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Making it Up: Improv Comedy and Camp
"I moved to Chicago in the early 1990s and I studied improvisation there. I learned some rules that I try to apply still today. Listen, say yes, live in the moment, make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices early and often. Don't start a scene where two people are talking about jumping out of a plane. Start the scene having already jumped. If you are scared, look into your partner's eyes. You will feel better." — Amy Poehler
"Can I have a suggestion please? Camp, okay, our word is 'camp'." Improvisational comedy, or improv for short, has been around since the 1950s and has been a training ground for comedy icons from Alan Arkin, Elaine May, and Bill Murray all the way up to contemporary comedic geniuses such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Will Ferrell. Good improv is magical; it is totally spontaneous yet seems meticulously planned. It is so hilarious that your face muscles are sore the next morning, and it is full of truth and honesty. Improvisers are open, understanding, supportive, truthful, and listen well. Teaching your staff to be good improvisers will turn them into good counselors.
A quick crash course in improv and improv lingo:
- A group of improvisers is called a troupe or a team.
- Individual improvisers are often referred to as players.
- Long form improv is broken down into scenes, which can be edited using cuts or tagging out.
- The stage is broken up into two parts — the backline, where the players who are not currently in a scene stand, and the stage, where the scenes are performed.
- The improv we are talking about here is not what you've seen on Whose Line Is It Anyway? That is called short form (little games that require you to improvise quickly under silly rules) and can be a great place to find fun games or ice-breakers.
- What we are talking about is called long form, the type of improv in which improvisers take a suggestion or play an opening game and then build several longer scenes that are complete with characters, settings, drama, and even some plot.
- The rules of improv are not written in stone and different improvisers approach it differently.
The boring part is now over, and you are officially prepared to read and enjoy this article.
A great camp should be built on compassion, and the tools for making great improv happen to be the same tools that build compassion, or at the very least, they are tools in the same tool box.
Yes, And . . .
An improv scene begins when one improviser walks onto the stage and establishes something about the scene. It could be that he is jogging or walking on the moon, or he is a southern belle who has been stricken by the vapors. Next, a teammate enters the scene and agrees with what we know about the scene so far, which could be jogging next to the first improviser, pretending to walk on the moon, or acting like a southern gentleman who has come to escort the belle to the cotillion. Once the teammate has agreed, he will expand on the scene and begin to fill in details. He might mention where they are, who they are, or why they are there. This is called Yes And-ing, or simply agreeing with what has been established and then adding to it. If you ever take an improv class, this will be one of the first things you will be taught.
This is important in improv because if you disagree with what your teammate has established, you are suddenly in a world that makes no sense:
Player 1: This boat sure does seem to be really leaky.
Player 2: That's because it's not a boat!
This can be funny in the moment but is really leaving Player 1 high and dry (excuse the pun). What can he say to that? Adding to the scene is just as important as agreeing because it means that you and your teammate are building the scene together.
Yes And-ing looks like this:
Player 1: This boat sure does seem to be really leaky.
Player 2: Yes, it does seem really leaky, and I am not sure we'll make it to the New World in time for Thanksgiving.
This works because Player 2 has added details to the scene. Their boat is leaky; they are going to the New World; they are running late; and they want to arrive by Thanksgiving. Now the players can explore what all of this means and find the humor in the scene.
How Does This Apply to Working at Camp?
Camp staff needs to agree — on their goals, on the rules, on how they will enforce the rules, and on what kind experience they want to create for a camper. When staff are in agreement things run smoothly and everyone works together with the same goals. How does it feel when you are working with someone and he or she immediately disagree with you? Not great, and it makes you not want to work with that person.
Camp consultant Bob Ditter uses the maxim "AND not BUT . . . " as a tool for interacting with children. When we respond to a camper with "Yes but . . . " we are disagreeing with them. "Yes and . . . " means we agree with them. When we use "yes and . . . " we are communicating that we are on the camper's side and are creating a relaxed, nonconfrontational forum to talk about a problem. Use "yes and . . . " to build a relationship with a camper that is based on agreement and with the knowledge that you are on his or her side, gain the trust of a camper.
