Thursday, December 19, 2013

David Shepherd's Three Things I Learned Coaching

This is an excerpt from a coach’s handbook David Shepherd put together in 1982, when he was producing the Improv Olympics with Charna Haplern in Chicago.   His suggestions are still relevant to today’s improv scene.

Players need your encouragement to assume a full and active role in team play.  How can you help?  As players arrive to practice, ask them what situation and what character they want to play.  Each player should know not only what she/he wants, but also what teammates expect.  Base the session on those needs.  FOR INSTANCE:  One night a player came in with the humiliation of being sold a fake 19” color TV set for $98.  We used this experience as a base for a Work Put event (to show the street corner con), Silent Wrestling event (the 2 minutes after she tells her husband) a Song event, and Moral Lift  event (team explains the meaning of what it’s done in the preceding events).  After an hour of play the player felt better because she now understood why she allowed herself to be cheated.

The brains of those who are not playing often go to sleep -- because of anxiety or excitement.  CURE:  Ask every player off-stage to choose both a sound effect and a “cross over” role to support the main section.  For instance, suppose the audience wants to send two lovers in a Space Jump event into “high grass under a harvest moon.”  Then each of the other ten players will be ready with the sound of a cricket, while thinking “what role can I play to enrich this improv?  Does it need me to be a big sister, a mother, the man’s last lover, a dog, a cat, the woman’s neighbor, etc.?”  Players doing “cross overs” do not stay on stage to monopolize the scene.  They add an appropriate note and leave.

God Squad at the Chicago Improv Olympics

Practical Women at the Chicago Improv Olympics

Improvisations succeed on their feet, die sitting down.  How to keep players moving?  Never stop creating and relating to imaginary objects so the environment becomes real.  Find a mutual focus (like a fly in the soup), and then “go to the walls,” expand the “where,” to find the things in the environment that can enrich the improvisation.  SIDE COACH: i.e. to make suggestions during the improvisations. Example: “Go in…find a focus…do it together…find more details…good…now go to the walls...find something in the outer environment, both of you…good…now go in again…”  Make sure your players are using all five senses to explore.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Responsive Scene by Michael Golding

The odyssey of an audience-participation format that started on stage, evolved into a radio show, then found new life in the classroom as both.

In the Beginning - Responsive Scene on Stage

Howard Jerome Gomberg (cast member):
Responsive Scene began in 1971 as a stage show  entitled “Show of 1,000 Dreams” at 13 West 89th Street.  The format we used was called a “Vertical Soap Opera.”  On stage we created an apartment complex, with different people (gay couple, blue collar worker, etc.) in various units. Throughout the course of the show, we would visit them at different times:  “Now we go to apartment 3B. A married man was out all night and has just come home to his wife.”  Then we would play that scene.

First time I remember an audience member becoming part of the show was when we were exploring the theme of eviction.  In the scene, the landlord started coming on to the tenant.  An audience member suddenly yelled out “I want to be in this scene as a cop.”  So, he came on stage and we played that scene, which became about flushing things out.

Responsive Scene at the Manhattan Theatre Club, 1971. Members of the audience move into a scenario they suggested; “Turning on.” First a cop, then his captain and finally the chief of the police force.

David Shepherd (producer, director, cast member): 
I envisioned stage action that was an intimate part of the spectators’ impulses, desires and satisfaction. At COMPASS, audience suggestions were encapsulated in one sentence: “Do something about mercy killing.” Now I wanted the audience to ride the improv beat to beat until it ended.  We even had a direction: FIND AN ENDING.  I felt emotion was adulterated or phony on stage: hence the MORE EMOTION direction.  Games were designed that would plunge players into a bed of characters. Emphasizing differences of pace and volume. Use of sound effects.

Peter Waldron & Lynn Bernfield act out the suggestions of residents at the Coronet  Nursing Home in Brooklyn, 1972 . They asked to see a young, hip couple get married, have children (quadruplets) and set up a kosher home. They directed Peter and Lynn moment-to-moment, gave the five children names and found an ending for the scene.

David Shepherd:
When six of my students played the Queens House of Detention, we asked for 20 men to train in the morning.  Because I had such confidence in my students, I didn’t come until after lunch.  By about 1pm there were 60 men in the audience-a third of them familiar with the process.  It was a good tactic since only a few people knew who had been trained; if the inmates balked at a suggestion, one of the trainees popped onto the stage to do it.  The show moved rapidly, with female players cast in scenes with men.

One scene was placed in the front seat of a Buick, where Penny Kurtz rolled down an imaginary window.  The inmate was outraged: “That’s not where the window handle is on a Buick”, he shouted triumphantly. Later a Doctor showed up and was cast in a scene with an inmate.  He was prescribing a giant pill.  When the direction came “Switch Characters,” as an inmate he had to hear how powerful this pill was, how it would cure all his aches and pains, and he had to pantomime swallowing it.  The inmates enjoyed switching characters more than any other direction. 

