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Challenge yourself to fail.

March 30, 2015

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now, and ironically, the reason I haven’t is because I want it to be perfect. I’m disobeying the damned title of the post! So here, finally, we go.

There is something that has happened so often in my time improvising, or that I’ve heard so often, that I’ve come to think that if there is one true rule of improv, it is this: Fail big! I’ll give some examples.


1) At the most recent SFIT Dust-up on closing night, I was fortunate enough to be grouped with Mike Christensen, Kate Jaeger, and Mike Murphy of Jet City Improv (Seattle); Joel Dale of Improsia (Seattle); and Antonella Serra and Enzo Zammuto of B-Teatro Boxeattori (Turin, Italy). For the SFIT Dust-up, each group has a bit over ten minutes to decide on a format before performing. Kate said that she wanted to do a set in which we spoke in whatever language we wished, especially for the Italian performers to be allowed to perform in Italian. We wound up speaking five different languages (if dialects count as languages) over the course of 12 minutes: English, Italian, French, Klingon, and Boomhauer Mushmouth. And it was a blast.

Mike Christensen, Enzo Zammuto, and Kate Jaeger (photo by Todd Gardiner)

Mike Christensen, Enzo Zammuto, and Kate Jaeger (photo by Todd Gardiner)

By far my favorite part was the final scene. In the wings just before they went on, Enzo nudge Kate and whispered, “Me English, you Italian.” And out they went. Enzo spoke nothing but English and Kate spoke nothing but Italian. And… IT. WAS. AWESOME. I could describe the scene, but are descriptions of past improv scenes ever truly satisfying? Trust that it was incredible. I mean, just look at that picture (for more of Todd’s amazing pix, go here).


On the way out of the theater after the show, I said to Kate how happy I was that she’d suggested the format. She commented that it was the most scared she’d been doing improv in years. And we both looked each other with huge grins on our faces and asked each other something along the lines of, “How awesome is that?!”

I hope you, reading this, know Kate. But if you don’t, know this: she’s a Seattle treasure. An awesome human being, an award-winning actress, a brilliant singer, and one of the best improvisers in town. She’s not someone you would think of being afraid on stage. And yet… having had that moment doing improv made her positively giddy talking about it afterward.

2) This one’s shorter, I promise. Ian Schempp? Know him? Awesome improviser, great improv teacher. Had him for a long-form essentials class a few years back. The single thing I remember best about that class? He said (and I may be paraphrasing), “I’d rather do a terrible show than a mediocre one. Because if it was terrible, it meant I was trying something. If it was mediocre, I was just playing it safe.”

Hell, yeah.

"The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan"

“The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan”

3) A couple years back, Joe Koenen directed “The Adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan.” An improvised light operetta. When auditions were announced, I thought, “That sounds terrifying.” And then thought, “Well, that means I should audition.” And I did. And got cast. And made the promise to myself every rehearsal to fuck up as big as I possibly could. Sing a patter song as fast as possible. Set up really difficult rhymes. While dancing. Et cetera. And others were doing the same. Almost every rehearsal, we did a patter circle. And in almost every patter circle, at least once the chorus was “La la la la, la la la la, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.” Because we’d gone big and failed. And it was the most fun I’ve had in any improv rehearsal process. And the run was an absolute gas. AND we all gained improv levels during that process at an absurd clip.

My biggest regret about that show was when we revived it for festivals in Honolulu and Seattle. I felt like I’d gotten to a certain level, and owed it to the audience to hit that level in shows. So I played much, much safer than I did in the original run. And while I thought others in the cast did awesome work in those festival shows, I’m still angry at myself for striving for “good enough” instead of “terrifying.”


I could cite example after example of cases in which I’ve seen improvisers shoot for something bigger than they thought they could do, and it didn’t matter whether they reached it or not. One of the many beauties of improv is that failures, at least if they’re on a grand enough scale, are delightful. Failures, to use improv nomenclature, are offers. Brilliant offers. AND they teach us and make us better at our craft?! They’re like snake oil that actually works.

Trust me on this. Want to get better? Challenge yourself to fail. Feeling like you’re in a rut? Oh my fucking god, PLEASE challenge yourself to fail. Try to speak too fast, to make up iambic pentameter, to play characters that no right-minded director would ever cast you in. Do it, do it, do it.

Fail big.

Five Do’s

March 22, 2015

A few days ago, a fellow improviser shared five improv tips in a private Facebook group that he’d seen posted elsewhere on Facebook. All of the tips made sense to me, but every single one of them was of the “Don’t” variety. Among the many things I took from Mick Napier’s excellent book, “Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out,” was that rules can really stifle improvisers, get them stuck in their heads while playing. And so, so very many of improv’s “rules” are of the “Don’t” variety: don’t ask questions, don’t do transaction scenes, don’t say no. Consequently, it’s really easy when one does do one of these things (as is inevitable, really), it’s all too easy to start being up on oneself: “Oh, shit. I shouldn’t have done that.” And then one’s head is pulled out of the scene. BAD!

