The Complete Improviser

I’m very excited to announce that my book is ready.

This is not simply a collection of past blogs but all new how-to style material. It takes the analytical style of my blogs and puts it into practice. I’m very happy with it. I hope you will be, too.



Talking Head Scenes Are Totally Legit

Talking head scenes have gotten a bad rap. Like transaction and teaching scenes they are broadly considered bad form regardless of their actually content. The attitude I encounter a lot is this: A successful talking head scene (or transaction scene or teaching scene) would have been even funnier if it hadn’t been just two people standing around talking (or transacting or teaching). The truth I believe is that “talking heads” gets blamed when the true culprit is usually just lousy improv.

Talking heads is a label put on scenes that feature two actors being generally physically inert and talking about what’s going on rather than engaging in the activity discussed. (The notion of activity is a tricky one in improv, mostly because those of us without acting backgrounds have a different understanding of what activity and action mean. Another post perhaps…) Based on that definition there are a ton of poor scenes that you might be familiar with. Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch is mostly standing around being witty. The “Here’s looking at you, kid.” scene from Casa Blanca is mostly static (although perhaps movies are unfair because the camera moves). The Romeo and Juliet balcony scene is completely static. I bet all of the court room action of A Few Good Men looked a lot more static in it’s original stage production. Are these terrible talking heads scenes?

Let’s stop blaming talking head scenes. As teachers and directors it is our job to dig deep, certainly beyond a plainly apparent decision of staging, and figure out why a particular scene didn’t work. Giving blanket directions to avoid talking head scenes gives students a false hope that if they have a physicality, any physicality, even something external to the characters experience in the moment, that they will succeed. Yes, this is theater, and we need to be conscious of the picture we are presenting the audience. Flat and stagnant staging, however, is it’s own problem, independent (mostly) from how the scene is played.

Try these side coaching notes to break up stagnant staging and force more visceral play. The understood notion is that they all must take place after the other players next line. (Some of these are kind of involved and I’ll explain them all to the class and make sure they’re clear before we start so they’re prepared.)

“After your partners next line…”

  • “Break eye contact with your partner and don’t give it back until they earn it.”
  • “Take a walk. Keep giving your lines but something they said compels you to move.”
  • “Substitute your next line with a physical gesture. A shrug, a sigh or a deep exhale for instance.”
  • “Your next set of words will be accompanied by specific, unique gestures.”
  • “Don’t respond to your partner at all. You can look at them or look away.”


(The original draft had a thing about radio dramas being the ultimate talking head experience. Radio dramas got me thinking about monologues and spoken word stuff. Too far from the topic but I thought I’d include some examples. It get’s performance-arty, you’ve been warned. Spalding GreyJoe Frank, and a Del Close favorite, Ken Nordine )

All Shows Are Now Free and Here’s Why

(I’m saving my typical, Malcolm Gladwell-esque, off-topic diversion for the end.)


I’ve decided to make all shows at the Chicago Improv Studio free.  “All” is a bit of a weasel word since I only run shows one night a week. And free isn’t entirely true either since the hat will be past after the show to collect tips. Maybe this isn’t free but pay as you are able. Here’s what brought me to this decision:


(Massive disclaimer: My situation is unique to Chicago and to my business. You may find no parallels between this and your theater.)


1) The venue and I wanted to simplify and streamline production. Free means no box office staff, no merchant services, no accounting paperwork. Fewer things to get sick, crash or get lost. And if things do go wrong there’s no question as to who screwed it up!


2) For the last several years I’ve been toying with this proposition: “regular people” don’t go to improv shows. “Regular people” go to Second City, iO and ComedySportz. Before you say that is an incorrect statement, know that I know it is. But what if it is correct? Or at least correct enough.


2-1) It would mean that the fight to bring in “regular people”, with a million other comedy options, not to mention life distractions, goes away. No more explaining how improv works, compromising shows with gimmicks to make them easy sells, and no more frustration (and failure) about hunting for some advertising golden goose that will finally get “regular people” in the door.


2-2) What is left is an audience of “improvisers” (players, students and dedicated improv fans). This group of people actively seek out shows and are easy to reach through cheap and readily available advertising channels.


