Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Zen of Improv: Fun vs. Assholes (More About the Joyride)

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet




This photo captiony thingy got me in some deep doo-doo. I guess the adult way of seeing it is that it got me engaged in some spirited and enlightening debate…but at first, it really felt like doo-doo.

Thinking only about how much I love the photo, how much that quote means to me, and how grateful I am to the guidance (and existence) of Susan Messing, I posted it on a Facebook page for female comedians along with a little shout-out about a new project I’m working on. Let’s just say that a vocal faction of the ladies did not like the pairing of the quote with the photo. They found it offensive and sexist, and – if I understand their point correctly – they said that the photo-quote pairing suggested that women need to do whatever is asked of them in a scene, even bury their faces in men’s crotches, if they wanted to be considered good improvisers. 

"Huh," said I. "That is the exact opposite of what I meant," as I felt the doo-doo shame fever rise up through my core.

I tilted my head and looked at the photo again. Then again. Then I walked away and came back and looked at it. Then, finally, I performed what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience” by talking about it with a trusted person. It was hard to talk about it. I really didn’t want to. I even started the conversation by saying, “Don’t ask me about to tell you the whole story but…” But then I told my trusted friend the whole story when I remembered Dr. Brown’s wise quote:
"If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”



And that’s when something interesting happened. Not only did I feel less ashamed that I had inadvertently angered and offended people, but I suddenly saw their viewpoints more clearly. It was as if the rabbit turned into a duck in this common optical illusion:
Do you see a duck or a rabbit?
Keep looking until you see the other one.
I realized that these well-intentioned Facebook folks understand both the photo and the quote differently than I do. They see a sexist duck while I see a empowering rabbit. After recovering from my shame fever, I could suddenly see both my rabbit and their duck.

My rabbit perspective is an advantaged viewpoint because I know all three people in this photo at least a little bit, and I certainly have seen them perform more than a little. I know that they all go way back. I know that both Scott Adsit and Mick Napier have tremendous respect for Susan Messing, and she for them. I know that this photo was taken at the Chicago Improv Festival and was most likely performed in front of a wildly delighted crowd. In that rabbit-and-duck moment, I realized that what I was seeing as an immensely powerful women in complete charge of the scene could – without context – be seen as the men manipulating a woman into burying her face in their crotch and her crotch and their crotch. (Crotch crotch crotch. Crotch is a funny word.) If you know Susan Messing, you know that unicorns would sooner fly out of a bear’s ass than she would ever be manipulated by anyone onstage, least of whom these two fine gentlemen friends. But if you don’t know Susan Messing, then the photo could look like a damsel in distress moment, and when paired with the advice to not be the asshole, it could look like a call to just suck it up and suck him off if you’re called to do so onstage or else you suck. 

I still love the fuck out of this photo, but point taken. Context is everything.




Speaking of context, I want to take this moment to provide some context for Susan’s quote, which I believe is often misunderstood and  misused. I also would like to tell you what this quote means to me, and it has more to do with life than improv because “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” is one of the central guideposts of my life. 

But first, a caveat: This interpretation is 100% mine. I’m not sure if Susan Messing intends it the way I use and teach this tenet. This essay is only how I interpret the phrase and how I use it to light my way along my life journey in an effort to have more fun and be less of an asshole.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.”

- Susan Messing
Often the first time I pull this Susan Messing mantra out of my teaching bag of tricks, I am quick to provide my interpretation because sometimes people think it’s a mean phrase at first blush. (After all, I just said the words “…you’re the asshole” to the whole class.) I interpret this phrase as said lovingly and kindly with only the best of intentions. To me, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means that if we’re not having fun in the moment, it’s up to us to find the fun. If it doesn’t feel good, we get to control our lives to make it feel good, perhaps by speaking up or walking away or changing the situation or paying more attention and recommitting to the moment. It’s a very powerful statement to me. I use it to remember that I am the author of my own story. I have control. I can re-frame the situation to duck-to-rabbit switch my perspective from tossing a blame bomb to opening up to joyful acceptance. This is life. This is the scene we’re in. This is the moment we’re in. We can deny that the reality exists and “be the asshole,” or we can accept it and make it a positive experience. 

