Wednesday, February 10, 2010 , Updated 12:37 p.m., February 13, 2010
How “Yes, and…” at Dallas Comedy House turns ten strangers into a big ball of funny
Dallas Comedy House provides a Deep Ellum home for local improv experts -- and newbies like me. UPDATED with video from DCH's opening night.
Dallas Comedy House Level 1
All photos by Jared Moise.
DALLAS April and I have been longtime fans of improvisational comedy: We can virtually recite every Christopher Guest film. Vacation trips often include visits to places like Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. For a couple years we've idly discussed taking some classes. So in mid-December, when Teresa posted a story about a new improv venue and school in Deep Ellum, I knew what we'd get ourselves for Christmas.
We enrolled in Dallas Comedy House's six-week Level 1 Improv class. That class ended tonight, but we'll be performing a showcase together next Wednesday night. (There may even be some tickets still available.)
Going in, we thought the class was a pretty good deal: six weeks at two hours each for $170. Even better, while you're enrolled you can get into virtually all DCH shows for free -- the only exception being if they bring in a touring act or celebrity. That way, there's plenty of opportunity to watch and learn.
I kept a journal of the experience in case it might be useful to anyone toying with the idea of taking some classes. Here's how it all went down:
In addition to developing our comedy chops, we got to see the Dallas Comedy House come together as a venue. Classes met before the venue was open for public performance, so each week it was a little closer to complete. Seating was added in week two; the bar in week five, and so on. I knew that it was getting there when the large mural of improv legend Del Close went up.
As Teresa reported when the venue was first announced, this group had been performing at Ozona, but late last year co-owners Clay Barton (our instructor) and Amanda Austin went all-in, quitting dayjobs and investing in a vacant Deep Ellum space that would have to become performance hall, rehearsal studio, bar, and restaurant.
Ten students gather nervously in the unfinished space around 6:30. We aren't all strangers, though: April and I are the only husband-wife pair, but several are there with a friend. And, as we uncomfortably learn the first time someone makes an oral sex joke in a scene with one female student, there is a father-daughter team.
But that's OK -- Clay and his teaching assistants (who rotated from week to week) go to great lengths to make everyone feel comfortable. It is made clear from the first moment that this is to be an environment of mutual support -- one of the first things we do is to make a group pledge that we understand that improv is about going with your first instinct and that we won't be offended by anything said in the course of a game or scene.
We quickly learn that support is the name of the game -- this particular philosophy of improv, the same that has spawned countless Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central stars, is all based on the concept of "Yes, and..." While much drama is based on conflict, good improv is based on agreement and amplification. The major lesson, which was reiterated throughout the six weeks, is that you must accept whatever your scene partners bring in as true and valid in the world of the scene -- and that the comedy comes in finding interesting ways of answering the question: "If that's true, then what else could be true?"
The two-hour class evolves into a pattern that would become familiar: 30-45 minutes of warmup games, with the remainder used to practice doing scenes. Many of the exercises remind us of college drinking games, although we are admonished from the beginning against trying "drunkprov."
In one of the warmups, we talk to a classmate about why they are in the class -- interestingly, none of us have any real performing background. Common responses are combatting shyness in public speaking; because of a general love of watching improv; or because someone else dragged us along.
Dallas Comedy House instructors believe that the best way to learn is by doing, so we find ourselves doing two-person scenes, completely improvised, almost frighteningly quickly. We start out with training wheels, actually working the phrase "yes, and..." into every response -- completely avoiding the asking of questions. It feels a little awkward, but before long, we are coming out with semi-coherent sketches and everyone is laughing -- a lot. I'm amazed at how good we all are, right off the bat. That may be more because of Clay's upbeat enthusiasm than our talent, but I bounce to the car thinking I that I can't remember the last time I had so much fun.
I hope that holds up -- we've been told that after our six-week class, we'll be performing a public showcase.
We've dropped the mechanically literal "Yes, and..." but are still working on that concept over and over. Clay challenged us to work that and intense listening (another key) into daily interactions over the past week. I've done a bit of that and found it sometimes more useful in persuading others than the more traditional disagreement that comes into workaday conversation.
The place is a little less dusty and so are we. I'm trying to tone down efforts at coming up with punchlines and more on listening and responding to my scene partners.
The hardest part, for me, is coming up with an opening for a scene. We're starting cold, without a suggestion of where to go, and after awhile, we're falling into some patterns. By the time we reach the end of the six weeks, the running joke is that all of our scenes wind up involving strange sex and/or the DMV.
Two-by-two, we perform a half-dozen scenes at a clip and then Clay provides feedback, which is overwhelmingly positive. April and I discuss on the way home whether we want more criticism, as we're chomping at the bit to go from crawling to running. But I suspect that at this stage, positive reinforcement is the best route.
Unfortunately, we have a home emergency and miss the third class. As a self-imposed make-up I read Truth in Comedy, an improv guide written by some of the form's most renowned teachers and practitioners. A lot of the ideas discussed in class seem clearer, and I think I have a much better idea of how to start a scene. Our next class is going to rock...
Oh man, do we suck. Especially me. Is it the week off? Is it that we're now doing more physical work where we're depicting physical objects rather than just trading lines? The miming of activity feels awkward. Is it the added dimension of editing scenes for each other, and not knowing whether we're saving our friends from embarrassment or cutting them off seconds before they utter The Funniest Thing Ever Said?
