Ever start a scene and your friend is looking at you blankly,thinking, where the fuck did that left brain invention come from? Yeah, it’s jarring and boring and go home and write some skitch so I can fill in your mad lib, you damn control freak. So, let’s explore and justify what’s right in front of you. You and your friend will get to build a scene TOGETHER and that’s what improv’s all about…if you want to get off more.
WORKSHOP 2 ($75.00)
What: Organic Characters
When: Sunday, July 8, 2012, 11am - 2pm
Where: Simple Studios, 134 W. 29th St. 2nd FL
Goofy characters starting to wear thin? Think you’re “cheating?” Got only 5 of them? This workshop will get you out of the character rut and back onto the major joy ride.
A couple of weeks ago, I did a practice coached by Megan Neuringer where I experienced crying real tears in an improv scene for the first time. I’ve heard of instances where people have expressed visceral, genuine emotions in scenes, including crying, but have never experienced it in such an intense way myself until now.
Having never studied acting, I’ve always wondered about the mental process one must go through to produce genuine emotions in a constructed space. How can we be true when we’re playing make-believe?
The scene I did was quite simple - my partner initiated as a crossing guard instructing me that it was okay to cross the street. We had been working on establishing a clear connection with our partner and picking up on their body language to inform us how we feel about them. He appeared very annoyed and very intimidating. My character was a schoolgirl unwilling to cross the street unless he held my hand. I quickly felt very scared and sad because my partner was increasingly impatient with me. At one point he raised his voice and I felt like a kid getting yelled at by my dad for being bad. I felt myself welling up and by the end of the scene, I touched my eyes are saw tears on my fingers.
I got there - I got to a real, emotional place. I didn’t have to worry about the right moves to make in the scene. My partner’s body language was all that mattered and being aware of how that made me feel was all I needed to push me through the scene.
If we let ourselves be vulnerable in scenes, strip away the worry about making the right move or finding a game, and be present in scenes and to the way our partner makes us feel, it is easy to tap into real emotion. And seeing those real emotions is what makes the audience care about the scene and the relationship going on in front of them. Sure, we’re adults playing make-believe. But that’s no reason not to endeavor to be truthful while we do it - Truth in comedy.
Every line and word from our scene partners and teammates… and from us. Not just the words and specifics, but the subtext. And how they are said. The timber and and inflection and cadence. The volume or lack of volume.
Silence. Silence is a huge gift.
Every act of object work. Every imaginary door opened and closed. A walk across the stage is a gift. A shift of stage picture. A move of a chair. Scratch of the nose. Sneeze.
The stage is a gift. Its shape, the doors, the chairs, the extra oddities like that pillar in the middle. Beyond the stage is a gift. The wings, the backwall or curtains. The aisles into the audience. Empty seats. Full seats.
That heckler? A gift of sorts.
Every “mistake” is a gift. Every gaff. Every stumble.
The suggestion is a gift. Laughter or lack of laughter is a gift. (Silence is a huge gift.) Openings are solid gift.
Our inside feelings are gifts. What we feel in the moment, not just as characters but as players. The feelings we have for our teammates. The feelings we have for the audience.
The feelings we bring in from our day, our lives, are gifts. Our happiness of family and our anger at our jobs (or visa versa). That taste of bitterness at an earlier interaction in the subway is a gift. Our disappoint in the world. Our sadness and our fears. Our joys and dreams.
The rock in our shoe that we don’t notice until seconds before going on stage is a gift.
Every book, movie, play, televisions, show, museum, road trip, day in the park, lover experience we have had is a gift. Each person we have met and all we have learned from them. The sum of our lives are gifts and the sum of our teammates lives are gifts.
All of that is on the stage in each and every improv scene.
“If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,”I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore …” Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”—
On Saturday, Thank You, Robot was luck enough to be part of Tesla’s The Lab at the Players Theater. It was the first inaugural LOLympics… which was mostly an grand excuse to mix up a bunch of great teams and perform a series of short-ish, exercise “events.” Creative editing, focus on scene work, straight man, etc..
