Tag Archives: improv

Get out please Robbie, head overseas.

1 Aug

So, news.

Uniquely American objects.

Uniquely American objects.

I have a US green card. Well, I have a thing in my passport which entitles me to enter the USA within the next five months and hold permanent residency.

It was nearly two years ago I entered the Diversity Visa lottery on a whim, but my number came up (literally) and I went for it. It’s been a long process – from entering the lottery to entering the United States will be 26 months all up – but hardly an arduous or harrowing one. All in all, if you meet the criteria and are careful and conscientious with your paperwork, getting from the chance stage to the “heck yes I got me a green card” stage is straightforward*. My interview at the US Consulate had remarkably few questions for me to answer – just a two-hour wait while I read some Thomas Mann.

So I am moving in less than five months. Today I booked flights from Auckland to New Jersey to see my sister and my nephew (who is currently -6 weeks), and following that I will migrate westward to Chicago and settle there.

What a lovely view.

What a lovely view.

Why Chicago? In short, because the North Side of that city has the highest concentration of comedy, sketch and improv on the planet. Three of the best improv shows I’ve ever seen were during a short stay in Chicago last year. Also, thanks to the heritage of The Second City, there’s great respect for the role of music in comedy.

Furthermore, just this year there have been all sorts of venue expansions for the better:
iO is relocating from two stages in Wrigleyville to their new four-stage home in Goose Island, with one theatre dedicated to a new sketch revue from TJ & Dave;
The Annoyance has just moved from Uptown to Belmont;
– The Second City is expanding its premises in Old Town;
– and least of all, but most excitingly for me, Chicago now has possibly the world’s only theatre dedicated specifically to musical improv and musical comedy.

This image, on my own site, is 14th in my Google Images search results for "improv troupe stock photo".

This image, on my own site, is 14th in my Google Images search results for “improv troupe stock photo”.

However, there is a wider question: why improv? To compare to other things I’ve done and could pursue overseas, it’s not as stable as a job as a radio producer or presenter; it’s not as well-paying as composing (assuming you can attract commissions); and it’s a lot more niche than music recording and production.

But out of all those things within New Zealand, there are many composers, lots of broadcasters, and plenty of people who produce music, yet there are very few of us who do musical direction for comedy. There are even fewer who play music for improv. If I’m going to pursue something, it should be the thing that I am the most specialised in. The United States is a big place with potential careers that simply do not exist here in New Zealand, and you don’t just turn down a green card.

This is a daunting time – I’ve never moved countries before, I’ve never sold a large proportion of my worldly possessions, I’ve never calculated rent by the month, and figuring out the United States’ health insurance systems scares the crap out of me. Also, January is not exactly the warmest time to move to Chicago. Regardless, I am finally fulfilling every middle-class kiwi’s destiny by living overseas.

I will hold a massive farewell bash in Auckland on Saturday 13 December (also my 30th birthday), and departing New Zealand exactly two weeks later. In the meantime, you should give me lots of well-paid work, cause I’m freelance and I need the money.

This is happening!

— — —

* As long as, like me, you are an educated, healthy, white, middle class male native speaker of English with a sensible haircut, a clean criminal record and no visible piercings or tattoos, and are not a member of any organisation to the left of the Labour Party. It also made life administratively simpler that I am unmarried, have no children, and have never lived in a country other than New Zealand. And it helps I live only 35 minutes’ walk from the only US Consulate in this country. Your mileage may vary, but in most cases you have nothing to lose by applying. DV-2016 opens October 2014.

We’re on a radio show about the arts on Sunday

15 Feb

It’s taking me all my will power to avoid writing Arts on Sunday when referring to Radio New Zealand National’s rebranded programme Standing Room Only.

Oh, Lynn Freeman’s still presenting, Simon Morris is still producing, Justin Gregory is still doing his out-and-about reports, but they’ve got a new name for 2014.

