The Improv Life: Everything’s Changed, Nothing’s Changed
We used to do shows in Downtown Santa Ana when I first started.
Those shows were special to me because performing in my home town was validation that I was on the right path.
I would ask my work if I could get off early in order to make it on time.
I’d then go to Starbucks, get some coffee, and get in the zone.
Nothing else mattered. My entire week was building up to this moment. We’d then do the show, win, lose, or draw, and then it was over. But I just wanted to be back on stage. The cycle would start over as I waited to be booked.
There would be jams, practices, dinners, whatevs. We did improv wherever they would have us. LA was close, but the cultural distance made it seem a galaxy away.
We were hunter gatherers learning how to kill our food in the parking lots, cafe patios, and random community college spaces of Orange County.
We were our own teachers because that’s just how it was. An exciting time, a time of growth and exploration, a time that would impact us forever.
But doing a show, man. That’s what it’s about. And that’s still what’s it about. Doing a show is the end-all and be-all of this art form for many of us. I know that’s a controversial statement for some, but there’s a different feeling to doing improv in a living room with your team as compared to doing a live show with your friends in front of a packed theater.
The audience, man, we need them. The energy they give us affects how we perform, and this exchange of energy is what makes performing live one of the best experiences on Earth – you’ll get the highest high performing at your peak in front of an engaged audience hanging on to everything you do.
All these years, so much has changed, but the core things remain the same, and that’s why I stay in this amazing game.
The Improv Life: The Biggest Benefits of Keeping an Improv Blog
I’ve been blogging about my improv journey for almost 7 years. Here’s what I’ve learned after all that time.
1. I’d be lying if I remember every improv show, every set. What I remember most are moments and lessons – this blog is a way to record those moments and lessons.
2. You can be really affected by a class, show, or lesson, but it’s easy to forget it. Insights are transient. They arrive, blow your mind, and then they’re gone.
2a. Writing them down will make sure you retain some part of it.
2b. Plus, you can share your insights with the larger community and put some good out there.
2c. General rule for putting good out there: just do it, then do it again when you can, and repeat. Under no circumstances expect anything in return.
2d. Also, my insights are valid. Not saying they’re all game changers, but imposter syndrome will trick you into thinking that your experience has nothing of value to share with the world.
2e. My experience has value, so does yours.
3. Besides blogging about my insights, I also write about my journey.
3a. The specific is the universal. Meaning, I hope you can relate to parts of my highly specified, very personal journey.
3b. The more personal, the more people can connect to it. (That’s a rule applicable to most writing).
4. There are things in this journey that surround improv, things that happen off stage – rehearsals, team dinners, karaoke nights, driving up to the Clubhouse with Frankie Estrella, doing bits and talking wrestling the whole time. These and more are part of the journey, and they leave me affected, my art as well. It’s all connected I guess.
5. This blog, therefore, is a notebook to jot down my insights before I lose them, and a journal to archive important moments of my journey.
6. Basically, this blog is for me, to chronicle my journey, where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I’ve learned.
6a. That’s a great reason to start a blog.
7. I encourage you to chronicle your journey as well.
I’ve just done 4 shows in 4 days, and I’m awash in knowledge!
I was so lucky to play and learn from so many amazing people, and I got all these thoughts and insights that I need to share right now before I lose them to the tide of time.
Thoughts on Bad Improv Shows
*Was lucky enough to not have a bad show in this little run I just did!
1. You can’t predict a bad show; they kinda just happen, and you deal with it as it happens.
2. Good shows go by too fast, and bad shows take forever to end.
3. Not respecting your teammates and their choices is one of the root causes of bad shows.
3a. You don’t like a scene partner’s choice, so you try to course correct by adding a new idea to the scene. An idea you think will save the scene, thereby by saving the set.
3b. It’s disrespectful, condescending, and happens more than you think. I’m thinking of a specific person as I write this, and I’m wondering if there aware of their arrogant behavior. In their mind, they think they’re helping.
3c. And I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t confess to doing this myself under the guise of “helping” when it was really a matter of taste.
