Ted Talk on improvisation and the brain

01/20/2011

Below is a TED TALK by DR CHARLES LIMB, researcher and musician, discussing the effects of improvisation on the brain.

Limb’s general thesis for the talk as well as his research is that artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using rigorous scientific methods.

For his experiments, he uses fMRI to map Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) Imaging, giving him a look at changes in brain activity. Although Limb locks his sights on more music-specific subjects – testing both improvisation jazz and hip hop freestyle… we improvisers can quickly see how many of the theories can be applied to theatrical improvisation as well.

Using pre-established memorized pieces as a control, during the improvisations Limb and his colleagues saw a deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain associated with self-monitoring. He also found large stimulation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with self-expression. Limb’s general hypothesis is that to fully engage creativity, your brain needs to disassociate with identity and consciousness, thereby stripping away inhibition, opening up the gates for unhindered expression.

“Don’t Think” indeed. These findings and initial theories sound eerily similar to countless late night conversations I’ve had with JOE BILL.

During exchanges between multiple musicians (‘trading fours’ in jazz), Limb also found a marked activation of the Broca’s area in the left inferior frontal gyrus, the language center of the brain. He postulates with further research, the adage of music being a language itself could very much hold true.

It makes me wonder about the brain activity going on in improvised musicals or during shows like The Beatbox. Shows where his research and our little hobby intersect. Watching those folks perform on stage, I am consistently in awe of what I’m witnessing, and soon science may be putting similar fascinations in the spotlight.

Limb goes on to ask some big questions on science’s ability, place and future in mapping creativity. I’m interested to see where this research is at several years down the road. Until then, enjoy the video.

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Sometimes things are funnier in twos

09/10/2010

Some improv groups are born out of classes or pieced together through auditions. Others are spin-offs from existing groups. Even still, some are quickly cobbled together in the spirit of experimentation. Rarely, however, is there an established group whose cast is not known at curtain time.

MATT HOLMES (of Rare Bird Show fame) is half of the improvised duo m@&. The other half of the ensemble is still somewhat of a mystery. M@& (pronounced Matt, and…) features Holmes and a random audience member attending that particular performance. At the top of the show, he asks the audience if there’s anyone who’s never seen improv before. Someone pipes up or raises a hand and just like that, they’ve found themselves the unwitting star of the show.

Here and there he may encounter a small audience that’s entirely improvisers, and even in those few cases, he’s managed to find someone who might have taken a class, but has yet to take to the stage in a show. “There’s at least a few people who’ve been brought by a friend or family member” says Holmes, “and they don’t quite know what’s happening.” Many would agree with him, that this comedy amongst strangers makes things little more dangerous and exciting.

The name came about before the concept, as Holmes was looking to work with improvisers he’d met both here in Philadelphia and along his travels. Then, as it sometimes happens prior to creating new and interesting works for the stage, somewhere in the back of his head, he got the idea for an experiment.

While attending Cabrini College, Matt spent the earlier days of his comedy career running and performing with On the Spot, a weekly short-form show. He’d always loved the interaction with audience members that short-form thrives on. So when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped in head-first.

“Matt is the only person I know with the balls and ability to do it alone.” Michael Harris is the Artistic Director of Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) and producer of the Baltimore Improv Festival, which recently featured m@&. “For Matt to be the lone improviser and balance the dual responsibilities of carrying the show and supporting a novice takes a skill and generosity that precious few improvisers possess.”

"Matt is the only person I know with the balls and ability to do it alone"

It would seem that festival producers are apt to agree with Harris. M@& has been featured at festivals and comedy shows in places like Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis and State College, to name a few. And he doesn’t show any signs of slowing. After his current run of six shows in the Philly Fringe Festival, he’ll be featured here in his home city at both Duofest next month and the Philadelphia Improv Festival in November. Kristen Schier, a producer for Duofest, thinks it’s pretty easy for folks to enjoy the show. “M@& is effortless joy. Holmes’ simple approach is they key to his brilliance.”

Indeed, simplicity would seem to be a driving force behind the whole project for Holmes. “I have this big, open loose thing where I can do whatever I want on stage.” He adds, “and what I want to do is have fun, make it easy for me and for my partner, and have it be funny for everyone watching. If my m.o. were more complicated, I couldn’t do this show.”

