Sunday, 30 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Nine

Big day

Sometimes you get to do something awesome in life like invent a cure for a disease, make a speech that goes into the history books or in my case, perform at the main Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea.  Although I've performed class graduation shows there before, I've never been part of a "proper" show there.  But now I have, and I got to do it with an amazing bunch of improvisers.

Yesterday confirmed what I believe about improv.  Your scene work is the most important thing.  Our format was really simple.  The show, 1776, was a Brits vs Americans "battle".  We took a suggestion and then a team of Brits would perform a scene followed by the US team.  At the end we all join forces and play together.  Many of us only met 20 minutes before getting on stage.  Aside from a quick "hello" and "where are you from" we then marched back stage, patted each other on the back, and got the hell out there and improvised to a full house.  

The audience were fantastic.  The show seemed to be really well received.  People even tweeted about it and stopped me in the line for other shows to say nice things.  That's what happens when you do a bit of the old "Yes...and" and find a good game of the scene.  There was no pretentious nonsense.  People did what they did and everyone else supported it.  I felt lucky to play with such great people.

In the audience for the show was my friend Roland with whom I used to work at Power FM on the South Coast.  He's since moved to the USA, is a social media wizard with a sharp brain and all round lovely way about him.  We had drinks and some food after the show.  He was getting very snappy with his camera and conversation flowed as liberally as the drinks.

I also bumped into Christina Gausas while walking along 6th Avenue.  I'd seen her the previous night in a show and we follow each other on Twitter.  Randomly, that's the first time we've met in real life. 

I caught more shows at the UCB in Chelsea late afternoon / early evening including two mindblowingly hilarious monoscenes, and then headed to the UCB in the East Village.  Had a drink, met some folk including the improv nerds crew (Brandon, Chelsea and Steve) and the Brothers Hines (Kevin and Will), and then caught more shows.  The improvised directors commentary of Twilight by Matt Walsh was inspired.  I then ended up getting roped into a 15 minute show called "Titanic-prov 3D" the premise of which revolved around the anniversary of the movie Titanic and us creating new scenes for the DVD.  I think I made it in because I am British and they weren't sure if all the cast were turning up.  So 10 minutes before it began I was grabbed, bundled into a tiny greenroom and given a cap to wear on stage.  I played a 3rd class passenger who drowned (see below).  I couldn't really top all that for a day, so I decided sleep was a great plan.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Eight

Getting the party started 

I'm in New York for the Del Close Marathon.  It's an annual improv festival in its 15th year which was founded to honour the memory of Del Close, the developer and creator of what most people describe as longform improv.

There are an insane number of people here.  I had to stand in line for 45 minutes just to get my performer's wristband.  This gets me into shows and also the party space.  Thing is, you still have to stand in line for shows.  There are 450 shows over one weekend so there must be over 1000 improvisers performing.  Although there are several spaces, The UCB in Chelsea is by far the most popular for shows.  Seeing over 200 people stand in a line that barely moves for two hours just to go see improv is a heartwarming sight for me - but it's the mother of all frustrations when I can't see the show I want to see.

One thing I did get my hands on is the UCB's book.  For a long time the Upright Citizens Brigade have been teasing us with the fact they are working on an improv book. Yesterday they revealed it, along with 200 limited edition copies.  I have one of those 200 copies and I'm bringing it home to the UK. I've looked through it and it's a really comprehensive guide to their style of improv.  

I saw some great shows yesterday.  John and Scott were a masterclass in patient improv that makes great connections.  Their technique is astonishing.  John Lutz and Scott Adsit both started improv in Chicago and both starred in the sitcom 30 Rock.  I met them briefly after the show and Scott has once again expressed the desire to come to the UK.

I also saw Let's Have A Ball which featured Brandon Gardner (who has already been and taught MissImp), his teacher Christina Gausas (Conan O'Brien) and Zach Woods (In The Loop, The Office) along side some other stellar improvisers.  Another incredible show pulled from just three words from the audience.

Then there was standing in line.  For a long time.

Then I gave up with that... and I went to the party space that's just for the performers.  This was a GOOD move.  It was like a scene from one of those American movies where there is a cool New York party going on in a large studio space with a view of the Empire State Building from the balcony.  This party had a DJ, a cool vibe (even though we are all improv nerds) and an insane view.  I will let you see this with your eyes.