Responsive Scene at Queens House of Detention, 1971.  Penny Kurtz (left) & Bob Aberdeen (right) train 20 volunteers to run a session that afternoon for 85 inmates.  They asked to see a Prison Doctor and an Inmate, & repeatedly gave the signal "Switch Roles.

Howard Jerome:
At L’Oursin in Southampton I remember a scene we were given to play about selling refrigerators in Hell.  I was doing it with Robin Mide, and it was going down the drain.  Just before it died, we got the direction to Add A New Character.  Robin walked into the audience and took the hand of a woman who was standing there, moving alone since the man she was with didn’t pay attention to her.  Robin replaced me with this woman, after which the scene became less about refrigerators and more about their new friendship, which worked.

It was at L’Oursin that we suffered a “brown out,” which happens just before a power failure.  Can you imagine a stage suffused in brown?  About 8:30pm brown turned to black, and we were preparing to tell people to drive home when customers offered to illuminate the action with beans of light from their cars.  We rolled back enormous doors (L’Oursin had been a boat yard before) and several cars drove up and criss-crossed their beams over the splintery stage area.  This light show was more impressive than our show even, which we picked up again and finished.  We got a long, complementary review from News Day Newspaper.

The Joker nightclub in Rockland Country, 1971. An audience member joins Duncan Fife, Robin Sands & Claire Michaels on the dance floor to play out a wild party.  When we blanketed the improv with the sound of loud dance music, nothing was lost.

Responsive Scene on Radio 

David Shepherd: 
We ended up on radio because Howard Jerome was friendly with Bob Lifton, who was a producer at WRVR-FM.  At the time, the nostalgia bandwagon was bringing back scripted radio theatre.  I felt that listeners should be able to create their own soaps.  So, I pitched Responsive Scene in one sentence: Listening audience creates a dramatic radio show.  The cast fluctuated, because there was always a pool of players to fill slots in any program we devised.  We approached each show without fear because the home audience had been alerted to what we would do.  I learned right off the bat that emotions are doubly important when an improv cannot be seen. We made plenty of mistakes, but the audience lit up our switchboard nightly (ten lines) and we got to feel like an institution. 

Responsive Scene Radio Show 1972. Left to right, Penny Kurtz, David Shepherd, Howard Jerome and Lynne Bernfield.
Michael Golding (caller):
At 14, I was addicted to midnight re-broadcasts of “The Shadow.” Being able to actually “see” a story in my mind was a new and incredible experience for me. Then, one week a commercial for Responsive Scene aired (“You supply the audio, we’ll supply the video.”).  I remember tingling with excitement after hearing the spot. The first time I listened to the show, it was like experiencing true magic.  Amazing that these on-air actors could conjure up an entertaining scene just based on a who, what, where outline.  Finally summoning up the courage to call in a suggestion, Bob Lifton walked me swiftly through the guidelines then put me on hold as I listened to the show over my pounding heart.  Moments later, I was on the air with Howard and immediately he made me feel comfortable. My scene was about a pizza boy delivering a pie to the wrong address – a woman on a diet.  Howard asked if I would like to play the pizza boy and surprisingly, I said yes.  Skills I never trained for before came into play – listening and teamwork.  Two minutes later the scene was over and my self-confidence levels went off the scale.  Afterwards, I called my two best friends, David and Eddie to let them in on my new magical discovery.

Throughout the summer, David, Eddie and I phoned in suggestions every week, alternating between playing and directing.  By the third week, we were “regulars.” We would have story conferences every week and spent many hours visualizing what all the Responsive Scene players looked like. When the show ended its run in the Fall, I remember being devastated.

Bob Aberdeen (cast member):
In six months of calls, we had only one really nasty suggestion from a man so high it was obvious that he was not himself.  A Jamaican woman called in once to object that her husband was romancing a woman the night before, when she came home to the apartment after work. We did that scene. Fifteen minutes later, a man with a Jamaican accent calls to object that his wife doesn’t understand him. He has been counseling his young cousin in his home, with no subterfuge, and his wife barges in and makes a commotion. We did that scene, too.

David Shepherd:
The thing about directing on radio is that (primarily) one person gives all the directions. There’s consistency in the improv because one person feels responsible.  With the stage version, the audience input should be by a cluster of three people who either volunteer or are selected in advance.  I want spectators to stay on top of the scene as it develops, but I don’t want them to be treating players like puppets – unless everybody agrees that comedy and gross humiliation is in order.

Sheldon Biber (cast member):
One week a caller phoned in with the suggestion: Son of a fireman keeps pulling false alarms. Howard Jerome played the fireman and I was the son. The first minute of the scene was riddled with cliches and one-liners. Howard and I were really struggling. Then Penny Kurtz chimed in with the direction: “Play it for real. Because I don’t get the sense that the father is angry or that the son realizes how serious this is.”  Suddenly, the scene had a deeper and richer meaning and it gave me and Sheldon more conflict to play off of.