With never knowing who he might pull up, each night is gamble… where the only thing that’s certain is that the volunteer will be as much a part of the show as he is. “We’re a team up there. I’m not trying to make fun of them of just use them. We’re playing together.” Even with the more reluctant audience members, Holmes makes an effort to keep them in the show. During one performance, he had a girl who wasn’t quite playing along and was unsure of what to do. He could tell she wanted to leave the stage, and then she finally did. “(So) I do a scene where she’s back in her seat in the audience, but I’m serenading her.” It’s these different sort of moments that create fun challenges and take shows into interesting places. “I want the audience volunteer to think it was something fun that they liked doing.”

Sometimes the volunteer finds huge success on stage in the process. In Minneapolis at Brave New Workshop, the man pulled up had never seen an improv show before. In a scene where Holmes was a gunfighter, he’d accused the man of using his mother as a human shield. The man came back with a line about how he really didn’t technically kill her. Suddenly they found themselves in a chain reaction where the volunteer was indirectly responsible for all these deaths. “He found this really funny game for us to play… that was all him.”

That sort of playfulness seems nearly instinctual. “Once in a while a non-performer will come up with a killer line or know just how to play along.” Holmes has had people not believe that he doesn’t plan at least some of what happens. If the audience member is good, he’s heard people murmur about whether they were a plant. He also likes to use the suggestion in a very obvious way so that the audience can see it couldn’t be planned unless he was paying someone to sit there and yell it at him. “I’ll usually try to start something at first, at least to get us going… but I’ve started scenes later on where I’m just sitting there, letting my partner push us in a direction… I’m not plucking out improv geniuses or diamonds in the rough… It’s not a conspiracy, we’re just playing pretend.”

"Probably the strongest game improviser I know"

It’s said that one of most equally frustrating and complimentary things an improviser can hear after a show is that the audience doesn’t believe it’s made up. Recounting the recent m@& show in Baltimore, Harris attributes choice and openness as factors in making it seem so effortless. “Matt’s character choices not only drew the audience in, but led his scene partner out of his shell and into active participation… it was one of the highlights of the Baltimore Improv Festival.”

Nathan Edmondson and Alexis Simpson have been improvising with Holmes for the better part of a decade in their highly acclaimed group, Rare Bird Show. They’ve witnessed firsthand how easy he makes it to work with them. “Matt has (an) insane natural talent as an improviser and is a true student of comedy,” says Edmondson. Simpson agrees, “he’s like a wind up toy… just give him a word and let him go. He is probably the strongest game improviser I know.” They both feel comfortable and confident sharing scenes with him. Edmondson adds, “when you’re on stage with him, you can rest assured that the funny will happen.”

With any luck, we can rest assured that the funny will continue to happen. Holmes sees himself continuing this for some time. “It’s nice to have something that really challenges and excites me… I haven’t had any terrible, awful, shameful shows with this project.” He’s got a run of shows coming up here in Philly, and something tells me we’re likely to see him on the road again as well. “The show is just really easy to do while I’m visiting someplace, ’cause it’s just me… the audience is already there.”

Who knows who his next scene partner might be. “If an audience member can bring their 80-year-old grandmother or their 16-year-old cousin or their blind date and maybe see them up on stage in a comedy show, I think that’s an interesting night out.”

Agreed.


Comedian Profile: Alan Williams

07/08/2010

Editors Note: In this segment, we step away from the stage and take a look at comedians in the Philadelphia area… Learn a little more about where they come from, what they do while not performing and of course the question we all ask ourselves… Why do we do it?

ALAN WILLIAMS

Might have seen him in: The N Crowd, Ladies & Gentlemen, Meadowbrook Public Library Storybook Players (2nd place overall for 2010 Troika)

Hangs his hat in: Old City

Stomping Grounds: Ithaca, NY

Pays the Bills: Biopharmaceutical Marketing

Other Hobbies: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic… and karaoke

Why Improv?

Improv is my sanity saver. When the drudgery of my day-to-day life starts to bring me down, improv lifts me up again.

