Featured Post

10,000 Hours

In his recent book, Outliers , Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink ) maintains that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to...

Friday, August 17, 2018

Rebels Onstage

I've been trying to make more time for podcasts lately (mostly to distract myself from the tedium of going to the gym) and I find myself drawn to the thinky ones, like Shankar Vendantam's Hidden Brain. (#radiocrush!) -- shows that dig into bits and pieces of our lives that we mostly don't think about.

The problem with listening while plodding away on the treadmill is not having pen and paper to write down cool things I hear -- so I'll be listening and think "Hey, that's cool! And it totally applies to improv!" And then later, I can't remember what the cool thing was, because my brain is turning into cheese.

Finally, though, I've kept a piece of information in my brain long enough to write about it! In the Rebel with a Cause episode, Hidden Brain looks at breaking the rules constructively, and how it can create positive change.

Hidden Brain: Rebel with a Cause

There's a lot of great stuff in this podcast about taking chances and making mistakes (which is definitely applicable to the world of improv!) but the bit I keep coming back to is about authenticity and vulnerability. The reporter says that rebels earn respect by showing their vulnerabilities -- and isn't that just what we do onstage as improvisors?

Take a listen to the podcast and tell me what you think. Any other improv lessons you take from the episode?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"Surprisingly Awesome" Music Theory

As an improvisor, you really have to know at least a little bit about everything -- because you never know what's going to come at you onstage. It's a great excuse for natural Renaissance men (and women) to shine.

Despite having taken a music theory class in college, plus years of piano lessons and lots of improv singing practice, it wasn't until I moved to Maine and started teaching myself the ukulele that I realized how much I *don't* know about music. I was spoiled in San Francisco, working with incredibly talented musical improvisors who made singing easy -- and now, if I wanted to sing, I was going to have to figure out how to accompany myself.

If only the "Surprisingly Awesome" podcast had been around then!

Surprisingly Awesome's tenth episode is about the Circle of Fifths, and the podcast is a perfect 35-minute plunge into the music theory I wish I'd absorbed in college. Don't know anything at all about how music works? Listen to the podcast. Know some stuff about music and want to know more? Podcast guest Nick Britell explains it all in a charming and totally relate-able way. Don't care about music theory but love unexpected mashups? Yeah, the podcast has that too.

So now you have no excuse -- go learn some music theory!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Comedy + Sensitivity

Improv is spontaneous. Improvisors spend a long time training our brains to lower the barrier between thinking and saying, and we challenge ourselves not to self-censor, to make mistakes and think of them as gifts. Our audiences love us for this, and it's part of the reason they keep coming back, week after week, to see what we will do or say onstage.

When it comes to trigger and taboo topics, though, where do we draw the line? As artists, we have a responsibility to tell the truth about the world we live in. As improvisors, we're expected to find the humor in whatever suggestions our audiences give us. And as performers, we have a responsibility to our fellow players as well as to the audiences that come to see us.

When it comes to trigger topics, let's choose kindness. We don't know who is hurting and how -- amongst our fellow players and in our audiences. Let's take suggestions that inspire us, not ones that make us uncomfortable. Let's leave hot-button topics -- especially ones to which we have no personal and deep connection -- to other realms of comedy. And let's trust that, when we do make a mis-step and accidentally cause hurt, we'll find ready forgiveness from our community.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What I Learned from ScrapArtsMusic

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to see the ScrapArtsMusic show here in Portland. The group is from Canada, and they're kind of a mix between Stomp and taiko drums ... with various instruments made entirely from industrial scrap. I went to the show not really knowing what to expect, and walked out at the end of the show on cloud 9, dancing to internal rhythms, my head full of what I'd just seen.

Despite the fact that it was a musical performance, and very obviously scripted, I had two huge improv takeaways from the show:

You Don't Need a Gimmick (or, Keep It Simple)
The ScrapArts show consisted of 5 guys in simple black clothes, a variety of nutty-looking instruments, and lights -- and it was absolutely compelling. Contrast that with a Cirque Illuminations show that came to town a few weeks before: elaborate sets, numerous costume changes, songs, background dancing ... PLUS circus arts acts. The jugglers, contortionists, and aerialists were incredibly skilled, but the many unnecessary layers of spectacle only served to distract from the central acts -- with a guy balancing precariously on a wobbling chair tower, I found myself watching a giant pair of dancing pants elsewhere on stage. Dancing pants! Not so with ScrapArts -- they let their art take center stage, where it was able to shine.

It comes down, I think, to trusting the integrity of what you do. If you feel like you have to fill your show with bells and whistles to interest an audience or justify a ticket price, perhaps you should put some of that effort into strengthening the core -- and in improv, that's story. Have the ability to tell an interesting story, with characters they care about, and no audience will mind that it's being told on a bare stage with three chairs and a microphone.

Have Fun, and the Audience Will, Too
At some point in the ScrapArts show, I realized that I didn't actually care what the performers were doing -- they were having so much fun, it didn't matter to me if they were playing music or painting a wall beige. They leapt around from drum to drum, watching each other, clowning to the audience, and their spirit of play was infectious. Yes, it's fun to watch people do something they're awesome at (see: the Olympics), but it's even more fun to watch someone who's awesome at something have the time of his or her life doing it. It brings us, as audience members, into the experience, filling us with the same joy they're feeling onstage.

