NEW YORK CITY!
SEEING THE BIGGEST NAMES IN COMEDY. INVITED BY THE UPRIGHT CITIZEN’S
BRIGADE TO PERFORM IMPROV. BRINGING A TASTE OF ALASKA TO THE BIG APPLE.
HEEYUK HEEYUK HEEYUK.
Don’t be a douche Hanus.
We have returned from the 17th annual Del Close Marathon (DCM) with an awesome experience to remember and a lot of perspective gained. But before you prepare your submission for DCM18, read on and hear how Alaska’s own Urban Yeti journeyed to the Alpha ++ city of New York with their passion of improv comedy. I aim for the truth and steer from the sugar coating, so enjoy the account.
Don’t know DCM? Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to nerd out on this stuff like we do. Let me bring you up to speed. Improv started with folks like Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, but was ultimately guided by a gentleman named Del Close, who started out directing at the main power house of improv and sketch: The Second City in Chicago. But after ten years with Second City, there was a difference of opinion on whether improv in itself was a marketable art form, which led him to develop long form and the Harold format with Charna Halpern at Improv Olympic (iO). Sure, Del Close discovered the Harold with his improv team ‘The Committee’ a lot earlier, but it really wasn’t refined until this point. This training ground yielded other improv organizations, including what is arguably the biggest in the business today: The Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB). Del Close mentored a lot of people, but four of his students came together, learned from his teaching and took the product to New York City. These individuals, Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh, became the notorious ‘UCB Four’ and created an improv empire and methodology which has become a force in comedy. Every year, the UCB theatre in New York (they now have two theatres in New York and one in LA), celebrate their late mentor Del Close through the Del Close Marathon, which brings troupes together from across the nation to perform improv comedy in a 52 hour marathon in 7 different spaces throughout the city. Amongst so many people, improv sets, press conferences, celebrity sightings I think it is important to remember the main purpose of this festival is to celebrate the legacy of Del Close and his refinement of long form. Any other intent of networking, exposure and learning is a secondary benefit and a little harder to achieve in this festival format.
There are three types of show at the Del Close Marathon:
- The Marathon Shows: These shows run at spaces which include the actual UCB theatres in Chelsea and the East Village and include sets from around the country. Our Urban Yeti set took place at the original Chelsea theatre as part of this category.
- The Premium Shows: Each evening between 7 pm – 1 am, tickets are sold to shows which include some of the biggest names in the industry. We saw sets with the ‘UCB Four’ and other performers like Broad City, Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch and writers from successful shows like Daily Show and Key and Peele.
- The Bit Shows: Two theatres run sets all night long and from 1 am – 7 am, bit shows are accepted and include formats that push the boundaries. It’s hard to describe these shows, but let’s just say people have very creative minds. More on this category of show later.
A few words on our set for those who have not experienced the festival. We had a 20 minute time slot at 9 am on Sunday morning at the original UCB Chelsea theatre. We arrived at 6 am to support the other morning sets and got acquainted with the space. We went to the green room 30 minutes prior, warmed up and walked on to stage. 20 minutes is 20 minutes at DCM. The lights go up as the previous set performers are leaving, the lights go down right at 20 minutes and the next group goes on. It is that fast and I thought we did great! The audience in the seats enjoyed the Alaskan themed suggestions. Performers got some energy out of the system with some quick cuts at the beginning and then settled into developing some great games. We were cut at the right moment with some good energy. But I also don’t want to bull shit you either. We don’t know many people in New York and we went on at 9 am, so we had an audience of around 30 people and a couple were sleepers in the back trying to brute force the marathon. Don’t misunderstand me here. The UCB gave us a great experience and treated us well, they owe us nothing, but this leads me to the bigger message of our festival experience. Apply to DCM and go to experience the INDUSTRY of improv, don’t go because you think you are going to have a life changing set. Don’t over-analyse what you put up. Be realistic about what others can provide for you, especially in a city like New York. Our DCM experience gives us great appreciation for people like Eric Caldwell and his ASIF festival and hopefully what we will see in Austin with Out of Bounds.
