Shut up already

Improv can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also be really damn loud. Improvisers are a wordy bunch. Go to almost any show in any city and you can pretty much “watch” whatever improv show with your eyes closed and not miss much. Most improvisers fear dismemberment by a crazed mob less than they fear silence on stage. Talking, it seems, is easier than acting, and making a witty comment less risky than showing true emotions. All this leads to most improv shows that are essentially people standing on stage yakking at each other.

This addiction to the spoken word begins when new improvisers are just learning the craft and continues to be reinforced through most of their training. Focusing improv instruction on things like “rules,” justification, and creating CROW immediately causes most improvisers to think a lot on stage. And just as sure as dancing leads to kissing, thinking leads to talking.

In an effort to curb all this verbal diarrhea I spend a good deal of my first couple of improv classes teaching A and E. (After coving the obligatory “get to know you” games and exploring “Yes And….”)

What’s A and E? A And E are the basic non-verbal offers (or story-forwarders) of Action and Emotion. In other words, I first teach new improvisers to go on stage and do things, while keeping their damn traps zipped!

Beginners need to be taught the basics of mime, for example. This is someone holding a gun:


This is someone pointing a finger at someone:


One excellent way to teach action and (Bonus!) story elements is “What Happens Next?” in the book IMPRO by Keith Johnstone. WHN is a great way to teach people how to slow down and complete actions on stage, without having to talk about them.

Another great exercise for action and (double Bonus!) story is “Advance/ Expand.” This is best done as a one person activity. One volunteer gets up and begins miming a simple activity, like reading a book. I side coach either “advance” or “expand.” “Advance” means that the story should move forward. The actor might turn the page, or put the book down, or get up and move, etc. In other words, do an action that moves the story forward. A side coach of “expand” means that the actor should stay with whatever action he is currently doing but make it bigger or do more with it. One might become emotionally overwhelmed by the text on the page as an option, or very meticulously turn the page. “Advance/expand” teaches improvisers to be physically present in the story.

Other great action games are mirrors, human machine, or even just guess what the person on stage is doing… Anything that gets the actors to actually… um, ACT rather than just blab, blab, blab works well.

The second tool I teach to new improvisers is Emotion. I teach emotion as a wordless (but not necessarily soundless) reaction to what they are feeling. We spend a good deal of time working on heightening different emotions and reacting emotionally. When the class has a good handle on wordless emotional reactions (crying, laughing, being scared, etc) we do some activities that also let them talk. The game “It’s Tuesday” is a nice way to work the skill of emotional reactions.

By the end of teaching A and E most students are able to do something that many seasoned improvisers find challenging, namely being on stage without having to flap their flipping gums all the flipping time. A and E allow improvisers to create reality and story without having to talk about it. And that is a beautiful thing.

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Out with the CROW in with the AEIOU

For many years, I taught CROW (Character, Relationship, Objective, Where) to beginning improvisers. This was something that I was originally taught and it seemed good. Unfortunately, teaching CROW — while it sounds like a great way to get scenes off to a good start — doesn’t work for new improvisers. Drilling CROW often leads to scenes that begin like this:

Improviser A: Bob, brother of mine, here we are at Wal-Mart. God I wish I could pick up that hot sales girl!

Improviser B: Well George, I have always wanted to teach you those skills since we were in ‘Nam together.

The basic problem with CROW is that it leads to improvisers inventing or creating things, rather than discovering them. The desire to establish CROW often leads to a rushed exposition of ideas and a flood of offers, many of which get lost after the first few beats of the scene.

It is my basic belief that watching improv can and should be like watching good play. Good plays never spill all the beans in Act I, Scene 1. When you watch a play (or movie for you strange people who never see theater…) you discover who the characters are, where they are, and what they want as the story develops, not all at once in the first scene. Great plays drop you into the middle of the story, with characters who have hidden objectives and relationships that are gradually revealed as the story progresses. What makes this kind of theater so engaging is that feeling of discovery. You, as the audience, are discovering what is happening as the story unfolds. Improv should be the same way; the only difference is that the actors are discovering the characters, relationships and objectives at the same time as the audience.

The second problem with CROW is that, as a concept, it is that it is rather vague and, well, conceptual. How does one teach new improvisers to create characters? Yes, there are physical exercises etc, but once you have taught those, how do they know they’ve created a character? Furthermore, by asking new improvisers to do CROW we are thrusting them right into their heads. (Don’t we also teach new improvisers to get out of their heads?)

So I eventually came to the conclusion that, while CROW is all well and good for analyzing a scene, I wanted a clearer, cleaner way to help improvisers discover CROW rather than invent it.

With that in mind I began to teach AEIOU. AEIOU (Ya know… the vowels) is a handy acronym of improv moves (which my wife and I invented). Players can make these moves to discover CROW in a more organic way while furthering the story.