If you know someone who you think should be profiled, we’d love to hear about them.


Jeff Hawkins on coaching

07/06/2010

If you’ve not yet acquainted yourself with The Improv Student, I highly recommend you do so. It’s a blog penned by writer, comedian and (spoiler) improv student Eric Yang. There’s a great little interview up now with our dear friend JEFF HAWKINS. Fellow Philly improvisers likely know Jeff as half of BillyHawk, but he’s also part of HawkinStroth as well as coach to several iO West teams.

In the interview, Eric chats with Jeff about his coaching style, new teams finding their voice through the right approach and the merits of openings. You can (very likely) see Jeff in Philly this Fall when BillyHawk (hopefully) performs at PHIF. You can see the interview here.


Comedian Profile: Nathan Edmondson

06/16/2010

Editors Note: In this segment, we step away from the stage and take a look at comedians in the Philadelphia area… Learn a little more about where they come from, what they do while not performing and of course the question we all ask ourselves… Why do we do it?

NATHAN EDMONDSON

Might have seen him in: Rare Bird Show

Hangs his hat in: Fishtown

Stomping Grounds: Franklin, PA

Pays the Bills as: Actor, Filmmaker, Theatrical Director of “Terror Behind the Walls” at Eastern State Penitentiary, Teacher, Care Giver, Standardized Patient, sometimes Bouncer, and Doer of What Needs Doing

Projects: I’ve just started directing a new PHIT house team!  Great group of extremely talented individuals.  Can’t wait to see what they’re able to create together.  I think they might take over the world.  I’m scared.

Reel 9 Productions is my film production group that we launched in the last few months.  Currently, we’re working on a documentary focusing on some individuals in South Philly called, “Born and Raised.”  Our first film, “Number 9,” was just accepted into the New Filmmakers Film Festival in NYC, and will be playing July 28th somewhere up there.  End of this month, we’re playing at the New Hope Film Festival.  We also received an Accolade Award for that piece which surprised the heck out of us!  We shot “Number 9” at Eastern State Penitentiary in two days.  My film partner, Erin, ran the camera while holding the boom mic and carrying all the extension chords because our rental equipments’ batteries weren’t charged.  She followed me around doing stupid stuff until we had enough footage to make a coherent, dramatic film.  We’re looking forward to some fun, new projects coming soon.  If you can laugh, we might need your help…

Other Hobbies: I love watching movies.  If I had to pick one hobby, I think it would be just to watch movies.  Fly-fishing is a past-time I’d like to reincorporate more regularly.  Traveling is a lot of fun.  In January I was out volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival, staying in Salt Lake City and soaking in the mountains and lakes of varying size.  I was just touring around Ohio visiting Haunted Houses for work.  Ohio is flat.  Yoga is good in so many ways, especially to balance out Muay Thai kicks.

Why Improv?

I grew up watching Stand Up, Stand Up and thinking it’d be great to be a stand up comedian.  Then there was Whose Line Is It Anyway (British version).  In college, I studied theater and auditioned for every improv troupe around, got into them, but was too busy (scared) to be able to join up.  Once I moved to Philly after graduation, I took up improv to stay creative between acting in theater productions.  I was lucky enough to fall in with Matt Holmes and Alexis Simpson, and Rare Bird Show became my creative outlet for 4 years.  I could get my performance fix without having to commit to the rehearsal schedule of doing theater so it fed the bug enough while I worked a soul(and time)-sucking desk job.  It’s funny, when I told my close friends here in Philly I was joining an improv troupe, my buddy turned to me and said in all honesty, “Don’t you have to be funny to do that sorta thing?”

Improv has allowed that freaking crazy, spontaneous kid who used to jump around his grandmother’s house with abandon to show up again in my life.  Now I’m addicted to the rush of being on stage: that fear and adrenaline that pumps through your system and the pressure that it’s up to you and your team to make it entertaining.  So much of life can be (and often has to be) tamed, planned and overly analyzed.  When you’re on stage, you just have to be in the moment and react.  Commit.  React.  Do it NOW.  It’s refreshing.  And it’s such an intellectual endeavor when you look at it objectively.  I like that side of it too.  I think mostly I just like being a ham and being stupid in front of people.  We’re all such idiots in life.  On stage you’re given the chance to live that openly and share it with a group of people and people ENJOY it!  It’s a great thing to be a part of.

