Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fine Art of an Improvised Bomb: Class Four


Improv 101
The Fourth Day of Class
This final class is about putting everything we’ve learned together. Receipts for the class are handed out, which is when I learned the cost of my birthday present. Clearly my wife must adore me, as now the immersive and intensive quality of the course makes sense, as it isn’t cheap.

We got warmed up, ran through a few exercises like Zoom! And Word Association Zoom!, followed by the Experts Game wherein I helped to discuss & divulge the history and cultural impacts of Floss and Tuques. Did you know the Tuna Tuque of Tahiti is still used today with certain classical wedding rituals to represent fertility and casting a wide net? So far I’ve been a cohort collaborative with three other student actors and have been fortunate all three were clever as hell and thereupon made me look really, really good sitting there nodding and agreeing and expanding with the ever present, “Yes, and…”

We double lined up for a few rounds of the Johnson File, adding twists once the class had all had a turn as giver and recipient. One twist where the instructor, Pearce, told the recipients their character or context, and another where he told both giver and recipient to exist within a certain cinematic genre; therein learning that I really have no clue how to exist within an afterschool special teen drama, although replicating how I used to write peoples’ papers for fun and profit, and often had to haggle over the sliding scale of higher grades costing more, seemed to supply enough knowing honesty that we managed to garner a couple chuckles.

After we’d warmed up, we dropping into a new game called Slide Show and the variant Film Review Show.

Slide / Film Review Show: four actors, two as commentators as though on a TV talk show, the other two as actors posing as “slides” or acting out “clips” from fictional films. The commentators essentially set up the content of the slide or clip, then react to and explain what the actors in the slide or clip construct or present. Each side presents offers that potentially raise the stakes, and certainly that natural tension got a few laughs for each of the groups of actors.

I got to play in one of the slides version games as one of the two slide posing models with a talented lady recently moved to Vancouver from Dawson City up in the Yukon, where they like their comedy physical since it’s so damn hard to stay warm. The commentators warmly set us up with opportunities to be inventive, instead of being specific about what we were doing, affording us some great creative choices for being utterly obnoxious. Framed as a nature travel show like the one by Mutual of Omaha, the hosts would set up seeing the hyenas, where upon we posed a slide of my riding one while my cohort tried to catch up. And our hosts mentioned enjoying the moonlit beaches, and so naturally we posed as a couple swooning romantically. The hosts took that offer in stride and remarked on how the trip had really brought them together a team. Brilliant, albeit a touch lowbrow, stuff. And of course that simply meant the next slide show with male slide show actors and female talk show hosts would involve male strippers, a bachelorette party gone sideways, and genital warts on the bride-to-be’s tongue that fortunately could be cured by a medicinal lollipop prescribed by a doctor MD that looked suspiciously like the male stripper from the night before. Women really can go lowbrow much better than men when they want too, I’m only saying.

After the slides we switched to the film clip format, and despite my soggy suggestion of “Swallowing Sharks” as a film title, the student actors managed to rock out with some great offers and adaptations. The tricky part of the film clip format seemed to be finding the right balance of supplying too much plot from the show hosts, risking really boxing the clip actors into a celluloid corner, or inversely not being specific enough and seeing the scene go sideways as the clip actors have to create something with too little foundational structure.

After that exercise we moved on to another new game called Typewriter.

Typewriter: One actor takes a bench off to the side as the narrator of the scene, a sort of benign voice of god that sets the scene, defines the characters and environments, introduces problems, raises stakes, and suggests resolutions. The narrator is effectively, as Pearce described it, a training wheel to ensure the scene keeps moving and stays remotely on track. At the same time, the narrator must listen and indulge whatever bubbles up from the ideas and choices the other actors bring to or introduce into the scene.

My group during this exercise chose to ask the audience for a suggestion for and environment. Someone said restaurant, while someone else said dinner theater. Pearce pointed out that by being more specific about the location and context, the scene is better empowered. We went with dinner theater, and as narrator, I framed that as a murder mystery type of dinner theater, having recently seen Psychoville season one, which more or less kicks off around a murder mystery dinner theater evening gone horribly sideways.

The other actors made my choices easy and apparent. The nervous, deer in headlights choices of first male actor described his characters as low status despite being an actor in the play. Seeing that, I put the strong female actor into a role of an annoyed, aggressive, angry wife that had been dragged to this stupid dinner theater play and wasn’t buying the shtick for one second. She naturally came off as high status, and she ran with that notion so well the natural conflict had the audience engaged. I interject to tap the third actor, a tall fellow able to rubber-face on a dime from cheer-leading captain to lounge singer extraordinaire to game warden super cop, as the manager / director of the play that sensed the conflict as a threat to his dinner theater production and wanted to intercede, however he would step into the fray not as manager or director, instead he would step in as a new character for the play.  This detailed description made the role for that actor a touch more challenging, as it suggested he’d come to save the day, but could not do so as a simpering manager of low, groveling must appease the always correct customer. Rather, by stepping into the scene as a character within the bounds of the play itself, the manager came forward with status, effectively balancing out the bitchy wife character.

Sensing the need to both raise stakes and push for a resolution, I as narrator pointed out that just then the bitchy wife noticed the nuts in her Waldorf salad, nuts she happened to be deathly allergic too. As the female actor clutched her throat and dropped writhing to the stage, gasping and asking for help, the male actors made even better choices than I’d hoped, both showing confusion and alarm that the woman had fallen to the floor, while doing loud stage whisper asides between themselves pointing out what a great actor the woman was, Oscar worthy, conveying their character’s mistaken belief that the woman had been a plant, an actress in the show, after all. They’re of course wrong, and the audience knows this, and as she goes still, there were laughs a plenty.

