Vol 9, Issue 1, Spring 2007

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Improvising our Way through Tragedy: How an Improv Comedy Community Heals itself through Improvisation

Jason Scott Quinn
University of North Carolina at Greensboro


In the summer of 2001, I began taking improv comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (www.ucbtheatre.com) in New York. I quickly became immersed in the culture of improvisation, devoting the majority of my time to my study of improvisation. When I wasn't working directly on my own craft, I was going to see other improvisers perform and talking with improvisers after shows. Even alone in my apartment, I was connected to the improv community through the online community on message boards (www.improvresourcecenter.com).

Our improv community has always been defined by our pursuit of improv comedy onstage and is guided by our adherence to the philosophies of improv comedy both on and off-stage. We attempt to live and communicate through the principles of improvisation in our everyday lives because we believe that their practice off-stage will improve our work onstage as well as our daily communications.

On September 11, 2001, I woke up completely unaware that the world was forever changed. I lit a cigarette and read an email telling me, "Dude, your city is under attack." I turned on the television, but none of the stations were working. I turned on the radio and listened to a somber Howard Stern give me the news about the attacks on the World Trade Center. I surfed the internet for whatever news I could find, finally landing on the improv message boards where I checked in with my fellow improvisers.

The time following September 11th was lonely as most of us were unable to meet in Manhattan to see each other, let alone return to improv comedy. We spent our time in front of the computer reading narratives of survival, fear, and hope on the message boards. We read our friends' tears and added our own to the online narrative. On September 12th, a call was put out on the message boards to Astoria-based improvisers to meet at Cronin & Phalen's, a local Irish pub, to drink and talk. That night, nine of us gathered and began the healing process through dialogue and the sharing of our narratives and the following night we returned to performance.

This study seeks to understand how the use of performance, narrative in dialogue, and the principles of improvisation helped our community to heal in the days following 9/11. This research addresses a gap within current 9/11 research by examining the impact of performance and improvisational principles on the communication of a community affected by tragedy. It is my belief that studying the experience of our community will add to the academic discourse and knowledge that can help all communities in times of tragedy.

Although it has been close to six years since the events of 9/11, this study is still relevant today. Since 9/11, our nation has seen communal tragedy as a result of Hurricane Katrina and most recently as a result of the mass murder/suicide at Virginia Tech. These events have reminded me just how important it is to understand how performance and the utilization of improvisational comedy principles within communication helped our community to recover following 9/11, so that communities struck by tragedy in the future may have valuable tools to help them recover and regain their agency to perform.

Conceptual Framework

As an active member of the New York improvisational comedy community, much of my understanding of how the 9/11 attacks affected our community comes from my insider perspective and my personal experiences. The 9/11 attacks caused our community to experience shock, fear, and grief. Goodall (2003) writes about shock saying, "I thought I had known the feeling of horror until that moment" (p. 207). Poulos (2003) writes that "ordinary time/routine/progress was shattered that day as the towers of ordinariness and routine crumbled…we were frozen in our tracks, stuck, mute, horrified" (p. 236). New Yorkers experienced many of the same fears that those outside of the city felt, but those fears were intensified by the proximity to Ground Zero. Russell (2006) writes that "the pit of debris was more than a gaping hole. The city was wounded… in the silence we gathered in the streets like a family in grief" (p. 33).

The fear and grief both led to a need to congregate and a need to express which led to our meetings at local bars as well as online on message boards. Robertson (2003) writes about the street art that covered the walls of Lower Manhattan explaining that "the writings appear to be a conduit for expressing closure and optimism about the future…prayers and blessings offered by New Yorkers of all ages reflect sentiments of transcendence" (pp. 80-81).

This need to express and the experience of grief relates to a need for rituals. Russell (2006) writes that "a ritual healing of the breach of death is not routine. Performance makes a difference…as we mourned the loss of thousands at Ground Zero, we struggled to absorb a scene of immolation into our psyches. Our search was sensual; our bodies were our guides" (p. 37). He found his own secular ritual through physically connecting with dirt from Ground Zero that he took back to his apartment. This ritualistic gesture allowed Russell to physically be "in contact with the source of my grief" (Russell, 2006, p. 39). Victor Turner (1982) describes the therapeutic ritual as one that involves "the exorcism of malefic spirits and the propitiation of 'good' ones" (p. 10). The ritual actually transforms the individual or group performing it. A group or individual that is in the midst of a life-crisis needs ritual to transform the performer(s) away from the liminality of life-crisis (Turner, 1982, pp. 80-81). For our community, our dialogue and narrative sharing at Cronin & Phalen's, as well as our subsequent return to performance, were the rituals that allowed us to transform from victims and mourners to storytellers and improvisers. We could not have transformed to healing without the ritual of performance and we could not have transformed to performers of comedy without the ritual of sharing our personal narratives.

Kristen Langellier (1989) categorizes personal narratives as story-texts, storytelling performances, conversational interactions, social processes, and as political praxis. The narratives at Cronin & Phalen's could be described as both conversational interaction and a social process. Langellier (1989) describes personal narrative as conversational interaction as "mutually constructed by participants according to shared knowledge and interaction rules" (p. 256). In this case, the shared knowledge was of the community itself and of 9/11 and the interaction rules were governed by principles of improvisation. The personal narratives shared at Cronin & Phalen's were a part of the social process as they were told as a part of the group's coping process (Bochner, 2001; Bochner & Ellis, 1992; Langellier, 1989). Bochner (2001) writes that narratives speak to "the desire for self-expression and the urge to speak to and assist a community of fellow sufferers" (p. 147). The personal narratives told at Cronin & Phalen's were inspired by both of those intents. Personal narratives help us to understand and cope through understanding lived experience rather than seeking to predict or control behavior (Bochner, 2001; Bochner & Ellis, 1992; Bochner & Ellis, 2000).

