Mother Store

There is an improv exercise called One Word Story. For those of my readers that are unfamiliar with it, a line of improvisers tell a story one word at a time. I suppose you could’ve guessed that from the title but specificity is key in improv. More on this later.

One Word Story is a tool for teaching listening and narrative skills. The burden of telling the tale does not fall on one person’s shoulders. Everyone contributes. You don’t need to know where you’re going, only where you’ve been. From that, the story unfolds.

There are two things that inevitably happen in these One Word Stories. The protagonist will go to see her or his mother and they will go to the store. Not to their fathers, always their mothers. Maybe mom give better advice.

Remember when I mentioned specificity at the beginning? So, they go to the store. Not the grocery story, nor the sporting goods story, or even the bookstore. Just The Store.

I have seen this time and time again, with every group who has done this exercise. But the real question is why? Why those two very specifically, non-specific things?

Having given this much thought, I have a theory. Both of those are passive choices, much like deciding, a choice that also delays the forward momentum of the narrative. That’s because then you have to say that they did those things that they had made up their mind about. Very exciting.

Doing improv, especially in the early stages can be terrifying. I don’t know what to say! Everyone is funnier than me! Why didn’t I take that cooking class instead?

We make these passive choices because we’re afraid of making a mistake. But there is good news. There are no mistakes. Just make a strong choice and go with it.

Anyway, this is just my theory. If you’ll excuse me, I have to visit my mother before I go to the store.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

They… Just… Said…

When we attended the Big Stinking Improv Fest, our first show was at Ester’s Pool, a very cool space on 6th street in downtown Austin, Texas. It’s coolness not withstanding, they didn’t have a backstage at the time, this may have changed since.

So we were warming up in the alley behind the theater. It was a warm April evening, and since we couldn’t hear what was going on in the theater, it was relaxing, perfect to prepare both physically and mentally.

The back door opened and our musical director, Noel Katz emerged and spoke.

In the interest of setting the scene, you need to know that Noel has a very measured way of speaking. Sometimes, it feels as though he pauses. After. Each. Word.

So, back to the story. Noel has entered and said something to us, with no discernible urgency. We all stop and ask him to repeat himself. This is what he said.

“They. Just. Said. All. The. Way. From. New. York. City. The. Chainsaw. Boys.”

It took us a beat to understand that our show was starting and we had just been introduced. We then ran pell-mell to the stage and began our show.

Now most people would’ve just said, “We’re on!” Or “The show’s about to start!” But not Noel. There is no real explanation as to why he took his sweet time. This was just his way.

This is not a criticism of him, Noel was and still is an excellent accompanist. He followed us effortlessly on stage, and always made us sound our best.

Perhaps because he did. Everything. In. The. Right. Measure.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

When you fall in love

When I first started doing improv, it was like falling in love. I think a lot of improvisers feel the same way, it’s intoxicating, you want to be doing it all the time and when you aren’t, you’re talking about it. Even alone, it has yes anded it’s way into your head, like a song you find yourself humming.

It’s an exhilarating time full of new possibilities, after all each show is different. Maybe not so much for your friends and family, who must endure at least one show if not many. For all the boundless excitement of the novice improviser, the skill is usually not there. The limits of love are tested in those beginning times.

Improv becomes like the boyfriend or girlfriend that everybody you know hates but they will not tell you how they feel. It is the true test of their affection for you if they come to more than one show.

You roommate might say, “You were the best one in the show.”

This is a lie, or if it is the truth it doesn’t mean you were good.

So why continue? For the money? All the anonymous sex? The inevitable Nobel Prize?

You do it because it’s love. Which means that you keep going, even when it’s bad and it will be bad. There will be struggles, both external and internal. But if it’s true love, you will persevere.

Then, and only then will the people in your life accept your improv significant other.


Posted in Yes and so this happened

Just in case you think this was made up

If anyone was wondering if my last story was fanciful, here is video of the incident.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

All the world is not a stage

Once, the Chainsawboys performed in Boston as a part of improv festival at a space call Improv Asylum. Our hosts were extremely friendly and kind so we were given the prime eight o’clock slot. It was a packed house and the audience was ready to laugh, just as we were ready make them do so.

