My Dinner With Miriam

Miriam Sirota and Tom Soter.

Miriam Sirota and Tom Soter.

By TOM SOTER

The scene is a coffee shop. Miriam Sirota and I are talking about improvisation.

“What do you feel has to happen between a group of people to make a group scene work?” Miriam asks.

“They have to have a lot of silence at the beginning. And beyond the silence, they have to clear their heads of any preconceived ideas. Then they have to watch what the other people are doing, listen, and observe what’s happen and not speak until they feel they have something to say. Sometimes you speak without knowing what you mean entirely. You have to trust and leap somewhere. I know that sounds very mystical, but you rely on techniques to try and figure out who the people are, even as you’re acting them out. The best thing that can be said is you have to trust who you’re working with.”

“For me,” says Miriam, “in a group scene where so many people are involved, you have to be aware of what is the scene is about. Who are the people in the scene? Who is the conflict with? And you have to play the part that you need to play within that. Because a lot of times, people try to pull focus in a group scene, they try to take over instead of listening and observing.”

Chris Hoyle, Tom Soter, and Miriam Sirota at Sunday Night Improv.

Chris Hoyle, Tom Soter, and Miriam Sirota performing the Flamenco at Sunday Night Improv.

“There’s a very good example of that. We did a scene at a funeral and someone made a mistake and made a reference to one of the dead people being our mother, when we had established that it was our father. And some other improvisers offstage rushed on and changed the coffin – it was very broad and comic and explained the confusion, but it also broke the realistic mood and made it into a big gag. Instead of trusting that we could have explained the mix-up ourselves. But it didn’t stop there. Soon they started changing the coffin regularly and turned that into a pattern, a disruptive pattern, because they didn’t trust that we had anything happening and they wanted to get some immediate laughs going. That’s a good example of what happens if you don’t give improvisers their space you don’t give the scene its space to breathe.”

“You’ve taught improv for years. What do you think is the most common problem that most newcomers have?”

ChrIs Griggs and Miriam Sirota in the film FLOWERS ARE FOR FUNERALS.

ChrIs Griggs and Miriam Sirota in the film FLOWERS ARE FOR FUNERALS.

“They think they have to be funny. They feel like they have to come up with gags and quips and play zany characters. They’re not real. They try to come up with one-liners, rather than realizing that what improv is about is playing a thinly disguised version of yourself in different situations and using the same skills you use in life, which is to listen, to observe, to communicate, to try to not judge. And they’re very judgmental of themselves when they get up there.”

 

Improv Book Garners Fans

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROV is collecting new fans every day. Among the comments:

“I highly recommend the book A Doctor and a Plumber in a Rowboat: An Essential Guide to Improvisation to anyone starting out or who is still on the path to knowledge.” Mark Ruffalo, star, The Avengers: Age of Ultron

 “I wish I had this book when I was first starting out!” Hal Linden, star, Barney Miller

 “Hats off! A beautiful, worthwhile book. It is deep, informed, reflecting decades of first-hand experience… The two authors have distilled their complex understanding to a very readable volume. Like most great teaching, it comes across as simple. The prose style itself is clean, the syntax perfectly organized. The insights are wisely arranged and described with well-chosen examples. The two have captured the history and craft in 138 pages. It will remain a document of our time and will be read by actors and improvisers for decades to come. But, although it is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants to improvise well, it’s really about living well.  Sharing, listening, being in the moment, saying yes to the offers of others.”  Rob McCaskill, writer, actor, director, master teacher, improviser

Tom Soter, in front of the HomeGrown Theater, longtime home of Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter, in front of the HomeGrown Theater, longtime home of Sunday Night Improv.

“I love this book. I learned so much. It made me want to do improv every day. It also made me want to be a better improviser (to paraphrase a famous movie line). And I don’t think you can ask for anything more from an improv guide.” Ian Prior, emcee, All-Star Improv Jam

 “One of improv’s cardinal rules is ‘Never deny.’ In writing characters, the cardinal rule is ‘never sound written.’ Not as easy as it might seem. I found the best way not to sound ‘written’ was to remember my early training with Carol and the gang at Chicago City Limits. I learned to ‘improv’ scenes in my head, with no idea of where they might go. I found some of my best material this way.” William Lucas Walker, writer/producer, Frasier, Roseanne, Will & Grace, The Chris Isaak Show 

“Carol and Tom are the real deal, having been part of the vanguard that put  improv on the map in New York City. They have a deep love for the art form and great insights into the underlying skills. Carol and Tom understand improv.” Paul Zuckerman, executive Producer, Chicago City Limits

Tom Soter, Carol Schindler and other performers at Sunday Night Improv in 2008.

