Chicago Improv Summer: Level 3, Day 1 (day 9 overall)


Wadup peoples.

I'm back on the blog. I've been crazy swamped with these classes and watching shows and trying to take care of personal business, so I'm sorry the daily improv dispatches dropped off. Right now, I'm in week five of the five week program, but I want to do this journal/note thing right, so I'm picking up where I left off.

In week three, we swapped teachers again. Out with Rachael Mason and in with Bill Arnett (click for his incredibly helpful improv blog which I just added to my Shoutout section). Bill was formerly a member of legendary iO team, People of Earth. He's a great, great improvisor and teacher.

Word Patterns



We started off the day with what would become several weeks of word pattern games. The team stands in a circle and, assuming I start the pattern, I point to anyone else and say, for example, "Doberman." They then point to someone else and say, "Poodle" who points to someone else saying "Rotweiler" to "Basset Hound," etc. etc. The trick is to keep the pattern as tight and specific as possible. If someone were to say, "puppy" that would be wrong because a "puppy" is not a breed of dog.

Once we can repeat that pattern pretty smoothly and rapidly, another player will start a new pattern. Let's say this pattern is American car manufacturers. We master that pattern then create a third of, say, font types.

The tricks is to layer the passing of the pattern with multiple initiations. That is, while passing the dog breed patterns also pass the car maker and font type patterns. On the face of it, this sounds overwhelming, but the trick is in knowing who to pay attention to. I will always receive "Audi" from the same player and "Golden Retriever" from a consistent player and "Helvetica" from a consistent player. As long as I pay attention to those three people, I can move the rest of the players into the background.

What's really fun is realizing that one of the patterns has dropped and, inevitably, someone takes responsibility for re-starting it. Also, when trying to pass the pattern on, you often have to repeat the initiation to the receiver.

This is just like scene work. If someone doesn't get what you're sending them, send it again. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the size of your team, realize that at any moment you're only responsible for a small subset of active scene partners.

Scene Tips



Most of the rest of the day we spent on scene work focused on providing information and context. Some tips and observations

  • De-emphasize plot in favor of people. A scene is much more interesting when it's about the people in the scene not what they're actually doing

  • Feel free to do a small recap within the scene to make sure you get what your scene partner is providing. This will kill the confusion.

  • "The job of the first scene in the Harold isn't to be funny. It's to drop the lumber off at the job site." - wise words from Bill, explaining that the first beat of the Harold provides most of the foundation and information needed by the rest of the scenes

  • "The fuel of improv is the logic of the mundane." - more wise words from Bill. We don't need to play John the Baptist's revived head. We can play the pizza guy. Pizza is mundane, but it's life, and if we focus on the life of that pizza guy and his relationships, we find some good stuff

  • "Make choices, not from fear, but from knowledge." - continuing the Wise Words from Bill. This applies to all of life man, not just improv.

  • Err on the side of being blunt. It's way better than being obtuse


We introduced the idea of character monologues in a scene. These can take the form of Shakespearean "asides" or be made more directly to a scene partner. They involve "true" stories (from the character) that provide insight into your past and demonstrate who you are.

This day was all about information, context, specificity. We don't need to be weird and funky and obscure. Being specific will help tremendously in the scene and gives your partner something to work with. As Bill, the man of wise words finished, "details sharpen the knife."