Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: How to Make Sweet Love to Your Fear

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 

I know what it feels like to sit in an improv workshop wondering if everyone could hear my heart pounding or see the sure-to-be-flop sweat breaking out on my brow, so friggin’ nervous that I thought I might just shake off my seat. I’ve been there, and it took a long time to get past that place. One of the many gifts of improvisation is that we get repeated opportunities to face down our fears, over and over and over again, and come out of it alive. With Del Close’s command to “Follow your fear” and all that, fear is part of the deal we make with improvisation.

Recently, I had a workshop with some of my students that was outside their comfort zone, and I was reminded again how lucky improvisers are to get so much practice dealing with fear. Surely, this experience must translate positively to overcoming fear off the stage as well. What a gift improvisation gives us! In an effort to support my students on their journey, I’ve written down a whole slew of tips on dealing with fear. I’ll share it with you too in hopes that you find some of it useful.

Zen of Improv Tips on How to Make Sweet Love to Your Fear:

Fear speaks to us in the voice of the Evil Mind Meanies who, you may recall, just fuckin’ love to conjugate the verb “to suck” in our minds: “I suck, you suck, he/she sucks, we suck, you all suck, they suck.” You’re sitting there in improv class watching an exercise that seems scary, and those bastards start their chant in your brain. “Everyone is so much funnier than you. They’re so good. You suck. You’re going to fail miserably. Why even try? A hubcap is a better improviser than you.” And so on and so forth until you’re glued to your fold-out chair. Here is what you need to know: THE EVIL MIND MEANIES ARE BIG, FUCKING, LIAR-LIAR-PANTS-ON-FIRE, STUPIDHEAD LIARS! Do NOT believe a word they say. 

But on the off chance that you are very, very gifted in suckitude and the Evil Mind Meanies are correct that “everyone” is funnier/smarter/quicker/whatever-er than you are, try this on for size: So what if they are? What are you going to do about it? You could either quit now, or you could just get up and do the next exercise or scene anyway with the only risk being that you get better. (You can’t humiliate yourself any more than you already have if you suck that hard, so that’s not a risk.) Look, you paid for the class already, so why not get up and give it your best? You could always quit tomorrow.

As I talked about in The Job of Nice Person, when dealing with assholes – and fear in this case is the asshole – I try to employ the mantra: “Love. Compassion. Kindness. Benefit of the Doubt.” Though fear’s “You Suck” message is dead wrong, we can try to give it the benefit of the doubt and think that fear is trying to protect us under the mistaken impression that we need protection from the unknown in improvisation. (We do not. We need to love the unknown … otherwise, we should be doing sketch.) Love the fear. Have compassion that fear doesn’t understand the beauty of improvisation yet. Give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s trying to help us in the best way it knows how. Thank fear kindly, and then tell it (as lovingly as possible) to go fuck the fuck off.

Fear is selfish; its sole focus is to keep you in your head and in a state of inaction. Fear makes you think only about yourself, “I suck. I am the worst. Everyone is better than me. I should get the hell off the stage.” That game doesn’t work in improvisation, where your focus should be on your scene partners. Stop being selfish. Stop with all the I-thoughts. Stand up and do your job, which is to make your scene partners look brilliant.

It’s okay to have fear. David Pasquesi says that fear tells him what he’s about to do is important to him. Be grateful for fear. Say “Thank you, Fear” then “Fuck you, Fear,” and then go ahead and dive into whatever scares you anyway. My guru of brave Susan Messing says that being brave is “being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the result of flying.” 

I can’t think of a better place to practice “doing it anyway” than in a good improv class, which should be a safe, protected space where we’re training to be each other’s parachutes and soft landing pads. The very foundation of improvisation rests in the belief that our main job is to make each other look good - a Patronus charm that disempowers failure and, ultimately, makes it disappear. We are each other’s spirit guardians because our jobs are to make each other look like geniuses, artists, and poets. 

As long as you get out there, you cannot fail because everyone else is working hard to make you look brilliant. You cannot fail because failure doesn’t exist in improvisation. (More on that in a bit.) But you have to get out there. Do it anyway because next time it will be so much easier. And the time after that, easier still. Until eventually, you forget to what made you so afraid in the first place.

My relationship with fear goes way back. I was a pretty fearful little kid. I was tiny in size, with the powerlessness that comes with childhood but wise enough to realize how deeply fucked the human race can be. I think that must have made me into an anxious kid because I remember telling my mom ten thousand reasons why I couldn’t do something new. And she always countered, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 

So you’re sitting in the classroom and the exercise the teacher is describing sounds confusing and scary. “What’s the worst that can happen?” I’ve ask this of my students, and here are some of the most popular answers:

“I’ll suck.” So what? Plus, you won’t suck … but if you do, you’ll learn from it, which is the point of an improv class, right? So that’s not really sucking. 

“I’ll shit my pants.” That would be awesome. I mean, not for you at that moment, but eventually it will make a really fucking hilarious story if you actually shit your pants in class. Plus, you’re not going to crap your pants. And just to be on the safe side, poop before class and bring an extra pair of jeans in your bag to class.

“I’ll humiliate myself.” If they're worth their salt, your teacher is working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen. Your scenemates are supposed to be working hard to make you look good as well. So you would have to work triple hard to humiliate yourself. But you know what is kind of embarrassing? Staying in your seat while everyone goes up to try out the exercise. 

“I’ll make a fool of myself.” Um, isn’t that part of the job? We’re all fools. C’mon, get on the Joyride of Fools with us, my friend.

“I will die.” Yes, that is the very worst that could happen. No, you will not die. (But come to think of it, I can't think of a place I'd rather die than laughing with my friends.) 

