Tag Archives: iO

Entering the bat cave


I started my graduate program a little under a year ago.  Figuring out what the hell I was doing was a lot like figuring out what I’m doing every time I do a Harold (a type of long-form improv show, for those who don’t know). Hear me out on this.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I came straight from undergraduate, and even though I had a lot of research experience and strong problem-solving skills (woohoo! Go Liberal Arts Universities!), I had acquired those skills at a cost.  Not having experience at an R1, I never learned the demands or political hierarchy of a big research lab, or the importance of establishing a “programatic line of research.”  I’d never heard the words “mechanism” and “elucidate” used as many times as I did in the first week that I was here.  (Am I right, other grad students?)

Luckily, I’m a quick learner.  I have a better idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, but something new unfolds each day.  The rough thing about graduate school, or at least my experience with it thus far, is that there is no instructions manual whatsoever.  (Unless you can stomach this awesome guide.)  In every job I’ve had in the past, there has been some sort of employee manual, an extensive job description, etc.  I do not envy entrepreneurs – they’re also figuring all of that out on their own.

But isn’t that the rough thing about improv, too?  I mean, sure, you’ve got Truth in Comedy, Improvise, and a ton of online resources (check out these blogs, in no particular order: The Boiling Point, Improvoker, ImprovMantraWomen Improvisers Trust, Bill Arnett, The House That Del Built, USSRock’n’Roll.  There are so many other great ones, but that’s just a random, representative sampling.)  But when it comes down to it, there is nothing that can prepare you for improv better than just doing it.

Last week in class, we were learning how to approach the game-slot of the Harold.  For those unfamiliar with this, a Harold is a type of long-form improvisation that more or less follows a specific structure:


Scene 1A, 1B, 1C


Scene 2A, 2B, 2C (each of which is some sort of callback to a theme, character, or idea in 1A, 1B, and 1C, respectively)


Scene 3A, 3B, 3C (which sometimes become a run, meaning characters and ideas from different scene-slots start interacting with each other)

For many people (myself included), the game-slot is one of the most intimidating parts of performing a Harold (which, shameless self-promotion, I will be doing at iO on August 26!).  It typically turns into a giant group scene, and often lacks that game-y quality that we’re all looking for (i.e. what else is true?).  In class, we talked a little bit about why the game gets messed up.  It’s honestly a classic bystander/freeloader effect, without malicious intent.  The person who initiates has a great concept for a game, but he is one of about 6-8 people who are about to go on stage.  Knowing that he will never possibly be able to dictate the whole concept for his game without coming off like a douche, he goes out with what he thinks is a great opening line.  But obviously the rest of the team is not inside his head, and so the follow-up line to his opening is less clear.  (Alternatively, he gets really excited about the concept he has and assumes that the rest of the team will fill in the blanks, and runs with the half-baked idea.)  The rest of the team, eager to support, and courteous not to “steal” his thunder/step on his idea, agrees vehemently.  But they don’t “and”.  I say it’s a classic bystander/freeloader effect, because everyone is looking at everyone else thinking, “Well, go ahead, say something.”  “No, please, by all means, I’ll be polite and let you go first.”  “Well, let’s see where Joe is going with this.  He’s got an idea because he started this.  Let’s not be jerks.”  With such a diffusion of responsibility, and everyone trying to be polite to everyone else,  no one says anything!  Then the game is slow to develop, as everyone is fumbling around looking for the pattern.  Or the game turns into the classic group scene, which is comfortable, but not necessarily exciting.  Or it turns into a dictator game because Joe feels the pressure on him since he started the game.  None of these is an ideal situation.  (Perhaps you have thoughts on why the game-slot is so intimidating?  I’d love to hear, if so.)

Well, how do you fix it?  How do we show these game-slots some love?  We’ve got to be like bat-shit crazy, that’s how.  My teacher explained it like this: bats have no idea when they enter a cave where they are going.  But they don’t freeze in hesitation at the cave’s entrance and hope for a miracle.  Nope, they use their sonar system of echolocation to figure out where they’re going as they head in.  Maybe they pause for a brief moment to get their bearings, but they approach a new cave with a sink-or-swim mentality.  They affect their environment and use that to propel them forward.  And that’s what we have to do with the game-slot of the Harold.  Remember that the best way to support isn’t by agreeing vehemently, it’s by giving a gift and helping shape the pattern of the game.  Remember that you might not have any idea what’s going on in the game, but that’s because no one has any idea.  Because the game doesn’t exist until you make it exist.  So go in head first, start screaming your head off like a bat (metaphorically of course), and make that thing work.

