First class! Annoyance Theatre, Level 2, with Megan Johns

Yesterday I had my first improv class of the whole trip. And what a way to start.

Over the next 12 weeks I am taking a phenomenal amount of classes: 40 hours this coming week, and my first day of no classes is not until September – although I may book something in for then by then… I am doing writing and long form classes at Second City and The iO, the two main schools in Chicago, I am also doing most of the program at ComedySportz, a school that concentrates on short form games, and also the first two levels and possibly their intensive Fall course at the Annoyance Theatre.

The first of all these classes was with Megan Johns, at the Annoyance. Megan herself is a bubbly and bouncy individual, with the energy and focus of a flight of swallows over a summer meadow, and there will be 10 of us in the class when everyone turns up. The room itself is in a slightly rundown part of town, opposite a very grand looking building, and is fairly basic – carpet on the floor, very little sound leakage, a good size, it does the job.

The Annoyance philosophy is, I believe, detailed out in the book “Improvise” by the founder of the Annoyance, Mick Napier (I’ve not yet read it myself). What it has been described to me as is first looking after yourself in a scene so that you have the strongest possible game yourself and are therefore able to deliver your best and make it easier to support your partner. This is as opposed to acting as a support to your partner and relying on them. Also described by Megan as “protect the freak”, so, looking after yourself so that you know that you can handle whatever happens and know that you have the power to carry anything as required.

The taught part of class was quite short as, being the first one, we got to know one another in a fair amount of detail, learn each other’s names and a little bit about people. In fact, this part took over an hour, and I suppose this fits in with the whole looking after ourselves part, giving us the confidence to know that we know each other in the group.

Once we had done that, we went straight into two person scenes, and Megan told us that normally that is the Annoyance standard way of warming up. These were just short scenes to get the juices flowing. As Megan told us, she may not even really concentrate on us as the whole point of these scenes is not how we do but more about just doing it, getting into the habit of improvising.

Then we worked on 5 second, 10 second and 30 second scenes. This was very interesting, it was about coming to the stage with a strong enough idea that there was something there even in the 5 seconds right at the start of the scene. From an audience perspective, it made for very interesting starts of scenes,it was very watchable.

With the 5 second scenes, at the end of each scene the next people would already be out and starting the moment the previous scene had been called, and there was a great deal of momentum, lots of physicality, a franticness almost. Because there was no time, there was an urgency to make the scene important straight away, make a choice straight away.

The 10 second scenes were still extremely fast, but these gave the scene partner a chance to respond, just enough time for both partner’s ideas to come out. Again there was a sense of urgency, an increasing of the stakes. In these scenes it is important to have an opinion or point of view about something.

With the 30 second scenes, the urgency remained, but some scenes started to form too, and this was interesting to watch. The same energy from the 5 and 10 second scenes came through, and this was a strong platform for the scene.

Because the scenes were so short, the whole point of looking after yourself was much simpler; with only 5 seconds to play with, you have the chance to bring an idea, your own idea, and that was it. It is incumbent upon you to come in strong and have game, you are looking after number one. Interestingly, I felt that by doing so you also look after your scene partner, you create a good solid wall for them to bounce off.

Finally, we then played a bunch of scenes where Megan would call “scene” randomly after 5, 10 or 30 seconds and we would never know which. She was not choosing out of interest in the scene, the exercise was more about randomness, so that we would not know whether our scene would be long or short and we would therefore always play as if we have only 5 seconds.

The whole exercise was a very interesting one. It increases the strength of entry into a scene, and forces a self reliance whilst at the same time not allowing you the time to get inside your head and over think. A fun first class of my trip!

We all then headed downstairs for an IPA in the sports bar under the building, and it wasn’t half bad. Whilst drinking, one of the bar staff came out and warned us that a storm was heading in. If I’d been aware of how fast and how heavy the storm would be, I’d have not waited around in such a blase fashion, but luckily the storm waited for me and I made it home before the heavens opened, apparently depositing 3 inches of rain in an hour over some place!

Chicago is a windy city, but it is also a stormy city and a sunny city. And an improv city, and that is why I am here.

The idea was to


“Improvise” by Mick Napier


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