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I find myself totally without time to write anything improv-related these days. But there’s a ton of posts I think still merit discussion which were posted many years ago when Montreal Improv (and this blog) was just getting started.

So starting this coming Monday and continuing for twelve days, I’ll be re-posting some oldies. Stay tuned!

- vinny

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 is Nick Kanellis and Peter McNerney, an improv duo from New York City, based out of Magnet Theater.

GROSS! were inspired after seeing Trike’s show at the Philadelphia Improv Festival this year, and Peter McNerney was gracious to share some of his improv wisdom with us, when he answered our 3 QUESTIONS:

1.  How/when did you get into improv?
2.  What is something that you have been thinking about/inspired by recently when you are doing shows?
3.  What concepts have you found especially helpful in your improv-learning process?

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GROSS! @ PHIF 2013 - Saturday

BRRRREEEEAAAAAKFAAAASSST!  GROSS! enjoy an Amish paradise at the Dutch Eating Place in Reading Market


Ariel starts the day out right


After a morning of stuffing ourselves with more of the sights and savours of Philadelphia, we were off to the only workshop we took while attending PHIF 2013. Led by Alexis Simpson, Nathan Edmondson and Matt Holmes, the trio of improvisers who make up Rare Bird Show, the workshop focused on how to better your skills while working in duos or small groups.  

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GROSS! @ PHIF 2013 - Friday

This was our only full day off as we signed up for a workshop on Saturday, so we tried to see as much as possible!
walking in West Philly
a majestic breakfast at The Gold Standard on Baltimore Ave
Ariel chilling with the locals
seeing sights in Centre City
various forms of transportation
Magic Garden, a sculpted mosaic environment
everyone is very friendly
Inga learns the truth of dalmations and their allegiance to firefighters
Britt’s subliminal advertising
storefront DJ on South Street
LORENZO’S PIZZA!  ”slices bigger than yr own face”
streetza: it’s beautiful
Rare Bird Show’s last show ever?, sitting room only @ the Playground

A highlight from one of the shows on Friday night was during Trike’s set, where it was apparent that paying attention to a shared impulse changed the trajectory of the scene.  

Trike are a duo from New York City, Nick Kanellis and Peter McNerney, who are affiliated with Magnet Theatre Company.  In the scene, Nick and Peter were playing classmates applauding from the back row for characters they had already established.  the clapping took on a double rhythm, but Nick turned to speak to the character in the front row of the classroom, while Peter was inspired by the clap syncopation to assume that they were rehearsing for their presentation of “Stomp.”  It seemed like one wanted to advance the scene while the other wanted to expand, but by holding onto that split-second instinct where a change in rhythm occurred, and accentuating it, this resulted in both advancement and expansion coming together in a full-on “Stomp” improvisation, with Nick and Peter playing both the guys in the back and front rows, where one jumped in front of the other to be unseated by the back row Stomper, who was simultaneously stealing his chair for percussion.  By connecting and then committing to the discovery of a change, it inspired a joyously playful scene, all just by embracing what they had and exploring what could be.  Much fun had!

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GROSS! @ PHIF 2013 - Thursday

- GROSS! loves taking risks

- Hotel room selife

- 'It's this guy again'

 capturing the beauty of the landscape on our way to philly

- happy & exhausted after our set

- Pizza-talk after the show

Our Improv group GROSS! has been founded in the beginning of this summer as part of the Montréal Improv ‘Threepio’ contest. Since then, we already performed in the Improv Festivals in Montreal and Toronto. Last weekend, we were super-excited to go to the United States in order to perform in the 9th annual Philadelphia Improv Festival.

Our show was scheduled for Thursday evening, 10pm. The 7, 8:30 and 10pm show started pretty much back to back, so we were able to catch the last set of the 7 o’clock show after we picked up our performer’s passes and T-shirts. When it got towards 10pm, we realized how thrilled we were despite our fatigue after the 9-hour-car-ride to perform in front of a completely unknown audience. A couple of people stuck around for the late show and we started of the block that featured two more groups after us.

