All posts by Bill Arnett

The Canary Has Died: The Demise of Festival Workshops and the Future of Improv

In 1996, my college improv group attended an improv festival in Athens, Georgia. It was called Improvstock. This was before the internet was The Internet; I’m not even sure how we found out about it. Everything we knew about improv was either from our director (a theater department grad student) or from the two or three improv books that existed at that time. Were we doing it right? We had seen Whose Line and a few of us had seen SAK Theater in Orlando but we had never met any other improvisers. Especially not any real professional improvisers. Improvstock promised to change that.


Twenty groups from around the Southeast socialized and performed for each other. It was like finding out you had a sibling you had never met before. We were doing it right and there were others just like us. A big draw was the workshops that were offered. We learned new short form games, new warm-ups and heard rumors about this thing called Harold. For us it was like having Christmas morning all weekend. When we weren’t sleeping, we were comparing notes with each other.


The workshop everyone wanted to take was taught by Loose Moose instructor Dennis Cahill. There was a wait list to get in. Each troupe was limited to sending only a few members to make sure that this mans knowledge could be spread evenly among all the groups. At other late-90’s festivals, like the Big Stickin’ Improv Fests in Austin, workshop wait lists and limited per-troupe attendance were the norm. If you were lucky enough to get into a good one your fellow troupe members would bombard you with questions about how it was. For us, festivals meant workshops.


Fast forward to April 2016. I’m at the Des Moines Improv Fest. Twice the size of Improvstock. I’m no longer a college student but a headlining performer and workshop instructor. Wait lists for my work shops? No. My workshops were two thirds full and only attended by members of the local hosting theater. A year later in St. Louis, the same thing. Workshops had stopped being a draw, especially for out-of-towners going to festivals.


The decline of festival workshops has been a long process spread over 20 years. The reasons why are varied, some are innocent and some more sinister. My fear is that, like the canary in the coal mine, the death of festival workshops signals weaknesses in the greater improv community. Like the domino theory of the Vietnam war era, festival workshops will topple and hit the domino of improv festivals in general, which will fall and hit traveling workshops. This may knock into the domino that is the goodwill and brotherhood of our community at large. Which will hit … Is there anything left?


“Been there, done that.”


In 2002 I began traveling and teaching workshops at local theaters around the U.S., Canada, and, quite fortunately, Australia and the U.K. The information I brought with me, mostly long form from the iO/Del Close branch of the family tree, was objectively new for many students wherever I went. I was an emissary of long form, preaching to a doubting world steeped in short form, that, yes, an audience would “get” what they were doing if they only tried.


Ten years ago in Brighton, England, I taught a workshop for 12 people that had never done long form and only a few had even seen it. We were doing a monolog deconstruction (Armando, ASSSCAT, what have you) and one of the students asked what the scenes were supposed to be about since I asked them to not replay the monolog. That was a fairly typical question in those early days.


A few years later, as videos, books, and previously obscure resources became easy to obtain thanks to the internet, the “Intro to long form” syllabus fell out of my workshop rotation and was replaced by “Advanced long form”. I still had something to offer. I was no longer explaining long form to short form players but coaching young long form players to be better by pulling from my decade of experience as a player. “Harold fixing” became a common request from the theaters that would hire me.

Today the information asymmetry is gone. There’s not much I know that you can’t also know (I even wrote a book about what I know!). Having Chicago on your resume no longer means that  you have extra knowledge that could only be obtained by studying there. As a tidal wave of graduates leave the massive institutions of Chicago, any informational advantage the city had is gone.


“I’m not sure what they can teach me?”


I’ve been teaching the iO Summer Intensive for the last decade. It’s a five-week improv summer camp held every year at iO Chicago and is something I keenly look forward to as a chance to meet and work with improvisers from around the world. Back ten years ago, at the old building, there were three concurrent sections of Summer Intensive students. Each had 14 or so people made up mostly of improvisers from around the U.S.. One section was dubbed the international group because it had five Canadians mixed in with the Americans. Last years iO Summer Intensive, with 10 sections, was made up of 50% international (non-North American) students.


