24 Hours of Opera and Improv

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by J.Hill

This year the Atlanta Opera partnered with Dad’s Garage Theatre for the 24-Hour Opera Project®. As soon as I heard the news, I knew I wanted to be involved. I’m fortunate to be part of ImprOper, a group of Dad’s improvisers and singers who play musical improv games and perform improvised operas. From that experience, I knew hearing professional singers unleash their beautiful, powerful voices to make fart jokes is a very special kind of joy. And with Dad’s company members as writers, I was fairly sure this year’s performances would include at least a few fart jokes.

The project felt lightening fast and painstakingly slow at the same time. On Friday morning at 8:30am, the lyricists and composers arrived on-site. We were randomly paired into 5 teams, and then each group picked one prop to inspire their story. Next the project organizers told us this year’s theme: alternative facts. With that, we were off and running! Each team had 12 hours to compose and write lyrics for a 7-10 minute opera.

Jonathan Spuhler and I were a writing team for the lyrics, and we were matched with composer Lauren McCall. When Jonathan and I suggested we kick-off the day by telling a tag team monologue inspired by “alternative facts,” Lauren jumped right in! Our group was excited about the idea of telling a fairy tale about children learning that they can’t always listen to the traditions (or alternative facts) their parents tell them. After we had a general outline for the story, Lauren got to work composing on her computer and experimenting on the piano. Jonathan and I developed lyrics, and shared them with Lauren as soon as they were ready. I’m in awe of the beautiful and complicated score Lauren created in less than one day! After 12 hours that included playing improv games, writing, snacking, laughing over the Truffle Aria, and reworking story endings (sometimes your story just wants to be a tragedy, and that’s all there is to it), our piece entitled A Forest to Table Fable was born.

 

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The teams were back bright and early at 8am Saturday morning to meet our music directors and performers. I was the stage director for our piece, and I was lucky to be paired with music director Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald, whose leadership and positivity got our team through the day. I was thrilled to also work with Jayme Alilaw and Abby Halon, two amazing singers who also are part of ImprOper, and who played the human family in our fable. I hadn’t met the other singers before, but Jessica Wax and Andrew Pardini were all smiles when I told them they’d be playing the bear family. They were wonderful. After 6 hours of rehearsal to learn the music, practice singing and stage the action, it was time to go to Dad’s Garage for the performance!

I wish I could describe all five pieces in detail, but I wouldn’t do them justice… and I also hadn’t slept much, so I’m probably hazy on a few details. I remember feeling over-the-moon when my team performed. I was also excited to see and hear the pieces the other Dad’s artists helped create.

While watching each piece, I was amazed by how different they all were. On Friday morning we all started with the same information, and by Saturday night we had all ended in very different places: a fairytale about friendship, quests of anonymous gamers and the real lives waiting for them, a couples counseling session that takes a turn for the better… and then the even better, the saga of a megalomaniac magician and the people in his wake, and the arc of a couple’s relationship set in a Mexican restaurant, complete with a singing burrito. In improv we often emphasize the importance of saying yes to other people’s offers, because you never know where it will take you. The 24-Hour Opera Project® provided five unexpected and delightful examples of the truth behind that idea. I’m also proud to report that in A Forest to Table Fable the singers lamented “GI frustrations” (which is the opera way of describing farts).

 

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How Improv and Volunteering at Dad’s Keeps Me Moving Forward

By Frances Chang

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Life is full of ups, downs, and transitions; but for me, what has remained consistent is improv. This may seem like an oxymoron since improv is literally made up on the spot and changes from moment to moment. But no matter what is going on in my life, I can always count on improv.

It wasn’t until later along my path of puppets, pro wrestling, and the circus (I have a weird life, don’t judge) that I would befriend many of the improvisers of Dad’s Garage, but was 2012 by the time I took my first DG improv class. My impetus for taking the plunge was a break up – a transition. Most people change their hair cut or color (I already did that), but I wanted to change my life. I wanted to change myself. I needed to make a difference. I needed confidence. I needed improv.

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The first class is like crack, it’s designed to get you addicted. We played games, we encouraged each other, we supported each other, we would be great friends for life. As we continued our journey, we learned about storytelling, characters, and how to put on a show. Each level allowed us to hone our abilities on how to listen, how to be in the moment, and how to move the story along – much like how we’re supposed to live life. After progressing through the four levels of improv class, I did the scariest thing in my life; the Dad’s Garage Level Four Grad Show. It was nerve wracking and exhilarating all at once. I did it with my new friends, and don’t regret a single moment. I was hooked. I immediately began volunteering at Dad’s Garage (Volunteer of the month November 2015, right here!).

