Monday, January 12, 2009

Jake's UCB 201 Journal: Day 1

Jan 12, 10:19

Greetings Agents,

Right now I am sitting in the lobby of the UCB training center, a little less than an hour early and chilled to the bone. In about forty minutes I will walk into classroom four, meet one of my instructors, and hopefully learn how little I actually knew about improv up until today. I've been told 201 is the class of improv revelations, and judging by the revelations I came across in 101 my mind is about to be blown.

When I took 101 last year I was notorious in the class for my notebook. I recorded every idea, insight, and thought that occurred to me in it, and on the long train rides home I'd go over them relentlessly. The entire process was an amazing learning experience, so I decided (especially for all those interested in furthering their improv experience at UCB) to keep a journal of my two weeks here. I hope you have half as much fun reading this as I'm going to have living this.

Jan 12, 2:05 PM

Just walked out of class and my mind is a buzz. What I was first reminded of was how unsettling is at first. You and a bunch of strangers are thrown into a circle with the intent of making fools of yourselves. The only way to get through it without felling incredibly awkward is to commit to it one hundred percent. Easier said than done. I started feeling a cold come on last night, and the lack of sleep coupled with the cold drained me of what little energy I had. Fortunately, there were times during the warm-ups where I would really cut loose, and it was comforting knowing I had progressed to the point where I can roll with the punches and make the best out of how I feel.

After the warm-ups (we did a Super Hero name game, Pass the Clap, and Follow the Follower) we proceeded right into our first exercise. It was a little jarring. My 101 instructor, Ari Voukydis, would fill the transitions with little gems of improv wisdom or amazing anecdotes which made everyone feel right at home. There was none of that with this instructor.

The exercise we did next was a two-person scene where one person would chose an emotion and make it did while the other person would initiate the scene and try to feed that emotion. The first scene went well, and the second ever more so. I got the courage to get up, hoping I would follow suit suit with the awesomeness. I had to initiate, and with the suggestion "clementine" I established that me and my partner were married farmers, picking apples on a nice day. My scene partner had chosen fear as their emotion, so he quickly justified his panic by declaring his fear of open space. I felt like I knew what to play next. I played onto that feat of the outdoors first, then followed suit by pointing out different things in the environment that he could obviously be afraid of.

The scene sucked. I thought I was playing the game well at first, but my instructor pointed out for me everything I did wrong. First, I wasn't playing my character with any integrity. Second, I wasn't building off of the fact that the person was afraid of open space. Instead, when I pointed out everything in the environment was terrifying I robbed the scene of any surprise. I returned to by seat, dismayed that my first impression I made on my classmates was a shitty scene.

I felt like a schmuck. What was I doing here? I'm such a bad improvisor. Why do I even try? I'll never become a really good improvisor. All this ran through my head as I tried to pay attention to other peoples scenes. I knew it was just my ego whining because it took a blow, so I just kept remind myself that I wanted this class, and every fuck up teaches you more than any success. Turns out, that last part is true.

During the next exercise we started the scene with the "who, what, where" already established. Everyone was on a second date at TGIF. I kept reminding myself that no matter what I needed to play this sincere. I had to react to everything as Jake Lucas would on an actual second date at TGIF. The scene started off and pretty quickly my scene partner established she was a callous bitch about her sister being in the hospital after a tragic accident. I stuck with my gut reaction of "what..." and it worked great. The scene went by with a smoothness I never felt. I KNEW what to do because I KNEW what Jake Lucas would do. It made more realize how my lack of integrity in my characters was by biggest improv flaw and it needed to be hammered out.

So day one went fairly well. A few ups and downs on the emotional roller coaster, but the information I got was right: 201 would be the class of revelations.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How To Not Make Mistakes In Improv

Let's use our imaginations for a moment. Imagine you are in an improv scene. We'll say the scene is going moderately well; the scene started with a strong but slightly zany answer and you and your scene partner have managed to further it a little bit, maybe you've even managed to figure out that elusive game. Things are going fairly well until suddenly someone makes a walk-on that makes makes no sense at all. The scene dies instantly and a chorus of Dr. Cox's "wrongs" erupt in your head.