2-3) The perceived value of bringing in “regular people” is that they’re willing to spend money. Sadly, they just don’t want to come. “Improvisers” are very willing to see shows, every night of the week in fact, but it gets expensive; they don’t always have the money or inclination to pay. Many people assume that a “regular person” sees a show advertised as free and takes it to mean poor quality. This assumption makes producers want to raise prices. The problem is that raising prices caters to a group that doesn’t really want to be there regardless of price while alienating the price-sensitive people that want to be there.


3) Fiscally (again, your mileage may vary), things are such that I’m not hemorrhaging money by doing this. The venue and I have a good working relationship and are upfront and honest about expectations. While no money will be collected at the door, I will be upfront and honest with the audience about paying after the show. It may be called suggested donations, tips, or beer money but there will be a clearly marked bucket for people to pitch in to. No shame or arm twisting. What ever you can pitch in is great. If you can’t swing it this week just promise to come back. Again, this isn’t free but pay as you are able.


4) I want to remove worries about money from both the improv and, as much as possible, from my thoughts about my business. The shows are no longer to be thought of as a revenue stream but an expense. I’ve made peace with that and it’s the new normal. It greatly simplifies things.


(For a good discussion on the power of ***FREE*** try reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely)


How Godzilla Destroyed Detroit:


Muda, Mura, and Muri. These are the three Japanese words that Toyota, Honda and other Japanese auto builders lived by in the 70’s and 80’s during the quest (and victory?)  to dethrone Detroit as the capital of car production. I’ll define them quickly and efficiently:


Muda: Uselessness and wastefulness

Mura: Unevenness and irregularity

Muri: Unreasonable and beyond one’s power


These three things stand in the way of efficiency. They must be searched for and eliminated. (In all honest I didn’t have these in mind when I decided to make shows free but in reflection my decisions fit rather well.) Box office staff, being payed to sell just a handful of tickets, is an example of Muda. Trying to get people with no interest in improv into a show is total Muri. Tiered pricing, awkward venue arrangements and trying to serve both an artistic and a fiscal master is Mura.


See you Thursday!


Del Close Expects That Every Player Will Do Their Duty.

In 1805, off of Cape Trafalgar in Spain, over 70 sailing ships met in a climactic naval battle. Lead by the brilliant Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain and her navy destroyed or captured 22 ships for no losses. The Royal navy would not be seriously challenged again until the First World War, over 100 years later. Nelson, already missing an eye and an arm, was killed in the battle and became one of the nations most heroic figures and remains highly influential in military and cultural histories.  This post is about two messages he sent to his ships during the battle.


At the time of Trafalgar, navy ships were made of wood and had sails. To communicate with one another messages were coded and sent using various colored flags that were raised up the mast so the other ships could see and decode them. Before the battle, Admiral Nelson had this rousing message sent to the fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”



This patriotic and inspirational message became instantly famous after the battle. Especially among the worlds navies. It was written on Nelson’s tomb and on various Nelson monuments. Like an unofficial motto for all things naval, it was emblazoned on ships, propaganda posters and plaques. Other Admirals stole it and used it to inspire their men. In 1941, Japanese Admiral Togo sent a similar message to his ships before departing for Pearl Harbor. It’s that heavy.


As inspirational as it is it doesn’t actually give the other ship’s captains any instructions on how to conduct themselves. I’m sure the men cheered when it was read to them but the officers in charge of the individual boats may have thought, “Thanks, Admiral, but seriously, where do want us to sail our ship?”


It would be Nelson’s last message, as the battle was beginning, that did more to actually win the battle than the feel-good platitude that he is famous for. That message, sent with just two coded flags, was this, “Engage the enemy more closely.”



Not to bog this down in 19th century naval tactics any more than it already is but Nelson knew that the Spanish and French sailors would lose their cool if quickly charged and fired at from their sterns. Despite being out numbered, he needed his ships among the enemy. It worked. So well in fact that charging headlong to “engage the enemy more closely” became dogma at the naval academies for 100 years.


This message provides a clear direction and course of action. It isn’t meant to motivate but to instruct.


As improv teachers and coaches are we doing enough to tell our players how we want them to perform? Are we using patriotic, feel-good messages and then just expecting the battles to be won? Inspiration and motivation are vitally important in any performance art or sport, but we need to have clear goals in mind and give our players the instructions on how to achieve them.


