Fighting the Comfort – A Tale of Two Audiences

Yeti is coming off three high powered shows as we move forward into the unknowns of 2016. Three shows full of an incredible audience energy and diversity in performance styles given we worked with Scared Scriptless, Whiskey Tango and brought the whole Yeti team full force to the stage last night. Three shows where I can barely get out my favorite line ‘We are Urban Yeti Improv’ at the end over the audience applause. Three sold out events, filling the PAC’s Sydney Laurence and a good start to making our mark at 49th State Brewing Company. To me, it doesn’t matter how extensive the renovation goes. We got lights, a stage, seats, good brew and a grunge comedy experience that I strongly believe audiences are leaving talking about.  

We very much have something to be proud of…

Which is why it is more important than ever to keep feeling uncomfortable.

I have a strong passion for improv comedy and I firmly believe those I work with at Yeti and Scriptless share in it. But for me, it goes beyond the stage and into the audience experience, learning about improv’s history and about those who have tried different ways of enhancing the art. Different performance and directing styles. Different motivations of approach.

Last night’s show had some amazing moments. There were too many good ones to get to them all, but I do want to highlight some. I enjoyed the creativity of the story variations throughout the Frigid Affair set, particularly the middle portions with the literal landfill interpretation. Then to wrap up the set by referencing one of the story lines not voted on by the audience, perfection. Also slick that it was a theme built upon in the transition through hosting, almost an offer taken between host and performer. Makes me a gigglepants and helps me correlate hosting to a better audience experience. In the second half of the show, an advertisement for ‘substance abuse counseling’ was chosen. I would never have put that as a set option, but unfortunately every thing you cut out of the newspaper has two sides and when you give it to the audience member to read…oops. But it ended up being the scene in Four Square I constantly wanted to go back to. Thanks to the Yetis who bailed me out. There were some sweet diagonal staging moments throughout the show, including hiding a kid in the closet with the scene focus point elsewhere and two people looking over a lower status character to begin the conclusion of our Frigid Affair set. It might just be me who swoons over these moments, but when you are looking over an audience and see a cool snap shot I think it elevates the game, the same way a strong pantomime connects the audience to performer through creativity.   On a side note, thanks to the audience member who gave our final Objection suggestion with the theme of Bob Ross. Probably one of my favorites of all time and a great way to end the show. There were some logistical parts of the set which could have been improved on my part, including how we go about playing with the advertisements and playing with current events content, but nothing that took away from the quality. Overall, I’m not a big fan of using direct current event references in scene work and I would prefer inspiration and character work inspired off the event. Dropping current event references is no different than jokes or one liners in my mind. Some of the article headlines leaned towards this and it’s something for me to avoid in the future.   So why did I start with the reference of needing to be uncomfortable? Because let’s be honest with ourselves, we had this audience last night:

A lot of theater goers looking to have fun, yell out suggestions and a couple of groups heading into cabs on the way out the door if you know what I mean. First and foremost, to the audience last night: Come back again! We loved you and we are glad you had a good time. But if you only perform to audiences like this, you get comfortable and bask in the hilarity. It’s a great show, you put yourself out there, you deserve to pat yourself on the back. But it can be easy to then start shifting priorities on what you need to work on to become a well rounded performer.   What if we took the last three shows and put them in front of this audience:

Sure, you wouldn’t have the same show because you make choices throughout based on audience feedback, there is no getting around that. Your scene partners will start shifting the content and transitions to something inspiring more energy in the room. But I guarantee you are going to start thinking more controlled and calculated, double down on listening to every word your team is offering to find a more stable foundation. High energy audiences tend to allow us to highlight the strong moments where as lower energy, more genuinely curious audiences tend to be better at highlighting what we need to work on as performers. Therefore, it is important for us to find opportunities to diversify who we perform to and how we approach. This is a good lead in to Yeti’s representation at the Alaska State Improv Festival next week in Juneau. We will be performing for other improvisers and community members less experienced in what we do in Anchorage. Last year we did great, but can we push ourselves to do better in front of a crowd unlike our last three shows? We can, we will, but it requires us not to take what we have for granted. We need to continue being uncomfortable.

We push ourselves through the rehearsal process every day and there were aspects of the show last night which merged with some of our player notes worth highlighting. I would still like us to do better job at setting a clear relationship or environment at the onset of the scene and then the team working together to build on the established offer. The alternative are performers working to establish the scene and others coming in and demanding focus. It creates a black hole where initial offers are lost and the team then has to shift away from creativity into clean-up mode. Good ways to combat this are starting in the middle more with less introductions and transaction scenes. Another method is more experimentation with in-scene transitions. There were some successful ones in last night’s set and it demonstrates a performer is allowed to have ideas to explore both in the scene and on the back line.

I also want to see more organic environment work paired with dialogue. We can drink at a tavern and tell our life story at the same time. We can take lines of dialogue to know more about characters while giving them a tattoo at the same time. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. When you see scenes where the performers are in a horizontal line on stage, this is evidence of some needed focus in this area. Slick diagonal staging? Yes! Examples of staging in straight lines as well? Also yes. Something for us to work on in the dojo.

This season I’m trying to encourage us to revisit personal challenges through notes and getting the group to talk about what they feel is and is not working. In traditional theater, you have a show audition, rehearsal and performance runs over a 2-3 month period. You lock down your commitment over this run and can then move on to another project, make a decision to re-commit or put your time elsewhere. Scriptless and Yeti have continual activity year on year. Therefore, you have to find unique ways to keep performers engaged and challenged. We respond through different show formats, rehearsal planning, blog entries and finding festival opportunities and it can still be hard. Mallory and I are extremely proud of the Yeti family, but we are also cautious and calculated in how we structure our group and activity. It’s a model of risk and reward.

To those who came out last night, you are every improviser’s dream and we hope to see you again soon. But, in my opinion, a true commitment to improv is to get up in front of both styles of audiences and amaze. Be uncomfortable and challenge yourself, it’s the only way to assure getting the job done. We’ll see you on April 29th Juneau and we’ll see you again Anchorage on May 21st.