Improvisational Theater

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Back to the Table

Many years back I was leading a Blank Slate rehearsal and I used an exercise I had learned from Sparky Johnson to inspire some new ideas about storytelling.  The exercise was going wonderfully when suddenly something completely unexpected happened!  A new idea about storytelling was inspired!!!!   Well, a concept for a new performance format was inspired. Since then I have given the early concept a lot of thought.  Sometimes I worked the idea with Blank Slate,  sometimes I wrote stream of consciousness about it to process it and see what developed, sometimes I talked about it with other improvisers, daydreamed about it...etc. But unfortunately I was never able to put all the pieces together in a way I thought really honored the idea, the players and the audience that would watch the performance unfold.  So, for a long time I let it go.  Until just a few weeks ago when the concept re-awoke and began to stir in me. And for whatever reason, this time it was perfectly clear! The whole thing!  How it looked from beginning to end!  Besides being beside myself with glee, I was also trepidatious. Often, as I am sure you know, concepts look awesome in the brain, but muddled, chaotic or cockamamie in practice.  I knew I had to see it done.  I had to do it!  But with Blank Slate on Holiday vacation, and not a lot of playtime on the table, I was pessimistic about putting it to the test before it slipped out of my brain again.
Perhaps it was the holiday spirit that guided the improv angel to my door?  Or maybe it was just by luck?
 The perfect opportunity presented itself mere hours after that moment of creative clarity, and just before I succumbed to my own doubt.  For Sunday night was Diabolical Experiments at the Brody Theater!  Oh yes it was.  The first DE I've been scheduled for in a long time.  Diabolical Experiments is a wonderful show at my home theater wherein professional improvisers from all over town, and often out of town visitors, come together and play.  The DE cast never knows exactly what they will do until warm up time, and often the chosen format is a new, untested something... an experiment.  And usually these shows are superbly fun and entertaining.  In the afternoon of this fateful day, Beau Brousseau, the DE moderator, M.C., organizer, Guru, posted a request to the weeks cast regarding possible formats to play and Back to the Table seemed the PERFECT FIT!!!!!!  I suggested it to the cast, they liked the idea, we played the format with my new tweaks, twists and outlines and it was wonderful!!!!After the show the cast cheered for the format, which delighted me.  And because we had played it, the hiccups and the hallelujah's were perfectly clear.  I cannot wait to workshop it and play it again!!!!  Thank you to those who played.  It was a terrific experience.  Have I mentioned I love improv?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Getting Down with Blank Slate

Four Year Old Improviser

Teaching Fort Hays University



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blank Slate Takes the Citywide Theatersports WIN!!!!

 Blank Slate Wins the Citywide Theatersports Tournament

It was funny, but it was no joke, as Blank Slate took the tournament home to mama!  We all had an incredible time.  We worked hard to adjust to the nuances of playing very differently than we are used to.  Blank Slate is a fast paced and format free ensemble wherein ANYTHING goes.  Working inside of the short form games and Theatersports container was a joy, a challenge and an awesome learning opportunity that we all grabbed hold of with enthusiasm. Thank you fan's for coming out to see us, and thank you to the other teams that played so well and were so incredibly fun, and thank you to the Brody Theater for organizing and hosting the event. 

Domeka Parker's European Improv Teaching Tour:

Domeka Parker's European Improv Teaching Tour:
 (Said in One Breath)
Friday December 14th, 10 pm
The Brody Theater
16 NW Broadway
$5 measly buck-er-roo's

