More and More Characters

iO Summer Intensive

Week 2

Instructor- Marla Careses



Marla started us out with a game that destroyed out minds. It was the promised Part 2 of the Name Game and it was mind-warping. We did a couple of rounds take make sure we all remembered each others motions, with 16 people it is a lot to keep track of, especially over several days. All that meant was that I would do my own motion, then someone else’s, then they would do their own and then someone else’s, etc. After a minute we dropped doing out own, just passing the focus around the circle by doing any other person’s name and motion after someone did our own. Not complicated.

Then, we switched to doing it silently. That was much harder. I had to pay close attention, and it suddenly became clear that eye contact was vital to communicate our intentions to each other. This is when Marla got mean. She had warned us to make the movements very crisp and clear, which we only half listened to. Then she took away eye contact! When we did a motion we were not allowed to look at the person who we were passing the focus to, we had to make eye contact with someone else. Let me say this- not easy. Plus, it’s hard to not respond when someone looks in your eyes even if they are doing someone else’s motion.

Then it got worse. We were still passing focus with movement- but we had to make eye contact with a second person while ALSO saying a third name! I could feel my brain melting. It was insanely hard. Because we were slowing down too much, wanting to get it right, Marla made it elimination style. Interestingly, getting it wrong was fine. You could only be eliminated if you hesitated or if you judged yourself. Which is how I got out. This is a game I will store away for if I ever need to destroy a group of people.

Then we did Soundscapes. We started in groups of eight, laying on the floor. One person would start a sound based on the suggestion and everyone else would come in with a complimentary sound. This can grow and change, about 3-4 minutes long. Then we switched to doing them standing up, and we added physical movements to them. After we had gotten the hang of it Marla told us that we were doing organic openings. Tricksty.

In that, she gave some guidance-

  • As an opening it should typically have three stages, plus transitions.
  • After the third stage we should organically find an edit to move into the first scene, as a group.
  • Lock onto the FIRST thing and heighten, heighten, heighten. This leads to finding new patterns faster.
  • Match your energy to the highest energy person!
  • Keep the stage picture balanced.

We then did Good Morning. Two players sit in chairs, asleep. At good morning we were to wake-up and look at each other, staying silent until we had a read on the other person and the energy between us. No suggestions, and we could stay in bed, get up, get dressed, whatever we wanted. The idea is to stay with the emotion discovered in the first few lines, or before, and to not make a plot.

Dinner With The Family was next. It was a similar exercise except it as with four people and when the scene started we were at a supper table together. We were to put relationships first, and to call out subtext when we found it. These scenes were really fun, very rich. Marla gave me a note after this exercise and told that I am very good at providing specific details to flesh out characters and situations. I hadn’t realized that, so it was nice to hear. Sometimes, especially when we are doing a lot of stuff I haven’t done before, it’s easy to feel like the worst improviser in the world. So getting a little, honest compliment in front of the class felt really good.

Marla then spent some time going over the concepts we’ve been working on all week, slow and deep play, thoughtful and heavy stuff, and how to combine that with the speed and “jump to it” attitude that we will be expected to have on some teams or at auditions. Between her and us we came up with the following list-

  1. Lock eyes with your partner ASAP, even while still off-stage, to get an emotional read on them, then work from that reaction.
  2. Go with your gut reaction, trust your instincts.
  3. Follow emotion.
  4. Stay with whatever comes up in the first 1-3 lines.
  5. Do NOT complicate things! Let the scenes be very simple.
  6. Resist the urge to make the scenes “about something”.
  7. Heighten what you have, don’t add more.
  8. Discovering info and details is a must but inventing them is bad and will leave a bad taste in your mouth. People can tell if the info you are adding logically follows what has come before or if you are just trying to force something.
  9. Fast doesn’t equal false.

The other topic Marla covered before we left today was the fat that we need to take ourselves as seriously as we take the others on our team. That my ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s. That it is not only my right but also my responsibility to hold onto my own words and actions as gifts, just as I would anyone else’s. And that hearing and responding to my own words is just as important as doing the same for my teammates.

This is very hard for me. I either don’t notice what I say or do, rushing past in fear or nervousness, or else I do notice but when I get ignored or the topic drops I let it go. I don’t want to push my agenda on someone else so I just let myself get trampled. For example- in the bedroom exercise today I did a scene with a guy and I said something like, “Oh, I thought you’d reconsidered.” I had an idea that he’d given some thought to us having kids. But he didn’t hear me and kept going, so I let it go. I didn’t want to force him to go there. A minute later Marla stopped us and asked me what I had meant by that because she had seen genuine pain on my face and the audience wants to know why. So, I brought it back up. And he made the smart move of saying that kids were off the table, he just hadn’t bothered to tell me yet. And then I got to play upset and hurt and furious, which was lovely and fun. And we almost missed all of that because I dropped my own shit.

I rob the scenes, and my partners, all the time by letting go of my on characters, ideas, and words because I want to “be polite”. My teammates deserve me at 100% on stage and I am diluting myself when I do that. I need to give 100% of me, as well as 100% support, when I’m on the stage.

Snatches from today–

  • There are NO mistakes. ALWAYS support your teammates. This is the only rule.
  • Asking is weaker then telling, it puts you in the place of less power. That’s not wrong, but it’s something to keep in mind.
  • In Who-What-Where, the What=what is happening between these people? If you can answer that early in will hook the audience and they will be willing to wait for the rest of the answers.