This shift from 10% (Canadians) to 50% foreign students happened gradually and with one interesting trend: the first batch of internationals came primarily from Canada but after a few years their attendance dwindled and was replaced by Australians and Britons. Now most of the internationals are from continental Europe (Poles, Finns, and Bulgarians) with a trickle of Asians (Korean and Chinese). This trend, I believe, is driven by first proximity (Canada) and then common language (Australia and U.K.) but it doesn’t explain why they eventually quit coming in large numbers. Is it related to the fact that Americans have also quit coming in large numbers?


Despite improv having never been more popular in the U.S., fewer, by percentage, are traveling to improv Mecca to take classes. Even setting aside New York and L.A. that have strong communities of their own anchored by U.C.B., Americans just aren’t coming to Summer Intensive like they used to. The simplest answer is that they don’t need to. Every community now (including Des Moines) has it’s own iO/UCB/Second City trained expert and after several years of iO intensives, so does every theater in Canada, Australia and the U.K. That performer I taught 10 years ago in Brighton who asked about where scene ideas come from in a monolog? He now runs his own improv theater in London. The world is catching up. They have the information and now they have the expertise. (Will anyone from Poland, Finland, or Bulgaria be there this year?)

You can’t blame anyone for this. This is the natural flow of ideas and expertise. No one screwed up or should have acted differently; these are the innocent factors I mentioned earlier. It’s time for the sinister one: Now that I have the stature to headline festivals and teach master-class level workshops it should be easy to negotiate bookings. But it isn’t. As my “prestige” has grown I have had a more and more difficult time arranging workshops around the country. Sure, each town has it’s own guru now and there are countless resources available online but shouldn’t my expertise and experience arouse people interest?  It’s almost as though “Big Improv” did something to put a bad taste in peoples mouths.


“It costs how much?”


Imagine you come across a person in a desert dying of thirst. You have an extra bottle of water and since you are a generous person you give it them, besides it only cost you $1.50.  They gulp it down only pausing long enough to say, “Thank you. I would have paid you $100 for this water. Or more. I would have paid anything!” This is an extreme example but it illustrates the notion that between two people an items cost and an items value can vary significantly.


Graduation shows at iO Chicago give all students an 8-week post-class run to show off what they have learned. One group they really want to show off to is the Harold Commission which asks the stronger performers to join teams and perform regularly at the theater. This is a highly prestigious honor considering barely 5% of grads make the cut. About 10 or 11 years ago and enterprising grad class had the smart idea of asking a talented and established player to coach them during their grad shows 8-week run. This coach would be paid by the players, and hopefully the extra rehearsals might get a few more of them over the hump and onto an iO team. That’s at least what all of the students told themselves. What’s the cost of hiring a coach compared to the value of being put on a team? Soon, every grad class was hiring an outside coach.


Over the next few years the fees charged by coaches ballooned. It went from $5 a head for whoever was at rehearsal to $5 per class member whether they came to rehearsal or not (or even wanted to rehearse). Then $5 became $10. And finally this deal:  $10 per student paid in full before the 8 weeks start. One classes was asked to front $1,600 before even having one rehearsal. This is a perfect example of cost vs. value at work. Coaches began charging not what their time actually costs but what the students valued it for. The privilege of being on a team at a renowned theater had become that bottle of water in the desert and some coaches had no qualms about charging $100 for it.


(iO Management starting getting complaints from the students who valued the coaching far less but felt dragged along by their classmates. The solution, draconian but effective, was to ban grad classes from hiring outside coaches.)