The Responsive Scene Radio Show with Penny Kurtz & Howard Jerome, 1972.
David Shepherd:
At WRVR, scenes started and ended much more easily than on stage because of Lifton’s array of sound effects. Scenes could be finessed gracefully with a simple drum roll or gong.  Listeners began to phone in scenes with specific cast members in mind.  One memorable scene involved Howard Jerome playing all three bachelors on “The Dating Game.”

Responsive Scene in the Classroom

Michael Golding:
A couple of years ago I was teaching a theatre arts course for the Downtown Business Magnet High School in Los Angeles.  The class was composed of 40 at-risk students.  Due to a plumbing problem, the class was re-scheduled to a smaller space and I couldn’t use my original workshop plan.  So, I decided to give Responsive Scene a shot. 

I presented the format as something everyone participated in – whether they were playing or watching.  It was something THEY were in control of.

The students had already been trained in the basics of improv, so I briefly ran the scene and directing guidelines by them.  I handed out index cards and within minutes we were reading through 40 scene suggestions.  We had time to play 4 of the scenes with the students reluctant to direct at first.  I directed the first scene pretty much by myself, but was sure the students knew how it worked.  During the second scene I would periodically stop the action then ask for suggestions from the class where the scene should go.  By the start of the third scene I asked students by name what they thought should happen.  The rest of the third scene and all of the fourth was directed by the class without any prompting from me.  When the session bell rang, the students were begging for more.

Responsive Scene is a great way for me is to get to know my students better.  I ask that all their scene and character suggestions come from their lives or something based in reality.  It’s also a wonderful device to keep 40 students simultaneously focused for 75 minutes.

For Teachers:  Uses of Responsive Scene

To Explore       Roles
                        Complex issues
                        Problem solving
                        Group creativity

Michael Golding:
With the mock radio show version, I had to exorcise a lot of the base tendencies from my students because you can do a lot of suggestive stuff with just sounds.  Most of the early scene suggestions had to do with sex or some form of humiliation.  So I initiated a rule – any scene I deemed questionable because of its inappropriateness had to be performed by the writer of the scene. That cleaned up the suggestions pretty quickly.

Most volunteers wanted to be the MC.  They had a lot of fun inventing patter – particularly warnings: “We don’t want your sick imaginations, so take them into the bathroom and do your own show in the shower.”  We warmed up a lot on tape – like having a player come up with a half dozen characters, then associate each a sound.

The great thing about the mock radio version is that is provides the students with complete anonymity – whether they’re playing or doing sound effects.

The playback is particularly important afterwards, because it brings the class together as a group and provides a nice closure for the session.  Shy students who are barely heard when they speak in class are loud and clear on tape.  The microphone really is an intimate device.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Interview with Larry Mollin (Homemade Theatre)

Larry Mollin is a TV writer/producer whose credits include “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Renegade” and “Knight Rider.”  Homemade Theatre was the creative partnership of Larry Mollin, Phil Savath, Barry Flatman and Fred Mollin.  During the 70s in Toronto, the quartet had their own fully-funded theatre, and produced “Homemade TV,” a CBC-TV series that ran for three seasons.  In 1974, Homemade Theatre produced the first Improv Olympics in Canada, with professional and amateur leagues. 

This interview was conducted in 2004 by Howard Jerome and Michael Golding, as part of a proposed book on the history of the Improv Olympics.  

Larry:  I think it was probably in 1974 or 1975 we met Howard Jerome and David Shepherd and we put together our version of the Improv Olympics – which was kind of slick, with a score methodism, scoreboard, crowds, teams – the best professional actors we could find in Toronto at the time including Delroy Lindo, who narrowly lost. And I remember some of the events we used were Silent Wrestling, which was a one-two minute event between two people. Two people played on each team. You would pick a situation out of a hat which would say “You just got the news that your mother had been hit by a train.” Some kind of terrible news that was beyond words. So in other words it was a silent scene where you had to communicate in a way what was going on and get your intentions across.

Howard: Was it then about indicating or raping on things?

Larry:  It was emotional and it was played naturalistically, because we were professional actors. We did not get involved in the amateur version. This was not Psycho Drama.  This was purely for paying audiences seeing professional actors.  Theatre companies from all across Toronto put teams up. It was a real prestige event in a sense that everyone wanted to be involved in it. It ran for a few nights until the finals. At the final show we gave a cup, which we called the "Stanley Slotzky Cup.” I believe it’s now sitting in someone’s storage room.  I’m trying to remember some of the other events.

Howard: Well, let me remind you. There’s Emotional Hurdles…

Larry: Right, right. Where you have to jump emotions. Go from like happiness, to sadness, to jealousy, to fear. You were given a course which you had to navigate through in a realistic way.  I’m not sure if there was text there which you had to incorporate.  What else?

Michael: Time Dash – where you go from one time period to another.

Larry; Don’t remember that.

Michael: Space jump – where you go from one location to another.

Larry: No.

Michael: Character Relay – where you switch characters back and forth through the course of the scene.

Larry: That one sounds familiar. I think we would do a scripted scene – like a “Three Sisters” scene and do the rotation that way.

