Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Category: improv (page 2 of 4)

More Fur, More Marmalade

Hey, everyone!  The PIT loved us so much (and had another Sunday time slot so open) that they’ve decided to have us back for another go-around.  Fur in the Marmalade returns, with its unique combination of things that just happen to appeal to me personally.  A half-hour of puppet improv, and a half-hour of two-prov with me and my Marmalade Partner Kathryn.  If you missed the last one, and you can make it, pretty please do so.

Upcoming Shows

If you like to see me make stuff up on stage, then you will have a lot of opportunities to see me do so this week.

“True to Form”
Friday, February 3, 2012 (TODAY!)
8:00 PM, The PIT Underground, $5

A monthly show in which we explore the structure of improv by performing unique forms provided by the community and abroad. This month we’re doing “The Ghost,” “Memento,” and “The Master.”

“1800’s London” (with “I’m Into Lemurs”)
Monday, February 6, 2012
9:00 PM, The PIT Underground, SUPER FREE!

My newly-created PIT house team teams up with another newly-created PIT house team and we do longform every week.

“PUPPET FACE” (with “The Internet”)
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
7:00 PM, UNDER St. Marks, $(I don’t know, but it can’t be that expensive…)

Improv, with puppets! If you like seeing me do improv while holding a cloth doll over my head, then you will love this show!

A Thousand Ways to Say Yes

In my obligatory “Hamlet’s Advice to the House Team Auditioners” post on Facebook, I said:

Break legs. Relax. Be yourself. Say yes. Listen and react emotionally. Commit. Feel something. SAY YES!

I said, “Say yes” twice, once in ALL CAPS. To which everyone who’s ever taken a Level Zero improv class, or even walked by a room where an improv class was taking place replied, “Well, DUH!”

But saying yes is more than just not saying no.

Sure, at the level at which people are auditioning for house teams, you rarely hear:

A: This is a pink unicorn.
B: No, it’s not! It’s a yellow washing machine!

Good. You passed Level One. Congratulations.

If I have any improv knowledge to impart, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants. And if my knowledge has any breadth, it is because I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of giants, all lined up together like the Giants defensive line during a goal-line stand.* So this is what some of these giants have taught me about the many ways of saying yes:

From Del (in the canonical text “Truth in Comedy”), and from several of his disciples, I learned Yes, and… Just like everyone else.

From Will Hines at Improv Nonsense I learned that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is an offer to be accepted. Specifically I learned the power of saying “Yes!” to directed questions. Again, once you get beyond Level 1, you don’t get questions like, “Who are you? What is that?” But how many times have you seen this:

A: Sorry I’m late, honey.
B: Are you having an affair?
A: No, I was just stuck in traffic. God, you’re so suspicious!

or

A: I forgot to turn off the oven!
B: What are you retarded?
A: No, I was just in such a hurry to meet you that I forgot.

Mr. Hines posits that these questions are weak, unsure offers, but offers just the same and 99.9% of the time the answer should be, “Yes.”

A: Sorry I’m late, honey.
B: Are you having an affair?
A: Yes, I am. I was wondering how long it’d be until you found out.

or

A: I forgot to turn off the oven!
B: What are you, retarded?
A: Yes, a little. I normally cope well enough but you put so much pressure on me that I forgot my “coping with daily tasks” training.

(If you want to play a fun mini-game, just watch my lips during another team’s improv performance and count how many times I mouth the words, “Just say yes!”)

From Rich Talarico, at his workshop at the PIT, I learned that it’s rarely the best move to be surprised by something. A shocking revelation is a big offer, and a response of surprise is like a “Yes, but…” that takes several lines. For example:

A: I’m having an affair.
B: WHAT? I don’t believe it! With who? How long has this been going on?

Sure, points for honest reactions, but we only have a short time to move this scene forward. But what happens if we’re not surprised?

A: I’m having an affair.
B: I know. With Mrs. Schmidt next door. She’s kind of frumpy. Frankly I thought you could have done better.

I think the more compelling scene lies down the second path.

From Oscar Montoya I learned that while “Yes, and…” is useful “Yes, because…” focuses the scene. Rather than:

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: And the dish is cracked.
A: And the oven’s on fire.

How about:

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: That’s probably because you were jumping on your pogo stick right next to the oven while it was baking.

And finally, from Chris Roberti I learned that it’s always more interesting to be vulnerable than to be guarded. How does that tie into this post’s theme of saying yes? Well, I weave that into Oscar’s advice to create the basis of my entire improv philosophy: “Yes, because I’m vulnerable.”

A: The souffle has fallen.
B: All of my cooking has been a failure since Sheila left…

As always, the path of knowledge is never-ending. This is by no means an exhaustive examination of the myraid ways of saying yes. I’m sure I’ll be learning new ways of saying yes until I’m too senile to perform and the other people at the theater have an uncomfortable discussion to decide who has to tell the old man that maybe it’s time to retire.