It was an all around great and fun show. Big props to Telsa for knowing how to host a show like this. They really truly made it about the performers and the show and not themselves (except for themselves as performers). And big props to the three judges (Nicole Byer, David Bluvband and Kristen Acimovic) for treating it it with just the right touch.
Lately I have been coaching way more than I’ve been improvising. I’ve been loving coaching and it has greatly improved how I talk about improv. But I haven’t been able to put much of it into practice and to see if I can walk the walk, as it were. I, personally, kind of need a show like that.
Improv is so ephemeral. Not just in all the discussions of “what is good improv” and “how does one do good improv,” but even when a show is good, it is immediately gone. We can rehash scenes but usually we just rehash the scenes of others, not ones we were in because it feels gauche. (Except to significant others. Significant others exist in part to be able to speak with pride our own accomplishments with out fear of judgment, right?) I find it hard to even remember fondly my own scenes in my own head because it feels… wrong.
But all yesterday and today, I have been forced to remember the show. In the Endowment set, I was gifted with being “slippery” (thank you, Benjamin Apple). Now, a few weeks ago I had been thinking about how it had been a long time since I did some balls out physical comedy on stage. And when gifted with being slippery, I just ran with it. Hard. My legs were like jello and every time I stood for longer then a few seconds, I fell down again. Often hard. When Apple started having a heart attack, I threw/dragged myself across the room in an attempt to get to the first aid kit. Later my prosthetic leg fell off and Apple caught on fire and I threw myself around trying to get to a fire extinguisher. I ended that set exhausted and winded but joyous. And (mostly) unscathed).
Later, while the judges were tallying up their scores, was the callback session. (Let’s ignore my failed “Gimme that Dick Grayson” move… which might have made sense if JR was still there to play Batman). The very last callback was back at the restaurant that my slipper character worked. I came out in a mad fury, carrying a plate of food. And, at some point, landed hard on my left thigh… and the keys in my left pocket. Hard. Very very hard.
So all day yesterday and today, my leg has been in deep muscle bruised pain. But every time I wince at taking a step, I am reminded of Saturday’s show and how much joy I felt. Not just me being able to do some hardcore slapstick (and embracing the simplicity of the endowment “You are slippery”), but other moments. Ellena and I knocking over chairs as bowling pins. Being the mirror to (I believe but may be remembering wrong) George Kareman. And watch all of the “same first line” sets using “Gimme that dick”… including/especially Jeremy and Matt’s “Gimme that dick!” game show. And so many other moments.
For once a show is lingering on beyond the performance… in the form of deep glorious pain.
Living in LA, I’ve been lucky enough to study with some of the funniest, smartest improvisors in the world. Here is some advice (possibly somewhat paraphrased) from them that I’ve gleaned from classes or coaching.
The suggestion doesn’t really matter.
Relationships don’t have to be cut and dry—you can just be someone who has a crush on someone else. (RELATED: Mullaney’s discussion of behavior. All the improv blogs are lovin’ on this one.)
The stage is not a square box.
We’re showing moments that will be remembered by the characters 20 years later.
If you don’t have a game, at least have a good conversation.
You should be able to defend your crazy to the nth degree. The bad guy doesn’t know that he’s bad.
It’s way more fun to play the game than it is to solve it.
Nothing happened because no one wanted anything.
As the characters were you having fun in the scene? As the improvisers were you having fun in the scene?
Anything is funny as long as you trust that it’s funny to you.
Stop searching for ideas. Remember, don’t invent.
Were you talking because you had something to say?
The situation changes but the game remains the same.
If someone throws something, do your eyes follow the path of the object?
If someone gets stabbed or shot, do you wince in pain?
If someone enters a scene, do you notice whether they left the door open?
If someone tosses something to someone else, and the person fails to catch it, do you imagine the object hitting the person and falling to the floor?
You would if it were actually happening. If I chucked a book at you, you’d wince and turn away, then the book would hit you, and then you’d turn back, angry at me. But someone throws a book at someone in an improv scene, and the most that most people will say is “Ouch! You threw a book at me!”