You have so much power!  If the first person goes out and she makes a weird noise and movement, go out and make another one.  Great, you guys are part of a machine together.  What the heck does this machine do, and how well or poorly does it do it?  That’s the game.  (If it’s true that you are a human machine, what else is true?)  Or, go out and start rapping.  Wonderful. You guys are a band/rap group – what irks you?  What’s the inspiration for your raps? Or, go out and comment on the mendacious nature of the sound and start a mock-philosophical commentary on Chicago’s streets at night.  Whatever you do, do it!

Looking back on it, that’s what I did to get through this year.  I love what I’m doing and I’m confident that I’m getting the hang of it, but I’ll admit that I’m still riddled with self-doubt (which likely won’t be quelled until I get my first publication.  Or maybe that will only propagate it!).  I’ve been sort of throwing things up at the wall, and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t.  I’ve learned a lot about scientific reasoning.  My content knowledge has increased more than I can articulate.   I can’t show you these things, but I  know that I’ve changed and grown as a researcher.  But I just sort of dove in head first (not aware of how deep of water I was about to tread), and hey, I’m swimming.  (This is an ironic metaphor, since I don’t know how to swim in real life.)

I have so much power to affect my future career – I just can’t let the anxiety of figuring out grad school paralyze me.  The key to success is working through what you don’t know and figuring it out along the way.  A lot of really important science is discovered that way, right?  Some experiment doesn’t turn out right and then we seek to explain why not, and we get Pavlov’s dogs.

“Enter a Harold game-slot, or graduate school, or really life in general, like a bat enters a cave.”  Never in a million years did I anticipate that that would be a piece of advice I would give myself!


Say what you mean


Here’s a bit of Del Close wisdom:

Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage is to affect each other in some way… Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  With these paranoid adjustments, nothing I hear is going to be simple. Nothing you say to me is going to be accepted at face value. Ohh? It always means something else.

We are all a bunch of raving paranoids, if you think about it, on stage and off.  We never accept what someone else tells us at face-value; we always expect that there’s more to it, some underlying meaning.

Why? Because we’ve come to understand that we have to read sub-text because people never fully say what they mean.  There’s so much more going on inside that black box of our mind that never fully gets out.  Now given the variability of the accuracy with which we mentally simulate about others, it would make sense if we were just more explicit with each other.  Why aren’t we?  I have no idea.  Maybe we think we are?

I watched the movie Adam the other day.  It’s about the romantic relationship of this guy with Asperger’s syndrome.  It’s  a really great watch; I highly recommend.  But one symptom of Asperger’s is trouble decoding social cues.  His girlfriend was upset one night and he said to her, “I know you’re upset, but I do not know what I should do.”  She said, “It’d be nice if you could give me a hug.”  But with Adam, she had to be even more explicit.  “Adam.  I’d like you to give me a hug now.”

In improv, we have to say what we mean.  For some reason, even on stage, we hide behind metaphors and subtext.  But there, it’s the most crucial that we’re communicating with each other.  If we’re in an opener and we want everyone to start doing the same thing as us, why don’t we just tell them?  The openers are for the improvisers, not the audience.  They’re for us to get on the same page and to generate content for our shows.  And why should that only be true for openings?  I was in a scene a few weeks ago where I thought the other woman on stage was my lesbian lover, and she thought she was my roommate.  Hey, either one worked in the scene, but we were not behaving in a cohesive manner because  neither of us ever clarified.  Would it really have been that difficult for me to say, “Oh, baby, blahblahblah” and put my hand on her arm?  That would work, no?  Or couldn’t she have said “You know, as your roommate, I feel obliged to tell you that blahblahblah”? Both are subtle, but say exactly what we mean.

Now just because someone does not have Asperger’s does not know that they understand what you want.  If you really want someone to know what you mean, you need to say it.  Be explicit.  My friend E upset me a bit the other day.  She knew why – I had misunderstood her intent.  It forced her to be explicit (“I don’t want to upset you. If something is important to you, it is important to me. I had thought that doing x was not a good idea because y.”) but it also forced me to be upfront with my own emotions. (“Yes, but I think x is good because z.  And I am glad that you told me that you didn’t mean to upset me and that you knew why you had, because I was afraid that we were out of touch or that I was overreacting.”)  One of my strongest relationships is with E because we’re able to talk to each other about what is really important, and tell each other what we need, rather than getting bogged down in subtleties.  We confront each other if something is wrong because it’s better to talk about it than let it simmer.