A very obvious mistake has been made: you've labeled another improvisors move as wrong. 

I'm not going to feed you bullshit theory that states all offers are good and equal, and that everyone must do their part for mother Russia. There are definitely strong offers and weak offers, and I can talk for hours about the difference but this isn't about that. This blog post is about mistakes.

Once again, the only mistake is labeling another improvisors move as wrong. You've let your ego creep into your head, feed you beautiful lies about how great you are, and tell you how its the other dude's fault like a sleazy ex trying to pry you away from your current bf/gf. Now when the improvisor makes a move that is anything but spectacular, you will treat it like shit. You'll make a half-assed effort to build on it at best and very likely make snarky comments to your friends offer about how terrible that person's move was. If you can't see how and why this is bad then I never want to be in a scene with you.

This isn't any big revelation, but in this season of getting thanks I ask you to reflect on this. Just like life, scenes don't always go the way you want. Don't shut down and give up, give it your all to further the scene as best as possible. Sure, the scene might not be the greatest but at least you treated the offer as the gift that it is. You wouldn't tear up that sweater grandma knitted, would you?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Getting out of Your head

In my time at Agents I’ve seen a few workshops pop up geared toward (but fail at) tackling ‘being in your head’. For those of you not familiar with this term, being in your head, it’s the state of thinking so much in a scene it hinders your performance. It occurs when you realize you don’t know what to say and panic, or when you know what you’re going to say ahead of time (for shame). The effects are obvious and visible: lowered response time, lack of scene progression, and horrible jokes that will feel like you’ve been robbed of your innocense. Quite the catastrophe.

The first common problem with trying to get out of your head is that you try to think of ways to get out of your head. Suddenly, you realize with horror, that you’re still in your head and thinking about getting out of it is only making it worse. Then you try to think of a way to stop thinking, but curses you’re back inside your head! Before you know it, your scene is over and it sucked. The cycle will likely continue for the rest of your practice/show.

Now every workshop I’ve been to about getting out of your head all dealt with mental techniques to get you out, but if you follow Einstein (he’s a pretty smart guy) you know that a problem can never be solved on the same level it’s created. So the only way to get out of your head is to do something. Anything. It’s doesn’t matter what it is or what you say, I can guarantee you it’s better than doing nothing .

Want more specifics? Fine. Make a sound. It can a gargle, a chortle, a wang-dang-doodle, the exact sound doesn’t matter. Keep it going and it’ll form itself into a sentence. Again, it doesn’t matter what. I’ve started scenes with “Mmmmmmmorning!”. A pretty shitty opening, but it doesn’t matter because at least you have something to work with. Usually that alone is enough to get you going. If not, try reaching out for an item. The way you move your hands (the angle of your wrists, shape of your grip, whether you are using one hand or two) will cause your brain to give you the first logical choice. It’ll be there, right as rain. You can even do it now. Go on. See, that wasn’t so hard was it? It’s even a nice color.

There are a million (more like ten or so) exercises out there that will help get you out of your head, but they all come down to getting you to do something, because if you’re busy doing something you won’t have time to think!

Contributed by Jake Lucas

Friday, January 4, 2008

Can you give me any tips?

No, I probably can't. Every time someone asks me that I always hesitate. I'm no teacher, I just happen to do improv a lot. Heck the only class I ever took about improv was back freshman year of high school. I had just started getting into acting, and the only class open at that time was improv/beginning acting. So I thought what the heck, I could try that. I don't remember a single thing that I was taught there. I remember playing games, most notably Bus Stop, and Freeze, along with the occasional word association. But theories, rules, lessons, or anything like that was nowhere to be found in this classroom. And I guess that's probably the best way anyone can learn.

