The Improv Life: What I Learned About Editing from Rich Sohn
I studied with Rich Sohn online this past year for his Pack Theater Level 2 improv class.
It’s a 4-week session, but you get a lot, and you get a close look at Rich’s improv philosophy, shaped by his years studying, performing, and teaching improv in Chicago, the mecca of our art form.
I liked the class so much I took it twice. And I want to take it a third time. I’m at a point in my journey where Rich’s philosophy and teaching style vibes with me well.
I learned a lot, but I learned about the importance of editing. Scene edits are the invisible fabric of a good show. A good scene depends on how well it’s edited. If you have enough good scenes stringed together, you got yourself a show you can hang your hat on at the end of it.
Pop quiz hot shot: you’re on the sidelines and your team is dying on stage, begging to be edited, but you don’t have an idea for a new scene – what do you do?
You get your teammates the hell out of there, and you trust yourself and your new teammate on stage to make a new scene and figure it out from there. Getting your teammates out of danger is more important than having some hot shot idea for an amazing scene.
A scene that goes on too long is risky. It affects the energy of the overall show. Teammates get insecure, feeling like their sinking in quicksand and being abandoned by their teammates, and the audience is weirded out by uncomfortable scenes that seemingly never end but feel like they should. Good editing solves all these problems and increases the likelihood of good scenes and good shows.
Basically, good editing saves the day.
Knowing how to edit is one of the most important skills an improviser could ever develop. This under appreciated ability can be one of the difference makers between an amazing, out-of-this-world show and a “Meh” show that leaves everyone feeling weird afterwards.
Thank you, Rich. Because of you, I know the importance and power of editing (and how to do it). I encourage all of you to go study with Rich Sohn ASAP.
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.
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.
Wassup! It’s Episode 3 of The Improv Life with guest Winston Carter!
Winston is a cool dude! I’ve known Winston for a few years now, but I’ve never had a deep conversation with him until this podcast.
The way Winston put it was “I’m leaving the bodega as you’re entering it.” Meaning, as he’s leaving one show, I’m arriving to the next one, which is how it is. However, I’ve been lucky to see Winston perform a few times, so I know a little about him. It was cool to finally sit down with this neighbor and get to know him.
Honestly, I had a great time talking to Winston and I felt like I made a cool new friend. Like yeah, we knew each other before, but now we really know each other. Check out this episode!
Here’s What Winston and I Talked About
How “The Winston Carter Murder Myster Follies” was born and got its name
How Winston Carter and Dominque Johnson became friends by being put on the same UCB Mess Hall Team
How getting on a Mess Hall team was validation for him
His experience of coming up through the UCB ranks and being part of that community for the past 10 years
Being part of the Improv “Heyday” in LA
The Harold and Mess Hall Team audition process at UCB
Winston’s Amazing Journey Doing Improv in LA – Listen Now!
(A pic from my most recent Moonshot show. Pic by Jasper Sams.)
I had the pleasure of teaching the drop-in class for Spectacles Improv Engine in Fullerton, CA on Friday 02/16/19. The following is a summary of what happened, what I learned, and with some shout outs in the end. Enjoy!
Why I Love Emotional Intelligence
Thanks to everyone who came to the drop-in focused on Emotional Intelligence! I’ll try to do a quick debrief here for the people who missed it but were interested in the workshop.
Basically, Emotional Intelligence (EI) is our ability to read another person’s emotional state while being aware of our own, and then responding and adjusting accordingly. There are better definitions out there, and this is one I made up specifically to be used for improv scenes.
EI is something we use every day in how we interact with each other and how we manage the relationships that are important to us. It’s a term you see used a lot in books and articles about corporate leadership and team work (stuff I love to read).
I realized that years of doing improv made me pretty good at reading people’s emotions and reacting to them in a way that wasn’t trying to change them or judge them, but to just accept them as they are and continue to interact from there.
Once I realized that connection — my love for studying EI and all the years of doing improv cultivating this skill in me — I decided that it would be something cool to teach, at least to try to teach!
We did some exercises that were focused on people reading each other’s emotions while having an interaction.
For example, we did one-line dinner scenes where every person could only say one line at a time and could only respond to the thing that was just said. Every line should impact you, stimulate your response, and from that interaction, we could figure out the dynamic of a relationship.
I side coached a lot to get people to not miss any big pieces of information that were dropped suddenly in the scene. I did it not because I was trying to steer the scene in a certain direction. Rather, I did it so that students learn to become aware of not letting any big piece of information go unnoticed — basically to learn to say “That’s interesting,” and explore from there, or call “Bullshit” and push the topic further if you’re watching Dingleberries play (every Monday night at the Pack Theater at 10:00pm).
At the end, I asked each participant what they could tell me about the other interaction based on how they experienced the scene. People came out with some deep awareness of the characters they were playing off of! We then reflected that you can create an interesting scene just by going one line at a time and constantly reading each other! It was a great day for learning!
Thank You & Shout Outs
A lot of this awareness of playing emotional while being aware and in response to my scene partner came from years of Specs training from Matthew Thomas, Samuel Forbes, Joey Shope, and Josh Nicols.
I know I would not be the improviser I am today without the dozens of drop-ins I did with these guys over the years — thank you.
In fact, you can catch the very last Specs drop-in Josh Nicols is teaching this Friday 02/22/19 from 12pm-2pm at Stages Theater. If you haven’t been to a drop-in in a while, you should check it out. If you have never studied with Josh before, this is your chance to see why he’s so great. Just come and experience it for yourself. Thanks for everything, Josh!
Also, there are shows happening at Specs tonight from 9pm to 11pm, and shows next weekend as well with the premier of IFL Season 5! I highly implore you to check it out! Also, I’ll let you all know when I’m teaching a drop-in again! Have a great Saturday!