Reflections on Opening Night…

Surrounding me in the above picture you will find a superb cast of improv talent.  On the evening of Saturday, February 1st, we had the pleasure of putting up our ‘Frigid Affair’ show for the first time.  More importantly, it was the premiere event for Urban Yeti Improv.  We have to give a huge shout out to the Anchorage community, especially family and friends for making our first show both a premiere and a sell-out.  The pressure was certainly on, but the performers saw that and turned it into tremendous opportunity.

Rather than send the ensemble show notes, my intent for show reviews is to put them here for anyone interested to see.  I want you to see what I’m seeing when I watch a show and I want to know what you are seeing.  Feel free to share with me your thoughts and comments.  Urban Yeti Improv wants you to share in this experience with us.

I’m going to make a bold statement to lead off my review:  I’ve never seen more skill shine through in a show Mal and I have been a part of.  This reason alone makes this one of the proudest I have ever been in my improv career.  Sure, blame it on the premiere event rush or the nerves going into a sold out show, fair push, but for a long time I have been hosting shows and watching for signs of an ensemble coming together to achieve more creativity in their scenes.  Last night the opportunities were found and played.  In the beginning I was trying to write notes from the side between transitions.  After a few minutes, the scenes were so strong I just wanted to watch and enjoy.  The four performers above should be proud of the art they put on the stage.

All right all right, I’ll back it up with proof and also balance with needed improvements.  First off, I enjoyed the energy the performers brought to the stage and the audience warm-up transitioning into freeze tag showed it clearly.  Each performer started with strong voice and initiation. 

Not much to go over in the warm-ups, the Frigid Affair beginning, middle, end set is where the real juice is at.  In my previous post on base reality I mentioned we only had enough rehearsal time to emphasize foundation, but snippets of game work was emerging out of the strong offers at the top of the scene.  To be honest, I was most nervous going into our premiere event that we would have strong who/what/where but a lot of fluff/chaff dragging the energy down without specific focus on finding the inner games in rehearsal.  I was pleasantly surprised a spark fueled the performers into finding several different ideas to play off of and they kept the content interesting through a 30 minute longer form set.  In one of the stories not continued, two performers set out for Las Vegas to try and beat the casino’s and put the odds in their favor through card counting.  The scene started strong, two friends down on their luck training in card counting.  It could have easily gone to Vegas and run through the standard montage of craziness, but one of the players introduced a character trait of constantly spilling the beans, every time someone other than his friend looked at him, he felt he had a secret he couldn’t hold in and became a nervous wreck.  Even more delightful, another performer in the scene built in several straight characters (airline stewardess, card dealer) who responded as most people would: double take on the odd trait, but then back to business as normal.  Because of this, a game was developed and played several times: Blabber mouth testing the boundaries of whom in the environment actually cares about his shady activities.  Another great example was the scene which was actually developed through the whole Frigid Affair sequence:  The Horrors of Hallow Verde retirement home.  The foundation was clearly established of a family putting grandma in a retirement home.  We could of watched ole crazy Granny say curse words and treat people like crap for a whole 30 minute set, but instead an abnormality was introduced by a Hallow Verde care taker making the grandmother submissive through horrible treatment.  Beyond introducing the game of horrible treatment in a typically comforting environment, I was particularly proud of other players identifying and expanding.  Before the abnormality was dropped, another performed introduced a ‘front desk’ man at Hallow Verde who was very kind.  As the scene progressed towards the end, he added to the equation by introducing the concept every employee was in on it.  If the grandmother is treated poorly by their primary caretaker, then what if others are letting it happen?  How far would they go to keep the secret?  Excellent example of listening and communication.

I also appreciated a strong use of scene transition and pantomime.  There were several examples of players being on the same page in the environments established.  “Don’t go out into the real world, there are only freaks out there” was quickly followed by a clear window curtain opening and two players portraying ‘passer-bys’.  Inspecting grandma’s degraded state and wheel chair was quickly followed by time jumps to show previous questionable caretaker practices.  Wonderful listening and initiative by the performers.

