The Play That Goes Wrong

So, “The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Follow a different map

In our most recent Monday night improv workshop, we practiced a particular exercise called mapping, and it’s absolutely amazing when it’s done right. The short version of the concept is this: the performers are playing one scene, but playing it emotionally and even with a lot of the same dialogue and beats of a completely different scene.

Ideally, the main scene will be something every day or innocuous, while the scene it’s mapped on is something huge and emotional. Or, if the main scene is something big, the mapping source is as different as possible, especially in emotional tone.

Some examples from tonight: A woman telling her husband that they’ve switched to drinking 2% milk, but doing it as if she’s surprising him with the news that she’s pregnant. A convict is about to be executed, but he plays the scene like it’s the college graduation he’s long looked forward to. A new employee on her first day at an office supply store is being shown the ropes, but she plays it like a young woman about to lose her virginity.

Now here’s the trick when doing it in improv: ideally, it’s done without warning. Maybe the suggestion is “realtor showing a house,” but one of the players choses to play it as a professor at a very pricey university chastising a student who isn’t doing their best. Once they’ve established the realtor and client relationship, then that player starts to throw on the mapping, at the very least in emotional tone.

If they do their job, their scene partner and the audience will pick up on it at about the same time, and then the game is afoot. If the partner gets what the initiator is mapping, then it’s time for another improv magic trick on stage, as the scene becomes about two different things at once.

In the case of the new employee/virgin exercise tonight, it became hilarious — and bonus points for the entire scene playing within our family-friendly rules despite the subject matter. The adults would get it while the kids would hear it literally as someone nervous about the job. But the more the new employee talked about concern over her first time, the more the other employee piled it on, advising her not to use a certain brand of stapler, and eventually telling her she was bringing in a couple of warehouse employees who’d been “doing this all day long.”

I think the line that killed everyone in the house was the new employee saying, “I want to take it slow. I hope there won’t be a hole-punch involved.”

For my part, as a performer, I was the executioner to the convict excited for graduation mapping, and it really turned out to be fun as hell to play. There was just something ludicrously joyous and yet simultaneously dark about these two men sharing an ebullient moment over an event that, in the reality of the scene, would be truly terrible, but which was, because of the mapping, a cause for celebration. We even planned for the convict’s grandparents to attend, and hold his hands during the big moment — although I did advise him to tell them to wear thick, rubber-soled shoes.

It was going to be an execution by electric chair with friends and family, the dropping of balloons, and people tossing their caps into the air.

It’s a really powerful creative technique, because it doesn’t need to be limited to just improv, and I’m seeing uses for the concept in my writing already. I think I may have unintentionally done this a few times in short plays or scenes over my career, but now I know how to do it purposefully. It adds a certain surrealism to things, but can really up the stakes, elevating the mundane while retaining a strange but consistent logic.

To me, it seems like a hidden variation of one of the techniques we use when improvising Shakespeare as a genre, which is called metaphor. In it, one of the ways to create flowing and poetic language off-the-cuff is exactly that: create a metaphor for something and then run with it.

For example, “My love for thee is fire, that burns so bright that all who see are blinded, and so hot that naught is left but the smelted gold of the purity of our hearts, and let anyone who’d try to quench these flames perish in them, for I shall never let the bellows of my soul allow our amorous inferno to starve…”

(Yes, that was written as improv.)

Now take that a step back and think about a scene where a librarian is checking out a patron, but decides to play it as a fireman evacuating a burning building.

P: I’d like to check out — 
L: Oh my god, what are you doing? Come on, come on, let’s go!
P: It’s... this is for a homework — 
L: You want to die for that? Why haven’t you read Fahrenheit 451 already?
P: I... hadn’t gotten around to it?
L: Well, great. Literature is definitely an escape, isn’t it?
P: Why do you seem so alarmed?
L: Because that’s my job!
P: What about my cat up that tree?
L: Don’t worry. We’re on it...

And so on… and so the scene becomes an entirely different thing. And in case you’re wondering about where one player clued in the other that they got the game, it happens in line seven, with the word “alarmed.”