If you don’t believe, in that very moment, that those objects are real, that each one has its own weight and location, then stop wasting my fucking time. You’re standing on stage, saying shit you think is funny, and only the boring people are laughing.
We work too hard at the top of the scene. We think we need to figure out everything in the first few lines. Are you my mother? Are you my boss? Are we on a bank heist? Are we on the playground? Is that a cane in your hand or a magical staff? Do we need to know everything? No. We don’t. And the audience doesn’t give a shit if we come up with some amazing back story.
The audience wants to see our behavior. They want to know how we relate to each other. That’s what a relationship is.
I’m weak and you are strong.
I’m calm and confident, you are jumpy and nervous.
I’m an optimist, you are a pessimist.
You need to be mothered, but I can’t do it because I’m repulsed by you.
You are the bully and I’m scared, but I’m going to stand up to you as best I can.
We are both so excited to see each other that we are jumping up and down like teenage girls.
I am trying to seduce you, and you are shocked.
These are all things that can be established in a very short amount of time. Sometimes we can walk on stage and feel it immediately. We notice it in each other’s behavior and how we feel. The audience sees it too. It’s clear and simple and right in front of us to play with. But instead we walk on stage worried about the who, the what and the where. Get out there instead and worry about the how.
“But, what about the game?”
Behavior is a game. And context is important. Yes, that is true. But instead of spending all your time worrying about yes anding the context, start with behavior and let the context tumble out. It will. You might need to practice it, but it will.
I’m weak and you are strong, and then it tumbles out that you are a private in the army and I am your drill sergeant.
I’m calm and confident, you are jumpy and nervous, and then it just spills out that we are breaking into a safe and you are the safe cracker.
I’m an optimist and you are a pessimist, and you are also my physical therapist.
You need to be mothered, but I can’t do it because I’m repulsed by you, and I’m also your mother.
You are a bully and I’m scared, but I’m going to stand up to you as best I can, because you are the IT guy whose job it is to fix my laptop damnit!
We are both so excited to see each other that we are jumping up and down like teenage girls, and it’s a reunion of cellmates… in a prison.
I’m trying to seduce you, you are shocked, and you are my wife.
I’ll let you in on a secret though. Sometimes the context can simply be the most obvious and straightforward. You are the bully and I’m scared, and we are both just kids. And if we play the behavior and develop this relationship–this way in which we relate–often it’s pretty damn funny too. Yes, the strange context can help make it weirder and funnier and perhaps works better if you are writing a sketch, but the behavior is what keeps the audience watching. Behavior without much context can be fascinating. Context without behavior is boring.
“Great! Now we have a scene. What do we do next?”
The same thing you have been doing. The opening moment is the scene, at least for now. Just play it. Just be the thing you were in the beginning. That’s all you need to do. Do that for a few minutes, it will come to a climax, the audience will laugh, and your teammates will edit.
There, that’s not so hard is it?
I bolded something I have been thinking so much as of late.
mrjoebill now has a tumblr (click above for the full post):
…I can’t remember if I told Patti this before we played, but one of my guiding Power Improv mantra’s is “Be ruthlessly playful & playfully ruthless”…and she was ALL OF THAT…and it felt amazing, because it WAS amazing…and to feel Patti’s sensibilities in complete harmony with mine, was to feel a new flavor of my own sensibilities.
It’s because I was playing with a partner who brings equal passion, and yes, we both have years of experience and sure that helps, but because her sensibilities have been formed by a very different approach, in the DEPTH of key moments was a richness that came from, I think, HOW we were listening to each other. I’m always an advocate of emotional listening, and that was there for sure for both of us, but there was a deeper richness that came I think, from the fact that the entire week leading up to the show we had spent such good time just listening to and being open to each other…with kindness, and attention to the other, so if they were puzzled by what we were talking about the default was towards understanding, and never towards right or wrong.
I saw this show (featuring improviser Amanda Miller!) last night, and it was indeed an amazing journey.