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I even explored other improv classes at other theaters which led to sketch writing, comedy performing, and video producing. These accomplishments then led to invitations to perform in other prestigious Atlanta shows. It was always a frightening venture, but I was armed with the tools the talented DG improviser instructors bestowed upon me. My improv skills even came to good use when I belatedly realized I had to provide a presentation for an interview. I brought much laughter and amusement to a room full of public health administrators with my winged presentation on the zombie apocalypse. (Only one guy was not so amused – also, I didn’t get that job.)

There will always be improv. Improv is here to comfort us. Improv cures our ails with laughter. Improv gives us respite from reality. It’s been almost three years of volunteering and I still can’t get enough DG. I am currently unemployed, we’ve come out on the wrong side of the most contentious presidential election, and the future is uncertain, but there is always Dad’s Garage. When life is in turmoil, I know I can always come to Dad’s Garage. Dad’s Garage is family. Dad’s Garage is home.

(Also, someone please hire me, I’m a marketing, social media, event planning guru!)

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Matt Hobbs: How Musical Improv Helped Me Write an Album

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By Matt Hobbs 

I discovered Dad’s Garage shortly after moving to Atlanta in 2010. Prior to that, I’d written some songs, played in a few bands, and done some musical theatre. But I’d never worked as a musical improviser. True story.

Outside of the musicians on “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” I’d never even seen a musical improviser, but after attending shows at Dad’s, I was fascinated by the role. It seemed like a cool way to use music, so I inquired about the gig after a show one time. Then I did a few workshops and started sitting in on Thursday nights. The rest was history – and what followed was the craziest, most amazing 4 years of improv shows, musicals, and improv classes. And that experience has taught me a lot.

During much of that time, I was also writing and recording an album of original songs. And that album is finally done; it’s called “17th Street.” In reflecting on the experience of creating the album, I realized how my experience as a musical improviser has shaped my approach to songwriting.

 

Make Musical Choices that Support the Story You’re Trying to Tell

As a musical improviser scoring a show, your musical choices should enhance the narrative.   When a king enters the stage, you play regal-sounding horns. When a young couple is lamenting the loss of an omelet, you play melancholy minor chords. The choices you make – what music to add and how much – needs to support the idea that you and your fellow improvisers are trying to communicate.

This same idea drove many of the decisions we made when we were recording songs in the studio. We started out with stripped-down demo versions of each song (piano and vocals or guitar and vocals), and from there we built out arrangements to enhance the songs. Each song on 17th Street captures a moment from a narrative – and the process of deciding “what music to add and when” felt similar to scoring an improv scene. For example, there’s one song on the album called “Everybody Else’s World.” It’s a darker, emotional song that definitely has some anger and bitterness to it, so we added in heavy drums and some electric guitars. Another song, “When I Was Ready to Grow Up,” is totally different. It captures a lonely moment for the main character of the album, so we didn’t add too much – leaving only guitar, vocals, and light percussion to tell the story.

 

Pull from Personal Experience to Build an Authentic Story

I’ve heard that when an actor uses personal experience to inform how they approach a scene, the character they’re playing will be much more authentic. That is, it’s easier for an audience to connect with a character whose reality is based on something real.

I approached writing “17th Street in a similar way” – even if it meant taking some risks to share real, personal stories about real people. In some cases, I didn’t even bother to change their names (for fear of compromising the lyrical quality of the song, like “Mary Delaney”). I’ve heard if writing isn’t scary for the writer, it probably isn’t good. So in putting these songs together, I tired to march in and tell some honest stories, including happy moments of love and optimism as well as unstable moments of insecurity, anger, and heartache.

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Trust Your Scene Mates / Studio Mates

In the same way that improvisers support each other to build an improv scene, a supportive environment is equally crucial in the studio.  When you’re in the 10th hour of a session and you’re stuck on how to finish out a vocal part, you need to trust your fellow musicians and engineers to look out for what the song or track needs.

You also need to trust your producer. I met Ben Holst, the producer of “17th Street,” through Dad’s Garage a few years. In recording the album, we had to support each other, say “yes and,” and build on each others’ choices as we journeyed from stripped-down down demo tracks (which I recorded in my bedroom) to a full blown album.

