Jason Specland: An Occasionally Funny Software Guy

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Category: improv (page 1 of 4)

GEORGE/MARTHA at The Tank in February

GEORGE/MARTHA is moving from the PIT to The Tank!

Come join Liz and Dick for our premiere performance at The Tank.

Tuesday, February 6th, at 7:00 PM.
Tickets are only $10. Get ’em now!

Upcoming Performances and Classes

Thursday, August 17, 11 PM, The PIT Underground: I perform… ALL BY MYSELF! At the Solo Improv Showcase hosted by Solo Improv guru Mike Brown. $7.

Saturday, August 19, 3-6 PM, Simple Studios: Drop on in to my Drop-In Class! Get some improv reps! Have some improv fun! $30, or $20 if you have a current PIT student ID.

Saturday, August 26, 5PM, Henry Heymann Theater, Pittsburgh, PA: The Austen Family Improv Players at the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Super-excited about this one! I get to go back to my old college town to lay down some Regency-Era manners. I just hope my order of ‘O’ Fries doesn’t drip ketchup on my cravat. $10

What a Week of Improv!

If you had an itchin’ to see me perform improv, this is your lucky week! Just about every group I perform with is playing this week.

BUCKET OF FUN: Sunday, March 19th (today!), 7:00 PM at the PIT LOFT (154 W. 29th St., betw. 6th and 7th Ave.). My house team REGINA goes up against Latinx in a game show that pits improv teams against one another in a fun competition.

REGINA: Monday, March 20th (tomorrow!), 8:00 PM at the PIT Underground (123 E. 24th St.). My house team REGINA performs its weekly house team show, with our friends Poor Melissa.

REGINA (at the NYC Improv Festival): Wednesday, March 22nd (the day after the day after tomorrow!), 9PM at the PIT Striker Theater (123 E. 24th St.) with The Studio System.

THE HUMANE CENTIPEDE (at the NYC Improv Festival): Thursday, March 23rd (the day after the day after the day after tomorrow!), 11 PM at the PIT LOFT (154 W. 29th St., betw. 6th and 7th Ave.). It’s the WORLD PREMIERE of the improv and sketch group featuring some of my most talented bestest best friends, Adrian Sexton and Rory Scholl.

GEORGE/MARTHA (at the NYC Improv Festival): Saturday, March 25th (the day after the… oh forget it… a week from today), at 4 PM at the PIT LOFT (154 W. 29th St., betw. 6th and 7th Ave.). I play Richard Burton playing George, and Adrian Sexton plays Elizabeth Taylor playing Martha, as we improvise a brand new “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” There will be much drinking and anger, especially if the estate of Edward Albee hears about it…

THE AUSTEN FAMILY IMPROV PLAYERS (at the NYC Improv Festival): Saturday, March 25th (the same day as the last one!), at 9 PM at the PIT LOFT (don’t you know where it is by now?). We are an improvisational theatrical troupe from 1813, performing in the style of Miss Jane Austen. With a little luck and some providence, we may all be profitably married by the end of the show!

Whew! Hopefully I’ll still be alive at the end of all this…

Listen With Your Whole Body

In improv, we learn to “listen with our whole body.” When performing in a scene, it is important not just to hear the words that our scene partner says, but we must also “hear” their facial expression and their body language as well. Newer improvisers tend to lean so heavily on words that they miss these cues, or don’t send them. Experienced improvisers know that you can speak volumes without uttering a single syllable.

When coaching improv, I work very hard to get the people I’m coaching to realize this. To understand it. To feel it in their very bones. One of my favorite exercises for this is one in which two actors stand back-to-back, and think of an emotion… No, they don’t just think of an emotion… they use every bit of their sense memory to bring that emotion to life. They live in that moment as fully and completely as they can. And then they turn around, and begin the scene silently, taking in the full range of their partner’s face and body.

This exercise works because human beings have evolved over the millennia to be deeply and profoundly in tune with the most subtle emotions encoded in the human face. Take this classic example:

An Illustration of the "Thatcher Effect", by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

An Illustration of the “Thatcher Effect”, by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

When the image is upside down, nothing looks amiss. It is only when the face is right-side up that our supercharged facial recognition circuits kick in and the image suddenly appears grotesque.