I’ll conclude with the memory of my very first improv performance.  I was nine years old and my neighbor and best friend decided that we should do a clown show for the block of kids and their parents.  I was filled with dread as we found ridiculous, over sized costumes and applied colorful face paint.  My friend told me how she’d introduce the show, we’d dance around, she’d do this funny thing and then I’d do something and then we’d dance some more.  Our rehearsal was about as long as it took to write that sentence.  We were off finding patrons and soon a dozen kids and mothers were sitting on the side walk in front of my porch.  FEAR gripped my stomach.  We danced around, my friend said some stuff that wasn’t so funny then she pushed me out in front of everyone and I froze.  “……hi……um…..” and I don’t remember the rest.  Next thing, my friend is walking around in her swim suit for some reason screaming nonsense at the top of her lungs and people left.  Lady across the street suggested we rehearse a bit more before charging 10 cents a pop.  Ta Da!

If you know someone who you think should be profiled, we’d love to hear about them.


Comedian Profile: Kelly Jennings

06/08/2010

Editors Note: In this segment, we step away from the stage and take a look at comedians in the Philadelphia area… Learn a little more about where they come from, what they do while not performing and of course the question we all ask ourselves… Why do we do it?

KELLY JENNINGS

Might have seen her in: Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical…, Comedy Sportz, The Moops (mercenary status)

Hangs her hat in: Lansdowne, PA

Stomping Grounds: Ardmore, PA

Pays the Bills as: Actor / Director / Teaching Artist

Other Hobbies: cycling, martial arts/self defense, local government/community interest groups, big sci-fi fan, documentaries of all sorts, NPR, voracious consumption of information from disparate industries (Management, self improvement, religion, general history, native cultures, warfare and military strategy, pro football et al.)

Why Improv?

(A woman 35- 40 crosses to corner of room and picks up a large wooden box – a ‘soap box’ and stands upon it.  As she speaks people gather around, some curious, others dismissive but no one seems to leave.)

Just remember, you asked.

I came to improv as an actor recently graduated from Syracuse Univ. Drama Dept, which back then was a very reputable training program. My experience of improv at the time was only as a rehearsal tool for scripted work. The improv shows I had seen were frankly boring and felt suspiciously scripted, not at all spontaneous.

I attended the general open call for Philadelphia theaters (now known as TAGP) and I was asked to audition for Comedy Sportz. I never thought I would be cast.  When I did get cast I thought it would be something I’d do for a few months then move on. 18 years later I’m still there.

As an actor I was very in my head. In some ways I’d still say that’s my bête noir. Good improv is anything but about being in your head. So for me improv forces me to be present and in the moment. I think I am more authentically myself when I am improvising than maybe at any other time.

I love the immediacy of improv, not knowing what’s going to happen next and the interdependency one has with one’s partners on stage. It is a wonderful freedom to be able to just *be* knowing that whatever you are creating has never existed before and will never exist again quite like this.

I believe with all my heart and soul that performing of any kind be that improv or scripted theater or music or dance is a sacred act. I view myself as a 21st century shaman. We live in a secular world for the most part. All of the mystery and wonder and ritual that cultures of the past had for experiencing/explaining/processing their lives and the world around them has for contemporary people been replaced with dry facts and scientific studies. And when we can’t use science to explain our ills we numb ourselves unconscious with food, alcohol, clubbing, TV, drugs. Anything to keep ourselves from experiencing emotions. We like our world neat, black and white, simple and free of complication.  The function of a performer as I see it is to create a place – both physical and emotional where it is safe for the audience to express themselves without being cynical or disconnected from themselves and each other.

As comedians, we allow audiences to view life with some sense superiority – they see us on the receiving side of life’s harshness. They either identify with the characters we play or the situation or they get to be objective and feel as though they would never be in that situation. We facilitate catharsis. Nowhere is that more palpably felt than in an improv show.