Dancing Skills Would Be Handy

iO Summer Intensive

Week 2

Instructor- Marla Careses



We started with Mirroring. You and a partner stand and face each other, mirroring each others movements. The goal is that neither if you are leading or following, that it is intuitively together. Another way to look at it is that each of you are leading, but in micro amounts of time. Fractions of seconds. That way the lead is always shifting from one person to another. This exercise helps me see that I am never pleased. When I am paired with someone who takes the lead I get annoyed because I want us to share. But when I’m paired with someone as hesitant to lead as I am, as I was today, then I get annoyed because nothing is happening. The common denominator here is me. I should probably spend some time thinking about that.

We then moved to another level of the same exercise, where we spoke together. The goal was to speak at full speed, and to say the same thing. It went rather badly, for the same reason listed above. I’m not brave enough to lead, nor submissive enough to follow. My partner and I got frustrated with each other and neither of us were happy. Marla came over to give us some pointers and encourage us to take bigger risks.

On that note- how often does someone tell you that in your day to day life? How often do people say take a risk, try something that will probably fail? Not often. Everyone tells me to play it safe, be careful, protect myself. Scenes where I do that are unsatisfying because there are no stakes-not physical, mental, or emotional. Could that be one reason our lives are so unsatisfying?

Then, still with the same partners, we did “2 Person Scenes”. I put that in quotes because there were really four of us on stage, but each pair of partners had to move and speak as one (in the first person). This seems like it would be way harder but in actuality it was easier. I think it was standing side by side instead of facing off, touching each other during the scene (standing against someone lets you feel when they are going to move or talk much better than just watching them), and Marla’s notes. We were both trying, it was just a hard exercise. We did end up surprising ourselves and before we could back off Marla yelled at us, ordering us to not back away from the weird thing we’d said. We were arguing with another couple at a yard sale about an item we both wanted and “I” called it a hand. I meant hat, don’t know what he meant, but together it was a hand and suddenly it was a weird, and interesting, yard sale.

Then we did three person scenes where we started as ourselves. After 30 or so seconds Marla added a “quirk” that we all three had to do. Like, our first one was going “awwwww” and drooping after every line we said. 30 seconds later that one was gone and a new one was added, I think being REALLY excited. So forth and so on. It made for hilarious scenes, and it was a lot of fun. I don’t give myself permission to be weird and crazy, or even just odd, so being ordered to do it was freeing. And it added a great deal of subtext to scenes. One group was doing a very normal scene in a pet shelter, one guy adopting a cat, but when they had to add a big wink to the end of every line it turned creepy/twisted/insanely funny.

Then we did another Messing exercise, this one inspired by Buzzly Burkley (an old Hollywood choreographer). This was another hard one for me. I’m not very physically coordinated, I don’t dance or do gymnastics or visual arts of any kind. So choreography and movement and forming a pleasing stage picture is a weakness. One I didn’t really know I had because I’ve never had an instructor expect it of me.

We stood in a row, shortest in the front and tallest in the back. The first person does a movement that everyone else copies, but with a complementing twist. Same movement, just at a different level or something. Then the first person adds a sound, which everyone also almost matches. The first person then peels off and everyone peels off after them, paying attention to stage picture and balance. This is most easily achieved by mirroring the person opposite from you. The sound and movement will transform and morph several times over the next few minutes, which is fine. Any time a person ups the intensity or volume the rest of the group has to match that. Make sure you are playing with layers and depth as well, as a group. This is not normally an opening but it could be with some streamlining.

Next was Onion Peel (aka 171). Another game/exercise I’d never done before and now love. 7 people go up on stage (or around that number depending on group size) and one person starts a solo scene. Then a second person joins in, initiating a new, 2 person scene. After that has time to get itself established another person comes out and initiates a new, 3 person scene. So forth and so on until all 7 people are in a scene together. Each scene should have been distinct and separate from the others, and it had to start with whatever physical position the people already on-stage were in. This forces you to justify weird stuff you are doing.

Then, the 7th person to join has to think of a legitimate excuse to leave. As soon they do then the scene goes back to whatever it was for 6 people, and you have to justify why everyone has moved or is in such weird positions. Continue down until there is only one person left, and they finish their solo scene.

This exercise led to a lot of laughter AFTER be got brave! To start with, it was fine. But as we allowed ourselves to make bigger choices, weirder moves, with the risk of being caught in them the fun level ratcheted upwards. Like, I was in a scene where on the way up the 6 of us were having babies in a shared pool, “to save money on the rental”. On the way down I had been tossing oranges into a tree in the scene before and had my hand way up in the air. I didn’t remember what scene came next but as soon as someone said baby I snatched my hand down and said something like, “Caught him.” I don’t know why, it was one of those fun moments where I surprised myself. That led to a really fun scene about how all our babies had superpowers and we didn’t know why. Mine kept wiggling loose and flying away, another girl lost hers because it was invisible, etc.

Marla then had us do a different version of scene painting. In this one we all painted together. As someone went to paint an item we would all rush there and touch it together, and then keep painting it until we ran out of tings to say about the item. The idea is show, not tell. Instead of saying, “The room is rundown and dirty” say “The wallpaper is stained with cigarette smoke at the top, and several of the corners have peeled loose. The lamp has four bulbs but three are burned out. There is a thick layer of dust along the wall in that inch wide strip where the vacuum never reaches.” That kind of thing. The more specific the better.

