To the sound of thunderous applause, Narcissists Anonymous cracked open its bottle of lightning to win the Thunderdome Improv Cage Match in early May.
Come down to StageWerx in the Mission to see two new teams duke it out, followed by the Narcissists’ return to the Thunderdome’s stage.
This will be the premiere of our brand new (still untitled) show, which will blow your mind, melt your heart, and moisten your pants.
The show will be followed by an open improv jam. So come on down, have some beers, get your improv on, and be the first to see the latest offering from your favorite egotists!
StageWerx – 446 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94103
Show at 8:00pm – Admission $7 – Refreshments available
We finally touched down and I was able to slowly get out of my non-reclining back seat on the Southwest piece of crap plane. It was about 95 degrees, the air was denser than anything I had experienced in years, and I had packed for a San Francisco May – that is, jeans and flannels. The heat and humidity and rampant allergens did not soil my mood though, because I WAS MOTHERFUCKING IN CHICAGO, SUCKA!!!
Chi-town is the home of iO, Second City, the Annoyance Theater, etc etc ad nauseum, and is heralded as the hub of the improv and sketch communities in America (and has a vibrant and manly theater scene as well). I’ve been pining to make the pilgrimage for years, and my girlfriend’s best friend’s college graduation (on my birthday!) gave me the opportunity and excuse to take a few days off of work and fly to the Midwest. So as soon as Narcissists Anonymous emerged victorious from the Endgames Thunderdome, I took off for Mecca!
This place is fucking huge!!!! I work in the Financial District in San Francisco, and so take my lunch time walks among some of the City’s tallest buildings. Chicago’s buildings are not only taller, but wider (similar to other aspects of the Midwest; read: the people). And the absence of any hills allowed me to see buildings and buildings to end of my eyes’ reach and caused me to feel like I was truly in a sprawling Batman-esque city. I took a class in college about postmodern theater, and Chicago was always described as the home of “tough theater”. This place felt Tough with a capital UFF.
Another huge difference between San Francisco and Chi-town – sensitivity to allergies. I have a lot of friends here in Frisco who are servers, and are regularly drilled on the components of the meals they serve and what type of floral hints are in the wine. I am incredibly allergic to dairy, and went to a “vegan” diner before a night of seeing Harolds at iO. I had a delicious vegan sweet potato quesadilla.
Only it wasn’t vegan. After watching one brilliant, mind blowing scene at iO, my girlfriend forced me to leave because I was visibly turning red and audibly wheezing. My girlfriend really didn’t want me to die, and I was unable to convince her I was fine (I wasn’t) and that we should stay at the show. So there went 18 bucks, UGH.
I slept through the graduation ceremony the next day, endured an extremely poorly timed, post-graduation break-up (not my own), got really high (ironically, on imported herb from Northern California), and went back to iO for Harold night: Round 2.
After drilling an extremely short and linear Harold for our 20-minute Thunderdome set, it was awesome seeing Henrietta Pussycat and the Deltones perform much more open and freewheeling Harolds. Rather than sticking to a strict A-B-C-Game-A-B-C-Game format, they made their transitions by connecting ideas and themes.
For example, Henrietta Pussycat’s Harold began with a scene about kids in detention. The next scene was about sex-games-relationship-counseling. It was largely a gag scene, and so rather than wrapping it up at its logical end, they continued into the future and saw the counselor dealing with his own relationship problems (something that will be easier to come back to later). Once an offer of alcoholism came up, the actor playing the counselor stepped forward and addressed the teacher in charge of detention.
“Hey Teach, let us drink some of the Jagermeister in your desk.”
Everyone instantly reverted to scene A’s tableau, and we were back in that world.
These scene changes, prompted by thematic offers rather than by logical scene ends, created a dynamic and surprising performance, where a beat might take the shape of A-B-B-A-C-B-Game, or something totally different. Less linear than the standard Harold, but with enough focus to avoid the confusing mushpots of truly “freeform” improv.