The other day, I finally took a page out of my own book and was upfront with myself about what I want.  It felt awesome.  Let’s see if I can do that in my improv class tonight.

Be present.


Wow. Something really cool happened tonight. I got out of my head.

What a perfect way to start my month of April.  At first, I didn’t know what my next move would be.  Make statements really did help me with establishing my point of view (although this is still something I continue to work on in my improv; thanks for drawing the connection there, R).  But what would come next?

It seems sort of counter-intuitive to this project, but I want to stop thinking so damn much about all of the rules.  Between this project and my iO class, I’ve been finding myself so caught up in the details that I’ve been unable to appreciate the art of improv.  (Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much enjoying both this project and my class.)  But sometimes, it’s important to just be present and out of your head.  That allows us to react honestly on stage, and to stop planning everything ahead of time.  My improv teacher says don’t bring a cathedral.  Bring a brick and we’ll build the cathedral together.  In other words, don’t try to plan a scene ahead of time – instead, work with the people on stage to make something real.  To successfully do that, you must be present in the scene.

So what happened in class tonight that was so awesome?  We were getting individualized challenges/constraints on our scenework, which were focused such that we would work through some of our weaknesses.  My instruction was to babble: whenever my scene partner wasn’t talking, I was just to begin talking immediately and to keep talking incessantly until she interrupted me.  Oh, also I was supposed to focus on a particular desire that my character might have.  We were best friends – I went into the scene thinking, “Okay, I want her to be my best friend for life.”  But my scene partner gave that gift to me almost immediately, saying in one of her first few lines how glad she was that we could be so comfortable together and how she could never imagine that changing.  I still had to babble, even in spite of the fact that I no longer had a clear motivational force.  And that’s when something beautiful happened.  It hit me: I love her as my best friend, but I actually want to make other really good friends, because I’m afraid of losing her (we might go to different colleges…, or one of us might get married and move away…) and afraid that my inability to replace her would devastate me.  It was something magical, really – a discovery in the truest sense.  (In improv, when we talk about “discoveries”, we mean bits of information, or “gifts”, that we did not know existed at the beginning of the scene but, through an exploration of the characters’ relationship and their behavior in their current situation, emerge as preeminent and fundamental facts about our characters.)  All of the sudden, the stakes were higher. I was invested in what my scene partner had to say about my fear of being without her (maybe a bit co-dependent, but then again, who hasn’t occasionally had that thought about their best friend?) and I was less focused on planning what I would say next because I had no idea what she was going to say to me.

…my focus went from inward (“What am I going to say/do next?”) to outward (“What did my scene partner just do and how do I react to that?”).– Ben Bowman

So that is going to be my task for the month of April: Make honest discoveries.  Be in the moment.  Stay out of your head.  There’s a whole big beautiful world happening out there – go see that, Liz, rather than hanging out inside your head all of the time.

2012, here I come.


You might be wondering, ‘Well, Liz, what does ‘The Year of Improv’ mean?’

The Year of Improv means that I am going to live one year of my life (2012; let’s hope the Mayans were wrong) by the rules of improv.

You might now be wondering, ‘Well, Liz, what the heck does that mean?”

Truth is, I might be wondering the same thing.

One famous Del quote (Del Close) is “The only rule is that there are no rules.” But to be honest, there are quite a few “rules” (I use quotations to emphasize the flexibility of said rules) by which one should abide if one wants to be a successful improviser. I’m currently enrolled in classes at iO, improv Olympic, in Chicago. But I’ve been involved in improvisational theatre for a few years now, and have been reading what I can on the topic for a while in order to strengthen my skills. I’ll go into further discussion of what I mean by these “rules” in a minute (for those of you who are less versed in improv terminology), but first I want to explain how I decided to take up this project.

As a social psychologist (side note: that’s what I actually do for a living, or will hopefully some day after I complete graduate school), I’m particularly interested in how people interact with one another and how each person is affected by that interaction. What is improv if not exactly that? In improv, we have two(+) people on stage, interacting. We’ve stripped them of their traditional theatrical props, the sets, the costumes. Literally the only thing to build upon is what one improviser or the other player creates – there is no external source of creation. Playing with my improv troupe in college (Tag improv!), I couldn’t help but notice that, although our characters responded to a variety of fictional situations the way that people do in real life, by trying to create good improv, we as actors were creating human responses that, although ideal, are less common in real life.

