Improv 250: Long Stories Are Just A Series of Short Stories

It can be daunting complete something large. (long form improv, a novel, heck even a short improv)

Like the saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time.

With larger projects consider each small moment a small story in and of itself.

The basic plot of any story I can think of is this: There is some sort of discontentment, let’s work on fixing that. That’s the story. It also covers pretty much any action people do moment to moment.

“He was discontented and tired, so he drank a cup of coffee.”  

Is the same as:

“He felt discontented with his life as a moisture farmer on a distant desert planet so he took off with an old mystic, a couple robots, a space smuggler, and a giant walking carpet beast to save the princess.”

… Pretty much the same story, right? The one about the coffee is pretty good. Could probably add some more details, but the point remains.

Telling big stories is the same as telling small stories. Epics are constructed the same way as going to get coffee. Discontented character wants something, and does things to get it. You can get all Hero’s Journey about it if you want, but I feel like complicating things does just that, complicates things. Complicates until you’ve given yourself enough false justification to not create a story at all.

In improv, don’t think about the whole scene, just tell the story of each moment within the moment.

*Thanks for reading. Please check out my new book The Continuing Adventures of Byron & Bing: Sunset Gold.  You can get it on Amazon, although, honestly I see more profit if you contact me directly:


250 Improv: Making Faces Game

There’s an improv game where you make goofy faces at someone when they’re not looking. They’re doing the same thing to you.

This game has roots in comedia dll’arte. The way I originally learned it was with three performer sitting in a row. The outside players would attempt to make faces, the middle player had a balloon slapstick and would smack them if they were caught making faces.

It’s good practice for quick reactions and for keeping your performance playful and fun.

I like to do this in public. It’s a bit more challenging than on stage as your potential audience might be anywhere around you. You can play it either by avoiding being seen by the person you’re making faces at, or by anyone who might potentially see you. The second way is a little more difficult.

I advise that you keep the faces goofy and silly. Although, I have found it amusing to make a burning anger kind of face. Like the person owes you money.

Why do this in public? Couple reasons. First, just to keep life interesting and fun. It’s really harmless fun, especially if the face isn’t aggressive (don’t want to freak out someone who catches you).  Also, it’s good practice to get caught looking or acting foolish. The more times you get low-level embarrassed on your own terms the easier it is to act a fool.

Many people are worried about looking “foolish” so, lean into it. Be the fool. Own it. Have fun.


250 Improv: Clipboard Chad

Chad has been performing and learning improv for a little over a year now. He is an “older” improvisor in that most improvisors start in their 20’s or earlier, and he’s in his 40’s. It’s never too late to start learning improv, but it’s more difficult the older you are. You’ve learned to say “no” to things, to be more in control, to be more pessimistic. Life wears you down, or builds up shields.

Chad used to be a Police Officer. He’s the kind of guy you want to be a cop. He’s level headed, firm but fair, and smart.

This is a habit he noticed in his own performance. Being “Clipboard Chad.” Entering a scene as an inspector, or a cop, or a guy with a clipboard checking off a list.

This character can be useful in that they’ll deliver exposition, or create conflict. But, often, they aren’t connecting with their fellow performers on any emotional or really listening level. Sometimes they’ll even have an almost literal barrier between them (ie. a clipboard).

Chad’s not the only one to have done this simple protective crutch. I’ve seen almost every improviser I’ve met be this character. Myself included.

Why? It’s a security thing. It’s a way of keeping yourself safe. Walled off, but safe. And a way of keeping things in control. You have a list. You have a mission and you can direct the scene however you want it to go. So, you’re safe, but you’re also not collaborating.


250 Improv: Teaching Empathy

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. We do this naturally day to day, but often it’s difficult to act natural while performing on stage. So, it’s good to practice.

Often when there’s a problem with an improv scene it’s that the performers aren’t connecting with each other and are “stuck in their head”. Here’s an exercise to help connect. As a group write down a number of phrases that evoke emotional responses. (“You got a new puppy.” “Someone much younger than you is flirting with you.” “You have to fire your friend.” etc.)  Write them on individual pieces of paper.