Yesterday (Friday) Andrew Grenon and I were interviewed in a pre-record for The Laugh Track, a segment where ostensibly funny people get to select their favourite comedy. They’re going to play bits of our videos under the banner Politics The Opera. Here are those videos:

Our other-people music choices start with Victor Borge’s pastiche of Mozart opera, specifically the bit about tenor arias from 3:47:

Then Corwin Newall’s amazing a cappella number Bass, which I really should have asked to upload to SoundCloud or something… this was a product of Song Sale Dunedin.

Finally, Tim Minchin. Not one of his amazing wordy, wickedly funny numbers with impeccable logical constructions and syllogisms, rather a far less wordy and achingly expressive but less funny number still with impeccable logical constructions and syllogisms:

…but not this recording. The far more beautiful one from Tim Minchin vs the Sydney Symphony that was broadcast on ABC television, which isn’t up on YouTube. That recording has amazingly warm piano sound which balances with and cushions Minchin’s voice, as opposed to the above YouTube clip which pushes the voice way out front and centre, not letting his natural little adjustments to the piano texture leave room for his voice (which they do)… argh. Mixing is hard.

Speaking of mixing (and writing and recording and editing and mastering), I made this theme tune this week for this show:

Anyway, back on topic to me and Andrew, not Christine Brooks. Listen in live at 2pm tomorrow (Sunday)! I can’t, cause I’ll be working. Standing Room Only tends not to podcast the Laugh Track segment, so listening live is usually your only option. DO IT.

Haven’t published anything in a while.

21 Aug

My life has been quite bitsy, full of lots of small projects.

Well, here’s one resultable fruit:

The Root Vegetable Opera is an overblown comedy song for mock operatic baritone and piano. Eight months on from the recording session, I’ve mixed the tracks. I don’t sound terrrrible, but I’m no classically trained singer. Corwin Newall, on the other hand, is a classically trained pianist.

On the topic of recording vocals, next week I make a studio recording of Annie & Joshua with my two singers. I’m getting Bridget Costello just a week before she leaves for London to study, but Callum Blackmore’s staying around for ages. Good.

Another composition is finally reaching fruition: I just published Trolling the Tuba to SOUNZ, and it’s getting premièred just outside San Francisco on Friday/Saturday/timezone depending. This is thanks to Jess Rodda and the rest of the International Low Brass Trio, which abbreviates to “ILBT”, which must be either a sandwich or a personality type. They’re going to be performing this work quite a bit over the next few months, including on a Canadiadian tour.

I am making plans for two out-of-town tours myself:
Wellington (15 to 23 September): the 2013 New Zealand Improv Festival is on and I am the Musical Co-ordinator and musician for several shows myself. I’ve got a lot of things I’m looking forward to, but the most involved for me will be Time Lord, a Doctor Who-themed long form directed by David Innes from Melbourne. I’m borrowing synths from Wellington people.
Dunedin (24 September to, uh, something). Song Sale! University Lunchtime Concert! Dunedin Youth Orchestra! Improsaurus (I hope)! All in one week.

Usually I find a picture for posts, so I googled-imaged-searched “most random image on the internet”. This is what arrived.

Happy Wednesday.

Chewbacca wielding a crossbow astride a giant squirrel fighting a regiment of Nazis.

Having fun with language

24 Jul

Last night I got to speak sustained German for the first time in a while – I chatted with Nadine Antler from Kaktussen, an improv troupe in Würzburg.

She’s here at Improvention in Canberra, and so am I. While it’s okay if I screw up my German chatting in a bar, she’s consistently performing and improvising in English on stage. That’s bravery.

So far I’ve done six shows (two as an actor and four as a musician), and I have at least five to go. More on those later, if I get around to committing thoughts to keyboard.

headerBut that’s not what this post is about! It’s about the Eketahuna German Literature Society.

If you are disappointed that it is a fictional organisation, you are disappointed. It was my brainchild – let’s (mis-)translate classic German poetry and render it in New Zealand English, or in New Zealand contexts. The most-represented poets are Goethe, Rilke, Schiller, Heine, Mörike and Hesse.

And yes, the misspelled German name is intentional.

I enlisted Cordelia Black. While in the beginning we translated roughly even numbers of poems, now she does way more than me. Probably 80% of them. Yeah, I slacked off.