It also reminds me that my judgement is not helpful in the moment. Sometimes, what seems like not-fun at time ends up being a really great happenstance down the line. For example, I was at an improv event last year, and I wasn't having fun at all. I locked myself in the bathroom and chanted, "You're being the asshole. You're being the asshole." Everyone else was having fun; I was not. So I tried to get on the joyride. Within a few weeks, I got two very well-paying jobs from that event. I should have been having more fun.

In improv, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means to me that if the scene isn’t working, don’t judge it or argue the reality of the scene or deny your scene partner's offer, but make it fun for yourself. So if my scene partner is suggesting I mime-suck his dick – and that doesn’t sound like fun to me - I can say, “Let me just accept this Nobel Peace Prize for neuro-physics first” or “Sure, but I’m having trouble finding your dick” or “Get off your ass and suck it yourself. And clean the kitchen before the kids get home from school, you lazy fuck.” I get to choose any response that seems the most fun. More importantly, we then get to have the most important conversation of all: offstage with that BJ-seeking improviser and our director about how that guy can be a better stage partner and how our team can have more fun. Because I believe this phrase (which I think I made up but maybe I forgot that I heard from somewhere):


If everyone isn’t having fun onstage 
then no one is having fun onstage.

And it’s a team’s job and a director/teacher’s job to make sure everyone is having fun. It’s our job to make sure our scene partner is having fun. Anyone who isn’t on board with the group joyride by trying to change the scene to fit their agenda is being the asshole.

Let me clarify what “fun” means to me. In my opinion, the “fun” in “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” doesn’t refer exclusively to the “Yay! Wheee! Hip hip hooray!” kind of fun. The “fun” in this quote is about a general positive energy and being in flow with our scene partners, the scene, and the moment itself. I see this “fun” as referring to Susan’s idea of the “joyride.” (Which Susan might lovingly also call “whatever gets you off.”) In my opinion, the joyride refers to what brings you joy and ease. In improv, your joyride might be playing with people you trust, love, respect, and know very well in a well-rehearsed form. Or it might be jumping into a jam with people you’ve never met before. Or it might be short form games. Or it might be doing a highly structured longform with a bunch of Harold purists. Or it might mean messing around in a clusterfuck show with your friends. Or performing as if the stage were a church. Everyone is free to their own joyride, as long as nobody gets hurt. Mostly importantly, YOU GET TO DEFINE YOUR OWN JOYRIDE. 

One thing is for sure, it would behoove us all not to shit on other people’s joyrides. Judgment has no place in the joyride of life. As my friend, sex educator, Joli Hamilton advises,

“Don’t yuck anybody’s yum.”

As we are in a time of evolution as we work on making comedy a more inclusive place, it certainly does nobody any favors to judge each other’s joyrides, call each other names, make heated accusations from behind the safe curtain of a computer screen, and generally tear down the people who we should be lifting up. 

“When they go low, I go high.”

-President Barack Obama

If someone’s joyride is to do a scene with such beautiful, whole-bodied commitment that it involves one moment when her face is in Mick Napier’s crotch and Scott Adsit is desperately cradling her ass, who are we to judge? If someone’s joyride is to do a scene where there is no swearing and nobody goes blue, who are we to judge? If my joyride is to spend a weekend camping in Vermont with a bunch of old friends, mostly guys, and trying to out-gross them (and winning,) I will request that you keep your opinion of my joyride to yourself. And if your joyride is to spend the weekend scouring your house until it’s sparkling, eat-off-the-floor clean, it’s my job not to yuck your yum … or else I’m being the asshole. I’ll say it again: 
ONLY YOU HAVE A RIGHT  TO DEFINE YOUR OWN JOYRIDE.  
(Only you do not have a right to judge another person’s joyride.)

