Reflections on Opening Night…

Surrounding me in the above picture you will find a superb cast of improv talent.  On the evening of Saturday, February 1st, we had the pleasure of putting up our ‘Frigid Affair’ show for the first time.  More importantly, it was the premiere event for Urban Yeti Improv.  We have to give a huge shout out to the Anchorage community, especially family and friends for making our first show both a premiere and a sell-out.  The pressure was certainly on, but the performers saw that and turned it into tremendous opportunity.

Rather than send the ensemble show notes, my intent for show reviews is to put them here for anyone interested to see.  I want you to see what I’m seeing when I watch a show and I want to know what you are seeing.  Feel free to share with me your thoughts and comments.  Urban Yeti Improv wants you to share in this experience with us.

I’m going to make a bold statement to lead off my review:  I’ve never seen more skill shine through in a show Mal and I have been a part of.  This reason alone makes this one of the proudest I have ever been in my improv career.  Sure, blame it on the premiere event rush or the nerves going into a sold out show, fair push, but for a long time I have been hosting shows and watching for signs of an ensemble coming together to achieve more creativity in their scenes.  Last night the opportunities were found and played.  In the beginning I was trying to write notes from the side between transitions.  After a few minutes, the scenes were so strong I just wanted to watch and enjoy.  The four performers above should be proud of the art they put on the stage.

All right all right, I’ll back it up with proof and also balance with needed improvements.  First off, I enjoyed the energy the performers brought to the stage and the audience warm-up transitioning into freeze tag showed it clearly.  Each performer started with strong voice and initiation. 

Not much to go over in the warm-ups, the Frigid Affair beginning, middle, end set is where the real juice is at.  In my previous post on base reality I mentioned we only had enough rehearsal time to emphasize foundation, but snippets of game work was emerging out of the strong offers at the top of the scene.  To be honest, I was most nervous going into our premiere event that we would have strong who/what/where but a lot of fluff/chaff dragging the energy down without specific focus on finding the inner games in rehearsal.  I was pleasantly surprised a spark fueled the performers into finding several different ideas to play off of and they kept the content interesting through a 30 minute longer form set.  In one of the stories not continued, two performers set out for Las Vegas to try and beat the casino’s and put the odds in their favor through card counting.  The scene started strong, two friends down on their luck training in card counting.  It could have easily gone to Vegas and run through the standard montage of craziness, but one of the players introduced a character trait of constantly spilling the beans, every time someone other than his friend looked at him, he felt he had a secret he couldn’t hold in and became a nervous wreck.  Even more delightful, another performer in the scene built in several straight characters (airline stewardess, card dealer) who responded as most people would: double take on the odd trait, but then back to business as normal.  Because of this, a game was developed and played several times: Blabber mouth testing the boundaries of whom in the environment actually cares about his shady activities.  Another great example was the scene which was actually developed through the whole Frigid Affair sequence:  The Horrors of Hallow Verde retirement home.  The foundation was clearly established of a family putting grandma in a retirement home.  We could of watched ole crazy Granny say curse words and treat people like crap for a whole 30 minute set, but instead an abnormality was introduced by a Hallow Verde care taker making the grandmother submissive through horrible treatment.  Beyond introducing the game of horrible treatment in a typically comforting environment, I was particularly proud of other players identifying and expanding.  Before the abnormality was dropped, another performed introduced a ‘front desk’ man at Hallow Verde who was very kind.  As the scene progressed towards the end, he added to the equation by introducing the concept every employee was in on it.  If the grandmother is treated poorly by their primary caretaker, then what if others are letting it happen?  How far would they go to keep the secret?  Excellent example of listening and communication.

I also appreciated a strong use of scene transition and pantomime.  There were several examples of players being on the same page in the environments established.  “Don’t go out into the real world, there are only freaks out there” was quickly followed by a clear window curtain opening and two players portraying ‘passer-bys’.  Inspecting grandma’s degraded state and wheel chair was quickly followed by time jumps to show previous questionable caretaker practices.  Wonderful listening and initiative by the performers.

Now for some opportunities for improvement.  Strong ideas in scenes get a little weaker when we break character and there was a bit of this throughout the show.  Not much to expand on here other than taking away we need to hold our shit because it strengthens the reality of the scene.  I say ‘we’ very strongly here because I’m also particularly weak in this area.  I’m also looking for more natural character responses.  The end of the frigid affair sequence was a good example of this.  The players struggled to find a natural ending to an epic climax they set up.  Performers were all waiting for one another to find a way to escape the miserable staff of Hallow Verde and it got a tad crazy.  But, if you run down the characters established, you had a grand daughter assertive enough to investigate the atrocities done to her elder grandmother, a weak brother who always did what he was told (sidenote: awesome knife give away), a frail grandmother who could barely walk and two employees willing to do a lot to hide the secret of Hallow Verde.  Rather than waiting for someone to take control, I feel looking into their character motivations and environment would have presented several easy opportunities.  Take a deep breath, realize there was a knife somewhere in the room, a character with the strength of resolve in saving her family, an open door not blocked by the caretakers and a grandma/little brother who might be due for a surprise.  When in doubt, when there is confusion, just look around and do what your character is inclined to do.

There were also some opportunities to improve the short form set.  It seemed the intermission weakened a bit the listening/expanding skills of the first half.  Short form needs energy, needs clear objective.  But there was less sharing and more reliance on single players to drive entire scenes.  Examples include cop driving story progression for entire two minutes of Half Life, constantly looking to the foundation player of Stand Ins for help.  We need to work on getting the same skills to help both our short and longer forms.  Strong base realities, yes and, finding the game are not just tools for long form.

Finally, I’ll morph my nervous observation above into an objective for the future.  We will make sure it doesn’t take an audience to get the skills I was so proud of seeing above.  I’m confident we are on a constant incline from first rehearsal to first show and beyond, but I want to make sure we don’t fall into show spikes followed by weaker scenes in rehearsal.

I imagine our next rehearsals will serve to strengthen natural character reactions and finding the inner games of our scene work.  But we also can’t completely drop the need to work base realities.  It will be fun to hit the notebook over the next two weeks to try and combine these themes together into a rehearsal structure.

You shouldn’t take the opportunities described above and leave on a down note.  This show was excellent, the performers were excellent.  If this was our capability after four rehearsals and one show, I’m excited to climb to new heights as we hit the stage even more.  Thank you for a wonderful experience Mal, Erik, Aneliese, John, Josh and Mike.  Thanks for the awesome support Anchorage!