This instructor cost inflation has happened exactly the same way with festival workshops. Back in 1996 at Improvstock,  the cost of workshops was rolled into registration for the festival. Today a festival workshop might cost $75 on top of whatever costs players have to travel to and attend the festival, which explains why locals are more likely to attend. A survey from The San Francisco Improv Fest asked prospective attendees what they felt was a fair price for workshops. 43% responded, “Under $50”. Another 22% said, “Under $55”. Despite $75 being a common workshop price point only a third of players see that as a fair price. People still take these workshops, you may only need 14 people willing to drop the money to fill it,  but it generates ill will among the majority of improvisers.


 In speaking with theater owners I’ve heard horror stories about the kinds of demands that premiere teachers are asking for to come and teach. They told me about teachers requiring doubly-expensive direct flights, asking for thousands of dollars up front, deciding upon arrival that their hotel wasn’t good enough, and even only agreeing to do one, 3-hour workshop over a weekend forcing the theater to jack up the price to pay for the instructors flight and hotel.


Festival producers get it from teachers and headlining acts. The last festival I taught at included a social event obligation clause implying that in the past the “honored guests” didn’t even hang around to chat with anyone; they’re either on stage, in the classroom, or at the hotel. Another producer told me how they paid out nearly $2,000 to a headline team that only brought half their group, none of whom were the prominent members.  Another fest organizer said they are routinely quoted touring company rates in the $5,000 range. To players and producers the whole process begins to feel like a naked cash grab.


When I travel around the U.S. teaching workshops, my negotiations with theaters have taken on an adversarial energy.  The producers have a subtext that says, “If you’re going to make a ton of money on this, we better too. ” Traditionally, the workshop take is split between the instructor and the theater. In the last 15 years the split has gone from 90/10 in the teachers favor, to 75/25, 50/50 and most recently to 40/60 in the theaters favor. Recently I was planning a workshop series and told the theater that I’d like to keep the student price no more than $40, preferably lower. I was told no, that the theater wouldn’t make enough money to justify it. Not, we won’t cover our expenses but we won’t make enough profit. Once producers and festival organizers see there is money to be made, they want to make it, too.


The geese that lay the golden eggs


Improviser everywhere dream of getting on to the Big Stage but there is another dream that most would be completely satisfied with if it came true. That dream is being able to financially support themselves solely with improv. As I coached, taught, and did more corporate training my day job went to part-time and eventually not at all. It took eight years but I became improv-self sufficient. But just barely. I had to live on a shoestring budget. A few more dollars here and there and I’d feel safe. Maybe on that next out of town workshop I could raise my prices $5. I bet that festival could cover a larger cut of my expenses if I asked.


This is the first golden egg-laying goose that I feel is a prime motivator in the price escalation; it’s a the thing we chase that we believe will solve all of our problems. An improviser being able to support themselves without a straight job is a powerful motivator, perhaps valued beyond it’s cost. This, I believe is behind one side of the instructor price inflation. The other factor, another golden goose, lives in the hearts of the players. It is best explained with an example of the third golden-egg laying goose, the one that producers pursue.

Back in the early 2000’s the iO Theater was looking to expand it’s palate of classes and launched an elective program. Cut from your team? Take the scene skills elective. Always wanted to work with Awesome Teacher X? Take their personal elective. Always confused by Harold openings? Take the Harold Opening elective. It failed before it even got off the ground. A few yeas later they were re-launched with some premiere teams as anchors. Again they failed.


iO didn’t give up, after all, figuring out a way to get graduates to start paying for classes again is an improv theaters golden egg-laying goose. As a few workshops began to stick (the sketch writing and musical electives are still running today) I began to notice some similarities. The popular electives and workshops all had one of three things: 1) They included a performance. 2) They were taught by someone famous, but they had to be beyond improv famous. 3) They promised some level of exposure to the entertainment industry. While no one ever said or even believed that their workshop would burst open the doors to Hollywood, players see these things; a show, meeting a hero, and getting industry feedback, as directly contributing to their career aspirations. They were very willing to pay for that. Just taking a class because it might help their improv was not considered.


