Anders Yates has been an improviser for about nine years. He is a founding member of the award-winning Montreal improv and sketch comedy troupe Uncalled For. As part of Uncalled For, Anders has performed at Fringe Festivals across the country as well as the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal (plus they recently won Best of the Fest at the Toronto Sketchfest). For the past four years, Anders’ alter ego, Zack Winters, has been the co-host of the Montreal Fringe’s official late-night talk show/dance party, “The 13th Hour“.
I’ve taken many opportunities to talk with people about the ways in which improv can have a positive impact on one’s life outside of the time spent performing on stage or rolling around in the piles of money that every improviser tends to make practicing their craft. Improv is an ideal way to boost self-confidence, to learn how to work productively in a team and to keep an open and positive attitude toward life, but one unexpected benefit that improv has had for me has been in one of the arenas that is often considered to be a polar opposite of improvisation: writing and performing prepared material.
When I sit down to write a sketch for Uncalled For, I try to approach the empty page with the same mindset that I bring to an empty stage: I am open to anything, positive and willing to fail. One of the biggest pitfalls that writing has over improvising on stage is that if a performer finds herself on a stage in front of an audience, the pressure of all those pairs of eyes looking at her will likely be enough to kick start her into at least doing something. Staring at a blank piece of paper is something that is most often done privately, with no direct, instant pressure to scribble something, anything on the page, and so therefore the page will often remain blank for a very, very long time.
The lack of external pressure is made worse by the fact that writing takes more time than speaking. I don’t know how to write in shorthand and I don’t even really like writing in cursive, so the speed at which my mind races is far greater than that at which I’m able to get anything down on paper. This temporal difference leaves plenty of time for my little internal critic to shoot down every possible idea that I am about to write: “Too boring. Too clichéd. You don’t know anything about that topic. Too juvenile.” If I’m open to anything and willing to fail, though, I am able to ignore my self-criticism long enough to start writing. Just like when I’m improvising on stage, the easiest way to start is by establishing a positive platform. Who is talking? What is their relationship to the person they are interacting with? Where are they? What are they doing? If I can do all of these things without worrying that what I’m writing might be terrible, then I’m well on my way to being able to tilt that idea enough to keep it interesting.
Of course, even after years of improvising, being willing to fail can be a pretty tall order some days (especially if I feel like I’ve been doing enough failing in other areas of my life that day), so the best way that I can think of to allow myself to write freely and openly is if I do it as often as possible. If what I write today turns out to be no good, there’s always tomorrow. One of the great founding fathers of improv, Keith Johnstone, likes to repeat that anybody trying to draw a face would have to draw about 500 lousy ones before he could start drawing good ones, so why not get those first 500 out of the way sooner rather than later and draw whenever possible. I like to try to take the same attitude toward writing. As long as I can squeeze it in between my money-pile-rolling sessions, of course.
Previous Guests: Charna Halpern, Jill Bernard, Marcel St. Pierre, Josh Fulton, Brendon Bennetts, Terence Bowman, Gil Browdy, Alan Marriott, Jason R. Chin, Ian Parizot, Bill Arnett, Pippa Evans, Ben Whitehouse, Sylvia Niederberger