Life sucks and then you die. Why not die happier than anyone? To turn to another Susan Messing touchpoint from a life-changing conversation I had with her once:

“What if, god forbid, we were all RIGHT? What if you couldn't be WRONG? What if you were exactly what was needed at that very moment? 
And maybe, just maybe, because no one has told me I'm WRONG in a very long time, they think I'm RIGHT; when in fact, I'm just making sure to have more fun than anyone in the whole wide world. And that shit's contagious, and then I'm so grateful they get my gig and we're all happy.”

This is the moment that is happening. This is our present reality. It might be amazeballs or it might suck turds, but it’s not so helpful to deny this reality. To me, it feels more “fun” to accept the present reality and figure out to how to best get on the joyride of life.

And that is what “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole” means to me.

* * *


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading a bit more about this topic in


Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews,


*



Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Zen of Improv: For the Eager Beavers (More About the Journey)

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet


Recently in my "Improv for Scaredy Cats workshop for absolute beginners, pre-beginners, and the improv curious," I had a brand spankin' freshly-hatched new improv student say, "But in the book, TJ and Dave said..."

"Fuck TJ and Dave" was my salty response. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) And then I thought, "Ah, we've got an Eager Beaver here." (I mean that lovingly and respectfully too.)

I can easily identify an Eager Beaver because I was one, so I can recognize the tells. It’s a gleam in the Eager Beaver's eye that betrays their enthusiastic impatience when they walk in the door. It’s a Cookie Monster-like chant of “Me need more improv!” which is only audible to the thoroughly addicted. It’s a sigh of frustration and the wrinkled brow while walking back to the chairs after a scene in an early class. We dedicated Eager Beavers thump our tails impatiently to beat a quicker path to the Best Improv Show Ever. And as my teachers may recall all too well, I'm one of the most egregious Eager Beavers at the dam. We Eager Beavers are a pain in the ass. We’re so eager to lickety-split “get better at improv,
From www.azquotes.com
" we might forget to notice that the real gift of this improv journey is that it can’t be rushed. 


To my dear fellow Eager Beavers, I'm sorry to say “becoming a better improviser” is not something that we can think or study or read our way to. I’ve had students who’ve come into their first class having read books and watched shows and done some really mind-expanding thinking on the topic. And no matter how much preparation they've done, these Eager Beaver students still start at Day One, just like the kid off the street who signed up for class on a whim "because Wayne Brady is funny." No matter how much thinking and reading and discussing they’ve had before that first (or 100th) day of class, the Eager Beavers still need/get to learn all the many permutations of agreement and fighting/following their fear, and how to make each other look good, and how to redefine failure, and what a perceived shitty scene feels like (and then what two or three or a hundred shitty scenes feel like,) and how to get back out there, jump again into the unknown, and catch each other and all that other delicious, juicy stuff. On our feet. Over and over and over again. 

If there are short cuts in improvisation, I sure as shit don't know about them. And even if I did have the magical, CandyLand map with the Rainbow Trail short cut, I'm not sure I would tell you because I wouldn't want to deprive you of one single, solitary second along your journey.

The lessons of improvisation are meant to be discovered over time, with lots of trial and lots of error, in order for them to properly seep into our bones. Improv is a journey - yes, one that can take decades and decades until the end of our lives. (And, if there is a heaven, certainly there too.) That's the beauty of it and the reason why so many of us do it as voraciously as ever, even when we're ten, twenty, thirty years in. There are no short cuts. What a curse! What a blessing! 

We can't think or talk our way any more quickly along the journey of improvisation. (Believe me, I've tried. And then I inflict those efforts on blog readers.) Though you might be feeling grumbly about that news, the bright side is, that if we could get all our questions answered by thinking and talking and writing, we’d be tempted to stop asking, investigating, thinking, geeking out. Then we’d lose touch with our beginner’s mind that spurs that all-important Cookie Monster energy to learn more, more, more about improvisation. The "Me want more improv!" mindset is a fleeting gift. Hold onto it! 