Making the right choices in mapping helps to create two of the most important elements of comedy: contrasts and the unexpected. By treating the mundane as spectacular — or vice versa — you instantly create humor by defying audience expectations. The contrast itself creates the air of the unexpected. With the execution/graduation example, that happened almost immediately. The audience knew the suggestion was “prisoner on his last day,” but then the other player bounded in and opened brilliantly with, “Oh, boy. I’m sure excited about today!”

But where mapping can go wrong is if the subject and the map are too close to each other, in which case you don’t get those really beautiful extremes. I tried to find a video example of good mapping to link here, but I could only find one and there were too many results to wade through, because the terms improv and mapping also apply to jazz musicians, which most of the videos were for.

The one that I’m not going to link, while it explained mapping very well, had a terrible example: a man trading in a horse for a new one, but doing it as if he’s at a car dealer. Can you see the issue there? Both scenes are transactional, and are basically about getting a new vehicle. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for novelty. Not that it can’t work as an improv bit on its own, but it doesn’t take full advantage of the exercise.

Transaction scenes are actually tricky for mapping because it can be difficult to come up with a map that isn’t itself a transactional scene. In these cases, it’s better if the mapping revolves around something besides the transaction. For example, the customer may secretly be in love with the seller and is just using the transaction as an excuse to see them. Or, with the horse example, maybe someone is telling their in-laws that they’re divorcing their kid.

The one transaction scene that does work is itself a game, though, called Shopping Spree or Shopkeeper, depending on where you play it. It’s a guessing game probably better seen than described. Here’s our great ComedySportz Manchester team playing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest*. The big difference here is that we play it as a team vs. team game instead of one team, so each team is working from the same list of seven items, one team down and the other team up, the first to hit four winning. On top of that, each clue-giver gets 20 seconds. Consequently, the Manchester version is a lot less frenetic than ours is.

Half the fun is in the audience, who’s in the know, watching the shopkeeper not getting the clues. It’s also not a boring transaction scene because it’s not about the transaction at all. In fact, it’s just another form of mapping. In this case, the game itself is the map, but that’s kind of how improv works in general

*Fun inside baseball fact: ComedySportz has a red team and a blue team, but in the Manchester team video, one of the players is wearing a black and white jersey. This is because he’s playing as the “DJ,” or designated jokester, who alternates playing for both teams when there are only two members on each. In L.A., we don’t have a special jersey. Rather, the DJ wears one over the other and puts it on or takes it off as needed — although we also very rarely resort to DJs.

Antique map image of Leo Belgicus by Claes Jansz. Visscher, is in the public domain.

Letting go of thinking

Here’s the funny thing about improv and letting go of thinking. When I first started taking classes and then performing, two games scared the ever-loving crap out of me: “What are you doing?” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” For the life of me, in “What Are You Doing,” I couldn’t come up with descriptions of what I was doing and had a really hard time avoiding the dreaded and prohibited “I’m…” The reason “I’m” isn’t allowed is because it’s a form of hesitating — although we certainly hear it in the clip linked above. (Side note: although this is a ComedySportz LA clip from almost seven years ago, some of the players here are still with us.

And in the latter game, “Da Doo Ron Ron, I used to consistently stumble over my own tongue by either whiffing the rhyme or repeating someone else and always getting called outta there no later than third. Note that the linked version here is from a different city, so they do it slightly differently than we do, with the “5, 6, 7, 8” intro, and by rotating players instead of eliminating them. And, although this is a ComedySportz clip from New Orleans from over a decade ago… yeah, you guessed it. I know one of the players here, who is now on the Los Angeles team.

If you didn’t get it from the videos or didn’t watch the videos, I’ll  give some explanation. “What Are You Doing” is an opener game, and it works like this. There’s an audience suggestion of a place, occupation, or theme, like “Pet Store.” First player starts with a motion that’s totally random. Other player demands, “What Are You Doing?” And first player replies with something related to the suggestion, like, “Feeding hamsters!” but which has nothing at all to do with the gestures they’re making. Second player acts out feeding hamsters, then first player demands “What Are You Doing?” and second player describes something completely different from the action but related to the suggestion, like “grooming puppies!” It continues until someone hesitates or whiffs it entirely.