After a break for lunch wherein I consumed a wrap from a coffee shop after discovering the horde scale lineups around the Market were procurable prohibitive, I returned to the Improv theater and had some time sit out front and chit chat with some of the other actors before being allowed back inside. Helped me to better appreciate how different our respective backgrounds happen to be. No other game designers, no other digital artists, no other toy collectors. Fair enough, and groovy, however also really enjoy the rich diversity of backgrounds among the student actors. Like a burgeoning film maker & currently employed film editor. Like someone from the courthouse with a civil reputation to protect. Like someone breaking bad from the business world. Like a aquatic mechanical engineer, or an actor that’s been in films with animal stars, and not one but three stand up comedians including a grandmother that’s clearly had to maintain a healthy sense of humor, or someone that has drunk a sour mash shot that included, nigh, featured kissing a severed & pickled human toe – the Yukon’s equivalent to the cod cheek / screech / tack thing in Newfoundland – while getting egged on by a row of retired gold mining grannies. Everyone there had a different background, and that meant a wealth of unexpected and wonderful things to draw upon and bring into the scenes, choices, and offers each of us made on the day upon the stage.

After we were let back into the building, we got our swagger back with some One Word.

One Word: A mime scene where through the course of the sketch each actor may only choose and say one word, and that word a single time, to like a smart bomb in the games of yon, behest thee to make thine word countest most bestest. Making sound effects with your mouth is allowed, though beware the slippery slope into yabbering gibberish in [place of words like Mr. Bean, as that is unacceptable and such play shall be flagged. The scene should have an environment, verily though might it be audience suggested, and defined characters, that they too might perchance arise from such things as the audience might yowl, and should attempt to introduce conflict, and attempt if can some sort of resolution.

I would venture to say the three actors that assembled a car salesman versus car salesman rivalry trying to sway a young, impressionable woman buyer over with value versus speed made the most of the exercise, however all embarkations had solid moments to them. From the car salesman scene specifically we learned the term “Mortar”, the through-line that holds a scene together. For that scene it had been the inherent competition between rival salesmen, who would get the sale?

After this exercise we moved boldly into a “wheels off” scene. No narrator. No quirky constraints. Just tie everything we’ve learned together and compose a scene from suggestions of character, setting / environment / time period, and a problem. Can get all of that from suggestions, or just one thing and introduce the rest from whatever bubbles up from your playing inside the environment.  

Wheels Off: We can talk, can use “cut too” to change location, and can use “so many hours later” to change time frame. We’re encouraged to take our time, to not rush, to swim / play in our environments, savor our characters, to better bubble up offers and ideas while all the more setting and selling the scene to the audience. We’re intended to establish / empower an environment, and then characters, then present a problem, raise the stakes, and find a resolution. Each actor should emerge into the scene one at a time, to ensure no collisions as two try to simultaneously deliver new, potentially conflicting offers or elements.

Side note, generally improv scenes on average go for around 5 minutes. Anything longer starts to lose steam.

My team had a tough scene suggested from the audience and never quite found our alienment in it. The pretext suggested involved one roommate cheating with the other roommate’s fiancĂ©.

Epic fail number one: I played the bad roommate, and made the choice of trying to be something like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company meets Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, all “Show me with your mouth and money is on the dresser” sort of douchebaggery, yet within a sitcom punch line cadence. My ill defined character choice proved immediately too complicated, and I began playing the rest of the scene reactively to the other actors, who I’d effectively left marooned on islands of self-discovery as I scuttled my own character craft.

Epic fail number two: difficult to convey and fellow actors did not pick up on it, thus did not make complimentary choices, and why should they, straddling such distinctly incongruent archetypes demonstrated a lack of commitment to a particular character, and instead of playing in my scene and environment, I’d tried to tack it, and effectively my fellow actors, into place as though with a ball peen hammer.

Epic fail number three: Left an actor stranded. Not just to define her character, she did that fine. However plot-wise I’d gotten her to hide in a closet, or more specifically, between / behind the stage flat with a cityscape painted on it. I didn’t define if the closet door were open or closed, or if even had one. And after my roommate arrived into the scene and we discussed his declaration of love for this woman and how he’d like to marry her, I have stalled completely unsure how to bring her back into scene. Sure, she could have brought herself in, yet as the one that put her there, surely I’d had some plan for how to get her out again? Nope. Couple my inaction with the tension the audience had definitely begun to feel, the one that seemed funny at first, then awkward, then strangely unfulfilling like soppy sandpaper, and you could hear crickets, or at least, the instructor’s molars begin to work together.

Epic fail number four: asynchronous tones, meaning, after the inevitable, awkwardly handled reveal of the soiled lady in the room that’d been hiding in plain view behind the never described or accounted for imaginary closet door, my male counterpart made choices that followed commitment to his character, make note that unlike myself, he’d actually defined one and stuck with it beautifully. So from the rosy heights of elated adorations exclaimed he plummet with a sharp intake of horrified hiss into fiery display of disgust, betrayal, and dismissal as he stormed away somberly, leaving the stage. I became so enthralled with his performance I felt I had actually stolen my best friend’s one true love for a night of knavishly nasty nookie. I felt ugly, ashamed, and completely unsure how to react. I tried to fall back on the tattered remains of my ill defined Jack Tripper / Harvey Keitel hybrid, and  managed to glibly, hollowly offer a solution to get the lady and I off that stag as soon as humanly possible. Something wicked or dark might have worked if I’d sold my character that way from the get go, yet I hadn’t, and couldn’t swerve into that ditch now. He’d played it sober, I’d tried to play it sitcom, and not one of the three of us had managed to fully sort out our intrepid scene. The scene had sadly been failure to launch from the first words out of my mouth, and I will be need to be damn sure I know what / who I am as a character, and commit to that, before I ever try storming into a scene again, particularly as first man. Or at least, allow myself a base template, something that can percolate and evolve and grow as I play with others, yet have enough structural integrity to fall back on however the scene’s ante’s get raised.