The dialogue in the days that followed 9/11 was marked by improvisational comedy and communication concepts, both of which are overlapping. Dialogue is inherently improvisational as it is not a scripted activity. Improvisational comedy theorist Mick Napier (2004) believes that a scene will be far richer when two independent characters enter a scene separately and discover the scene that arises between their two independent identities. Rather than losing one's self by being courteous to his/her scene partner, Napier (2004) argues that the magical moments of improvisation come from "improvising from a character or point of view that was never violated" (p. 28). Napier's philosophy is reminiscent of Martin Buber's philosophy of dialogue that explores the dialectical tension of "maintaining your own ground" and "allowing the Other to happen to you." (Stewart & Zediker, 2000). Buber says that the interaction occurs on a "narrow ridge" that exists between those tensions. The "narrow ridge" philosophy allows individuals with different perspectives, even highly polarizing ones, to experience each other through openness in dialogue (Arnett, 1986). In Napier's (2004) philosophy of improvisation, it is on that "narrow ridge" that the scene occurs, with both characters maintaining their individual characters' perspectives, yet remaining open to the other character's perspective. Buber's philosophy calls for a confirmation of the other by accepting his/her otherness (Cissna & Anderson, 2002). Napier's philosophy of improvisational scene work is similar to how Ronald Arnett (1986) described the philosophy of people like Buber who "listened openly, yet if left unpersuaded by the other, they maintained their original position" (p. 31). Buber's "narrow ridge" and the concept of confirmation do not require the participants to agree. In fact, "one may confirm by struggling with the other, by disagreeing, and by calling forth potentialities in the other that, until then, had remained entirely latent" (Cissna & Anderson, 2002, pp. 54-55). Likewise, Napier sees the value of the possibility of struggle or disagreement in a scene in which the characters are maintaining truthfulness to their characters and an open communion with each other (Napier, 2004). Both Buber's "narrow ridge" and Napier's philosophy of scene work balances the joint responsibility "for both oneself and other" (Arnett, 1986, p. 36). The improv community's dialogue in the days that followed 9/11 were filled with experiences of improvisers with differing views and perspectives coming together on a "narrow ridge" with an openness to each other's otherness in unscripted dialogue.

The improvisational dialogue and sharing of narratives in the days that followed 9/11 also utilized the improvisational comedy principle of "yes and…" Improvisation is based in principles of agreement and cooperation. In improv comedy, this principle is embodied within the principle of "yes and…" The "yes and…" concept is that when one player makes a statement, the next player is obligated to validate that statement by agreeing to it and then adding an additional piece of information to it. The three most common ways to "yes and…" a scene partner's offer is to add information in the form of a detail, feeling, or consequence to it. The best way to honor a scene partner's offer is to build upon it. While saying "no" stops the action through denial and saying "yes but…" stops the action through qualification, saying "yes and…" works to advance the action with full cooperation through building onto a scene partner's creation (Close, Halpern, & Johnson, 1994; Hapern, 2005; Park-Fuller & Pelias, 1995).

The agreement and cooperation practiced by improvisers through the usage of the "yes and…" concept ties into the teachings of Hayakawa (1990) who tells us that "widespread intraspecific cooperation through the use of language is the fundamental mechanism of human survival" (p. 12). This belief is shared by those who practice improv comedy. Charna Halpern says that "agreement is the one rule that can never be broken: the players must be in agreement to forward the action of a scene" (Close, Halpern, & Johnson, 1994, p. 47). In improvisational comedy, each player must advance the action of a scene without the roadblocks of denying the other's experience because they stop the productivity needed to spontaneously create scenes in front of an audience. The use of "yes and…" and the sharing of narratives helped our community build the improvisational comedy principle of group mind (Halpern, 2005). Group mind is the belief that a group of individuals improvising in sync as an ensemble, will be able to think with one mind, the group mind. The belief is that the combined intelligence of the group improvising together is greater than the combined intelligence of the individual members of the group outside of the group. It would follow that a group will demonstrate greater creativity by working together as a group sharing a group mind than as a collection of individuals.

Group mind should not be confused with Janis's groupthink which is a phenomenon with negative connotations. In a groupthink situation, the members of the group are striving for cohesiveness with the other members of the group. This desire allows the members of the group to make poor decisions because they are blinded by the will of the group (Janis, 1972; 1982). While groupthink is a liability in decision making, group mind is not a phenomenon concerned with decision making. Group mind is about how members of a group working in collaboration with each other as an ensemble will have a greater creativity and effectiveness in achieving goals through their connectedness than the individuals would have working separately (Close, Halpern, & Johnson, 1994; Hapern, 2005).
Charna Halpern writes of witnessing "group mind linking up to a universal intelligence, enabling them to perform fantastic, sometimes unbelievable feats." (Close, Halpern, Johnson, 1994, p. 93). Eric Eisenberg (1990) describes a similar phenomenon in his exploration of the transcendent nature of jamming, which he says "enables individuals temporarily to feel part of a larger community…jamming experiences both transcend the individual and enrich the life of the self" (pp. 146-147). Susan Messing says that creating group mind and achieving teamwork through improvisation is about "agreeing to the group's energy by joining it…Throwing yourself into the group mix alleviates so much of the feeling of being alone" (Halpern, 2005, p.67).

While the study of improv comedy principles such as group mind is of recent interest, there is a long tradition in studying the relationship between tragedy and comedy dating as far back as Aristotle. Kenneth Burke discusses the choice to use a comic frame as a response to tragic events and painful emotional states (Burke, 1959; Burke, 1989; Christiansen & Hanson, 1996). Burke (1989) tells us that "the comic enables us to increase the use of incongruity and in this a fashion to produce new ways of seeing, to overcome the particular blindness of our accustomed usages" (p. 26).

In the days following 9/11, our community utilized comedy as a means to find normalcy in the wake of tragedy. For our community, comedy was both the tool to return to normalcy, as well as indicative of our state of normalcy itself. Burke (1989) points out that the comic frame enables someone "to 'transcend' occasions when he has been tricked or cheated, since he can readily put such discouragements in his 'assets' column, under the head of 'experience'…the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting" (p. 264). Eckardt (1992) writes that in the wake of the Holocaust "tragedy is transformed into comedy, in the measure that fate is turned into freedom. Tragedy may help imbue a sense of human courage, but only comedy can foster a sense of hope. Where there is humor, there is hope; where there is hope, there is humor" (Eckardt, 1992, p. 411). This is the therapeutic form of comedy that was present in our community's interactions post-9/11, as we sought the connectedness of participation in group mind and the freedom of laughing together as a community in the wake of tragedy.

