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As an Australian improviser who’s just returned from the US, let me tell you, the improv scenes in the cities I went to (LA, Chicago & NYC) are terrifying. It really makes you realise how new and sheltered our community is when whole Harold teams at iO Chicago are regularly cut after only three months and hundreds of UCB improvisers are spending years auditioning repeatedly after they’ve finished classes in the hopes of finally making it onto a Harold team (if you haven’t seen this documentary about UCB auditions, check it out. It’s pretty crazy seeing a current SNL cast member having to work so hard for opportunities ). As the Improv Conspiracy grows, it will likely become more and more like these more mature communities where official opportunities are harder to obtain and performers have to make more of their own.
Even my house team audition in late 2014 feels like a far simpler time compared to where we are now. My audition round was The Improv Conspiracy’s second ever. There were no more than 20 people auditioning in the round (less than half the number expected to be auditioning this time around) and I hadn’t even finished Level 3 at the time. The centerpiece of the audition was a messy, 16 minute panic-Harold. Somehow some of us still got on teams.
However we didn’t know the audition results until the next night. Straight afterwards no one felt particularly confident so we decided to drown our sorrows at a shopping centre bar because that’s the kind of state-of-mind we were in. Not knowing who was going to make the cut and who wasn’t, we made an agreement sitting around a barrel/table that we’d all commit to forming an indie team to train weekly and find performance opportunities regardless of whether we got to perform on Harold Night. Thus The Beautiful People in the Basement was born and instead of only having one cool team to perform and practice with, during the first half of 2015, I got two.
This brings me to my main point. Everyone gets involved in improv for different reasons, everybody has other commitments, that’s all good. But if you’re really ambitious about this stuff FORM AN INDIE TEAM, RIGHT NOW. Form one at your audition even if you think you’ll definitely get on a house team. This goes for less certain people too. Form one two weeks into your level one class, form one if you’re a more experienced player who would get the opportunity to perform once or twice a week anyway. I guarantee you, having something on the go outside of official opportunities will help you improve and create even more of your own opportunities in the future. In a nod to my illustrious pre-improv career as a mediocre intervarsity debater, I have broken down my case further into four points.
1. You can always use the extra training an indie team will provide. Congratulations, best case scenario, you had an amazing audition and now you’re on a Harold Team. You’re probably thinking now you can just relax for a year or two until Lorne Michaels calls. Unfortunately, if you’re not my rhetorical straw man you’ve still got a lot of hard work ahead of you. I can only speak from my own experience, but when I (and many other performers I’ve spoken to) get a new opportunity, I spend at least six months feeling lost and untalented. Growth is painful. A great way to get over this hump is to have another team you can go to to get extra training, do extra shows and get a break from the pressure of that new, scary project.
2. An indie team will let you perform and train regularly if you didn’t get that thing that you wanted. In fact, with a little bit more work, it will give you all the benefits of that thing anyway. I like to think I throw myself into improv as hard as anyone possibly can but that’s not true. I regularly improvise with a guy who I originally auditioned with, who didn’t get on a house team when I did and then proceeded to work so hard that he’s now a fair bit better than me, despite the fact I got that shiny opportunity earlier. Status doesn’t matter; the only thing that does matter is hard work. He wasn’t going to wait to be given permission to start working hard.
3. An indie team lets you have something that is truly your own. Like it or not, Harold, Fresh Blood Teams, classes and a whole host of other wonderful opportunities at the theatre are valuable and enjoyable, but they aren’t entirely yours. Teams get broken up and shifted around and performers don’t get much say in the matter. Classes finish and the people disperse. These are all fine, change is important for growth, but there’s also value to having a thing that is yours, that no one else has control over and that you can continue to build for however long you want to - whether at The Improv Conspiracy Theatre or another venue of your choice.
4. Related to point three, an indie team will give you the chance to invest in the improv relationships you want to cultivate regardless of what official opportunities everyone gets. These connections are not only hugely rewarding now, but down the track they will be invaluable for doing good shows, having more opportunities and giving you an improv and social support structure.
So how do you go about making this dream a reality?
1. Find a coach (side note: NEVER TRAIN WITHOUT A COACH, it’s bad, even worse than not training at all). This is as simple as asking anyone you respect, enjoyed being taught by or enjoy watching onstage if they want to coach you. I’m sure pretty much any performer would love to do it (scheduling permitting), and if even if they can't do it they certainly know other people who would love the opportunity. Coaching is really enjoyable and performers don’t bite so don’t be nervous about asking anyone. If you need advice on who to approach ask a teacher, mentor, me or just go out on a limb and shoot your favourite performer a message because we genuinely would love to hear from you. You could also ask a few new coaches to take you for one session each and get a range of perspectives before you settle on a favourite. Coaches tend to charge about $30 per hour though a few more experienced coaches charge higher rates. When you split the cost over a whole team it’s pretty cost effective when compared to classes.
2. Find a venue. People’s houses are fine, TIC has space to hire, so do a whole bunch of other places around the city, sometimes someone will even have a sweet space they can get for free from their work. It doesn’t matter all that much where you train so long as it has room to perform and is relatively distraction-free.
3. Decide what you want to do. Sometimes this might be working particular skills (e.g. game, group work), sometimes this might be learning a particular format (here are some ideas from Improv Encyclopedia and the Improv Resource Center). Sometimes you might have no idea what you want to do other than get stage/training time, in these cases your coach can steer you to things you mightn’t even know you wanted to do (like The Beautiful People coach Hayley did by recommending us The Deconstruction).
Ultimately it can be a lot of work, but an indie team is a great way to train and do the kind of shows you want to do without waiting for permission from the powers that be. There are plenty of opportunities to bring that work to a TIC show or do your own thing somewhere else. All I know is I want to see the cool things you and your friends could create, so start making them!