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?