The Wheels Off scene I think best delivered on all cylinders that day would have to be the scene set in a soda shop in the 50’s wherein two teen girls and a soda jerk preparing a steady stream of one and two scoop Coke floats discuss their options when one girl reveals she’s pregnant, just sure of it, after getting busy with a Greaser in the back of his Black Lightning the night before. Environment: 50’s soda shop. Check. Characters: from mannerisms to poodle skirt references and swapping in, “Oh, poodle skirts!” for proper swearing to displaying laugh out loud naivety in the age of sanitized TV and idealized Americana. Check. Problem, teen pregnancy by someone from different social strata. Check. Raising stakes, prom is coming and won’t fit in brand new yellow dress. Check. Solution, praying. Check.  Functionally sound, had several offers that could have been mined for gold along the way like the prom dress, or the impending prom period, yet held up, hit all the key aspects the class has been trying to teach, and got a slew of laughs along the way for good measure. If the Wheels Off scenes were final exams, that one would have screwed the grading curve.

After the Wheels Off scenes, we went into a fine round of Freeze Tag, replete with impromptu musical numbers, two even, and several strange orifice extraction elements. During this Pearce called each student into the hallway to let them know if they could continue on to the 200 level of the course if they would like too, and additionally offer some notes about key areas to focus on for improvement.

When summoned, I stepped into the hallway with some tightening in my chest. I really worried I’d bombed too much and wouldn’t have “passed” enough to get into the next level of training. Instead of solving the mystery, Pearce asked if started a lot of projects I didn’t finish. I felt pinned like a butterfly and smoked like a bee. Three novels sit half finished on my laptop. A half dozen barley to marginally contrived comic book stories litter the hallways of my past and across dozens of papers and pages stuffed in my office spaces. I haven’t been diving since last October. I’ve still never gotten to be the driving creative vision for a video game project, despite all honorable intentions and professional efforts. I’ve been divorced and had several breakups painful enough might well as have been legally binding. I joined the Navy and ended up never really serving any active duty time after all that submarine hunting training. I have a tattoo design sitting with an artist for my leg that I’ve never bothered to get around too. And all this flashed though my head as I wondered how this man had seen through me so well. I believe my jaw must have dropped open because my tongue went dry.

He looked surprised, perhaps because I did, and revised, saying that he felt I appeared to have ADD. Meaning, I changed my mind a lot, and that had several times gotten in the way of committing to character. By not making up my mind, or second guessing myself, or trying to do too much, I ended up undeserving everything, rather than selecting something manageable and committing to it to see where it lead too.

He said that I have clever ideas and insights, however I need to commit to my characters, make them real and let them breathe. This might well explain why I do well as a narrator type, yet flounder when trying to be the hero, villain, or circus elephant.

I’m debating now about the 200 level classes. Part of me wants to do it, continue to learn more, if only about myself as I have immensely so far. Part of me is afraid he’s right, and that I will never learn how to settle down, pick something, and follow through with it. And for the expense of the course, as with running, writing, drawing, diving, or any of the other things I have thrust myself into yet never followed through with, i want to pause and consider before committing myself. Somewhat for cost of the class and the Saturdays I’ll be giving up. More though for the time I’ll miss from my family, and knowing that I can make a full commitment to contributing to the new class and everyone in it, eyes wide open and all that.

We’ll see what I decide. For now I’m just happy to have had the opportunity, appreciate the gift from my Wife and all the things I’ve learned and experiences shared with my classmates and instructor, Pearce.
 Now a couple snaps of the mini-after party where we went next door for a pint to celebrate completeing the class. Noice!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Fine Art of an Improvised Bomb: Class Three


Improv 101
The Third Day of Class

Received our named comp tickets for a Wednesday or Thursday show of our choice.

Learned that the 200 level of the Improv Class would commence in October. Discussed the merits of having the class over two weekends instead of tying up four Saturdays in a row. Also learned that regardless of the calendar composition of the classes, we’d first need to get the grade from the 101 class, an assessment that would decree we could proceed or that perhaps we could use another round of 101 before advancing to the next tier of training.

Warmed up with some Yes, lets! and Zoom! Zip! Screech! And some Word Association Zoom! Before moving into new exercises intended to build a sense of narrative, the five parts of a fictional scene:
  • Environment
  • Characters
  • Problem
  • Raise Stakes
  • Solution

Narrator Game: 2 teams form 2 lines, a person from one side endowing a person from the other side with a name, character description, and story that presented a context, an environment, a problem, a compounding element to that problem, and a solution. The recipient of the narrative adapted and acted, perhaps adding lines of dialogue, to support the narrative, and sometimes help shape the narrative, returning offers for the narrator to pick up on and play with.

I narrated scenes wherein a warlock bough a witch’s gingerbread house in the black forest and then had to contend with pesky kids trying to eat it and an astronaut names Major Tom lost contact with ground control but elected to take a space walk anyway and then had to contend with space flatulence. In space no one can hear you toot.

I had to play a midget Elvis impersonator having his bank heist foiled by an RCMP touring security demonstration presentation and a swaybacked cowboy that rides a 15 foot stead and slings a 15 foot long gun facing off with his 15 gallon hat versus a 15 year old nemesis.

5 Parts of a Story Game: teams of 5, each person have to contribute an aspect of a functional scene. The first person sets the environment, the second names the character or characters, the third describes a problem, the fourth finds a way to elevate / raise the stakes / compound the problem, and the last person provides a solution.