It is my belief that the creation of group mind amongst the members of our community was therapeutic to the members of the community and was instrumental in the community regaining its agency to perform improvisational comedy on the stage for an audience once again. The need to (artistically) express, the need for rituals, and the rebuilding of the community's group mind all directly contributed to the community's return to the theatre to perform and watch improvisational comedy.

Methodology & Methods

This study utilizes the methodology of autoethnography. As such, I am employing the concept of researcher as subject. Spry (2001) defines autoethnography as "a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of self with others in social contexts" (p. 710). Ellis (2004) writes that "autoethnography refers to writing about the personal and its relationship to culture" (p. 37). Bochner and Ellis (2006) write that "the autoethnographer's story theorizes personal experience. And that theorizing is both personal and cultural…Sense-making involves turning experiences into stories that theorize experience…The story is a theory" (pp. 115-116).

Within this study, I am researching my own experiences in the days following the events of 9/11 within the context of the New York improvisational comedy culture in which I was a member. I am adopting the position of storyteller in order to provide a storied explanation of how our community used performance and the principles of improvisational comedy and dialogue within our communication to help ourselves recover from the tragic events of 9/11. My story is the theory that I am presenting.

Autoethnographers use a wide variety of literary techniques and genres in presenting the story of their research including prose, poetry, performance art, ethnodramas, ethnographic fiction, and mixed genres (Denzin, 2003; Ellis, 2004; Goodall, 2000; Spry, 2001). For this study, I have composed a performance script consisting of monologues, performance texts, and improvised interludes constructed to represent characters that I have researched within my own story. These characters may be considered to be fictional characters based on my autoethnographic research, but they often times directly represent individuals that I have researched either in part or in their entirety. These individuals appear in the script as composite characters and under pseudonyms both as an aesthetic choice and to protect the anonymity of my participants. It would not be inaccurate to report that my experiences of these events are found within each of the performance texts and that I am an integral piece of each composite. It is my experiences within the context of the improv comedy community that is the subject of my research.

As an autoethnographer, I have employed both participant-observation and autoethnographic interviews as the methods with which I conducted my research. As a participant-observer of the events in the days following 9/11, I have worked to reconstruct my field notes from 2001 using a variety of techniques. I have used my own recollection, sense memory techniques, conversations and personal correspondence with those involved in the events, and the examination of artifacts including my own journal entries from that time period (Ellis, 1995; Ellis, 2004; Goodall, 2000).

I conducted autoethnographic/narrative interviews for this study. The narrative nature of the interviews allowed other characters within my story to directly contribute to the construction and understanding of the story that I seek to tell. The autoethnographic nature of the interviews provided me with an interactive interview format that more resembled dialogue than a traditional interview with a "Question/Answer" format. During the interviews, I was able to make discoveries based on mutual contributions between both myself and my interview participants, blurring the line between interviewer and interviewee (Ellis, 2004). For these interviews, I selected individuals who I knew as fellow members of the New York improv community at the time of 9/11. I chose these individuals because of our shared experiences in the days following 9/11, as well as our similar training in the principles of improvisational comedy. These interviews have served as a supplement and contribution to my own field notes, as well as a means for member checking my field notes.

In order to analyze my data, I began by doing a text analysis of my field notes as well as my interview transcripts. I paid particular attention to both the commonalities in themes as well as differing perspectives within my data. Upon completion of my text analysis, I used the performative writing of my performance texts as a form of further inquiry into the phenomenon (Pelias, 1999; Richardson, 2000a). Based upon my further understanding gained through performative writing, I made revisions to my performance script. The writing process was both a result of "data analysis" as well as a performative form of "data analysis." I further revised my script based on my evaluations of the text guided by Laurel Rchardson's (2000b) five criteria for evaluation: substantive contribution, aesthetic merit, reflexivity, impact, and whether the story expresses a reality. I have taken creative liberties with the details of the story through the rewriting process, seeking to be emotionally truthful and to recreate a reality that best represents the lived experience of the story (Ellis, 1995, 2004).

Performance Script

It should be noted that what follows has been written as a performance script and as such, is incomplete as text written on the page without the benefit of the performer's embodiment of the text or the benefit of the performer's acting choices. The words in the script are meant to be spoken aloud and heard by an audience, as I am operating on the premise of performance being a way of knowing. I encourage the reader to explore the text by interpreting it orally (Conquergood, 1991; Denzin, 2003; Pelias, 1999). I believe that the stories the performance script tells exist as my theory or explanation addressing my research questions and that they should be treated as the results and discussion of my research (Bochner and Ellis, 2006). However, I would like to urge the reader to take notice of themes such as normalcy, not knowing how to react, the desire to connect, feelings of isolation, feelings of anger, connecting through stories, communal experience, group mind, feelings of guilt, and the permission to laugh that have emerged from this study.


The performers take the stage before the house is opened to the audience. When the audience begins to arrive, the performers begin a series of typical improv comedy warm-ups including, but not limited to "Zip, Zap, Zop" and "Follow the Follower." "Zip, Zap, Zop" is an energy pass exercise in which the performers pass energy across the circle to each other with a pointing hand gesture and vocal offer. The vocal offers follow the pattern "Zip, Zap, Zop, Zip, Zap, Zop…" The game should be played fast and furious, following the premise that the only way a performer makes a mistake is by indicating to the audience that he/she made a mistake. "Follow the Follower" is a mirroring exercise that works on group mind. In "Follow the Follower" there are no leaders, only followers. Beginning from a shared neutral position, each performer mirrors and heightens what they observe through what they see and hear. This exercise is built organically and no performer should conscientiously add new sounds or movements. They should only mirror and heighten what is already present. The exercise should end with a crescendo of sound and movement. "Zip, Zap, Zop" should be the opening exercise and "Follow the Follower" should be the final exercise before the "official show" begins.


Voice 1: I saw the tower fall from my window. I saw the second plane hit the tower. I saw them say that they weren’t letting people in or out of the city. I want to go home to Brooklyn and I can’t.