For instance, one scene developed such that one improviser was a director and the other an actor for some horridly horrible action thriller movie (think The Green Lantern, zing!). The director character was sort of an asshole, and he wanted to go over a line in the script with the devoted and eager-to-please actor. Obviously, we encounter a problem here: this is improvisation, so how can two players simultaneously speak the exact same words, as though they were reading from the same script?  After a moment’s eye contact, the two improvisers spoke in attempted (and nearly perfect) unison. In real life, it would be advantageous if we could look at someone we’re working on a project with, and be so trusting of one another that we work through a difficult issue with ease, rather than gawking at the seeming impossibility of the task at hand. Another instance was in my Level 1 iO class. We were doing an opening for a Harold about how important it is to get a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas parties. At the end of an opening for a Harold, we have a bit where everyone is laughing, real genuine laughter. Now there are about 8 of us on stage doing this in unison, but one person’s laughter starts to sound a bit nervous and uncomfortable. The rest of the group is almost instantly sensitive to this; we all begin to morph our laughter, reflecting the first player’s anxiety and rising to meet it. A natural response to laughter is more laughter; in an ideal world, emotional contagion and behavioral synchrony (i.e. “catching” and feeling the emotions of another and responding in a similar way; in this case, the moderate discomfort) is constructive for the formation of cohesive social units because it demonstrates that we are empathetic and allows us to come together emotionally.  But so often in the real world, people feel as though others don’t understand them, and feel as though they are lacking this emotional connection.

What if ‘real life’ were more like improv? I began to think about how much more cohesive the world would be if we all played by those rules. It must work – I mean, improv is used to help businesses become more effective, it’s used to help Alzheimer’s patients establish a sense of well-being as they deal with memory loss,  and to help develop social skills for those on the Autism Spectrum.  Surely the advocates of these uses of improv must be on to something. If we all followed these rules in real life, it would foster a deeper sense of connection and understanding among people (ask any improv troupe/team that’s been playing together for a while and they will tell you that they just fundamentally trust and understand the people they work with), and there’s no way that could be anything but advantageous, right?

So, what are these rules?

These are the ones that I think are both fundamental to improv and also could be implemented into my daily life; henceforth, these are the ones I’ve decided to focus on.

1) “Yes, And…” In improv, you should never say “No.” If your scene partner says, “Mom, I have to go to the dentist now”, it’s not really conducive to strong scene work if you respond, “I’m not your Mom! I’m Santa Clause!” because that denies the reality that you’ve just established and where can the scene go from there? By the same token, if you just say, “Okay,” well, yes, you are agreeing that you are that improviser’s mother, but again, where can the scene go? The other person gave you a gift by telling you who you were to them, now it’s your turn to return the favor by telling them how you feel about what they said.  Otherwise, you are forcing a lot of responsibility upon your partner’s shoulder, and where can the scene go from there? (January)
2) Respect This sort of goes along with “Yes, And…” and agreement, but you really need to respect your scene partners. You are both the most important person on stage and the least important person on stage simultaneously. You need to respect what they say and make them look like the shit because if everyone is making everyone else look good, then everyone looks good. But if someone is focusing solely on themselves, then it is harder to connect with them and therefore harder to produce good improv. (February)
3) Commit – If you go out on stage, you are now a character in the scene. You can pretend it didn’t happen, but the audience knows. If you have a limp, it doesn’t miraculously cure itself. The audience saw. That’s part of you, as a character, now. Commit. Commit. Commit. Don’t lose that accent. Don’t pretend that something wasn’t said when it was. We all heard it.
4) Be flexible/justify – Along with the commit rule, there are going to be moments when two players may say contradictory things simultaneously. But both need to commit to them. How the heck does that work? Well, you’d sure as hell be able to find a way to justify why both statements can be true. At the same time, you need to be flexible. If you come on stage thinking you’re playing with an imaginary yo-yo and your scene partner mentions how cool it is that you can dribble a basketball, that yo-yo just lost it’s string, enlarged 10x its size, and should be shot into a hoop.
5) Find the game – This one is a little less mainstream, but I think it fits for living a year by the rules of improv.  The game of the scene is something that is funny or interesting, unique about these characters and this scene. Figure out the basic situation and then see, if that is true, then what else is also true? For instance, imagine that it is established that a wife is overly demanding of her husband (who cannot afford financially to give her everything that she wants).  They begin a landscaping project in their yard; she asks for a fish pond, and he responds that he’ll sell his car to afford it. She asks for a extravagant garden; he tells her he will sell his life insurance to afford it. She demands they build a tiny chateau; he responds he’ll sell their first born daughter to afford it. The game is figuring out, if these characters are real and this is their reality, how far can it go? (June)
6) Stay out of your head/be in the moment – Going along with be flexible/justify, improvisational theatre is all about interactions. But get rid of the “int” and arrange a few letters and what do you get? Reactions. Improv is interesting because audiences get to experience change. They get to see the impact of one character’s words as they take effect on another character. So, stop planning and really just be in the moment so that you can respond honestly and genuinely. (April)
7) Don’t gag- Gagging is doing something for humor’s sake. In my mind, it’s closely related to mugging. For some reason, there is this unspoken (and inaccurate) expectation that improv must be funny to be “good.” No. If you are going in for a joke for a joke’s sake, then you are probably not following multiple other rules in this list. If you are going to mug to the audience after you’ve delivered a line, with a face that is expecting applause, then you are definitely not following multiple other rules on this list. Just don’t do it.
8) Don’t just talk about something, do it. – No one will honestly tell you that they would rather see two people talk about getting into a food fight rather than actually getting into a food fight (if they do, they are lying and have clearly never indulged in one or watched any of these movies.)  By the same token, no one in the audience paid to see a couple of talking heads. They want to see something happen. If you want to have a sing-off between two characters, don’t talk about who’d win. Do it and let the audience’s response decide.
9) Drill down into relationships – The most interesting scenes aren’t externally founded. They are based in the character’s relationships. How does one person make the other person feel? Either today is the day that he or she tells him or her off, or today is just any other day in the life of the Jones. Either way, we want to see what these characters mean to one another. (May)
10) Make statements Don’t ask questions; decide for yourself. Establish within the first few lines of a scene who the other person is, who you are, what your relationship is, where you are. Give yourselves names. Instead of asking them what the headline of the Sunday paper is, tell them they should read Sunday’s headline story and explain why. (March)
11) Still working on what will be the last one. Comments and thoughts are greatly appreciated. A few contenders in mind. More news to come. But hey, if improv isn’t a place where you can play it by ear (as a child/pre-teen/even early young-adult, I wasn’t sure if that was the proper expression or if it was “play it by year”. In fact, I’m still not sure.), where can you?

