Renowned Kirkus Reviews calls improv book “a spirited gem”

The highly respected  KIRKUS REVIEWS gave high marks to  A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT. Here’s what the review said:

The book of improv.

Debut author Schindler is a founding member of Chicago City Limits, New York City’s longest-running improv comedy show, and Soter (You Should Get a Cat, 2016, etc.) is a producer and performer for Manhattan’s Sunday Night Improv. Together in this how-to manual, the duo seeks to make learning improvisation creative and fun. Beginning with a brief history (improv has Chicago roots), the work quickly jumps into the nuts and bolts of slapstick “comedy of the moment.” Instead of scripts, improv performers are given prompts—from the troupe, a partner, or even the audience—and they must learn to act naturally and off the cuff.

Chapters begin with footnoted quotes, mostly from actors—like John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—and then key concepts are explained for the novice. While it may seem ironic to have rules for spontaneous acting, the authors’ tenets are meant to help newcomers learn to work in sync with other actors. For example, in the guideline “accept all offers,” if an acting partner presents an imaginary cup of coffee, an improviser should take it and develop that idea, instead of asking for tea and stopping the flow of the scene. Exercises and games are also included; for example, in “Silent Partner,” one team member must stay quiet, communicating only with body language and facial expressions.

Packed with action photos from the authors’ careers (some contain famous faces, like Robin Williams), the easy-flowing layout is eye-catching. Memorable analogies are used to explain key concepts; for example, building a scene is compared to constructing a house, brick by brick. Most intriguingly, the buoyant chapters end with examples from the authors’ own seasoned careers, such as the times they achieved “group mind,” which caused them to perform seamlessly with their partners. Quirky and lighthearted (at the end of the Introduction, the authors proclaim, “Read on, MacDuff”), this lively romp through the improv world is accessible for both high school and adult readers.

A colorful, spirited gem for aspiring actors or groups looking to improve teamwork.

Sometimes the Good Guys Lose

img_0492As I stood there, staring into the cold, rainy night of November 9, I was overcome by feelings of devastation and loss, feelings that were impossible to shake. The night before when I went to bed at 10 PM, things had looked bad for the Democrats and they seemed worse an hour or so later when I had stopped tossing and turning and got up to check the returns. Only a miracle could save Hillary, who – just a month before, according to the pundits –would soon be riding a blue wave of electoral college votes, picking up Republican-friendly states that were so appalled by their standard-bearer that they would do the unthinkable and vote for a Democrat. A month ago, many declared the election over and all that was left was to see how big a victory Hil got, how things would be different with the Democrats in control of the Senate (maybe they’d even take the House). It was a giddy ride that turned into a pipe dream. The happy dreams of hollow men. President Trump not Clinton. Or as one of my friends put it: “Four years of grab my pussy.”

My father, George, had worked with Donald Trump in the 1990s. George was usually a genial man who tried to like everyone, but he hated the Donald. After months of working as a copywriter for Trump at a boutique advertising agency called Great Scott, my father started referring to his orange-haired client as “the turd.” Well, Trump had the last word: he walked away from millions of dollars in bills owed to the agency, refusing to pay and ultimately putting Great Scott out of business.

Now Trump – typically, in defiance of all logic, common sense, and decency – has been elected president of the United States. A supreme narcissist, a bully, a misogynist, a serial liar, a sexual predator, a bigot, a man who never apologizes, who admires thugs and dictators, and encourages hate and violence, this is one sick cookie who lives in a fantasy world where he is always right. And he has been chosen to lead our country.

Barak Obama, Michele Obama, Bernie Sanders, and many others have all spoken eloquently on why Trump is dangerous and should not be given the power he will be given. To no avail. He won. What happened to the “rigged election”? If only it had been!

I blame the media, which led us down a garden path with talk of a “solid four-point lead” in the polls and an 81 percent chance of Hilary Clinton winning the presidency and their over-the-top coverage of Trump, making him into a mega-super star whose every utterance was parsed for meaning. I blame the Democratic Party, which was obsessed with the Clintons, and didn’t see the importance of Bernie Sanders, a phenomenon who, as the nominee with an enthusiastic following, could have taken down Trump. I blame the FBI for getting involved in politics. I blame Hillary, who, while supremely qualified to be president, took too much for granted, watching the polls not the people.

