Making It Up As We Go Along- An improv story

Sylvan Improv are some of my favorite people in the entire city. I first met Sylvan Productions co-founder Andrew Moore through a TBS -sponsored comedy competition where we were teammates. From that point we became friends, and eventually I found out that he had a Tuesday night improv open mic that he was starting with co-founder Justin Gomes from their production company Sylvan Productions. Turned out that the open mic he referred to was a bunch of folding chairs in his back yard with beer, pizza, and strangers that I had never met before. By this point I was already a part of Improv Nation at SFSU, a group that emphasized structure, and having a solid improv base rather than being funny.

The Sylvan improv open mic was almost the opposite from the time it started. Bringing in a lot of attention from stand up comedians in the area, the Sylvan improv open mic is a constant stream of jokes and laughs, a freedom that Improv Nation doesn’t embrace as much.  Sure there are certain drawbacks to being completely free and lacking some structure, but nobody is censored, and that is something unique and special.

The improv open mic moved to the Dark Room Theater in the mission between 18th and 19th St. nearly two years ago and has been there until just recently.  It is a free open mic and invites anyone and everyone to come and do improv no matter what their background in improv is.  The free and inviting nature allows for a varied and welcoming environment for everyone in San Francisco. The open mic just celebrated its first night in its new venue the SUBmission at 2183 Mission St.

All-night Improv: 24 hours of crazy for Improv Nation

I’ve told you somewhat about Improv Nation, how it is structured, how it functions on a week-to-week basis, but there is a lot about this club which really pushes the envelope of improv, improvising new ways to approach improv and grow as a team.  One of the most interesting, tiring, and challenging events that I have ever personally been a part of is the Improv Nation “Big SHooMG,” a 24-hour straight marathon of improv.

The first two rules of the marathon were 1) Do not sleep, and 2) Do not sleep.  The club goes straight through the 24 hours playing every improv game that it has in it’s extensive list of improv games of every type.

Travis Northup, current leader or Emperor of Improv Nation, once said that in 24 hours of improv it will be broken down as such: “You will see 4 hours of good improv, 4 hours of awful improv, and then 16 hours of delirious improv.”

Given the structure and length of the marathon, new games are enacted that use the marathon’s length to challenge improvisers. In one game there is a sort of extended replay where a group of four people do a scene that is two minutes long, and then every four hours after that they replay that scene exactly as they did it the first time, or at least attempt to.  In a twist on the improv game “expansion,” where a 5 second scene is played, and then that same scene is expanded to 15 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, then two minutes, 24 hour improv takes a 2 minute scene, which several hours later becomes a 10 minute scene, 30 minutes, and finally an hour long.

The second annual “Big SHooMG” is set to happen this upcoming weekend Dec 3 at 5 p.m.- Dec 4 at 5 p .m in the Mary Park Lounge on the SF State Campus. Anyone is free to stop by and watch at any period of the 24-hour marathon to witness the exhaustion and perchance any brilliance that exudes from the improvisers.

Due to funding applications to ASI, Associated Students Inc., this year the school will be purchasing food and energy drinks for the event, which will hopefully slightly take off the edge of doing improv for an entire day.

Regarding the name of the event, every year that it happens one o will be added to the title, and that is why this year’s “Big SHooMG” has two since it is the 2nd annual event.

It is possible that the show will be live-streamed, if so I will be tweeting the link from SpencerTDevine on twitter, or on my Facebook. I will hopefully be filming at the 24-hour event and will try to get something together to even partially show what the event really is like.

Sit down or Stand up- Sylvan Stand Up Open Mic

Sylvan Improv is a large improv force to be reckoned with in the SF improv scene. Sylvan Productions produces shows of all types, improv, standup, even making sketch comedy videos and other various projects  Every Wednesday night they host a stand up open mic at the Dirty Trix Saloon in the Richmond district of SF at 9 p.m.  Stand up comedians from all over the area flock to this open mic and it bolsters a great amount of camaraderie within the comedy community. Andrew Moore does a majority of the hosting alongside Luke lockfeld and Andrew Holmgren.  This is a sights and sounds video of one of those open mics to show small pieces of what goes on in the world of stand up.