3d. Agreement on taste is something improv groups don’t talk about enough. We call it style when we mean taste. Style is how you do something and taste is the product.
3e. People can have similar styles but different tastes.
3f. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a situation where your taste is different from the majority, and you’ll have to leave (or someone will ask you to).
4. Bad shows can also come from insecurity.
4a. You’re insecure about your abilities, or don’t trust your teammates, so you project that insecurity and lack of trust onto your scene partners, and you poison the energy of the show in progress.
4b. I was on a team where every single member did this, including me. We were a bipolar team going back and forth from grand slams to big losses.
4a. The audience won’t always tell you if you had a bad show. Sometimes it’s your teammates in the vibe they give you after a show.
4b. But the audience will let you know you’re bombing. You’ll know. You’ll feel it in your posture and go into a silent panic asking yourself and your teammates through eye contact, “How are we going to get out of this.”
4c. Talking to a show audience after you bombed is soul crushing. Their lips say “Good show,” but their eyes say “You sucked.”
4d. It’s the eyes, man. The eyes say it all.
5. After a bad show, you just want to get the hell out of there.
5a. If it’s a good show, you go out to eat together.
5b. The more you do this, the higher your batting average gets with good shows vs bad shows.
5c. But it’s also on you to be conscientious about your style and growth, and how your choices (or lack of them) can lead to a bad show.
6. Bad shows are going to happen. Don’t let them get you down. And if you have a good show, celebrate it, but don’t let it prevent you from going out there and doing it again for fear of failing.
7. Every show is a sandcastle that will be washed away by the rolling tide of the ending day.
8. One last reason for bad shows: Chemistry: sometimes you don’t vibe with someone and that’s okay. Play with other people.
Being on the Backline
9. I’m always listening, listening, and listening, and then when I’m done listening, I listen some more.
10. I’m paying as much deep attention as I possibly can, always asking, “Am I needed here?,” “Can I add anything?,” and “Is the scene fine as is?”
10a. In your mind you’re thinking, “How can I help?” And that’s the million dollar question for me every time I’m on the backline.
11. One of the best lessons I’ve learned about being on the backline is to let scenes breathe. Give your teammates the space they need to find their scenes, develop their characters, and figure stuff out for themselves.
11a. The stronger your teammates are in their characters, the stronger they’ll be in their scenes.
10a. In your mind you’re thinking, “How can I help?” And that’s the million dollar question for me every time I’m on the backline.
11a. The stronger your teammates are in their characters, the stronger they’ll be in their scenes.
12. But if you have to edit because the scene is asking for it (your teammates are asking for it) then you have to edit.
12a. Tag someone out and start a new scene with the remaining person, sweep edit to wipe away the stage, take edit to start a scene with someone else without knowing where it’s going.
12b. Editing when helping your teammates get out of an awkward position is always a good choice.
13. I like being on the backline for a lot of reasons.
13a. If I’m playing with new people, I’m learning their style, thinking about how I can compliment it, add to it.
13b. But sometimes you just want to watch a hilarious person crush.
14. It’s also learning about restraint. You might have a really funny idea, but it would interrupt whatever is happening or take away focus from your teammates as they develop something. Plus, you don’t want to take away stage time from them.
14a. I guess part of me being on the backline is wanting to help and protect my teammates.
14b. Rich Sohn’s voice just popped up in my head telling me that, “That kind of attitude is condescending towards your teammates because it presumes you don’t trust your teammates to take care of themselves.”
14c. He would then add, “Take care of yourself first and then worry about your teammate,” meaning know who your character is and take it from there (that’s how I interpreted it at least).
14d. Everyone should study improv with Rich Sohn at the Pack Theater. Dude knows what he is talking about.
15. But I still want to practice restraint.
15a. My ego and my humility are constantly arguing whether I want to join the scene because I want to add to it or because I want to become the center of attention. That’s a real question. Always.
16. Improv is a gateway to other types of comedy.
17. Start with improv, and then go try standup, sketch, clown, character, whatever – let it be your door to trying new things.
18. Trying new things is about exploring parts of yourself that need to be discovered. It could be something you find is not for you, or you may stumble upon a key to unlocking parts of yourself you didn’t know existed.