So what is the worst that can happen?

Improvisation redefines and disempowers failure. In the classroom, failure doesn’t exist at all. If you are “shitty” in the scene, then the audience might laugh (which is not the worst effect to have in a comedy show). If you make a “mistake,” that might give your scene partners a delicious gift to take advantage off. (Also, not so bad.) And even in performance, you cannot possibly know if you are failing or not until the show is over. (More on why this isn't such a bad thing in the Non-Judgment in Improv trio of essays.)

Sometimes we forget that we, the improvisers, define failure differently than than audience. If we’re doing a guessing game, like Late of Work for example, the audience thinks our “success” or “failure” hinges on guessing why we’re late for work, who helped us get there, and how we got to work. But like a magician's audience following the moving hand rather than seeing the secret to the trick, the improv audience is wrong. The object of the short form game is not to guess why you’re late for work or to be the best gibberish interpreter or to think of a gazillion rhymes for “Sue” or whatever “winning” might look like to the audience at face value. The object is to have fun. The object is to entertain. The object is to improvise well. Which leads me to understand that the only way to fail in improvisation is not to get up and improvise.

Fear is trying to cheat you out of your joyride, and that’s just not cool. Turn down the Evil Mind Meanies and turn up the fun meter. Where is the fun in this exercise? How are you going to get off in this scene? Fun is the antidote to fear. So if we’re feeling like we're going to shit our pants, let’s try to shift our focus on finding the fun and getting off harder than anyone. (Naturally, this tip is deeply inspired by the Queen of the Joyride, Susan Messing.)

Read that one again. See? It’s the Golden Rule in reverse. (Would that be the Nedlog Rule? Also, could that last joke be any dumber? I think not. You’re welcome.) If only we were as supportive and compassionate with ourselves as we are with our friends and teammates! If your best friend was freaking out about sucking, what would you tell them?

Now tell yourself all that stuff. Because it’s just as true.

Rarely do we step on stage absolutely convinced we’re going to kick major ass. And the one time I do have that much confidence is sure to be the show that ends in a hideous ball of flames. The only way I can take the stage is if I lie to myself, make myself believe the delusion that I am capable of improvising well. In short, fake it ‘til you make it. Chances are, you will make it.

Losing control is a real big fear for me. But if I improvise from a place of fear of losing control, I know that I'll try to steer the scene and basically fuck it up for everyone. It would be nice to have control in improvisation, but we don’t .... which is nicer still. We simply don’t have any control over the scene (or life), which is as terrifying as it is liberating and exhilarating. To me, “Follow your fear” means to do the thing I fear the most, which is letting go of trying to control the moment. Once I do that, I am immediately gifted with the possibility of participating in the groupmind. And that makes all my improv ladyparts get all warm and buzzy. As far as I’m concerned, the beauty of the scene that we’re discovering together as a group is the biggest high around. And the only way I can get my fix is by letting go of the wheel.

Instead of “fighting the fear,” maybe we could try out the simple act of being curious. In the face of fear of giving up control, a State of Helpful Curiosity would have me ask myself, “What would it be like to let go and ride this moment wherever it wants to go?” 

I can’t force myself not to be afraid, but I can quite simply ask myself this question: “What would it be like not to be afraid to do this next exercise or scene?” 

So maybe all our fears are correct, and we are about to walk into a shitstorm of epic proportions? If so, let’s go out there and fail more spectacularly than we’ve ever failed before! Wheeee! Apparently, Del Close used to tell a story about a guy parachuting out of an airplane who discovered that his parachute was irreparably broken. It was at that point that this very enlightened poor bastard spent the rest of the ride down doing the most beautiful acrobatics in the air. Crazy, right? Relax into the train wreck ahead, commit hard to the shitstorm, take joy in the freefall, explore how easy it is to fail … and, most of the time, it turns out to be quite beautiful. A very soft landing indeed.

If you ever see me on show night while watching the act before mine, especially they’re killing, please know that as much as I’m enjoying the crap out of their set, the Evil Mind Meanies are in my head working hard to convince me that I suck and I’ve suddenly forgotten how to improvise. But then the audience starts clapping and it’s my team's turn to go up, and so I have to let go and I do as Del Close instructed, I take the stage and “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” 

The very basis of improvisation promises that we make each other look good, that we give in to the power of the show, that we discover the scene together through groupmind. Personally, I believe that improvisation (and The Universe) wants us to succeed and have more fun than anyone. Fear makes me sometimes forget that belief. If we remember to have trust and faith in improvisation to fulfill that promise, we leave no room for fear.


If you are interested in exploring some of these ideas further, 
check out the three part

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Susan Messing said on brave 
"is being scared as shit 
but doing it anyway with the result of flying." 


Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-a "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book,"  due out Spring, 2015. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Job of Nice Person (or "Thank You, Assholes.")

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 

With all the assholes in the world, it's a full-time job to treat people with kindness, love, and compassion. If you look at my business card, you’ll see my jobs listed as “improv comedian~author~teacher~nice person.” ("Nice person" is even listed on my LinkedIn page, though I haven’t gotten any endorsements, so maybe it doesn't count.) I’m not bragging. “Nice Person” is not a natural state for me; it’s a job.