The open mic is free and goes into the early hours of the next day, leaving alot of tired comedians the following thursday.

Dont Forget the Vets

One of the most important groups to me and a big improv force is the veteran team of Improv Nation at SFSU.  Sure the team itself is relatively contained to SF State but it creates its own bubble of improv and improves steadily.


‘But what is the veteran team?’ you may ask.  Well improv nation has two groups essentially. One is the group as a whole, and this includes everyone from newbies who have just joined to Travis Northup who started the group three years ago.  The next level past then is a sub-group within improv nation as a whole: the veteran team.


There are two base requirements to be on the veteran team of Improv Nation

1. You must have been in at least one of improv nation’s shows

2. You must have been in the organization for at least a year


Anyone who fits these qualifications is then interviewed by the already existing veteran team who create a special and creepy secret interview process.  Each applicant is judged by the vet team on a rubric testing several areas of skill on a scale of 1-10. Commitment/attitude to Improv nation is important because veteran team requires a committed and dedicated group to work together with good attitudes. Area of expertise (is the applicant clear whether their improv specialty is characters, narrative, or space work) is important and is judged because a more focused individual is more valuable to a team than someone who hasn’t defined themselves. The rubric also judges attendance because frankly if you don’t show up to practices then how can the team trust you to show up consistently to a different night of practices?


The veteran team differs from the normal team in the aspects of what type of improv it does. The Improv Nation veteran team does more complicated forms of improv such as long form improv. A Long-form improv scene for the veteran team usually comes out to about one hour. It does different styles of long form such as fables, superhero stories, and dramatic improv.


Two nights a week of improv at the least for veterans, they have to be dedicated and learn to work together to gel with each others’ styles of improv acting. They have to learn to make each other look good.

Veterans do a two-hour show after every normal improv show, making the entire process four hours long, and runs a price of $2.

Every spring the veteran team chooses a spring project which focuses their veteran shows into a specific theme or style of long form.  It could be consistent characters seen in every show, or every show being a different fairy tale.

Once on the Veteran team the member stays with them until they graduate or leave the school or group. If a member does not make the veteran team they may try to reapply the next year for a spot.



Rejection never gets you anywhere in improv or life

For those of you who have ever done improv there is nothing more disheartening then throwing out an idea and having someone squash it and instead follow their own ideas. As a matter of fact, even those who don’t do improv know this feeling because it is both universal and prevalent in our everyday encounters. We all know that one person who just says “no” for the hell of it, and it’s enough to take the wind out of anyone’s sails.

Improv knows that rejections, while they may be funny sometimes, are bad moves and stop scene momentum in a heartbeat.  That is why the ‘Yes and’ rule was invented, which states that an improviser should take the suggestion of their team member and say yes, but not only say yes but instead also add something to the conversation to give it direction and momentum. Sure there are the improv acting aspects of the rule, but one thing i want to impart on you my readers is that it definitely has real life applications.

As said it is the “Yes and” rule and not just the ‘yes’ rule.  It is easier when someone agrees with you in comparison to a blatant no, but without the other person adding anything all the pressure is put on you. In some cases people prefer the position of power and take advantage of ”yes men,” but to make a true team effort all the pieces should be making equal and commendable efforts to help make each person’s job easier.

There are articles and books that speak directly to the idea of “yes” and how it can improve life. I personally find a lot of them cheesy but in the end there is some legitimacy behind the whole idea. Now I’m not an inspirational speaker but i can tell you one or two things.