We also played Blind Freeze Tag, where we couldn’t see what was going on before our turn, someone who could told us when to go out and tag into the scene, starting a new one from the positions we found ourselves in. The fun part of this game isn’t so much justifying the weird position you find yourself in, fun as that is, but even more to try to find reasons to create crazy set-ups for your team to make others jump into. Like, I jumped into one with a guy where he had his hands wrapped around my neck and we had to make that make sense (without using the fight idea the team before us had been using).

Snatches from today–

  • Take a risk. Justification comes later.
  • Symmetry and balance of stage picture are how we can make something beautiful in the moment.
  • If you make a move, hold it. Don’t second guess yourself! Your moves are valid.
  • “If anything in America is fancy it’s European.”
  • Characters are affected by the mood of the place. Must be. A warm, sunny kitchen with new appliances and oak furniture creates a different character than a basement kitchen with unpainted cinder block walls, a hotplate, and a card table.

We’re Never Ready


This was a lesson drilled into me this past week at iO. If I try to wait for the perfect moment to edit, the perfect character to enter my head, the perfect line of dialogue for the scene, or the perfect instant to reveal my true idea/motivation/plot point – I will never act at all.

Gettin’ Jiggy With It

iO Summer Intensive

Week 2

Instructor- Marla Careses


Marla has us this week and she gave us a clear warning today- this week will be the most physically active of the entire course so we should prepare ourselves. We’re going to be covering three main areas-

  1. Characters
  2. Ensemble Work
  3. Group Work

She said ensemble work has more to do with putting a group together and bonding it, while group work is more about how you work together on stage. And we’ll be doing a lot of Susan Messing exercises this week because she is the one who write the level 2 curriculum for iO.

We started with a warm-up where we each associated a movement with out name, and practiced until we had those down. Like, mine was throwing both hands straight up into the air. I only mention this because Marla said we’ll get to part two later in the week, which has me intrigued.

Then we did an exercise where half of the group (eight people) were walking around in the space, playing with levels. She warned us that she was going to call stop soon and then when she did we needed to where we could touch two people. This forced us into a rather close clump. Once she had stopped us and we were touching enough people she told us we should start moving again but we had to be touching a minimum of two people at all times. Marla also encouraged us to take big risks, to make bold physical moves and trust our team to have our backs.

This led to a mass of people all rubbing, sliding, wiggling, and stretching around and against each other. Not a good place for anyone with personal space issues. Each half did it, and then we did it all together. At one point I got picked up and passed across the top of the group, later I ended up smashed on the floor. Honestly- it was really fun. How often do you get to play like that as an adult? Plus, the entire group became much more comfortable touching each other in scenes. It would be weird to hesitate to touch someone’s back in a scene (as has happened in classes I’ve been in) when only a few hours before you were wrapped around them like a monkey on a tree or sitting on them.

We then moved to Leading With a Body Part. I’ve done this exercise a LOT. It seems to be a favorite for anyone teaching character work. I was a little annoyed to do it again but I tried to focus and get what I could from it instead of letting myself block it out due to irritation. And it was a little different.

While we were in neutral she had the class try to figure out what we led with, and what that implied, so that we would have a better idea of our natural state- of what we project when we play “us”. We then went through the standard paces. We led with different parts, then chose our own, then greeted each other in character. Marla did encourage us to try to find a real character who was at the same time not us or someone we play a lot. If the character felt too much like me I was supposed to dial it up, if it felt like a cartoon or a caricature then I was to dial it back a little. I definitely lean toward the first more than the second.

Then we used those characters, four at a time, to do interviews. It’s a Messing exercise, I did it with her when she taught a workshop in Minneapolis. Marla gave us a little more rein than Susan did, and a little more time. It’s interesting because the point is that the four of you already know each other, and are there together for a reason that you all know. But, of course, none of the actors have any idea what that reason is so it’s a process of figuring out together. Also, we were to avoid adding conflict right away. It was fine if it came up naturally later but not to start with. In fact, the interview I was in got reset because we all ganged-up on one guy out of the gate and were all unlikeable characters- three of us were mean and one was pathetic. Not fun for anyone.

The last exercise we did was some more character work but it was something I’d never done before and I love it! It’s one I want to make sure I remember it, maybe even teach it to some friends. It’s that fun/helpful. You start with five people on stage, in the following configuration-


3                             2


4                            1

Each person is assigned a role in the exercise-

  1. Assigns a posture (stance, how the body is held, etc)

  2. Assigns a vocal quality (tone, pace volume, accent, etc)

  3. Assigns a gesture to be repeated, as well as how often (if applicable)

  4. Assigns a catchphrase

  5. Takes on each quality as it is assigned, becoming a character

As each person assigns something they have to be satisfied with the way the person in the center is doing it back, can force them to keep adjusting things until it is accurate. Once the forth person is satisfied #5 steps forward and immediately begins a monologue as that character. The other four people tag in, fast and eager, and take over the monologue as the mood strikes. Their goal is to mimic the first speaker as much as possible, and that person can tag back in too.

It forced me to do characters I’d never do on my own, even with leading or whatnot. And it was a lot of fun to watch from the audience-you could see the person in the middle shift into a character while you watched.