"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." 
- Buddha

If anyone tells you there is one easy, quick-and-dirty answer to improvisation's big questions, they're selling you snake oil. Pay for that shit at your own risk. Yes, a teacher will answer your question, but keep in mind that a teacher can only give you one possible answer for that particular moment in time given the teacher’s and your current state of evolution. But then the moment is gone, and the answer loses focus and needs to be asked all over again. We learn, we grow, and we learn more and outgrow the old answers…until, strangely, we learn and grow so much that we come back to asking the same questions we had from the start.

I can hear you thinking, "Fuck you, Pam. I want answers to my questions! I want to get better!"

Of course you do. So do I. Also, fuck you too. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) I know all too well the soul-pummeling feeling of walking back to the green room after a shit-show. I know what it feels like to slink away as soon as possible after a hard class muttering, "Never again. Fuck this shit. I'm going to spend evenings in a less painful way, like maybe genital mutilation." Who wouldn't want to speed through the painful portions of the fucking journey? Believe me, I would love to be the teacher who could sprinkle fairy dust on you and say the magic words that would turn you into the world's best improviser. (Well, to be honest, I would save the best dust for myself and my teammates ... Yeah, I know. I'm a total dick.) But here's the hard, cold truth: We're all on the same journey with no achievable end, bitches. 

Given that, I wonder what it would be like to enjoy the journey more? What would it feel like to be grateful for those gut-punching moments that teach us so much? What would it be like to resist the whirlpool of self-judgment and self-flagellation after a hard scene in class? How could we get back on the joyride when improv is kicking our ass?

One way might be to stop thinking so damn much. Dave Pasquesi often advises that if thinking is part of the problem, more thinking is not going to be part of the solution. So what to do instead? As always, one answer is to pay attention. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your heart, your gut, your intuition. Notice what makes you laugh, what brings you joy and what makes you want to be part of the scene. What feels ease-ful? What feels fun? Then do that instead of thinking.

This improv thing is a long-ass journey, my friends. And by "long-ass," I mean "infinite." Even if we've never had the good fortune of working together, I will put good money on this bet: I'd bet that you are in the perfect place along the way in your improv journey - exactly where you need to be. You are where you are. You can't rush it. So you can either hate the journey or love the journey. 

If I could sprinkle fairy dust and say magic words, I would wish for us all to choose love.


* * *


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading a bit more about this topic in


Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


*


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.


Pam is very proud that she wrote an entire essay about beavers without even a soupçon of a vag joke.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: TJ Jagodowski (Service is Inherent)



If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Like this one called
The Journey, which begins:
"Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave!"

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with 
TJ Jagodowski and other great minds in improvisation in the 
Geeking Out with... series here?

*

Pam Victor is the co-author of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Podcast Guesting on The Soul Glo Project

My soul was all a'glow talking to the lovely ladies on this podcast about making a living through improvisation in Western Massachusetts. 

Oh, and I totally won Two Truths and a Lie.

Take a listen here: The Soul Glo Project.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Journey

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet


Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave! Eat my dust, Improvised Shakespeare!” as we ride off into the improv legend horizon. But then a couple months later, when we’re not performing in a 8pm Saturday night show and haven’t been cast on a house team and don’t have Matt Besser on speed-dial, we start to get frustrated with ourselves, with our stage partners, with our teachers, and with improvisation. 