Do’s, however, I think are more helpful. Because if one isn’t actually doing a “Do,” the thought doesn’t arise of having broken a rule. A do, just like a don’t, isn’t something that is happening all the time. When a don’t happens, it pulls up the negative internal critic, which tends to hang around for a while. When a do happens, it might pull up a “Woo! Kick ass!” which only makes us want to do more. So. A few do’s I posted in that group that I’ll share here (in slightly edited form):

1) Do care. It doesn’t matter if your emotion toward something is positive or negative, but it does matter that you feel something. Especially if it’s about the other character(s).

2) Do be willing to have your feelings change, if it’s honest within the context of the scene.

3) Do be specific. People talk about stuff in their lives, and they do it specifically. “I could really use a margarita” is better than “I’m thirsty.”

4) Do start from the middle of a scene. “Hell, no, I won’t give you a divorce!” is a more interesting way to start a scene than discovering over the course of three minutes that you’re married and your wife is unhappy. Jump right to it. It’s a huge gift to your scene partner(s).

5) Do look each other in the eye. You might be surprised what you find there.

A few improv posts

August 25, 2014

Not sure why I didn’t just cross-post both here and at Around the Block when I started posting there. And I’m not posting there all that much, honestly. But here are links to a few improv posts I made there this year. Two of them include improv exercises.

Jan. 26: Why Improv? Because Everything Matters (exercise: Godot)

Feb. 4: Use Badprov to Make Goodprov (exercise: Badprov)

Jul. 7: I’ve Seen a Lot of Ass Cracks (no exercise, but bonus video from SNL)

And here are a few other posts I like from Seattle improvisers:

Give a Damn by Elicia Wickstead

What We Talk About When We Talk About Questions by Chris Allen (note: this link goes to his general blog, so something else may have bumped to the top of the page if clicked later down the road)

Rehearsal Diary – 08.18.2014 by Ian Schempp

3 Thoughts on Robin Williams by Jet City Improv cast members

So there ya go: a little improv reading. Enjoy!


June 6, 2014

Because of the 70th anniversary of D-Day today, and events in Seattle yesterday, heroes are much on my mind. Two, specifically.

Grandpa Accola

Grandpa Accola

My grandfather, Carl Accola, has been my hero all of my life. The heroism for which he’s most noted, his service in World War II, is inspiring, but what always made him my hero was his great kindness. The way he has always conducted himself in his daily life has served as an inspiration to me from as early as I can remember. The lasting images I will always carry of him are the way he and my grandmother held hands everywhere they walked, the condensation on his one evening bourbon lowball as I sat on his lap watching the Cubs, the serious consideration he gives any question, and the wrinkles around his eyes as he smiles and laughs.

In WWII, he served in the Navy. On D-Day, his job was to scuttle his ship to be part of a breakwater to ease the landing of troops on the beach at Normandy. Afterward, he and the crew lived on the deck of their ship, just above the surface of the water, and took on board the wounded until they could be medevacked out to hospitals.

Later in the war, he served in the Pacific Theater, helping to secure Japan after the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

I can’t begin to summarize how proud I am to be his grandson, and how much I look forward to celebrating his 100th birthday with him in Williamsburg in August.

Jon Meis

Jon Meis

On a heavier note, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jon Meis today. I’d be completely unaware of his existence were it not for his actions yesterday, which put to an end a mass shooting on the campus of Seattle Pacific University. Jon served as a student monitor in Otto Miller Hall. When a shooter (whose name I refuse to repeat, and am doing my best to forget I ever read) stopped to reload, Jon pepper sprayed him, tackled him, and, with the help of other students, held him down until police arrived. At the end of the attack, one was dead, and three were injured. Were it not for Jon, that number could have been far greater.

Since the attack, Jon has not accepted interviews, and has requested of his friends that they not speak to the press, either. And, while this may be due to shock, it strikes me more as the same kind of humility my grandfather has always had. And maybe it’s intrusive to continue the trend I’m seeing in the media and social networking to write more about him, but I hope he’ll understand that perhaps this is the best thing we can do right now. I’m so grateful to see that, at least so far, this shooting seems a little different, in that far more attention is being paid to the hero than to the shooter.