But until then, please, SAY YES!

* Go Giants!!!

Cut? DON’T QUIT!

To elaborate a a bit on what I posted yesterday:

This is my second time through the audition process at the PIT, and the first time I’ve been through significant cuts. Many people I love, including half of Technicolor, won’t be around for this cycle.

It hurts. I know. I’ve been there.

When I was put on a Harold team at UCB*, I was well beyond cloud nine — I was on cloud a hundred and seventy-four and had a leather steamer trunk covered in stickers indicating the many clouds I’d been on. When I was cut a short time later, I was bereft.

At first I thought, “It’s all right. I’m a bit emotional now, but I just need to take a break from this place.” But then the break became a hiatus. The hiatus became “Whatever happened to…?” Before I knew it, I hadn’t done longform improv in ten years.

Let me tell you: This is, seriously, one of the biggest regrets of my life.

If you need to take time, go ahead and take some time. But please, PLEASE don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t abandon your craft. Make things happen. Persevere. Be great. I have faith in you.

* Back then, this was not quite the amazing accomplishment it is today. On the UCB retrospective interview that was recently published, someone said, “Anyone who could stand got on a house team.” I could stand. Barely.

A Time for Change

The PIT house team auditions are done. Some incredibly talented people I love are now on teams, and for them I am ecstatic. Some incredibly talented people I love are not, and for them I feel a profound sense of loss, ameliorated slightly by the hope that for them it is not the end of the road, but rather a new beginning.

In any case, if you wish to see me perform at the PIT, I will be performing Monday nights at 9:30 with the team currently known as 1800’s London. I hope to see many of you there…

Improv Promotional Sonnet IV: More Gatekeepers

This is the fourth in a series of sonnets for the purpose of promoting my improv shows at the PIT. The sonnet isn’t clear on the details (there are always some sacrifices for art) so here they are: Come see “Technicolor” every Monday at 9 PM in the PIT Underground.

At gates of Improv Heaven stood two men
Each begging entrance to its holy stage.
The first had clever quips beyond all ken
All thirst for knowledge could he quick assuage.
The second man into emotions tapped
A mirror held to nature was his goal.
He scoffed, “O, Clever gent, forever trapped!
You find the funny line, but not the soul.”
The Improv Gods, in semi-circle stood
And in group-mind they all declared as one:
“Like warp and weft in weaving, both are good
So both must enter, else may enter none.”
Which facet of our improv shall we show?
Come to the PIT at nine, so you may know.

Improv Promotional Sonnet III: An Strange Encounter With Del Close

This is the third in a series of sonnets for the purpose of promoting my improv shows at the PIT. In case the sonnet isn’t clear on the details, come see “Technicolor” every Monday at 9 PM in the PIT Underground.

Last night I tossed and turned in fevered dreams
In which I saw the ghost of sainted Del.
And from his gut erupted painful screams,
“What mortal dares to claim he improvs well!?”
“Tis I,” squeaked I. “And who are you?” he growled,
“To strut about, my artform to defile?”
He called his improv henchmen and he scowled,
“Another improviser for the pile.”
“Tis I!” I screamed, “And and in me is enough,
A lifetime’s slings and arrows in my soul!”
The ghost he grinned, and vanished in a puff,
And whispered thus: “You’re ready for your role.”
What other apparitions will I see?
Find out at nine, before The Faculty.

Watson! Come Here! I Want You!

Your attention, please. The improv team formerly known as “Team Green” is now known as “Watson.” That is all.

You Never Forget Your First

On Wednesday, the team that will shortly be renamed but is currently known as Team Green performed their first show at The PIT. I alluded to how it felt in a brief Facebook status update*, but the feeling was so intense that I needed to record it here.

It. Was. Amazing.

Even though the theater is brand new, between open jams and auditions I’d been on the stage plenty of times by now. But when the house is full, as it was Wednesday, the energy is just entirely different. The stage was electric. The laughter fell over us like an intoxicating tidal wave. It was a feeling I haven’t felt since… well… the last time I had a major role in a show before a huge, full house. (Rocky Horror? We didn’t quite sell that out. Ragtime? My part was comparatively minor.)

There were certainly some rough patches. We’re still kind of feeling each other out, finding our group mind. We’d never even rehearsed before, for goodness sake! But based on the positive response we got on our first time out, I’ve got a feeling we’ve got a lot of amazing performances ahead of us.

* I find myself experiencing a strange hierarchy of “publishing thoughts on the Internet.” I’ll start on Twitter, where I will try and lovingly trim my thoughts down to 140 characters. If I absolutely can’t trim it that far, it goes to Facebook. Then, when I finally feel the need for paragraphs and permanence, it ends up here.

Sweet Redemption!

The story before today:

For many years, improv was my life.