My interest over the past few years has drawn me away from strict short form /long form formats and led to a desire to incorporate all that energy and *danger*from improv into scripted work. Actors and directors speak so much of being *in the moment* on stage, of keeping a scene or a show *fresh*. That’s what improv is – fresh, in the moment life. Scripted theater has polished, professional, and succinct qualities that allow it to make poignant and relevant comments without the meandering feeling that can happen in improv. So what happens when you try and make a hybrid of the two?  That’s the exploration I’ve been on through pieces like Killer Pussy and Cecily and Gwendolyn’s Fantastical…

As a theater artist I have been highly influenced by the concepts of Peter Brook, the Dada and surrealist movements, classical theater, restoration era theater, and agit prop theater of the 50’s and 60’s. Also performance art – Laurie Anderson is a god!, Man Ray, Seurat, Chagall, Magritte, Phillip Glass, modern dance, professional sports, gothic novels, Saturday morning and weekday cartoons from bugs bunny to Hercules, the Justice League and Speed Racer. From Johnny Sokko and his Amazing Flying Robot, Ultraman, and Godzilla, Star Trek and Doctor Who, and a severe lack of mathematical and scientific skill despite a keen interest in both.

My ultimate dream is to create a piece of theater that is seamless between audience and performer. Where it is impossible to determine what is improvised and what is scripted, what part is *the show* and what part is just being present. I want an audience to leave knowing that they have experienced something unique and one of a kind. I want an audience to feel excited, alive and yes, even angry and upset. I want audiences to leave *feeling* and not just looking for a quick high five and drinks at the bar.

(The woman steps down from her soap box. She picks it up and places it back in the corner. She exits.)


‘How I Came To Do Solo Improv’ by guest contributor Jill Bernard

06/04/2010

Editors Note: From time to time, I’m honored to have guest contributions by various improvisers from across the country who are regarded as being at the top of their field. They are welcomed here to share their thoughts on comedy-related subjects they have an acute knowledge of. JILL BERNARD is the creator and star of one of the most popular and award-winning improvised solo shows around, Drum Machine. I asked her to share with us that story:

HOW I CAME TO DO SOLO IMPROV
by Jill Bernard

I like it when improv is a little bit challenging, when I’m just out in front of the headlights. When it gets dull, I look for something new. At the time I conceived of my solo show Drum Machine I was at an all-time low of dull. I was bored, I was cocky, it was not healthy. Nothing was challenging. Improv, of all things, started to feel same old same old. There was no risk in my risk.

One morning I woke up thinking ‘there should be a show called drum machine’ and went to the music store at the end of my street and bought one. “What kind would you like?” said the nice man. “I have no idea, what’s a drum machine?” I said, and he showed me the translucent blue Zoom Rhythmtrak 123 with pink light up keys that could only be for me.

I never performed Drum Machine standing up or in front of other people before it debuted. I was way too nervous! It was way too stupid an idea. I just lay in bed giggling and running through the show with the amp by my head. I had been invited to be in Melissa Burch’s Red Curtain Cabaret here in Minneapolis, and she gave me a fifteen minute slot. I didn’t last that long. I freaked out after about five minutes and said, “Thank you, good night!” and ran away. I learned you should have a beginning, middle and end. The next week I learned if you’re playing all the characters they should be distinct or you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The week after that I learned that if you interview an audience volunteer and their story is more interesting than your theatrical replay of their story, you’re doomed. So the first three weeks of Drum Machine were incredibly educational.

Jonathan Pitts asked me to be in the Chicago Improv Festival the year after that. I had submitted a duo, they asked if I’d come alone. That’s tacky, right? So tacky. We weren’t an improv duo much longer after that, but it’s okay, she’s a successful chef in Texas it worked out for everybody.

People sometimes ask how I thought up the structure. It’s an easy recipe. All I did is combine everything I love into one thing. I love improv and singing and history and romantic stories. That’s all Drum Machine is. When I was a pre-teen we moved into my grandparents house. Their bookshelves were filled with Isaac Asimov and I was also stealing my mother’s historical romance novels and watching a lot of Monty Python: throw that in a sack and shake it, you get the aesthetic of Drum Machine. The show itself consists of an interview with a member of the audience, the suggestions of a historical time period and a number to program into the drum machine. Then I do a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical. The audience always laughs when I say I’m going to do a a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical, and then I do it.