The cool/fucked up thing is that now that I have the perspective of a teacher, I can see what an unhelpful path this erroneous thinking takes us on. I see students who want to "be good" right away, and their current status as learners only frustrates them. This frustration leads to fear-based moves onstage and also sucks joy out of the practice. None of these things gets them back on the happy improv train when they got that first GOOD lick that hooked them into improv in the first place. The coolest/most fucked up thing is that their current status as learners is one of the biggest blessings in the improv journey, but they're in such a hurry to get past it that they miss out the joy.
A gift from my daughter
and a reminder from my angels

My message today is this: We are on a journey. And we are exactly where we need to be on the journey, as much as it sucks to hear that. The secret is to find joy in being where we are at this moment, while at the same time keeping our eye on the prize of where we want to be. This secret, this intention, is no small task. Personally, I know it will take me a lifetime of practice. But perhaps I can meet it with curiosity: What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Our improv journey involves ups, downs – not to mention those dreaded plateaus - none of which can or should be avoided. The ups fuel us through the downs. The downs lead to profound learning, which ultimately fuel the ups. And the plateaus are part of the journey too, which also make us better players as they compel us to take more risks and get out of our comfort zone and generally shake things up. I know there is a desire to speed the journey along in order to get to whatever end goal we've set. But I am sad (and happy!) to say, I'm not sure that's possible to do. If we’re doing our jobs as evolving improvisers, we are taking classes and workshops and seeing shows. We are getting up on stage and leaping into the unknown; we’re landing on downy, groupmind softness and we’re crashing into nasty road pizza on the ground. We are doing the work. We are on the journey. 

The trick is to take more pleasure in the place we’re in right now. In retrospect, I really wish I had when I was a beginner. And this moment is a good reminder for me to get more fully on the joyride with the challenges I face right now in my own improv life. Not to mention my real life.


“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”- Lao Tzu

We are on a journey. There are no short cuts because there is no end of this journey. Like life, improvisation is a lifelong practice. In the beginning, we feel impatient to be “farther along” in the journey, to know more, to be “better,” to feel more secure. But the longer we improvise, the more we know the less we know. 


TJ Jagodowski , iO Theater (2012)
[Photo credit: Pam Victor]
“There is so much I don’t know. Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”
-TJ Jagodowski, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

I mean – look, you guys – that’s TJ speaking there. In my opinion, he’s one of the best improvisers on the planet. That chap is one of the smartest, most talented people I know; he’s has studied with Del Close, Mick Napier, Noah Gregoropoulos, and our other most excellent teachers; he’s performed on Second City Mainstage and is a rockstar at Annoyance and iO Theater; he’s devoted his life to improvisation and he lives seeped in it; he’s been getting up onstage in Chicago with some of the world’s top improvisers most nights of the week over the past twenty years or so … and he still feels like he knows almost nothing.


It’s all part of the journey. Every move is part of the journey. Just like when we play the word association game Clover, there are no bad moves because every single, damn word gets us closer to coming back to the original word again. What if it’s the same in our improv journey? What if in order to get to the “good,” we have to go through the “bad"? (So much so that there is no good and bad.) What if, in order to go closer towards our goal, we have to go far away from it? (So much so that there is no closer and no farther away.)

What if it’s the same in our life journey as it is in our improv journey as it is in Clover? Every moment takes to one step closer to where we need to be, which is right there in the moment.

That’s so fucking OBNOXIOUS, isn’t it? I want to bitchslap that idea so hard, you guys. But, I’ll ask again because I need to hear it again, What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Finally, I'll leave you with this mantra, which I adopted in my struggle with this journey idea: “This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy.” The moments that feel like my life has devolved into a steaming shitshow? This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy. As much as I’d like to kick into overdrive to get past those blerg-ful moments along my pathway to joy, I can’t. There are no shortcuts along the pathway to joy, I guess. Because it’s all the pathway of joy.

Isn’t that fucking craptastic, you guys?





John Windmueller’s Improv Lifecycle

Washington DC improviser John Windmueller posted this terrific overview of the typical improviser's practical journey, which he was kind enough to allow me to share with you. (Thanks, John!) He includes this caveat and acknowledgment: “This is just an in general thing, and individual mileage can totally vary. Props to Jill Bernard, who first got me thinking about this years ago when she noted the two year know-it-all phase folks sometimes go through.”