Snatches from today-

  • Join in the physical as much as possible. It engages that much more of your brain, leaving less to get into your head with.
  • Everyone in an ensemble (or physical activity) needs to be a supporter, but also a risk taker. Everyone has to take risks.
  • The choice to “not care” as a character is a weak choice.
  • Don’t feel like you have to complicate things! VERY basic scenes are fine.
  • Simple scenes allow more complex characters to develop.
  • “There are two kinds of scenes- ‘slice of life’ and ‘the day the shit hit the fan’.” -Messing If the scene is the first then allow yourself to go deep and personal, to fully explore the moment. If it is the second then make sure you show it hitting the fan, don’t chicken out at the last minute. You’ve promised the audience a train wreck and they want to see it.
  • Be as truthful and deep as possible.


Recap: Week 18

One Million Words Challenge

Week 18

I crossed the quarter million word mark! This is a happy day.

Here are my totals for the week–

  • Journal 4,477
  • Letters 250
  • MPs 5,508
  • Black Dog 1,916
  • Blog 3,953
  • Total 16,104
  • YTD 257,765
  • Where I should be 345,240

Further down the rabbit hole

iO Summer Intensive

Week 1

Instructor- Tara DeFransisco


Today we started with more montages, to get everyone on the same page. This was after Killer ZipZapZop, where everyone ends up dead on the floor. Violent fun for everyone.

We moved straight into Scene Painting, as a form. I love it as an edit, did it when I was learning the Movie. I didn’t realize that it has been done at iO in the past as an actual form. I’d really like to be in a group one day that did it. You paint a set, then do 3-4 scenes there, then sweep and paint a new set. Continue on in this manner. You can also drop details in during the scene (two people talking, you step out, “We see that a large spider has just dropped onto his head from the rafters”), when that happens the improvisers hear their teammate, of course, but the characters do not.

We practiced that for a little while, building sets and then doing scenes in them. Again, I love scene painting so was as happy as a clam. Not everyone loved it though. I guess it feels cheap to some people? And then others complained that it was too slow and time-consuming and that they didn’t like being constricted to what was built. I suppose I can see that, but I love it anyway! Some of them probably like Armando’s so it all evens out.

Tara said that scene painting is drawing for the audience what we already see. When I’m on stage and I imagine a kitchen I can see it, surrounding me. Part of that is practice, part is that I have always been good at imagining things. I think that’s one reason I like to write, I can simply record what I already see in my head. She did point out a few other things-

  1. The characters are not in on what you painted. This can be fun if they don’t notice things right away, or make mistakes about the things around them. And the audience loves it because they are in on the joke.
  2. DO NOT talk about the objects. The audience is not stupid, they know what you put and where. Don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to eat these chicken fingers.” Just eat the blooming things while someone is talking to you. The folks out there are smart, they’ll remember that fingers were painted in there and they will enjoy being in on it. They’ll feel clever.
  3. Good space work invisible. Bad space work ruins shows, taking all the attention.
  4. Keep track of your objects. If you can use something 3-4 scenes in that no one else has touched, or pick up something someone else moved in another scene, the audience will go crazy.

Next was an overview of the Harold. We go over it in greater depth later, and will do one for our show, but they want us to be familiar with the form now so we can watch them over the next few weeks and understand what we are seeing.

Harold Outline


Act 1

Scene A

Scene B

Scene C

Game Slot/Allsgate

Act 2

Scene A

Scene B

Scene C

Game Slot/Allsgate

Act 3

Scene A

Scene B

Scene C

Lights Out

A Harold has three acts, each with three scenes. It also has an opener, and two game slots. The letter stays the same through all three scenes because the letter marks the theme or idea you are following. I feel like the Harold is a little long to explain here, but I want to hit the high points she mentioned.

“A good opening is journalism on the piece you are about to see.” -Del Close

The opening can be many things but at the end you must have a theme that matters! Get your theme or you are sunk before the first scene. The three scenes in Act 1 are not connected in any way to each other. Each one will be a two person scene, each drawing from the opening, each exploring a different part of the theme. Acts two and three allow a furthering of that theme, in one of the following five ways-

  1. Character Dash. We see a character we already know in the past or future.

  2. Time Dash. We see a place in a different time. A character dash is always a time dash, because people exist in time, but a time dash is not always a character dash (we could see a place when the characters are not there).

  3. Reflective. The emotion of a scene is carried to another scene- if 1A was a job interview (nervous) then 2A could be a first date (nervous). If it was the same character it would also be a character dash, if it was a new character it would just be reflective.

  4. Mapping. Lines of dialogue are moved into a new, different scene. When done well this typically shows up as satire. (1A- Two kids fight over their toys. “Give that to me, it’s mine.” “No. If I can’t have it neither can you.” 2nd kid breaks toy. Jump to 2A- Two men in a boardroom. “Give that to me, it’s mine.” “No. If I can’t have it neither can you.” Rips up an important contract.)

  5. Transgenic. Also, associative. This one is esoteric, and difficult for beginners. The things that is followed is an idea, something that caught the attention of the improviser. There is a large chance that no one else will see or understand the connection.

The other Harold topic we briefly went over was the game slot. This has been he thing which has driven me crazy. I did not, still do not fully, understand this part. Tara helped a LOT when she went over it but I think I need to do it before I really get it. She said the main point is that it is the “art” piece in the form. It must be non-scenic, and if it’s a little trippy that’s OK. 95% of the time it should involve the entire team, it’s a way to get everyone on stage together and reconnected as a whole. She also said that while is is often it is just a cleanser, a way to prepare for the next set, it can be used as a way to draw out new ideas on theme from the opening, or to reinforce themes that were brought up during the previous three scenes. OK. Like I said, I still don’t fully get it.