Being an instantaneously nice person is not in my gene pool. Jewish women invented the concepts of sending food back, the term “dressing on the side,” and the phrase “It’s not bad, but it needs more…” We’ve fine-tuned the shrill whine. Jews coined the term “Oy” and perfected the “Eh.” (If you’ve never heard Bubbie or Zaydeh say “Eh” or its close cousin “Feh,” you’re really missing something special.) I’m not saying Jewish people are not nice – on the contrary – I’m just saying that we’re genetically predisposed to face new experiences with judgment and high expectations. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I’m also not saying that people of other religions are especially nice either; they’re just better at internalizing their displeasure, in my opinion, than my genetic tribe of chosen people. All I’m saying is that it’s not in my DNA to face to world first and foremost with open-minded compassion and kindness. I’m sure you’re a better person than I am. May God bless you and your beautiful children, kenahora, kenahora, pu-pu-pu.

(Seriously, you guys, this is the most Jewish I’ve ever been since my bat mitzvah.) 

Though improvisers are, on the whole, an unnaturally loving and kind group of people, there are some assholes in there, for sure. Even more common, there are nice people who are acting like assholes. I’m sure that, like me, you have worked certain special someones who act like a certain special flavors of asshole. Maybe there is that overbearing guy on your team who you’re dying to bitchslap? Or the director who is always riding your tail? Or the A.D. who never casts you on a team? Lately, I’ve been dealing with my own private asshole. Interacting and even thinking about this person fills me with the acid bile of sadness, blame, rage, and shrill whines that eat through my esophagus, heart, and mind. Oy oh oy, do I want to send this person back to the kitchen for another dish. I want to serve their fucking sauce on the side. I want a Bubbie to spoon out a big helping of Guilt Kugel for how they have treated me. And it’s at this moment, in the face of not-niceness, that I have to do my stupid "Nice Person" job the most. Not because this asshole deserves my kindness but because I do. 

What would it be like to let go of the knee-jerk response of “What a fucking asshole” blame, and instead take on the job of meeting these people with love, compassion, kindness, and the benefit of the doubt? It’s hard but important work to give assholes the benefit of the doubt. (And by “assholes,” I mean humans.) 

This Nice Person gig is such an obnoxious fucking job. 

"Coincidentally" just as I was trying to have compassion, love, and whateverthefuck for that giant dickwad in my life,  What To Do When the Going Gets Rough, penned by Pema Chödrön for the blog The Lion's Roar came across my desk. In it, she outlines four techniques for facing "difficult people or circumstances" (aka assholes): “1.) not setting up the target for the arrow, 2.) connecting with the heart, 3.) seeing obstacles as teachers, and 4.) regarding all that occurs as a dream.” Read the article for all the deets. It’s quite good.

I like #4, the part about seeing our life as a movie that we’re starring in; mostly, because I like the idea of beating out Tina Fey for the part of Me in my movie. (Even though, c’mon let’s face, Tina Fey would be a shit-ton funnier and smarter in the role.) But the element of Pema Chödrön’s article that has been most useful to me lately is the idea of seeing assholes as teachers. 
“Without the inconsiderate neighbor, where will we find the chance to practice patience? Without the office bully, how could we ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its destructive power? 
The teacher is always with us. The teacher is always showing us precisely where we’re at—encouraging us not to speak and act in the same old neurotic ways, encouraging us also not to repress or dissociate, encouraging us not to sow the seeds of suffering.”

Ok, fine. I'll bite. I asked myself, “What is this person trying to teach me?” Of course, my first response was, “To stay out of the way of d-bags like him!” But then I was able to simmer the fuck down, get out of my own way, and think about it for a moment rather than blindly react. Aha! My struggles with that particular asshole – bless his heart - set off a cascade of new thoughts that I would never had realized otherwise. The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!" was born from a beautiful, challenging human, a concept that has helped a whole bunch of my students and myself. Thank you, Professor Asshole!

I gotta come clean here. There is one asshole that stands head and shoulders above the rest in sheer level of assholism in my life. And that asshole me. I am the asshole who talks over you in the scene. I am the asshole who forgets to listen. I am the asshole bitching in the green room about all the other assholes in the show. (I am the asshole who says "asshole" so much, it doesn't make sense anymore.) Pound for pound - yes, I've lost weight, thank you for noticing - I shovel more shit into my life than any other asshole on the planet.

Love. Compassion. Kindness. The benefit of the doubt. I tell myself often that these difficult people in my life -  my Teachers of Nice – are “not assholes, though they play one on TV” (and in the Movie of the Week that is my life). We assholes are doing the best we can. Love. Compassion. Kindness. The benefit of the doubt. These mantras are my daily job and my key to good heart health. The job of Nice Person pays in inner peace, low blood pressure, and love. Best of all, you don’t have to report it on your taxes. (Fuck you, IRS*!)

*Dear IRS, Just kidding. I love you, IRS. I know you’re just doing your job. Thank you for keeping the country running. Love, Pam


In case you missed it and you're interested,

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

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-a "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book,"  due out Spring, 2015. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Improvisation at the Speed of Life (The TJ & Dave Book)": Pre-Sale Now Open!

Over the course of two years, TJ Jagodowski, David Pasquesi, and I have been discovering this book together through interviews and writing meetings, one little step at a time. As unreal as it seems, the time is coming closer when the stagelights come up and we get to share it with you. 

It is said that the magic of TJ & Dave is in the ampersand. This no-holds-barred book breaks that ampersand wide open to reveal the process and magic behind TJ & Dave, a one hour, fully improvised comedic show The New York Times calls “a creative tour de force, an intellectual high-wire act as astonishing as it is entertaining” performed by “Second City-seasoned masters of long form improv.” This ride is not for weenies - it’s a PhD in improvisation where improviser-journalist Pam Victor plays the student who prods TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi to unpack every tool, theory, and viewpoint in their substantial arsenal in this comprehensive yet conversational insider’s guide. The ampersand is in your hand. What are you waiting for? Order it now.