But most of all, I blame the American public. Angry and ill-informed, by electing Trump, they showed that all the talk of “American Greatness” is bullshit. The majority that voted for Trump is mean-spirited and short-sighted, seeking scapegoats not solutions, uninterested in progressive ideas, Russian duplicity, or the state of our planet. We are told they feel left behind. If we live that long, let’s see how much further left behind they will be in four years – and who they scapegoat then.

As for me, I haven’t looked at a newspaper or watched the TV news in two days. If I don’t see it, maybe I can believe it didn’t happen. But then, like Mia Farrow in the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, screaming with an overpowering terror, “This is not a nightmare! This is real!”

I fear for the planet.

Improv Squad Recalled Fondly

By TOM SOTER
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The year 2014 may have been a year to remember – but I don’t remember a thing about it outside of the reunion of the New York Improv Squad. It was July of 1984 when I first performed with the Squad (our early names included “The Coffee Achievers” – what were we thinking?) and it was up to fleeting member (and sometime Broadway star) Anthony Crivello to give us the straightforward, non-cutesy name that said what we were all about: improv comedy. Witty Carl Kissin convinced us to rehearse (although Rick Simpson, laconic and Gary Cooper-like, booked the rehearsal space) while Chris Hoyle, guitar and rhymes at the ready, got us our first gig at the midnight show at Ye Olde Tripple Inn (their spelling not mine) and later led us into our most famous gigs, performing on the street to enthusiastic crowds. Judith Searcy brought laid-back charm to the company, while 16-year-old Deb Rabbai delivered youthful smarts. Diana Conforti was our comedic heart, Jeff Clinkenbeard our comedic soul, and I was the “leader” – though who could lead such a group? (My first two decisions were immediately ignored.) After all, we weren’t really a group, we were a family – damned funny at times, as the moments in the video, The Return of the New York Improv Squad, clearly shows. I left the group in January of 1986, but my love for that dedicated band of coffee achievers continues unabated. We weren’t the Upright Citizens Brigade, but we were something special. Happy 30th, Squad!

Schindler to Teach Improv Class in N.J.

Carol Schindler, co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, will be teaching a beginners’ improv class starting Monday, January 18, 2016, at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, 21 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, N.J. Price: $30 a class or $20 a class for a series of 10.

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“Do not miss this chance to study with the incomparable 
Carol Schindler! Carol was a founding member of Chicago City Limits, and as such, one of my first improv inspirations and teachers. She’s one of the voices in my head that I pay my shrink extra to NOT eradicate.” Matthew Krevat/Founding Member, ComedySportz of Chapel Hill

“Carol’s grace under fire and ability to defuse tension with comedy are critical skills that enable her to communicate with even the toughest audience. I look forward to the opportunity to work with Carol again in the near future.” Jeffery JacksonExecutive Director, The Conference Board

“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

 

Working with Robin

Carol Schindler performing with Robin Williams in 1984.

Carol Schindler performing with Robin Williams in 1983.

By CAROL SCHINDLER

I’ll never forget the night that Robin Williams walked into our theater at Chicago City Limits and asked us if he could perform with us. It was in 1983 when he was in New York City shooting Moscow on the Hudson. As you might imagine, we were surprised and thrilled. We were just getting ready to begin our Saturday night show. We had recently gotten some good reviews and the house was packed.

Robin came backstage with us as we quickly changed the running order of the show to accommodate him and his amazing skills. He loved the idea of improvising a Shakespearean play so we did a Shakespearean “Caller’s Option.” A caller’s option is a scenic game where a cast member (the caller) stands on the side and every once in a while freezes the action and asks the audience how to continue. Unbilled and unannounced, Robin was going to make his initial entrance in a Shakespearean caller’s option.

Chicago City Limits performing with Robin Williams.

Chicago City Limits performing with Robin Williams.