DFW's improv scene
While the Dallas Comedy House gets the spotlight for its grand opening this weekend, they're certainly not the only game in town. The DFW area has a strong, if fragmented, improv community, with several longstanding troupes performing almost any weekend night. Here's a sampling:
- Four Day Weekend: The local grandaddy. They have recently re-upped on their Sundance Square space. They also teach classes, but are more selective about who makes the public stage. They have a TV show in development at Fox, and a movie in the works.
- Ad-Libs: Another longstanding, revered troupe that has survived multiple venue changes and thrives with both local and touring shows. They also run a school and do corporate training.
- Section 8 Comedy: Itinerant troupe recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.
- 4 out of 5 Doctors: A Coppell-based group who focuses heavily on corporate work.
- Comedy Killers: More scripted comedy in the mix with this show that mixes improv and murder mystery theatre.
- Locked Out Comedy: Plano-based troupe stresses clean comedy and offers more informal, one-off workshops.
- Pavlov's Dogs: Goes a slightly more intellectual route and mixes both long and short-form improv into shows.
At one point in a scene, I drift away, my brain grasping for something germane to latch onto in the scene -- a scene I started. The best I can come up with is a plaintive "Helllpp...."
Clay is still upbeat and supportive to a fault. He and our most regular TA, Chad Haught from improv troupe Pavlov's Dogs, are finding gold in some of the choices we make and giving pointers to help dig us out of the holes we keep finding. Still, I'm frustrated that we seem so much less funny than we were three weeks ago.
As we're walking out, one of our classmates hits the nail on the head: "Now we know enough to know what we don't know."
We bounce back. Everyone is much more comfortable with the physical work. We're now doing scenes with more than two people and as more people get involved, they get more interesting. (The photos in the gallery above were shot during this class.) We pull off a lot of scenes, and while there are lots of pointers to give, it feels like a quantum leap from the week prior. Students who entered the class to fight shyness are among the funniest and most active in the group. The showcase coming in two weeks no longer seems so terrifying.
Still, I want a little more, so I stay around for the weekly jam session that is held after our class. It's a free "show" where anyone of any level can work on their improv chops and/or watch. I run over to The Angry Dog for some takeout and come back to watch. Clay encourages me to join in after I eat, and I say "Sure," assuming that he'll be too busy to notice that I'm just hanging back and taking things in for the rest of the night.
That's my plan, because I sure as hell don't belong on stage with the people in the two randomly-mixed groups onstage. They are good -- scary good. I've seen Upright Citizens Brigade's Asscat! show, replete with SNL alums, and most of these folks would be right at home on that stage. They put on two instant mini-shows based on a randomly shouted suggestion. Each one is made up of fully-fleshed out characters and hilarious juxtapositions. I'm furiously taking mental notes, seeing bits of what we've been taught in each scene.
After two rounds, Clay nudges me, so I feel like I have to join one of the groups. Our suggested theme is "Taco Bell." The first scene evolves into a series of people going through the drive-up window making inappropriate orders. I have an idea, but by the time I get the gumption to jump in, someone edits the scene and we move onward from there.
Several more scenes ensue, and I stand on the sidelines, enjoying the performances, but with nothing novel popping into my head. Then, one of the more experienced performers grins and literally shoves me out onto stage. He proceeds to follow me onstage and we perform a scene that eventually draws in characters from some of the other scenes. I'm surprised at how comfortable and confident I feel.
That moment is, to me, the essence of my experience in improv so far. Pushing me out there could have seemed a mean move, but by following me he is simultaneously challenging and supportive. It strikes me that this whole thing is about flying without a net -- but with a wingman. It's sort of like running a startup business with a good team.
I flee to the bar and down a couple scotches while talking with co-owner Amanda and some of the other students about our interest in improv and good books to read on the topic. I continue to be amazed at how upbeat and accepting everyone is -- how even newbies are being treated with such collegial respect. I make a mental note to be more embracing of people who aren't experts in areas where I'm passionate. It seems only fair -- and productive.
Tonight is about preparing for our showcase. Clay and Chad settle on the games that will make the show and we rehearse -- as much as you can for an improvised performance. We know the types of games we're going to play, but not the topics.
Tonight's class is the loosest and most fun yet. As a group we do some of the best and worst scenes we've done in the six weeks, but no one seems cowed or self-conscious. Even ideas that totally bomb -- like my doomed notion of trying to embody W.C. Fields in a literary battle with Shakespeare -- are fun. And with topics supplied by our "audience," everyone seems to have a knack for tying groups of scenes together.
I still think it's wise to keep expectations appropriately low for our performance next week. I have no idea how it will turn out, as we (and our audience) haven't made it up yet. But I do know that I'm in for Level Two, starting a week afterwards. I still can't remember when I've had so much fun.
Opening night at Dallas Comedy House
Ed Note: We enrolled in the Dallas Comedy House Level 1 class in December, paying full price for the course. Halfway through, I decided to do this story, but told no one. In February, DCH became an advertiser, but I have intentionally remained unaware of the terms of any deal with PegNews.
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