Invocation Workshop

Sioux Invocation

Invocation has been part of my openings workshop for some time. I think it’s a valuable tool towards the concepts of that class. I don’t think that intro constitutes a full education on invocation.

Invocation has been around a lot longer than improv. It existed both in ceremony and theatrical presentations for centuries as a way to invite the powerful “spirits” to join together with the audience. Pretty intense stuff. In the early days of improv, it was a tool for elevating ideas and suggestions, but as decades wore on, much of its original intent was lost, leaving behind only structured improv exercise taught briefly to students. More often than not, the reasons for it being mentioned at all were only because it never really disappeared from the syllabus.

Lots of people hate invocation and I can’t really blame them. In modern practice, it’s rarely practiced, rarely committed too, and usually performed carelessly. But invocation in its original intent can be a tremendously powerful way to connect to your show and your audience.

I’ve been asked to teach a workshop dedicated entirely to invocation at The Torch Theatre this weekend. I don’t claim I can make you masters of The Invocation in three hours, but I can possibly give you a taste of what you can achieve in time if you’re willing to leave the workshop with a commitment to studying and committing to it.

There are prerequisites to the class, but if you’re interested in learning more about this often forgotten exercise from the early days of improv, contact Jacque at The Torch or myself directly and we’ll do our best to get you in there.

Saturday August 25th, 2012 / 2:30pm
The Torch Theatre


Posted in Workshops

Who Exactly Are We Saying “Yes” To?

photo courtesy IassB on Flickr

Many years ago, I was in a scene that was – to put it politely – not terribly grounded. At one point a mystical wizard offered me a potion with a grave warning to not drink the potion or terrible consequences would occur. Being an awesome improvisor, I of course agreed with the wizard and didn’t drink the potion. Again, the wizard told me not to drink the potion, and again the potion remained undrank. And nothing happened.

I did my job, right? I agreed. I’m sure that wizard was happy that nothing terrible happened in the kingdom. I’m also pretty sure Mike, the improvisor playing the wizard wasn’t quite as happy. I know the audience wasn’t too happy.

Why? What went wrong? The problem I couldn’t understand back then was I was saying yes to the wrong person. I supported the wizard instead of my scene partner. I didn’t understand that there was a difference. And to this day I see players supporting characters over players, and I’m not surprised. Because that’s the way we were taught.

Let’s go to the beach

Most performers hear the words “yes, and” on the first day of their first intro to improv class. I think that’s smart; not because it’s the cornerstone of a great deal of our work, but because when we come to a scene with absolutely no other skills to draw on, “yes, and” can functionally get us through a scenes. It’s easy to forget how scary the stage was when we didn’t have the skills to get us through a show. Most students on their first day don’t know how to emotionally invest in a character or relate to their environment or deconstruct ideas. They know plot. And “yes, and” is a tool which can help them navigate through that plot with a partner.

Almost every “yes, and” scene on that first day was practically the same. They all were about action taking place, they were all about the two people on stage, they almost all took place in the future tense. Nothing actually happens in these scenes, merely agreement what things will happen. But that agreement feels good and we start to learn how to listen.

Let’s go to the beach. Yes, and let’s build a sand castle. Yes, and let’s make it big enough to live in. Yes, and let’s declare war on France.”

As a forwarder of plot, “yes, and” is a very effective tool. But as more experienced performers, unless we’re doing a narrative show, our scenes are rarely about plot. We act on our relationships and feelings to grow onstage. We react honestly, but part of our brain still tells us we must say yes – and the only way we learned how to say yes is to plot.

Character vs. Player

In the example I gave earlier, I said yes to a character onstage, because that’s how I learned to agree. In doing so, I said no to a player. Without even delving into a lengthy discussion on the many higher ways we can support a scene, if we just stick to that very basic support of ideas spoken aloud onstage, let’s make sure we understand the difference between player and character. Warning: The following may fly in the face of everything you’ve learned about yes, and.

Is it important to support my fellow player’s choices on stage? Of course. We’re building a reality and a relationship together. If we each try to force our own ideas, it will be terrible. Is it important for my character to support another character’s choices? No. Conflict and disagreement are a part of drama and a part of the human condition. It would be false advertising to claim we emulate real life if we exclude conflict. How many great works of theatre would we lose if those playwrights decided that every character must say yes.

