A Passion for Play or Silly Engineering Improv Diagrams?

Sorry I sweat so much everybody.

We just wrapped our second run of 2 Player / After Dark fall shows last night. Over the past couple of seasons, our team has had a unique experience with second shows. Usually work schedules limit some of the ensemble from playing and they also end up having both a dose of comfort and uneasiness. The second show slump, some might call it. On the scheduling part, last night was no different. Down Erik and Mary Jo, the Yeti’s took the stage twice for a four player tour de force. But I’m excited to say: No second show slump here. With unexpecantly large crowds for both shows and a renewed passion for unique story telling, I sit here at the Ted Stevens International Airport (don’t worry, my work computer has a Yeti sticker on it) looking back fondly on a lot of our scene work from last night. Let’s dive right in.

We have spent a lot of time over the past couple of months giving you a taste of what the improv community is like outside of Alaska. I hope you have enjoyed following along, but now is a good time to demonstrate how we have internalized our experiences in rehearsal. Lately the improv dojo has taken the shape of the Hanus Haus Garage. That’s right, we moved rehearsals out of the theater and into our garage. We mainly did this because Mal and I were shelling out $60 per rehearsal (improv as parents!), but I was pretty nervous. I do a good job keeping the floor clean, but I thought our players would feel it was unprofessional and weird. But I’m not kidding when I say the rehearsals have been pretty rockin’. We switched to one a week and limited them to about 60-90 minutes. Everyone is really comfortable and our scene work has been even more fun. We are truly getting around the concept of passion to play. How do you build yours?

Below you’ll find how I displayed our current improv exploration to our team at the beginning of our 2 Player season. We started out in Yeti focusing on the UCB formula, which is strongly woven throughout. But then in our second year, we have been exposed to alternative philsophies of relationship work, playing from the heart and making sure the scene is about you and your partner. I wove these concepts in as well. There are always dozens of philosophies in art, improv is no different. Also, I want to stress these are our observations collected from some pretty extraordinary teachers out there. Take a look:

During the previous blog, I mentioned giving some notes which might have shaken our players a bit. They certainly internalized and responded with an exciting passion I haven’t seen before. They were associated with the enablers and disablers you see above. To be honest, the disablers are often enablers done poorly. How have we used this display to help our improv? I’ll use myself as the example. We are our own harshest critic, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to learn from. There are both personal and ensemble learnings I can display. Personally, I put my name next to a need to work the enabler of true listening and internalization. When you primarily direct and promote, it can be hard to find your personal play time. The first thing to go is your listening muscle ability. You start to jump into scenes occasionally and realize you are moving the story forward without really accepting the offers of your partners. When you start getting the muscle strength back, you then face contributing on an equal playing field. Always a work in progress.

From the ensemble perspective, after our last show we made a concerted effort to hammer environment and object work. We are working this by having a single person connect emotionally with an object to begin a set, with other players fully comprehending what they are handling before stepping into the 2nd player spot to elevate. We found through rehearsal the world’s opened up much quicker. Instead of jumping all over one another with dialogue, the object work forced a slower start and greater ability to get on board with the group think mentality.

By the end of this you’re going to think I’m way into my silly engineering diagram of improv theory, because we’re going to run our shows last night through the same visual. 2 Player was solid improv. I remember standing in the wings during the very first scene of the show, watching story and character slowly developing and Yetis exploring the offer. Short form John Hanus would have been trigger happy and just waiting for a plot point to jump on, but I find both myself and fellow players are now much more likely to just find a movement or distinct character choice to play around with. I see a lot more exploration over driving, which has lead to a distinct comfort in both rehearsal and show. Whether it be creepy Dwayne or the subtle differences between the angel and demon workplaces, I hope the audience can notice how fulfilling the slow build can be. The show last night had two indicator’s of great improv as a result of this committment and comfort: call backs and controlled elevation. As a director, one of the most satisfying experiences is watching an ensemble specifically call back scene references and elevate a scene to a strong cut point. Last night in 2 Player we were able to do that throughout the initial 30 minute set, even multiple times. 2 Player is exciting and I personally want a lot more opportunity to play. If you haven’t got a chance yet, come out and see us on November 7th.

I also think it’s worth discussing After Dark in context of the theory. It’s continuing to be tough to run two shows a night, and last night was even more challenging with four players carrying the load. The four of us took the challenge in stride and for every performer out there: tired is never an excuse. I do believe we pulled a rough first act set list with the After Dark numbers and it indicated some of our short form game theory probably deserves some rehearsal time to strengthen. The singing games were a bit unexpected with needed rehearsal focus if we want to continue and at some point I’m going to have to accept the fact Dead Celebrity Diner exists and we need to find more unique ways of increasing it’s success rate. For me personally, when the uncomfort of an occasional poor game sets in, the theory, enablers, disablers start to blur together and you can’t see straight. In several of the first act After Dark games, I felt myself reverting to the same character, same tone of voice, less environment work, dropping too far back in the stage, throwing energy and sweat into a desparate audience reaction. I don’t take this as a need for change, I take this as a reminder to slow down when the going gets tough. Shake it off and look towards the next game with the same passion as our 2 Player. We also need to make sure our show introductions and scene transitions are not taken for granted. In a short form show, being outside of the game is where energy goes to die, and both team and host need to make sure the product is smooth and well transitioned. After intermission, I do believe we shook it off with a strong finish including Weekend at Bernie’s, Complaint Department and Objection. The audience left with similar compliments. Never an excuse ladies and gentlemen.

We approach an extended break given the 5 weeks between now and our next shows. A well needed break. If I look back at the past two months, we started with a special guest show in Anchorage, travelled for a festival in Texas then came home and ran two weekends of shows with all the associated rehearsal. Engineer, Lawyer, Counselor, Mother by day, improviser and entertainers by night. Balancing family, friends with going on the road and meeting new ones. And you help us do this, you are part of this amazing adventure. The community and family support is what drives Urban Yeti to keep this going. Sorry, gushing I know, but I just thought it worth mentioning. I get a little reflective when I travel.