Will you accompany me?

Music is a vital part of improv. Not just the singing part, though that’s a very popular element. I’m speaking about, well I suppose it can be called the soundtrack of the show.

The Chainsaw Boys at one point had a four-piece band play with us. Piano, trumpet, guitar and several bags worth of percussion instruments. They supported us in each scene and added that element that brought the show to a higher level.

We were so fortunate to be working with this particular group, who supported us, followed our leads and accented our foolishness with musical spice. They were and are the best.

Now, I have not always been so lucky in improv accompaniment. Earlier in my career, (Is it a career if you can’t make money at it?) I worked with a pianist whom I will not name but let’s just call her Barb.

Barb was an excellent piano player, she clearly made sophisticated musical choices and did them with style and aplomb. What she could not do, was follow me as I sang. As I’ve said before, singing is not the strongest tool on my work belt. However, when there’s a musical form, you have to sing, or at least try to talk sing, which is my default.

After one particularly terrible show, music-wise, Barb told me that I was not following her. And to be honest, I wasn’t and I really couldn’t. All I know about key changes is you do that when you get a new lock. A musical accompanist, if they are even remotely talented, are bullet proof.

If they don’t change the key, or the rhythm or the tempo to accommodate the singer, the singer is the one hung out to dry. The audience is thinking, “Boy that guy was terrible! But the piano player was very good!”

The thing is, the music needs to say yes and as well. Ironically, if it’s done properly, you won’t notice it. So thank you to all those musicians who make the funny people look good, we hear you.

Except Barb. You can shut up.

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Posted in Yes and so this happened

In the dead of night

Here’s a little story about when the Chainsaw Boys were down in Austin for the Big Stinkin’ Improv Fest. While it is not specifically about performing, but all the players are improvisers.

This happened, on the first or second night after we arrived. We were all staying at a motel just outside of town, and after a night of enjoying the hospitality of Austin, Mike Bencivenga, whom I was sharing a room with, had come back and sacked out

Sometime after midnight, there’s a knocking at the door. It’s fellow Chainsaw Miriam Sirota. She’s been locked out of her room because of some mixup with her credit card. She asks us if we have any cash.

Now when you are awakened in the dead of the night by a good friend who needs cash, you can do one of two things. Stare at them and ask “wha….?” Or say “Hold on,” and take the money out of your wallet, hand it to your friend and them promptly go back to sleep.

I chose the second option. Now Miriam was fortunate that it was early in our stay so I still had plenty of cash on hand. If not we would’ve knocked on a few more doors and rallied the rest of the Chainsaws.

The next day Miriam told me that was when she knew I was a great person to travel with. A compliment I carry to this day. I like to think that even in the grogginess of being woke up, I can still say Yes And.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

You never forget your first

The first improv show I did was after one class. If that implies I am some sort of prodigy that is far from the truth. Like everyone else, I had to work at the craft of it before I was any good. I do know that referring to the craft of improv is pretentious but I don’t care.

So how did I go from zero experience to doing a show? Completely randomly. I was directing a sketch show and one of the actresses in it was in an improv soap opera. Being a supportive person, I went to see it.

The program was a newspaper, with articles about what happened in the previous shows, including a political cartoon about the town’s mayor who was hated, but kept being reelected.

Weirdly, the image of mayor looked remarkably like me. The producer asked me if I would appear in the season finale as the Mayor. I said yes but I didn’t think it would actually happen.

One week before the last show, I got a phone call asking me to come to an improv class. The next night was the show. Not a lot of prep time but feeling brave or perhaps foolish, I agreed. I can’t remember anything about the class but I do remember the show.

I made a prepared speech and periodically used paper slips, which is when the audience writes random lines of dialogue for the cast to use during the show. I got some laughs and it was far less traumatic than I thought I might be.

After that, I was hooked. I’ve spoken before about falling in love with improv, but this was my metaphorical first kiss. And you never forget your first.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

What makes me what?

I have written before about Noel Katz, our music director, who was with us for as long as the Chainsaw Boys were active. However, occasionally, he was unable to play for us. When that happened, we were honored to have the wonderful Doug Nervik.

Doug was an incredibly talented improviser and accompanist, and a genuinely decent human being. Sadly, we have since lost Doug and the world is poorer for that. While I could write pages and pages about him, today I will share one story that still resonates with the Chainsaw Boys.

We were rehearsing with Doug, specifically going over our musical forms, all of which were unique to us. I’ve mention the Gospel, our show closer before and we always asked for a something that the audience learned. But when we practice, the accompanist provided the suggestion.

Doug gave us, “Peanuts Make Me Fart.”

Because we are all mature, sophisticated, New Yorkers, so of course we all laughed loud and long. I cannot remember what we did with that bon mot but that phrase has lasted longer than most things we did on stage. If one of us says that to another, it never fails to elicit a smile.

I understand that is an inside joke and it might fall into the “you had to be there” category. If so, think of this as a peek behind the curtain, something that we still think of, even years later.

So thank you Doug, you are still missed.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

What we say

Theater folks are a superstitious lot. Not a judgment, just a fact. They refer to Macbeth as the “Scottish Play” and you say “Break A Leg” rather than “Good Luck.” I can’t speak to whether or not there is any truth to these traditions but they persist to this day.

The Chainsaw Boys had our own little ritual before beginning a show, we’d all say to each other, “Don’t Suck.” This does fall in to line with theatrical precedent, so to we’re old school in that way.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, we sometimes sucked, not often, but it did happen. So “Don’t Suck” isn’t foolproof. We did have one ritual, which absolutely, one hundred percent worked.

Matt Ostrom, before every show would say, “Don’t pet stray dogs.” I can report, that no strays every found their way backstage pre-show. And if they did, none of us would dare pet them.

That’s some improv magic.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

And now a word from our sponsor

Mike Bencivenga, my fellow Chainsaw Boy, is also filmmaker as well as playwright and he makes a mean sausage and pepper sandwich. Once, just before he was about to shoot a film, Tully, which I highly recommend seeing, he brought Eric Stoltz, one of the stars, to see a show I was in.

This was the Sunday Night Improv Jam, run by Tom Soter, where different performers from groups would do a show. It was always interesting because you got to work with new people.

While Mike was not in the show, he got called down to take part in a form call “Radio Show.” The rules were, they turned down the lights and we did, well a radio show. One of the suggestions we got was a product, for the sponsor. That night, it was cat food.

When the commercial part came up, it was not for food for cats but food made from cats. Then, usually, the accompanist would sing a jingle. However this night, there was some confusion, and instead of a song there was nothing.

So I say, in my best 1940’s voice, “Remember folks, eat pussy for America!” This elicited both laughter and groans from the audience. I have never regretted this.

One postscript on this is, anytime Mike mentions my name to Stoltz, he says, “Eat pussy for America.” No regrets.

Posted in Yes and so this happened

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