team we have.  I’m excited to rehearse with everyone and see our development as we finish out the first season.  We are also close to announcing our second season of shows, which in itself is a success for Urban Yeti Improv.  Thanks for reading and I have enjoyed this journey immensely.  Don’t be nervous, tell me what you think.

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