Thursday, August 25, 2011
I'm new to Chicago and have taken a few improv classes... at first, it was just for fun, but I'm really enjoying it and I've started to try to take it seriously. I've been going to 3 or 4 shows a week (in addition to my weekly class), and I'm trying to learn as much as I can.
Here's the part I need help with right now: I'm really having trouble getting over myself and how other people perceive me in scene work. Especially if there's an emotion involved, I'm having a hard time being "angry" or "anxious," because I think I'm sort of embarrassed about it - so I always seem to fall back on a weak smile and a giggle. It's terrible. Granted, I'm a noob, so mistakes are tolerated --- Regardless, I want to get past this hump for my own sake.
Has anyone had a similar experience? How did you finally get past the norm of caring what other people are thinking so you can really get into a scene properly?
Any insight would be appreciated :)
Dan Finlay writes:
An improv scene is like a shared dream, but while awake. Investing yourself in a scene, and making organic discoveries in that scene, requires a degree of depth in the scene's reality that ventures deep into the definition of hypnosis.
Your problem is that you aren't taking the plunge, and allowing yourself to fall in the trance of the scene. Fortunately, this is a well documented process (hypnosis), and there are certain methods for investing yourself deeper in the scene.
The magical secret is that the more details you imagine in your scene, the deeper you slip into it. Your new goal when entering scenes should be to color them in as richly as possible in your mind as quickly as possible.
Stop settling for characters close to yourself, and really allow yourself to see the person you're channeling.
You can focus yourself by imagining almost any conceivable detail of your scene: Imagine your character in greater detail, explore their posture and accent. Imagine the environment you're in, interact with objects in that environment. Imagine the audience's perspective, and the dramatic tension that you're creating with your scene partner. All of these are vaild, and anything that involves immersing yourself in the scene's reality are valid.
You've been scuba diving and coming up for air regularly, but you need to trust yourself to take a deeper dive. When you feel audience reaction start to pull you out of the scene, focus on the task at hand. This is a serious mental workout, but it's very powerful as well. As the performer, you don't get to laugh at your own jokes, it's time for you to get into the scene.
I've gotten so good at retaining my sense of drama, that I can wake up, go to the bathroom, and resume my dream, because I remember what was at stake the whole time, and it lets me fall back asleep a lot faster, too. Just a strange side-effect.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
My game "The Last Supper" is played in a circle as a warm-up game. One student makes a statement, and then going around the circle, each student gives a different unique reaction to that statement, including the first person. The next person makes a new statement, and the cycle repeats itself. While this doesn't give as powerful a singular performance opportunity as "It's Tuesday," it gives a rapid-fire drill of practice in creating sparks of The Dramatic, and I'm a strong believer in learning through repetition, so it suits my teaching style well.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Before I talk too much about teaching youngsters, as I've been doing a lot of this summer, I'd like to take a post to write a bit to improv groups trying to get their feet on the ground. In this case, I'd like to discuss the process of defining your group.
Most improv groups will define themselves as either "short form" or "long form", but an emergent distinction is between "scenic" improv and "game" improv.
Most things done to entertain people for money, called "improv," is either based on some type of specific game, or it's based on performing a story, sketch, or scene (pick your word). The truth is that creating a scene is just a game itself, and most "long form" groups are just applying a loose game format to their scenic improv, for example "the game of performing a 20 minute story based on a one word suggestion," or any similarly minimalist "game."
Since even the simplest format is a format, rather than call improv improv, maybe we should refer to an improv spectrum, like the autism spectrum, where every performance is something between a rigidly scripted performance, and a huge chaotic mess.
Even labeling a performance "improv" is to some degree following the script that's been written for improv groups. It's not a very well branded or advertised script, it definitely doesn't sell tickets like Glee 3D Live, and it's so often abused that the brand "improv" carries with it about as much consumer confidence as a taco truck.
The good news is that with a reliable performance quality, consistent name, and accessible location, a small improv group can become that really tasty taco truck, that has the good stuff, even though nobody knows about it. Even an improv group can brand itself well.
An interesting phenomenon I've noticed is that some of the most effective improv formats I've seen was very well defined. For example, if a group declares that they are parodying a specific TV show, and they can all become experts in that TV show, it's very easy to play the part. I'd consider that a pretty big step away from "pure" improv, although it's far from scripted. Many genre-improvs fall into what is probably worth calling "structured" improv, in that the general structure, plot devices, and maybe even characters are pre-defined, and the specifics and dialogue are left to improv.