Our set was based on the audience suggestion ‘cannibalism’ and covered topics such as aging and death, but also romantic feelings, family and growing up. The stage was very big and offered opportunities to play around and get wild. We had lots of fun and time passed in a flash. When the lights went down, we left the stage almost in trance and had a very intense moment of ‘it is something we did and not something we did not do’.

Luckily, we stayed for the last set, which turned out to be my favourite of the whole festival. Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger is a male duo from Los Angeles, featuring the two real life best friends Drew and Luis. Their suggestion for a location that could fit on the stage was ‘time machine’, a suggestion challenging enough to worry the audience for a little bit. Luis told me later that they actually love to give the audience some time to worry before they start their set, instead of jumping into it right away. This seemed to be contrary to what I have learned and perceived so far, but it did work for them. Their journey in a time machine that was run by coal and squirrels was one of the most hilarious improv sets I have ever seen. Their piece wasn’t exclusively narrative though, sometimes a conversation between two characters would inspire a totally different scene in another environment, like the death of the protestant pope. They were extremely quick thinkers and played at the height of their intelligence at all times, which became obvious when they showed a quick conclusion of every decade while travelling back and forth in time. They also called each other out on every little mistake they made, which often inspired a new scene. Finally, I was impressed by their extremely precise physicality. Every part of the time machine was always in the exact same position, I have never seen an improviser holding a mimed baby in such a loving way and when Drew missed a step of the ladder when he climbed back into the time machine, Luis called him out on it.

At the party on Saturday we had the chance to talk to Ranger Danger and the Danger Ranger. Both of them have been doing improv for more than 10 years now and have been doing this format together for 4 years. They are best friends (matching tattoos!) and used to live together. Luis told me that he knows Drew so well that he can hear in his voice when he is done talking about something in a scene. When I asked them about advice for a newly founded improv group, like GROSS!, he told me that it is important to stop trying to invent stuff and pushing your own ideas, but to listen and support your partner instead. In fact, he said that only the very first thing someone says in a scene is invented – everything that follows is logic. Also, it is important to be patient with a group that just met – you have to figure each other out. And as important as coaching is, you should also workshop alone with your group in order to find out what you really like to do. Another helpful thing I learned from them is that they videotape every set and talk through it afterwards while watching it. In the beginning it might be frightening to see yourself on video, but it certainly helps you improve. 

Thus, despite the tiring 9-hour drive, Thursday night was a successful start into an exciting weekend of Philly and Improv.

- Inga

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Guest Writer: Vance Gillis (Montreal)

Vance Gillis is an improvisor and stubble-faced man who teaches and performs at Montreal Improv. He is a proud member of Dream Hunks, Southern Heat, Soaring Eagle Partiot Hour, 52 Pickup, Monsters of Rock and the Montreal Improv house team, Night Bus.

To me the most attractive quality in an improvisor is a willingness to fail. I admire it.

A few of my improv heroes said something similar when I first started taking classes and I had no idea what they meant. I thought “willingness to fail” meant being big, loud and silly. I thought it meant being outrageous, dropping non-sequiturs and saying provocative things. And yes, sometimes that’s what that means. But it sort of misses the point.

I want to give a shit about your improv. When I sit in the audience I want to get absorbed in your stories and your characters and I want so badly for you to have fun and do a good job. I am rooting for you.

Here’s the ugly truth though: I don’t want you to tell me you are insecure with the choices you make on stage. I don’t want to watch you and think, “Oh, they went for the joke there because they didn’t feel comfortable.” The most “jokey” improv I’ve seen did not come across as the work of confident individuals. It came across as people who were so desperately afraid of failing that they couldn’t build realities or make choices that made sense.