The caller got the suggestion of a song title from the audience and a cast member entered and began a Shakespearean soliloquy using that title. The job of that first cast member is to set up a Shakespearean story: the king is in trouble and I must help him or I want the throne and I am out to destroy the king – that kind of thing. The caller then freezes that action and tells the audience that the king is going to enter with news and asks what is that news? The audience supplies the news. That is when Robin made his entrance as the king.

It took the audience a few seconds to realize just who the king was. You could hear a surprise gasp starting in the front of the audience and working its way to the back. Then came the applause.

Robin was a great improvisers and he did the whole show with us improvising in scenes, songs, and stories. He was a whiz at foreign language “gibberish” and he would improvise a poem in gibberish and one of the cast members would translate. He did a conducted story with us. He did a “first line/last line” scene. It was a magical night.

And it was just the first. Robin came back every weekend. He would come on a Friday night or a Saturday night and sometimes both nights. On stage he was on fire. Off stage he was soft-spoken, almost shy. I remember him as being kind and generous. We would sit backstage and talk about life and comedy.

Carol Schindler, with fellow members of Chicago City Limits and guest star Robin Williams in 1983.

Carol Schindler, with fellow members of Chicago City Limits and guest star Robin Williams in 1983.

When I heard the sad news about his death I was shocked. Even though it had been many years since I had seen Robin I felt in some way like he was a friend. I cared what happened to him and always wished him the best. I guess that was because he had given us such a gift with his talent and generous performances on our stage. I remember his manic stage presence and his shy offstage personality. I wondered if he was unable to ever comfortably merge the two. I have heard rumors that he was bipolar but I do not know if this is the case. I only know that all of us were unable to love him enough, that, in spite of fame and fortune, he must have felt very much alone, and that makes me sad. Still, he left us with a tremendous gift – his talent and his life! How he made us laugh and what a sacrifice for him that must have been.

Schindler in California, Selling Improv to Execs

Carol Schindler at a recent seminar.

Carol Schindler at a recent seminar.

Palm Springs, CA, TechServe Alliance Annual Conference, Nov. 14 –The presentation was entitled “Your Brain, Your Body, and Your Business: Trade Secrets from an Improviser,”  and the speaker was Carol Schindler, a founding member of Chicago City Limits and co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION.

Schindler spoke about how it is “in the present moment that we are authentic, intelligent and impactful and yet, it is difficult it is to stay in the present moment when are minds are full of needless thoughts.”

She added: “You know how to show up. You could not be in business if you didn’t. However, there are those times when we get lost in our thoughts. Our minds are busy thinking about everything but what is happening right now. Your body is here but your mind is thinking about a meeting you went to yesterday or wondering if your flight home is going to be on time. Showing up is more than having your butt in a chair. It’s about paying attention to what is going on in the moment.”

Schindler revealed what she called “the three trade secrets” for “staying present”:

Breathing helps a speaker or performing stay grounded in “your body and aware,” she said. “This helps us to focus on what is happening in the moment instead of spinning our wheels over thinking,” she explained.

Active Listening helps a speaker or performer to “connect with others. We take listening for granted when in reality to really listen we have to be focused. Here is what active listen looks like: we are fully engaged in listening and not thinking of a response; we are making eye contact; our body language is open and positive; we are generously giving the speaker our full attention. Yes, it is very active, hence the name.”

“Yes, Anding,” she noted helps a person to :agree and to add to ideas, suggestions, and situations that we may find ourselves in. It is saying ‘yes’ to what is happening in the moment rather than resisting what is happening. In this way we learn to build on the ideas of others. Resistance stops creativity and innovation.”

Schindler will be teaching a Monday class, from 7-9 in New Jersey, starting in January.

When Theft Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

An unused cover for the book.

An unused cover for the book.

To paraphrase  an old saying, “Theft is the sincerest form of flattery.”

That was one thought that went through the heads of Tom Soter and Carol Schindler when they saw three listings on the Google search engine that all offered free downloads of their book, A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION.

“It was flattering in a strange kind of way,” Soter said, “because someone thought our book is popular enough to attract internet users to their scam, whatever it ultimately is.”

Soter also said that there was a site that offered nine of his books for a free download. “At least they are completists,” he said.

The copyright infringement was reported to Google, which removed the listings from the web.