 

So There You Have It

Working as a musical improviser has definitely shaped my approach to writing and recording and album. More than that, my time at Dad’s helped connect me with the people who made the album possible. So here to many more years of musical improv and writing songs! Yee haw!

Matt Hobbs’s Album “17th Street” is available for “free or name your price” download at 17thStreetAlbum.com. It’s also available on Spotify, iTunes, and all other major online music stores. Visit Matt’s Website for more info.

 

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Politics is Easy. Comedy is Hard.

By August J. Pollak

*When I wrote and drew political cartoons, I had a rule: if it took me way too little time to think of a joke, I shouldn’t do it, because it meant every other political cartoonist in the country probably just thought of that one too. This is the opposite of improv, where your job is to think of something immediately and then say it without second-guessing. The difference is when improvisers do it, they tend to actually be funny. The distinction here is that improvisers are being talented while political cartoonists are being lazy.

 

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Believe it or not, I wrote this nine years ago, not nine weeks. Thanks, Donald.

 

Despite that, I think political cartoonists and improvisers carry a shared stigma of stereotyping: people associate the former with bad black-and-white caricatures of politicians, or references with things labeled everywhere, and associate the latter with YouTube clips they saw of That One Television Show about Improv. There’s a lot more talent, and more importantly, variety, out there, and as comedians, we’re trying to show that. But man, oh man can it be hard, especially when it comes to comedy and politics.

Working at Dad’s Garage, I get to see a lot of shows—far more than the average audience member does. And that’s the catch right there—for an audience, everything they see is something new. For improvisers, I can feel their frustration every time they ask the audience for a suggestion and get yelled at “DONALD TRUMP!”

See, here’s the thing, audiences: you all think you want to hear the Trump joke. So you all offer Trump as a suggestion, because to you, it’s a new thing. For the improvisers, it’s the same thing over and over again, which is, by definition, the opposite of improv. Election season is the worst at Dad’s Garage because everyone wants to hear the funny people say something funny about politicians. “Donald Trump” is suggested so much that it now has a place of dishonor on the Dad’s Wall of Retired Suggestions We’ll Never Take, along with “gynecologist,” “dildo,” and “Harry Potter.” (Although, man, the scene that retired all three of those was legendary)

Politics is hard in comedy, because people want instant validation of their views, in chuckle format. The best political commentary is careful and clever, and you can still be funny while doing that. Our artistic director Kevin asked me to help with our staging of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents a few years back; he knew I did cartoons, and we took that, plus a popular meme at the time, to create a sketch about James A. Garfield, literally one of the least-known presidents in history, who was remembered mostly for the very unfunny act of having been killed in office.

 

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James A. Garfield Minus Garfield, from 44 Plays for 44 Presidents

 

Did it work? I think so. People laughed, and more importantly, I don’t think people had seen or heard that joke a hundred times before.

We are professional funny people. Of course we can do an easy referential joke for you. But we can do so much more. The best political comedy makes you stop and think. Maybe it even challenges your own biases or notions about your opinions. If you can actually find yourself disagreeing with what a comedian is saying, politically, but still recognize that it’s funny, that’s probably the result of well-practiced craft right there. But politics is a huge, important world, and if you give comedy the time to focus on it, it can send a powerful message—certainly about something more important than Donald Trump.

Who, by the way, is a poop face fart man. Dildo.

*The views expressed in this blog post are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company.

August J. Pollak is a member of the Dad’s Garage house staff, as well as a comedy writer and performer. He drew the political cartoon “Some Guy With a Website” for eleven years. [http://www.someguywithawebsite.com/]

 

Tom Rittenhouse on Failure: Surviving the Worst Improv Scene EVER

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I, Tom Rittenhouse, am responsible for the worst improv scene in Dad’s Garage history. There, I said it. Wow! What a statement!

Now I can’t say that it was quantifiably the worst. That’s a pretty impossible thing to defend. But it was at least bad enough that a commemorative plaque of the event was made and is currently on display in the Dad’s lobby. I should also say that I’m not the only one responsible. Other parties were involved. Their names and likenesses shall be omitted from this article, though.