When you watch Andy Eninger perform solo improv it’s so elegant and lovely. I admire him so. He lays it all out like the most beautiful cotillion you somehow snatched an invitation to. I’m not like Andy. I just make a huge mess and see what glitters inside it. I’m never thinking ahead as an improvisor. I don’t know how it’s going to end. I throw a lot of ideas and characters up in the air and tie them all together on the way down. Set, wait twenty minutes, spike. I trust that I know how it goes even though I don’t know how it goes. I’ve trained myself to love forward momentum and extreme reactions, these are the tools I have. Curiosity, that’s another tool, the kind of curiosity that makes a cat follow a bird out onto a branch that can’t support its weight, yes, you can’t stay where it’s safe and do improv properly.

Since I conceived of Drum Machine it’s evolved a lot. There used to be an audience participation song at the top that the audience loved but I hated. David Razowsky told me I didn’t have to do it anymore some years ago and I’m forever grateful for that permission. Those first three performances at Red Curtain Cabaret I wore business casual. One night we were eating at Little Tijuana’s, home of super-hot punk rock waitresses, and Butch Roy said aloud, “Punk girls are hot.” I thought to myself “I want to be hot” so Drum Machine featured a semi-punk aesthetic for some years after that. I recently switched over to nice dresses because I got tired of being a total poser and it feels weird singing Broadway-style songs in a short plaid skirt. Those first couple years touring to festivals I was so nervous I carried everything with me. I carried combat boots and 50′ of cable, and a mirror and a shim so the audience could see the drum machine. Now instead of cable I just carry every adapter in the world. I still carry some things that don’t make sense. I always have a Happy Fun Time clip-on tie with me at every show. You never know.

There was a time when I was going to stop doing the show. Every time I entertain that thought, the show changes. It turns a corner and I’m curious again! I have big dreams for it, I wish it was on Broadway although I’ve no idea how to make that happen. It’s one of those goals that makes you better along the way. Like Thích Nhat Hanh says, “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.” Ha! I don’t think I’ve really shared that secret goal with more than three people because it makes me sound like even more of an asshole. Shhh, don’t tell anybody, Philly Improv!

If you’d like to try solo improv, I recommend you find a setting like a cabaret or an open mic or a set in between two other groups where you can go for five minutes and see what it’s like, then the piece will tell you how it wants to grow from there. I coach solo improv by email, that’s another crackpot scheme of mine.

If you’d like, the worksheet is here.

Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993, and is also a founding member of HUGE Theater. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured at the Chicago Improv Festival, the Toronto Improv Jamboree, the Miami Improv Festival, Philadelphia Improv Festival, and the ComedySportz National Tournament, among others. She has taught and performed improv in Norway, Canada, and over thirty of these United States, in cities that include Juneau, AK; Spokane and Seattle, WA; Washington DC; Bowling Green, KY; Phoenix, AZ; and also on an episode of MTV “Made.” She is one-half of the duo SCRAM with Joe Bill of the Annoyance Theater. An Artistic Associate of the Chicago Improv Festival, she has studied at the Annoyance Theater, Improv Olympic, the Brave New Workshop and other organizations; and is the recipient of the 2005 Chicago Improv Festival Avery Schreiber Ambassador of Improv Award, and the 2007 Miami Improv Festival award for Best Solo Show.

HOW I CAME TO DO SOLO IMPROV

I like it when improv is a little bit challenging, when I’m just out in front of the headlights.  When it gets dull, I look for something new.  At the time I conceived of my solo show Drum Machine I was at an all-time low of dull.  I was bored, I was cocky, it was not healthy.   Nothing was challenging.  Improv, of all things, started to feel same old same old.  There was no risk in my risk.

One morning I woke up thinking ‘there should be a show called drum machine’ and went to the music store at the end of my street and bought one.  “What kind would you like?” said the nice man.  “I have no idea, what’s a drum machine?” I said, and he showed me the translucent blue Zoom Rhythmtrak 123 with pink light up keys that could only be for me.

