Working with improv performers

There’s a gift I get from working with improv performers — I can give them a suggestion to chew on and watch them grow that idea into something much wilder than you could have anticipated. In a live show, that seed might come from the audience or what someone had for dinner that night. They don’t need a script to create something that feels like they’re working from one—so what happens when you give them one?

Last month, I posted Can Improv Help Photographers? - this month, I'm sharing how I capture improv magic from behind the camera without the benefit of a live audience to ignite the performers.

I like to create a place for my talent to inhabit. This place can be an abstract concept, like a particular wardrobe style, or literal, like a set or a location. It’s something that gets us all on the same page and gives them the freedom to do what they do best. It also gives me tools to aid in planning the shoot.

I knew I wanted an elaborate setup for The Administration improv troupe: a complete set build, key props, and wardrobe.

Erin Jean O'Regan plays Nancy, the insider

Jay Flewelling as Ronald, the research expert

Jess Lee as project manager Hilda

Chris Williams is our resident charmer, Neil

Janet Scanlon plays Yvonne, the speech writer

Jed Arkley as Sal, the financial guru

I also wanted to make sure I embraced the spontaneous energy and big ideas that come from working with improv rockstars.

After a solid brainstorming session with the troupe, we landed on a loose concept of a 1950’s government bureaucracy, full of secret agents dressed like regular office workers.

With the concept in hand, it quickly becomes apparent that with six players, a wardrobe lead, props lead, and set builder, I would need more than just a few notes and rough sketches.

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What is my go-to solution? Write a script, of course (at least part of one).

A quick writing session shaped all my ideas into characters and gave the performers a space to inhabit. Characters quickly lead to actions, motivations, and little slices of backstory.

A script gives us all a framework. It helps the entertainers have a starting point. It provides a richer and deeper guide than a typical suggestion from an audience, but it’s still a seed that they can grow. It gives me ‘scenes’ to set up, with some key actions they can perform. And it provides my set designer, wardrobe stylist, and prop director (in this case, all one very talented person named Jay Lance) a clear idea of what we need to pull this off. 

Plus, it’s fun to write.

I work with a lot of the improv comedy teams here in Portland. They don't pay much, but we sure do have fun! These images are from one of the greatest teams in Portland history, The Administration. They helped build this set in my studio, and I was able to bring in an incredible team to dress the stage and the actors for this period basement bunker scene. While they no longer play together as a team, you can see all of them in many other improv groups, festivals, short films and TV commercials around Portland.

Special thanks to Terri Lodge and Dusti Leon for the incredible work on hair and makeup. Set design, wardrobe, and props were handled by the incomparable Jay Lance

Andy is the artist-in-residence, owner, technologist, cook, brewer, and cocktail maker in chief at Andy Batt Studio. He loves to work with a good crew on complex projects and a good cup of coffee. No, a good cup of coffee— there’s a difference. On the side, he teaches lighting workshops because he likes giving back to his community.