Here are some classic pieces of improv advice: make your partner look like a genius, have fun, play the relationship, raise the stakes, make what your partner said important, don’t think, commit. How many of these stir our hearts more than they inform our brains? Maybe before your next class or rehearsal you take a quick moment to look over the lesson plan and make sure you’re doing both.


The Fight Against Gravity or What Would Del (not) Do?

(This post had been sitting on the woodpile for a few months until I read a post on the Reddit improv board referencing a post by Billy Merritt. It got me thinking. Thank you Billy Merritt and whoever posted it on Reddit.)


There is a hidden force in improv that pulls us towards self-satisfaction. It’s a gravity that we all feel when it’s time to step on stage, plan a new show or put down whatever it is we’re doing when it’s time to go to rehearsal. It would be easy to call this force “lazy” and to assume that hard work is it’s polar opposite. But I’ve seen people work hard tangentially to this force, thinking they were escaping it, only to have their trajectory curve imperceptibly towards this center of gravitation like a penny spinning around the inside surface of a funnel. This force is cunning and refuses to be packaged so simply.


It would also be easy to call this force “sell out” or “audience pleasing”. These labels play right into the gravity’s hands. They make us players argue among ourselves about the nature of improv. Should we feel dirty for wanting to be funny? Does all short form sell out improv? And should we feel bad about it? While we argue pointlessly, the gravity goes right along drawing use toward mediocrity.


I first perceived these decaying orbits after I had been in Chicago for a few years. I was playing on a solid team and my friends and I began to be asked to be in outside projects. The arc of these projects was the same: They would start with a very ambitious premise like a 2-act sketch show that changes every week. After rounds of emails, scheduling snafus and not rehearsals but planning meetings with pizza and beer, the show changes to: the first act is new material, but the second is best-of stuff. After some emails: First half sketch, second half improv. Still more emails: mostly improv, topical improv, with a few sketches sprinkled in. Finally: Just improv, no form. “Who can make it next week ’cause I can’t? Sorry I didn’t mention this sooner.”


This exact example has happened to me and my friends multiple times and it’s not meant as an indictment of improv montages, but an example of the pull towards montage. That’s the gravity! It’s more than lazy, right? Lazy would cut right to the rotating cast, formless improv show day-one. The only answer I can think of that, while too general, sums up most gravity-has-won experiences is this: we’re afraid. Our hard work, our emotional vulnerability, our choice to care will get us not laughed with but laughed at.


We deify Del Close. We laugh at stories of him being rude, weird, on drugs or weird and rude while on drugs. He’s called a genius (mad genius), guru and house-metaphysician. What ability did he have to do what no one else could? I don’t know exactly, he certainly wasn’t afraid, and in some ways his specific talents don’t matter. What matters is that he fought gravity. Vigorously. While Charna ran the business well, it was Del’s gravity-fighting vision that captured our imaginations. His vision set a ball in motion.


And now, perhaps, it is slowing. Audiences at my shows are smaller. Other players tell me the same thing.  The solution I see currently is an increase in audience-friendly shows that are easy to market and sell. Wouldn’t you agree that the only thing more difficult than doing Harold is marketing Harold? (And that’s fine. Remember, The Gravity wants us to call each other sell-outs and snobs.)  Del once launched a form called the “Ritualistic Horror”. It used a newspaper story of an unspeakable tragedy as source material. Does the audience need “Ritualistic Horror”? Maybe. I’m fairly certain we players need it.


What would Del Close do? I’ve started asking myself that, mostly out of intellectual curiosity, as I’ve launched my own theater and started producing shows. I do not have his indescribable talent to do whatever it was he inexplicably did. But I do have my talents and abilities. I can also choose to fight against the gravity just as strongly as he did. What would Del Close do? I have no idea. Probably something strange. Probably a bit unsavory. But I know what he wouldn’t do. I think, deep down, we all do.



The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

Or more accurately: The warm fuzzy of victory and the soul-crushing black hole of defeat.


I’m currently reading a book called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Shwartz. The thesis is that, despite our culture valuing freedom, opportunity and having options to choose from, if we’re given too much freedom we start making bad decisions. Like being overwhelmed by a restaurant with too big of a menu, freedom is best, paradoxically, in small measured doses. I’m sure this book will birth other blog posts from me (satisfisers vs. optimisers and choosing vs. picking) but for now I want to talk about the unequal ways in which we humans feel victory and defeat.