Performers sit facing each other. I found it good for them to connect as people before the actual exercise. Make eye contact, talk about their day or something of interest.

One player will read the card and feel the emotion. Showing the emotion silently. This isn’t a “guessing game” where you’re trying to mime out or overact the emotion. Just show it as honestly as you can.

The other player says, as specifically as possible, what the emotion looks like to them.

After a couple rounds try as a scene. One player neutral the other has the emotional prompt. Neutral player states how the other player looks to them as specific as possible. Whatever the player says is the reality of the scene. If it’s different than the emotional prompt, the prompt is dropped and what is said is the reality.


250 Improv: Detachable Ego

Years ago I attended an improv festival in Milwaukee. Backstage there was a sign, “Check your ego at the door.” It seemed like pretty good advice at the time. Improv is shared creation and making the other performer look good. Having a group of performers knocking heads over who’s the best doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Ultimately it leads to a bunch of shouting on stage with the loudest person being the “funniest”

But, it always struck me as odd that the advice was to avoid ego altogether. At any moment the full focus of a scene may be on you, and a hearty ego is going to help you make the most of that moment before you pass it to the next performer.

An adjustable ego might be a better way of putting it, but “Detachable Ego” has a certain ring to it.

In my experience a large majority of improvisors are white men in their 20’s. If ever there was a group that needs to be aware that their ego isn’t the only important thing on stage, it’s that demographic. Hence the sign.

Being an improvisor long enough to age out of that demographic, I find it interesting to observe from both sides. I don’t actually know if it’s training, learning, stage experience, or from getting older and having less to prove, but, I do know that I’m still involved in many funny scenes, I just don’t shout over my fellow performers as much anymore. I’d say that’s progress.


250 Improv: From Xylophone to X-Ray Technician

Here’s a fun little exercise for people who are resistant to “performing”. (Credit goes to Carrie Masse for noticing this.)  Have people pair up. Have one explain what a xylophone is to the other. Then have the second one explain what a trombone is.

Most people will mime out the action of playing the instrument. The easiest way to get the idea across.

Congratulations. You’ve just made a room full of people “perform” in front of someone else.

They did it without thinking, without planning, or practice. Most people don’t play trombone or xylophone, but we can put ourselves in the place and mind of someone who can.

Improv and acting are just that. Putting your mind in a place and person you are not. You know, pretending.

This ability, or really the knowledge of this ability, opens up infinite performance possibilities.

For example, to be an X-ray technician mime holding an x-ray in front of your eyes, squint and make this noise, “hmmm-mmhmm.”  Boom. X-ray technician, no training needed. A simple movement can define your character. After that, just act like a human. No one’s going to judge you on your advanced x-ray skills. (although, if you have that knowledge, by all means use it.) AND, even if you do this in front of a room of x-ray technicians you’re still good. If you do something right, they’ll love you. If you do something totally wrong, they’ll love themselves knowing their job is way more difficult. They’ll feel special.


250 Improv: The Terrible Beauty

I’ve been performing live on stage for 25 + years. Literally thousands of shows for thousands upon thousands of people. But, there are only a few videos of me performing. And those are rarely, if ever, watched. When I have watched them I’m always disappointed. There’s something basically wrong about capturing a temporary moment this way. Freezing it in time. Like a mosquito in amber.

We are obsessed with capturing moments. (Old man on front porch warning) Photos, videos, social media, etc. etc.  But, really how often do we look back at them?

Does it change that we had the experiences?

Here’s the thing. It all goes away eventually.

It makes me sad. I call it the terrible beauty of improv. We can perform the most amazing scene. Make a connection with another human in front of crowds of humans. Bring joy and laughter or tears and skin tingling emotion. But it’s just a moment in time and space. Then it’s gone. We film things, take pictures, attempting to capture something that cannot be captured. A moment. An emotion. A feeling. The best technology (as of yet) can’t capture that.

