Finding Strength in Vulnerability with Jonathan Pitts

Saturday, October 30, 2010 at Laughtrack Theater

Class Description: Improv vulnerability scares everyone. That’s why it’s easier to fake awkwardness in a cute, clumsy way than it is to be actually vulnerable on-stage with your scene partners. The key to improv vulnerability is to focus on first being open as an improviser and then let everything said or done onstage, by your scene partners or even yourself, have an effect on you. Then what appears as vulnerability becomes a super-sized strength, as the audience’s eyes follow your every move, as your characters become grounded and as your relationships become real. Through that reality of improv vulnerability, laughter always follows. The workshop process’ focus will be explored through the process of two and three person engaged in open ended scenes.

Instructor bio: Jonathan Pitts is the Executive Director of the Chicago Improv Festival Productions. He is also the Co-Founder of the prestigious Chicago Improv Festival. This is his 14th year producing the festival. He’s been involved in improvisational theatre for over 30 years.

He is also the creator/producer of the CIF’s All-State Improv Team; College Improv Tournament; Ridge Park Summer Theatre Camp; and Teen Comedy Fest, as well as CIF Production’s touring educational outreach programs, The Make ‘Em Ups; Storybox For Kids; Viola Spolin – Visionary Woman of Play; and World Tales.

He has improvised in over 1,100 shows with numerous ensembles in Chicago and across America, in everything from games to long-forms, and from scenes to experimental work. He was a member of Improv Olympic’s first ever house team, Stone Soup. As an actor, he’s appeared in over 30 plays and performance pieces with several Chicago area theatre companies. He’s also a former company member of The Blue Rider Theater.

Additionally, he’s also the creator/director of several theatre productions, as well as the improvisation theatre forms: The Oracle; The Silent Movie; and Storybox Theatre; as well as The Marty, a teaching exercise that he utilizes in his Whole Body Listening workshop.

As an improv teacher, for the past 13 years he’s been a guest artist at The Second City Training Center and he’s also a 3 year faculty member at Piven Theatre Workshop. Nationally, he’s taught in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Champaign, Chapel Hill, Honolulu, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Internationally, he’s taught in London for The Spontaneity Shop; and in Norway for Norsk Sceneskrekk.

For 7 years, he was the theatre/performance art curator of the Around the Coyote. For 3 years he produced the Director’s Festival for Bailiwick Theatre. While there, he also produced Naked I, a Chicago visual performance arts fest, and Art Attack, an arts festival in Michigan. Currently, he’s an Advisory Board Member of Director’s Lab Chicago and the Windy City Burlesque Festival. He’s also currently an Artistic Associate of Philadelphia’s Duo Fest and Austin’s Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. He’s a former Artistic Associate of Bailiwick Theatre and WNEP Theater.

He’s interviewed in three documentary films about improvisation: The Compass – America’s First Improv Theatre; The Delmonic Interviews; and Improv Legends. He’s a contributing writer to Anne Libera’s book, The Second City’s Almanac of Improvisation. He also wrote the forward to Asaf Ronan’s book On Directing Improv, and he was profiled in Tom Salinsky’s & Deborah Frances-White’s book The Improv Handbook, which was published in England and Europe. For 3 consecutive years he was selected by New City magazine as one of “Chicago’s Top 50 Theatre Players”.

Notes for Posterity:

First, let me start by saying that this class had me wiped out for the rest of the weekend. I’m serious. The class was centered around the idea of being open to the energy around you and the energy of the people around you, too. It was very holistic and the energy of the whole is integral to the group dynamic.

Pitts began with talking about Del Close and that Pitt’s always thought of him as his “improv father” but his “improv mother” was Martin deMaat. He cared about connections between people and the relationships and that was the center of how and what he taught.

This class was very different than most. We started off by warming up the parts of our bodies that we felt we needed to work on. Then we dove into exercises. We did three of them. All of them involved keeping your eyes closed and we did them in this order.

1) Two people at opposite sides, facing each other. When we were told to start we would walk toward each other with our eyes closed. At the point we felt the other person’s energy we then stopped.

2) Three  people in a line would walk towards the wall. They must start and stop as a group.

3) Two person scenes with your eyes closed. Both people remain seated and must do the scene while their eyes remain closed.

In general, I think Pitts left a lot of us with quotable nuggets. Here are my favorites:

  • Vulnerability is a product of being open.
  • Being open is a choice by you and it’s not something someone else can do for you.
  • Give a gift, not an entire Christmas.

Side note:
I did want to add one thing about the idea of group mind. I come from a theatre background, so I’m used to coming into a show and working on it as a group. There are no misconceptions about what we’re doing and I think that (out of all the things about theatre and improv) this is the most translatable. When you come into a group, I don’t think you should worry about having “group mind” with those around you but having a group purpose that you are all working toward. As a coach, creating a common language can help that, but as a player, just understanding why everyone is there in the first place, with this group of people, working on this form, may help lessen the drama (if you have any). We’re here to have fun and enjoy the process of creating something from nothing, right?

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