Don’t Quit Your Day Job, A Reporter Engages In Games With An Improv Theater Veteran

This weekend, professional improvisers, much like those folks from the old TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway, will perform at the 2013 Houston Improv Festival. As a longtime improv performer myself, rather than just bring you the usual sort of interview, I thought I might flex my improvisational muscles, and engage festival organizer Todd Boring in some improv games and learn about the festival along the way.


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1. Questions Only

We started with a game called “questions only.” As the name suggests, the improvisers  are only allowed to speak in questions. If this were a performance on stage, anyone who failed to speak in question form would likely be buzzed out, and another improviser would jump in. As it was just me and Todd, we operated on the honor system:

CRAIG: “So long have you been doing improv?”
TODD: “How long have YOU been doing improv?”
CRAIG: “Why do you want to know how long I’ve been doing it?”
TODD: “Well I’ve been doing improv for about 15 years, and so I just want to know you know, if you’re in that same wheelhouse.”
CRAIG: “That wasn’t a question, technically.”
TODD: “Aaaaaaah! Dang it!” (laughter) “I already flunk!” CRAIG: “Why should anyone attend the Houston Improv Festival?”
TODD: “Why wouldn’t they want to attend it?”
CRAIG: “Who’s participating in this year’s festival?”
TODD: “How long do you have for me to answer that question?”
This went on for hours, with little real information gleaned, so, we moved on.


2. New choice

“New choice” is a good improv game to play in order to think and speak creatively. Improv performers playing “new choice” will engage in a scene, and while remaining in character, may be prompted by a third performer to come up with an alternative. So, if the improviser in question says, “I’d like a hamburger, fries, and a Coke” and is greeted with “new choice,” the performer might say “I’d love a taco, an enchilada, and an iced tea.” If another “new choice” is called, the pattern repeats until the improviser runs out of ideas or is driven to tears. Sometimes both.

As we began, Todd described the improv groups involved in this year’s festival:

TODD: “Well, we have about half and half local Houston groups, including Glaundor, Comedy Sportz is performing, there’s a group formed at Rice University called the Adriaens, it’s just a duo, and they’re pretty great. And then we also have several teams from Austin. And then we’re bringing down some really talented improvisers from Chicago, New York and Minneapolis.”
CRAIG: “New choice.”
TODD: “From Chicago, Tokyo, and a small burb of Detroit.”
CRAIG: “New choice.”
TODD: “From, well, frankly, Mars.”
CRAIG: “So, what will the improv experience be like for attendees?”
TODD: “You know, most people are familiar with the TV show, but any kind of televised improv doesn’t really capture what the essence of it is like. It’s like going to a ballgame versus watching it on TV.
CRAIG: “New choice.”
TODD:  “It’s like going to your grandmother’s, rather than just watching her on your iPod.”
CRAIG: “New choice.”
TODD:  “It’s like watching a monkey peel a banana versus eating the banana yourself … That’s a really good analogy!” 
CRAIG: “That was very well done!”


3. Alphabet

New choice ultimately didn’t work out, though, as Todd’s answers grew increasingly bizarre and he seemed much too fixated on monkeys. So, we tried the alphabet game, in which each sentence must begin with the next letter of the alphabet. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Just note the letters in bold. We pick up the game at the letter “E.”

CRAIG: “Exactly how many teams will be participating in this year’s festival?”
TODD: “Fifteen.”
CRAIG:“Good talent on these teams?”
TODD: “Hilarious.”
CRAIG: “I understand there will be short-form and long-form improvisation shown at this festival…what’s the difference?”
TODD: “Just the span of the games – so for short-form, you’ve got a small window, and very structured games, like the alphabet game, uh…”
CRAIG: “Keep your answers shorter, we only have three minutes.”
TODD: “Long form — that was a nice softball – long form is more scenic in nature, more unstructured, and the humor tends to be relational and situational in nature, as opposed to ‘gaggy’ and ‘gamey.’”
CRAIG: “Many improv attendees might be afraid they’re going to be put on stage – does that happen?
TODD: “Never…well, okay sometimes.”

This went on for a while, but just to prove we did get all the way through the alphabet, let’s pick back up at letter “W”…

CRAIG: “Will there be any improv groups performing with musical instruments.”
TODD: “Xylophones are not being used in this performance…I can’t guarantee that somebody won’t whip out a harmonica though.
CRAIG: “You did a very nice job of covering all of the information in alphabetical order – where are you headed next?”
TODD: “Uh, the zoo.”

We got a little punchy by the end there. So, here’s the key info:

What: The 2013 Houston Improv Festival
When: Thursday through Sunday, April 18-21
Where: Midtown Arts Center

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Craig Cohen

Craig Cohen

Executive Producer/Host, Houston Matters

Craig Cohen is the executive producer and host of Houston Matters, which airs weekday mornings at 9:00 on Houston Public Media, News 88.7 FM. Craig is a 20+ year veteran of broadcast journalism. He's spent the bulk of his career in public media, in roles ranging from programmer and manager,...

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