The premise is this: an audience volunteer goes on a hero’s journey a la Joseph Campbell, aided by a group of performers. Other than a loose idea of what sort of world where this is taking place (fantasy, western, modern, futuristic), nothing is prepared. It’s quite mind-blowing, especially when the protagonist is just a regular person and not a performer of any kind - it’s sort of like an actor’s nightmare for them.
I’ll start with why I’m posting this on my improv tumblr and not my personal tumblr, and if this show sounds intriguing to you, please donate to their fundraiser page or better yet, see it for yourself!
What I loved, mostly, was that they really are improvising around this protagonist. And I don’t see a lot of actual improvisation anymore, at least where absolutely anything can happen. There’s a lot of predestination in improv, actually. Where we know what’s coming or we see where they’re going and then they do it and it can feel very paint-by-numbers.
"Wait," someone says, "but isn’t that game? Isn’t that the pattern?"
And while I love patterns, I say no. I think it’s playing the game to your own tune (to mix metaphors), or instead of painting by the numbers, show us your own depiction of a tree or Abe Lincoln or whatever the picture is supposed to be.
It’s not in what you do. It’s in how you do it.
Journey On starts with a blank world, and it goes wherever the protagonist wants, or if they can’t decide, whichever gifts they choose to take from the performers. It makes me think of the ultimate video game where, instead of being limited to what the programmer created, you’re only limited by your collective imagination.
And I wish improv was like that more often.
A show limited only by our collective imagination. That’s what it’s about, right? But if so, why does it so regularly fall short of the mark? How are we limiting ourselves? Is it not listening? Not making choices? Bogging things down in the details? The answers are legion.
If you read this blog, odds are you see a lot of improv shows. If you’re in NYC, it’d be nice to see a show that comes from a very different perspective, and see improvisers (and one non-improviser!) create something that actually matters to everyone watching.
This one show has opened my eyes to a lot, and I’m confident it’s made me a better improviser; it might do the same for you.
Journey On at The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd Street, LIC
Thursday June 7 at 7 p.m.
Friday June 8 at 7 p.m.
Saturday June 9 at 7 p.m.
Sunday June 10 at 4 p.m.
They only have 9 days left for the fundraiser and the show runs until the 10th. If you have $5 to spare, please donate (and you can get free standby tickets if you do so!).
Normally Mick Napier writes about whatever thing is on his mind in his missive to the annoyance community (past examples: toys, vulgar language, racism.) But this time he decided to drop some serious knowledge on folks:
In these newsletters, I rarely write about improvisation, because it’s little fun to “measure the magic”, but here goes:
Next week is Second City’s general auditions. Over 500 people will be auditioning in 4 days. I will run a great many of these auditions, along with my friend Matthew Hovde. It’s one of the scariest auditions in the world, and it got me thinking about people I’ve known, and what it really takes to make it in comedy in the United States through this particular journey… improvisation. I think I know a couple of things. I thought I’d share some thoughts about what to DO in this often confusing world… This is real, not joke…
It doesn’t matter which school of improvisation you go into first or at the same time or whatever. There are sound reasons for any order or any degree of simultaneity.
Don’t be seduced by being on a team. It seems like it’s enough and you are going along just fine. It’s not really enough, and it’s not a mark of evolution, it just seems like it is.
Character work isn’t bad, particularly if you want to do sketch comedy. Don’t listen to false affirmation that character work or broader acting has a lack of integrity, it is just different. And that’s just true. Character range is a skill set that is not attained by continuously denouncing character range. It’s not something you can magically turn on at, say, a Second City audition. Believe you me.
Write. For absolutely no fucking reason, write.
Make it o.k. with yourself that you admit that you would want to be on the mainstage or on a house team or in an Annoyance show or on television or SNL. It really is o.k. Just don’t be an asshole about it. You won’t be, anyway. It really is o.k.
Do solo work. Find a way to feature yourself.
One person shows are fucking boring. Find a reason they’re not. Do that.
Don’t wait for stuff. It not only drains your power, but actually has you be perceived as less powerful. You will have plenty of time to wait with great stakes for absolutely nothing when you move to Los Angeles. DO things here. Get a group. Create videos, write even more.