As consultants, being able to listen to our clients, truly listen to them, requires listening with our whole bodies. We need to listen to both what they say and don’t say. We’ll find more often that what they don’t utter aloud can say so much more than what they do. What causes them pain? What do they fear?

This, however, is where our goals in improv and in consulting part ways. In improv, we always want to confirm fears. We want to make the pain worse. If there’s a fire, we want to pour gasoline on it rather than water. In consulting, it is our job to help our client, relieve their pain, and grow their business. Technology is a tool with which we do this, yes, but as far as tools in the belt go, technology isn’t nearly so important as empathy.

We’ll never truly understand what our client needs unless we listen with our whole body.

Improv Stuff This Week: (5/8/2016 – 5/14/2016)

Monday, May 9, 9:00 PM: Regina at the PIT (Underground, with Chariot)
Thursday, May 12, 8:30 PM: 10,000 Hours Session, “The End is In the Beginning” at Simple Studios It’s all about using the information you’ve already created to push your scenework forward, rather than continually inventing.
Saturday, May 14, 11:00 AM: Drop-in imrpov practice group at CAP 21, contact me for more info

It’s Not About the Bicycle

I’ve only been a consultant for about a year now, but I’ve been performing improv comedy for about twenty. And as I work more in consulting, I’m starting to see that consulting and improv comedy aren’t so different.

One trap that beginning improvisers tend to get caught up in is the idea that the arbitrary, imaginary thing that they’re doing is actually the important part of the scene. It’s not. The imaginary thing is just a vehicle that helps us explore human relationships and emotions. It’s the set dressing around which we build the characters that the audience really wants to see.

There’s an old improv coaching idiom that I use often: An audience never leaves an improv show saying, “Yeah, it was funny and all, but they never *did* finish putting together that bicycle!” Sure, come on stage and start building a bicycle, if that’s what the moment has inspired you to do. But we want to see how these particular characters react to building a bicycle.

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/radlmax/21830232766 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Similarly, when you’re on a consulting gig, if you’re talking to the real decision makers, they don’t care about technology. They only care about what the technology does for their business. No CEO ever leaves a post-engagement meeting saying, “Yeah, we made a million dollars, but we never *did* use SharePoint!”

As technical consultants, it’s easy for us to get enmeshed in the minutia of technology. After all, that expertise is what they’re hiring us for, right? Wrong. They’re hiring us because we know how to use technology as a lever. Technology is a tool. If it doesn’t serve a useful business purpose, it’s a toy.

I’m a SharePoint developer, and my hammer is Visual Studio and when I have my tech-blinders on, everything can look like a nail. When you bring me in, chances are that someone’s already decided that their project is going to live on SharePoint. My instinct isn’t to argue with you. Who doesn’t love those juicy billable hours? But as a good consultant, I hope to be a trusted adviser to my clients. It’s my responsibility to say when SharePoint ain’t the tool for the job, even at the cost of billable hours. Hell, even at the cost of the whole gig. If someone respects the integrity of your advice, there will be work for you some other day.

Just like in improv, it’s the relationship that’s the important thing. It’s not about the bicycle. It’s about getting where you want to go.

Sexy Mad Science: My LED Body Suits for Yes! Yes! Yes! And…

The show was last night, and was a smashing success, and so it’s time to reveal the project that I’ve been working tirelessly on in the past week.

The idea of “Yes! Yes! Yes! And…” is kind of a sexy party improv show. (Notably, and importantly, I think, the improv itself is 100% clean, it’s just the “frame story” that’s all sexy.) The theme of this show was that it would be performed in total darkness, with the performers illuminated only by small LEDs that they carried with them.

With my knowledge of electronics, I figured I could do something pretty neat. My idea was that, as our hearts and our libidos are often in conflict, the suit will display the beating heart and the prominent… genitalia. (Due to the nature of the show, this post will be filled with the forced hesitant prudishness of the ellipsis.)

Here’s a video of the completed LED bodysuit.

So the first thing I did was I built a boatload of LED strands. Why not just buy LED rope lights? My thought was that I wanted to determine exactly what color and design I wanted (which I was right about) and that it wouldn’t be a big deal to solder them all together. About this last point I was wrong. Dead, dead, wrong. It took me three solid days to solder together two hearts, one male, and one female… piece. (There’s that ellipsis again.)