Voice 2: My boyfriend works down there. He’s just some kid from Jersey. Why would a terrorist want to target him?

Voice 1: When the Trade Center went down the first time, my mom worked downtown, and I was scared for her. Now I’m the only one who works on Manhattan and my entire family is scared for me.

Voice 3: My co-worker’s husband works on top of the World Trade Center. She hasn’t heard from him since this started.

Voice 1: Anyone have any bright ideas about how to get word to family outside of New York? I can’t call out of the city and my cell is dead.

Voice 2: I’ll make calls for people — I’m in New Jersey and my phone is fine.

Voice 4: Oh god. I'm okay. I'm in the lower east side. God, everyone tell us you’re okay if you are. I can’t believe this. Pay phones down here work.

Voice 1: I can’t find out what’s going on right now. For some reason, our office TV just went out, and the internet news sites are very slow to load.

Voice 2: If you have family anywhere, send me an email and the number you would like me to call.

Voice 3: Things are pretty fucked up. It is just insanity.

Voice 4: I heard there’s a lot of asbestos in the air. Probably everywhere - be careful when outside. Wear a mask of some kind.

Voice 3: We saw the second tower fall from our roof. I’ve only been here for a little over a week. I am scared shitless.

Voice 2: Please guys, be safe.

Voice 1: I am here where the information is supposed to come from and I don’t know what to do with myself.

Voice 4: It might be a good idea to stock up on bottled water, canned goods, batteries for flashlights…. Think of it like a natural disaster.

Voice 3: Whatever you believe…

Voice 1: Pray for others…

Voice 4: Think of others…

Voice 2: Good thoughts are helpful

Voice 4: Of lesser concern and urgency…no shows tonight at the theatre.

All: No shows.


Well, first of all you can't talk about September 11th without talking about what a beautiful day it was. It was one of those ridiculously gorgeous, not a cloud in the sky, bright and sunny kind of days. It was perfect weather, just perfect.

I was late for work that day. I worked downtown, right across from One World Trade, but that morning I was sleeping through my alarm clock in my apartment on the Upper East Side. I'm a really good sleeper, or maybe a really bad sleeper, depending how you look at it.

So, I was running really late and I had like one foot in my bedroom, just about to walk out my door when I stopped at the computer to check my email….and there it was…a message from another improviser who worked on Wall Street with the subject line: WTC. The entirety of the message was, "I'm O.K." I turned on my TV and about 30 seconds later, the second tower came down and yeah, that's how I found out.

So, I sent a letter to my co-workers letting them know that I was still at home and got on the message boards which became the virtual network at that point. So, there was this thread, and I know how nerdy this all is, but there was this thread called World Trade and that was where everyone checked in. I think that was a big part of things at that point, checking in, letting everyone know you were alright and sharing with everyone that you knew were alright.

You really couldn't get off the island, so improvisers were offering up their apartments to people who couldn't get back to Brooklyn or Queens. No one wanted to stick around the office and finish up that last spreadsheet. I offered my place and Andy took me up on it.

After Andy came over, we both kept checking the IRC together. We started getting real antsy and tried to watch some wrestling on my TiVo, but we couldn't stick with it, so we turned on the local news. They were announcing blood drives, so we got out of the apartment to go donate blood a block away. We waited for a while in a long line until they ran out of bags and stopped taking donations. I never donated blood before and it would probably take another September 11th for me to wait in line give blood again.

So, we left the line and walked across the street to the Gristedes. My neighborhood was very convenient. All of your 9/11 needs were right there. So, we went to the Gristedes and I bought a chicken. I bought a whole chicken. We didn't know what the hell we were doing. We had no idea how long Andy was going to be on the island. We had no idea, if this was just the start. We had no idea how to comport ourselves during an act of war. I had never bought a whole chicken before, and I haven't bought a whole chicken since. What was I going to do with a whole chicken? I bought a whole chicken and a bunch of bottled water and chips and stuff. Chips…I don't know, in case the game came on later? It was just a ridiculous combination of things from the grocery store. What did I think I was going to do with a whole chicken?

When we got back to my apartment it was about four or five o'clock and we watched Giuliani on TV and then Andy decided to walk to the L train to try to make it back to Brooklyn. I just stayed in the apartment all night, watching TV, posting on the boards, and trying to figure out what to do with a whole chicken.

Interlude 1

Two chairs are placed side by side at the center of the stage.

Performer 1: We are going to perform an improv game for you called the "Yes and" game and we'd like to get two volunteers from our audience to play the "Yes and" game with us. Who would like to give it a shot? (Two audience volunteers are brought up on stage. Performer 1 adlibs with the audience members getting their names and finding out if they have every improvised before.)

Performer 1: Here is how you play the "Yes and" game. We will play one round of the game to show you how it goes and then each of you will get to play one round with one of us. Two players will sit in the chairs side by side. This scene takes place in the backseat of a car and the people in the front seat never talk. As a matter of fact, we can't even see them. One person will make a statement. The second person will say "Yes" and then repeat the first persons statement exactly, say "and," and then add a new statement. This will continue back and forth until I call the end of the scene. Our two performers will show you how it's done. Let's get a one word suggestion from the audience to inspire their scene. Players you may begin.

(Our two performers proceed to do a "Yes and" scene.)

Performer 1: Awesome...great job. Now, one of our audience volunteers will do a "Yes and" scene with one of our performers. Here are a couple of hints to help you. There are three ways to "yes and" a scene and I want you to repeat them with me. Add a detail…add a feeling or emotion…or add a consequence. Great. So, if the line is, "I have a dog," we can add a detail by saying, "Yes, I have a dog and it is brown." Or we can add a feeling or emotion by saying, "Yes, I have a dog and she makes me so happy." Or we can add a consequence by saying, "Yes, I have a dog and that's why I am always sneezing." So, we can "yes and" by adding a detail, an emotion or feeling or a consequence. Let's see how we do. Let's get a one word suggestion from the audience to inspire their scene. Players you may begin.