Level 1 Class: Improv Baby Shit yourself/your scenes, but don't really even realize or fully understand or judge it, so laugh, laugh, laugh and enjoy the joy.

Levels 2-3 Classes: Improv Toddler Can do more, but that's sort of a mixed blessing. Runs into walls and falls. Is aware that it has run into walls and fallen, and older siblings don't do that. Still joyful, but some frustrated aspirational goals as well.

Levels 4-5 classes thru 1.5 years out: Improv Tween  Oh the awkward improv tween years. So earnest. So self aware and critical of themselves. Cue the piece by Ira Glass about taste and the curse of developing judgment long before reps gives them ability: https://vimeo.com/85040589

1.5-3 years: Improv Teenager I FUCKING KNOW EVERYTHING AND YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. So much attitude, and maybe it's best they don't realize how not-yet-actually-good they are at improv, because at least there's confidence.

3-6 years: Improv Twenties Figuring it out. Making the transition into adulthood/solid improv, with growth coming in lurches forward, occasional falls backward, and long slogs through what they worry is stagnation (but isn't.)

7-10 years: Improv Thirties / Adult improviser Not everything is figured out, but if they've made it this far into adulthood, they've probably generally got the core stuff figured out. They've reached the point of being legitimately good, and they've also reached the point of being less obsessed with "good."

10-20 years: Improv Midlife  Sometimes midlife means starting to fall into stagnant comfortable ruts. Sometimes it means a wrenching but ultimately awesome midlife crisis -- sure there's good improv, but what is MY good improv?

20+ years: Improv Elder Years Sometimes it's crotchety improv senility and just repeating echos of what once worked and was fresh, but now they're sort of repeating shorthand simplifications--getting smaller instead of expanding. Or, and god bless them, there's the wise and mischievous improv elderly. They have a twinkle in their eyes and do the smallest things with such grand and wonderful result. And the really wise ones might even revert to their Improv Baby years, doing such crazy and wild things, and with that sometimes shitting themselves/shows, but they smile so wide when they do, laughing and finding joy in the full experience of life/improv.



* * *


A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the non-question, 
"Life sucks and then you die."




If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading about that Clover exercise in


Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


*




Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv"  to the best students in the world, as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. 

She lives online at www.pamvictor.com.

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (I F*cked Up)

Life's questions explored according to the tenets of improvisation. 
(Or at least how I interpret them.) 
This week's "question": I Fucked Up


Email your question to info@pamvictor.com.

Click here to see more videos

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What Would Improv Do? (What do I do when I feel sad?)

Life's questions explored according to the tenets of improvisation. 
(Or at least how I interpret them.) 
This week's question: What do I do when I feel sad?





Email your question to info@pamvictor.com.

Click here to see more videos

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Zen of Improv: How "Yes and..." Screws the Pooch

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet


Big confession time: I do not teach “Yes, and…” to my improv students. Especially (!!!) not my beginning students. 

GASP! 

I know. Blasphemy, right? After you're finished flogging me with a rubber chicken, you might be wondering why I don’t teach “Yes, and …” to my beginning students. The answer is that I think "Yes, and ..." is one of the most misunderstood rules in improvisation. And I believe it can do more harm than good when it’s misunderstood and artlessly applied. 


Do I teach the spirit of and the principle behind “Yes, and…”? Oh, you bet your sweet ass I do, and how! To me, the spirit of “Yes, and …” lives in Acceptance. I think it’s important that improvisers practice acceptance of the moment that’s happening onstage rather than the ideas happening in our heads. And it’s my understanding that the principle behind “Yes, and…” means accepting the reality of the moment.

In response to, “Look out! There is a sinkhole!” The spirit of “Yes, and…” would have us say, “Holy cow! Let’s get out of here.”

