Friday, January 6, 2017

Growing Up vs Growing Old

Tomorrow Salsation Theatre Company, NFP takes the stage at The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (more commonly referred to as "Sketchfest") 2017.  We've put together what I consider to be a really good show and I am hoping the audience appreciates the hard work everybody has put into it.  As we're on the eve of Sketchfest, I'm reflecting a bit before going to bed.

Back From The Dark
Salsation has been pretty quiet over the last couple of years.  We had Los Improviachis keeping the name out there but it pretty much became its own monster of an improv team known for putting on really fun, audience interactive shows.  Salsation has been more known for sketch than anything else and as a group, we were tired.  Plain and simple.  The senior members of the ensemble had a lot of changes come into their lives and continuing on in the same manner we had been operating over the years was taxing us to the point that we couldn't continue delivering quality material.  We needed a break and decided to "go dark" vs. just abandoning it since Salsation does have a place in the history books of Chicago improv & sketch comedy for being the longest lasting Latino theatre company doing the art-form.

My break took me into new places within the improv community.  I began teaching, touring, and playing a ton more.  I got to run workshops, attend improv camps, start new teams, showcase my existing teams, and be featured in improv festivals.  With all of the unscripted joy, I knew at some point I would want to get back to doing original scripted work.  With the advent of ImproƱol and continuation of Los Improviachis, I also started mining more of my heritage.  I started speaking a ton more Spanish and having to incorporate it into my art.  The political season of 2016 made me face some realities about Latinos in this new era that I felt needed to be explored.  All of these things culminated in bring Salsation out of hibernation and into the light.

The Writing Process
One of the biggest changes for this show was that it basically started as a two-man show.  One of the other members of the group was jonesing to be more involved artistically and since I was feeling the pull of sketch comedy, I decided to take a chance on just having some fun.

Most sketch comedy shows are put together in the following way:
  • A group of people get together and want to produced a sketch revue
  • They might find a director or writing coach to start writing a bunch of scenes.  They also might go at it themselves for a bit.
  • They spend weeks getting those sketches up to par with what they find funny.  
  • They then get a venue to play and start blocking scenes, memorizing lines, and rehearsing.
  • They do the show for 4-6 weeks and then do it again at some point down the road.
I'm leaving out a lot of other things that happen but creatively I feel I've captured the gist of the process.  This takes typically 3 months to put together.  I didn't want to feel that weight on my shoulders because I've been there/done that with this process enough and its exhausting.  I decided to put on new rules for this endeavor:
  • Sketches will be written from improvisation.  All improv will be taped and posted for others to review.
  • If a sketch was brought in, it'll be table-read by everyone involved then we will immediately re-improvise it (aka known as "drop script").  Revisions will be written based on what major things were memorable from the table read and any new gems gathered during improvisation.  The process is repeated until the team deems it "good enough" to perform.
  • Sketches that are not fully completed are able to go into any show deemed fit.  The expectation is that getting these kinds of premises in front of people might bring some goodness out of the people acting them out.
This process isn't novel.  The Second City mainstage productions pretty much does this as their method of writing material.  I found this process to be totally freeing and very collaborative.  Too many times have I been part of shows where I am put in a position to write material only to have my 10-15 sketches completely ignored by a director or a group that doesn't see value in my voice.  This method  would give my material at least a better chance to make it viewable by an audience.   It also makes the process more organic and reduces expectations and disappointment because everything is much more collaborative.

The Results
We started with two people.  We then brought on another once they had heard of the process and the ease of expectations from me which was much more laid back and easy going.  Then we brought on another who was willing to just be a part of it.  With this group of people we were able to put up two shows at Second City with good feedback on the new material.  Then later to my surprise we brought on another person who I thought would never want to deal with another sketch show again after being in the trenches like me for so many years and feeling unheard.  After reconciling rehearsal dates and schedules, I found myself having a really good group of fun, smart people who put their all into putting together a great show for Sketchfest.

What I Learned
Improv (and age) has really helped me chill out on my intensity and need for control in the creative processes.  I've done so much improv that I see how much more fun letting go and going with things can be.  It doesn't mean I'm a push-over; rather, I see that when I don't force things to happen, magic normally occurs.