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And if you can't wait to get your geek on, 
check out the interviews that started this whole adventure for me:

Friday, February 6, 2015

Essay: Hating Winter Less

By Pam Victor

This is the time of the winter that separates the pussies from the ass-kickers. It's a frigid February 6th in New England. The temperature is not expected to rise above freezing anytime soon. With windchill right now, it is 0 fucking degrees. Zero. Nada. Kaput. There is not even enough heat to register an actual number. Simple acts, like walking to the car or getting the mail, fill our days with dangerous treks that may or may not require the assistance of sherpas and may or may not land us on crutches for the next six weeks. Walking outside has become work. (How fucked up is that?!) We had a lot of snow. We have a lot of snow. We are getting a lot more snow. I heard a story on NPR last night about something ridiculous called a "snow farm" in Boston, where they have to create a farm to get rid of their snow because there is nowhere else to put it. It's like a reverse harvest of arctic proportions.

Even the kids want to kill the snowman at this
point of the winter.
And this is the year I decided to try not to hate winter so damn much. And this is the time of the winter when I need to put the pedal to my meddle to get over this last, eternal hurdle of wintery hate. So I thought it would be a good time to share with you some of the things that helped me hate winter less so far this winter:

Sometimes you have to look hard
to find the sun.
Seeking Light: Lighting more candles, stoking the fireplace, sitting in found sunlight, noticing blue skies, appreciating the additional minutes of sun each day - I've had to make more of an effort to welcome, notice, and appreciate all of sources of light.

Embracing Warmth: Likewise, I've tried to seek out and be grateful for any bit of warmth I could find this winter. In the beginning of the winter, I splurged a little at Marshall's, where I bought a few of the toastiest sweaters I could find. Most days, I'm wearing a scarf or two. If I'm sitting down, there is a blanket on my lap. On the coldest days, I'll pop on a knit hat in the house, which looks stupid as shit but really makes a huge difference. At night, I'll heat up one of those rice bag thingies in the microwave and bring it to bed with me. While the southern hemisphere is boggarting the warmth at this time of year, I pull any source of warmth I can find into my days and nights.

Layering the Layers: When I take off my clothes to go to bed every night, it's like clowns getting out of a miniature Volkswagen. The layers of clothes keep coming and coming and coming off. And not in a sexy way either. It's like the opposite of sexy with me huffing and puffing just to take off my pants. A sweater, then a long-sleeve shirt, then a t-shirt. Pants then tights. Two pairs of
My favorite winter poem
socks. It's exhausting! Sometimes I'm packed into my clothes so tightly, I collapse on the bed and beg my husband to help me because by the time I get to the tights, I've completely sapped my reservoir of strength. 

All Hail the Fleece Leggings!: Lordy lord! Fleece tights and leggings are the best thing for my legs since the invention of skin. I love fleece leggings so fucking hard, you guys. And, yes, I'll put on a pair of fleece-lined tights under a pair of fleece-lined leggings, and I don't fucking care what the fuck you fucking think. Judge all you want; meanwhile, my legs will be in heaven.

Harnessing the Power of Socks: Never underestimate the power of a good pair of socks. Preferably two. Some thick hiking socks over a thin pair of regular socks is a crucial part of me not hating winter. I don't try to tough it out anymore by being a so-called Hardy New Englander. I put on a couple pair of good socks every day, and that makes me happy.

Warming Foot Cream: Yeah, back to the feet. I know feet are kind of gross, but this winter I've given them some extra care because most other winters I've forgotten my feet even existed until the summer when I'm happily reunited with my toes. But this year, I pampered my little piggies a little more before encasing them in layers of cotton and wool by rubbing some warming cream that I had laying around.
There is a babbling brook under
there somewhere
Yeah, warming cream is a thing. Who knew? Is it a sexual thing? Have I been rubbing my feet with vag cream? I don't really care because it feels good and I don't want to put any perfumy crap on my delicate lady parts anyway. I think someone bought this warming cream for me at some point from The Body Shop. So a few times a week, I'll give my feet a little treat with some of this stuff and a little massage before bidding them adieu into those super warm socks.

Tea, Tea, and More Tea: My tea collection has always been quite a sight - I love tea so much, my BFF and I even wrote a tea review blog - but during the winter my tea collection really pulls its weight. Recently, I plunked down even more pennies on a spicy cinnamon tea that I discovered. Ginger tea is great. I even found a chocolate peppermint tea. And nothing chases away the chill like chai; plus a pot simmering on the stove makes the house smell like a delicious Indian bazar. (Also, I have no idea what an Indian bazar smells like. Please do not disturb my fantasy.) As it gets to be the time of the winter that separates the men from the boys, I'll be over here, all lady-like 'n shit, with my pot of tea.

Biking: I fucking hate exercise. No, seriously. I know you think you hate exercise, but I really do hate it. But in October, my husband got me this device that hooks up to my bike to make it into a stationary bike that I can ride inside. So if I really can't shake the chill out of my bones, I'll climb on to that thing while I'm watching some shitty-but-good TV show. Brings in the heat like a charm.

Ya, Mon: I've never been to Jamaica, but reggae music makes me feel like I'm on a tropical island. Steel drums played on the beach is the soundtrack of my winter. Any tropical music will do. To beat the winter blues, I try to fill my ears with sunset-tinged music meant to be listened to under the swaying palms while the ocean laps at my naked toes. Giant spleef optional.

Daffodils: Coincidentally (or not), Trader Joe's - bless their hearts - starts stocking small bouquets of daffodils starting the exact week when
Goddess bless Trader Joe for these
we least believe winter will ever end. They cost only $1.50. I've never been one to buy myself cut flowers, but these fuckers are worth it. I'll divide the bouquet to put a few on my desk and some in the kitchen, which helps to remind me to not believe the little voice in my head that says it will be winter forever.