When I was looking for a topic to tackle and write about I usually came up with a lot of nothing. It was like that when I was asked to run a workshop. Shoot, I don't know a darn thing, what could I possibly do to help people with their scenes. I ended up on general acting techniques, ways to simply look better on a stage. Nothing really to do with improv, more to do with performance. I know how to perform. (Take notice I never said well) There are a few other things I know a lot about, and by a lot I mean just enough to write more than a sentence about. I know how to not think. I know how to react honestly. And I know how to try. To start let's not think. Its really easy I swear, you start by thinking, then quickly you stop thinking, and you especially don't want to think about not thinking. Go ahead try it right now. Its okay I can wait...............Did it work? Don't worry, it doesn't work for me either.

So how is it that I don't think, that I rarely am in my head, as many experienced improvisers would say. I don't know. As I am writing these words I am becoming increasingly aware of how intertwined those above topics are. Well lets see if I can't untangle them for just a little while. I don't think while I am in a scene because I got lucky. When I first started improv I was never told a single rule. I was never told about acceptance and blocking, about building or 3's, or any of that stuff. (For the sake of brevity I'm not going to define any "technical" or "improv" terms that I might use. You can look them up, it won't hurt I swear.) I was told to go out there make something up, and hopefully it would be funny. Through that introduction I learned to stay out of my head. Those must be really comforting and helpful words to about 90% of the people who would bother to read this, those who have already heard the rules. Well there is hope, a way around that little bit of misfortune. I don't like telling people to not think. Cause that is impossible. I instead want to tell people to think about the right things. Don't think about rules, don't think about whether or not the audience laughed. Don't think about that cute girl, in the third row who winked at you. Instead think about your scene. Think about what the heck your partner just said. Wait she just mentioned something about Billy beating up his teacher for some lunch money. Oh we must be married with an aggressive little boy. Did he just say he wanted to sacrifice a virgin to the pagan gods. Well that's interesting. Never done that one before. But hey there's a first for everything. Here is what to think about. Every time you go on stage you have a character. It may be undeveloped, just a few scattered ideas, or it might be this deeply rooted character that is so vivid you can taste it. But that's not important, all you need to think about is how would that character react to what was just said. Its a split second thought, but its the only one that matters. Then you move onto stage two, honest reactions.

The easiest way to learn this one is to simply look into your own life, into your real life experiences. Think back to some crazy event, or something that just seemed odd at the time. Yeah, its alright to think right now, and feel free to take your time. When something unexpected happened, did you let it slide, build on it, call it out, fight it, or ignore it? There are probably a couple thousand other reactions that could have happened, and truth be told they were all honest, real, and valid. Guess what, the same is true for an improv scene. Say you have firmly established that you are a midwestern farmer who hates corn. Then suddenly your partner shows that he is really an evil genius who is out to get James Bond, and is taking you hostage. First thing I thought of after I came up with that scenario, was the farmer merely mentioning how he didn't have much knowledge in such things as evil plans and crazy traps, but he failed to see how James Bond would care about little old him. There we go, we have a reaction. Doubt. Hey you know what, that probably would have been a fantastic scene if I had let it play out a little longer. I am finding there is not much to say about reaction, other than it is important. Go with your first thought (ha told you, you have to think) it will be your best, because it will be honest. When I said I am pregnant, and your first thought was, "I doubt it, your a dude" go with it. It will be hilarious, I swear. Don't worry if you just "blocked" my idea, let me justify your reaction with my own. Then we will have a scene going, then we can find a game, and really make the audience laugh. That's all I have to say about that. This is just one you have to try out for yourselves. And you just have to be willing to say to yourself what the heck, why not?

Remember way back in paragraph one when I said my response to to hearing about the class was what the heck, I could try that? Well that's what this is all about. As long as you go into a scene, a game, an exercise, life, with that attitude of ultimate acceptance, with that thought of sure I could go along with that, you will be fine. That's not something you can teach. At least I have no idea how you could. Its probably something that you just have to have. Lucky for me I have it, or I just met the right person to instill that kind of thinking in me. I don't want to sound arrogant about this but I am struggling to put it any other way. Is it a gift, or a talent, or a skill set, or general philosophy of life? Could be any of those. But I will let you in on a little secret. Its definitely one of the philosophies I live by. Is that why I am able to do improv, or is it the other way around? Who knows. Its like trying to figure out what truth is. Good luck with that one. But seriously the only true tip I can give to someone is that just go out there and do it. Whether that means saying a line, making a crazy motion with your left foot, or just staring off into space, just do it. Yes I am being payed by Nike to say all this.