We spent the rest of today on Invocation. Let’s start with this- I don’t like invocation. I really don’t. It’s too new-age for me, and I feel weird. Having said that, it was better with Tara than when I learned it with Joe Bill. Their technique was almost identical but somehow she made it less weird. Maybe by acknowledging that it’s really weird?

You start with the suggestion of an item. Any item will do. We used chap stick and cell phone. Then there are four stages to the Invocation, each phrase you speak being led with the phrase for that stage. When someone moves to the next stage everyone does, no going back. And energy/volume can only go up. It’s also done popcorn style, you speak as you wish but someone needs to always be talking- no dead air.

  1. I See. At this stage each person is literally describing the physical thing. (If carrot- “I see orange skin.” “I see a feathery top.”)

  2. You Are. At this stage you speak to the item personally. (“You are orange.” “You are crunchy when I bite you”)

  3. Thou Art. At this stage you “Golden Calf” the thing. Some people talk about making it into a god, which is where I backed-off, but Tara also said you could view it as making it Poetic. You want this stage to be dramatic. (“Thou art sweet on my tongue.” “Thou art good for me.”)

  4. I am. At this stage you become the thing, which can create rich metaphors. (“I am good for you.” “I am sweet in your mouth.”)

The idea is that by the last stage everyone in the group will be on the same page and will have found a theme in what is being said. The item should NOT be mentioned in the set. It’s gone. Don’t say it. This is for theme and theme alone. Any physical changes during the Invocation should be made by the entire group and should be organic. Also, while it’s good for ideas to be repeated throughout the levels, and within them, it’s best to let your team repeat what you said, and you repeat them. Don’t repeat yourself as much as possible.

So, yeah. That’s Invocation.

Went to a couple of shows tonight. At Tara’s suggestion I did Harold homework. I saw two Harold teams and mapped each one out as they did it, to look for the connections and callbacks. Neither team successfully completed their Harold. One seemed to realize they were running out of time so they combined the last game slot and the entire last act into a single, messy scene. The other team held to their pattern but ran out of time during 3A. Writing it out, piece by piece, did help me start to see how they fit together.

I also saw Switch Committee- very fast, high energy; Handsome Devils- really nice, my second favorite show I’ve seen; and The Scene- which was very good improv but the form was jarring to me.

Things Are Getting Weird

iO Summer Intensive

Week 1

Instructor- Tara DeFransisco



Today was group mind day. The idea of group mind is weird to me, probably to a lot of people. I can’t say it doesn’t exist because it does. I’ve been a part of it. I just don’t know how it works, or why. And I don’t really feel like I can explain it to non-improvisers without sounding like I’m in a cult or I’ve gone off the deep end. So we’ll leave the explanations behind and I’ll stick with what we actually did, in order to work on building it.

First was Count to 20. I’ve done this type of thing a lot. It was heartening that it only took us a couple of tries, I felt that was a good sign for the rest of the day. If you’ve never done it you stand (or we sat) in a very tight circle, looking down or with your eyes closed, and the group counts to 20 together. The trick is that each person can only say one number at a time, and you have to take turns, and no pattern is allowed to develop. Also, if two people speak at once the group has to start over. This is used to train group mind by teaching you to listen to that gut feeling of when you should and should not speak. Can you feel, inside, when it is your turn to speak? I’ve been in a group that did it in one try, and in ones that have taken ten or more minutes to do it. How well does your team “listen” to each other?

Then we did the same idea, but going through the alphabet. I’d done that before as well but Tara tossed in a new rule. There had to be a pause between each letter to keep us from just rushing through in hopes of not talking over each other by being fast. Which I’ll admit to doing. This forced us to feel for our turn more.

After that, we had to build sentences together the same way. One word at a time. Short or long, didn’t matter. But when we felt the sentence was done we had to yell “yay!” together. If even one person didn’t yell it we were supposed to not count that sentence. In this if two or more people said the exact same word it was OK, but different words meant we had to start a new sentence. And we had to complete 10 of them to move on. This took a little longer than I thought it would. It was really very hard. However, the last 5 took less time than the first 1 or 2, so we were catching on to it by the end.

That led us to the trippiest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not even really going to go into into it because I’m not sure how to describe it, or even if I should. Tara said it’s a bit of an initiation at iO, every teacher has done it. And yes, it’s weird. We lay down with our heads in a circle on our backs, smashed together, in the dark, and made group noises. That sounds even weirder than it was. Basically, it was invented by a bunch of guys who were high and you can tell. What was crazy was how surreal the thing felt. When it was over she asked us to guess how long we thought it was and I said 20-25 minutes, which was one of the higher guesses. It was 49 minutes. I have no idea where that time went.

It left me feeling really dizzy and off-kilter, almost disconnected from the room. Spacy. High, I suppose. However, we went into two montages after that, half the class in each, and mine was probably the best one I’ve been in. It was joyful and energetic and we were all on the same wavelength. So, weirdness aside, I think it worked? Still not sure how I really feel about it.