Cool party people partying.

Cool view from the balcony (Empire State lit up rainbow colours to celebrate gay marriage)

Del Close Marathon background shot.  Gabriel (L) is from Toronto.  Bumped into him earlier in the week and he knows the Canadian improvisers I met last year in Chicago.  Small world.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Seven

Playing it straight

After yesterday's "It's a small world" post, yet another small world happening occurred. Yesterday I was meeting up with the improvisers who are in our Saturday show called 1776.  It's at noon at the UCB Theatre on W26th St and it's a Brits vs Americans theme.  The first person I met was another British improviser who had just arrived from the UK.  Turns out he is in a London improv team with Trilly Chatterjee, formerly of MissImp Nottingham and one of the founders of Fisticuffs, the longform team we both played in. 

Trilly had told Shem that I was out at DCM but, hey, there are hundreds of improvisers here from all over the world.  What are the odds that I'd be the first person he met when he got into Manhattan?  I'm really excited to be on the same team as him for the show tomorrow.

I took a stroll to Central Park after I'd met with the various improvisers who are going to be in our show.  Central Park is an oasis of calm and breathing space in a city that is noisy, smelly, busy and aggressive.  I love New York for all those things but it's sometimes good to have a couple of hours away from it all.  The sun shone, people played ball in the park, someone hassled me for money.  It was the perfect experience.

After recharging with Starbucks (hey, some things don't change ok? Deal with it), I went to learn some more improv stuff.  I took a class about playing straight man / crazy man scenes with Achilles Stamatelaky.  This really joined up with a lot of stuff MissImp has been working on as a group and it was the right workshop at the right time.  It really built on some of the things I'm trying to do on stage.  It looked into justifying the crazy behaviour if you're the crazy man and justifying putting up with the situation if you're the straight man.  It was a class full of funny scenes and Achilles has a really supportive, precise style of coaching improvisers.

The day ended watching improv team Death By Roo Roo win another improv Cagematch.  Always great to see them play.  The way they do a monoscene is a masterclass.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Six

It's a small world after all

I slept in until late on Wednesday morning after all the learning and playing of Tuesday.  I am struck by what a tight knit community the improv world is.  On Tuesday night I was talking after the Magnet Musical Mixer with a guy from Toronto.  Turns out he knows the guys from Toronto that were on my course in Chicago at The Annoyance last year.

It's a small world story like that which took me to Harlem for lunch.  I was invited to go to Sylvia's Soul Food restaurant by Mike Brown.  Mike was over in the UK last year just after I came back from Chicago.  He's an improviser here in New York and he happened to turn up to a gig I was doing with The Maydays.  We got talking, realised we knew loads of people in common (well, at least five) and we stayed in touch.  

Mike is a really funny guy and he brought along his room mate Josh who runs a shortform improv club here in NYC.  We chatted loads about comedy and about people we love to watch perform.  These guys chose a great venue too.  Obama has eaten here a number of times and the food is amazing.  I wouldn't call it healthy but... well... the picture tells you what you need to know.

After saying goodbye to Mike and Josh, I waddled down the street to the Subway and went back to midtown for some shopping.  

I went to a show and a jam last night.  I saw two teams play in a show at The PIT and then went off to take part in a jam run by Ari Voukydis who was my improv 101 teacher three and a half years ago.  I've not seen him in around two years so it was so good to catch up.  My improv wasn't the best at the jam.  I was trying to use something I'd learned in a workshop and it wasn't quite clicking, but hey, that's what a jam is for.  It was a really fun night and I even got home at a relatively reasonable hour.  Not before taking a look at this beautiful giant, however.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Five

One thing the USA has that Britain also has is a sizeable minority of people who will, while walking down the street, stop in their tracks in front of you for no reason.  I can't quite pinpoint why this makes me boil with rage so much but it has always made me mad.

I have always thought it was a cultural thing; a British trait where an elderly person thinks about lavender, gets incredibly excited and stops to ponder what lavender scented things they could buy, as to walk and ponder would be too much effort.  I was wrong.