Later on in the game, there’s an extra complication. The Ref will ask an audience member, “What are you initials,” getting either two or three. After that, all of the answers to “What Are You Doing” have to start with those letters. For example, if the letters are PJB, you’d get stuff like “Projecting jelly beans” or “Pretending Jedis breathe” or “Postulating justifiable bingos,” or whatever. And it can get messy fast, but in a good way — the more nonsensical the better, because then there’s the added challenge of the players having to act out things that are totally non-existent or even impossible.

The other game, “Da Doo Ron Ron,” is a singing and rhyming game that I’ve written about before, although not by name. It’s based on the old song. The pattern is pretty simple. The Ref gets a name, then person one sings a line that ends with that name: “I met a dude whose name was Pete” — “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” The next person rhymes that: “He was really very sweet,” followed by “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.” And now it gets tricky, because the next player has to come up with three rhymes, and fast. “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He has big feet.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He doesn’t eat meat.” “Da doo doo, yeah?” “He hates defeat.” “Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.”

One of the games within the game is turning that “yeah” into a challenge to the player who has to come up with the three rhymes, as if we’re basically saying, “So, what you got?” The other complication is that each time around after someone gets called out, the tempo gets faster.

So, back to the top… way back when I was learning improv, both of these games scared the living shit out of me, but then a funny thing happened as I’ve played them more and more and let go of the thinky part of my brain. I’ve relaxed into them, and these games that used to terrify me have become two of my favorites to play. And I’ve somehow managed to pretty consistently make it to the final round in “Da Doo Ron Ron” every damn time, as well as at least carry out much longer streaks in “What are you doing?” than I ever did before.

For “What Are You Doing,” it really is a matter of not planning ahead at all, which is especially fun when we get into the initials part of it. For “Da Doo,” there is some planning, but it’s really only a matter of holding three rhymes in my head at all times, then replacing any that get used — but the important part of that strategy is listening so that I can make the switch while remembering what’s already been used.

The next thing on my “Holy crap that scares me” list? Scene games. But I’m guessing that my amazing coach already knows that, and has a plan to guide me through that nasty land mine of terror.

And did I mention that doing this thing that once upon a time terrified me has actually turned out to be  the bestest thing ever? ‘Cause, yeah… it has. Well, okay. Second bestest. The bestest wold be a human being, but they also never terrified me, so there’s that.

The power of making stuff up

As I’ve mentioned before, ComedySportz doesn’t just do improv shows. They also do classes for adults, kids, and teens, and improv training for businesses and other forms of team building. And this is the true power of the art form. Improv can teach you so much more than just being funny on stage.

It can teach you how to think on your feet, and adapt to the situation under changing circumstances. Do you deal with customers or clients on a daily basis? Are you in law enforcement and have to defuse tense situations? Are you a teacher who has to handle an audience of rowdy kids every day? Then improv is for you.

It can teach you how to listen. Do you deal with coworkers? Are you in a mental health or medical profession, customer service, or a lawyer or accountant or whatever? Learning how to really hear what other people say and respond accordingly is a very important skill.

It can teach you how to work together. The golden rule of ComedySportz is this: “We make each other look good.” A corollary is “Got your back,” and most of what we do is to bail out our fellow players before they flop on their face, often by jumping in with no fear of looking bad ourselves despite having no ideas — because we have other team members who will have our backs as well. “Do, don’t think” is a guiding principal, built on the idea that everyone else will be there to catch you before you fall.

One of the warm-up games we use that really demonstrates this principal is called “Pencils are good for…”  Basically, we get a suggestion (not pencils) and then have to jump out and rattle off as many things we can think of that fit the form. For example, if the suggestion is “pickles,” then there we go: “Pickles are good for…” Putting on sandwiches, sticking in jars, making little hats for hamsters, using as tiny Frisbees, making toadstools in tiny ponds, relishing an idea, using as really bad darts, (mumble mumble)… and the next player jumps in to toss that life preserver.

And the whole point here is to not leave your fellow player hanging. And the other idea is to jump in whether you have a good suggestion or not. “Because it rhymes with nickels” would be a totally valid save, even if it weren’t a funny joke, for example.