Instragram: This winter, I fired up my Instragram account again. The act of posting pretty winter photos forces me to
Yes, sometimes I even use filters. Woohoo!
find the beauty in this season. It really is quite beautiful, isn't it? I mean, it's fucking obnoxious as far as seasons go, but it's astoundingly beautiful.

Laughter: If you know me, you know how important improv comedy is to me. Though it's been hard some nights to venture out into the dark to go to my improv comedy classes and shows, the laughter we share together never fails to warm my heart and soul.

Dog is My Savior: If I could like winter just 1/10th as much as my dog loves it, I would be better off. My dog LOVES winter. When she sees it's snowing out, Gemma becomes the earthly embodiment of Pure Joy. She bounds around in the snow drifts, burying her head, making little doggy snow angels, and she'll look at me like, "Do you see this????! I mean,seriously, Mom, can you believe how incredible this snow is???!?! And it's EVERYWHERE! Isn't that the best thing you've ever seen?!!!?!? All this awesome stuff is all over the place!!!! This is the best day ever!!!!" I can't say I share her boundless enthusiasm for the snow, but I do try to let some of it rub off on me during our daily walks.

Snow lover or coke head? Hard to tell.
But Gemma loves the white stuff.
Though the solstice is behind us, there is no doubt that the darkest, most brutal days of winter are here. The hope of Spring is the tiniest flame in our hearts that needs to be tended to and nourished to keep alive. Hopefully, some of these techniques might help you get through these cold, icy days and nights ahead until the tulips look like little red cups that fairies might drink out of.

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If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series, 
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 


And "like" my professional FB page please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam performs a "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, which is due out Spring, 2015. You can get all her nonsense at 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment (#19: A Radio Interview on WRSI)

by Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]

For those of you who would rather read than listen, sit tight. I'll be with you soon.

If you're interested in checking out the Zen of Improv Comedy or Mindfulness Through Laughter classes, click here.

* * *

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" which is due out in Spring, 2015. Read all her nonsense at

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Geeking Out with...The Harold (What Makes a Harold a Harold?)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a PoodleFor behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

I think Harold might have Harolded me right across the face on Friday night.

To be honest, I'm used to being jostled by Harold, and I haven’t yet come to a comfortable place with this foundational form. Perhaps the thorniness of my unfulfilling relationship with Harold stems from the stringency of the ABC - ABC - ABC structure, which I’m hopeless at keeping track of and don’t really want to anyway because it distracts me from the scenes occurring. I've been wondering lately if all of that alphabet juggling is necessary to do a Harold. Because it’s the higher level to Harold, the connection between the players, which resonates more with me. But does groupmind alone suffice to make a Harold? In the spirit of Curiosity, I’ve been posing a lot of questions to my teachers and friends, like: “What are the absolute minimum requirements a show needs to be considered a Harold? If you stripped Harold down to his bare bones, what must every Harold skeleton have? In short, what makes a Harold a Harold?”

I asked these questions of bunch of pretty remarkable people, and I’ll share all their super smart thoughts with you in a moment. But while I idly pondered Harold, his naked bones and all that, real life came along and swept me up in its ripe-tide. I got busy and stressed out and I forgot about Harold (which probably is the best headspace to be in to be schooled by him). On Friday night, I gobbled down a taco salad, and then I hurried out into the dark winter evening to teach a class.

It was the first class of Zen of Improv 2. Still relative newbies with a scant six improv classes warming their plump little bellies, my students performed a series of scenes focused on staying true to the first thirty seconds of the scene. I love my students with all my heart and soul, and even as they wobbled unsteadily on their newborn foal legs, they made me feel all the feels during their scenes. 

Later, while de-briefing, one student mentioned that a lot of the scenes seemed to revolve around the same subject matter. “Theme,” I couldn’t help but to whisper (because I’m a dork and I love improv verbiage maybe a little too much). Almost none of these smart and talented folks know about theme yet. Just as they don’t know about sweep edits or beats or any of the “rules” of improvisation. (Thankfully, in my eyes.) But as the class started to break down the scenes, we found that they had performed four different yet interconnected scenes revolving around the theme of disagreement and reconciliation. In fact, it almost seemed as though the scenes were the same two characters over various years during and after a major disagreement and reconciliation. So the first scene could have been the couple five years after the argument. The second scene time-jumped back to the big blow out itself. Then the fourth scene seemed to be about twenty years after the disagreement. The connection between these scenes was completely unintentional and only apparent after we looked back over our shoulders with our eyes squinted a little, and said, “Wait, you guys. Do you think those characters from the third scene could have been the same characters from the first scene, but five years earlier?” Crazy shit, right? 

And that’s when I whispered, “A Harold.”

Can four unrelated but magically connected scenes constitute a Harold? Had I been polling the biggest improv brains I know for the answer, when all that time my students, still blinking into the sunlight of new life, just showed me what makes a Harold a Harold? 
Quite literally THE book on
The Harold

Charna Halpern, who quite literally wrote the book on The Harold, answered it this way, “Listening, remembering, recycling, and connecting...those are the skills needed” for a Harold.

[By the way, since I have pulled together so many voices for this piece, all quotes by other people are in that pretty pink-purply color, in case there was any doubt that it wasn't me who says all that super smart stuff.]

The questions still tumble out: Is an opening absolutely required for a show to be a Harold? Or maybe it can’t be a Harold without at least a first beat of three scenes and maybe a second beat too? Is some sort of group game to call a show a Harold? Is a Harold beholden to the structure itself, or is it something beyond structure? Is a Harold a spirit bestowed upon a group who give themselves over to the patterns that play out between them? 