Success in comedy is a players golden egg-laying goose. It is there bottle of water in the desert. For theaters, it is the notion of being able to get students to continue their paid training despite “graduating”. A teacher sees the possibility of a full-time improv career as their goal. These are the three golden egg-laying geese. Acquiring them means the struggle is over. Sadly, when these pursuits mix, we get a situation ripe for exploitation.


The net result of this goose chasing is the continual escalation in prices for festivals and traveling workshops until, after hitting some theoretical maximum,  festivals and out of town workshops will cease to exist.  The process will leave a trail of disillusioned players that will quit improv, adversarial theaters always in danger of going under, and festivals that collapse into insolvency. The message being sent is this: “You’re not allowed to do that thing you love to do, at least not very well and without official approval, unless you’re willing to pay for it.”


This is not a opinion piece on the horrors of capitalism and I’m not trying to say that an expert in their field doesn’t deserve more money for sharing their expertise. I’m saying that the motivations of those involved create work to create an accelerated spiral leading to exploitation. Back in 1996, at Improvstock, my college troupe, didn’t go to only to watch shows and take workshops. We went to find validation and acceptance into the greater community. Being priced out of a festival means young players lose out a more than just a trip out of town to do a show.


It’s worth noting that in the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs, the family who owns it comes to believe the goose must be full of gold on the inside. They kill it and cut it open only to find regular goose bits inside.


What to do about it


The truth of our situation is this: the money that makes improv go is classes. Having been on the inside I can say this: ticket and bar sales can barely keep the lights on. The source of that revenue is the student. What makes a person quit college to move to Chicago, take a job below their ability, weather the sideways glances from family members, and spend all of their disposable income on improv classes? They found something they love doing. Players: this world exists because of you, not the other way around. Producer: be glad the students are here. Instructors: respect their dignity.


-Advice for players
I’ve been on the inside of this for a while and I can tell you with confidence that the really expensive workshop is only fractionally more useful, if at all, than the modestly priced “no-name” workshop. There is a psychological effect at play when you pay a lot of money for something you tend to appreciate it more. Do fall into that trap!


It is truly fun and exciting to work with a big name in our biz. You are more than welcome to pay for that honor but be honest with yourself: they do not have the secret recipe to success or, quite possibly, any insight into their own success. You are paying to satisfy that very real human sensation of being fascinated by our heroes.


All those big name players you want to take a class from, at one time weren’t big name players. Is it risky to take a workshop from an unknown quantity? At $75 yes, but not so much at $25.


That big name, at the end of the day, is just another improviser trying to figure it out like you. Please learn from them but don’t expect, or let them promise, any epiphanies.


-Advice for theater and festival producers
When booking headliners realize that big names in the improv world will not sell more tickets to the general public; you need beyond improv famous to do that and that’s expensive. The people in your community that already love or are curious about improv will come out and see whomever you bring in. If you have to contractually require that a headlining team bring all it’s members and not spend every free moment in the hotel then what value are the adding to the festival as a whole?


A much safer bet are the younger, hungry teams that are cheap to book, excited to be there and will play their tails off. Same goes with workshop instructors. An instructor in the 95th percentile of talent cost twice as much as an instructor in the 90th percentile. Is that extra chunk of talent worth it?


Should big names be able to ask for more? Yes. Should their workshops cost more? Definitely. But it should never drag down the festival or force difficult financial decisions. For the good of the fest could that money be spent better elsewhere, perhaps on social events?


-Advice for instructors
With every workshop or festival you teach at you are either making a withdrawal from or a deposit to the Bank of Improv. That producer whose offer you declined because they couldn’t swing the rental car takes it out on everyone that comes behind you. Conversely, every after-party you go to demonstrates your love for the work and gives others permission to love it too.


Consider sliding scales when negotiating fees. Every community is different in what they can afford. $50 in San Francisco is equivalent to $30 in Atlanta.


Finally,  the world is catching up. Your students are quickly becoming your peers. Dump the pretension. Improv will be just fine without you.

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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