  • A hospital
  • A doctor treating a man
  • Man is having a heart attack
  • Man owns hospital
  • Get man to sign papers before surgery
The thing to avoid with solutions is the dues ex machina approach that brings in divine intervention or otherwise miraculously solves the problem.

  • A hospital
  • A doctor treating a man
  • Man is having a heart attack
  • Man owns hospital
  • God / an alien ascot / Chuck Norris steps in and abolishes heart attacks, the people rejoice

Narrator plus Two Actors Exercise: narrator describes the location, characters, problem, stake raising aspect, and solution while actors play it out. The trick is to keep simple, don’t add too much detail.

  • Enchanted forest
  • A unicorn
  • Unicorn is hungry
  • Must eat every 5 hours or dies
  • Satyr has some apples

As folks returned from lunch learned a bit about the process for folks to go from beginner s to rookies to eventually, if they have what it takes, ultimately get onto the Main Stage and perhaps even get paid to perform before live studio audiences. Most of their performers / actors came from having gotten through the 100, 200, and 300 level classes, as well as the Sunday Night Session Classes to get into the Rookie League. Then it’s a matter of earning your stripes, and putting in your time and getting experience.

Tell a Story One Word at a Time: Start with a sense of a Name and a Noun, say Rosie and Ball, then go around the group with each person adding a word to try to tell a story that establishes a location, something about the character context, a problem, perhaps a raising of stakes, and a solution. The story is emergent and has a tone that is something like the old “See Jane Run. Run Jan run!” stories from when we were kids.

2 Person Scene Building: a pair of actors take the stage and build a scene describing an environment, characters, problem, raised stakes, and resolution. The tips were to physically move around in the scene to better bring the environment to life; take time to think; spell out logic to better establish what you’re doing and why for the audience.

2 Person Word Story: After getting a suggestion for an object and a suggested action from the audience, each person alternately says a word, building between them word by word a narrative that presents a problem and presents a solution. Tips were to speed it up, not to think too much, to say the obvious thing, as audience enjoys the natural tension of the risk factor and there is more drama from the incidental unexpected. The resolution of the day had to be a tie between, “The worms had worms!” and “I kicked the basket in the basket!”

During the writing up of my notes I discovered a great resource as well for more detail and information on a myriad variations of the exercises and games I've described, and oodles more besides at The Improv Encyclopedia

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Fine Art of an Improvised Bomb: Class Two

The Second Day of Class for Improv 101

Class began with a review of some of the basic, core improv terms.
  • Block: When you say “No!” to someone’s offer. This is generally bad form in improv.
  • Endowing: Give other person character or plot. Can be good or bad. Offering someone with something, or can be presenting self into a scene as a character.
  • Offer: Give someone an object, idea, emotion, status, character, or anything else really.
  • Wimping: Being vague, now endowing your offer with properties.
  • Shelving: Putting someone’s ideas to the side, not empowering the other person.

Five blocks of basic scene structure:
  • Environment
  • Character
  • Plot / Problem
  • Raise Stakes
  • Resolution

Number One Rule of Improv: Accepting
Warmed up with some cross-circle variants of Zoom! Screech! Zap!, then moved into Freeze Tag, Power Ball, and Word Association Firing Line.

Freeze-Tag: Start with two people, everyone else in a line. The two people begin a scene, something basic probably on a suggestion from Pearce, and mime out what they can. When Pearce yells, “Freeze!” someone from the front of the line steps forward and taps one of the two players out, then adopts the tapped out person’s position and stance. When the scene resumes the new player must change the context of the scene and redefine the mime currently under way. When people get tapped out, they leave the scene and move to the back of the line.

Power Ball: Stand in a circle. One person makes the mime and sound effects for a massive ball of energy, then pretends to pass / shoot / compress and slingshot / etc. the energy at someone else n the circle. The recipient must “catch” the energy, make as big a show of the size / mass / weight / impact / damage / near miss of the energy as possible, then retool / refashion the energy into something else, say an arrow or atomic missile or commemorative statuette of liberty, and then hurl it on / at / into / around someone else in the circle. Hilarity and sprained spleens ensues.

Firing Line: The aforementioned one versus three word association game.

Character Creation, Tableau, and Tips:
  • So important to establish a distinct and clear character, this will make the character easier to know, to speak as, and to represent
  • Know and communicate the gender, age, disposition
o   Is this character predator, prey, outgoing, shy?
·         Ask questions – why are you or they doing something, what are you adding with your character choice?
·         When entering a scene, you should be a complimentary character, there to make an offer and add to the scene as a whole
o   Parallel characters coming into a scene seem like Xerox and add little, no tension or drama
·         Opposites work better in comedy & drama, a contrasting character is likely going to be more beneficial to a scene

How and what to choose about a character:
  • Physicality and physical nature; how do they walk, move, carry themselves through and otherwise occupy space
  • Voice:
o   play with your voice,
o   play with how you talk,
o   the speed,
o   the volume,
o   the inflections,
o   the accents,
o   the pitch,
o   keywords or catchphrases to repeat
  • Archetypes and stereotypes can make for easy shorthand when communicating a legible character to an audience quickly
  • Nature:
o   Predator or prey?
o   What is their motivation?
o   Shy or outgoing?
o   Stoner or uptight?
o   Chaste or cougar?
  • Status:
o   Status is relative
o   Customer, boss, client, servant, victim?
o   Authority, officer?
o   High and Low status
o   Power balance
  • High Status:
o    Open, take up more space, confident, head up, not fidgeting or wandering, solid on the ground.
o   Voice is strong and clear.
o   Eye contact, very powerful.
o   Disposition, don’t have to be unfriendly or mean to be high status
o   Avoid always coming in high status, as those often drive the scenes
  • Low Status:
o   Body language is closed, slumped, a dead spider
o   Little or no eye contact
o   Muffled voice
o   Fidgety, not grounded
o   Shy, coward, prey

Thing about setting to ground characters. Characters in a vacuum are largely without context for the audience. Two accountants would be one thing. Two accountants on a beach another. Two accountants at a race track, something else again.