Social science experiments referenced in the book come to this conclusion: losing hurts worse than winning soothes. The pain of losing $20 isn’t overcome by finding $20, it takes finding $100 to make you feel better. The book goes has graphs and data points. You’ve been warned. In my personal experience this unequal win/lose feeling comes from an ingrained psychological processes where I blame myself for failures but credit luck for successes. I’m not a psychologist. You can google “Negative Filtering” if you want more. (There are people I have met that do a distorted version of this. They credit their talents when random good things happen and blame bad luck when they make poor decisions. You do not want to improvise with these people.)


The tie back to improv is easy, right? Sub-par shows are crushing experiences. Strong shows are dismissed, after all, every show should be that good. A touch of this thinking could be useful; It keeps us honest and striving to improve. Typical levels of negative filtering, however, cause needless stress and anguish. There is no easy fix but it’s nice to know that this phenomenon is true to humanity and not just broken humans… or improvisers.


At my studio I’m experimenting with some possible solutions:

  • – I have quite saying things like “there are no mistakes” and “just commit and you’ll be fine” because they imply that success is easy which sets an unrealistically high expectation.
  • – I pick simple forms and spend class time only on skills that apply, pointedly, to that form.
  • – Pre-show warm-ups are simple and focused. I avoid getting them “pumped” or “psyched”.
  • – Post show notes are short. Very short. Highlights are mentioned. Faults are acknowledged but fixes and deeper thoughts are saved for class and rehearsal.
  • – I take responsibility as a teacher and coach for my teams performance. I let the team know when a problem in a show is my fault. (Huge source of irritation for me is when teachers dismiss student shows in general as being poor. If that’s true then it’s your fault, dummy!)


Could this be a humiliating experiment? Yes. Good thing I’ve set realistic expectations.

How I Map Harolds

During a mid-class break last summer a few students asked me questions about the improv show they just did in class. As I referred to my notes the students became interested in how I write out their shows. I was surprised there was that much interest. I promised I’d write out my short hand technique for logging shows and share it with them. Here it is.


I’m assuming most coaches and teachers have their own way of mapping out shows. I don’t expect people to drop what they do and pick up what I’m doing whole sale but if this gets people thinking (and if readers comments get me thinking) we’ll all do a better job of it.


Below is a page of notes from a 3 scene/game Harold. My penmanship is horrendous. (In all honesty this a fake show created from several shows to make sure that I included as many difficult-to-notate twists and turns as possible.) You can click on it to zoom in. I’ll also include an easier-to-read transcribed PDF I made of this page with a symbol key below. I use these notations for all shows, not just Harolds.


sample notes

First line is the time the show starts in minutes past the hour, :12 in this case, and the suggestion. “Orange Whip”


→ A right arrow symbol denotes an opening, game or group exploration. I try to note the technique used (such as a scene paint (scn pnt) or a we see 8 (ws8)) and a brief note on the content. I separate multiple beats in an opening with a /.


– The dash symbol is a scene. I only write a few words for each scene to jog my memory for later. Usually the first line or a quick impression of the scenes characters.


Circled entries are notes to be discussed after the show. I try to only make note of clearly strong or weak moments and choices to keep post-show notes short and narrowly focused. Deeper, more philospophical discussions can be had in rehearsal. A quick count reveals only 7 notes for this show. Perfect.


↓ This down arrow signifies that a scene or a game was transformed into the next scene rather than changed with a sweep edit. I’m actually pro sweep edits but if a player takes the initiative to try and transform something I like to note to so we can talk about it.


⌊ Down and over lines denote tag outs. I’ve included two classic tag runs as an example of how complex things can be, not to say that all tag outs must begin tag runs. The first is a scene chain tag run that finishes back at the first scene. The other is a flip between two concurrent scenes. As they occur in the show each tag scene gets a new line below and to the right of the prior scene. I use down/over lines to signify what scene birthed it. If the actions gets wild and fast I’ll quite mapping, write “TAG RUN” and sort it out later.