(The second "Yes and" scene is performed with one of the audience volunteers)

Performer 1: That was great. Let's hear it for our players. Now we are going to give our other audience volunteer the chance to play the "yes and" game with one of us. When we "yes and," we are saying, "I hear exactly what you just said from your perspective." When we play the game this time, try to match each others emotion. Trust each other. The only way this will not work is to say, "I don't know what to say," and even that can be "yes anded." Let's get a one word suggestion from the audience to inspire their scene. Players, you may begin.

(The third "Yes and" scene is performed. We ask for applause for our audience volunteers and return them to their seats in the audience.)

Cronin & Phalen's

The next day, September 12th, Eric posted on the boards that he was in Astoria and was feeling really lonely. He suggested that we meet at Cronin & Phalen's because they had an outdoor garden seating where we could just hang out, have a few drinks, and talk. I had been there the night before and it was pretty mellow. It seemed like the right place for our needs. We agreed to meet at the bar at 9 pm. I arrived a little bit later and there were about ten improvisers there.

The energy was weird, kind of mopey. It was a bit of a downer, but it was good. It was good to see everyone. Hell, it was good to see anyone. It was what we needed. A lot of improvisers showed up that night.

Everyone had their stories and everyone was coping with things with various degrees of success. Kim walked in with her boyfriend Dave, hugged everyone, and cried. We were at the bar for about three hours and I don't think she stopped crying the whole night. She didn't talk very much. She just listened to everyone, gripped people's hands, and cried.

There was this weird mix of grief, anger, and feeling lucky to be alive. Everyone shared their stories and it is amazing how many of them involved being late for work, still being on the subway on this day when every other day, they would be downtown in or near the Towers. Matt worked retail at South Street Seaport and every morning he would stop at the World Trade Center and get a doughnut at Krispy Kreme around the same time that the attacks happened, but on this Tuesday, Matt had called into work sick. Pam didn't have to be at work until ten. She was on the N train at Queensboro Plaza, the last stop in Queens before the train goes under the East River and she saw the first plane hit. There was a lot of luck and a lot of guilt for being so damn lucky.

We were listening to each other really hard that night. That's one of the major tenets of improvisation, to give your self over, to listen. You have to listen in order to "yes and…" someone. You know, we all had a story. There were so many "Oh my God, I should have been there" kind of stories and we "yes anded" each other's stories with our own. We connected with each other in a really meaningful way. I think group mind is just an easy way to say that when you listen to each other, you communicate well, and you all want the same thing, you're going to reach the same conclusions. In that sense, absolutely, we all listened to each other, we all wanted to connect with each other, we all felt the same way about 9/11. We all hated it. We were all pissed off. We were all, very much, wanting not to be isolated. So, I think the whole town had group mind in that respect.

That night was very important to me. It was good to see people’s faces and listen to people’s stories. It let us feel less alone, less isolated. I think that it's not that uncommon to hear these stories of strangers connecting with each other. I think that shows how isolated we all felt. I love to hear the stories of just these random people connecting in really active ways and the improv community had that within itself.

For me that night was filled with important moments of bullshitting with each other mixed with true feelings and real talking that wasn’t covered with any bullshit at all. The fact that we were all actively trying to connect with each other made it completely acceptable for everyone to approach each other and not at all awkward to approach each other and hug each other and listen to each other. It was 100% acceptable. There was no sense of awkwardness, no sense of "why are you talking to me?"

But the important thing for me was we were all out there that night living life, sharing our anger, sharing our fears, and really listening to each other. Through the stories I hear …in person, on the boards, and TV, I am continually amazed at the strength of the human spirit. I will never be able to thank enough the people who were at Cronin & Phalen's that night.

Interlude 2

Performer 2: We are now going to play a game called "Conducted Story," and would like to get three volunteers from the audience to play it with us.

(The other performers get three audience volunteers and arrange themselves with the audience volunteers in an arch downstage.)

Performer 2: For conducted story, you all will tell a story together as a group. I will stand in front of you and conduct the telling of the story by pointing to you. As long as I am pointing to you, you should keep telling the story. When I pull my hand away, you are to stop telling the story immediately. I may pull my hand away mid-sentence, mid-word, or mid-syllable. The next person I point to will pick up the story from exactly where the previous person left off, whether it is mid-sentence, mid-word, or mid-syllable. We will do this game with eliminations. If you don't stop telling the story when I stop pointing at you, you will be eliminated. If you hesitate, you will be eliminated. If you repeat the word that someone else says, you will be eliminated. Let's get a suggestion from the audience of the title of a story that has never been told. (Gets suggestion.) Players are you ready? Really try to get in each others' heads and live in the moment of what they are saying. This is (title of story) chapter one.

(After each round we move on to the next chapter or the story. In between chapters give the players side coaching to help their performance and instruct the audience.)

Harold Night

There was a lot of discussion leading up to Thursday, because every Thursday night at the UCB Theatre was Harold Night. The Harold is an improvised form created by Del Close in the late 1960s. A Harold runs about 25 minutes and is shaped similarly to a three act play. When Del taught the form to the performers at Second City, they asked him what it was called and Del said, "I don't know. Call it Harold." Del said that he regretted being so cavalier about naming the form, but the name stuck. At the UCB Theatre, Harold Night was a full night of back to back shows performed by the theatre's House Teams. Harold Night was huge. Harold Night was the thing and I never missed Harold Night. This was back when the theatre was BYOB, so if I wasn't performing, I would go to the deli, pick up some beer, go to the theatre, and just sit there all night, getting slowly drunk and watching the most amazing comedy.

There was a lot of talk about whether we should have Harold Night, so soon after 9/11. Was it appropriate? Would performers be willing to perform and try to be funny? Would anyone come to see these shows? On Tuesday morning, in an endless instant, every one of us had seen thousands of lives vanish before our own eyes. We are breathing the smoke from the ruins into our own lungs. The victims' families are showing us pictures asking if we can help. How can we go on? How can we laugh while more buildings still continue to fall?

The question of whether we should have Harold Night comes out of a much larger, more emotional feeling that I think cuts to very heart of why we are drawn to comedy. I couldn’t help feeling in the days following 9/11 that I wish I were a fireman, a construction worker, a doctor, a detective, or a soldier. In the list of needs for the disaster relief we didn’t hear a single call for a comedian. But laughter, I think, is like sunshine. You can’t have it all the time, and sometimes it sheds light on things you don’t want to see. But at some point, everyone needs it, and some can provide it better than others.