Likewise, in response to “Look out! There is a sinkhole! Let’s jump in it!” the spirit of “Yes, and…” would have say, “No fucking way.” (Unless we’re playing suicide spelunkers.)

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi really brought home this lesson to me while we were writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life

“TJ: The spirit of ‘Yes, and…’ as we read it, is an agreement to the present and to deal with it as actual. I don’t literally have to agree with everything Dave says or say ‘Yes’ all the time. If he invites me to the beach and my character doesn’t like the sand, I will say no.
 
DAVID: NO. GO FUCK YOURSELF. 
TJ: Like that.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy David Pasquesi?

Ok, moment over…)

Saying a reflexive “yes” just for the sake of saying “yes” is what TJ calls a “baloney yes.” He writes in our book, ”We’re told to offer these automatic yeses that end up reading like the bullshit they are. Instead, be honest to the point of view that you’ve found yourself in.”

(Can I just take a commercial break moment to enjoy how much I enjoy TJ Jagodowski?

Ok, moment over…)


Patrick Short
In a discussion online, General Manager of ComedySportz (Portland) Patrick Short helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.” 

I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.) But saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because it offers a slobbering face mauling when what you really desire is one well-placed neck kiss. Ok, that metaphor might not work, but you know what I mean. Saying “Yes, and …” all the time is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.

(See? That kissing metaphor was tons better, wasn’t it?)

Kissing and dentistry aside, the spirit and principles behind “Yes, and …” are a far subtler affair between the improviser and character which an automatic “Yes, and …” can’t possibly convey. One instance I've noticed this improviser mind/character mind mix up is in the tendency in some students to try to fix the situation. Like if a car breaks down, beginning improvisers are likely to try to repair it, which doesn’t always lead to the most fun scenes. (Though it might and that would be amazeballs!) The character wants to repair the car – that’s a perfectly reasonable "Yes, and ..." response in the real world. But the improviser wants to agree to the reality (say “yes, and …” if you will) to the broken car because of the fun that could unfold. 

“Shoot. I can’t get the car to start.”

The character thinks, “Oh no! We have to repair it!”

The improviser thinks, “Oh yes! And there is a super sketchy looking guy walking towards us.”

Aha! That's when my improv parts start getting warm and tingly because that's my joyride. (Though yours might be different, and that's cool too.)

Craig Cackowski of iO Theater West teaches a great exercise that brings home this lovely character mind/improviser mind dance called “Make It Worse.” From my chat with Craig in Geeking Out with…Craig Cackowski:

“PAM: ‘Problem-solving is comedy elimination’ is another great Cacky quote I remember from last summer. I found that quote and this exercise very enlightening because we learned that in a scene it was important not to solve the problem, but to make it worse while staying true to our characters. (I think you said something about a bully needing a nerd, not another bully, in a scene.) The exercise was very counter-intuitive because in real life we tend to want to fix or brainstorm away the problem rather than prolonging the agony. You said what the character is asking for and what the improviser is asking for are two different things. I thought it was so interesting that “Yes, and…” means doing what the IMPROVISER wants, so if someone's character says, ‘Calm down’ in a scene, the improviser might be saying, ‘Be more insane.’ And her partner should agree to that (‘Yes, and…’) by heightening the insanity.
 

CRAIG:  I think it's about each improvisor figuring out what their unique role is going to be in the scene. So if I'm agreeing to be the nerd, I'm not going to spend the scene trying to get out of being the nerd, or trying to make YOU the nerd, or trying to negotiate with the bully. I'm going to be that FUCKING NERD. In other words, I'm not trying to WIN the scene, or have the ‘correct’ point of view. I want both of us to agree to our roles, so we can win TOGETHER. My job as a writer of the scene is to help you be a better bully, not to get you to stop bullying me.
Craig Cackowski and cat
 