There’s a balance of brooding introspection (y’know, New Zealand arts) and quirk (y’know, New Zealand arts). Cordelia is a bit more skilled at the subtle, nuanced writing. One of her most beautiful and aching is Liebeslied / Joint Custody, a Rilke translation. Paula Bennett’s recent welfare reforms come in for criticism in Die Guttat / Milk of Human Kindness. And I’m quite proud of my boy-racer themed translation of Goethe’s Erlkönig.

But we go odd too – me more than Cordy, I think. My magnum opus in that rendering sections of Wilhelm Busch’s naughty boys Max und Moritz as Van and Munter from Outrageous Fortune. Heine’s classic Dichterliebe lyric Im wunderschönen Monat Mai becomes In the not-so-wonderful month of May, given our southern hemisphere season patterns. Some emotive Schiller from Die Jungfrau von Orleans gets turned into Goodbye Burger King, a wistful pining for Joanne at the drive-through.

This one from Cordelia is piquant, a Christian Morgenstern translation:

Two hardwood poles used copper wire
To have an afternoon conspire.

They shared their creaky Morse-discourse
Above the kanukas and gorse.

They both wore fetching metal rings
To save their trunks from climbing things.

One pole said “chur”. One said “g’day”.
That’s all I will translate today.

But why am I posting about the Eketahuna German Literature Society now? Because we reached 100 poems today! What is our 100th poem? Well, it’s called A Hundred Runs. It wouldn’t be a survey of New Zealand without the troubles of New Zealand cricket.

Thanks Cordy, this is great fun to do.

The “wow” moment – Part 1

18 May

I have a habit of writing blog posts at airports. But that is apt – airports are portals for the beginnings and ends of journeys. Palaces of taking stock. Palaces of excitement of what is to come and reflection on what has been. And palaces of not enough power points and intrusively annoying WiFi networks. Yes, I’m at LAX.

I’ve been on the road 127 days on my longest travels yet. I’ve been in two improv festivals, gone to the world’s largest musical festival, seen improv, comedy, music, theatre, ballet, musical theatre and opera. I’ve entered five countries, three Canadian provinces and twelve US states (four of which I was in for transit only).

I’ve identified 15 performances in which I had a “wow” moment. Or a “whoa” moment. Or “Fuuuuuck.” Put simply, they amazed.

I can rattle off honorable mentions by the dozen, but for the time being, here’s the first half of my abiding memories from Travels 2013.

1. Roberto Fonseca & group
Thursday 24 January 2013
La Zorra y El Cuervo (Vedado, Havana)

Originally from Cuba, jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca divides his time between Havana and New York. He is a demon on the keys, and his band were equally virtuosic. The final number of their first set was a relentless 15-minute fast rock groove, with a head so fiddly and complicated (yet memorable) that most musicians couldn’t even attempt it. Solos lasted an age but maintained momentum the whole way. I sat with a Uruguayan couple who told me I had my mouth open for the last 80% of that number.

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

2. Twinprov (workshop)
Friday 15 February 2013
Jet City Improv (University District, Seattle)

Two white guys from Oklahoma do an improv rap show. Not a promising description, but these guys are deserved megastars of the North American improv scene. Twinprov is the twins Buck & Clint Vrazel, and I met them at the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater. They bring it for a show, no doubt, but more significantly they are the most effective workshop teachers I’ve ever seen in improv. Teaching music to non-musicians is a difficult prospect – if adults have had negative experiences with music when young (like being told they aren’t good at it), it’s so hard to get them to open up. Rap is a more intimidating genre still. But Buck & Clint are f**kin’ mint at breaking down those barriers – Nick from Canberra, if you’re reading this, get these mofos down to Improvention some time.