The second part of the day was long, slow 2 person scenes. We started with an activity, did that silently for a minute, then talked about anything else. I’ve done that before but these were longer and slower, and Tara did some side-coaching to help us find what she was looking for in us. It was my favorite things so far.

Random snatches-

  • Make sure the first thing your partner says is treated as golden
  • After “yes, and” add “why”
  • It’s good to have one character who speaks for the audience (straight man)
  • Say one thing, let your partner respond. Don’t redact what you just said, let them answer it.
  • Don’t pile on words to confuse and deflect. Leaves everyone wondering what’s going on. Be still and let them hear what you said.
  • Stalling at the top of scenes is bad. Stalling deep in a scene is fine- it can add weight and the audience will wait for you
  • If you think the audience knows what is about to happen, or that they are already ahead of you, say it out loud RIGHT THEN. Don’t wait! Spit it out.
  • Say things bluntly and plainly. Don’t try to look smart or speak in metaphor. Just say it. Simpler is better 99% of the time
  • Play the game, sure, but be blunt with the punch. If a thing can be said in 5 words or less- say it! Don’t beat around the bush or rationalize it.
  • If you talk about a 3rd party in a scene make it personal to the people on the stage. The emotional weight can’t be in someone who isn’t there.
  • Let the roller coaster go over the hill!

I got the comment today that I play mostly likable characters. What?!? That’s not a note I’ve gotten before. Tense, uptight, angry, controlling, sad- those are my normal character descriptions. So that was a nice thing to hear. I think it’s due to Funny Bones. Playing for the kids has forced me to come out of the gate with more likable, softer characters.

Armando’s for Everyone

iO Summer Intensive

Week 1

Instructor- Tara DeFransico




We started the day out by learning the Armando. Interesting, since only yesterday I was saying I didn’t care for it. We warmed-up with an insane version of Bunny Bunny, the Estonian guys taught it to us the way they play it and it’s very tribal and loud. High energy too. My favorite way I’ve ever played it.

The day started with 2 or 3 person scenes, in a loose Montage. We were still limited to sweeps for editing, which clearly rankled some of the guys who really wanted to do more. However, as soon as we were done with out Montage Tara grinned and pointed out that the very next thing in the book was edits. This was met with celebration.

We did tags, in various forms (all of which I knew) and French Edits, which I didn’t know. You come up off the back wall, through the center of the scene, and start a new scene as the old scene drifts off to the sides. Like a French door opening on stage. I can see the appeal but I think it would be hard to do at a jam or something, no one would get it. It would have to be with a group that understood what you were doing. Of course, I say that like everyone knows sweeps and tags. The first time someone tried to tag me out in a jam I just looked over my shoulder and said “hi”. I thought they were joining the scene because I didn’t now what I tag was. So there is that.

We started the Armando work with an “I Love” Line. Each person stepped forward out of the line, named something they loved, and then started talking about it until someone else stepped up. This is an exercise designed to teach more than I realized at the start. I thought, practice for monologues. Sure, it is that. And it can also be used as an opener. I got that.

After we were done, however, Tara started asking questions and I saw a new side to it. It’s a lot to do with focus. How do you know it’s your turn to step up? How do you know when it’s time to let someone else talk? Focus. And it’s not just the back line taking it, the front line can give it by stopping talking. That’s scary. To stand in front of a group, talk, and then stop, trusting that someone else will have your back and fill in the silence.

The Armando, true Chicago style, has the following characteristics-

  1. The monologist remains the same throughout the show (Unlike ASSCAT)
  2. Stories told must be 100% true, the more intimate the better
  3. The monologist breaks the 4th wall, addresses the audience directly
  4. 2 acts, of 45 minutes each (very long form), the monologist gets up as inspired (averaging 2-4 monologues per half, but that’s flexible)
  5. Cast is inspired by the stories, but NOT reenacting them- you are following single word, or the emotions and/or themes you sensed
  6. Stories must be personal and specific, no opinion bits (For example- the suggestion of “water” should be used as a launchpad for the story where you almost drowned, not to express that you like water and think it is good)

We did several short Armando’s, a handful of scenes based on a single monologue. We then did a full half, about 45 minutes, with the monologist getting up as prompted internally (4 times). I was in the back line for a couple of the short ones, and I was the monologist for the 45 minute one.

Tara talked about how it seems that the more serious the monologue the truer and funnier the scenes seem to be. Something about the tension the audience feels after hearing something intense/sad/scary/heart-breaking makes the following scenes easier to laugh at- all that tension needs to go somewhere and laughter is a release valve. This came up because one of my classmates was very open and shared a deeply personal, very conflicted/sad story. We, or at least I, didn’t know what to do with that because making what she said into a joke felt cruel. It wasn’t funny.

That’s when Tara explained her view on it. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But basically, the scenes that follow a monologue, especially a painful one, are a way of releasing the pain and even allowing healing to take place if needed. It’s not turning their pain into a joke, it’s acknowledging it as real and valid, and then taking the chance to offer something back as a thank-you. She said that she’s had friends break down and cry on stage and when she gets up to do scenes after that it isn’t a feeling of ignoring their pain. Rather, it’s saying, yes, that sucks. Let me offer you this and see if it can make you laugh anyway, if it can help you feel better.