 I was once a tiny, lithe, bugger faced thing. I dug in the dirt.  I ate glue.  I climbed trees. And I watched my parents teach and perform improvisational theater.  Sitting in the dusty corner of rm. 119, I watched my father's students come to life playing theater games.  I watched how they idolized him as he instructed them to jump and run and to let themselves laugh and play.  I watched how they respected him as he taught them to think, connect, build and create together.  Half the time I did all this from my periphery whilst doodling on my stomach with a sharpie pen, or creating a masterpiece from old gum.  Without even trying I absorbed his lessons, and even when I was seen as odd, asked to straighten up, quit asking questions or behave, I lived his lessons in silliness, critical thinking and creativity. And I wanted to be him.  But that was just in the daytime.  At night, from the back row of dark theaters, I watched my mother perform.  I watched her completely transform herself, her body, her voice, her perspective. I watch as she told dynamic stories, spontaneously and effortlessly.  I listened as numerous people complimented her skill, her prowess, her grace.  She was a powerhouse of drama and comedy both, a genius performer. And I wanted to be her. 
Then came THE DARK AGES, but I made it through, and theater, especially improv, was waiting for my in the light.  I embraced it and improv and performance has again become the center of my universe.  Teaching improv has become my heart.  Cheesy, yes. True, also yes.  No, no, not literally, figuratively... oh shut it...
Recently I have been given the opportunity to teach and perform abroad.  Yup, abroad.  Europe.  That's where "abroad" is. I will be performing and instructing at the Amsterdam International Improv Festival, traveling south to Munich and Zurich and Slovenia for more teaching and performing.  This opportunity feels BIG. It feels like the door to all my kid dreams has opened.  And it feels like my future, my dream future, is at my finger tips.  
Please join me on December 14th, 10 pm, at the Brody Theater for a fundraiser to help me get my fingertips to that door, as it were.  I am so grateful for your interest and your help.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Say "sucka" from time to time...

Ever so often I reflect on the fact that I have NOT always been so stable; I have not always been so healthy, happy…etc. I realize, in retrospect, that all the good change in my life is, at least in part, due to simple adjustments in perception, and a few additions to my coping with life tool box. Somethings:
1. Be honest. First of all with yourself. Ask for what you really want. You either get it or you don’t, but with honesty there leaves no room for speculations that can complicate things. (Sometimes being honest also means allowing yourself to fall completely apart. This part I am still learning).
2. Be playful. Silliness does not put into question your maturity. It is the most mature, self secure people who are willing to let themselves be happy. Positive energy attracts positive energy.
3. Be kind. LOVE HARDER. Love yourself. Love others. Accept love and spread it around.
4. Life is a game and a gamble and a treasure hunt. Look for the fun, the love, the excitement and adventure. This is how you LEVEL UP.
5. Be flexible. Accept that nothing is completely definite. Everything can and will change. Be willing to change with it. Water pounding against rock causes erosion; water with water just flows. (What?)
6. Reflect often on the gifts of your life. Be grateful. This truly is an incredible life.

I list these things not to suggest you do them. Your life is your business. I list them because, if even one idea strikes your fancy I feel super great about that. So its a basically selfish endeavor. This is how I roll sucka! (7. Use the word "sucka" from time to time. It just feels right.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Edison, that smart ass bastard.

When asked about laboratory rules by a new young researcher, Thomas Edison said, "Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something." This quote really sums up how I feel about Blank Slate, why we play without rules, why I do the work I do the way I do it... without rules, without boundaries and cute little gimmicky containers. I am trying to accomplish something.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A different path, a different lesson.

Occasionally, no, no... OFTEN, a student comes along who really feels confidant/cocky about their "background in improv". Occasionally, no, no... OFTEN, that background is high school drama class game based improv.  Sometimes that background has more weight, say someone who has performance experience, has been in a "professional Improv troupe"...etc. And sometimes this student believes they are a FULL CUP of improvisational theater knowledge, that they know far more than I can teach them, (sometimes they even try to "help" teach my class). And when that happens, I ache for them just a little bit knowing that arrogance often comes from insecurity and that it is likely this student has a narrow view of learning.  But, I am never wholly disheartened because I also know that this condition of disillusionment can be cured.  When I meet FULL CUP students, I aim to meet the challenge. I start by appreciating what they DO already know.  And then with luck I can instill them with an eagerness to grow.