I don’t want to get too deeply into politics here, because it feels as if nothing is ever going to change with regards to gun policy or mental health administration or media sensationalism. But maybe, just maybe, we individually can make a change. We can choose to spend more time focusing on the heroes and the victims, and to turn away from endless coverage of the people who necessitated that heroes emerge and that victims be mourned. Perhaps, if we change the stations of our televisions and radios, if we don’t click through on links about the killers… if we make it unprofitable for the media to spend so much time on the villains, there will be less villains. Certainly, there will still be murders, but maybe delusions of grandeur will have to find outlets that don’t result in bloodshed.

Or maybe not. But today at least, I choose gratitude over anger. Thank you so much, Grandpa. Thank you so much, Jon.

Hope to be around more this year

January 26, 2014

Last year was just a crazy busy year for me: three long-form shows, ComedySportz, playwrighting for 14/48, a new job, lots of travel, and just life in general. Hoping to get back in the habit of writing again this year.

To that end, new improv blog post at Around the Block: Why Improv? Because Everything Matters.

Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow

August 7, 2012

More and more, I’m realizing that I’m too damned concerned with what people are going to think of various posts, how well-written they are, whether they agree with them, blah blah fucking Kristen Kosmas blah, which is ridiculous/hilarious/sad, since a) this was supposed to be a space to figure some shit out, and b) not that many people read it, so just relax already. And, if perchance, I am drawn as one of the playwrights for 14/48 Kamikaze two days hence, I’m going to have to get way the hell over it or turn in blank pages.


I have a lot of things I’m thinking about lately. Too many to condense into one post. And, at this very, very specific moment, I don’t have time to write up any one of them, even all stream-of-consciousness (which I’m beginning to think is the way to go). But! There’s this song. That I don’t hear very often. And every time I hear it, I think, “I have to remember the title of this fucking song so that I can listen to it whenever I want to.” And it just came on Pandora. Rather than relying on my sieve-brain to remember it, I’m just going to post one of its YouTube iterations, and then I can come back to it for always. (And shut up, whippersnappers; I already know all your youthful brains have memorized every word and know all the fingering, etc. I seriously forget the title minutes after hearing it. Every damned time.)

Could I torture some relation between this song and any of the cornucopia of topics in my head? Probably. But I’d rather just listen to this song, because it spanks me.

Oh, also. Go, for Christ’s sake, go read #TheTwitterIssue of FRiGG. I personally don’t really get Twitter, but reading this issue, I sort of start to get it (reading #WhatIsThis? certainly helped). And this issue does, in fact, relate back quite well to the numero uno topic on my mind. Which I’ll get to. Or not. But I hope I do.

Okay. Shutting up and listening now. Keep walking and running and running for miles.

Improv blog roundup

August 1, 2012

Cattle Drive

If blogs were cows, this would be the perfect image for this post. Instead, it just sort of makes me want a Marlboro.

Well, I’ve been sitting here trying to think about what I want to blog about, and it feels like there are just too damned many things, and my thoughts are all over the place. So instead, I’m going to link to some posts by other improvisers that are badass (both the posts and the improvisers are badass, in case you were wondering to which subject that adjective should be attached). Some of these badass people I’ll be seeing tomorrow night, as we have sort of an improv blog summit. I don’t know what’s in the water in Seattle lately, but it seems that a fair number of people are strapping their improv nerd hats on more tightly. And that’s completely awesome. So… here are some recent posts about improv from badass people who have been at it far longer than I. I’m devouring everything they post. My bet is you will, too. (Until I know whether or not people are cool with being identified by name, I’ll only post the titles of their blogs.) Here ya go:

Still Not Elicia. This, in many ways, is what got the blog summit rolling. There was a post by a San Francisco improviser that numerous Seattle folk weighed in on, mostly in the comments. This was the one blog post that was directly spawned by it, though. A Touchy Subject is the most recent post, and deals with physicality (my favorite!) on stage.

Seattle Comedy Nerd. As inspiration for this blog, the author is using the Tao Te Ching. The first such post, The Tao of Improv: Better to stop pouring is up today, and it’s an excellent read.

The Unexpected Blog. The official(?) blog of Unexpected Productions. It looks like at least some posts from Still Not Elicia will be cross-posted there, but there’s also content by at least one other company member. Silence!–How Shutting Up Can Make You a Better Improviser is one such post, and is a good one, especially on a topic that probably scares the shit out of a lot of improvisers.

Tony Beeman. Clearly not shy about his identity. His first post is Quotes from Non-Improvisers That Apply To Improv, which is a great jumping off point to start other posts. In fact, one post on Seattle Comedy Nerd was inspired by a comment about this post right here.

And that’s it for now. Hopefully, I’ll soon be contributing more to the discussion than just oohs and aahs. And the obligatory plug: I’ll be performing at ComedySportz Friday and Saturday nights at 10:30. 2-for-1 tickets available for pre-purchase here.


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