That was driven home when I was the monologist. I didn’t tell any heart-breaking stories, but I did tell one that made me choke-up. Which surprised me. I think it was trying to be real and honest in the moment, coupled with having such an attentive audience. Felt weird. And another of my four was a personal admission I didn’t mean to make. But each time I saw what Tara meant- the scenes that followed didn’t feel bad from my side. If anything, they felt really good. I felt supported. They heard me, really heard me, and were now working from that. I felt great, emotionally, by the time they were done. My class then went on to discuss my monologues objectively, as they did with all the others, while I listened. That was weird. However, I got some positive feedback on them that almost made me cry so it was all good.

I’m still not sure that I love watching Armando’s, but I enjoy being in them! And at least now I get the point, and I have a better idea of what I haven’t liked about ones I’ve seen in the past.

Random notes from the day-

  • When you ask a question you are stealing from the scene! Stop stealing!
  • 10 giant laughs are worth more than 100 medium ones. Don’t pull the rug out from under the scene for a cheap laugh.
  • Laughter is one of three things 1)Release of surprise 2)Release of tension 3)Politeness
  • The Armando can be seen as a loose poem, wisps of story getting tangled together in the moment, not to meet again.
  • The bravest improviser is often the one who stops.
  • Use the idea of short form, only having 3 minutes, to start long form if you are prone to wander around and do nothing.
  • Start with a bang! Don’t just talk and putter. Put your heart into it from line one.
  • We too often take away our own power or rights on stage. We must say what we are thinking or feeling or doing for ourselves, instead of just hoping the other person will figure it out.
  • Train your improv tuning fork to go off when someone says something that needs to be followed. You should feel a vibration with something twinkly gets said, or there is a chance to tag, or when there is something big about to get tossed aside.

The only show I caught tonight was Dummy. It’s a real couple, who also do a duo on stage. They are brilliant. They did a Monoscene, and until the very end there were only two characters (another character showed up for the last 2-3 minutes). They’ve been hailed as “the next TJ & Dave”. I haven’t seen TJ & Dave yet but Dummy was mesmerizing.

They started slow. Very slow. It was real, and it was interesting, but aside from a few short lines it wasn’t very funny. It was almost boring. Not quite, but almost. It was a feeling of, what the heck are they doing? Nothing, that’s what.

It didn’t stay that way. Slowly, almost painfully slowly, you began to realize that he was crazy. Maybe dangerous crazy. And she had let him move in as her roommate. And then you felt very scared for her and what was probably going to happen. And then they kept talking, boring stuff like classmates they had as kids and their recent break-ups and hobbies. But through it all there was a feeling like, shit, he’s going to do something awful to her before this ends.

Yet, something was weird with her too. And the more they talked the more you realized she wasn’t completely what one would call sane. Then, speed picking up, he was still just as scary/weird but she had far surpassed him and you got a feeling that he was the one who was going to be in serious trouble soon ’cause she was flipping insane.

That was when it peaked, and you knew something bad had to happen.

But it didn’t. And they calmed each other down. And it was very organic and real, but the audience, myself included, were sitting forward waiting for something, anything, to happen because emotions were high. Which was when Richard, her ex, showed up. And in that last 30 seconds before the set ended we all came to the same realization as the couple on stage- Richard was going to die.

Very satisfying show. And hilarious. I want to see them again as often as I can get in.

Recap: Week 17

One Million Words Challenge

Week 17

Chicago is an interesting city. Tonight I had to dodge a man who was trying to wash my tennis shoes while I waited for a bus. He told me that it’s “what he does”. Oh Chicago….

Feel like I’m starting to get a writing rhythm here, as I get settled in. Hurting my leg has actually been a boon for my writing because I don’t feel like exploring. Which, I want to explore. But since I can’t right now, or not much, I can use this time to try to catch-up. I did do better this week than I thought I did. I expected to be further behind than I was, all those blog posts I wrote added up to more than I anticipated.

Here are my totals for the week–

  • Journal 2,552
  • Letters 160
  • MPs 5,832
  • Black Dog 1,212
  • Blog 6,373
  • Total 16,129
  • YTD 241,661
  • Where I should be 326,060

Welcome to Camp

iO Summer Intensive

Week 1

Instructor- Tara DeFransisco


Everyone is so excited to be here. The room this morning was buzzing with energy. The teachers keep calling it “summer camp” and it really has that feel about it. Camp for adults. I like it. We started out with a chance to sign-up for extra workshops, which I passed on, and then we had a Q&A with Charna. For those not in improv circles Charna founded the theater, and is something like the mother of long-form improv. It’s complicated, and I don’t know all the details, but I know enough to know I should be impressed. In a couple of weeks Jason Chin will be doing a weekend class on the history of long form improv in Chicago that I plan to attend, then I’ll know more.

After lunch, which they catered in for us, we split into groups and met our instructor (who will change weekly) and out classmates (which will remain the same all five weeks). Tara seems awesome, looking forward to working with her. She is a full-time actor/improviser, which isn’t extremely common. My team is an unique mix. There are 16 of us. 12 men, 4 women. 7 Americans (including all the women), 1 Swede, 1 Australian, and 5 Estonians. The 5 Estonians are from the same troupe, and then 3 guys in the class are from the same troupe in NC, the other two members being in another class. We also have a range of ages, from 20 to 45(?). I think I’m the least experienced in the group, at least in years. Only two. Most of the others are in the three to four year range, a few have significantly more. It’ll be interesting to see how the class dynamic shapes up.