In the beginning, there was Comics Anonymous. Sure, it was rough troup* to be a part of at times, but I’ve got to acknowledge the company that gave me my start. Frank, the director, put me on stage and let me cut my teeth in front of real audiences. Sometimes, the audiences even outnumbered the cast! Occasionally, we rocked the upstairs cabaret at Jan McArt’s Royal Palm Dinner Theater in Boca Raton.

Then, I auditioned for ComedySportz, Ft. Lauderdale. That place was amazing. We took over The Comic Strip, a former comedy club on Federal Highway that had seen A-list headliners before it shut down. I’ve got to give credit to the director, Pat “The Vampire” Battistini. After practicing with the group a while, I said “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.” (Being ComedySportz, we were big on the sports metaphors.) He did, and I got the opportunity to perform in front of huge, full houses on Saturday nights. (It’s odd the memories you hold from ephemeral improv shows, years after they’re gone. I still cherish “Song Styles” in which I sang a Disco song about the FDIC.)

Then I went back to college, and joined the No Parking Players. Since I had experience with ComedySportz, I ended up directing them for a while. It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and more importantly, I made some of the best friends I would ever have — people I’m honored to count among my friends to this day.

Then, a talk at CMU by Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter (of all things!) inspired me to move to New York City. When I arrived, I searched for a new improv home. I naturally gravitated to ComedySportz New York, who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was one of many to pass through the meat grinder of Grownup’s Playground (which I will not dignify with a link). The only good to come of that was that I met Keith, who became my roommate and one of my very best friends in the world. I also met my wife at an audition for them, but I didn’t know that at the time.**

Then, I found the Upright Citizens Brigade. They taught me the joy of long form. I had the privilege of learning from some of the best of the best. Armando Diaz, before he founded his own theater. Ian Roberts. Amy Poehler, before she became (more) famous. And Ali Farahnakian, before he founded his own theater… but more about that in a moment.

After going through the levels at UCB, I was cast on a Harold team. I was ecstatic. I was on my way. We called ourselves “Pole Position” and I even created an opening theme with the “Prepare to Qualify” music from the game. We got to perform in their new theater (which is now the old theater). We performed at the very first Del Close marathon (at something like 6 in the morning, but we did perform.)

We… struggled. I didn’t feel like we were clicking as a team. I was getting edgy. I felt the need to come in big and “save” every scene. I talked to Armando about how I was struggling. He felt it, too. The axe came down shortly thereafter. Several people from my team were reassigned to other new teams. I was not.

I was devastated. People whose opinions I valued… nay, people I practically worshipped… essentially said I was no good at the art form to which I dedicated pretty much my entire life. I left improv, and started doing more scripted theater. I didn’t come back to improv for almost a decade.

Not to say that the decade was wasted. I did a lot of incredible theater. I met and married my wife, and we had a beautiful son. And I performed at the Jekyll and Hyde Club, which was not an improv show per se, but certainly exercised those muscles.

I thought I was content. But then my friend Alex did her Level 1 class show at UCB. It awakened something deep inside me that lay dormant lo these many years. I knew, right then and there, that I had to get back into the game.

It’s odd the little things that end up being so consequential. The only reason I signed up at the People’s Improv Theater was because there weren’t any Level 1 classes available at UCB. I went to my first Level 1 class cocky as can be. (Well, cocky as I can be, at any rate.) I was thinking, “Yes, I’m experienced, but I’ll go in with the ‘beginner’s mind’ as the Zen people say.” Well, it turns out that, while I wasn’t a rank beginner, my improv muscles had atrophied sufficiently that the workout shocked me to my senses. I steeled my resolve to become better, every class, every day.

I worked my way through the classes. I hooked up with some amazing performers to start the team that you know as Vorpal. I worked those muscles, and developed a few new ones along the way. And I always had my sights set on the weekend of January 22, 2011. This weekend. House team auditions.

The story today:

After an audition process that was a strange mixture of fun and grueling, I got cast! I’m on a house team at the PIT! It took me nigh on a decade, but I’m back in the game! My journey doesn’t stop here, but gosh darn it, I have an improv home again. And to make the victory even sweeter, the PIT just opened a brand new, gorgeous theater. I get the same, “You’re at the start of something big, kid!” feeling that I got when I was at the first meeting in the “new” UCB space when it was still being remodeled from a strip club.

Except this time, I’m not going to throw it all away at the first setback. I’m here to stay, improv, so you damned well better be ready for me…

* It’s easy to misspell the word “troupe.” However, Frank neglected to use spell check before he had the word printed on our company tee shirts.

** At one Grownup’s Playground audition, we had two black women come in, which in improv is somewhat unusual. The first was the woman I would eventually marry and have children with. The second had just come from a callback for the original Broadway production of Ragtime. Naturally, I was immediately attracted to the second one.

*** Wow, research for this piece has made me open up some damn nostalgic browser tabs! But why are you reading this? The three-asterisk footnote is not referenced in the post.

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