Use what you know. Pearce gave the example of getting a suggestion from the audience to be a teacher. As he knows more about science from college than history or romantic languages, he would default to a science teacher, just to have some nuggets of truth from his knowledge of the subject matter to fall back on or infuse into his fictional character to give it life and validity.

Use your physicality. If you’re a big fella, shape your characters around that. For example, if playing a sheriff and fortunate enough to appear to have paid for the proverbial keg over the six pack, perhaps play the role as a beer swilling sheriff like from a Paul Newman film. Or use your physique to add irony, such as the buxom ballerina should such circumstantial opportunity arrive, like those hippos and alligators in Fantasia.

In a setting, chose your role. An undefined role will appear unformed and vague and ultimately confuse or disengage the audience.

Second to the Chair Status Game: Stand as close as you can to the chair without touching it and prove to all comers that you are the highest status on the stage other than the magnificently mighty chair.

Vending Machine versus Customer Game: Variations include high status vending machine vs. high status customer, low status vending machine vs. low status customer, low status vending machine vs. high status customer, and high status vending machine vs. low status customer who totally wasn’t worthy of the Tom Cruise Meets U2 Producing Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark Money Pit Majesty of the Diamond Age Platinum Plated High Status Vending Machine.

Having explored status, we moved on to dip a toe into the pulsating pool that is scene work. The ground rules were simple sounding enough; suggest an activity, agree to it, and do it. Further, keep the scene moving, both the plot and the action within space. Don’t plant and stay anchored to a solitary spot, move around the stage exploring / playing with your character in the scene, helping to convey it to the audience through your discoveries playing within it.

Improv isn’t all about comedy, it’s about acting and creation and motivation. The comedy is emergent from ideas to generate scene, problems, and resolutions as they arise / arrive.

Animal Mannerisms Game: Receive an environmental setting, situation / problem, and an animal your character will have affectations of. Play out the scene demonstrating identifiable animal characteristics while resolving the dilemma of the situation within the confines of the assigned setting.

Pearce repeatedly reminds players to avoid for resolving scenes with deus ex machina solutions, like having Superman show up with an EKG machine to save the day, or aliens, or gods, unless the scene were already about super heroes, extraterrestrials, or divine deities.

The Animal Mannerism Games entailed teams of three. First up a moose, a butterfly, and a lizard tasked with trying to design a commercial barn for mass production. The comedy and hard won lessons were immediately apparent as each player tried to shape their mannerisms and body postures and gestures around their associated animal, all the while receiving notes and corrections from Pearce. The next group, asked to stuff a thanksgiving turkey, contained a parrot, a cricket / grasshopper, and a camel. Initially the group discovered that they needed to better establish who their character was to give the audience a context for the scene; not just the animal aspects, also the social associations, who was family, and in what station, etc. Also learned that talking on top of one another more often adds confusion than comedy. The player playing as a parrot type person kept insisting on adding more pine nuts with a high pitched urgency, much like wanting a cracker, and got great laughs.

After the turkey stuffing, an antelope, deer, and ostrich opened and operated a hair salon, learning along the way that use of props is great to ground a scene, however the setting must be maintained as though actually there, not just offhandedly referenced, else the audience’s suspension of disbelief will evaporate, or worse, spectators will become confused and detached. The use of the cubed grounded the sketch, the scene setting, and if actors respect the setting they’ve empowered, those same cubes could be pretty much anything you say they represent.

After that came a snake, dolphin, and orangutan trying to decorate a holiday tree. While the dolphin player kept hopping around squeaking observations and the orangutan meandered and flailed along waiting to be told what to do, the snake player sent the others for more tinsel and using the time alone to steal away all the presents from beneath the tree. Early in the sketch Pearce made a note that the quiet player in a scene runs the risk of being “Snowballed”, shut out of the scene due to a lack of creative input or clear vocalization.

Last up were my group, a worm, a Labrador dog, and a penguin played admittedly poorly by me. We were tasked with building an IKEA shelving unit. I stalled, fell to using my normal voice and just walking like a wobbling cane. My only idea was to sit on the crate we’d put forward as our IKEA box, thinking of the way penguin males all sit on the eggs during the harse winters ala March of the Penguins or Happy Feet. Not once did I think of Burgeous Meredith or Danny DeVito. Pearce interject very quickly and asked why I wasn’t doing anything to emulate or insinuate a penguin-esque presence into the scene. Clearly my egg sitting bit had been confusing or simply inane. I struggled trying to channel classic Batman villains for the remainder of the time on stage, while acutely aware of the rubber-bones dexterity of the fellow emoting worm-itude into every facet of his performance, really killer work secondary only to his performance as a male leader of a cheerleading squad with a nasty fungal toe infection on the big trials day the following class.

Empower Game: Two lines, one side says they have a package for… and comes up with a name that the person from the other line must bring to life, something Monty Python absurd like Ms. Lampbottom or Mr. Leadfish, and the latter person enact the role / character they’ve been empowered / endowed with as they cross the stage and receive their package, declare perhaps what the package actually contains, and react accordingly.