In one of the very first classes I took, my teacher asked me to describe baking a cake while in the locker room at a gym. I started naming off the ingredients; “flour, sugar, eggs, uh… root beer, toothpaste…” I didn’t get much farther. People kind of laughed, I imagine out of camaraderie. It wasn’t funny. “Let’s stop it there” the teacher said and we sat down. Thank God. I was trying to be funny instead of trying to build the scene. The truth was that I couldn’t think of the ingredients and I was insecure so I went for the joke. I wanted people to laugh. I was looking for temporary validation. It wasn’t an organic mistake; it was a lame attempt at being funny. It ruined a decent scene and put my poor scene partner in this position where she had to try and finish this scene which had been fatally damaged by my insecure choice.

“That was boring,” the teacher concluded. He was absolutely right.

If you don’t commit to your ideas neither will the audience. If your character doesn’t care about anything because you don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable on stage then you’ve really limited how effective and funny you can be. Your insecurity on stage does not protect you, it damages you. Feel free to grab onto your strange ideas, to be outrageous and say provocative things but please do these things because you’re inspired, not because you’re scared.

Here’s the key: improv is temporary. It’s here now and it’s forgotten in a few moments. If you do the best improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have about fifteen minutes of glory after the show and then it’s gone forever. If you do the worst improv set in the history of improv, ever, you will have maybe five minutes of despair followed by an invite to grab a beer. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t say anything about you as a person.

Improv is one of the only facets of your life where you can fail and suffer so little for it. Why not take advantage of that? How liberating is it to allow yourself to fail at something?

Give a shit in your scenes. Commit. Have fun. Do the thing you are scared to do.

I’m rooting for you.

Previous Guests: Neil CurranJude ClaybourneColin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Neil Curran (Dublin)

Neil Curran is the founder of Improv Fest Ireland and the ‘Neil’ part of the “Neil+1” show. Because of his addiction, Neil can be found performing improv in the shower, in the elevator and in your doorway.

Do You Trust Me?

You don’t trust me. Really you don’t. We’ve never met. How could you trust me?   

Shall we improvise?

Now you have to trust me. But can we go from a non-trusting position to a trusting position just like that?

We’re taught in improv classes to trust your co-performers. We’re taught to trust ourselves. All really good advice. Like all relationships in life, if you don’t have trust you have nothing. You have no common ground.  

Is trust earned?

What happens when we’re on stage with an improviser we don’t think is good, or we don’t like them or he/she is nervous or he/she has never done improv before? Trust can easily evaporate and we risk going into Performance Survival Mode. It’s the moment when our egos do what it takes to ensure the shows goes well because we know best. And that’s when things take a turn for the worst.

I’ve been performing improv for many years and thought I understood what it meant to trust in improv until I started doing my solo show “Neil+1”. With Neil+1 I invite an audience member up on stage who has never seen improv before to become part of the show. The next hour of that person’s life is terrifying for them as he/she plunges themselves into the depths of long form improv without an ounce of instruction or experience. 

When I first started doing this show and I was finding my footing, I was equally terrified. All the doomsday scenarios were going through my head. What if it doesn’t work? What if my +1 doesn’t speak? What if my +1 freaks out?

To combat these fears, I tested different styles and formats. Some worked, some didn’t. But I couldn’t put my finger on what the winning formula was for my show until it dawned on me one day. I didn’t trust my co-performer. A basic fundamental of improv was being neglected because I didn’t think it was as relevant. And the knock on effect was that it was affecting me trusting myself.

And that’s when everything changed. How do you trust someone that you don’t know? You trust them to be themselves. You trust them to be nervous if they are nervous, to be arrogant if they are arrogant, to be chatty if they are chatty. All of it was perfect. As soon I trusted them to be themselves, I was then allowing myself to trust me again. I was free!

This applies to all situations on stage. No matter who your co-performer is, their skill level, their gender, their age, none of it matters. Let your co-performers be his/herself, whatever that is. You can then be who you are.

After the scene or the show is over, you may not remember much about what happened but if you have trusted your partner and yourself, you will know it. It’s that smile you give them afterward, that shared moment that says, “Thank you.”

Previous Guests: Jude ClaybourneColin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Jude Claybourne (London)

Jude Claybourne is an improviser out of London with love of language and languages, a passion for performance and a hunger for new challenges and new ideas.