No, in its essence, is a stopping word, it prevents progress, whereas yes shows an openness to new ideas and a possibility for new things.  Being closed-minded in an improv scene or real-life capacity creates stagnancy and awkwardness. When you shut out the ideas of others you leave yourself no safety net if your personal effort isn’t enough.

Improv is a team sport. As funny as you may be, improv with one person will never be the same as seeing a group work harmoniously together on the fly of their pants.  That is why improv isn’t always about being funny; it’s about receiving ideas from others, agreeing with them completely, and then throwing an extra gift to add to the ideas on the table, etc.

In business teamwork is not unheard of, and the ability to be open to new ideas and agree with the inclinations of others is a useful skill. Taking a boss’request and getting it done, but also adding extra value to the task is a sure way to stand out and be unique.

There are plenty of improv skills that translate to real life and this is one of the key ones. To summarize:

1. Saying yes to new things and ideas in improv and real life creates new opportunities or can give a scene direction

2. No, is a universally stopping word and prevents progress on stage and in life, rather than bolstering it.

3. Don’t just say yes, yes and allows you to do more than just support the ideas of others. It allows you to add to the pool of ideas, while also taking in others’ suggestions.

Zombie Horde Hits SF State

Imagine the scene if you will: It’s a stormy night and the once overcast clouds pass over the cemetery like an ominous blanket of dread. You find yourself running and running but oh no you trip on a gravestone sticking out of the ground, or at least what you thought was a gravestone. Whatever you tripped on makes a grab for your leg, but you manage to slip free. However, by the time you can get up, you’re surrounded by the undead, zombies.

Now students at SF State probably noticed (unless their head was in some sort of hole underground from preemptive fear) that their campus on Oct. 19, 2o11 was swarmed by a horde of the undead. Led by a mysterious and kooky doctor, these blood-covered zombies made their way all around the campus, attacking those who ran from them and generally yelling “brains” at every possible opportunity.

Zombie with torn shirt

Zombie Jonathan Riley contemplates the apocalypse

But fear not outside world these were not fact zombies but rather just improvisers being silly.  Oct. 19 marked the fourth annual Improv Nation Zombie mob, and drew in over 50 participants, improvisers and non-improvisers alike.

The Zombie Mob is a form of advertisement Improv Nation does for its shows (In a future blog i will break down the structure of a show and how Improv Nation advertises,) as it has two shows on both the 21 and 26 of October.

The zombie mob started off with a fair-sized group of improvisers already as zombies, that way there was a sizeable group from the get-go and they seemed more intimidating. This group prowled the campus for willing participants to become a part of the mob. No, this does not mean that like actual zombies they would attack you and eat your brains. To become a part of the mob you had to be a willing participant who had put an obvious duct tape X on their person. Once zombies saw that X then they would catch that person, cover them in fake blood and that victim joins the march.

The attack hit SF State approximately at 10 a.m. according to some of the first victims.

But students on campus had nothing to fear for behind the scenes was a group so brave that they would put their lives on line to protect SF State from this threat. WOMBAT (Women and Men Battling Against The undead) served as a counter-agent against the massive horde that swarmed all throughout campus. A group of 8, armed to the teeth (Nerf guns) made a valiant effort starting at 12:30 p.m. to shoot down this horde with invisible bullets (If someone actually shot darts then campus would be littered with them and we would never get them back.)

zombie hunters with nerf guns

WOMBAT prepared for battle, guns blazing.

I represented one eighth of the group and led my own squadron of four into the fray. Zombies and hunters made their way across the entire campus from Mary Ward and Mary Park student housing, all the way back up to 19th and Holloway. The whole process was a prolonged game of cat and mouse between the zombies and the hunters, we would shoot them down and then five minutes later they would be back up and we would be forced to shoot down the same zombies again. Always on the move, WOMBAT had to watch its back because although some of the zombies were slow (as they’re supposed to be,) some zombies were sprinters (darn you 28 days later!) and forced us to run in order to not be overrun.