I picked up my abbreviation technique while working as classified ad call-taker at the Chicago Tribune. You pay by the line so people wanted things maximally abbreviated. Bd and ba for bedroom and bath.  Wbfp? Wood-burning fire place. That’s where most of my improv short hand comes from: grp scn – group scene, obj bld – object build, grp explr – group exploration, bsb brkly – Busby Berkeley, clstr fk……


The last line is the time past the hour when the show ends. : 38, giving a 26 minute show.


After the show I’ll quickly run through the show giving very brief comments until I reach a circled comment. I’ll then spend a few sentences explaining my note. That’s it. I try to keep notes at no more than ten minutes.


Having a consistent method for mapping out shows allows me to quickly and efficiently give notes. It also lets me look back at older shows that I may have forgotten and get a good sense for what happened.


Here’s that PDF of my typed notes. Much easier to read.

Harold Map



Richard Scarry: Best Harold Ever

Firstly, I hate talking about “Perfect Harolds” as if to imply there is an ideal Del Close laid out for us. Not true on many, many levels. That said, when you are teaching at one of the big theaters, when you have 18 students in class, when you are engaged in something easier done than said it’s great to have an example to point at at say, “Do that!”. So in the name of laziness I present the perfect Harold:


One of my sons favorite books is Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.” It’s one of the Busy Town books with anthropomorphic animals, trucks shaped like what they are transporting, and random pickles laying around on every page. My wife pointed out to me after reading this book for the hundredth time that it’s a perfect Harold. I think she’s right, and she’s not an improviser! (spoiler alert)


The story is ostensibly about the Pig family going to the beach for a picnic. Each page features a different location along their drive (the city, a farm, at a logging camp, etc,,,) and the appropriate cars and trucks that you would find there (passenger cars, tractors and log haulers for instance). While the Pig family is featured on every page they are far from the stars of every page. Countless mishaps and minor collisions give each page it’s own story. As an example, a minor character shouting, “Dump it there!” to her wheelbarrow-pushing husband causes every dumpable vehicle on the road to dump their own loads right where they are. Apples, coal and gravel go all over the street, narrowly missing the pig family Oh no! What a mess! In this way each page, while containing the Pig family, has it’s own independent identity. We could turn to a random page, know nothing of the pig family, and still enjoy ourselves. Like great Harold scenes, each page succeeds on its own without having to lean on the larger narrative.


More Haroldic still, there are inside jokes and recurring characters. Dingo Dog is driving recklessly and is being chased by Officer Flossy Fox. The chase is talked about explicitly on a few pages but while not often talked about the images of the chase are everywhere. Some pages just have Flossy. On others Dingo’s car is just seen peaking around from behind a bus. Other pages don’t have them at all but we know the chase is still going on. Like the fun running jokes in a Harold, they don’t try to take over the story or inject themselves into the text of every scene. They provide a fun accent to reward those that are paying attention.


The same is true of Goldbug. A small, golden bug that is hiding on every page. His presence is only mentioned once or twice but he’s always there, partially obscured by the action, yet not taking part in the action. This makes me think of strong Harold openings that have a clear but subtle and “hidden” influence on the show. Like tiny Goldbug on every page, the opening shows up in every scene but we don’t always see it. Nor do we need to, but the connections are there.


The Pig story concludes it’s arc; we see their picnic and subsequent drive home. Flossy catches Dingo. Gold bug waves to us. It’s over. The story of the Pig family is simple and not especially satisfying. But the story of their story, what happens around their story, is fascinating.


You Get better Every Time You Step On Stage…

… or you improve in bursts with plateaus between. Which is correct? I bet most people feel that statement 2 is right. Students will talk about plateauing, hitting a ceiling and needing to break through or getting to the next level. While each of us is on our own journey, these comments imply growth as a series of fits and starts.


At least our perception of growth is that of fits and starts. Because we don’t have a talent-o-meter to objectively measure our growth we must rely on our perceptions. They might tell us that we are getting better or that we’ve plateaued or, worse yet, that we’re back sliding (and each of these brings on a flood of emotions and personal value judgments). What if our perceptions aren’t the reality? How much time do we spend beating ourselves up over false assumptions? Be it the truth or not, I’m inviting you to believe that you truly are getting better every time you get onstage. Let’s talk about the limitations of our perception:


In front of you is a mixing bowl filled with chocolate chip cookie dough (with walnuts, of course). The recipe calls for 2 cups of chips, but you want your cookies extra chocolate chip-ie.  How many more chips do you have to add to notice that there are more? Certainly 2 cups plus one, single chip is truly more chocolate but it isn’t noticeable. Adding another full 2 cups of chocolate would certainly be noticeable, in fact the result wouldn’t really be cookies. What’s the threshold between a regular old chocolate chip cookie and a extra chocolate-ie chip cookie?