3. 3 For All
Friday 1 March 2013
BATS Improv (Fort Mason, San Francisco)

All down the west coast I’d been told “book for 3 For All, book for 3 For All, they will sell out”. For reasons of geography, this long-tim trio gets together only three or four times a year, so it was lucky coincidence that I was in San Francisco the same weekend. The thing I took away from this was the superb physicality they exhibit. I don’t mean that they are frenetic and full-of-energy, but rather their immaculately controlled movements to indicate changes in time, place, setting, character. I once heard it said about Jane Austen’s writing that you never need to see “said so-and-so” after lines of dialogue; you instantly know who’s speaking by the precision of her writing style. The same applies to the actors of 3 For All – the moment you look at them, you know where the story’s at.

4. Dudamel Conducts Firebird
Sunday 3 March 2013
Walt Disney Hall (Downtown Los Angeles)

I hadn’t intended to go through Los Angeles so early in my trip. I had booked to spend a week in the area at the end of my four months and have a single direct flight home. However, when I saw the LA Phil‘s offerings for early March, I changed my plans: Stravinsky’s Firebird and a brand new John Adams work within five days of each other, both conducted by His Curliness, Gustavo Dudamel. My eye-wateringly expensive ticket for Firebird meant for one superb seat at eye level with the front desk of the first violins. And Disney Hall has such a clear sound! I do love the Auckland Town Hall for all its fond memories for me, but it is a wallowing Brucknerian shoebox that doesn’t do any favours to my own compositional style, or many other composers’. As for the playing, what an all-encompassing sound. Stravinsky’s jagged string writing sounded so full and rich, the brass was immaculately balanced with the winds, ogh, it was heaven.

5. Matt Davis Gets a Girlfriend
Tuesday 5 March 2013
UCB Theatre LA (Hollywood, Los Angeles)

A very pleasant surprise! Taking a look at the offerings of the main comedy and improv theatres in Hollywood, I came across this intriguing one-man musical on the UCB website. Matthew Patrick Davis performs his show solo from the keyboard, in the first person, and has this rich Sondheimesque linkage of themes and motifs that inspired me so much. Some still linger in my head: “I’m gonna get a girlfriend”, “I’m gonna die alone”, etc. I got inspired by all the thematic threading and repetition of musically-associated phrases, and designed my libretto to Annie & Joshua around that principle. Now I’ve got my own phrases like “None of your business”, “Okay, okay”, “If you must know”, “Please, please, please go on a date with me!”, etc. (More on Annie & Joshua another time – Bridget Costello and Callum Blackmore perform it in Short+Sweet Song, 11-15 June at the Herald Theatre in Auckland.)

The Bolzen Beer Band's album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

The Bolzen Beer Band’s album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

6. Bolzen Beer Band
Tuesday 12 March 2013 (or early Wed 13)
Corner of 6th Street & Trinity Ave (Downtown Austin)

I went to SXSW. It’s probably the biggest music festival in the world. I saw Coolio. I saw The Specials. I had a great Saturday night watching the most amazing mélange of styles (see below). But the Bolzen Beer Band made me lose my shit in the geekiest way possible. They’d done one single official SXSW showcase that Tuesday night – a lowly slot, to put it mildly – but they didn’t care. They were just going to jam the shit out of the rest of the festival, on the street, in indie gigs, wherever. I’ve recounted this story enough: they are a polka punk band from Lincoln, Nebraska. They have an accordionist, a tuba player and a punk drummer. They wear Lederhosen. The one hook of theirs that is still in my head is “We love weed and beer, my friend, we love weed and beer! / Pour a glass of ice-cold weed and score a sack of beer!”. And the coup de grâce (grass?) was when the lead singer went into a half-time rap breakdown IN GERMAN. They had all the right spirit.

7. Red Baraat
Saturday 16 March 2013
Stage on Sixth (Downtown Austin)

This looked like a pretty good night at South By: long-time LA-Mexican party band Ozomatli, home-town favourites Grupo Fantasmo, and Bajofondo from Argentina. But Red Baraat killed me. Hailing from Brooklyn, their frontman plays the dhol. Combine that with a rhythm section; a sousaphone for the bass line; and horns that include the unusual bass trumpet, you have a bitchin’ crossover of Bollywood dance rhythms and New Orleans bounce. My first ‘wow’ moment came when the frontman called for a sousaphone solo. Perfectly synchronised, every other band member ducked down low to the ground, flashed their attention towards the sousaphone’s bell, and the lights snapped to put a solo spot on him. These mofos finished their set with a procession out onto the floor of the venue and being right up and close with us dancers and punters. They were drenched in sweat by the end, having given their all. What an impressive group.

