Always leave them wanting more…

It was an inspiring evening last Thursday.

Urban Yeti has been slowing down in 2017 given the pursuit of different projects. Improv shows are still going strong in Anchorage with Scared Scriptless Improv continuing to partner with 49th State Brewery to bring comedy most Saturday nights. You still see strong Yeti showings with Aneliese, Mary Jo, John and Erik. But an upcoming child here, a wedding there, graduate program here, a job application there drives us slower still. So how do we make sure the flame doesn’t flicker out?

The answer is always the same: Try something new! Aneliese convinced myself and Kristen Doogan of Scriptless to co-sponsor an Introduction to Long Form Improv course. She offered the administration and assistance in teaching, Kristen offered the space and I offered the instruction. A weekly hour and a half course stretching 8 weeks resulting in a student show case. I was skeptical about interest but it only took Aneliese two weeks to prove me wrong when she informed me we sold out at our class limit of 10. I was then skeptical about how the interest of the participants would stack up against the type of content I wanted to teach. It took only one class for all the artists to prove me wrong. I am too skeptical in my art.

The artists were of varying experience level. We had improvisers who had never done improv before, improvisers who had tested the waters in our open rehearsals or training programs outside of Alaska, improvisers who had performed with groups around Anchorage in the past or were actively performing with Scriptless. Those with no experience immediately impressed me with their desire to learn about truth in comedy rather than just be funny. Those with experience flattered me by wanting to take direction from me in the first place. I showed up week after week prepared to try and not let anyone down in what they wanted out of the class. I have directed and taught a lot of improv workshops, but this the first time I have taught a full course. It was an excellent experience made stronger by the committment of the players to the craft. What I said in the show case was true each week: It is about a celebration to the art form of improv comedy.

The class was structured as follows:

  • Acknowledging your fears and playing until the uncomfortable becomes comfortable
  • Using the tool of environment building to build a better base reality in your scene work, committing to truth over humor
  • Using the tool of relationships to build a better base reality in your scene work, committing to truth over humor
  • Long Form Method #1: Finding an oddity and playing to the game through elevation
  • Long Form Method #2: Committing to the relationship, making the scene about you and your partner and keeping the audience engaged through elevation
  • Continued practice of the methods with your scene partners in preparation for the showcase

Each portion of the course could likely take eight weeks in itself, but I approached the intro course with a light touch on each for exposure purposes and allowed the artists to play with them to see what stuck.

My personal notes on what went great with the course:

  • Each of the improvisers were very committed to the whole course and a nice bond was created which allowed for enhanced scene work. The comfort the artists had on stage with each other allowed us to get to a deeper level than some of the other workshops I have taught. I thank each of the class participants for committing and allowing this to happen.
  • I felt like we achieved a great exposure to long form and even built a platform for future course ideas. Most of the artists were able to clearly identify oddities and strong relationships to play around with in their craft.
  • The showcase itself went excellent. We split the class into two teams and each had about a 20 minute set to perform a basic montage structure. I decided to do their scene wipes for them so the performers could focus on the scene over any sort of show administration. I thought both sets were strong and found examples of what we worked on throughout the course. Everyone was able to get some stage time and there was a lot of great feedback from an audience of around 50 people who came out to support. The ambiance afterward was even better as we just socialized, enjoying each other’s company and toasting to a great performance. I couldn’t have asked for a better wrap-up.
  • I thought the timing of the class (Wednesday, 8:30 – 10:00 pm) was perfect. Not only for me personally, but it really gave us a place to just let loose mid-week and be distracted by creativity. It also allowed us to team up with the Scriptless rehearsals for space purposes and I also want to thank some of them for sticking around during the evenings to check out what was going on. Things like this build a nice improv community.

My personal notes what I could do to improve courses in the future:

  • In the beginning I should highlight I will throw a lot of concepts and notes out over the eight weeks and not all of them will work for everyone. I think a couple of folks in the class tried to stack up everything into perfect improv, but that is not what it is about. A note on character/movement will work to expand someone’s performance but a note on relationship/choice might better help another. Performing improv is about finding what is right for you.
  • I would probably shut myself up a little more to squeeze extra play time into the class. Some courses it felt like the class was watching too long to allow me to highlight a lesson in a particular scene.
  • I want to find ways to encourage players to communicate more on oddities to allow them to get on the same pager easier. I tried to institute a snapping method to the back line which I don’t feel was emphasized enough throughout the course. Long form requires advanced listening skills which no one is going to fully develop over an eight week course, but is still required for a basic show. I need to arm myself as a director with more tools which can ease the transition for people and allow them to not just focus on missed connections.

