Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the moment

One of the keys to a successful improv scene is to be in the moment, to be present, and stop thinking. In life we know that enjoying the moment is something we should all do more of, but it is easier said than done. How does one stay in the moment? How does one truly enjoy each moment? And what is a moment? Is it a nano-second? Is it today? Is it this year? Is it this era? We only seem to truly appreciate moments when they are past, when we see moments in photographs, when we laugh and reminisce with others over fond memories. We can enjoy the past. We can look forward to the future. But how do we enjoy the present?

One of the problems, I think, is that we measure our lives in terms of years. On New Year's Eve, as I write this, it is more evident than ever by the Facebook posts coming through the newsfeed. People muse about what the new year will bring. People either reflect on the fulfilled year they had, or breathe a sigh of relief that this particular year is over.  But was every day in the year all good or all bad? Why let the calendar decide?

To be in the moment, try this: instead of measuring your life in terms of years, treat each new day as a chance to make a positive change. You can be pretty sure the sun will rise, and the sun will set. How many other things in life can we be that sure of? Nature gives us a chance to be hopeful with each new day. 

Tomorrow morning, and each morning when you wake up, make a New Day Resolution. Stay focused on that all day long. And that's how you stay in the moment.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

All I Want for Christmas

An improv show is one of the easiest kinds of productions to put on because all you really need is a stage, a couple of willing, able actors, and an audience.

There is no set as such. I always tell my actors to create their set as they enter a scene. In other words, let the audience see where you are - if you're in a kitchen, start cooking or opening drawers or something. If you're in a bathroom, make yourself up in front of the mirror. And so on.

All I require is that the stage have two chairs Upstage Center. "Use these chairs if you need them," I say. If your scene finds you in a restaurant, or a car, or in a job interview, they could come in handy.

Today is December 26, and I am tidying up the stuff around the home. It overwhelms me. It never seems to end. We humans accumulate more and more. And nowhere is this more evident than at Christmastime, when we stress ourselves by giving and receiving the token gift.

This Christmas, it struck me more than in other years, that I do not get excited about "stuff". The best scenes in life are like good improv. You don't need a lavish set, costumes and all the "stuff". What makes a great improv scene is the content. The funny. The hidden meaning. The unknown ending. Not too different from life.

This Christmas I want to say to my friends and family, please don't give me "stuff". I don't need more stuff. Stuff collects dust, and will only stay behind after I'm gone, leaving someone else a lot of work to go through.

Give me you. Give me your original lines, your funny, your ear to listen, your observations to inspire and motivate me and keep me going. Give me memories to make me laugh and smile and want to see you again and again. Give me you. And two chairs.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Improv for Pessimists

Every once in a while, you have to deal with people that go against everything that improv teaches. Inspired by those folks, I give you…Improv Rules for Pessimists.

1. Yes, but

Pessimists pretend to agree with an idea by saying yes, however this is often followed by an immediate argument as to why something won't work. "Yes, but…"

2. No, and

Pessimists love to say no. In fact, they can go on for hours on end about why something won't work and love to provide more reasons to defend their argument. "No, and…"

3. Take and take

And take, and take, and take… Rather than the fair, balanced and optimistic "give and take", pessimists prefer to take, consume as much as they can, and expect more. In fact, if you were stupid enough to give something away for free, why shouldn't people expect it to continue?

4. Don't be aware of anyone around you

You are the center of the universe. Everyone loves to hear you talk, so keep talking. It makes no difference to YOU if your message is getting through. What matters is that you are center stage. Not listening, watching and concentrating are excellent ways to miss what's going on and learn more about life.

5. Block/Deny/Negate

 At all costs, do not move a scene - or your life - forward. Shut out new ideas, deny reality and use negative language whenever possible. You will be sure to repel people and make them look elsewhere for their needs.

6. Tell, don't show

Saying "I love you", "I'm sorry", "Thank you" and "How are you?" with absolutely no feeling behind it is enough. Gestures do not count. Words speak louder than action. Especially when you're doing all the talking and don't care if the message is getting through anyway (see Rule #4).

