The First Thought: Part III – Scene Work Makes the Teamwork

“Together – one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

Clergyman Edward Everett Hale, Address to President Warren G. Harding

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have people like me as a member.”

Julius “Groucho” Marx, Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills


Hi, you. Thanks for coming back. In my previous posts I’ve mentioned how improv is almost always community-building. That’s the point I want to touch on this afternoon as well as friendships within creative spheres.


I’ll preface this by mentioning, I’m no expert in emotional intimacy. I have dealt with trust issues and problems with depression for a while now. My friendships tend to get to the point of riffing with each other and enjoying shared interests and plateauing there. This is all to say that I may not be the best at outlining the layers of social minutiae[note]A buncha fancy college words will hide my insecurities![/note] that are involved in developing friendships and creative partnerships.


ANYWHO… Aside from solo or actively antagonistic shows[note]I’ve heard of both being performed and the possibility of performing in one scares the crap out of me. [/note], improv performance is a team effort. Learning to support people in scenes is one of the basic skills you start to learn in improv. Even my hedge wizard improv school of a LARP camp focused on Going With the Flow and Making Your Partner Look Good. Because of this, unlike solo creative pursuits like stand-up or writing, improv practice necessitates team building.


Some team building comes naturally, especially if you go through improv class levels with a group. Over the weeks of the class, you begin to get a feel for what sort of jokes people will come up with. You learn who jumps into scenes to support before having a thought in their head of how they will. Who stays back but when they do come out know exactly what they want the scene to be. Who’s good at telegraphing where they want to go. Who likes physical humor. Who likes complex wordplay. Who likes reference humor[note]But seriously, folks, who does? Am I right?[/note]. And a whole gamut of personalities, quirks, tastes, and histories that come with interacting with a group of people for three hours each week. But all that would be possible with any comedic, repeated group activity.


There are a two things that I think incentivise team building and friendships in improv comedy. First and foremost is a point I touched on last post and one I do not believe can be overstated: the importance of humiliating yourself and looking entirely ridiculous through comedic performance. Not all comedy is humiliating but you can humiliate yourself for comedic effect. And early level improv games have this sort of built into them. No one can tell me games like Whoosh[note]Or as you may know it Dukes of Hazzard or some other themed variation.[/note] and Musical Hotspot are not intentionally humiliating. And because they are group, co-operative games everyone has the same things at stake. That way, when you do end up looking ridiculous, people don’t laugh at you so much as they are in on the joke[note]At least this is the case for most non-humorless barbarians[/note].


This is a byproduct of the intent of the games (teaching shared focus in a group and listening) but an important one. It allows for a sort of no-stakes vulnerability. You see me run around like a ninny holding a pretend skirt up, I watch you forget the lyrics to Billie Jean one verse in. We both saw each other do something a bit silly and potentially embarrassing but we still supported each other. Now we can trust each other to do that over and over again. Even in front of an audience. And, occasionally, with the right people, outside of the whole realm of performance[note]Yeah! IRL as the kids say.[/note].


The second thing that I believe sets improv class apart from similar group activities is trust exercises. I’ve experienced my share of them[note]Yeap, you guessed it, LARP camp again.[/note] but I had not participated in one that was as simple and powerful as a puja circle until my first improv class at the Voodoo. You may already know what a puja circle is or you have read about it in a recent article about the Voodoo. For the uninitiated, to create a puja circle you organize a group so that half of the people are in an outer circle staring at the other half in an inner circle. I do mean staring. To participate in the exercise you must look your partner in the opposite circle directly in the eyes and not break eye contact. But first your instructor will have everyone close their eyes and explain the exercise: In a moment you will open your eyes and one of the circles will be given a prompt; while maintaining eye contact with their partner they will talk about that prompt for one minute. Then your instructor will say something like “When I say ‘go’ open your eyes and outer circle, talk about your deepest fears and regrets.”


Or at least that’s what it sounds like they said. The maintained eye contact forces a personal closeness and vulnerability that makes anything Outer Circle says deeply personal. Typically the prompts are actually  closer to “Whatever comes to mind when I say ‘Family’” or ‘Friends’ or  ‘Work’. They seem intentionally vague so participants can fill them up with whatever they’d like. Sometimes this is some recent event in your life that bursts out of you like a geyser you’re so excited to talk about it. Other times the only thing you can fill the silence with is a river of unpleasant memories that are dredged up by the prompt. Such is life.