So, the way it will work is that I will take one of these rules each month (order to be determined) and really focus on that rule. Obviously, some of them will be adapted slightly for use in the real world, rather than an improv stage. For instance, there are going to be some times where you are forced to say “no” in real life (you can’t possibly agree with everyone), but you could still “yes” the person you are speaking with by acknowledging that what comes out of their mouth is their reality, which will honestly change the way you interact.  For each rule, I’ll explain what I mean in terms of its practical application at the beginning of the month. I hope to not drop a rule once its month is over. For instance, I plan to start with “Yes, And…” in January, and I hope that I am still “Yes, And…”ing come February. But, what will be really important is this time next year. In December, I’m going to try applying all rules simultaneously. (I’ve never been good with physical juggling anything other than a couple of scarves, but I’m pretty good at metaphoric juggling.)

I’ll try to update with interesting things I read on each rule each month, as well as progress on my own endeavors (hopefully with very descriptive situations of when the rule was successful and/or a failure.)  I really do believe in this, but it’s also a fun side project for me.  I will try my utmost to maintain regularity, but please remember that I am in graduate school (“Publish or perish!”).

I can see an obvious issue here: improvisation is not about the individual, it’s about the relationships. If I am the only one living by the rules of improv, isn’t that asking for failure? After all, even the most talented of improvisers can only help a scene so far when faced with continual “no”s from their scene partner (unless, of course, it’s become the game of the scene, see above). At some point, all scenes need to be edited. So, yes, I take that point. I’m not guaranteeing any successes here; all I’m looking to do is to try it out. See where it gets me. I’m an eternal optimist at heart, and I really believe in humankind (perhaps too much, but that’s a different story for a different time). I bet you that people are living more by the rules of improv than they realize that they are, and by my focusing on them, I might evoke the same behavior from them (whether they are conscious of it or not).

Finally, I decided back in early May that I wanted to do this project after reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (great book, I highly recommend it.)  Funnily enough, I happened to read Bossypants by the wonderful Tina Fey (iO alum!) next and stumbled upon her list, “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.” Well, isn’t it ironic that Ms. Fey, who I may or may not have a huge celebrity crush on (she is just so smart! and talented, too!), thinks that life would be better if we all applied the rules of improvisation to our lives? If Tina Fey thinks this is a good idea, then I am game to at least give it a try. Also, how cool is it that she and I are on the same page?!

So here’s to 2012, The Year of Improv. (And yikes, perhaps the end of the world. Knock on wood.)