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.