By Scott Saegesser

A View From the Keyboard

When Darren first suggested that I should try my hand (or hands, although it sometimes sounds like I use my feet) at playing the piano for some musical improv scenes, I was just plain terrified. Several things were in play in my mind. First off, I didn’t know the first thing about improvising on the piano. I have played the piano for years, but that means music in front of me and practicing. Secondly, I only had a passing understanding of improv itself. My background and training is in musical theatre. I’m used to a script, a score and lots of rehearsal. Oh, and also, I really don’t like playing the piano in public!

So I had some hurdles to leap over and hoops to jump through. I started putting my years of piano lessons and music theory to good use by learning how to improvise, compose and structure a song on the spot. That is something I am still learning, for there are innumerable possibilities. Forget about practicing until you get it right! The next thing I needed to do was learn more about the world of improv. So a crash course was set into motion. Darren and I took a musical improv class taught by a teacher from Groundlings. I loved her approach, and the fact that she was very encouraging of everyone in class, even me. All of the other students were Groundlings-educated and I was not. I had my years of acting, music and vocal experience, but I learned that those were completely useless in this class. But I persevered and learned a lot in an expedited manner (mostly just to survive). But as much as I was learning about doing musical improv, I was also learning about accompanying musical improv from the class pianist. Like most people, it was a terrifying process for me, but in the end I loved it! And my old brain was forced to use old and new information to master a new skill.

Nowadays, the biggest use of my acting experience is sitting behind the keyboard and pretending that I’m not scared of what may happen next. And that, my friends, is what learning improv is all about. It’s all about learning to not be scared of what’s going to happen next. If your mind is open and you’re listening, you learn, and you find that fear is not helpful or necessary. That is also what improv has to teach us about life. Try something new. Take a risk. Implement the rules. Listen and learn. You never know where life is going to lead you, so follow.

While I understand this lesson, I will admit that I am still usually really nervous during shows. I am terrified that I will do something that just plain sounds bad; or worse, trips up the performers. But that’s what it’s all about; working together and creating magic. There are some wrong notes along the way, but if you’re not going to let me practice, then that’s going to happen. But I always look forward to playing with the troupe members because they are so creative and funny that it makes my job look easy. If there’s one thing I have learned about life, it’s that a little music makes everything better!


By Richard Martinez

Drugs, Not Hugs!

There’s a moment onstage during an improv scene, where you feel everything is going RIGHT.  The “who/what/where” has been taken care of,  and the big event has been established.  Now all you have to do is ride the wave of this awesome scene.


I had such an experience with the Last Laugh Saturday show at Hot Java in March. We were doing “Musical Understudy”, wherein my troupe mates, Darren, Kendra, Tracy and I, started the scene and our fellow Troupies would be repeating and exaggerating our performances afterward.


Darren, Kendra, and Tracy laid out a great foundation.  In the scene, the daughter found out that her elderly,  near-death father wanted to start doing serious hardcore recreational drugs, and had recently been seeing a woman of ill repute.  They sang awesome songs establishing their characters and the situation.  My role was to jump in as the character who could “fix” everything.  I decided to jump into the role of “Dr. Anderson.”  In character, (and in song) I revealed that I had made a mistake with Darren’s character’s diagnosis, and that he was going to live a long life.  I then suggested that instead of doing drugs, he should spend more time giving hugs to his daughter.


My song had pretty much run it’s course, but that’s when I had the brilliant idea to add an “outro” to the song I was improvising.   I thought singing a repeated refrain of “Hugs, Not Drugs!” would be the cherry on top of the scene. So I went for it. “Hugs, Not Drugs!  Hugs, Not Drugs!”


Except, as it turns out, my mouth hadn’t quite gotten the message from my brain, and I quickly realized based on everyone’s reactions that I was singing “Drugs, Not Hugs!” over and over, which didn’t exactly fit what I had established. I haven’t seen the video yet, but I’m pretty sure you can pinpoint on my face the exact moment where I wanted to die.


Luckily, audiences love goof-ups, and I’d given them a pretty decent one, so rather than feeling judgment or disdain from the audience or my fellow Troupies, the comedy of the moment shined through and I was able to laugh at myself.  Then I remembered that, in character, I had already established that I made mistakes.  So I just called that out, which got a great reaction from the audience, and then the scene was over.


In hindsight, I realized what a gift I’d given myself by labeling myself early on as someone who makes mistakes.  After the realization of the goof, I could have just shrugged it off, or given up on the scene, but by focusing on the situation and the characters we’d all developed, I was able to make a little sense out of a pretty nonsensical situation.  I spoke to my fellow Troupie, Andy after the show, and he reinforced this idea.  He told me what a great “improv choice” I had made by committing to the labels of the character I’d created.


Of course, I’d rather not have to justify my own mistake, but there’s really no getting around that.  Mistakes happen.  It’s up to us to figure out how we handle them, in improv and in life.


So…don’t be surprised if in every scene I’m in from now on, I label myself as a Mistake Maker.