I knew that I wanted something to happen on Thursday night. I felt like the show should go on. Performing is a means of expression, at least for me, and I’m sure for many others. I think it’s also somewhat our job to offer an alternative for a few moments, a momentary vacation from what some people may be experiencing, so that they can come and laugh. I didn't feel that it was in any way disrespectful to anyone who we might have lost, but rather, a tribute.

We were experiencing the after effects of terrorism. So in that sense, it seemed like we should return to our lives, at least the parts that matter. I know that performing, and even Harold Night itself, was very important to me, and lots of other people in the community. Even though it seemed like nothing in the world was funny at that time, I wanted to feel the love and warmth of the united UCB. I wanted to participate in something that felt normal. So, I felt that we should do what we do. It would be either the most genuinely love-filled or the most genuinely depressing Harold Night ever, but at least it would be something better than all of the sadness, rage, ignorance, helplessness, and hopelessness that we had experienced over the previous days.

Ideally, we would be able to use improv to express and explore our reaction to this awful tragedy. I wouldn’t have been comfortable tackling it, but I believe that improv performance is an excellent way to work through our thoughts and feelings about things. But I did think we should have Harold Night for several reasons. I felt that we should have it for the sake of being strong and living life in the wake of a tragedy, for the community to be with each other, and at the very least for the chance to escape CNN for a little while.

So, the UCB theatre opened up for one Harold Night show featuring The Swarm and Joe Ross Tribe with a couple of guest performers with all admission proceeds and additional donations going to the Red Cross. It was a hilarious show. It was wonderfully cathartic. The Swarm did this opening based on an audience suggestion of "lemmings" where each performer jumped and the rest of the team carried them around the stage, culminating with them carrying around a close to 400 pound performer. It was a bold opening, just after September 11th. It was very cleansing to applaud for that. Everyone gave such brave, daring performances.

I think at the end of the night everyone agreed that Harold Night was a good idea. It was really cool seeing the UCB community come together and help each other out. The phrase of the night was “it’s good to see you” and people actually meant it. Whether the shows were funny or not really didn’t matter. Just getting all those people together was the thing. We were all happy to be out of the apartment and part of the group again. The whole community was experiencing group mind. The whole night felt appropriate and important. There were a couple of moments of silence as well. The importance of the tragedy was never overlooked and the evening went on in the most respectful way it could have.

The UCB Theatre reopened for Harold Night and people actually improvised. I didn’t know how I was going to feel watching improv, but it was wonderful. When I first sat down, I felt like I was in a different theatre, it looked like a different stage. I mentioned this later to a friend who simply replied, “That’s because you’re a different person, we all are.” At first it was really hard to watch, and even harder to laugh. But eventually, I started to escape myself, and whoop and holler like I haven’t in so long. It was such a release and such a normalizing experience. It felt like a USO show.

We needed to laugh. We needed to be together and we needed to be doing something that felt right. It sounds ridiculous, but at one point that night, I was laughing so hard that I started crying, simply because I had not felt the emotional release of exuberant laughter and joy in so long. I realized that these emotions can be easily forgotten, like any muscle gets weak when we don’t use it.

I came to Harold Night feeling glum and not expecting to laugh. I ended up enjoying myself, caught up in a world of candy bears and alligators with flashlight eyes, laughing hyena-like. It was a good first step on the road towards normalcy.

Interlude 3

Performer 3: We are now going to play a game called Conjunction Junction and would like to ask an audience volunteer to play with us. (The other performers get a volunteer from the audience. This game is played by two performers and one audience volunteer) For Conjunction Junction, the three of you will do a scene following the principles of "yes and." You will not ask questions because a question puts the pressure on the other person to come up with a response, whereas a "yes and" statement gives your scene partners a gift with which to play. At any point in the scene, I can call out a conjunction. You will repeat the conjunction and use it to finish your line of dialogue. Remember the three ways to "yes and" is to add a detail, a feeling or emotion, or a consequence. Let's get a suggestion from the audience of a location for the scene that fits on this stage. Players you may begin.

The art of improvisation

Hi, everyone, let's get started. Most of you have met me already. You all should know that I am passionate about improv and while we will have a fun time in this class and we will laugh a lot, you are here to work. I believe in teaching the craft of an art form. I fully believe that your life can be changed as a result of improvisation. You will notice yourself using what you learn through improvisation in your lives away from the stage and it will help you in your interactions with people and help your ability to even deliver presentations at your job.

As your teacher, my job is not to make you funny. I believe that you are all funny people or at least believe that you are. Why else would you sign up to study improv comedy? My job is to make it easier for you to do improv on the stage. I will help you to improvise truthfully in front of an audience. As a teacher, I can be very direct. I will tell you when you are awesome, but I will also tell you when you are getting in your own way. As a teacher of improv comedy, I feel that it is my responsibility to teach the kind on improvisation that I would like to see performed and I am sorry to tell you that I am not pleased with what I have been seeing.

It seems like every time I walk into this theatre, I see a group of people onstage who think that they will be funny by rehashing the type of comedy that you see on a TV sitcom. I have seen way too many scenes onstage that I could watch on Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond. I am telling you now that the art of improv comedy does not come from silly situations, making funny faces, or pretending to be some character that you have seen on TV.

The art of improvisation comes from the connections that you make in the moment on the stage. You cannot do this work without connecting to your fellow performers in what we call group mind. You cannot do this work without connecting to the world that exists outside of this theatre. You cannot do this work without connecting to yourself and your true feelings about what you are experiencing and all that you see around you.

I know that it is not easy to make yourself vulnerable to all the possibilities of connections that surround you in any given moment, but the bravery to be open to those connections is what is going to allow you to "yes and…" every offer and build upon it, and it will allow you to make a connection with your audience and transcend what you do from the surface level of situational comedy to the depths that the art of improvisation can hope to reach. Can I promise you that it will always be funny? No, but I can tell you that if you work in this way it will almost always be engaging and when you organically hit upon a connection the laughs that you will get will be fulfilling ones. The laughter will come. If we agree that you are inherently funny people and you heighten each other's offers by "yes anding" them and working collaboratively through group mind, funny things will happen by connecting to the truths of your experiences.