A step closer to the improv spectrum, I think many improv groups may benefit from asking: "What kind of comedy are we doing?" By all means, refer to a show for stylistic inspiration. Are you the fast-talking screwball descendent of vaudeville, like 30 Rock? Are you an absurdist high-concept live-action cartoon, like Children's Hospital? Maybe you're a grounded-in-realism documentary, like The Office, or Parks and Rec?
One of the most popular formats for students of improv these days is the Armando, rebranded by UCB (Upright Citizens' Brigade) as ASSSCAT. In the Armando, a monologist rambles on a topic for a bit, routinely interrupted by the improvisors doing scenes based on the musing. This format is fairly loose, but since it often has a guest monologist, much of the humor comes from blowing their story's components out of proportion, to the point of absurdity. This gives the ASSSCAT a decidedly sketch-like quality, where each vignette has its own self-contained rules, that are each milked for absurdity. Naturally, combining multiple of these vignettes is a popular way to wrap up the show, or simply escalate its action.
Similar sketch-like effects can be found by mocking just about anything. A group that improvises based on headlines would inevitably have a similar feel, as well as any internet-stream inspired group. I've had interest for some time in having a group that simply uses their phones to riff at the beginning off of current memes and articles, and once enough have been read, doing scenes until more inspiration is needed.
Another element that's worth mentioning is the lead-in and lead-out. Many groups choose to have a single performer introduce the group and warm up the crowd, and some will have a pair come out, and even riff for a while. I've been growing warm towards a more group-inclusive riffing-centric intro/outro, because it makes more of an improv of the format, and it introduces the performers in a social guise, which avoids what I'll call "awkward-improv-syndrome" which comes from situations in which improvisors appear unwilling to actually improvise.
Well, that's a handful of thoughts on style that may be worth considering. I hope it's been of some interest! I'll leave you with this gem on scenic improv, which didn't fit in the flow of the final draft:
The skills of a scenic improvisor expand beyond any boundaries, and ultimately extend to encompass even the scenes that are performed. Ultimately even the show itself is part of the scene, and even the life of the performer is a scene, until absolutely nothing is taken seriously, but positively everything is milked for its greatest possible entertainment value, pain and catharsis become one, and nirvana is achieved.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Improv combines many virtues, some of which are more obvious than others, but the pursuit of perfect improv is (for me) the pursuit of perfect living. Let's look at a few of the skills that I hope to develop in my students:
Creativity. Once a child is willing to take a risk, there's the matter of finding a risk to take. Every workshop I play a minimum of one game near the beginning that involves rapidly generating ideas. I always stress that there are no wrong ideas, and while I encourage the students to amuse themselves, I speak against 'stealing focus', while I encourage passing. The reasoning is that if a student passes, they have a whole team to help them out, but if they steal focus, they actually destroy the very usefulness of the team. That brings me to my next point,
Teamwork. While some improvisers will work alone, I teach social improv, where I stress two things as more important than the individual: The scene itself, and the feat of cooperation. If I only stressed 'the scene,' a student could justify dominating the scene the way a star soccer player might justify hogging the ball, which could make for some great entertainment, but the only way a performer could possibly know their ideas are best is by hearing out their partners. I'll leave any compromise of teamwork to the professionals. In the meanwhile, the ability to share focus and collaborate on a collective goal is so monumental and rare, that I would be happy if it were the only skill my students took away.
Acting. To most observers, this is the most obvious talent that improvisors possess, but really it would be worthless without all the preceding. I constantly add a mix of character & mime exercises in with the rest of my workshops, because at least with scene-work, the most basic and common form of improv, acting is the glue that holds it all together. Two kids can be trading off focus and collaborating expertly, but if they can't conjure up a believable character to actually care about the scene's subject, the scene will be amusing at best, and will not grip at any heart-strings. Good improv is funny, but great improv is compelling as well.
Going with the flow is essentially the core idea of improv, and one of the best reasons to perform improv with numbers greater than one is that multiple performers constantly throw each other for loops, forcing each other to perform on the spot, guaranteeing the legitimacy of the art form. Solo improv could be described as written in the performer's head, since only the audience is there to interfere with their flow. Improv in a team is practically a form of torture on display for the audience, so they can see just how cool the performers can stay under pressure.
Freedom, creativity, teamwork, acting, going with the flow. That's my tentative list for now, I wonder how it might change over time. That's the beauty of the blog format, I don't have to write the final word, I can write my current state, and then open it for discussion. So, here I am, opening it up for discussion:
What virtues have I missed, that you consider essential to good improv?