This went on until approximately 1:50 when that kooky doctor (Travis Northup, leader of Improv Nation) told the hunters that there were two innocent individuals in Malcolm X Plaza that needed saving. The event was over at two so as a group we figured this meant that we had to die. Surprisingly up until that point all eight of us had lived to tell the tale.

Long story short, we did not succeed (there’s a bit of a joke the hunters have among themselves about having an intricate and impressive back story when in the end their venture is doomed to fail by default.) When all of us were turned into zombies and smeared with fake blood(less fun if you have a beard) the doctor began to fight his way through the mob in an attempt to escape, but was ultimately brought down and turned like everyone else.

To mark the end of the day all of the zombies did the thriller dance, which played off of a PA system on the Malcolm X Plaza stage.  Whether some people think the whole thing is silly, from smiling faces in the crowd you can tell at least some find it funny or a refreshing change of pace. Improv Nation does lots of silly things on campus to distinguish themselves, but always with the motive of promoting comedy and having a good time with the SF State campus.

This time the zombie horde was dealt with and dispersed, but who knows maybe next time SF State won’t be so darn lucky.

bloody hunter shows piece sign

Peace after zombie-war

Improv Nation a Brand New Sensation

Well let me honest, maybe not completely a brand new sensation, but in proportion to the history of improv, the group Improv Nation is comparatively a baby among giants.

When I first came to San Francisco State two years ago I hadn’t done much improv in my life. As far as experience I had only dabbled slightly within some high school drama classes and started a quickly unsuccessful lunchtime group that sort of was into Improv.

I’ve done theater for a long time, probably ever since I was a little kid (In fact I think my first ever dramatic work was when I was merely a baby playing baby Squanto… I had no lines.) I did drama through middle school and then all the way through high school, doing every play that Monterey High had to offer me.

But when I came to SF State I knew that I was going to have a hard time doing theater, at least as I knew it, because of the extended amounts of time I would spend on journalism.

Luckily one day in my first week of college, as I was walking into a Malcolm X Plaza crowded with groups like the Young Democrats and PEACH when I saw a short man in a Captain America costume yelling at the crowd about something.

Being the curious fellow that I am and a person with a penchant for the dramatic, I made my way to the table and found out that they represented “Improv Nation.”

That was the start of a beautiful friendship. I will get more into Improv Nation, my experiences, and other goodies in future posts, but I want to introduce you all to the club that changed my life and idea of drama.

Travis Northup, past ASI representative and SF State student, started Improv Nation three years ago when he was a freshman. He found out there was no improv club on campus and so he took it upon himself to get with LEAD and founded what is known today as Improv Nation.

The club has grown in size tremendously, now sporting almost 100 regular members who meet every Monday night from 6-9 in the Humanities building (feel free to contact me or any member of Improv Nation for room number.)  Improv Nation has it’s own format of competitive short form improv and hosts 8 shows a year which are 2$.

Improv Nation also has a veteran team of improvisers who have been in the club for at least a year, been in a show, and have been approved by the present veteran team before them. The vet team does an extra show after every short form show from 8-10, in which they do more complicated and advanced forms of improv like long form (improv that does longer scenes, sometimes more than an hour.)

Anyone can join Improv Nation and be involved; nobody is rejected because of his or her skill level or attendance. Everyone’s involvement is up to his or her own will (although you’re more likely to get in a show eventually if you attend practices.)

Most everyone knows of Improv Nation on campus, although probably as ‘those strange kids that dress in costumes and bother me while I’m in the quad.’ Improv Nation is one of the most fun clubs available on the SF State campus. Are there any other clubs that will freeze in place or dance in the rain for the amusement of students?

SF State Journalism has had its taste of Improv Nation, doing a story on it almost every semester, because the things it does are so outrageous.  Improv Nation does really big events on campus such as an annual zombie apocalypse, along with a 24-hour improv marathon, the first 24-hour event on campus, which will be repeated later this semester.