It was a great show, we were all working together, dropping yes ands like candy on Halloween. Everything was going perfectly until the back half of the show.

To set this up, I need to share a detail that was previously hidden. The Improv Asylum sold beer. This is not unusual. The majority of venues where comedy is done serve alcohol. However, not all of them serve buckets of beer.

FYI, a bucket is partially filled with ice then five beers are added. It’s also practical. You don’t need to disrupt the show if you want another beer, and it’s less expensive than ordering five individual beers. You and a buddy can share it and enjoy the evening. What could be bad about this model of economic efficiency?

Perhaps the fact that one person can consume five beers in less than and hour.

As I said before, we are getting towards the end of the show, we’re doing our long form, myself and Matt Ostrom are vultures having a conversation when an audience member walks on to the stage and begins to comment on how sweaty Mike Bencivenga was. Which was rude. But then five beers will blunt your social graces.

He gently tries to guide her off but she’s determined to be part of the show. Fortunately she’s not a belligerent drunk, just uninhibited and once she wanders to the edge of the stage she’s whisked away by the stage crew.

We then come to the end of our show, which was always a musical piece called the gospel. I ask the audience, what have they learned tonight, what lesson was imparted.

It was “Don’t Jump on the stage.”

We could not have asked for better.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

Sing like you hope no one’s listening

Musical improv is very popular. If it is done properly, it’s a magic trick, a song from a suggestion. In the interest of full disclosure, singing is not one of my innate talents. I don’t even sing in the shower, the place everyone thinks they sound good.

In the Chainsaw Boys, my old group, we had two outstanding singers, Miriam and Bethany. They are both gifted singers and could spin musical gold out of suggested straw.

My gifts were more verbal, I was strongest narratively as well as with scene work. And as with any team, and improv is nothing if not a team sport, we usually played to our strengths.

But it’s important to stretch and improve yourself, especially if you don’t want to. I assume that is why, despite possessing minimal gifts in the euterpean arts, I was required to sing in every show.

I can’t honestly say I was forced, no threats were made, nothing held hostage, and no weapons were brandished. But it was not my first choice. Honesty, it terrified me. The notes being played were as shark fins cutting through the water towards me, doom approaching with no mercy.

What did I do you ask? I sang. Not well, and honestly, more akin to talk singing, Rex Harrison style. And after the eternity of a minute or two, it was over, at least for that week. I was as if I was repeatedly being thrown out of an airplane and told to “fly.”

Did it make me a better improviser? No doubt, it was the comedic version of eating my vegetables. Did I enjoy it? Very truthfully, I felt as though I was having a micro stroke on stage. So no, I didn’t find much joy at the time.

But when you eat your vegetables, you get your dessert. Which in this case, was going out to the bar for drinks afterwards. If you were expecting a more thoughtful insight, you’re reading the wrong thing.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

What are we doing here?

“What are we doing here? Both of us can write.”
These words were uttered backstage at a Chainsaw Boys show by my fellow Chainsaw and good friend, Mike Bencivenga as the overture for the show was being played by our music director, Noel Katz. Noel loved a full bodied overture, so we usually had more than a little time to ponder existential questions.

Before being Chainsaw Boys, the name of our improv group in case it was unclear,
Mike and I had done fair number of sketch shows, in which we both wrote, he directed and I performed in. He was right, we both had the skills to put on a solid comedy show without the pressure of having to make it all up on the spot.

My own crisis was more immediate, many times all I could think was, “I’ve got nothing.” It wasn’t stage fright, not exactly, but more of a dread that when called upon, I would not be funny or even have anything to say. My fear was that the improv tank would read “empty.”

Truthfully, it never was. I always found something to contribute. Which is not to say I never had off shows, but none that would justify my dread. This was in large part due to having an outstanding group of people to improvise with. Everyone brought something different to the table.

While not a sports fan, and that is an understatement. However I do know that improv is a team, if not a sport then lets just call it an activity. You do not have to carry it all on your own. If there are five people in the show, you’re only responsible for twenty percent, less if you have musical accompaniment. The point is, even when I was certain that I had nothing to offer, which was wrong, and am happy to have made that mistake.

Posted in Yes and so this happened