—-

Part 2 of my “wow” moments will take in the Chicago Improv Festival, a diverse range of Broadway offerings, one of the most novel theatre shows I’ve ever come across, and a live dog. You can look forward to that in a few days.

Tele-spruiking

21 Feb

Looking east onto North Pender Island from the Gulf of Georgia.

Looking east onto North Pender Island from the Gulf of Georgia, taken as I write this post.

I write from the ferry between Victoria and Vancouver, in the territorial waters of British Columbia/Washington State/British Columbia. It’s Wednesday 20 February here in North America, but en Nouvelle-Zélande it’s a Thursday at a particular time of the month. This means Song Sale is on in Dunedin!

Now, it is a little odd and a little superfluous for me still to be spruiking for this monthly gig. Yes, I founded it in Dunedin and it was my baby, but now that Daddy has moved to a new city some foster parents have taken responsibility for the rambunctious toddler. Or something. I’m not good at parent-and-guardian analogies.

Regardless, I look from afar wishing all the best for this year’s gigs. I know it will thrive under new management: Corwin Newall is a fantastic writer and performer, and even though he’s young I can see him developing into a really good teacher and director of talent. Gabby Golding is one of the most enthusiastic and organised people I know in the Dunedin arts scene, and late last year she enthusiastically took the reins to organise this mother. (Told you my family member analogies weren’t good.)

They’ve secured funding from both Creative Communities and the Dunedin Fringe Festival, so they must be doing something right – importantly, this means the gigs remain free entry. They’ve also engaged Angus McBryde, a professional, to do their graphics. This is instead of retaining my, uhh, ‘idiosyncratic’ design principles of textual overload. Compare December 2012 and February 2013:

But beyond who manages it, Song Sale is not only an entertaining show for an audience, it’s a valuable vehicle for many different types of creatives.

For a songwriter in the generally-popular-music world, it’s a chance to submit one’s self to a deliberately constrained process: writing something in a hurry. If the song is no good, it can die after its first outing. If it’s great, all the better. If you write enough songs in a hurry, you develop good instincts about which is which and this helps you early in the writing process.

For composers – those trained in a classical, dots-on-paper tradition – Song Sale teaches timing, audience interaction, and Seeing What Works. So many composers are nervous wallflowers, afraid to put themselves out there. While the gig may look terrifying to total introverts, the vibe of the show means The Audience is On Your Side. Even if you try and fail, the audience will still love and support you.

That’s a precept of improv theatre as well – worth mentioning since many Song Salers are members of Improsaurus. The audience doesn’t come to a show to see the perfect response to any situation, they go along to see what on earth the response ends up being. There’s always a little thrill for an individual audience member when that person’s own suggestion is picked up and turned into a scene (for improv) or a song (for Song Sale), but even if the suggestion didn’t come out of your own mouth, you still feel like you have a stake in it: it came from the room and You Were There.

Added to this, many improvisers are also stand-up comedians and many stand-up comedians incorporate music. Song Sale is a pretty sweet song development laboratory, and it bubbles up musically comedic moments that don’t occur when you deliberately craft songs on your own. After a year-and-a-half of Song Sales in both Wellington and Dunedin, I have a heeeap of songs that have had several outings, become more refined and cogent, and could be turned into a solo show and/or an album.

If you’re reading this from Dunedin, do turn up tonight: 7pm at The Church, 50 Dundas St. The gig has a new structure (or a structure full stop): an established act performs for the first half – tonight it’s Reed Street Posse from Oamaru – and the commissions come after the interval. As always – and with gracious thanks to Creative Communities funding – entry is free and commissions are $5 per song. Here’s the Facebook event – go forth and spread.

General Update

9 Jan

A generic travel-related icon.

A generic travel-related icon.