I never performed Drum Machine standing up or in front of other people before it debuted. I was way too nervous! It was way too stupid an idea. I just lay in bed giggling and running through the show with the amp by my head.   I had been invited to be in Melissa Burch’s Red Curtain Cabaret here in Minneapolis, and she gave me a fifteen minute slot.  I didn’t last that long.  I freaked out after about five minutes and said, “Thank you, good night!” and ran away.  I learned you should have a beginning, middle and end.  The next week I learned if you’re playing all the characters they should be distinct or you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  The week after that I learned that if you interview an audience volunteer and their story is more interesting than your theatrical replay of their story, you’re doomed. So the first three weeks of Drum Machine were incredibly educational.

Jonathan Pitts asked me to be in the Chicago Improv Festival the year after that.  I had submitted a duo, they asked if I’d come alone.  That’s tacky, right?  So tacky.  We weren’t an improv duo much longer after that, but it’s okay, she’s a successful chef in Texas it worked out for everybody.

People sometimes ask how I thought up the structure.  It’s an easy recipe. All I did is combine everything I love into one thing.   I love improv and singing and history and romantic stories.  That’s all Drum Machine is.  When I was a pre-teen we moved into my grandparents house.  Their bookshelves were filled with Isaac Asimov and I was also stealing my mother’s historical romance novels and watching a lot of Monty Python: throw that in a sack and shake it, you get the aesthetic of Drum Machine. The show itself consists of an interview with a member of the audience, the suggestions of a historical time period and a number to program into the drum machine.  Then I do a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical.  The audience always laughs when I say I’m going to do a  a sweepingly epic historical improvised one-woman musical, and then I do it.

When you watch Andy Eninger perform solo improv it’s so elegant and lovely.  I admire him so.  He lays it all out like the most beautiful cotillion you somehow snatched an invitation to.  I’m not like  Andy.  I just make a huge mess and see what glitters inside it.  I’m never thinking ahead as an improvisor.  I don’t know how it’s going to end.  I throw a lot of ideas and characters up in the air and tie them all together on the way down. Set, wait twenty minutes, spike. I trust that I know how it goes even though I don’t know how it goes. I’ve trained myself to love forward momentum and extreme reactions, these are the tools I have.  Curiosity, that’s another tool, the kind of curiosity that makes a cat follow a bird out onto a branch that can’t support its weight, yes, you can’t stay where it’s safe and do improv properly.

Since I conceived of Drum Machine it’s evolved a lot.  There used to be an audience participation song at the top that the audience loved but I hated. David Razowsky told me I didn’t have to do it anymore some years ago and I’m forever grateful for that permission.  Those first three performances at Red Curtain Cabaret I wore business casual. One night we were eating at Little Tijuana’s, home of super-hot punk rock waitresses, and Butch Roy said aloud, “Punk girls are hot.” I thought to myself “I want to be hot” so Drum Machine featured a semi-punk aesthetic for some years after that.  I recently switched over to nice dresses because I got tired of being a total poser and it feels weird singing Broadway-style songs in a short plaid skirt. Those first couple years touring to festivals I was so nervous I carried everything with me.  I carried combat boots and 50′ of cable, and a mirror and a shim so the audience could see the drum machine. Now instead of cable I just carry every adapter in the world. I still carry some things that don’t make sense.  I always have a Happy Fun Time clip-on tie with me at every show.  You never know.

There was a time when I was going to stop doing the show.  Every time I entertain that thought, the show changes.  It turns a corner and I’m curious again! I have big dreams for it, I wish it was on Broadway although I’ve no idea how to make that happen.  It’s one of those goals that makes you better along the way.  Like Thích Nhat Hanh says, “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.” Ha! I don’t think I’ve really shared that secret goal with more than three people because it makes me sound like even more of an asshole.  Shhh, don’t tell anybody, Philly Improv!

If you’d like to try solo improv, I recommend you find a setting like a cabaret or an open mic or a set in between two other groups where you can go for five minutes and see what it’s like, then the piece will tell you how it wants to grow from there.  I coach solo improv by email, that’s another crackpot scheme of mine.  If you’d like, the worksheet is here: http://tinyurl.com/soloimprovworksheet