  • Knowledge isn't a liquid, and our minds are not a fixed unit of measurement. That's the first thing to understand.  
  • Placing expectations on any educational experience will likely lead to disappointment. The most effective way to achieve knowledge is to aim to learn, not to aim for learning a certain thing a certain way. Keep your mind open.  There are lessons in everything, not just the things outlined in a syllabus, but in your teachers pedology, in the experience of your student peers, in your own reflections and comparisons...etc.
  • Allow yourself to learn things again.  Learn them with new eyes. Learn them with eagerness and appreciation. Every teacher is different, so the very same subject, game or exercise can be received as a wholly new experience if you're willing.
  • Even the worst teacher can feed you something if you are hungry enough.  Be hungry to learn
  • Be responsible for your own learning experience.  Be alive in the experience, be open to its unique gifts.
  • Negativity is a heavy door that blocks out all the light of opportunity. Focusing your energy on criticizing your teacher leaves no energy for seeking hidden gifts.
  • Take what you want from a learning experience and leave the rest.
  • "It is hard to fill a cup that is already full". Be an empty cup.  Better yet, see yourself not as a cup, but as an event horizon, endlessly capable of taking things in, comfortable not knowing where it all goes.

Regardless of how much I know, how long I've trained, who I've trained with, how long I've taught the work and how long I've been performing, I believe there is always room to grow.  Therefore I continue to grow. The only learning goal I will ever have is to keep on learning. I'm hungry for it and i will find a lesson in even the most mundane activity. Sometimes the lesson is patience, sometimes its critical thinking...etc.  With this outlook, occasionally, no, no ALWAYS, I find myself delighted by the treasures I find. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Be Alive in This

As long as I can remember my father has asked his students to find a state of "relaxed readiness" in their improv work.  I can't say how he came to that term, but I can say it's one of my favorites and that I have adopted it as both a personal mantra and a teaching tool.  The term means just as it states: Be calm and confidant while also aware of everything and ready for anything. Simple. Yes, if you're a Buddhist monk.And even a Buddhist monk works hard to get there.  No one is born directly into Nirvana, (or something like that).

Relaxed readiness is a skill some achieve quickly and with grace and others tumble over for years, some never actualizing it at all.  We come to the improv culture, wholly indoctrinated in a wildly different way of seeing, feeling and being.  We are asked as we learn to improvise to shed this skin, pull apart our wiring, let down all of our walls and open ourselves to YES AND!  And we do our very best to do that, because we are eager and enthusiastic, most of us.  But when we are beginning to navigate scene work, to build stories, to create whole worlds from scratch, and when we are doing this with other people who come from other backgrounds with minds as full as our own... well, it's hard to be relaxed. 

The excited tension in our bodies manifests itself in different ways for everyone, so there is not one simple answer for overcoming it.  Some are tense because they are aiming for a specific predetermined target and they're struggling to keep everyone straddling their arrow. Some are just sure they'll fuck it up for everyone else, so their tension draws their jaw closed tight and makes their bodies stiff.  Some are so tense that their lose all control and every single thought they've ever had races out of them, they're arms flailing wildly in desperation.  (I've always liked those guys because I really get that.  You're scared? Freak out. It makes sense to me.) The tension tightens the muscles in our body, it stifles our ability to truly listen to what's around us, to see and feel what others are doing. It closes that magic portal between the improviser and the universe, from which all the gifts fall.  So there we are, disconnected and often disenchanted, creating disconnected, disenchanting scene work. Unless we find the sweet spot, the improv honey hole of emotional and creative balanced, "relaxed readiness".