It’s been remembered as “The Genghis Khan Scene” and it took place on May 22, 2008*. The first half of Thursday nights, at the time, featured a short-form improv show called “Nite Skool” staged by the Dad’s Garage Nonsemble (now known as The General Company). I’d been part of the Nonsemble for less than a year and was deep into the hit-or-miss stage of my career. So was it really the worst scene ever? Perhaps. But the key here is the convergence of incidents that made this scene so memorably bad:

  1. Real-life Boos: Without going into too much detail on the shaky-at-best narrative of the scene (because who wants to hear a recap of even a good improv scene?), basically Genghis Khan sets out to conquer the world (very original) and decides that France is top priority. After pillaging the streets of Paris, he encounters a prostitute played by … you’ll never guess … ME! Again, I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I very charmingly (read: not charming at all) dropped some French street walker zingers that went over extremely well (read: terribly) with the audience. The response after my last line of dialogue was a tidal wave of boos from the crowd. Not groans, mind you. Boos. 100% don’t-ever-do-that-again boos**.
  2. Only Part of the Problem: Looking back on the scene, I realize I was just one of a few improvisers who created this trainwreck. It’s not like it was going super great and then I walked in and ruined it. It was actually going very poorly and then I walked in and ruined it. Was I there to fall on my sword for my fellow struggling improv pals? No. My decision to enter the scene halfway through (as a character named after a specifically-female air-passing sound (don’t think about it too long) was to get some laughs. But really my contributions were so bad that, toward the end, one of my scene partners arose from a pretend coma and announced to the audience “I will leave this scene now.” Shortly thereafter the lights went down, the scene was over, and I Charlie-Brown-sad-walked over to the bench.
  3. It’s All on Video: At Dad’s Garage we very rarely record our shows. But in the late spring of 2008 the improv coming out of the Nonsemble was really struggling overall. So our improv director decided to film us that one night for the purpose of watching and giving notes at our next workshop. Look, everyone has bad shows. They’re good to get out of the way. You do a bad show, you learn a thing or two, you move on. After this show, though, the added weight of knowing we’d have to relive it all in a few days was absolutely brutal. I honestly can’t recall a more writhing, blush-inducing experience than that next workshop. I remember exactly where I was sitting during the viewing and I remember trashing the DVD immediately after to destroy all evidence of the scene.

When it was requested recently that I write this blog post I was asked if there are pictures of the show. The DVD is long gone, but I thought there was a chance the original tape still existed. After rooting through some boxes, I found it. I mustered up some humility and I watched it. In hindsight, it’s horrible. The boos are just as loud as I remembered. I’m not proud of what I said. At. All. But do I regret it? No way. There’s nothing in the world like bombing that spectacularly. It’s incredibly humbling and, in some ways, relieving. To make such a bad choice that is met immediately with unanimous, fervent disapproval is an invaluable learning experience. I’m better because of it.

And if you’re wondering if the reputation of the scene is worse than the actual scene, well you’ll never know. But trust me, you’re better off not finding out.

Bien à toi,

Queef

*The plaque says it happened in the Fall of 2007, the show DVD is labeled “05-22-2008,” but my emotional scars tell me the scene still hasn’t ended.

**I totally did elicit more loud boos in another show several months later. But after that? Never again! Fool me twice, right guys!?

How Improv Helps Toilet Sales

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By Taylor Roy, Dad’s Garage Improviser and Supply.com Salesdude

I’ve lived a double life for a while. For the past few years, I’ve been balancing a full-time day job with being an improviser in my free time. As I guess is inevitable, there’s been some blurring of the borders. And as it happens, improv is enormously helpful in the business world, and in particular sales. A career in sales pretty much guarantees that you will need to be able to listen intently, think quickly, and brace for the occasional deluge of customer lunacy (just kidding, love you guys). Being able to keep on your toes and react to those situations that can very easily spiral into crudstorms if you are not careful will keep you from getting bogged down or locking up in the face of adversity.

I started doing improv intermittently when I was about 15. What started as an outlet for awkward teenage Taylor to not be as awkward or teenage became a full fledged whatever-the-healthy-version-of-an-obsession is. All of the glory and laurels of theatre, with none of the rehearsals and memorization! Huzzah! This preoccupation led me to Chicago post-college, where I fried chicken fingers and washed daiquiri glasses at the legendary Second City. Success! After a few years of knocking around the near-tundra conditions of the Windy City, I moved back down to the muggy climes of Atlanta and weaseled my way into Dad’s Garage, where they have foolishly allow me to stay to this day. I have also been performing with local improv group “Witless Protection” for the past two years (look us up on that Facebook thing!). All the while, I have worked in various jobs that require customer service, most of which have been sales-oriented.