We started with Conducted Story. It felt different than when I’ve done it at CSz or Funny Bones. Less competitive, little slower. Tara was trying to get us into the same page and listening to each other. After a couple of rounds we switched to Unconducted Story. Same thing, but we spoke up popcorn style. Apparently this can be used as an opening. It’s weird that I’ve never done openings. I think it’s because I’ve never done a Harold. No one here can believe that considering I’ve done long-form but it wasn’t something HUGE taught so I never had the chance. So learning “new openings to try” goes into my “if I ever do an opening” file.

We moved to Cocktail Party. I’d done something called Cocktail Party before, this was a little different. Four groups of two, just talking as ourselves. Each group took a turn and, as much as felt natural, tried to weave in something from the group before while still have a real, honest conversation. Tara said these were intended to be authentic, but that, while being respectful, to feel free to dig deep or ask personal questions. It allows things to come up the way they do on an airplane- more honest than you expect because there is no pressure to see this person again.

I was in the first group and we struggled a little bit with understanding the entire point, but there were still some good moments. The second group had even more of those.

Then we did 2 Chair Confessions. Person A makes a confession. Any personal confession, doesn’t have to be true. Big or small. Person B then makes a confession of their own, but only a confession that will comfort the other person. You have to start your confession with “I have something to confess to you/tell you”, and then go one. Like-

A- “I need to confess something to you. I killed your cat.”

B- “I have something to confess to you too. I’d already made an appointment to put her down.”

A- “I have to confess something. I’m the one who drank all the milk.”

B- “I have a confession too. I hate milk, I only drink it to be polite.”

A- “I need to tell you something. I lost the rent gambling and we’re being evicted.”

B- “I also have a confession to make- I forgot to renew the lease so I’m actually the reason we’re being evicted.”


Follow the feelings, not the plot.

People and ideas are interesting, plot and activities are not!

Stay with the emotions instead of fixing the problem.

We followed that up with some self-edited, two person scenes. That ended day 1.

Other random snatches from the day-

  • Try to avoid fighting. If there is a fight it has to be the characters, not the actors. And you have to agree on what the fight is about.

(I’d heard that, but not the last part. That was eye-opening! We, as actors, have to agree on what the fight is about, not just agree to fight. If I think we’re fighting over the eggs being gone and he thinks we’re fighting over me not taking responsibility for things then the fight will go no where and it will just leave everyone feeling bad. I think there is a life lesson in this.)

  • Strong initiations feel weird to say, but great to receive. Never be afraid of offering one. No one will begrudge it to you. Your partner will be thankful. Aren’t you when you get one?
  • When in doubt on the stage- love the shit out of each other! Always a good move.

I went to see the Armando Show tonight. I’m not a fan of Armando’s. I don’t like watching them very much and I often get annoyed with the monologist. Like the guy tonight was fine, but I felt like the same improv could have happened without him. I don’t know. Just not my thing.

After Armando iO does DeFransisCO and Powerball. Everyone who wants a shot at participating tosses their id into a large pot before the show starts. I tossed mine in because hey, why not? DeFransisCO is when Tara (yes, my teacher this week) draws one name out and then that person comes up on stage with her and they do a 35 minute set together. Which is insane! The guy who she drew tonight was a level one student, he’s been doing improv for three weeks. She found that out with a little interview on stage and then she told him the rules. I can’t remember them exactly but basically it was, you can’t fail. And if, somehow, this thing doesn’t work, it’s 100% on me. You are already golden.

Poor guy was shaking so hard that I could see it from the back of the room. This would be a good time to point out that there were probably over 200 people there. Including Charna, right in the front.

So- it was amazing. Tara supported him and drew him out, totally taking his offers and making them beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. And he totally transformed as well. He went from visibly shaking and quivering to confidently making offers and big moves. I could have kept watching them go on for even longer.

After that was over was Powerball. 7 of the experienced cast members and/or instructors at iO drew 6 names out, to come up and do a montage for 35 minutes. I was one of them! Completely stunned. I really didn’t think I had a chance of being picked. I tried to be cool but it was a massive number of strangers and I felt totally out of my league.

However, it went well. Again, I think it’s just a credit in the nature of improv. We didn’t know each other, and there was a HUGE difference in ability on stage, so of course there were some hiccups and communication issues. Not the best improv of all time. But because we had this basic idea of sharing, supporting, and following the interesting things, it worked out.

One of the scenes I was with two of the veterans and while it was frightening because they purposefully put me in the center of the group and gave me the focus, which was a lot of focus in that room (I felt half-smothered), they also gave me support in a way that I’ve rarely felt. Only when I’ve done scenes in jams or class with really confident and experienced improvisors. It’s a real, physical sensation of sensing that this person is 100% behind you and everything is going to be just fine. It’s hard to describe. The first time I ever noticed it was in a class I took with Michael, at HUGE. He had me do a very simple two person scene with him to show the class what he wanted out of the exercise. I was so flustered by the unexpectedness of the feeling that I don’t even remember what I said. I was too confused by what I felt. Since then I’ve felt it other times, like tonight, so I know it wasn’t a fluke. It’s just not often, because I play with people around my same level and apparently we don’t have the magic yet.

I did feel very bumbling and awkward on stage. I feel like, even when I’m not nervous I come across as nervous, so when I am nervous I look painfully afraid. I stutter and I fidget and I feel like everything I say is only half applicable and five seconds too late. Gah. I know it takes time but sometimes it feels like I’m not getting any closer.

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