I have said how close and personal being in the Outer Circle feels but put yourself in the shoes of the Inner Circle for a moment, reader. You are making direct eye contact with a relative stranger, who you just saw throwing around an imaginary chicken, and they are sharing something with you that feels… personal. And all you can do is listen, intently. Think about the bond that is formed there. Or the one that is formed when, inevitably, the roles reverse. The Inner Circle speaks on their prompt and Outer listens. And then one of the circles rotates and you start the whole process over again with someone new. This exercise and those like it serve a purpose in improv class: they build a network of vulnerability and trust that lends itself to supporting one another. Also, you learn who on your team is sensitive to which topics.


From what I have said about these practices it is not surprising that friendships can start to form. Maybe you all participate in a shared hobby, or you just really like each other’s sense of humor, or you share some emotional bond. Or maybe you just go out to eat with a few people after class. Whatever the case, being around the same people each week while participating in activities that create trust and engender group support are part of the improv teaching process. It’s necessary for a group performance that the group works together and trusts each other. And that starting ground is a good soil to grow friendship in.


Creative partnerships with friends can be hard. Often, the background of a relationship can make it more difficult to confront the issues that come up in a shared project than ones with a relative strangers. I have seen enough shows go under or change because one partner was not as committed as the other to not be wary about working with friends. But, starting out in a new creative pursuit, it seems inevitable.


Working with friends, especially friends you make in a creative field, is appealing. Typically you have bonded over your similar taste and interests in the subcategories of your creative field. Brainstorming and riffing with someone on the same wavelength as you can be barrels of fun. In workshops at the Voodoo it seems encouraged. I think that if you are fortunate to find someone you trust, someone that shares your taste and ambition and drive that you have the foundation of something spectacular.


Before I end I want to talk about a word that has come up a lot in this harangue: vulnerability. Personally, I developed my sense of humor partly as a defense mechanism. Humor, after all, can be a form of escape or distancing yourself from emotional vulnerability and the intimacy that comes with it. With enough ironic remove you’re not overwhelmingly sad and anxious, you’re just a hilarious cynic[note]Or so I have heard. *Cough cough*[/note]. As someone who came by humor by this road, baby steps are necessary to get out of your shell. So it makes sense to me that the type of vulnerability that improv classes start with is gamified with self-defined stakes. Yes, we do need to get to know and trust each other but first there are rules. Yes you need to be truly emotionally vulnerable in this moment, but you only need to volunteer what you feel comfortable with sharing. Eventually your group builds up a foundation of trust and familiarity made up of, well, not the truest parts of everyone, but the parts everyone is willing to share. It’s not a bond built of the actual deep emotional intimacy that creates lifelong, trauma-overcoming friendships, only the seed of one. Just enough to be comfortable perform together. A community is formed between you and the other players that is voluntary, supportive, and necessary for group performance. And who knows, with that foundation built, perhaps you can build toward actual intimacy. At least you’ve made some new friends.


The First Thought – Part II: Practice Makes a Fool of Us All

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  

Winston Churchill, Attributed Quote


“Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

Jake the Dog, Adventure Time

Hi, you. I’ve finally returned to this blog. I trust you anticipated the moment of my return every day. Alright, well, at least I assume you maybe thought about the last post from day to day. Ok, well I hope you have read my last post. And I hope you are willing to go into another bout with me as I ruminate on that dreaded bugbear of any pursuit: being bad it.


There’s this Ira Glass quote[note]This one’s just chock fulla quotes! This guy’s nothin’ but quotes ova here![/note] on beginning to work on a project about taste that my friend, the academically vulgar Dan Weflen told me as we were on our way to some open mic or other[note] Full quote here:[/note]. To paraphrase the quote- when you start in a creative field it is because you have taste. You know enough about what you like and don’t like and you’re trying to make things similar to what you like. Whether it’s a novel, a poem, a dance, or an improv sketch, you’re trying to make something that matches your standard of taste… and you’re failing. Boy oh boy are you failing. For years. And you can cash your chips in there or stick with it.


But that decision isn’t what I want to talk about here. I trust that you have enough sense in your head, reader, to decide if you want to pursue something even though you’re terrible at it[note]Pst! Give yourself permission to fail. Acknowledge the failure, live in the failure, find a way to let the failure make you stronger. If you get this reference, dear reader, hit me up. You’re cool.[/note]. Rather I would like to focus on failing and, more importantly, watching other people fail.