Improv Author Reflects on Her Teachers

CCL, c. 1985: Chris Oyen (pointing) with (left to right) Paul Zuckerman, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, and David Regal.

Chicago City Limits, c. 1985: Chris Oyen (pointing) with (left to right) Paul Zuckerman, Carol Schindler, Linda Gelman, and David Regal.

Carol Schindler, co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION, recently reflected on her three most important improv teachers.

“I have had the good fortune to have studied with three amazing improv teachers: Del Close, Paul Sills, and George Todisco. Each of these men was passionate about improv and each had a unique style of teaching the art.

Del Close, at Second City, was experiential and undisciplined. We never knew if he would even show up. He’d often get frustrated with us and walk out of class. He was high a good deal of the time. We stuck around because he was an improv genius, and when he was on, there was no other teacher like him. He pushed us to allow our imaginations to fly. I found working with him thrilling. I was part of his Farwell to Chicago show. And what a wild and wacky bit of work it was. He was my first improv teacher and I learned to love improv listening to Del and watching Second City.

George Todisco (center) with Chicago City Limits in 1980.

George Todisco (center) with Chicago City Limits in 1980.

George Todisco was a true artist. Like Del, he lived on the edge but George was more driven. I met George in Del’s class, from which he founded Chicago City Limits. George wanted to form a great improv group, hoping to make Chicago City Limits better than any other troupe out there. He took us on the road to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City, so we could learn from the best and get our performance chops. He moved us to New York because Chicago did not need another improv group. And he was right.

“George was all about the performance. We worked our shows until they were perfect. We rehearsed and rehearsed the set pieces and drilled the improv games and scene work. He worked with us until it got to the point where we could almost read each other’s minds. George wanted dedicated improvisers. If you were not willing to risk all for improv, you weren’t welcome in the company. It was through George that I learned to be passionate about improv and, through him, I realized that improv was going to be my life’s work.

“Paul Sills was more quiet and studied. He was very interested in what unfolded in ‘the moment.’ He would not accept anything that was untrue or not organic to the scene. We struggled in his class to find the truth in scenes, which often emerged in the moment. He had cut his teeth on improv – his mother, Viola Spolin, had written the first book on it, Improvisation for the Theatre – so he was not easy to study with. He was so strict with his ideas and would not tolerate other approaches. I was an experienced improviser when I worked with Paul, and I found that studying improv with him was like trying to be a boxer with both hands tied behind my back. He tolerated none of my quick wit or active choices. But Paul Sills introduced me to working in the moment.

The book of improv.

The book of improv.

“Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful teachers has passed away leaving this planet way too soon. I grieve for them all but mostly for George, whom I loved dearly as a generous and good friend as well as a teacher.

“In this book, I will try to pass on to anyone interested a little of what these three men taught me. I will also pass on what I learned in my many years performing improv, for experience as they say, in the end is the greatest teacher. I am grateful to them and to everyone that I have ever performed with but especially the cast of Chicago City Limits, Linda Gelman, Chris Oyen, Paul Zuckerman, David Regal, and our wonderful pianists, Rick Crom, Eddy Ellner, and John McMahon. These are the people who not only taught me about improv but who worked and struggled and laughed and gave all to make Chicago City Limits what George wanted it to be, a great improv company.”

 

 

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The Book of Improv

The book of improv.

It’s here!

The book that has been called “a document of our time,” by master teacher Rob McCaskill, and a book “for anyone who is is still on the path to knowledge,” by actor Mark Ruffalo. Veteran improvisers Carol Schindler and Tom Soter offer an essential guide to improvisation. “I wish I had this book when I was starting out!” says TV’s Hal Linden. 

A DOCTOR AND A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT, by Carol Schindler and Tom Soter, is for anyone interested in exploring how to have more confidence, be more spontaneous, and tap into their creativity. 

Aimed at improvisers and those who teach improvisation, the lessons in this book can also help actors, writers, teachers, corporate executives, producers, dentists, firemen, factory workers, goat herders, astronauts, social workers, magicians, accountants, manicurists, Ninja warriors, and, of course, doctors and plumbers. Improvisation can be helpful for everyone. Even if you don’t necessarily want help, it’s still just plain fun. 