Howard: Was any of this stuff archived, or documented on video?

Larry:  All this stuff was video-taped on that wonderful format – quarter inch reel to reel video. I’m sure the footage exists somewhere. I remember that the audiences really liked what we were doing. It was a big theatre community event. Audiences were excited by the competition – which was all good natured. There really was a good spirit associated with the whole event.   A lot of fun. A lot of good energy from the community.

Michael : How did you train for the Olympics?

Larry. I don’t remember. We were all skilled improv performers. We also all taught at various schools. We knew what we were going for. We just did it.

Michael: How did you come about working with David?

Larry: We didn’t really work with David.  We brought him up to kind of honor him. I remember he came up with Howard. I don’t remember him being involved all that much with what we were doing.  We were all a tight group and were pretty sure of what we were doing. We probably wouldn’t have listened to David anyway.  We were kind of an arrogant bunch. Still true. I believe David did some workshops for our Festival of Improvisation. We did a show also called “Babes In Lottery” – it was part of this festival. We had a crazy Argentinean who did a one man show. Still run into him out here over the last twenty years. He’s a repressed Chilean artist.

Howard: Where would you like to take this Michael?  Because obviously the connection with David was not huge.

Larry; No, it was actually more with you. We flew him up once and paid his expenses and he did a thing for the festival.

Michael: I thought it was interesting that you equated David’s working with amateurs as Psycho Drama.

Larry:  Well, David is a better person than we are.  He cared about people. We cared about acting. He was involved in fixing people and solving their problems through improvisation.  Using improv as a way to loosen blocks and build community. We were a bunch of jokers basically. We were good at what we did. We were talented.  I think we were afraid to use improvisation in a real way because we knew it’s a powerful tool. We didn’t feel qualified I guess. You can hurt people.  I still feel that way. It makes me nervous when people try role-playing. Psycho drama. Very distrustful of that stuff – it’s very dangerous.

Howard: Do you think it’s psychologically dangerous?

Larry: Yeah – you can really hurt people’s psyches. 

Howard: I’m trying to piece this time-line together. The Olympics David and I developed  in New York, at the Space for Innovative Development in ’72, was different from what we did in Toronto in ‘74.

Larry: Well, we refined it. We probably ripped some stuff off of David and he ripped a lot off of us.  These were our events before they were his.

Howard:  So, we brought the idea of the Olympics to Toronto, the who/what/where format and you added a more theatrical component to it.

Larry: That’s exactly correct. We were theatre people. And we wanted to make it an audience-fun event that they could watch and was played by professionals.  Emotional Hurdles, Character Relay – we took these games, gave them form and catchy names.

Howard: Your version of the Olympics was the best example of the format I have ever seen.

Larry: We had great actors.

Michael:  How long did you do the Olympics?

Larry: We were always doing improvisation formats, but I think we did the Olympics just for that one week festival in 1974. But maybe we did a tour that was hosted by Canada – around ‘76 or so.  A touring event for Ontario then working with theatre groups doing improv. I have a vague memory of that.

Michael: Do you still use improvisation today?

Larry:   Sure. I’m basically a writer. There’s a big improv  element to that. Story. Thinking about characters. Stuff like that.  It’s just in my head.

Michael: Do you watch any of the popular forms of improv today?

Larry: Sure. Drew Carrey is doing essentially what we did almost thirty years ago. It’s good. People like it. Larry David’s show is great.

Howard: Have you seen the veritable plethora of improv sketch shows and competitions that are on now? It’s really interesting. They have the Improv Comedy Play-offs. There’s a group of our former Canadian students doing a TV series called Sketch Troupe. They’re springing up all the place.

Michael: Cheap to produce.

Larry:  Sure.  I’m a little skeptical of them. They don’t seem like real improv. Maybe they are.

Howard: That brings up an interesting question. What is real improv?

Larry: What we did was real improv.  Which is kind of dangerous, taking risks. A real sense of failure.  Scary.

Howard: I remember some of the crazy audience formats you did Like “Disaster Land” and the one about the cruise ship.

Larry:  “Holiday Cruise.” It was improv in that the audience was involved. The situation was scripted. There is a great story about opening night for the show. The woman writing the newspaper review panicked because terrorists board the ship at one point. She  gave a terrible review.  But all those shows were improv on a different scale.

Howard:  Which seems to have proceeded the way for other popular audience participation shows. Like “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.”

Larry: Those shows are highly profitable. Since we were all working on grants, we weren’t allowed to make money.

Howard: I still haven’t made money off of improv.

Michael: If you did the Olympic version you did thirty years ago today, would any part of it have to be changed or adapted?

Larry: No.  The format is ageless.  I don’t think anything would have to change.

Michael: Do you remember what the judging criteria was?

Larry: Not sure. I know we had the top Toronto theatre critics as judges.  I think it was all about good acting.  We were all artists. What’s the criteria now?

Michael:  Teamwork, how well the theme was explored. Feeling. Character and space work.