When I say that makes me “sad” it’s a sadness in more of a Buddhist way. (I know just enough about Buddhism to be a hazard to myself and others, however…) Recognizing that all things are temporary is liberating. Don’t fight it. Live in the temporary moment you are in. It is really freeing letting go of trying to hold on.


250 Improv: Say Something Truthful

I was teaching improv to college age performers with some theatre and improv training. At some point they were stuck about what to do or say next. The performer in question said that the advice they’d previously received was to “Say something truthful.”

Sounded like good advice to me. But then they just stood there. Silent. Gears working away. Desperately trying to not just think of something truthful, but something TRUTHFUL. Like a deep universal, human condition kind of truth. Something the Buddha would toss out there.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. And thus, they said nothing.

“Truthful” doesn’t have to be a big deal.

The moment you brush winter road salt off your pants and say, “Guh. Gross.”  Truthful.

When the waiter asks if you’re ready to order and you say, “I.. um…durr…can you come back? Oh, wait, water with lemon?” Truthful.

When you see your crush and you don’t know what to say, but have to say something and blurt out, “You’re Really Pretty!” Truthful.

Even when you’re playing characters out of your life experience. Those characters are still people with flaws, fears and idiosyncrasies like anyone.

A high stakes diplomatic ambassador from France still sometimes will say, “Boy, I’m nervous about this speech, any advice?”

A professional bomb defuser will still sometimes say, “My mouth is dry. I could sure go for a Coke.”

When someone advises you to say something truthful. Just say something simple.


250 Improv: Why artists work for free #1

As a performer, or artist of any kind you’ve no doubt be asked to work for free, or for a really low price, or just for “exposure.”

What you’re doing, if you’re doing it well, looks like a lot of fun. And, let’s face it, it is fun! But, it’s also a lot of work. In general, people who aren’t artists don’t see or realize the amount of work it takes to do the “fun” part that they do see.

I just heard this comparison. Great artistic work should be like a duck. Smooth and easy looking on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.

So, people don’t see that what we do is hard work, and it’s not entirely their fault. We work like hell to hide the fact that what we’re doing is difficult.

Sometimes I think we shouldn’t. That we should show the effort. I often think of Elvis in regards to performing. And the amount he’d sweat. The phrase “never let them see you sweat,” didn’t apply to Elvis, and look at him. Knowing that, you also know that he worked a hell of a lot harder than it looked like he was working.

The point I’m making is on the smaller level of performers or artists. We look like we’re having fun when working, so why would someone feel obligated to pay us for having fun? They equate getting paid to working hard, like they do, at their jobs, that they don’t have fun at.


250 Improv: Passion, Precision and Enthusiasm

A friend of mine said he couldn’t dance. Nonsense. Everyone can dance. Qualifying it he said “I’m a bad dancer.” The optimist in me gets annoyed when someone says they’re “bad” at something. Why not say, “I’m not very good at that thing.”? Or better, “I’m not good at that, yet.”

If there’s a scale of “good to bad” can’t we, with similar meaning, have a scale of “good to not good yet.”?

Or maybe, “good to better.”

With dancing, if you’re attempting anything at all, I’ll give you a “good”

There are, of course, better dancers. Art is subjective. Maybe we can’t agree on what’s best, or even what should be in the top ten. But, we can clearly discern when something is “better” than something else.

So what’s the difference between good and better?  

Passion, Precision and Enthusiasm.

To be better at something you need all three. Two you can fake. (It’s difficult to fake passion.)

You’ve heard that the way to get better at anything is through practice. If you’re passionate about something you’ll make the time and dedicate yourself to practice. You’ll be precise in the skills you’re learning. You’ll approach the act of doing with enthusiasm.

Think of anything that you’re “not good at.” You’re missing one of those three elements.

Let’s look at dancing. That phrase “dance like no one’s watching,” is trying pump up your enthusiasm. “Practice practice practice,” is honing your precision. “Feel the beat and let it move you,” that’s passion.