Back to the original premise: Knowing how to improv will help you in every bit of your everyday life. Job interview? Think on your feet and you’ll nail it. Company meeting designed to generate ideas? Bing bang boom, go into pun game mode, and you’ll blow them away. Any sort of meeting or consultation with another person? Learn how to listen, then really listen, and you’ll win. Customer service? Make the interaction an improv game in your mind, and, if you live on tips, you’re probably going to start rolling in them.

The basic lesson is this: Every single interaction we have with another human being every day is basically an exercise in improv. We usually do this without even thinking about it. But… if we learn how to think about it and pay attention and focus, then we will learn how to be in control of our interactions — and this bit alone is probably the best way to completely end any sort of social anxiety that we have. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If we learn how to approach life like that, then we will have no more stage fright. Learn how to improv and kiss social anxiety good-bye. Really.

Yes, and…

The improv company I work for and take classes from, ComedySportz L.A., doesn’t just have teams or classes for actors and other performers. A big part of their business — for all of the ComedySportz Teams worldwide — is to provide training in improvisation for major companies using improv’s “unique ability to foster collaboration, inspiration, gratitude and fun.” Non-performers use these techniques for various reasons, from becoming better public speakers, to being better problem solvers who can think on their feet, to being better listeners.

I’m not plugging the company here, although if you own a business and want to do some great team-building, or want to just have a talented troupe of professional improvisers come out to entertain you, give them a call and tell them I sent you.

What I really wanted to write about was my personal experience with this synergy of art and business. One of the things that CSz (the official abbreviation) does is to have one-day intensive workshops that serve as both a refresher in basic skills for experienced improvisers as well as intros to the art form for people who’ve never done it before, whether they’re experienced actors or non-performers. My original entrée to ComedySportz was via a one-day intensive as a performer who’d never really done improv before (because it scared the crap out of me), and that got me hooked.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has come up to do an intensive and I’ve been able to, you can be sure I’ve done it — one of the great things about them is that it’s usually a different teacher every time, and that’s another way to build experience. They’ll explain things slightly differently than another teacher and see things in your strengths and weaknesses that the others haven’t.

Last Saturday, was another re-visit to the basics. This time around, there were five students. Besides myself, there was one other experienced improviser who’s also a friend of mine because of the company, and our teacher has decades of experience. The other three students, though, were not only first-time improvisers, but none of them were performers, either.

And this is where the true power of improvisation shines, and why everybody should give it a try at least once in a safe and controlled environment like this — because, time and time again, I’ve watched people who’ve never even been on stage before start out being very self-conscious and nervous and afraid to do anything, but within forty-five minutes, all of that has vanished, and they’re just going for it and having a lot of fun.

Don’t think that actors or singers have it any easier, though. I’d performed on stage a bunch of times since an early age first as a musician and then as an actor before I took my first improv class, and I was just as self-conscious and nervous and afraid, too. See, musicians and actors usually get to rehearse and frequently have sheet music and scripts, so it’s easy. Make it up on the spot? Oh no! Scary!

Except, there’s this funny thing about humans. We are natural story-tellers. We may not always realize it, but think about every single conversation you’ve ever had. You enter it with a point of view, and probably with some purpose in having it, whether it’s to ask a stranger for directions or explain to your boss why the Fergus account documents aren’t ready yet. We naturally arrange things with a beginning, middle, and ending, too, whether we know it or not.

“When I went out to my car this morning” (beginning) “there was a moose sitting on my hood” (middle, and some complication) “and I couldn’t do anything until animal control showed up and led it away” (more middle, and some resolution) “But I had to catch an Uber because my car was squished, so, sorry I’m late” (ending, along with the reason for the story).

It’s easy when we do it in real life. The trick is to realize that we do it in real life, then figure out how to bring real life onto the stage. And here’s big ol’ bonus tip for any performer or artist or writer: When you bring real life into it, you bring your audience into it. Period. Sure, you can be clever and intellectual as hell, and that’ll amuse some people, but (and, as a lit nerd, it pains me to write this…) how many people have read Finnegans Wake vs. how many people have read the Fifty Shades books? Or, beyond actually reading either, how many people in general could tell you anything about the former, vs. non-fans who could still tell you quite a bit about the latter?