It stands for:



“I” statements


“U” (You) statements

Over the next couple of weeks I will explain more about how and why AEIOU works, and I’ll share the kinds of exercises I do to reinforce these skills. While it cannot promise to churn out flawless beginning improvisers (And who would really want that anyway?), I can say that since I began teaching AEIOU it has made my first timers more relaxed, more confident, less in their heads, and much more fun to watch.


Today’s Improvmantra: AEIOU, and always Y(es and…)



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Aw man! I wish I wrote this.

Well… Brilliant.


Always heighten the last move.

Strengthen the relationship by making eye contact.

Avoid transaction scenes.

If you’re always high status, try playing low status once in a while… You might like it!

The characters should know each other.

Invest emotionally.

Sometimes it’s fun just to be goofy with one another.

Never enter unless you are needed.

Group games should involve everyone.

Never give a scene partner notes.

When it stops being fun, it’s time to quit.

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Surprise me

I’ve been performing improv for a long time. This is my 22nd year of being in an improv troupe. I have done Short Form, Harolds, Theater Sports, created my own long forms, etc, etc, etc. I am not saying this to brag, I know plenty of people who have not been performing improv as long as I have and who are much better at it than me. Although my years in improv have not necessarily given me the ability to be brilliant, they have given me a lot of perspective.

If improv were my wife, we’d be the equivalent of an old married couple.

 Still beautiful in my eyes

When I first met improv I fell madly and immediately in love. Improv was smart, sexy, mysterious, alluring. Like any young lover, I couldn’t get enough of it and all of it felt great. I’d improv anywhere: on couches, in backseats of cars, quietly in my parent’s basement. My “single” friends got really sick of me talking about improv. I couldn’t say enough good things about it. Each performance was the best ever. Each game I learned, each skill I practiced was more interesting than the last. Life with improv was awesome.

Back when Improv and I were hot

After a few years, however, I began to notice improv’s faults. Some games weren’t actually all that much fun and some were downright stupid. Sometimes improv could be so shallow and annoying. We broke up, briefly, and I even cheated on improv with sketch comedy. I’m not proud of that, but these things happen. Something about improv however kept me coming back.

Eventual we fell into a routine of weekly rehearsals, teaching and performing. Sometimes I’d create new games, just to spice things up. I became comfortable with improv. We knew each other well and like any long-term relationship, we gotten into ruts at times and boredom has invariably crept in.

 Improv: You don’t bring me flowers, anymore

It’s like playing poker with the same people all the time, if I may change metaphors mid-stream. In poker everyone has a “tell”. The tell is the thing that you do when you are nervous. Do you look up and to the right? Do you adjust your glasses, clear your throat? Basically, I know improv’s tells. There are very few things that surprise me with improv anymore. Most times, when I see a show it’s like watching an old lover take off her clothes. There is just no mystery.

There’s the thing: how do you keep it fresh after 22 years? Someone once told me that the secret to a great marriage was compromise, but perhaps this isn’t so. Perhaps, the secret to a great marriage is risk and challenge. Perhaps, if you want a relationship not just to last, but to flourish, you have to keep surprising each other. Improv is no different. Any group of improvisers worth their salt need to keep surprising each other because if you are not surprising each other, how can you hope to keep the audience surprised and interested. Thankfully, I work with a group of performers who will challenge me, take risks and surprise me.

Because, let’s face it. Sketch looks exciting at night, but when I wake up the next morning I always feel cheap.

That’s Sketch on the left

Today’s Improvmantra: Surprise yourself and others.

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Two couples sit in traffic, idle in their cars discussing various things: where they are going, their children, what’s on the radio. These two improv scenes have the same set up, the same two chairs, and are perhaps even performed on the same day. While one works, the other bombs.

In both scenes the actors ask questions. Neither scene has much “action” per se, mostly two people sitting and talking. Yet while one of these scenes dies on the vine, the other blossoms into something fascinating and fun. Technically the scenes are pretty much the same, so what give one life and the other death?


Often in improv we talk about stakes. Raise the stakes, improv coaches and teachers call out as if their students/team were some sort of poorly funded siege army. Your scenes must have stakes.

Raising our stakes

What does this mean? One of my pet peeves is when teachers use terms that are either poorly defined, hard to define, or inadequate to the situation. “Stakes” is a term that fails under all of these criteria. Instead, I prefer to use the term: tension.

In theater, as in life, there are two major points of tension. For years, the Portable Reality Show, my improv group, has referred to this as “death and porn.” The fact is that most scenes in theater (improv, scripted, day-to-day drama) are about two people getting into it, either through sex or conflict. And, frankly, often both.

