Friday, August 12, 2011

Representin' the Improv Nation

Maybe there isn't an official Improv Nation, but I still feel part of one.

This weekend, the Baltimore Improv Group is hosting its fifth annual Baltimore Improv Festival at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore.

I took some improv classes a few years ago to help with my writing, and to deal with stage fright (as a guitar player, not an actor). I made friends, joined a troupe for a while and learned a ton. I'm going tonight to see my good friend and former troupe-mate Chris Kojzar perform with Training 4 Prom, as well as to see other outstanding troupes, both local and visiting. They include Mr. Licorice, Michael Loves Greg, Population: 6, Plan B and Gus!

I'm also going to reunite with friends who are former classmates/troupe-mates. Like I've found with the writers community, improv is also a very welcoming, supportive and fun collection of talent and love.

Throughout my training, I remember constantly hearing "it's not about being funny." But as a performer, I craved the laugh. Over time I realized it's not about trying to be funny. It's not set-ups and punch lines. It's about honesty. The funny or the dramatic moment comes from an honest approach. Owning the character, the situation, the moment. Don't think it through. Be it.

The funny comes because it's not forced.

Here's an improvised example:

"Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Tonight we need your help with setting our scene. Can someone give me an occupation?"


"We'll go old-school with cosmonaut."

"Now we need an activity..."

"Campaigning for prom queen!"

"I think we have a winner. Campaigning for prom queen."

It's not just the random hilarity of mish-moshing things that may not ordinarily go together. For this particular scene to be successful, the actors simply need to own it. And support each other. Now, everyone is waiting to see how the cosmonaut will campaign for prom queen.

I would probably attack this with a terrible Russian accent that would quickly devolve to Scottish/Latino.

"Nyet! Nyet! I want them toooo think I'm sex-ay, not a slut...ese."

Losing the accent is fine, as long as you don't let it go. Personally, I love how the accents change over two or three minutes.

I also learned if you're not having fun, no one's having fun. Simple, maybe even obvious-sounding advice, but I started to pay attention to everything I watched, and how I handled myself. When I got flustered, or too nervous, it blew the scene. And that doesn't mean you have to be smooth or perfect. Having fun, ESPECIALLY with the screw ups, connects you with the audience.

I often hear "I could never get up there." I thought the same thing. Nerves are natural but when you realize everyone is there to have a good time, and aren't expecting gold but often find it (and are delighted when they do), you really can do it.

Another bonus: I can't remember shit. With improv, there is nothing to memorize. Blank slate. Have fun!

Improv has helped my writing tremendously for two reasons. First, it gave me techniques to get out of my own head and really start to create. Secondly, it gave me a full appreciation of what it's like to be an actor with crap writing. I don't ever want to leave the character with bad lines, or worse, nothing to say at all.

So if you're within 200 miles of Baltimore, I strongly encourage you to hit the festival this weekend. Passes are cheap. The shows are phenomenal. And there are lots of classes for any skill level. It's truly one of the best things I've ever embraced.

And don't just take my word for it. Steve Kaplan thinks so, too. And he's a comedy genius!

Hope to see you there! Yes and...

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