Here’s two boring things: Headshots. Resumes. And don’t lie. This has happened: “We put this guy (someone holds up headshot) in the ‘yes’ pile. Anybody remember him? No? O.K.” (headshot goes in ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ pile) Because his headshot didn’t look like him, and his photo ironically worked against him. Look like your headshot, that is what they are for. Look like your headshot. Don’t lie on your resume. Man, you will get caught and you will look like an asshole. And even if you don’t get caught, you are that kind of person.
Talent is everything. Just kidding. How you are to work with is as important. Your character shows up everywhere. Whether you are at S.C. or Playground or Ale House or a class or Corcoran’s or I.O. or Skybox or Annoyance or in the middle of the ocean:
a. everything counts. b. everyone hears about everything. c. everyone talks about everyone all the time.
Your behavior could affect whether you work here or there for the bad or the good.
Take a break occasionally. From it all. For perspective, sanity, life. You and what you bring to the stage will benefit from your actual life experience. My own life has been a series of wonderful hobbies.
Study acting. You won’t, but you ought to. You won’t because you think you are SO fucking funny, and don’t need it. But you do. You really do. I tell people that, and they say “yeah, yeah, but what do I need to DO to get an edge?” I say it. No one does it. It’s such an easy edge.
Twelve, just like the 12 points of the Scout Law.
Oh well, all of this is true. So there. And that, is as simple, as that.
-Mick Napier, Founder and Artistic Director
Fantastic stuff. Please Tumblr, show me that you post quotes from people who aren’t involved in UCB? This dude is the best.
“He taught people to commit. Like: “Don’t walk out there with one hand in your pocket unless there’s somethin’ in there you’re going to bring out.” You gotta commit. You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You’re goin’ out there with just a whisper of an idea. The fear will make you clench up. That’s the fear of dying. When you start and the first few lines don’t grab and people are going like, “What’s this? I’m not laughing and I’m not interested,” then you just put your arms out like this and open way up and that allows your stuff to go out. Otherwise it’s just stuck inside you.”—
Teach in your own style. No style is wrong as long as the students learn something of value and don’t leave feeling like shit. For example, here’s something I learned the hard way about my own style. There are two types of travellers, some like to have an itinerary planned down to the minute including bathroom breaks and all the tickets purchased and plans locked down. There’s a second type of traveller that lands with just a guidebook and a few ideas and wanders at will. I’m a dissatisfying teacher for the first group of people. I don’t try to change to suit them, rather, I offer them books and handouts to give them the reassurance they need.
Matt Besser was in town this weekend and made a stop at the UCB Theater to do an improv lecture/workshop. As someone who has studied at a few different improv schools, it was very interesting (and at times, conflicting) to hear Besser’s philosophy/approach to improv. I took a bunch of notes, some of which I’ll share here. Regardless of what school you study at or what philosophy you subscribe to, it’s interesting to hear about the UCB style of improv from one of the UCB 4. Enjoy!
- What’s your mindset in a scene? The mindset of long form improvisers should be about listening to others and sharing the same thought bubble as your scene partner. It should not be a selfish mindset, which is common in short form or stand-up, because it means the group is not working to build something together.
- At UCB, a great improvised scene is equivalent in quality to an A+ sketch. It should not be viewed as improvised plays with silly stories, narrative and plot that wouldn’t even hit well as sketches. UCB is not about improvising something that would work as a play.
- There are two kinds of long form: Organic and Premise-Based. Organic improv uses no opening and is based on a single word suggestion. There’s no first person; you mutually discover the unusual thing. Premise-based improv uses an opening to draw ideas and premises based on a suggestion from the audience. Someone steps out first and we believe that they have something on their minds. We have to look for what that is, not laying on our own thing, until we see what’s unusual.