The Deltones did a musical Harold. It was totally mind-blowing; it was the first improv group I had seen with serious music theory training since seeing LA Impro’s improvised Sondheim.
We also saw a show at Second City (Charna Halpern was sitting right behind us!), cruised Wicker Park and noted the differences between SF and Chicago hipsterdom, and experienced a thunder storm with no rain.
Chicago is a ton of fun, and it was amazing to see such a large and non-nerdy audience for improv.
I’m excited to incorporate the lessons I learned into the Narcissists bag of tricks, and can’t wait for my next trip. Until then, I’ll try to pretend I still think San Francisco is a big city.
Blood and sweat touched the floor, and we emerged victorious from the Thunderdome.
Of course, there were casualties (Sigmond lost an ear, and untold masses of children were sent into slavery).
But you still laughed.
SO TODAY IS YOUR LUCKY DAY, YOU SADISTS!
Narcissists Anonymous is returning to the Mission District for another night of mind-bending comedy and self-adulation. (You can ‘adulate’ us too, if you like. In a sexy way.)
The Narcissist Show will feature two halves; a wild set of improv based on the narcissistic musings of those hardly anonymous narcissists, followed by an expanded longform Harold served up deep dish style: full of delicious meats and cheeses.
Get ready to laugh, cry, reevaluate your opinions on the Human Race’s place in the Universe (and beyond), and get really drunk.
Admission is $4 and refreshments will be available.
The Narcissist Show
May 19 – 8:00PM
The Actors’ Center – 180 Capp, San Francisco
Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/296583650428369/
Competitive Improv: Lessons From the Thunderdome
As I’m sure you all know, last Wednesday we conquered the Thunderdome, winning the headliner spot for the June show. It was our first time competing as a team, and an experience dramatically different from any other improv show I’ve been in. We really wanted to win, because we’re really dedicated to making this whole crazy N/A thing work. Competing against a different improv group means you’ve got to play a little differently, and think very differently. Here are the major things I learned after stepping out of the Thunderdome and thinking on it a bit.
1. Strategize for the format.
Going into Thunderdome, we knew exactly what we were getting into. I went to two of them previously, and most of the team saw at least one. We knew that both teams got 20-minute sets, voting was done after the second team’s set, and whoever won the opening bout of Categories (called “Thunderdome,” which is gonna get too confusing for the purposes of this blog post) got to pick who went first. So, we drilled Categories (in a way counter to the normal thinking, more on that in a bit) and made sure we went second, right before the vote. Sure, the partisans (more on them coming, too) will more or less vote for who they’re going to vote for, but going right before the vote keeps your scenes and jokes fresh in the neutral crowd members’ minds, and if you close it out well, the rush will influence their voting.
We also styled our set to fit into the 20-minute restriction, going with a Harold—which sounds crazy, but, actually isn’t (and we proved it!). We spent weeks getting our Harolds down to 20 minutes, and ended up doing it in about 18 for the actual set. The Harold works because seeing long(ish) form setups and resolutions is always satisfying, and when you emphasize that you’ve chosen a challenging format (which I did, as I was getting the suggestion), it’s all the more satisfying for the audience when they see you succeed. The other two winners I’ve seen (local powerhouses Moosehead and 15 Minutes) also used longer styles, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most ‘Dome winners used longer styles. Formats focused on lots of short scenes are tougher to pull off in a setting like the Thunderdome, because you have to keep going to the audience for suggestions, there’s no through-line for the audience to focus on nor for the improvisers to anchor to, and unless you’re the best improv troupe in the history of the planet, you are going to have a hit-and-miss set. When you throw more jokes out, that means that you also have more jokes that might fall flat, and if you don’t have character or narrative arcs to guide you, it’s easy to panic when you see time running out. So: stay cool, stay long, and practice. Which brings us to