7. Work to the bottom of your intelligence

Life is not serious, so don't you be either. Mock people, ridicule them and use sarcasm whenever possible. Taking people seriously only makes them think they matter, and who wants to make people feel good when your life sucks?

8. Don't commit

Why commit? There could be a better offer just around the corner. Keep people guessing so everyone around you becomes insecure. This is sure to create a negative spiral, which pessimists love to start.

9. Don't trust

If it can go wrong, it will. Everyone is out to get you. If you keep this attitude up, you are sure to look (and feel) nervous or worried both on stage and off.

10. Don't make strong statements

Making strong statements only makes you seem confident and interesting. You have nothing interesting to add, so throw everything back to the other person. This is sure to create an unbalanced take-and-take banter.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


I'm going to start by talking about endings. Those darn endings. The hardest thing to write - whether it's a play, film, novel or improv scene. "I didn't like the ending," people will argue. "I wanted a happier ending." And then there are those who love the open endings. That makes it "our" ending that we can write in our own heads. Because believe it or not, we are all writers - of our own life. Life is the greatest story of all - because it's the only one that will keep you guessing until the very end.

Improv is instant writing. It's just writing without tools. That is to say, the only tools are your voice, face and body. So finding an ending for an improv scene is just as challenging as finding one for a written story. Except the deadline is a lot tighter. Your audience is waiting right there. "Come on! Make us laugh! Satisfy us with a decent ending, wouldja? And don't make us lose interest while we're waiting!"

One of my favorite improv games is called "First Line, Last Line". In it we ask the audience to write down random phrases/quotes/lyrics on pieces of paper which we later draw out of a bucket. Two actors perform the scene, each reading out their respective line. They then must begin and end the scene with whatever is on those pieces of paper. The audience loves it because they are involved, and most of all because they don't really think we can make it work. But we always do. Point A to Point B. Birth to Death. We fill in the parts in the middle. We don't know how we're going to do it, and it's often not how we planned, but we all get to some ending.

Creativity, like emotions, doesn't like deadlines. As a former advertising copywriter, I know this only too well. You can try to create, and it will be fine, perhaps even good, but it won't be phenomenal. The best creativity outpouring comes when it comes. I don't know where it comes from. But I do know that you can't force it. It doesn't have to come from sitting down at the computer and staring at a blank screen. It can come from doing the dishes, or waiting for a tram, or in the middle of a seemingly trivial conversation. It doesn't like to be told "when" or "where" or even "how". IT finds US. It talks to us. But you have to be aware. You have to follow the improv rule of "Listen, Watch and Concentrate". Some call it the still, small voice. Some call it intuition. Whatever you call it, make sure you have it turned on high when you want to create.

And most of all, give it time. Don't give it a deadline. It takes as long as it takes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Change Chairs

"Change Chairs" is a warm-up we play in our improv group. It's a fun ice-breaker, it trains you to think quickly and creatively, and it gets the blood pumping. The rules are simple: Chairs are arranged in a circle, with one chair too few. One person is left standing in the middle, and has to spontaneously come up with a reason to change chairs. For example, "Change chairs if you skipped breakfast today..." and so on. If you're left standing in the middle, you need to immediately come up with another reason to change chairs.

I just got back from the funeral service of a theater colleague whom I greatly admired and respected. I'm so glad I often had the chance to tell him what a talented actor I thought he was. "Oh, you're very kind..." he would say in his gentle, humble manner, as he patted my hand.

As I sat with the other mourners that I knew, among them my husband, my friends, people I'd been on stage with, people I'd been directed by, all of us listening to the moving eulogy by yet another theater friend, listening to the beauty of a Shakespeare sonnet read out by the eldest son of the deceased, I couldn't help but feel the closeness and the bond that we all shared - not just with the deceased, but with the theater. We all share(d) a love of theater. But today we were brought together by grief.

And as I looked around the church I thought, the positions have changed again. There's one chair too few. There will always be one chair too few. It's up to the rest of us who still have a chair to keep the game in play. To keep coming up with new ideas. Until it changes again. 

So many of us are afraid of change, but we will always adapt. We'll just rearrange ourselves again. In another circle of chairs.

"Change chairs if you were born..."