What makes a Harold a Harold?

Mr. Del Close
Harold’s father – and a father of us all -  Del Close said in this video Brian Stack made in 1986 that Harold was created because “I wanted to really show that we could create art by committee” in an effort to display that the art we discover together is more beautiful than that which we create alone. On the requirements to perform a Harold, he said, "Basically, all you need is some traffic patterns and some game rules and some kind of image of what it is that you’re going to do.” He talked about the structure of the Harold and how the scenes eventually would begin to affect and mirror each other and “rhyme with each other in some sort of mad conceptual way.” And Mr. Close continued, “What the audience laughs at, and indeed will cheer at … are these moments of discovery, moments of connection where the art by committee or the group brain really does start functioning.” He went on to encourage people, “Rather than to become the ideal Harold performer, [we should] develop our own peculiarities” and bring that to stage. So I take it from Del Close’s words in this video, what makes a Harold a Harold are agreed-upon "traffic patterns" to form a common structure, discovered connections, groupmind, and your weirdnesses mixing with other people’s weirdnesses to create something new and beautiful.

UCB's Dyna Moe made this helpful
visual of the scenic breakdown
of a typical Harold.

According to Del Close and Charna Halpern’s seminal book on improvisation, Truth in Comedy, “Harolds are composed of three basic elements: scenes (involving two to four players), games (usually involving the full company) and one-person monologues.” Those were the basic structural elements in 1994, when the book was published, and even then the Mr. Close and Ms. Halpern concluded that Harold extended beyond the stage. “Improvisers have been trained to notice the connection in everything, which may be the answer. The connections are always there; they run through our work and through our lives. When you notice the richness of connections in a Harold on stage, then you can go out and live your own Harold. You will, too, you know. You can’t help it!”

Looking at Del Close’s words alone, let’s ask again: What is a Harold at its most basic? A structure but also a spirit, it seems. And as the years have worn on, with more and more people stepping into the shoes of Harold, the structural elements have shifted. As I believe they were meant to by Del Close’s very design.

I'm going to open up the floor now to a bunch of those pretty remarkable people I promised you earlier...

Alan Baranowski (Student of and assistant to Del Close in the late-70s at The Second City, Confessions of an Improvaholic)
"The Harold, as we worked on it [in the late-70s], was a free-form, large scale improvisation that could include any and all improvisational exercises and games. It was based on a suggestion from the audience in the form of a personal question, i.e. “Why do I (blank)?, Why must I (blank)?” etc. The members of the group would then re-ask the question of themselves and personalize it. We would started with a group exercise that would exchange the feelings, emotions and themes that the suggestion generated, and out of that exercise the first scene would explode and then anything was fair game. 

The beautiful thing was when elements from one scene, exercise or
Alan Baranowski, Improvaholic
game would show up and/or influence other scenes, exercises or games. It was in this series of workshop that Del made a strong effort to make us into a "synergistic" group. Synergism is the cooperative action of a discrete set of agencies whose total effect is greater than the sum of the effects taken by the agencies independently. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The group was synergistic, but the Harold that we worked on also was a synergistic improvisational exercise. The Harold, as we performed it, was a synergistic improvisation because the total effect of the exercises used to build Harold were given greater, deeper, more layered meaning than the effect of the individual exercises if seen independent of Harold.  

Synergy and groupmind are along the same idea, but I'm not sure if they are interchangeable. I feel synergy would apply to the whole process (i.e. the group, the exercises, games, the audience and everything that goes into the piece); whereas, groupmind would only apply to the players and how they play." 

Howard Johnson (comedy historian, author of the terrific Del Close biography The Funniest One in the Room, editor of Truth in Comedy, early ImprovOlympic improviser, student of Del Close, and many other wonderful things):
“The original Harolds, as developed by The Committee [in the 1960s in San Francisco], were
Kim "Howard" Johnson (center bottom)
with the other members of Baron's Barracuda's,
one of the first ever Chicago Harold teams.
supposed to address a profound question asked by an audience member. When Del started focusing on them again in the early 80s, they were viewed as a vessel for virtually any and all types of scenes and games--in other words, a catch-all for some pretty excellent work. That changed again when we started to codify it [in the mid-80s], using the Time Dash as the basis for the scenes and an assortment of classic games as well as those we made up on the spot. All of this is really just a longwinded way of saying all improvisation--even other types of longform--is actually part of a Harold...”

Howard’s always insightful words allow me to understand how The Deconstruction was developed (by Del Close and The Family in the '90s) as a deconstruction of the essential scenic elements of The Harold. And we can see from this deconstruction, how Harold begot other forms, like The Armando, in addition to even the major schools of improvisational philosophy. No wonder it's so hard to figure out what makes a Harold a Harold. From where we stand today in 2015,  everything we step into onstage has roots in The Harold.

If The Harold is ever-evolving, could it be that the 3x3 structural elements are not among the bones in Harold’s skeleton? Some people are would adamantly say no, the structure is an absolute requirement for a Harold to be a Harold. As
Jane Morris
Jane Morris (co-founder of Second City ETC, Fanatic Salon Theater, All Girl Revue) succinctly told me, a Harold is “Three scenes, three times, moved in time and space.” Yet other people open the Harold umbrella still wider. And in its shade, I’m sure you will notice some words never fail to pop up: Connections. Patterns. Groupmind.