I will give you all one final example of just doing it. One scene I did, I started off as the small town guy who made it to the presidency of the United States. Somewhere along the way we started singing "America the Beautiful." I then thought, wouldn't it be funny if I danced to this. Next thing I know I am doing everything from ballet to getting my butt slapped by one of my partners. After that a real life American Flag is pulled out. I pull myself together, only to have a deep emotion come over me. I then proceeded to wipe my tears and blow my nose on the flag. And you know what, it was a hilarious scene. You know why? Cause the only thing I was ever thinking about was, what would this guy really do? Could I tell you exactly why all those events took place? Probably not. Funny thing about reacting is that rarely is it stored in memory. Most times just doing something based off others ideas (i.e. reacting) will fly through your mind so quickly that you'll never have a chance to think about remembering it. I only remember general actions, never any jokes or lines, or an overall goal of a scene, and that is good enough.

If this resonates true with one person, or helps someone else do better on stage, well then I guess I did my job. If not, you guys may want to stop and think about coming to me for anymore tips.

Scott C.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Rule of Threes is Infallible..." Sort of....

Lately, I've noticed that we've been focusing too much on the rule of threes in our improv. People are focusing more on doing things three times than on doing the things that make great improv. I think that our focus should be on game of the scene. In improv, the rule of threes is just a tool for to gain more laughs on the parts of scenes that aren't what the scene is truly about. I feel that the rule of threes is binding other parts of improv.

For those who might not know, the rule of threes is a universal rule in comedy. Things are funnier when they happen in threes. If someone make a notable gesture in a scene, typically the 2nd time they will get a small laugh, and the 3rd time they will get a larger laugh. The laughs drop of sharply after that. The rule of threes can be applied to most things, and its effects are very apparent, which is where I think the confusion comes from. Although the rule of threes is an excellent tool for getting laughs, it is not the pinnacle of improv humor. I believe that honor lies with game of the scene and reincorporation(for longform).

Game of the scene is, in essence, what a scene is really about. If someone plays a character who has two refrigerators, the scene is about the kind of guy that would have two fridges. In order to further the game, you shouldn't play 'a day in the life of a guy with two fridges;' you should play 'what else is true about a guy with two fridges?" Maybe he has two of everything, two dogs, two coffee makers, two beds, and two wives. Maybe his wife works for an appliance company, and he has another six toasters, eight ovens, and fourteen vacuums. The point here is establish a pattern off of something unusual in a scene. Once you find the pattern (found by asking yourself the question: "If this is true, what else is true."), then you can build the game on top of that.

The whole point of this long-ass trek into improv territory is to give a warning. Know the rule of threes but don't be bounded to it. When you have a game of the scene going, it is not correct to cut it after three instances of the pattern are shown. The pattern continues to be funny by taking it in unexpected directions and by heightening it. The rule of threes should be seen as a tool, not a law.

~Dan E.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Art in Urban Improv

We Agents use the term "urban improv" (or simply "urban") frequently and in conversation, but does the rest of the world? Are we even so certain ourselves about what it means to put on an Urban Improv? Improv itself, as a larger genre, is going through a period of rebirth, redefining itself both for the general public and for those intimate with the art. That being the case, can we possibly hope to write a definition for what urban improv is? Where is the line between urban improv and pranks? How much should be prepared? Should we capitalize it? I hope that I can answer these questions.

For those of you already blamelessly confused, I will do my best to briefly define urban improv. Urban improv is a field of improv play that involves the playing out of unusual situations or the displacement of usual situations in public locations, with an audience previously unawares of the purpose or plan of action. Wow. That felt fantastic. I could almost leave it there. Wait, actually, I have a lot more to say, because if you are not used to reading the dictionary (as I am, being an English nerd) then you might still have no idea what I am getting at.

