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.

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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.

 

 

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

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.

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.

Goodbye world! Hello Improv!

Welcome one and all to my blog of sorts.  This is a blog about improv, but not purely improv comedy. My name is Spencer DeVine, I’m 22 years old and I was raised in the Monterey Bay of California in a city called Seaside. It may be just that I wasn’t looking hard enough but the area never really fulfilled my needs as far as outlets for comedy. Sure there is the occasional open mic that stand up comedians can attend but it’s hardly the comedy capital of the world. But even more so, finding an outlet for improv is especially tough.  I did a little bit of improv when I was in high school, even started an improv club during lunch time but that fell through because there wasn’t enough dedication or interest.

When I came to San Francisco there was a whole brand new world of entertainment that Monterey and Seaside never had. In San Francisco there is an open mic for every night of the week and really no matter what you’re interested in there’s something for you. So I of course wouldn’t be surprised when Improv found me.  I’d acted for a long time but my experience in improv was relatively little as I had never had the place to do it or group to do it with.  But then I joined Improv Nation, SF State’s Improv team and most enthusiastic group on campus (yes even more so than the Gator cheer team, sorry guys).  There I got a big dose of improv and I’ve stuck with both Improv Nation and improv acting ever since. I found a group in the city called Sylvan Productions that used to run a free open-improv workshop out of their backyard but now they have a venue in the mission at the Darkroom Theatre.  One of the only free improv open mics I’ve found in the city that allows everyone and anyone to learn and do improv for free.

But some people get a misconception that Improv has to be funny, or even be acting, and this is not true.  The way I look at improv is that it is the ability to think on the spot and come up with alternative solutions, and that is something useful both on the stage but also in life.  Have you ever needed to impress someone but you didn’t know what to say to them? Had to come up with at topic for an essay you just couldn’t comprehend? Had to come up with a damn good excuse why you don’t have your homework? Improv can help all this.

Improv as this kind of tool is pretty underrepresented as far as other blogs out there go. Improv everywhere is a really cool group all over the United States and even internationally that does funny improvisational public demonstrations, but as a website and blog they are mainly about covering their own events, because as far as their structure goes their isn’t much to teach. I think though that any tips and teaching before participating with a group like that would just make the experience even more fun, let’s be honest as much as doing untrained improv is, the better you get the more fun it will be.

One of the closest blogs I could find to what I want this blog to portray was a blog talking about teaching improv to children titled Improv Education. In this blog the author really tries to get across what the essence of improv is: what are the lessons inherent in improv that can translate beyond. She enforces with kids that some of the lessons like always listen, make each other look good, and that failing is ok as long as you can recover from it and adapt.

There are blogs that do talk about the specifics of improv. This article is talking about the rule of three that is often used in stand up comedy routines and sometimes in improv comedy. It says that when things are done three times each time they get funnier, but this article states that rather than focusing on jokes one should pay attention to the scene. This is true in improv and is a helpful hint but it doesn’t bridge the gap and go beyond the stage, as it is purely talking about on-stage mechanics. The rule of threes is not only present in comedy but also is an effective social tool and helpful in activities like social occasions and speech writing. There are not a lot of consistent blogs that look at improv as both a stage tool and a life tool.

One article I found recently that really speaks to this translation was an article about 25 rules that will make anyone better in business. This is pretty spot on as far as what I want to communicate. Not only is improv good for scene-work and acting, but also even the stuffiest businessman has something to learn from being creative and thinking outside of the box. Learning more about how you work in a creative environment can help almost anyone.

But if you’re not interested in using improv in real life, it’s still there to be what it is in its purest: a comedic tool.  Frankly said, improv is fun. That’s really what it comes down to in the end. I do improv because it’s fun, not because I want to be some big successful businessman, but I’d be lying if I said that improv didn’t prepare me for really crucial aspects in business as well as my social life.

Come in for the fun, come in to learn, come in and eat all of my pop tarts (although I’ll be forced to kick you in the butt). Make yourself at home, I have.

Tweets of the Beat

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