Category Archives: Improvisation


Kalamazoo warrior-improv-poet Dann Sytsma posted this video of our Piebenga Plumbing show in Kalamazoo in March:

Dann Sytsma thank you. Now I know you can use earbuds as micropones that feed into your mobile, which can record audio files, later laid over the video. So we’re looking at some sophisticated multi-track action Dann’s put together here. I am inordinately pleased not only by the slam-bang audio solution (ever the bane of reasonable live improv recording) but for just being reminded that smart phones are mainly computers many times more advanced than the ones with which they staged the moon landings in Burbank. Pocket computers. I know this is blase, but seriously, pocket computers from science fiction.

Dann and I performed together in places like a coffee shop or a wind-tunnel outdoor festival or in the basement of a church. It was actually pretty good practice for the periodic humiliation of being an improvisor.

I remember also being on the phone with him talking about jazz music for about an hour one time. This is not a joke.

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90% of improvising is mental. The other half is physical.

This went up on the USS Rock N Roll blog today:

I think that about a third of a being good improvisor is being an invested human being. Another third of it is being a good listener. And then the final third is being a real weirdo, having a unique point of view.

In honor of the opening week of baseball season, today I’m going to focus on two of the funnest, weirdest points of view I’ve encountered lately. They came up through rewatching that Ken Burns Baseball documentary. Inning 7, chronicling the 1950s, absolutely kills me. (In a good way, but it also in a bad way, considering the Yankees success, on which more later.)

Something about the ’50s really gets me. The Brooklyn Dodgers finally win a Series. The country is idyllic, but rife with social issues which would explode in the ‘60s. Things were perfect, but so terribly off.  Though it was published in 1963, I think part of my fascination with the era may well come from the voice of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, which I read not necessarily every year, but frequently. Rightly or wrongly, I equate his writing style with a very ‘50s sensibility.  (That book speaks less to me now than when I first read it at twenty-three, the age of the narrator, but I still sure do like it.) There’s something innocent but also depraved about that whole time period, and about that story. The weird wholesomeness juxtaposed against impending tragedy. Continue reading

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Sour Grapefruit

This is on the USS Rock N Roll blog today:

Tuning in to spring training baseball is simultaneously fascinating and boring (presupposing avid interest the game). There are many side plots[1], but a main factor of interest for me are the lesser-known young players scrapping for roster spots, fighting to be the 1% of the 1%[2] who make it. Or trying to make a memorable impression when injuries crop up.[3] Waves of players whose names I’ve never heard foul off cut fastballs, field fly balls in dramatic escapades, fly around the basepaths. The difficulty of the game is startlingly clear, and it strikes me how routine the elite players make it look. I am continuously reminded: baseball is hard.

I haven’t made it through a whole spring game yet, but at the moment I am consumed by the notion of how do we evaluate what is good? These young players no doubt evaluate themselves in a specific way, their hits, or walks, or on base percentage. But if Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon doesn’t see the swinging mechanics he needs to, it doesn’t matter. If pitching coach Jeff Jones doesn’t see the young reliever hitting his spots, or his arm slots, or whatever metric, even if the kid gets out of a jam and keeps a sub-3.00 ERA, it doesn’t matter. Because it wasn’t good enough.

The notion of what is good and how do we know what is good is on my mind because this week the improv team I coach was “retired” from the theatre which created it, after six months.  The explanation behind the decision essentially boiled down to the notion that even if audience members, the players on the group, and I felt the work being done was good, it doesn’t matter because the decision-makers concluded it wasn’t good enough. And we will lose that argument every time. Continue reading

  1. [1]Such as, what happens when the 270 pound version of Miguel Cabrera plays third base for the first time in four years? Does hilarity ensue?! Does a professional ath-a-lete simply display the staggering physical acumen de rigueur in the league? We shall see!
  2. [2]These figures are arbitrary but seem highly accurate to me at the moment.
  3. [3]Two years ago the Tigers were so depleted of A-listers by injuries that in September there was merchandise online with the Tigers logo, but the team name was changed to “Miggy and the Mudhens” (referring to Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers’ AAA team, the Toledo Mudhens).

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There Will Be Time (?)

This is on the USS Rock N Roll Blog today:

St. Louis-born T.S. Eliot swore loyalty to the British crown and renounced American citizenship at the age of 39. His accent is very anglo, and the sound of his voice is ridiculously poncy. The last few years I’ve developed an arbitrarily strong distaste for his change of allegiance. American letters needs all the heroes it can spawn! But then I take a hard look at my own wannabe Euro antics: I harbor a fascination with the Premier League and BBC programming, pretend to speak French, and came home from two years in Ireland with what my friends called an accent*. The pot has already hung up with the kettle. My friend Tom says we must be aware when someone irritates, because they manifest something we don’t like about ourselves.