18a. It goes the same with people. The more people you open yourself up to, the more likely you are to find some compatible collaborators.
18b. Honestly, it’s always fun playing with someone new when your energies align.
18c. Doing improv with someone you vibe with accelerates friendship. Truth.
19. If you can, help out the next generation of improvisers. Share your knowledge and experience with them. Do shows with them, play with them, but I understand that this is not everyone’s bag, and that’s alright.
19a. Just don’t be a dick to new people.
19b. Your tenure at a theater, status in a community, or years of doing improv doesn’t give you the right to be disrespectful to people.
19c. I’m guilty of invoking all three at some point to be rude to people, and I feel sorry for that. I’m trying to be better every day.
19d. Still plenty of people who do this. You know who you are.
20. Look, just be nice to people and don’t be a dick.
21. This community has a long memory. You won’t forget the people who did you wrong. However, you’ll always remember who helped you out.
22. Be someone worth remembering for good reasons.
My biggest concern as a performer (even since my first show) has been getting over.
“Getting over” is a term pro wrestlers use to describe the experience of being embraced by the audience and becoming a fan favorite.
If you’re a wrestler, getting over is the end-all and be-all. You want to get over, and do whatever you must to stay over.
I didn’t come from a proper theater background. I grew up in a working class immigrant neighborhood in Santa Ana, CA, which is practically Mexico.
The closet theater to me was a movie theater. I grew up with no arts except for the movies I saw on HBO, the music I heard on the radio, the comic books I collected, and the tons of pro wrestling and sitcoms I watched on every television channel possible.
Pro wrestling felt different than all the other art forms. It seemed real to me (and for the longest time I thought it was) because of how much the wrestlers hated each other in ring, which was proven through the brutality of their matches.
In addition, I was sucked in by pro wrestling’s long running angles and narrative arcs anchored by strong characters I could emotionally invest in.
Wrestling gave you a reason to keep tuning in every week, to cheer the good guy, boo the bad guy, and hope justice would prevail.
The first live performance I ever went to (if you don’t count Mass) was a live WWF show at the Long Beach Convention Center in the 1993. It impacted me. It made me a life long fan and gave me a way to understand life. Shit, I did amateur wrestling my freshman year of high school because I loved wrestling so much!
Okay, what I’m trying to say is this: pro wrestling was a performance art I could understand; therefore, I could draw from it and use it to shape and inspire my own artistic journey.
So as a reminder: I love pro wrestling and have no proper theater background because I grew up in the hood.
Okay, next part. Because I felt this performer in me waiting to get out and I had no theater or role models to help me out, I channeled all this energy into wrestling.
I became a mega fan and started doing impressions of all my favorite wrestlers. I could do Stone Cold, Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Paul Bearer, Vader, and more. I annoyed the hell out of my family for a few years there.
Finally, I got some improv training. And for a year, a dedicated few of us practiced every week with the hopes of one day doing a show. Then, a date was booked, and we were mere moments away from becoming comedy legends.
But wait! All this improv training did nothing to equip me mentally to perform for a live audience. Don’t get me wrong. I knew about yes-and, never deny, and don’t ask questions, but I didn’t know anything about the mental game for performing unscripted comedy theater. Who was going to help me with that?
Well, I think you know the answer: pro wrestling.
My first show is here. I’m nervous as hell. What am I going to do once we’re out there, live on stage with no script and nothing but our training and our wits to get out alive, with all eyes on us.
I needed some confidence, and fast.
But in lieu of actual confidence developed over a long time of performing show after show, building on a string of repeated failures that lead to real and measurable growth, I needed fake confidence, and lots of it.
Unfortunately, our improv training did not address the mental aspect of performing in front of a live audience.
So I looked to pro wrestling for guidance and inspiration. I literally put together a “Show Outfit,” a dedicated stage garb exclusively for performing improv comedy in front of a live audience.
My hero was Bret “The Hitman” Hart, so I leaned towards pink and black for my stage attire.