When you say "yes and . . . "in an improv scene you are validating your teammate's initial idea. When you say "yes and . . . " to a staff member or camper you are telling him or her that his or her ideas, feelings, and emotions are valid and you will support them.
Listen. Listen. Listen. Nothing ever works if you are not listening to the people around you (that being said, it is also important to surround yourself with people who will say good and honest things). Above all, great improvisers and great counselors need to be good listeners. When I say good listeners I mean active listeners who understand, react, and ask questions.
Improv is acting spontaneously, and while in a scene in which you are acting all the time, not just when speaking. It is hard to imagine a production of Grease in which everybody stands motionless while Danny Zucco sings. When you are listening to your scene partner, you should be responding emotionally. Active listening is nonverbal, but it speaks volumes about how much you care about the person who is talking and what they are saying. Nodding your head or asking someone to explain something in more detail shows compassion.
A great improv show will include callbacks, which are mentions or repetitions of jokes and punch lines that are being used in a new context. You can't make callbacks if you weren't paying attention the first time around. At camp the same problem may occur several times, and it is important that we listen and remember how we handled it. A camper with low self-esteem won't turn into a confident go-getter after one conversation; it takes finding something that helps and constantly going back to it and building on it. A great improv callback will be mentioned repeatedly throughout the show, and when it is mentioned in a brand new context it can be doubly hilarious. Viewing problems in a new context can be doubly effective in solving them.
None of this works if you aren't listening. It is very easy to tell when someone is not really listening, and it can send a very bad message. Outside of improv and camping, listening is something at which any compassionate person is great.
Group Mind and Support
A great improv team are great friends on the stage and off. Watching improvisers who have performed together for a long time can be mind-boggling. They perform as if they knew what the other was thinking before the scene even started. In improv jargon this is called group mind — a synergy that happens when players know each other so well that they instinctively know what the other is trying to communicate. This is not unique to improv. Great athletes can often tell what their teammates are thinking, and best friends often finish each other's sandwiches . . . I mean sentences.
Great group mind also means knowing the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on your staff and what everyone's role is. While performing improv in college, I was called into a scene countless times to comfort another character (i.e. be a counselor) because my teammates knew how much I loved camp and knew that I could play that role because I'd lived it.
As a supervisor, the feeling of leaving your staff and returning to see that everything has been running smoothly is beyond relief. Building a group mind with your camp staff will allow them to function in your absence, handle problems in an appropriate way, and make intelligent decisions. Imagine walking onstage with your teammate to start improvising only to find your teammate denying everything you say, shouting "No!" to every suggestion as you try to build a scene. It is the stuff of our worst nightmares to be left hanging like that. The best improvisers support their teammates. You do great things when you are helping your team to do great things. It is easy to take risks when you are being supported. More importantly, it is easy to recover from a mistake when you have support.
Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your staff and how they fit together can help you mold your staff to your goals, and can help you develop your staff on an individual basis. Take that counselor who is a little quiet but has great one-on-one camper interactions and have her lead a group activity, but first let her know that you will be Player 2 in the scene and support her ideas. If you truly get to know a camper, you can communicate with him on a whole new level. Group mind is a great tool for supporting your staff and for your staff to support their campers.
The Main Goal
Improv's main goal is to make an audience laugh and for the audience to have a great experience. What we strive to do at camps all across the nation is create a great experience for our campers. The last concept I'd like to pull from the improv world has more to do with what is funny. The truth is funny. The truth is always original, never contrived, and can reach other people at a deep, emotional level. Use the truth to be compassionate, train compassionate counselors, and send compassionate campers back out into the world.
Photo courtesy of Camp Nicolet, Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Pat Feehan has worked at YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford, New Jersey, for six years in a variety of roles. He attended Penn State University where he performed with the Full Ammo Improv Troupe. Pat can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2014 September/October Camping Magazine.