While improv is used by quite a few comedy theaters of esteem as a tool to write and hone written material or as a pretty darn nifty form of performance on it’s own (it makes its own gravy), it can be much more than that, even off-stage. The corporate world is rife with stories of improv workshops bringing together project teams into a cohesive whole, trouble-shooting a new selling strategy, or teaching Bob in Accounting how to come out of his shell. Great breakthrough, Bob.

So, what is this witchery? It’s quite simple. One of the cardinal rules of improv is to listen closely to everything your partners are saying (and not saying). Your customers are your partners. Listen to what they are telling you, it may be more than they realize. You may end up satisfying them in ways they never imagined (that came out wrong, but you get my point). Be flexible, and realize that you may not know what you’re going to say until you’re saying it, and that’s ok. If you aren’t confident dealing with pushy customers, pretend that you are someone that is. This brings me to another important rule in improvisation: to find the point of view and wants of the character you have decided to play, and act in a manner that is truthful to this person. Selling is acting, and improv is acting without a script. Joanne may be a wallflower at parties, but from 9-5 she is a smooth and confident retail warrior who can traverse the jungle of online sales without breaking a sweat. Know who you are, what you want, and know that not knowing exactly what will happen next is not the worst thing that can happen to you (that label is reserved for being eaten by bears).

If you feel as though you aren’t confident speaking off-the-cuff or dealing with unpredictable situations, I would heartily recommend taking an improv class. It will teach your mind to work in new ways and you may even end up rich and famous (results not guaranteed). At the very least, you’ll likely improve your selling technique and probably make some new friends. Improvisers make good bar buddies. Happy selling!

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Photo by Mike Hillman

“Check it out! There are more women than men on stage tonight.”

 

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Photos by Mike Hillman

Written By Megan Leahy, Creator of Woman of the Year

When I first started taking classes at Dad’s Garage, almost 14 years ago, there were few female improvisers on stage and none in the ensemble. Comedy has traditionally been a boy’s club but over the years, more diversity—including more women—can be seen on and off stage. I heard “Check it out! There are more women than men on stage tonight,” for the first time about 5 of 6 years ago. It was exciting, this sign of change for our family—especially with our Artistic Director Kevin Gillese leading the charge to increase diversity on our stage. This conscious effort meant that we heard the “more women than men” remark over and over again, to the point that it was no longer novel to hear. Or necessary. There are more men than women in our company. But sometimes, at Dad’s improv shows, there are more women than men on stage.

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The idea of Woman of the Year came about because I’m constantly inspired by these talented, funny, smart women at Dad’s. (To be fair, I’m also constantly inspired by the talented, funny, smart men at Dad’s as well, but that’s for a different blog post.) While the number of women may be increasing in terms of improv shows, Dad’s Garage playwrights heavily lean towards male. I wanted the women to have a voice that they may not have had an opportunity to share in a scripted play, and for all of us to have the chance to see what we can do.

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So why format the show around the year? We all experience seasons, holidays, and other yearly events differently. I wanted to see how other women feel about spring, Halloween, swimsuit season, and more. Unsurprisingly, the women of Dad’s Garage delivered hilarious sketches. In fact, they delivered so much that our script started out at about two and a half hours—which is a great problem to have. We ended up editing down our show and taking out some wonderful pieces and characters in order to make the show a reasonable length.

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One of my favorite things about this show is the roles that women get to play. Several years ago, I was asked by a younger female improviser, “How do I stop people from making me the mom or the girlfriend?” “You don’t,” I responded. I have played moms, girlfriends, wives, grandmothers, nieces and sisters over the years. I’ve played astronauts, presidents, murderers, rulers and cops, too. Why are these mutually exclusive? You can play a mom that’s an astronaut, a wife that’s a murderer—we can play whatever we want on this stage. In Woman of the Year, you’ll see women playing the heroes and the villains. We’re not on the sidelines, simply existing just to lend support. We’re front and center and we are having a blast.

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Finally, why is this show called Woman of the Year and not Year of the Woman? Though our cast has three women and two men, it’s not going to be the Year of the Woman until there are as many shows with more women on stage than men as there are with more men than women. We’ve all got work to do, but as long as we—women and men of Dad’s Garage—do it together, there’s no ceiling we can’t smash.12698618_982570165113938_5159321483131715911_o