It’s not for everyone, and that’s the truth. Some people don’t have fun being silly and putting themselves out there, but there is definitely success stories of the club. I’ve met some of my best friends through my involvement with Improv Nation and there’s something to be said about letting go of your inhibitions and being a little wacky.

Sylvan Productions: San Francisco Comedy Made With Flair

When I came to this city nearly two years ago I was an actor who wrote occasionally and had hardly any experience with improv. Sure I had done improv before; my drama class had done a short section on improv but nothing serious. In high school I even started a lunchtime improv club but membership dwindled and the club fizzled into nothingness.  So sure I had done improvisation before, but mostly acting.

I’ve always had a penchant for the dramatic; it seems to find itself attracted to me (and no not the wag my finger in your face type of drama, or spreading rumors at the water cooler drama).  So when I found out that there was a group that did a free improv open mic in their backyard I was on board right away. Well maybe not right away, pitching an improv open mic that takes place in a backyard tends to garner some doubt. However, when I met all the guys who ran the open mic I was hooked.

This event was hosted by Sylvan Productions, a group of friends from high school that had moved to SF and now were dedicated to making some sort of solid comedy scene within the city, that had over some time dwindled slightly.  I’ve known the organizers of Sylvan Productions for some time and they are a group of upstanding guys with legitimate business minds. The growth from a silly backyard open mic, to the types of events they put together now, is mind-boggling at the least.  What drew me to this group the most and makes them intriguing is that the improv open mic they host (which is now based in the mission) is free and open to anyone with any level of experience.  This opportunity to do improv is the same one that got me so involved in the art of improv.

Here is an audio interview I did with Andrew Moore and Justin Gomes, two of the starters and main runners of Sylvan Productions about the start of the group and where they’re headed next.

Dan Mack: Teacher, Improviser, Awesome.

I recently did an interview with Dan Mack, an improviser i’ve worked with before. He is a man dedicated to growing the improv scene in San Francisco.  Dan has done improv for quite a while himself but he said that he wants others to be able to have the same experiences no matter their level of skill. Every Tuesday at 5 p.m. Dan Mack teaches an open improv class which is drop-in and not all that expensive.

Most improv classes in the city cost hundreds of dollars and have an air of a ‘we’re better than you’ mentality that i was pretty sure people outgrew in middle school.  Dan teaches people of all ages, skill levels, and personalities, he never knows who is going to be the one to pass through the door of the Dark Room Theater in the mission between 18th and 19th.  What he teaches changes from week to week. One day he’ll be doing three person scenes and the next week he’ll be having a brainstorming session on 100 ways to use a lawnmower (Salsa maker, ineffective kite, hair trimmer…….etc.)

Dan does this class in conjunction with the Sylvan Productions company (no don’t get confused, it’s not the Sylvan Learning Center but something completely different altogether. Although, if the Sylvan Learning Center started to do improv classes i think they would be way cooler right? Sylvan is a company that is focused on providing San Francisco with comedy shows, no matter what form they come in.  Every Tuesday Sylvan does an open improv open mic which allows any drop-in to do improv, providing an opportunity for anyone from the experienced and confident, to the first time improviser.

And here’s that audio interview. Get some popcorn and enjoy.

Comedy Day and the laughs it brought to town

Welcome reader. We find ourselves on a plateau between Internet monotony and information. After all, if there weren’t a blog post what would keep you from watching the entire series of Quantum Leap on Hulu (Not a shameless plug for the 80′s or Hulu, honestly I’ve just been watching Quantum Leap lately and want someone to talk to.)

But I save you from a moment of monotony with the news of the day, or rather the news of last Sunday. This past weekend I skipped sleep Saturday in order to be in the Richmond district of SF by 5 in the morning. I know what you’re thinking: “Dear lord why did he get up so early for anything? That’s like the equivalent of punching himself in the face.” Maybe that’s what I was saying, but either way I got up at 5 to meet with a group of fellow improvisers. We all made our way to Golden Gate Park at the crack of dawn and we got to work as volunteers to set up for SF Comedy Day 2011.