Larry: That sounds like what we were probably scoring on.

Howard: There seems to be a shift in improv over the years from structured forms to more free form styles.

Larry: I’ll agree with that.  To me improv is where you have two people on stage interacting with each other. It’s as simple as that.

Video of Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics - Professional League

Video of Homemade Theatre's Improv Olympics - Amateur League

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Workshop Memories by Michael Golding

When it comes to teaching improv, I’ve been fortunate that the majority of my gigs have been working for colleges and theatre companies, where all I have to do is show up and do my thing.  I admire my peers who have forged out a living being on the road conducting workshops and attending festivals.

While I’ve had my share of independent workshops, financially, more often than not, I was lucky to break even.  I’ve never regretted doing those workshops, because of the personal and artistic rewards.  Two independent workshops come to mind.

In New York, several months after I moved on from the Comic Strip Improv Group, I was jonzing for a creative outlet.  So, I started a summer workshop in the village at a loft space on Bleecker Street, above the Bitter End nightclub.  While I was the main facilitator, the workshop was designed for experienced improvisers to bring in their own games and take turns leading.  We always started with a group warm-up, followed by a few skills games, two person scenes, group scenes and a closure exercise.  Frequently, someone would come in with an idea for “an experiment” and the entire session would be devoted to that; such as the time where we started with an animal character exercise, which morphed into a thirty minute cocktail party as our animal characters, followed by scenes which explored what happened before and after the party.

Site of the village workshop.
The best part about the village sessions was after the workshop, when we would hit the diner across the street and go over what we accomplished.  Those discussions would go on for hours. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  David Shepherd played regularly; as did some of the members from my old Comic Strip group, and Janet Coleman (author of The Compass) joined us for a memorable session where the two of us played a couple whose relationship was explored over the years solely through the activity of washing dishes. 

The second one took place in Los Angeles, and was responsible for my renewed interest in improv.   At the time, my improv activity had dwindled and I was spending more time focusing on my career as a writer.  My last teaching gig had been a successful semester at Los Angeles City College, but a transit strike a month into my second class abruptly ended the course, followed by budget cuts which ended my association with the college.  I was a little resentful over that.  The Canadian Improv Games had recently dragged me back into the fold after a decade’s absence, but that was a once a year shot conducting workshops at their national festival.

A new acting school called the Theatre Academy opened in North Hollywood, and I was hired to conduct an eight week improv course, meeting on Friday evenings.  Unfortunately, unforeseen complications prevented the administrators of the school from doing a thorough marketing job, and by the time my course was to begin, no students had signed up.

Since the space was available, the administrators allowed me to use it as I saw fit, reasoning that perhaps it would develop interest in a future class.  I decided to invite Team Hollywood, my cycling club, to participate, using my usual format of warm-ups, games, formats and closure exercises.  With the exception of a few who had friendships outside of the club, most of us only saw each other once or twice a week in spandex. Only two had a performance background.  The backgrounds of the cyclists in Team Hollywood was diverse; sound engineer, grip, line producer, accountant, physical therapist, notary, airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, nurse, graphic artist, teacher, truck driver, counselor, police officer.  One of the members of our club frequently said “If it wasn’t for cycling, none of us would be friends, considering how diverse our backgrounds are.” 

Team Hollywood.
Eight to ten members attended the sessions on a regular basis and from the first workshop, they all came off as experienced improvisers.  Perhaps it was because we already had a familiarity with each other, or we were just thrilled to see each other in civilian clothes.  Regardless, they took to the games with complete abandon.  After the first session, the wife of the president of Team Hollywood told me “I can’t even get him to play Charades at parties. Now, he can’t stop talking about your workshop.”

In-jokes were a big part of our sessions, and frequently characters were based on people we all knew.  The workshop atmosphere was relaxed and casual, more so than others I’ve conducted with professionals.  After the sessions, we would adjourn to Pitfire Pizza nearby for a late dinner, and revel in what we had just accomplished.

We all got to see facets of each other we’ve never seen before – and I was impressed by how open and honest we were in the workshops.  When a friend of mine, who is a professional improviser, came in as a guest, I paired him up with a member who I knew was plagued with anxiety issues.  At first, she didn’t want to participate and admitted she was intimated and anxious at the prospect of playing with him.  So, we decided to make the scene about a first date – which involved anxiety and intimidation.  During the course of the scene, the date turned into a status power play, ending with the woman rolling my friend up in a rug.  After the scene, she admitted that was the first time she felt exhilarated after a scene, rather than relieved that it was over.   My friend was convinced that she was a professional improviser.

Team Hollywood at the Writers Guild for a staged reading of one of  my screenplays.

By the end of the Team Hollywood sessions, I realized that cycling and improvisation shared the same skill set, which is why the workshops were so successful.  Both rely on trust, agreement, listening, awareness and cooperation.  But, I would have to say that being in the moment is at the top.  In cycling (and improv) if you’re not completely in the moment, things can go bad very quickly.