2. Make your team look good—and let the other guys help themselves.
Yes, I know. I know! It’s one of the cardinal rules of improv, and probably the only one that normally you never want to break. But, in a setup like the Thunderdome, you’re competing for a pretty serious prize. You shouldn’t try to make the other team look bad. That’s a horrible thing to do, and professionally, it’s pretty disgusting too. However, you shouldn’t go out of your way to make the other team look better than you, because all that will do is lose the show for you. The thing this affects most is the Categories bout. Normally, since the “teams” are really just two halves of the troupe, you “take bullets” and manipulate the flow of the “competition” so that it puts on the best show, not really caring which side “wins.” For the ‘Dome, you still want to entertain, absolutely, and you want to put on a good show, absolutely, but you do not want to take bullets. Don’t throw out something you know will get DQ’d by the audience, and do not take yourself out. You do that in the ‘Dome, and you’re gonna lose your chance to set up whether you go first or not, and you’re gonna make the other team seem funnier, smarter, and quicker on their feet than you are.
Another instance of this came when the other team, graciously and kindly, invited us to take part in a game they had invented which required a lot of bodies. We agreed, it was a lot of fun for both teams, and I think we made a great scene together. But, immediately, I knew it was probably a bad idea on their part, strategically, because it: gave us more stage time; made us look like the polite ones for coming out and helping; & it took focus away from their performance. If you want to win, you shouldn’t share the spotlight during your own set. You have to keep your set yours, and use it for what it is: a 20-minute chance to show the audience your absolute best. Showcasing other improvisers is great improv behavior under normal circumstances, but in a competition, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. The crowd isn’t voting on which team made the other team seem the most entertaining, they’re voting on which team was the most entertaining. However, if the other team doesn’t think of this, and does invite you out during their set? Do it like we did it: pretend it’s not a competition while you’re out there, and just focus on doing good improv. Try to make them look good, and try to put on a fun & interesting scene. It’s their set, and they’re inviting you to be a part of it. Respect that. Speaking of the crowd, though,
3. Pack the house, and sway the rest.
One uncomfortable truth about the ‘Dome is that it is partly a popularity—or, maybe, a marketing—contest. If you bring diehard fans, friends, and family, you have some guaranteed (hopefully) votes. Having those is a critical factor in success; if you don’t bring anybody, you’re pretty much guaranteed a loss, because the other guys are gonna bring people.
Unless you’re both already massively popular, though, neither of you is probably going to bring enough people to pack the house on a Wednesday (and, really, if you can sell out a venue the size of Stagewerx anyway, you’re a bit like a Major Leaguer pissing on a Little League game, don’t you think? Maybe not. Argue in the comments.). Plus, you get people who are fans of the headliners, or just fans of the production company in general, attending as well, and even a few randos off the street. Bringing friends isn’t enough—it’s huge, but not enough. You’ve gotta sway the neutrals, too. That means you can’t tailor the show to your friends, you’ve got to keep in-jokes under control, and—and this is a subtle one—you really should try to take a suggestion from someone who isn’t there just to support you. Treat the audience members who aren’t your friends like they’re just as important as your friends—because they are.
Phew. Those are the biggest lessons, I think. Competitive improv is very interesting; in order to win, you’ve got to alter some of the really fundamental ways of thinking about how to put a set and a show together. You shouldn’t behave like cynical monsters, but if you really want to win—and we have wanted nothing more badly than this for three months now—then you have to be a little less charitable, and a little more self-serving, than you normally would be. It’s not something I want to do a lot, because it does feel a bit wrong, you know? Setting out to defeat another group of hard-working enthusiastic improvisers by proving you’re better than they are…that’s not what improv is really “about.” And it felt a little uncomfortable to “win,” because it’s uncomfortable to see other improv troupes fail or be hurt by your own successes. But, it is fun to do in small doses, and very fun to watch in large doses. It’s a fantastic way to see a wide variety of improvisers and styles in one sitting. If you haven’t seen Thunderdome or something like it, you really should. And if you haven’t done Thunderdome or something like it, you really should. The challenge of doing your best ever stuff in just 20 minutes is pretty thrilling, and if you’ve got the opportunity to grab a prize than can help move your group up in the world, why not do it?
Just, you know.
Don’t try and go against us.