There are a whole lot of things that I should have written about, but haven’t. It’s been a while since an update.

In the last month I’ve moved cities from Dunedin to Auckland. Over my last week down south (10-17 December), I had a whole lot of stuff to finish off: my last Song Sale, recording the tracks for Promise & Promiscuity, recording further vocals of songs with other Song Salers, and producing a live radio broadcast from Albany Street Studios. And of course there was the simple fact that I was leaving Dunedin after my one year as Mozart Fellow, a damn significant time in my life… maybe I should blog about these things when they come to fruition.

After Christmas with the family in Auckland, I was back down to Wellington to do some work as a presenter for Radio New Zealand Concert, and some development work on At Least We Have Our Jobs, a drama production for Radio New Zealand National. I spent a lot of time in the studio for that.

Tomorrow I fly off to Mexico and I’ll be away from New Zealand for four months. In that time I’m going to Cuba (Cuba!), the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater and the Chicago Improv Festival, and I’ll be in Austin during SXSW. I may not answer emails or Facebook quite as regularly.

I’m feeling a bit arse because of vaccines and dental work a couple of days ago. I still have tax and GST to do, not to mention packing for four months away. Eep.

The red piano.

26 Sep

Last week I was in Wellington and I had the opportunity to play He Kōrero Pūrākau mo te Awanui o Te Motu, that bright red piano ornately carved by Michael Parekowhai. I had a friend video some of the performances at Te Papa.

Here’s the YouTube playlist. It contains attempted Maori strum in Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi (yes, bajingajink on piano), a singalong on Poi E, a New Zealand music lesson on Pōkarekare Ana, the Split Enz classic Message to My Girl, and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies.

And as a bonus, here’s Trubie-Dylan Smith’s Das kraftwerkische Blenderlied performed at the last Song Sale:

Last of all, a quick notice: on Friday, Improsaurus performs their first ever long-form improvised musical. It’s called Improv: The Musical. We’ve been working really hard to get this up and running, I’m looking forward to it.

Book advance tickets here, or passively hit attending on Facebook and risk there being no door sales.

LEN LYE a review

7 Sep

I’m in Auckland until this afternoon. I came up on Wednesday to see my former composition lecturer’s new piece LEN LYE the opera, and to review it for Theatreview. (Actually there are more like four of my old teachers among the core creative team…)

It’s “a major statement of advocacy for the overlooked genius and forward-thinking artistry of Len Lye”. My review’s here. The NBR and the Herald carry shorter write-ups.

Today I meet with Penny Ashton, Thomas Sainsbury and James Wenley about musicals in various stages of development.

Next week I sing as a “baritone” on the stage of Marama Hall in Dunedin and play with the Court Jesters in Christchurch.

The week after I get to play Michael Parekowhai’s red carved piano at Te Papa in Wellington, and I do my first gig in Invercargill.

Life’s pretty good.

Instant Songwriting – now in dead tree form!

17 Aug

Dear world,

A while ago I contributed some backing tracks to a book project. Instant Songwriting is written by Chicago actor/teacher Nancy Howland Walker. It’s a series of exercises designed for improvisers who want to acquire that magic skill of song construction in the moment.

Through the first half of this year, its four parts (Dunce, Decent, Distinguished and Diva) were published as individual ebooks on Smashwords. Now the whole thing has been printed in paperback.

BUY IT FROM AMAZON NOW NOW NOW! It’s US$15.95 and eligible for free Super Saver Shipping, as they say.

If you need further inducement, many many tracks from the book (possibly all?) are freely available on the Instant Songwriting website. I’m in the company of amazing musos from around the world like Michael Pollock (Second City Los Angeles & Improv Olympic West), Mike Descoteaux (Boston ex Chicago), Jeff Bouthiette (Second City Chicago), Kris Anderson (Brisbane) and Joe Samuel (London). Tracks by me include a cheesy bossa, a big pub waltz, and a metal thing without much of a consistent key centre.

Next week, Improsaurus begins training for their first ever long-form musical. Instant Songwriting will be an important teaching text for me.

BUY IT NOW NOW NOW.


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