“Pack” is Back, baby!
Nick Leveski (the “ck” to my “Pa”) and I had our first in-person show in over a year on July 23rd of 2021. We had a great crowd, eager to get out of the house and to laugh. We had a whole lot of fun.
But was it any good?
I run the classes program, to include writing the improv curriculum, at The Coalition Theater. Oh, and I have a website dedicated to dissecting Improv As Improv Does Best. Clearly I have thoughts about what constitutes “good” improv.
But while I believe in “my way,” it’s my way. In learning improv it’s important to have direction and goals and I believe my approach is useful to improvisers looking to learn. At the end of the day, though, to be worth a damn, an improviser needs to figure out their way of improvising.
The brilliantly funny, Rachel Marsh, told me post-show, “You all did all the things we’re told not to do – negating, transactions, teaching scenes – but damned if you didn’t make it all work.” Again, in learning improv it’s extremely useful to receive guidance that leads us toward choices that are fun for us and the audience and, conversely, away from choices that often lead to real slogs of scenes.
But of course, to really know what you’re doing you need to understand why certain choices are labeled improv “no-nos.” Then one plays within a world of possibilities, not limitations.
What follows is a dissection of the five scenes that made up Pack’s 6/23/21 Show to answer the question: “Was this a ‘good’ show?”
Conclusion up top: “Yes, yes it was.”
“Good” improv is the improv you feel good doing. And while, as this post makes clear, I am self-conscious about the “no-nos” I perpetrated against textbook “good” improv, the way Nick and I play together meant none of those “no-nos” ever fully derailed our forward progress and, in the end, the show felt like a worthwhile way to spend about thirty minutes, for Nick, me, and the audience.
After more than a year of not doing in-person improv, was I nervous going into the show? No. Because I had Nick Leveski. Nick is the kind of performer for whom everything that comes out of his mouth is funnier than if someone else said it.
But even more importantly, Nick Leveski is a performer that always exists in the moment, willing and able to make choices in-the-moment, confidently creating material in a way that (rightfully) assumes the audience will follow him, rather than feeling like he has to bring the audience along.
A negation? I say, “No,” and Nick accepts that choice from my character. It doesn’t stop him in his tracks as another improviser who offers a suggestion might be when negated by his scene partner.
A plot-driven question? Especially one that deviates from where Nick himself was driving the scene? Does it derail forward progress? No. Because Nick always imbues his partners’ asks with relevance, feeling the importance of the question instead of getting bogged down in summoning an answer about an imagined reality.
A teaching premise? More for sure on this below, but the key is Nick never allows himself to be a blank slate on which someone else is writing, which ends up being a problem with teaching scenes typically.
A transaction? Again, Nick is no blank slate. The problem with Transaction scenes comes from improvisers working to figure out what to do instead of being who they are. Nick is always a character who feels and reacts.
Negotiating Reality? Not possible with Nick. You might, as I did, ask a question, but while a less-seasoned improviser might get hung up on the “right” response, Nick just makes a choice and simply having made a choice – any choice – makes that choice work.
Nick’s ability to accept whatever is thrown at him and expand upon new information confidently was apparent at our first meeting. It lead me to the idea of our opening, wherein, after getting the suggestion of some sort of “pack” from the audience, we act like we’ve picked up each other’s bag, and from there we get to endow each other with attributes derived from what we “see” in each other’s pack.
Here’s that opening from the 6.23.21 show. Suggestion: “Grocery Bag.”
Continuing this post’s lean toward praising Nick, the notes to follow are focused squarely on my performance.
Following “my way,” when I looked into the bag I knew to be Nick’s, my first choice was to feel. I chose to feel “inspired.” And when Nick endowed my bag to be full of fruit it was clear to me “why” I had been inspired: I was now healthy, but I had enjoyed – and still desired – the non-healthy groceries in Nick’s bag. He gave me fruit; I gave him beer and Cheetos. We accept our endowments and are off to the races.
I like our Opening. We create physical objects in our space with mime. We make choices for each other which we each accept. And we expand the scene from there with new endowments that evoke emotional reactions.
Notice in this Opening a move Nick and I employ a lot and will use later, too: One of us shares new information (in this case “Have a little bit of fun again, with Snyder’s’ pretzels”) and the other reveals that choice as an established fact in our shared reality (here: “That’s their new slogan”). It is a fun way to accept an endowment.
Now, that “No.” I said it. It felt “right” to my character in that moment; I’d just been offered what I wanted and felt I was being told to relinquish it to someone who would take it away. And I feel like the audience felt that too, given their laughter.
So…“No-No” Note on “No”: When our scene partner gives us a gift and we say “No,” it can stop a scene in its tracks. “I’m making up a world and you just rejected my contribution, so now I don’t know what to say.” A student is taught to accept scene partners’ choices to keep scenes moving forward. And it’s important for improvisers to be aware of No’s deadening impact. But seasoned improvisers can accept and roll with a No. In this case, Nick sees my “No” as exactly what it is for my character and pushes on to explain that if I accept his suggestion it will ultimately get my character what he wants. Have I mentioned that Nick is a super solid improviser?
Here’s scene number two…
Nick makes a physical choice in the foreground. I make an emotional choice in the background.
Nick starts talking. And, my friends, when you play with Nick and he starts talking, you let him keep going. Because he can keep going. And as I mentioned earlier, funny shit just falls out of that guy’s mouth.
But…eventually I have to talk. And my pacing antsy emotion hasn’t been attached to anything. I could have chosen to put my focus on his thing. But here is where I bring Nick into “my way.”
He has a Personal Game: His check signing. I had a Scenic feeling but it hadn’t yet been attached to anything. While my first line is indeed a textbook “no-no” – asking a question without any tether to the existing reality – that was exactly the point. I wanted Nick to know I was bringing in something new, knowing that Nick would accept my thing while holding onto his.
