One Year at iO West
September 19, 2011 Leave a comment
A look back at how I’ve changed as an improv performer in the past year of taking classes and performing at iO West in Los Angeles. This is real shop-talky and probably won’t interest people outside the trade. Or inside the trade.
One year ago today I took my first professional improv class at iO West in Hollywood, after a few years of doing it in college. I thought it would be good to look back at some of the ways I’ve changed as a performer during that time.
In the past year I graduated from the iO West training program, where I trained under brilliant improv minds like David Razowsky, Seth Weitberg, Shulie Cowen, Craig Cackowski, Brandon Sornberger, Bridget Kloss, and Annie Kouris Hoff. For about two months during Level 1 and 2 I was on a student cagematch team called Here To Make Friends. We didn’t make any friends, because no one makes any friends during cagematches, but we did meet several people whom we would later befriend while doing shows as Local Wizard. Formed out of the ashes of HTMF, Local Wizard lucked out to get Seth Weitberg as a coach and performed all over the iO West DCT and Loft, including during the LA Improv Comedy Festival in June. I interned at iO from January through July and did the Lottery in April, getting to know the iO community in the process. I participated in two improv tournaments and got knocked out by the eventual overall winner in the first round: the United States of Improv Tournament in April and the Duo Tournament in August. At the end of June I auditioned for the iO Harold teams and was lucky to get placed on the mainstage team Natural 20, coached by Annie Kouris Hoff, and I formed another Harold team with my audition group, called Mystery Box (a reference to the Harold opening we did at our audition, which was in turn inspired by Cackowski’s generous suggestion of “curiosity”). I have also sat in with a number of other teams, including my Level 7 team McAllister, musical improv group Sister Wives, Triage, Ranger Kamp, and Voss/Zima. I participated in the storytelling event True Story and staged a live reading of my spec script for “Community.” And at the Del Close Awards I was given the distinction of Student of the Year, which was nice.
After a year I’m still mostly the same improviser. I still make the same kinds of moves to get laughs, often by clarifying or explicitly calling out context: “I’m a teenager. I’m so over this.” During really bad shows, I’ll still go brain-dead and completely check out of a show, though I suppose that doesn’t happen as often. When it comes to object work, I’ll usually give myself something to fidget with early on, just to eventually set it down, sit in a chair and argue, like before. I also still lean towards playing children. Because I’m like, 12 years old.
In other ways I have changed a great deal. Improv isn’t the adrenaline rush it once was for me. In college we used to walk off the stage high-fiving each other, as if a good scene was a first down. Now, completing a good improv show feels like not throwing up from being drunk: “Okay, I’m working up my tolerance to this stuff. Let’s do another round.” The high from a good show doesn’t last longer than an hour or two, though luckily the stink of a bad show fades away just as quickly.
Being able to see an amazing improv show any night of the week has left me with the sobering thought on several occasions: “Hm, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.” On the plus side, the fact that the greatest performers seem so out of reach makes any notion of competition irrelevant. No one’s trying to be the best, they’re just trying to do good work, and to be the best versions of themselves.
Most interestingly, I’ve noticed lately that the most satisfying reactions I’ve gotten from audiences come from big, emotional reactions and simple, honest responses to my scene partner. In all of these instances, there was nothing particularly funny about the moment, and I’m still trying to figure out why the audience laughed.
In general, just getting a year’s worth of reps in a healthy learning environment has made me more comfortable in scenes and shows. And I feel like I have a much better understanding of what makes a great scene, a great improviser, a great show, a great Harold, a great team, and a great improv community.
It has been an exhilarating year and I’m looking forward to many more.