I ordered a bunch of colored LEDs and resistors from Mauser. Here’s some of the first designs, with my calculations of the resistance values for a 12-volt input.



Here is the soldering station, just beginning the build of a strand of lights. Again, I spent three solid days doing this.


Here’s the first successful test of the “inner” heart ring.


And this is the outer.


Here is a pile of hand-soldered LED and resistor assemblies, ready to put into a cable that’s being built.

Soldering Station with Loose LED Assemblies

The heartbeat is controlled by a super-simple controller board. The 12v is routed through a 5v voltage regulator, which feeds the input of an ATtiny 85. (I programmed the ATtiny 85 through my Arduino. Much thanks to High-Low Tech at the MIT Media Lab for showing me how to do that.) The output pins 0 and 1 go to the base of two transistors, whose collectors are pointed at the 12v supply and whose emitters are pointed at the inner and outer heart rings.

The… bits… are directly wired in without a controller.

To make sure that we could turn the whole thing on and off at a moments notice, I wired a toggle switch for the whole shebang, and routed it into the left arm.

There were some important lessons learned. First, and most vitally important lesson is that I can NOT solder a million tiny connections in any reasonable amount of time.

Another lesson was that, while it’s nice to have guaranteed battery supply, having a 10 Amp-hour battery is not only probably overkill, but those batteries in NiMH weigh about 4 lbs. In the end, I couldn’t even get them to charge (my charger was defective, and is being returned). But even if I’d gotten them to charge, I never solved the problem about how someone would actually wear such a battery pack. I’ll most certainly use the two huge battery packs in some future project… I’d better… they were darn expensive! In the end, I just ended up using 8 long-lasting AA batteries to generate 12v.

Yet another lesson: Stripboard is much easier to work with than undifferentiated perfboard. At the very least it focuses the mind as to where your components should go. I’ve heard that custom printing PCBs isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, and I may need to look in to that.

On the brighter side of lessons learned: The fact that I don’t need to stick a whole Arduino into a project! It was extremely easy to built a breadboard to program the ATtiny 85 and upload my sketch to it. And the ATtinys are so cheap, I purchased 10. (And blew up two. Don’t forget to connect the ground wire to your 5v regulator, folks! Whoops!) But I will almost certainly be using ATtinys (or other Amtel chips I can program from the Arduino) in future projects.

My heart was having shorting problems, but it worked with a little bit of fiddling during the show, and finally died in the shows final few minutes, so I guess we got just about all I can ask of my meagar soldering and board-building skills.

In the end, it didn’t quite live up to my initial imagination. (I’d planned on having LEDs running down each arm and leg. That would have been an additional hundred LEDs to solder!) But it came out pretty awesome just the same. I’m super-proud of this, and while I don’t think that I’m going to be doing this all the time, it’ll be a neat thing to throw into my performances now and again.

Marmalade: Unafraid

Here’s a video of last night’s show: “Marmalade: Unafraid,” the improvised two-person show I do with the amazing and delightful Kathryn Dunn.

When I think of how wonderfully fun and exciting it is to work with Kathryn, it’s almost like I can sense the lightning when Laurel met Hardy, or when Aykroyd met Belushi (without the drugs), or when Burns met Allen (without the romance, ’cause I’m already real-life married), or when chocolate met peanut butter.

Improv Words of Wisdom

Please don’t slap my back and say, “Got your back.” If you have to let me know that you do, you probably don’t. — David Razowsky, from an interview on the “My Nephew is a Poodle” improv blog.

Upcoming Shows!

Here are the shows I’m doing soon, in case you’d like to go to any of them:

East Side Orphan Riot (Musical Improv)
Thursday, September 6, 2012, 8:00 PM
PIT Underground (123 E. 24th St., Basement)
$5 (free if you attend PITch at 6:00 PM and get your hand stamped)

Fur in the Marmalade (Puppet-prov and Two-prov)
Sunday, September 9, 2012, 8:00 PM
PIT Mainstage (123 E. 24th St., Main Floor)

1-800-LONDON (improv)
Monday, September 10, 2012, 9:00 PM
PIT Underground

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