You’re probably tired of bulleted lists at this point. I’m sorry, I’m also an engineer who puts together some solid power points day-to-day.

I got a couple of comments after the showcase from the audience, particularly those who knew the improvisers, wanting to see some more. I understand 20 minutes is a bit limiting, but combine this with the teacher doing the scene wipes and you have a great recipe to end the set on a high note. This is my style, this is Yeti’s style: Always leave the audience wanting more. A lot of groups I have seen around the country work to finality, absolute ending to the story created. I suspect audiences leave with a very different emotion in each case. I want my audiences to leave energized and asking for what’s next, I find it more inspirational. But given the positive experience all around, the audience isn’t the only one leaving wanting more, the class is as well.

We have interacted with a lot of performers from the Hideout Theater in Austin, TX. They are a big improv operation with theaters devoted to comedy and a large educational department for the community around them. They have a mission of always giving their students further ways of exploring improv, whether it be more class work, a diverse set of shows open to various skill levels, etc. This is a noble goal and I like keeping track of how they achieve it. It also gives me a lot to think about in our own improv community. What should our responsibility be to those who we teach? I thought I knew the answer to this question once but more exposure to communities and teachers have left me wondering if my previous ‘no one owes you anything’ mantra is correct. With this experience I can see a clearer path to an improv educational curriculum in Anchorage. We have seen expression of interest pop up over the past two months we didn’t think was there and if you can maintain a quality course, performers will spread the word which would allow it to grow. I used to say all available improvisers have likely had their time with Scriptless and this is about all we can expect. Perhaps this was Aneliese’s plan all along, a parting gift. To prove to us this notion is false and there is more out there if you are willing to try. So for those wanting more, what is the next step? I will try to find out, but I will not bear responsibility alone. No improv community can stand without a healthy amount of producers, directors and teachers. If we do want to find a way to grow this idea, it will have to be with more parties than those who put up this class coming to the table to do it. For now, we’ll get our open rehearsals back on track and see if another class or two is in the cards for the fall.

I started with the audience wanting more, moved to the those taking the class wanting more, but in the end, is it really me who wants more?


Musings of an Uncertain Sunset

I offer the following exhibition of a wonderful three years with the Yeti family:

As we wrap up a third season with a wonderful After Dark set at 49th State Brewery, we also announce we will no longer be signing season contracts. I’m very specific in this announcement because even I don’t fully understand what it means. I suspect the Yeti will hibernate for some time while we explore other endeavours, but our passion for what we have built will never cease to exist and therefore the opportunity still remains. Our third year has seen us take on great challenges and succeed in some amazing shows. Two pairs of guest artists and a collaboration with a local theater company to bring a mash up of scripted and improvisational theater. We truly lived a mission of challenging comfort to find better art.

But it is getting harder. The administration of a show remains, the difficulty of getting everyone to rehearsal builds and you can start to see different horizons to explore, one Yeti at a time. We thank Scared Scriptless for a lovely collaboration this year, but the venue, the house of improv comedy has an unknown and uncertain plan and we are no longer interested in the stress of wondering what we will walk in to on show night. We are also not interested in navigating the open road of new venues.

So we rest, we rejuvenate, we wait until the mood strikes to create. It is a passion that never dies.

I would like to leave you this season with some reflections and personal opinions on what I have learned in pushing this project forward the past three years:

  1. Everyone knows one of my foundation principles is a well rehearsed product. Urban Yeti is my third project as a director. It has only strengthened my resolve on rehearsal. If you don’t rehearse you do not deserve the stage, no matter how talented you are. If you find yourself in a situation as a performer or director dreading rehearsing your product, find a new horizon to explore or new people to work with. This is natural and healthy.
  2. Respect the audience, acknowledge their influence your product and use this relationship to become a stronger artist. Time and time again I run across performers who have an attitude of ‘if they don’t like it, fuck ’em’ or who bask in the glory of putting the audience in an awkward place. Respect the fact they paid money to watch your show and you owe them more than a random shot at local theater. Improv is the type of industry which can solely thrive off of other improvisers and students in larger communities. That’s cool, I get it, but trust the Yeti when we say if you endeavour to build something a fresh audience can grasp and enjoy, the high is so much sweeter.
  3. One of my failures as a director prior to Yeti was being unable to bring a group of performers together even though we strengthened the audience and business. This was on me, so in our next project we decided to build from scratch and invite artistis into the ensemble to start long form work. We lucked out with the Yeti family and it turns out we got people engaged in goals leading us across the country. Failure is okay, it is the nature of improv, but learn from it and mix it up. I wish I started with projects where I hand selected people prior to taking on projects where I inherited. I would have been a much stronger director and I think today I would get a different result.
  4. If you can, learn to follow through experiencing leadership. If you have only performed, take on directing, take on producing, even if it is a small project. Really put yourself out there and get in the game. You will open your perspective and enhance the way you connect with other artists. I often find the hardest people to work with have a track record of throwing away these types of opportunities.
  5. No one owes you anything, especially in a world of hobbiest improv. Apply your criticism through this filter. Didn’t like only having 20 minutes for your set? Didn’t like how the venue treated you? Didn’t get cast from an audition? Didn’t get accepted into a festival? Acknowledge someone else is making their own way and putting a lot of time and effort into something larger than you. You’ll eventually find an opportunity, even better you might decide to create it yourself. This is something I personally struggle with. There will always be criticism and judgment, especially in an artistic world. It’s fun, we thrive on the gossip. But when push comes to shove, I encourage you to respect what others are doing because their committment deserves it.
  6. Side note: Styles is the hardest short form game in the existence of improv comedy. I have never seen a game of styles which resulted in a coherent story. Who can do that? Do improv Gods exist?
  7. I might be in the driver seat a lot of the time, but Josh and Mallory are two keys to the success of this project. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to project legitimacy. What comes up when someone searches your business? What experience does the customer have when they view your website and submit a question? What do people see when you promote a show? Brand is important and I would argue Josh and Mallory contributed the most to creating the brand of Urban Yeti Improv. I recommend finding a Josh and Mallory for your project. Also, best they be named Josh and Mallory, but you can’t have our Josh and Mallory. Please don’t leave me Josh and Mallory…
  8. What happens outside of the improv in a show, house opening, the introduction, the game transitions, the intermission, closing, reception line, music, all of it matters. When you are outside of the improv, the only direction for a show’s energy is down and it is the job of either a host or the ensemble to minimize how far down the energy goes. A good host stablizes and bridges the energy of a show. My style, my products will likely always use one. But a good host should never believe they are a focus point. In this regard, the host is the ultimate supportive improviser. They always set up their scene partners for more success.
  9. I’ve read a lot of great books on comedy. I’ve been to a lot of great workshops. Through all of these experiences I feel like there was only one absolute: No one has the key to success. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a really awesome principle about improv comedy. Each instructor I have worked with approaches improv differently and has alternative focus points (relationship, finding the game, heightening, never letting go of your idea, JUST GET UP THERE AND DO SOMETHING) and I have found the purpose is more to play with your community. This is why I love the nature of our open reheasals in Anchorage. It is truly the art of play and letting yourself lose the inhibitions that chain us down in our every day routines. On the other side of this lesson is a cautionary tale of those who start to avoid opportunities because they don’t feel they will grow or they have seen it before. I would take 100 introduction to improv courses if offered over my lifetime. The variation in play would be amazing to experience.
  10. When I started this project, I was still a leader who wanted to make a point, use achievement to set myself apart from others, put past experiences behind and publicize the shit out of our new found successes. We still publicize our successes for branding purposes, but the spark of competition has died in me and I’m glad it’s gone. In the first year it took its worst form in the way I wanted to set ourselves apart from Scriptless. My development as a director has been paired with my development as a manager over these past years. Passion and drive is just the beginning, the next level you have to achieve is being invested in other people’s success when it is not your own. I’m just at the beginning of this next level in my journey. I have seen others further along and further behind. Be the example of maturing in your collaborations, share your journey with others so they can learn.

Thank you for allowing me the time for reflection. I have enjoyed these chats even if I’m talking to myself.

Acknowledging this is an uncertain sunset means I must accept the possibility this could be my last blog for a while, a time capsule for the future. Because of this I want to end with the moment I will look back on with the most fondness. I end with the single best moment in my artistic career:


The Long and Short of it…

I loved the show last night and so did the audience. Great energy, genuine compliments from the audience in the receiving line. Nothing feels better on a Saturday night.