Imagine my delight when I took a workshop with Chicago’s Joe Bill and he let this pearl of wisdom drop: F*cking or fighting, it’s always about one or the other. The audience is always wondering which one will happen.

Very homoerotic 

There are, of course, other ways to build tension in scenes. A sudden drawn out silence, secrets, the possibility of failure, and intense emotions can all work. Many short form games have tension built in – they sustain audience interest simply because of the large possibility of failure (at least in the audience’s minds). This is probably why audiences like short form games like endowments, or well-done “mutants” scenes even though these types of games rarely have “stories.”

However, when creating scenes and stories without the benefit of these handles, improvisers must stop being lazy and take responsibility for creating the tension themselves because this is the life force of the theater.

Humans love tension. Why do we listen in to hushed arguments in public places? Why do we stay friends with crazy people? Why do we fall in love?


One of my best friends growing up would have been best described as an asshole. He was obnoxious, always in trouble, and always getting me in trouble. I am sure my parents hated him, but I idolized him. He was so damn interesting. And who can forget a first kiss? It is the tension that makes this moment so magical. Will it happen or won’t it? The delicious “just before” feeling is often better than the kiss itself.

Would it have been better if he ate her?

I suggest brainstorming with your group different general/technical ways to add tension into scenes. Even a supposedly boring “teaching” scene can become fascinating if the audience is wondering if the student is about to kill the teacher, or f*ck him.


Today’s Improvmantra: Look for tension in your life. Sometimes it can be positive, but often it draws us into things we probably shouldn’t be doing. Even if they are so damn fun.

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In her book, “Taking the Leap,” Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk describes the concept of Shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan word generally translated as attachment. Pema, however, suggests a different translation: hooked.

When we are hooked, Pema explains, something, an action, a word, a desire, grabs us and jerks us out of the present. This experience is common to us all. Someone says something, or does something and suddenly we are angry, or jealous, which causes us to react negatively and soon enough we are in an emotional spiral of suffering. This is our shenpa.

It is important to note that our anger, jealously, fear, etc, is not caused by this person or action. The statement or experience has not caused our suffering. Rather it is our own shenpa, the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be hooked, that causes our unhappiness. If we hadn’t allowed ourselves to be hooked, we would have been fine.

In improv, most of us get hooked by the brilliance of our own ideas. We are in a scene, all is going well, but then suddenly we have an idea. Maybe it is something very funny, or a great way for the story to go next. Whatever it is, suddenly we are hooked by it. It is just too damn good to let go. This scene would be so much better if only…. And just like that we are dissatisfied with what is happening, jerked out of the moment and living in our own heads.

Some improvisers are hooked by the audience. Will they find this funny?  Do they like me?  Why aren’t they laughing? Improvisers hooked by the audience are constantly checking in with them. Their heads are always turning to look out at the people in the seats like a fish caught on a line. Once hooked, the improviser gets stuck in her need for approval and the moment moves on without her.

I tend to get hooked by my ego. Ah, I think, this will make me look good in people’s eyes. Now they will notice me. Of course I have other hooks as well. Most of us have many: money, food, sex, Facebook, anything that rips us out of the present moment and causes us to be dissatisfied with life.

I am learning to recognize the things that grab my shenpa and the emotions I feel when I have been hooked. Awareness is the first step. Although I still get hooked, if I can be aware when this happens, perhaps I can avoid the hook next time.

Just as an improviser must be mindful of the moment of the scene and stay out of his head, becoming aware of what hooks me helps me realize when I am suddenly angry, or dissatisfied what has happened. I try and feel the emotion, pause, look around and shake my head at myself. Yep, hooked again! Once I see the hook I can set about carefully removing the barb before I get too reeled in.

 Today’s Improvmantra: Notice when you get hooked.

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Why I Blog

I have family visiting this week, so I am a little too unfocused to write a lot. I have had a metablog entry growing in my head for a while now, so I think this is a perfect time to put it down. Here it is:

Why I blog:

  1. I love geeking out about improv
  2. I love how improv seems so connected to Zen and Taoism
  3. I love how much improv has affected my life and relationships
  4. My wife told me I should do this
  5. I had a great blog mentor
  6. I perform improv in a small town wanted to connect with other improvisers
  7. I write to work though the sh*t in my own head

Why I have fallen in love with the blogosphere

  1. When I was dealing with some crazy fears I read this blog
  2. When I was feeling lost I read this blog
  3. When I was feeling crazed about being a new dad I read this blog
  4. When I want a laugh I read this blog
  5. When I need to connect to other improvisers I read this blog
  6. When I want to think about how improv affects life I read this blog
  7. Or this blog

Thank you for inspiring me.

Today’s Improvmantra: Give Thanks.

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