If you happened to pass by Golden Gate Park and see the mass of people on Hippie Hill or the giant stage with performers constantly shifting across it, then you probably were a witness to comedy day, or something different and at that point you’re on your own reader. Starting at noon technically and going all the way to 5 p.m. the comedy day stage saw over 30 performers, including Robin Williams, that’s right Robin Williams.

Robin Williams: Funny Incarnate

According to the website this festival was dreamed up in 1975 and enacted in 1981 by comedian Jose Simon, this comedy festival has been going consecutively for 31 years. With all the mass amount of jokes that came from the Comedy Day stage it isn’t hard to see why this day has stood the test of time.

There was a fenced off area around the stage and behind it to hold the VIP participants in front and then behind were the tents for food, alcohol, and media.   Next to the stage was a tent that was a ‘Green Room’ but not even the volunteers got to kick it with the performers unless they decided to come out and shake our hands (I mean after all, why should the people who spent six hours building the tent get to go inside of it?)  Robin Williams could barely make it to the porta-potty so many people kept stopping him. He did take the time to stop, tap my shoulder, shake my hand and say “How ya doin boss?” (I nearly passed out right then and there.)

As a volunteer we were welcomed to eat for free and drink for free, and as we all know it doesn’t quite matter what the quality of the drink is because free makes it taste ten times better.

Outside the fence were tents for everything from food booths, to a booth for Pirate Cat Radio, and even the SF Examiner had a booth for some reason.

According to the website, Comedy Day is a non-profit comedy festival which takes place outside in the spirit of the outdoor concerts of the 70′s. I personally was there volunteering with a group known as “Sylvan Productions,” a local group which organizes not only a free improv open mic in the city at the Dark Room Theater (Every Tuesday 8 p.m. for free!) but also more recently has started up a stand-up comedy open mic at the Dirty Trix Saloon (The original Holy City Zoo for those of you unfamiliar with SF comedy history.) Sylvan plans to take the SF entertainment scene by force through improv, stand up, films, and more (I will be sure to profile them for all of you because they’re quite an interesting group.

Comedy day is not quite the essence of improv as it is mostly stand up but as far as a comedy influence it is one of the biggest events of the year for laughs in SF and you should be sure not to miss it next year now that you know about it.

I love to do both improv and stand up but Comedy Day didn’t provide me the chance to do either, and yet I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot from watching behind the scenes. When we see improv comedy shows we never think about how all that stage equipment and lights got set up, but chances are unless there’s a separate tech crew, that the improv team set it up themselves.  While this event was not based around Improv there are a couple things learned from this event that can benefit both audiences and improv-ers alike.

1) It’s not always going to be easy: As an actor, improv or otherwise, chances are you won’t only be asked to act.  You will be an actor, a builder, a painter, an electrician, but soak up all the experiences you can get because the better-rounded you are then the more actual life skills you’ve picked up.

2) Resilience:  This one applies not only to people attempting to make it professionally in improv or comedy. I saw plenty of comedians go up on stage that have been at it for years, decades in some cases, and they are still working on their craft. You’re never perfect, but with resilience and patience you can get better. This applies to regular life activities as well, with time comes skill.

3) Have fun: The simplest rule that I will ever offer you actually exists at the core of not only improv but also life.  Have fun.  No matter what you are doing whether it’s acting out a scene where you’re a velociraptor pianist, or making a sandwich in your own kitchen, do it with energy and passion. Nothing is more disappointing then going to see a show where someone is visibly uncomfortable or unhappy; the audience is empathetic and will pick up on it. But all the comedians I saw were having fun and loving what they were doing. If we can bring the same joy that comedians have after a good laugh, then we will be happy forever more.

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