Second to last show of the season, one more left, I’m running out of time to communicate insights into our world of improvised comedy. There is a depth in every hobby we have. I’ve always wanted to show you our depth through this blog.

Remember my description of the three roles in the improv community? Actor, director and producer. I look back on three years, I look back on last night and I am the most comfortable producer in the world with Yeti able to sell out shows to Anchorage audiences with very few people who have a background in improv comedy. But as a director, I’m still as nervous as the day I started.

Our last show was the first time we have done a fully uninterrupted long form set for around 30 minutes in front of an Anchorage audience. We pulled one word went from there. No host transitions, no continued audience pull, no variation in format like we have done in the past to attempt to keep audience engagement up. It was good improv, but I wrote about the pace being a little off. Therefore throughout the last Yeti rehearsals I have hammered pacing and consideration of scene wipes at high moments and when it is known scenes aren’t going well. I think last night there was a trade off that took place with this strategy. Sitting in the back of the theater, we had a much more responsive and engaged audience who recongized the creativity of the scene work as a result of the pacing choices. High moments like split stage wedding, adult homecoming (putting your keys in the bowl), creepy yearbook photographer, grammar boot camp Hunger Games style, captain of the ship specializing in pranks were strongly received. The only thing that threw off the set a bit in the end was a disconnect between a very creative ‘standing competition’ set up and then layering a prison on top of it. It is a good example of the importance of world coherency and staying away from crazytown. However, no one can connect EVERY time, so I think this was a minor blip in an overall strong set.

The initial two person scene offerings in each initiation of the Armando were tapped out very quickly (20-30 seconds), thus not allowing the initial two people to fully explore the offer presented. I would allow at least a little more development but I also acknowledge it is a direct response to the high pace, bold initiatives culture I set for the show. It is in this that I find our depth today. My nervousness is in this culture I am setting. My desire to please the audience can many times go against what I believe to be the true nature of long form improv comedy. Most people teach to stick with it no matter what, commit to building a solid foundation that will create a world you can weave back into itself. Don’t worry if you get minimal audience response at first, it is all worth it for that moment of creativity when your team brings it all together. At that moment, the audience’s head will explode! Am i building something that is fueling this harsh opinion of the industry?

Am I an artistic director or just merely a facilitator that is tinkering with long form to a point where the creativity is sacrificed for easier audience enjoyment? But we just sold out our show to a 150 person audience who left happy. This is right…right? But does it feed the creativty of our performers, is it just another show to them, am I feeding their creativity or providing audience reaction supplements? Have I sold my soul to the laughing devil? 

Any director’s insecurities often serve as a foundation for the product they create. This is art, the great debate of subjectivity and culture. Is art legit if not enjoyed? Are we successful if our business isn’t growing?

What our players might not know is they each provide a unique indicator to me on how things are going. I owe our Yeti family a great deal for where we are today with this endeavour. But they each approach it with a different motivation and these differences allow me to see into a certain aspect of how well Urban Yeti is doing. Parsi represents how we connect to the wider community of Anchorage. Aneliese is who incidcates to me how we search with-in our soul to find the essence of long form. Erik comes to the table with how we please the audience to create a better experience. Mallory indicates to me our ability to connect with one another as an ensemble. Mary Jo is the litmus test of breaking boundaries and committment to the scene. Can you guess who I’m the most nervous about pleasing with our current product?

In this the reality becomes very clear. You will never find it all in one place, one theater, one troupe, one show. To the gentleman who wondered what became of the art of long form improv comedy, I answer the art will continue to balance between player ambitions and audience reaction. Your reaction is one in a sea of reactions. The group who performs to sold out shows will eventually yearn for something more creative. The group who performs perfect long form for smaller audiences will eventually yearn for popularity. Directors will constantly be out there tweaking the product in every rehearsal to try to match what they believe is the culture they want to set. I own the responsibility of choosing our culture in Yeti and with this choice comes success and consequence.

To every actor I say go and find what you want today and dive in, but I guarantee you will not want that experience forever. This is okay, it is healthy and even more healthy are actors, directors and producers who understand this nature of art and play to its strengths. I as a director will always try to recreate the reception line we received last night. I as an actor might desire more purity from time to time.

The true inspiration is in just getting on stage and trying and I will forever love this fact the most.