As I said before, there is no one way to achieve "relaxed readiness".  But for me the path is lined with trust and commitment.  When I step on stage I TRUST my partner, I TRUST our ability to create together, I TRUST the audience, the stage, the air I breath, and most of all I trust myself to be calm.  And then I am.  Then once a story begins to unfold, I COMMIT. I COMMIT to my partner, I COMMIT to our creation, I COMMIT to the audience, to the stage, to the air I breath.  I COMMIT to the character I am playing, running everything I see, say and do through a filter of who they are, how they move and think, what they need. And then I am aware.  With every offer, every move and exchange, I LISTEN.  I LISTEN with my whole body. And I only respond through that character filter because that character knows all the answers, it is their story, their experience after all.  I am relaxed into the work, and I am ready for anything.I know when I've reached this place because I feel more ALIVE here that at any other time.  Which leads me to another mantra I cherish, a mantra I often say to myself right before hitting the stage, right before teaching a class, right as my day begins, "BE ALIVE IN THIS".

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review for Domeka / Blank Slate / Brody Theater

I have had the opportunity to see Domeka Parker perform improv several times and she has never failed to make me laugh! She is part of comedy troupes “Blank Slate” and  the “Brody Theater Ensemble” a few talented groups of quipsters who perform skits and acting exercises at the Brody Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Domeka’s humor, talent and love for her craft are evident in her every performance. Her fellow actors take her lead and clearly love being on stage with her. 

I recently got to see Domeka perform with “Brody Theater Ensemble” in their October show “Scary Movie”, where they turned two classic horror genres, (monster movies and sci-fi), into onstage performances. It was a lot of fun to watch because the actors called out scene descriptions to give the audience a visual of what they would be seeing if they were watching an actual movie. The show was fun, unique and high energy as you never knew when someone was going to call out a change of scene and take us to another scenario happening during the performance. The group even involves the audience at a lot of their shows, asking for volunteers or concepts that they can interweave into the show.

It’s great to see the range of characters the actors can take on for each performance or what kind of scenario they create as they go. It takes a lot of thinking on your feet to be able to do something that is as difficult as improv, and yet make it look effortless. Domeka and her gang have definitely perfected it. I highly recommend checking out a “Blank Slate” or a “Brody Theater” performance next time they are on stage!

Holly Petersen

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two for the Show!

Anxiety feels very much the same in the body as excitement. If fact, I believe the feelings are physically interchangeable.  The difference is the metal challenge of FEAR.  And you don't have to be unafraid to be courageous. Double in fact, I believe it may be impossible, by definition to be courageous without the presence of fear. I'm going to have to look that up.

Occasionally before a show I feel anxious.  Pre-show jitters.  Nervousness. Stage fright.  Full on PANIC.

But I've gratefully discovered an easy fix.  "I am excited". Improvisational performance is unpredictable.  I could soar or I could plummet.  Taking that on is a THRILL. "I am thrilled".  I find that changing the label I give my physical state, changes the overall experience, like magic.

Saturday night's duo show started just this way for me.  I had, a half hour before, done a performance that left me feeling disenchanted. Nothing had gone "wrong".  I had simply felt "wonky", as it were, "floaty", in a terrifically peopled and formatted ensemble show. Now I was preparing to hit the stage for a duo show.  Just me and Nicole Acaurdi, with a brand new, "half baked" format. There was a part of me, a LOUD part, that was just certain... (Imagine the long, slow, painful plummet of a cannon ball here).  We managed, literally hand and hand, to "buck up", to change the narrative around our trepidation and to produce a truly exceptional performance.

I knew it was exceptional because my partner, Nicole, was beaming as we left the stage and entered the green room. We were both a flutter of laughter and praise for one another.  And the audience was desperate to chat us up after the show.  It was while talking to a student about the show that it occurred to me how nervous energy feeds performance.  Confidence is a lovely goal each time you walk on stage, but sometimes that confidence allows us to fall away from the task at hand, to be indifferent on stage at most and at the least, not have the acute focus that arises out of apprehension. 

This is of course not to say we should be frightened as performers, but rather that when we are we can channel that energy into our performance and create something wonderful!