While trying to shape this post I did a good bit of staring out a diner window at the rain, hating March, and thinking ole Thomas Sterns was wrong about April being the cruelest month. I was awash in familiar waves of despondence. And that got me thinking about Prufrock, and that sometimes I think I should indeed have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, and how much I find comfort in the words:

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of toast and tea. Continue reading

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Taking One Thing With Another

This was up on the USS Rock ‘n Roll Blog today:

Sometimes I am uncertain! This is not unusual, but today, trying to write, I am worried that it will not be exceptional.  So I will use a favorite tactic, and lean upon others. There are a lot of great lines in Kurt Vonnegut books. He drew great pictures in Breakfast of Champions, including this one of a rattlesnake:

There is a lot of formidable writing in that book, including this section regarding Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter-ego in many of his novels, a homeless science fiction writer with unshakable self-confidence: Continue reading

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This went up on the USS Rock n Roll blog today:

An ensemble I was in a while ago did a form devised by our director TJ Jagodowski called The Fibonacci. You start with an opening scene, A, which goes for maybe two minutes. Then you have a second scene, B, which is related thematically or somehow inspired by scene A. Then you repeat A as exactly as possible, same actors hitting all the main beats and as many of the lines as they can, with the caveat that you are going to flavor it with information from and tone of scene B. You then repeat B similarly, as faithful as possible but somehow incorporating the sensibility of A. Then you do a new scene C, similarly inspired by but contrasting the earlier two. Then you go back, repeat A, then B, then C, and create a new scene D, and go on and on as such until you’re out of time.

One thing I used to love about it was TJ’s analysis: this form is designed to fail. Your brain can’t possibly wrap itself around every single detail, so inevitably it will start to break down once you try to repeat the fourth, fifth, sixth scene. And when it does, it can become transcendent. That bizarre character from scene D wanders into the taut dramatic reality of scene C and then bang, all of a sudden, an unexpected catharsis. Continue reading

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You are beautiful when you are free

This was the on the USSRNR Blog today:

The introduction to Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin (geeky sidenote for me: I am sitting at a table at Northwestern Settlement. This settlement house is the second oldest in Chicago, founded in 1893, to Hull House’s 1891. Hull House was where Neva Boyd created and workshopped many of the improvisation exercises that Spolin adapted into her teaching. When you are participating in improvisation, you’re part of a history going back over a hundred years, and that’s just in this country.) throws down some pretty compelling reading:

            Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become “stageworthy.”

            We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking to crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with equations.

            If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he or she chooses to learn, and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach everything it has to teach. “Talent” or “lack of talent” have little to do with it.

            We must consider what is meant by “talent.” It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing. From this point of view, it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked.

            Experiencing is penetration into the environment, total organic involvement with it. This means involvement on all levels: intellectual, physical, and intuitive. Of the three, the intuitive, most vital to the learning situation, is neglected. Continue reading


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My Ex Was Real Christmassy

Here’s another USS Rock ‘N Roll Blog post I wrote about a hacked knitting machine and my friend Andrew Salomone’s artwork on it, among other things:

My artist friend Andrew Salomone has a hacked knitting machine (as in computer hacked) on which he can take images from a computer and transfer them into yarn patterns.  There’s an incredible video of the process on his excellent website here: Andrew Salomone Video

Apparently he was with my artist ex-girlfriend Loren when trying to figure out whose mug to put on a Christmas sweater, and she was heard to say that I’m real Christmassy. This image is the result, which he sent to me last week:

Continue reading

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You Are In a Safe and Warm Place

This post originally appeared on the USS Rock ‘N Roll blog on January 9, 2012:

The more I learn, the less I know. Or the less sure I am about what I thought I knew, which is similar but not the same thing.

Last night I was at a birthday party for some friends at a bar called the Grafton in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.  It’s a bar with a good draft list, sturdy dark wood furniture, and a great feel. I was talking with a guy about the experience of coaching my first Harold team, which I started doing in October.  This guy was saying that coaching had surprised him in that the ten people on the team do not improvise or understand improvisation in the same way he does. So when he gives them feedback he has to remember to communicate in a way that fits their individual needs.

He said this like the notion that people aren’t all like him was a bold realization or an epiphany. It was difficult for me to suspend my judgment, probably because I am reminded of that fact constantly.[1] I am so acutely aware that other people’s experience is different from mine (and inherently valid) that if I encounter any difficulty translating my thoughts and experiences into their vocabulary I can lose the thread of what I believe to be true.

On Tuesday night the team I’m coaching had their fifth show. They killed it. Beforehand I told them some things my (and the dandy’s) first Harold coach POB would say (which I more or less tell them before every show): that I wanted to see an opening that’s totally different from what I’ve seen them do before, three untouched two-person scenes in the first beats, and soft or creative group edits.[2] Then I said to have fun and just do whatever they wanted, which they laughed about because that was their response before their previous show and the opposite of what I had just said. Contradiction humor! Continue reading

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Big Massive Protest

My good friend Paul Timoney is an amazing artist and storyteller. This is a movie that Paul’s friend Nick made about a performance art project he devised and a group of us performed in Galway City:

Big Massive Protest


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