Finding the Right Pace

We are coming up on a three year anniversary for Urban Yeti Improv. Three years of amazing creativity with a family who has journeyed across the country and state to explore the art of comedy. Our first year was about establishment on our home turf, Anchorage. Our second year was about maintaining our credibility at home and traveling outside the state through the festival circuit. Our third year has been about teaming up with groups both in Anchorage and outside of Alaska to show our crowds a diversity of performance. We kicked off our spring season with guests from Whiskey Tango and ended it with a Toss Pot partnership and new format never before seen here in the ANC. Both shows were wildly successful. This whole process can often be a love/hate relationship between me and the entity known as Urban Yeti. I always write about the pride I have in what we accomplish, but it can often be foreboding to continually think about how to keep an already speeding train on the track with passengers who enjoy the experience. Summer break is over, fall season has begun, the challenge is once again set.

Enter the duo Manacle: Eric and Aden Nepom. We met them at the 2015 Alaska State Improv Festival and then again at Out of Bounds in Austin. They have a strong background in improv comedy and a lot of experience in both teaching and performance. But it’s not really about that for us. When we have been looking for guests this year to join us, we don’t want them to bring their own act, we want to integrate their skills with ours. We look for performers who not only showcase great improv on stage, but also really connect with people off the stage. Eric and Aden watched us, met us, conversed with us about improv and life. We felt they were a really great fit, therefore the invitation went out and they graciously accepted. For those out there trying to grow opportunities for themselves like this, it is important to recognize how you network with people off stage is just as important as what you do on stage. For us, what Aden and Eric offered off stage was a great indicator for us they would perform well thrown in with the Yeti’s. They certainly did not disappoint. Their skill last night was the exact recipe we set out with for our third year.

This weekend was also a great community event for improv in Anchorage. We invited Eric and Aden to teach a workshop at the UAA Harper Studio. The topic was using professional acting skills to build your improvised scene work. We took away exercises and tools to help use physicality and emotion to bring focus to performer/audience connection, recognizing dialogue is a tool needing to be complimented by environment work and emotion. It was a challenging workshop with a lot of pushing the comfort boundaries, which is great for those who want to continue in improv comedy. But outside the content, we had participants from Yeti, Scared Scriptless and the Alchemists. It felt like a great community who just enjoyed playing with one another. I mentioned having love/hate relationships balancing the product with the work put into it. I was nervous about this weekend and everything working. Now I sit here at the tail end of smooth travel logistics for our guests, a successful workshop with multiple troupe participation and a show in the upstairs theater of 49th State Brewery attended by a satisfied group of over 115 people. The train rolls on, but more importantly I felt we took a big step forward in long form improv exposure and building community. When I dropped Aden and Eric off at the airport, I told them they helped do more than they know.

Let’s shift focus to the show itself and expand upon my statement of increased long form exposure. During our last guest set, I would often call scene and reset the audience energy by pulling another suggestion to fuel free form scene work. Last night we had a great warm-up and monologue feed to start the show and I decided to let the performers go for a full 30 minutes without host interaction or show transition. This is even lengthy per festival standards. The performers took it in stride and weaved together some great story work, keeping the audience attentive throughout. I watched from the back of the theater and I could notice when things landed well and others didn’t. Just like the workshop we studied earlier in the day, scenes and story work with stronger environment reigned (dinosaur children and the physicality of coveralls) and scenes where dialogue/plot were used as primary tools didn’t land as well. Regardless of some of these moments, there was very strong character commitment throughout and the audience left genuinely impressed in the long form styling. The opportunities I want to expand on throughout our next rehearsals is to ensure the later world builds in the set are higher energy and faster paced transition leading into intermission. Last night it was a bit flip flopped with the stronger physicality coming out of the gate and the slower building coming later on. Overall, we need variation in the length of our distinct sets and I’d like to see a couple of short, high intensity story works separating the longer character/relationship builds. Mallory and I recently visited Chicago and saw a lot of improv and sketch shows. Strong groups always seems to throw in some shorter story work to mix it up. The variation in pace helps keep the audience engaged.

That being said, one of the strongest applauds I will give our performers is they enhanced the second half of the long form set by bringing the content back during the short form games. The audience really loved this and it built themes for the show.

The second act of short form was a smooth slide into home plate. The audience is always very engaged with ‘Good, Bad, Worst’ and ‘Objection’ with all other scene work and commitment continuing to be strong. The only minor obstacle was my choice in Cutting Room Floor for a mid act game. Eric and Aden directed masterfully, but the pace of the game didn’t match where I wanted the show to be leading up to the end. A continued reminder to folks: games list and show structure matter to the product you want. My focus with Yeti has always been combining the creativity of long form with the intensity of short form therefore I am always very careful with our show structures.

For those keeping up with our dojo practices, we have developed season focus points on using positivity for the basis of our scenes and getting rid of the character introduction to jump into the scene action or full relationships between characters. Last night showed some strong indicators for these but I’ll be more curious when we have the full Yeti team back on stage in October working with one another after focusing on these for a month or two. If you watch a lot of improv, I know you’ll agree a lot of scenes start with conflict. When this is the case, all you have is the conflict to play on. We are starting to get a sense through other shows watched and workshops taken that starting positive, particularly in long form, gives you a lot more foundation points for different stories and games to play throughout. I’ll be focusing on show notes through these filters in my next blogs.

Too much shop talk? Yeah, I know. I don’t want everything to be a puff peace because we want you to follow along with us and we want to hear your thoughts on what you like more out of your comedy experience. Positive reinforcement and recognition are important, but so is taking directing seriously and communicating with each other what you think doesn’t work to allow further exploration. I want this to be the culture of Yeti, to dig deeper into what improv comedy is and could be.

We can’t thank Eric and Aden enough for providing a strong kick-off to the Yeti fall season. They deserve every accolade coming their way and we love connecting with them both on and off stage. We wish them the best of luck on their next creative endeavour but I am sure we will play with them again soon. Thank you to the audience who came out to what I believe was our most intense long form show to date. Finally, thank you to the 49th State Brewery staff who really stepped up to provide a wonderful theater and audience experience for our show.   I leave you with a glimpse of what community means:

We’ll see you again on Saturday, October 15th.