I have the scars on my body to prove that.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview with Howard Jerome by Michael Golding

Howard Jerome

Howard Jerome is one of improv’s unsung heroes.  With David Shepherd, he co-created the Improv Olympics, which premiered at the Space for Innovative Development in New York in 1972.  Howard and David brought the format to Toronto in 1974, where they participated in Homemade Theatre’s annual Improv Festival.  Larry Mollin, the artistic director of the festival and his company, overhauled the Improv Olympics, making it more theatrical and sports-like, with professional and non-professional leagues.  With Willie Wyllie, who participated in the festival with his high school team Stage Fright (which Howard coached), Howard co-created the Canadian Improv Games in 1977, where he now carries the title of “Old Man Improv.” 

His association with David Shepherd began in 1971 when Howard responded to an ad in the NY Post placed by David looking for "community makers to correct ailing communities." Together, the two collaborated on how to build a community out of improvisation, leading to the formation of their non-profit organization, Community Makers.  As the two explored improv as a peoples theatre, gathering interest from other performers, Community Makers became Group Creativity Projects.  Under the banner of their new organization, the Responsive Scene, the precursor of the Improv Olympics, premiered in 1972 - first as a stage show (with the audience participating as writers, directors and actors) and later as a summer radio series on WRVR-FM in New York.  Howard is also a recognizable character actor, appearing in films such as Barney’s Version, Lucky Number Sleven, Naked Lunch and Canadian TV shows such as Puppets Who Kill, Across the River to Motor City and the animated series Almost Naked Animals. 

Howard Jerome as Octo in Almost Naked Animals.

This interview was conducted in 2004, as part of a proposed book on the history of the Improvisation Olympics.  The project never got off the ground, but I felt that the insights Howard provided here should be shared with the improv community.
Michael: How do you see the connection between a sports event and an Improv Olympics match?

Howard:  There’s a spectacle aspect to the match. An unpredictability.  You really didn’t know what was going to happen. Whether it was going to be good or not.  And that was kind of an exciting thing. And there was always the influence of the fans.  In some way or another. Laughing, booing. To urge or to purge. Whatever.  (Howard looks through an original 1972 program for the Improvisation Olympics – a match between his team “Jerome’s Bombers” and David’s “Soul All Stars”)  “The SOULS limited the time on camera of their strongest player, Shepherd, who was not playing to win!” Just re- reading this makes me laugh.

Howard with his Improv Olympics team, 1972.
Michael: I guess the similarity you have with the Homemade Theatre is that in the beginning at the Space For Innovative Development, the matches were played by professional actors.

Howard:  Yeah – the first of us were professional actors, or aspiring actors, in one way or another. All of us.

Michael: It seems to me that what you did at the Space for Innovative Development, was a continuation of the work from the Responsive Scene stage (and later) radio show.

David Shepherd (center) and Howard (far right) in the Responsive Scene stage show, 1972.

Howard:  We were more interested then in human nature than in human creativity.  The games have gone into the realm of creativity for creativity’s sake.  Which is pretty much what happened in Canada.  There isn’t much need for story, story, story.  Although, some wonderful stories do get told.

Michael:  How have you trained for the Improv Olympics?  Was training useful?

Howard:  I’m an ex-jock. So training  for me is wonderful.  In fact, I was always a better player in training than in playing. I really like the discipline of it. The testing of yourself in training.  I love it. So for me, I like working out with improv stuff. Stretch physically and emotionally. If I had to be specific about the exercises – I’ve done so many that I can’t remember which teacher I learned them from. So for me, the training kind of blends into one another.  In warm-ups, I think we did “Sound and Movement” bringing how you feel – a sound of how you feel and adding a movement to it. Then giving it to someone, who transforms it into what they’re feeling and how to move with it. So there were physical things – I remember doing warm-ups where you move energy – pushing energy around. Another warm-up was the transforming thing – where you transform things in space. Objects, scenes.

Michael: I remember warming up with a lot of Spolin games. Like the Orientation game, where one player comes in and starts an activity. Another comes in and adds something to the activity. The third player comes on and says something which establishes where the players are.

Howard: Right.  Building of where games.  Filling the space. Sounds. I think we made sounds together – weird sounds. And gibberish.  I just saw Cirque du Soleil – a lot of gibberish was used there.

Michael:  It was funny that Larry Mollin mentioned using the antiquated quarter inch reel to reel video. That was the first thing that I remembered about the matches at the Space for Innovative Development. Taping the matches, then watching them afterwards.

A 15 year old Michael Golding taping the Improv Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development, 1973.

Howard: It was so exciting because it felt like we had broken the hold of the TV creators. Suddenly we had the cameras. We could say or do anything. We could make our own shows. It was a revolutionary activity. It was so exciting.  I’m gonna be on television, mom!

Michael: The Space for Innovative Development was an exciting place because so much was going on there in all the various rooms. Vivica Lindfors was doing her one woman show.  There was a dance company in another studio.  Musicians.