Up until very recently, improv as an art form has been defined and described using one of two terms: "short form" or "long form." These nicknames, spelled with and without a space between the words, refer on a basic level to the length of the improv scene unit, but have a world of difference in theory and application. That is a topic for another day. Urban improv may either fall under long form or it may be its own category altogether. I cannot pretend to have the community authority to place it under either one, but the uncertainty here illustrates the ambiguous nature of urban improv as a form.

How about examples? In my own blog, I once critiqued and highlighted urban improv at other schools around the country. My favorite independent acts include the UmPatriot's PacMan and Prangstgrüp's legendary Lecture Musical, but the powerhouse of urban improv is without a doubt NYC's ImprovEverywhere. Their site is constantly updated with new missions, ranging in size from a five person team to literally hundreds of participants. As for us, you can check out our own web site's urban improv page and read some mission reports.

Is it improv? Each event is carefully planned, sometimes even with scale diagrams of the setting detailing the walking path of an individual player or discreet collections of costumes and supplies. No player enters the urban improv scene not knowing "what to do." Where improv comes into play is primarily in the absolute acceptance of the reality of the scene. In our Moebius, where eleven simple actions and conversations were repeated sixteen times in a library café, each player knew they had to respond realistically to their environment: if anyone asked what was going on, they had to categorically deny anything strange was occurring, claim they had not been around for more than five minutes, and maintain these interactions on each following cycle. All that is not to mention that they had to invent their response on the spot. Even as detailed as planning was for that mission, it still sounds like improv to me.

How do you refer to an individual act of urban improv? Our group, lacking anything else, has opted to call them "urbans," though this irks the occaisional logophile. Others call them events, stunts, goons, acts, and even pranks. I hesitate to use the last, because the connotation of "prank" implies that it is destructive or mean in its nature. Urban improv, I argue, is quite the opposite. The major objectives for any urban improv idea should always be fun, smiles, and a break of routine. Pranks cause inconvenience and discomfort, and in some cases may even be dangerous (e.g. using rope to tie two doors together). Urban improv should, in the end, delight, impress, and inspire its audience.

Modernism. Impressionism. Method acting. These and other styles of art are capitalized. However, they are very specific in meaning, and those well versed in their history can readily categorize any example. Can the same be said for urban improv? Yes, it is a more specific form of improv (which itself is not capitalized), but is it a school of improv? Or is it a specific set of improv ideals? Well, no, it is not a set perspective on improv, not a particular form, but it does have its own ideals. So, because it does not meet all of the requirements, I do not capitalize it. Perhaps what causes the difficulty here is the fact that urban improv is in many ways not improvised, so it becomes difficult to call it, strictly speaking, improv. Purists will disagree, but I think that being relaxed about the categorization is OK. Second City already blurs the line between sketch and improv, so what should prevent us from blurring the line between street performance and improvisation?

Urban improv is in its infancy. This entry is an exploration, but it is by no means dogmatic. Please post comments with your own thoughts about urban improv!

Nicholas J. Carroll
Master of Ceremonies
Agents of Improv

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

Despite what the title states above, we have neither a ribbon nor anything to cut it with. What we do finally have is a website (sorta). For those of you who don't know us, we are the Agents of Improv, a comedic improv group based out of the University of Connecticut since Fall '06. For a good long while we've attempted to update our website, but unfortunately we never had someone with the time/abilities to keep a website going. Taking inspiration from Wilhelm Comedy, another UConn based comedy group, we decided to dabble in the world of blogging.

So what can you expect to see in this blog? There will of course be Agents related news, ranging from upcoming shows to social events to our Urban Improvs (more on that to come). We'll also likely post news related to associated groups, improv resources, and likely our own musings on the world of comedy. I also have a love for photography, so don't be surprised if you see photos of us up here.

If you're interested in seeing us, we can all be easily contacted here or at We also have weekly meetings in UConn's Student Union, room 304 A 9:00-11:30 on Thursdays.

The six group officers will likely post often here. If you are an agents and would like to submit a post let one of us proof read it first and that should be that. Hope you all have fun and find a chance to relax with finals coming up.

All the best,
Jake Lucas
Social Chair
Agents of Improv