Piero Procaccini (Second City, soon-to-be-author, someone every improviser in the world should study with):
“What I see as particularly characteristic of Harold (and how it's advent influenced the work that followed) is the idea of Connections. The textbook structure of: 
Scene 1A 
Scene 2A 
Piero Procaccini

Scene 3A 
Group Game 
Scene 1B 
Scene 2B 
Scene 3B 
Group Game 
Scene 1C 
Scene 2C 
Scene 3C 
and the use of time dashes is a very effective way to establish an infrastructure that leads to connections, which is why it is so useful as a teaching tool for students. But once you are more comfortable with the territory, there are many ways to get to this idea of connectivity.”

Craig Uhlir (iO Theater, The Second City, Deep Schwa, The Boys, most playful improviser on the stage, ya' dinkle):
“Group gets suggestion. Group finds deeper meaning and explores deeper meaning through scenes. Elements of any part will and should influence the moments, moves and scenes going forward. 

Craig Uhlir
I find that connecting parts or scenes becomes as simple as just having any component or character show up in later scenes, rather by intentional or accidental collision, and most improvisors can justify quickly such combinations. Sooo it seems like the real skill of the Harold in this day and age for me is, 'Can a group of six to ten improvisors find a deeper meaning and agree on what it is BY using it and exploring it?'

I also feel the opening and games have more influence and are less a separate part or piece of the show. Everything feeds everything now.”

Kevin Mullaney (Co-founder Under the Gun Theater, Improv Resource Center, improv fount of knowledge):
“A Harold has several threads (scenes with multiple beats) that start out separate and are woven together by the end of the show. 

A Harold has at least some elements (opening, group games) that involve all the performers and not just scenes with two or three people.
Kevin Mullaney

A Harold is a collage of scenes, characters and ideas where the meaning (if there is any) comes from the juxtaposition of these elements.

A Harold is concerned with patterns, not story. If a story happens, that's fine, but one should follow the pattern of what is happening and not try to tell a story.

Oh! And Harold eats everything. In other words, you can have dance, music, acrobatics, poetry, mime, or anything else you can imagine can be a part of the form. It's not just scenes or group scenes. It should have a little performance art in it.” 

And, true enough, Del Close said in Brian Stack’s video, “I suspect that what we’re doing here is some sort of performance art, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to say that in public. It goes over a lot better as a sport.”

So a Harold could be almost anything? Is a Harold just really well-performed improvisation? I’m a visual gal, so I still find myself digging in the sand to find where is the line drawn between “This is a Harold” and “This is not a Harold.” Perhaps the answer is merely a matter of arcane linguistics?

Rachel Klein (Co-founder Fine Line Comedy, author of the blog The House That Del Built, longtime member of the ImprovBoston community, big thinker):
Rachel Klein
“The execution rarely follows the exact Harold ‘plan’ (actually the Harolds that ‘execute’ perfectly are often the most boring/least dynamic). For me to consider a show a Harold beforehand, I'd have to know that the team is committed to the form and begins with a somewhat recognizable first beat, even if everything goes off the rails after that. But there are so many shows that don't plan to be a Harold and then you look back and go ‘That was a Harold, wasn't it?’ And that's because of how tripartite structures are woven into the fabric of our experience. We gravitate to them to make sense of information, so often a show that's supposed to be ‘free form’ ends up with three plotlines or three chunks of scenes with ‘games’ in between. It's just a natural form, like iambic pentameter. Now I'm getting into questions of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. Calling something a Harold doesn't always make it so, and not calling it one doesn't mean it won't be.

Prescriptively, if someone said they were setting out to do a Harold, I'd want to see some sort of tripartite first beat, a group check in of some sort, a second beat that explores the themes and content of the first beat, some sort of second check in, and a satisfying conclusion that integrates the theme and content of what came before. The requirement for threes up top would only be in order to ensure there was a pattern to explore rather than just some constantly forward-moving, linear experience. The pleasure of the Harold is its folding in on itself, and an early pattern of three (the simplest pattern possible) sets you up for that experience. It might break down as early as the second beat, but if it's been set as the foundation even the "break down" will be a response to the pattern at the very least. Also I'm partial to openings, but I could imagine a first beat without one if it still achieved the goal of setting a theme and tone and generating a baseline of content that could be explored throughout the show.

Descriptively it's another matter. How do I know if I've seen a Harold, after the fact? I'd tend to be more liberal in my definition there. Was there pattern-making? Was it "about" something? Did it feel like watching disparate elements being sewn together through the course of the show by a common idea or energy or tone? When it was over did I feel satisfied, full? I'd probably call that a Harold.  In any event, I'm of the opinion that many people doing Harold today have become much too rigid about its execution — what scenes go where and what you're allowed to do in each beat and how they interact…

An artform that doesn't continue to evolve and respond to other art forms is dead, and I'd like to see the Harold live on as one of the great theatrical forms.” 

Bill Arnett (Founder Chicago Improv Studio, iO Theater, beloved teacher and brain, 3033): 
“I've waved the ‘Harold is too narrowly defined’ banner for a long time. So what is it? Difficult to say since so many branches have been sawn off, Giving Tree-style, to make other forms. What makes Harold content-wise different from a montage? The scenes converge on a single
Bill Arnett
theme or emphasis. How is it different form-wise from a montage? The best Harolds I've been in created unique patterns, inspired by the content. Historically, Harold has included non-scenic group improv (openings, games, rituals, etc...) giving it a unique style which, with so much strictly scenic improv around, is essentially exclusive to Harold. I think that's it. Content, structure and style.”

Lori Strauss (ImprovBoston teacher and performer, very thoughtful improviser):
Lori Strauss
“I think if you're intentionally performing a Harold you need an Opening, First Beat (3 scenes), Group Game, Second Beat (3 Scenes), Group Game, and Third Beat (Undefined Scene Number). If you have a show that's Harold-like, you probably want to think of it in terms of threes but not necessarily following the structure.