The notion of a threshold of detectability is a real thing in experimental psychology.  It’s called the just-noticeable difference. How different does something need to be for you notice that it is different. How much smaller can Charmin make their toilet paper before you realize you’re getting less for the same price?


How much do you have to grow as an improviser to notice that you’ve grown. As a teacher and coach I get to see the same students every week. The players that show up and work do get better every week. Might they have a bad show? Sure, but it is the frustration after a bad show that demonstrates growth. (To understand that you under performed shows an increasing knowledge of what you are capable of). It is the players that fall into self-loathing and give up on scenes or rehearsals or teams that have stopped growing. The feelings brought on by their perception of sucking are too much to bear.


The problem is not one of our abilities but in our perception of our abilities. The plateaus aren’t flat but gentle slopes. So gentle we can’t feel them. It is only when we take our eyes off our feet and look around that we notice how far we’ve climbed.


Know this: You are always getting better, you just don’t always notice it.


(When pressed, most science-minded players see growth as a sine wave trending upwards.  Perhaps Y=(sinx) + x. You can graph that function here: online graphing calculator)


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Find Scene Inspiration in Four Easy Steps! Guaranteed!

Turning inspiration, form a monologue or Harold opening, into a scene is a critical skill for a long form player. Young players struggle both in finding inspiration within a monologue and in how to start a scene based on whatever they find. Their scenes either look just like monologue or are a wild mess. It’s a difficult thing to teach because, like when to edit, it’s subjective with no firm answers. It’s a lot of black magic; experienced players just kind of know how to do it without thinking about it. The answers given to students about how to pull and use inspiration have a sharp undertone of “You can only learn it by doing it.”


This post lays out a thought process for distilling themes and finding characters from monologues. I’m careful when I teach it; I’d rather my players be present in the show and not be doing math on the side lines. I’ll introduce this concept in class, do some exercises that use it explicitly but I always remind the student that the audience (and myself) won’t be judging them on their inspirations but on how well the scenes are played. However a player gets their inspiration, whatever technique they use to cook it, it is the scene that occurs onstage that is most important.


Step one: identify your inspiration (in one or two lines, what did you find cool or funny?) Step two: find a theme by divorcing the specific details and replacing them with increasingly general concepts. Step three: attach new specifics to the distilled themes. Step four: take on a point of view from the new situation and generate a first line of dialog. Here’s an example:


A player gives a monologue about a trip to Disney World, full of wonderful details and colorful descriptors. One part of the story includes the teller mistakenly thinking that they see a costumed Goofy giving drugs to kids.


Step 1, Identify inspiration -> Disney’s Goofy giving drugs to children.


Step 2, Divorce specifics -> Disney’s Goofy giving bad things to children.


Divorce specifics -> An animated children’s character giving bad things to children.


Divorce specifics -> A trusted children’s character giving bad things to children.


Divorce specifics -> A person a child trusts giving bad things to them.


Divorce specifics -> A person a child trusts putting them in danger.


Step 3, Add new specifics -> (A ton of options here, this is an example) Half-drunk Unlce Gary asking his 14 year-old nephew to drive him to dialysis.


Step 4, What’s the first line? -> “Stevie, it’s time to learn to drive.  Your uncle’s a couple of beers down and has to go to dialysis.”


We have found a scene that was inspired by the monologue, has clear points of view, and an absurd/reasonable frustration game opportunity, yet looks nothing like the monologue. I’ve had success teaching this. Students quickly acquire an innate feel for it even if they never follow the steps in their brains. Do my particular specifics and first line constitute a fairly heavy lay-on? Yes. Sue me. Could you pull out something smaller and less assuming? Sure. What kind of show are you in?


(Seriously, what kind of show are you in? That will tell you how aggressivly to play.)