- Base reality = using Yes-And from the suggestion to set up the who/what/where; it is strong ground that we need to build so we can separate what’s real from what’s unusual in the world we build
- Once the unusual thing appears, we don’t need to Yes-And anymore and we start to ask and answer “if this unusual thing is true, what else is true?” —> This is what sets UCB apart from other schools, which often Yes-And through the entire scene AKA “Yes-And-itis” - it allows for multiple unusual things to be introduced, which confuses what the game is; it happens when players are not playing to the top of their intelligence (a result of fear of silence, being lost in the scene and not getting laughs)
- The unusual thing is not a game in and of itself. A game is about what we do with the unusual thing and answers the “what else is true about this unusual thing” question.
- Playing to the top of your intelligence = if you recognize that something is unusual, your character knows it is unusual; being realistic; committing to a character as best you can; the intelligence of how people behave towards each other —> it’s not enough to think that this means your character is as smart as you are or knows what you know: ex. you can’t say that an 8-year-old kid is as smart as you are, which would be unusual
- The unusual thing = premise. A game doesn’t happen until the other person speaks.
- Initiations: it’s important for our scene partner to know where we’re coming from in the opening and what we found funny so we can share the same thought bubble and create a common ground
- Use everything your partner says in the initiation as a clue to where they’re coming from and what they thought was funny from the opening. Find what you think your partner found funny by being real and not trying to be funny. Let your partner spell out what they thought was funny if it’s not immediately obvious so you don’t step on what was initially funny and muddle it with a different idea. Give your partner a chance to express what they thought was funny before slapping on what you thought was funny from the opening.
- Think of an opening as your memory: we remember unusual things. Stories and memories are the unusual things in our lives. Flag the unusual things you pick up from the opening. Laughs from the audience are good clues about what should be flagged as funny, but other subtle things can be used. Understand what makes us laugh from the opening and the humor behind the thing that makes us laugh. Don’t get attached to the words themselves or the funny details.
Chaff - words similar to the suggestion that don’t bring us to any ideas or premises; every opening has chaff
Half idea - we can’t put a premise into words, but we can direct our partner to what we think is funny; we agree there’s potential for something funny but we don’t know how to package it
Idea - we can package what’s funny into a who/what/where initiation
- The funny things from the opening should become games. Premise can go on different paths to become the game - it usually takes the 2nd person in a scene to dictate how we play the game. One person does not necessarily bring the entire game to the scene, since we don’t know what direction it will take until we get a response (whether it will be a straight man, peas in a pod, etc.).
- Improv should truly explore the suggestion, or else what’s the point of asking for one? Improv should be easy. Don’t complicate scenes. Be simple. Explore why the thing was funny and pull those funny things into scenes.
- Heightening and Explore:
Heighten = find what’s funny and make it funnier; heightening without exploring is dangerous because we can lose the reality and blow out the unusual thing too quickly to silliness
Exploring = figuring out why this is happening; answering why it is happening; exploration makes your heightening smart so you don’t get crazy without explaining why
Why = logic, rationale, justification for why this is happening; ability to defend your unusual behavior; gives you more ammo/fuel for the comedy machine to play your game; the logic should not be absurd or silly to answer you behavior; the funny will come the smarter, more logical you can be in your justification; your goal is to fool a real person into believing you
- The earlier we are in a scene, the more logical we need our Whys to be in order to establish the base reality. It allows us to move to absurdity by the end of the scene.
- Raising the stakes - a term initially taught in Chicago when doing a second beat, which seems to take your game to an archetypical scenario; it implies 3rd beats are better than 2nd beats, which are better than 1st beats; the idea of raising the stakes is subjective
- Instead of “raising the stakes,” think about what is another great place to play the game or what’s another scenario with potential to play the game with new details.
- Focus on exploring one unusual thing per scene. If you feel lost in a scene, react realistically.
- If your partner ignores the unusual thing you initiate with, they often are not playing to the top of their intelligence and are trying to be funny with their own unusual thing. If that happens, drop your idea and go with your partner’s because it’s the last thing said and the last thing the audience hears. Ideally, your partner is listening and playing to the top of their intelligence, reacting realistically to your unusual thing. Ex: Initiation: I saw you weeping during Schindler’s List. Did you cry because you thought it was a documentary and the actors in it actually died? Response: Did the Holocaust not really happen? (this is not playing to the top of their intelligence) Response: What? I was crying because it’s a good movie about this atrocious event in our history and the actors did a wonderful job. (this is a response more in line with listening and playing to the top of our intelligence)
Rules posted in Merce Cunningham’s Studios, written by John Cage. This is about dance. But seems applicable to other things!
RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.
RULE TWO: General duties of a student - pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher - pull everything out of your students.
RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.
RULE FIVE: be self-disciplined - this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.
RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.
RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)
HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything - it might come in handy later.
The Hulk is an improvisor who is shy and quiet offstage, but when he is onstage, he becomes a rampaging uncontrollable force of comedy, smashing scenes with his unbridled joy. A team of hulks might be awful to watch, but a team with one Hulk and several other improvisors strong enough to play him would be fun.
Thor is strong like the Hulk, but less impulsive. He is confident in his choices and capable of big booming characters, but he can also reign it in when necessary. He has a youthful exuberance, and sometimes makes choices that a wiser improvisor would avoid, but his perseverance and fortitude makes even terrible choices work.
Hawkeye rarely takes center stage. He hangs back, letting the others make most of the initiations. He watches the whole show for an opening to contribute. He not only sees what is going on, but can anticipate what is about to happen. When he does contribute, it’s a precision shot, making the connection that brings the whole show together.
The Captain is a soldier, always fearlessly doing what needs to be done. He is often the second person in the scene using Hulk’s crazy choices to make fun scenes. He is the straight man dealing with all the chaos being created around him.
With no obvious superpower, there are likely some in the back of the theatre watching the show who don’t understand why Black Widow is part of the team. But then the show starts, and she is fast and smart and makes it look easy to keep up with the boys. For every move, she has a counter move. But more than that, she has a way of bending situations to her advantage. You can’t box her into to stereotypical roles, she has a way breaking free and turning the tables. And watch out when she starts a scene weak, she is about to kick your ass.
Every team needs an Iron Man. Sure, he is smart and clever, but he also has lots of gadgets. No matter what the situation, he has just the right tool to make the scene work. He is the first out to initiate, pointing the way for the rest of the team. He is a great editor, cutting scenes just before they start to wear out their welcome and knows how to bring things together when the show is reaching it’s climax. Finally, he rarely takes things too seriously. When things aren’t going well offstage, he is quick to find the humor in the situation, popping stress balloons with well timed pin pricks of wit.
Who are the Avengers among the improvisors you know?
This is a great post that’s worth reading. Do it if you haven’t!
I’m gonna offer a slightly different opinion, but please hear me out before you get out the torches and pitchforks.
Someone recently told me that their group occasionally has coachless practices (I think if they couldn’t find someone or if a coach canceled), but they never do scenes.
Doing Scenes + Coachless Practice = Bad News.
Instead, they do this (reprinted with permission):
…I’ve heard about these mythical [Mother] rehearsals where people just got together to play Zip Zap Zop or a Name game for as long as possible to see what happened to the improvisers as well as what happened to the group.
We tried one out on Friday with some incredible results; essentially a super-hero name game that was run for 90 minutes.
I found this is kind of amazing. And I don’t think it’s just socializing or fun. Something like this can be great for group mind and put you into sort of a Zen place with the rest of your team.
With the right people, doing this once in a while can be incredibly useful, more than a regular practice or bar-bonding session.
And it’s worth noting that the team mentioned above is, in my opinion, 1) one of the hardest-working teams out there and 2) doing great work.
Susan Messing did a workshop yesterday that was a wonderful re-introduction for me to Chicago-style improv. It also made me super sad again not to have finished the Annoyance program. Susan said everyone has a theory about how to do improv and they are just that - theories. There is no one right answer. Still, I think all improvisers would benefit from expanding their horizon and learning a different approach to improv. As someone who learned improv through UCB first, taking Chicago classes helped my play a great deal. With that in mind, I want to share some (a lot of) notes I jotted down from Susan’s workshop. Feel free to take them, use them, share them, or discard them. After all, there’s no one right way to do comedy.