Available now from Amazon.

Improv Author Remembers Key Moments

Rick Simpson, Tom Soter, Deb Rabbai, and Carl Kissin in a 1994 reunion of the New York Improv Squad.

Rick Simpson, Tom Soter, Deb Rabbai, and Carl Kissin in a 1994 reunion of the New York Improv Squad.

Tom Soter, the co-author of A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION, remembers some keys moments from his many years of teaching and performing improv.

“When talking about making someone look good, I always remember a scene Leo Jenicek  did in my class years ago. The suggested location for the scene was a clearing in the woods, and Leo was sitting with his back to his scene partner – never a good idea, by the way – and in the audience we could see that he was miming writing a letter. But his partner could only see his back and that he was doing something with his arm. She made a guess and entered, saying, “Are you still frying those beans?” – or something like that – and Leo immediately twisted his hand around to mime the holding of a frying pan. Now, an inexperienced improviser would have said, “I’m not frying beans, I’m writing a letter” (subtext: you idiot). But Leo is a good improviser and he adjusted, not holding onto his idea and not pointing out that his partner had misinterpreted his actions. When you are improvising with an expert improviser you are in good hands. Working with an improviser like Leo is fun because you know that he’s got your back, so you can relax and let the scene flow. 

Leo Jenick, Michael Bridemstine, and Matt Ostrom, performing as part of the Chainsaw Boys.

Leo Jenick, Michael Bridenstine, and Matt Ostrom, performing as part of the Chainsaw Boys.

“In one show I was in years ago, I started a scene with Matt Ostrom  in complete silence. We looked at each other. Then he took a chair that was on the stage and moved it, very particularly, and set iy down on the stage. Then I took another chair and moved it, very particularly, and set it down on the stage. We ended up alternating in the arrangement of the chairs, which was done in a very precise manner; it was almost a ballet of the chair arrangement. The opening of that scene looked very impressive. My father, who was in the audience, said to me after the show, “You must have planned that bit with the chairs. It was very well choreographed.” But we hadn’t choreographed it. It was pure agreement – I agreed with Matt’s initial action and my intention was to make him look good. I could have just watched him rearranging chairs – be passive – but my instinct was to support his idea. Even though I didn’t know what we were doing – and he didn’t have much of an idea either – I went along with him and that made him look good, and he made me look good. And the scene that developed looked good too.

Tom Soter and Carol Schindler (far left) performing with the cast of Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter and Carol Schindler (far left) performing with the cast of Sunday Night Improv.

“I once had a student named Rhonda, who was very talented but didn’t understand how to start a scene. She would invariably start talking the moment it would begin. She would lay out a whole scenario – in effect, saying, “This is the story, and here is your part and here is my part.” She didn’t observe what her partner was doing – which is a way to inspire yourself – and she didn’t listen unconditionally to what her partner was saying. I ended up creating a rule for her, which I called “The Rhonda Rule.” Whenever the rule was imposed, Rhonda couldn’t start talking in a scene until her partner spoke for the first time. When “The Rhonda Rule” was in place, her partner could often draw out the silence at the top of the scene, forcing Rhonda to listen and observe. Some amazing scenes came out of that. They were all based on listening, observing, and communicating, too. I now apply the rule to other students who suffer from Rhonda’s complaint.

Tom Soter and Linda Gelman at Sunday Night Improv.

Tom Soter and Linda Gelman at Sunday Night Improv.

“Silence and listening can be a potent combination. I once did a scene in which my partner started talking about her character’s problems. She went on in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, and as I listened and observed her, it seemed like she was solving her character’s problems as she spoke, so I ended up not saying anything, just nodding. The scene ended with her saying to me, “Thank you, Tom, talking with you sure helped straighten me out.” Blackout. And I didn’t say a thing. I just listened.

“Active listening is what the best improvisers do. Watching Chicago City Limits in the 1980s, I was often impressed by the “active listening” practiced by the troupe, especially when it did a “Conducted Story.” It was amazing the way the conductor could cut off cast members mid-word and the next person speaking would pick up at mid-word, seamlessly following the flow. It sounded like one person speaking.”