I would always shower and shave, and have a moment alone before every show to check in with myself and pump myself up with hypewords and positive psychology. In my mind, I knew I wanted to get over, and I was going to use every trick available to do that.
Did I get over? At the time, I felt like I did, but I was pretty delusional back then. Honestly, before I was going to get over with the fans, I was going to have to get over with myself.
Basically, if I was going to expect an audience to get behind me, I was going to have to present a performer who had genuine confidence. But how do you get that?
But how do you get over? Or rather, how do you build genuine confidence that gets an audience to emotionally invest in you and wants to see you succeed?
It’s pretty simple: training, shows, patience, humility, and the belief you deserve to be on stage
Training – there are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially the technical know how you’re going to need to go on stage and know what you’re doing, along with the personal breakthroughs that come with consistent practice.
Shows – Look, you got to test yourself in front of an audience. There is no substitute for performing in front of fans who are watching you with eyes wide open and giving you energy you have to acknowledge and respond to in the moment.
Patience and Humility – your growth will take time, so you can’t lose hope. And once it comes, you can’t let it give you a big head and make you feel like you know all there is to know about improv.
Belief you deserve to be on stage – okay, this one goes back to wrestling. Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream and wrestling legend, once said, “That if you don’t want to be number one in this business, you got to do something else.”
How I interpret it is that if you don’t want to be on stage, if that’s not of the upmost importance to you, you’re probably not going to get a lot of stage time, so what’s the point.
I understand that this position might alienate people, but I’m a performer, and that need to perform has driven so much of my growth as an artist. You don’t need this drive to do improv, but it is part of my drive, and I encourage you to reflect on how important performing is to your improv journey. Performing is essential for me, and that’s why I think it’s important to get over. How are you going to get over if you’re not doing a show?
So what does getting over mean to me now?
You know, the deeper I’ve gone into this art form, the more parallels I see with pro wrestling.
In pro wrestling, a proven way to get over is by having a veteran talent put you over, meaning they lose to you in a competitive match.
Beating an established star gives you the rub and you can startup getting some heat for a push, a concerted and intentional effort to build your brand and make you a superstar.
And you see it all the time too. The veterans help the next crop of stars by putting them over.
And I feel – and I have always felt – thar’s how it should be in improv. The veterans help put over the next generation by doing shows with them, training with them, sharing their knowledge, and doing whatever they can to build the next generation.
Yes, you should still focus on getting yourself over as in meaning never stop growing, taking risks, and challenging yourself as a performer. BUT also put over others wherever you can and however you can.
We serve the art as much as we serve as ourselves, and we owe it to the art – to its perpetuation, growth, and evolution – to share what we know with those who want to learn.
So, last question: am I over? Yes and no. I’ll always be over as long as I keep working hard to stay over; to stay committed to my craft by pushing myself to never stop learning and growing, and helping out whoever I can along the way.
May you get over and help put others over whenever you can.
Man, today I had a very special guest. Literally, one of my favorite people in the whole world – David Escobedo, global improviser. Also, this was my first international podcast as David is in England!
Me and David go a ways back since we were both producers for Spectacles Improv Engine, a now defunct theater in Orange County, CA, USA. David and I produced a show called Ladies and Gentlemen, and ever since then I’ve been in awe of the guy.
David is simply amazing. David is on the front lines of the global improv movement. He’s connecting with improvisers from all over the world, connecting with them and collaborating with them, discovering new ways to play and work with another.
His Facebook page, The Improv Boost, is one of the most active and visited Facebook pages for improvisers across the world. David is a community builder, and The Improv Boost is proof of that.
In this podcast, we talk about his improv journey, his recent experiences in the UK Improv Scene, his most recent insights and revelations, and much more.
Here’s What We Talked About
Why it’s nice to have your name pronounced correctly
The Mexican Food in England and where the good spots are
David’s experience as a Mexican-American man from San Diego in England
How there is a lack of awareness of Mexican culture in England, and how this ignorance causes people in the UK to celebrate Mexican culture with the things they know about it, which unfortunately are stereotypes, and how David has to educate people about his culture
David’s journey to becoming a global improviser
How David walking away from a theater that did not give him back the love he was pouring into it may have been one of the best things he’s ever done
Why he started The Improv Boost, and that by starting The Improv Boost he has transcended whatever box or finite boundaries a singular improv theater may have wanted to confine him to
Powerful quote: “When they mean family, they mean kingdom.” – Me, reflecting on David’s idea of theaters weaponizing the idea of family to keep students in line.