But people want to be right, and people want to win, so it leads to a lot of conflict-driven scenes. It's more fun to lose, or to be gloriously wrong. When we talk about conflict in improv, we're usually talking about the improvisors not being able to agree what they want the scene to be about. Conflict between two characters we care about can be compelling. Conflict between improvisors is boring. The worst kind of scene? Two characters of equal status who both think they're right.”
This resistance to making it worse is just like that impulse to say “No.” Both are born of fear of the unknown. Both tend to put the brakes on a scene. And I get that so hard, you guys. Moving forward into the unknown future is SCARY. Our impulses to say “No” and to fix it are perfectly understandable, normal human reactions. Fortunately, improvisers are not normal humans. And in seeking help in taking the blind plunge into the unknown and mucking things up, “Yes, and …” is a handy shorthand reminder. Too bad it so often screws the pooch. 

The spirit behind “Yes, and …” is some subtle shit, man. Maybe – just maybe – you’re starting to see why I choose not to teach “Yes, and…” to beginning students. The term is pithy and cute but also trite and misleading. Exploring acceptance – the principle behind “Yes, and…” – is a far more nuanced journey. One that, in my opinion, could be well guided by our hearts and guts rather than our minds and mouths. 

And the spirit of "Yes, and ..." could be well guided by our joy parts too! That's why, instead of a ham-fisted "Yes, and ..." exercise, I prefer to teach an exercise I call "Love the Fuck Out of This Moment," which is a series of short scenes in which the players are instructed to love the fuck out of every single offer their scene partner makes, whatever that looks like and whatever that means to each player. This exercise strengthens our muscle of total joyful agreement. Have fun! Love everything! Invite players to just jump in there and say anything with joy and abandon ... and love the fuck out of it. As you can imagine, the scenes tend to be very high energy and sometimes frenetic, so after a happy round or two, invite players to experiment with modulating the energy. How can you love the fuck out this moment slowly? quietly? super sexy style? Wheeee! This joy is what it feels like when the improviser (as opposed to the character) plays with pure acceptance.

In defense of all those “Yes, and…” enthusiasts, I think that’s the muscle we’re all trying to strengthen: the joy of pure acceptance, of jumping into the unknown and making it worse. As Curt Mabry, founder of Zmack Improv (Shanghai, China) said to me, “When I use exercises that focus on how can you 'yes, and' in my advanced classes, I also remind them that this is like the batter in baseball warming up in the on-deck circle - he has a weight on his bat as he swings to challenge his strength ... so that when he's up and the weight is off, he's got all the power in his swing but also a lot of learned control.”

When those muscles are stronger, we have more ability to play with agility, nuance, and discernment. Just as I think that we should make a conscious rather than reflexive choice to say “no," I also believe that “yes” also should be a conscious rather than reflexive response. Does the “yes” jibe with the reality of the scene and all that has come before it? If so, say “Yes!” If not, say “No.” (Or if you’re Mr. Pasquesi, you may say, “No. Go fuck yourself.”)

Here’s the super subtle part that I’m ruminating over these days: If we’re not sure how to respond and “Yes, and …” still maintains the integrity and reality of the scene, please by all means let's say “Yes, and …!” And then see what happens. Often, it’s a super fun joyride that you would have denied yourself by saying “no.” If you explore this balancing act in your work, let me know how it goes.

As I'm sure you all know, the spirit of and principles behind "Yes, and ..." extend beyond the classroom as well. By strengthening that so-called “Yes, and…” muscle, we’re becoming more willing to jump gleefully into the unknown, more adaptable to change, and more able to accept the reality of the moment. Because isn’t that the very definition of personal sadness: the difference between the actual reality and what we WISH would be the reality? As far as I can tell, the act of accepting the present reality seems to lead to more joy. And you know me - I'm all about the joyride. Can I get a "Yes, and ..." to that, brothers and sisters?




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A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the question, 
"How do you know what your joyride is?"


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading the other side of the "Yes, and ..." coin: 


Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


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Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv"  to the best students in the world, as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program. 

All her crapola is at www.pamvictor.com.