Highlights from LA Indie Improv Festival Panel on Improv

Notes from a Discussion on Improv from the 2017 LA Indie Improv Festival by Shem Pennant.

I was lucky enough to be a part of this year’s LA Indie Improv Festival. And by lucky I mean talented, funny and hard working. One of the many highlights was a panel on improv with speakers Shaun Diston, Beth Appel, Alex Fernie, Rebecca Drysdale and moderated by Jen Kruger.

Heads up – if hearing people from UCB talk about improv makes you mad, walk away now. But also keep walking, have some quiet time, and really think about why you care so passionately about what anyone thinks about the rules to adults make believe.

For a tiny bit of context the Clubhouse is one of the homes of Indie Improv in LA. There are no house teams, styles, artistic direction or anything. Just people putting on shows. It survives entirely on donations and the largess of Rebecca Drysdale, the patron saint of doing things your own way. It’s also an amazing venue to perform at – even its secondary stages are better than the likes of the Miller or Theatre Delicatessen. And to be crystal clear, Rebecca Drysdale is one of the best improvisers I have ever seen, and in her own words “has never been past level 3 anywhere”.

Be skeptical about any teacher telling you that there is only way to do things.
Alex Fernie

So much of the panel touched upon the evolution of language in improv. Fernie posited that “Finding the Game”, was no longer a useful term, as you get students constantly making passive choices. One problem Rebecca Drysdale noted was that we wait so long to “find the game” that we never PLAY it and the moment we have a game we RUN and edit instead of doing anything fun.

Beth Appel, current Artistic Director of UCB LA, reiterated that despite all the complex math about game, it always boiled down to doing what you found fun in a scene. People doing scenes that are “technically correct game moves” but that the players don’t genuinely find fun aren’t enjoyable.

According to Shaun Diston, rather than what’s the game, he found looking for “what’s unusual – me, you, the world?” to be a more helpful scenic compass.

I hate invention and anything that takes you away from listening.
Beth Appel

Rebecca also pointed out that when babies play peekaboo, they get bored until a new way to play peekaboo is established and they are delighted. So on some fundamental level, game is innate, and you have been able to look for pattern, break it and heighten since you were an infant. Friends chatting socially are naturally able to lock into game and play it. So there’s no need to freak out when an 8 inch stage and some lights are introduced to something that you are already doing.

Drysdale also stressed that you can play any scene like it’s usual. Even a line as bland as “How are you?”, can be loaded with meaning. You are always capable of taking control of the scene and doing what you think is funny. Three lines in to many scenes the game has already happened.

In further discussions about the evolution of language, Shaun Diston spoke on how he finds “justification” to be an unhelpful term. Looking for the why, leads people to just keep digging further and further for whys. As Fernie put it, “justification leads to people going “ever since my Dad died”. Diston prefers the term “logic” as it’s more active and not based in backstory. At any moment your character can question the logic of what they’re doing and the surrounding logic of the world.

Rebecca Drysdale’s final point touched on improv schools. All the classes, levels and rules are like training wheels, designed to get you up and running. But once you leave 401 – or before even, don’t forget to take those training wheels off.


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