I did poorly with the Empower Game, chiefly for over thinking it, trying too hard to come up with a name that got a laugh from get go. The error with this intention is that I’m thinking about myself, and essentially being selfish. I’m trying to get the laugh. And maybe if I hadn’t over thought things and stumped myself in the critical moments, I would have gotten away with it. However, by blowing it a couple times, I realized the error of my ways ran deeper than just choking or failing to be crotch grabbing pee leaking funny. The real mistake I’d made stemmed from blowing off a core tenant of improv, the rule about striving to make others look good, and more importantly, to never cause another player to look bad.

So standing there waiting my turn to offer a package to someone with the name I’d make up, trying to make up the most brilliant of names, I thought I need a pronoun and an adverb or adjective, and then wait, it’s my turn, and instead of delivering a solution, I choke, and fail to even get gender correct. I say, “I have your parcel, Mr. Abject Pronoun.” And then I can feel my face lock into a freeze for fear of revealing my shock over the words that have just sprung from my mouth and pronounced me via subtext loud and clear and absolute asshat. I see the player across from me with the seasonal real life name reacting with surprise, confusion, and a fair degree of warranted annoyance, though remaining good spirited. I offer a new name as an alternative, and still stinging from my own lackluster performance as an aquatic fowl, amend my offer and endowment with a quick, “Sorry, I mean, I have your package, Ms. Penguin!” What I should have said to save face for all involved, other than not saying “Abject Prounoun” in the first place, could have been, “Oh, my apologies, I see I’ve completely read the logo wrong. Allow me to amend, this parcel is indeed for a Misses Beaverpastry.”

Next time my turn came around to give someone a name I did only slightly better with “Mr. Shower Trowel.”  Clearly concerns about patching up my relationship with my fellow actors bled through into my stage life.

Some finishing notes on Blocking. A Block is just a “No”. A Block is not a Conflict. A Conflict is a “No, and but…” or a “No, I was once…” You just feel a Block, it tastes sour, and is clearly not an acceptance, instead a denial and can kill a scene without providing any alternative direction. Conflict is pitting things against once another to progress or evolve the situation, to build drama, present problems, raise stakes, and strive towards resolutions.

Over-Acceptance Game: An exercise of everything ending with “Yes, and…” to get creative juices flowing while crushing any opportunity or option to block.

Bus Stop / Park Bench Game: Long lineup of all players. Start with one player on the bench, happened to be me pretending to read a paper and projecting more or less with the same amount of resentment as I would normally feel about awaiting public transit. The next player along the line moves to sit down on the bench, projecting posture, mannerisms, and character that incorporate what we’ve learned about stature, recognizable traits, and mentioning details as clues for other players and presumably the audience to pick up on and relate too.

I fared better with this game, quickly off the bench as first man and ready to play once my turn came around again. One of the Canadian actors had adopted a very television land over the top US - of F*&k Yeah! – A style redneck American, and while she’d done a fine job, being from the South where those dueling banjos stereotypes come from (technically Deliverance reflected an aspect South Carolina and Georgia, and where I’m from in East Tennessee rather jabs right into that aromatic armpit if you squint enough at a map), and also being a fan of banjo players like Steve Martin and Grandpa Jones,  I elected to play my next turn as a banjo plucking and strumming, East Tennessee (though sounding more like Lexington Kentucky, really) sincere southerner that said absurd things with a syrupy smile and sincere smirk. I made a point to play to the other actor, let them set the lines up and play through with whatever sprang to mind, not trying to be funny, or trying too hard to be anything except sincere within the character I’d designed, and I ended up getting a few laughs and guffaws. I suspect my gentleman redneck routine might have mixed messages for some folks, however having grown up around folks like that, felt like an honest choice to make, though perhaps I could have pushed it more, better established the character, like the guy running for governor or the Cyclops in O Brother Where Art Thou.

The blue ribbon, had I one to give, that day would have gone to the fellow that made the clever choice to show up on the park bench as an astronaut who repeatedly required the assistance of the other players to keep from floating away in his reality of zero G. Shout out as well to the cat that decided to channel Jeff Goldblum, and the pair of actresses that brought a Yaletown patio conversation to the stage with laser precision. Have I mentioned the class is full of very talented, clever people?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Fine Art of an Improvised Bomb: Class One

Improv 101
Taught by Pearce Visser  from 10 am to 4 pm for 4 consecutive Saturdays on the dates of September 3, 10, 17, & 24 in the year of her majesty, 2011 at the Improv Centre on Granville Island.

I’d been a longstanding fan of improv without knowing that those shows and sketches came about as a product of improv; or at least, the comedians and actors accountable for providing so much entertainment and inspiration were themselves products of the improve syndicates.

The British Who’s Line Is It Anyway initially gave me the term. I wouldn’t fully appreciate what improv truly consists of until seeing it live with my Wife, the same gal that got me into this class as a grand birthday gift, when we went on a whim to see Theater Sports on Granville Island one balmy evening many years ago.

We procured tickets for the first show, found out tickets to subsequent shows would be cheap should we elect to stick around, and ended up staying through all three. We particularly enjoyed the third show, which is the notoriously “blue” show, since no minors are allowed to that one.

The live show is a simple revelation. Seeing actors react to the crowd, to crowd suggestions and reactions, removes a sense of detachment, of disbelief. Watching Who’s Line Is It Anyway is impressive, and you get a sense that the folks in front of the camera are quick witted, yet commercial breaks remind you that you’re suspending your disbelief, that the final edit might have cut around all the times actors guffawed, all the times bits went pear shaped, every time the audience might have yawned or gags have bombed. The live show is live, and while not everything works, the mistakes can add value and challenge, all about the strengths and quality elements of the players.