Howard: The whole place was filled with creative talent. The Nicoli Dancers were there.  The Chicago Project. The Murray Lewis Dance Company.  The Multi Gravitational Dance Company.  The Video Pirates. A building filled with cross creativity.

Michael: I always had the feeling that we weren’t suppose to be there. That a corrupt janitor would let us in when no one was looking.  "Don’t make any noise and clean up after yourselves!"

What’s your favorite event? Describe a scene that it generated.

Howard:  Emotional Hurdles are always interesting, regardless of how you go from emotion to emotion.  There’s a scene I remember that we did in jail – the emotions were in a group scene. Go from anger to joy.  Be genuine with both.  A card game was going on, someone was accused of cheating. A fight breaks out. Things got very serious very fast.  Screaming, yelling.  Then guards come running in with Billy-clubs out ready to stop the impending riot only to discover that we were just role-playing.  And that’s when things switched to joy – the inmates laughing at the guards who thought this was real.  The role-play was so real the guards believed it.  That was wonderful emotion jumping that was influenced by something that happened outside.  It provoked such joy with the inmates. They laughed and laughed.  Free and loose.  Free and loose.  I like emotional stuff.  Jumping through space was always interesting. Physical things.  Continuing a scene or a relationship or dialog through a variety of spaces.  Have a scene develop from a bar to a kitchen to the bedroom. Three locations that influences what happens.  You don’t talk about the space other than what you have to.  

Various kinds of work-outs with sound and movement fascinated me.  One I recall, I can’t remember where it came from, you know how some people are led around by their groins, others by their stomachs, elbow, left foot.  When you put that in your body interesting, bazaar characters emerge.  Strange stuff. Shadowing a mirror with each other was another game I liked.

Training a team of inmates for the Improv Olympics, 1972.
Michael: Propose a new event bringing a new skill.

Howard:  Well, for me it has to do with peace. I don’t care if you want to call it a scene or a story, or something, but each team has got to do something about peace.

Michael: The Peace Event.

Howard: The Peace Event.

Michael: Suggest an affinity group that could be comfortable and do well in the Improv Olympics.  In this case, I think David would add in parenthesis “With the exception of professional actors.”

Howard:  (laughing) Right.  Well, the work we did in industry. When we took improvisational stuff into corporations and having people for various lengths of times,  giving them improvisational skills, learning some games and then exploring issues within the company. Like, “These two managers don’t get along.” or “This guy isn’t pulling his weight.” It had a functional purpose in a corporate setting, exploring relevant issues in a creative way.
Michael: Aside from playing and coaching, what other functions matter in tournament play?

Howard:   Well, David taught me really basic kind of stuff.  You should be able to be seen and heard. And we found that out in Washington Square Park where no one could see us or hear us.  We turned over a garbage can, I climbed on top of it, and suddenly people could hear and see us . Lo and behold the show could start.  There was focus.  There’s all the logistical things – you know this.  Does anyone have a three prong adapter?

Michael:  That’s what David taught me. You should always give everyone in your group a job – it keeps them connected. Like, someone is responsible for setting up the space, another to bring refreshments, someone brings in a sound effects tape, stuff like that. Otherwise you’re doing all the administrative stuff yourself and can’t concentrate fully on the play.

Howard: He’s absolutely right. So the co-creativity goes into co-productivity as much as possible. Everybody is a co-producer in whatever way they can.

Michael: Right.

Howard:  It didn’t often happen enough that way, and it still doesn’t happen enough that way.  We always end up schlepping more than we have to.

Howard Jerome, David Shepherd & Michael Golding at the 2002 Canadian Improv Games.
Michael: How important is scene-to-scene scoring?

Howard:  Everybody has a different opinion on it. For me, I think the scoring is more like professional wrestling. It’s only there for show.  And, it doesn’t really matter to me who wins or loses. It’s only a show.  As an audience member I didn’t really care about the competitive element, as long as the show was good.  I always felt that was the important thing.  So the element of win/lose was moot.  That being said – I’m a very competitive guy.  I love putting out the best I can. Being inspired to go further than what I’ve just seen on stage.  I’m very highly competitive in that way. It’s like “Damn, Michael. That was good! Now, watch this!”  That’s the attitude I go into my work with.  I want to be on top of my game. I want to be as creative and inventive as I can. Not to vanquish the other players. Just to be in the zone.  Get in the flow. There is that stuff in improv, just as in sports. Being in the flow of the zone you’re in.  I do like the scoring – for Adults.  It might be an adult only thing. I like the round by round scoring. A lot of people don’t. It adds to the thing.  Other people think “No no, don’t do it – because if a team is behind in the match they’ll stop trying.  So, keep everything in suspense until the end.” Other people say the audience needs to be involved in the judging of things. And my response is, you have to check it out with your audience. Why should I make that decision?

I just applied for a job. On the application I wrote “I’m a pretty creative guy. Probably so are you . But, we’re not more creative then everybody else put together.  Therefore, let us harvest and invite the best, the most interesting responses to the needs of the organization.  Why not? Harvest the genius of the people in our company.”