“If you can be this large and you can build this enormous character, then you’re not so frightened without the mask.”

Keith Johnstone

Trance mask play is cathartic and compelling. It’s a very free and freeing form of improvisation based on a chapter in Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro. It’s clowning without any intention to be funny. It’s improvising in full stream-of-consciousness flow, with no rules, no ‘right’ and no limit to what can happen. It takes you out of yourself and into a brand new character: the mask. 

This work benefits us by giving us a pure experience and shaking off some of the mental limitations we practice in life and performance. ‘It wasn’t me, it was the mask!’ gives us permission to experiment, experience new things and play recklessly, with energy and enthusiasm. 

New masks are innocents. They are sure of nothing and have everything to learn and unlike many human adults, most masks are drawn to what’s fun and what’s fascinating rather than what’s right. With the mentality of a puppy or a curious toddler, to a mask, everything is new and their responses to what they discover are immediate, visceral and authentic. 

What’s behind mask work?

Our identity is deeply entwined in our face and how we see it. Every day, more times than we care to imagine, we look at our own reflection (just move a mirror from where it habitually hangs to find yourself staring at a blank wall every time you pass that spot).

It’s impossible to stay purely yourself when you open your eyes wide and look at your own face as a new mask. Gauze obscures a clear look into the familiarity of your own eyes. Most of the face you see is completely different, but your own mouth and chin and elements of your own voice, persist. For the time you’re in the mask, this is your face and what’s born of this melding is something new that’s part you, part mask. Its core is not entirely the same as yours, its knowledge is nowhere near yours, and freer for it. It has a mind of its own and if you’re curious enough, it’ll show you exactly what it wants. 

Previous Guests: Colin MunchDavid RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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Guest Writer: Colin Munch (Toronto)

Colin Munch is a multiple Canadian Comedy Award-nominated writer, director, actor, and improviser as well as the Artistic Associate of Toronto’s Bad Dog Theatre. He has appeared in festivals in New York City, Boston, Montreal, Vancouver, Warsaw, and Regina.

Make It About You

Playing subtext is one of, if not the most, important acting techniques. It’s essentially Stanislavsky’s whole deal, who said it’s the actors job to play subtext, it’s the directors job to create it. In improv, where you are actor, director, and writer, how do you play subtext?

First off, what is it? Subtext is exactly what it sounds like; it’s the story underneath the story. In Pulp Fiction, when Mia and Vincent see each other at Marcellus Wallace’s place after her overdose, they exchange pleasantries that would be innocuous to anyone who doesn’t know their story, like Marcellus, but are loaded with meaning to them and to us. They know what they’ve been through, and it makes both Vincent’s concern and Mia’s direct response heavy with meaning; not just because of Mia’s overdose but because we watched them fall in love.

The classic romances are built around this idea, that we rarely say what we mean and even rarer what we feel. Subtext doesn’t always have to be unspoken, you can come right out and say you’re in love with each other, but that rocket isn’t going to launch itself!

You’ve probably heard “show don’t tell” a whole bunch but what does it really mean? For me, it’s conveying your feelings without words. Showing someone, and the audience, you’re in love with a big hug, or a touch on the arm, or even better, just a look and a smile. Creating a living, breathing world moves good improv to great and the easiest way to get there is through human interaction. Nothing is less interesting than watching two strangers meet for the first time on stage. Create a history together, either through conversation or by listening to what has already been established. Two strangers meeting is boring, two strangers meeting whose reputation precedes them; that’s interesting. Even better is two people who already have history, played by two actors who aren’t afraid to dive in. Scene work is half creating and half listening, and if you can task (ie: accomplish a physical goal) while you’re doing it, buddy, you’re golden.

It all comes back to listening, and having a playable, relatable intention right from the word ‘go’. Breathe in your scene partner, observe each other, and remember: collaborate, don’t fabricate.

Previous Guests: David RazowskyNicole LeeSteve JarandDave Pasquesi & earlier guests.

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