Firstly this phenomenon isn't age specific and secondly it's not UK specific.  In both DC and NYC I've had people stop in front of me for no reason and if I could do a convincing American accent I would have shouted "Hey, I'm walkin' here".  My accent work, however, is still a work in progress.

Tuesday was a learning day for me.  I took two UCB Del Close marathon workshops in a row which is a bit hardcore.  This was mainly by accident than design.  I liked what both were about, booked them and then realised they went one after the next. 

Class one was Jordan Klepper's "Notice Harder".  I liked the idea of being able to notice more stuff at the top of the scene and I also liked that the title seemed slightly rude. Kinda.  I remember hearing Jordan on a UCB podcast and I remember he has a Chicago background.  This also swayed me to take the workshop.  I was right to be swayed.  He's a super enthusiastic teacher and I felt like I was able to do good work just by paying attention to what was happening at the top of the scene, without really having to think.  As someone who is a heady improviser, this was useful stuff that I can take away and use.

Class two was Brandon Gardner's workshop about "second beats" and how to initiate them well.  Brandon taught me improv 201 at the UCB and MissImp brought him to Nottingham last year to teach too.  This workshop really helped me realise that all the thinking I do between first and second beats is stopping me notice other stuff that's going on.  It's stopping me from doing good support work.  Second beats were made a lot more easy and powerful in the workshop.  All in all, a day of good learning.

I ended the day by popping into the Magnet Musical Mixer at The Magnet Theatre.  It's a musical improv jam where anyone can get up and do a scene that turns into a song.  There was a four piece band playing with the improvisers last night.  They were incredible.  I got to do a song about being a butcher who named all his dead cows.  It was emotional.  Drinks afterwards and a late F train back to Brooklyn ensued.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Four

The day I didn't expect

Monday was my day to leave DC and take the train to the Big Apple and it's a day I couldn't have foreseen even with special 3D future-seeing specs.

Just before getting my hair restoring sleep, I saw that Rachel Dratch was performing in an improv show in NYC.  It's a format of show I've seen before (Gravid Water) and loved - and I've never seen Rachel Dratch live.  The show was sold out and my "I will not be defeated" mood descended like a Churchillian resolve from above me.  

It's at this point you are probably asking "Hey, Lloydie, why did you have to see Rachel Dratch live so bad?" and lucky, lucky you, I'm going to answer that.  When I first moved to Nottingham, nearly five years ago, I was searching for something to do.  I'd toyed with the idea of doing stand-up and I knew I wanted to write another of my daft one act plays, but I felt there was probably a "thing" that would make a good hobby.  

One evening I was watching out-takes from the sitcom 30 Rock (in which Dratch made a series of hilarious cameos) and I came across a video of the Upright Citizens Brigade performing improv.  Tina Fey did a monologue about ham, and a bunch of people including Rachel performed scenes from that monologue.  I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to do something like that.  I googled "Improv Nottingham" and found MissImp.  I joined the group a week later, started performing in shows and then ended up deciding to take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre (which involved flying over the Atlantic for intensive classes).

So, back to Monday night.  I tweeted Rachel Dratch..... and she replied.  And she told me to tweet her the next day about a ticket.  Ok, so I'd played the "I'm English and only over for the week" card, but that was true and... well... you read what I put in the last couple of paragraphs, right? 

I woke on Monday and said goodbye to my incredible hosts from DC.  I cannot express how lovely they were to me for my stay or how welcome everyone made me feel in Washington.  The Amtrak train to NYC was very much like East Midlands Trains except there's more room in standard coach class than there is in East Midlands Trains' first class coach.  Plus there was free wifi for the whole three hour journey.  Actually, it's really not like East Midlands Trains.

Rachel Dratch tweeted back while I was on the journey.  She had put a ticket by in my name for the show.  DELIGHTED!

I arrive at the theatre and I collect my ticket, fully expecting to pay - but the ticket was a comp.  Way more than I deserved.  The show was hilarious.  They take actors and make them learn 10 minute sections of plays and then pair them with an improviser who doesn't know the play or what it's about and the actor has to stick to their lines, while the improviser deals with what's happening... somehow.  It works.  It works brilliantly and last night's show had me aching with laughter.