So if you’ve had human experience, you already have relatable material to bring to the table. All you need to do then is to hang on to the recognizable parts of it while getting fanciful with the details. Take the mundane bits of your work life, but play them out in terms of a medieval knight and his squire. Describe the day that you had the worst commute ever because the train broke down, there was a taxi strike, and all the ride shares were on surge pricing, but you’re part of the Time Patrol trying to save Mars from certain destruction. Tell us about that stupid bureaucratic encounter you had at the DMV where a smudged line on one stupid form threatened to put your appointment off for eight months, except that now you’re Columbus in line at the Royal Trip Funding office, trying to convince some flunky of Ferdinand and Isobel to finance your expedition.

The permutations are endless. Basically, take what you know, tell it as you know it, but change the details and have fun. Maybe the characters are animals, or historical figures, or inanimate objects. Whatever. Endow them with that, then follow through.

For example — if Columbus and his crew had all been rabbits, what would the logical end result have been once those ships had been out to sea for a while?

But I’m jumping ahead and behind myself. The real point here is how amazing it is to watch non-performers go through these improv exercises and very quickly move from “Oh no, I’m scared, people will make fun of me” to “OMG this is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on! What’s next?”

And that’s been my real experience. I’ve watched people be too afraid to really even make it through their class introduction without stuttering, muttering, and practically wetting themselves. Three exercises later, boom. They are dancing and prancing and making stupid sounds and having a blast with the rest of us, without a care about what anyone else thinks. A little bit later, they are coming up with scary creative stuff because they’ve turned off that censor-chip in their head — and that is where the magic happens. Stop editing, stop censoring, start being… boom. Creativity explodes.

And then we get to the inevitable end of the intensive, which ends the same way that all of the CSz L.A. shows do: Time for a jump-out pun game, and this is when something really interesting happens, every single time. All of that creativity and fearlessness in the first-timers goes away, and it’s fascinating to watch because it’s so relatable.

One of the games that we usually end these classes with is called 185, although the number may vary depending on which company or city it’s being performed in. The basic set-up is this: the players get an audience suggestion and then tells this joke:

“185 [suggestions] walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve [suggestions] here!’ And the [suggestions] say, [joke].”

(Aside: A more recent variation has the bartender say instead that the bar is closed, and I actually prefer that one because the old wording calls back to days when humans were refused service based on race or religion, even if the game only deals with objects or abstract concepts.)

Here’s an example of the joke with the blanks filled in:

“185 pencils walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Hey, we don’t serve pencils here!’ And the pencils say, ‘Well, this trip was pointless.’”

Yes, these jokes are supposed to be the worst of every conceivable pun or dad joke around. And, as I’ve discovered over the time I’ve been doing it, making puns for games like this is one of my improv superpowers. However, it’s not an impossible skill to acquire, and our teacher on Saturday shared a bit of knowledge with us that I’d never thought of before, maybe because it’s what I’ve always instinctively done.

For a game like this, think about the suggestion, either in broad or narrow terms. For example, if the suggestion is “cars,” you can think about all the things a car has — wheels, brakes, hood, headlights, gear-shift, transmission, etc. — or you can think of kinds of car — sedan, limousine, Mercedes, beater, VW, Uber, etc. Then, all you have to do is come up with a phrase or sentence that ends with that word. Boom — there’s your pun game joke.

Now this bit of advice came after we’d been through a few suggestions and it turned out that either I or the other regular performer had to jump out most of the time because nobody else was taking the chance. Lo and behold, once our teacher explained, then had everybody think of one thing associated with the suggestion (tightrope walker), and told them that this was going to be their punchline, ta-da: Five jokes in a row, every one of which worked.

“185 improvisers walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ And the improvisers say, ‘Hey, are you trying to be punny?’”

I didn’t say you always got good jokes, but you’d be surprised how hard an audience will laugh at the stupidest puns if you deliver them with conviction. And so I will end this tale with both a pun and good advice: How is a good performer like a prisoner?

Neither one gets there without conviction.

Thanks and good night, and don’t forget to tip your server…

Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns, or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put it nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? He didn’t hate the craft so much as the subject matter. It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, which  I love. The film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.