So those are my lessons to myself for the week: tell a good story and have fun. The rest will take care of itself.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


The Escapists have been playing with dubbing lately -- or "ventriloquism" -- a game that has always turned my brain to mush. I have a terrible time tracking everything that's going on, remembering who's talking for me, whose voice I'm supposed to be providing, and all the while trying to keep up good improvisor habits like space object work, wheres, and narrative.

The few times that I've felt successful at this game have been when I was "in the zone" -- that very Matrix-y feeling that you can slow time to suit your needs, that nothing is getting past you, that you're mind-melded with your fellow players. But when that zone is nowhere to be found, this is definitely one of those games that can get out of control fast ... and when it does, it tends to revert into everyone talking at once, pursuing their own agendas, and narrative flying out the window.

So Note One (to myself and anyone else with dubbing-related mush-brain) -- slow down. As in any scene, leave room for space objects, where-work, emotion, nuance. Leave the stage, if your character's presence is no longer needed. Breathe. Make eye contact. Breathe some more.

While you're slowed down, remember you're not in this alone (Note Two). You're onstage with at least one other person. You don't even have to do your own talking -- someone else is doing that for you. Watch the person you're speaking for; chances are, whatever they are going to say (through your mouth) is there in their body language. You just have to say it out loud. Be obvious. Be simple. Say what needs to be said and then shut your pie hole and let someone else have a turn.

Remember Basic Improv Math: you're responsible for -- at most! -- 50% of what happens in a scene. Even less if you're onstage with more people. So if you feel like the weight of the scene is on your shoulders, let go and let someone else pick up the slack.

And Note Three (let's call it the Chris Miller Rule of Improv Awesomeness for reasons I might explain in a future post): when in doubt, do space object work. Touch something in the "where." If you're in a kitchen, chop vegetables or wash dishes. Sweep the floor. Rummage around in your purse for chapstick and put it on. Straighten your imaginary clothes. It'll give your voice-provider something to work with, keep you from being a talking head on an improv stage, and give the audience something to look at.

Finally, give yourself a break. Everybody can't be awesome at every game. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

Some Dubbing Games
- Two-, Three-, or Four-Way Dubbing
Two, three, or four actors provide voices for each other, while also appearing in the scene. (Actor A provides the voice for Actor B, who provides the voice for Actor C, who provides the voice for Actor D, who provides the voice for Actor A, etc.)

- Dubbed Foreign Film
Two actors provide the voices for two other actors who act out a "movie" scene.

- Audience Dubbing
A volunteer from the audience joins a scene, with their voice provided by an actor offstage.

It's been 19 years, 11 months, and 25 days since my first improv class.

Friday, January 15, 2010

For Shame!

Shame on me -- not posting to this blog for 10 months! Clearly I need a new plan of attack. Let's try something new ... like game descriptions. Seems like I'm playing a lot of games lately; maybe thinking about them in a new way will bring ideas of new ways to play them.

Anyone out there following along -- if you play another version of this game, or call it by another name, drop me a comment!

Thursday, March 5, 2009


In my beginning improv class today, I decided to teach speaking in one voice. We'd been working on word-at-a-time stories, with often hilarious results, but too often our tales would pause, agonizingly, while the storytellers looked for just the right word to come next. My students each had a very clear idea where they wanted the story to go, so when it was their turn to contribute a word, they didn't want to give up control with a "the" or "a" -- they needed to find the one word that would swing the story around to their vision. Despite my admonitions to relax and just say the next logical word in the story, they couldn't give up control.

Speaking in one voice seemed a logical next step. You really have to give up control with that exercise -- or be outed as a control-freak. So I set the group up in pairs and asked them to answer, in one voice, simple questions that I would ask them, like "what is your favorite color?" As it turns out, however, the questions were too hard to answer in one voice. Whose favorite color? How do you structure the answer? There were too many ways to be wrong, and they were all getting in the way.

So we took a step back. I asked the class to pair up again and, facing their partner and making eye contact, I asked each pair to count to ten, in one voice. Then backward from ten to one. This was something they knew -- they knew how it started and ended and what came in the middle. The only thing that was different was the speaking in one voice.

Then, switching partners, I made up a word ("persephonious," I think, and later "zephyrific" and "fishiculosity") and asked them to spell it in one voice. Of course, there was no way to be wrong, because it wasn't a real word, and it could be spelled any way they chose. However, spelling an unknown word did have enough structure to give the students direction -- they knew how the word sounded, and any English speaker could reasonably make a guess. Yet everyone would probably guess differently -- so each pair would have to work together to stay on the same page.

It was a success -- not only did the students have a great time spelling these ridiculous words, they also "got" the idea of speaking in one voice, which they were eager to then bring to other exercises and games. Now we'll just have to wait and see if it helps with the Word-at-a-Time control issues ...

Improv Hours Today: 4
This Week: 7
This Month: 11
This Year: 132
Total: 5,632