Conflict vs. Bickering

Take note that I said conflict is a part of good drama, not bickering. There’s a difference. Conflict is a choice made out of boldness on stage; bickering is a choice made out of fear. If we say “no” on stage, just for the sake of saying it, we’re not offering anything to the scene or our partner. We’re saying no not because our character has another point of view, but because we – as actors – are afraid of the directions the scene might go. We’re blocking our partner’s desire to build something. If, however, we say no out of a conviction of character – out of an integrity to the emotional investment we’ve made in complex three dimensional characters, then we’ve given our partner a tremendous amount of support.

That doesn’t mean our character will always say no. It means that we are giving our characters the power to make impactful decisions rather than sacrificing their character to further the plot. If we get rid of the notion that we must say yes to every suggestion of potential plot directions from characters, we can spend our time listening to the actors on stage with us and support their choices. When an actor defines part of their reality, they want to exist in that reality.
Accept it. They are masters of the universe on stage, just like you. They can define the location or the reality of the scene and it’s joyful to join them in building it.

Acknowledging Wants vs. Satiating Wants

For some reason, the word “want” is the hardest thing to support onstage. If a character says “I am a teacher” we treat them as a teacher. We support them and allow them to continue growing. If a character says “I feel jealous” we accept that they feel that way and act accordingly. When a character says “I want a cheeseburger”, we give them a cheeseburger… and then they don’t want a cheeseburger anymore. The one gift they gave us onstage, we took away from them. The scene is over as soon as it starts. We want to give our scene partners everything they want, but a character can have a want that continues. It’s as strong a gift as any they can give themselves. Don’t take away that character choice by taking away their want.

Instead of gratifying a character’s immediate wants, why not look deeper into that character. A want for a cheeseburger can mean the character is either gluttonous or starving, poor or hard working, demanding of servitude or begging for mercy. Aren’t those more interesting grounds for support and useful drama? Listen beyond the words, listen to the subtext, the body language, the history of the character you share the stage with. Ultimately, if they get the cheeseburger or not is not terribly interesting. No one will drive home from your show talking about your choice to give them a cheeseburger or not. What’s interesting is the motivation behind those wants that come from your scene partner. SupportĀ those choices. Let your scene partner become a well rounded character and support them with well rounded characters of your own.

Of course, spending time with your fellow actors, learning to listen more deeply, investing more in your own emotional convictions on stage is harder than squawking “yes” to every sentence on stage. Real “yes, and” mentality takes effort and focus. No one said it was easy. But it will feel far better to truly “yes, and” your scene partner and build relationships together.

Posted in Improv Theory

Tell ‘Em You’re From Detroit

Chris Moody

I was fortunate enough to visit The Detroit Improv Festival with Galapagos this past weekend. Of all the festivals I’ve visited in the last decade, this one was especially important to me since I was born exactly 4.0 miles from the theater.

Detroit really put on a great festival, thanks to the hard work of so many people, but especially Chris Moody who got very few opportunities to rest during the weekend. DIF is still a very regional festival, with a smaller number of west coast troupes. It’s a little off the national radar, but I think the word of mouth will spread quickly on this one. They treat their performers right. They treat their sponsors right. They treat their audiences right.


One of the great things about festivals is seeing the local groups that you don’t see on the national circuit. The teams from Ferndale, Detroit, Ann Arbor and Hamtramck all were great and I hope they start visiting other festivals soon.

This was a rare festival where I neither taught nor took any workshops since I had the rare chance to hang out with some old friends. But I heard the workshops were a tremendous success. I don’t doubt it. T.J. Jagodowski, Nick Armstrong, Jimmy Carrane and more. I’m sure that the folks got some fantastic training.

If you want to support the Detroit Improv Scene, you can always lend your time, energy and donations to the Detroit Improv Collective, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to promoting the arts in Michigan. If you point to your right hand to tell people where you live, please consider visiting Go Comedy, The Ringwald Theatre and The Magic Bag throughout the year, not just during festivals. If you’re out near Hamtramck, you should really visit Planet Ant as well.

A great big thanks to everyone at The Detroit Improv Festival.