I tend to think of it more abstractly as a structure that lends itself to callbacks and connections (through game -- however you define it), and those things are the building blocks for comedy … I've seen MANY great sets, but I think I've only seen a 'true' Harold a few times and have been part of it maybe only once. But, I don't think there's one standard 'This is Harold' out there aside from the (uninterpreted) structure alone.”

Will Luera (Director of Improvisation at Florida Studio Theatre - Sarasota, Artistic Director Emeritus of ImprovBoston, "Freeform" innovator, physics nerd and fan of cute baby bears):
"With the ImprovBoston Harold team Spector, who performed a 'freeform Harold,' we found that the recognition and heightening of a pattern was more important than the framework of a traditional Harold. We would almost always still execute in the same format as a Harold - opening, ABC, game, ABC, game, run. But every now and then, you might see Opening, ABCDE, game, ABCD, game, ABCD. Or Opening, AB, game, AB, game, AB, or whatever other structure was inspired by the tone and flavor of the opening.

When I teach the Harold, the main three aspects I focus on are scenework, group games and patterns, which I think are all essential to a Harold.

Scenework is, of course, the foundation of any improv show whether it's long-form, short-form, free-form or whatever. I am looking for strong emotions engaging in a believable way. 

I have a liberal definition of what constitutes a group game, and I think the group games that open the Harold and break up the beats serve several important roles for me. As an opening, it not only explores the suggestion but also sets the tone and voice of that night's show. If the opening is fast and frenetic, then maybe that's what our Harold will look like. If our opening is slow and deliberate, then maybe that's what the Harold will be. The tone, voice and theme is further explored (and heightened) when the group games are revisited throughout the show. 

Also, the group game doesn't necessarily mean that all players are onstage, BUT all players are still actively participating. A standard group game might have all players onstage in a scene or mirrored activity; however, if a group game started with one person onstage and all other players were making an active decision to not participate, that is still a group game. And that group decision is informing us as to what the Harold might be about. For example, in the opening of a Spector show, an actor started on stage, acting out scared and the rest of the cast stayed offstage and didn't join, reinforcing loneliness as a theme understood by the group. It wasn't a traditional "group" game, but the group was involved.

The Pattern recognition and exploration is the most important part of Harold for me. It, ultimately, tells us the shape of the show. When I teach the Harold, I try to enforce a Lattice-like awareness of the form. I want my players to be aware of patterns that transcend across the group games, that connect the three (or more) beats of a thread of scenes, or that exist across the scenes in a single beat...I know crazy. But I do believe that this awareness of the multiple types of patterns being created will inform the cast of what the shape of the Harold wants to be. If you're paying attention to how the opening leads into the first beat and to how the scenes within the beat relate to each other, you might have a Harold that looks like a standard ABC Harold, one that looks like monoscene, or one that is truly unique for that night."

Colleen Doyle (iO Theater-LA, Dummy, astoundingly talented improviser-actress):
Colleen Doyle
"Harold, to me, is group mind in action. The opening is our shared/discovered thesis, and the rest of the show (whatever that looks like structurally) is our defense of that. Defense, in this instance, meaning both underscoring our ideas and exploring them. Echoing Charna, it's recycling ideas/using everything up/making connections."

Lyndsay Hailey (iO Theater-LA, Chance of Hailey, gorgeous woman and soul):
“Harold is its own living, breathing organism, its own entity, a theme channeled by a collective and then further mined by the individuals within that collective. I recognize Harold to be a study of the human condition, a structure that mirrors our need to come together for support (open and games) and for individual experiences (scenes) to further the truth. If we aim for presence...Harold just happens, with all the appropriate callbacks. Our inherent nature seeks to ascribe definition, pattern and meaning to the human experience, that natural instinct creates callbacks, patterns and games. Sure, there is a biblical transcription, a "formula," but I heard Del would say "piece before form," and I take that to mean let Harold do Harold. Here is the spinal column, but let him breathe." 

The last word here on The Harold must go to Charna Halpern (co-founder of iO Theater, co-author of Truth in Comedy and Art By Committee, improv high priestess):
Charna Halpern
“Oh, the form has totally changed. It’s all about listening, remembering and recycling nowadays. Just search for thesis statement or theme out of the opening, so you are saying something to the audience. Keep recognizing connections and patterns. Harold is ever-changing. There can be no plan. It’s improv.”

So were my students' four, magically connected scenes on Friday night an accidental Harold? No, not in form alone. But in spirit, I would dip my toe into the "Yes" waters. 

I suspect that Harold is not just the skeleton but also its breath, like Lyndsay says. And there is the crux of my struggle to define The Harold. You can’t hold breath in your hand or find it drawn in the sand or diagram it. Breath only exists in the moment here in now. The absolute and ultimate present. The connection between our physical and spiritual selves. Like our bodies, Harold seems to be constantly changing and evolving. And like our breath, it always stays the same and connects us all.

Like all the best elements of improvisation, The Harold is so simple, it will take me the rest of my life to understand what makes a Harold a Harold. And for that, I am most grateful.

Thanks, Del.

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Jazz Freddy
...Tara DeFranscico
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre

and many more!

Read Geeking Out with...Charna Halpern (Part Two)
in which she said,
"I’m the type of person who wants to help everyone. Most people don’t know me well enough and some fear me. I also have a great sense of humor and sometimes the kids don’t expect that. So they don’t know I might be doing a bit, and they take something I said seriously. I like to goof around. That would surprise people."

If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series, 
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam performs a "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, which is due out Spring, 2015. You can get all her nonsense at