Tom Soter, Carol Schindler and other performers at Sunday Night Improv in 2008.

 “When I wanted to study improv I asked two talented performers I knew who I should study with. They both said, ‘Tom Soter.’ I’m happy, all these years later, to make the same recommendation. Tom is a great teacher who knows his stuff.”  Mike Bencivenga, playwright, Billy and Ray

“It’s hard to imagine my career – and life – being what they are without the skills I learned studying improv, and harder yet to imagine anyone better at teaching those skills than Carol Schindler.” Richard Doctorow, story editor, The Simpsons

 “Carol Schindler and Tom Soter have done an excellent job of explaining the underpinnings of improvisation. For those of us involved in corporate training, applying improvisation techniques is a great way to improve interpersonal communication and collaboration skills. This book gave me a better understanding of how I can incorporate improvisation in my own practice.” Holly O’Grady, corporate trainer 

Tom Soter (pointing) with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.

Tom Soter (pointing) with the New York Improv Squad at the Village Voice Festival of Street Entertainers in 1985.

“I always thought the reason to have improv training at a corporate event was to help managers lighten up and use humor at work. But when I read this, I realized that improv is the perfect model for building a culture of innovation and action. If want to learn how to get your team working together and pushing projects forward, put the lessons of this book in action.” J. Dunston, corporate trainer

“Tom Soter is a great improv teacher, a master of comedy and drama.” Marc Bilgrey, author, And Don’t Forget to Rescue the Princess

 

 

Carol and Tom on the Art of Improv

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

Improvisation, says the new book A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT,  is the “comedy of the moment.” Since its rebirth in Chicago many years ago, “improv” has become so successful that hundreds of improvisational groups have sprung up around the country. They have names like Chicago City Limits, the Upright Citizens Brigade, ComedySportz, the Chainsaw Boys, the N.Y. Improv Squad, Gotham City Improv, the Committee, Hi Robot, the Pollyannas, Shock of the Funny, Theatresports, For Play, and the First Amendment. Countless Improv alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, the late Robin Williams, Drew Carey, and others have used their improv skills to catapult them to stardom.

But what is improv? It has its basis in the commedia dell’arte, an Italian Renaissance form of theater in which traveling comedy troupes would perform farces without a written script. Though the basic scenario was agreed upon, the pacing of the story often depended on audience reactions.

Modern improvisation began as drama exercises for children, developed by Viola Spolin and described in her book, Improvisation for the Theater. Her son Paul Sills began experimenting with improv for adults and performance in Illinois in 1955 when he – and students from the University of Chicago – began performing improvised skits from their own scenarios. This group developed into the Compass Players and later into Second City, the most successful improvisation group, and the one to which all modern improv groups owe their existence.

Improvisation shows – featuring scenes, games, story-telling, and music – have been increasing steadily since then. In the 1980s, Chicago City Limits and the First Amendment performed before packed houses in New York City, as did the Committee in California and ComedySportz seemingly everywhere (they are a franchise). And the trend continues to this day, with lines around the block for such groups as the Upright Citizens Brigade and such venues as the PIT (People’s Improvisational Theater) in Manhattan.

At Sunday Night Improv (l to r) Tom Soter, Miriam Sirota, Jeff Clinkenbeard, and Nancy Lombardo.

At Sunday Night Improv (l to r): Tom Soter, Miriam Sirota, Jeff Clinkenbeard, and Nancy Lombardo.

What is an improv show? Once upon a time, it was simple: a group of five or six players taking suggestions (a location, a state of mind, a relationship) that they would then use in a scene, story, or improvised song. These days, however, almost anything goes in an improv show: from the multi-layered “long-form” piece called “The Harold,” to the bizarre antics of a man who performs all the roles in a one-man improv “troupe.”

All of this has been fed and amplified by the success of such TV shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a series that utilized improv to create scenes for each episode using planned scenarios, much as the commedia dell’arte did, and the game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The latter program was both good and bad for improv. Good, because It popularized the art form but bad because it also (through editing) made it appear as though improv succeeds every time and that you have to be a quick-thinking, specialized wit to do this stuff.

That ain’t necessarily so, as we hope to show you in our book.