Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fall Classes Open for Registration

If you're looking to take improv classes in Oakland, my classes are now open for registration at Studio One Art Center. I hope to see you there!

Staying In The Scene

Cross-posted from Reddit:

Hey guys!

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

The Dramatic

There is a simple concept that I teach that is worth giving its own short post. I could even tack it to the first post by calling it a sixth skill of improv. That skill is developing a sense of The Dramatic.

The Dramatic is present in every good scene, and while there are countless examples, giving examples tends to throw students off course, into an imitation-mode of thought. My goal when teaching improv is to avoid allowing my students opportunities to imitate instead of innovate.

The Dramatic can be felt in any scene as soon as there is something at stake, for at least one of the characters. There's a certain magic to it, and a seasoned improvisor can hear a scene click into gear as the stakes are defined for a character the way lucifer can hear a person sigh they'd give up their soul.

A character without stakes is in a state of neutrality, and there is no drama to it. Whether there are no stakes to entice the character, or the character is simply unmoved by the stakes at hand, without a flicker of emotion, the story remains in the prologue.

It is our jobs, as conductors of the scene, to tease the rotten humanity out of our characters, so we may unravel their foibles for the audience's delight. The hero may succeed, or fail, or learn to live life without their desires, or forget where they were going, but the end doesn't matter remotely as much as the beginning: the end is embedded in the beginning.

Just as death is a pre-written conclusion to every birth, every initial dramatic tension has its resolution, and requires no artificial encouragement whatsoever. In fact, forced motions towards a conclusion will seem forced and in-confident to an audience. Once a dramatic tension is established, like a harp string brought to tune, it should be played for music.

There is no limit to the dramatic moments that can occur; heroes can be sidetracked, enemies can be enticed, friends can become enemies. Great things happen when these tensions interact, and fantastic complexity can be simple when the stakes are well known.

My favorite game to teach this skill is probably "It's Tuesday," in which each student is put on stage, and told "It's Tuesday," and is to react as powerfully as possible, in as unique a way as possible. This potentially illustrates the many ways one can react to the same information, and has its place as a skill spotlight, but I think I've refined the concept into a more fast-paced drill, for learning through repetition.

I call it "The Last Supper," and it's inspired by the DaVinci painting, which takes place after Jesus has told his apostles "One of you is going to betray me." This painting is full of drama, as each character has their own particular type of surprise to the news, with Judas standing out for grasping his bag of money.

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

Defining Your Group's Style

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.

Good night.

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?