Before I go into my main argument, I’d like to touch on the emotional side of failure. Failing, for lack of a better term, sucks. You can end up feeling humiliated or overly self-critical or even just like you’re bad at doing something you love. The thing of it is, failure is an inevitable part of the learning process so you’ll need to be okay with it emotionally. My advice is, like with swimming or existential philosophy, to jump into the deep end. That way you can rip away most of your fears like a Bandaid. Remember that you want to do this (whatever creative pursuit you have put your mind to) and you’re still learning. Failure can lead to a bruised ego and feeling foolish, but fear of failure definitely leads to never actually trying anything. If the failure gets to you, let it get to you. Experience that loss and shame fully. But don’t let them stop you and don’t turn them into something they’re not. One bad set doesn’t mean you’re a bad performer. It just means you’re learning. Turn your anxiety into excitement. Turn your self-criticism into awareness of your strengths. Turn your failure into a lesson. Swallow your fear and screw your courage to the sticking place. For today is a sword day, a red day, ERE THE SUN RISES! You’re about to create something.


Improv comedy is nearly always a team sport, as I’ve said before, and because of this it is typically more supportive and forgiving of failure. Your failure is a team failure and if someone can find a way to help your performance, they will try to. As I’ll discuss more in a future post, team creation, discovering the strengths and weaknesses of your classmates is as much part of the improv learning experience as the basic rules and forms. And everyone has your back.


But any creative pursuit fill find you in a room of like-minded people feebly attempting to create something great. In other words, you’ll be at practice. Say you’re at a Voodoo Comedy Playhouse Level 1 Improv class[note] Learn improv of the course of eight weeks and then perform in front of a live audience! Reasonable prices! Fun and wise instructors! …They are hosting my posts here, folks.[/note]. And you’re watching people make obvious (to you) mistakes, or worse, they’re making a scene that is repugnant (to your taste). This happens while honing any sort of creative skill; practicing involves watching a lot of your peers do it poorly. Performing improv, even poorly, feels thrilling and seems to only last a second. Watching bad improv feels painfully awkward and seems to last days. And the worst part of it is you have the suspicion that while you’re performing, your classmates are having similar feelings about you.


Now at this point the good people at the Voodoo may be reconsidering having me write these posts. But what I’ve written above I fully intend to be a recommendation for taking the classes. Watching and experiencing these failures are key to making any sort of progress. Given time and encouragement from the Voodoo’s wonderful teaching staff[note]Level one starts at less than $150 for twenty two total class hours. That’s only about six dollars an hour, what a steal! Please don’t delete this blog![/note] you will learn to see these failures for what they are: gifts.


Before I elaborate I want to take a moment here and macro-out the focus of the point I’m driving at. Because it’s not just improv. God knows it also happens in stand up comedy[note]Watch it happen live at any local open mic. I heartily recommend as a resource for any stand up fans in the Denver and greater North Colorado areas.  If you’re anywhere near an urban area you’ll probably find a similar site near you.[/note]. I’m not good enough at sketch-writing to have this experience in that realm yet. But I remember as a weird teenager[note]There are no other kind.[/note] I took piano lessons. I was fine. At one point I could read sheet music and even play Tom Waits’ Georgia Lee and the big band classic The Chattanooga Choo Choo. I knew good piano playing from bad. But during our annual class recitals I would sit through piano playing that ranged from people flubbing relatively easy tunes to professional-level playing of classical masterpieces. Comparing myself to these people I couldn’t see myself as anything except alternately mediocre and judgy. So I gave it up. I wasn’t in a band and you can’t exactly lug a baby grand onto the quad to woo a potential date. I couldn’t possibly see myself getting over the hurdles required to be where some of my peers were – playing by ear or even without sheet music. I didn’t even get to the most important lesson you learn from being bad at a new pursuit: failure now lets you know how to succeed later.


So, say you and your classmates in your Voodoo improv Level 1 class[note]They can even do payment plans if you ask nicely! I’m sorry for bringing up pianos! Please keep me on your site![/note] put on a scene that you think was dumb and bad. But stop and ask yourself these questions: Why was it bad? Why was it dumb? Was it because the scene was distasteful or bigoted or unfunny? Or maybe because the scene was classless or hack or inscrutable? It’s important to define exactly what went wrong and why before you can work on not doing it again. I see this as a further defining of what got you into this mess in the first place, your taste. The more granularly you can identify why something you’re seeing is against your tastes, the easier you can begin to identify countless and just-as-granular ways to create something that isn’t. This broadening of your vocabulary is an important addition to your creative pursuit related toolbox.


To summarize so far: watching someone perform bad improv can be torture. Performing bad improv yourself, while fun, can be worse. But it is important to perform poorly and even watch people perform poorly so you can begin to identify how to start performing well. To paraphrase a Dan Harmon quote: repeated failure is the key to success.  


And… I tricked ya! You could’ve just read the second quote in the article and gone to eat a Carmello in the time you read this article and still get my point!


…No. Of course not. I hope that going into this level of detail was important in understanding what a gift watching failure can be. And I’ll finish up with a thought about personal failure.


