Wednesday, August 10, 2011

First Post!

Hello, and welcome to Improvagon, my brand new improv teaching blog. I've now been teaching improv at Studio One Arts Center in Oakland, CA for over a month, and I've been getting into a solid stride with it, so I figured I'd put my thoughts in one place. (Previously you could read my improv thoughts here and here).

Before I begin talking theory and breaking down individual workshops and experiences, I'd like to take this first post to talk about why I love improv, and why I am thrilled to be sharing this art form with people of all ages (currently mostly children for the summer camp season).

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:

Freedom. It's no small task to ask a reclusive child to bloom into a brilliant flower of the stage, but the first challenge is to try. Creating an atmosphere of trust and comfort is so essential that it absolutely deserves the first place on this list. With attempts come experience, with experience comes expertise. It all starts with an attempt. I always make a point to set a low bar early in my class. I'll make stupid examples to make my point, anything to make the kids stop thinking about the quality of their material, and start actually living in the material, which just so happens to be where quality material is born.

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.

(There's no way I'm using a stock teamwork photo. I'm not sinking that cliché. Just imagine tandem skydivers, or a human pyramid or something.)

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. This item could just as well be at the top of the list, but it would be harder to explain without some of the principles established. Poor improvisers believe that everything they say is a mistake, and do not allow the scene to move along without their commenting on how bad it is. Mediocre improvisers try to force themselves to come up with brilliant material on the spot, and make the audience uncomfortable with their in-confidence. Good improvisers can appear to make no mistakes, with a mixture of forethought and precision, but great improvisers embrace the mistakes, and incorporate them into the scene, not only as jokes, but as necessary and inextricable components of the scene's larger world.

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.

It's impossible to describe how valuable "going with the flow" is in real life. Maybe that's why there are so many stories to tell, so many hours of TV, so many movies a year, and so many improv groups constantly creating new content. Each story told is a single example of what it can mean to face a problem, and struggle your way through it. The message is timeless, yet it always changes with the times.

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?

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