Working in this way requires training that far exceeds what I can provide for you in a class setting. You must work on yourselves outside of class in order to see the results in class. You must live a life of openness and "yes and." You must figure out who you are as an artist and improviser by always exploring your thoughts and feelings. You need to get to know your fellow improvisers outside of class, so that it will be easier to forge group mind with them. Find out who you are and how you feel as a group. Don't waste your time thinking up jokes or bits. I think the best things that you can do for yourselves as improvisers is to read the paper everyday so that you can find out what is going on in the world and reflect on it and to go out to McManus after classes and talk, get to know each other socially, reflect on the world together.

It has been two months since the attacks of September 11th and we have all been changed in ways that we don't even yet know. Our country and the world have been changed from that experience. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we as improv comedians be artists, not just joke tellers and sitcom mimics. We must use our improvisations to connect to something larger than ourselves and give our audiences an experience that connects to something true and provocative. We have to allow our audiences to laugh and allow each performance to be an event that has the possibility of changing everyone that is present to witness it.

We talk a lot about "yes and…" in improv comedy. When we "yes and…" in a scene, we are honoring what our scene partner has said by agreeing to it and then adding on to it. We are creating our next line by using the line before it. We know that our line cannot exist without the line before it and that our line is a part of its creation. We can only create a scene together as line by line we use and honor what our scene partner has created.

We may never find meaning in what happened on September 11th, but we can use it within our work. How can we not use something that impacted us and our audiences so greatly? If we go onstage and ignore how 9/11 changed us, it's not good for ourselves as expressive artists and it's not good for our art. If we ignore it, we will only remain closed off and our scenes will remain on the surface level.

Instead, we must "yes and…" our experiences of 9/11 and how it has changed us. I am not saying that we should think that 9/11 was a positive experience, but we can't negate it. We have to say yes to the reality of 9/11 and then build on to that reality. We must "yes and…" 9/11 so that by building off of the reality of 9/11, we can honor our experience of it and honor all of those who have been impacted by it. When we all work with group mind to "yes and…" even the most horrific offers that the world has given us, we can make use of these offers in a positive way. That will lead us to finding those connections to the world, ourselves, and our audience that we are striving to be open to in improv.

So, today we are going to work on something that might be hard for a lot of you. We are going to create directly off of 9/11. Let's get two people up onstage. You will perform a scene inspired by the suggestion of a location. That location for all of you will be Ground Zero. Your first scenes will be inspired by the area in and around Ground Zero. Do not try to be funny. Just work together to do a scene that is initiated in or around Ground Zero and then connect with each other and "yes and…" each other.

At some point, I will call the end of the scene and then you will do a second scene that is inspired by some aspect of the first scene. You will take some aspect of the first scene and "yes and…" it into a new scene. You will honor the first Ground Zero scene by building upon it. Your second scene could not exist without the Ground Zero scene. In the second scene, heighten something that is fun or interesting from the first scene by taking every offer personally and "yes anding" the hell out of it.

I know that this is hard and that 9/11 is still very fresh to many of us, but be brave. You are honoring 9/11 by taking it personally enough to use it in your art. Trust yourselves and trust "yes and." We are not going for cheap laughs here. We are going for the earned laughs that are a product of personally connecting to something that is deeply important to ourselves. If you do trust yourselves, trust each other, and trust "yes and…" I promise you that you will find the funny and you will be rewarded…as artists.
You may begin when you are ready.

Showing the show

Performer 1: We are going to do a brief improvised performance piece for you to finish off our show. We would like to ask an audience volunteer to come up on stage and tell us a little bit about how you found out about 9/11 and we will use your story as inspiration for our performance piece.

(A performer is brought up on stage and tells about how he/she found out about 9/11. The performers ask questions if needed. The audience member is thanked and the cast proceeds to do performance piece lasting about 15 minutes, inspired by the audience volunteer's story. The first scenes take details or themes directly from the story and then subsequent scenes take their inspiration from the earlier scenes.)


The goals of this research were to understand the experiences of the New York improvisational comedy community in the wake of 9/11 and how performance and the principles of improvisational comedy helped the community recover from those tragic events. I have found in my research that the members of the community worked to connect with each other through using the improvisational comedy principle of "yes and…" to connect their stories together and to build on each other's feelings and ideas toward a feeling of group mind. The community wrestled with the idea of returning to performance and the role of performing comedy in the wake of tragedy. The decision to return to performing comedy proved to be a therapeutic event, helping the community to rebuild group mind through the communal experience of watching comedic performance and releasing tension and connecting with each other through laughter.

This account of the New York improv comedy community's experience of the events of 9/11 connects and adds to the existing qualitative research on 9/11, adding to the scholarly discourse surrounding that event and allowing us to understand and be better equipped to use dialogue and performance to recover as a community in the event of future tragedies. This research also helps communication scholars better understand the improvisational nature of communication and fills a gap in the research of what Eisenberg (1990) refers to as "jamming" situations.

It is my hope that this research will lead to further research on utilizing improvisational comedy principles in communication, particularly as it relates to communication pedagogy in order to address a gap in current communication training. I would like to build upon my research towards implementing improvisational comedy principles and exercises in the classroom to move toward a goal of better training students to be effective communicators through the use of "yes and…" toward listening and the building of group mind. Most communication is improvisational and it is my belief that a classroom curriculum teaching the principles of improvisation will help bridge an existing gap within communication training.


The problem with writing a performance script that focuses on improvisational comedy is that it seems so contrary to the principles of improvisational comedy. Eisenberg (1990) refers to improvisational "jamming" situations as being risky. One of the reasons why improvisational comedy is so risky is because each scene is performed only once, created spontaneously in front of a live audience. There is no opportunity to edit and perfect a scene as it only exists in that moment. Improvisational comedy is a collaborative art form. It relies upon the concept of group mind, following the philosophy that the combined intelligence of an ensemble creating together surpasses the combined intelligence of each individual creating alone (Close, Halpern, Johnson, 1994; Halpern, 2005).