Posted in Travel

Finding Closure in Second Beats

book cover courtesy iUniverse

Third beats can be enigmatic for many Harold performers. Perhaps more than any other part of Harold, third beats are filled with potential paths to explore; they can bring resolution or context to an existing relationship, they can share themes between stories, they can revisit the groundwork laid by a strong opening. Their potential for greatness is high. Unfortunately, that freedom can be overwhelming for an ensemble if they haven’t had a discussion of exactly what they want out of their third beats – and very rarely do Harold teams have that discussion.

I’ve heard instructors compare Harold to a three-act play, and by extension, compare third beats to the third act of said play. But that’s that’s not strictly accurate. Third acts of plays exist primarily to resolve the story and characters, it carries a large responsibility to the piece as a whole. Third beats aren’t like that at all; they cross paths with each other, they are often short and energized, they sometimes blur together. And all of that is under laboratory conditions. In a real theatre setting, the clock in the tech booth often overrides the artistic intent of your piece. A blackout can come at any time.

To put that onus of “third act” onto your beats puts an unfair expectation and limitation on the beats and an undue amount of stress on the performers. The performers and audience have invested themselves emotionally in characters and relationships whose fates have been designated to scenes that may never come. And if they do come, those characters must fight for their final denouement against a myriad of ideas and the knowledge that an edit in the final scene could rob them of the moment forever.

book cover courtesy O’Reilly

Instead, consider giving your ensemble permission to explore your second beats more fully and richly. If your first beats have established a strong relationship, your second beats will be off immediately with strong characters. It’s another day for these characters, but don’t let it just be any other day. We’ve invested in these characters and we don’t want to see them relive the same tensions they experienced before with no resolution – no matter how fun that tension is. If you don’t grow in new ways beyond your first beat, why even have a second beat? We’ve seen that already. Show us something more. Show us that those character can grow.

The universe chose to visit these characters again, so make it count. Let this be the day that something truly happens. Maybe this is the day you finally tell him you love him, or realize you can’t live a lie anymore, or discover that no matter how much you love her, you have to leave. Let your characters have their catharsis. Let them say the things they’ve wanted to say for years. It will be incredibly, incredibly rewarding for you and the audience to finally have that moment everyone knew must eventually come.

Don’t force the moment, discover it. Let your second beats go longer. Invest harder in those relationships and discover what your character truly needs beyond just playing the same game. The wonderful thing about that discovery is that everyone in the room will have it at the same time. It’s the truest form of improvisation; reacting honestly not to impress with quick-wittedness, but to share that moment. When your character acts on that discovery it will feel like nothing else on stage ever can. And if you practice, you’ll get to have that life changing closure every time you play. And your Harold will feel good.

book cover courtesy J.D. Power

Trust your teammates. Trust them to let you have that moment and trust yourself to let them have it in their own second beats. Harolds that by the end of the second beat will feel complete and satisfying without a stress about those final moments.

If you trust your team to commit to those second beats, your third beats will no longer be stressful. Instead, they’ll be wonderful treats; rewards for a show well done; one final moment to revisit those worlds without any expectation of what the scene must be. Third beats will be a playground where we can see characters free to play with each other without some forced obligation of earlier scenes. Third beats can be a wonderful desert after a really satisfying meal. The audience will go home feeling something special happened, nothing was left unresolved or forgotten. You’ll go home feeling the same way.

Is this how Harold must be played? Of course not! Anyone who tells you what Harold must be is not worth listening to. But it is one powerful way to use Harold to do something magic. I encourage you to try, or at the very least, have that discussion with your team. Talk about what your third beats really are and find your own kind of magic in them.

Posted in Improv Theory

Tucson Bound

Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed

Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed Comedy has been performing in Tucson, AZ for ten years and they’re finally looking into finding a venue of their own.

Michael Vietinghoff and the rest of Unscrewed Comedy are in the process of working with the State of Arizona to Incorporate and open the doors on their theatre soon.

I’ve had the opportunity to play with the NBOJU gang a few times and it’s always a blast. In September, I’ll be heading down to run some longform workshops. After ten years of living in the same state, it will be my first time teaching in Tucson. I can’t wait.

Posted in Travel

New Webpage Launched

I’m going back on the road with some of my workshops and I thought now was as good a time as ever to launch a website dedicated to teaching. This page will launch with basic workshop information, but hopefully soon, more thoughts on tricks for enhancing performances will make there way here. Feedback is always welcome. Thanks for visiting.

Posted in Site News