I hope you're able to join us for the showcase.  For more info, visit

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Literate Ape Is Just a Jackass With A Blog

I disagree with 99% of this jackass the Literate Ape's rant regarding how "thin-skinned" the Second City and its actors are regarding bad reviews on their shows and unruly audience members.   It's written in the beginning of the article to be a reaction to how Second City has responded to the reviews they received and how combative audience behavior has forced productions and its members to assert themselves in a way to try to ensure that the show is presented in a manner it's intended to be seen.  I found it pretty hard to read because the author (who remains anonymous) tries to be sarcastic and funny with questions posed every 3rd or 4th sentence in order to make his weak arguments stronger.  All it does is slow things down when reading it.

This Ape Missed The Branch
In the piece, the author's very much attached to the idea that when one performs "comedy" that there are certain occupational risks that come with it that are acceptable and are to be expected.  He asserts that heckling is one of them and if the production can't handle it, they shouldn't be up on stage.  What the article seems miss about what they do over at Second City is that the scripted art being staged and maybe even marketed as isn't "comedy" but rather "satire" - work looking at making fun of interesting social, political issues that patrons should have some cursory knowledge in.  The improv being performed isn't "comedy" but rather "unscripted theatre".   Since "theatre" is being presented, the rules of "comedy" don't exactly apply.

For example, there are comedic Shakespearean plays.  It would be rude and tacky to stand up in the middle of The Merchant of Venice and shout out, "YOU'RE NOT EVEN REALLY FROM ITALY, YOU JAGOFF!"  That might illicit some laughs at a 2 AM open mic in a bar somewhere but first and foremost, Second City is a theatre (with the "re" ending vs. "er") which means there's an implied level of sophistication required from the audience to recognize what they're watching.  It doesn't mean that a patron needs a P.H.D. to get what's going on on stage but rather they need to understand what they are watch has deeper meaning than what it looks like on the surface.

The Second City and its artists have every right to try to steer their to a place where they can present their work as intended and give the audience a chance to soak up that experience and interpret it any way they choose.  Placing signs in the lobby asking audience members to be respectful of the artists, the theatre, and each other - however sad that these rules even have to be explicitly stated - is perfectly fine.  If that offends your sensibilities, you shouldn't go see it.

The presentation of material is typically not a two-way street.  It's one way. I, the performer, get to tell you how I feel.  You, the audience member, choose to pay for the chance to see what I have to say in the way that I say it and absorb it.  That's it.  Your viewing dollar doesn't buy you the opportunity to talk back or become part of my show. 

Owning Up To Being a Performer
The 1% I do agree with is the notion that many improvisers/actors are unprepared for heckling unlike stand-up comics. Stand-ups deal with it way more often than we do and see working examples of how to handle it at open mics and shows. Improvisers tend to learn the art of the craft but not necessarily the skills needed for reading a crowd, changing things up when things when the crowd turns against them, and how to empower themselves to deal with a-holes messing up a good show.

I realize that I stated previously that what we do is "art" and "theatre".  However, our audiences think we're doing "comedy" which lumps us into a loose association with stand-up comics.  Many of us perform improv in less than ideal locations such as basements, bars, karaoke rooms, and personal living rooms which don't elicit the decorum of a traditional theatre goer.   That requires us to have to straddle both sides of "art" and "comedy" and be able to not only improvise well but also make sure our audiences are with us.

I myself still need to master these skills but having played with Los Improviachis over the last four years I learned these skills on stage since we do a ton of audience interaction. It's taught me to own my stage when I go out there. If you're going to be a dick, I will turn the audience against you. Does it ruin the show? Sometimes but more often than not all it does is change the show to be something unexpected. We just work with the new circumstances and move on. We did a show where I handled a dude getting crazy during one of our games:

After the show, the dude and his girlfriend came up and apologized and we hugged it out.  Everyone I spoke to who saw that show felt that dealing with that guy in the manner done was entertaining and succinct.  

What Can Be Done?
First, read the article and make your own decisions.  Go see the current Second City mainstage show and make your own decisions.  Go see more improvisation and stand-up and make your own decisions.  Most of all, keep your cot damn mouth shut until you out of the theatre.