Since then I’ve learned that the sketch comedy I enjoyed as a youth of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade is a result of an improv group of the same name, and some of the same members, like Amy Poehler. Second City spawned Colbert, Tina Fey, and dozens of others peppered throughout Canadian and US television productions. SCTV, SNL, Vacant Lot, The State, Exit 57, Strangers with Candy, both versions of Who’s Line is it Anyway, the Drew Cary Show, Parks & Recreation, 32 Rock, and dozens of other programs have their roots in improv troops and companies in NYC, Chicago, Toronto, LA, and even Vancouver, where both Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie have roots, and both helped found the company that today owns and operates the Improv Centre and local incarnation of Theater Sports. And that teached the course my wife has enrolled me into.

As a kid I used to watch SNL every Saturday night on a tiny black and white TV I’d pulled into bed with me on my bottom bunk of the bunk bed I shared with my brother. While my brother snored away overhead I watched and listened as the Dennis Miller era cast rambled through skits and sketches, thinking to myself that someday my cadre of extras rolls in all the high school productions would set me up on the long road to playing the stage of SNL. Sure, I wasn’t funny yet, or particularly good looking. I didn’t even have a menagerie of goofy slapstick characters to fall back on when bully push came to grumpy audience shove. What I did have was a penchant for pretending to be shot by heavy gauge firearms (I’d also wanted to be a Hollywood stunt man), and a deep affinity for absurdest comedy. Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin, Richard Pryer, even Bill Cosby, all the people whose records I’d listened too over and over that one long, lovely summer in Pennsylvania between 6th and 7th grade, when I also read all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries while hidden away in my hay bale fort in the rafters of the cattle barn, and when the local library had no reservations about lending out an unfiltered selection of comedy records to a kid with an ample appetite for the art form.

Call it mid-life crisis, call it a need for affirmation, or at least confirmation, that I did the right thing becoming a game designer instead of learning to play the banjo and tie balloon animals and regale audiences with anecdotes about being clever, crafty, or an affable idiot. Perhaps it’s just a hope for conquering the social awkwardness I have with speaking in front of people, especially when they aren’t strangers or obliged to be polite due to my being their manager.

Perhaps it’s just for the hell of it, to maybe learn something and have fun along the way. Frankly, that’s enough, and so far, learned quite a bit, and now allow me to share some of the better baubles of brilliance with you.
 The First Day of Class

Pearce Visser has been an actor and improvisational comedian for over twenty years, heralding back to his university years in Alberta. I recognize him from nearly every Theater Sports show I’ve ever attended, immediately filling me with both confidence that he knows his stuff and dread that I will never be able to live up to the bar his performances I’ve seen have set.

Pearce began by stating his expectations: for us to be kids, to play, and to reach for pure creativity.

Improv is something that can be used every day, not just about making up crap, it’s about confidence. And building the confidence to make up crap. Improv is about guts and balls.

One of people’s biggest fears is public speaking. Having people look directly at you is inherently predatory. Improv in the face of that attention is something somewhat spiritual – humanistic. Improv is inherently about accepting, making offerings, sharing. Improv is about bending, flowing, and adapting. Improv is about collaboratively telling a good story, being engaged, listening, sharing, and asking for details. Improv is about becoming an active, engaged listener. Improv is about not judging.

The first day of improv class would be about mentally exhausting, and despite breaks and lunch, despite being able to duck out for the bathroom without hand raising whenever you need, the exercises and attempts of day one to teach everyone to override their logic and let their creativity flow would be exhausting. We’d be warned.

Improve is about improvement. Commit to the exercise because you must have commitment to create something meaningful and entertaining from improv. Standing around shuffling your feet and having your hands half hanging out of your pockets, unless part of an intentional character, is half-assed. If you can’t commit to a character on stage among your fellow actors, why would an audience bother to commit to believing your character from off stage? If anything, you need to over sell the character your creating / embodying / choosing.

You must flow back and forth with the audience. They know you’re making it up. Most people in the audience want you to succeed, and moreover, to entertain them.
The audience projects onto you, asks you questions. What’s he going to do? What would I do in this situation? What is or will be the gag or punch line or twist?

The audience is adapting with each new bit of detail, information, and will interpret what’s happening on the fly. Your actions define who you are as a character / entity on stage, and as such everything must be clear. Vague elements or characterizations or premises can’t be built on.

In improv, things change and move. Things get reinterpreted. Things may even seem insane or stupid to the casual observer, yet there is a method to the madness.

You must commit or risk losing your connection with the audience and scene. If committed, you won’t fail, further, you likely can’t fail because the audience is right there in it with you no matter how absurd your scene or situation is becoming. The audience wants to see you really try, and if you commit you can’t fail, because instead of worrying about failure, realize mistakes add humor. Commit and don’t worry or judge. Just take the punch and keep going.

Rules of Comedy:
  • Recognition – things the audience identify with will build empathy, empathy will get the laugh
  • Surprise – something no one would have thought of
  • Repetition – introduce something, repeat it so the audience picks up on a pattern, and repeat it again for a laugh, or deviate from expectation for surprise to get a laugh
  • A lot of fear works into comedy – surprise to relief to release
  • Laughter is a very powerful tool

  • Blocking – refusing an offer or suggestion from others
  • Wimping – accepting offers and then failing to do anything with them
  • Corpsing – breaking character to laugh or react outside the character your committed too
  • Gregarious – living in a group, or flock; being a joiner without adding contrast or conflict to a scene

We’re all different levels and background. Improv helps to break down barriers and build camaraderie as though going through hell together.