Michael: Does competition lower the quality of play?

Howard prepares to present the Howard Jerome trophy at the Canadian Improv Games.
Howard:  That’s not been my experience. The worse that happens, and it’s a bad thing, people lose their spontaneity in relying on formats and sure-fire things. And that’s the worse thing that can happen.  And it’s happens more than I’d like it to happen.  The real elements of improvisation are so heavily screened through the formats there isn’t a whole lot of room for spontaneity or adventure.  That’s the biggest danger there. What about you?

Michael: I feel pretty much the same way. In my experiences, it happens more with teenagers.  I agree with Larry Mollin about bare-bones improv. Two people on stage building a scene together is more interesting as opposed to five people simultaneously on stage going through the motions of a pre-set format designed for instant gratification. No surprises. No danger. No risks.

Describe an ideal match.

Howard:  I can describe it by going to the very end of things when teenagers are laughing and crying at the same time. And there’s such an enormous outpouring of loving energy and celebration or consolation, appreciation. A magnetic quality where people rush the stage with enthusiasm to embrace one another. The ideal match has that kind of ending.  And they all did during the finals of the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa. So for me, that’s a successful, ideal match. When you have that kind of ending. Beyond that there are always astounding new bits of creativity. Tremendous individual performance whatever that is, that is memorable. And maybe a piece of content slipping  though sometimes in a creative way.  I don’t think you could hope for more than that on a teenage level.

Michael: What do you think the U.S. Improv Olympics should look like in the future?

Howard:  I think it would be great if it becomes another thing people choose to do.  Do you want to go bowling or do you want to do improv?  Do you want to go to the movies? No, let’s stay home and play these theatre games.  I would like it to be a regular choice that people make, to do, in terms of it’s popularity.   It’s a great way to spend time with your family and friends.  Improvising with one another.  We did a wonderful storytelling with my godson the other day.  Instead of telling a traditional Chanukah story we wound up in Sweden. It was great. We did it as a co-creative project with four other people.  We were very inventive of each other.  That’s one level. The other is the extreme opposite.  I want to see really great improvisers going head to head with really good stuff. You don’t get that edge on the TV competition shows.  Maybe you need to do an all star show.

Michael: Perhaps like Larry said before, everything has to come full circle where you just have two actors improvising a scene with a 3 minute time limit.

What is you most juicy, colorful, vivid memory of the Improv Olympics?

Howard:  There are so many.  Here are some highlights.  A Workput event involving shoveling snow.  The guys in the scene did a fairly accurate activity of shoveling snow. Then a woman came on with some lumber and nails and proceeded to build a wall or something. Then she nailed the snow onto the board and sledded it out of there.  Wild flights of imaginations – individual performances are what I remember from the Olympics.  Another was Sandra Oh’s improvised monologue during the Canadian Improv Games finals to her parents on how she didn’t want to be a mathematician – she wanted to be an actress.  She ended up doing that same piece in a movie. Teams that squeak through. Dynasties are wonderful – like in Canada. Sir Frances Liberman High School in Ottawa won year after year because they were clearly better, more disciplined, more creative. They forced the games to be better than they were, by their existence.  Those are the kind of juiciest memories I have. A vague memory of Toronto excellence with the best actors available.  They had a show-down – it was wonderful, intense, and it was not the high pitched shrill “you have to get a laugh every second” thought. It was more about improv integrity than madness. What about you.?

 Canadian Improv Games, 2012.

Michael: The most recent is the best for me. Being in Ottawa for the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games, standing next to David in the audience of the National Arts Centre as you administered the Olympic Oath on stage surrounded by teenagers.  It made me feel connected to something that was historic and larger than myself.

Howard: I’d like to talk about the book a little bit.   The idea of the 4th dimension was the involvement of the audience where they get to direct and participate. I remembered we learned that yes, you could trust the audience - but you shouldn’t get hurt in the process. So it was, “no you do it.”  Someone suggested an activity of eating shit. And I said, “I’m not going to do that – you do it.  I’m not going to demean myself for your entertainment. If you’re so interested in seeing that, you do it.” 

Michael : So, the whole concept of audience involvement came from a dare.

Howard: Exactly.  There should be a brief history of ancient rituals that involved group creativity processes. Then, we show a modern version of that ritual – like the Emotional Hurdles sprang from this cultural process.  We need to support the thesis of group creativity as being an eternal cultural process. People reach out to each other to do something creative in history. An exploration into the nature of group creativity – its historic backgrounds, scientific findings written in the language of improvisation.  This is all peppered through-out the book.  Each chapter should have a “you do it” component.  You can’t go on to the next chapter until you get three people to try the format you just read about. The book is about theory and practice. It needs more than just words – it needs blank spaces for creativity for the readers to do it.

Michael: It’s a hands-on handbook.

Howard: Yes. Exactly.

Howard feeling the love at the Canadian Improv Games.

Co-creators Willie Wyllie (sitting) and Howard Jerome with Al Connors, National Director of the Canadian Improv Games.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.