Getting the most out of a jam

I came across an amazing article this week from People and Chairs: 7 Tips for Surviving an Improv Jam.  Also recently, Greg Gillotti and I discussed his post: Jam It Up.  

A jam is a different sort of beast than a regular improv show. Different performers have different relationships with jams and those relationships evolve over time. I wanted to share my personal journey with jams, and some reflection on it.

» When I began improvising, I was going to free workshops offered by the No Parking Players at CMU. After the first workshop, I posted to their discussion group apologizing for how terrible I had been. I was playing with funny people and felt bad about myself. I didn't know anything about improv and at that stage, I just felt bad about myself. I don't think everyone is this way, but if you are there is no shame in it. This is a good time to just watch jams and play with groups you can rehearse with while you develop your sensibility. Kasey Daley has talked about standing on the back line at the PIT jam for weeks just to be on stage before jumping into a scene. I think it's all good. 

» My first real jam was the Pittsburgh Improv Jam when it kicked into gear around 2010. I now had years of short form under my belt and some long form. But I was for the first time playing with a whole lot of new people. My comfort and confidence with Irony City now turned to dust as I did shitty scene after shitty scene. Only in this stage, my solution was not to pull back but to dive in. The jam offered me a sandbox to learn to play with new people and live Susan Messing's words, "If you're not having fun, you're the asshole." It took years, and I still hated most of my work there, but I learned how to have fun at that jam, and I feel as though I became a better improviser for it.

» Throughout that time, I got to play at the jam with members of 2 Second City touring companies, SCIT founders Justin Zell and Kasey Daley, SCIT Artistic Director Woody Drennan, Arcade Comedy Theater founders Jethro and Kristy Nolen, Mike Rubino, Abby Fudor, and Randy Kirk, not to mention people I admired for years in the community. People sometimes tell me they are intimidated to play with me. I understand that, but at the same time I loved the opportunity to play with these amazing performers. They made me feel taken care of and helped me understand what it felt like to get through an amazing scene and be out of my comfort zone. 

» Now, I love jams. As a more experienced player, I try to create those experiences for others. I love moments at the SCIT Social where I do a scene with one of my level 1 students for the first time, and I overhear him or her say something like, "What?! I'm doing a scene with Brian!" They don't realize the pressure is on me! And usually they improvise circles around me because they are taking class, and I have to remember my basics. It always gets me thinking more carefully about the work.

Again, this is not meant to be a prescription. Just a bit about my evolving relationship with jams in the hopes it informs others'.