Rules of the class include getting called on any lack of commitment and called on blocking others. Blocking is refusing to accept suggestions or offers from others. The biggest rule of improv is to accept, to never block others, to condition yourself to not block as a reflex. You must remove your bubble, refuse to say no, not have any negative bubble around yourself others’ ideas might bounce off of and fail to flourish or be facilitated.

Further, don’t try to control reality. Say yes to offers from others, to their suggestions and ideas, and allow for emergence and spontaneous absurdity. Allow your role to change if someone endows you with a new role; though be aware that by endowing someone else with a new role you may catch them off guard and force / compel them to discard something they might have just worked up in the wings before stepping into the fray on stage. If endowed, have to let the role go and take on role from others.

In our normal lives we need to be logical constantly. Being creative? Not so much. For improv, let creativity guide us.

In improv, as well as being committed to character, we must tune in and stay on scene.

Pearce encouraged us to look up Doug Henning for some educational examples. He then moved the class into games and exercises.

Zoom – Screech – Zap: A warm up game to get the blood flowing. A person says “Zoom!” to the person next to him, that person passes the “Zoom!” on around the circle of people by turning to the next person and saying “Zoom!” and so on. The “Zoom!” passes around the circle unhendered until someone responds to the person telling them “Zoom!” with “Screech!”, where upon the person that said “Zoom!” now has to reverse the flow and turn to the person on their other side and say “Zoom!”, and the direction of flow has now been officially reversed. To add another layer, anyone at any time upon receiving a “Zoom!” may lock eyes with anyone in the circle and send the love their way with a “Zap!” accompanied by a point, hand slap, or both. At that point the recipient of the “Zap!” can chose to send a “Zoom!” to either direction by turning to the person on either side of them, or reject the “Zap!” with a “Screech!” and force the initiating “Zap!” sender to pick a new target.

Knee Slap – Clap – Snap: An associative word game wherein you have to coordinate slapping your knees, clapping, then snapping one hand, and then the other, with listening to what the person before you said and timing your response to that with your finger snaps. So when the person before you says, “Thunder Struck!” while snapping once to each word; you then have top slap your knees, clap, and associate a new word to add to the last word said by the person before you, such as, “Struck Gold!” snapping once to each word. Definitely harder than it sounds.

Johnson File: Split the group into two lines. A person from one line steps forward and offers up the “Johnson File”. A person from the other line steps forward and accepts, creating a characterization the first person must then adapt too. Each recipient tries to receive the file differently, and in so doing afford a context and role for the person offering the file beyond simply offering up a folder with a name on it. After this each person goes to the back of the opposite line that they might cycle through both roles afforded by the exercise at least once.

Bring Bring: Two lines again. First person says, “Bring! Bring!” emulating a phone ringing. Second person answers with apparent caller ID, and identifies the caller. First person must adopt the role prescribed to them, and suggest what they might be calling about. Second person responds to the suggestion without blocking. At least, that’s how I remember it, should’ve written down more details. Notes on this exercise were to remain accepting and be precise, not add on a bunch of extraneous detail that’s difficult to convey or support within the scene.

Experts: Groups of four, two as audience and two as experts. Audience suggests a topic, and the experts must riff on that topic as experts for a little while, making offers to one another to grow and develop the topic without blocking or stepping out of area of expertise. Of our four people, I first was part of the audience while two fellows waxed on eloquently about the evolution of hair, from its emergence as a evolutionary armor against small animals in the 40’s, particularly on our heads since we all walked on our hands then, to the later development of balding as a result of our walking on our feet and no longer needed that defense against brush birds and thicket squirrels. Next up, my partner and I received the topic of juice, something fortunately we both happen to be experts on, and we discussed and reminisced jovially  with our studio audience about the discovery of juice as the inexhaustible fuel source of the future, and the variances of results versus fuel sources, from the disappointing side effects of lettuce extracts to the explosive results of creaming beans. A real hoot had by all.

Tableau Game: Two groups again. One person from a group begins making a sound and motion that suits the theme Pearce gave, such as angry or sleepy or gleeful. Once set, that person must continue to repeat this sound and motion until the whole team has joined in. One by one each member of the group joins the machine, each with a unique complimentary sound and motion that adds to and builds on the overall machine, attempting to create a range of elevations, pitches, and stage depths to organically create a holistic mechanization.

Misname Things Game: This is a solo exercise wherein each person walks around the stage and auditorium space pointing to things and identifying them incorrectly. For instance, point at a light fixture and declare it an elephant tusk with the certainty of an enlightened anthropologist. Harder than it sounds, and definitely begins to grate on a person’s natural predisposition towards being logical and cognitively buttoned down.

What Are You Doing?: Pair off into two person teams. One person begins doing a mime and sound FX as though perhaps shooting hoops or beachcombing for coins, and the second person asks what they’re doing. This is the tricky part. The first person then makes something up that is completely not what they are miming, like shaving cats or gelding giraffes, and the second person begins doing that. Then the first person asks the second person what they’re doing, and the second person says something new, like rolling dough or hitchhiking with aliens, and the first person adopts that behavior through mime. Essentially the exercise is about accepting suggestions and assigning / endowing behaviors / roles. It’s definitely a fun and extremely physical, game!

My notes mention a Brainwashing game as well; however it clearly worked, as I cannot recall what the rules of that were. I do remember we did a couple small group exercises with word association variations, most difficult being the one where one person faces a firing squad of three and has to respond with the first word to come to mind to each of people in the firing squad, an interesting dynamic that proved easier for the people that didn’t have to work to have words ready when their turns came around.

Summary notes at the end of the day were…

Three aspects of a scene are:
  • Character
  • Environment
  • Plot

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, and if you choose to draw attention to it, nurture it and allow it to blossom, may well become one of the best parts of the show simply because it wasn’t planned and got a chance to creatively evolve.