Onto the rest
of the festival. So we got a little star crazy, but can you really blame
us? Wouldn’t you have done the same? The Del Close marathon was full of
UCB performers who are now working full time in the comedy industry.
Don’t worry, we try not to be pretentious idiots. Watching
famous improvisers and taking quick pictures in the lobby after a show
doesn’t mean we are any more special than other improvisers out there,
but what it does demonstrate is experiencing the wider community of
improv comedy and getting a bigger picture view of the INDUSTRY. You can
see a wide range of people from those who are working and famous in the
craft, those who are obviously trying to reach that status and putting
up some great stuff, those who are trying to reach that status but
struggling to put up great stuff and the hobbyist just happy to be
there. Personally, I will always regard myself in that hobbyist
category. We had an opportunity to listen to a ‘UCB Four’ interview at
the 92Y institute prior to the festival beginning. One of my favourite
moments of the trip was listening to Ian Roberts and Matt Besser discuss
a defining moment in UCB history being when the group switched from one
rehearsal a week to three. I think a lot of people take for granted the
improv art form and don’t put as much emphasis on rehearsals as other
scripted stage performances. But I believe the UCB history supports the
notion that if you want to get better and take your hobby to the next
level, you have to be as fully committed to a rehearsal process just
like any other show, if not more. I have now helmed three improv
organizations to date and I continue to struggle with balancing a desire
to be better and working with what we have, settling into the hobbyist
mentality. If I had my way I would rehearse with our ensemble weekly and
put up more shows, travel to more festivals and spread the Yeti brand.
But this just isn’t reasonable with family, career and performer
availability. The DCM taste is sweet, but don’t let it poison the well.
Be happy with the opportunities afforded and make the best with what you
have. The most important thing will always be just to have fun with a
group of friends committed to the craft.
Let me expand on the use of the term INDUSTRY a bit. I encourage all people out there to attend this festival at least once in their improv careers. Come out and experience New York City. Experience your ensemble being meshed together with 500 or more shows, each with their own sets of expectations and dreams. See what other people are doing. Some of the best parts of the festival for me was experiencing the work of Harold teams put on by UCB students. Some were great, some were not so great, but it gave you great perspective on the types of people paying to participate in the UCB institution. In Anchorage, we don’t have the luxury of established comedy/improv training programs. We have to make do with the talent and curiosity of the director’s willing to do a bit of study to lead their teams. But what I found particularly remarkable is it seems everyone experiences the same things we do. That awkward moment at the beginning of the set when someone has to step forward and bring along an audience not knowing what is going to take place. Those moments when plot is controlling rather than pure instinct. That time when a performer reverses the direction of the team with an unsure audience and the team has to commit 150% to make something from nothing. It was a liberating experience to see that all teams experience what we do, whether they are trained by the machine or not. For those out there who wonder how Alaska stacks up in the improv world, we come back to tell you we stack up well and we have the talent. Don’t let anyone tell you different. With over 500 shows, don’t just go to watch amazing improv, go to watch struggling improv and realize there are people out there trying to navigate the waters of ‘Yes, And’ and ‘If, Then’ with similar difficulties.
What were some of my other learnings? An Alaskan in New York, a director in a sea of professionals, the hobby vs. the career:
- This art form is worthy of its own platform. Premium shows were worth it, improv groups traveling from their homes across the country are worth their ticket price. Comedy from truth and scene work is a show worth supporting. Sure, there are groups out there that do it better than others, but never tie it to a thought that the art form of improv comedy can’t stand on its own. Although Del Close was a complicated man, he did the right thing by leaving an institution that didn’t appreciate the beauty of improv.