And in short order we have what I’d consider to be a sustainable Two Person Scene wherein we each have both a Personal and Scenic Game. As a Personal Game, Nick has his checks. As a Scenic Game, we have my reaction to Nick rejecting my script and Nick rejecting my script. As a Personal Game, I have my self depreciation for having believed I’d had an “in.”
So…“No-No” Note on “Questions”: Too often when a student asks a question they are really signaling that they are afraid to make a choice. “What are we supposed to do?” This puts a lot of pressure on a student scene partner that not only has to decide then “what to do” but has to make a choice that will help pull their questioning scene partner out of their quagmire. Nick knew I didn’t need him to answer my question; he knew I needed him to feel the importance of my character asking a question. His answer is wisely rooted in his own emotion related to the situation and he doesn’t even try to guess at what I might be asking about. The right answer when an improviser asks you “What are we supposed to do?” Feel the importance of the question; don’t worry about an informed answer. “You’re scared. Don’t worry. I got you.”
Now the real weakness of this scene comes when, instead of continuing to oscillate our games, we flattened them into a shared pursuit of plot and “clever” creation. No movie pitch we created in that moment was ever going to be satisfying and it’s my fault for pushing us to try. Luckily Nick knew to pull the rip cord before falling too far down that hole. “That’s enough,” he says. And he was right.
But did you catch that second use of our “render new information as established reality” move? Nick admits he often acts as “the person that can make things happen.” Yeah, he does; that was what was written on his tee-shirt when we met!
Here’s scene number three…
“What’s the deal with the toilet in the background?” you might have been asking yourself. Our show wasn’t at The Coalition but at the Firehouse theater which concurrent with our improv show was running a one person show about a man in prison. Thus the set.
I have a problem: I can’t not use organically found props. As we moved into that third scene, I saw the prison set and set us in prison. Oh, I could have followed Nick’s move to establish us as normal roommates but, no; while I accepted his idea I kept us in prison (because I felt the audience was with me in seeing us there, but mostly because I’m selfish).
My wife, who works with incarcerated people, was immediately nervous (rightly so) of the potential for us to make light of imprisonment. She was grateful then that we turned out to be psychotic murders because that gave an excuse for our “lightness.” I find that funny.
I also generally like our banter and emotion reactions regarding the Murders’ Guinness Book of World Records. Some sick fun in that.
I do wish I’d avoided the Teaching Scene temptation and am super grateful for the choice Nick made that kept us alive.
I felt authentic in offering to teach Nick to read but I didn’t know where to go with it. I made a truly terrible mistake in introducing the term “garotting” and mis-defining it especially as I had established myself as a strangler!
But Nick did what one is supposed to do when brought into a Teaching Scene.
So…“No-No” Note on “Teaching”: Teaching Scenes are almost by definition one sided – one improviser is trying to teach something to the other. This puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on the teacher to be informative or clever. I was neither. Frankly, it’s wise to avoid the whole mess, as students are taught to do. But should one happen, do what Nick did: ensure you have your own filter to keep the weight from falling onto one player. Nick immediately connected his inability to read with his immersion into movies, and he responded to each of my lame teaching moments through that lens. Thankfully, that established filter and his commitment to it earned us an edit.
Here’s scene number four…
So…“No-No” Note on “Transactions”: Too often, focused on the transaction, improvisers don’t establish a relationship. They don’t act like they know each other or care about each other. They dryly work through their transaction and, devoid of emotional stakes, if they don’t create clever content, they’re sunk.
I don’t think our content was clever. It was kind of a callback to the Opening but wasn’t tied to any emotional stakes. And as a side note worth bringing front and center, an improv audience will groan if one improviser (me) asks another if they’re comfortable improvising. As an extra little complication, Pack had previously done an audition scene that we liked and, as we confessed to each other later, being in that space again took us both out of the moment, too conscientious as performers about retreading treaded territory.
But two things got us through this scene. One, acceptance. If you’re caught transacting know that the audience doesn’t want to see you negotiating an imagined reality. Don’t argue the points of the transaction. Accept them and move on. We thankfully did.
Two, it was short. Aided by acceptance we moved forward and embraced whatever happened as a success. We edited and moved on.
Here’s scene number five…
Remember how the audience doesn’t want to see improvisers negotiating an imagined reality? What about two improvisers negotiating “ditto machine” maintenance and dream interpretation?
Make no bones about it, this is fraught territory that any student improviser should avoid. It’s especially fraught given that it turns out to be a 12 minute scene at the end of the show when things should be getting tighter, with dual casting and improvisers playing each other’s characters to boot.
But, oh, man, was it fun for everyone.
And here’s where we dovetail back to the post’s central question.
About “No-No” Moves: Saying “No,” asking questions, teaching, transacting, and negotiating reality…students are rightly taught the inherent difficulty of these moves. They disrupt collaborative creation. They can anchor forward progress. They put too much emphasis on being clever over relationships.
But there can be fun in the danger if experienced improvisers are at the helm. Those improvisers can dip into the danger – make audiences feel it – and get great results with a steady, confident hand.
Playing with Nick, throwing caution to the wind is part of the fun. No doubt I was rusty and made stupid mistakes – I won’t pretend I diverted from the textbook purposefully each time I erred – but when, at their core, players are comfortable and confident to accept whatever choices are made then they can really just play.
And that’s as satisfying for the audience as it is for the players.
And that makes a good show.
Ps – Having Joey Tran record your show also helps it look even better than it was! Those foreground and background compositions? That tracking back and forth between the pay phone and the call center? Thanks, Joey!
Here’s the full show in one video —>