I hung around after to say thanks for my ticket.  It was good to meet one of the people who inspired me to become an improviser.  It felt a bit weird saying that to someone - and I guess I came across as a bit of a fanboy, but I'm fine with that.  There isn't really a cool way of telling someone they inspired you to do a new, amazing thing but I think it's always nice to say it anyway.

I left that theatre and headed to the UCB East for the Improv Nerds jam (how appropriate).  There I saw Brandon Gardner, Chelsea Clarke and Alan Starzinski, all of whom have made the trip to Nottingham to teach improv and in Brandon's case, also play in a show.  A pretty fitting end to a day I couldn't have predicted.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day Three

Barry and Shelly

Went for a wander around Washington DC as it was my last day in the city before heading to New York.  An absolutely delightful couple called Barry and Shelly invited me into their little house for tea.  I'd love to have said yes (they really were very friendly) but I was in a dreadful rush so had to settle for a take-out at Starbucks.  They had a cracking water feature in the garden.  I should have exchanged numbers with them.  I think they'd have loved Nottingham and I regret not inviting them.  Anyway, I got a little picture of their water feature before setting off to look at more buildings.

After seeing Capitol Hill and pretending I'd just been elected as a senator by shaking a lot of random people's hands I headed back to  where I was staying in the Adams Morgan area of DC.  It's an area that's full of independent businesses, cool people and arty stuff.  A bit like Milton Keynes in the UK.

No improv today.  I did have the option of seeing a show but I was pretty tired, not least because I walked around the zoo just before it closed.  I saw a giant panda which in many respects is just like watching an improv show.  Not a lot happened but you felt like it was really impressive that it was happening in the first place (that's how everyone feels when they watch improv, right?).

Oh yes, and pizza happened too.  How could I forget pizza.  The acid reflux I experienced afterwards was 100% worth it, as was the hardening of my arteries.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Improv Adventure - Day two

A morning of sleeping in - I seem to have adjusted to the time zone well.  That may have partly been down to the wonders of Jack Daniel's and Coke.  Possibly.

Wandered around the neighbourhood I've been staying in, got breakfast and then went to teach a workshop at the DC Arts Center.  I met a really enthusiastic bunch of improvisers who throw themselves into the exercises I gave.  The DC Arts Centre has a lovely 56 seater black box space.  It reminded me of the mental pictures I've been making for a space in Nottingham.  If I could transport it back home I would - in a little black box.

I was in the 7.30pm show last night (Chinese Menu Comedy) and got to play with some great DC improvisers.  The show played two teams of experienced improvisers who both did montages of scenes and then jammed at the end.  I seem to recall being a man who had issues with smells within the commercial property he was buying and, typically as the token Brit, pointing out that certain phrases "meant something different in my culture".

I also caught a later show where three teams played, the last of which was iMusical.  All three teams produced really good quality improv and the iMusical guys put on one hell of a good musical show. I stuck around for their after-show jam as I can't resist a bit of musical fun - I ended up playing a risk mitigation executive at a circus who hated his job and wanted to be a clown.  As you do.

The other main event from day two was discovering sweet potato donuts.  I'll admit I looked at them and thought "I'm not so sure" when they were brought out, but it turns out that deep fried sweet potato rolled in cinnamon, icing sugar and covered in syrup is about the tastiest thing you could ever eat.  Sweet!

The DC Arts Center - before people turned up for the workshop

Improv Adventure Day One

So I flew into Washington DC yesterday.  

Flight an hour late but no matter due to my love of food, booze and movies.  Airlines are very good at all three.

Last night I met my friend Pete who works in a bar here.  The first person he introduced me to was a lady who used to do communications for a US Democratic senator.  How very DC!  We nerded out on politics.

Last night I stayed with Dan who is one of three fulltime staff at Washington Improv Theater.  Given our ambitions in Nottingham it was great to chat with someone who is working full-time for an improv theatre and to talk about the challenges and successes that they've had.  

Later today I'm off to teach a workshop and then I'm playing in a show tonight.

Oh - and the weather's excellent.  Did we surrender the sunshine to the Americans when they got independence?  We should really dig up that paperwork as I think we should do some renegotiating.

I'm dropping by the White House tomorrow so I'm happy to talk to Barry (Obama) about it if anyone feels that would be beneficial.