- Watch good sets and professional sets and you see a common theme you should try to develop in your own product: slow down, let the scene initiators develop something to work with and figure out how you can elevate / contribute appropriately. Watching marathon shows, there were a lot of groups prone to people walking all over each other. Watching those who have been established in industry, they are much more likely to let their partners establish a scene reality, really listen to the scene foundation and find the appropriate place to contribute and elevate. Put more simply: slowing it down is the key to success.
- I’m very excited to keep this party going in Alaska. The more we see and perform, the stronger our art becomes. We are going to take the rehearsal and show opportunities we have and improv the shit out of them. You get to benefit Anchorage, we’ll see you in the fall.
As the festival winds to an end and you walk out from your set, up the stairs of the legendary UCB Chelsea theatre’s box office, you can turn around and look at a prominent picture displayed of the UCB Four in one of their first shows ‘Virtual Reality’. I look at that picture, in that space and have a different feeling than a lot of other people. I suspect a lot of folks look at it as something to aspire to, a devotion to art and the desire to make a career out of it. I don’t fool myself. Perhaps life will take a weird turn, but it’s more likely I’ll continue building a life with my wife and kid(s) and developing as an engineer. I look at that picture and I’m just thankful, for a moment, that I got a chance to intersect my hobby with a piece of entertainment history. I’ll remember it fondly and I know those in Yeti will share my sentiment. This is the core of my recommendation for other improviser’s to submit to this festival. Go share in this moment with me.
There are a couple of thoughts that I couldn’t successfully weave into the themes of this blog that I still want you to know. I’m going to take a page out of my favourite sports writer, Peter King, and tell you a couple things I think I know:
- We heard a lot about the bit shows prior to attending the festival. After watching a couple throughout the festival, I thought I was going to leave DCM without the promised experience of crazy improv that pushed the boundaries. Instead, I saw a lot of performers taking for granted free stage time to do sets confused with dozens of performers and lack of story building. But then came ProvCore to save my festival. ProvCore, the penultimate bit show. Short improv scenes interspersed between heavy metal music with positive messages of humanity like ‘Have safe sex’ and ‘Recycle’. If by some random chance you are reading this and you were in ProvCore, thank you, thank you for saving my DCM bit show experience, thank you for being awesome and keep on being you.
- We did not participate in any workshops during the festival because we were loaded up in Juneau and feel we will see better opportunities with Out of Bounds. We also spent a lot of money to get to New York and it was tough justifying more expense and less opportunity to watch other groups perform. Could this be a DCM gold mine untapped? Yup, but you’ll have to talk to someone else who knows more.
- You could convince me right now the best improviser in the world is Zach Woods of Silicon Valley fame. Between watching some of his material in the Del Close documentary and seeing him perform live in an ASSSCAT performance, he has so many skills to aspire to, at the foremost having an intelligence that comes from a masterful ability to listen and internalize.
- I think the UCB Chelsea theatre and the SVA Beatrice theatre were the most beautiful spaces I have ever seen to perform improv comedy. Seeing Fwand in the Beatrice was awesome. Gives me chills thinking about other cool things you could do in that space.
- I feel like my desire to produce hosted sets makes better improv comedy. I watched over 30 shows during the festival and I felt a lot of them could have benefited from a host controlling the pace and the energy. Yeah, I get it, the experts can do it themselves, but I hope our performers feel like hosting makes life a bit easier for them.
- The human condition teaches us to compare experiences and I need to work on settling down and enjoying what I have in front of me. Who went to the best set? Who went to the best show? Who went to the best restaurant? I need to work on enjoying the moment and get out of the curse of comparisons, because it quickly becomes apparent that your opportunities, no matter how perceived, are a lot more than others have.
- Improvised podcasts are becoming a big thing and it was fun to see the Hooray Show and Improv4Humans in action. Think about listening in sometime, the art form translates well.
- Go to New York to experience the beauty of scripted theatre as well. We saw an immersive theatre experience called Sleep No More and Broadway spectacles like Book of Mormon and Something Rotten. Every production in New York is so much more intimate of an experience, just absolutely amazing.
- We missed Josh on this trip…