- Improv is dealing with what is right in front of you.
- Improv scenes show us a slice of life or the day the shit hits the fan.
- Your shit (or deal) is in the first 3 seconds of the scene. Whatever you do is your choice. Whatever you do is enough. Don’t drop it. Do it more than once. A choice for your body is much better than anything you can invent verbally. It’s a chance for your partner to label your behavior and then you can justify it.
- The first 3 seconds of a scene is your promise to the audience to tell them who you are as a character. Don’t be too polite at the top of a scene. We each get our own shit (or deal). The person to speak first doesn’t tell us the thesis of the scene and win.
- Make a weird behavior truthful. Back it up with specificity. The more you do a behavior, the more we know who your character is and the stronger your character is.
- Saying Yes is not enough. The Ands get you off.
- You can control your words on stage. If you tend to talk a lot, try doing scenes where you are more silent. You can control pitch, tone and energy. Adjust your posture on the backline to be ready to jump out and not look like you’re the asshole waiting for the scene going on to be over.
- Our integrity on stage is different from our integrity offstage. You’re only limited by your lack of imagination and fear of looking stupid. Don’t be afraid to get as far away from yourself as possible on stage. Try on people you’ve never wanted to be and people you’ve always wanted to be. Don’t limit yourself with your own restrictions.
- If your improv feels the same, it’s because you keep doing the same thing hoping for a different result. Change your body. Be a character. If you still feel like yourself on stage, push it more. If it feels like a boinking accident, pull it back so someone can play with you. If you don’t like doing something, do it more. If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.
- The funny comes out of commitment and choice. Jokes can only be heightened by funnier jokes.
- If the only thing you get to own is your body on stage, own it. If you initiate with a particular posture, don’t drop it or change it just because your partner labels you or the environment as something that you don’t think fits your initiation. Ex: If you crook your body and hunch over just as your partner identifies you as a lawyer, don’t change your posture to stand upright. Stick with your original choice. Exploit your body. Let your body talk for you. You can be a hunched lawyer. If you make a characteristic choice for yourself at the top, you can take that character anywhere and you won’t be thrown off by your partner’s verbal initiation.
- Specificity kills ambiguity. Ambiguity doesn’t create specificity. Every detail is a chance to know more about your character. Revisit every specificity during the scene. Every prop means something to your character and is a chance to tell us more about your character by the way they use the prop.
- Game is anything you do more than once. You can have multiple games: for yourself, between you and the world, for your friend, for your enemy, etc. Why can we do multiple things at once in life, but only one thing at a time on stage? Do everything for a reason. Find out why you’re doing something in a scene. Explore.
- If you play with someone you don’t get, try on their shit. Match their energy. You can always adjust your energy to go bigger or more grounded in a scene.
- Don’t talk yourself into feeling something in a scene. If you can see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, you have something to work with. Everything you do or say is a clue about your character.
- In life, we are informed by and make assumptions about who people are based on their physicality all the time. Don’t forget this physical intelligence in scenes. Don’t look for “something better” in the scene. Be inspired by physicality. Don’t invent.
- Upstage is environmental; downstage is important and where the action happens.
- Conflict is not agreement.
- When introducing an object in a scene, don’t make people drop their shit to guess what it is. Find a way to define the object or what you’re doing if it’s important to your character.
- Develop your peripheral vision. Know what’s going on on stage around you at all times.
- If there is an idea in your head, throw it out there. Don’t regret moves you could’ve made later.
- Know your audience. Know what content is appropriate for when and whom you’re performing. The audience needs to feel comfortable in order to laugh.
I think my favorite note is that if you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole. And it’s improv, so have fun!
First practice team session tonight. Kind of freaking out. Just a little. I shouldn’t be: I feel comfortable with the people on my practice team, I hear great things about our coach. Maybe I’m just excited?
I think I’m just excited.
Reading this made me happy. Hope it was great, Erin!
It’s important - maybe vital - to remember that excitement as we get more and more experienced. It keeps the improv alive.