The process of writing a performance script that is part of a scholarly paper has far different expectations than an improvised scene. The reality (and expectation) of writing this performance piece that seeks to represent the improvisational comedy community has involved a great deal of editing, perfecting, and the creation of many drafts. Each of these drafts was written alone at my computer, without the benefit of group mind. The inherent expectation of a performance script is that it will be rehearsed and perfected so that it may be performed multiple times in front of an audience, maintaining the consistency of the show from performance to performance. The idea of writing a performance script to represent a community immersed in the principles of improvisation seems to conflict greatly with the principles that I seek to represent.

The other difficulty in writing this piece was how to deal with the concept of "comedy" within the piece. I have never seen a written account of an improvised scene that has done justice to how it existed in its creation in front of a live audience. I considered trying to recreate in the script one of the scenes performed on that first Harold Night performed after 9/11, but I do not believe that I or anyone could do justice in representing any one of those scenes. The spontaneity of improv comedy is one of its values and attempting to script it would, in my mind, dishonor it. I also briefly explored the idea of trying to write a funny scene that would be representative of the type of scene we perform in an improvisational comedy show, but that also seemed to violate the principles of improvisation. I didn't see how I could attempt to write a funny improv comedy scene sitting alone in front of my computer when I am trying to show my audience the value of the principles of improv comedy.

My solution was that in my most recent drafts of this paper, I have added the improv interludes and the improvised finale to my performance script. Bochner and Ellis (2006) tell us that autoethnography shows us communication instead of telling us about it. In that light, I believed that it would be important to show improvisation within my performance piece about improvisation. The improvisational interludes within the script provide a glimpse into the pedagogy of improvisation. The games that are played by the cast are exercises that I teach in my Fundamentals of Improvisation class and can be used by audience members as exercises teaching the principles of improvisation in their own Communication Studies classrooms. Whereas the final monologue shows a teacher calling for improvisers to use the tough issues in the world to inspire the improvisation, the improvised finale has been added to show the audience how we, as improvisers, "find the funny" using an audience member's personal information about their experience of 9/11 as inspiration. It should be noted that we are not dealing with any type of "black humor" that is looking to "find the funny" within the events of 9/11. The goal is to use details and themes from the personal information as a jumping-off point to explore concepts in a new frame, independent of 9/11.

In my newest draft, I have chosen to incorporate audience participation within the piece because the audience's contribution has long been an important aspect of improvisation to both the audience and the performers (Clemente, 1990; Close, Halpern, Johnson, 1994; Halpern, 2005; Park-Fuller & Pelias, 1995). The idea of performance artists co-producing their performance piece with the audience is also a well established practice in performance ethnography. Performance ethnography is reflexive and assumes a reflexive audience, allowing the audience to become co-producers of the performance (Denzin, 2003; Pelias & Van Oostring, 1987). I think that it is important for my piece to encourage the voice of the audience by allowing it to be co-produced through audience participation.

Denzin (2003) tells us that qualitative research should help give a voice and provide agency for marginalized groups. It is my belief that a community that has suffered a communal tragedy becomes a marginalized group as a result of their experience and their state of grief. They lose their agency to perform as a result of the events they have been through. In Scott Dillard's (2005) examination of his grief upon losing someone to AIDS, he discusses his struggle "as an artist to come to terms with my role in a time of death" (p. 74). I explore this concept of the artist's search for purpose in the time of tragedy within the "Harold Night" section of my own piece.

Bochner and Ellis (2000) offer that grieving narratives serve a therapeutic purpose and there are many who believe that this therapeutic function of autoethnograhy somehow takes away from its scholarly merit. I believe that the therapeutic nature of these narratives is what allows people to benefit from them. In researching and writing this paper, I have begun to get beyond repressing my feelings and experience of 9/11 so that I may heal and learn from it. I also believe that reading autoethnographies or watching performance ethnographies has a therapeutic value to the reader who has similar experiences. If one of our goals is to give agency to a marginalized group, I believe that helping the group to heal is a good start. The scholarly merit of autoethnography to an outsider of the group being studied should also be stressed here. Tillmann-Healy (1996) points out the importance of understanding the bulimic's personal experience of bulimia in order to help the bulimic. Autoethnography is useful in understanding the experience of a member of a culture from the member's perspective. Rather than generalizing experience we learn the details of a specific story. Goodall writes that new ethnography "overtly privileges the personal over the so-called objective, and if it is good, it dissolves any idea of distance, doesn't produce 'findings,' isn't generalizable, only has credibility when self-reflexive and authority when richly vulnerable" (Goodall, 2000, p. 191). It is my hope that my audience comes away with an understanding of my specific experiences within the context of my improvisational comedy community at the time of 9/11 and how we used personal narratives, dialogue, performance, and the principles of improvisation to regain our agency to function again as a performance community.

I know that doing this research has helped me understand myself as Other as it pertains to my experiences of 9/11 within my community. I must acknowledge that my work is only partially complete in the writing of this performance script. Performance ethnography has an epistemology of embodied performance (Conquergood, 1991, 2002; Pelias, 1999; Pelias & Van Oosting, 1987). Embodied performance as a way of knowing seeks knowledge through experiential research that decentralizes logos in favor of mythos and pathos as well as somatic and kinesthetic experiences. Likewise, the audience member watching performance ethnography gains knowledge of the material presented through his/her embodied experience of the performance (Pelias & Van Oostering, 1987). Ellis and Bochner (1992) write of their performance script about abortion that "an audience that witnesses a performance of this text thus is subjected to much more than words: they see facial expressions, movements and gestures; they hear the tones intonations, and reflections of the actors' voices; and they can feel the passion of the performers" (p. 80). My personal benefit in creating a performance script is that I get the opportunity to deepen my understanding somatically and kinesthetically with each performance.


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About the Author

Jason Scott Quinn is a graduate student finishing his MA in Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He is a professional actor and improv comedian and has performed and/or taught acting and improvisation in New York, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. His scholarly interests include performance studies, autoethnography, theatre, and issues of culture and identity.