I had a chance to catch up on my reading (and my Gilmore Girls) over the holidays and finished Les McGehee’s book Plays Well With Others, which is apparently the first in a trilogy. The book has a great start–an introduction by Owen Egerton (don’t miss his testimonial at the end.) There are some nice anecdotes about Les’s childhood, indicating that he was predisposed to become an improviser, if not an entertainer of some sort.
The part of the book I found most interesting and useful was the section about doing “away shows.” I have experienced how different it can feel to do a show not in your home theatre, but in a hotel ballroom, a private home, another theatre, or any number of places. Les offers some good advice about managing away gigs. He points out that doing “away shows” comes late in an improvisers journey. A student may be great in class, spend 6 months to a year getting solid on stage in the home space, but still may be entirely unready for road shows.
I have found that picking a cast for a road show can be really challenging. I often first think of the people I like to play with, the people I think I have the best chemistry and group mind with. But that doesn’t always make for the best road show cast. Some improvisers are better at what I call “finding the room.” Some improvisers can make anyone laugh. They have a more “mainstream” sense of humor which is a safer bet for an away show. You have to remember, at a home show, everyone in the audience chose to be there, and hopefully even paid to be there. At an away show the audience often didn’t choose the entertainment for themselves. So there’s more of a battle in connecting with the audience. Plus variables in staging, lighting, and sound can make the performance less stellar than when it’s in the ideal theatrical space. The challenge is to find the kinds of improvisers that are unrattled by these variables and are able to find the comedy in any room.
I appreciate Les writing about this and the business side of running an improv company. I feel like not enough books get in to it. My main criticism of the book is that it felt too much like a sales pitch. Perhaps I’m not the target audience for the book, but at times it felt too self congratulatory or one sided. I know I struggle that with my own writing, even in this blog. How much vulnerabilities should I share to make my writing truthful and engaging but still put a positive spin on things? I haven’t figured that one out myself.
I’m looking forward to seeing what else Les will be publishing in the coming years.
Also, keep your eye out. I might have a guest role in Les’s upcoming show at Zachary Scott Theatre.
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