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.


Risk and Reward

Last year we had the pleasure of being invited to the Del Close Marathon in New York, put on by the increasingly popular Upright’s Citizen Brigade (UCB) theater. The range of improv we experienced at the festival was enormous and it was paired with seeing headliner performances from a lot of actors making their living in the industry, some well known names. One of these performances was a show called ‘Gravid Water’. The concept of the show was to pair performers on Broadway with performers from UCB. Scenes from iconic plays were selected for the Broadway performers and they memorized their character’s lines. Costumes and sets were utilized and when the UCB performer walked on stage, they were cast into an environment and forced to trust and react.

Fast forward to three months ago when Mallory and I were discussing the spring season for Yeti. We dialed in to wanting to do a different show each month to keep it fresh and show our new partners at 49th State Brewing Company we had a lot to bring to the table. We had an amazing set with Whiskey Tango, revived our very first show Frigid Affair to sold out acclaim, but how do we end the season on a high note?

It was Mallory who capped off the run: Remember ‘Gravid Water’? Why not here in Anchorage?

I was skeptical, it was a lot of risk. We would have to find 5 actors to pair with our improvisers, who never did anything like this, and pour through scripts to find the right scenes. What if someone can’t commit? Someone doesn’t show up out of 10 performers? What if it doesn’t turn out well and our guests don’t have a good time? What if the audience doesn’t dig it? What if we don’t have enough plays to find scenes? What if what if what if what if?

And once again, it was Mallory who came in to cap off the run. She took care of it. She contacted our friends over at TossPot productions, recruited 5 amazing actors, poured through scripts to find the right scenes, organized rehearsal space and advertising strategy, and just plain helmed the project.

We had one rehearsal with the whole group, switched scene partners so folks could get a little experience in the format without actually running their scene for the performance to maintain the fresh nature of the improv. It was a great rehearsal, but the scene runs weren’t necessarily all solid. Some performers struggled a bit as we built the concept from the bottom up. Everyone was wonderful and talented, but it was just hard for all of us to grasp. I’m ashamed to admit: I was still skeptical.

So what came of all my skepticism? What happened to these 10 brave performers?

They killed it and I’m a wiser director because of it.

It was one of our riskiest shows ever performed and it was wonderful. The audience was packed, the energy was delightful and fit the show format perfectly. From introduction to player warm-up to Off-book set to second half short form, it all blended into a unique one time experience ranking up there as one of our best performances to date.

Thank you to TossPot. Thank you to Jill, Taylor, Kalli, Danielle and David for getting on that stage and taking risks with us. Thank you for showing a sense of professionalism that sets a standard for the rest of the community. Thank you for instilling a sense of respect for art in our audience we love to see while they walk out the door. Afterward as we were talking to several audience members, there was a genuine awe in your ability to perform, especially when you pair it with an improviser in the basement of a bar. Yeti gives you a standing ovation.

It’s okay to be skeptical, it is just a translation of being uncomfortable and I wrote in my last blog about the importance of being uncomfortable. I’m nervous for every show we do because I desperately want the audience to see the amazing art we see on a day-to-day basis. During the rehearsal run for Off-book, I could tell our performers were genuinely nervous and I want to thank them for that. It means they were invested in the risk we were about to sell. I couldn’t ask for a better ensemble to share this with.

Thank you to Mallory for taking control and moving Yeti a step higher. We are the mom and pop of this operation and you deserve the credit for last night’s beauty.

The Yeti now heads into summer hibernation but you’ll see a lot of our performers continuing to do shows with Scared Scriptless throughout. You’ll see Mal and I coming out to support. We will begin our open rehearsals again on first Wednesday starting in June, so come out and give improv a try. Have some fun with us. We are also applying to festivals again, so we’ll let you know how it turns out. The secret to our hibernation is it isn’t necessarily a complete rest from improv, it’s really a rest from the standard cadence of advertising campaigns. To be honest, we find this helps boost creativity and builds momentum for our product in the fall.

Some additional honorable mentions for the final season blog:

  • Did you see Kristen Doogan enjoying the show last night? We did, and we appreciate the fact she came to check it out, even with guests in town. That’s one classy lady people. We appreciate the Doogan’s support in our new arrangement at 49th State Brewery.
  • One of my favorite moments of the show was in Erik and David’s scene when Erik said ‘I’m starting to feel like you have an ulterior motive’ and then later bringing it back with ‘See, see that’s there ulterior motive’. Sometimes just stating what you are feeling will always be the best option for an improv scene.
  • I had a conversation after the show last night with a huge supporter of Yeti, Vikram Patel. There is a 99% chance you know him because he knows everybody. He asked me a question a lot of people do: Why I don’t perform more. Some might see it as a control or fear issue. I always stress my vision in improv comedy includes a skilled host and my vision of a thriving improv house includes someone devoted to directing over performing. It’s a good question and it was a good conversation. In thinking about it more Vik, I feel like I have a much simpler answer this morning: Right now I’m just happy with the way things are. Nobody will ever be prouder of what Yeti is doing than me.
  • Our audiences are great, but last night’s audience in particular deserves a special mention. When your theater has a full bar, sometimes better beer can mean rowdy audiences. During our last show, I think a lot of us were starting to think we were headed to these rowdy type shows for our entire run at 49th State. You showed us we still have some control in the matter. You joined us for something new and you respected it. Thanks for making us more comfortable with the range of what we can do in this town.

This is where I usually I try to end with something classy and inspirational. So this is it:


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.