David’s experience in arriving to the England Improv Scene and how it was five years behind the American Scene in terms of some of the community standards of holding people accountable and dealing with toxic leaders and their “petty empires.”
Powerful quote: “It’s so important for people to realize that their journey in improv is not as someone’s student, but as their own journey in improv.” – David talking about why it’s important for people to study with a lot of people and focus on their development as an improviser, not as a disciple of a specific teacher or identifying with a certain community
David’s encounter with tribalism in the UK Improv Scene and how he combatted it
How the sense of classicism is different in England and how that affects how improv teams and communities develop
David leading by example in England and showing other groups how they can work together to elevate each other
How the British Improv Scene is developing independent of influence from the American Scene
How the Keith Johnstone school of improv is more prevalent in England and how that’s influenced the style over there
How David’s experience in England has opened up his eyes to new ways to doing improv
Individuality vs. Dividuality = Western culture vs Eastern culture
Dividuality – your actions affect a larger community
“Status is expressed how we treat other people” – David Escobedo
You can’t learn to be more creative; you’re just as creative as you are. But you can unlearn to be uncreative – David echoing Keith Johnstone
How people seek gurus but how they should be their own leader
Some of the turnoffs David experienced while studying at some of the big LA improv schools
How David to learn improv on his own, and reflecting on how he could create space for others
The pitfalls of teaching, coaching, and directing
The kind of teachers you should avoid at all costs
The relationship between skills and community, and how Gurus sell one more than the other but how you have to have both
How the UK improv scene is beginning to have conversations about boundaries as being inspired by the Me Too movement that happened in the US and forced improv theaters to have conversations about sexual harassment and create policies to combat it and create safe and inclusive spaces
Key quote – “You can have vulnerability without having boundaries” – Brené Brown
How England’s long history and tradition creates a conservative environment that makes it hard to have open and direct conversations about difficult topics like sexism and racism
Key quote – “Allow yourself to suck at something new…in the risk is where the genius happens” – David Escobedo
How Americans have to have more humility about our improv and how we relate to the global improv scene
David’s overall experience in the UK, how it is being an American in the UK and having to explain America’s politics to UK folk, and the next parts of his journey
It was awesome having David on the show, and I can’t wait to see where his journey takes him. Thank you for being on the show, brother!
Here are some of the different Facebook pages David mentioned at the end of the show. Check them out!
The Art of Yes – [From the Facebook Page] “Welcome to The Art of Yes! Our goal is to inspire others, share knowledge, and provide a forum for asking questions about improvisational theater (otherwise known as improv). All posts will be moderated, and we kindly ask you to refrain from advertising any shows or local events. We encourage you to invite friends, family, coworkers, basically anyone who is or may be interested in improv, to join the community. Hope you enjoy reading the Art of Yes as much as we enjoy creating it!”
Today Improv – [From the Facebook Page] “Today Improv is a Los Angeles based company teaching improv for actors, improv for business and improv for everyone else. Change your life”
Improv MKE[From their website] – “What if you opened an improv theater and school that brought teachers from all over the country and the world who can teach others some of the things you’ve learned over the years and continue to learn yourself? That’s what Improv MKE LLC is all about! The organization is designed to create access, both in-person and online, for people to have fun, learn, grow, and play together in ways they never thought possible! Thanks for coming by. We hope you stay to play with us. YES AND, we also do corporate stuff! Entertainment, workshops, and custom-created programs and training are available! We do it ALL!! Mainly because Michelle is no longer a baby, and has a team.”
The Black Improv Alliance – [From the Facebook Page] “The Black Improv Alliance provides a space for improvisers of African descent to build worlds and tell their authentic stories unapologetically! We are committed to dismantling white supremacy in improv, one scene at a time.”