Now for some opportunities for improvement.  Strong ideas in scenes get a little weaker when we break character and there was a bit of this throughout the show.  Not much to expand on here other than taking away we need to hold our shit because it strengthens the reality of the scene.  I say ‘we’ very strongly here because I’m also particularly weak in this area.  I’m also looking for more natural character responses.  The end of the frigid affair sequence was a good example of this.  The players struggled to find a natural ending to an epic climax they set up.  Performers were all waiting for one another to find a way to escape the miserable staff of Hallow Verde and it got a tad crazy.  But, if you run down the characters established, you had a grand daughter assertive enough to investigate the atrocities done to her elder grandmother, a weak brother who always did what he was told (sidenote: awesome knife give away), a frail grandmother who could barely walk and two employees willing to do a lot to hide the secret of Hallow Verde.  Rather than waiting for someone to take control, I feel looking into their character motivations and environment would have presented several easy opportunities.  Take a deep breath, realize there was a knife somewhere in the room, a character with the strength of resolve in saving her family, an open door not blocked by the caretakers and a grandma/little brother who might be due for a surprise.  When in doubt, when there is confusion, just look around and do what your character is inclined to do.

There were also some opportunities to improve the short form set.  It seemed the intermission weakened a bit the listening/expanding skills of the first half.  Short form needs energy, needs clear objective.  But there was less sharing and more reliance on single players to drive entire scenes.  Examples include cop driving story progression for entire two minutes of Half Life, constantly looking to the foundation player of Stand Ins for help.  We need to work on getting the same skills to help both our short and longer forms.  Strong base realities, yes and, finding the game are not just tools for long form.

Finally, I’ll morph my nervous observation above into an objective for the future.  We will make sure it doesn’t take an audience to get the skills I was so proud of seeing above.  I’m confident we are on a constant incline from first rehearsal to first show and beyond, but I want to make sure we don’t fall into show spikes followed by weaker scenes in rehearsal.

I imagine our next rehearsals will serve to strengthen natural character reactions and finding the inner games of our scene work.  But we also can’t completely drop the need to work base realities.  It will be fun to hit the notebook over the next two weeks to try and combine these themes together into a rehearsal structure.

You shouldn’t take the opportunities described above and leave on a down note.  This show was excellent, the performers were excellent.  If this was our capability after four rehearsals and one show, I’m excited to climb to new heights as we hit the stage even more.  Thank you for a wonderful experience Mal, Erik, Aneliese, John, Josh and Mike.  Thanks for the awesome support Anchorage!


In the beginning, there was the base reality…

I’m writing this very much after the fact.  It is opening week at Urban Yeti Improv, but getting here was no easy task.  In fact, the closer we get to the opening performance the more I am amazed how things came together in such a short amount of time.  The business went live on Dec. 26th, 2013, the day when our first advertising strategies were implemented.  We had one pick-up rehearsal prior to the holiday break just to make sure the four performers were real and would show-up.  I admit there was a bit of a risk taken in creating a business, signing contracts and starting the advertising phase before more than one rehearsal was complete.  However, I say ‘bit’ because I was confident in the talents of our performers at Urban Yeti.  After all, they have worked in this industry for years now, we are far removed from the college environment and Urban Yeti pays their performers.  I expect a lot from folks based on these considerations and know they can deliver.

With three rehearsals scheduled for January and a brand new ‘Frigid Affair’ show format no one knew how to play, the difficult task was balancing exercises for personal improvement with needing to work the show.  But first, a little bit about the show format ‘Frigid Affair’.

Mal and I have had some folks tell us they enjoy the format we created, but the inspiration actually came from one of our performers, John Parsi.  Over an evening of ground planning back in November (drinking), John had mentioned really enjoying a Neo-Futurist show based completely on current events.  Mal and I took that concept and made it more local by working a format based on Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Press articles.  For a month I read through newspapers and cut out headlines (we only used the bold headlines for inspiration).  Each rehearsal would utilize these headlines and the performers had no idea what they would be basing their scene on.  I found the perspective/opinion sections of the papers to be particularly useful.  The sequence of the show was as follows:

  • Opening Intro Video – Audience Warm-Up (Clapping Sound Levels)
  • Freeze Tag – Player Warm-Up (Audience pulls first headline for first scene inspiration)
  • Frigid Affair Sequence – Beginnings
    • Audience chooses three articles headlines and the performers build three story foundations.  Each story foundation can include multiple characters/environments by using taps/time jumps to transition the content.  Each of the three beginnings typically run 5 – 7 minutes and after all are complete the audience votes which story to move forward.
  • Frigid Affair Sequence – Middles
    • The players then offer the audience three middle variations of the storyline chosen to move forward.  Once again these will go for 5 – 7 minutes, players will continue to explore the world they created, but by being allowed to go back and make different choices on the same scene foundation.  The audience then votes which middle variation they would like to continue.
  • Frigid Affair Sequence – End
    • The chosen middle variation will then be concluded with one ending sequence which will run for about 5 minutes.
  • Short Form Advertisements – Audience pulls cut out newspaper advertisement and the performers will either show movie product placements, TV commercials or unique object uses based on the advertisements.
  • Intermission
  • Short Form Sequence
    • ID Symphony using audience ID’s and coming up with headlines based on the ID pictures
    • Four Square – Four performers in a square with the front side always performing a scene with the host being able to transition the square to new scenes.  Each scene suggestion is an article headline.
    • Stand-Ins –  One scene played four times, but each time with one more performer trying to find their place, once again based on a article headline.
    • Half-Life – Show Closer – Two teams of two performers.  First performs a two minute scene, second performers it half the time, first performers in half that time and so on until a two minute scene is boiled down to three second.

The frigid affair sequence are longer form scenes, but I wouldn’t classify anything in the show as a complete long form set.  I’ve been in Anchorage since 1995 and performed here for a number of years.  Audiences are typically looking for a beer, a good laugh and short form improv is a guaranteed Anchorage favorite.  I’m confident one day we can build a niche in this community hungry for some Harold type shows, but in my opinion getting from point A to point B requires a long transition with a lot of finesse and very skilled improvisers.  It has to be earned, not forced and we still have a lot of work to do.

Excluding the pick-up, we had three rehearsals to prepare for this format.  I wanted to blend running the games with some player exercises.  I really want to build an environment at Urban Yeti where players desire the rehearsal to hone their skills.  I want to avoid rehearsals for the sake of repetition/comfort.  Because of this I chose scene foundations as the central focus.  In my experience with the group, we don’t do a good enough job of establishing the who/what/where of the scene at the beginning and therefore suffer through a lot of fluff and talking heads until a unique objective is found.  A friend of mine in Curious Comedy down in Portland, Jake, had recommended the Upright Citizens Brigade manual.  I read the first couple of chapters and was very happy my intentions merged pretty easily with the content.  I started to mold my terminology with the group because they did a much more efficient job at getting to the lessons with their terms/definitions.  It became quickly apparent the focus of the three rehearsals was on strong base realities.  Without the clear base reality established up front, the audience will lose interest and anything odd/humorous will seem stumbled upon rather than built.

To work this theme we ran a lot of three line scenes, pushing more and more each time to embed more details/pantomime.  We also ran exercises of players establishing an environment through movements while others join in with motion to help establish the idea their scene partner has offered up.  We then embedded these exercises into the show format as a launching point for working the longer scenes.  We had good results and found better story with stronger up front ideas clearly communicated between scene partners.  One idea I’ll leave folks with:  Sometimes you just have to blatantly state your idea in the scene, and that is okay.

Another important theme I tried to work into rehearsal is the need for energy and projection.  I know, this sounds basic, but I was constantly noticing with-in the scenes when performers were uncomfortable or confused.  Their energy and projection would drop and we’d spend a lot of time knee deep in the chaff.  I understand a lot of improv is failure, but that doesn’t mean it has to look like it.  We incorporate a lot of energy warm-ups and I also try to point out downward trends in projection while a scene is going on.  More time and more emphasis on this theme will yield better results in the future.

I was initially nervous we didn’t have enough time to work development of scenes and finding the games with-in, but I was very pleased to find the players naturally developing these with the strong foundations.  I think it speaks to both their experience level and the strong choices they are making.  However, I’ll be excited to start making this a central focus of upcoming rehearsals.  I’m also excited because with our season business model, we will run an already established Frigid Affair set for a few months allowing for more rehearsal time for player exercises to develop strong skill and rapport.

We are very proud of the foundation create for Urban Yeti Improv and know we have stumbled on to something special.


I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

Hi!  I’m John, Artistic Director of Urban Yeti Improv in Anchorage, Alaska.  In an attempt to give our audiences and fans some insight into the art of improv comedy, I have created this blog to share with you the challenges, the opportunities, when directing a group of people to perform short and long form improvisational comedy.  This is meant to share, meant to enrich and I hope you will feel free to comment and share your thoughts on our work at Urban Yeti.

Improv has been a passion of mine since I started performing back in college at Washington State University with Nuthouse Improv Comedy.  No other art form can offer as much connection to fellow performers and to the audience.  My wife and I hope to build Urban Yeti into a center for the arts in Anchorage.  I hope to learn from those who are willing to teach me, I hope to learn from you who are reading this.