For me, failing at creating humor is easier than failing at other pursuits.  If I mess up a performance and end up looking like a ridiculous clown that is, in a way, good. I can lean into the mistake and play it up and relieve some of my embarrassment from being a failure. And, frankly, after two years of doing stand up comedy open mics[note]And another twenty six of being a human on Earth.[/note] it takes a lot to embarrass me. Looking silly in front of people while performing comedy is not only part of the learning process but also technically counts as performing comedy. Especially in improv comedy where looking silly in front of your peers is inevitable and encouraged. And with that embarrassment taken care of all I’m left with is a frank, constructive critiques of my work. Who can’t handle that?


I leave you with this fifth and final quote[note]This guy thinks he’s King Quotes ova here or somethin’![/note]:


“That is the saving grace of humor, if you fail no one is laughing at you.”

Comedy Writer A. Whitney Brown, The Big Picture: An American Commentary

The First Thought – Part I: Humble Beginnings

“A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

“The journey of a hundred thousand miles begins in an airport that smells like feet.”

My friend Mike one time.

Hi, you. My name is Nathan. I have been invited to write a series of posts about my firsthand experience as a student of improvisation at Denver’s Voodoo Comedy Playhouse for you, the average human[note] I assume.[/note].

I moved to Colorado two years ago. A week after I moved I discovered the comedy scene here and dove in full force. You see, I’m a comedy nerd. I’m the sort of person who watched the Netflix making of documentary about W/ Bob and David, the Netflix series. When I was a kid, a week after I found out Weird Al was a thing, I was listening to Limewired episodes of Dr. Demento. When I found out about the alt-comedy scene that came out in the ‘90s from the Largo in California I sought out the comedians’ albums with the sort of reverent fervor other people have for rock stars. I say all this to impress upon you, dear reader, how much I care about humor. So around this same time in my life I was introduced to improv for the first time.

Now, I had some experience of improvisation from avidly watching any and all Comedy Central Presents I could get my mitts on. And I’m not talking about the semi-improvisatory delivery of an Eddie Izzard or a Paul F. Tompkins. I mean the times you could see a joke made up on the spot, that was one part reaction to the audience, one part the audience’s reaction, and one part the comedian’s sensibilities[note] A great example is Patton Oswalt’s takedown of a heckler on Track 18 of Werewolves and Lollipops[/note]. Other times comedians worked improv into their act to absolutely mind blowing results[note]For an example I would point you to the masterful Sean Cullen’s improvised song Food of Choice. Do yourself a favor and check out a few of his performances of that bit. They’re on YouTube and they’re hilarious and always improvised.[/note]. Around this point in my life I also started participating in a LARPing[note]Live Action Role Play-ing. You know, those folks with foam swords and cardboard shields that you make fun of but secretly wish you could be a part of.[/note] summer camp that focused on improvisational theater. But that is a story for another blog.

Skipping forward in time to last year, I started taking improv classes at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse to improve my stand up. I kept doing it because they are educational, worthwhile, and fun[note]Also I’ve met a lot of good friends through classes.[/note]. And when I say worthwhile, I do mean it. Getting better at improv has made me more quick-witted and empathic. The keys for good improv are trust in your fellow performers, making strong choices, and capital L Listening. In improv you learn to listen fully to someone: Listening so much that you understand both what they’re saying and what character or joke they’re trying to set up by saying it. That form of Listening is the skill I’ve learned from classes that I’ve found myself using the most in life outside improv. At work or in conversations with friends, that sort of playful empathy can really help you out.

But enough about that. Back to me. What can you expect from my next few posts? Well, in this blog I plan to document my feelings about the different forms of humor, my own experiences as a student of the improv and sketch classes, discuss notable shows I see or perform in, and talk about Denver’s comedy scene in general. Here are some ideas I’ve had for articles: a tortured sports metaphor comparing stand up, writing, and improv; my thoughts on the Voodoo as a performance space and how different shows capitalize on it; a take on how improv is an inherently community-building activity; comparing my LARP camp improv experience to the Voodoo classes; and probably more footnotes where I talk about comedians I like. I hope you stay tuned.

Listen to me ramble, though. I want to wrap this introductory post up. I’ll finish with this thought: One of the pleasures of performing for other people is the act of creation. In some performances, like stand up or music, you create something and practice, practice, practice it until you are ready to perform it spectacularly for others. In others, like writing, you are creating something with your full attention, completely engrossed in the act of creating, but the performance and consumption of your work is far removed from your creation of it. Improv is the most visceral experience of creation I’ve ever had. Not only are you creating something new but so is everyone else on stage with you and, in their way, so is the audience. Improv is created, performed, and consumed all in the same moment. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Come play sometime.